Chapter 1.34: The Death of the Sowersbys
The Last Handful of Clover — Book One: The Hereafter
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Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.
August 24, 1857
What the Dutchman didn’t see, as he smashed through the doorway with his knife in his hand, was that he had a passenger.
Billy Travers clung to Dutch’s back and screamed and pummeled at the cowhand’s head with blows so hard that Billy’s hands would have broken. He tried to sink his teeth into the man’s neck until he felt his jaw crack.
Billy had watched the two strangers arrive earlier that day and had known instantly that they were harbingers of death. There was something about the older man that radiated hatred and violence, and Billy could see it clinging to his silhouette like deep red flames.
There was nothing he could do, of course, other than watch as the two men talked with Thomas Sowersby—feigning kindness at first, but then with a growing level of malevolence. When the men had finally left, Billy followed them from the cabin.
Over the weeks since his death and return, Billy had only fallen more deeply in love with Francis Sowersby. And the illusion that they were married and beginning their lives on the frontier had become an obsession. He sat with the family during their evening prayers. He slept with his cheek on his beloved’s breast. And he sat with Frances and Mattie as they played Pat-A-Cake on the dirt floor of the newly built cabin. He would mimic their movements, and later, when Mattie would practice the moves by herself, Billy sat there before her. She couldn’t see him as he went through the motions with her and chanted the song. But it was easy for him to pretend that she did. They would reach up to clap their hands together silently.
And now two evil men had come to threaten Billy’s new family. They threatened his wife, his niece, and his in-laws. They threatened the fragile illusion of normalcy he had created since his death.
Under the Cottonwood tree, less than a mile from the Sowersby’s cabin, Billy had watched and listened as the man called Dutch talked about returning to steal their pigs, and then threatened his family as well.
Billy had raged at the two men. He screamed and screamed at them. He summoned every curse word he had ever heard in his life. He called on God to damn the men to hell and rip them body and soul from this world. But the men just talked as if he was not even a wisp of smoke. Finally, Billy kicked and punched at the men, and even tried biting them, until finally he collapsed in the dust. He looked into the eyes of the younger man and saw compassion and fear there. But could find no shred of hope.
He followed them back to the cabin that night, and watched in helpless horror as they tried to raid the homestead, and as Thomas Sowersby fired his first shot. He stood helplessly as the Dutchman severed the throat of the man he loved as a new father.
And then he saw the door open, and he saw Frances standing there, her eyes wide in horror, as she looked upon the scene, her father bleeding out into the dust in the moonlight.
“I’m sorry, my love!” He screamed, falling to his knees in horror and helplessness. But as the Dutchman rushed past him, his hand grasped the man’s arm, and he swung onto the man’s back as easily as if he was swinging up to ride his father’s favorite mare. After Dutch smashed through the door, Billy sailed over the man’s head, crashing into the stone hearth across the one-room cabin, missing the crackling fire by mere inches. And he laid there, moaning. There was a buzzing in his head, as if he would pass out, or as if his true death was just a heartbeat away.
Mary and Frances Sowersby retreated to the corner of the room, and Frances, his brave girl, had picked up a cast iron pan from the wood stove and was holding it high, threatening the man with the knife. Billy glanced around, and couldn’t see Mattie anywhere. Had she perhaps sneaked past Dutch and disappeared into the dark night?
Billy struggled to get to his feet, as he heard the men talking to each other.
“Dutch, let’s get out of here!” the man outside screamed. But Dutch just stood there in the doorway, blocking the escape for the women inside.
“Sorry, pard. They saw us,” the older man said, his blood-splattered face a mask of horror and violence. “And she knows we’re from the Fancher train. We leave them alive, they ride out of here and we’re all dead. The Mormons will wipe us out like ticks.” A pause. “We ain’t going nowhere until they’re all dead.”
Billy saw the man outside stumbling toward the cabin, illuminated by the glow of the oil lamp and the weak starlight. And for the first time he saw that the man was wounded. He held his hand against his shoulder and the blood had trickled down his shirt sleeve, all the way to the elbow.
The older cowboy advanced toward the women. Billy lunged forward, trying to stand in his way, but the Dutchman’s swinging arm knocked him roughly aside. As the murderer reached the women, Frances took one desperate swing with the frying pan, and connected hard against Dutch’s left forearm. But he quickly wrenched the pan from her hand and flung it across the room. It missed Billy’s head by the barest fraction of an inch and clattered against the far wall.
