August 23, 1857
“Dammit Dutch, Gus told you to call me ‘Peter Whitman.’ You’d better stop calling me ‘Stauffer.’ Far as I’m concerned, that ain’t my name no more.”
“Relax, ‘Whitman’,” Dutch sneered. “Ain’t nobody out here gonna find out you’re a backout. And none of these cowhands give a shit one way t’other.”
Stauffer fumed, but knew it was best to drop it.
It was late afternoon, and the desert country was stark and beautiful all around them. The Wasatch Mountains were still on their left, even though they’d left Salt Lake City almost three weeks ago. An hour before, they’d been riding with Gus, who had told the pair to spend the afternoon doing some scouting up ahead, but to be back by supper.
Finally, Stauffer was feeling like he might just get out of Salt Lake City with his hide, and his privates, intact.
The relief he felt at the slowly dwindling Mormon settlements was in stark contrast to that felt by Gus and the rest of the company. To them, the desert and the long distances between the settlements had led to a frightening sense of isolation.
It had been a tough three weeks. As Gus had feared, the Mormons had locked themselves down and were hoarding their supplies, fearful that the army could invade within a matter of months. Every time the company had sent an emissary to barter for supplies at a settlement they were passing, or even just a lone ranch, they had been turned away. The company had money to buy supplies, but the Mormons simply weren’t selling. Of course, Stauffer himself was never sent to negotiate with the Mormons, but he heard all their stories when they returned to camp empty-handed.
He had not been surprised. But the rest of the Fancher train had a long way to go to understand how Mormons thought.
One friendly rancher their scouts had met close to Provo told them that the homesteaders were specifically instructed not to sell supplies to any of the wagon trains passing through. That rancher was clearly prone to gossip and said much more than he should have. For instance, he said that the prohibition on trading with the wagon trains came from the very top, and it was being spread by a high ranking Mormon official by the name of George Smith, who was riding ahead of them. They also said he was traveling with a young man with some brutal burn scars across his face, and a withered right arm. Smith’s directive to the brethren in the settlements was clear. The passing wagon trains were on their own.
Gus Humphries, the trail boss, was there when that scout had made his report, and it was clear to Stauffer that Gus recognized the description of the young man accompanying the Mormon elder, and he grew a little pale when he heard the tale.
Later, Dutch told Stauffer that the description of the young man sounded like a friend of Gus, who Dutch had seen more than once between Arkansas and Salt Lake. Dutch had no idea who he was, but he was sure that Gus knew the boy.
“Could well be a bastard son or somethin’,” Dutch said. “I wouldn’t put it past old Gus to have fathered a few of those around the country over the years.” Dutch laughed like he’d made a great joke, but the entire conversation left Stauffer uneasy. Why would a friend of Gus be working with the Mormons to deny supplies to wagon trains? It just didn’t make any sense.
In any case, it was clear that they would not be getting much in terms of supplies over the next several weeks. The sooner they got out of Mormon territory, the better. Unless something changed, they’d be slaughtering cows for grub before the week was out.
Slaughtering cattle would be a perfect job for the Dutchman, Stauffer thought, imagining how Dutch would go at a carcass with that Bowie knife. Gus is right. The old cowhand is more than a little loco.
As much as he despised Dutch, Stauffer had followed Gus’ instructions to the letter, and he always rode close. The old cowhand usually rode in silence, just chewing his tobacco and aiming long wet streams of brown spit at passing stands of sagebrush. But today he seemed especially worked up, in a way that made Stauffer even more uncomfortable.
“So, you’ve been keeping your head down, like Gus asked,” Dutch said. “Ain’t you gettin’ a bit stir-crazy?”
“I dunno, Dutch. Maybe jest a bit.”
“Well, everybody bought that story you told. About being a cowhand on yer way back from California. Is that what Gus told you to say? I saw you two bendin’ each other’s ears this morning.”
Stauffer tried to smile convincingly. “Yep. That’s what he told me.”
Twice now since they’d left, Gus had found a way to have a word alone with Stauffer, and it wasn’t to check on his well-being. Both times he’d asked about Dutch. Stauffer reported he had seen nothing special, but he told Gus he agreed. The man could be a problem.
“Well, remember what I told you,” Gus had said. “I’m scratching your back by letting you ride with us. You keep scratching mine too.”
It was clear that Stauffer was going to stay Dutch’s secret babysitter, for as long as he rode with the Fancher train.
