Donny Clatterbuck

Donny Clatterbuck hated team sports — baseball, football, and basketball. On the short side, he had a solid build, with broad shoulders and a snub nose. In gym, he could climb a rope in a flash, and he was good on the rings and the pommel horse. But the county school didn’t compete in gymnastics. When he turned 14, Mr. Yates recruited him for wrestling.

“Every boy needs a sport,” the coach said. “Sport is more than training the mind and body. It’s a preparation for life.”

Donny wanted to prepare for life, but Mr. Yates never spelled out how sports would do this. For him it was like the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Donny gave wrestling a try. The foul mats, the other sweaty boys, and their obsession with body weight put him off. There was also the question of talent. The coach favored some boys with pats on the back, pocket money, and tips on dealing with injuries. Donny’s performance was so-so. He was agile and flexible, but other boys had size and power.

“Stick to it!” Mr. Yates said. “Nobody likes a quitter.”

“How do I get leverage?” Donny meant the physics of the lever, which was the only way he could win. He wanted more than a stock phrase.

“You want my honest opinion, Clatterbuck? If you work hard enough and set your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”

Donny’s father had skipped out years ago, before he could form a memory. A photo showed a lithe, dark figure wearing a baseball cap. The visor hid his eyes. Where did he come from, where did he go, and what was he like? In their one conversation on the subject, his mother was no help. A local girl, she had picked an outsider.

“That man gave a different story every time you asked. Sometimes he said he was mixed race, and sometimes he said Mediterranean, which covers a lot of territory.”

“Were you married?”

“You’re legit, if that’s what’s bothering you.”

“What about the last name?”

“He had more than one to suit the occasion. I kept my name to stay out of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Debt collectors, court subpoenas. He was in and out of jail.”

“Do I look like him?”

She turned her attention from the sock she was darning to the boy who was becoming a man.

“You look better.”


“That too.”

Donny giggled.

“When people ask if you’re black or white or what, tell them you’re a Clatterbuck.”

Janine Clatterbuck was preoccupied with earning a living as a waitress, meeting the payments on the mobile home, and dealing with Donny’s older sister. Annabelle was a girl of exceptional beauty and extreme low pressure, like a tropical system that sucks up all the energy nearby and spews it back in a torrent.

Like his mother, Donny’s teachers in the county school had their hands full. They saw him as a quiet boy who never acted out or shone in any subject. He was lost in the middle.

The summer he turned 15, Donny took up juggling. The how-to book said it was low-stress, an exercise you can do anywhere, a way to improve muscular coordination, and a skill that would come in handy in any social situation. The book was illustrated with drawings of a faceless human figure surrounded by little numbers and arrows, like a cloud of midges.

Daily practice was the key. Donny was determined. By the last year of high school, he could keep four tennis balls in the air, sometimes five. He could also spin a plate on a stick, twirl small hoops, and balance a chair on his forehead, though not all at once.

His grades were passing but mediocre. Donny was not college material. He wasn’t trailer trash, either. Annabelle was, but she fixed that. After a stormy argument with her mother, she left town with an older man who claimed to be a photographer. Annabelle was destined for a career as a fashion model and actress.

“A pair of boobs,” Janine said. Whether she meant the couple or Annabelle’s main attraction was open to discussion.

Juggling practice kept Donny out of trouble, but it was a solitary pursuit. He had no friends. And no enemies, thanks to his athletic build. Bullies looked for easy prey, sissies and shrimps.

Despite the promise of How to Juggle Practically Anything, nobody in high school or the mobile home park cared much for juggling. They watched Donny for a while, then grew bored with the repetition. A routine that would last several minutes and keep a crowd enthralled had yet to emerge. Practice was its own reward, like playing a musical instrument or running a mile every day. Skill was a secret kind of pleasure.

Donny graduated in May and got a job installing asphalt shingle roofs. Construction paid well, and Donny liked being high above the ground. He had no fear of falling. But the roofing contractor sent men out in teams, and Donny’s foreman harped on teamwork. Another talking point was the efficient use of material and labor. Donny’s coworkers wasted both. The game was to see how much they could get away with.

With Annabelle gone, the mobile home was more spacious. Janine Clatterbuck said Donny could stay so long as he was clean and quiet, which he was. He was gainfully employed. He paid for his own food, contributed to rent and utilities, and saved the rest of his wages toward a used vehicle. Begging for rides and waiting for them to show was getting old.

Donny wanted a pickup truck like you see on television, fording a stream or chugging up a dirt road, with massive treads. Instead he bought a compact car with good fuel mileage. The tires were almost new.

