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Beth turned a cartwheel – flawlessly, as usual – as she hurried home from the library. It had been three days since school let out, and her spirits were still quite high at the prospect. She had finished eighth grade and graduated from grammar school – no more boring rote memorization. High school was going to be interesting!
Take Latin, for example. New vocabulary was fine, especially since a lot of English words were derived from it. And the rules were complex, but they followed patterns. When you learned something, it fell into place in what the world was like with almost an audible thump! Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body, or Ipsem cognosce, Know thyself.
Biology: the whole deal of how animals and plants were related to each other, who depended on what, and how their bodies worked, fascinated her. History, mathematics, civics – they all fascinated her.
As she came to a graceful stance at the end of the cartwheel, those two things on her chest – her bosom, she thought with a blush – jiggled briefly. She was not averse to becoming a woman – far from it! – but the timing was all wrong! She had just finally convinced the boys she was not one of the girls-that-have-cooties-ewww! by competing with them, being the friend who stands by them, all the tricks boys learn for making and keeping friends, and now they were starting to look at her different. It was all too soon. She wanted to be one of them for a while longer, before she had to cope with the whole role-play of courtship and marriage. And she was so looking forward to one last summer of freedom and fun!
And to make things absolutely perfect, next week the circus was coming to town! Elephants, ballyhoo, and acrobats! Especially acrobats....
Picking up the seven books she'd checked out of the library – all they'd let her take at one time – she set out for home at a brisk jog.
At home it was chores, first, last, and much of the time in between, it seemed like. "Peel these potatoes, Beth. Mackenzie, go draw some water., and then set the table."
With a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, she and her brother set to their tasks. And her father noticed. "Ye'll do as yer mother says, you hear me?!"
"Yes, Pappa." She did her best to keep the sullenness out of her voice, and either she succeeded or he was willing to overlook it, this time at least. 'Kensie trudged out the door.
"Seems like I always have to slop the hogs."
"Well, I always have to milk the cows, and besides, tending the hogs is boys' work."
"Why?" 'Kensie asked petulantly.
Beth opened her mouth to answer, realized she did not have a good answer, and pulled the stool over to Thora, who looked back at her placidly, an inquisitive expression on her pale-brown bovine face. She'd have to think about this.
It was late morning out on the prairie a few days later, and the temperature was already heading towards 80. In a compromise between temperature and propriety, she and the three boys who were her friends and agemates were partially stripped for the impromptu acrobatic competition, they in summer-weight union suits and she in camisole and petit-pants, to imitate the tights real acrobats wore as best they could.
Benny fell out of his handstand after only a second or so. Embarrassed, he tried for an aerial somersault, and landed flat on his butt. He got the usual teasing as he stood, and challenged Beth.
"Sure," she answered; "it's nothing someone with talent can't do," rubbing it in a little in a tease-your-friend way. She turned two cartwheels in one smooth motion, then stood, took one measured step, and did a mid-air somersault, landing gracefully on her feet. But as she did it, her camisole came untucked, flipping up and treating them to a momentary flash of her bosom.
As she turned to them, they cheered, but William turned partially away from her, Benny sidled right one step to behind a low bush, and Jack sat down abruptly. She knew why; they'd gone stiff down there, and were embarrassed about it. Her own nipples stiffened up in response. This whole rebellious-body thing was not something any of them wanted to deal with yet.
She cherished her time in the library. What with chores and the librarian's hours, she could never be there as often or as long as she'd like. She was choosing what she would check out this time carefully, and looking up the things she'd noted in her mind she needed to find in the reference area.
The tap on her shoulder startled her. It was Miz Bright, the librarian. "You're interested in those big lizards they're digging up the bones of down south of us, do I recall correctly?" the older woman said quietly in her prim way.
Beth nodded and smiled a 'Yes' at her.
"Come with me," Miz Bright instructed her.
Beth followed her to a desk in the corner of the library. Miz Bright drew a volume out of a drawer. "I set this aside for you," she said in a conspiratory way, "but I need your word of honor that you will not let your Pappa know you have it. Dr. Huxley is involved in their study, but his books are considered somewhat – controversial."
"Oh, thank you," Beth replied. "I'll not breathe a word to him."
"See you don't," Miz Bright instructed, but Beth could tell from her smile that she didn't mean it harshly.
