May 30, 1857
Billy awakened at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, three days after he died. But rather than screaming in pain and terror, there was just emptiness, longing to be filled.
He did not know who he was, or where he came from. But in the darkness, there was sound, and his mind grasped at it hungrily. At first, it was just the wind, but then there were distant voices, and the sound of creaking, footfalls, and the heavy breath of animals. He concentrated on the creaking, and slowly an image formed in his mind of a wagon, heavily loaded, and complaining under the stress. He did not yet recall that he had lived with that sound for many weeks, but it stirred in him a ghost of his lost life. And as the sound strengthened and then faded, Billy Travers began to remember.
I’m a boy. I’m alive. I was in love with a girl who held my hand and cried. Why? Why was the girl crying? Why was she sad?
He struggled for more memories, but they were slow to come.
The voices in the distance seemed familiar. He remembered what words were, and that he used to know them, used to use them. He tried to will the darkness away, and then he remembered he had, or used to have, a thing called a body. A body with… eyes.
He opened them, to a blinding flash of something that hurt.
Sunlight, he thought.
His eyes focused, and what he saw was the face of a little girl. She was wearing a long-sleeved dress, and her hair was tied back with a length of pink ribbon. He did not know her, but she was squatting down as if she was staring right at him. Her eyes were unfocused and distant. He stared into the little girl’s face, and she became an anchor for him, appearing more real and more familiar with every passing second. The terror drained away. Her blank face became a set point, a familiar link to the world, upon which other things began to build.
He felt great compassion for this little girl. Great love, even. And yet, he still could not remember her name. His mind was muddled and still reeling from the shock of being torn from the Vastness. With an effort, he dug deep into the swirling mass of memories that was slowly becoming solid beneath him.
“Princess?” he asked.
His own voice shocked him, but she didn’t seem to hear. And yet, she was staring blankly directly at the spot where he lay, squatting just two feet away in the dust. Close enough to touch.
Why can’t she hear me?
Billy was reaching a hand up to her, when he heard another voice calling to her, and added another face to his memory. It was this girl’s mother, and she was calling to her, excited and happy.
“Hurry, Mattie! We’re almost there!”
But the little girl just stared, a blank expression on her face.
Mattie, he thought. Yes! He remembered Mattie. She… had a sister…
He again reached up to her, but then he heard the sound of water splashing the ground between the little girl’s feet. He realized she did not see him. She was just squatting to pee in the dust off the trail. And yet, she was staring directly at him.
Mattie stood up and straightened her dress. Another girl appeared, looking so happy that it dispelled the dark cloud around Billy’s head. She was calling to the little girl in mock frustration, but clearly was so excited she couldn’t contain her laughter.
“Stop staring, Mattie! You’ve finished your business, so come on! We’re here!”
She pulled away, but Mattie’s gaze lingered for a moment, and then she walked away and didn’t turn back. Billy stared at the other girl, who was hurrying back to a wagon nearby.
“Frances!” Billy said aloud, no longer shocked by the sound of his own voice. Then he thought, Her name is Frances. And I love her. His mind raced.
I was… sick. No, not sick. It was my leg. It was broken. I remember Frances holding my hand. We were in a fort. I remember Frances holding my hand and crying…
His memories were rushing back faster now. He remembered his parents, and with them, he felt suddenly alone, in a way he had never been in his life. Struggling to his feet, he looked around wildly, and screamed.
He glanced around desperately, but his parents were nowhere to be seen. And then he remembered what had happened. Sinking back to his knees, he spoke to the departing forms of Mattie and Frances.
“They’re gone. I must…” But he couldn’t finish that thought. It didn’t seem possible.
His heart racing, Billy looked after Frances and Mattie, who were rushing back to join their parents, and a wagon that looked hauntingly familiar. And now he saw them; a steady stream of immigrants were entering the valley, like a long line of ants descending a tree.
Ants descending a tree… Where did I think of that before?
Somehow he knew his parents had left him. They had gone on to California without him. Why would they do that?
He looked down and saw his pant leg cut off at the knee, and that his feet were bare. He expected to see the bandage around his broken leg, but his skin looked clean and pristine, as if the fall had never happened. The only remnants of the injury were the patches of blood around the edge of his cut pant leg and splattered like cherry syrup on the other.
Standing once again, he tested his bare foot against the ground, and it held his weight. How could that be possible?
In the distance Salt Lake City was bustling, a newly built, humming city. He could see Mattie’s father boosting her into the back of the wagon where she could sit next to her sister. Frances and her parents were laughing and hugging each other. Only Mattie seemed distracted, and she kept glancing back toward where he stood, lonely in the sagebrush.
Billy’s mind was surprisingly clear now, and his memories had almost finished reassembling themselves. He remembered the pain and the delirium of the last few days of his life, and in contrast, he now felt clear-headed and alert. Perhaps more alert than he had ever felt.
But he also felt odd. He didn’t understand this world. Why had so much changed? Why did the world look so strange, like it had been painted by hand? Why were the surrounding sounds so crisp and clear? Why did the dust under his bare feet feel so hard and unforgiving? Why was everything bathed in such a golden light?
Most importantly, why didn’t Frances run to him when she looked his way? If he could see her, why couldn’t she see him?
In a painful rush, the realization he had been holding at bay broke through into his conscious mind, like a bubble of rancid gas ascending in a swamp.
It’s because I’m not here, he thought. It’s because I’m dead.
The thought was devastating, and he almost sank to his knees. Bending at the waist, the panic threatened to break his fragile mind in two. And it was only looking up, and seeing the face of Frances, turned his way on the tailgate of the wagon, that saved him from a plunge into madness. He focused all his attention on that one face; the one beautiful memory that could keep him from falling into the abyss.
The wagon had started down the gentle incline toward Salt Lake City. The girls, sitting together on the tailgate of the wagon, were laughing and craning their necks to take in all that was happening around them. The wagon found a place in the stream of immigrants entering the valley, another teamster slowing his wagon, and waving them in with a broad grin.
Billy remembered how eager the Sowersbys were to get here. He could only imagine how happy Frances must be to know they’d finally arrived. Would she be so happy that she wouldn’t even think to ask what happened to Billy Travers, that strange boy with the yearning eyes that she’d met on the trail? Would she or her family make inquiries? If they did, could that help him find where his parents had gone?
The wagon descended the foothills and threatened to disappear in the dust. Suddenly, the thought of losing sight of Frances was unbearable. The reality of his love for her was more important than anything. More important, even, than the fact that he had died. Nothing mattered now except staying with the woman he loved.
Haltingly at first, and then faster, he ran after the departing wagon.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.