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Authors: Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

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In loving memory of my father,

Vic Zinn,

a man who loved machines and the sky

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

—William Butler Yeats

1

May 1923

D
isaster lived by its own rules. Most times it crept up from behind, wiping out everything with a single blow, a bully and a coward. Lightning strikes. Train wrecks. Someone shoots an archduke and starts a bloody war. But disaster had veered from its sneaky, obliterating path with the Schuler family. It had taken them down one finger flick at a time. First baby Marie. Then Ma. Then Peter. Finally, Pa. For the past five years, Henry had been the last Schuler standing.

And now disaster had come for him. For the second time its ugly hands had shoved Henry out of his own life. At least it hadn’t taken him down. Not yet. At least this time he wasn’t a powerless boy. He was an eighteen-year-old man. He could choose. Running was wrong, a coward’s way. And maybe he was—as much of a coward as that bully disaster. But it was either run or die.

Since he’d been orphaned, Henry had been living on a farm with Anders Dahlgren, his wife, and seven daughters. During those years the second eldest, Emmaline, had convinced many folks he was a deceitful, untrustworthy boy. If he had stayed, all anyone would see was his aggressive, hateful
German-ness.
All anyone would hear were the echoes of Emmaline’s claims. Justice might be blind, but it heard plenty.

The fresh scratches and bruises were even more damning than his heritage or his reputation.

Even Mr. Dahlgren couldn’t save him now. Wouldn’t even try. Not when Henry had betrayed him in the worst way imaginable. That thought just about tore out Henry’s heart.

He walked along the river in step with a heavy-booted chant in his mind:
Kill ’im. Kill ’im. Kill Heinrich the Hun
—words his schoolmates had hurled like stones at his back during the Great War. Unlike the taunting of grade school, this time the threat was as real as the dirt under his feet. The only thing behind him was a noose.

After a day and a half on deer trails and farm paths, he’d probably traveled far enough no one would recognize him. He crawled out of the bramble beside a covered bridge, crouching like the animal he felt himself becoming—dirty, hungry, desperate—and looked to make sure no one was in sight before he stepped onto the road. The second his feet hit the packed, rutted dirt, he felt naked and defenseless.
All animals have to come out sooner or later or they’ll starve to death
. Every hunter knew that. Probably every lawman, too.

By midmorning, Henry hadn’t seen a single solitary soul on that road. Maybe his luck was changing. He breathed some easier. The past was done. Finished. Gone. From here on, he’d only look toward the future. Toward Chicago. The Cubs. Yeah, he’d think about the Cubs. Peter, his older brother, had been crazy about the Cubs. He and Henry used to huddle over the weekly paper Pa splurged on, memorizing players and statistics. At first Henry had only done it to be with Peter. Before long, he, too, was standing on the front porch waiting for Pa to arrive with the paper.

He spent some time thinking about what Cubs Park—it had been called Weeghman Park when he and Peter had started following the Cubs—would look like. It could seat fifteen thousand people. He’d never been in a
town
with fifteen thousand souls all totaled. He was trying to imagine that many people all in one place at one time—the jostle of bodies packed shoulder to shoulder, the swirl of smells coming off that many different sorts of folks, the noise—when he heard the clatter of tack and the roll of a wagon behind him.

As the plodding hooves and rumbling wheels got closer, Henry’s skin drew up prickly and his privates tried to crawl up into his belly. His feet wanted to light out. A new chant filled his head.
Steady. Steady.
They don’t know me . . . don’t know me . . . don’t know me . . . don’t know me.

The road was barely wide enough for a pair of mules to walk side by side, so he moved to the weeds for the wagon to pass. Three steps in, he flushed out a rabbit, sending it skittering across the road and his heart nearly shooting out of his mouth.

As the mule team pulled past, he moved his lips into a strawboard smile. A little boy with red hair under a beat-up straw hat looked down, smiled, and waved. He was missing his two front teeth. Something in that kid’s earnest smile made Henry feel as if he’d lost something he’d never get back. What, exactly, he couldn’t say since he’d lost most everything that meant anything by the time he was twelve.

He raised a hand and kept that mock smile on his face, thinking innocent thoughts, hoping they’d shine through his eyes.

