The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 13: Gopher Hole

Book One — The Hereafter

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May 15, 1857

When Billy died, at the age of fifteen, he had yet to feel the soft breast of a woman. He had yet to even see any. The closest he had come were the drawings his friend Paul made of naked ladies, which he claimed were based on actual women he had known. But Billy suspected Paul had also never seen a naked lady, so he distrusted the accuracy of Paul’s pictures.

But in the young, lack of experience is only a stimulant to the imagination, and Billy’s was strong. He spent many of his waking hours visualizing those breasts—soft in the palm of his hand, naked against his cheek, sweet and perfumed against his lips.

In fact, he was picturing that very thing, the moment that it happened.

It was nearing noon, on a particularly hot, cloudless day, just over a week out from Independence Rock. There had been some much-welcomed rain overnight, and although there were still spots of mud along the trail, everything was mostly dry, leaving the air humid and heavy.

Because of the heat, Jonathan Travers had asked Billy if he wanted to ride up front, rather than walk behind. But Billy had told his dad that he’d do just fine in the back. He could shift the old spinning wheel to the right, and nestle down next to the toolbox. It would be fine, as long as he kept the tailgate open, and let his legs hang out the back of the wagon. “Besides,” he said, “you and mom need more room on the bench.”

He saw they smiled at each other, knowing his real reason. His dad said, “Yeah, Billy, and the view from the back is even nicer than it is from up front.” He was sure he saw his parents stifle a laugh, as they kept their eyes on the trail ahead.

It had been nine days since they had left Independence Rock. In that time, they had crossed the Continental Divide and entered the Great Basin. But that distinction was merely academic here, with no particular landmark to show the transition. In fact, the trail had improved, and the wagon train had used the opportunity to pick up the pace, hoping to make a few extra miles each day. To accommodate, the wagons had spread out a bit more than usual, so that each wouldn’t be eating the dust of the wagon they followed. Unfortunately, that meant that Frances was a bit further behind, and her features were obscured by the billowing dust between the wagons.

The states of Utah and Wyoming were still many years in the future, but this nameless, wild country was not empty. It had been the home of indigenous peoples, prairie dogs and buffalo, since long before white settlers had dreamed up the concept of Manifest Destiny. So Billy passed the time watching the prairie dogs dart away from the wagons, and a circle of buzzards over something dead just to the south.

Billy never knew what caused the wagon to jump the way it did. But most likely, it was one of those damn gophers that had dug a tunnel under the trail. The constant pressure of the wagons may have just caused it to collapse, leaving a dangerous, but barely visible, dip in the dusty and muddy trail.

The wagon hit it going far faster than it should have.

One moment Billy was sitting on the tailgate of the wagon, watching the Sowersby’s far behind, daydreaming of what it would feel like to slip his hand under Frances’ cotton bodice, and then the next moment he was floating. Everything dropped out from under him for a fraction of a second, and he found himself airborne. But faster than he could register his flight, the rear gate was moving upward again, having encountered the other side of whatever rut it had fallen into. The impact of the gate on Billy’s backside launched him into the air once again. He only had long enough to realize he was no longer in the wagon before he was hurtling to the ground. There was a sound like a breaking branch, and suddenly he was consumed with pain like he had never known. It exploded through his entire body, and in those first seconds, he had no idea where the pain originated.

What he didn’t know at that moment, but was clear as he sat up in agony seconds later, was that the spinning wheel and his dad’s heavy wooden box of tools had also taken flight. The spinning wheel was thrown clear, but Billy and the toolbox landed together in a heap. And when the tool box came down, his left foot was sprawled under it, at a brutally impossible angle.

The spinning wheel was broken. His dad’s tools were strewn across the red sand. And Billy’s ankle was shattered.

He took in a deep breath, instinctively pushing the heavy box off of his leg. Seeing his ankle ground into the mud and horse dung that covered the trail, he barely recognized that his foot had never before bent at that particular angle. He stared it it without breathing until he realized that the shiny white and red stick poking through his trouser leg wasn’t one of his dad’s tools. It was his own shin bone, poking through the heavy cloth like a sharpened spear in the warm summer air. The blood instantly blossomed around it like an opening rose.

He took in another deep breath and screamed.

The initial pain now seemed like a small echo. His brain, seeing the extent of his injury, had released the floodgates and brutal agony poured through him in a rush. Even before his parents had time to stop the wagon and rush back, he was unconscious in the dirt and mud.