Half an hour later, as the sun was westering and casting long shadows outside, she was ready to leave for home. As she walked out, she saw the row of grain elevators along the railroad to the south, and nearby on the library lawn, the green-toned bronze statue of the lame old Roman smith god for whom the town, and by extension the library, were named. She chuckled at the seeming pretentiousness of a little farm town, halfway between Lethbridge and Calgary, hundreds of miles from 'civilization', naming itself after a Roman god. Why, there wasn't even a volcano closer than Seattle!
Off she ran, towards home and the usual round of chores.
Circus Day! It seemed like the morning chores and the making of lunch would never get done. But finally they were, at long last, and Beth and Mackenzie hied themselves off to the field outside town where the circus was set up. There would be a show this afternoon, then the big top would be struck. The sideshow and games would continue in the evening, and then they would finish taking things down and packing, their caravan leaving in the morning.
And it lived up to expectations. Mackenzie laughed himself nearly sick at the slapstick of the clowns, and was entranced by the dancing bear. Beth adored the elephants. How anything so large and ponderous could be so graceful captivated her. And she loved the big cat trainer's act, the graceful pointy-eared creatures doing his bidding.
But what hit her hardest was the acrobat. He was a solo act, which she knew was rare for acrobats. The things he made his body do – she knew how hard they were; some of them she was herself able to pull off, and others, well, they needed work. And he made it all look so effortless and graceful!
He looked to be maybe 20, slender and lithe, his costume skin tight (except where concessions to propriety required a bit of padding). His muscles rippled under the satin, his hips were narrow and dimpled, his abdomen tapered... With a start she realized that she was reacting to him much as the boys had reacted to her. It was not a bad feeling, she decided, just one she'd have to deal with when it came time.
It was over all too soon, and she and the other kids were full of comments as they scarfed down food from the two stands in the (rather small) midway. Mackenzie took off with two of his friends, and Beth decided that, with the extra freedom of Circus Day, she'd end it with another visit to the library. She made the rounds of the midway and sideshow, unable to spend anything but drinking in the sights, then walked into downtown.
She walked by the frame building that served as the county courthouse. The county council was trying to attract business again, she noted, as she saw the broadside posted on the side of the building. It featured a drawing of the statue in front of the library and the slogan, "Forge a Future in V-." She laughed out loud at the tortured wordplay. She saluted the statue ironically as she walked into the library.
Inside, she quickly retrieved An Introduction to Positronics, then pulled down a Wells novel she'd been planning to read, and went to retrieve the library's only reference on kinesiology. It was missing, which surprised her, as it didn't circulate, and only she and the local M.D. made any use of it. Shrugging, she pulled down another reference she'd been planning to use, and headed over to the research table.
There was someone there she did not recognize, a young man with bushy sideburns, wearing a business suit and eyeglasses. She seated herself with well-mannered demureness; he equally properly ventured a polite greeting to her.
"Might I share your table, sir?" she asked politely, inwardly thanking God that she was living in the liberated Nineties, when young women could be so forward as to express their wishes instead of waiting politely to be asked.
The young man seemed startled, looked around, then smiled warmly. "Of course!" he said. "You must forgive me; I'm not used to being 'sir'-red, and so at first I thought you were addressing another."
Beth could not help it; she giggled at that. "Oh, forgive me!" she said. "That was most improper of me."
"'Proper' is something else I'm not used to," he returned. "You did me no offense, and to be frank I found your laugh entrancing."
Entrancing! Now there's an adjective Beth was not used to having applied to herself. She began to warm to this mysterious young man.
She glanced at the books he was using. "I see you are interested in the Dinosauria," she ventured, feeling a bit daring at making conversation with a stranger like this.
"Oh, yes, the discoveries people are making in the field fascinate me," he answered easily. "Have you had opportunity to see one of the great sauropod skeletons mounted? I saw a Diplodocus at the Marshall Field Museum in Chicago; it was truly humbling to stand before such a giant skeleton."
He had been to Chicago? Wild horses could not have torn Beth away from this conversation. They continued on about dinosaurs for several minutes, and Beth realized they were getting a bit loud for the sacred confines of the library. Glancing over at Miz Bright, she gave her a sheepish, apologetic look, and was surprised to see the older woman return a broad, approving smile.
