Hard Harvest: Chapter One
Midwest Sector, Republic of the Americas
Time Line 10,482
Early August 2154
Hannah Jenkins liked to think of herself as a smart woman. It took brains as well as guts to run a farm with only the help of two kid brothers, especially out here in the Midwest Sector, where war and sickness had left people scarce and trouble aplenty.
But a smart woman knew better than to leave her farm without a loaded weapon. What was more, a smart woman paid attention to her surroundings and didn't let anything or anyone creep up on her, not even in the dim, gray light an hour before sunrise. So maybe Hannah didn't have the sense God gave a cowpat, after all.
"Stay where you are, or I'll blow you full of holes." She kept her hands low, trying to give the impression she had a rifle locked and loaded behind rise of the tractor's rear tire.
The Boscott boys weren't buying it. They gunned their ancient motorcycles and fouled the morning air with exhaust.
"Aw, c'mon, Hannah. Just give over the tractor and we'll let you alone."
Larry Boscott grinned at her, his thin red hair, blackened teeth and dead left eye making her stomach turn. Larry was a sick man, no doubt about it, and the hand in which he held his pistol looked none too steady, even in bad light and from thirty feet away. But both the younger men behind him--Jimmy, a beefy blond, and Carl, another carrot-top--appeared healthy and well-armed enough to make Larry's shaky aim a lot less comforting from Hannah's point of view.
It was her own fault. She should've been enjoying a last few minutes of blissful rest beneath her mother's hand-me-down wedding ring quilt instead of wandering over creation trying to cool her head and calm her heart. All this useless emotion was nothing more than a distraction from her purpose, which was survival. She couldn't afford to think about anything else.
Including Dr. David Cabot, or the square angle of his jaw, or the curve of his lips when he spoke to her in that stuck-up, superior way of his.
Especially Dr. David Cabot, if thinking about him made her this stupid. Still, her carelessness didn't give the Boscott boys the right to steal her farm equipment, damn their thieving hides anyway. A surge of righteous anger straightened her spine.
"If you want the tractor so bad, why don't you come on over here and take it?" Hannah inclined her head, making a show of looking Larry up and down. "But maybe you don't have the balls."
She meant it literally. If Larry's sickness had progressed far enough to give him the end-stage shakes, his gonads had probably shriveled weeks ago. Damn those mutating viruses, and damn the stubborn fools who refused the vaccines administered by the Commission's squadron of traveling nurses.
Larry's grin dropped away and he lifted the pistol. "Ain't no call to be nasty, Hannah. We're kin, after all."
She shook her head. "We might be cousins, but I'm no kin to thieves."
This last comment seemed to shatter the brittle veneer of Larry's sanity. He let his bike fall in the dust and charged her, waving the pistol as Jimmy and Carl yelled encouragement.
Hannah scrambled down off the tractor's high seat and rounded the front, putting the cab and the heavy engine block between her and Larry. She crouched in the road and waited. If she could surprise Larry when he came around the corner, and if his illness was far enough advanced that she could overpower him and take his gun, and if his brothers let her get off a shot or two before they came at her on their bikes--
Too many "ifs" in that equation. She closed her eyes and braced herself. Over the pounding of her heart, she heard more raised voices, then the thud of a body hitting dirt. She peered around the front of the tractor.
A tall stranger stood over Larry's prone body. A canvas duffel bag lay at his feet, and the hem of his gray duster flapped in the breeze like the wings of a mourning dove. He wore no hat, and his black hair was caught in a short tail at the nape of his neck. In his hands he held two pistols, with a third tucked in his belt. Down the road a piece, Jimmy and Carl straddled their bikes with their arms in the air, looking equal parts stunned and scared out of their meager wits.
Whoever he was, the stranger had shown up out of nowhere and disarmed three hostile men in ten seconds flat. That alone would've made him a sight for Hannah's sore eyes. His dark good looks were just a bonus.
Instinctively, she compared him to David. They were much the same height, but where David was whip-lean and elegant from his beautiful head to his handsome feet, this man sported the well-muscled build of one who worked hard for his living.
Hannah came out of her crouch and stepped into the road. "I don't know who you are, mister, but I sure like your timing."
"Glad to be of service, miss," the stranger said without taking his eyes off Larry and his brothers for an instant, which only proved he had sense in addition to stealth and strength, a combination Hannah appreciated to her marrow.
She glanced behind her to where the road stretched for miles between flat fields of scrub grass like a faded hair-ribbon wound through locks of gray. She saw no horse or other vehicle. The stranger had either arrived on foot or materialized out of the thin, dry air.
