Blood, Sweat and Tears
Celestia lifted the sun slowly above the horizon, sending golden fingers across the green rows of apple trees and banishing the fading patches of night. Applejack stood on the porch of the Apple Acres as she did every morning enjoying a hot cup of apple cider and a honey oat muffin still warm from the oven. The sunlight struck her eyes, lighting them in a blaze of emerald fire as she looked on at the sun and the faint silhouette of the Princess. Finally she tugged her hat lower over her eyes as she smiled. The apples were full; she’d have to make a round to harvest some before they became windfalls. But not today. Not today.
“Got a lot of stuff to do before we head up there, eh Big Macintosh?” Applejack said as the large red pony stepped out with her into the spreading sunlight.
He bobbed his head once. “Ayup,” was all he said before he tossed a muffin into his mouth and munched it down in one bite.
“Applejack?” Apple Bloom called from the kitchen. “Do you two want more muffins or should Granny and I clean up?”
“Make one more batch and we’ll take it with us, sugar cube,” Applejack replied as she took one more long slow breath. She could smell the morning wet and the cool air; the smell of Apple Bloom and Granny Smith handling the cooking in the kitchen, and felt the warmth of the sun. These were good moments. “Well, time to get to work.”
* * *
“Momma, I don’t wanna get up!” Applejack shouted from underneath her thick warm blankets.
“Macintosh is all ready up, sugar cube,” her mother called from the doorway to her cramped little bedroom. “He’s all ready eaten and getting ready to help. Ain’t fair with you lying slugabed, now is it, Applejack?” Slowly the covers slipped down and the young Applejack peeked out at her mother standing patiently in the doorway. Granny always said she had her momma’s eyes and her daddy’s smile.
“No Momma. T’aint fair,” Applejack muttered as she crept slowly out of bed, leaving the sheets a rumpled mess around Mr. Carrot. The stuffed toy looked forlorn as she abandoned him to the warm and snuggly sheets.
“I swear Applejack, you couldn’t make your bed to save your life,” her momma said as she stepped aside to let her exit and head to the bathroom. With her face washed and morning duties addressed, she wiggled into the kitchen where Granny deftly maneuvered in the tiny one mare kitchen giving each pie and turnover its time in the oven without a second lost. Applejack gave a great yawn as her momma came up and nuzzled her. “Landsakes, Applejack. Is it really such trouble to run a brush through your mane a dozen times or so?”
“Yeah, cause that’d be twice as much as your momma does,” Granny Smith quipped as she set a turnover, muffin, and glass of milk on the tiny breakfast table. “Don’t be tellin the girl her mane’s a mess when you’ve got a bird’s nest yourself, Apple Blossom.”
“All right. All right.” The peach coated mare said with a soft chuckle as she picked her hat off the peg by the door and tossed it deftly atop her rumpled red head. “You eat up and then help us load. With some luck we might get these apples sold early.” That meant a chance she’d actually get to play with the other fillies of Ponyville, so she devoured the contents of her plate as quickly as she could without choking.
The apple farm was only a few dozen apple trees around the small shack and a farm house that wasn’t much bigger. It was hard work knocking the apples from the trees with sticks or poles with baskets on the end. The yellow hills surrounded their home was covered in long yellowing strands of grass broken by stones. It was land no pony wanted except for her parents; not even rock farmers wanted to roll stones up hills. The tiny green patch was the only of its kind between Ponyville and the Everfree Forest.
“Come on, Tulip!” Her daddy called from the apple cart as skinny Macintosh loaded up the last basket. Tulip, his name for her ever since Applejack ate momma’s flower garden. The red stallion was all ready in his harness as he smiled down at her easily. He always smiled. It didn’t matter if it was blazing hot, freezing cold, or pouring rain; he always wore an easy smile. They loaded up all their apples for the week; almost enough to fill the wagon, and together they went into town.
Wading across the Equestrian River at its shallows, skinny little Macintosh had to get out and help mom and dad pull the wagon across. Still, muddy wet and at the market was better than muddy and wet. They opened up the back of the wagon and mom did the business as Macintosh loaded the bags of any pony with their purchases. Applejack stood in the wagon, calling out ‘Fresh Apples, fresh off Sweet Apple Acre.” Daddy left to do daddy business.
After two hours Applejack began to get antsy. She knew they couldn’t leave till they sold all they could, but the morning ponies had come and gone and it would be hours before lunch time. “Momma! Momma! Can I go, please?” She wasn’t sure where, just as long as she could go somewhere that wasn’t the farm or the wagon.
Her mom looked down at her with a soft sigh and smile. “All right, sugar cube. But don’t go too far, all right Applejack?” Applejack gave a whoop and leaped from the back of the wagon to run for her life.
Applejack always found the town ponies odd; just about as odd as they found Applejack and her family. They didn’t live on farms; didn’t wake up early to pick apples, and seemed unduly fixated on keeping dirt to a minimum. The fillies her age didn’t like running or wresting, and the colts just looked at her like she was some weird critter; like a filly pretending to be a colt. Still, she found exploring the town was often rewarding in and of itself.
She came across her daddy walking with Mr. Pie, the sober rock farmer who had a spread south of Ponyville. They were joined by a small green pony that seemed oddly crooked and pinched. He wore a black jacket and wore the funniest set of glasses pinched on the edge of his muzzle. “I’d love to help you, Appleseed. You know I would, but what you’re talking about simply isn’t possible.”