The young man steered the conversation around to Beth's own interests adroitly, and she offered a bit of what had recently interested her, concluding with, "And I had intended today to find out what muscle groups are involved in a successful back flip, but someone has taken the kinesiology reference out."
"Oh, here!" the young man said, pulling the book he had been looking at from the table in front of him. It was of course the kinesiology volume. "What you're looking for is about page 64, if I recall correctly."
"No, no, you were using it; I can look things up another time!" Beth answered. "But how do you come to be interested in kinesiology? I would know if Doc Milburn had taken on an apprentice to read medicine with him."
"No, I'm not in the medical sciences, though I do use kinesiology professionally," the young man replied, seemingly a bit more reticently than he had been.
"Oh? How so?" she asked.
"I had rather not say," he answered, a touch sadly.
"And did you have a chance to see the circus?" she asked, trying to change the subject smoothly.
He let out a bark of laughter. "It's nice to know my disguise, such as it is, did work. I had wondered why a well-bred young lady such as yourself felt comfortable striking up a conversation with me."
Beth's face must have expressed her confusion, because he smiled and removed his glasses, which she now saw were only clear glass. "My name, my dear young lady, is Jeffrey Grayson. And I have the dubious privilege of being the sole member of The Flying Graysons, since my parents retired from the act. I will, of course, completely understand when you now realize that you must be somewhere else." He looked sad.
So that was the mystery man's story – he was the acrobat she had watched. Admittedly she hadn't focused in on his face. But she still felt embarrassed she had not recognized him before that moment. She resolved to find a way to let him know she had loved his performance, and that the pariah status "good society" placed the circus performers in mattered not a whit to her.
At that moment, Miz Bright came over to them. "I'm sorry," she said, "but it is time for me to be closing up the library for the evening. I regret that I must ask you to take your departure." She looked at Beth appraisingly, and then added, "Beth, do be very cautious on the road home. There are some rather dark areas between here and your home, and the Metis have been raiding up around Flin Flon."
This did not make a great deal of sense to Beth, as Flin Flon was over 100 miles away. And it put her on the spot; if she asked to be escorted, that would mean he could expect.... She thought back on how she had felt watching him perform, the comfortability of conversation with him, as though they'd known each other far longer than that one evening, and reached a decision.
"Mr. Grayson, I should be grateful for an escort to my home, if you are free to assist me." Alea iacta est!; the die is cast. She felt a tremor of mixed nervousness and excitement at having taken so radical a step.
They began the journey home. The first few minutes were spent with Beth drawing Jeffrey's attention, at his request, to the town's points of interest, such as they were. Besides the row of grain elevators, the library with its statue, the county courthouse, and the Lutheran church, there wasn't much.
"So what brought about your interest in kinesiology?" Jeffrey asked Beth. She flushed in the dim light; surely he would think she was demeaning his act if she spoke of her own acrobatic efforts. She temporized. "I like to know what muscle groups are involved whenever I exercise or try a stunt, like turning a cartwheel. So I started reading in it, and found myself intrigued by the subject." Was that too much? She hoped not. He raised an eyebrow.
"It's unusual to find a young girl interested in that sort of thing," he commented.
"I'm hardly the usual young girl," she said with just a touch of asperity. "I love to learn; I hope someday I can leave here and go to a college back East."
Jeffrey missed a step, and caught himself. In the moonlight, she caught a glimpse of his face, and his expression was pinched, like someone in pain. "Did you hurt yourself?" she asked solicitously.
"No, it was nothing, just a stray thought," he answered.
"I saw your face, sir, and you were in pain," Beth rejoined. "I know I should not pry into your personal affairs, but I must ask: why did what I said pain you as it did?"
Jeffrey looked at her in a new light then. It was clear on his face: she was not the young girl he had agreed to escort home, but a young woman who was sincerely concerned about how he felt. He walked silently for a few moments.
At length he began to reply. "I had the same dream, Beth," he said, calling her by name for the first time. "With the circus, you are always on the road. There is no school. You study, or not, as your parents choose and then as you see fit to continue."
