The Ninety-four Forties

THE NIGHT BEFORE

A fading sun was casting long shadows as the people of the Eldridge Co-op began converging on the town’s community center. Normally the monthly gatherings were more an excuse to socialize than to take care of business, but an unsettling, awkward silence enveloped the building this evening. Only the children who accompanied their parents seemed at ease as they played with each other while passively watching an old recorded TV program from the early 2020’s.  The adults knew that a long simmering issue would not be tabled again. A quorum was guaranteed for tonight’s meeting.

“Look at that!” one child shouted.

“Is that really all food!” said another  slightly older child in disbelief.

With all the children now mesmerized by the ancient TV commercial showing the produce isle of the long defunct Hy-Vee supermarket chain, a command was given to interrupt the rapturous delight of the children.

“Turn that off now!” shouted Travis Henning, the burly fifty-two year old Mayor of  Eldridge, as he was about to call the meeting to order. An adult standing nearby quickly obliged. “How was it that that commercial wasn’t edited out of the program? Don’t you recognize such a thing as pornography in this age?” Mayor Henning’s query was not directed to anyone in particular. He simply needed to vent his frustration.

His point about an ancient TV commercial showing a well stocked supermarket being pornographic was implicitly understood by the longtime residents of the Eldridge Co-op. Life was hardscrabble now. Everyone worked. Everyone had a role to play and every effort was made to capitalize on the attributes people brought to the project of survival. Retirement was a memory; only the most infirm excused from participation. It turned out that institutionalized compassion was only a product of surplus energy, and as fossil fuels became increasingly expensive, the programs for the poor, elderly, and unemployed disappeared like ephemeral puddles after a summer shower.

So it was that on this warm evening in May of 2060 an overflow crowd gathered with an agenda to finally address the burning issue that  longtime residents of the Eldridge Co-op felt threatened their very survival.

“I’d like to call this meeting to order” Mayor Henning said as he lightly pounded his gavel into a sturdily built oak table top. The mayor always attempted to at least begin meetings by following some semblance of parliamentary procedure, dispensing with what were regarded as superfluous frills. This new age was one of intense pragmatism, and actions which were not deemed as contributing productively were eliminated.

“I’d like to make a motion that we skip the minutes from last months meeting,” boldly stated Adam McClain, a towering and weathered fifty-something onetime machinist at the John Deer factory in Moline, Illinois.  Adam had a very direct and often abrasive personality. People often cowered in his presence, but he was enormously admired for his mechanical skills and his dedication to the project of the co-op. He assumed roles of leadership by default, and was spearheading the agenda for tonight’s meeting. His followers knew that he would not be intimidated should Mayor Henning challenge him.

“Do I hear a second?” a downcast Mayor Henning said, deliberately averting his eyes from the crowd. The mayor knew what was coming and wasn’t optimistic.

“I second the motion,” said Lucas Carter, a smallish perpetually smiling onetime employee of the Alcoa plant in Davenport. Lucas always seemed to be hovering in the shadow of Adam McClain, and was regarded as a contemptuous sycophant by many in the community. But those who knew him well were aware of his participation in the Hampton’s Massacre of 2032 when he was barely twenty years old. Rumor had it that he personally executed whole families as they were drug from their once heavily guarded mansions along the south shore of Long Island. Lucas acknowledged his participation in setting fires to the homes, but never in killing anyone.

The Hampton’s Massacre had been a watershed event in American history, clearly exposing the ineffectual nature of a large centralized government at quelling the resentments of the majority against what were seen as a privileged minority. Increasingly people would band together and experiment with different arrangements by which basic services could be provided to maintain life;  their expectations from the federal government slowly fading. This was how the Eldridge Co-op and many others gradually evolved over the past twenty-five years.

“May I have the Floor, Mr. Mayor?” asked Adam McClain as he and his entourage slowly migrated closer to the front of the room.

“Any objections from the deliberative body on Mr. McClain having the floor?” asked the mayor, having chosen his words carefully so as to make known that active participation in the meeting was restricted to the deliberative body, all others in attendance merely being the gallery. After a pause: “You have the floor”.

Adam McClain began cautiously: ” Mr. Mayor, I think I speak for the people of the co-op when I say that we have spent years building up something good, something that serves all the people, something that we can take pride in, and something that until recently has worked like a well-oiled machine.” After a slight pause Adam continued more brazenly; “But now we feel that these ‘newcomers’, these ‘Ninety-four Forties’ are threatening the good thing we have here. We only got so much to go around, and they keep trickling in, more and more of ’em every day. Dammit Travis, they are now around 20% of the co-op!. When is it gonna stop?”

The term ‘Ninety-four Forties’  for the transient populations moving north and east, originated with the national media, who recognized that the vast majority of the new arrivals to the upper mid-west and middle-Atlantic states came from west of the 94th parallel of longitude and south of the 40th parallel of latitude. The label stuck and was now infused with negative connotations; an invective meant to cause pain and humiliation. These recent arrivals to the Eldridge Co-op and elsewhere were simply trying to survive. The southern plains and southwest had experienced such severe desertification due to climate change that survival became all but impossible in most areas. Previously perennial streams now only flowed after the occasional heavy rain, and the Ogallala Aquifer was largely depleted.

After another pause in which no one asked for the floor, Adam McClain continued. “My youngest son is serving his required six month stint to patrol the Buchanan Wall. Travis, you know that all the citizens of Heartlandia are required to serve this duty upon their eighteenth birthday. But do the Ninety-four Forties serve?” Then answering his own question while glaring ominously toward the entrance door where several migrants had congregated, “Hell no! But of course they wouldn’t serve! The whole purpose of that wall was to keep them out……to protect ourselves.”

