Those We Leave Behind Part 2

Cover image credit.

NSFW Warning: None.

Sometime later Joshua sat, his back against a sturdy pine, a lively fire crackling before him. His gaze vacant, he stared into the flames, his mind, finally calmed, going over and over the events that had led him to that spot.

He was hungry. Though his wandering mind kept the gnawing in his gut at bay, he felt it, tugging upon the corners of his thoughts like an insistent child in a candy shoppe. He was tired also. Exhausted to the very center of his being. Far more tired than he could ever recall being before. Despite this, he remained alert, kept awake by that guilt that pulls upon the heart-chords of a god-fearing man who has taken a life. 

It wasn’t the act of murder in and of itself that he resented. In his mind’s eye, he saw the cowpoke reach for his gun first, as Joshua pummeled his companion who had given offense with his bare fists. He saw the pistol clear the other man’s holster. A large, burly man whose countenance brought to mind instantly the moniker “ruffian”. Though Joshua had perhaps had a shot too many of the barkeep’s strong whiskey, he knew these other men had had more, had been drinking already when he had first crossed the saloon’s threshold. As such, the ruffian’s movements were slow, stunted by drink and, perhaps, hesitation to take a life.

Joshua had had no such reservations. 

As soon as the ruffian’s pistol had cleared its holster he had acted. Slamming his fist once more into the jaw of his defeated offender, he reached for his own sidearm.

BANG!

Fire exploded from the muzzle of the ruffian’s gun. Joshua knew not when the bullet had flown but it hadn’t hit him. Drawing his own revolver, he had shot from the hip, the way he had seen the men do in the “wild west” show that once stopped in their townstead. The fact that it had been a reactionary move stunned him even then. Sure, he had practiced against tin can assailants behind him families’ home after watching the show, but never had he had to put into practice the moves those actors had taught him. Perhaps it had been the specter of Wild Bill Hickock himself that had moved him? In any case, he had drawn and shot, and his aim had been true. He had seen the back of the ruffian’s skull explode, showering all behind with brain matter and blood. Gracing ol’ Bill Heading’s, the inn-keep’s, floor with the lacquer he had always wished to place upon it. As if in slow motion, the man had fallen, collapsing upon the planks of the saloon like a sack of flour thrown from a stagecoach.

In the aftermath, Joshua had originally froze, starring in shock, along with all others in the saloon, at the body of the man he had laid low with a single shot. And then, from beneath him, the ruffian’s companion had groaned. Roused to wakefulness from his stupor of pummeled oblivion, perhaps by the sound of gunshots, or perhaps merely by nature’s strong hand upon his collar. In either case, he began to writhe beneath Joshua, and so the young man had too been drawn from his own stupor. Pulling himself to his feet, he had cast a fearful look about himself. Finding only fearful looks in return, he had fled, tearing from the taproom with wild abandon, knowing full well that the full weight of the law would be on his tail.  

Starring into the crackling flames now, he heaved a great sigh. He should not linger there, he knew. He had made a beeline for the copse in his flight, and so too shall his pursuers at dawn. He should press on, lose himself in the mountain paths. Should he survive such an ordeal he perhaps could make it to the big city. Folk always needed manual laborers there. Maybe he could hitch a ride, head west. Folk were finding their fortunes panning for gold in the Dakotas. Some said Wild Bill Hickock himself had settled in Deadwood. Joshua didn’t like the idea of settling down with the outlaws there, but he was an outlaw himself now, may as well accept his lot.

A cool breeze moaned through the treetops above him, setting the branches to creaking and needle-laden fronds rustling. Looking up, he spied the moon, full and brilliant, peeking at him through the swaying branches.

“Joshua..”

He started. The voice was near at hand, the voice of his sister, Mary once more. Cold lancing through his gut, he cast his gaze about. Perhaps the lack of food and exhaustion was getting to him, he thought, but then he spied movement, at the grove’s far end, something had shifted beyond the firelight, moved behind an obscuring trunk.

