the Belle Époque. When determined dreamers conquer the skies in the first
flying machines, a daring new breed of adventurers capture the imagination of
the world as they reach for the stars ― and awaken a new instrument of
destruction. This is the historical backdrop of award-winning journalist
Ed Leefeldt’s stunning literary debut, The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a
romantic and richly authentic story that celebrates the indomitable spirit of
the early pioneers of the clouds like Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby.
Jericho, Tennessee—6 May, 1901
From her perch on the dilapidated bell tower, Mary Ann could see the winds dance.
The winds were invisible to the others down below. But she could see them in everything that moved. Sometimes they sent the leaves funneling upward like cyclones, or touched the dirt road and set the dry soil to swirling like small, inoffensive ghosts. And occasionally she’d get a God’s-eye view of the wind as rain clouds rolled up the valley beneath her.
From where she sat, she could see the entire valley: the western slope where the road came weaving out of the mountains, the small town of Jericho, Tennessee, below her, and then back up to the top of her hill. Down that road everything had to come. But nothing—not even the wind—ever seemed to leave.
Then her eye caught a cloud of dust at the other end of the valley. It was Hosea in the freight wagon, driving too fast as usual. And in that wagon—unknown to her—came salvation.
The wagon rounded the crest of the hill overlooking Jericho and started down into the valley. Sides of bacon and sacks of seed slammed against its walls as it tilted sideways on the gravel road. Hosea, his face as red as his sweaty flannel shirt, cracked the reins and pushed the horses toward town. He was driving too fast and too close to the edge, and he was drunk.
Alongside him, Harding Cooper was taking advantage of a free ride into this hidden corner of the Great Smoky Mountains. Well, not quite free. Cooper and Hosea were finishing off Harding’s whiskey.
Below them the town was spread out in ribbons of white like the sails of a fleet. It was the first Monday in May, and Monday was wash day. The housewives of Jericho had their boiled shirts and petticoats on the line.
The wagon skidded to a halt in front of the general store on the town’s main street. People were already lined up on the plank sidewalk waiting for their dry goods. A big day in the small town, Harding thought as he grabbed his carpetbag and jumped down.
“Does anyone know where to find Doctor Samuel Pitman?” he asked.
No one answered. They crowded closer and stared at him.
Cooper turned back to Hosea. “Real friendly, aren’t they?”
The driver shrugged. “They’re friendly to me. But I don’t ask ’em questions.”
Harding walked on down the street and stopped in front of a woman washing her porch. He stood with one foot on the step. “I’m looking for Doctor Pitman,” he repeated.
The woman took the bucket of soapy water and dumped it
down the steps. Harding realized, too late, that he had a hole in the elastic of his congress boot and his foot was soaked.
“That’s all the answer you’ll get from me,” she snapped.
Mary Ann watched him through her father’s old telescope. What’s he doing here? she thought. Is he a drummer? A revenue agent? Another outcast? She felt a touch of sympathy for him, and then anger at herself for feeling it. It was none of her business.
Harding trudged on through town, his carpetbag banging against his knee. Then he spied hope.
On a long, ivy-covered porch at the end of the block, three elderly women sat in rocking chairs, looking like blackbirds on a telegraph wire, ready to swoop down and peck the eyes out of a dying animal. The old-biddy brigade. Better than the town newspaper. They’d know where to find Sam Pitman. Had he run off with the mayor’s wife or advocated equality of the races? Harding wondered. And how would he get these old hags to tell him? It was time to be charming.
Harding took off his yellow straw boater. “Mornin’, ladies. Hot day for May, isn’t it?”
“Seen hotter,” said the first. “Who might you be?”
“Just got off the wagon,” he said, avoiding the question. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Friend of yours?” asked the second, raising her jaw. He caught the glint of her spectacles.
“Doctor Samuel Pitman.”
The first one laughed shrilly. “He’s no doctor. Never cured anybody, not even himself!”
“You don’t want him,” said the second. “Not unless you’re partial to strange noises, and huge bats and hellcats, not to mention the desecration of a House of God. Go away.”
Harding had seen their kind before. No sense getting into an argument. He’d wait them out, shuffling his feet, looking like a poor relation on the doorstep. He knew that they would pay him with information to see him leave.
Minutes ticked by. The three of them fidgeted in their rocking chairs. Harding stood there in front of the porch, enjoying the silence. The whole town must be watching by now, he thought. He could suffer the humiliation longer than they could.
The third one, who had been mute, broke first. “Tell him, Eutheria,” she ordered.
Eutheria pointed up the hill. “If you want Pitman, take the dirt road on your right just beyond the covered bridge. Follow it past the hayfield and straight up the hill to the church.”
“Well, it was a church,” she snapped.
