Wahey, it's my first post on FictionPress! It's also way outside my genre comfort-zone. How exciting!
This was written for an in media res assignment in my writing class. Have fun... with it...
On a hot, dry day in Arkansas, a man stood on a railroad bridge. His hands were tied behind his back, and his right foot bound to a solid rock, ready to drag him down into the waters below. The air was unnaturally still.
From behind, he felt a camp-knife pricking his spine. "Don't be stubborn, Crow," A low, rough voice spoke from behind him. "Tell us where you hid the gold, and we can all go home."
"You don't want it, Campbell," Crow said. "Let it rest."
"It ain't doing you no good anymore," came the reedy voice of the second man, who held the knife. "Don't be so selfish, old man." The reedy man jabbed the knife a bit, prompting Crow to wince toward the edge.
"I've got nothing left to lose, boy. Nothing but that gold. There's not a chance in hell I'm letting you get your hands on it."
Joseph Crow had been a fifteen-year-old boy, only just come South from his family in Boston to find his fortune, when he stumbled upon a massive cache of treasure in an abandoned cave. The treasure was interred with a skeleton; bleached out bones richly decked in silks and brocades and jewelry in the Spanish style, and carefully surrounded by dried blossoms of every color imaginable. Crow was sure he'd never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
On the skeleton's right hand was a massive sapphire ring. Crow removed it, cracking the skeleton's hand in the process, and slipped it on to his finger. At that moment, he thought perhaps an odd wind had picked up, or the skies had darkened over for a moment, but he shrugged and continued admiring the ring on his hand. He'd emptied the cave, stripped the skeleton of its finery, and purchased a steamer trunk in which to store his treasure.
It had been the moment his life turned around. Growing up in Boston as the second-youngest of seven sons, he'd never had anything extra, never had anything to himself. Now, after selling the circlet he'd snatched from the mysterious skeleton's head, he had his own plot of land in Alabama, just outside the town of Hope Springs. He buried his chest of gold in a corner of the property, and planted an apple tree on top.
Hope Springs was a small community, and Crow was a stranger – a very young, very prosperous stranger – so he was the town's favorite mystery from the moment he laid down stakes. The town watched him, and wondered, but for the first few years he didn't do anything odd, just cultivated his land, so they lost interest. Once he'd established his property, Crow took a sweet-faced local girl to wife, and took on her two younger brothers as farmhands. They were happy together, living a quiet life. Once or twice his wife asked if he had a wealthy family somewhere, to afford their property at so young an age. He gave her noncommittal answers – the gold was his secret, and though he loved her he didn't trust her with his treasure – not with their marriage still so new.
Crow's wife was pregnant with their first child when rumblings of war between the North and South began to resolve into talk of logistics and recruitment. Crow didn't have any particular feeling towards the war, but his two younger brothers-in-law planned on joining the fight. His wife, massively pregnant, was deathly afraid for her brothers and begged him to take care of them. Though he was loathe to leave her so close to term, he agreed.
Under cover of night, he dug up his steamer trunk and retrieved a pair of jeweled bangles to exchange for equipment for himself and his brothers-in-law. As he took them from the chest, a voice on the wind seemed to say "Not yours, not yours," but all of Crow's focus was on the road that stretched ahead of him. It was his, he thought. He had found it and he was going to use it to protect his family. Later, his brothers-in-law asked how he afforded their rifles and bayonets and pistols. He shook his head in reply, and told them nothing. Behind his eyelids, visions danced of his in-laws snatching jewels from an infant niece or nephew's fragile fingers.
The war was hard, and Crow dearly wished to be home with his wife and child, but he was able to bear it for a while. He and his in-laws were infantry, holding the walls of various fortifications against the North's army. Every day he did his duty, and some days he fought, and some days he marched, and every second he felt a dread he could not explain. He pressed the feeling down, turning his wedding band over and over and watching the light dance on his treasure-ring. He could swear the glint of the metal looked sharp and angry. He told himself it was his imagination, bitter over the fighting and sick for home. He hadn't received any letters from home, but then his regiment hadn't stayed in any one place for very long, and his wife was a slow writer.
He and his brothers-in-law had been at war for five months when it happened. One moment he had been beside the elder brother, Benjamin, as they waited to repel the Union soldiers from the wall. The next, Benjamin had been tackled to the ground by one of them and, the enemy gaining the upper hand, shot dead with a rusty one-shot pistol. The world went white for a moment, and Crow raised his bayonet, yelling in rage or despair, though he couldn't say which. The young man who'd killed Benjamin turned and paled, scrambling back and fumbling for a reload. Crow charged, thrust forward. Beneath him, the boy choked and died, Crow's bayonet stuck cleanly through his ribs. Crow saw the light leave his eyes.
The Union soldier was his younger brother John, from Boston. Three years younger than him, and always, in childhood, so fast to follow behind him wherever he went. When Joseph had left to find his fortune, his little brother had tried for weeks to convince him to take him along. He should have listened. He should have let him follow.
Crow thought later he might have cried that day, but he couldn't remember. On his finger, the sapphire gleamed with satisfaction next to the cold metal of his wedding band. John and Benjamin were dead, and he wasn't sure which death he was sorrier for. If John had possessed a better gun, perhaps Crow would have died instead. He might have preferred that.
The rest of the war happened, and Crow continued fighting in it. He fought, and he marched, and he protected his remaining brother-in-law, Isaac, and he did his duty. He more than did his duty; he was promoted several times, and on several occasions arrived with his men in the nick of time to carry out some fantastic rescue. He was well-loved. He couldn't find it in himself to care.
Somehow, Crow made it through the war without losing life, limb, or freedom. The whole time he was away he hadn't received a single letter. His dread rose like the waters of a flood. The moment he could, he took his brother-in-law and made his way immediately back home to Hope Springs to find his home abandoned and in disrepair. Crow and Isaac rushed into town and asked what had happened. His sweet-faced wife had given birth late, two months after Crow and Isaac and Benjamin had departed. She hadn't been able to call the midwife, and the birth was difficult. The child, a boy, had survived for only hours. His wife had lasted only a week longer.
This time Crow was certain his eyes stayed as dry as the sapphire on his finger. He went to the bar and got drunk. He yelled and railed against god and told Isaac all about his gold, not caring who heard, and said she could have hired half a dozen midwives to stay with her for weeks if he had only told her where to find it. He didn't cry. But starting the next day, he didn't speak either. He went home and came into town only to fetch supplies.
Isaac didn't return to Crow's farm, but married the daughter of another local landowner and moved in with his wife. Later, hearing the rumors that had been whispered about Crow's treasure, people came by to ask him about it. They stopped short of asking him for a share, most of the time. He only answered to order them away from his property.
The men who hauled him out of bed one night were young and desperate. Standing on the bridge, Crow didn't recognize any of them, though he supposed one of them might well be Isaac's son.
The man with the knife was getting nervous now. "C'mon Crow, I don't want to do this."
"Then why are you?"
"We need that money, alright? Just because you haven't got a family to take care of—" Crow closed his eyes, slowly, and let out a breath.
"That's right. I haven't." Crow slipped the sapphire off his finger and let it drop into the waters below, stepping away from the knife and towards the edge of the bridge. "It's my turn to follow now." He dove into the water, and the young men watched for minutes but couldn't spot so much as a bubble where he fell.
They dug up half his property, but no-one ever found that steamer trunk. It's said that it still lies in the ground somewhere, just as a skeleton with a sapphire ring on its finger lies at the bottom of the river.