“Mr. Pie’s all ready agreed to help me with clearing the rock, Mr. Bags. All I need is the bank to loan me the money and in a few years we’ll be able to produce enough apples for half of Equestria,” her daddy said as he kept his sure smile. Mr. Pie gave the closest to a smile he did as he chewed on his corn pipe stem and gave a little nod.
Mr. Bags gave a slimy sort of smile. “Appleseed, I know you have big dreams for that little farm of yours, but let’s face it. It’s too big for you. You can’t do it.”
Now Applejack didn’t have an idea what they were talking about, but when she saw her daddy stop smiling she knew that a line had been crossed. She ran right up to Mr. Bags and shouted, “Don’t you tell him he can’t do it! My daddy’s the biggest, toughest, strongest pony in all of Equestria. No, in the whole world!” The three adults seemed quite taken back by the unexpected interruption. “So if he says he can do it, he’s gonna do it. No matter how big! It just takes work, right daddy?”
Her daddy’s big smile rained down on her. He looked fit to burst! “That’s right, Tulip.”
“Well, I didn’t expect you to have such a vocal advocate, Appleseed.” Mr. Bags didn’t seem to know quite how to respond. Finally he frowned sourly, “Fine. Fine. I’ll see about approving your loan. Your numbers may be ambitious, Appleseed. I hope you don’t choke on them.” He gave the two farmers a nod and walked off.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Appleseed. What yer talking about’s ten times bigger than the plot you’re working now,” Mr. Pie said in his somber low voice. “That’s a mighty big debt yer taking.”
“Don’t you fret none. I’ll let you know when we start clearing the rocks and you can take your pick. Oh, and congratulations on the new filly. Your missus pick a name?”
“Pinkamina-Diane,” Mr. Pie said gravely, “after her mother.” Applejack’s father smiled, but if he thought the name as silly as Applejack did he kept it to himself.
After some more small talk, her daddy ducked his head and lifted her easily on to his back. He talked with Applejack a moment, and then they trotted back towards the market place where her momma was selling two bags to Mrs. Muffins. Her face turned concerned at the sight of both of them looking sad. “We didn’t get the loan,” she said softly, her smile now looking concerned.
“Afraid I didn’t get it,” her daddy said, before glancing up at Applejack and grinning.
“But I did!” Applejack proclaimed proudly, “Once I reminded that sour Mr. Bags my daddy’s the biggest, strongest, toughest, hardworkingest pony around he coughed up those bits lickety split.” She enjoyed quite a round of attention from her family as she stood proudly on his shoulders; even if she didn’t quite understand what it was all about.
That afternoon, when the tired sun was all red and puffy and setting behind the Everfree Forest her momma sent her out to find daddy for supper. She peeked in the shed and then around the apples before she spotted him standing in the waist high yellow grass. Slowly she walked up behind him, looking up at that distant gaze in his eyes. “Daddy? Supper’s almost done.”
“All right, Tulip. I’ll be right there,” he said with his easy smile.
Applejack started to leave, but then paused. Had she kept walking, Celestia only knew what would have become of her. Instead she returned to his side. “Whatcha lookin at?”
“All the apple trees,” he said as he smiled at the yellow grass swaying lazily in the afternoon breeze.
“But the apple trees are behind us, Daddy.”
He looked down at her and knelt, scooping her on to his shoulders once more to look at the hills around their farm. “Those were just the start, Tulip. I was thinking we’d have some more over there. Then maybe some over there. Up there too. Rows and rows of apples as far as the eye can see.”
Applejack leaned against her father’s neck, folding her hooves as her green eyes widened. “I think I can see it too!” She imagined them sprouting from the yellow grass one after another, fully grown. Red, green, and golden apples hung from them like candies, glowing in the afternoon sun. “And there’s a barn there! And the house is there! And there are cows and chickens and pigs!” She suddenly frowned, “Daddy, do ponies keep pigs?”
“Well, we keep messy fillies that can’t make their beds, so I don’t see why not,” he chuckled.
The excited dream faded though as she looked down at him. “But… can we do it, Daddy?”
He knelt down and she hopped off him to watch as he tore out a clod of grass. “Look here, Tulip.” He said as he pawed at the dark soil beneath the grass. “Smell that?” She closed her eyes and took a deep sniff of the moist dirt. “This lands been sitting here forever. The ground’s as happy to grow apples as grow grass. It’s just up to us to make it happen.”
“It’s gonna take a lot of work, isn’t it, Daddy?”
“It’ll take a lot of blood, sweat and tears, Tulip, but I’ll let you in on a secret: anything worthwhile does.” They stood together, looking at the grassy hills and admiring all the apple trees until well past supper. But it was worth it.
* * *
“Not right now, Pinkie Pie.” Applejack said firmly as she saw to putting out fresh hay for all the cows.
“But I know you’re doing something, Applejack. If it’s not a party then what?” Pinkie Pie said as she bounced on her hooves inside the cow barn. “Oooh… is it a game? I love games! What are the rules? Can I be blue?”
“Pinkie Pie!” Applejack shouted, snapping the pink pony out of her excitement. She stared into her blue eyes, noting the concern and make herself relax. “Listen, Pinkie Pie. I’d like ya to ask all our friends here at noon. It’s not a party though. If they can’t make it, it’s all right. Okay, Pinkie Pie?” She could tell from Pinkie’s expression she’d need more. Applejack sighed, “It’s a farm thing.”
Pinkie Pie gave a long low ‘ohhh’ of comprehension. “A farm thing, I gotcha. I’ll tell every pony not to come up here for party things.” Pinkie Pie cocked her head and asked in concern, “This isn’t gonna end up with you making baked bads, is it?”
