Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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Bam White walked past the sanitarium and on down Denrock, the main street of Dalhart. The cowboy passed the Felton Opera House, two stories tall with fine Victorian trim, then a clothing store, with window displays of new dress shirts and silk ties. This was Herzstein's; as far as anyone knew, they were the only Jews in Dalhart. Streetlights, with wicks that had to be lit every night, dangled from cords strung to poles. A bustle of people played cards and jawboned over grain prices inside a new-looking, yellow-brick hotel, the DeSoto. The DeSoto was first class: solid walnut doors, a bathtub and toilet in every room, along with a telephone. A guest could dial 126 and get a reservation to see a girl at the place just west of Dalhart. It didn't have a name, just the Number 126 house. Next door to the DeSoto was the moving picture establishment, the Mission Theater. None of Bam White's children had ever seen a movie.

Crews came by with sprinklers to wet down the streets, but dust still kicked up with every carriage and car that passed by. The town felt somewhat tentative; a mighty breath or a twister could blow everything down, collapsing all the pretty painted sticks. Talking to folks, Bam White found out real quick who owned Dalhart. That would be Uncle Dick Coon, the well-fed gentleman sitting there at the DeSoto with his cards in one hand and a hand- rolled cigarette in the other. He owned the DeSoto, the Mission Theater, just about every business on Denrock. You watch Uncle Dick for just a few minutes, folks said, and you would see him flash a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. Three months of cowboy wages pinched between two fingers. Bam White had never seen a hundred dollar bill till he came through Dalhart. The C-note was Uncle Dick's heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick Coon's family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn't plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn't even plan on staying in the High Plains. In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate's real estate agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT. The ranching went well, but the real money was in town building.

Back from his tour of town, Bam White found Lizzie in a panic and the children looking at him like they'd just had the life scared out of them.

What is it?

Dead horse.

Again?

Dead. Check for yourself, daddy.

Bam White's horse was flat on its side, the body cold, rotted teeth exposed. She was dead all right. Now Bam was without enough of a team to make it another step. The family had no means to buy another horse, and it had been hard enough traveling from Boise City to Dalhart. Well, then, it must be a sign, Bam said to the kids — maybe he was born for this XIT country anyhow. There have got to be plenty of jobs in this new town, even on a gentleman's ranch.

Marooned, Bam made his decision on the spot: the family would stay in Dalhart. A guy in town had told him about opportunities in the newly plowed fields. This town was going places. It had a shine, a face full of ambition. The fields were turning fast, making money for anybody with a pulse and a plow. The way White looked at Dalhart was the way Doc Dawson and Uncle Dick looked at their homes in the Panhandle: as the last best chance to do something right, to get a small piece of the world and make it work. The wanderer would settle in and see what the earth would bring him in what had been the world's greatest grassland.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

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