The Black Blizzard by JW Edwards

sand storm

 

July 10th, 1893 The storm hits.

Unable to wait patiently for his horse to come to a complete halt, Barnaul Caine hurriedly dismounted and made his way at a run out of the old corral towards the cabin. The hunted rider peeked through the single pane plate glass window that served to light the desert cabins interior. Seeing no sign of life within, he shouldered the handmade plank entrance door open and stepped inside. The coolness of the cabins interior surprised him as outside, the temperature had skyrocketed past one hundred and fifteen degrees. A quick look about told him the cabin had been abandoned to the elements some years ago. Not the cleanest of places he mused, yet it would still serve to give him the needed protection he’d been   hoping to find.

Stepping back outside, he glanced at the black horizon and knew he had maybe fifteen minutes at best before the monstrous mile high dust storm stuck. He wondered what would reach him first the storm or the group of men on his tail.

The discovery of a serviceable bucket at the cabins well told him folks found this a God send of a shelter from time to time. Hauling bucket after bucket of the cool well water inside he filled an old wash tub that had been hanging on the interiors back wall. Not that he had any intention of bathing mind you, instead he knew the dust storm could last for days and he’d need clean drinkable water for his horse as well as himself during that time.

Retrieving his horse he’d simply named Horse, he brought her to stand inside the cabin. The whites of her eyes told him all he needed to know. If his horse had such a fear of the coming storm, then he better prepare for the worst. Running outside again, he found an old outbuilding that had once served as a stall and blacksmith shop. “Must have been a farrier that lived here,” he absently thought.

Seeing no tools of the trade, he figured the Farrier must have left the place voluntarily for parts unknown. He knew that years back there had been a thriving silver mine in the nearby hills and when it closed, the lone farrier must have left too.

Stepping into the stall area, he was pleasantly surprised to find a partially filled sack of oats in a small alcove used for storing tack. At one time an old bed sheet curtain had hung from nails separating the alcove from the two stalls. He reached down and grabbing the old bed sheet, rolled it up and stuffed it inside the sack along with the oats. Time was of the essence so he abandoned the search for any more usable finds and ran back into safety of the cabin.

“Well Horse,” He said as he entered the cabin, “I found you some eats at least.” Laying the burlap sack down he scooped some into the empty water bucket and let her feed. After feeding, he brushed the horse down using an old moth eaten towel he’d found. Between the feeding and brushing the mare calmed down and began accepting her unusual situation.  Barnaul then began tearing the old bed sheet he’d found into hand width strips. These he would use to plug the gaps and holes of the cabin.

He knew when the dust storm hit, the choking dust would find it’s way into the building through even the smallest unattended crack.

Wiping the years of soil from the window pane, he glanced outside at the coming storm. He figured he was down to about five minutes now. Using his knife, he quickly began stuffing the torn bed sheet strips into as many cracks and crevices as he could find. All too soon the storm would strike and still the single window needed to be covered.

At one time, a wooden shutter had been secured with bent spikes pounded into the window’s frame to hold it in place. Over the years its leather hinges had dry rotted and the unsecured shutter had fallen to the ground. Retrieving the shutter he lifted it back into place and turned the bent spikes over the shutter to once again secure it.

Unlike a winter blow or a monsoon rain, the dust storm had its own way of announcing itself. Rising as high as the eye could see the mile high wall of howling blackness bore down on the cabin and its occupants. The desert sand outside began to blow across the ground, not away from the storm but towards it. This surprised him but he had no time to ponder this phenomenon as he secured the shutter in place. Moments later, the storm stuck.

Struck might be the wrong word, punched or kicked is closer but still even those words lacked in their description.

Heading back inside, Barnaul had just made it to the door when he was violently smashed against the cabins outside wall. With the breath knocked out of him, he gasped for air as he tried to open the door outward into the storm. He finally managed to open it enough to pry his boot into the opening. He could hear Horse clomping about and whinnying in renewed panic. He needed to get inside to calm the poor beast. Wedging his shoulder into the crack he managed to pry the door open enough to squeeze his body through the opening. The storm’s pressure on the door left bruises across his chest and back but it was far better being bruised than shredded like lettuce by the sand and small rocks being blown by the storm.

