If I shut my eyes, I can transport myself back to my grandmother’s kitchen. I can smell the sweet sachet powder she liked to wear, inhale the aroma of strong coffee kept warm on the back of the huge gas stove, and catch a whiff of the Mule Team Borax powder she used to wash dishes. I can imagine her in one of her favorite housedresses, maybe the yellow and brown plaid or perhaps one with a paisley print, with a clean apron tied around her waist. She always wore an apron unless she went out of the house and to town. Although she lived in an urban neighborhood, she always called her trips to the store or downtown ‘going to town’.
Granny handled my care while my parents both worked and so, by some curious sort of almost magic, I grew up with my head in the 1930’s, my physical body in the 1960’s. My grandparents ‘kept me’, as Granny called it, from the age of two months until shortly before I began school so their influence on me proved significant. Although I went home each evening and slept, most of the time, in my own bed in my parents’ house, my grandparents raised me the same way they raised their own children, back in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I ended up with a different view than many of my own generation and listening to tales about the Depression years were something I absorbed along with my Little Golden Books.
Dust Bowl Dreams is set in the 1930’s era. Dust Bowl Dreams is a love story but it’s also a portrait of the times. It’s set in Oklahoma and it owes a little homage to Charley Floyd, my favorite outlaw. Here’s the blurb, buy links and the first entire chapter!
Life’s never easy for a good-hearted man who decides crime is the answer to his troubles.
No rain in the summer of 1933 is bad news for Oklahoma farmer Henry Mink. The local banker wants the mortgage on the farm paid and unless Henry comes up with the dough, his widowed mother and four young siblings won’t have a home. Jobs are scarce so he decides to rob a bank. His sweetheart, school teacher Mamie Logan, doesn’t like the idea and neither does Henry’s kid brother Eddie but Henry’s out of options.
He leaves home and robs a bank at nearby Ponca City. When he returns home, he pays off the mortgage but new troubles show up. Mamie is his greatest joy and they become engaged but by fall, Henry has no options left but to rob another bank. If he can pull off one another big job, he figures he’ll be set until the hard times are over but few things in life go as planned. His desperate efforts will either secure his future or destroy it forever.
If Henry’s family survives and Mamie’s love endures, he’ll need a miracle.
Blue summer sky stretched into infinity above the parched land and open Oklahoma prairie. As Henry Mink walked into the north wheat field, dry brittle stalks beneath his boots crunched like broken glass. He knelt and scooped up a handful of soil. Henry sifted it through his fingers and a puff of wind caught it, blew it away like powder as he sighed. The drought dried up everything and he knew now he’d have to leave the farm. His mama and the little ones wouldn’t make it if he stayed. This year there’d be no crop and no money unless he did something about it. His daddy, Tom Mink, dead three years past, would turn over in his grave if he knew the state of the farm Henry’s grandfather claimed back when the Cherokee Strip opened in ‘93. Daddy wouldn’t ever agree to mortgage the place but after his death, Mama lacked options so she did. Half the money went to pay for the funeral, the rest kept them going for awhile. Now, however, without money in hand, Henry knew the bank in town would take the home place and he couldn’t let it happen.
If it’d rained, they might’ve saved the crop, but nothing remained to salvage. Relentless heat baked the growing wheat to death. Rich farmers with black land farms and good water might hold out, maybe. But between the drought and the Depression, he doubted the Mink family would. Henry swore beneath his breath and rolled a cigarette, waiting to see if she’d come.
He sprawled beneath the shade of a small hickory tree growing against the fence line and smoked, the slow spirals drifting skyward to vanish in the humid heat. Henry stared upward to watch a pair of red tailed hawks glide through the cloudless sky with enviable grace. When he looked back across the cornfield, Mamie emerged from the trees as silent as a deer. She walked around the rows of wilted, brown wheat and skirted the field. Henry sat up as she approached then found his feet.
“Hey, pretty girl.”
