June 16, 8:57 pm
As Richard fled from the body of Sutton Deary, he found himself airborne. But only for a moment. His heels struck the ground, and instantly he was falling backward and flailing, before crashing hard into the gravel floor of the wash. When he looked up, his feet were just inches from the old man on the ground, and Pil was crouched over his writhing body. The big man was still roaring in terrifying fury, and he had Sutton’s skull between his huge and powerful hands.
In contrast to Richard’s calm, which still lingered from the encounter in Deary’s mind, Pil was a flaming sun of rage. Richard realized that even though it had felt like several minutes that he was in Sutton Deary, here, it could not have been more than a second—two at the most. And in that brief span of time, Pil had begun to squeeze.
Chaos exploded all around Richard, and things were happening fast—too fast for him to keep track of, or react to. He still expected bullets to rip into Pil from the ghost in the soldier, but as he turned his head in a panic, he saw the army man was dying—face down against the embankment. Sutton’s wild shot when the tire iron hit his forearm must have flown past Pil’s temple and struck the soldier before he could get off a shot. He would be dead in seconds, if he wasn’t already.
A scream from Carla Grayson made Richard wrench his head around. The woman was rushing forward. She’d watched the crowbar fly through the air and saw it strike her beloved God, and then she’d seen Pil rise up like a furious bear. Now, she was in a panic.
“Keith!” Richard screamed, flopping over onto his belly and reaching one hand uselessly to his lover, a dozen yards away. He half expected to see Keith lying dead, but to his relief, he was still upright, still on his knees. He looked dirty and scraped, as if he had been pushed into the gravel, but he was trying to get to his feet, and the gag over his mouth was loose.
“Oh, thank God!” Richard stammered, his voice full of both hope and terror. He looked back at Pil, and saw that he had a bullet wound in his shoulder, and Richard knew instantly what had happened. When she saw Pil lunge at Sutton, rather than shooting Keith (as the Wanderer had instructed her to do) Mattie had taken a shot at the big man. It had hit him in the shoulder, but neither Pil nor Richard had felt it.
Maybe it was the impact of that bullet that threw me into Sutton’s head?
Carla Grayson was screaming now, pointing the gun at Pil, and repeatedly pulling the trigger. But no shots were being fired.
She’s out of ammunition, Richard realized.
Mattie knew it as well, and even as Richard was trying to climb to his feet, he saw the detective fumbling at the extra bullets that were in the belt around her waist. She would have the gun reloaded in a matter of seconds, and then Pil would be dead.
And Keith would be next.
Mattie got two bullets into the gun, but the air was thick now with Sutton’s screams. Pil was applying more and more pressure to the sides of his skull, and the man was clearly in excruciating agony. His arms were flailing and clawing at Pil, but they had no effect. Richard expected Mattie to bring the gun to the side of Pil’s head and fire.
What happened next, Richard didn’t understand.
“Dutch, no!” Billy screamed.
Richard had almost forgotten the boy was even there, but the shout caused his head to wrench around, and what he saw made no sense at all.
The ghost in the soldier had stepped free, rising like Lazarus as he abandoned the dying body. He was an old cowboy with a shimmering silver Bowie knife, and he was already rushing toward Carla Grayson. Billy was on his heels, screaming words that made no sense to Richard.
“I know you, you son-of-a-bitch! I know you! I remember what you did!”
Before he could make sense of Billy’s words, the old man shot past Richard, his knife gleaming. He dove knife-first into the detective and disappeared.
“Mattie! Watch out!” Billy screamed, uselessly. “It’s Dutch!”
Carla Grayson froze, almost as if she heard, or as if having the two demons inside her had turned her body to stone. Then, from deep in her throat, arose a wail that sounded as if it embodied all the hate and fury that the world had endured from time immemorial. The scream became so loud that Richard scrambled back in terror.
“I know you!” Carla Grayson screamed, her eyes attempting to roll back in her head. “I know you! You killed my parents! You fucker, you killed Frannie!”
The detective looked like a war was being fought inside her. She was waving the gun wildly in the air, as if the ghosts within were fighting over it, fighting for control. Both Billy and Richard stared, transfixed and helpless.
The setting sun was suddenly eclipsed by a shape that was rushing forward, down the slope of the embankment, as graceful and relentless as an onrushing mountain lion. As the sun winked out over the horizon, Richard recognized the face, distorted, but familiar.
It was Howard Gunderson.
“Howard, help!” Richard screamed, but the boy was already halfway to Carla. He saw what was happening, and he was intent on getting to the cop before Mattie—or the strange new ghost that was battling with her—could get control of the gun.
Howard Gunderson barreled into Carla Grayson’s right shoulder like a football tackle, and the two of them went sprawling to the ground, the gun tumbling into the dust at their feet. And the impact was so brutal that it dislodged one ghost from the woman. The old man with the knife lay in the dust, screaming obscenities, and Carla Grayson lay unconscious.
