We at RT love discovering new authors and books to love — and our RT Review Source is one way this happens! This month Cara Luecht‘s Devil in the Dust received such a rave we wanted to know more, so we snagged an excerpt for all of us to enjoy. Devil in the Dust is an inspirational historical tale, set in 1933 Oklahoma. Our reviewer loved how Luecht immerses readers in the desperation of the Dust Bowl, while still providing hope.
To the excerpt!
Emma looked back at her oldest daughter. She sat in the rocker with the two-year-old, Little Henry, nestled in her lap. He snoozed to the sounds of the familiar hissing of the unreliably broadcast radio story the five of them had waited all week to hear. Waves of dust floated in the sun that streamed through the pinholes in the tightly closed shades.
Emma had waited for the radio broadcast to begin before setting out. It was the only time she could get to the general store without the kids. They’d long since stopped asking for things they couldn’t afford, but this time, she was going to have to ask the owner to extend their credit.
The store was only a couple buildings away. They’d never been a big enough town for sidewalks and things like that, but at least no one had ever had to guess where the yards ended and the road began. Emma walked in a diagonal path, avoiding the ruts and ignoring the now imaginary boundaries.
The bell chimed, and she stepped into the deserted store. No one mulled about like they had in years past. No one had money. Or those who did have some money because family had sent it felt guilty, and those who didn’t felt jealous. Everyone, though, was ashamed. Ashamed of the dirt smeared across their faces and of the clothes that had long since lost their color. They were ashamed they only could afford preserved meats and ashamed their mouths watered at the busted apples from the government.
The whole town was ashamed. The schoolteacher had left that spring. When the fall learning should start, there would be no one to instruct the children. That, perhaps, was the deepest shame of all. No place, no future for the children. Childhood had become a luxury no one could afford. It was the kind of humiliation that admitted no hope.
Emma strolled down the aisle, past the shelves stacked with faded fabric. Every once in a while, the owner would unroll it, cut off the piece that had been exposed to the dirt, and sell it for scraps, or dresses, depending on how desperate the woman purchasing it felt. Today, the fabric needed to be cut back again.
Small sacks of flour, oats, rice, and sugar waited behind the counter. Sausages and dried meat hung from racks built into the ceiling. Turnstiles with bright buttons sat in the exact same position as the last time she’d been there. No one needed frivolous cheer now. Emma set her basket on the counter and waited quietly. Eventually, he rounded the corner.
“Sorry, Mrs. Owen. Didn’t hear you come in. What can I do for you this fine day? We had a bit of rain, we did … did you see it?”
“Yes, sir, we did.”
“Your husband back yet?”
“No, sir, he ain’t.”
“How long has he been gone?” Mr. Mitchell’s brows furrowed. He removed his spectacles and wiped the glass with the corner of his apron.
“Coming up on three weeks now.”
“Hope he gets a good price on them cattle. How long did he think it’d take?”
Emma looked at the wide plank floor. At one time it was whitewashed. Now it was the same dull color as the dirt outside.
Mr. Mitchell changed the subject. “Brother’s coming to town tomorrow.”
“What’s bringing him?” Emma breathed out. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it in. Her husband told her he’d be gone a week. There’d been no word.
“He sold his place out east. He’s looking to buy in these parts. Says he wants the small-town life.”
“I’m sure there’s enough folks willing to sell now.” Emma shifted, trying to straighten her dress. It always slid to the side, now that she’d lost so much weight.
“That’s what he’s figuring. So what can I get for you?”
“We need some things, but I wanted to ask you … well, since my husband’s not back … you see…”
“You need me to extend the credit further?”
Emma felt her face redden, and she blinked back hot tears. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Mitchell slid his ledger book out from underneath the counter and set it on top. He opened the wide book and made a show of turning the pages. Emma knew he wanted her to understand how many customers he issued credit to. “You know, these is tough times.”
“Yes, sir.” If she knew anything, she knew that. For a month, she’d been feeding her family out of the seeds meant for planting. No hope in farming anyway. Might as well eat them.
He tapped his pencil on the ledger. “Seems to me that your man has kept up pretty well so far. And you say he’s gone selling the cattle?”
“Yes, sir. Government’s buying the cattle that can’t feed because there’s no grass.”
“And you expect him back soon?”
“Yes.” Emma gave a nod that spoke of much more security than she felt.
Mr. Mitchell hummed a bit, wrote a figure in his book, then slapped it shut. “I think I can get you what you need today, but make sure your husband stops by soon after he returns.”
“Of course, Mr. Mitchell. Of course he will.”
“Good man, your husband. Always liked him. You need the usual?”
Emma nodded, trying not to look as relieved as she felt. She needed the flour bad. And the powdered milk for the baby. She watched as Mr. Mitchell stacked the things on the counter and carefully wrote down each price before settling it into her basket.
“Will this do?”
Emma looked at the items and tried to be thankful. It wasn’t enough. It never was. But it would get them by for a while. “Yes, sir.” She looked up and met his gaze. He had one brown and one green eye. She was never sure which one to look at. “Thank you. We appreciate your patience.”
“Of course.” He pursed his lips and gave one curt nod. “You have a nice day now.”
Emma slid the basket off the counter, walked out of the dusty store into the blazing sun, and glanced down the street. Once proud houses, now with leaning porches and busted-out glass, sagged this way and that. Despairing flower boxes hung lifelessly from bent nails. She took a deep breath of the dry air and stepped back into the lifeless road.
It was June. Crops should be growing. She should be tending to those first young peas in her dew-covered garden. She should be using up the last of the preserves and looking forward to picking blueberries from the patch by the cool stream that ran through the back acreage of their property.
Not only would there be no blueberries, but no stream to wade in, and no reaching, weedy flowers on the bank for the children to collect and lay on her lap, all wilted and damp with clinging roots and tender petals. Emma kicked at a stone and immediately regretted the cloud of dust that clung to her legs and followed her down the road. No. She shifted the basket to her other arm. This would have to do. It had to. He had to come home soon.
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