Her straight sheath dress failed to conceal the curves of her body and Henry admired the view. He wanted to undo all the little buttons from her throat to her knees and remove the garment, but he didn’t dare in his daddy’s field. Instead he let his eyes devour her and as he grinned Mamie must’ve read his mind because a pink blush spread over her cheeks.
“Hey, yourself, Henry,” she said with a toss of her head. Unlike most of the gals, Mamie kept her hair long, down to her waist, but right now she’d pinned it all into a bun at the back of her head. Her hairstyle made her look just like the school teacher she was. If he could, he’d take her hair down so the soft dark curls would cascade down her back and over her shoulders, but Henry knew he couldn’t, not here or now. “Did you decide what you’re going to do?”
“Yeah,” he said. He’d pondered it a long time, thought about trying to go into Woodward, Ponca City or even Tulsa to find work, but everyone said there weren’t any jobs anywhere. “I’m going to rob banks.”
Mamie’s pretty blue eyes narrowed and she frowned. “That’s not funny, Henry.”
“Honey,” he said with all the patience he could summon. “I’m serious.”
Her freckled skin paled above her light green dress and her lips parted. “Henry, you can’t mean it.”
“I do. The crop’s gone and without it, I don’t know how Mama can feed the little ones through the winter, let alone pay the mortgage. Eddie’s fifteen so maybe he could earn some money if there were any jobs, but the others are too small. Ain’t any jobs out for a man to make a decent living so I figured if Charley Floyd can do it, so can I.”
“Applesauce, Henry,” Mamie said. She sounded mad now and he figured she likely was. “You can’t rob banks. It’s wrong. You weren’t raised to be a thief.”
“No, ma’am,” Henry said. “Daddy raised me to be a farmer, but it didn’t work out. Besides, I don’t plan to rob banks forever…”
“Because some law man will hunt you down and kill you,” Mamie interrupted with tears in her eyes. He knew she loved him, but God damn it made him feel good when she let it show.
Henry ignored her and continued, “I’ll retire once I get ahead and go someplace new, California maybe. I’ll take you with me when I go.”
“You will not!” Tears filled her eyes. “I wish you’d quit this crazy talk. You’re scaring me.”
Henry removed a single escaping tear from her face with his work worn hand. “I don’t mean to, Mamie. I’m just telling you the truth.”
Misery darkened her eyes and he realized now she believed him. Her voice trembled a little as she said, “I wish you wouldn’t do it, Henry. Won’t you try to get a job in the oil fields or down to Tulsa?”
He shook his head and pulled her into his arms. “It’s not for me, Miss Mamie. Give me some sugar.”
Henry didn’t wait. He latched his lips onto hers and kissed her with a thoroughness he enjoyed. Although she struggled a little at first, Mamie relaxed against him with a sigh and returned the kiss. Her arms moved to his shoulders then joined behind his head, something he liked a lot. Despite the heat of the summer afternoon his body burned and he ached for more than a kiss. They’d come close to doing the deed more than once, but his respect for Mamie coupled with a distinct lack of privacy prevented it so far.
A sharp whistle cut through the quiet field and before Henry raised his head, he recognized Eddie’s voice as the kid shouted, “Hey, Henry, you down here?”
He released Mamie who smoothed down her dress and patted her hair. “I’m over here, in the north field,” Henry called.
A minute later his kid brother loped into view. “You gotta come up to the house now,” he said, panting hard. “A man from the bank’s here and Mama said fetch you.”
An anxious chill banished his hot desire. “Shit,” he said. “Mamie, I need to go. I’ll talk you later.”
She nodded. “Come over tonight, Henry. Promise?”
“I’ll be there,” he said as he dashed off with Eddie.
As he ran, he pulled up the galluses on his faded overalls and hooked them in place. At the house, he paused long enough to catch his breath and glared at the late model Packard parked in front. Henry splashed his face and hands with water at the pump behind the kitchen then dried off on a piece of old feed sack hanging from the back porch rail and entered the house. Eddie hung back and Henry saw him slip into the old barn.
