The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.27: The Backout

Book One — The Hereafter

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August 4, 1857

When the brilliant blue of the summer sky had faded into a uniform gray, Gus Humphries put aside his book and laid a half dozen strips of salt pork into his cast iron pan. While the pork was heating over his modest fire, he paused for a moment to run his fingers over the small volume’s title page.

Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, New York, 1856, the title page read, across from an artist’s depiction of the poet. Whitman looked much as Gus remembered him in the portrait: A black felt hat with a wide rim, riding high on his forehead, his head cocked to the left, his shirt open to a patch of dark chest hair, and an expression on his angular face that was far more serious than Gus knew the poet to be.

He turned the page to read again the inscription written on the back of the title page. But at that moment the pork began to sizzle. Not wanting to risk getting any splatters on his most prized possession, which he’d kept in pristine shape since they left Arkansas, Gus quickly wrapped the book in its scrap of oilcloth. And with a sigh burdened by memories, he stuffed it into the saddlebag he kept next to his bedroll. For a few minutes, he stared at the sizzling pork, savoring the quiet of the evening.

Gus was a very private man.

Despite his job managing the cowhands for the Fancher party, he loved these quiet evenings with just his horse, his memories, his books, and the birds for company. Down the slope and to the north, he could see the twinkling campfires and oil lamps of Salt Lake City already kindling in the early evening gloom. And after all these weeks on the trail, the sight of that city made him uncomfortable.

Gus had long ago accepted that he was a trail rat. He’d lived a life in the dust and on his horse—alone, for the most part—and he expected he’d die that way, eventually.

Still, the lights in the broad and open valley of the Great Salt Lake were pretty. Kind of like stars that had fallen into the dry bed of the ancient lake.

As he turned the pork, he noticed that each time he looked up more lights had kindled across the valley. Some were fires like his own, likely from new arrivals who had yet to build their homes in the valley. But a surprising number were oil lamps in windows of one- and even two-story homes. They were far larger and more numerous than the previous summer.

This wasn’t his first trip across the Salt Lake Valley. This year he was the foreman for the Fancher wagon train, and responsible for seeing that their accompanying herd of cattle kept pace with the train as it moved west toward California. But Gus had been a cowhand on several drives, some with immigrants, and some just driving a herd to the booming mining camps that were popping up across the Sierras. He had crossed the Salt Lake Valley before anyone lived here but the Goshute and some wild horses. And he had come through both before and after Brigham Young brought his flock west.

The Mormons certainly are an industrious folk, he thought, looking at the twinkling lights. Never in his sixty years had he seen a settlement grow like this one. The amount of work the Mormons were doing to turn this barren wasteland into a home for their people was humbling.

Now, he just hoped that the Fancher train would get out of this valley with their skins still attached to their backs.

Captain Fancher and his wagon train from Arkansas had no idea what they’d dropped into, but Gus could sense it. It was like Salt Lake City was a nest of bees after it had been hit by a crab apple.

We’ve walked into this city at the wrong time, he thought.

Just to the south, Gus could see their more than fifty wagons spread out across the encampment. Even though the risk of Indian raids here was minimal, they still had their wagons in a circle, mostly out of habit. But even so, their relief at being off the plains and through the Wasatch was palpable.

It had been a rough crossing, even for a wagon train as relatively prosperous as this one. No journey like this was ever without incidents and casualties, and they’d had their share. He shivered, thinking back to his cowhand Peter Huff, who had died just short of Fort Bridger. Nobody knew exactly what killed him, but the best wisdom was that it was some kind of spider bite. His leg had just swelled up, then turned black, and then he died. Gus sat with the man’s widow that night, and helped bury her husband the next morning.

Death could come frighteningly fast on the trail.

The Fancher train had close to five hundred head of cattle, although nobody expected they would get through to California with that many. Sources of supplies had been scarce of late, and unless they got a chance to top off their larders, they’d be eating a lot of those cattle before they crossed over the southern desert and into California.

Gus finished polishing the last piece of hardware from his gun and turned the frying pork over again in the pan. It was getting nice and brown. He looked up at the stars. Evenings on the trail were always his favorite time. He loved watching the stars come out, and he remembered so many evenings with Arthur, the young Mormon courier he was so fond of. They’d camped together under stars like this more than once. How he wished that Arthur had come with him on this drive. Gus loved the quiet evenings by the fire, but sometimes, they could be a bit lonely.