“You gotta be wanting to go for a jaunt,” Dutch said, as they pulled ahead of the herd. “Yer stir-crazy. I can sense it. Let’s you and I go for a ride. Gus told us to scout ahead, so let’s scout.”
“I don’t think he wanted us to lose sight of the herd.”
“Well, how about I go ahead, and you go back?” Dutch shot him a look that made his blood run a little cold. Almost as if he was daring him to go back alone. Did he know Stauffer was told to watch him?
“Naw. I reckon I’ll stick with you, Dutch. Gus’s orders.”
“Well, then let’s ride, Mister Whitman!”
“I don’t think…” Stauffer started to say. But it was too late. Dutch had kicked his horse into a gallop, and by the time Jacob spurred his own ride, Dutch was leaving him in the dust.
“Dammit, Dutch!” Gus called after the old cowboy. “Just what the hell are you doing?”
“Scratchin’ your stir-crazy, pard!” Dutch yelled back over his shoulder. “Let’s ride!”
Stauffer cursed, and for a moment considered just turning his horse around and heading back to the herd. But it was behavior like this that probably made the old trail boss nervous. So Stauffer spurred his horse and did his best to keep up.
Two hours later, they were a good twenty miles ahead of the slow-moving wagon train, and finally, Dutch let his pony slow to a trot.
So far, they hadn’t seen another living soul in this god-forsaken country. The trail had cut through a broad plain, but the terrain had slowly turned into gently rolling mountains, with green trees at their summits and purple stretches of sage and scrub oak down below.
Stauffer was relieved that Dutch had finally stopped his horse, and was just standing in the middle of the trail, waiting for his new friend to catch up.
The younger man was the first to speak, and he did his best to sound calm and relaxed.
“Well, it looks like this country is a whole lot of nothin’. If we turn around now, we should get back to the herd just in time for evening grub.”
Dutch was just staring ahead into the broad valley. He didn’t say a word for the longest time. Finally, Stauffer cleared his throat and said, “Dutch? You there buddy?”
Finally, the older man spoke, and his voice sounded far away. It was the softest that Stauffer had ever heard the old man speak.
“You know, Stauffer, you’re the first Mormon I ever met that I could stomach. They’re all fanatics, every one. As far as I’m concerned, if the army just came in here and wiped every one of bastards off the face of the Earth, it would be a job well done.”
Stauffer wanted to argue with him. He wanted to say that some of the best people he had ever known in his life were his Mormon friends and neighbors. He hated what the Church leadership had done to his family, but he couldn’t hate his fellow Mormons. Most of them were just simple, devout, and kind folks, trying to make their way in the world.
He thought all that, but seeing the faraway look in Dutch’s eyes, he didn’t say any of it. Instead, he just said, “Yep.”
Dutch was twisting a fistful of his leather reins in his gloved hands, over and over. “And it’s not just my opinion, neither. The way they’ve treated us these past weeks, I don’t think there’s a man in the company that wouldn’t mind seeing them wiped out.”
There was some truth in what Dutch was saying. He’d seen it in the eyes of every member of the wagon train, and heard it around the fire, in conversations they would have never had in front of Stauffer if they had known he was a Mormon. It was the same hate he’d seen back in Missouri, and it wasn’t the kind of hate you could argue somebody out of.
He felt the skin prickle on the back of his neck, like he was having a premonition of destruction. He’d be glad to be out of this territory, and away from the Mormons. But he’d also be glad when he could get away from Dutch and the Fancher train. Mountain Meadows couldn’t come soon enough.
“You’ve got to hate them too,” Dutch continued, twisting the leather cord. “Aren’t you still afraid that somebody down here will recognize you and cut your balls off ad nail ’em to some old cottonwood tree?”
Stauffer regretted telling Dutch about what happened to Thomas Lewis. Dutch had brought up the incident several times since Jacob relayed it to him. It was clear he got a secret thrill out of the story.
“Yep. I’m still a little nervous, but we’re pretty far from Salt Lake. I don’t expect that we’ll run into anybody down this way who knows me. They got bigger fish to fry. My neighbors might not even have noticed that I left.”
Dutch turned in his saddle, and his eyes landed directly on Stauffer. They were cold, dark eyes, that made Stauffer wish his horse would take a step back.
“You’re my friend, Stauffer. If anybody messes with you, they’ll be picking their guts up off their boots.”
