Jed Curry was sixteen when he encountered the biggest dust storm of his life. He’d been in dust storms before and he’d ridden drag enough times not to be bothered by a bit of dirt in his face or dust on his clothes but this storm was bigger than anything he’d ever seen. The pastures on the Bar T ranch were still lush and green and the cattle roamed contentedly upon it, but a few miles to the south the land was barren and parched following a prolonged dry spell. Cattle had compacted the arid ground and one breath of wind blew the precious topsoil away. In an act of neighbourliness, Jeff Collins, the Bar T’s foreman, was allowing the affected neighbouring ranchers to water their herds on Bar T land.
It was as Jed and Hannibal Heyes were cutting some of those cattle out from the Bar T herd that they noticed the sky darkening to the south.
“That don’t look good,” Jed remarked, tipping his chin at the southern sky. “Rain comin’ in I reckon.”
“It’ll be a blessing for those folks if it is. I say we get these cattle across the river, then head on back,” Heyes suggested. “I don’t want to get soaked.”
“I won’t argue with that,” Jed replied, turning his horse to round up the neighbours’ cows.
By the time the cattle were safely on their own side of the river the wind had picked up and Heyes did his best to hold onto his hat. Through squinting eyes he studied the approaching gloom then called out to Jed.
“I don’t think that’s rain.”
“What?” Jed pulled his horse to a halt and followed the direction of his friend’s gaze. The sky was dark. The cloud filled the horizon. It went up and up like a giant wall of… “Is that a dust storm?”
“If it is, it’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.” Heyes tightened his horse’s rein as it pranced nervously. “We have to get to shelter. There’s a line shack just over that ridge.”
“Lead the way, I’ll follow you.”
Hannibal Heyes turned his horse and they urged their mounts into a gallop. By the time they reached the wooden shack the wind was howling all around them and dust blasted painfully at their bodies.
“We have to get the horses somewhere safe.” Jed had to shout to be heard above the whistling wind and through the bandana that now covered his mouth and nose.
“There’s a stable at the back,” Heyes pointed then turned his face away as dust blew into his eyes.
Taking a tight hold on the reins the boys led their spooked horses around the back of the cabin to a small stable meant for only one animal but today neither horse complained about sharing, they were simply glad to be out of the wind. The stable like the line shack was restocked regularly by one of the ranch workers. In fact, if Heyes remembered correctly, he was the last person to visit this isolated sanctuary to make sure all the provisions were there.
When their horses were settled Jed pushed opened the stable door, took a step out into the storm and was promptly blown off his feet. A hand grabbed hold of his jacket and pulled him upright.
“You okay?” Heyes shouted in his ear.
“Yeah! It caught me by surprise,” Jed informed him sheepishly.
“Hang onto me.”
“I don’t need to…”
“Just do it!”
Jed had no chance to argue as Heyes, grabbed hold of his sleeve and hugging the wall, made his way around to the front of the cabin. Jed followed and a few moments later pushed the cabin door closed with a sigh of relief. Even as he stood there catching his breath he watched as fine dust appeared under the door.
Heyes picked up the coffee pot and looked inside. “Can you get a fire going?” he asked Jed.
“Huh?” Jed looked up from the dust.
“Can you get a fire going? In the stove?” He pointed.
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Jed picked up some logs from the box beside the stove. He opened the stove door and threw the logs inside. His attention was drawn back to the bottom of the cabin door.
The blond boy looked up to see Heyes standing before him with the coffee pot. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You keep looking at the door.”
“It’s just…There’s a lot of dust.”
“Yeah, but we’re safe in here.”
“I know that,” Jed said, a little too quickly, doing his best to brush off any ideas his friend might have that he was scared. He threw another log into the stove then rummaged in his saddlebag for matches. Jed had the wood burning well by the time Heyes had water and coffee in the pot and placed it on the stove.
When they finally settled down with a steaming cup of coffee and jerky to chew on, the heart of the storm had reached the cabin and the sound of sand and dust blasting against the window almost drowned out their conversation.
“I reckon we’ll be stuck here all night,” Heyes commented.
“It might blow itself out soon,” Jed said, optimistically.
“It’s in for the night. Trust me; I’ve seen more dust storms than you have.”
Jed’s mouth opened as he prepared to respond then it closed again as he realised that he was lost for words. Finally he scoffed. “Sure you have, Han.”
“You saying I ain’t?” Heyes’ eyes narrowed.
“No, I’m just agreein’ with ya.” Jed gave his friend an innocent smile then stood up and moved to the window. He peered out, trying to make out the shape of a distant tree or boulder but all he could see was a swirl of dust and…Jed’s eyes narrowed. There was something out there. Something moving. He pressed his face close to the glass. There was definitely something out there. Or someone.
“There’s someone out there.” Jed didn’t take his eyes from the window.
“You’re imagining it.” Heyes said as he rifled through his saddlebags searching for something. “It’s just the dust.”
“I’m not, Heyes, I can see someone out there.”
“It’s probably just a bush being blown around.” Heyes remained focused on his search. “No one will be out there in this. Heck you can’t even see anything in this.”