In the previous nine days Billy and Frances had grown nothing but closer—through long talks around the fire and private moments whenever they could steal them. After their conversation at Independence Rock some barrier between them had melted, and suddenly he found he could speak to her in ways he had never spoken to anyone in his life—not his friends from school, and certainly not his parents. Each night they would talk quietly about their futures, while one or more of their parents gave them sidelong, cautious glances. One of them was always present, he noticed, although never close enough to overhear their conversations. But he had overheard theirs more than once. He knew that all four of their parents were longing for them to get to Utah, so that Billy and Mattie could be parted before things got out of hand. But for Billy, that point had already come and gone.

Billy wished he and Frances could talk about their future together more openly. But despite the obvious affection between them, the reality that they would part after they got to Salt Lake City was still the only future that either of them could imagine. The dreams of him staying behind in Utah had grown in Billy’s heart, but he had not yet put them into words, either to himself, or to her. But he had resolved that he would tell Frances everything before they got to Utah. He might only be fifteen, but he could, at the very least, promise her that if he couldn’t stay with her, he’d come back.

He could ask her to wait for him.

A shattered ankle in 1857 was serious, but it wasn’t a death sentence. When Billy regained consciousness, his father had pulled their dining room table from where it was lashed onto the wagon, and hoisted his unconscious son out of the mud. The Sowersby wagon had stopped behind them, and all four of them had rushed to Billy’s side. But the rest of the wagon train did not stop or even slow. They just pulled around the two stalled families, most not even taking the time to stop and ask what had happened. Soon, the rest of the wagons were drifting away, and the two families were alone in the sagebrush.

Frances looked pale as Sarah Travers tried to revive her son. Mattie looked fascinated, trying to kneel next to the scene, until her mother finally pulled her away and sent her back to their wagon.

As he drifted back to consciousness, one of the first facts that registered for Billy was that Frances was holding his hand. At first, he wondered if perhaps this was a dream. He had never held her hand like this. And then the memory of what had happened flooded back to him, along with the pain which had been echoing dully in the back of his mind. He looked down at his ankle, just in time to see his father washing the mud and horse dung out of the wound with a canteen. The cold water made it feel like his foot was on fire, or ready to explode like a stick of dynamite. He cried out, arched his back, and passed out again.

When he awoke the next time, he was surprised to find himself back in the wagon. Frances was gone, and the wagon was moving. And moving fast. He was still on the table which was now on top of the rest of their worldly positions. How in the world they had maneuvered it up there with him on top of it was beyond him. He was alone in the back of the wagon. Ropes around his shoulders and waist were tied to the sides of the table, obviously to stop him from sliding off as the wagon bucked. Craning his neck, he could see his mom and dad up front, driving the horses hard. His mom glanced back, and he saw the panic in her face, followed an instant later by a forced smile. She half turned, reached back, and grasped his reaching hand.

Looking down at his ankle, he was surprised to see that the bottom half of his pant leg was missing, cut off just below the knee. He could see that the bone was no longer poking through the skin. Somehow, his father had managed to remove his boot, set the break, and bandage the leg with what looked like one of their good bed sheets. It was stained deeply with his blood, but the bleeding must have stopped, because the table seemed relatively clean.

The wagon was moving fast, and suddenly they hit another bump that cause Billy’s leg to bounce and hit hard against the table. He screamed as more pain shot up, filling him from his foot to his shoulders.

He heard his name, as he struggled to make sense of anything through the pain, and he realized his mother was speaking to him.

“You’re going to be okay, Billy. It’s just a broken leg. Your dad set the bone, and we’re going to get you to Fort Bridger as fast as we can. They’ll have a doctor there.”

The wagon jolted once again, and his foot raised up an inch before coming down hard against the table.

“John, be careful!” his mother yelled, and the high-pitched panic in her voice helped Billy to clear his head.

“Where is she…” Billy groaned through the pain.

“I know you mean Frances,” his father said. “We had to leave them behind, son. They stayed with the wagon train, after we caught up to them and passed them an hour ago. They’ll meet us when they get to Fort Bridger. By then, hopefully we’ll get you bandaged up and we’ll be ready to get back on the trail.” The forced cheerfulness in his father’s voice was chilling. Billy could tell he didn’t believe it for a minute.

“How… How long…”

“It’s going to take us two days to get to Fort Bridger, even if we go as fast as we can. But we’ll get you there. Just try to rest.”

It did indeed take them two excruciating days to get to Fort Bridger. And by the time they arrived, Billy was unconscious again. The unrelenting pain had taken its toll on him, and his father had finally given the boy an unconscionable dose of whiskey to help him cope, hoping the thinning of his blood wouldn’t start the wound to bleeding once again. It didn’t, but still, when they arrived at the Fort, they knew things were bad. Billy’s foot had swelled, and a foul smelling gray fluid was leaking into the improvised bandages. They were afraid to take off the sheet, fearing what they would find.