“Whose there!?” He barked, surprised to find that his voice did not shake. Pushing himself to his feet, he laid a hand on the handle of his revolver, then paused. It was a woman’s voice he had heard for sure, but perhaps not that of his sister. Wrapped in his regret at leaving her, maybe he was merely imagining it belonged to her. Maybe it was another woman from the township, maybe she was lost? The last thing he wanted to do was go and gun down another innocent, especially a lost woman. But she had known his name..

“You left me..”

He felt a tickle of breath on the lobe of his ear and he spun towards it, drawing his pistol as he did despite his earlier reservations.

“I said whose there!?” He called out again, a slight tremor now entering his tone. 

“Don’t you know me?”

The voice came from behind and he spun anew, catching sight of a shadowy figure moving behind another tree, closer now than before.

What demon was this? His mind whirled, trying to recount any story he’d heard of a phantom on the prairie. None came to mind save tales told to him when he was a child to deter him from going out at night or straying from his bed, and all those involved wicked Indians in one form or another. 

Raising his pistol, he swallowed with some difficulty the lump of fear that had grown in his throat. Despite this, his hand was steady as he leveled the iron sight upon the tree’s rough back behind which he’d seen the phantom flee. 

“Show yourself!” He commanded.

He took an involuntary step back when, obediently to his call, a rigid figure stepped into view. So quickly and noiselessly had it moved that he was momentarily unsure of whether or not it had always been there. Though it stood in shadow, in the moonlight he could discern its rough shape and he discerned that it was a woman, standing shorter than he, her shoulders slumped, and head bowed.

“Who are you?”

In response, the woman lurched towards him, though she seemingly made no movement on her own. One moment she stood, hunched by the tree, and the next she stood before him on the firelight’s edge. Long, ginger locks hung like horsehair down her front, obscuring her face and front, though he did see that she wore a pretty dress, though one whose skirt bottom was marred with grime, as though she had traveled some distance upon the dusty prairie in it. Every so slowly, her face lifted, her hair falling away to reveal the pretty, freckled face of..

“Mary!” He gasped, lowering his gun, tears springing to his eyes as he beheld her before him. 

He made to take a step towards her but faltered. Something was off. Her normally healthy skin had taken on a sickly palor. Dark circles ringed her eyes whose color had dimmed from a vibrant blue to an icey grey. The movement of her hair had exposed something else as well, the cloth of her dress upon her chest was soaked in blood and, from between her breasts, the handle of a knife extended. 

“You left me,” she said, though her pale lips did not move. “You said you wouldn’t leave me.”

“Oh, Mary,” Joshua shook his head, still not sure if what he saw was real or a byproduct of delirium. “What happened to you? Who…what? How?”

“I am cold..so very cold,” the figure that was Mary hugged itself, a reverberation running through its form.

Instinctively, Joshua moved to embrace her but, as he neared, she vanished, and he was left grasping naught but air.

“They killed me, Josh.”

He spun, she now stood beside his fire, her vacant eyes staring out across the prairie, back towards their home. 

“Who killed you?” He gulped. Ice was quick replacing blood in his veins as he slowly came to realize that what he saw now was indeed his sister, or at least what was left of her upon this world. “Mary, who hurt you?”

“You hurt me,” she whispered, turning to face him once more. “You left..”

“Mary, I had killed a man,” he reasoned desperately. “I had to run, had to flee, lest they string me up, or leave me to languish in a cell for the rest of my days.”

“You must go back..avange me..bury me like you promised Joshua Campbell..”

“Mary, who hurt you, who killed you?”

The specter bowed its head sadly and then was gone, fading into nothing beside his fire. Starring desperately at where her face had been moments before, Joshua caught sight of the distant lights of his hometown twinkling upon the prairie below. His jaw tightening, he squared himself against the sight. A wanted man he may be and if his fate be sealed by his actions so be it, but not before he discovered the truth of the phantom’s words. Not before he found he killed his sister.

This is part two 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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