Dutch turned away and stared back ahead. Nothing that Dutch had ever said had revealed his character as clearly as that phrase, and Stauffer glanced at the razor-sharp knife Dutch kept on his belt. For the first time, Stauffer worried about his own safety around the old cowboy. Dutch was a rattler, and you had to step very carefully when you were dancing around a rattler.
“Let’s head back, Dutch,” Stauffer said.
“Not quite yet, my friend.” Dutch pointed one crooked finger ahead of him. “Look there.”
Stauffer strained his eyes in the afternoon sun, trying to see where Dutch was pointing. It took his eyes a few minutes to pick it out, but when he saw it, his blood ran cold. There was a single cabin, far up on the hillside above the valley floor. He wouldn’t have been able to see if it had just been the cabin, but the settlers there had cleared some land, and were probably planting some late season crops. It was still too far away to see any people. But already Dutch was trotting his horse in the cabin’s direction.
“Come on, Dutch. If we check it out, we won’t get back to the herd until dark. We don’t have time.”
“The company needs supplies,” Dutch said, without turning to look at the man trotting behind him.
“Let’s just tell Gus about the cabin, and they can send somebody up there when the train passes by.”
“No time like the present, my friend…”
Somehow, Stauffer knew it was useless to argue with the old man. He considered again just turning around and heading back to the wagon train. He’d tell Gus what he’d seen in Dutch, and then hopefully Gus would take care of it.
But what if he didn’t? Would turning back now make an enemy of Dutch? Stauffer didn’t feel that he had the luxury to antagonize this man. Not if he hoped to get out of the Utah territory alive. Gotta step carefully around this rattler.
He spurred his horse and caught up with the old cowhand.
The one-room cabin was small, but well built. When they arrived, they saw several hogs in a rough but sturdy pen, and the first shoots of corn growing in a field behind the house. The family was curing meat in the tiny smokehouse nearby, and the smell of the smoke and the odor of cooking coming from the house made Stauffer homesick for his lost wife.
The family that lived there introduced themselves as the Sowersbys, and they were as friendly as could be.
Dutch had shed a lot of the dark intensity he had shown back on the trail and engaged the father in a friendly conversation. Stauffer was relieved to hear that they were new immigrants, having only arrived in Salt Lake City a couple months before. The Church had sent them to settle here, and although he caught a sense of regret in the father’s voice about not being in Salt Lake City, they said they were very happy to be doing the Prophet’s will.
In any case, being new immigrants, it was very unlikely that they would have met Stauffer or his wife. So he could relax a bit.
Thomas Sowersby introduced Dutch and “Peter Whitman” to his wife Mary, and their two girls, Frances and Mattie. The little girl was a strange child, with dark eyes and a blank face that Dutch took as a challenge. He made some faces at the little girl, trying to make her laugh, although she wouldn’t even crack a smile for him. But his antics made both Stauffer and the Sowersbys laugh. As they bantered, Stauffer could see no hint of the dark side of the man that had haunted him for the past weeks.
The older girl was named Frances, and she was a beautiful young thing, just flowering into her womanhood. Dutch barely glanced in her direction, but the very fact that he paid her so little attention in their conversation made Stauffer uneasy. It didn’t seem natural for the man, who had so often said such crass things about the young women in the wagon train.
“So what about you folks?” Thomas Sowersby asked. “Just passing through? Heading up to Salt Lake, or heading south?”
“Heading south, I’m afraid,” Dutch said, with a light smile. “In fact, we’re scouting ahead for Captain Fancher. He’s got a wagon train out of Arkansas, heading to California. We’re just running a bit ahead, hoping to rustle up some grub for the trip. Our supply wagons are getting light.”
Thomas Sowersby’s smile faded. Any hope that this family hadn’t heard the admonitions of George Smith was dashed in that look.
“Well, I’m afraid we have nothing to offer in trade. We’re just settling in ourselves. We don’t have a lot to share yet. Come back in a year, and maybe we can offer you better hospitality.”
Dutch’s fake smile dropped, but Stauffer wondered if the settlers could see the change in him as clearly as he did. Stauffer suddenly felt cold, like this encounter could turn bad quickly.
“Are you sure, friend? We have money. We’re not out asking for charity. How about if we jest buy some of that smoked pork off you, and maybe some flour?”
Sowersby’s face had gone blank, and he shot his wife a look.