No earthly reason I should feel lonely, he thought, gazing down the hillside. I got more companionship on the trail than I want.

Fifty yards away was the main cooking fire for Gus’s half dozen cowhands. They were a bit of separate class from the immigrants, being mostly just roughnecks that would see them safely to California, and then scatter. Peter Huff had been the only one of his hands with a family as part of the train. The rest of them were all loners, and they’d be off to their next jobs or to just drift once they got to California. His crew wasn’t specifically forbidden from spending time around the wagon encampment, but most of them had long discovered that they were better off just collecting their wages and keeping their own company.

They’d also learned that they were better off leaving their somewhat surly old foreman to his own cooking fire in the evenings. Unless they had something important they needed to talk to him about.

Gus clicked the last piece of his gun into place, and spun the cylinder. He liked nothing better than knowing his gun was clean and freshly oiled. He slid it into the holster at his belt, hoping he wouldn’t need to use it. But this was a strange time, and a strange place. He had felt it even before they entered the Salt Lake Valley.

They had heard rumors on the trail of the U.S. Army marching west, not that many weeks behind them. Everyone expected that before the snows came, this placid community below would be a battleground. Uncle Sam wanted Utah to tow the line, give up polygamy, and swear fealty to the U.S. Government. Brigham Young believed that the Great Basin was their holy land, a birthright promised to his people in scripture, and that the government held no sway over his proud and independent people.

It was a powder keg. And unless either Brigham Young or the “Amerikats” blinked, there would be bloodshed in this valley.

If Gus had to place his bets, he’d put his money on the Mormons. He knew them well, from his years of traveling back and forth through this territory. A prouder and sturdier people God had never placed on his green Earth. He wasn’t sure the Army knew what would be in store for them, should they march into this city.

Still, it was possible that this valley, with its wide streets and beautiful homes, would be nothing but a blackened ruin next spring. Gus hoped that wouldn’t be the case. He saw such weariness in the faces of these settlers, especially their women, who cared little about politics, and just wanted a place to raise their children. They had already fled (perhaps because of their own arrogance or stubbornness) to this, the very edge of civilization. But Gus knew that if they needed to, they would fight again. Or flee farther in their search for homes and freedom.

As Gus turned the salt pork over in the pan for the last time, he saw one of his cowhands approaching.

Damn, it’s the Dutchman, he thought. I hope he’s not coming here to beg some of this salt pork.

Dutch was even older that Gus, and he was the only member of the team of cowhands that Gus didn’t trust. He’d long regretted letting him hire on. Maybe it was the hard, weasel-like eyes, or the scar Dutch sported from above his weather-beaten eyebrow, down to his shoulder. Dutch claimed he got the scar after being thrown by a horse, but Gus recognized an old knife wound when he saw one. Maybe the scar had been made by the very knife that Dutch carried on his hip like it had grown there. It was a six-inch Bowie knife with a fancy silver tree inlaid on the handle, and not the kind of knife that a cowpuncher should own. Gus couldn’t help but imagine Dutch taking the blade off some tenderfoot that slashed his face, and then gutting him with it.

As the older man entered the circle of Gus’s fire, he could see from his expression that it wasn’t hunger that brought him to see the Foreman. Indeed, Dutch was towing a skinny, wiry young man along with him that Gus didn’t recognize. The stranger walked meekly, two steps behind Dutch, like a lost puppy he’d found on the side of the trail.

“Whacha up to Boss?” Dutch said, plopping himself down on a log next to Gus’s fire, like he’d been invited.

“Not much Dutch. Just watching the fires down in the valley. And the lamps in the windows.”

Dutch scratched his chin and looked back over his shoulder at the valley. “Yup. Mighty pretty. Maybe we’ll see one of those big houses catch fire tonight.” Gus took his Bowie knife from his belt, and started picking his teeth with the point. The firelight caught in the silver filigree on the handle, between Dutch’s filthy fingers. Gus waited, but the old bandit made no mention of the man he had towed with him, who just stood behind Dutch like a shadow, his hat held in front of his belly like a shield.