On the stove a pot of green beans, picked from Mama’s little garden she kept hydrated with any wash water from the house, simmered in bacon grease and he smelled fresh baked cornbread cooling on the table. His empty stomach growled but Henry ignored it and slipped through the middle room to join his mother in what rich folks might call the parlor.
“Mrs. Mink, I understand your situation very well,” Mr. Richardson, one of the vice presidents of the bank in town, said with smooth calm. “And I wish I could give you more time but it’s not in my power. If I let you, I’d have to give everyone the same courtesy and I can’t. The bank’s a business, like any other, so I’m sorry but you have several mortgage payments past due. You must make full payment by the end of July or I’ll have to foreclose. It’s harsh, I know, but it’s just simple business.”
Henry stood, arms crossed, in the open doorway between the two rooms and watched with disgust as the banker in his fine two piece suit delivered doom in the well-modulated voice of a radio man. Richardson’s fedora rested on one knee as he spoke and the smile pasted on his face was phonier than counterfeit currency. Maybe he could be wrong, but Henry thought the man savored each dire word as he destroyed the Minks’ world.
“Sounds more like monkey business to me,” Henry commented. Richardson startled enough he dropped his nice hat on the floor. Before he could retrieve it, Henry stalked forward a few paces and picked it up. He extended the fedora to the banker with a sneer. “You dropped your hat, sir.”
Henry’s harsh tone turned the polite title into a slur and Mr. Richardson noticed. “I, uh, well thank you, Henry. Now as I was telling your dear mother here, the time’s come to pay the mortgage and if you can’t, well you can’t and I’m very sorry, but I’ll have to foreclose. How’s your crop doing?”
“Same as everyone else’s,” Henry said as he settled onto the edge of a straight backed wooden chair. He met his mother’s worried eyes across the room and gave her a slight nod he hoped might ease her fears. “Don’t get your drawers in a knot now, Mr. Richardson. I’ll have the money for you by end of July. You can count on it.”
“Very well,” the banker said, rising with haste. “I hope you can deliver it, Henry, and no one will be more delighted than me if you do. Well, I’ve other stops to make so I’ll bid you both good day.”
Neither Henry nor his mother said a word until after the screen door slammed shut behind Richardson. They exchanged a long look and once the Packard started up, Rose Mink sighed. “Son, how in the world do you think you can pay the mortgage current? We’re broke and the crop’s ruined. I’ve got nothing. I’ve been figuring we’ll have to move in with Ed and Lucy. They won’t like it much but they can’t turn us away, we’re family.”
“Aw, Mama,” Henry said. He tried to imagine his mother, his brother Eddie, and the three little sisters, Dorothy, Anna, and Viola living in town with his aunt and uncle but failed. Uncle Ed gave mean a new definition and he surely invented being miserly. He’d begrudge every crust of bread going into their mouths, Henry thought, determined it wouldn’t happen. “Don’t do it. The gals would be miserable. I’m going off tomorrow to see if I can get some work so just hang on a little longer.”
His mother frowned, the worry line in her forehead cutting deeper. “Son, I’ll try. You ain’t but twenty three years old. You shouldn’t have to carry my burdens for me. I wish things turned out different. Maybe you’d be working your own place by now or you might’ve been married with a couple little ones. You could’ve gone to college over at Alva like Mamie did.”
Henry laughed. “I doubt I’d made it at the Castle on the hill or been much of a teacher,” he said, referencing the nickname for the nearby State Normal College for teachers. “A farm of my own would’ve been nice. Maybe I’ll get one someday.”
Rose stood up and groaned, stretching a hand around to the small of her back. “I hope you can. I need to go stir the beans ‘fore they burn. Can you fetch me in a bucket of water?”
“Sure, Mama,” Henry said. “Where’s the little gals?”