"I had the dream to become – I don't know, something more than a circus acrobat. I'd decide after I got there and found out what my choices were. I thought myself well prepared. I sent off letters of inquiry to college after college. Nobody would admit me without a high school degree. I've kept studying; learning is valuable in itself, its own reward. But I know now that I can never make my hopes into reality." He drew a breath. "Perhaps you will have better luck. If you do, when the circus plays where you're attending college, do come and let me know." He smiled a rather wan smile.
Beth knew that in unveiling his secret hurt, Jeffrey had laid his soul bare to her. And she was deeply touched.
She glanced ahead. The lights were dimly visible through the farmhouse windows in the distance, and they were about to pass the last stand of cottonwoods. She slowed her gait, then stopped.
Noticing she was no longer beside him, he glanced back and paused. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No, it's just that this is the last stand of trees giving cover before my home," she replied.
His look asked a question he didn't put into words. Beth blushed. "Did you not realize?" she asked. "It is the custom, when a young man escorts a young woman home, that they stop at a suitable secluded place on the way, and he is entitled to collect a kiss. Or sometimes more. I am not one of those girls who can be had for little or nothing, but I did realize what the toll would be when I asked you to escort me home."
"Beth, I would not take advantage of you like that!" Jeffrey said, though a glint in his eye said that given his druthers, he might like to.
"You would not be taking advantage," she said, her voice quavering despite her best efforts to keep it steady.
She took his hand and led him into the small stand of trees, and turned her head upwards to meet his.
Their lips met. He broke it, sighed, and drew her to him, kissing her more firmly. Her legs became weak, and butterflies were doing barrel rolls as they flew across her stomach.
Jeffrey broke off the kiss. "Beth," he said. Then, "We stop now, while I still have the will power to stop." Another pause. "I don't know when I will be able to come back, but I willbe back. You have my word on it."
"I know," she said, unsure how she knew but certain of it.
With emotions in turmoil, they walked the few hundred feet to the farmhouse, and Jeffrey took his leave, holding her hand one last time. He walked away, and she turned and went inside.
"Git in 'ere!" her father called out from the parlor. Nervous, she walked in. "Yer late," he said.
"Yessir," she answered, knowing better than to offer an excuse, let alone to argue with him.
"We'll start it with tomorrow," he said to her mother, as if for confirmation.
"Yes, I think that would be best," her mother said.
"Ye've finished grammar school," her father said, "and you're getting too old to be running with the boys, missy. Your mother and I have decided the time has come for you to settle down and make something of yourself."
"Starting tomorrow, ye'll not be out running with the boys. Ye'll be here, working alongside your mother, learning how to keep a home, and the woman's share of how to run a farm." He glanced at the library books, sitting alongside her where she had set them when she came into the parlor. "Ye've had enough book learning. It's not like you'll ever do anything with the sort of things they teach in high school. You need to learn how to be a practical woman, and your mother and I have determined that that is what you will now do. It is our duty to you, and we have been remiss in giving you free rein and not doing it sooner."
"I'll do no such thing!" Beth rejoined in a rare stance of rebellion.
"Ye'll do as your father says, young lady," her mother said sternly. "Now get on up to bed. Morning comes early."
With a sob, Beth went to gather up her books and do as she was bid.
"Leave them books here," said her father.
Beth rushed out of the parlor and up to her own room.
Beth lay abed, taking stock of her situation. To say it was not good was very much an understatement. When her father made up his mind about something, it was nearly impossible to get him to change it. She and Mackenzie had only been successful when they were able to convince their mother to not only take their side, but to commit herself so decisively to their viewpoint that she would use her influence to attempt to change her husband's mind. Her mother had never liked her being a tomboy, and she recognized from her father's word choices, the repeated "your mother and me," that probably she was at least as much set on the future they had planned for Beth as he was.
Gone was her planned summer of fun: field hockey, stickball, skinny dipping, running, working on her acrobatics. Instead she would be confined to a hot house, learning to cook, can foods, sew, knit, clean, do laundry and ironing, proper manners for entertaining, and all the other womanly arts.
And to twist the knife, she was forbidden high school in the fall as well. Not only was she stuck training for a future she despised, but the door to the one way out of that future was slammed in her face as well.
The more she thought about it, the more she began to realize, she couldn't stay. She needed to leave. But where?
None of her friends had parents who would go against hers to house her. Pastor Meier was a bad joke; he was worse than her parents on propriety. Her teacher from the year just finished was cut from the same cloth. Miz Bright at the library cared about her, and did have a slight rebellious streak, but she'd never stand up to the community for Beth.