Once again he made his way around the cabin trying to minimize the incoming dust with the strips of bed sheet. Without warning, the old cast iron stove’s smoke pipe suddenly exploded from the stove. The fierce wind had tried to make its way down the pipe poking its way through the roof but was forced to stop when it reached the stoves firebox door. The resulting increase in pressure lifted the pipe clean from the stove. A six inch wide tunnel of dust blasted its way down into the cabin from the section of pipe left protruding from the ceiling. Blinded by the dust, Barnaul felt for the overhead pipe as he removed his vest. Finding the pipe he stuffed the vest into the hole and using his hands crimped the edge of the pipe closed. As the pipe filled with sand from above, it effectively sealed off the pipe.

The cabin was being rocked by the blasting storm.  Creaking and groaning, the cabin seemed to have been built with the fore knowledge that these storms come time and time again. It was the roof that worried Barnaul the most but after the first hour he began to relax a might more.

There wasn’t much he could do now but tend to his horse and wait the storm out. Those tracking him would have to do the same.

    Chewing on a piece of dried beef flank, Barnaul sat back against the wall for there were no chairs or tables. Time passed slowly as the moaning wind continued its assault on the land.

Alone and nearly exhausted, he thought of his recently deceased Coleen and what his own future now held without her. He’d purchased the ranch in full that the two had planned on operating so at least that much was settled. If he survived the next few days, he’d have a chance of still making a go of the place, although without a wife it had much less purpose. He was young and knew he’d end up remarrying someday. He just wasn’t going to look for it right away, that’s all. If it happened it happened. Things occurred in a man’s life that wasn’t always pleasant, death was all too common, especially in the west. The living grieved and then they continued on, if they didn’t they joined the dead.

Finishing his scant meal, he fed some of the discovered oats to his horse again and settled in as comfortable a position as could be expected. Someone before had made a rough bed using various grasses but Barnaul took one look at the critters seeking to escape his poking around the bed with his knife that he opted to sleep on the open dirt floor instead. Throughout the night the storm raged and found numerous new crevices to enter the cabin. By morning dust piles looking like small snow drifts had formed on every shelf, nook and cranny within the cabin. Barnaul himself looked like he had been dragged through the desert for all the dust in his hair and clothing.

Making his way to the old wash tub, he removed Horse’s saddle blanket that had been covering it throughout the night.  He scooped up enough water in the pail to wash his hair and face free of the dust. Taking a damp piece of the bed sheet he blew his nose into it… Mud. At least he could breathe easier now. Reaching behind his neck, he untied the bandana and retied it over his face covering his nose and mouth to prevent breathing any further dust.  Even so, each time his teeth came together it was like chewing on grit paper. He moved over to Horse and using the damp cloth cleaned the horse’s nostrils of as much dust as he could. Horse seemed to know and held still. Turning, he saw a small broken mirror hanging on the wall told him he still looked a sight. The one time handsome face cropped in soft brown hair and complimented by green eyes and a well grown mustache now resembled that of a wild miner that had been the loser in a saloon brawl. Blood shot eyes stared back and each blink felt as if he’d rubbed them with prickly pears. It had been only three weeks since he had been forced to take to the desert but being on the run and the dust storm seemed to have added ten years to his looks.

Dirty tears involuntarily slid down his dusty cheeks as he recalled the events of three weeks ago. While the storm continued its beating on mother earth, Barnaul beat himself with his own memories.

June 12th, 1893 Three weeks earlier

The two newlyweds, Barnaul and Coleen, had just returned to their Texas home from their week long honey moon when they announced they had purchased an existing working ranch in the Arizona Territory during their time away.

The owner of the ranch had died suddenly so his wife put the place up for sale and moved back east. In the sale agreement, the ranch’s foreman and staff were kept on and the cattle were purchased for only four cents on the dollar after they were driven to market.

