Chapter 1

There is no man more hopeful than a farmer, who wakes each morning to the vagaries of a heifer gone off her feed, seed that doesn’t take, a late spring, an early autumn, too much rain or, worst of all, no rain at all, and still climbs out of bed and pulls on his overalls. And so it would seem that a fellow who swears he can cure these agrarian heartaches, who swears he can make it rain, would be clinched to the bosom of every farm community from here to kingdom come.

And that was pretty much the case in the County of Jackson, in the state of Oklahoma, in the bullseye of the Dust Bowl, on August 3 of 1935. As evening fell, farm and town folk loaded up their children and climbed into jalopies of mixed race. Strung out in a gap-toothed cortege, they motored a ways outside of town. The procession then turned sharply off the road and into a field. This particular plot had once been fertile soil, curried into deep furrows. Now it was nothing more than hardpan; as impenetrable and unforgiving as granite. A respectable thoroughfare as any. The last speck of loamy topsoil had blown across Oklahoma’s borders into Arkansas years back, leaving behind compacted dirt, its individual particles bound together so tightly that even single drop of water couldn’t wriggle through. But that made no matter because there was no water. Not an iota of rain had dribbled into the parched mouth of the County of Jackson for two hundred and forty days.

In silent choreography, the folk parked alongside one another and debarked. As they gathered, billowing dust settled around wherever it chose. Pastor Coxey stepped into the semi-circle to bless the crowd and the rainmaker’s efforts. A woman commenced to coughing but quieted when a stranger with rolled shirt sleeves stepped into the headlights’ silver cones. Roland Coombs was tall, with an open, easy face. He grinned and a bit of dental work glinted far back. He’d driven into town just that morning with wooden crates of TNT and blasting powder roped down in the back of an open truck. Tucked within the pocket of his store-bought jacket had been a sheaf of testimonials from drought-stricken towns across four states. Vermillion’s Commercial Club had hired him on the spot.

Now Roland was studying the ground, cupping his fist to his chest, as if a pitcher contemplating an opening throw. When he spoke, the words rolled off his tongue.

“Thank you for that, reverend. I surely am in need of the good Lord’s blessing.”

There were a couple of amens for that.

“I am here to tell you that He has placed in my hands the tools with which to bring rain to your parched fields. Nothing complicated. Just this little old matchstick and a load of TNT.”

A skiff of dirt blew up, skimming the hardpan and needling the bare legs of little girls in their short dresses. Several set to bawling.

Roland didn’t let one iota of a pause interrupt his pitch. “You see, I was a munitions man during the war. Shoveling shells into howitzers and blowing the Huns to kingdom come. One afternoon it came to me that every time we’d deliver a good old dose of TNT, we’d get a drenching sure as shootin’. The explosions would give the skies a healthy kick in the drawers, as one might say, and down came the rain. Blam if I know why, but it happened all the same.”

Roland grinned wide. Many in the crowd chuckled, relaxing into his river of words. Some, mostly farmers and their wives, retained a stiff reserve. Their hearts had been broken too many times. But still they hoped.

Roland cocked a finger at the crowd. “But I recognize some doubters out there. And that’s for the good. Because seeing is believing. Tonight I’m going to pepper your skies with TNT and see if you don’t get a hard rain by tomorrow afternoon. How about that for a guarantee? And I’ll keep at for the next three weeks to make sure the soakers continue.”

He rubbed his hands together. “So, let’s get the ball rolling. Mamas hold your little ones tight.” Switching on a heavy flashlight, he trotted over to the launch area he’d set up earlier that day. The first twenty shells packed with TNT were pointed nose up toward the stars. Roland squatted to inspect the explosives, then began delicately linking each fuse to the detonator. He inhaled. Nothing sweeter than the scent of explosives.

For the first launch, he’d arranged the shells in two concentric circles. This pattern had produced rain before and it was worth trying again. It was all about the timing and the pattern. If he just found the right combination and summoned up a healthy dousing, the whole Oklahoma panhandle – hell, the entire High Plains — would be his gravy train. Striking the match, he studied the blue flame. It wiggled like that girlie show dancer he’d seen in Kansas City, who shimmied while he and the rest of the audience panted; thumping away under the newspapers covering their unbuttoned flies. He lit the fuse and hustled back to the gathered crowd.

“Ladies, cover your ears. It’s a coming,” he shouted as the rockets shot upward with high-pitched screams. A series of thudding concussions shook the sky and shot vibrations deep into the hardpan. It was as if the millions of buffalo, slaughtered sixty years back, had risen from the dead and were stampeding again.  And with the concussions came explosions of harsh white light. Flashes revealing all, then plunging the spectators into darkness, then stripping them naked again. Over and over as the loose blankets of dust on the road, on the fence-posts, on the autos and on the people, rippled and redistributed themselves time and again.