May 6, 1857
Halfway across what is now the state of Wyoming, if you are traveling East or West on Route 220, is a 130-foot-high and nearly 2,000-foot-long mound of prime American granite. Geologically known as a pluton, this fifty-million-year-old artifact is composed of igneous rock that cooled deep within the earth, and emerged like a gray bubble over the millennia.
It is known as Independence Rock.
In 1857, the State of Wyoming was still several decades in the future. This was Nebraska Territory that year, at least until you crossed the continental divide. Thousands of pioneers passed Independence Rock on their way west, and seeing it arise from the featureless plains was an important milestone on their journey.
And as humans do, those who passed by liked to leave their marks.
Two-thirds of the way up the rounded summit of the stone, in a place that you can’t easily get to if you have a fear of heights (or lack the climbing acumen of a monkey), is an inscription. It’s one of hundreds or perhaps thousands that cover Independence Rock.
This particular inscription was carved in the late spring of 1857 by a fifteen-year-old boy, just eight days before he died.
From where Billy had climbed, the view out over the plain was magnificent. They called this the Sweetwater Valley, and it meant that they were nearing South Pass, and the continental divide. His father had told him that South Pass meant it would just be a matter of a week before they entered the Salt Lake Valley. It had been a long and tedious journey from Iowa, and although they wouldn’t be staying in Salt Lake City, he knew the Mormon stronghold would mean a few days rest, and the last chance he’d have at seeing some civilization, before his parents packed up their wagon and they headed to California.
The Travers family had stopped late the night before, after the wagon train they were hanging with had pushed into the evening hours to reach this camp. His mother and father had looked up at the dome of granite with a mixture of longing and pride in the twilight gloom. Billy knew getting here was an important milestone on their journey. Important enough to take a day or so to just relax and enjoy the moment. And to Billy, it felt good just to stop bouncing along in the overstuffed wagon.
Unlike many of the fellow travelers they had met on their journey west, their wagon was well stocked, and they could afford a day of rest. So many of the other travelers seemed almost destitute, subsisting on whatever fare they could dig out of their dilapidated handcarts or covered wagons; cooking their meager rations over buffalo dung fires every night, and even butchering their own stock for food. Billy knew many of them, especially the poorest with just their handcarts, were Mormons fleeing persecution. And over the campfire he had heard their wide-eyed tales of the shining city of Salt Lake. They had all spoken of it with such reverence and in such hushed tones, that even Billy now thought of it as the promised land.
Frances certainly believed that it was.
Billy tried not to think too much about Frances—the girl who traveled with the small train of a dozen wagons. It was a Mormon caravan, but although Billy and his family were not Mormons, they had fallen into step with the group because of the safety in numbers. Traveling together just made sense, and the Mormons had been nothing but kind to the Travers.
The Sowersby family consisted of the mother, the father, and two daughters. That was fairly small for a Mormon clan. One daughter was his own age. Her name was Frances, and she was lovely and funny and appeared to be bearing up under the travels on the prairie like she was born to it. Her younger sister was named Mattie, and she was probably no older than seven or eight. She was a strange girl, rather dark and moody, but she had taken a liking to Billy. In fact, he wished Frances would look at him with those same worshipful eyes.
It would be foolish to fall for Frances, Billy thought, as he looked out over the rolling plains and the lazily snaking river that hugged what could be a hundred wagons down below. After all, they would likely cross the Wasatch mountains with the Sowersbys, but they would not settle in Utah. After a day or two, just long enough to restock their wagon, they would head West. And Frances would stay behind.
Billy had asked his father if they might stay in Utah a bit longer, to give him some more time with the girl, but he had said no. Jonathan Travers figured they had plenty of time to make it out of Utah, through Nevada, and over the Sierras before the snows closed the northern route to California, but he wasn’t willing to take any chances. So he told Billy that they would have a day or two to rest in Salt Lake, but no more.
