August 25, 1857
Trudging south from Round Valley in the pouring rain, Billy was more forlorn than he had been at any point in his life, or even in the months since his death. Everything in the world had turned gray the moment the old man with the knife had killed his beloved wife.
No, Frances wasn’t my wife. I have to stop pretending that she was.
Billy knew he had to fight the despair, the loneliness, and the desire to retreat into fantasy. If he didn’t his mind would likely snap, and then what would happen to him? He would become just an empty shell, wandering the earth forever, unable to bear his life, and yet also unable to die. The prospect of living forever in such a damned state was enough to force him to hang on to the shreds of his sanity.
As he walked, rain poured down on the world. It was gray, roaring, and relentless. All he could see as they departed Round Valley were the ghostly images of the horses, cows, and wagons in the downpour, drained of all color like an underexposed daguerreotype. The cowboys hunched miserably over their horses, and the settlers peered out at the torrent from within the shelter of their wagons.
It took a moment for Billy to realize it, but he was standing in the rain. And that knowledge crashed in upon him with such force that he stopped dead in his tracks.
He had only experienced rain once since he had died. It had been a dry summer in Utah, but one day, shortly after they had arrived in Round Valley, a storm had rolled through. Laughing, Frances had retreated to the wagon. He had joined her there, while her father and the work crew from Salt Lake City continued to work on the cabin, despite the storm. Mattie had been in the wagon as well, and the two girls had laughed and talked as the rain pounded relentlessly upon the canvas.
Without thinking, Billy had extended his hand out the back of the wagon, wanting to feel the rain on his skin.
Instead, it felt like he had placed his hand into a meat grinder.
With a scream he had pulled his hand inside, expecting to see it mangled and torn. And although it looked just fine in the dim light of the overcast day, it took many long minutes of agony before the pain quieted enough for him to stop screaming.
Ever since that day, he had avoided the rain in terror. But now, in his anger and despair, he had forgotten about what rain could do. Now, as he stared at his hand, he realized the drops were passing through him as if they were no more substantial than light. His hand was shimmery and tingly with the sensation, and his entire body was vibrating with the feeling.
Something in me has… shifted, he thought.
As the Fancher train crept slowly south, his despair ebbed—transmuting itself into something else. Like the alchemists who claimed to turn lead into gold, Billy’s hopelessness boiled down, concentrating and transforming into something new. It was as if the rain was sluicing the silt away, the way it would when panning for gold. What was left behind was the distilled essence of his fury.
It was the pure gold of revenge.
Grain by grain, he stowed that gold away, feeling the weight of it grow in his chest.
That evening, after the rains had stopped, they made camp in a broad plain. The air felt washed and renewed, revealing a sunset that lit up the sky in fiery towers of red and orange. The Sowersbys and their ranch were far behind them, and as the evening glow faded, Billy realized it had been less than a day since Dutch and Stauffer had murdered his family.
Now that the rain had stopped, and they’d made camp for the night, he watched in misery as Dutch carved up the two pigs they had stolen, using the same knife he’d used to slaughter the Sowersbys. Stauffer took most of the meat around to the various cooking fires that the settlers had kindled that night, but the foreman insisted they keep a few of the best cuts for the cowhands.
As Dutch and Stauffer ate together later that evening, the foreman they called Gus approached their fire, carrying his tin plate and gnawing on a pork rib. The trail boss looked around to make sure they were alone before finally speaking.
“Damn, Dutch,” Gus said, “I never thought you were the right man to be meeting the locals. Being that you’re such an ornery old cuss. But I have to admit, whatever you said to get those farmers to give you those hogs and all that grain… Well, let’s just say you done good. I hereby apologize for at least some of the bad things I’ve said about you.”
“Thanks, Boss,” Dutch said with a laugh, and Billy saw a look pass between him and Stauffer. “But it was ‘George’ here that did most of the talking.”
The foreman looked at them both, and the sudden flash of anger in his eyes was apparent. He glanced around to make sure they were alone before pointing an angry finger at the younger man. “God dammit, Stauffer, didn’t I tell you to lay low? What the hell were you thinking, talking to a settler? They could have been told to look for you!”
“Sorry, boss,” Stauffer said, his eyes downcast and his voice low. “It was kind of an accident. We didn’t intend to run across nobody, and then it just… kind of happened.”