Richard’s gaze was drawn back to Pil when Sutton let out a strangled cry. The old man’s arms went rigid, his hands now quivering, misshapen claws against Pil’s forearms.
There was a crack that sounded like a tree branch breaking under heavy snow. And then blood flowed over Pil’s hands like lava. Sutton Deary’s final scream pierced the shadowy ravine, and then his skull gave way completely.
Richard saw the blood arc into the air from the gory mass that was Sutton Deary’s collapsed skull, coating Pil’s face and arms. The big man finally fell back.
Everything seemed to be in slow motion now.
Richard saw Howard get back to his feet. And in his hand was the tire iron he had flung at the Wanderer.
Then, over Howard’s shoulder, standing at the edge of the ravine, Richard saw her.
She must have been with Howard the whole time, guiding him to this place.
Sutton’s head was crushed, but his arms and legs were still twitching. As Richard stared, the dying man took a last, gurgling breath, and Pil crawled further back into the sand, next to Richard.
“Pil, look out!” Billy yelled.
The old cowboy with the knife dove toward Pil, releasing a screech that sounded like nails on a chalkboard. But he never reached the body he wanted to use. Howard turned, just in time, swinging the tire iron. He caught the thing in mid-air, like a batter catching a perfect pitch on the tip of his bat. The cowboy shattered and bits of him rained down over the body of his dying God.
Who was already splitting in two…
And then there was a strange old man lying in the dirt next to Sutton Deary. An old man in Goshute garb who trembled and writhed in agony. His clothes were stained with the blood of his murder, almost two centuries before. It was George Drouillard’s ghost, back in the Hereafter for the first time in more than a half century—and looking every bit as terrified and confused as he had in Richard’s vision.
Tuilla knelt down next to him and took his hand.
The empty shell of Sutton Deary let out his last, gurgling breath, and lay still.
And then a crack of thunder so powerful it felt as if it was shattering the deep blue of the evening sky shook the world—and the rock in the center of the wash suddenly crumbled into fragments. The dust settled among the shattered shards of stone, and Richard could see old white bones glistening in the fading light.
The most astounding sight of all was that where the stone used to stand, the air now shimmered, as if Richard were looking into the rising heat of a desert mirage. Around the edges of the shimmering air was a golden corona, that to Richard looked like some kind of garland, or perhaps Christmas lights, viewed through a soft-focus lens. And through it, Richard imagined he could see the faint shimmering of distant stars, and hear the roar of a lonely ocean.
It’s a kind of… portal… Richard thought. It’s here because the stone has been broken. Or maybe it’s here because Tuilla and Drouillard are together again. Perhaps that was always the true breach.Perhaps it wasn’t George Drouillard’s need for revenge that had warped the space between the living and the dead. Maybe it was his lost love. And if that was true, then reuniting them was what had healed that breach, and would allow them both to continue on their journey.
In awe, Richard looked around the wash. It was suddenly crowded with ghosts. The Goshute had returned. A dozen old men, women, and children were rising to their feet, arrayed around the shattered rock like a Greek chorus, gazing reverently at the breach that had opened up where the stone used to be. They all looked sad and tired, but their faces also glowed with hope, as if they had been waiting for this moment since their violent deaths in 1851.
Tuilla met Richard’s eyes. She was holding Drouillard’s ghostly body in her arms now, and he was weeping and clinging to her like a newborn baby.
“I have to take George on his way,” Tuilla said, her voice barely over a whisper. “He remembers me now. Thank you, Richard Pratt. I hope you find the peace you are looking for.”
Without another word, Tuilla helped Drouillard to his feet, and together they stepped into the shimmering air. The portal pulsed brighter as they faded from view, as if their life forces had given it fresh energy. The Goshute followed them, humming an old tribal song that Richard could not understand. Holding hands, they stepped into the shimmering air, one by one. The last was a young woman holding a child in her arms. The baby he had seen slaughtered on the sand in his vision. With a last smile to Richard, they stepped into the breach, and it instantly snapped shut behind them, and disappeared.
They were all gone. And the remnants of the strange thunder rippled outwards across the valley and faded.
“Keith!” Richard gasped, finally registering that his lover wasn’t dead. Keith was still kneeling in the dirt, just a dozen yards away. Richard was about to run to him when he saw that Carla Grayson had regained consciousness, and was now kneeling over the body of Sutton Deary. She was silent, and that fact frightened Richard more than anything. Anything, that is, except that he could see she now had the gun in her hand again.
Everyone was frozen, staring at her as she stood, her chest heaving, her grip on the gun so tight that it looked as if it might shatter in her hand. Her eyes were darting now between the three living people still standing in the ravine—the only three she could see. She pointed the gun at each of them in turn. First at Pil, lying on the ground. Then at Howard, a dozen feet away. Then at Keith, kneeling in the dust.