As he paused his climb to catch his breath, Billy could just make out his mom on the prairie far below. He imagined she kept looking up the side of the granite megalith, shielding her eyes and trying to pick him out on the face of the rock. He didn’t know if she could see him, or if she could discern which one of the dozen other men clambering over the rock was her son. But knowing his mom, she’d keep watch until he was safely back in camp.
As he climbed, he marveled at the names and dates scrawled from one end of the granite edifice to the other. He had assumed that most of the travelers would not venture too far up the granite slope, either from fear of heights or haste. But now that he was nearing the top of the incline, he realized that very little of the huge rock mountain had been immune from pioneer graffiti. The tool of choice appeared to be a chisel, or just a hunk of broken rock. But there were also many names written in what looked like simple black axle grease. He had found one sheltered cave with a half dozen such grease inscriptions. Obviously, the artists hoped the cave would shelter the names and dates from the weather.
Billy had opted for a chisel. He wanted to make sure that his family was immortalized here for centuries, and not lost after a season or two of hard summer rains and the baking sun. His father had agreed.
“It seems a shame,” Jonathan Travers had said the night they arrived, rubbing a calloused thumb across one already faded grease inscription from 1846. “I mean, it’s a shame that they couldn’t take the time to make their marks proper. Whos’t know they passed by in a hundred years?” Billy saw the wistful look in his father’s eyes and knew that he was speaking of far more than the grease marks on the rock.
Jonathan Travers had big dreams of making his mark in the world, and Billy had absorbed much of that ambition. Even at just fifteen, he not only imagined his father becoming the most successful man in all of California, he also saw himself as the inheritor of a great legacy. Even though that legacy was yet to be built, Billy felt that it was already his for the taking. The elder Travers had that effect on his son, as well as upon most people who met him.
Last night his father pulled him aside before supper. “What do you say, Billy? Should we put the Travers on the map here in the middle of the Nebraska Territory?” He had already pulled a cold steel chisel and hammer out of the toolbox on the side of the wagon. “Should we make sure they always know we were here?”
“There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” his mother had said, tugging on his father’s shirt sleeve the way she always did when she wanted to distract him from an obsession. “Tonight we just need to fry up some of that salt pork and have ourselves a good evening meal. You boys have been living on way too much jerky and warm water for the past couple days. It’s going to be a beautiful night. Let’s make a fire and enjoy it.”
Billy’s father could always be distracted by his wife Sarah, and in fact, he delighted in the devoted hold she had on him. And he just laughed, as the three of them set to work getting their camp ready for the night. Billy kept glancing across the meadow, where he could see the Sowersby family settling in as well. From time to time, he’d catch Frances’ eye, and she would smile at him across the sagebrush and grass. She looked even lovelier by the light of a fire than she did in the daylight.
The next morning, when Billy woke up, he found the hammer and chisel arranged neatly next to his pillow, and he slid them into his back pocket with a conspiratorial smile. The tools felt like a pact between him and his father. Like an invitation to conquer the world with him, to leave their marks together on this sprawling and beautiful country.
Before his parents were even awake, Billy headed up the side of Independence Rock.
The climb had been trickier than he had expected, but he’d always been sure-footed and nimble. And without his mother there to urge caution, he took some risks in the climb he otherwise wouldn’t have dared. Exhausted now by the climb, he collapsed onto a rocky outcrop that made a natural seat, and allowed himself a moment to look out over the landscape. From his higher vantage point, he now had some trouble picking out their wagon amongst all the others. And from this altitude he could now see that white covered wagons filled the prairie, and the sky was hazy with smoldering dung and sagebrush fires. Billy could count no less than a hundred campfires now and double that number of wagons.
The well-worn trail disappeared into the west, and already this morning, wagons were departing, the dust rising from their wheels and hooves in a cloud that drifted gently south. From here, they looked like ants climbing up the trunk of a fallen tree.