The Buchanan Wall, (named after a late 20th century politician who wanted to build a wall between the USA and Mexico) effectively separated the semi-autonomous Heartlandia from the unnamed land to the south. An alternately concrete and barbed-wire fence/wall, it ran along the boundary between Missouri and Iowa, westward separating most of Kansas from Nebraska before petering out, and eastward, bisecting Illinois before terminating at the south end of Lake Michigan.

“What are we gonna do about this Travis?” Adam’s final, plaintive request resounding with the longtime residents of the co-op.

Clearing his throat and pausing to choose his words very carefully, Mayor Henning responded. “I know that many of you have been concerned about this issue for some time. Before addressing it directly I would just like to remind all of you just how lucky we are to live here. We have some of the best soil in the country to grow crops. We still get adequate rain most of the time. The trees in our pine plantation now average over 40 feet tall, though just planted 25 years ago. Our fruit orchards are exceptional. We live right next to only one of two east-west Interstate highways still maintained by the federal government. You can’t imagine how lucky we are that the Federal Highway Triage Act of 2036 resulted in Interstate 80 being maintained. Barge traffic on the Mississippi still means that we get sugar, coffee, bananas and more from South America. And we pay for it with Heartlandia script, the most sought after money in the Western Hemisphere. So before you start bitching too loudly, you should count your blessings.”

“All true Mayor but that doesn’t address our concerns,” interrupted Adam.

“You don’t have the floor Mr. McClain,” proclaimed the mayor, shouting down Adam, who uncharacteristically recoiled. “I’m talking now!”

The mayor continued. “We have nearly finished the spring planting. Because of our extensive planning, we didn’t burn through our spring allotment of diesel. So we never had to use the mules. We have just traded 500 gallons of ethanol for 2,000 mason jars. We are going to need them as our canning facilities get up and running with the spring vegetables. Our cattle, hog, and chicken operations are doing fine. We haven’t had a disease outbreak among the livestock in seven years, thanks in large part to being proactive. I will admit that hay for the cattle is a problem. Last fall’s hay was short due to the dry conditions in September, but the pastures are coming along fine now.  My point again everyone is ‘yes’, we do have a good thing going, and as long as we are willing to work together, and get along, we will be fine.”

“Can I have the floor?” requested Lucas Carter, as he stepped out from behind the towering Adam McClain.

“Yes you may.” responded the mayor.

“For how long we gonna ‘have’ a good thing? These Ninety-four Forties are eatin’ up our resources. Only so much to go around. What do they contribute?” said Lucas Carter.

During the entire proceeding the migrants maintained a surprisingly flat affect; rarely a smile or a frown. They understood the concerns of the residents. Their feelings were ambivalent: they recognized that they were the cause of discomfort among the residents and yet empathized with them. They could do so because of their own struggles and suffering. The migrants weren’t pariahs to all the residents however. Many residents took them in and treated them as family.

Sitting quietly to the right of Mayor Henning during the entire proceeding was the City Manager, Jordan Templeton. Mr. Templeton had been taking notes on a laptop computer, and occasionally whispering into the ear of the mayor. Jordan was a medium sized man in his mid-forties, physically non-descript in everyway, but with astute mental acuity, and a calm, approachable, disarming manner. Jordan was the trusted confidant of the mayor and a master at bloodless resolutions to crises. For a few short years after graduating from college he had taught Government and American History at North High School in Davenport. Now Jordan, in consultation with the mayor, was about to broach a subject far more menacing than the threat of the migrants.

“May I have the floor Mr. Mayor?” asked Jordan.

“Yes” said the mayor without hesitation, having delegated the responsibility for sharing the unexpected, shocking news to Jordan.

“You might as well know….we have been harboring fugitives from The Long Grove”. Before Jordan could say another word an audible gasp rose from the gathering. “Buck Caldwell’s henchmen are coming tomorrow to retrieve them.” The gathering immediately began conversing loudly with one another, at times interspersed with shrieks of terror.

To restore order Mayor Henning pounded his gavel with great authority on the oak tabletop saying, “Mr. Templeton still has the floor.”

‘The Long Grove’ was a few miles to the north of Eldridge, and the name of the one hundred thousand acre feudal estate, and small town, both owned by Charles (Buck) Caldwell . Buck’s father, an oilman from Houston, had inherited a 3,000 acre farm just northwest of Long Grove from his father, and during the early phase of The Descent, bought out failing farms which he consolidated into a vast estate. The owners were offered the option to continue working the farm as tenants or leave.  Those who left were replaced primarily by desperate, unemployed people from the Quad Cities; people who may have been called “trailer trash” in an earlier age. Caldwell offered them housing, food, and basic security in exchange for hard work. Ostensibly, their efforts would lead to ownership, but in reality it led to debt slavery. Hundreds became perpetual indentured servants with no hope of independence. Meanwhile, Caldwell amassed a fortune at their expense and could buy off officials. He was largely above the law and the Mayor and City Council knew it, as did many of  the residents of the Eldridge Co-op. The younger Caldwell inherited the estate from his father, and was even more ruthless than the elder man.

“Could I have your attention please?” The gathering obliged. Templeton resumed: “Caldwell will be riding into town in a SUV accompanied by several of his strongmen on motorcycle. They will be armed. As a community we need to decide how to respond. Local, state, and even the regional authorities have been apprised of the situation, but are refusing to intervene. The fugitives consist of two single adult women each with three children, and an adult married couple with two children. We have given them  sanctuary for the past two weeks. Caldwell is expecting delivery of the fugitives at 11:00AM on Main Street. How do we proceed? Anyone have any suggestions?”

The Long Grove wasn’t the only neo-feudal estate in east central Iowa. As the Long Descent unfolded, two competing land use models emerged: what might be called ‘small “c” communism, as exemplified by the Eldridge Co-op, and neo-feudalism. The neo-feudal model was now being called “The Age of the Big Men” by what was left of the national media. This enraged Buck Caldwell as it implied that his estate was something outmoded, a vestige of a bygone era whose heyday was in the rearview mirror. Truth be told, the cooperative model was still in its ascendency, while the feudal model was in relative decline; the remaining feudal estates  existed due to consolidating ever larger realms.

