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Dust to Dust: A Short Story by cam

Chris has written more than 200 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

Union Pacific Train

Union Pacific train "Pony Express" pulled by UP locomotive 844 in 1949. The train traveled between Kansas City and Los Angeles until 1954, when it was discontinued.

Union Pacific train "Pony Express" pulled by UP locomotive 844 in 1949. The train traveled between Kansas City and Los Angeles until 1954, when it was discontinued.

Two men rode in a boxcar on tracks that rattled doors, joints and teeth and was as empty of cargo as their pockets were of cash. They may not have had money, but they had memories and when those weren't enough, they had dreams.

The door rolled away and feet dangled above the blurred ground of an eastern Kansas landscape shrouded in a cloud of dust that dimmed the sunlight and squelched hope.

"That dust is gonna go on forever, ain't it?" said Foster, the younger of the two.

"Naw, it'll clear up any day now, you just wait 'n see." Charles wiped dirt from his forty year old weathered face with a grimy kerchief.

"What kinda fruit you think we'll be pickin' out there in California?

"They got oranges 'n mellons 'n berries, grapefruits, grapes 'n more, but I don't know what they is pickin' right now."

Woodie Guthrie, Dust Bowl Blues

The two men had met earlier that day. Charles was already riding in the boxcar when Foster hopped aboard while the steam locomotive took on water in eastern Kansas.

The gray light of day blended into evening. Charles closed the door and the two men sat on blankets with their backs against the front wall.

"You got a family?" Foster slid down onto his back and looked up into the darkness.

"Have I got a family?" Charles chuckled and lay down as well. "Ruth is my wife. Caleb is the oldest, then Edie, Jacob, Zeke and baby Sarah." The train's whistle broke the silence across the Great Plains. "How about you."

Foster waited a long time before he answered. Too long, and Charles braced himself.

"Her name was Mary. She died two months ago."

"Dust pneumonia?"

"Yeah. Dust to dust, like the good book says."

The boxcar rocked. The wrought steel wheels rumbled and the men slept in spite of all the worries of life.

dust-to-dust-a-short-story

In the morning they opened the door. The sun shined more brightly, and the sky appeared more blue than they had in months. Hopes rose, dreams replaced memories, and the two men talked long about all the possibilities before them. They passed the time sitting in the doorway or dozing on their blankets. In the late afternoon, the train slowed to a stop, gave a final hiss and went silent.

"Let's go see what's goin' on," said Charles. "Maybe they're takin' on more water."

They strolled past the cars, each one identical to the one before. They were surprised to see so many men standing in the open doors.

"I don't suppose there'll be room for anybody when this train heads back east," said Charles. "Every one of them cars'll be packed with fruit that you and me picked."

On the land around the train, a tractor and plow stood abandoned, unused because the topsoil was gone and the ground would no longer produce a crop.

Baca County, Colorado, April 14, 1935

The engineer and fireman stood beside the westbound tracks in front of the locomotive pointing to the northeast. The two passengers gazed between cars and took in more and more of the plains, empty except for an occasional farmstead. Then their view was abruptly blocked.

The cloud hugged the ground and rose to what seemed to them to be an impossible height. It was not the fluffy white of a cumulus nor the dark gray of a towering cumulonimbus, but blue-ebony. And the most disconcerting thing about the spectacle was that the storm was traveling directly toward them.

Charles and Foster sprinted back to their boxcar and climbed inside. The sound of the door rolling and slamming shut was mimicked over and over again along the length of the train. They used their blankets to fill in the gaps around the door, then waited for the black monster to strike.

Dust Storm in South Dakota, 1934

Charles approached the door.

"What are you doin'?"

"It's the end of the world, Foster. We may as well watch." He opened the door again.

The storm was close enough for them to see that it wasn't holding its shape like a normal cloud but was rolling across the landscape, a tumbling mountain of destruction.

"Look east, Charles, and west. It's endless. You're right. The end of the world is upon us."

The wind came first. The men had to stand behind the protective walls of the boxcar and look out at an angle. Then came the birds in a cloud of their own, thousands of them with nowhere to go except to stay ahead of the storm. The bigger, stronger one's had a chance to make it, but the small birds fell exhausted to the ground and were buried under the suffocating silt.