Two hours after they arrived at the Fort, Billy awoke in an actual bed, to find his parents by his side. Everything seemed dreamy, and the surrounding colors seemed oddly muted. His mouth was dry when he tried to speak. But even through his haze, he could see that his parents didn’t look the least relieved.

His father spoke to him slowly, lifting Billy’s head back whenever it fell to one side. He explained that the regular doctor wasn’t at the Fort. He was away and wouldn’t be back for several days. His father didn’t even bother to explain where the man had gone, and Billy was too delirious to ask. But his dad gave him a weak smile and took his hand. “But we found someone who could set the bone right. It ends up, I’m just a farmer after all, and I’m not going to ever be a sawbones. I guess I didn’t do a great job.”

“Who…” Billy began, but his father shushed with a hand on his cheek.

“Well, to be honest, the guy is the veterinarian. He cares for the horses here at the Fort. He said he’d never set a human bone, but he’d done it for a horse once. To be honest, I think the man is an arrogant buffoon, but he pulled out a few shards of bone that might have been causing some of the swelling and bleeding. And the bandage you got is clean now.”

Billy tried to look down at his foot, but the effort of raising his head was too much. He felt his father push him gently back into the pillow.

“Don’t try to sit up, son. The doc gave you some opium for the pain. You’re not gonna be much use for a bit.”

He remembered very little after that. It could have been an hour or days later when Frances arrived, and he woke up to find her sitting next to him on the bed. He could hear her crying, but he couldn’t swim up through the fog that surrounded him long enough to acknowledge her. And yet, through the confusion, he was vaguely aware that something was seriously wrong. And it didn’t feel like it was just his foot. He felt like his entire body was on fire, and yet it was a numb fire, like he was watching himself burn up at a distance. When he forced his eyes open, everything around him was framed in an eerie pink glow. His eyes focused on Frances’ face, but he was unsure it was her. The white figure seemed more like that of an angel.

I… love you… he tried to say, but wasn’t sure the words actually came out. He could see now that the angel was crying, and he wanted to make that stop. If he could just get his face up to the air, above this heavy lethargy and fog, he would tell her everything he felt about her. He would tell her he had been dreaming of her ever since they had been apart, and that he would love her and stay with her in Salt Lake City, no matter what his parents said, or even hers. He would even become a Mormon. He tried to tell her all these things, but all he could manage was a groan.

When he opened his eyes some time later, the figure at his bedside was no longer an angel. Now it was a smaller figure, dark and ominous, with black, piercing eyes that haunted him. The weight of the opium now felt like black water in a lake, and he struggled to fight his way to the surface, to get away from that dark figure staring at him with unreadable ebony eyes.

He could see the angel now, over the little demon’s shoulder, crying against his mother’s chest, and his mind cleared enough to find names. He tried to keep his eyes on Frances, but he realized it was now Mattie who was holding his hand. With a dark smile, she stepped between him and Frances, blocking his view so that she was the only thing he could see. He tried to peer around her, but she kept moving, always staying between him and the woman he loved.

He felt his mind swirling as if it was going over a waterfall, into the rancid pool of those dark eyes. He couldn’t take it, and he squeezed his eyes shut once again.

He heard his father’s voice. He tried to focus on the words, but they were confusing.

“That damn vet won’t take off his foot. Says he’s not going to even try. The corporal here says we should take Billy on to Salt Lake City. He says the Mormons have set up hospitals there, and that there has to be a doctor there that can take off the foot without killing him.”

It took him a moment to recognize the next voice. It was Frances’ father.

“Then that’s what you should do, Jonathan. Hurry ahead. We’ll catch up with you in Salt Lake City and find you. Frances is going to want to say goodbye to Billy before you head to California. Don’t worry, my friend. He’s going to be okay. Billy is a strong lad.”

“I don’t know Tom. Have you looked at that leg? It scares me. At the rate it’s turning black, even if we get him to Salt Lake City in five days, I don’t think it’s just going to be the foot they have to take off. It’s going to be the whole damn leg.”

“John, lotsa fellers do just fine with just one leg. You just need to trust in the Lord and get your asses on the trail.”

And then everything faded out for Billy Travers.

He only regained consciousness one more time on the trip to Salt Lake City. He never saw them cross the majestic Wasatch range. He never felt the wagon slow as it carefully wound its way down Emigration Canyon, and into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. He never saw the valley open out in front of the wagon, as if they had passed through an enormous gate in a wall the size of a mountain.

