Black Sunday



Caroline peered through the windowpane then soothed the kitten in her arms.
“Light don’t get passed the window sill, Tabby. This weird blackness. It jest gobbles it up. It’s something evil.”
A deep metallic crash rang above the shrieks of the gale. The cat bristled and dug its claws into her overalls. Around them, the tired old farmhouse creaked and shuddered. Overhead, ceiling beams groaned.
She retreated to her rocking chair and pulled a quilt around her shoulders. The oil lamp beside her glowed red through a thick haze, illuminating a stack of letters. In an inkwell next to it, dust floated on the surface of the liquid.
A coughing fit ripped through her. As it ended, she fell back, exhausted.
She revived as a swirl of dust, which nearly obscured the Big Chief Notepad on her lap, blasted from beneath the bolted kitchen door. She squeezed the tears from her eyes and wiped the paper with her sleeve. With an unsteady hand, she lifted her ink pen to scratch out the remainder of what would be her final letter.

… Remember those that came before us, Katy. Those that crossed the ocean, the mountains, and the plains. They had fight. Had to. In their time, jest living was hard. So was dying. But they tamed the land. Made a new nation. Imagine. Our folks was part of that, child. Back then, all they had was the Good Lord and the fight He put in them. We must do our part too, for from those that He blessed with much, much is expected. I’ll tell you about us, Katy.
Tried to be like my pa. He was a big man. Strong like the Tetons. Said he got his strength from the Good Book. He fought blizzards, blight, and locusts. Finally, the injun war drove us out of Wyoming. But, it weren’t in him to quit. He wouldn’t be broke.
Seemed we rode forever ‘cross that prairie by mule wagon clear to Oklahoma Territory. There was twisters and wolves and buffalo herds as far as you could see. Stopped next to a reservation. Seemed there was some “Unassigned Land” the government wanted to get rid of. Remember it like it was yesterday.
Was the day after Easter, 1889. We lined up along with Pa’s brothers and a string of maybe sixty thousand other folks stretching out thirty miles, all excited. What a sight. There was horses, buggies, prairie schooners, mules, wagons with oxen, and folks on foot. Got a chuckle at a bowler-hatted dude on one of them bicycles with the big front wheel.
Mounted Cavalrymen spaced their selves in a line facing us so’s no one could get a jump on the others. At noon, the bugle sounded.
“Yee-haw!”
“Gid-up!”
“Go, mule!”
We was off. Scared horses screamed and reared. We raced ‘cross that prairie. On and on we bumped. Finally, we stopped at a real pretty place, all lush and green. Right off, Pa and the uncles rushed to stake out quarter sections next to each other. So’s together, we had a whole section.
Pa wiped his face with his bandana and grinned at the uncles. “Let’s share the work, brothers. Make our improvements at the center corners. Build the Soddy on my land, the barn on Jed’s, and the stables on Chad’s. Your land looks promising for the well, Jeth.”
Some folks weren’t honest. Tried to jump other folks’ claims. Come to our place one night.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Scared us half to death.
“Land sakes, what’s happened!” Ma dropped the water bucket.
Pa grabbed the shotgun over the door and ran outside.
Bam! Bam!
Dogs barked. Horses screamed. Hoof beats raced passed the Soddy.
Pa and Uncle Chad burst through the door carrying Uncle Jed. His leg bled bad. Pa’s face scared me. Never saw him so mad.
“They got Jed’s horse,” he said. “Jeth’s gone for the neighbors.” He reloaded the shotgun, filled his pockets with shells, and grabbed a rope. “We’ll get them polecats.”
Ma tended Uncle Jed. My, how he hollered! Pa rode up at noon the next day with Uncle Jed’s horse. I raced out to meet him.
“What happened, Pa?” I asked. He ruffled my hair and went inside to kiss Ma. Never would say what happened.
No crop that first year. So, all that bitter cold winter we ate only pumpkins. Were mighty grateful next spring when Ma’s kitchen garden come in, and we got some chicks and a milk cow.
Town of Guthrie growed-up over night right near us. Got my schooling there. Learned to read and cipher. Ma looked so proud rocking by the fire, mending in her lap, while I read the Good Book to her. Learned all about how folks come to this land for freedom, too. Learned how all folks are important. So, even common folks like us, providing they work hard, can get to be president. Imagine that!
Life was good there in the old days, but Pa said he was feeling cramped. He sold out to Uncle Jed and bought two sections near Boise City. Put in wheat, sorghum, maize, and broom corn. Run a few head of cattle too.
We all worked hard on the place. Looked forward to Sundays at church, barn raisings, and spelling bees. Girls my age started getting engaged. So, there was quilting bees, parties, and weddings.
Guess I was too big for my britches. I looked over the boys real good. Thought they was all pretty poor quality. But, all that changed one night.
First I seed of Franklin Pierce Pettigrew was at a box social at Preacher Pettigrew’s. He’d breezed in from Texas on horseback. And my! From his Stetson to his boots, he looked mighty fine. Had a sassy smile that shivered my heart. But, oh was he a wild one. Next day he come a calling without asking! Pa like to run him off the place. Didn’t see him again ‘til three months later at the church ice cream social.
He swaggered up to me all sassy, tipped his hat, and said, “Howdy, Miss Caroline. Betcha missed me something awful.”
“Didn’t know you was gone!”
He squinted his eyes, crossed his arms, and leaned against a cottonwood, looking me up and down. “Bin down to Texas. Sold my land. Come and bought nine hundred acres offen the Widow Baker. Sears and Roebuck will deliver my house this week.” Then he grinned. “Soon’s I get it together, you can move right in.”
Jest like that! Oh, the cheek of that man. Had a mind to slap his face―ceptin’ I saw the other girls peeking at him all a twitter. Three weeks later, we was married. And, for all our thirty-three years, had no cause to fret.
Oh, we had our good years and bad same as other folks. But, taking the whole, we was better off than most. Remember that crop back in 1919. Looked like 30 bushels an acre. Then like an army come the hoppers. Was like something out of the Bible. Buildings in the way, they’d march right over. Billions of them. In 24 hours, every green thing was gone. Why, they even ate the handles off the pitchforks.
Raised us three fine younguns. Frank, Jr. stayed on the place. Our little Janey she married a good man, your daddy Dan Workman, and moved to California. Your Aunt Mary was our smart one. Sent her off to one of those fancy eastern colleges. Worked for that Speaker John Tilson and now, President Roosevelt hisself. Says farmers will get “relief” soon. Course, most’d sooner die than take a handout. A lot of folks round here sold their cattle to the government rather than see them starve. Government shot and buried them. Don’t seem right with little one’s crying with hunger.
When my Frank passed, Doc said it was the silicosis. But, I think it was a broken heart. After they found Frank, Jr., he hardly never spoke no more. Four days after our boy went missing, Sheriff Conners come to the house. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Pettigrew,” he says. “Near as we can figure, Frank, Jr. got caught out. Static from the duster must’ve stalled the truck. Looks like he lit out for shelter at the Parker’s place. We found him lying in a field. Dust choked.”
I like to died that day. But, the Good Lord got me through. Dust’s carrying off lots of folks these days.
After Frank was gone, it was jest me. Mary and your Ma got their heads together.
“Mama, please,” Mary said, “it’s time to sell out. I’d love to have you with me in Washington. Or, you can go to California with Jane and her family.”
“Mama,” Jane said, “you can’t stay here all alone.”
“You mean well, daughters,” I said. “But, I can’t leave the land. It’s part of me.”
Lord knows I’ve sucked up enough of it. Hired me a couple tenant farmers and drilled some wheat.
Gale come and blowed the seed right out of the soil. What puny stuff did come up, wind chopped even with the ground. Then it took the roots, the topsoil, and the subsoil clear down to the hardpan. Me and the hired hands listed and ridged day and night trying to keep the land from crawling. But, weren’t no use. Terrible. County went from $700,000 in wheat in 1930 to zero in 1934.
Least your Grampa didn’t get carried away in the bumper years and mortgage our land for machinery, Katy. Thems that did now face foreclosure. Wish it would rain and somebody would pass a law to stop this old Depression.
You shoulda seen the big meteor that streaked across the sky last spring.
“It’s and omen!” folks said.
“The dusters are a judgment!” the preachers said. They started folks praying for rain in shifts.
Lungs feel like there’s fire in me. Can’t stop hacking up mud. Started last week at the picture show, that Bright Eyes with Shirley Temple. Doc says, “Stop breathing the dust.” But, how?”
Dust drifts as high as the fence posts. It’s jest like talcum. Any breath starts it a swirling. Sealed the windows with tape, and during dusters, I hang wet sheets over them and the doors. Still comes in. Usually a quarter inch on everything. Air gets so thick inside, I sweep it with a wet gunnysack.
Never been so scared as tonight. Day started out nice and pretty. After church, it was clear and near ninety degrees. ‘Bout 5:00, it got unnatural quiet. Noticed hundreds of jackrabbits running for their lives. Flocks of birds flew overhead all hurried. In no time, the temperature dropped forty degrees. I slammed the barn door shut, tied off the windmill, and scampered to the house jest in time.
A duster, miles wide and more than a mile high come rolling in all of fifty miles an hour. Looked like a oil fire ‘cept had dirt boiling off the ground, climbing clear up to the crest, then tumbling down to the ground like one of them tidal waves I heared about. Hit the place roaring like a steam engine…