Dutch had made it very clear that he didn’t share Gus’ charitable feelings toward the Mormons. The crack about the burning houses was not his first such remark. Gus had never thought to ask the man what he had against the settlers. Every man had his own demons, after all. And for all his distrust of the scarred old cowhand, Gus had to admit that the man worked hard and earned his pay. He just had to do his best to ignore that nagging feeling that there was more than a little bit of crazy lurking behind the Dutchman’s deep gray eyes.

If one of those houses did happen to catch fire, it wouldn’t surprise Gus to see Dutch walking away from it with a torch.

“So,” Gus said, finally. “Who’s your buddy? I don’t recall him being part of this outfit.” He hoped that the implication was clear to Dutch, that he had no sense bringing a stranger into their camp. Not with things the way they were in this valley.

“Boss, let me introduce you to my friend Jacob. Jacob Stauffer, to be precise.”

The timid visitor stepped around Dutch and offered Gus a hand, which he shook firmly. The man looked a little milquetoast, but his handshake was strong. And Gus knew you could tell a lot from the way a man shook your hand.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Stauffer. So what brings you to visit us this fine evening?”

Stauffer glanced at Dutch, but the cowhand didn’t say anything. He just kept picking his teeth with the point of his knife. He’d dislodged something from his yellow molars and was looking at it on the point of his blade.

“Well, it’s like this, Mr. Humphries. I met Dutch here when he was out rounding up some of your strays. I live just over yonder, in one of the little cabins on the slope.”

Gus took a deep breath. He should have seen this coming. This man looked scared, and with what could be heading for this valley in the coming months, there had to be at least a few of these Mormons who were having second thoughts about this paradise they were promised. Some of them were probably making the calculation that the time had come to save their skins.

“Are you a Mormon, Mr. Stauffer?” Gus asked.

“Yes, sir. Not as good a Mormon as some, to be sure. But when the Brother Brigham called my wife and me, we came west.”

Over the next half hour, Gus got Stauffer’s story.

Stauffer was just twenty-six years old. He had immigrated with his wife during the great Mormon Exodus of 1847, but in the years since he’d been unable to father a child by her. Fruitfulness was next to godliness to the Mormons, and she blamed him for her inability to conceive.

But as she told him, she was still young and comely, and if her husband could not give her a child, she could find someone who could. It did not surprise him when one of the Mormon leaders took a liking to her. In the guise of religious teaching, the man had insinuated himself into their home, and eventually the bishop informed him that the church was going to consider the man’s marriage annulled, so his wife could marry her new benefactor. She became his fourth wife, and the last time Stauffer had seen her, she had told him she now hoped she could finally bear the children that Stauffer had failed to give her.

Needless to say, the young man was devastated and angry. He said, “Mr. Humphries, I picked a plain girl, so nobody would try to steal her. And because face it, I’m no prize myself. But these damn apostles don’t care if a girl is pretty or plain. They just want more wives. And Sally just wants a bunch of babies, and by God, I hope she gets them. And now all I want is to get out of this damn, dry valley, and see the ocean for the first time. Maybe sign on with a fishing boat… I just need to be out of here long before Sally gets pregnant, if she does. I don’t think I could stand seeing her bear that man’s child. I don’t know what I’d do.”

Gus leaned back and gnawed distractedly on a piece of pork for a long minute before replying. Finally, he leaned forward and looked the man square in the eyes.

“That’s a sad story,” Gus said. “And I’m sorry for your loss. But I don’t see why it is you’ve come to see me.”

But of course, Gus knew very well what the young man was about to ask. Dutch finally broke his silence and jumped into the conversation.

“Dammit, Gus, do you need him to paint you a picture? He wants to join on and go with us to California.”

“Is that true, Mr. Stauffer?”

“Yes, sir. It is.”

“But why join up with us? Why not just up and leave? You’re young and you got two good legs. Do you have a horse?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Then dammit, man, get on the horse and ride. It don’t sound like you have much keeping you here.”

Dutch spiked the knife into the log and pointed his dirty fingernail at Gus.

“You know better than that, boss. He caint just up and leave. You’ve heard all the stories. These Mormons can be a brutal bunch’a bastards. A man riding alone out of Salt Lake City is likely to be stopped by vigilantes on the trail. Mormon vigilantes. And if they don’t buy his story, they’ll haul his sorry ass back here, then who knows what.”