“They went down to the river where it’s cooler to play,” she said. “The Barnes girls went with them. They’ll be home by supper.”
Henry kept his mouth closed, but he didn’t like the idea. The Salt Fork of the Arkansas River flirted with Alva before turning eastward but with dry conditions, the water levels were low. Last time he’d been over to the river he’d seen several snakes and more turtles. Any creature would seek the water during the drought. Henry loved his little sisters, but he wasn’t their father and tried to remember it.
Henry picked up the bucket and headed to the pump. He yanked the handle until water gushed from the spout. Once he filled the bucket, he carried it into the kitchen to find his mother churning butter. The old glass jar style churn belonged to his grandmother Pearl and Henry could remember making butter with his granny. He chanted aloud the old rhyme she used to say, “Come, butter, come. Come, butter, come. Peter standing at the gate, waiting for a butter cake, come, butter, come.”
Mama glanced up with a smile. “You’ve got a good memory, son. Eddie’s gone to fetch your sisters home. Supper’s ready soon as I get the butter made. If I’d known you were leaving, I’d fixed something nicer.”
“This’s fine, Mama,” Henry said, although he couldn’t conjure up much of an appetite in the heat. The green beans laden with old bacon fat and seasoned with onions exuded a rank aroma but he’d eat them anyway. Hunger banished any notion of pickiness. “After supper I promised Mamie I’d go visit a while.”
His mother’s gaze sharpened. He’d never told her how he felt about the little schoolteacher from down the road, but he was sure she knew. “Did you tell her you’re leaving?”
Henry schooled his face to innocence and said, “I did, this afternoon.”
“What’d she think about it?”
He laughed. “Mamie didn’t like it much and told me so.”
Mama stirred the simmering pot and with her back turned said, “She’s a smart gal. Maybe you ought to listen to what she says, Henry.”
Mama stirred the simmering pot and with her back turned said, “She’s a smart gal. Maybe you ought to listen to what she says, Henry.”
He lifted a dipper of the tepid well water and drank, pondering her words. Desperation fueled his decision to become an outlaw and under normal circumstances he’d concede it wasn’t a wise choice. The first prickling of guilt crept up his back. He’d been raised to know right from wrong, taught the Bible and the Ten Commandments and bank robbery fell into the wrong category, but Henry didn’t see much of a choice. He’d rob banks and worse to save the farm and feed the family.
Henry gazed through the open, screened window and caught sight of his sisters trailing home. Eddie herded the three girls across the yard, the littlest one, Viola, clinging to his hand. Judging by her mud streaked legs and dirty dress, Henry figured she’d been in the river and she confirmed his suspicions when she trilled, “I liked playing mermaid in the river. You shouldn’t have made us quit, Eddie.”
“You shouldn’t have been in the water,” Eddie said with a calm firmness Henry admired. His kid brother’d grown up a lot in the past year or so. Even though seven years separated the brothers, Henry loved the boy. He’d promised to protect Eddie at birth, glad to have a new brother. There’d been two others, Bobby and Floyd, but they died with whooping cough back when Henry was six. Although he wouldn’t talk about them, he mourned their loss and he’d done his best to keep Eddie safe. “You know better and if Mama sees how dirty your dresses are, she’s going to whip you.”
Henry glanced at his mother, still churning butter. If she’d heard, she didn’t show it so he slipped out the back door. He met the girls and herded them toward the pump. With his help, they managed to wash away the worst of the muddy stains. Their clothes would dry fast in the heat.
“Thanks, Henry,” Dorothy said. At thirteen, she dreamed of movie stars and the magic found somewhere outside Oklahoma. She admired Mamie because the young teacher dressed pretty and presented nice manners. Dorothy’s dress didn’t need any attention – she looked as prim and proper as she could despite the fine film of dust around her hem. “I told them not to play in the water, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Anna wrung water from her skirt with a grin. “It was fun, though, and I’m cool right now. It feels grand.”
