Salt Lake City was nothing like Billy had imagined. And not just because he was seeing it through the eyes of the newly dead.
Despite all his father had told him, he had not really understood the tension and anxiety afflicting the newly established Mormon haven. It had only been a very short decade since Brigham Young and his first band of refugees from religious persecution had descended Emigration Canyon—the same canyon where Billy had died. Brigham Young had entered the valley the same way that Billy had: ailing in the back of a wagon. But unlike Billy, he had survived, and had sat up in the wagon long enough to look over the valley, and proclaim, “This is the place.”
A monument to those words stood on the site now, just a hundred yards from where Billy’s mother had held him as he took his last breath.
The Mormons had entered the Salt Lake Valley as persecuted refugees, and they had immediately turned this valley into the haven they had long sought. But the scars of oppression never fade, and not for a moment in the decade that followed had they believed that their trials were over.
In the summer of 1855, grasshoppers had feasted on the young crops of the settlement in such numbers as to threaten their very survival. Only the hordes of seagulls which descended on the grasshoppers had saved them from starvation, and the reverence for the seagull endured forever more in the growing Mormon mythology.
The following year drought and famine came to the Saints, and the Church coffers ran so low that they could no longer support the steady stream of refugees. In a tragic decision, Church leaders encouraged the emigrants that fall to come anyway, even if it meant traveling with only handcarts, rather than wagons with teams of oxen. That year became known as the year of “the great handcart disaster,” when over two hundred emigrants died in the early snows.
But by the summer of 1857, a more hopeful spirit was spreading through Salt Lake City. The famines had eased, and the prophet had led a religious reformation the previous year. Although sometimes brutal and controversial, it resulted in a renewed commitment to their faith. That is, by those who did not suffer and die at the hands of the most zealous of the valley’s faithful.
Still, new threats were on the horizon, and Brigham Young was very aware that politics, and not the forces of nature, were now the greatest threats to the Mormon people.
He was right to be worried. As tensions between the Saints and the US reached a boiling point in the summer of 1857, the Prophet could see the writing on the wall. The “Amerikats” (as the Saints sarcastically called them) had assembled an army, and it was marching toward their sanctuary. They could be invaded before the winter arrived.
Brother Brigham put in place plans for a worst-case scenario, which might even entail abandoning their homes in Salt Lake City and taking to the surrounding mountains to the north and south to fight a guerrilla war against the United States. The Mormons built their own standing army and asked every family to contribute a son or husband to it.
Sometimes, what the church leadership asked was great indeed. And they would ask much of the Sowersby family.
Billy knew little of this during his first few months in Salt Lake City. He was, after all, a newly minted ghost. For Billy, it was a time of confusion, uncertainty, loss, and mourning, and he endured it far better than most. It was years before he would know it, but by 1857 Salt Lake City was already littered with ghosts, many of whom had not come through their return with their minds intact.
When he died, Billy was still just a fifteen-year-old boy, full of the same passions and longings that consumed most boys his age. Being dead had little impact on those feelings, and his obsession with Frances Sowersby only grew in the weeks that followed his death.
His first days were ones of denial and confusion, and yet, he never lost sight of the girl he loved. He stayed with Frances Sowersby every minute, including intimate moments when she changed her clothes or slept under only a thin sheet, to cope with the midsummer heat. During those times, his mind raced and his body throbbed in ways that were even more intense than he had known when he was living.
It was only two days after his return that he allowed himself to touch Frances Sowersby for the first time.
By then he understood the peculiar texture of everything he touched, and yet somehow he had believed that the flesh of a woman would be—somehow must be—different. But when he could no longer contain his desire, and his trembling fingers reached out to touch Frances’ breast, he found her flesh just as hard and unforgiving as the grass and the sagebrush. Curling into the dust at her feet, he allowed himself to weep.
The only flesh that felt alive was his own, and in the weeks that followed touching himself was all that linked him to the world of the living. He’d see his semen eject from his body and disappear into the ether, just like his tears.
At first, he would walk away into the brush to take care of his needs. But soon he realized it didn’t matter, and would stroke himself with his other hand on Frances’ cold, hard cheek, or against her breast, or the small of her back. And sometimes, when he could not help himself, on the inside of her thigh.
