by Andrew Penn Romine
His wiry partner, bored, draped himself across the bench seat beside Webster, houndstooth jacket wadded in his lap. His own mask lay long discarded in the back seat. Frank Riley rubbed the sweat and fine powder of the Texas earth from his tall forehead with a filthy handkerchief embroidered with the Pinkerton eye. In his other hand, he fidgeted thoughtlessly with his revolver. Webster hoped it wasn’t loaded.
To Riley, it must have seemed just another dead town, entombed by the so-called Dust Bowl. To Webster, it represented another battle lost to the new desert that grew in America’s heartland, a cancer as malignant as the one that had killed his wife. the last days! the end times! exclaimed the papers, though Webster wondered if he truly believed it, or even believed in god anymore, for that matter. What kind of Father, Son, or Holy Ghost would have made his darling Ginny suffer so unspeakably before she died?
Pushing away his anger and sorrow, he navigated the yellow-gray dunes that spilled across the road. The chains hanging from the back bumper clanked in a reassuring jangle, dispersing the static electricity that built-up in the dry air. That sort of thing could short out an engine, and it was a long walk back to the federal camp at Amarillo.
The sky clotted like a bruise to the west, though. Another Duster was coming, and they were headed right for it. All for a few stubborn farmers.
Tied to their land body and soul, large numbers of them refused to leave when President Roosevelt signed the Emergency Resettlement Act. Webster and Riley had found jobs with FRA to go out and persuade folks to move on, even to offer a little money. At least there was only one more farm to check on this trip, and then he and Riley could head home. Let the Army evacuate the rest.
“They ain’t gonna want to go,” Riley said, as if reading his thoughts.
Webster didn’t think the reckless and stubborn Riley was much of an FRA man, but he was glad to have him along — especially after that farmer outside Dalhart had declined with a shotgun their invitation to resettle. The whole trip, Riley had watched the blowing Dust like he expected something to come out of it. Dozens of dime-sized scars puckered his sinewy arms, old wounds from the Great War. A skein of burst capillaries gave his flesh a raw look like spider bites that had never fully healed. Webster hesitated to ask Riley what he’d tangled with back in France, but he suspected it was something much worse than a German soldier.
“Maybe they won’t,” Webster conceded, “but it’s our duty to drive out there all the same.” Working for the FRA was honest work, just like the President had promised. Every buck Webster earned out here on the road was another meal for his daughter Katy back in Amarillo. She was all he had left now. Her and the work. He’d drive all over the Dust Bowl if it kept her fed and happy. And if he saved a few more lives along the way, that was gravy.
Their last stop, the Anderson farm, lay ten miles west of Pearceville; an easy trip before the storms. The FRA files said the Andersons had grown broomcorn and wheat, even had once had a little apple orchard. The papers listed four members of the family: james: 34, lillie: 31, jimmy jr.: 12, daisy: 9. She was Katy’s age, and Webster imagined they looked alike. He couldn’t bear the thought of Katy trapped on some desolate farm.
“We’ve got to convince them,” Webster insisted, avoiding the burnt-out shell of a Model-A abandoned by the side of the road. A clump of dunes with a sign peeking out — danforth’s dry goods — marked the edge of town.
“I got a revolver to protect you, not to force folks into the truck at gunpoint,” Riley said, waving his gun. “That’s what the Army’s for.”
The countryside flattened like a sun-struck anvil, and swirling devils of Dust escorted them from Pearceville. Webster picked up speed, gripping the wheel until his fingers turned white. He didn’t share Riley’s cynicism.
”We’re doing right by these people, Riley. We’ve got to get them out for their own good.”
Riley thumbed the revolver and blew out Dust. “I think folks got a right to sit in the dirt and die if that’s what they want.”
“But they don’t have to. The Resettlement Camps—”
“Hey, friend. Don’t get sore. I’m gettin’ paid, same as you. This work is better than strikebreakin’ out in California, anyway.” The Pinkerton dug a handful of bullets out of his jacket and rammed them one by one into the gun’s cylinder.
Webster caught the glint of a curling inscription on one of the bullets.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
Riley shrugged. “A good luck charm. There’s worse ’n stubborn farmers out there. Didn’t you read the field guide?”
Webster rolled his eyes. “Boogey men?” Riley’s superstition rankled Webster.
“We’re goin’ deeper into the Dust Bowl than we’ve been before,” Riley said. “Don’t you ever wonder what’s causin’ all of this?”