“You put our safety in jeopardy,” yelled a woman from the back of the room, directing her venom at the seated city council. “I say we give ’em back the fugitives.”

“No!” challenged another woman from near where most of the migrants had congregated. “They deserve our protection. They get beaten. They get beaten when they can’t produce the crops that Caldwell wants. Then they try to run, get caught and beaten again. What would you want if it was you? Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want? Aren’t we human anymore? What happened to our basic humanity? Did these hard times mean we can’t have compassion anymore?”  The woman was now sobbing, her voice straining as she continued. “We are obligated to protect these people. Our creator wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ll meet those bastards tomorrow with guns if we have to, but we can’t send those people back to that hell”. The woman then collapsed into her husbands arms, who had been continuously stroking her back as she executed her passionate plea for the fugitives.

A pervasive calm enveloped the gathering. As if by some telepathic mode of communication a unified consensus emerged, an unspoken resolve to protect the fugitives. Did the people really understand the stakes? Some of Caldwell’s men were trained killers, at least rumored to be. With the declaration, “We will protect the fugitives,” followed by a single strike of his gavel, Mayor Henning then proclaimed “meeting adjourned”.

Normally the residents would socialize for another hour or so following the meeting’s adjournment, but high tensions, fear, and dread had drowned out any desire for fun. As the gathering filed out, the major and many city council members stayed behind. There were loose ends. In particular, how would they confront Caldwell and his men tomorrow? It was decided without objection that no one would be armed. They realized that a bloodbath would likely ensue if they challenged Caldwell with firearms. Jordan Templeton suggested that they videotape the meeting, and do so from several angles. He also suggested that Caldwell be informed upon his arrival that the proceedings were being video recorded. The mayor and remaining city council members enthusiastically endorsed this proposal. They felt that this measure would undermine the threat from Caldwell. Even now, there still existed some measure of justice in the face of entrenched power if one could absolutely prove beyond ANY doubt the criminality. And finally, they agreed that the fugitives remain sequestered, so as to prevent an impulsive ‘grab and run’.

Taking a deep breath Mayor Henning said “OK everyone, I guess that’s a wrap. There are some uncertainties, but you can’t plan for every contingency. Let’s all go home and get a good night sleep.”

The City Council rose and began filing out. “Good night Travis.” said Jordan.

“Good night Jordan,” responded the mayor.

Jordan deliberately let the other council members exit the building ahead of him so as to make one last private comment to the mayor who was still gathering and organizing papers into a manila envelope. Closing the door to insure no eavesdropping Jordan said, “Travis, everything’s going to be fine.”

The mayor’s eyes rose to meet Jordan’s from across the room. Without another word spoken, Jordan opened the door and went home. The mayor followed after a few minutes.

NEXT MORNING

Light slowly transformed gray, shapeless objects into colorful and recognizable things as Mayor Henning lay in his bed after a fitful night with little sleep. He had earlier thrown the covers off himself when he recognized that the side of his body contacting the bed was drenched in sweat. Belatedly, he recognized that his respiration rate was at least 3 times normal. Taking his pulse, he found it to be 120 beats per minute. The mayor immediately recognized that he was having a panic attack. In an earlier age he might have been prescribed Xanax to alleviate the symptoms, but now he would simply endure it. He was happy that he  had succeeded in not disturbing his wife of 27 years who slept peacefully beside him. Though still shy of 6:00AM, he felt the desperate need to call Jordan.

Carefully extracting himself from his bed, Mayor Henning tip-toed to the kitchen to grab his hybrid solar/battery powered 3-D video phone, quietly detached it from the cumbersome solar panel that he rarely carried with him, and stepped out onto a screened-in porch. More often he just connected a lithium battery to the panel, while a second, charged battery powered his phone.  Surveying the scene revealed a community still hours away from stirring to life, though it sounded like the birds had overdosed on caffeine and were chattering at high volume. It was a glorious late spring morning; warm, cloudless, and calm. The mayor voice commanded his phone to call Jordan Templeton.

“Hello.” said an exhausted Jordan Templeton.

“Hey Jordan,” replied the mayor. “Sleep well last night? You don’t look too good.”

“No. Kind of off and on. Got up and read for awhile. Thought that might do a little good. But it didn’t”

“Sorry about that. But you know how misery loves company. I didn’t sleep much either. So what were you reading?”

“Oh a…..I think the title was ‘Origins’,…..yea ‘Origins’ by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Do you remember him Travis? I think he died only about ten years ago. He had to be past ninety when he died.”

“Absolutely Jordan. How could anyone our age forget. He played such a pivotal role in communicating the stakes of climate change years ago and was quite a science popularizer”.

“Yea. I guess I’m just a nerd. All the stuff I read is science, resources, or permaculture. I often go back and read that really old stuff from before The Descent, by guys predicting it, and just shake my head.”

“I know Jordan. I do the same thing. And by the way, the world needs nerds like you.”

“You calling me a nerd Travis?”

“Hey now, that was YOUR word for yourself,” replied Travis, now laughing.

“Only another nerd can use that word Travis. Don’t you understand the rules?” responded Jordan who was now likewise laughing.

The volley of witticisms and exchange of small talk helped to reduce the stress both men had weathered over the past twenty-four hours. Travis decided that it was time to segue into the major reason for his phone call.

“Jordan?” said the mayor, his voice quivering.

“Yes Travis,” responded Jordan with an inquisitive tone.

“I’ve been thinking about a lot of shit all night Jordan. One is: ‘What should we do about McClain and Carter’? Those guys are loose cannons. McCain thinks he’s the toughest hombre out there, and that little weasel Carter scares me even more. Any thoughts?”

