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Chapter 1

August 1920—Western nebrAskA

F lying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Cur- tiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “any-

thing” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.

True enough that flying and falling just kind of went to- gether. Not in a good sort of way, but in a way you couldn’t escape. Airplanes fell out of the clouds, and pilots fell out of their airplanes. Not on purpose, of course, but it did happen sometimes, like when some dumb palooka forgot to buckle his

safety belt, then decided to try flying upside down.

Flying and falling, freedom and dependence, air and earth.

That was just the way it was. But whatever was falling always had to be falling from some place. No such thing as just falling out of the sky, ’cause nothing was up there to fall out of. Which didn’t at all explain the blur of plummeting shadows

just a couple hundred yards in front of his propeller. He reacted reflexively, pulling the Jenny up and to the right. The new Hisso engine Earl had just installed whined and

whirred in protest. Hitch thrust the stick forward to push the

nose back down and flatten her out. This was what he got for

coming out here in the middle of the night to test the plane’s

new modifications. But time was short and the stakes were high with Col. Livingstone’s flying circus arriving in town tomorrow

for the big competition.

Hitch and his team were only going to have this one shot to

win the show and impress Livingstone. Otherwise, they’d be

10 – K.M. WeilAND

headed straight from broke to flat broke. And he’d be hollering adios to all those big dreams of running a real barnstorming circus. if he and his parachutist Rick Holmes were going to

pull off that new stunt they’d been working on, his Jenny first had to prove she was up to new demands. A little extra practice never hurt anyone—even him—but falling bodies sure as gravy

wasn’t what he’d had in mind for his first night back in the old

hometown. in the front cockpit, Taos turned around, forepaws on the back of the seat, brown ears blowing in the wind, barking his head off. Hitch anchored the stick with both hands and twisted a look

over his right shoulder, then his left, just in time to see the

big shadow separate itself into two smaller patches of dark.

A flower of white bloomed from first one shadow, then the other—and everything slowed down. Parachutes. Some crazy jumpers were parachuting out here at night? He craned a look overhead, but there was nothing up

there but a whole lot of moon and a whole lot more sky.

Then the night exploded in a gout of fire.

He jerked his head back around to see over his shoulder, past

the Jenny’s tail.

The arc of a flare sputtered through the darkness, showering light all over the jumper nearest to him. Beneath the expanse of

the white silk parachute hung a dark mass, shiny and rippling, like fabric blowing in the wind. What in tarnation? Parachutists didn’t wear anything but

practical jumpsuits or trousers. Anything else risked fouling the

lines. And everybody knew better than to hazard a flare’s spark lighting the ’chute on fire. He circled the Jenny around to pass the jumper, giving a

wide berth to keep the turbulence from interfering. Below him

stretched the long metallic sheen of a brand spanking new

lake—presumably from irrigation runoff—that had somehow

appeared during the nine years since he’d left home. He was

only fifty or so feet above the water, and the air currents were already playing heck with the Jenny. She juddered again, up and

down, as if a playful giant was poking at her.

STOrming – 11

Another flare spurted into the night. Thanks to it and the

light of the full moon, he could see quite well enough to tell

that what was hanging from that ’chute was a woman—in a

gigantic ball gown.

When you flew all over the country, you saw a lot of strange

stuff. But this one bought the beets.

This time, the flare didn’t fall harmlessly away. This time, it

struck the woman’s skirt. His heart did a quick stutter.

He was almost parallel with her now. in that second when the Jenny screamed by, the woman’s wide eyes found his, her mouth open in her grease-streaked face.

“Oh, brother, lady.” The wind ripped his words away. He couldn’t leave her back there, but he sure as moses

couldn’t do much from inside the Jenny. He careened past the white mushroom that marked the sec-

ond jumper. A large bird circled above the canopy. This jumper seemed to be a man—no big skirt anyway. He should be fine

landing in the lake, if he could keep from getting tangled in his

lines. But judging his capacity for brains from that blunder with

the flare, even that might be too much for him to handle. Un- less, of course, he’d shot at the woman deliberately. Hitch circled wide around the man and chased back after the

ball of fire.