And he also never learned how wrong the arrogant old vet was about his condition. If he had fought off the effect of the opium long enough, he might have been able to lift his head to see the infection raging in his leg like a wildfire. He’d have been able to see the black and red striations that had crept up into his hip, and even smell the rank odor of rotting flesh that was taking hold of everything below his knee. He’d have been able to sense his own fever, that had turned his body into a battleground. He’d have been able to see his mother weeping helplessly, as they reached the mouth of the canyon.

As it was, all he heard in that last brief moment of consciousness was the rumble of a stream somewhere in a side canyon, and the wind sighing through the trees. Then there was the barking of a dog. The barking shook loose his body, and with a last sigh, he turned his face into the breeze, and lost consciousness.

But he was not yet dead.

If he had died further up Emigration Canyon, everything would have been different for Billy Travers.

But his body held on.

The Travers wagon rolled out of Emigration Canyon in the late morning of May 27, 1857. It was a hot day. The sky was clear, but dark clouds gathered in patches over the giant lake far in the distance, and gray tendrils of rain snaked down to the salt water and the desert sands.

His mother was driving the wagon as they emerged from the canyon. His father had already rushed ahead with a borrowed horse to find a doctor. Billy was still unconscious in the back of the wagon when his mother pulled to the side of the trail. Flagging down another wagon, she and two young men hauled the table with Billy out of their wagon, and into the dust on the side of the trail. They untied the ropes, so she could help him sit up and give him some water, which just ran down his hot chin. She tried to massage his throat to get him to swallow, to no avail. The men helped her remove the bandage from Billy’s leg, hoping to get some air to the wound. But even before they began unwinding the bed sheet, they could see that Billy Travers was lost. The leg was a shiny black, from his toes to the knee, and tentacles of the infection spiraled up his leg and into his chest. The smell that came from the angry wound was enough to drive the men back. Billy’s mother didn’t even notice them leave. She felt almost nothing. All she could do was hold Billy in her arms, his terrible, hot, dying body unresponsive to her touch.

She rocked back and forth with her son, humming an old lullaby that had soothed him as a baby. Behind them, wagon after wagon passed them, descending into the brilliantly sunlit valley of the Great Salt Lake.

When Billy’s father returned with the doctor, he found his wife still cradling their dead son. She had pulled him off the table, which was now in the sun, and huddled with him in the dust under the wagon. With her now were some quietly mourning Mormon women. He never learned whether they were new immigrants or residents of Salt Lake City who lived near the mouth of the canyon. But they soon left and returned with three men and a wagon. They told the grieving parents they were sorry for their loss. And that there was a gentile cemetery about three miles away where they could bury their son. They took Billy from his mother’s arms and led the Travers away, while the men wrapped Billy in the same sheet that had bandaged his leg, and loaded his body into the wagon.

The two wagons passed together through the foothills of Salt Lake City. The wagon with Billy’s body led the way, and the Travers followed, in their wagon with all their earthly possessions, save one, under the spreading white canvas. As they traveled, they barely noticed the new settlement laid out below. Everything in the Salt Lake Valley was buzzing with life, and was somehow both shiny new and dirty at the same time.

They found the cemetery just north of Emigration Canyon, in a part of the city that would later be called The Avenues. Off to the side of the main cemetery was a small and sparsely populated section that was reserved for “deceased gentiles.” The men quietly interred the boy’s body, with very little discussion or complaint. Jonathan Travers realized, watching them work, that the Mormons certainly were living up to their reputation for industriousness. Not a single man complained as they labored at the hard ground.

And then they were shaking hands with the now childless parents and wishing them well on their life in California. They gave them directions where they could pick up the supplies they’d need to cross the vast desert to the West.

And then they were gone.

Jonathan and Sarah Travers spent some time at their son’s gravesite, but less than many might expect. Death and loss were a frequent reality in 1857, and both the parents had suffered losses before. Although they both felt that they could not go on, they also both knew that they would. And they soon climbed back into their wagon. Jonathan Travers turned the horses down toward Salt Lake City, and the wide streets he could see laid out with such precision. He didn’t look back as they drove away. But Billy’s mother turned at the last minute to look over her shoulder, knowing she would likely never see the grave of her son again. She kept watching until the cemetery was no longer visible behind them, and the buildings of Salt Lake City were surrounding them on the wide, dusty roads.

Sarah Travers was right. She and her husband would never return to Salt Lake City again.

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.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WessMongoJolley
Twitter: https://twitter.com/WessMongoJolley
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/mongobearwolf

Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

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.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WessMongoJolley
Twitter: https://twitter.com/WessMongoJolley
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/mongobearwolf

Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than 60 chapters of the book are already available there for subscribers.

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