Spreading love

Spreading love

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dreaming of Dust Bowls

In western Oklahoma on a clear day the sky reminds me of a huge blue bowl stretching from above to every corner of the horizon. Although the summer just past was a dry one, drought conditions never reached the historic proportions of the 1930’s and the Dust Bowl. But older folks still remember those terrible times. I’m not from Oklahoma but I have a few family roots going deep into the Sooner State. One of my great-grandmothers made the trek from what was still Indian Territory, before statehood, with her family to northwest Missouri in a covered wagon. Before we were married, my husband spent some time working on oil drilling rigs in the panhandles of both Oklahoma and Texas. I like to travel and Oklahoma ranks high among my favorite places to visit. Combine all of the above with a childhood spent listening to my grandparents talk about the past. Since they raised their children during the Great Depression era, talk often turned to the hard times of the period. One of my great-uncles made bootleg whiskey and sold it. My grandfather, living in Nebraska at the time, ran the booze north. He quit when a friend in law enforcement warned him the law knew about the activities but his brother continued. And he did a year and a day in the Missouri State penitentiary for his crime. But he wasn’t a criminal – he was a man driven to do desperate things to survive.

One of my other grandfathers (yes, I had more than the usual amount because my grandmothers were both widowed and remarried) recalled sharing a barber shop experience with bank robber Clyde Barrow. Bonnie must’ve been at a beauty parlor down the street. I grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri where outlaw Jesse James met his untimely end and I have stories about the event connected to my family. But Charley Floyd, also known as Pretty Boy Floyd (a name he hated), is my favorite outlaw. I think Choc Floyd was a basically good man who went wrong.

So when I sat down to write a historical romance set in the 1930’s, Charley Floyd came to mind. He makes a cameo appearance in my just released Dust Bowl Dreams from Rebel Ink Press and my hero, Henry Mink, gets an idea how he can save the family farm through Charley’s example.

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.

“Tell me you were just being silly a while ago,” she said. “I’ve been worried sick you meant what you said.”

Her touch kindled tenderness, but deep in his crotch Mamie’s fingers lit another fire and he inhaled hard. “I did mean it, girl. When I got back to the house, Richardson from the bank sat there, fedora on his knee, badgering Mama for money. He’s planning to foreclose and take the farm unless we come up with the money by the end of July. We sure as hell don’t have it and I don’t know of any other way to get it.”

Mamie’s eyes darkened almost black. “I could ask Daddy, Henry. I don’t know if he has it or not, but he might.”

“No,” he said, spitting out the word with force. Then he used a softer tone to add, “I appreciate it but I ain’t taking your family’s charity. I’ve made up my mind. I’ll rob a few banks, pay off the mortgage for Mama, get ahead, save some money and then I’ll quit, no harm done.”

“It’s wrong,” Mamie said with a troubled expression. “You know it is, Henry.”

He did, but damned if he’d admit it now. “What’s wrong is people getting kicked off their families’ land where they’ve lived for generations,” he said. “Banks are wrong to wring the last nickel away from folks. It’s not right for kids to go hungry or old people to do without. I don’t aim to get rich robbing banks, just take back enough to get through these hard times. If I can help a few people on the way, I will. And I don’t plan to kill no lawmen or shoot anyone.”

“Oh, Henry,” Mamie said and sighed. “I know almost everybody’s having a terrible time and no one has enough money. I don’t think the banks are being fair either, but two wrongs won’t make it right.”

“Money’ll go a long way toward fixing it,” Henry said.

“There’s not enough money in the world to make up for it if you get hurt,” Mamie said. “Or if some sheriff hunts you down to take your life. You could end up in prison down at McAlester or dead like Pretty Boy’s bandit friend, Birdwell. Your mama would just be heartbroken if anything happened to you. So would Eddie and the girls. Think about them, Henry.”

Mamie might be a smart young lady, but she didn’t understand, not yet anyway.

“I am,” he said. “I’m doing this for them. I can’t let them be put out on the road without a home or go live with stingy old Uncle Ed. And I’m worn out watching them go to bed hungry or do without almost everything. They all need shoes and I don’t think poor little Vi’s ever worn a brand new dress.”

She grasped his hand and held it so tight it hurt but he liked the connection. “Let me help them, then. I can sew. I saved some of my teacher salary and I could buy some cloth. I wouldn’t have enough to pay off the farm, but I could make the girls some nice little dresses or something.”

“Honey, I appreciate it but I can’t let you spend your money on my folks. Mamie, you don’t understand how poor we are, do you?”

“I think I do.”

“What’d your family have for supper?”

His question seemed to surprise her, but she answered. “Mama fried up some salt pork and ‘taters. She opened up a jar of corn she canned last summer and made a nice apple pie with some dried apples. Why?”

“We ate green beans seasoned with old bacon grease and onions with cornbread,” he answered. “I don’t think any of us ate enough to fill our bellies or even liked it much, but by God we ate everything Mama cooked. Hunger don’t allow for being picky.”

Mamie’s expression shifted. “That’s all you had?”

Henry nodded. “Yeah and some nights, it’s even less. Mama meant her garden to see us through summer but the pickings are pretty slim. She waters it with the dish and bath water or it’d be gone, too. We don’t have anything left to butcher and the few chickens still alive and kicking won’t lay eggs. The milk cow died last winter and we haven’t kept pigs since Daddy died. I’d hunt but it’s too damn hot for the meat to be much good and ‘sides, everyone else’s about hunted the game till it’s gone. I pull a few fish out of the river once in a while, but not many fish left either.”

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