Note: Written for the October Writing Challenge Contest. I've done my best to edit this but I waited to the last minute so I'm sure some things have escaped my notice. Feel free to point and laugh and/or tell me about it in a review. :)
Morgan tore through the underbrush, ignoring the burn of each impact on his bare feet and barely noticing the branches and brambles that tore into his skin as they tried in vain to bar his way to freedom. He barely had time to think and choose a smart path through the forest; the shouts behind him and the occasional crack of a gunshot hitting a nearby tree drove any thought from his mind other than run.
"That way! 'e ran that way! Don't let 'im get away!" The men roared with laughter when a bullet missed Morgan by mere inches and turned a pine branch to shrapnel beside him. Morgan dodged right, only to find himself stumbling to a halt at the rocky edge of a cliff. He had a surreal moment where the rush of the river over the falls below him grew louder than the voices of his pursuers; it taunted him now that it blocked his escape. Then he tore his eyes away from the treacherous stream to find his pursuers surrounding him, a rough assortment of pistols and rifles all pointed at his chest.
"Looks like the fun's over, boys," the lead man grunted, and his cronies guffawed as though he'd told a brilliant joke. "Shame we couldn't get 'im while 'e was runnin'."
Morgan fell to his knees in the dirt and pleaded with the men to spare him. He was only a boy trying to feed his three little sisters, he didn't hurt nobody and he only took the animals others wouldn't need…the little ones, the sickly ones, the ones no one would miss… On that cliff, with the rocks and rapids behind him and rifles in front, Morgan knew his words fell on deaf ears and he knew he would soon be dead.
The lead man cocked his head at Morgan when the boy's pitiful pleas had faltered under his amused gaze. "I dunno, boys, 'e makes a good case for 'imself. I reckon we could forgive 'im this once, run 'im out of town after 'e promises to stop 'is thievin' ways." He pondered this option, stroking his scraggly beard as he examined his pistol. Then he aimed the pistol at Morgan. "Then again, this'll stop 'im for good."
The first shot struck Morgan in the left shoulder. He fell to the ground, crying out in pain and fear and then the man's finger moved on the trigger again. The rush of the river invaded his thoughts again and a sudden desperate hope flooded into him. Morgan rolled away from the man and his cronies and their guns, and threw himself off the cliff.
For a moment he had no worries. He heard the shouts of surprise from his pursuers as they scrambled to the edge of the cliff and felt the cool rush of air around him as he fell... and it was the most exhilarating moment of his life.
Then he hit the river and his world became all roiling dark water and large boulders.
Morgan plunged deep upon impact and the current rolled him along like driftwood. He was briefly stunned by the impact and could hardly tell up from down until by chance he found the surface. The water surged forward over the rapids and he had a brief moment to gasp for air before he was crashed against the rocks. The relentless pull of the water took him under again and this time he put up a fight, clawing his way to the surface despite the muscles screaming in his injured arm. He gulped a wondrous, beautiful gulp of air before the water pulled him down again. This time he was not so lucky, as the river dashed him against another boulder and, dazed, he slipped beneath the water. Listless and exhausted, Morgan felt a distant sadness as he watched sunlight dance over the unreachable surface above him before his world went dark.
Boy! Don't leave me, boy!
A woman's voice cut through Morgan's foggy mind like a beacon. He forced open his eyes in the murky water and saw a young woman's face inches from his own. Her pale hair swirled around them in the current and her green eyes met his as she drew him close and pressed her lips to his. She breathed into his mouth and Morgan's screaming lungs begged for more. But she broke the embrace and pulled him with her to the surface. She seemed to be a strong swimmer, far stronger than him, and she pulled him up from the vicious undercurrent and the seething water of the rapids.
At the surface once more, Morgan found himself alone. A floating log came his way and he pulled himself onto it with his good arm. He clung that way for hours, it seemed, letting the river take him wherever it wanted him to go. All around him were cliffs, sheer and unforgiving, so he simply held onto his wooden lifeline and kept going, hoping his luck would not run out before he became too cold and weak to pull himself out.
His mind raced like the river. Morgan thought of his young sisters, waiting at home, wondering if he was okay, or if he'd be like mama and just never come home one day. That day. He also worried about the woman. He hoped she had just been carried down the river ahead of him and not met a worse fate.
At long last, as the golden light of nearing sunset fell over the river, Morgan and the log emerged from the cliffs to a hilly grassland on both sides. Dotted through the countryside, Morgan spotted little farmhouses, their chimneys emitting jolly puffs of smoke from supper fires. Morgan slid off the log and paddled toward the shore but the current held him a little longer. Past a few more bends and trees dangling branches just out of reach, it carried him, until a little eddy pushed him onto the pebbly bank. He closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet scents of dry land.
"Are you alright, boy?" a woman's voice called.
Morgan could do little more than lay there on the riverbank, thinking I'm alive.
In a rush of whispering muslin and rustling grass, the woman hurried over and knelt by his side. "Oh my boy, you look a fright!" She tenderly examined his wounded shoulder but Morgan still groaned at the attention. "And you're injured! Come this way, my dear, and I'll see to that wound." He forced his eyes open and stared at the kind woman. Her pale hair was up in a neat bun and her kind green eyes were lined with age but she looked exactly like the woman from the river.
She seemed to take no notice to his wide-eyed gaze. "Oh, this river… its taken many lives over the years, my boy. You're lucky you didn't drown!"
The woman led him into her house and sat him down on a stool next to the fire. Morgan shivered uncontrollably as she helped him remove his shirt and she began cleaning his shoulder. "Sometimes I hate that river. My poor sister wasn't so lucky, you see."
"S-sister?" Morgan whispered between shivers.
"Yes, the sweet girl…fell in and drowned when she was no more than your age." Her eyes went misty as she looked out the window at the innocent-looking stream. "Oh she loved that river, swam in it every chance she got. Sometimes I thought she'd never leave it."
Morgan kept his eye on the river as the woman turned away and fussed over him. A ripple caught the golden light of the setting sun and he thought for a moment that he glimpsed pale hair and green eyes just below the surface.
But then a twig floated by and he was sure it was just all in his mind.