They struggled forward to close the door, but the scene outside halted them where they stood. The landscape was alive, moving, not the swirling silt and sand, not the bouncing tumbleweeds but thousands of fleeing jackrabbits that ran beneath the train cars where many remained, taking advantage of their best hope of survival on the besieged plains.

The two men wrestled the door closed just before the black blizzard hit and returned to their places to wait, more certain than ever that on this day they would meet their maker.

"Dear God, protect Ruth and the Children," Charles prayed.

"In a few minutes I'll see Mary again. Charles, just think of it."

The wind increased. The boxcar rocked like a toy boat on a raging sea. For fourteen minutes the soil of the plains sought and found its way in through every crack and hole, seeking at the least to choke them, if not bury them alive. And then it was over.

They opened both doors. A new layer of silt covered the ground outside. The tractor and plow were buried except for an exposed steering wheel. Topsoil had drifted like snow along the length of the train up to the doors of the boxcars.

The locomotive's whistle blew. The train jerked and crept forward along the buried tracks. Jackrabbits, those which had survived beneath the cars, fled into the surrounding devastation where no food nor water nor protection awaited them.

"My family," said Charles.

"You gotta keep goin'. That's what your family needs now more than ever."

"I'd be surprised if California is any better. Seems to me the whole world just perished."

"But somehow, we survived." Foster took off his hat and twisted it in his hands. "It's like God meant it to be so."

"God could've stopped the storm just as easy as he started it."

"But He didn't. So there's got to be a reason."

"A reason for all this?" Charles spread his arms out wide toward the lifeless void.

"We can't just give up hope. We got to go on."

"On to California? To The Promised Land? Milk and honey and all that?" Dust poured out of the open doors.

"Let your fears and doubts blow away, Charles. If we still got our dreams, we still got hope."

dust-to-dust-a-short-story

Facts About The Dust Bowl Period

  • The Dust Bowl lasted from 1931 to 1939.
  • The Black Sunday storm of April 14, 1935 displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairies, twice the amount dug from the earth to make the Panama Canal.
  • The Denver Post has reported that around 7,000 people died of dust pneumonia during the Dust Bowl period.
  • 250,000 people fled the plains during the Dust Bowl.
  • After a dust storm in 1934, 12 million tons of soil was blown eastward and fell on the city of Chicago.
  • The dust storms of the 1930s began in eastern states from Maine to Arkansas. They hit the Great Plains in 1934, stretching from North Dakota to Texas.
  • The Black Sunday storm was 1,000 miles long, 14 miles deep and 8,000 feet high.

(Facts taken from an article in the Denver Post, May 12, 2011 and from Wikipedia)

Comments

John M McNally on April 26, 2018:

Hi Chris, I've just seen your story. I never knew about the scale of the storms. Your words certainly brought it to life for me, I can feel that dust on the back of my throat, thank you.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 10, 2017:

Lawrence, thank you for reading my story today. It was a horrible time, one that challenged people who were already being challenged by the Great Depression. We have no idea how hard life can be.

Lawrence Hebb on January 10, 2017:

Chris

This was a great story. I saw a couple of small dust storms when I was in the Middle East, but nothing on the scale of 'Black Sunday'.

It felt like I was right there in the boxcar with them, and he's right, all they had was their hopes and dreams.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 03, 2017:

Don, I am truly sorry I missed your comment on this story. I've lived through a few tornadoes, but somehow never have seen one. I guess I was always hiding when they went past. Nature is powerful, no doubt. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 03, 2017:

Eldon, please accept my apology for missing your comment during the holidays. Yes, man made climate change is what it was. Nature played a part, but nothing so devastating would have happened if the farmers had known more about how all of these things interact. I appreciate your words about the story and the writing.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 19, 2016:

It must have been terrifying to experience one of those dust storms. You did a great job of creating the picture in your readers' minds, Chris. And you ended the story with a ray of hope. Nice!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2016:

Don, it's good to see you here today. I've been through a few twisters myself when I was a child in Indiana. But I have never actually seen one. I was always hiding under something when the action was taking place. thanks for visiting and reading this story.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on December 17, 2016:

Chris,

That period of time has had a profound effect on our country and lives. I(t ixs hard to imagine the power of such storms. Back in 1965 some tornadoes hit Minneapolis, MN where I lived at the time. I recall we were going to see a new shopping center when we heard a tornado was coming. e stopped off at my mothers house and the tornado did go about where we would have been. It went through the neighborhood about a half mile from us.