By this time, the Sowersbys had joined a camp for new arrivals, just off the main settlement. There, Mattie finally seemed more like a normal little girl than she had on the trail. She had lost much of the haunted look in her eyes that Billy had seen, and he wondered if perhaps she had simply never trusted him, or just felt jealous of her sister. Little girls could be very selfish that way, and Billy felt relieved that perhaps she was not as strange as he had once believed. She was just a little girl, and she had plenty of time to grow up and be happy. As did her sister.
Frances spoke of Billy often, and sent her father out every day to seek information about the Travers. It both warmed Billy to see her concern, but also hurt him deeply to see that there was curiosity, but very little hope in her eyes. Her father must have told her to expect the worst, even before they arrived in Salt Lake City.
Three days after their arrival, her father brought a doctor to their camp. Billy learned that this was the doctor who his father had found to help him, and who had pronounced him dead there in the foothills. Strangely, Frances did not cry at the news that he was dead. Not then, at any rate. Her mother held her and thanked the doctor. Only Billy saw Mattie’s reaction to the news of his death. He thought he saw a smile of grim satisfaction cross her face, but just for an instant. She quickly turned away from her family to hide the look. Billy was troubled, but unsure what he had seen.
“Doctor, what happened to the Travers family,” Frances asked shyly. “His mother and father? They were so kind to us…”
The Doctor brushed back the girl’s hair in a strangely intimate gesture. “I’m afraid they went on to California, my dear,” he said. “They only stayed long enough to bury their son. If it’s any consolation, I think they were well supplied. I’m sure they’ll do well and cross the Sierras long before the snows come.”
Reaching into his pocket, the doctor pulled out an envelope with a wax seal. Written on it were the words “Sowersby Family” in an elegant script.
“Mr. Travers asked that I give this letter to you, Frances, when you arrived. I’m sorry it took me a few days to locate you. I hope it brings you all some comfort.”
The doctor didn’t stay to see them break the seal on the letter. Frances opened the envelope and Billy recognized an elegant, flowing script. These might be his father’s words, but the letter itself had clearly been transcribed by Billy’s mother. The text barely covered half of a small sheet of paper.
“‘Dear Sowersby Family,’” Frances read aloud, as her family sat and listened. “‘I’m sure the kind doctor has told you that Billy did not survive his journey to Salt Lake City. Hopefully, he has also told you that we have gone on to California, as we had planned, despite our heavy hearts. We buried Billy in the Gentile Cemetery to the north, and if you want to visit his grave, the doc can surely show you where we buried him. I know Billy’s spirit would be comforted, especially if Frances could make a visit. He cared for her very much.
“‘This is just a brief note to thank you for the kindness you showed to our family, especially in those final days we spent together. Sarah and I hope that we will meet you again one day, in happier times, and that you find success and joy in this, your new home. You are good people, and we will probably never meet your equals. May God bless you and keep you, and may you find prosperity in this valley, where the sands have absorbed so many of our tears. With kind regards, Jonathan and Sarah Travers.’”
Something in how Frances read the letter made Billy realize how unlikely it was that he’d ever see his parents again. And although he had accepted the reality that he was dead, a small part of him had refused to believe it. That part hoped this was all a dream, and that one day he would wake up to find himself back in his body, back in the wagon moving west, and that all of this had simply been a hallucination induced by the opium the old vet had given him. But hearing his father’s words dissolved those hopes, and Billy was left with the certainty that what had happened to him was permanent. And that he was going to have to find some peace in it.
Later that week, Tom Sowersby came home with a hand-drawn map to where Billy was buried. And the next day Billy walked with Frances, as she went alone to visit his grave.
It was a simple grave, and easy to identify because it was so new. The soil was fresh and red after an overnight shower. A hastily constructed cross, made from scraps of lumber, marked the site. Billy recognized the square nails as the kind his father had carried in their wagon, intended to help build their first cabin in California. The letters “BT” were carved into the wood where the boards crossed. Although the wood was clean and fresh, not yet discolored by the elements, he knew that with no one to care for his grave, it would be lost quickly to the elements.
If there will be any monument to me in this world that will endure, it will not be here, he thought. It will be on Independence Rock.
He felt grateful that he had carved his initials there, along with those of Frances and his parents. At least there would be one place where they could all be together forever.