This time when he passed the woman, he shouted, “Cut

loose!”

She was only twenty feet up now. it’d be a hard fall into the

water, but even that’d be a whole lot better than going down in a fireball—a flamerino as pilots called it.

He zipped past and looked back at her. She couldn’t hear him through the wind, but if she’d seen his

lips moving and his arms waving, she’d know he was talking to her. And, really, what else was he going to be saying right now? in the front seat, Taos leaned over the turtleback between the cockpits. His whole body quivered with his frantic barking,

but the sound was ripped away in the rush of the wind and the howl of the engine. The woman had both hands at her chest, yanking at the harness

12 – K.M. WeilAND

buckles. And then, with one last jerk, they came free. She plum- meted, a whoosh of fire in the darkness. She broke the glossy water below. The flames winked out. She disappeared. A third flare blinked through the corner of his vision, too

late for Hitch to react. it smacked into the Jenny’s exhaust stack

and erupted in a short burst of flame.

Even the dog froze. if the flame touched the wing, varnished as it was in butyrate

dope, the whole thing would go off like gunpowder. But the

flame sputtered out. The stack started coughing black smoke.

This was bad. Not as bad as it could be maybe. But bad.

Smoke and the stench of burning castor oil chugged from the right side of the engine. When earl saw it, he’d lie down

and have a fit. Here was the brand new Hisso, all set for the big

contest with Col. Livingstone’s air circus, already choking.

No engine, no plane, no competition. That was simple barn- storming mathematics.

not to mention the fact that the show hadn’t even started and

Hitch was already leaving bodies in his slipstream—although

that, of course, was hardly his fault.

He swung the plane around and pushed her into a dive. She

stuttered and balked but did it anyway, like the good cranky girl

she was. He took a low pass over the lake, then another and an- other. The fall hadn’t been far, only twenty feet or so. Provided the jumpers hadn’t hit at a bad angle, it wasn’t a horrible place

to bail out.

Of course, there was also the little fact of the woman having been on fire. But with all that material she’d been wearing, the

flames probably wouldn’t have had enough time to reach skin, much less do any considerable damage. Out of the night’s list of featured ways to die, that left drown- ing. if she couldn’t swim, she was out of luck. Beneath the Jenny, the white expanse of the man’s parachute

spread over the surface of the lake. The man himself wasn’t to

be seen.

Hitch dipped low for another flyby and leaned out of the

cockpit as far as he could manage, searching for the other para-

chute. “C’mon, c’mon.”

STOrming – 13

Taos squirmed around to stare at something ahead of them. Hitch looked up. There it was. And there she was. Head barely above the water, the woman dog-paddled a cou- ple dozen feet out from the shore.

Thank god for that anyway. He resisted flying over her, since his turbulence wouldn’t help her overcome the soggy deadweight of that load of skirt

she was wearing. But he waggled his wings once, in case she

was looking, then turned around to hunt for the nearest landing spot. So much for a nice encouraging practice run.

A dirt road up past the shore offered just enough room to put

the plane down. No headlights in sight, which wasn’t surprising for this time of night. Most folks would be rocking on their

front porches, enjoying the cool of the evening after long hours sweating in the corn and beet fields. He shut off the engine and

jumped down to dig a flashlight out of his jacket pocket. Calling

Taos to him, he started off at a jog, back toward the lakeshore.

The few cottonwoods growing around the water’s edge were

young, proof the lake hadn’t been in existence long. Around

here, trees—especially moisture hogs like cottonwoods—only

grew near water. He crashed through the brush, Taos trotting behind him, and

followed the yellow beam of his flashlight to the approximate spot where the woman jumper might have emerged from the water. A scan of the area showed only white wavelets nibbling

into the sand. The water stretched away from the shore, its rip-

ples unbroken as far as the flashlight’s weak light carried.

