The world had lost its sheen. Its vibrancy. Its life.
Sadie Rose Perkins stared at the ceiling and dreaded yet another day. How could she face the people of Wharton City with their accusations and stares? How could she face her life?
Couldn’t she just turn over and let sleep claim her once more? Perhaps permanently? Nothing about this was fair. Perhaps. Did she have this coming?
How had she not seen it? She should have.
Had it only been a week since she woke to find her father gone? As if that hadn’t been heartbreaking enough, the following days brought with them an even greater distress—the man she had trusted, the town’s once prominent and respected banker, had embezzled from the bank. Really, from the good people of this town.
He had betrayed everyone. Everyone. Even her. Yes, she should have noticed that something was off. Somehow.
Would the townsfolk ever forgive her? How could they?
Perhaps she deserved as much. She should have seen the signs.
Father had been more distant, absorbed with matters of the bank. And he had been home less and less. Even then, he often closed himself in his study.
How had she not seen? Not suspected?
Yes, she had earned blame in this.
If only she could apologize enough. But no one would hear it. Scowls and narrowed gazes were the staple greeting now. And would be.
Sadie covered her face. What was the point?
Outside her open bedroom door, movement in the great room drew her attention. Mother.
The woman had been agitated. Even more so than usual. This whole situation had indeed taken its toll on the older woman. If only Sadie could shield her mother. From the burden. From the shame.
Sliding her feet from what little warmth the covers offered, Sadie shivered. Still, she forced herself to sit and press vulnerable soles to the cold wood. A chill shot through her—right up her spine. But she had to push on. Mother needed her.
She grabbed her knit shawl, a precious gift that only reminded Sadie of the time her mother was more capable, and pulled it around her shoulders. While it did nothing for her cold feet, perhaps it would keep her upper body from freezing. Padding into the great room, she found her mother by a shelf. As she watched, the woman lifted a book, flipped through the pages and tossed the volume to the floor, only to pick up another from its perch.
“Mother? What’s the matter?” Sadie crossed the room and set a hand to her mother’s arm.
The woman turned a hollow gaze on Sadie. “I…can’t seem to find your father.”
Sadie’s heart dropped. Not this again.
Shifting her focus back to her task, she said, “I know he left a map. I just can’t find it.” Her hands shook as she poured over the next book.
Reaching for the hands that had done much to comfort her over the years, Sadie attempted to still the tremors. Mother’s fingers were as ice. How long had she been up and about? Sadie lifted the book from her mother’s reach.
It seemed at first that Mother would protest. She opened her mouth, and her lips moved as if she spoke, but no sound came forth.
“You must be cold.” Sadie tugged at the older woman.
Mother stood her ground, but her gaze set on Sadie once more. If only the stare wasn’t so vacant.
Sadie’s heart squeezed.
Then there was a spark in Mother’s eyes. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?”
Sadie frowned. She never quite knew what to do in these moments. They had become more frequent of late. Since Father’s flight in the night, Mother had been in a constant state of confusion it seemed.
“Mother, I finished school. Two years ago.”
The woman’s graying hair was tangled. Sadie would have to do something about that. And her thin, frayed nightgown needed attention.
Deep brown eyes looked about Sadie’s features. Did she try to discern the truth? Could she? “School is over? Then I should get supper on the table.”
Mother pulled free. Then she walked across the cluttered area, stumbling over the pile of books, and moved toward her bedroom.
Sadie paused, taking in a deep breath and releasing it. Then she followed.
Her mother stood in front of an open wardrobe. “Now where are the potatoes?”
“In the kitchen.” Sadie could not help the moisture building behind her eyes. “Mother, let me help you get something warmer on…”
“I can’t seem to find the potatoes.” She whirled toward Sadie, that empty look about her again.
Time to try a different tactic. One that usually worked. But Sadie regretted resorting to it. She just couldn’t do this. Not right now. Hadn’t she earned a moment of peace? Just for a minute? “Mother, we had supper.”
“Oh?” The woman’s confusion intensified. As did Sadie’s distress.
“Yes,” Sadie forced her voice to stay calm. “It’s time to lay down.”
Mother’s gaze slid to the window. “It’s so bright.”
“Yes, it is. But it will be dark soon.” She laid gentle hands on Mother’s shoulders, and prodded her in the direction of the bed. “You have a big day tomorrow and you need your sleep.”
“What about your father?” Even as she protested, Mother sat on the edge of the mattress. “I need to—”
“I’ll take care of Father. You rest.”
Though there wasn’t so much as a hint of certainty in Mother’s eyes, the woman lay down and let Sadie pull the covers to her chin.
“Just for a minute.”
“All right, Ma, just for a minute.”
Then the woman closed her eyes.
Sadie tiptoed across the floor as quietly as possible so that she was in the hall before she fell apart. She shoved her fist against her mouth to muffle her sobs as she sank to the floor.
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David Anderson looked around the ranch from his position on the homestead’s porch. How did one survive here? It was so…dirty. Not that the dirt would kill him, but he definitely preferred paved roads and fine rooms. This was nothing like Richmond. He longed for the day he would wave goodbye to this place, see it in the distance, and welcome normalcy.
This next week couldn’t come fast enough. How Aunt Sylvia continued to convince him to delay their return was beyond him. No more. They would be on that train come Wednesday. No matter what.
Brandon Miller meandered out of the barn with one of his ranch hands…what was his name again? There was little need to keep up with them all. It wasn’t as if he’d be seeing them again after next Wednesday. No harm in just nodding in their direction, was there?