You give a few dozen ponies food poisoning and that’s all they ever remember. “It ain’t. I promise.”
“Okie dokie lokie. But when you’re all done working, come and play with us, okay AJ?” Pinkie Pie asked with a smaller smile. A true Pinkie smile she reserved only for when she really really wanted something. “No pony should just work. You need to have fun too.”
* * *
“That pony hates having fun. All she ever does is work,” her classmates said as school let out. Groups of friends trotted off to have their fun while Applejack sat in her desk and kept working. Mr. Clover glanced up every now and then as Applejack finished the homework that’ been assigned.
“Everything okay, Applejack? You look a little frazzled,” the elderly green colt said as he adjusted his glasses.
Even his soft voice made her jump a little. “Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Clover. Macintosh and me are busting our rumps helping Daddy clear the fourth acre. And dig the well. And there’s the apples to take care of too.” She looked at the homework, “There’s so much going on that if I don’t get this here homework done now I’m liable ta forget.”
He stood and walked to her desk, putting his hoof on the cutie mark worksheet they’d been assigned, “Don’t worry about it, Applejack. I think I can give you a pass on this.”
She shook her head firmly, “Nothin doin, Mr. Clover. Daddy says anything worthwhile takes work, and that includes schoolin.” He chuckled softly and removed his hoof, letting her finish.
“I’m sure you did just fine, Applejack.” Though he did seem to wince at her spelling and writing.
She trotted towards home when she came across a group of her classmates talking in low voices and looking at her with snide looks. Finally some decision was made when they broke and stepped in her path. “Oh Applejack,” drawled the leader with a bright smile, “I was wondering if you wanted to come to my cutecinera tonight. There’s going to be cake and prizes and music and stuff.”
“Ah… I don’t think I can make it, Meadowlark,” Applejack said with a little forced smile. “But thank you for the kind offer.” Some of her friends began to snicker. “What? What’s so funny?”
“I told you she’d fall for it. Ten bits,” she said to a frowning friend before the green pony gave her a snide smile. “You really think I’d want you to come to my party? What do you think you’d do? Tell us all about raising chickens? A hayseed like you is always good for a laugh.
“Ah ain’t no hayseed!” Applejack said, scowling at her. “I get just fine marks.”
“Oh yeah. Where’s Manehattan? What the difference between zebras and ponies? Can you even add two plus two?” Meadowlark taunted.
“I’m pretty sure it equals a thumped flank!” And Applejack showed her answer. Unfortunately when she got home Momma and Daddy were plenty furious with her for bucking another filly, even if she had deserved it. The problem was that she didn’t feel any better for it. She kept on thinking about what she had said.
“I tain’t happy at all. All I do is work and work and there ain’t any fun here. Meadowlark aside, there’s gotta be more ta life than diggin in the dirt,” she said sharply to her mother that night as they cleaned up supper.
“We have fun, Applejack. It’s not as bad as that,” her momma said as she washed and handed the plates to Applejack to dry. “Look at all the hard work your Daddy and Macintosh are getting done.” Through the window they could see row after row of young trees spreading out to the south. Whatever rocks Mr. Pie hadn’t taken were now piled up in a long low wall around the property. Still, there was more hill and grass than apple farm.
“Well it’s his stupid dream,” Applejack said softly, “not mine.”
“Applejack!” Her mother used the rare tone for when she was in real hot water. “Your daddy’s dream is not stupid. He’s one of the few ponies I know that actually has a dream and wants to make it come true.”
“But do I gotta work and sweat for his dream? Meadowlark was right. I am a hayseed! I don’t know nothing besides Ponyville and farmin.” Applejack said as she sat down in a huff. Apple Blossom’s face softened a little and her momma brushed Applejack’s mane out of her face.
“There’s plenty in this world besides Apple Acres,” she said softly with a gentle smile. “Would you like to see some of it? You could go visit your Auntie Orange in Manehattan. Find yourself a dream of your own.”
Applejack’s eyes widened at the thought. It was like standing with her daddy seeing trees pop up in her imagination. “I could do that?” When her momma nodded Applejack whooped, “This is great. Maybe I’ll get my cutie mark there too!”
“I’ll call my sister Orange Blossom and make the arrangements,” her momma said, and then suddenly winced. “Ow!”
“Huh? What’s wrong, momma?”
Apple Blossom rubbed her swollen belly tenderly, “Looks like your baby sister wants to come along and get her mark too.”
* * *
Applejack carefully rolled the metal milk containers into the corner to let the creme separate. There’d be time for churning it into butter afterwards. “Thank you, ladies. I hope you enjoy your hay.”
“Oooh we surely will,” Bessy said as she gave Applejack a happy little smile, but worry tinged her large brown eyes, “But are you sure you’re okay, Applejack? You seem a bit moooody.”
“It’s all right Bessy. It’s just today. Don’t ya’ll worry yerselves none,” she said softly as she lifted the milk contains to sit upright. “I’ll check in on ya’ll tonight.”
“Oh she is such a nice pony, dontcha know?” Buttercup said to Bessy, “Such a hard worker.”
Applejack just smiled as she scooted the heavy cans closer together, “I gotta be. I got a dream ta take care of.”
* * *
Applejack coughed as she dumped the slops into the trough, coughing and waving her hoof in front of her face as she gagged from the stench. She stepped back and pulled open a door, letting in the two pigs that had moved in to the farm. “Garrrrrbage! Yeaaaaaahhh!” they cheered as they charged and tucked into the slop with abandon.