He braced for recognition; waited for the man to look at him, stand, and glare down, pointing a damning finger of accusation. But the boy’s pa stayed put on that creaky wagon bench, slump-shouldered with his hat pulled low. He didn’t even glance Henry’s way. Every line of the man’s posture reminded Henry of his pa, completely used up by life. Henry felt a stab of pity for the kid and hoped to high heaven his life took an easier road than Henry’s had. He continued to put one shaky foot in front of the other until the wagon and the dust it kicked up rolled out of sight. Then the dry heaves grabbed him. He bent over and braced his hands on his knees until they passed.

How was he going to live a life on the run if he threw up every time a stranger approached? He had to convince himself of his innocence before he could convince anyone else.

After a while he came to a little town that either didn’t matter enough to name, or nobody had bothered to post a sign to let folks know what it was. It sat on a straight shot of road and had about a dozen houses, most of them peeling and tired. T’s of utility poles ran down the right side of the unpaved street, draping lines to the build
ings like Chautauqua banners. The brick sidewalk started at a two-room school that reminded him of the one he and Peter had gone to, with tall windows and a bell tower over the double front door (damn few happy memories there). After that was a feedstore, a white-painted church (services at nine o’clock and six thirty on Sunday, seven o’clock on Wednesday evenings), Castetter’s Grocery and Variety, a brick-and-limestone bank, and a grain elevator.

Best to just walk right through, not too fast. Meet people’s eyes. The visible bruise at his temple would probably draw attention. His fingers went there, prodded the soreness. If asked, he’d just pile on another lie.

Back when disaster ended his first life, Henry had picked a fake name to dodge those mealymouthed, do-gooder welfare folks who would have sent him to the County Home—a hulking brick place filled with orphans, kids whose families couldn’t afford to feed them, and thrown-away old people. A nice patriotic-sounding
American
name that wouldn’t draw the suspicious looks his German name did: Henry Jefferson. But Anders Dahlgren had come to take him in, fully aware that Henry was a Schuler. Now that the law was after him, Henry Jefferson was who he would be.

There weren’t many people around this nameless town. A couple of kids played marbles in the dirt. A horse-drawn delivery wagon sat in front of Castetter’s. A woman rocked on a front porch, shelling early peas into the apron on her lap. Two babies crawled around her feet. She looked as tired as Henry felt and didn’t give him a second glance. When he passed the feedstore, an old guy wearing overalls was leaning in the doorway. He eyed Henry long enough that the urge to run washed over him, but he put one foot steadily in front of the other. He even managed an I’ve-got-nothing-to-hide wave. At first the man only stared. Then he gave a slow nod. Henry kept going, counting his steps until the sidewalk stopped as abruptly as it began.

The scenery rolled back into farmland and the town disappeared. The hours came and went, step after step, thirst, hunger. He welcomed the exhaustion and numbness, it made it easier to forget the horror of
what he’d left behind. He kept himself going by listening to the regular rhythm of his pants legs rubbing against each other.

The sun had slipped into late afternoon when his feet decided to stop. He blinked, somewhat surprised to find himself in the middle of a crossroad. A crow cawed overhead, a harsh, unwelcoming sound. A single dove sat on the wire strung from pole to pole alongside the road, its mournful
hoo-ah hoo-hoo-hoo
making him feel more alone than he ever had in his life.

He wished he knew how far he’d gone. But this Indiana road was the same as all of the others he’d crossed, marked by more horse hooves and wagon wheels than automobile tires, passing through a rotating kaleidoscope of woods tangled with grapevine, fields sprouting green shoots of corn, and grassy pastures dotted with spring clover and livestock. This was the only landscape he’d ever known. From the newspapers he knew Chicago was crowded and noisy, full of mobsters and speakeasies. He reckoned he’d just have to get used to the idea of a world filled with brick and stone, noise and people. He was really going to miss green meeting blue on every horizon.

As he stood there sluggishly debating whether to continue west or turn north, a muted buzz vibrated the air. A
mechanical
buzz. And it was approaching. Too deep for an automobile. Closing in too fast to be a tractor. His curiosity kept him from diving for the weeds and hiding.

It got louder, stealing deep into Henry’s bones. When he set eyes on the airplane overhead, something fluttered to life in his chest. It was a beauty for sure; stacked wings and throaty roar against the blue sky. He’d only seen airplanes in pictures, and those pictures hadn’t been able to fill his heart with the raw power of that thrumming motor.