Dutch grabbed the mother, and his beloved wife dashed past the man, making a rush for the door. But Frances was brought up short by the appearance of the other man, framed in the doorway, blocking her way.
“Keep going, Frannie!” Billy screamed at her, hoping that she could just push past the man and keep running. He was still convinced that the younger man was not the murdering kind.
But Frances stopped, and stumbled back from the doorway, as afraid of Stauffer as she was of the Dutchman. Billy lunged for her, and the two collapsed together onto the bed, Billy clinging to her tightly, hoping that somehow his own body could shield her from the two murderers.
The Dutchman had sheathed his knife, and instead, was beating Mary Sowersby to death with a steel poker from the fireplace. It only took a half dozen blows to silence her screams, and then she lay broken and bleeding on the floor. Billy could see that her head was misshapen, and a long clump of her hair hung down like moss peeled up from a boulder. The bone gleamed white underneath in the flickering aura of the fire.
He could hear the younger man shouting something at the other as he raised and brought down the fireplace poker, over and over again. But his voice was getting weaker, now wracked by sobs. Billy saw him sink down in a clump against the frame of the door.
“Run, Frannie!” Billy whispered. “Run now!”
But Frances didn’t move. Terror and revulsion at the sight of her dead mother had momentarily turned her to stone.
When Dutch pulled Frances off the bed, she began screaming in such terror that Billy felt his heart would break in a million pieces. Billy was still whispering, “I’m sorry, my love, I’m so sorry…” over and over, trying to touch her face. Trying to look into her eyes. He clung to her, but lost his grip and fell to the floor in front of the bed.
And there was Mattie.
The little girl had crawled under the bed in the confusion. From her hiding place she had watched her mother beaten into a bloody carcass. And now, Billy knew, she would watch the death of her sister. The woman he loved. The most pure and gentle person Billy had ever known.
“Stay there, Princess,” Billy whispered. “Please, stay there. They may not remember you. You might get away… Please, Princess. Please…”
Billy turned his head, and saw the man in the doorway watching, as the older cowboy picked up Frances, and slammed her against the wall. He stood with his face just inches from hers, as she screamed and wailed and tried to fight him with what little strength he had remaining.
“Stop him!” Billy screamed at Stauffer. “Do something! Don’t let him do this!!!”
But the man just looked at the scene unfolding in the cabin. And with a wrenching sob, dropped his chin against his chest to stare at the dirt floor.
And in that moment, Billy lost all hope.
He expected the old cowboy to rape his wife, and he knew that if that happened, he would lose his mind and nothing would be left of him but madness. But instead, the man just grabbed both her arms and pushed her violently backwards. She tried to keep her feet, but stumbled and fell directly into the fireplace, knocking over a pot of steaming beans that had been simmering there.
Frances’ dress caught fire and smoldered weakly. She batted at the flames, but almost instantly Dutch had her again, dragging her out of the coals and back into the center of the cabin. He threw her to the floor, and ripped at her dress, while she tried to batter both at him, and at the flames smoldering on the left side of her body.
Miraculously, she threw him off and crawled toward the door. Stauffer was there, and Billy saw a moment of indecision on his face. Frances saw it too, and screamed, “Help me, please! Stop him!”
But the young man just turned his head away. Billy thought he could hear him whisper, so quietly that only Billy’s ghost ears could hear, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
The Dutchman was on her again, and now he had his knife out. For the first time, Billy saw in the light what a terrifying weapon it was. The blade, still stained with Tom Sowersby’s blood, was aglow with inner fire. Frances was face down now, on the dirt floor, just inches from Billy, her face looking directly under the bed in front of her. He saw Frances and Mattie gaze for a second into each other’s eyes. Frances even reached out a hand toward her sister for a moment, before realizing that Mattie still had a chance. Instead of reaching for her sister, she brought her finger to her lips.
Only Billy heard her say, “Shhh….”
Dutch straddled Frances like he would straddle a heifer for branding. And he slowly drove his knife between the ribs of her back. First on one side, and then the other. She writhed and cried out, struggling to stay alive. But Dutch calmly withdrew the knife, picked a new spot in the girl’s back, and used his weight to push it in, all the way to the hilt. Billy turned away with a scream, but his eyes locked on Mattie. She had not turned away. Her eyes were focused on Dutch’s knife, as he slammed it again and again into her sister’s back. All his calm had disappeared now, and he was stabbing Frances wildly, all over her back and arms. The girl cried out with a sound that would haunt Billy forever.