It was at his grave that he saw Frances cry for the first time since she had learned of his death. Her weeping was loud and uncontrolled, perhaps because she believed she was alone at the graveside. He held her hand and wished that there was something he could do to comfort her. But he didn’t speak, knowing his words could make no difference at all to her pain. He just kept one hand on hers, which she laid upon the rough dirt of his grave.
Then, all at once, she rose, wiped her tears with a handkerchief, and brushed the dirt from her knees. She straightened her collar and pushed the hair back from her eyes, looking strong and dignified in the morning sunlight.
“Goodbye, Billy Travers,” she said. “I’ll shed no more tears for you.”
And with that, she turned and walked away from the grave. She did not look back as Billy hurried after her.
It was only after they were all dead that Billy realized no one in that family ever spoke his name again.
The next day, an official from the Church visited the Sowersbys to talk about their future. He was a tall, thin, serious man in a black suit with a string tie, and what looked like an accounting notebook under his arm. He talked to them of the tension between the U.S. Army and the Mormon settlers, and the fear Brigham had of the valley being invaded by the “Amerikats,” perhaps even before winter came. Mostly, though, he talked to the Sowersbys about their duty, and what the Prophet expected of them.
“You will likely be called on to settle in at an outlying area,” the Elder said. “Somewhere in the hills or desert around Salt Lake City. We know this is a hardship, but it is necessary that we prepare outposts in the mountains and the deserts.”
“Why do we need these outposts?” Tom Sowersby asked. His wife tensed, clearly feeling it was not appropriate to ask questions of the leadership. But the man didn’t seem to take offense.
“Because if the Amerikat army descends on this city, it may be necessary to put it to the torch,” he said, without hesitation.
Tom looked at the man blankly. “You mean, we would burn the city?” His voice was calm, but he reached for his wife’s hand.
“Yes, indeed. Every building, every crop, and everything else that we couldn’t take with us. We would leave nothing for the invaders, and we would take to the hills. If it comes to war with the Amerikats, the Prophet has said that we will fight even unto death. We will not run again.” He took a moment to breathe, and then went on with a smile. “But we can hope it doesn’t come to that. Our scouts believe that the Amerikat army won’t be here before winter closes the passes.”
“And if war does not come?” Mary Sowersby asked.
The man smiled. “We all hope that will be the case. If war does not come, then you will be helping to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and helping us to gain a stronger foothold for the State of Deseret. The Prophet believes we are destined to make a new kingdom here. That this is the new Zion, and that the Church will come to control everything from the Sierras to the Wasatch, even north and south to Canada and Mexico. This is a great time. It is the latter-days, and your family has a role to play, as we all do.”
Even though this was not what the Sowersbys had hoped to hear, Billy was amazed to see them all nodding along with the Church official. Frances had often told him they hoped to farm in the Salt Lake Valley, and help transform it into a new Eden. But if the church needed them elsewhere, they would go, and gladly. Their devotion to their community was strong, and they would make any sacrifice asked of them.
“Of course, we will do what the Prophet thinks best,” Tom Sowersby said, and even Mattie nodded.
Within a week they were given their instructions, and made ready to leave for their new home.
The place was called Round Valley, and it was just over a hundred miles directly south of Salt Lake City, on the western flank of the Wasatch mountains. The maps seemed rough, but the trail to their new home was well traveled by migrant caravans. Their instructions were to settle in the foothills on the western slope of the valley, about a mile off the wagon train route. Among other things, they were told to keep track of the caravans as they passed, and to watch especially for any groups traveling north, as they could be spies or saboteurs sent from Southern California.
They were pleased to discover that, besides helping to build fortifications along the route and cache supplies, they were being asked to begin a ranch, with the clear hope that the settlements would soon help the church lay claim to a larger area for the future state of Deseret.
“Brigham is a very wise man,” Mary Sowersby told her daughters. “The rumors say he has dispatched settlers already into the Idaho territory as well.”
“But what will happen if the Amerikats invade?” Frances asked.
“Well, if they do,” Mary Sowersby said, “the rest of the brethren will flee Salt Lake. There are thirty thousand people in the city now, so we have to be ready for many of them to come south. We’re going to be very busy for the next several months.”
