Those We Leave Behind Part 1

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NSFW Warning: None.

Boots crunching on errant rocks upon a mountain pass, the sky bleeding a glorious, russet sunset above, a disheveled man stumbled his way towards a distant copse of pines. Behind him spread a seemingly endless prairie that had been his home for the entirety of his life, a life he must now leave behind, a home he could never see again. The name Campbell, his families name, would forever be soiled upon the plains now thanks to a short-fused reaction to an insult given. If only that cowpoke hadn’t pulled his gun. If only he hadn’t had a shot too many of whiskey much too strong. To dream was for naught however, and now the man, Joshua by name, was on the run. 

Upon reaching the close-knit trucks of the isolated pines, the man stumbled, catching himself against the nearest tree before he could collapse completely into the dust. Glancing behind him with desperate eyes for the first time since he had begun his flight, he was relieved to spy no telltale plume of dust that would alert him of pursuers. He supposed the sheriff was still busy cleaning up the mess he had left behind. They would no doubt set off at first light upon his trail. The rains were some way off, his tracks would be easy to follow. 

He knew he should press on, lose himself as best he could within the crevices and switchbacks of the mountains, but his energy was spent. Putting his back to the tree, he allowed himself to slump to the ground, his labored, ragged breathing the only sound save for the gurgling of a nearby stream.

Water!

It was within that moment, when the sounds of water first reached him, that he realized just how thirsty he was. Scrambling to his feet once more, he clawed through the tall grasses, which gave way to reeds, upon the clustered trees’ far side, falling to his knees upon the muddy banks of a mountain stream that flowed gently among jumbled stones. Plunging his cupped hands into the frigid waters, he sucked noisily upon each palmful he brought to his lips.

When he was sated, he collapsed backwards onto his haunches, taking in for the first time what lay on the grove’s far side. Despite it all, he had to admit it was a beautiful sight.

Before him stretched a gently falling slope, marked by a number of large boulders and scattered pines. At its base, a large bowl in the earth held a placid pond, its surface rippling gently as a soft breeze passed over it, sending a reverberation through the reeds and grasses surrounding him, its cool kiss brushing his unshaven cheek. 

“By God if I ain’t reached heaven,” he murmured, an errant tear escaping his eye.

Reaching down, he pulled his revolver from its holster at his side. Starring down at the cold steel in his hands that had so recently taken its first life, he contemplated the implications of taking a second, a last, his own. He tried to picture the shocked face of the man he had killed, tried to rip penance from his pain, but rather than the cowpoke’s visage, it was that of his younger sister that came immediately to his mind’s eye.

“Oh, Mary, what have I done?” He murmured.

Don’t you go abandoning me here, Joshua Campbell,” she had said to him, not so long ago when he had considered taking on with a cattle drive heading towards the big city. Though he had turned down the job in the face of her plea, it would seem as though fate had intended it to be so regardless. 

There had been five of them in the Campbell brood. The two eldest, his brothers, were already long gone. One, Tom, had died in a freak accident when they were young, while his twin, Paul, had long-since moved on from their small town, seeking employment in the city. Where he now, was none of them knew. Of them, Joshua remembered little as they were far older than the three who would come later. The oldest of the three later entries was Margaret. Always calculating, Margaret had married the doctor of their small town, Emery Tibbins. Emery had died a winter past from an inflamed bowel, and since no other doctor had yet graced their township’s threshold, Margaret had filled his shoes. 

Joshua had never been overly close with Margaret. As children, she had ever been aloof. ‘Cold as the first frost,’ their mother would say whenever Margaret would sear one of them with that razor-sharp tongue of hers. If he hadn’t known how deeply they had truly loved each other, he would have suspected Emery’s death to have been aided by his sister, and there were some in town who believed so despite. 

The one with whom he had always been closest was his younger sister, Mary. Pretty and sweet as a cactus flower, Mary had always seemed too pure, too innocent for the hard life on the prairie. Though she never complained, and shouldered her fair share of the work without regress, everyone in their household looked after her like a treasure. But she had always gravitated towards her older brother. As kids, they had been inseparable and nary a thing had changed as they grew. Until now.

“She’ll be all right,” he muttered to himself, his thumb playing across his pistol’s hammer. 

Two summers back, Mary had married the new town sheriff. A well-dressed, collected man by the name of Kyle Hess. A lawman from the big city, sent to replace their old sheriff who had died inexplicably in the night, he was a respectable man who read his Bible and never touched liquor. He had always been good to Mary and so, despite that he would now be hunting Joshua down, he felt no ill will towards him.

“She’ll be all right,” he said again, dusk falling like a shroud around him. Crickets began their song in the rushes and, from with the pines behind him, an owl hooted.

“Come on you coward!” He growled, lifting the gun and pressing the barrel to his temple. “You can’t go to heaven now, you’ve got blood on your hands. May as well cement your place in hell!”

“That’s them old poetry books talkin’.”

The voice came from behind. Twisting, he cast a desperate eye about the darkening grove. He saw no one.

“Hearing ghosts now,” he muttered, but lowered the pistol regardless. Standing, he began trudging back towards the copse of pines. If he lacked the constitution to commit suicide, the least he could do was ensure he didn’t freeze to death. Winter might be a ways off but the temperature dropped with the setting sun, and it was almost set. 

As he walked, he realized to whom the voice he had heard belonged. It had been Mary’s.

“Then God willing no ghost,” he said, casting another glance about the area.

This is part one of a many comprising the tale of “Those We Leave Behind.” Stay tuned for further parts to be released in the near future. If you wish to read the story in full, please visit my “Buy me a Coffee” here. The subscription fee is $3 monthly, which I know is a steep ask in these trying times, but you can also leave a donation. All money given goes towards allowing me to continue churning out new content and is greatly appreciated. Regardless, the entire story will be released in parts here on my blog for free. Thank you for supporting this fevered mind!

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