“Honestly Travis, I think that McClain is all show. The guy loves attention. Look how he acted at the meeting last night. But did you notice him back down when you yelled at him ? As for Carter: That guy is an unknown quantity. Those rumors about him in The Hampton’s Massacre make me nervous. But I think he can’t spit without McClain’s approval. So really Travis, I wouldn’t worry about them. It’s Caldwell and his men that I worry about. That’s what kept me awake most of the night”.

“Yea. I guess in reality that’s what kept me awake too. I just desperately want this confrontation to go well Jordan. I’m…I’m scared Jordan! I’ve got responsibilities to this community; to keep people safe, first and foremost.”

Mayor Travis Henning was visibly shaken, and Jordan could easily see it on his own 3-D video phone. He appeared to be completely lost and on the threshold of sobbing. “Hey Travis, remember we’re all in this together. Come on now. Let’s stay optimistic.” And then in an attempt at needed levity, ” Hey Travis, remember when people used to say ‘got your back’? Well I got your back Travis.”

“OK Jordan. Positive outlook from here on. And we will all have each other’s back,” responded the mayor, now smiling. “Oh! One more thing Jordan. Did you send vid-mail to everyone telling them ‘no firearms’ should they want to be on the street when Caldwell arrives?”

“All sent Travis. One mass vid-mail out last night after the meeting. I also discouraged their attendance.  And Travis, don’t worry, Caldwell won’t try anything with all the video being taken. We will stand firm and tell him if he wants the fugitives to seek a legal method to retrieve them.”

“Sounds good Jordan. Meet me on Main Street across from the library at 10:30.”

“Will do.”

“See you then.”

With the call over, the mayor took a deep breath and stepped out into his front yard. He walked over to one of the two large Silver Maple trees that straddled the sidewalk that led to the street. Leaning against one of the big trees he noticed that his eyes were very sensitive to the light from a sun now arcing higher in the sky. He had often noticed heightened sensitivity to light when he was sleep deprived, and today was no different. Forced to look at the ground, he noticed it already littered with the winged seeds of the maples. Straining to look up, he saw them falling and spinning. Even as a young child It had reminded him of helicopter wings. Picking one up and tossing it upward, the seed faithfully executed it’s spinning motion in the light breeze, and landed beyond the canopy of the tree.

‘Helicopters’, he thought again. His brother had been an Air Force Captain and pilot of a helicopter during the “Lithium War” back in the thirties. He had been shot down while patrolling the eastern foothills of the Andes in Bolivia. The war was officially called the Bolivian War, but Travis knew what it was really about. The president had said that we were there to spread “freedom and liberty” to the people of Bolivia, after the Vargas Drug Cartel had ostensibly murdered 15 American missionaries in the upper Amazon basin of eastern Bolivia. The Bolivian government didn’t bring the perpetrators to justice, so the American president concluded that the Bolivian government and the cartel were in collusion. After the overthrow of the Bolivian government, the missionaries were found alive and well. A team of appointed independent investigators determined that the office of the vice president had planned and executed a false flag incident to gain control of the lithium mines in Bolivia.  The vice-president fought the allegations, but resigned after it was determined that he had extensive, concealed investments in rare earth metals all over the world.  What a shame Travis thought; so many dying for someone’s investment portfolio.

“What are you doing Travis?” Hannah Henning asked her husband. The query yanked Travis from the reverie that had calmed him since the phone call with Jordan.

“Oh! Good morning honey. Just been thinking about Caldwell and how to handle the meeting.”

“Dammit Travis. You let this crap consume you,” responded Hannah. “You are NOT going to run for another term Travis. When you finish your second term next year, that’s it. No more. I’m not going to be a widow because you had a stress induced heart attack.”

Hannah Henning, a lean and fit 50 year old with the youthful countenance of a much younger women, normally worked at an abandoned Victorian home down the street that had been converted into a canning factory. But during planting season her services were needed elsewhere. Some days, she worked to assist in providing meals for the transient workers. Other days, she drove one of the two compressed natural gas powered buses owned by the co-op to transport the transients to and from an abandoned Menard’s parking lot on the north edge of Davenport. From there, the workers would ride their bikes to and from their homes. She sometimes assisted with the care of the mules, and even occasionally drove the tractor during planting. Hannah enjoyed her various assigned tasks during the planting season, and looked forward to them each year. They represented diversions from the mundane, repetitive, and mind-numbing routine of the canning factory.

“I certainly wish I wasn’t mayor at ‘this’ particular moment,” said the mayor for obvious reasons. “Yes Hannah, I probably won’t run again.”

“Probably won’t run?” Hannah asked incredulously. Putting her arms around her husbands waist, and shaking her head, they both walked back into the house.  Together they prepared breakfast and tried not to look at the clock. Eleven o’clock would come soon enough.

THE CONFRONTATION

Mayor Henning was pacing back and forth in front of the library waiting for Jordan’s arrival. It was now 10:40AM and the mayor was getting nervous.

“Hi Travis,” announced Jordan, walking up from behind the mayor. “Sorry I’m a few minutes late. Been spending most of the last two hours fielding calls about the firearm prohibition. We have a few people who think it’s a mistake and are very vociferous about it.”

“You should have directed them to me Jordan.” responded the mayor. “I don’t have your diplomatic touch, but with some people you just have to be very firm.” Then adding as an afterthought, “and let them know what the consequences are for not following the directive.” After a pause, “I guess we can’t control everything.”

“No Travis, we can’t control everything,” Jordan reaffirmed. “You gotta plan as best you can, then just let the chips fall where they may.”