“Ya’ll are welcome,” she yelled over the din of their frantic eating. It didn’t seem like what they ate mattered as much as eating in general, and unpleasant as it might be, what came out the other side made for a dandy fertilizer.
“Oy, AppleJ!” Ralph called out, talking around the mush as he chewed. “Where are your folks?”
Bob poked his head up as he devoured some nasty apples, “Yeah, I haven’t seen em in… like… forever! Oink!”
“Oh they went out west with some of the family. There’s a spot they’re thinking of making a town. Appleloosa.” Applejack said as she hung the buckets on pegs jutting from the wall. “They’ll be back tonight!”
“Think they’ll have garbage?” Ralph asked as he devoured some mouldy cheese?
“Course they’ll have garbage, Ralph. Don’t be a noodle!”
“Who you callin a noodle, noodle?” Ralph scowled, and then his eyes lit up. “Oooh! Noodles!”
And that was why pigs would never take over the world.
Applejack made her way towards the farmhouse, with Wynona, her collie pup, leaping around her heels. With the new baby Apple Bloom Daddy had expanded on the farmhouse just before he and Momma had left. Applejack had to admit it was pretty nice to have her own room again. Not that she minded handing over Mr. Carrot to Apple Bloom. Now that she’d been to Manehattan and returned with her cutie mark, she had to admit she’d been crazy to ever want to leave this place. Let them call her a hayseed. If it meant she could be here, then she’d be a hayseed.
She made her way towards the house as the sun slowly descended behind the hills. Wynona barked and snapped at flies, dustmotes, or anything else her canine brain imagined. For the first time, Applejack could see the outlines of her father’s dream with her eyes open. There were still plenty of apple trees needing planting, but the trees on the south quarter were starting to blossom. This fall they’d have their first go at the new crop. Of course in the meantime they’d need to put up a proper roof on the barn and dig a few wells for the new sprouts.
She cooked a fine welcome home dinner which Macintosh complicated by eating almost half of everything that came out of the oven. He was just growing like crazy! Granny Smith rocked with little Apple Bloom in her hooves, letting her drink off her bottle. Outside the light turned from gold to red, and red to purple. The food on the table grew cold and stale. Certainly they were late. Probably got side tracked by some apple trees. Stopped to visit some friends in Ponyville. By the time the moon came out, no pony at the table was coming up with suggestions.
Hoof beats on the trail to the house; not Momma’s or Daddy’s. All eyes on the door. Hoofs clattering on the porch. Then silence. Terrible silence. The door opened slowly and her cousin Braeburn looked in at the four of them gathered around the table. No pony seemed able to speak for the longest time. “What is it, Braeburn?” Applejack asked as her eyes grew round. “Where’s Momma and Daddy?”
It had been a landslide in a canyon. A dozens ponies had been hurt, but two had been hurt bad. Really bad. They approached the house in Ponyville and Applejack saw all her cousins, uncles, and aunts who had gone on the trip just looking. Looking. The only smiles in sight were grimaces; fearful things that melted when you looked at them too long.
The brown unicorn, Dr. Birch, met them at the entrance. Momma and Daddy weren’t in any pain. That was it. No pain. With that he tipped his hat solemnly to the pair and quietly left the house. Daddy wanted to see Macintosh. Momma asked for Applejack. For the longest time it seemed Applejack hesitated. The sounds of a clock in the hall ticked softly along till she clenched her eyes and stepped in.
“There’s my sugar cube,” Apple Blossom said softly from the bed. A blanket covered her, but no blanket could hide that coppery smell that filled the room. “Afraid I can’t give you a hug, Applejack.” She said quietly as she stretched a hoof towards Applejack. Orange hooves took the peach appendage and Applejack stroked her cheek. It was so hot, like a pie fresh out of the oven.
“I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. You’re growing up big and strong and beautiful. So beautiful,” she said softly.
“I tain’t…” Applejack whispered, looking away. Her mother gently turned her to look into her eyes.
“Trust yer momma. Ya are. And I can only hope that someday you meet a beau that can appreciate and handle a firecracker like my girl.” Apple Blossom shook as she drew a slow raspy breath. “And I wanted ta tell ya I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t easy living out here. I know there wasn’t much time for fun and friends.”
“No… no momma… “
“Hush, sugar cube. Someday, do your momma a favor. Find yerself some friends. A lonely life tain’t no life at t’all.” She trembled again and took a shallower breath. “Now, promise me you’ll keep Apple Bloom safe and give yer momma a kiss.” Applejack gently lowered her muzzle and kissed her softly on the tip of her nose.
“I promise,” she swore softly.
“Attagirl,” She stretched her hoof to the headboard where her cowboy hat rested. Her hoof raised it and held it out. Applejack swallowed and lowered her head. Gently it was placed atop Applejack’s mane. A little straightening and her momma closed her eyes as she said, “Now I need to say a word or two to your brother and sister. Could you be a dear and send them in?”
Applejack nodded and gave her hoof one last squeeze. She didn’t want to let it go, but she did what she was told. She stepped out, seeing Granny holding little Apple Bloom. Macintosh stood against the wall, head raised as tears streaked down his cheeks. It was the only time she could remember seeing him cry. She couldn’t say it. She didn’t need to say it. Without a word, as if this had all been rehearsed, they swapped rooms.
Inside her father lay with pink starting to show through the sheets pulled over him. His back was to her as she approched. Slowly she stretched a hoof out, pressing softly against his shoulder. He turned his head, looking up with such calm eyes. Still, his smile was as clear and steady as ever. “Well hello there, Tulip. Sorry, but I think I made a mess of things for you.”