In desperation, Billy threw himself between Dutch’s knife and Frances’ body. But he landed badly and only caught the edge of one of Dutch’s knife strokes. He felt the knife cut deeply into his thigh, and pain shot through him that was exceeded only on the day he had broken his ankle. He screamed and collapsed on the floor next to Frances.
Once again, his vision narrowed, and he felt himself slipping away into what he hoped would be his permanent death, and an escape from this torment. He looked down at his thigh, expecting blood, but none was there. Both his leg and his pants seemed intact, despite having felt the knife stroke in such excruciating pain. But despite his wish to be granted release from this horror, the pain quickly faded, and his vision returned.
Dutch climbed off of Frances’ still quivering body. Billy crawled to her and wailed, laying his cheek on her bloody back. The blood was still pumping weakly from her wounds, and her body still shuddered. He tried to force his face into the gore, hoping to feel it on him like some kind of penance for his inability to save the woman he loved. But none of the blood got on him. It all felt like rippling glass under his cheek and under his fingers.
And from where they lay, he could see Mattie, under the bed, watching. What had so often been the cold and unreadable eyes of the little girl were now full of unspeakable hatred and anger. Even through his own pain, Mattie’s stare was horrible to behold, and the mangled soul behind that look broke his heart.
Stay there, he thought to himself. Please, Princess. For the love of God, stay there.
But she didn’t.
Like she was welcoming her fate, Mattie crawled out from under the bed, and stood up next to her sister. Dutch was wiping the blood off his knife now, and he looked at the girl with a wry smile. But as the man finally registered the look of pure hatred on the little girl’s face he was taken aback. He stood, and for a moment the only sound in the cabin was Stauffer sobbing in the doorway. He too looked up and stared at the little girl in the white dress, who glowed with the fury of a million suns. It was as if the light from the fire and the oil lamp had turned her into a torch that made them all recoil. Even Billy fell back from Frances, shocked by the transformation in the little girl he once called “Princess.”
Calmly, Mattie stepped forward. Her sister’s dress was still smoldering, but only a tiny flame remained. Mattie calmly stepped on it with her black leather shoe, extinguishing the flame. All the while, her gaze never left Dutch’s face.
Billy hoped, for a brief instant, that Mattie’s cold fury would actually drive Dutch from the cabin. But finally, the murderer grabbed her by the throat and said, “Stop looking at me!” He lifted her up against the rough log wall, and choked her. Stauffer and Billy just watched in silence now, as Dutch tightened his grip on the little girl’s throat. But she neither cried out, nor said a word. She didn’t even kick her feet, which dangled a good foot from the cabin floor. She just stared at the Dutchman, with hate blooming across her face so violently that Billy could see Dutch’s free hand, the one with the knife, trembling.
Blood ran from Mattie’s nose and onto Dutch’s hand, finally trickling onto the front of her white dress.
Billy watched as the Dutchman choked her. It took a long time, and Billy kept expecting the man to either scream out, or plunge the knife into the little girl. But he just met her gaze and tightened his grip. In the cabin’s silence Billy heard a groan, and he wasn’t sure if it was Mattie or her murderer. The blood continued to run down the little girl’s chin, sprinkling onto the embroidered front of her white dress like rhinestone jewels.
And then it was over. Dutch released his grip on the little girl’s throat, and she fell into a heap at his feet. He sheathed the bloody knife, pushed past Stauffer, and stumbled from the cabin like a man just thrown from his horse.
The room was completely silent. Even Stauffer had stopped weeping. Billy rose and walked calmly over to Mattie’s body. He put his hand on her cheek and gazed into her eyes. Although he knew she couldn’t see him, he could swear that her eyes focused on his face for just an instant. But then they glazed over permanently.
Princess was dead.
In that moment, Billy swore he could feel her soul leave her body. It was something that he didn’t feel when any of the other Sowersbys had died, including Frances. But there was a sudden feeling that Mattie was flying up and out of her body, and that departure was not one of peace or freedom. It was accompanied by what sounded to his ears like the wail of a soul condemned to hell and eternal suffering.