“Bushes don’t ride donkeys!” Jed announced and his friend looked up.
“I said bushes don’t…”
“I heard what you said.”
“Well, then why did you ask?” Jed asked irritated.
“It’s called a rhetorical question,” Heyes explained as he moved to stand beside Jed at the window.
“A what question?”
“Where’s this donkey?” Heyes ignored Jed’s question as he moved closer to the window and narrowed his eyes. “I can’t see anything.”
“There.” Jed pointed and they both studied a spot where Jed was convinced he had seen someone on a donkey.
“You’re imagining it. I don’t see anything. No, wait I see dust. A lot of dust. There ain’t no don…” But then Heyes saw it. A figure astride a donkey, with someone walking beside them, was headed towards the cabin.
“Do you see them?” Jed asked.
“Yeah.” Heyes was stunned to admit it. “I think there’s someone out there.”
“I told you!” Jed felt vindicated. “Wonder who they are?” He looked out of the window again.
“I think we’re gonna find out cos they’re heading this way.”
“They are?” Jed pressed his face closer to the glass. He turned to Heyes. “Do we let them in?”
“I guess we have to. Can’t leave someone out in this.”
“But what if they’re..?
“What?” Heyes looked at his friend.
“I don’t know.” Jed grabbed for the first thing he could think of. “Donkey smugglers!”
An eyebrow rose above a brown eye “Donkey smugglers? Are you serious?”
“No, but they might be dangerous.”
“And we’re armed. We can be dangerous too,” Heyes stated confidently as he rested a hand on the gun he wore strapped to his hip.
The dust-obscured figures were much closer now and as the young men watched from the window they were soon able to make out the figures of a woman astride a donkey and a man walking beside them.
“They kinda remind me of…” Jed didn’t need to finish his sentence because Heyes saw it too.
“Yeah, they do.”
“You don’t think they’re…?”
“No!” Heyes scoffed. “It can’t be.” Although he didn’t sound so sure.
And then there was a knock at the door. Heyes looked at Jed. Jed looked at Heyes.
“Hola!” A man’s voice called.
Heyes headed to the door as Jed reached for his gun. Heyes shot him a look.
“We don’t know who they are,” Jed said by way of explanation.
Heyes nodded. “Who’s out there?” He called.
“Senor? Necesitamos refugio.”
“What’s he sayin’?” Jed asked.
“I don’t know I don’t speak Spanish. You know I don’t speak Spanish.”
The man banged on the door. “Hello? Please. We need shelter.” Hearing the man speak English seemed to change Heyes’ mind and he swiftly opened the door. A man and woman stumbled inside. “Gracias. Mi burro?”
“Around the back.” Jed gestured and the man soon understood that there was a shelter for the donkey around the back. He looked to the woman, as if checking that it was all right for him to leave her alone. She nodded and he disappeared into the storm to see to the animal. The woman stood nervously in the centre of the room, her clothes covered in sand and dirt. She stared at the two young cowboys before her.
“Coffee?” Heyes asked, holding up the pot.
She smiled, shyly and nodded.
“We go to Claremont but storm comes,” Manuel explained. “I look for work. We had to give up our farm. My father, my grandfather. We always work the land. Work hard but the…” He searched for the English word he needed. “No water for many months. Nothing grows.”
“The drought,” Heyes provided.
“Si. Drought. Nothing grows. No food for us. No food for animals. No crop to sell. We have to sell the farm to…” Manuel hung his head. His wife, Luciana, spoke rapidly to him in Spanish but Manuel wanted to tell his story. “Some men will be very rich when the rain comes. Many small farmers have sold to men with money. We had no choice. Our farm was my father’s and my grandfather’s before him. I am ashamed to be here but what choice did I have? I could not see my wife and the child she carries starve.”
Jed and Heyes looked at Luciana, trying hard not to stare at her stomach to see how swollen it was.
“She’s not gonna have the baby now is she?” Jed asked, clearly concerned.
Manuel smiled and shook his head. “We have a month or two yet.”
“Our boss might find work for you,” Jed suggested.
“We’ll ask him,” Heyes said and Jed nodded in agreement. “Maybe find somewhere for you to stay too.”
“You will do this?” Manuel was surprised by their offer of help.
“Sure,” Heyes nodded.
“Why? Others have not helped us. We are Mexican and we are told to move along.” Manuel caught hold of his wife’s hand and gently squeezed it. “But we are just people. We want to be at home on our farm, raising our baby there.”
The young men exchanged a glance. It was a few moments before Heyes answered. “We know what it’s like to lose your home. To wonder where you’ll sleep tonight.”
“We’ve been sent on our way too,” Jed added.
“Thank you for helping us.”
“It’s nothing,” Heyes shrugged as he headed for the stove with Jed close on his heels.
“Jerky?” Jed held up the pieces he removed from his saddle bags.
“Thank you, yes,” Manuel nodded.
“Coffee?” Heyes asked.
“No, no, thank you. You have already been so kind.”
“I told you, Han,” Jed said, keeping his voice low. “Your coffee’s so bad even a desperate man won’t drink it.”
Jed didn’t see the glare Heyes gave him as he walked away.