The thought of losing his sister Coleen forever to the tall handsome cowboy was too much for the insane Tory McClandish. That night he set fire to their modest home in crazed anger hoping both would die. Only Coleen did. She was overcome by the smoke and as hard as he tried, Barnaul could not find her in all the dense smoke to save her.

After burying the feisty red haired beauty, he was coldly invited into the McClandish home. Once inside, he was confronted by the angry red faced Ian McClandish, his son Tory and a few of the ranch’s rougher hands.

Before any words of greeting were spoken, Barnaul was manhandled to the floor where Ian McClandish pounded him severely using his brass knobbed cane.

Through swollen eyes received from the beating, Barnaul Caine looked up at his father in law. He had tried in vain to explain it was not his fault Coleen did not survive but his father in law would hear no more of it.

“Stop your lies you coward! Not two weeks after you married her, my daughter lies burnt and buried in her grave and all because you did not have the guts to save her. Don’t tell me you tried! You stood there and watched her burn, I know.  My son Tory saw the whole thing and you have the gall to try and blame her death on him, her own brother! You sniveling coward!” Ian McClandish raised his cane to strike at Barnaul once again.

Barnaul’s mind raced even as his body was about to be broken. How could he convince his father in law that what he had discovered was the truth. That his wife Coleen had an insane brother who was in love with his own sister and if he could not have her, no one would, especially his new brother in law Barnaul.

Just as McClandish brought his cane down again, Barnaul twisted to the left causing the brass headed cane to violently strike the ornate wooden inlay floor of his father in laws sitting room. Three sets of arms instantly reached out for him but Barnaul skirted away on his hands and knees.

Having cleared the three sets of grabbing of hands, Barnaul lurched to his feet and made a dash for the door. Tory McClandish, the insane love struck brother, was right behind him. As he reached the door Barnaul spun around and kicked out with all his might. The tip of his boot buried itself deeply into Tory McClandish’s unprotected crotch stopping Tory in his tracks.

As Barnaul left the porch on the fly, he heard from behind him the shouts of the other two men mingling with the cursing groans of Tory. The old man continued to spew his hatred even as Barnaul made it to his horse and rode quickly off. With the old man’s promises of killing Barnaul for the death of his daughter still ringing in his ears he headed west to the Territory of Arizona and to his ranch. Everything he planned to take with him to Arizona was in Texas but if he returned to salvage anything from his home he’d surely be found and murdered.

July 11th, 1893 The second day of the storm.

Barnaul found no sleep that night. Between the memories of the last three weeks and the demonic howling of the dust storm sleep was the last thing accomplished.

The cabin continued to shake and groan and no matter how many rags were stuffed into the cracks, the dust was still choking him. He frequently wiped Horse’s nostrils clear and eventually removed his own shirt to tie around her head covering the end of her nose. The mare continued to show signs of distress so after washing out her eyes he tied the shirt arms in such a fashion as to cover her eyes. This seemed to finally calm the creature down enough that Barnaul no longer feared being stomped on.

July 12th the storm ends

The morning of the third day brought no relief. The past few days of arid heat pushed the thermometer past one hundred inside the cabin. The roof had begun to loosen in places causing some boards to rattle loudly. As each hour passed, more dust found its way inside. Having run out of rags Barnaul was forced to stuff his only blanket between the worst of two loose roof planks. His noonday meal dinner consisted of dried meat and dust.

He wondered about the McClandish’s and how far behind him they were when the storm struck. They were only a few miles behind him when he found the cabin and not fifteen minutes later all hell broke loose. He figured they must have hunkered down somewhere nearby to wait the storm out. He’d have to be prepared for their arrival the moment the dying storm permitted travel.

Actually, it wasn’t the cabin he found first but only the corral. The cabin was pretty well hid by overgrown brush and a large mesquite tree.

It wasn’t until he entered the corral that he spotted the small building a hundred feet off. Of all the bad episodes luck he’d had, finding the cabin wasn’t one of them.

