by M.E. Logan
The New Madrid Earthquake leveled seven states. Home and future destroyed, librarian Deborah Steele retreated to her isolated Indiana family farm and held on. It’s been five years of desperate choices, but she and the women under contract to her have survived.
Her cautious hopes for recovery are upended by the sight of a worker’s contract being casually used as a marker in a poker game. She’s horrified to discover it’s for the services of Joanna Davis, the love she has never forgotten. She acquires it without hesitation.
Joanna has lost none of her attraction or fire. Too late Deborah realizes that Joanna’s intractable anger at the way contracts—including hers—are exploited in the name of survival threatens the future of the only home she has, the women who have trusted her, and especially her heart.
Praise for M.E. Logan
Alice B. Readers: Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
Five years after the Great Earthquake
“Too rich for my blood,” came the comment from across the room. The scrape of a chair and the jingle of coins as someone’s winnings were removed from the table followed.
Deborah Steele only half-listened to the poker game in the far corner as she watched the wind whip snow into a growing drift blocking the door of the roadside diner. She took another swallow of now lukewarm coffee as she measured the frost crawling up the window. That ancient heater labored more every time it kicked on and she wondered whether it would last the night. She hoped so. They were lucky enough that the train had reached Lincoln. These days engines rather than the passengers were babied but having a halfway decent train schedule between Richmond and Logansport made it worth the occasional inconvenience. It sure beat the twenty-mile hike she had been making after her truck had died. She just couldn’t cost-justify a truck replacement when there was so much she considered more essential. So she had welcomed the news that they were rebuilding the track and now looked forward to the day when it was repaired and ran again all the way to Kokomo. It worked well for her as it was because the train transported the repair crews between Logansport, Richmond and Kokomo. In the morning there was a run to pick up crew and take them up the line, in the evening in reverse. Then they ran a scheduled route midday. If she planned carefully, she had a run whenever she wanted.
As for now, if they were going to be snowbound, she much preferred being at the diner rather than caught in an unheated train. Here were shelter, heat and even hot meals. She had been through enough snowstorms in the past five years that it took little to convince her to spend the night here.
Well, she had wanted some downtime, she thought, as she laced her fingers behind her head and stretched out. She needed to get away from the house occasionally, have some distance so she could see where she was, what she had to do. She just was not cut out for group living and living with eleven women in the house taxed her endurance. Going into town helped, but what she had really wanted was time to just do nothing. She could not remember the last time she had been alone with no agenda, no one needing her for anything. A luxury, and she would take it even if it had been delivered by a snowstorm.
She got up and stretched, wondering if the storm would blow itself out soon or whether it’d snow all night and they’d be stuck here yet another day. She hoped not. While she did appreciate the downtime, there were things she had to do at home. She wandered over to the counter, lifted her cup in question to Luella, the owner who was sitting in a booth gossiping with another of the train passengers.
“Go ahead,” Luella waved her behind the counter.
She’s probably enjoying the added business, Deborah thought as she glanced around the filled tables.
She returned to stand before the plate glass window, sipping coffee, watching it snow. She had loved snow as a kid, but now she could never see it without remembering the blizzard that hit Memphis after the Great Earthquake. Destroyed buildings covered with heavy wet snow that hampered the search and rescue teams. She had tried to pick out familiar landmarks as she watched on the television but it was impossible. Such devastation. She never could look at snow the same way again.
The death toll had been tremendous, over seventy-five thousand directly from the earthquake. Then the bad winter with massive homelessness, cities running out of food, out of fuel, out of just about everything increased those numbers. Financial failures, the insurance companies almost totally wiped out, the investment companies tanked. Banks toppled. Investors fled. Civil unrest abounded, people went where they could to survive, confronting those already there who barricaded themselves in. Riots broke out and martial law was declared across vast areas. Government was reduced to the most basic level, delighting some, terrifying others. The nation had a big black hole in the middle of the country sucking up all their resources and nothing but need oozing out.
The Great Earthquake had changed her life like it had so many others. She had come home to Indiana to take care of year-end family farm business. If not for that, she would have been there in Memphis when the New Madrid Fault moved with such shocking consequences. She might not have survived. As it was, she lost everything. Well, relatively speaking. She lost her job, her home, her community, a whole lot of friends. But she had a house and land here in Indiana. She had her life. And like most survivors, she wondered why she had been spared.
Slowly, by happenstance, she found family, women who had no one, no resources, women who couldn’t survive alone. Some had simply passed through, some stayed.
“Hey, Deborah, want to join in?”
Deborah broke her reflective mood. The poker game. She hadn’t played for years, but she’d always had good luck. And from the looks of the snowfall, they weren’t going anywhere soon. It would pass the time. Besides, there was always gossip around the poker table. She might learn something.