The two men stood silently for a time watching as a crowd slowly gathered in the street. No need to worry about traffic since the co-op only had five hydrocarbon powered vehicles which were still functional. Looking to the south, the men could make out the towering figure of Adam McClain and his entourage of followers off in the distance, walking steadily north. Lucas Carter wasn’t yet visible, but no doubt he was slithering somewhere in the shadow of McClain. Across the street a women exited the General Store and allowed the screen door to snap shut with such a loud thud that it startled the two men. Their nerves were frayed, but their senses were heightened. Any sound that even remotely resembled gunfire could elicit a similar reaction. The two men tried to follow the chatter among those who converged in front of them on Main Street. They weren’t so much eavesdropping on conversations as trying to detect signs of potential violence; mention or show of firearms, ominous sounding threats against Caldwell, and threats to retrieve the fugitives.  Breaking their concentration from this task was the arrival of McClain and his followers. As McClain’s people merged with the existing crowd, Travis and Jordan spotted Lucas Carter. As expected, he was in close physical proximity to McClain, as if some unseen tether perpetually linked the two men.

It was very close to 11:00AM now. The mayor now felt compelled to address the gathering. “Remember everyone, you are not to be carrying firearms. We want a peaceful resolution to this, so we can all go home and carry on with our day.”

“Yes sir, General.” Shouted some anonymous person standing within McClain’s group. The declaration obviously meaning that the mayor was becoming dictatorial.

The epithet resonated with Mayor Henning who hated sounding dictatorial in any way. The whole point of the co-op was to work cooperatively, sharing responsibilities, sharing work, sharing the rewards and hardships of life, and avoiding at all costs any consolidation of power. For a fleeting moment he felt like he was becoming like Caldwell. He realized that should strong centralized power emerge within the co-op, that Caldwell would win. Perhaps ‘this’ is what Caldwell REALLY wanted; all the co-ops in eastern Iowa becoming like the feudal estates. That way his model of occupying the landscape would be seen as superior, and he could hang on to his bloated arrogance and conceit.

The mayor was snapped abruptly from his disquieting reverie by the sound of motorcycles approaching from the north. Still some distance away, they were getting louder as they approached.  The mayor realized that he wasn’t as nervous as he expected to be. After so much careful reflection he recognized the righteousness of the position he and the community had taken, and also felt that the likelihood of violence was very low.

Turning onto Main Street less than a block away, two motorcycles led the old Ford Explorer into town. Two other motorcycles straddled the SUV,  while the final two followed. All the vehicles stopped some seventy yards north of the established rendezvous point on Main Street. Mildly surprised, the mayor concluded that it was probably due to the shear size of the gathering, and that distance afforded some protection from an unruly mob. The mayor wondered how Caldwell could fuel six motorcycles to make the trip. He then remembered that Caldwell had a state-of-the-art ethanol production facility, and that many motorcycles could be retrofitted to burn a very rich ethanol-to-gasoline blend. That must be how he does it, the mayor thought.

With Mayor Travis Henning and Jordan Templeton leading the way,  the gathered throng converged upon Caldwell’s SUV. The mayor repeatedly glanced back to keep tabs on McClain and Carter. He knew that the greatest potential for violence among the residents of the co-op came from these two men. He had entertained the notion of having these men on house arrest on this day, but realized that outrage among McClain’s followers would exacerbate an already volatile situation. The mayor noticed that Caldwell’s entourage of biker henchmen were huge, intimidating individuals. All six of them were no less than 250 pounds, as were his driver and the two other men accompanying him and now stepping out of the SUV. Men of this dimension were unknown in the Eldridge Co-op. The mayor then saw the figure of Buck Caldwell step out of the vehicle and begin walking with authority straight toward him. It had been several years since the mayor had last seen Caldwell, though news of atrocities credited to him were common. He was grayer now than the last time he saw the man, but otherwise about the same. He was dressed in a tailored suit, the design of which allowed him to project a regal quality, perhaps deliberately in order to grant him an air of greater authority.

“Travis”, said Buck Caldwell, lifting his hand toward the mayor in a gesture of peace as he approached the mayor.

“Charles” responded the mayor, as he shook the hand of his antagonist. Then added, “I must also tell you that this entire proceeding is being video-recorded from several angles.”

“Charles?” questioned Caldwell. “My mother was the only person that ever called me Charles. And she has been dead ten years. Before that the only person to call me Charles was our eleventh grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Green. She refused to call me Buck. Do you remember her Travis?”

“What?” interrupted Jordan. And looking at the mayor added, “You went to school with ‘HIM’? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Long story Jordan. We’ll talk about it later,” responded the mayor, still looking directly at Caldwell.

“How’s you dad, Buck?” Asked the mayor, in an attempt at some disarming small talk.

“He’s in wheelchair now. But otherwise still as feisty as ever.” Unimpressed by the mayor’s attempt  to be disarming, Caldwell added, “you got some people that belong to me.”

“And your son, Allen? He has got to be about 19 or 20 now, doesn’t he?” the mayor said, ignoring Caldwell’s last remark.

“He is doing fine. Just finishing up his first year at MIT. Studying what he calls ‘next generation solar voltaic technology’. I’m proud of him. He has ideas for making The Long Grove even more efficient than it is.” Then adding as a deliberate dig, “definitely more efficient than this commie pinko hellhole you call a co-op.”

“You piece-a-shit!” screamed Adam McClain. “And yer kid never served patrolling The Wall. So he’s a piece-a-shit too.”

In nothing flat Jordan was in McClain’s face and trying to push him back into the crowd. Due to McClain’s size, it was a major task, and he wasn’t making much progress. Simultaneously, the biker escort dismounted in unison, taking off their jackets revealing side-arms. In seconds the tension had ratcheted up alarmingly.

Jordan kept trying to push McClain back, who was careening into others in an attempt to maintain his position. Suddenly a woman jostled by McClain dropped a glass beverage that shattered explosively. Instantly, the three, more exposed bikers nearer the  crowd started to draw their guns.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots from someone in the crowd. Three bikers dropped like stones. Caldwell and the others in his entourage immediately scurried for refuge behind the SUV. The mayor and the rest of the crowd likewise collapsed to the pavement to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Shrieks of terror filled the air along with moans from one of the three gunshot victims.

