His lungs were on fire. His bare feet were bloodied. Unable to pursue the speeding truck another step as it gained distance, Walter unsteadily lifted the shotgun and fired. The blast echoed for infinity through the dusty cottonwood trees.
He crumpled to the ground in front of the neighbor’s farmhouse. Defeated, his plunged his face into his weary hands—thankful no one but God could see his breakdown.
Walter heard the screen door slam, “Who’s out there?”
“It’s me. Walt.”
“What in tarnation is goin’ on, Son?”
“I’m sorry to wake you, Sir. Someone just made off with our last sow—couple chickens, too, I think.”
John stepped off his porch, and Walter rose to meet him. Without a word, they both sat on the splintered stoop in their dingy bed clothes. Walter sighed. “We needed that sow, John.”
“I reckon someone else needed it more…you have to be pretty darn hungry to risk your life stealing another man’s livestock these days. You’d do it for Elsie and the boys—if you were that desperate.”
“We just got that desperate,” Walter gazed out at the vast acreage of dust, barely lit by the crescent moon. Purgatory is beige…dead dirt beige with endless grit on the tongue. This must be the bottom of purgatory, because we’re much closer to Hell than Heaven.
John placed his hand on Walter’s back, “Son, do you know I almost forbid Elsie from marryin’ you?”
Walter’s neck stiffened, “Are ya tryin’ to make me feel better, Sir?”
The old man stifled a chuckle, “When you came back to town, I knew that you were all twisted up from havin’ to leave the university to help your ma. Not much good havin’ a fancy education when there ain’t any jobs. Anyway...she was so proud of you comin’ home—though I reckon it bothered her even more than you that you had to leave school. But you weren’t a Christian like your mama. I was pleased as peach pie to see you Sunday morning’s on Elsie’s arm, and thanked the Lord when you finally answered that alter call. I was glad that I’d given you Elsie’s hand…she deserves more than just a good man; she needs a good Christian man.
“Now, I know ya don’t ‘member your daddy much—you were just a wee tot when we left for the war—but he was a good Christian man. We grew up together, but we weren’t friends till we were fightin’ with the Allies in France. The day he died was one of the worst days of my life, Son. I wish you could’ve known him like I did…as a man. He’d sure be proud of you.
“I’m tellin’ you this cus’ I don’t think your pa would want you and your family to die here, just because it was his land. That’s what killed your ma—she was too gosh darn stubborn to leave when she got the cough. Our granddads paid for this land with cotton, bloody fingers and elbow grease…it’s ours. Now I’ve prayed for rain every night for three years, and for whatever reason, God ain’t answerin’. If it rained till Christmas, this soil would still be deader than a doornail.”
“What are you saying, John? Do you think I should pack up Elsie and the kids and head west, like everyone else trying to escape this dust bowl? Live in tents and sell apples?”
“Well…Josie and I’ve been talkin’. Her brother lives in Virginia, right outside D.C. They have a big ol’ house and pig farm, but they say there are jobs in the city—‘specially for educated folks like you—thanks to FDR. I tell ya’ Son, if I can get work from his swanky ‘New Deal’, I swear I’ll never call him a Commie again.
“We could be there in a fortnight…but we won’t go without you and Elsie. All we’ve got is each other. I’d rather choke to death in these black blizzards than leave you behind to suffer alone.” John’s gravelly voice faltered those last few syllables.
The heavy emotion clung to the night air; a serenade of hungry cicadas filled the prolonged, mutual hush.
“John, do you remember the vows I took when I wed your daughter? I promised that wherever she goes, I would go. Her people would be my people. Her God, my God. And where she died, I would die and be buried. You remember that, Sir?”
“I reckon I do…”
“I meant every word.”
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