Applejack slowly walked around to face him and sat besides the bed, feeling her start to shake, “T’aint yer fault, Daddy. Stupid rocks. Stupid canyon.”
“And stupid me for bein caught between em,” he said with a chuckle and turned into a cough. Applejack tried not to be sick at the flecks of blood he left on the pillow. “And how’s the farm?”
“I… I got them pigs settled in like you said. And we’ll finish the barn… and the apples… and… and everything!” She stammered as she felt her throat start to close and her eyes burn. “I’ll take care of your dream, daddy! I’ll make sure it’s be biggest and bestest apple farm in the whole wide world.”
“Shhhh.” He said as he put his hoof to her mouth gently. “That was never my dream, Tulip. Having the biggest apple farm for miles was a fine thing, I reckon, but it’s not what I really wanted. My dream was to have a happy wife and good children. And I got my dream. I got more of my dream than any pony right deserves to.” He coughed again, harder, speckling his pillow even more.
“Daddy, please…” Applejack could feel everything inside her tearing apart. She tried to be like Macintosh, but she couldn’t as that choking sensation grew. She let out a sob. “I don’t wanna lose you, Daddy. Please.”
“I love you, Tulip. Ya ain’t gonna lose me or your momma. Not really, so long as ya remember that.” His breathing became slower and wetter sounding. “Do me a favor, Tulip. Find your dream. On the farm or off, it don’t matter, so long as it’s your dream and no pony else’s.” His voice was barely above a whisper as he smiled up at her and said, “Might take a lotta blood, sweat, and tears, but…” He broke off with more coughing.
Applejack could barely speak as well, “But anything worthwhile does…”
He looked up at her for the longest time with his easy smile. Slowly his eyes close as he took one soft last breath. “Blossom…” he whispered in a breath that didn’t stop so much as fade. His body gave the slightest motion as it relaxed. From the other room rose her sister’s wail and Applejack pressed her face to her daddy’s hoof as all the tears in the world broke loose at once.
He never stopped smiling.
* * *
“Applejack?” came Big Macintosh’s voice from the barn door as she hung her head and felt the hot liquid trickle to earth. Their eyes met, her with her momma’s hat atop her head and him wearing daddy’s harness. Little reminders. “Take your time,” he replied calmly as he turned away to give her some privacy, as he always did.
“No. No. It’s alright. It’s silly. Haven’t bawled like this for years. Dunno why I’m blubberin like a leaky wellhead now,” she said as she gave a snotty sniff and scrubbed them away with her hoof. Big Macintosh just stood there looking on. There wasn’t anything but calm understanding on his soulful features. He was like the earth, always holding her up no matter how unsteady her walk became. “There. All gone,” she said with a sniff and forced smile, “Everything ready?”
He gave a long slow nod and said, “Ayep.”
“Seen any pony else?” Applejack looked towards Ponyville. She hadn’t said they had to come, or that she needed them to come, but it would have been nice.
“Well then, let’s get a move on.”
* * *
Applejack had never been happier to live on a farm where there was a thousand things to do in a day. It let her forget about everything and find solace in the tedium of simply running a farm. The funeral had been absolutely horrible with seeming every pony in Ponyville coming by to offer their condolences. Finally she just wanted to kick them. They weren’t giving her condolences. These were reminders. Little ‘by the by, Applejack, in case ya forgot, yer folks are dead.’ With every apologetic look and sad smile.
The worst had been when that white flanked unicorn filly from the tailor had stopped by and dared say that she’d been lucky- Lucky! Because she got to say goodbye. At that point Applejack had given her a buck ta rival the one Meadowlark had received; not because that uppity unicorn had been wrong but because she’d been right. Then Applejack went back to the farm and focused everything on working. She did her chores, and Macintosh’s too. She worked till her hooves were numb and she didn’t so much sleep as pass out.
Granny Smith hadn’t taken it easy either. The old mare occasionally called Macintosh after Daddy, Applejack after Momma, and Apple Bloom as Applejack. Yelling didn’t help any, it only upset Apple Bloom. And everything upset Apple Bloom. It was as if the foal hadn’t quite figured out that no matter how she bawled her Momma wasn’t coming to hold her and tell her it’d be all right.
When she spotted the two crooked looking ponies in their black wool jackets and funny glasses she at once pegged them as more well wishers, though most of those had trickled off by now. Friends of friends of the family? One of them seemed familiar. Then she recognized them: Mr. Bags and Mr. Sack from the Ponyville bank!
“What do you want?” she asked them sharply, in no mood to be hospitable.
“Ah, Miss Applejack. We’ve come to offer our condolences to-“ Mr. Bags began as he took off his bowler hat simultaneously with Mr. Sack, looking sympathetic. Bags was trying to look sad at least. Trying badly.
“Thank ya kindly, Mr. Bags. Mr. Sack.” She cut them off, “Now if you don’t mind, I have work to do.”
“Ah. Well,” Mr. Sack seemed slightly put off, but Mr. Bags simply returned his hat atop his head.
“Well due to the long relationship Ponyville bank has had with your parents, we thought we would present this offer,” Mr. Bags said crisply, all mournful attitudes lost as he fished out a parchment scroll from his jacket pocket and handed it to her.
“What’s this?” Applejack asked as her hooves slowly unwound the parchment. There were a whole lot of fancy words and a big number. “Offer of purchase? What are ya buying?”
“Why, Sweet Apple Acres,” Mr. Sack said, trying to sound nice.
“My daddy’s farm is not for sale, Mr. Bags!” she snapped and threw the paper in his face. He blocked it with a smile.