Spreading his hands on the granite, now warming in the morning sunshine, he turned his face toward the blue sky and thought of how the West was everything he had hoped it would be. It was huge and boundless, and it filled him with a deep joy that was hard to describe. Their life in Iowa had been tame by comparison. It had been simple, his father raising and slaughtering hogs for other families in Cedar Rapids, and his mother sewing dresses she sold in the general store. He had never wanted for anything, and yet, he was deeply bored, and often dreamed of crossing over the horizon. Any horizon. Perhaps he had inherited this wanderlust from his father, who also never seemed content with just standing still. It was a rare quality in a town where everyone seemed pretty content to stay put.
But here, on the edge of a barely explored wilderness, he sensed the same wanderlust, anticipation and joy in every traveler he encountered. Even the poorest ones seemed intoxicated by the adventure and the romance of westward travel, and he felt a kinship bonding him to these nomads that he’d never felt before.
Watching the departing wagons, he realized it was all like a scene out of some adventure story. It was hard to absorb the fact that he was actually living it!
Huge, billowing clouds piled high into the sky like mountain-sized heaps of unwashed cotton. The air was crisp and clean in the May sunshine, and the Sweetwater Valley pulled away from him on all sides like an endless rolling carpet of sagebrush and scrub oak. After days of relentlessly flat terrain, now he could see rough outcroppings and the beginning of mountain ranges rising, both to the north and the south. He strained his eyes, but he knew they were still too far away to see the Wasatch range, or even the Wind Rivers to the northwest. So maybe it was just an illusion or an instinct that made the trail west look like a gateway into his new life.
I’m going to California, he mused, watching a hawk circle in the brilliant blue sky. My family is going to become rich, and maybe even famous. And then, just maybe, if she’ll have me, I’ll come back to Salt Lake City in a few years and find Frances Sowersby, and make her Mrs. Billy Travers.
He pictured her face in a few years, perhaps when she was eighteen or nineteen years old, and the look of shock she’d have when he showed up at her door. “Billy Travers!” she’d say, as she leapt into his arms. “I heard all about how your family became rich in California! I never dreamed you’d come back to find me!”
He shook himself out of his daydreams, but didn’t want to shake away the warm glow of them. He had a job to do, and he wanted to do his dad proud.
Just above him was a sharp-cut ledge. Getting to it took some climbing and some upper body strength, but he finally pulled himself over the edge, and sprawled at the base of ten feet of shiny, smooth granite. He had found the perfect spot, and his exertions had been worth the effort. The mottled surface was unmarked by either chisel or axle grease.
Within an hour, he had chipped out his name, the date, and the names of his parents. By the time he finished, it was nearly noon, and the warm early summer sun had been beating on him for the better part of two hours. Taking a step back, the inscription looked precise and clean. But it was missing something.
May 6, 1857
Mom – Sarah
Dad – Jonathan
He moved back to the inscription and added another line:
He ran his finger over it and then said the names aloud.
“Billy Travers and Frances Sowersby.”
Then a pause, as he tried out a new name.
He thought of carving the new name of his imagined wife on the stone, but stopped.
That would be too much. That would tempt fate.
Happy with his work, he took another fifteen minutes to carve a thick box around the inscription, as if sealing it off from the elements and telling future travelers that this spot was not to be violated. He slid the chisel into his back pocket and leaned back to admire his work.
Yes, this would do. This would be a monument that would stand the test of time. These words would be here long after he was gone. Carving this inscription was just another affirmation that Billy would soon make the world his. And when he had to leave this world, he could be sure that he’d never be forgotten. That the world would be forever changed by him being in it.
Suddenly hungry, Billy retrieved the chunk of jerky that he’d stuffed into his pocket. He gnawed it lazily, admiring his handiwork for the few minutes that the jerky held out. Then he knew it was time for him to head back. His mother was probably nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and he could already hear her berating his father for giving him the damn-fool idea. But this was the kind of trouble he and his father got into often, and despite her frustration, his mother had long ago decided it was better to herd the Travers men than it was to corral them.