He trudged down the beach. His leather boots, laced all the way up the front, sank into the wet sand and left the only foot-

prints he could see. She’d been almost to shore when he had

flown away from her. Surely she couldn’t have drowned just a

few feet out. He stopped and swung the light in a broad arc, from shore to

trees. “Hey! You guys all right?” Only the rustle of leaves answered. if either of them had made it to land, he’d practically have to

14 – K.M. WeilAND

fall over the top of them to find them in the dark. And if they

hadn’t, their bodies wouldn’t wash up on shore until at least

tomorrow morning. He stopped. Ahead of him, Taos snuffled

into the brush. Maybe the big question here wasn’t so much where they had

ended up as where in blue thunder they’d come from in the first

place. He swung the light up to the sky. The beam disappeared into the darkness. it was a clear night,

playing host to a bare handful of big fluffy clouds. The moon

was a huge one, just a few days past full. it cast a giant reflec- tion against the lake and sheeted the world in silver. A thousand

stars blinked down at him. Like enough, the stars had a better view than he did of wher- ever these people had jumped from. Had it been another plane? He might not have heard its engine over his own, but if it had flown right above him, the moon would have cast a shadow. And anyway, what kind of idiots

went parachuting at night?

She had to be part of another flying act. Lots of acts would

be coming into town for the weekend show, what with Col.

Livingstone in the area. Hitch wasn’t the only pilot desperate

to get work for his people by piggybacking on a big circus’s

publicity—or better yet, beating the tar out of the competi- tion and earning enough money to expand his own circus into something worthy of the name.

it was just possible these two had followed him out here. He

chewed his lower lip. They could have botched it with the flare, since there was no sense whatever in that guy lighting his own partner on fire. What if he’d been aiming at damaging the Jenny

the whole time? That was beyond dirty. Hitch shook his head. To be honest,

it just didn’t feel quite right. Something else was going on here. Even if these two had somehow jumped on accident, that

still didn’t explain why Hitch hadn’t noticed hide nor hair of

another airplane. He lowered the flashlight’s beam and toed a

piece of driftwood. it rolled over, and a crawdad scuttled out.

in the brush upshore, Taos barked once. Hitch turned. His light caught on a footprint, then another.

STOrming – 15

They were fresh enough to still be wet and crumbling around the edges. They weren’t particularly small, but they were narrow enough they pretty much had to belong to the woman.

He scratched Taos’s ears. “good dog.”

The light showed the tracks emerging from the lake, as if she

were some mermaid who’d grown legs and taken off running. After that, the prints disappeared in the brush, headed through the trees toward the road. He started after them. “ma’am? You hurt? i’m the cloud- buster you about crashed into a minute ago.”

The cloudbuster you may have just knocked out of the most important

competition of the year. But he swallowed that back. For now, it was miracle enough she was alive. “if you want, i can give you a ride out of here so you’re

closer to town.” Assuming he could get the Jenny up in the air and back to earl.

Off to the right, forty feet ahead of him, the brush crackled.

He swung around to follow. But the crackling kept going,

headed away from him. Pretty soon, what was left of the trees separated out onto a road. He peered in both directions and listened for more crackling. Nothing.

“ma’am?” What was she anyway, mute? “Look, if you or

your buddy are hurt at all, holler out.”

A restlessness shifted through him. He should just go.

Seemed to be what they wanted after all. Fact of his life: his

leaving usually made things better for other people, not worse.

Certainly, it had worked out that way for Celia, whether she had

ever believed it or not. “Look, lady, i gotta go. i’ve got folks waiting on me.”

More nothing. He glanced at Taos. The dog, a border collie cross he’d picked up in New Mexico

five years back, cocked his head and stared at him, waiting. One

brown ear stuck straight up; the other flopped at the tip.

in the fine dust at the edge of the road, his light snagged on

another set of footprints.

He stopped and knelt. This set was much larger, definitely

16 – K.M. WeilAND

the man’s. like the woman’s, a little of the wet shore sand clung

to the edges. The strides were long and didn’t look to be hin-

dered by any kind of injury.

He followed them with the light, across the road, and into a

hayfield. Well, then. Two parachutes, two jumpers, two survivors. And

whether they’d intended it or not: one bunged-up plane.

To read the rest, come back December 4th!