Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
Union Pacific Train
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."
"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.
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."
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)