“Overfarming. Erosion. Natural drought cycles.”
“You can believe the official story if you want, Webster. But I’ve seen things I can’t rightly account for.” Riley patted the scars on his arm, then resumed his vigil over the desolation. Webster’s shoulders ratcheted with a new unease.
The bleak carpet of the Texas wasteland unrolled before them. Intermittent dunes broke the desert, and half-buried farms jutted up from the soil like tombstones. As they drove west, the sky yellowed to an impenetrable haze. Webster pulled the headlight knob. It made seeing through the grit harder, but it would warn anyone coming from the other way. If anyone did. Sand blows danced in the pale beams. Some folks said if you stared long enough into the Dust, you would see the Devil himself. Maybe that’s what Riley was talking about.
A roadside sign floated out of the murk, hand-painted on a battered square of tin:
A lump thickened in the back of Webster’s throat. He imagined Daisy Anderson, wild golden curls just like his Katy’s, her stomach rumbling from a diet of canned tumbleweeds and Dust. He was determined to save her, to save her family, despite Riley’s misgivings. Another sign appeared out of the haze.
no god west of pearceville
“Not much east of it either,” Riley grunted.
• • •
Riley surveyed the dark house; the windows and doors were gaping, empty.
“They’re gone,” he said.
“But their car’s still here.” Webster replied, pointing to an old Ford half-buried in a sand dune. “We should make sure.” His hopes were fading, though.
Riley sighed. “Okay. Gotta stretch my legs and take a piss, anyway.” He opened the door and slid out under the hammer of the afternoon sun.
The wind blew into the cab, salting the seat and floorboards with Dust. Webster reached across and pulled the door shut. Damn Riley. No manners. He left doors open. Used his handkerchief only to clean his gun. Helped himself to your ham steak if you weren’t eating fast enough.
Webster grabbed his goggles off the dashboard but left his mask. The Dust wasn’t blowing that badly yet. He joined Riley outside.
“F.R.A.!” he shouted. The land was wide open, but his voice bounced in his own ears like he was in a toilet stall. Sweat poured down his back and tickled the base of his spine as moments crept by without an answer. Nearby, Riley watered the dirt with a spume of piss. His dick in one hand, he fumbled for a cigarette with the other. Webster positioned himself upwind.
“Told ya no one’s here,” Riley said, buttoning his pants.
“I guess not.”
From the height of the dunes, he guessed no one had been here in a long time. He shivered from the sweat cooling in the small of his back, as the Dust swirled and settled around his ankles.
“If there are bodies…” he trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. “I’ll check the house,” he said and plodded through the Dust to fetch a flashlight from the back of the truck.
“We should scram,” Riley warned. He shielded a match against the wind and lit his cigarette. Blue puffs ringed his head as he surveyed the darkening sky. “Then don’t just stand there,” Webster said, “go check the barn!”
Riley turned, fixing him with an ice-blue stare. “You some kinda general, now?” he drawled, his voice flat.
Webster pulled the flashlight from the truck, ignoring Riley’s anger. He’d be seeing Katy again soon and could forgive the man’s mule headedness.
“I’m just saying you’re right, we should hurry,” Webster said, flicking on the light. It glowed like a jaundiced eye, watery and anemic in the afternoon haze. He didn’t like arguing with Riley, but thinking about finding bodies made him jittery.
With a shrug that said the argument wasn’t over, Riley stalked off toward the barn, trailing tobacco plumes. To the northwest, the Dust thickened again, and the sun dimmed as if trapped in amber. It looked like that storm was on its way after all.
His throat tightened as he approached the open door of the house. Webster tensed, expecting to smell the rot of death, but to his relief he caught only the musty scent of earth and old ashes. He stabbed at the darkness with his flashlight. The interior of the house was a single room, dominated by an elephantine pot-bellied stove and the leaning wreck of a wooden bed frame. A dirt-stained flour sack dress lay crumpled near the door. A child’s dress.
“Webster!” Riley’s shout was urgent.
Webster backed away from the door and walked around the side of the house. Riley stood at the barn, waving both arms. Webster trudged over a dune, his stomach squirming. The wind picked up, sluicing Dust into his mouth.
“What you got?” He coughed out gobbets of phlegm as dark as mud, wondering how he could have swallowed so much dirt already. He considered retrieving his mask from the truck, but Riley pointed him to a section of tin not completely covered by the earth.