At last it hit her with the inevitability of a freight train: the circus. Yes, it was a cliché of dozens of adventure stories, but the reason it was a cliché was that kids had been doing it for decades. She had no delusions about the glamorous life it was; the last run of books had been 'realistic' and showed the boys shoveling up behind the elephants and working to pitch the tents. And she knew it wouldn't lead to the future of her dreams – but she could leave the circus somewhere in a city and find work while finishing high school – if only she could convince them to take her on. Jeffrey's story had underscored that for her.
Jeffrey! She let herself remember the few stolen minutes in the cottonwoods, and the feelings she had felt. And how he had reacted. He would help; she knew she could count on him.
Out of bed and dressed – except her shoes. She'd put them on later, outside, where the noise of them on the floor would not wake anyone. She made up a pack of her clothes, the daguerrotype of her parents, the two books she owned herself... but not her Bible. At last, satisfied she had everything she owned and could carry, she slipped out the door.
And saw Mackenzie's room. She slipped in, saw her little brother asleep, walked quietly over and kissed him gently on the forehead.
His eyes opened. "Whazz that for?"
"I love you, little brother. I don't show it a lot, but I do. I just had to show you that I do."
"You're leaving, aren't you?" he asked quietly.
A cold chill went down her spine, but she'd never lied to Mackenzie. "Yes."
"Take me with you!"
"I would if I could, but I can't. I don't even know for sure what I'm going to do. You're a boy, and younger. You'll have your freedom a bit longer. Wait until you need to run. I promise you we'll connect up, somehow."
He thought this over. "I don't like it, but you're right." His eyes watered. "Take care of yourself, sis!"
"You too, little brother." She hugged him and hurried out the door, before she too burst into tears.
The circus grounds were relatively quiet when Beth got there. A number of people were moving purposefully from various wagons to other wagons, and the roustabouts were finishing up the last of the dismantling of the various tents and other movable enclosures. She scanned around for Jeffrey's wagon, and found it: pine green with ochre lettering and trim and dark gray shadowing making the pictured acrobats look almost three-dimensional.
She went to its door and knocked.
"Come in," he called out from inside.
She opened the door and stepped up into the wagon.
"Beth!" he breathed, standing and stepping forward towards her. She slammed into his arms, holding him tightly. He embraced her back just as fiercely.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. She told him what had happened when she got home. She was careful not to ask the question she most needed an answer to: "Can I stay?"
Jeffrey suddenly seemed to realize that he was naked above the waist, and wearing only a thin cotton undergarment covering him from waist to mid-calf. "Just a moment, and I'll slip some clothes on."
"Don't bother," Beth said. "This is how you'd dress if someone else from the circus came to the door, right?"
"Well, yes, but...."
"I will be asking the man who runs this circus for a job in the morning. Do not let it worry you." Beth was blushing too.
"You know I will do all I can for you, Beth." He turned and methodically began to remove piles of boxes from what appeared to be a shelf, stacking them neatly on the wagon floor near it. "But what will happen if your father comes looking for you? Legally he is in authority over you."
"I don't know," she said. "I would have to go with him, I suppose – if he finds me. But I know his attitudes, as well as a daughter can. I turned against his authority and what he sees as his duty to provide for my future, and in his eyes, I am probably no longer a daughter of his. Whatever future I have now is what I can make for myself, without help."
"Never without help," Jeffrey said forcefully. "You will stay here as long as you choose, no strings attached."
Those words were what Beth had hoped to hear. She collapsed in tears of relief. Quickly Jeffrey was at her side, holding her up and letting her cry it out.
As he wiped away the tears, she turned her face up to his, expecting a kiss. "No," he said. "If I kiss you now, it will lead to other things, and I may not be able to stop. I said I would provide for you, not take advantage of you."
He gestured to the bed. "You may sleep there. I have cleared off this pallet for myself." And there was a thin mattress beneath where the boxes had been. He pulled a sheet and a thin blanket from a chest.
Beth turned to the bed, stripped to camisole and petit-pants, and slipped into the bed. "Thank you, Jeffrey," she said with deep emotion behind it.
"I need to take care of you," Jeffrey replied with a catch in his voice.