The noon sun was catching the Sweetwater river as he descended, reflecting yellow shards of sunlight onto Independence Rock. Old oxbows of the river had been cut off and healed into either green crescents or brown sandbars with a scattering of tenacious sagebrush. He watched as what looked like a fox or perhaps a coyote crossed one bend of the river and then doubled back to cross it again. He felt a kinship with the animal, since his family had been crossing and recrossing the Sweetwater and Platte rivers, several times a day for the past two weeks, depending on the vagaries of the Oregon Trail. He longed to get down from the rock and take a dip in the river. Once they got to Nevada territory, they wouldn’t have much chance to find a river to jump into, if the stories they’d heard were true.
As he made his way down the dome, the slope got smoother and steeper. But his heavy boots kept him firmly on the face of the rock, like a sure-footed mountain goat. And in no time at all he was on the ground.
Even before he was back at their camp, he could smell the eggs frying in pork fat, and knew his mother had started his breakfast as soon as she had spotted him coming down from the rock. They welcomed him back with little conversation, but he could tell his father had a proud glint in his eye. Without a word, the two had been co-conspirators in making their mark on the mountain. Just a glance was all that was necessary, and they both smiled. Someday, maybe, his father would ask him what he’d carved. Until then, he was content to keep it as a private secret. Billy handed back the tools. His father brushed the dust off the point and slipped both back into the heavy toolbox in the back of the wagon.
By supper time, they heard from some nearby Saints that a single day off the trail was all they would get, and that in the morning, they’d all be on their way once again. Billy expected to be disappointed, but somehow, the climb up Independence Rock had made him nothing but more eager to see the other side of South Pass.
That night, Billy’s father sat down next to the fire, where Billy would spend the night wrapped up in his bedroll.
“Ready to be back on the trail tomorrow, Bud?”
“Yes, sir… The sooner the better. We could be in Salt Lake City by the end of the month, if we keep moving.”
“It’s going to be quite a place, I think.”
“Salt Lake City? Have you ever seen it?”
“No, but Brigham Young and his flock have certainly caused a stir. And the outposts they’ve established from here all the way to California are pretty impressive. This country owes a big debt to the Mormons, even if they don’t get a lot of respect.”
“They’ve got a lot of pretty girls.”
Jonathan Travers laughed, “Yes, they do indeed. I thought you’d noticed. Lots of men with their young wives. Lots of daughters, too. And the girls all seem to be the ones pushing the handcarts. I swear, they work harder on the trail than the men do, by a yard.” His father put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, I know you like that Sowersby girl. And she’s lovely. But Billy, keep your head. I’m not going to tell you to stop talking to her, mostly because I think it probably wouldn’t do any good. But just remember, the Mormons got plenty of reason to be suspicion of folks that ain’t their own. They’re kind, letting us travel with them. But… Just treat them like sleeping rattlers. Give them a wide berth and don’t do anything to upset them.”
“Yes, sir.” Billy said, although he had a hard time understanding his father’s caution. The Mormons all seemed really nice to him. Then Billy surprised himself by asking, “Pop, have you ever thought about staying in Salt Lake City? Couldn’t we do okay there too? Do we have to go all the way to California?”
Jonathan Travers leaned back, looking at his son down his nose in a way that made Billy feel like he was some new species of newt that his father had never seen.
“You really are taken with that Sowersby girl, aren’t you?”
Embarrassed, Billy looked down. His father continued. “What happened to that girl from Cedar Rapids? What was her name? Tilda?”
“No, sir. It was Tilly.”
His father ruffled his hair. “You’re going to be a heart breaker, Billy. Off one girl and on to the next so quick?”
“I… didn’t think you knew about Tilly.” Billy stammered.
“Well, you didn’t hide it particularly well. Boys usually don’t. Remember, I was a boy once. I know the signs. In fact, I was gobsmacked that you didn’t put up a fuss when we decided to go to California.”
