When a rainmaker is bludgeoned to death in the pitch blackness of a colossal dust storm, small-town sheriff, Temple Jennings, shoulders yet another burden in the hard times of the 1930s Dust Bowl. The killing only magnifies Jennings’s ongoing troubles–a formidable opponent in the upcoming election, the repugnant burden of enforcing farm foreclosures, and his wife’s lingering grief over the loss of their young son.
As the sheriff and his young deputy investigate the murder, their suspicions focus on a teenager serving with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The deputy, himself a former CCCer, struggles with remaining loyal to the corps while pursuing his own aspirations as a lawman.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s wife, Etha, is secretly bringing meals to tramps camped outside of town. It has been fifteen years since her young son accidently drowned back east, and in the malleable adolescent faces of the young men around the campfire she imagines how her own Jack might have looked. As the evening wears on and Etha overstays her welcome, she is rescued by Carmine, a CCC boy who is passing through the hobo jungle.
When Temple arrests Carmine as the prime suspect in the murder, the boy is housed in the county jail. Etha takes advantage of her position as prison cook to get to know him. While she sits outside his cell and he wolfs down her apple pies, he tells her his story. She quickly becomes convinced of his innocence and sets out to prove it. But Etha’s investigations soon reveal a darker web of secrets, which imperil Temple’s chances of re-election and cause the husband and wife to confront their long-standing differences about the nature of grief.
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