“How far is it?” asked Harding.
“Far enough so you’ll wish you’d never made the trip,” said the second, and all three cackled.
“Can anyone take me up?”
“Not in this town,” said Eutheria.
He should have left then, but Harding had a nasty streak. He took the now-empty whiskey bottle out of his jacket and put it on the porch railing.
“Ladies,” he said, “I seem to have gone dry. Could you tell me where a man can get a drink in this town?”
“That trough over there,” said Eutheria, “the one the other pigs use.”
“I thank you very much,” said Harding. He bowed and walked away, leaving the whiskey bottle on the railing where it would be visible to the whole town. “Excuse me, I have a long walk ahead.”
In the steeple on the hill above them, Mary Ann saw Eutheria point in her direction. Oh, God, she thought. Is he coming here? No one ever comes here. What do I tell him about Father? She hoped that he wouldn’t and she hoped that he would.
It was a long walk, so long that Harding thought seriously of abandoning his heavy bag. Three times buckboards went by, and later two carriages and a surrey. All of them turned around just above him and came back down. No one offered him a ride. In the distance two men on horseback watched him. One had a spyglass. Either someone must have put his picture on the post-office wall—or the front-porch telegraph had been busy.
He stopped at the top of the last and highest hill. Both he and the day were spent. The church had a lovely whitewashed look from a distance, a place where you would worship if you believed in brotherly love—as the dear people of Jericho obviously did.
But now that he was closer, he could see the damage. The cross in front of the church was dismasted and leaned on its side. A stained-glass window had been smashed and boarded up. Fifty feet in front of the church a rusty Civil War cannon had been dragged into someone’s flowerbed and left there, its muzzle pointing at the double front doors. The carefully planted azaleas lay trampled.
The church that was not a church: bats and hellcats. Well, this was what Neville Bishop paid him for. Harding slung his coat over his shoulder and knocked on the double doors. No answer. Then he banged until his fist hurt. He was about to give up when the right-hand door opened—slightly.
A pretty young woman stood in the shadows, staring at him with dark, intense eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked. She sounded surly . . . or maybe just lonely and afraid. Or maybe she’d caught the town disease, whatever that was.
Anyway, hell of a greeting, he thought. What he really wanted was a drink. But instead he said, “Sam Pitman.”
“You mean Doctor Pitman,” she corrected him. “And who are you?”
“I’m the man who wants to talk to Doctor Pitman,” he snapped. “There, did I say it right?” His patience with these people was running out.
“Wait here,” she ordered. She retreated, leaving the door ajar. Harding pushed his way inside.
For the first time he understood why the townspeople were afraid of the place. It didn’t look like any church that he had ever been in, although—granted—his experience wasn’t vast. Pews had been upended and turned into workbenches. A wood lathe competed for space with a sewing machine and a drill press. Designs were nailed on the walls: pictures of ancient flying machines, even an angel with angles and formulae drawn across its body and surprised-looking face.
A horseless carriage had been dismantled and pieces of those new internal combustion engines were scattered around the floor. That explained the noises. Rolls of white muslin hung down from the rafters like banners in a cathedral. A huge cloth mounted on one wall looked like the wings of a prehistoric bird, with curved, riblike fingers keeping the fabric stretched. So that was the bat. And the hellcat? Was he looking at her? And where was Doctor Pitman?
She was startled to see him inside the church. “He doesn’t want to see you,” she said.
“How do you know?” said Harding, looking around. “Have you asked him?”
They eyed each other across the tool-strewn floor, sizing each other up. She’s too young to be his wife, Harding thought, and too innocent-looking to be a mistress. Probably his daughter. She was dressed in a collarless brown shift with denim pants peeking out from underneath, too baggy to show her figure. But her face was lovely. She had a small nose, freckles that accentuated her cheekbones, and sandy blond hair, almost strawberry blond. He judged her to be about 20.
Mary Ann felt Harding’s eyes slide over her. She knew what he saw; a bunched-up dress, overalls, messy hair pulled back into a bun. Knowing this, she then sized him up.
She saw a man in his early 30s with a handsome but prematurely aging face and washed-out, world-weary blue eyes that looked as though they had seen too much. He was wearing a white suit, now sweat-stained, and his wilted paper collar stood up like a bird about to take flight. He wasn’t much to look at either, she decided, partly in self-defense. But in some strange way, his disheveled looks made her feel as if she could trust him. At least he’s not one of them, she thought.
“Look,” his voice broke the silent staring match. “We got started on the wrong foot. I had a rough time finding this place, and I’m sorry I walked in on you. But I’m here and you’re here, so I might as well tell you what I want.” He hesitated, and then launched into his speech.