Thinking about it, in a way he actually understood Ian McClandish’s reaction to his daughters death. The cards had been stacked against him from the moment he began courting the fiery red haired Coleen. Her father had been against the two becoming intimates as Barnaul Caine was from an English heritage. It made no difference that Barnaul’s great grandfather fought side by side Daniel Morgan as a sharpshooter in 1777 during the Revolutionary War against King George’s army.  To McClandish, once English, always English and the McClandish’s were Scotts and hated anything English.

Still, Coleen persisted in trying to convince her father who eventually agreed half heartedly to the pairs marriage.

The decision to begin ranching separate from the McClandish’s drove the wedge between Barnaul and Ian McClandish deeper. Tory McClandish had his father’s ear and he plied the old man with tales of Barnaul’s spousal abuse and marital indiscretions… none of which were true. Having lost his own wife in a strangely similar house fire only a year previous, Ian McClandish could not bear a repeat performance involving his only daughter. Tory began to spread the rumor that Barnaul had argued with Missus McClandish only hours before and had left the McClandish home that night in a fury. Tory had conveniently left out the fact that Barnaul was out on the range branding cattle some thirty miles east at the time.

Poor Coleen, Barnaul thought, she was so excited about starting their new ranch. The two had purchased the prosperous spread alongside the Cottonwood Creek in the high rolling plains area east of Holbrook. Coleen would never see it now. He doubted seriously now that he would either. With a family like the McClandish’s, there was no safe place to hide. They’d spend the rest of their days on his trail until the caught up with him. Though the McClandish group amounted to only five men, they were a most hell bent group when seeking revenge. Barnaul knew his death would not be a quick or painless one when they caught up to him.

Driven into a deep despair over his recent misfortunes, Barnaul cried out to the wife who could no longer possibly hear his voice. “Oh Coleen I’m missin’ you somethin’ fierce! I wish above all else that you was here with me right now to talk to. We never even got a chance to even say goodbye to each other honey an’ now I’m about to be kilt graveyard dead too. It ain’t fair! I know your crazy brother kilt you dead just like he kilt your Ma! Now your Pa’s blamin’ me for your death and even suspects I did the same to your Ma! I cain’t prove it, but I’m sure as hell believin’ that he did in your Ma in too! Why I wasn’t even in the same county when she died. Why would I kill her, I thought she was one of the finest women I knew. Besides, she was the only one in your family besides yourself who was truly happy over our bein’ married. In truth, she was the only one I was gonna’ miss after we moved on to Arizona. Dang it Coleen, you know I’da never kilt her! Now I’m a walkin’ dead man as ever was one!”

Self pity wouldn’t solve anything and Barnaul knew it. Raising himself from off the floor he decided to feed some of the oats to his horse. Brushing her down with the palm of his hand he spoke, “Listen up Horse, when this here storm cuts out you’re gonna’ be on your own. I’ll leave this here oat sack open on the floor for ya’ till you can find some graze somewhere. When I leave it’s gonna be on foot as I’m thinkin’ that I might make a smaller target that way.

If I can get to those hills yonder, I might even stand a chance of shakin’ them off my tail. I’ll be leavin this here door open so’s you can leave an’ not be trapped inside. I hate to tell you this girl, but I’m mighty convinced that once that door opens, it’ll be the last time we ever see each other agin.”

It was a change in sound that alerted him. The wind was dying down quick. Checking his revolver to make sure he had a full cylinder, he stepped near the door.

Taking one last glace about the small cabin, he realized he was about to abandon the only thing he owned besides his horse and the clothes on his back, his blanket. Chuckling quietly, he said, “It’s a sad day when the only thing a man owns is his blanket and he’s forced to abandon even that!”

As the wind abated further, an eerie stillness settled over the land. Easing the door wide open there was no other sound now than his own breathing. No birds, no rustling of small critters, nothing. He strained his ears in fear of hearing the McClandish’s. Nothing. Stepping cautiously into the open with gun drawn, he began stepping away from the cabin.