A hurricane force gust slammed into the house. With creaks and a crash, the porch roof tore away. The cat hissed and Caroline held her close.
“Oh, Tabby, surely the Judgment’s come. I’m trembling scared. Look. The dust’s coming in drifts across the floor. And the wind. It wails and screeches like the devil’s in it. The dirt beats the windows bad. Surely, they’ll break. Air’s so thick, can’t see.”
Overhead, the beams squealed, cracked, and gave way. A torrent of dust spilled into the room.
“Oh, Lord. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe!”

***
“Mama, dear,” Jane said as she adjusted Caroline’s pillow, “you must stop fretting and rest. That cough is tearing you apart and you are burning with fever. When Doc lets you out of the hospital, you are coming home with us. I’m sorry we didn’t come as soon as the migrants said how bad things are.”
Dan Workman leaned over the bedrail. “Mother Pettigrew, you will like our ranch. It’s warm and clean and there are sweet smelling orange groves for as far as you can see. There’s nothing left here. The duster smashed the grain bins and collapsed the barn. The cow’s dead. Windmill’s ruined. Equipment’s buried. The house’s roof caved and there’s an eight-foot drift against the north wall. We had to dig to get in the south door.” He squeezed her calloused hand. “I promise. You’ll love California.”
“Dan,” Jane said, “please come with me to sign some papers.”
A twelve-year-old boy moved to the hospital bed. Caroline’s eyes brightened.
“Danny. You’re near growed. Soon you’ll be as big as my pa. My, you have a smile jest like your Grampa Frank.”
“Don’t be sad, Gramma. When the rains come, you can come back, and I’ll come with you.”
A smile spread over Caroline’s face. “You’re right, Danny. I’ll see me that ocean and them movie stars. Then when the rains come and the Depression goes, me and you will dig things out and grow fifty bushels an acre. Why, Lord willing, we’ll help feed the whole world.”

End


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