His mechanic’s hands itched to tinker with those valves and pistons.

Suddenly, the plane rolled to its right and made a U-turn, heading back the way it had come. He stood there wishing it would turn around again.

And then it did.

Well, if I’d known there was a wish to be granted, I’d have made better use.

The plane skimmed low over the far side of the broad cow pasture on Henry’s right.

Then he noticed something else. Below the plane. Matching its speed.

He shaded his eyes and squinted.

A motorcycle tore along at breakneck speed, bouncing on the rough ground, looking as if it were bucking to throw off the rider, who was leaning forward over the handlebars.

A tree row stood about two hundred yards ahead of the motorcycle and the plane. Who would blink first?

The plane stayed lower than the treetops, edging just ahead of the motorcycle.

The motorcycle did not let up.

Even if the plane pulled up now, it looked to be too late.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Henry jumped over the water-filled ditch, vaulted over the wire fence. He felt caught in a dream, his body moving unnaturally slowly, the pasture growing wider as he ran.

Just when he thought the plane was going to hit the trees, it pulled up with a mighty roar, nose nearly straight up in the air.

The motorcycle disappeared into the tree line. The crashing sound rolled across the field. The engine whined high, as if the wheels had left the ground.

The plane’s drone moved away.

Henry ran faster. He ducked and swatted through trees and scrub where the motorcycle had left a trail of broken branches and flattened weeds. It was on its side, front wheel bent, handlebar plowed deep in the mud beside a large pond.

The rider?

There! Facedown in the water.

Henry splashed into the pond, praying it wasn’t deep; he could keep himself from drowning, but that was about it. The water dragged on his clothes. Each step in the muddy bottom was harder to pull free than the last. Once chest deep, he stretched his reach, but fell short.

The rider’s head jerked up. Sputtering, he flailed.

Henry lunged forward to grab the collar of the leather jacket, but missed.

“Hold still!” He took another step and slipped under as the bottom fell away under his feet. When he bobbed back up, an elbow caught him in the eye. A foot landed a kick on his right thigh.

“Stop moving! I’ll
ggg
—” Water splashed into Henry’s open mouth and shot down his gullet. He coughed and grabbed blindly for the rider.

He dodged an arm and managed to get one of his own wrapped around the man’s waist and half swam, half drowned, back to where he could set his feet on the bottom. The body beneath the leather jacket felt more like a fourteen-year-old than a man.

Now that he was towing a thrashing body, Henry’s feet sank deeper into the bottom.

The choking, gasping kid kept fighting and Henry almost lost his grip.

“I have you!” Henry pulled one foot from the mud and nearly went under again.

He shifted his grip to the collar of the leather jacket. His chances of staying on his feet were better dragging a floating body, even if it was flopping like a banked bass. He leaned away and pulled the boy behind him, one sucking step at a time.

By the time they reached the edge of the pond, the floundering stopped. The boy gasped for air. Henry’s legs were lead. He let go of the jacket and fell to the ground himself, muscles burning, heart ready to explode. He lay on his back sucking air into his starved lungs, listening to the kid cough and wheeze.

A couple of minutes later, Henry was still getting his breath when a curious cow stepped close and looked down at him. A long string of drool hung from her lips. Henry put up a hand and swatted her away, realizing too late that if he startled her, her next step could be in the center of his chest.

The cow didn’t move, but the drool let go and landed in a slimy
plop
on Henry’s forehead. He swiped at it, but the snotty stuff just smeared.

The cow blinked her huge brown eyes and mooed. Henry was pretty sure she was laughing at him.

“Oh, shut up, Tilda.” The rider’s voice was gaspy and graveled from coughing.

Henry took the kid’s ability to speak—and his sense of humor—as good news. “You know this cow?”

“She’s a”—he coughed and spat—“a troublemaker.” The boy pushed himself to sitting.

“Careful! Something might be broken.”

“Nah.” The boy was still breathing hard as he rotated wrists and bent elbows and knees to make sure. “Just got the wind knocked out.” He pulled off his gloves and swiped some of the mud from his cheek before reaching for the buckle on his leather helmet.

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