Standing alone, holding a still smoking 38 caliber pistol, and facing the SUV with a menacing sneer was Lucas Carter. To many in attendance, this act of violence confirmed the rumors of his participation in the Hampton’s Massacre all those years ago.

In one more instant, with guns now trained on the assailant, three women, unknown to the residents but still familiar, rose from the pavement, running into harms way shouting, “Stop! Stop! Stop! No more shooting! No more! No more!” Then, after a pause. “We will go! We will be replacements for the fugitives! We will go! just stop this! No one else needs to get hurt!” Looking up from their prone position, many residents of the co-op realized that the women in the crossfire were those that they had derisively called the ‘ninety-four forties’. They were the ones sacrificing their safety and freedom for peace.

Though remaining vigilant, Caldwell’s men lowered their weapons as did an astonished Lucas Carter. Two men, known intimately to the members of the Eldridge Co-op, as they were residents, joined the women. One man, Devin Roker,  speaking for the two of them said in a calm voice, “We are going too.” Then looking directly at Caldwell said, “We are young and strong. The five of us more than make up for what you have lost.”

Devin Roker and Stuart Small had developed clandestine relationships with the migrants over the past several months, and though shocked by their lovers sacrifice, would not abandon them at any price, including the price of their own freedom.

With the threat of further violence receding, and feeling again emboldened, Caldwell shouted, “Maybe so, but what about my men! What about my men!”

At that moment the mayor directed Jordan to assist him in taking down and handcuffing Carter, which they did without incident. The mayor then directed his next comment at Caldwell. “Buck Caldwell, this man will stand trial for his crime. Do you hear me? He will stand trial for his crime.”

Face pressed into the concrete, Lucas Carter shouted, “I was defending us! You saw them draw first! I was defending the people of the co-op!”

“The video record will determine if what you did was defense,” the mayor said, his own face inches from the prone Carter. Then added rhetorically, “Why did you violate my directive against firearms?”

The gathering cautiously began rising from the pavement and dispersing. Closer inspection of the victims revealed that they were all wearing bullet proof vests, a detail that Caldwell apparently forgot about, considering his reaction to them being shot. The men had been momentarily knocked cold by the force of the bullet slamming into their chests, but they would recover from their injuries without permanent damage.

As his three moaning henchmen gradually regained consciousness and were assisted to their feet, Devin Roker again asked, “Caldwell, do you accept our proposal? The five of us more than make up for what you lost.”

Taking a deep, audible breath, and spying four video cameras trained on he and his men, Caldwell said reluctantly and venomously, “Alright, I accept. But I warn you; if you run I swear by God I’ll hunt you down! Do you understand?”

“Understood,” replied Roker.

Mayor Henning and Jordan Templeton had listened to the exchange between Caldwell and Roker, and though shocked by the turn of events, were relieved that a non-lethal resolution had resulted. The two men were very curious as to why the women would sacrifice themselves by willingly taking the place of the fugitives. Did they understand that their bold proposal meant a lifetime of indentured servitude, perpetual debt to a tyrannical master, and the constant threat of being beaten for the slightest perceived transgressions? As the women stood by while Roker and Small made arrangements with Caldwell, the Mayor noticed that two of the women looked very similar. Probably sisters, he thought. All three were very fit, lean, and tanned, and he remembered that they were that way when they first arrived at the co-op. He had to talk to them to find out why they would sacrifice themselves in this way.

“Hello.” the mayor said to the older of the two sisters. “My name is Travis Henning.”

“I know who you are, Mayor. I’m Jenny Petersen. This is my sister Angela. And this is a good friend of mine, Nicole Sheppard.”

With the exchange of greetings completed the mayor said, “I just had to ask you…..why? Why did you offer yourselves like this?”

“What we did today wasn’t much of a sacrifice Mayor. I don’t think any of you ‘really’ understand us. You put us down by calling us ‘ninety-four forties’. But you don’t know what our lives were like before we came here.” Then pausing for a moment to gather her thoughts, Jenny continued; “We are from just south of Altus, Oklahoma. We lived on a feudal estate that covered the entire southern half of Jackson County; all the way to the Red River. I grew up on it. It’s all my sister and I ever knew. Nicole lived on the next tenant farm to the north. We were always able to just get by when I was little. Back then we raised winter wheat and peanuts. We had chickens and raised Hereford cattle until it got too hot, then switched to Brangus, because they could tolerate the heat better. Different farms raised different crops, depending on proximity to water.”

“So why did you leave? And why are you here?” interrupted the Mayor.

“In a nutshell; the weather got worse, the diesel got scarce, and Floyd Roark, the man who owed the land demanded production. So we were evicted.” After a pause, with eyes now directed toward the ground, Jenny continued. ” Mr. Henning, you can’t imagine how bad things got. We stopped growing row crops because our allotments of diesel couldn’t support it. We tried mules to replace our tractor, but they died in a heat wave. So we went strictly to livestock production. Then it just stopped raining….I mean almost completely. Only a few occasional light showers. When we left, the Red River had not flowed in four years. We built little earthen dams on the Salt Fork of the Red to catch little pools after hard rains, but this didn’t work for long. We pleaded with Roark for help, and he would just say ‘find a way’. No pasture, no hay. The cattle were dying. Ribs poking through their bodies. My husband saw a starving cow trying to eat the bark off a Mesquite tree. Roark just blamed us and said ‘find a way’.”

“You mentioned your husband. Where is he? Roker’s not your husband.” the mayor interjected.