“Please, Miss Applejack. Be reasonable. Your father owed the bank a substantial debt and he was barely making payments as is. This sum is enough to cover that debt and leave you and your siblings enough bits for a comfortable lifestyle,” Mr. Sack said as the green unicorn rubbed his foreleg with some embarrassment.
“I ain’t sellin,” Applejack said firmly.
“Told you,” Mr. Bags said to his partner as the green earth pony looked coolly back at Applejack. “Well we’ll be back next month with another offer.”
“I don’t care how much more ya offer, I’m still not selling!”
“Oh no, you misunderstand, Miss Applejack,” Mr. Bags said with his wicked little smirk. “Our next offer is going to be half this one. And the next will be half of that. After that we’ll offer you enough bits to be able to haul whatever trash you want to take with you. And then we’ll simply take the farm.”
“You… you can’t!” Applejack gasped.
“We can. We have. I like to call it easy money,” Mr. Bags said as he flicked the scroll back at her with a snort. “In light of that, perhaps you’ll consider our offer a little more seriously.” He nodded and started to walk away towards Ponyville. Then he stopped and turned to kick one of the trees hard. He knocked one free and caught it easily in his mouth. Chewing with relish he laughed, “Delicious. Your daddy certainly knew how to grow them.”
“That’ll be two bits,” Applejack spat at him. He looked and gave a slow roll of his eyes before shaking two gold coins into the dirt.
“Be thankful that I don’t insist on a receipt. Come along, Mr. Sacks,” he said with a snort. The green unicorn’s mouth worked before he gave an awkward nod to Applejack and quietly follow in his partner’s hoof steps.
When they were out of sight she slowly sank to her haunches. The dirt had smudged the fine writing on the offer, but she could still see that number and hear the possibilities hissing in her ear. She’d been to Manehattan. She knew money like this would make for an easy life, especially in Ponyville. She could move there. Have a life like she’d always imagined and let some pony else take on the burden of Sweet Apple Acres.
She pressed her hooves to the paper, twisting them in the dirt and smudging the writing even further. Easy money. Easy. Nothing worthwhile ever came from being easy. With a twist of her hooves the parchment shredded underneath them.
* * *
It was an odd little procession through the orchard. There wasn’t a one of them who hadn’t come through Sweet Apple Acres, but never like this. There was a solemnity to it as Applejack took the lead, then Granny Smith and Apple Bloom, with Big Macintosh bringing up the rear. Wynona barked enthusiastically as she raced around and ignored the mood of the others. It was all right though. Something to smile about was welcome.
Suddenly a very familiar purple Unicorn stepped out in front of the procession. “Twilight? Ya made it,” Applejack murmured with a growing smile. One by one the rest of her friends emerged. Applejack’s smile grew as she looked on a certain pink equine packing party balloons and streamers, “Pinkie Pie! I told ya …”
“I know,” Pinkie Pie said blithely. “But this isn’t for your secret special not a party meeting with your friends thing. This is for my ‘what a coincidence I’m throwing a party exactly where Applejack isn’t throwing a party’ party. I mean it’s not like I’m Princess Pinkie Pie... though if I was I could totally order you throw an amazing wonderful stupendous party!”
Applejack blinked, and then she chuckled and shook her head.
Rarity stepped forward, “And as soon as I found out, I mentioned it to Sweetie Belle.” From behind the elegant Unicorn stepped Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, both young fillies giving Apple Bloom a nervous smile and wave.
“I don’t know what’s going on, AJ,” Twilight Sparkle said softly. “But if it’s really important then we want to come with you.”
“Thank you, Twilight. Y’all have every right to come along. Not sure if it’ll mean as much to y’all as it will to us,” she gave a sure smile, “but yer my friends.”
* * *
Applejack sat alone at the table, looking down at the stacks of parchment in the wan light of a single candle. In reality, only two mattered. On the left was Mr. Bags’ last offer. It wasn’t even a tenth of what he’d originally offered, but still enough for a new life. On the right was a notice: a hundred bushels of apples or an equivalent amount of bits by morning or the bank would seize the farm. She’d stared at the two papers for hours, as if hoping some magic would change the damning numbers. Even if they worked through the night knocking fruit off with poles and baskets, they’d still never get the amount in time. They’d been working for weeks and only had ten bushels of apples ready.
“Applejack,” came Macintosh’s voice from the doorway, making her jump. He’d gotten big over the last few months. Almost as big as Daddy now. They’d have to start calling him Big Macintosh soon.
“It’s my fault,” Applejack said softly as she closed her eyes. “We’re gonna lose everything, and it’s my fault.”
“How you figger that, Applejack?” he asked in his slow, thoughtful voice.
Her hoof smacked the table hard. “Cause I was the one who thought I could run Apple Acres. That I could do a good enough job that we could pay off the loan and keep the farm. If I’d taken their offer… any of em…”
“We’d still have lost,” Big Macintosh said quietly. Applejack clenched her eyes shut, wishing she could do the same for her ears. Then he felt his hoof across her shoulders. “Applejack, we can walk away.”
“How can you say that?” Applejack pushed his hoof away, standing and facing him. “You know what this place meant to them! This was their dream!” A happy wife and good children…
“Even if it was, that dream ended with them.” Big Macintosh said softly. “Applejack, what is this place to you?”
Applejack wanted to scoff and tell him exactly what it was, but every time she started words failed her. And Big Macintosh just looked on with his doleful eyes waiting patiently for her to answer. She turned and looked out the window. The moon turned all the apple trees to ivory. Was this really just a place she clung to because of how much it matter to her parents? A last little reminder that once she’d been loved more than she deserved by two ponies now gone? No, it wasn’t that. Not just that.