The land had the appearance of a tan winter landscape after a blizzard. Sand drifts were piled waist deep against anything that had not moved. Some of the corral post had completely disappeared under tons of dust. The smell of the alkali soil burnt his nose when he inhaled and the unfamiliar brightness of the sun hurt his eyes. Stepping towards the corral in his trek to reach the distant hills, he continued to be on alert for the McClandish’s dreaded arrival. Reaching the corral, he realized this section of the top rail was only two feet tall, the rest remained buried below in the drifted dust. Something moved away underfoot as he stepped over the rail. Unconcerned, he tried shoving it away with his foot. It moved but would not dislodge from where it lay. Glancing down, he did a double take and let out a yelp. “What in tarnation???”

It was a skull and it was attached to something much bigger… a body.

Whatever skin remained on the skull had the appearance of glued on flaps of dry rotted leather. In horror, Barnaul realized what he had just stepped on, Ian McClandish’s sand blasted head. Still leaning against the corral post half buried in the sand stood his brass knobbed cane.

Backing away from the grizzly sight, he noticed more forms in the drift, three in all. Holstering his revolver, and using his hands for a shovel, Barnaul cleared the remains of Tory and the ranch’s Segundo Javier.  Each body had been cleaned of skin where exposed to the wind. Tory’s head lay back, his gaping mouth and hollow eye sockets were filled with the storms dust. In a futile attempt to protect his face, the Segundo’s head still wore a tattered bandana around his neck . A large mound nearby turned out to be the wind buried carcasses of five very dead horses.

A sudden fear struck him as he realized two men were still not accounted for.  Redrawing his pistol, he knelt behind the corrals low top rail in an attempt to find cover. Nothing moved.

It was then that he realized there were two more forms half buried in the dust. One was less than thirty feet from the cabin and the other lay a good two hundred feet where the trail had been.  Making his way to each form, he verified the bodies were those of the ranch hands that had been riding for McClandish.

“Well I’ll be!” he mused, “They must never have realized how close to the cabin they was. I guess the dust storm prevented ‘em from seeing more’n a foot or two in front of ‘em.”

Barnaul decided not to bury the bodies as he had no shovel and in the after storms searing heat, the bodies had already begun to stink something awful. “They ain’t deservin’ no prayers from me, I’ll just let ‘em lie where they’s at. Besides, they’s half buried anyway”

Hearing a sound behind him, Barnaul spun around ready to pull the trigger. There in the doorway stood his horse as if waiting for his return. “OK,OK, I’m comin’ Horse, I guess you and I still got some trails to ride together after all. All these folks chasin’ us gave up their ghost an’ most of their skin too!” Barnaul began to laugh, whether from his attempt at the bad joke or out of pure relief from finding himself being counted in the living again he did not know, nor did he care. His life and future had been handed back to him. It was up to him to make whatever he wished of it.

Back inside the cabin again, he dusted off the saddle and the rest of his tack. Pulling the blanket from between the roof planks, he shook it out and rolled it up behind the saddle. Tying the feed sack, he stuffed it into one of the saddle bags. He was about to lead his horse out of the cabin when something caught his eye, something shiny on the floor.

Bending over, he gently picked up the object and cradled it in the palm of his hand. It was a locket, the very locket that Coleen wore every day since her mother’s death. Inside rested a small painting of her mother. Barnaul’s hand began to shake. The locket had been buried with Coleen! She was telling him she had been with him all along.

July 18th 1893 Home

He caught sight of his ranch while still some miles out. By the time he arrived at the gate a small party had assembled to greet him.

A tall glass of water of a man rode forward. He may have looked a bit on the thin and wimpy side but Barnaul saw the rippling wire tight muscles move under his long sleeved shirt and knew the man was no push over. Tipping his broad brimmed slouch hat, the thin cowboy rode forward to greet his new boss. “I’m Chet, the foreman here, I take it you’re Barnaul Caine? We saw you comin’ from some distance off. Excuse me for saying this Sir but you look a sight!”

Barnaul returned the gesture of friendship by extending his hand. Chuckling, he told him, “Trust me Chet, It’s worse than it looks.”