Gus glared at the pair for a moment, before finally biting off another piece of the pork. “Well, I guess it all ended up okay. But don’t think you’re out of the woods yet. I mean it, Stauffer. You lay low. Understand? Between here and the Meadows, you stay close to the herd. No more scouting.”
“Yes, sir.” the younger cowboy said, and took a spoonful of beans.
The trail boss just nodded, and the trio ate in silence for a few minutes.
Dutch looked down at Stauffer’s plate, which was all beans and a couple biscuits. “Hey, George, don’t you want any pork?” There was a smirk on the old man’s face that made Billy cringe.
“No thanks. Not that much of a fan of pork, I guess.” Stauffer said.
Gus looked at the pair, and his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Finally, he just grunted and walked away into the darkness.
Billy spent a miserable night, sitting by the fire as it slowly dwindled to coals, and then went out. In the dark, he nursed his rage, and felt it growing.
In the morning, while Dutch was off filling up their canteens for the day, Billy watched as Gus rode up on his horse and pulled Stauffer aside. The look in the eyes of the boss told Billy that he hadn’t bought any of Dutch’s story the night before, about how they had gotten the hogs and the grain. Billy stepped closer to listen.
“Now you tell me the truth, Stauffer, and you tell it plain,” Gus said, leaning down to where the younger man stood. “What the hell happened when you idiots were out night before last? I don’t believe a word of what that bastard Dutch says.”
“Tell him!” Billy yelled at the backout, just inches from his face. “Tell him you and Dutch killed a family! My family! Tell him you murdered my wife!”
“Well, Gus, you know I ain’t got no love for Dutch either,” Stauffer said, with his eyes focused on a point in the distance. “He’s a blackguard, if ever I met one, but…” and he took a big breath before continuing. “There really ain’t much to tell. It’s like Dutch said. We just ran across this farmer. He took us back to his ranch and then gave us the grain and the hogs. He didn’t even want nothing. ‘Christian Charity’ he called it.”
Stauffer was looking at the ground now and wasn’t meeting the foreman’s eyes.
“‘Christian Charity,’ eh?” Gus said, clearly unconvinced. “Uh huh.” He just stared at Stauffer until the man finally straightened his spine. “Christian Charity from the Mormons, when they’re getting all het-up for war.”
The backout paused for two heartbeats before answering. And he refused to meet the eyes of the trail boss. “I gotta get to work, Mr. Humphries. Lots of strays to round up before we hit the trail.” And just like that, without another word, he walked away.
Billy stared at the foreman for a long time, trying to discern in his eyes whether he suspected what horrors those two men had perpetrated in the hours they had been gone. And although Gus stared at Stauffer’s retreating back for a very long time, try as he might, Billy couldn’t get into the man’s head.
His fury boiling over, he pulled back a fist and slammed it as hard as he could into Gus Humphries’s face. He thought he felt the bones in his hand crack, like he had just punched a brass statue, and he howled and clasped his hand to his belly. But the man never flinched. As Billy knelt moaning in the dust, Gus mounted his horse and they sauntered away into the brush.
That afternoon, the weight that Billy carried finally grew too heavy.
After a morning of walking behind the wagon train as it headed south, he felt like his whole body was on fire. All his rage had concentrated down to its essence, and what was left was a hot, calculating, and overwhelming need to destroy the two men who had killed the Sowersby family. And although his burning desire was to see them both dead, his first focus was wholly on Dutch—the man who had driven that filigreed knife blade through Frances’ ribs and pierced her heart.
In the afternoon he caught the old man alone, doing his business in the bushes. Billy wailed on him with his fists and kicked at the man’s crouching form as he shat into a clump of sagebrush. But the punching and the kicking had no more effect with Dutch than it had with Gus that morning. And even with the boot to protect his right foot, the incident ended with Billy howling in pain until the bones he felt shatter in his foot could mend themselves.
He realized he could never beat these men to death the way they deserved. And that knowledge did nothing but make the weight that he carried grow heavier.
That afternoon, in the blazing summer sun, Billy walked behind Dutch, who trotted slowly along with the placid herd. He stared at the man’s back, willing him to die. He stared until his eyes hurt, and his rage burned with a brilliant white intensity.
It was then that Billy’s rage became a weapon he could no longer control.
How he knew what to do would always be a mystery. But it felt as if the need for revenge grew so strong that it actually extended from his body like the hairy legs of a spider. And as he felt those invisible limbs of hate writhing in the sun, he suddenly knew that he didn’t need to strike at Dutch to kill him.