It is not a common thing there and hope never to see another one.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 16, 2016:

Thank you, Ann. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and all those near and dear to you as well.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 16, 2016:

Fantastic story, so well told, Chris. You brought the history to life and the feelings of those who experienced such things. But, despite all that, hope prevailed with the strength of dreams and faith.

Your storytelling is becoming stronger and stronger, Chris, and I enjoy reading every word.

May I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. Hope 2017 is kind to you.

Ann

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 14, 2016:

Genna, Thanks for those very encouraging words. I love telling stories and am very pleased that you enjoy reading. Nice to see you here today.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 14, 2016:

Eldon, Thanks for stopping by and reading this story. Thanks also for your kind words. Your additional history just enriches it even more.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on December 14, 2016:

Hi Chris. I like the way you tell your stories. They have an ease and a sense of realism that place us right next to your characters; we become part of their story. This one pulls us into a terrible period of ecological disaster; the devastation it brought to so many, and the strength of the human spirit. Well done.

Eldon Arsenaux from Cooley, Texas on December 14, 2016:

Great story Mr Mills, you've a way of working words with enough deft to drive the story in an eased flow. It was man-made climate change, but I read that the soil of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle wasn't suited for the strain settlers set to it. So, once the great bison were gone, and not to irrigate and plow the grasslands (or so I seem to recall), modern techniques were merely efficient in the sow-and-reap sense, but not in long-term topsoil rejuvenation. Anyway, always a pleasure to read your stuff, sir,

Adios,

-E.G.A.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 13, 2016:

Gypsy Rose Lee, I'm glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for taking this short ride on the rails with me.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 13, 2016:

Cat, thanks for reading this story. I'm glad you enjoyed it and learned a little about Black Sunday.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 13, 2016:

Ruby, Glad you enjoyed the story. When you need a good country accent, there is nothing better than an 'll or an 're after almost anything. Good to see you today.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on December 12, 2016:

Awesome, fantastic and eye opening information. Must have learned about the Dust Bowl in school but that was ages ago. Found this very interesting and thanks for the ride on the rails.

Catherine Tally from Los Angeles on December 12, 2016:

Eye-opening , Chris! Even though I 've seen and read a little bit about the Dust Bowl, I had no idea about the Black Sunday storm. It would have seemed like the end of the world was coming- no doubt! Thanks for a great story and the history lesson.

Merry Christmas!

Cat:)

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 12, 2016:

Wow Chris, this was a great story. What a shame that men had to leave their family's to make a living. I've heard of the great dust bowl in Okla. I read that the homes were covered in dust inside. It came through the doors and windows. I liked this word, cars'll.....

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 12, 2016:

Bill, I'm sure your father gathered stories of his own. It would be interesting to hear them sometime. I'm glad the story struck a personal chord.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 12, 2016:

This is family history for me, my dad having ridden the rails long ago....great story which touche me personally.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 12, 2016:

Eric, Actually man had a good deal to do with it. Farming practices where fields were burned off after harvest and left unprotected from wind, was one element that led to the dust bowl. I believe there were other farming practices that contributed as well. But nature kicked in with drought and high winds to make circumstances right. Then the winds just kept coming for a whole decade, anyplace from 40 to 100 mph. It was a terrible time in our history.

A side topic that I looked into for this story was steam engines. I'll have to come up with another story for that subject.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 12, 2016:

Chris I was just sitting here whining and worrying about some stuff today -- well hell's bell's not anymore. Great story here and thanks for the facts. I wonder if that was man made climate change.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 12, 2016:

John, I had read about the Dust Bowl before, but never got into the particulars. Some of the numbers are nearly unbelievable. I think the jackrabbits may be the biggest surprise. Thanks for reading, John. I've got a lot of catching up to do on my reading here. I ended my last contract job and am home for a few weeks. Good times with family and friends.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 12, 2016:

Wow, Chris, I had heard of the dust bowl but never imagined it was that intense. This was a wonderful story. A great write.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 12, 2016:

Shyron, I hope mankind gets off this easy on judgment day. Thanks for reading.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on December 11, 2016:

Chris, this is very interesting, I imagine this is what it will like on the judgement day.

Blessings my friend