No matter. She could ponder the weirdness of his sudden appearance once she'd put a few safe miles between herself and the Boscott boys.
"You need a lift, mister?"
The man stepped away from Larry, who'd begun to stir. "I wouldn't say no to a ride."
"Hey, asshole!" Jimmy called. "You can't walk away with our guns!"
The stranger paused and seemed to consider the statement. "You know, you're right. That would be stealing."
Moving with obvious care, he emptied the three guns of their bullets in turn, pocketing the ammunition as he went. All the while, the younger pair of Boscott boys grumbled between themselves. Larry lay moaning and twitching on the road. Hannah could see where the stranger had blackened Larry's eye, and she tried to feel sorry for him, like her mama would've wanted.
When the stranger was done unloading the weapons, he left them in the dust by Larry's feet and backed toward Hannah and the tractor. "You boys come get your pistols and your friend. Then you turn your bikes around and head back the way you came, and we'll call it even."
The Boscott boys stared at him, indecision plain on their faces. He'd already bested them once, and they'd been armed. After a few tense seconds, they let their bikes drop in the dirt and came forward, their hands held out in front of them like a man might approach a growling dog.
"We don't want no trouble," Carl said as he helped Larry to his feet. Next to him, Jimmy collected the guns and backed toward the bikes. He glared at Hannah with sullen eyes, and she knew better than to think the Boscott boys were beat. This little incident would come back to bite her, like as not.
When her cousins had stumbled back to their bikes and roared off down the road, Hannah turned her attention to the stranger. She was no better armed than she'd been ten minutes ago, and now she was alone with a man whose motives she couldn't guess, no matter how friendly and accommodating he seemed. "Where're you headed?"
"That depends." The man brushed the dust from his palms. "I'm looking for some short-term work. Any chance you're hiring?"
Up close, the stranger had an unusual air about him, sort of soothing and gentle, his voice pitched deep and soft, as if he knew Hannah was skittish around folks she hadn't known all her life.
She ran a hand through her hair, her fingers catching on the short, snarled curls. "We could always use help getting the last load of hay in, but I can't pay much."
"Room and board?"
Hannah nodded. "And five dollars a day for as long as you stay."
"Done." The stranger smiled and held out his hand. At that moment, the leading edge of the sun slipped above the horizon and bathed the world in shades of rose and gold. "You can call me Trey. It's good to meet you, Hannah."
She started in surprise. "How d'you know my name?"
"I was waiting for the right moment to step in and help," he said with a vague gesture of his outstretched hand, never once taking his eyes off hers, "and I overheard your conversation with Larry."
She frowned and glanced to the right and left, looking for a tree or a rock, anything large enough to hide a full-grown man. There was nothing. Not even a broken fence post. A shiver crawled down her neck to settle between her shoulder blades.
A second later, she shook it off. No reason to give into silly megrims just because she'd been too busy dealing with Larry and his brothers to notice another man standing in the shadows. She forced a smile and reached out to grasp his hand. It felt warm and dry, and the touch sent a pleasant tingle up the length of her arm.
"Climb aboard, Trey. If we don't get a move on, we'll be late for breakfast."
David stepped into the sunlight beyond the barn door and stretched, grimacing at the way his back creaked. He suspected another few months on that lumpy old cot might be the death of him, always assuming his current burden of guilt, exasperation and sexual frustration didn't end him first.
But he could hardly complain when it was his idea to sleep in the hayloft, after all. Quick access to the lab he'd set up in the barn's unused basement--which Hannah insisted on calling a cellar--trumped comfortable accommodations.
He sniffed the air, but the usual scent of frying bacon didn't reach out to tickle his nose. He glanced toward the ramshackle two-story farmhouse. Hannah was nowhere in sight, which was something of a relief. After last night's disastrous attempt at simple conversation, he'd just as soon--
"Doc! Hey, Doc!"
The screen door slammed and Hannah's brother, Isaac, bounded across the back porch and down the steps, heading for the barn at a dead run.
David met him halfway. "Slow down. Where's the fire?"
Isaac skidded to a halt. Beneath his freckles, his usually ruddy face looked pale. "It's Abe. He's sick."
David ignored the jolt of dread he felt at Isaac's words. "Sick" could mean anything from the sniffles to the latest viral mutation--maybe even some new strain for which there was no cure--but getting emotional about it wouldn't help anything.
"Where's your sister?"
Isaac shrugged. "She took off before sunrise. Said she needed some time by herself." The kid bit his lip, suddenly looking a lot younger than his seventeen years. "She should've been back by now."
