The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.5: The Cabin

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

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August 25, 1857

When his ghostly body reassembled back at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, Billy was overwhelmed with a physical agony far worse than any he had ever experienced; either in his life, or since his death. And long after the physical pain had faded, his mental anguish lingered, and he felt himself wallowing in a sea of despair that relentlessly tried to claim him and drag him under. His sanity was precarious, but he didn’t care. In those hours after his return, he felt that madness was perhaps the only escape he could ever achieve from his unrelenting despair and loneliness.

He hoped he would go mad. But he didn’t.

Hours later, looking out at the city below him and the shimmering Oquirrh Mountains far to the west, he came to an inevitable conclusion.

I need to find my parents.

Frances was dead. All the Sowersbys were dead, and he knew no one else in the Utah territory. There was nothing to hold him here. His parents would have reached California weeks ago, and hopefully by now his father had established his ranch and was building the life that he had promised to him and his mother. He knew it could take him months or years to find them. But that didn’t matter. He literally had all the time in the world.

Having a goal and a reason to go on helped Billy to battle back the despair that was assaulting his mind. And when his strength was back, he stood.

Without looking back, he trudged to the West.

The walking was slow, and Billy still had the impatience of the living, and of the young. Eventually he broke into a trot, and was surprised to find that, even at a moderate pace, he did not feel winded from the effort. Pushing his limits he broke into a run, and in no time he was zooming through the streets of Salt Lake City faster than any stagecoach, faster perhaps than even a man on a swift horse! The sensation was unlike anything he had ever imagined, and he was soon passing the covered wagons that were heading west out of the city, exhilaration coursing through him and feeling truly alive again for the first time since his death.

He ran through the night, passing an occasional campfire in the plains and mountains that extended around the Great Salt Lake. And the morning found him descending the last range of hills between Salt Lake City and what would eventually become the state of Nevada. In front of him lay the endless expanses of the Bonneville Salt Flats—the remnants of an ancient inland sea, now gashed and rutted with the passing of thousands of wagons and horses. He knew from stories his father told that it was more than sixty miles across the Flats, at which point he’d climb into the first low mountain ranges of the Great Basin, each parallel range separated by miles of featureless sagebrush.

Feeling stronger than ever, he raced across those sixty miles, dreaming of the land of California, as his father had described it to him on so many nights in Missouri.

As night fell, he saw the outlines of the far mountains, rolling gently away from the white salt upon which he ran. He saw the wagon tracks converging as the salt became more firm under their wheels, all leading toward a point in the far foothills. He was nearing the end of the Salt Flats at the very moment the sun fell below the far horizon in the West.

 Just as he was about to cross the last stretch of white sand, it hit him again.

He knew instantly what it was. This was the same feeling of being torn apart, of shattering, that he had felt as he leapt toward the vomiting figure of the Dutchman, far to the south. But this time, the agony hit him far harder and faster than it had in the south. This time, the wrenching sensation was instant agony, as if he had just run through a net of fish hooks that had torn all the flesh from his bones. The feeling was so sudden and so excruciating that he didn’t even have time to slow, let alone stop. His bodily momentum carried him past the same barrier he had encountered in the south, and all he could do was scream out a curse he had only heard his father utter once, when he’d nearly lost a thumb to the blade of a plow.

“No! You goddamn son of a…”

And Billy was gone. As before, he was simply there one second, and in the next, the desert winds were scattering the shards of his shattered body over the evening sands.

Back at his death site, he finished the expletive, as his body reassembled itself in the night. “…son of a bitch!” he screamed. And then continued screaming, as piece by piece, he was reassembled in the rocks and sagebrush of the peaceful foothills.

As low as he had fallen, Billy could not believe that there was further yet to fall.

The night after his return was by far the most miserable Billy had ever spent. It was so dark and hopeless that it drained him of everything. Every thought, every dream, his belief in God, and even his desire to survive, leached out of him and into the rocks and sagebrush of the Wasatch. What was left of him, lying in the dirt, was the empty shell of Billy Travers. It was a shell that no one he knew would have recognized. Even his own mother wouldn’t have recognized the blank, expressionless face that gazed up at the whirling stars.

And in his emptiness, Billy Travers felt a tug.

It blossomed like a rose in his mind, and he sat up in the rocks. He rubbed his face in his hands, but the tug remained. It was at his left temple, and it wanted him to turn his face in that direction. As he did, the tug whirled around and was suddenly in his forehead, so strong now that he actually lost his balance, and fell heavily on his face.