Stauffer held up his hand. “It’s actually more than that Mr. Humphries.” He glanced nervously at Dutch. “I want to be honest with you, and I haven’t even told Dutch this part. Have you heard of the Perpetual Immigration Fund?”

“Cain’t say as I have.”

“The Church advances us money to make the trip here to Salt Lake City. My wife and I had nothing, so we accepted the money. But we arrived here with no way to pay it back. It would take me a lot of years here to pay off that debt. Especially since the church compounds it ten percent every year.”

Gus scowled. “Well, that makes you little more than an indentured servant. No wonder they could steal your wife from you.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gus regretted that comment instantly. This man was clearly devastated by what had become of his life since arriving in Salt Lake. No sense pouring salt into those wounds.

“Jesus,” Dutch said. “He owes them money and he’s a backout. We got to help him, Gus.”

The foreman had never heard that term.

“A ‘backout’?”

“Yes, sir,” said Stauffer. “It’s what they call any apostate. Anybody who turns his back on the church and tries to leave. And Dutch is right. We Mormons don’t look none too kindly on a backout.”

Gus sighed. “Are you saying the Mormons will kill their own?”

Dutch guffawed. “Either kill or make them wish they were dead. I heared tell of a man who had… relations with one of the wives of an elder. The Danites came knocking, and his neighbors found him later with his privates hacked off and nailed to his own front door.”

Gus narrowed his eyes and looked at the Dutchman. He didn’t say it, but yes, he’d heard such stories. The Danites were rumored to be Brigham’s avengers, under the total control of the Prophet alone. Their leader was a man named Porter Rockwell, who was called “Brigham’s avenging angel.” Although Gus didn’t want to believe the stories, he knew a people pushed to the edge, as the Mormons had been, were capable of such outrages. People will go to almost any length when they feel threatened by the world around them.

“Mr. Humphries,” Stauffer said, his voice shaky. “I know my way around a cattle herd. I worked my dad’s ranch in Missouri long before I came here. I have my own horse, and I can work awfully hard. And I promise that I’ll only stick with you folks until we’re out of Mormon country. Once you hit Mountain Meadows, you’ll be at the edge of where the Mormons have spread. I can help you get there, then I can either help you bring the herd into California, or I can head off on my own, your choice.”

“It seems you know a lot about us already,” Gus said.

“Just the little bit Dutch has told me. He also told me you’re a good man, and that you would help me. I sure hope you will, but of course, if you don’t think it’s safe, I’ll understand.” He straightened his back and looked directly into Gus’s eyes. “But if you’ll have me, I promise I can help you get across the desert safe. I’ll work hard. It’s going to be dry and you’re not going to get much help from the Brethren south of here, I can promise. Not with the way things are now. I can be a big help.”

Gus chewed on a bite of salt pork. I might as well savor it, he thought. There may not be a lot more from here to California.

Before Gus could tell them his decision, Dutch pulled the knife from the log, and started gesturing with it in a way that made Gus uncomfortable.

“These damn Mormons are a bunch of crazy fuckers,” Dutch said, with growing agitation. “They all believe that war is coming with the U.S. And to them, anybody not a Mormon is an ‘Amerikat’. They even think we have government agents and spies traveling with us, who will report back to the army. They don’t trust nobody. I’m sure you’ve felt it, Gus. You’ve felt their eyes on you. You’ve felt the way they smile and nod when they talk to you, but they look at you with them cold, dead, fishy eyes. You know they’re just trying to think of a way to stab you in the back when you turn around. Stauffer’s right. We’re not safe here, no way, no how. We need to get out of this valley pronto, before they take it on themselves to rob us blind or murder us in our sleep.”

“He’s right, sir,” said Stauffer. “I’m afraid you folks’ve picked a really bad time to cross the Utah territory, and it’s only going to get worse. So unless you want to go back up Emigration Canyon, you folks should probably be on your way, pronto. I hope you’ll let me come with you.”

Gus wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked at the two men across the fire. Stauffer was looking at him with pleading eyes, and Dutch’s expression was simply one of malevolence.