“We knew where life was still possible. But we also knew of the Buchanan Wall. We would try to go around it to the west. Me, my husband, my sister, Nicole and her husband; we planned it together. We’d get to the migrant camps in Amarillo, then Trinidad, Colorado. From there north to Pueblo, then Colorado Springs, finally to the large encampment in Denver. From there follow the South Platte River to Interstate 80 in Nebraska. Then home free. We’d ride our bikes. Hitch when possible on remaining stretches of road not broken down. Yea… that was our plan.”

“What happened?” said Jordan, who was also listening intensely to the conversation.

“We got to Julesburg, Colorado along with a crowd of 200 people. That is near where the South Platte meets the Interstate. There was a huge military garrison there stopping people from going further. We all demonstrated. It turned into a riot. Our husbands were killed along with over forty others.”

“Oh Jesus God! I remember that. It used to happen fairly often there,” said the Mayor in horror. “I’m so sorry,” he added. Several other people were now listening to Jenny speak.

“You see Mayor, people will go to extraordinary lengths to survive.”

“But how did you get here?” a very inquisitive Mayor Henning asked.

“We heard about something you might call an ‘underground railroad’ Mr. Mayor. Yes, your precious Heartlandia has traitors to the cause…. thankfully. After burying our husbands, we rode and hitched for weeks, always hungry, begging for food and sometimes stealing it, to get to Quincy, Illinois. We contacted a man who got us stow-awayed on a barge loaded with fruit from Venezuela. After evading the inspectors at Lock Nineteen, we were in your little Nirvana.”

“Good lord,” stated an incredulous Jordan Templeton, as the mayor just shook his head, mouth agape in disbelief. “All that just to get here?” Jordan added.

The small crowd just stared, possibly looking for evidence that Jenny’s story was fiction. Even Caldwell, leaning against his SUV, quietly listened to the last part of Jenny’s story. The people of the Eldridge Co-op would never again derisively refer to the migrants as ‘ninety-four forties’. They had a new found respect for them and their plight. They wondered how they ever could have judged these people so harshly. How can one judge another’s actions when they don’t understand the trials and tribulations they may have endured that preceded those actions? They felt ashamed. They knew that Jenny, Angela, and Nicole would have a new life now, and though harsh, life in The Long Grove would be better than the hell they had been through for several years in Oklahoma and on the road.

“Thank you Mayor.” Jenny said.

“For what?” responded the Mayor.

“A respite.”

Caldwell gestured to the three women along with Roker and Small to get into the SUV. They all obliged. The Mayor heard Caldwell say to his new replacements, “My men will get your things later.”

Mayor Henning and Jordan Templeton watched the SUV drive away. No one looked back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27 thoughts on “The Ninety-four Forties

  1. I very much enjoyed this short story. It seems like an extremely realistic possibility if our society continues to head in the direction that it’s currently in, continuing to show carelessness in terms of pollution, farming practices, and cultural discrimination. It also posed as a great potential prologue (or even epilogue) to a much more in-depth novel on this realistic dystopian society. I appreciated the detail given to the characters and the backstories; the reference to Donald Trump relative to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Buchanan,” a name we associate with wealth and carelessness, was an especially cunning dig. I would have, however, liked to see more in terms of the visual layout of each scene and the characters surroundings when they were in less reputable areas. Overall, I thought the piece was very enjoyable.

  2. As an avid reader myself, I particularly enjoyed this story as I have been reading several dystopian novels like it recently. It was interesting to make the ties to areas so close to our home- Davenport, Eldridge, and Long Grove- and to current day, like talking about the works of Neal Degrasse Tyson. It’s scary to think that something like my may happen one day, especially as many science programs like NASA are being defunded, specifically their sector on climate change. It’s a good reminder of the life we and our children may have to face.

  3. I really liked this story for a few different reasons. First, I liked the past-to-future perspective of things we take for granted today (Hy-Vee, gas-powered vehicles, an expansive interstate system, etc.). Second, I enjoyed the various pro/con points for co-op and neo-feudalism. If this epidemic were to happen in the future, groups of people organizing themselves in these manners would be very probable. Finally, I liked how the confrontation wasn’t necessarily about the mayor and his heroics to save the town, but rather the “ninety-four forties” selflessness to surrender themselves so that the community can continue to live as a co-op.

  4. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much
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  5. I liked this story because it could be an eye opener for the world. The way that we use our fossil fuels could lead us to this time in the future. The difference in life could be dictatorship or cooperations. They talked about dictatorship becoming a way in which one person owns all the land and they make you work for it, or cooperations between land owners making it all right in the area through helping each other. Also, they talked about the wall keeping people away from their resources. The fact that they need the wall along with armed people to protect their fossil fuels is the reason that the world needs to respect the world, otherwise we will not get to live here very long.

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  7. I enjoyed this story because I believe that it accurately portrayed emotions and situations that would happen in this type of environment in the future. I agree that feudal and communist systems would be ways local government would develop in a time of crisis. People would be afraid and many sadists like Caldwell would emerge to take advantage of the lack of federal government. Trying to do the right thing would become harder and harder as resources run dry and the world regresses towards darker days. I enjoyed the story for those aspects and hope to read more.

  8. I liked your story because it kept me on my toes the whole time i read it. I can also see what you predicted in your story happening in the future. The great detail you used in describing your characters and scenes really made it easy to vision. I also liked how you based it close to home because i felt like i was there. Great short story with a great message.

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  10. The stark contrast between what is commonly depicted as futuristic technologies, developments, etc. and some of the bygone methods of farming and just living in general that the people of the co-op utilize is what made me the most curious. I have always doubted some of the visions of the future that are so widespread, especially technology-wise. This story put into words and gave an explanation for why there would be a cap or limit on how much more we as a race can produce. I don’t really think that this story is that far-fetched, either. Technology these days is seen as indispensible, but in reality, I think there is a lot that we could do without and survive (and even thrive) just fine. We think that our quality of life is so much better with all the advancements that we have made, but I can’t help but wonder if simpler times might be more suitable. Not that all technological advancements have been bad, but some (maybe even most) are expendable. Your story made me think of this illustration: http://yuumei.deviantart.com/art/Countdown-217677913. As time ticks away, so do some valuable resources.