“Mary, why don’t you take the girls inside, while we men talk business.”
His wife wasted no time getting the girls into the house, and he heard what sounded like a bolt fall into place after the door closed.
“As I told you, friend, I’m afraid we can’t help you. Now perhaps it’d be best if you were on your way.”
Dutch paused just a bit too long, eyes locked with Tom Sowersby. And Stauffer found his own hand creeping toward his holster. If one of these two men drew on each other, which one would he fire on? Or would he just stand back while they killed each other? He really didn’t know, but his hand quivered near his holster.
“How about this,” Dutch finally said, his voice low and conspiratorial. “We need bacon, so I’ll buy those two pigs off you. And jest maybe you’d throw in that fine girl in the bargain. The one you call Frances.”
The father’s eyes narrowed, and now Stauffer could see that his hand too had moved stealthily toward his holster. But Dutch just stood in front of him, his arms crossed, smiling at the man as if they were just shooting the breeze on a summer day.
“I think you gentlemen need to leave,” Thomas Sowersby said. His eyes were steely now, and Stauffer could see a strength and a bravery in the farmer that he had not expected. He could only hope that Dutch would see it too and back down.
The two just stared at each other for the longest time, and Stauffer felt the sweat breaking out on the back of his neck.
All at once Dutch smiled, turned to his friend, and said, “Well, you heard the man. It looks like there ain’t no business to be done here. How about you and I head back to the herd?”
Stauffer felt his breath slowly stabilize. He looked at the father, who was still standing with his feet far apart, ready to draw should Dutch linger. “Thank you for your hospitality, sir,” Stauffer said. “Please tell your family it was nice to meet them, and we hope to see you all again one day. We’ll be on our way.”
He could feel the man’s eyes on them as they rode away. Only once did he turn back, and the farmer was still standing there. It didn’t look like he’d moved a muscle.
They didn’t talk as they rode away, but just over a mile from the cabin, the Dutchman pulled up under a cottonwood tree, and dismounted. He tied his horse to the tree and laid down in the shade.
“What in tarnation do you think you’re doing?” Stauffer asked.
“Waiting for dark,” Dutch said, tipping his hat down to shade his eyes. “Then we’re going back to get those pigs. The whole camp will have bacon for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“What the hell?” Stauffer asked, feeling himself losing his composure. “Didn’t you see the look that man gave you? He’ll plug you fer sure if you show up there again. He’d plug you before you got anywhere near those pigs.”
“Naw, he won’t. I know the type. He’ll hole up in the house with his wife and daughters.”
Stauffer didn’t think that Sowersby was that type at all, but he didn’t contradict Dutch. He just stared at him, wondering if the old cowboy had lost his mind.
Finally, peeking out from under the edge of his hat, Dutch smiled. “Besides, friend, I’m doing it for you.”
“For me? What the hell you mean?”
“You didn’t see it, did you?” Dutch asked.
Dutch sat up and jerked a thumb back toward the cabin. “That father. He didn’t send us away because of what I said. He recognized you, my brother.”
Stauffer was sure that wasn’t true, but the very idea made a chill run up his spine. He just stared at Dutch.
“I tell you what we’re going to do,” Dutch said. “We’re going to go back there and get those pigs. We can slaughter them right here, bleed them out, and sling them behind our saddles. And at the same time, we’re going to scare the hell out of that Mormon bastard, so that he knows he’d better tell nobody about you. I told you I’d protect you, my friend. I’m not gonna let you down now.”
Stauffer remembered Dutch’s comments about anybody that bothered him having to pick his guts up off his boots, and his eyes involuntarily shot to the knife, strapped to Dutch’s waist. Gus was right. This man was crazy.
Dutch just tipped his hat back over his eyes, and in moments, he was snoring under the cottonwood.
Stauffer sat up until well past dark. He made a little fire and tended it, trying to decide what to do. At one point he had his hand on his gun, seriously contemplating what would happen if he just shot the Dutchman right here. He could tell Gus that it was Indians, or some raider. Nobody would ever suspect it was him, and the wagon train would be rid of the crazy old cowhand.
Stauffer considered it, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He wasn’t a murderer. And besides, what if he didn’t kill Dutch with that first shot? What if he just winged the man? He imagined Dutch rushing him with that knife and then trying to pick up his own guts off his boots. With a shiver, he realized Dutch was totally capable of turning on him in an instant, and that knife on his belt was deadly.