His father surprised him. Tilly was an older girl in Billy’s schoolroom that he had been especially fond of. He hadn’t thought that anybody knew (especially Tilly herself), but obviously his father had seen something. And indeed, when his father announced they would go to California, he had almost raised a voice to protest, thinking that he hadn’t even told Tilly how he felt about her. Perhaps she’d want to go with them? Or perhaps they could write? Or maybe she would eventually find her way to California on her own to join him. Billy spun out more than one lifetime of romantic fantasies the evening after the announcement of his father’s plan. But by the next morning, he had set them all free on the wind. There was no girl that could hold a candle to the prospect of a lifetime of adventure in a new and uncharted part of this vast continent, and although he longingly thought of Tilly and her long dark hair and the swelling of her chest (which had occurred just this year), he was wise enough to know that sometimes you have to let a thing go to have something better.
By the morning, he was resolved and happy, and he believed until now that his father never knew of his momentary lapse of confidence. He promised himself he’d never second-guess his father again.
He wished he could confide more to his father, but he wouldn’t have any idea how to put his thoughts into words. He wanted to tell his father that there was a change happening in him that sometimes felt glorious, and other times, felt like torture. There was a longing deep inside him, and his mind had been filled for the better part of a year now, not only with Tilly and then Frances, but with girls in general. Images of every girl he’d known from school played across his eyes at night, and when they passed a girl pushing a handcart, and she looked up enough to smile at him, his heart always leaped a little. And late at night, while his parents slept in the wagon and he laid out under the stars, he found his hands exploring his own body, and thinking of those girls, their faces, and more.
He closed his mouth. There was no way he could tell all this to his father. It was just something men never talked about.
He especially couldn’t tell him that ever since glimpsing Frances Sowersby, the day their wagon joined up with her Mormon band, it was her he thought of, while laying awake next to the campfire, late at night. Sometimes he dreamed of just sitting next to her by a stream, on a blanket, sharing a meal. Those dreams always ended with touching her, reaching a hand up under the folds of her long dresses, unbuttoning the high collar around her throat to reveal the pink skin beneath. He imagined his gentle fingers on her pale white chest and traveling up her creamy thigh.
Afterward, he would wipe his hands on the rough blanket, or rub them with trail dust to take away the scent. And then it was her face that he thought of as he finally drifted to sleep.
He tried to get the conversation back on a less precarious footing.
“But Dad, what about Salt Lake? You said you wanted to farm. Couldn’t we farm in Salt Lake City as easily as California?”
Jonathan Travers was quiet for a moment, then he put an arm around his son.
“Billy, what is on the mind of most of the people we pass here? Not the Mormons. I mean, most of the other wagon trains we pass, or more often, who pass us. You’ve listened in to a lot of conversations around a lot of campfires this spring. What are they all after? Other than the Mormons.”
Billy didn’t have to think long. “Gold,” he said.
“That’s right, Gold. But have you ever heard me talk about Gold? Have you heard me talk about digging in the ground?”
“Damn right, son. I have no intention of digging in the damn ground like a marmot. But I do intend to get my hands on some of that gold.”
He just looked at his dad blankly.
“Billy, the real gold to be made isn’t going to be from digging in the ground for it. That gold is only going to pass through those miners. The gold will eventually end up with whoever grows the potatoes and raises the pigs to feed those hungry miners. They’re flocking to California by the thousands. Not everyone is going to strike it rich. But every single one of them is going to have to eat.
“Potatoes and Pigs, Billy. That’s where the real gold is.” He paused. “Now, what about Salt Lake City? What is it lacking?”
Billy sighed. “Gold.”
“Yup, that’s right. Gold. Old Brigham has told his flock expressly that they aren’t to go digging in the ground for treasure. But he’s also smart. Ten percent of everything the Mormons earn or grow gets handed off to the church. And besides, unless we want to become Mormons, there really wouldn’t be a place for us in Brigham’s valley.” His father sighed and stretched, leaning back against the wagon wheel. “No, son, I wish them well. Especially with the army gathering on their frontier and the likelihood of war in their future. That’s a big part of the reason I tell you to keep your distance from that Sowersby girl. She’s a Mormon, and there could be big trouble for the Mormons soon enough.”