“I bet it does,” Henry said. “But you shouldn’t do it again. Some of the river water isn’t so clean and I’ve seen plenty of snakes down there. We don’t want to bury you with Daddy or the boys, Miss Anna.”
He invoked their father’s name and the kids’ faces darkened. Everyone remembered the terrible day when Daddy died trying to break a horse. They remembered all too well how he never looked quite right in the casket, his broken neck causing his head to lie askew. Their grins and giggles melted away and in an effort to fix his mistake Henry lifted Viola into the air, high above his head. Then he grasped her hands tight in his and spun her in circles until he wobbled with dizziness. The little girl laughed, her merriment restored as he let her go. She staggered toward the house on unsteady legs.
“I want to do it, too,” Anna cried. Henry grasped the ten-year old girl’s hands and spun her the same way he had Viola. His baby sister weighed nothing, her bones so fine and fragile and Anna wasn’t much heavier. Henry noticed how thin they were beneath their worn and faded dresses and wished he could feed them up on hamburgers, meat loaf, roast chicken, and all the things he dreamed about from better times. I’ll be able to feed them better soon, he promised himself. Henry lowered Anna and turned to Dorothy. “You want a turn?”
“Nope,” she said.“I’m too old for such nonsense. But thanks anyway, Henry.”
“You bet,” he said and on impulse tugged her long braid. She squawked loudly, but when he folded her into his arms in a hug she smiled. “C’mon, kids, let’s go eat. Mama’s got supper ready.”
They gathered around the table and joined hands for a blessing. Henry ate his green beans, though he didn’t enjoy them, heavy with bacon grease, but he thought the corn bread, slathered with fresh butter tasted fine. So did the others, he noticed. No one talked much, too busy eating.
When he finished his portion, Henry cleared his throat and said, “I’m heading out tomorrow to see if I can find some work. I’ll go over to Woodward and maybe I’ll go farther still.”
His words fell into the quiet like stones dropped into a placid pond.
Mama kept her head down as she ate her last few bites of green beans. Eddie stared at him, eyes huge and mouth open. Dorothy clapped her hands with delight and said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. I wish I could go, too.” Viola’s face clouded like she might start crying and Anna dropped her spoon.
Henry cleared his throat, uncomfortable and added, “I won’t be gone too long, I promise.” When no one commented further, he made sure the gals helped Mama wash up and left the table.
He cleaned up at the wash stand in the middle of the room and combed his hair. Henry changed shirts and put on his shoes. He’d been going barefoot around the farm to save leather, but he’d be damned if he’d go courting unshod. He found his mother sitting out on the back porch, hands folded into her lap in a pose as close to leisure as she ever got. Eddie sat on the bottom step mending the ancient harness used on their sole horse, an old nag named Dobbin.
“Where’s the gals?” Henry asked.
“Dorothy’s reading on the front porch,” Mama said. “The little girls are playing dolls in the shade behind the barn.”
Henry caught the faint sound of their voices and laughter. He smiled to hear evidence of their fun. “I’m going over to see Mamie.”
“Are you taking Dobbin?” Eddie asked, frowning down at the half-mended leather on his knee.
“I am, but I’ll ride him bareback,” Henry said. “It don’t make me no never mind.”
If gasoline wasn’t an issue he would’ve taken the ancient flivver his dad bought back when they had a good year on the farm, but since he planned to leave in the morning, he’d save the fuel for the trip to town.
“Mind yourself, son,” Mama said.
“I intend to, Mama.”
Henry strolled out to the sagging corral and caught Dobbin. He swung his leg over the horse with one graceful motion and settled onto the gelding’s back. With Dobbin’s mane caught between the fingers of his left hand he kicked the horse and he took off, leaving dust trailing behind him down the long dirt road.
As the sun slipped down a western sky ablaze with glorious color, Henry headed away from home and toward Mamie, his girl.