“It’s my home, Macintosh. It’s the only place in the world I really want to be. I look at this place and see everything we’ve made… made with our own sweat, blood, and tears… and to think it’s all going to be taken because of a piece of paper. It’s not right! But I can’t think of any way to make the payment. Not now.” She sighed as she turned, pressed her back to the wall, and slid to the floor. “What is it to you, Big Macintosh?”
Big Macintosh looked out the window, his voice low as the evening breeze as he spoke, “A house. Apple trees. Barn. Half a water tower. And a lot of happy memories.” Then he looked down at her and gave a small smile. “And it’s my sister’s home. The only place she wants to be. So it’s where I want to be too.”
“My home? But Macintosh... it’s your home too!” Applejack said with her eyes wide. “Isn’t it?”
He gave a little shrug with his easy smile. “I reckon. But one day I’ll meet the right mare and I’ll go and make my own home with her. But you, Applejack? If this is your home, then there ain’t nothing that can stop ya from stayin.”
She slowly looked up at him. “Really?”
“Do you know what Daddy told me? He told me that, no matter what, I should trust you. That when you care for something, you care for it one hundred percent. That you won’t let anything stop you. I still believe that.” He said softly as he waved at the papers on the table. “You won’t let paper keep you from what you really want.”
He stood and walked quietly from the room. Applejack gave one last look at the pair of papers and sighed before blowing out the candle. Rather than returning to her room she stepped outside and started to walk quietly among the trees. The moon lit the apple orchard like a thousand candles and she had no trouble picking her way along the rows. “There’s where the water tower was supposed to go. And the windmill. An apple cellar under the barn.” There was so much that wasn’t done. She wasn’t finished!
Her hooves reached out to touch the oldest trees of all. The wood was knotted and cool beneath them. “Your dream was a family, Daddy. But I think that Sweet Apple Acres was always my dream. You were always there to help it along. Get it started. Then you left it up to me to finish. And I want to finish it. I want to make it the best farm in all of Equestria. I don’t care how much hard work it takes.” Then she smiled as she felt the weight lift as she reached out and touched one of the trees with her hoof.
A breeze rustled the leaves overhead. It ain’t a dream, the night breeze seemed to say. What if she left? Did that mean her dream was left behind as well? Or could it be that she could take it with her to some place new? It wouldn’t be Apple Acres. It would be smaller, but it could still be her dream.
“Maybe this is where my dream started, but it doesn’t have to end here. No matter what the bank does, I’ll make some little patch of earth my own. And if it’s not the biggest apple farm in Equestria, it’ll still be mine. My home…” she said as she felt the strong wood beneath her hooves, like her daddy’s shoulders.
“Still… the thought of that lousy Mr. Bags getting his hooves on it…” she snorted and kicked the tree with a solid thunk that shook the leaves.
A single apple fell from the tree and landed right on her head! She winced, then looked down at it. Slowly her eyes were drawn upwards, then back at the trunk she’d just kicked. Carefully she lined herself up, reared back, and kicked the trunk as hard as she could. Pain lanced up her legs from the impact, but she was rewarded in a second by a veritable rain of apples. She looked at the trees and a wild smile crossed her face. “Macintosh!” she yelled at the house.
In the moonlight, Applejack went from tree to tree, kicking each as sharply as she could to knock the ripest apples from the branches and into their harvest baskets. Granny Smith and Apple Bloom came out to gather any that missed the wicker baskets and place them within. Big Macintosh hefted the baskets and hauled them to the barn one after the next.
After ten trees, her legs throbbed and her back ached. After twenty her bruised hooves made every step throb with pain. After thirty even her front legs were sore, and yet she couldn’t give up. Big Macintosh tried the kick, but he didn’t quite have the knack. He nearly busted a leg while dropping only a dozen apples. It was up to Applejack, and she knew it. Forty trees and each kick left smears of blood on the branches. By fifty, she was gritting her teeth as tears of pain rolled down her cheeks.
It had to get done. She had to do it. Not for Apple Acres or her daddy, but for herself. If this is your home there there ain’t nothing that’ll stop ya! Kick. Run to the next. Set. Kick. Walk to the next. Set. Kick! Limp to the next. Set. Kick! At the end she was leaning against Big Macintosh to reach the next.
She made her hundredth kick just as Celestia brought the sun over the horizon. The bankers must have been waiting nearby for this moment as they came trotting towards the barn. Big Macintosh carried her out on his back, her hooves split and bleeding as she drooped in exhaustion over his back. Sweet Celestia she hurt, but nothing would make her stop smiling. Even if they hadn’t gathered enough and they had to go stay with her cousins, she’d still be smiling.
Mr. Sack ran to her, looking in concern, “Miss Applejack! We need to get you to a doctor!”
“Nothin doin,” Applejack panted as she pointed at the baskets with a blood tipped hoof. “Mr. Sack, I got my payment for the bank right here!”
The two green ponies looked at the baskets in the growing light, jaws dropping. “How? It should have taken weeks for two of you to harvest so much!” Mr. Bags said in outrage.
“You don’t know me or my family, do ya Mr. Bags?” Applejack said, grinning despite the burning pain in her hooves. “I told ya once. My daddy was the biggest, toughest, strongest pony in all of Equestria. Me, I’m just the toughest, orneriest, most dedicated pony in Equestria. And it doesn’t matter if I gotta work my hooves to the nubs. I’m keeping my dream.”