After dinner, Billy took some of his family’s precious fried pork over to share with Frances. And although her parents welcomed him warmly, as they always did, his father’s words were still echoing in his mind. Was there a hollowness to the Sowersby’s warmth? Did they see him as they did any non-Mormon, as a potential enemy? It was impossible to tell.
But Frances, for her part, seemed happy to see him. She sat with him next to the family’s fire and took the salt pork shyly and with gratitude. Still, Billy couldn’t help but glance up at the girl’s parents from time to time with a newfound wariness, and he noted that indeed, their eyes seldom left him.
His conversation with the girl was shy and slow, punctuated by long intervals of silence, as it always was. Especially since Mattie, Frances’s younger sister, was dancing in and out of the illuminated circle of the campfire. Mattie was always dancing or chasing an animal or waving a stick in the air. He wished he had such boundless energy.
“So,” Billy said, trying to catch Frances’ eye over his shoulder. “Dad says we all leave tomorrow. Your family must be excited. You’re so close to Salt Lake City. We could be there by the end of the month.”
“Yes, mom and dad are very excited.” Frances said, sounding very formal. But there was a trace of something in her tone that made Billy turn to face her.
“Aren’t you excited too?”
“Oh yes! I most certainly am. It’s just that… I really don’t know what to expect. Salt Lake is such a big city. I’ve never lived anywhere like that. And I don’t think even Dad knows what we’ll do. I guess we’ll just do whatever the Elders say we should.”
It was a strange concept to Billy, whose family had always told him he would be in charge of his own destiny. “You have to do what they tell you?”
“Yes. And go where they tell us. We hear that a lot of new families are being sent to farm and live in the desert. I guess the Prophet wants us to expand the settlements further from the city itself. But, it sounds so… lonely.”
Suddenly Mattie plopped herself down between them, and leaned against Billy, tapping the ground in front of her with a long and twisted hunk of sage wood. He couldn’t tell where she had come from, but he knew she had been listening to their conversation. She almost always did, whenever he came to visit Frances.
Billy looked down at the little girl, and she looked up into his face with the look that he always found both sweet and somewhat disconcerting. He somehow felt that Mattie knew more than she let on, and that she was watching everything intently. Especially the courtship between him and Frances. Perhaps she had a schoolgirl crush on him, but at just eight years-old, he wasn’t sure she should even know what a crush was. In any case, she was fascinated by Billy, and would never stray far from him and Frances.
“What do you think, Princess?” he asked, looking down at the little girl.
Billy felt a connection to Mattie that was strange, but strong. There was something otherworldly, even wild about her he didn’t understand, but she also drew him in. He sometimes thought she knew everything about what he was thinking and feeling about his sister. Mostly to impress Frances, though, he had been kind to her, and had taken to calling her “Princess,” which she loved. It was one of the few ways he’d been able to coax a smile out of the overly serious little girl.
“I don’t care,” Mattie said, shrugging her shoulders. Frances just smiled at her younger sister and handed her a piece of the salt pork from her own plate.
“Here,” Frances said. “Billy brought us some pork.” The girl took it hungrily. Still smiling, Frances said, “Tell him thank you, you little brat.”
Mattie was on her feet, and although she didn’t say thank you, she quickly threw her arms around Billy’s neck, kissed him on the cheek, and then was gone.
Frances laughed. “She really likes you, you know. I’ve seen her ask to ride on the front of our wagon on days when your family is in front of ours. I think it’s because she likes watching you walk behind your wagon.”
Billy was embarrassed, because he knew he had often asked his own parents for the same privilege, on days when it was the Sowersby wagon in front. Frances would usually ride on the back of the open wagon gate, her black shoes and long white dress gathering the dust of the trail as they bounced along. It was a lovely vision.
As he sat eating salt pork with Frances, he caught himself thinking, I just wish I could stay in Utah forever. I would even become a Mormon, if Frances would have me.
The thought seemed forbidden, and so he pushed it out of his mind. His parents would never allow it.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.