“Mr. Stauffer,” he said presently, setting aside the salt pork. “We know all about what is happening here. We’ve been trying for two days to procure supplies from the locals, and we’ve been turned away from every home and business we’ve approached. The story they give is that they’re holding onto all their supplies in the event they need them, seeing that the army is heading this way. And maybe that’s all it is. But we’re not going to top off our stores here in town, and my guess is we’re not going to have any more luck as we head south. Pretty much every town from here to the Mojave is going to turn us down, and my guess is we’ll be living off these cattle before we get out of the Utah territory.” He sighed. “But still, there’s nothing for it but to continue on. The northern route is too rough for a train with a herd, and there is no guarantee we’d get across the Sierras before the snows fell. And God knows we don’t want to end up like the Donner party. So Captain Fancher decided this afternoon. We’re heading south, and we leave in the morning. I was going to tell the men before we all spread out our bedrolls.”

Dutch looked satisfied, but he said nothing. Stauffer looked at Gus with hunger in his eyes. It was clear that he saw an exit strategy for himself, and he wanted desperately to take it.

“Mr. Stauffer, all we would need is to have the Mormons discover us with a ‘backout’ in tow. If we have troubles now, they would be far worse if that were to happen. But…” He paused and took a moment to light his pipe before continuing. “But, we’ll take you with us.”

He could see the young Mormon relax, as if he had just been granted a reprieve from the gallows.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you so much,” he said, with a great sigh.

“Don’t thank me yet, son. There are conditions, and it’s not going to be easy.”

“Anything you want, I promise.”

“The first condition is this. You’ll stick close to the cows and close to the other cowhands. And close to Dutch here. You don’t go off on your own, ever. And if you see strangers, you will not, under any circumstances, approach them. You are to avoid any outsiders and assume that they are looking for you. Likely as not they won’t be, but we’re not going to take any chances. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“My second condition is for Dutch here.” He turned toward the other man. “Dutch, you brought this man into our camp, and you’ve vouched for him. As far as I’m concerned, that makes him your responsibility, hook, line and sinker. If anything goes wrong on this, I’m going to hold you responsible.”

Dutch seemed pleased, and just smiled as he leaned back against the log. “You got it, boss.”

“Now, do any of the other men know about this?”

“No, sir. I brought Stauffer here directly to you. I know better than to parade him around the men without talking to you first.”

“Good. That was smart. When you go back, I want you to introduce our new friend as…” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Introduce him as Peter Whitman. He’s a cowhand that was passing through, on his way back from California, and I hired him to take Peter Huff’s place on the trail. We’ve been down a man since Fort Bridger, and that’s the truth. And it’s all anybody needs to know. And I’m warning you both, if I hear even the slightest whisper from anybody about ‘Jacob Stauffer’ then you’re both out on your asses. Is that understood?”

“Understood, boss,” said Dutch, grinning and clapping Stauffer on the back. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Whitman. Welcome to the herd.”

Stauffer had tears in his eyes. “I won’t forget this, Mr. Humphries. And I promise you won’t be sorry. Nobody will ever know I’m a backout.”

“And for God’s sake, I don’t want to hear that term ‘backout’ again. Hopefully ever.”

“Sorry. Yes, sir.”

“Bed down out here tonight. We’re up and on the trail at sunrise, so get some rest. I want you to work out the details of your story in your head before Dutch introduces you to the men. So try to avoid any conversations tonight.”

Stauffer rose and shook Gus’s hand.

“Dutch, go find Whitman here a bedroll, will you? Peter Huff’s is still in the supply wagon.

As Dutch hurried away, Gus grabbed Stauffer’s elbow and moved close. He waited until Dutch had disappeared into the darkness.

“I have one more favor to ask you, son. Call it payback for giving you the job.”

“Sir?” Stauffer looked confused.

“I want you to keep an eye on Dutch. He’s given me no good reason to distrust him, but something in my gut has worried about him since the day he signed on. I want you to remember that you work for me now. And if Dutch does anything that you think is… wrong… Or puts any of us in danger… I want you to come to me.” Gus finally released the new man’s arm. “The next few weeks are going to be hell, getting through this desert. Can you promise me you’ll keep an eye on Dutch? As a condition of signing on?”

Stauffer looked like he wanted to say something, and Gus imagined he too had sensed the chaos that radiated from Dutch like a rotting carcass. But he said nothing more. He just nodded, then rushed to catch up to Dutch.

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.

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 half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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