“I’ll send some workers to pick it up,” Mr. Sack said in an impressed tone. “I’ve no clue how you harvested so many by yourselves, but this will more than cover your payment this year, won’t it Mr. Bags?”
“This year,” he said with a glower. “You’re half dead, Miss Applejack. There’s no way you’ll make it next year.”
She chuckled as she grinned in exhaustion. “Buckaroo, you just wait. We made it this year. We’ll make it next year. We’ll make it every year. Cause this is my home and my dream. I worked for it with blood, sweat, and tears. No piece of paper from a slimy easy money pony like you is gonna take that from me.”
When the two left, Big Macintosh nudged her gently, “You gonna be okay, Applejack?”
“I reckon I’m gonna be off my hooves for a bit. Like all winter. Gotta find just the right kick ta buck em all off without bustin my legs.” Applejack looked thoughtfully at the trees.
“‘Applebuckin.’ I like that,” Big Macintosh said with his confident smile.
* * *
They’d reached the tallest hill on the farm. There weren’t the same rows of trees that covered every square bit of land beneath them. A crown of long yellow grass blew softly in the wind. Two apple trees stood at the tip of the hill. They’d never be harvested like the rest of the trees. The one on the left was still covered in sweet smelling apple blossoms despite the fact that the year had passed well beyond the time for blooming. The tree on the right was surrounded by dozens of wild purple tulips. The branches of the two trees twisted one against the other, as if both were embracing with their strong branches.
Big Macintosh unloaded the snacks they’d prepared. They hadn’t planned on feeding so many, but it didn’t seem like too many were fussed by it. The Cutie Mark Crusaders seemed to be trying for a wrestling cutie mark, or maybe they were just being young. Big Macintosh sat with Spike talking guy stuff. Granny seemed intent on lecturing a rock on the rudeness of not speaking back to ones elders. The rest of her friends enjoyed the warm sunshine and cool breeze.
“So what’s going on, Applejack?” Twilight asked as she looked up at the orange work horse.
Applejack sighed as she sat and pulled off her hat. “Y’all probably don’t know it, but the bank in Ponyville’s been trying ta get their hooves on Sweet Apple Acres for years now. Tried to get me to sell plenty of times,” she reached in to the hat and pulled out and scroll, opening it up. “This here is their latest. They’re offerin almost a million bits for this place.” She passed the scroll around, “It’s also gonna be their last.”
“What? You’re selling Sweet Apple Acres?” gasped Rainbow Dash.
“Shoot, no. Simmer down, Sally,” Applejack said with a smile. “It’s going to be the last because of this.” And she pulled out a second scroll. “When I was a filly, my daddy borrowed a heap of bits to buy these hills put in all the apple trees ya’ll can see. He had a dream of havin a family. Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom, Granny Smith, and myself were all a part of that dream. I guess it was only fitting that as part of his dream, his work would be part of my dream,” She looked out at all the trees and with a distant, wistful look, “T’was a lot of hard work. I came within a hoof’s edge of acceptin the bank’s offer or losin the farm. Nearly worked myself to death that night applebuckin for the first time. But we kept it. We made next year’s payment, and the year after that. And now, today…” she pulled out a second scroll.
Most of the fancy wording was difficult to make out, but no one could miss the enormous words ‘Mortgage’ and ‘Paid in Full’ stamped on the front. She handed it over to Spike, “Care to do me the honors of lighting this critter up?”
“Sure!” He climbed off Twilight Sparkle and took a deep breath.
“And don’t send it to the Princess!” Twilight Sparkle interjected. Spike gave her a flat look and then blew a little green ball of fire that crackled at the corner and quickly spread. Applejack let it go as the last bits burned away. The breeze swirled the flecks of gray ash around the intertwined trees before disappearing into the sky.
A cheer went up from all the assembled ponies. It was clear some had no clue what it really meant, but that didn’t change the enthusiasm every pony shared. Afterwards, as things wound down and ponies started to drift away for their own lives, Twilight Sparkle trotted up to where Applejack reclined in the nestling gap between the intertwining trees. “Thank you for letting us be here, Applejack. This was all so amazing. You finally got your dream.”
Applejack pushed the brim of her hat back, chewing on a tulip with the purple tip hanging out. “You mean owning Sweet Apple Acres? Shoot, that wasn’t my dream. No more than it was my daddy’s.”
Twilight Sparkle gave a confused little smile, “It’s not… but I thought…”
“Sweet Apple Acres is a fine and dandy farm, Twilight Sparkle, and I’m glad I’m a part of it, but it’s just a farm. I could have had my dream with a little vegetable garden in Ponyville though,” Applejack said softly as she looked out over the trees. “My dream? It’s having a home I can share with family, and friends I can have fun with; a place that’s all my own. One that I built with my own hooves and hard work,” she said as she looked at Twilight Sparkle with eyes as bright and green as the leaves of the two apple trees. “And I got it, Twilight. I got it.”
Twilight Sparkle sat beside her, looking out at the rows of trees. Each one planted by hoof, watered and tended and cared for. Every building made by some pony that needed it and wanted it. Twilight smiled as she munched softly on a tender Tulip as well. “Still, it is an amazing farm.”
Applejack laughed softly, “I reckon so. And it ain’t done yet. I figger we can turn at least three more acres into apples up north a ways. Gotta clear the rocks and break ground and… heh… a whole lot of work. But it’s worthwhile, Twilight,” Applejack said calmly as she tugged the brim of the leather hat down. “And like doing anything worthwhile, it takes blood, sweat and tears.”