This time, a faint reek of decay did sting Webster’s nose. Worse, a pair of legs protruded from beneath the collapsed roof. They belonged to an adult, probably James, and the feet were bare, the skin drawn and smooth like shoe leather. In some places, the skin had worn away, and bone peeked out from the withered flesh.
“Damn,” Webster said.
“Guess that’s it,” said Riley. He scanned the darkening northwestern sky where columns of reddish Dust swirled up from the earth like grasping fingers. Emerald flashes of heat lighting glimmered within, casting strange, twisting shadows. “We’d better get out of here before that storm hits.”
Webster had never seen a Duster like the one that swelled on the horizon.
“But we can’t just leave them, Riley,” he said. Decency gnawed at his conscience, despite the looming storm.
“Sure we can. What good will it do to dig ’em out?”
“Dignity, man. It isn’t right.” Webster tugged on the sheet of tin, revealing another pair of feet. Smaller, but definitely adult. Lillie Anderson. The bones of her toes were exposed to the elements, held together only by dried-out tendons like beef jerky.
“It ain’t right they died this way, but we don’t want to end up with Dust Pneumonia, either.” Riley scratched the strange welts on his arm, his gaze on the storm.
“It isn’t catching, Riley.” Webster coughed again. He still mostly believed that. Now he really wished he had his mask.
Prompted by the fingers of the gale, the soil stirred around them in a bilious ochre fog. Riley reconsidered his stance.
“At least they get to stay on their farm,” he mumbled.
“We’d better hurry. There’s shovels in the truck.”
Riley flicked his cigarette butt away. “I’ll get ’em. And the masks.”
• • •
There was no sign of little Daisy and that lifted Webster’s spirits.
“We should look for her, too,” he said as they were pelted with a fine prairie grit.
“We only got time to bury these,” Riley gestured to the grey shrouds.
The wind raked shrill across the bones of the Anderson farm and Webster had to reluctantly agree.
They managed to dig three shallow graves, though the Dust filled them nearly as quick as they were dug. To Webster’s surprise, Riley suggested fashioning three crude crosses from barn scrap. He didn’t object, but the sun dimmed as they hammered them together. It grew so quiet Webster could hear the thud of his heart as he worked.
As they placed the final cross for Jimmy Jr., the storm descended. The Dust blew sideways, driving at them like tiny knives. Webster yanked his goggles down while Riley struggled to pull on his cumbersome mask. The air detonated with emerald and violet bursts of static electricity that sizzled along curls of barbed wire, wriggling jewels sparkling on the blades of the windmill.
Webster pulled on Riley’s sleeve and hurried for the Dodge just as the truck — and everything else — vanished into the black heart of the storm. He felt around for his Dust mask, unable to tell if his eyes were even open. The grit clawed at the lenses of his goggles like ravenous insects. He clamped his mouth shut and held his sleeve over his face.
They stumbled around in the orange-black womb of the storm for what seemed like ages, until a sudden eddy of searing wind parted the Dust to reveal the long boxy shadow of the truck. Riley threw his arm in front of Webster as he tried to run to it. The other man’s muffled cries were inaudible through the mask and shrieking storm, but he jabbed his finger urgently at the truck.
A verdant blast of lightning tore open the shadows. Daisy Anderson appeared, hunched by the red FRA eagle logo painted on the truck door, the tatters of her flour-sack dress spread like ragged wings in the wind. Lank, straw colored hair grew in patches from the copper dome of her bald, peeling head. She squatted on legs as thin as the bug chewed fence posts. A monstrous green halo shimmered in the air around her.
Webster jumped ahead of Riley, a pang of joy thrilling his heart. She was alive!
Too late, then, he saw the complete ruin of Daisy’s eyes, glued blind by the Dust.
Lightning, grasping and green, crackled from her blind eyes. The bolts sent Webster flying backward, banners of green fire trailing at the edge of his vision. Riley shouted somewhere far off, and there came the dense thud of gunshots. The Dust surged in again, parting his lips and smothering his breath like a ravenous lover. Oblivion found him while he gasped for air.
He dreamed of his straw-tressed Katy in the darkness.
• • •
He coughed. The black taste of the Dust parched his tongue. He ground his teeth over a coating of grit. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw the Anderson family circled around him; static sparks flickering like fireflies across their leathery skin. They watched him with the shriveled pits of their sightless eyes.
“Oh god,” he gasped, an odd, heaving breath tearing him fully awake. He lay in the sod house, spread-eagle on the ruined bed. Riley was nowhere to be found. Panic crushed his ribs as he forced himself to look at the Andersons. Whatever made them that way, it sure as hell wasn’t Dust Pneumonia.