Beth would have said more, but the emotional impact of the whole evening hit her, and she quickly fell asleep.
Jeffrey watched her for a few minutes, and then drifted off himself, a smile on his face.
Beth awoke in a strange place. Step by step but all too quickly, it all came home to her – meeting Jeffrey at the library, the kiss in the cottonwoods, her father's edict, running away in the middle-of-the-night. In the sober light of morning, in Jeffrey's wagon, she almost had second thoughts. Almost.
'I'll do what I have to,' she thought to herself.
A loud knock came at the door. "Yes?" Jeffrey called out from his pallet-bed.
"Ten minutes to pullout," came the gruff voice of one of the roustabouts.
"I'll be ready," Jeffrey said. He rose from his pallet, winced as he stretched, and proceeded to slip on traveling clothes. "You should wait in here until our first stop," he told her. "No sense tempting fate."
"We'll eat down the road, and it will be a pickup meal, pre-prepared things only," he went on to say. "Just lie low in here until then." And he was out the door.
Two hours later they stopped to break their fast. Beth had tried to read but had drowsed off. Jeffrey jumped down from the wagon and soon returned, with a light breakfast for the two of them, and shortly thereafter joined by the circus's business manager.
"Ah, good," Jeffrey said. "Wilfred, this is Beth. Beth, allow me to present Mr. Wilfred D'Angelo, who owns the circus together with his brother." Beth's first impression was of a grey man, someone quiet and self-effacing, the farthest cry from what might be expected in a circus owner. Jeffrey seemed to be on fairly close terms with him, based on his expression and gestures.
Wilfred studied her. "You're fourteen?" Beth nodded. "Can you cook?"
"Not very well."
"Then that eliminates the food wagon or the food stands on the midway. And you are much too slight to work as a roustabout."
"I shall do whatever I need to, if you give me a chance," Beth declared, realizing that this was a classic Moment of Truth.
"I'm not here to tell you No," Wilfred said. "Jeffrey asked, and he gives me a lot of good advice, and asks little in return. So when he does ask, I hasten to find a way to meet his request. But I'm not seeing it. Jeffrey? What did you have in mind?"
"I was hoping you had something, Wilfred," he answered. To Beth he said, "Don't let Wilfred's mousy exterior fool you; he's an excellent businessman, and a good loyal friend. His brother is everything he's not: bombastic and outgoing where Wilfred is quiet and reticent. But he knows Wilfred is far better than he is at meeting a payroll or making sure the elephants have their food awaiting them. They make an excellent team, and we're fortunate to have connected with the D'Angelo Brothers."
"Oh, pshaw! You give me too much credit!" from Wilfred.
There was silence for a few moments. All three were engaged in the same mental exercise: trying to come up with a place where Beth could fit in, and aware the other two were doing the same.
Finally Jeffrey spoke. "You mentioned looking up the muscle groups in a back flip at the library, and then spoke of cartwheels and trying stunts on the walk home. What sort of stunts?"
Beth felt put on the spot. But if Jeffrey would give her a chance.... "How if I show you?" she asked.
At Wilfred and Jeffrey's nods, she led them outside and stripped down to camisole and petit-pants again, turned a triple cartwheel, did a handstand and walked on her hands for a dozen paces, then leaped up, scurried over to the wagon and shinnied up the back. Arms out for balance, she walked the 2x4 that framed the right side of the wagon roof, jumped down onto the driver's bench, dove forward from its right edge, executing an in-the-air somersault with one hand touching ground to guide her momentum, coming up on her feet. She dropped a curtsey of sorts to the men, who applauded. "I haven't mastered the back flip yet," she said, "and I don't want to try it without suitable padding to come down on if I misjudge my landing."
Wilfred was smiling. "Jeffrey?"
"She'll do," he said with a matching smile. "That's nearly as good as I could do at fourteen. You're a natural, Beth!"
"What are you saying?" she asked.
Wilfred was musing. "I don't think there is one girl in a thousand who would have stripped to undergarments in front of strangers, not coquettishly but merely naturally, because what she needed to do called for it. That's circus mentality!"
"Agreed," Jeffrey said. "Beth, what I'm offering is to make you my partner, working my act with me, turning the Flying Graysons back into the family act it was before my parents retired. It will mean being in front of crowds wearing tights, but somehow I don't believe that will bother you."