“Why not?” she said to no one in particular so she picked up her jacket and headed down to the other end of the diner. On her way she passed Todd stretched out on three straight chairs, his hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently asleep.
“Don’t get snookered,” he commented in a low voice as she went by.
“I’ll try not to.”
Just as she reached the midpoint a blast of cold air hit them all and the room turned to see the engineer from the railroad crew. A wave of anticipation went through the dozen or so passengers as the moving snowman stomped his boots free of snow and brushed the sleeves of his heavy coat. The scarf fell from his face, dropping clumps of snow at the door on the old linoleum.
“Any luck?” Deborah asked.
He pulled his hat off and slapped it free of snow, looking around to meet everyone’s expectant gaze with resignation. He shook his head. “Can’t see the tracks. As soon as we get them clean, they’re buried again. This whole stretch is questionable. Can’t see them—don’t run. Sorry. Looks like we’re here for a while.” Everyone settled back down into their seats, turned back to whatever they were doing to kill time. “Coffee hot, Luella? Sure could stand a mug.”
That settled that, Deborah thought as she continued on to the open dining area where the card players had taken over the round table. She could smell the heat from the vent right above them as she tossed her long jacket over a neighboring table. She pulled the chair out and looked around as she sat down, nodding to the players already in the game. She knew two of them. They had farms down by Seven Mile. She had gone to school with them, old county families, same as hers. Another two she only knew by sight, having seen them at the grain elevator or other places she did business. Then there were the two strangers.
She had noticed them when they had boarded the train in Richmond because they had also come from the hotel just like she had. But what had caught her eye was the woman accompanying them. She hadn’t gotten a good look at her. The two men had kept her isolated, quick to steer her where they wanted her to go. City people, Deborah surmised. But there was still the question about the woman, who had kept her head down and turned away. She looked for her now.
“What’s the game?” she asked no one in particular as she looked around the open room. There was a couple with a kid at one table, a woman knitting at another nearby table, maybe the wife of one of the players, a bored-looking woman bundled up against the cold, her legs stretched out. And then back in the corner booth, about as far from everyone as she could get, she saw the mystery woman.
“Stud. Jacks or better to open. Nothing wild.” Brad, one of the farmers she had gone to school with, answered.
Deborah nodded as she hauled change from her pants pocket. These were all small-time farmers. There wouldn’t be a lot of money floating around.
Deborah kept glancing back at the woman, at her threadbare jacket thrown across the table, that once upon a time had been denim with a flannel lining, the flannel shirt that at least added another layer. She couldn’t see her face but she looked pinched and cold. She sat with her legs drawn up, her arms wrapped about her legs, her face turned toward the windows. Deborah could see the metal bands on each of her wrists, signifying she was contract labor registered with the state. That alone got Deborah’s sympathy. Contracts such as these, who had been in one type of conflict or another, and had fallen under state regulation, were never treated well, and she particularly hated seeing female state contracts in the company of men. What was originally protection for them now only marked them as fair game. There was just too much opportunity to abuse them in ways she hated to contemplate.
As if she sensed Deborah’s scrutiny, the woman raised her head. Without looking around, she pulled down her sleeves to cover the bracelets, wrapped the shirt tightly around and turned so her back was to the room. Perhaps, Deborah thought, she was merely curling up to conserve body heat but more likely trying to get some privacy from prying eyes.
Deborah accepted her dismissal and turned her attention to the card dealer. Sympathy wasn’t always welcome and besides, there was nothing she could do. Chance and luck decided things in life as well as in cards, sometimes bad and sometimes just not so bad.
“Now what I really need is a beer,” one of the poker players was saying. “A tall one, ice-cold. Too bad we get stuck in Lincoln.”
“Could have been worse. Could have gotten stuck at Anoka.” There was general laughter and Deborah smiled. Anoka consisted of a wide spot in the road several miles further down the track, where a general store used to stand. Now it was just another empty building. At least Lincoln had the train station, the diner, a gathering of houses and a church. There had been a convenience store once too but it was long empty. She almost wished they were stuck at Anoka. She’d be close enough to walk home, even in this weather.
“Gotta watch him,” Carl, one of the men she knew by name, said, indicating with a crooked thumb the stranger as he leaned to one side in a falsely conspiratorial whisper. “Thinks we’re all rubes and he’s gonna clean us out.”
Deborah nodded. Carl’s tone was kidding, friendly, but all the same he was a good judge of character. His cheerful face and hail-fellow-well-met made people underestimate him.
“Name’s Gentry, ma’am,” the stranger introduced himself. “Came up here from Memphis.” Big man, barrel-chested, broad face, sandy hair. Well fleshed, meant he ate well. Wore wool instead of denim, not a laborer.