He could kill him with his hate alone.
He could simply walk up to Dutch, and his venom alone would be enough to make his heart stop. Billy knew he could simply will the man to die, and he would fall lifeless into the dust at the feet of his horse.
Leaping up on the horse behind Dutch, he crouched on the animal’s hindquarters, like a succubus out of a biblical story. His boot and the toes of his bare foot gripped the animal’s hips.
And this time he didn’t strike at Dutch. But instead, just put his hands on each side of the man’s head. He felt his limbs of fury probing and reaching around the man like desperate claws.
As they walked slowly along with the cattle, Billy just hated Dutch. He loathed him and let that feeling grow until he thought it would consume them both. Then he pressed his hands harder against the old man’s temples and imagined him suffering. He imagined him writhing in pain the way that Frances had in the moments before she died. He imagined the man’s heart beating faster and faster, until it stuttered, and then just stopped. He imagined the blade of a knife, sinking slowly through the man’s back, until it’s point touched his heart… And then he pushed it in.
Still the cowboy rode, unaware of the storm of loathing and desperation that was engulfing him. But out of the corner of his eye Billy saw the cowboy take off one leather glove. With the other hand, he scratched absentmindedly at the back of his bare hand.
“Hey Dutch, you okay?” a rider shouted from across the backs of two nearby cows. “You’re looking a little green around the gills.”
“It’s probably that damn pork,” Dutch said. “I feel like I want to puke or something.”
Billy squeezed harder and poured all his animosity into the man.
“Hey George, look at Dutch,” the cowhand yelled to Stauffer. “Watch out, or you might get his puke on your shoes!”
“Shut up, Wofford!” Dutch shouted. “Or it will be your guts on your boots you’ll have to worry about!”
Billy saw the man scratch more vigorously at his hand and knew he was very near to achieving what he had wanted since the man drove his knife into Frances’s back. He was very near to giving this monster exactly what he deserved.
And later, he believed he would have. If he had not been interrupted, he would have simply been able to push that imaginary blade further into the man’s back, and eventually, it would have stopped his beating heart. He imagined the feeling of watching him fall like a sack of potatoes into the dirt at his horse’s feet. He imagined the elation he would feel at seeing Dutch dead, and the other cowhands gathering around to look at his wide-eyed corpse.
But that wasn’t what happened.
As Dutch’s horse kept walking south, Billy suddenly felt a wrenching, tearing sensation that made his body feel as if it was on fire. It was as if every cell was preparing itself to burst. All those spider limbs flailed in the air, and then they were gone, either retreating into Billy, or just dissolving like smoke in the wind.
He collapsed off Dutch and off the horse, landing in a heap in the dust. Writhing and panting, he stumbled to his feet, and instantly backed up a few steps. The wrenching sensation abated, but still tingled in him like a cougar ready to pounce at any second.
Dutch’s horse had taken just two steps further south, and Billy could see the man, now hunched in the saddle, clearly in distress. He had been so close to killing the monster, and his anger at being stymied in that goal was like a fire that burned at his back.
Stauffer had ridden up behind Dutch. Billy heard the man ask if he was okay, but he couldn’t tell what Dutch answered. But in the next moment Dutch was off his horse, and was on his hands and knees, vomiting into the sagebrush. Just a few feet from where Billy stood.
Billy rose and took a step forward. The tingling remnants of that wrenching sensation blossomed again. The agony roared through him and forced him to retreat a step. It was as if Dutch was now on the other side of an invisible wall, safe from his wrath. The wrenching sensation that stood between them felt like his own true death, finally coming to claim him. And although he wanted to retreat from it in terror, the need for revenge was even stronger.
If I need to die to take this monster with me, then so be it, he thought.
He heard Stauffer say, “Dutch, you look pale as a ghost.”
With one last roar, Billy launched himself at the Dutchman. He got five steps in, and was just about to touch the man’s back, when he shattered like glass, and then winked out of existence.
What Billy did not see, and would not know until many years later, was that just seconds after he disappeared, Dutch got to his feet. Perhaps it was because he had an instinct where his attacker had last stood. Or perhaps it was only because Stauffer was watching from his horse in that direction. But the murderer’s last choice changed everything.
Dutch drew his knife from its sheath and took six steps back toward the north, before pitching forward for the last time.
The Dutchman was dead, his knife still in his hand, stabbed into the dust of the Utah desert.
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.