Jeffrey's smile was warm now. "Absolutely. You have the talent and the brains to make this work. Are you interested?"
"Oh yes, I accept!" Beth's heart was close to bursting with joy.
"Any problems, Wilfred?"
"No, I'm happy for you, Jeffrey – for you both."
"Then here's what we'll do. You lie low in the wagon until we stop for lunch, to be sure your father doesn't come after us. Then come up, meet our horses, and ride with me. Tonight you sit with Wilfred and watch my act, figuring out where what you can do will fit into it. We'll have a day's layover before we play Calgary to rehearse the new act. Does that suit you?"
"Oh! Very much so!"
As the circus closed down after that night's show, Beth was on top of the world. There had been no sign of her father; the afternoon's ride with Jeffrey had been a joy, with the two of them talking easily about anything and everything as if they had known each other for years, not just less than a day. She had again felt that tingle from seeing him in his tights doing his act, and had filled two pages of a notebook with possible routines she could do or they could do together.
Wilfred's brother Orlando had welcomed her heartily, with a big bear hug, almost as if he had been expecting her. "It'll be good to have a pretty young thing in tights in the ring," he said, watching her reaction intently.
She had smiled and nodded, "I just hope I can pick up enough new stunts to make it worthwhile to add me to Jeffrey's act," she had said.
"Don't worry about that; the men will gobble you up," Orlando had boomed. She was amused by the three little boys sitting near her and Wilfred, one with red hair, one with caramel-colored hair, and one with brownish hair with a purple cast, who seemed to be having a good time, and had turned and waved to her with giggles.
She climbed into the wagon and set out the post-show supper the food wagon had provided for them. Jeffrey came across the lot in his tights, and stepped up into the wagon. "I brought you some food," she said.
"So I see," he replied with a smile. "Come, sit and eat."
They shared a meal, their eyes darting at each other regularly through it. At length, full, he leaned back and noticed she had piled the boxes back on the shelf with the pallet.
"I'll need a place to sleep," he chided her, not unkindly.
She looked at him, slender and handsome in his tights, he who had kissed her under the cottonwoods the night before (and how long ago that seemed now!), and who had gone out of his way to make sure she had a future with the circus.
She stood and walked around the table to him. "Did you not invite me to be your partner in your family act?" she asked.
"And why have you not kissed me since the kisses among the trees last evening?"
"Because we... you... I might...."
She ended his stammer by moving in, kissing him firmly, and sitting on his lap. "You offered me a future with you, and I accepted. I love you, Jeffrey Grayson. I want you as much as you want me."
"But... ungh!" Her hands disposed of some of his arguments, her lips on his took care of the rest.
Afterward, he gently stroked her face. "Beth, I never realized...."
"Are you happy, dearest?"
"And so am I." She giggled. "Look at it this way: the audiences will never get to see all our acrobatic moves."
Jeffrey laughed, long and hard. And Beth with him. They both knew this was the start of something that would last.
As baby Richard stirred in his sleep in her arms, Beth roused from her reverie. She still remembered that eventful day twelve years before as if it were yesterday. With a mother's trained ear, she listened, and heard the two older boys playing outside the wagon with their agemates the clowns' sons. Little T.R., 4. was asleep in the boys' bed already, and Amanda, 2, was sleeping in the crib she already found beneath her dignity as a two-year-old.
The years had been good to them. Jeffrey was off discussing plans with Wilfred. She'd agreed with alacrity when he suggested investing some of their savings to buy a share of the circus, and with Wilfred and now Jeffrey's good management, the investment had paid off. She had to drop out of the act five times for her pregnancies, but didn't begrudge it a bit. Her children were the apple of her eye, and Jeffrey's too. Especially their only daughter. Amanda was destined for big things, she could tell.
Neither of them had ever gotten a college degree. But they had kept up their studies in the way Jeffrey had devised, and both had submitted papers to several professional journals, listing themselves as 'privately educated'.
She called the boys in and got them settled, putting Richard into his cradle. Sitting back down with a cup of tea to wait for Jeffrey, she thought back again to her home, the farm, the town, the grain elevators, the library, the statue of the old Roman god for whom the town was named.... 'Thank God,' she thought, 'my kids will never have to have anything to do with Vulcan.'