In the warm weather of mid-June, just over two weeks after the family arrived in Salt Lake City, they were packing their wagon to leave. But rather than it being a sad and grave time, there was excitement on all of their faces. It would be an adventure, not just for themselves, but one of service to their brothers and sisters in the Lord, and of service to their Prophet. Even Mattie seemed excited about the journey.
The family left with a second wagon provided by the Elders. It was well-stocked with supplies provided from the Mormon storehouses, including many bags of flour, corn for planting, and buckets of lard. It was also packed with tools, nails, and more than enough wire to build pens for the animals. They were given a half dozen pigs that they could fatten and butcher in the fall, and the promise of more cattle to be sent with future settlers, who would join them before the snows came.
Billy followed the wagons, walking beside Frances the way he had long dreamed of doing. And as the days passed, Billy fell into a comforting fantasy in which he was now Frances’ husband. In the delusion he had not died, but had just left his parents and converted to Mormonism. On some level, he knew it was just a fantasy, but it was comforting to him. And as they walked, he would talk to Frances as if they were talking over plans for their future.
“We’ll build our own cabin, near your parents,” he told her. “And you will be so very, very happy there.”
Although he would turn to look at her, she would never answer.
The Sowersbys arrived in Round Valley on the evening of June 27, and the site was as beautiful as the church official had described. It was the same stark beauty of all land in the Great Basin desert. But there was water and trees higher in the mountains that would provide them plenty of lumber for building. Prairie grass and sagebrush colored the plains below them in dusty greens and grays. In the golden sunlight of those first days in Round Valley, Billy was happy. He could think of no better place for him and his new wife to settle, and build a home, and raise a family.
Billy could only watch, of course, as Mattie’s father built them a cabin over the next month, although he would pretend to help, carrying the loose end of a newly cut log, or walking beside the ox as it pulled a fallen tree to their cabin site.
By the end of July, they had a beautiful one-room cabin with a solid sod roof, and had cleared enough land to raise and breed the pigs. They had even planned where the corn would be planted in the spring.
In the long, late summer days that followed, Billy found himself spending more and more time with Mattie. He had reluctantly accepted that his fantasy of marriage to Frances, although comforting in its own way, was also a source of deep-seated pain for him, and that it amounted to little more than a denial of the fact that he could never have such a life. Worse still, he feared it was a siren song, and that if he didn’t fight it, he could easily fall into it and lose himself entirely.
Surprisingly, Billy found it easiest to confess his fears and confusion to Mattie. Perhaps it was because the little girl was still so solitary, and so often wandered off on her own to explore the canyons and rock outcroppings around their cabin. Billy would often accompany her, and as she sat on a rock, staring into the distant valley, he would unburden his soul to her. She never reacted, of course. She never looked at him. But her strange stillness compelled him to fill the silence between them, and he soon craved those quiet moments with the little girl. He was always glad to come home to find Frances there. But the bond between them was so one-sided that being with her was becoming too painful for him to bear.
At night, when Mattie and Frances laid down to sleep in their shared bed, he’d sing to them. But after each song, it wasn’t Frances he spoke to. It was, most often, Mattie.
“Did you like that song, Princess?” he would ask. And then pause, as if expecting an answer. “Let me sing you another…”
It was during those dark nights that the loneliness tore most viciously at his heart, and he could find little solace. Even the masturbation had stopped being a comfort and now left him feeling more bereft than relieved. Soon, he stopped it altogether.
He missed his mother and father, and often, late at night, he considered leaving the Sowersbys to find them. But he knew the chance of success was slim, in the vastness of the West. It had now been several weeks since they left Salt Lake City. They were likely nearing the Sierras, or had perhaps already crossed them. They didn’t know where they would settle in California, so Billy did not know where to look for them.
And suppose he succeeded and found them. What then? Would he just sit around the campfire with them and listen to them grieve over their dead son? His heart already felt shredded and raw. He didn’t think he could take looking into his mother’s eyes again and seeing only her pain. He didn’t think he could bear to watch his father, eating alone at the edge of the fire’s glow, an empty place next to him on the log that Billy could never really occupy.
Lying next to Frances at night, Billy would put his head on her unyielding shoulder. His hand, reaching up to cup her breast, found only cold stone.
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.