All Jacob could do was hope that they would go back, get the pigs, and get out with their hides intact.
They left their horses about a quarter mile away from the cabin and walked the last stretch in the dark. A single oil lamp glowed in the window, which helped them navigate their way through the gloom. Thick clouds had rolled in just around sunset, and there was neither moon nor stars to illuminate the brush, so they had to pick their way carefully through the dark. Stauffer carried a length of coiled rope around his shoulder, that he hoped to use to lead the pigs away, but Dutch had also said that if they had to, they could just kill and gut the pigs there and carry out the carcasses.
The cabin was silent as they approached, and Stauffer hoped that Dutch’s prediction was right. Maybe Thomas Sowersby was holed up inside, hoping that the men were gone for good. But somehow, Stauffer knew Sowersby was expecting them. He had surely seen that Dutch wasn’t the kind of man to walk away from something he wanted.
Stauffer climbed quietly over the low railing. The pigs were calm, not snorting or putting up a fuss, and he got a rope around the neck of the first one easily. Meanwhile, Dutch had emerged from the storehouse with a bag of corn over his shoulder.
“There is more in there,” he said to Stauffer in a whisper. “I think old Tom Sowersby wasn’t straight with us. This is some kind of cache or outpost for the Mormons. There is more in there than this family could ever eat in a year.”
A break in the clouds passed over them at that moment, and the moon shone through clear and bright. Then, to his horror, as Stauffer was putting the rope on the second pig, he saw a glint coming from the edge of the cornfield. He knew at once that it was Tom Sowersby. The moon had reflected off of the farmer’s eyes, or maybe off the barrel of his gun. The farmer had been waiting for them to return, and now he had the drop on them. To his horror, he heard the click of a gun being cocked.
Sowersby got off a shot before Stauffer could yell, and he felt the bullet crease his shoulder. It knocked him to the ground, but he sat up in the dust in time to see the Dutchman throw the bag of corn at the farmer. One bullet went into the bag in flight, but it wasn’t enough to stop the heavy bag from hitting the man square in the chest. That was enough to throw the farmer off his balance, and Dutch was on him in a second, moving faster and with more agility than Stauffer would have ever expected from a man his age. The two men went to the ground, grunting, and he could hear Dutch laughing.
It was over in seconds. The father’s gun went off a third time, but the shot went wild. Dutch was too close to him now for the gun to be any use, and Stauffer saw the moon flash on Dutch’s knife, an instant before the blade disappeared into the Mormon farmer’s belly. Dutch rammed the knife into the man four times in such quick succession, that Stauffer couldn’t think of anything but a rabbit’s hind leg, scratching behind its ear. The farmer tried to let out a scream, but it was cut short as Dutch clapped a hand over the man’s mouth, and then used the sharp edge of his knife to saw through the man’s throat, all the way to his spinal column. Blood erupted in a three-foot high spray that hit Dutch square in the face.
Stauffer was still stunned, and the pain from his shoulder had taken away his breath. He wanted to scream, but no sound made it’s way from his lungs to his mouth.
In horror he watched as Dutch stood, sliced open the man’s belly, and then took out a double handful of the man’s guts. He glanced at Stauffer long enough to ensure that he was watching, and then dropped the steaming mass of the man’s guts on the points of his upraised boots. The bloody entrails hung off the man’s quivering toes like Christmas garland.
Stauffer was so shocked that he couldn’t get off the ground.
Suddenly the light from the cabin bloomed, and Sowersby’s wife was standing there in the open doorway. He could see the two little girls cowering behind her. To Jacob Stauffer, the lighting behind the three made them look like angels, gazing down on the destruction of the world at the hands of Satan. The glow from the cabin door caught Dutch, and he turned toward the Sowersby women. The blood was running down his face in streaks. In the door’s light they could all see Tom Sowersby’s dead body, still twitching as his blood soaked into the dust.
Mary Sowersby screamed her husband’s name and tried to push her girls back and slam the door. But the Dutchman moved so fast that she never had a hope of getting the door closed.
Dutch’s hands left twin splashes of blood on the rough wooden door as he smashed into it, and one hinge busted loose. Dutch rushed into the cabin, leaving Stauffer still sitting in the dust. But he could still see the little girl who was looking directly at him from behind her mother’s skirts with those cold, dead eyes.
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.