David closed his eyes and swallowed thickly. Did Hannah go wandering because of him? Because they could barely manage to be in the same room together without irritating each other? Was that why she was out there alone, prey to whatever lurked in the ruined countryside?
How he hated this place, the whole damned Sector. Just when he thought he'd grown used to the endless onslaught of trouble, some new threat showed up to catch him unprepared and useless.
David scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. One crisis at a time.
"Grab my bag," he told Isaac. "It's next to my cot in the back of the hayloft."
He started toward the house.
They were still a good three miles from the farm when Trey shifted a bit on the edge of the wheel-well. "This land seems troubled."
His voice, still so low and quiet, undercut the rumble of the tractor's engine. Hannah could hear him perfectly, right down to his curious, almost puzzled tone, as if he didn't know why this land might be troubled. As if he'd never set foot on it before.
Hannah's senses jumped to high alert. She pulled off the road, cut the tractor's engine and turned to face him. "Where're you from, Trey?"
She had a pretty good idea where he wasn't from. Visitors from the Eastern Sector, where everybody dwelt in cities under vast domes to protect them from the poisoned air, didn't wander the dirt roads of the Midwest in jeans and dusters, saving farm-girls in distress. In fact, people from the east didn't visit the blighted middle of the continent at all unless they worked for some arm of the government. Those folks tended to travel in packs, locked away in armored vehicles with tinted windows and weapons mounted on the fenders.
There were no visitors from the Western Sector. Not anymore. They said not a living soul remained on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, and damned few in the mountains themselves. Hannah had no cause to disbelieve it.
Trey opened his mouth to answer, but she stopped him another question.
"Are you an outlander?" It was a good guess. They showed up occasionally, wandering down from the northernmost reaches of the continent. Too often they were fugitives from the snow-bound prison camps, where a sentence of five years equaled life imprisonment. Sometimes they were deserters from one outlawed militia or another. Trey might be one of those, or he might be nothing more than a survivor from some nomadic tribe that called no nation home. Either way, he'd be considered a criminal--a man without the proper papers, only fit to be jailed and set to hard labor.
Jail and hard labor might be the fate of anyone fool enough to harbor him, as well. Not to mention the forfeit of all property.
"Yes." He nodded his head to underline it. "I'm definitely what you'd call an outlander. Is that a problem?"
Hannah drew a long breath. He'd saved the tractor. For all she knew, he'd saved her, too. The Boscott boys weren't known for their gentlemanly treatment of women, no matter if those women happened to be second cousins on their mama's side.
"I guess that depends on what you want."
Trey spread his hands before him. "You know what I want. A job."
"So you say."
He smiled at her again, another blinding grin to rival the risen sun. "I say what I mean, Hannah. I'm not here to harm you, or to take anything that's yours."
A smart woman would've shoved him off the wheel-well and hightailed it back to the farm, and Hannah almost did just that. But she took a moment to look into his eyes, which were as deep and dark as the well at the far corner of the north forty. Sad eyes, filled to the brim with secrets, but empty of threats. As she stared, she heard the echo of some faraway wind and on it, a woman's voice, calling Trey's name.
She shook herself. Nonsense like that was for folks who could afford the time to daydream. Bottom line, did she trust him? Her gut came back with a resounding "yes."
With a resigned sigh she said, "There's a few things you need to know. First off, don't tell anybody you're an outlander. If anyone asks, you're from three counties over and you're looking for work to pay off a debt. Everybody owes somebody these days, so that's believable."
"Why should I lie?"
"Because if you don't, you'll end up in a camp somewhere, and I'll lose my farm."
He looked at her for a long moment. "You're taking a risk even giving me a ride, aren't you?"
She shrugged. "My mama would say it's a bigger risk to care more for yourself than your fellow man."
"I think I'm going to like your mother."
"She's been dead ten years, since I was sixteen." Hannah looked away. "But you would've liked her. Everybody did."
She waited for Trey to offer cheap sympathy. Instead, he said, "Tell me what else I need to know."
Hannah closed her eyes and was surprised by the face that instantly appeared in her mind--David Cabot, his green eyes sharp behind his little round glasses, and his sandy hair sticking up in spikes where he'd run his fingers through it while pondering the depths of some murky test tube. Not that she'd ever seen him handle a test tube, since he'd never invited her into his lab, but her imagination was far too good at filling in the blanks.
Yes, Dr. David Cabot was as good a place to start as any.
"We have a visitor at the farm." She halted, uncertain of how to explain to one stranger the misery of spending four endless months married to another stranger. Or the agony of knowing your so-called husband might desert you and destroy all your dreams at any time.