Pulling up on his hands and knees, Billy stared into the night. He knew where the tug wanted him to go. It was the barren land far to the south, where the entire Sowersby family had been murdered, exactly three nights ago.

“Mattie…” Billy said aloud.

He knew it was Mattie he felt, but how he knew, he could not say. He did not see her face or hear her voice. But he felt her presence, all the same. His mind wanted to believe it was Frances, that God had returned the girl he loved to him. But that tug in his mind was unmistakable. It was Mattie. And intuitively he knew what it meant.

Mattie Sowersby had returned to the world of the living, exactly as Billy had.

“Princess!” he cried out. And then again, “Princess, Princess, Princess!”

That tug was life where before there had been nothing but death. That tug meant he was not alone. His family was locked away from him, and Frances was dead, never to return. But someone he loved had returned. The strange little girl who had looked on him with such reverence and affection. The little girl who looked shyly away whenever he called her “Princess,” but whose smile showed that she secretly loved the name. Somehow, fate had deemed that she should return. God was providing Billy with another living soul to relieve his loneliness.

He felt overwhelming love for the little girl, so intense that tears began streaming down his face.

Billy stumbled to the south, his body still aching from his latest reset. His gait was unsteady, but as long as he was moving; as long as he kept that tug firmly in the center of his forehead, Billy had hope.

When he arrived at the Sowersby homestead two days later, he expected to find a burned-out shell. But he found the cabin was mostly intact. The rains had stopped the fire, and although the door and exterior walls were charred, they remained solid to his touch.

The murderers had been sloppy in their haste.

The tug toward Mattie had built and built while he journeyed south, until when he arrived at the cabin, it suddenly concentrated into a tiny flame, as if Mattie’s presence had lit a candle in the darkness of his mind.

Mattie was there. He could sense her, inside the cabin. Her soul had been torn from her body, and just like him, for three days the Vastness had embraced her. And then she was coughed up back here, in the exact spot where her life had been taken.

It had now been five days since the murders, and the cabin had remained undiscovered in all that time. It had baked in the scorching sun, and already Billy could smell the putrefaction and decay that was coming from inside. Four bodies were in that tiny cabin. Four bodies that were quickly becoming rancid and full of rot and decay. Flies were buzzing around a blackened window with a tiny hole, and Billy knew they had already found their way to the rotting bodies. They had laid their eggs in the eyes and noses and wounds of the corpses, and their maggots had already been born.

The inside of the cabin would be a nightmare of death, darkness, and the stench of decay.

Billy tried helplessly to break into the cabin. Knowing Mattie was inside that horror, he was desperate to rescue her. He didn’t know if she could sense him with the same certainty that he sensed her, but if she could, he wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone. The idea of her spending days trapped in that cabin with the decaying bodies of her parents and her sister…

If she wasn’t already mad, she would be soon.

“Princess!” he screamed, and battered himself against the walls of the cabin. But like all solid things in the ghost world, he had no ability to move them. Even just prying up a single board would give Mattie a route to escape. But he could neither move those boards, nor get any reply to his screams.

A dreadful silence emanated from the cabin. He knew she was there, and now he sensed that her mind was terrified, screaming, fragile. She had always been a strange little girl, but no matter how quiet and thoughtful she may have been, no mind could survive the horror of being locked in a dark and half-burned cabin with the rotting bodies of the only people she had loved in the world.

If only I could get inside…

Remembering the rain, he knew it was possible. His body had allowed the rain to pass through him as if it was no more substantial than a dream. Why, then, couldn’t his body now pass through the cabin wall with that same ease?

Billy took a deep breath, calmed his mind, and stepped through the wall of the cabin.

What assaulted him was every bit the horror he had envisioned. Not only were the bodies bloated and writhing with maggots, but somehow tiny animals had found a crawl hole, and they had ravaged the bodies before the meat had become too rotten even for the scavengers.

And he sensed Mattie. She was there, in the cabin, cowering in terror.

But he could not see her!

He reached out and stumbled in the darkness, hoping to encounter her, but soon realized that wherever she was, whatever she was, his hands would never find her. She was invisible, and she was as insubstantial as the smell of rot and ruin in the air. Although her presence was as real as anything he had ever known, to his eyes and to his hands, the cabin was empty of everyone except the bodies of the dead.