“I represent the wealthy industrialist Neville Bishop of New York City, who sees the potential in flight. Your father . . .” and he paused, waiting for some recognition. She nodded, and he went on, “is famous in aeronautical circles. When I read his article in Scientific American last month saying that he’d built a heavier-than-air machine that could actually fly, Mr. Bishop told me to bring him to New York—all expenses paid . . .”
“That article was finally published?” she cut him off. “And he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves? Now, when it’s too late?” Then her voice choked and she stopped.
Too late? “Where is your father?” Harding asked again, but more softly now, almost afraid of the answer.
“Why should I trust you?”
Harding could see the late-day light fading through the windows and he lost patience. “I walked all the way up here to see your father,” he snapped. “I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight. I’ll probably end up walking back to Knoxville. All right, don’t trust me. Trust the yokels who dragged the cannon into your flowerbed and splashed paint on your walls.”
She scrutinized him again with intense, brooding brown eyes, as piercing a look as Harding had ever endured. Then she turned.
“Come on,” she said, and walked out the back door of the church. There in the small church cemetery was a freshly dug grave. “He died in February,” she said simply.
Harding walked over and stared down at the unmarked grave. “You buried him by yourself? No help from down below?”
“They hate us. They hate everything about us. If they knew that he was dead, they’d come up here and burn us out.”
Harding looked across the grave at her. She seemed small and vulnerable and very beautiful. There was a sheen of perspiration across her forehead and nose, and the scent of honeysuckle was almost overpowering. He thought for a moment of making love to her, right here on the ground by her father’s grave. And why not? Who would stop him? If he didn’t, sooner or later the bumpkins in town would find out, and one of them would have his way with her.
But most of his pity was saved for himself. He had spent all this time, come all this way, and ended up at the side of a grave with this lonely, frightened child-woman. How would Bishop react? Would he even have a job when he got back to New York?
When he looked up she was staring at him again. But in the few seconds that his mind had drifted, something about her had changed. She looked more confident, almost as if the worst had already happened and she could cope.
“You must be very disappointed,” she said, and he could have sworn that there was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. And then she said, very softly, “Do you want to see me fly?”
He turned, startled.
“You don’t believe it, do you?” she said with just the hint of a smile. “You’ve come all this way to watch someone fly but you really don’t expect it to happen. You’re no different than the people down there. They see it and they hear it, but they don’t believe it. Well, you’re going to see it too.”
She went back inside and came out holding those strange curved wings. They were three times the height of a man, but so light that she carried them with ease. There was a notch in the middle for her head, a padded yoke for her shoulders, and a place for her arms to come through from underneath and grip the willow crossbraces on either side. She looked at him, a little embarrassed. “Can you strap in my arms?”
To Harding, it felt strangely like helping a woman get dressed—or undressed—as she stretched out her arms and he tightened the straps that tied them into the frame. Once again he was uncomfortably aware of her. It was a warm spring evening, just before sunset.
As they walked to the edge of the hill overlooking the hayfield, he again tried to assess her. She was attractive, he decided, but more than that, there was an innocence mingled with ambition; she was just naive enough to believe that she really could go up in the air in this ludicrous swaying contraption. Was she going to kill herself while he watched?
The varnished cotton twill of the wings gleamed in the sunset light, and the first puff of an evening breeze snapped
at them. It sang through the whipstrung cordage that ran to
the wingtips, sounding like a wild Highland tune. Mary Ann glanced at the top of the bell tower where a rag floated from the weather vane.
“The wind is right,” she said.
“It’s coming right at you,” said Harding, the doubt obvious in his voice.
“That’s what makes it right.”
“What can I do now?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just stand back.”
He stepped back, reluctantly. She seemed to draw into herself for a moment, then took five running steps that carried her to the edge of the hill overlooking the valley below. She kicked once or twice and the whole contraption went over the side and out of sight. Harding ran to the side of the hill, stumbling on the flat white glacial rock.
And then suddenly he saw her rising, the wings catching the wind, in flight. It was as though she had been lifted by one of those new Otis elevators, but with nothing underneath holding her up. It had to be an illusion, or a miracle.
He reached the edge and teetered to a stop just before he went over. Ahead of him, Mary Ann was already 100 yards away, flying into the red-and-orange glow of the evening sun, those ungainly wings now translucent and elegant. Below her were haystacks, looking like friendly pillows.
As Harding watched, Mary Ann did an aerial dance, making lazy circles to the right or left by dipping or raising her wings. She was going down the hill that he had just labored up, seemingly without effort. It was the most graceful thing he had ever seen. Then she went skimming across the fields, kicking the tops off the haystacks for pure joy. Harding saw flight and fluff and a spring sunset, and he thought: Maybe I can pull this off.