A quizzical look came over Chet’s face as he glanced past Barnaul and into the distance. “Uh, is the Misses lagging behind, ‘cause I don’t see her nor any wagons yet?”

Barnaul sat quiet for a moment then spoke up and explained the reason for Coleen’s absence and why he looked so tattered.  “It’s a long story that can be best told in full over a hot meal and a few gallons of coffee. Am I too late for dinner?”

Barely finished speaking, Barnaul heard the dinner bell being rung. “Well’” he said to himself smiling, “I guess I timed that one right.”

The group turned and rode on to the mess building where the dinner bell was being beaten like the place was on fire. As they got closer to where the mess, Barnaul gulped when he saw who was ringing the bell. A girl with fiery red hair wearing a calico dress and yelling at the top of her lungs stood calling the men to dinner.

Barnaul blinked at seeing the girl. His first thought was that it was his Coleen but as he got closer he saw there were plenty of subtle differences. Turning to Chet he asked, “Who is that?”

“You mean Sheila? She’s the ranch cook. She used to cook for the owners too, she’ll probably end up cooking yours meals also. She’s a wonder in the kitchen but let me warn you right now, she’s got as much spunk and spit in her as a She Badger with pups!” Laughing heartily, Chet continued on. “None of the hands cross her path for fear of losing their lives!”

“Is she married?”

Chet caught the look in Barnaul’s eyes and chuckled, “Ha! I’d give a hundred dollars to the man that’d attempt to tame that one! No Sir, She’s awful purty to look at but ya’ll soon learn discretion is the better part of valor!”

As they passed in front of the girl, Barnaul removed his hat and nodded smiling at the red haired girl. In return, Sheila angled her head and looked shyly up at her new boss. A faint smile worked its way past her defenses and a spark of wonder formed in her eyes.

Chet had not been made foreman because he was an unobservant fellow. He caught the message the two had just encrypted in their smiles to each other and chuckling to himself said, “Oh Lord, here we go, the She Badger just met her mate!”

Watching the group ride towards the mess, Sheila’s let go of the clapper rope silencing the bell. There she leaned against the porch roofs pillar and with pounding heart exhaled heavily. Breaking into a smile she thought to herself, “There rides my future man!”

JW Edwards 02/21/2013

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8 comments on “The Black Blizzard by JW Edwards

  1. sunbeamtn says:

    you men are so damn fickle…what? another woman not even a month after he loses his bride? 

    You can play this one into a serial…..boy meets girl….boy loses girl…boy gets girl LOL

    Nice description on the dust storm. I read a book about the Dust Bowl and then we watched the special on PBS.

    ________________________________

    • Shoot Ma’am, My Mama had callers the same week my Pa died! She had 5 boys and two girls… it was like a gold find to most farmers and ranchers back then. Many folks in my family had married “out of convenience”. If you saw some of the women in my family, you’d understand why love was secondary. Not to disparage them any but back in the day women of the west were a pretty rough looking group. Most all my women in my stories are good looking and the men never have pot bellies or missing teeth! Not quite the average person back then. Regarding the dust storm I wrote about. It is taken from true life. I know all about stuffing cracks in windows and planks. I had to follow my Mama around the house carrying the ripped up bedsheets for her while my older siblings tended the barn and animals with my Pa. I can still feel the grit in my teeth to this very day. Thanks for the great comment, I hope you have time to enjoy some of my other stories. JW

  2. rivenfae says:

    I love this story, I’d like to see more of the tale. Maybe find a way to show that the brother did kill his sister and mother. Would be interesting.

    • If I wrote it in the form of a noel I’d have plenty of space to do that. That’s why novels are esier to write in my opinion. A short story by its very nature has to eliminate certain things and leave them up to the imagination o0f the reader. I wrote a western novel once and few people read it for lack of time. Sadly, this seems to be getting to be the norm.

  3. Very well written and for me, such an intriguing time period. The harsh natural elements add weight, and a compelling interest to the story.

  4. tbnranch says:

    Loved the story friend, and I’m impressed by the use of a time line… you are brave! Excellent visuals.

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