Instinctively, Billy tried to close the little girl’s eyes by wiping his hand down her face. But Mattie’s eyes just continued to stare, dark and accusing. And in the end, Billy could do nothing but turn away and stumble past Stauffer into the dark night.
Over the next hour, Billy watched as the murderers tried to make the scene look like an Indian killing.
They slaughtered the pigs, and took several sacks of grain from the storehouse, which they slung over the back of a donkey they found in a pen behind the cabin. Billy stood in the moonlight, watching them as they went about their evil work, feeling as if his own soul had been wrenched free of his body. There was little rage left in Billy now. But also little fear, and little hope. He felt like all he could do now for the woman he loved, and for the Sowersbys as a family, was to bear witness to this, the final desecration of the faith and hope and dreams that had brought them to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
He saw the same resignation and loss of hope in Jacob Stauffer. But in the Dutchman, he sensed nothing but a kind of exhilarated satisfaction. Any fear or regret he had sensed from the man in the final moments of Mattie’s life had been forced out of him by the unrelenting darkness of his own soul.
Billy watched as the two men barricaded the door, and from the outside, piled clumps of dew-soaked brush against the walls. They lit the brush on fire, but it was slow to catch. The fire was still just smoldering when dawn broke behind the gray clouds. As the two men watched the fire finally grow and take hold of the brush, he heard the younger man say, “Sally always wanted two girls. At least two.” Over and over.
Billy watched the brush smoke, and then flare more brightly. Flames licked at the walls and the roof of the cabin.
Finally, the two murderers turned their backs on the cabin, mounted their horses, and left. The donkey followed behind on a rope, and the blood from the slaughtered pigs dripped onto the shanks of their horses.
Only because he did not know what else to do, Billy followed them as they rode away. He had to jog to keep up with them, but he could easily keep pace with the trotting horses.
The day did not brighten as it should, and soon, dark and ominous clouds defined themselves against the texture of the dawn sky. Billy felt like his newfound anger was manifesting in the gathering storm, and less than thirty minutes after leaving the cabin, the rains started.
The old cowhand reined in his horse, and looked up into the sky, the rain washing the blood from his face and hands. He just stared, and Stauffer was the first one to break the silence.
“What will happen if the rains put out the fire?” He asked.
Dutch pondered this question for a moment. And then he answered.
“I don’t see as it’ll matter much. By the time anybody finds their bodies, the wagon train’ll be long gone. The first wagons will pass by here sometime this afternoon, I suspect.” He was thoughtful for a moment, then added. “Maybe it’s even a good thing. When the wagons pass by down in the valley, they won’t be able to see the cabin through the rain.”
Stauffer still seemed numb, like he no longer cared if he lived or died. “But won’t they come looking for us?”
“Nope. The Mormons will probably blame the Goshute. I hear there have been some problems with them in these parts. Horse stealin’ and such.” Dutch wiped the rain from his face, and then unsheathed his knife, and let the downpour wash it clean. For the first time, Billy noticed the roughly carved “D” in the blade, and he shivered.
By the time they got back to the herd, the downpour would wash all of their hands and clothes free of Sowersby blood.
Billy listened. And stared. And hated. And followed.
Later that morning, the men met up with the wagon train, and reported how successful they had been at procuring supplies from a local rancher. Dutch proudly displayed the donkey and the two pigs, along with two sacks of grain. The men’s foreman, a man named Gus, looked at them with suspicion and berated them for staying out all night.
“We shore as hell thought you two was both dead,” He told them. “Figured some redskin put a couple arrows up your asses.”
Dutch laughed and pointed at Stauffer. “Well, if that idjit hadn’t gotten thrown from his horse, we wouldn’t have had to make camp. But I bandaged him up pretty good.”
Billy wished the foreman would ask more questions, but he just looked at the men with disgust, and walked away.
Late that afternoon, as they passed the cabin, the rains had slowed to a trickle, but a heavy fog hung in the valley. The foreman said he’d never seen such a fog in this part of the Great Basin. Billy saw Dutch and Stauffer glance at each other, and then both looked away.
Billy walked forlornly behind the herd, which trailed the wagons. As they passed through the valley, he looked up towards the foothills. Dutch was right. He could see nothing through the mist and rain. But he could still see the two murderers through the fog, riding at the back of the herd, watching for strays, and looking up the hill as they passed. He watched them, and felt more hate than he had ever experienced.
The wagon train passed out of the small valley, driving their herd of cattle. And Billy Travers followed.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.