Each time he followed the flickering candle in his head and thought he was close to where in the cabin the little girl had hidden, the screaming in his mind became louder. And he realized that his presence there, if she could feel it, was actually contributing to her terror, rather than calming her.

Finally, Billy feared for his own sanity in the dark cabin, and stumbled his way back outside, where night had fallen. He knelt in the dust, his ghost body trying to retch and purge itself of the horror, but to no avail.

He did not enter the cabin, ever again.

Buzzards visited the next morning, attracted to the smell of decay. But finding no way in, they eventually departed. Even a wolf nosed around at the edges of the homestead. But the animal sensed the horror that was unfolding, and would not come closer.

And the days piled onto each other like the bodies of the dead.

For three weeks, Billy stood vigil. He saw horses and even a few wagon trains pass in the valley below. But none of them did more than glance at the burned out cabin on the hillside. And as the weeks unfolded, the presence he once called Mattie passed from terror into madness. Billy would lay his cheek against the burned frame of the house, trying to send calmness and comfort to the little girl. But every time he thought she might sense him, the rush of terror and madness from inside the cabin grew stronger.

 Billy imagined it all vividly: Perhaps Mattie did not even realize that she was dead. All she would know was the horror of the rotting bodies, and the certainty that she could never escape. All she could do would be to witness their rot, along with the decay of her own sanity. Billy could imagine the journey, which would begin with revulsion and then turn to fascination as her madness deepened. He could picture her throwing herself against the walls that, although they were fragile and nearly burned through, would feel to her like the stone walls of a slot canyon.

And through it all, the shreds of her mind would unravel.

The beautiful late summer sky during those three weeks was in stark contrast to the horror that was unfolding in the cabin. The sun beat down on the homestead, and the sound of the cicadas whirred in the sweltering summer air.

Billy still longed to lose his mind, and at one point he felt that if he just stared into the sun long enough, God would release him from this vigil, and take him home.

It was on the twenty-third day after Billy’s return to Round Valley that the cabin was finally discovered.

Ironically, it was another wagon train, which unaccountably sent a small group up to examine the burned out cabin, perhaps hoping that they would find some abandoned supplies they could take on their journey south. They approached the cabin, but realized quickly that the residents were still inside. With great fear and trepidation, they broke through the half-burned door.

The sunlight pouring into the cabin revealed a scene out of Dante.

The heat inside was like an oven, and the smell that leaped out upon the men was enough to cause all three to stumble into the bushes and vomit. Slowly they returned, holding their shirt collars and neckerchiefs over their faces, to look through the broken door upon the horrors the cabin held. None of them had the courage to venture inside. Billy saw one man make the sign of the cross and then fall to his knees to pray. The other two looked away, and no words were spoken between them for a very long time.

And Billy sensed Mattie emerge into the sunlight.

As he later explained it to Richard, he knew Mattie couldn’t see him, and he still could not see her. But despite that, the two of them stood facing each other, only two feet apart. Each felt as if they were staring into empty space. And yet they both knew for certain that the other was there.

The madness radiating from Mattie broke Billy’s heart, and he wept. Her broken mind was like a burning red fire in his forehead, and her madness hung invisibly in the air all around them.

He croaked out the beloved nickname he had given the little girl.

“Oh, Princess…” he said.

As they stood, just feet apart, the settlers tried to decide what to do. Billy may have heard their conversation, but none of it registered. All he could do was weep and stare into the empty space, where he could feel Mattie staring back at him.

Before the settlers left they rekindled the fire. They waited until the cabin was burning brightly before slinking away. Perhaps they feared that if the Mormons discovered the scene, they would blame the closest outsiders, and take their revenge upon them. Best, they thought, to finish what the Indians had undoubtedly begun.

After a time, with the cabin still burning behind them and the sun winking out over the horizon, Mattie and Billy both walked away. They walked together, north toward Salt Lake City. Mattie’s ghost was clearly mad—and worse, Billy could now sense that there was a hatred growing in her. He was overwhelmed with a feeling of compassion and a heart so broken all he could do was walk silently behind the little girl. And wait for whatever was to come next.

He knew now that his life had purpose. One that would follow him for the better part of the next century and a half. He was to stay with Mattie, and if possible, one day, he must help her find her way back from the madness that had engulfed her.

The two of them wandered north through the sagebrush. Together, and yet very alone.

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.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

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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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