“Mattie, oh God no,” Billy said. “Please, no…”
Finally, it seemed she had decided. She pointed the gun at Pil, and her arm went rigid.
“Princess, stop,” Howard said, softly. But Richard knew she could not hear him.
Just as she was about to squeeze the trigger, an evil glint came into her eyes. Without a word, she lifted the gun from Pil and aimed it across the ravine.
“No…” Richard whispered. “Mattie, don’t. For the love of God, please don’t…”
She pulled the trigger.
The bullet struck Keith in the stomach, and knocked him back into the embankment, the blood blooming across his belly and pouring down into his lap.
It took a second for Keith to realize that he’d been shot, but then he wailed Richard’s name, and collapsed back into the dirt. Richard let out a scream of torment and despair as he saw Mattie now turning the gun down toward Pil. But the instant before the second shot, Howard was on her. He grabbed her wrist, and the last bullet fired harmlessly into the dirt next to Pil’s chest. Howard roared and smashed the tire iron into Carla Grayson’s jaw. And this time, the impact was strong enough, or Mattie was weak enough, that as Carla went to the ground, Mattie remained standing where the cop had been.
The little girl was a ghost once again, staring at them all with hatred so strong she looked as if she could burst into flames. Her eyes focused instantly on Richard.
“Fuck you, Richard Pratt! You horrible, horrible man! God has won! God always wins!” And she tipped back her head to laugh.
It was just the opportunity Howard needed.
Richard watched in awe as the boy leapt like a panther, his arm arcing through a high circle as if he was swinging a sledgehammer to drive a railroad spike. The blunt end of the weapon sliced through Mattie’s chest, and then into the ground, splitting the little girl right down the middle, all the way to the stones at her feet.
Mattie wailed as if she was a demon drawn from hell, and then shattered like glass.
Richard stumbled to his feet and ran toward Keith, but then realized that when he got there, he wouldn’t be able to do anything to help his wounded husband. So he turned, and in three great strides he dove back into Pil, possessing him instantly. He had the big man on his feet in seconds, and the two of them, as one, rushed to Keith.
It was hard to tell who was in control of Pil’s body now. They were one at that moment: two minds with the same goal. They pulled Keith into the enormous arms that they shared. Richard realized his husband was as weak and loose as a rag doll, and the wound in his belly looked terrifying. There was blood everywhere, and Keith’s breath was weak. But he was still conscious.
Richard kissed his lover, knowing it would be the last time he would ever do it. And even though it was not his lips that he was using to kiss the man that he loved, he felt Keith respond. And he felt Pil respond as well. Keith’s hands were still cuffed behind his back, but he leaned into that kiss, and then rested his head against Pil’s shoulder as they moaned and rocked him back and forth.
After a moment, Keith opened his eyes and gazed up at the face that was just inches from his own. He smiled, knowing at that instant that it was not just Pil that was holding him. But Richard as well.
“I love you… both…” Keith said, his voice weak and fading.
Richard and Pil cradled Keith’s head under their chin, and their wet eyes darted desperately around the ravine. Tuilla and Drouillard were gone. Howard was kneeling in the dust, cradling Carla, who was gasping for breath and holding what looked like a broken jaw. Billy was standing apart, shocked and helpless.
The anguish in Richard’s heart was so relentless that he longed for the world to end. He sensed Keith falling away into the darkness, and he wished he could follow him. Even if it meant immersing himself in the Void once again. The pain of living and of loss was just too intense for any mind to endure and stay sane.
“Billy, I can’t…” Richard wailed, reaching a huge, bloody hand toward his friend.
The thunder finally trembled out of the sky.
Richard felt himself fading, and knew instantly that he was being reset. And without warning, he was ejected from Pil, and felt himself impact the hard ground at the man’s side. In his last seconds Richard looked up. Billy was still there, but he too was dissolving slowly, watching himself become translucent, watching the shards of his ghostly body come apart. He reached a hand out to Richard and tried to open his mouth to speak. But then he was gone. Richard looked up to see Pil holding Keith. He was weeping, and he caught Richard’s eye one last time, with a look that was dark and unreadable.
Richard reached a hand toward Pil and his dying lover, still locked in an embrace that would never again be his, and the pain was worse than he could imagine. The agony of his shattered heart passed into every cell of his body, which was already crumbling.
“Not now!” he screamed. And strangely, the voice of a terrified and quivering old man filled his mind. It brought with it one last gift, and Richard took it.
I remember everything, the Wanderer had said. And, oh God, it’s… beautiful!
And then Richard Pratt was gone.
Sutton Deary’s body cooled in the twilight. The shattered stone lay silent, and the bones beneath it had fallen into shadow.
The sun had set.
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.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.