  11. The story changed tone a few times, so I found it hard to pinpoint the theme of the story. These three themes I did identify: First, imaginative, sci-fi-style ideas about what the everyday will look like; Second, a realistic dystopian world that points out America’s faults and its strength; And third, how people in this world feel and act. The sci-fi parts seem well thought out scientifically, like the solar and holographic phones. The Eldridge Co-op is a realistic view of organization. There’d probably be a DeWitt Co-op too, and maybe a Maquoketa Co-op. I think most of the Quad Cities and Clinton would become anarchistic while the countryside would, like Goose Lake, become feudal. People from the coldest north as well as the desertified south would make their way towards the ample crops of the midwest, though, and perhaps some areas would be populated with several-acre sustenance farms for small clans. The final theme makes this story a welcome break from other modern dystopian stories about teens and war: the events are paced as life really is paced, with lots of time to talk in between the action. I was surprised by the manners of everyone in the story. People are hardly this nice today, so to represent a tougher world, I would reduce niceties to necessity. Overall, the plot is great. The ending would connect more if the exposition revealed more about the characters. Specifically, I’d reveal the rumors and dirt about the ninety-four forties more.

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  13. I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about the future and how hard things might get, but even more than that it made me think about how I treat people. The way that the people treated the ninety four forties was terrible and then the ninety four forties gave themselves up for the people who hated them. After reading this I wonder how many nice people I have treated unkindly and why I would make assumptions about people before getting to know them. In the future I will think more about how I treat others.

  14. I think that this was a very good, eye-opening story. I say ‘eye-opening’ because it really makes me think about something that possibly could be a reality in the future. The location was also very easy to connect to, being that we live next to Eldridge and Long Grove. It scares me to think that stuff like this, can possibly be what we will have to face in the near future and if not our generation, it could be the one after that. I also enjoyed the some of the characters names, and where they come from!

  15. I liked how the story was set near here. It was good at keeping the focus on the main part of the story, which was that there was a chronic food shortage throughout the country, causing migration, slavery, and bloodshed. Although a situation like this could happen someday I feel that it was a bit extreme for being set in 2060. I think that something like this would happen much later. The U.S. has lots of farmable land and the farmers of today know how to prevent a large change in the environment like the one that was mentioned in the story about the desertification in the South as well as the one that is known in history as the Dust Bowl. I think in order to have a food crisis there would first have to be a large energy crisis. In the story there was a slight hint that fuel was scarce, but the co-op seemed to have plenty of electricity. I feel that with that aspect and that 2060 is not that far away, that the story wasn’t too realistic. However, it did portray what could happen in a food crisis very well from how the people acted to the aspects of slavery.

  16. Thanks Chase. I see technology continuing to improve decades after the availability of fossil fuels goes into terminal decline. We will need it to help ease our way to alternate ways of living on the land. I think we can forget about flying cars and jetpacks. That vision of the future is far too energy intensive. I think the future will appear somewhat dystopian to those who hold the ridiculous view that it is “onward and upward” forever. As if we didn’t live on a finite planet with finite resources.

  17. I’m glad you liked it Christian. I do see this as one possible future. You might have noticed that some technologies that don’t depend too heavily on fossil fuels could continue to advance, like the 3-D video phone; essentially holographic imagery of the person you’re talking to on the other end, while at the same time the people of the co-op would sometimes need to use mules to plant their crops because their allotment of diesel would run out.

  18. Yes Colleen. In this scenario I see most people in some way being responsible for producing much of what they consume. In the story there are two competing land use models: the “commune” type where everyone pitches in to help each other, and the “feudal” model, where a very rich owner of the land has others generate wealth for him, which they live as “debt” slaves. They are not “true” slaves, and on those rare occasions that they pay off all their debts, they are free to go elsewhere. This clash between the two models of occupying the land I see as a possible source of conflict in the future.

  19. I thought the story was very intriguing. I had no clue what it was going to be about and at every turn it offered something new. I liked how it was all based around the area and the story stayed true to that. It was interesting to me how it was based in the future and events were made up from that time. There was action and suspense in the short story that helped make it seem vivid and real. There were a lot of good details that helped the main characters come to life. It was an easy and fun to follow read.

  20. I found this story quite interesting. The biggest factor that stuck out to me was the fact that although this occurs in the future, the people must revert back to slavery and living off the land like the past. It makes me think about our society and if it will slowly erode back the way it built up. Our advances today may help us now, but they may deplete our resources in the future. Although this scenario is one of many possible in the future, the point hits home. The setting is local and the character names are those of my peers. It makes me think twice about the path we are moving towards in the future.

  21. I found this story quite interesting. The setting is quite close to home so it was easy to relate to. With an increase in technology, the possibility of a dystopian society is becoming more and more likely. I particularly found the section where it says “Yea. I guess I’m just a nerd. All the stuff I read is science, resources, or permaculture. I often go back and read that really old stuff from before The Descent, by guys predicting it, and just shake my head,” interesting because it is so true. Many writers, all the way back to Bradbury, are composing there thoughts on the future and the possibility of a future like the one in the story. I believe that quote will be true. People will be able to look back and say I told you so.

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  23. While I was reading your blog I thought about Instagram and how this topic could apply to that as well. As of now, I use Twitter as a news outlet and not so much for social reasons which is why I don�t actively follow my friends. But I could see how this issue could surfaced if the user of Twitter is using it for more social platform. With Instagram, it might be a harder argument, since it leans towards the social side. Especially now that these three social platforms have options to sync with each other, I can see how the culture can go to a �you�re not my friend unless you friend me and follow me�

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