Daisy Anderson walked her tiny fingers across three bullet holes in her sparrow chest. She sang a nursery rhyme while she counted the wounds. Or at least Webster reckoned the air wheezing from her shriveled lips was a song. From her wounds bled something like a mixture of molasses and Dust. Her father leaned forward. More sand tumbled from his mouth and lidded eyes. His whispers knifed their way into Webster’s soul.
Webster’s bowels churned. He couldn’t understand a word of the man’s gibberish. He eyed the open door beyond the Andersons and wondered if he could outrun them.
Jimmy Jr. fidgeted, peeling a strip of skin from the back of his hand. Lillie Anderson patted her husband’s shoulder, and then patted the ground. Part of her forehead flurried away as she gave an emphatic shake of her head.
“N—no,” Webster said, catching on. “I’m not going to make you leave.”
Jimmy Jr. laughed, a blat of air like a punctured tire. He mimed tying a knot around Webster’s neck.
Webster flinched back on the bed. Good lord, they didn’t expect him to stay here?
“Folks got a right to sit in the dirt,” Riley said, appearing in the doorway.
Relief poured through him like a cold drink of water.
“Jeeze, Riley, I thought you were dead. Let’s get the hell out—” but his words just stopped when he saw the emeralds of Riley’s eyes sparkling in the dark.
Riley waved a hand at the Dust-preserved farmer and his family.
“Am I right?”
James and Lillie nodded, the leathery tendons of their jaws creaking.
“Riley, what happened to you?”
“Like I said, Dust can change you. Reckon it caught up to me.”
Webster looked away when Riley extended his hands, fresh lightning scars rippling up his bare forearms.
“Oh god. Just let me go, please. Katy’s waiting for me back in Amarillo.” He hadn’t begged for anything since Ginny died, but he begged for Katy now. He struggled to picture her. He only saw Daisy when he squeezed shut his paper-lidded eyes.
“So go see her, you still got some time. I ain’t stoppin’ you,” said Riley.
Riley stepped out the door and the Andersons followed in single file. James’ eyeless face drooped in sorrow, though, and Lillie smoothed the tatters of her apron, leaving behind flakes of sun-browned skin. Jimmy Jr. just shrugged. Only Daisy turned to him as Webster leapt up from the bed and rushed out of the house. He stumbled through the door into the amber gloom of the farmstead.
Riley stood between him and the truck, his feet planted wide like the broken windmill.
“Don. You can go, but the Dust’s got into you. It might draw you back.”
“But this isn’t my land,” Webster protested.
“We all got a stake in what’s happenin’ here, Don. You should go convince folks of that.”
Webster’s thoughts clouded with visions of more Dust, spreading out past Texas, to Arkansas, Tennessee. North Carolina. Maybe even to Washington D.C. He gagged and spat out more of the gooey mud. If he was sick with something worse than Dust Pneumonia, then he should stay here. Keep away from Katy. It was the right thing to do.
Daisy shambled forward, her stringy hair drifting in knotted clumps on the steady wind. She grabbed hold of Webster’s leg, hugging him tight.
“If you come back — Daisy really wants a sister.”
Webster yelped like a beaten dog, lurching towards the truck and sending Daisy sprawling to the dirt. The wind howled in a cyclonic frenzy, and the blowing grit threatened to sand his skin from his bones. Or polish it bronze. Webster didn’t feel it, though, he only thought of seeing his daughter again.
He scrambled into the truck, and thank god it started when he pressed the ignition. He dimly saw the Andersons by their door as he raced away from the farm. Riley’s eyes gleamed like emerald fireflies in the gathering Dust.
“I’m so sorry,” he mumbled to no one. But he didn’t look back; Katy waited for him at home.
As he passed back through Pearceville, the sky cleared. Webster could almost believe he’d imagined the farm and its tenants. Giddy, he told himself the storm’s static shock had jolted his brain. He’d dreamed it all. Riley would be all right. He’d wander back to Amarillo sore as hell, but when wasn’t Riley sore about something?
Webster rolled down the windows, the dry tips of his fingers tingling. He coughed, dribbling sand and mud down his chin, even as more Dust blew into the cab from the ruined town. If he could just make it to Amarillo, everything would be fine. Once he and Katy were together again, not even the Dust could separate them.
© 2013 Andrew Penn Romine, all rights reserved