But as Brandon approached the house, stepping up to the porch, he eyed his cousin. How were they, two rather different people, related? Brandon loved all of these rustic things. He had been born to privilege and rejected it for this harsh land and hard ways. Calloused hands and rope burn indeed. It was beyond him why anyone would make such a choice.
And he couldn’t be more grateful for what he had back in Richmond. This, most certainly, was not the life for him. Others might consider his life too soft. Let them. He enjoyed his comfort and the society of the big city.
“How’s your day been?” Brandon murmured. Did he truly feel the need to exchange pleasantries?
David looked up to see Brandon standing near the front door. By himself. Where had that ranch hand gone? It seemed David and his cousin were alone. How he hated these moments! They never had anything to say to one another. At least, nothing that mattered.
“It’s been well enough, I suppose.” It hadn’t. But David had to remember his manners. He wasn’t anything if not for the politeness and good nature of his breeding.
“I’m going to town later. Why don’t you join me?” Brandon watched him.
Town? Why ever would he do that to himself? That small collection of buildings was no more civil than the ranch. Except…there was more to see. And perhaps he could send a telegram to his parents—assure his father that his return was imminent and let his mother know he was well.
“That sounds like a fine prospect.”
Brandon looked down at the boards that made up the porch.
Did he scoff at David? Why? He could have nothing to judge David for.
But when Brandon glanced back up, he offered a half smile. “It’ll be a good diversion I think.”
David gazed across the bare landscape—well, bare of anything meaningful—and closed his eyes.
“You coming in?” Brandon’s voice interrupted David’s efforts to imagine he was somewhere—anywhere—else.
David looked at his cousin.
Brandon held the door to the homestead open and nodded in the direction of the interior. Whatever for?
Then David remembered…mealtime. So it was.
David stood and jerked of his head in assent. “Lead the way.”
When Brandon turned, David grimaced. How much more of these meals could he take? Cook, as they called her, was a fine help in the kitchen. At least Brandon and the ranch hands had three squares a day. But David longed for the more fine cuisine he so appreciated. That was perhaps what he missed the most. Well, that and days without being covered head-to-toe in dust. Even if David stayed in the homestead, the stuff found its way everywhere onto his person.
As they stepped inside, David moved into the great room. He hoped he might grab a few moments to wash up. But he was interrupted by a distinctly feminine voice.
“I wondered where you got off to.”
Brandon’s wife moved across the space, fairly gliding. Now there was something he wouldn’t tire of—a fine woman with notable grace and poise. He understood that she had been raised back east. And it showed.
“I was just out on the porch. Taking in the…sights.” He had learned better than to share his true feelings about this dust bowl.
“Oh?” Amanda’s gaze moved between the two men. “I wished I’d have gone out to sit with you for a few moments. Oliver would have liked that.”
Oh yes, the young child did enjoy playing in all that dirt. Good heavens.
Brandon moved closer to his wife and put an arm around her, drawing her to himself and pressing a kiss to the side of her face.
She batted her eyelashes and it looked as if her face flushed.
It was all David could do not to roll his eyes. Weren’t they just the picture of perfection? David doubted that such truly existed. No matter how much they appeared so. He had nursed his broken heart long enough to know that hoping for something that didn’t exist was useless. And wasteful. Much better to focus on things he could attain—like the partnership in his father’s firm.
That mattered. That was solid. That was sure.
He smiled tightly at the couple, trying not to let his emotions show on his face. He found it difficult, so he ducked into the hall and moved into his provided sleeping space.
A quick wash made him feel more human. And a bit more himself. He glanced at his hands as he dried them—he’d found he had to wash several times a day to keep the dirt at bay. Then he touched his hair. Everything seemed in place. The pomade had gotten low. What was the point anyway? It wasn’t as if he would be seen by anyone of any consequence. So, water slicked back it was.
Sighing, he ran a hand down his shirt front. He couldn’t hide in here forever, he had to go out and face this world sometime. Straightening the shirt once more, he sucked in a breath, pushed out the door, and made his way to the dining room.
He was greeted by the stench of the cows and horses. The ranch hands had joined the family in the dining space. Could he just once be spared? Maybe he would convince Brandon to stay in town and eat at the cafe—the only piece of civility this place seemed to offer.
Still…it didn’t help him in this moment. He garnered his courage and slipped into his seat.
The filthy men, well, more overgrown boys, took their places across the table and commented on how good everything smelled.
How could they smell anything but the odors they dragged in on their boots? David certainly couldn’t.
Cook and Amanda bustled about, bringing food to the table. And Cook muttered something about waiting for grace to be said before partaking.
It was an unnecessary worry. They all knew better. Even David by now.
Though that felt as useless as everything else about this place—God indeed.
Still, he smiled and bid his time until the ‘vittles’ would be passed.
Samuel sat beside him and offered him a smile.
That boy was a bright spot. He was interesting. And interested in the things David had to share about the world he came from. But, like Brandon, the adolescent’s potential would likely be wasted on this backwoods town.
If You are listening, God. He tried. More to himself than an actual prayer. Keep this one from such a life.
He wished that there would be opportunity forthcoming for the boy. And when it came that he wouldn’t push it aside or let it pass him by.
David could hope.
Brandon said a few words to the ranch hands and then cleared his throat. David knew what was coming.
“Let’s bow our heads,” Brandon said, as he reached for his wife’s hand. Then he returned a simple prayer that was all well and good enough. For their purposes.
“Dig in!” Cook announced as Brandon closed his prayer.
All holds barred, the ranch hands went after the bowls and plates as if they had never seen food. It was always like that. Oh, how he wished that he wouldn’t have to touch the spoons after them.