Deborah caught her breath and focused on her cards. Strange how such casual words could be like a punch to the gut. Memphis. It showed up in the most unexpected places, invariably catching her off guard. She focused on her cards, shut away those memories. “Earthquake zone,” she commented in a steady voice.
She wondered if anyone at the table even remembered she had lived in Memphis. Probably not, just that she was from an old county family, had gone away somewhere “out there” and had come back to stay. Memphis was just someplace where some disaster happened. That had been there. They were here, safe and sound. Sorry for them, relieved for me. That was all that mattered.
“Yes, ma-am, that New Madrid Fault hit us hard. Took out over half the city.”
Half the city and then almost half the country, followed by a winter with weather that broke the records. Bitter cold and record snows, the Great Lakes froze over. Snowed clear into May. By that time, the refugees had scattered across the country, and somewhere in the mix of people and emergency conditions, came new infectious agents. People said it was like the earthquake had released virulence into the air to kill what it couldn’t do directly.
She didn’t like remembering that winter. She hadn’t handled it well. She had been obsessed with what she had lost, being back where she started when she had worked so hard to leave it behind her. Every time she turned around, she had to deal with another loss. She hadn’t found her footing until spring when she finally told herself she could either founder and die or get up and deal with it. She had it better than most.
She had hunkered down then, decided to survive, do what she had to do. She had land, good farmland. She had shelter—a strong, stable house that had withstood years of storms. She was isolated, which meant she was out of harm’s way. Her only shortfall had been labor and she would find a solution. She would survive.
The cards went around. Deborah played cautiously, getting the feel of the cards, the players. She always thought you could tell a lot about a person by the way they played cards, and she wondered about the two strangers. And she wondered about the woman in the corner, a state-registered contract. Puzzling.
Not that she had anything against contracts. Contracts were just a means of survival. Based on the old indentured servant labor system, one person promised to provide shelter, food, clothing and care in exchange for so many years of labor by the other. The idea seemed simple in the beginning for business owners who needed the labor but didn’t have the cash. Like anything else, it got complicated. Contracts got sold. Some people thought it smacked of slavery and were opposed on principle. Arguments that it wasn’t the person who was sold, just the piece of paper that held their promise of labor, didn’t sway them. Some people did think of it as just a piece of paper and walked away. So contracts were registered, and although they were a civil matter, the contract terms were enforced by the courts. Walking away or even enticing someone to leave the promised employment was seen as a theft of services, and treated as such. Then it became a crime, and the state got involved. But the state usually didn’t have the time or money to enforce the law. If the runaway was found, they were usually remanded back to the contract holder but even the state could run out of patience. Three strikes and they would sentence the runaway to prison for the duration of the contract term.
“You playing or dreaming,” Sid asked with a nudge.
“Hmm.” Deborah came back with a start. She had been wandering, wondering what that woman had done to be on a state-registered contract. She checked her cards, grimaced and folded.
A contract could be abused, she admitted. That was why they weren’t popular. Some holders worked the laborers as hard as they could to get as much out of them before the end date. Some laborers were tricked into signing contracts, thinking they were signing for one kind of work and then being sold for another. Once that contract was signed, the laborer had little or no say about what happened. There were no unions, although labor boards were beginning to become established. Women, if they got pregnant, had that time added to their contract, even though they might work right up until delivery. Then there was always the sexual abuse and exploitation that happened.
Other times, contract laborers were treated as valued employees, taken in as family when they were working in a small business. While they might not be paid cash wages, they benefited in other ways. That’s how she treated hers, as family. She couldn’t manage without them and tried to let them know it. Karen managed the land, Sara managed the house, Linda took care of the animals. Sue managed the kitchen. Now Beth was the prize, a nurse practitioner. Rae had started doing pottery this winter and that was turning out well. Peg, ah, Peg was in a class by herself. Sometimes she wished Peg had declined her offer of a contract, but then she would have probably left the area. Having her on contract was not the same as having her as a lover, but at least now, she still had her counsel. She sighed. Sometimes she had hard choices. The others were easy. Brea was a solid stabilizing force, and then Kelly was just a flat-out hard worker. She frowned. Now, Bobbi. Bobbi was a problem. Hadn’t found out what to do with her yet.
“You in this round?”
She nodded. Back to the card game. The afternoon passed, the snow piled up and she focused on the cards. She threw in a few good hands, bluffed a few, won some, lost some. She thought Gentry and his companion had something going, but she couldn’t quite figure out what. They had suggested another version of poker, just to make things interesting. The group went along—stakes were higher. If there was cheating, Deborah wasn’t sure how it was being done. Finally Gentry was out of cash but he seemed to think he had a good hand. He started to drag the pot, pulling the amount of his bet out to one side. If he lost, that was the amount he would owe. If he won, it wouldn’t matter.