At the end of August, a traveling circus came to the county fair. A splashy poster showed an old-fashioned troupe of acrobats, clowns, and sword-swallowers. One girl stood on the back of a pony that raced around a ring, while another girl hung upside-down from a rope, her arms spread like wings. A master of ceremonies in the dress uniform of a European field marshal flourished a whip. The troupe was called the Magnificent Magyars, “on tour by special arrangement.”

Donny took a shower after work and drove to the fairground. The sky was still bright, but the heat of the day had passed. It was Friday, payday, and good to be alive. Donny wanted to see if anyone in the circus troupe juggled.

Two young women did. They looked like the girls on the poster. One was the star, and the other was her assistant. They played music on a boombox, up-tempo and loud, and they wore a costume of tights and a flimsy skirt. While one performed, the other gestured like a ballet dancer, as if to say: “Behold!” Their routine was not much better than his, a few minutes of balls and hoops. When the bowling pins dropped to the ground, nobody booed. The audience laughed, like it was a good joke.

Donny wanted to talk to the jugglers. What would he say? The set was over, and the crowd dispersed. He strolled in, picked up four balls, and started to juggle. The young woman watched, and the assistant ignored him. Donny finished with a behind-the-back flourish and bowed. There was no applause.

“Where did you learn?” the young woman said. Up close she looked tough, no nonsense. Browned by the sun, she had black hair.

“At home. I taught myself.”

“Not bad,” she said coolly. She was Donny’s height, though when she was performing he thought she was taller.

“Thanks.” Donny was elated.

“Not good, either.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not enough to have the moves. You need to wow the audience, create a little suspense, make them gasp in awe. Or laugh, like today.”

“Can you teach me?”

The assistant snorted with impatience. She wanted to pack up. The young woman talking to Donny was in no hurry.

“Who are you?”

“Donny Clatterbuck.”

“Mara. That’s my sister, Juliska.”

Juliska grabbed the balls from Donny’s hands.

“You live here?” Mara asked.


“You have a job? A car?”

Right then and there, Donny wanted to tell Mara the story of his life. The way she screwed up her eyes made him stop. Somehow, she already knew. And she didn’t care. No, that wasn’t true. She cared where he was headed, not where he had been. Donny saw himself through Mara’s eyes, and he felt giddy.

“The fair closes Sunday,” she said. “We move on to the next gig, and then the next, until the season is over. My father is the leader, more or less. Everybody is their own boss, but he puts together the tour. His name is Arpad.”

“Are you gypsies?”


Donny shrugged, and Juliska laughed.

“Big difference,” Mara said. “And you?”

“You want to know if I’m black or white?”

“Or what.”

“I’m a Clatterbuck.”


“Can I meet Arpad?”

“He’s busy. Come back tomorrow.”

“Should I bring my stuff?”

“That depends.” Mara gave Donny that gimlet look again. “Bring whatever you’ll need on the road, and be ready to go.”

In a fever of anticipation, Donny went home. Janine was out, working a dinner shift. Anyway, how could he explain to his mother what he was about to do? He wrote her a note.

“I’m going to try something different. It involves travel, so I might be gone for a few days. Or years. It all depends. Love, Donny.”

He put the note in an envelope with some money, what he owed for the month. He packed one bag of juggling equipment and one of clothes. He went to bed expecting to lie awake for hours and woke at dawn from a sound sleep.

Janine’s bedroom door was closed. The rule was: Do Not Disturb. Donny left the envelope in plain sight on the kitchen counter. He loaded the car and drove to the fairground.

In the cool of the morning, kids were picking up trash, toting bales of straw, spraying water from a hose, and tending pigs, cows, sheep, and a llama. Prize ribbons were pinned to the pens. Donny knew some of the kids from school. The animals were their 4-H projects.

A village of campers, trailers, and tents had sprung up, out of the way and under some trees. Donny asked around.

“I’m looking for the Magnificent Magyars.”

Soon he was standing face to face with a lean man in his forties, evidently the master of ceremonies. Instead of the field marshal uniform, the man wore rumpled khaki pants, a collar shirt open on the chest, rolled-up sleeves, and a felt hat. Black eyebrows and a mustache gave him a fierce expression. This was Arpad.

“So you want to run away from home and join the circus, is that it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can pay you nothing, only food and bed. For that you must work hard, chores like a farm hand. There is no glamor in this life. You understand?”

Donny nodded, a lump in his throat.

“You have good timing. I need a young man to replace the one who disappeared last week. Into thin air, just like that!” Arpad snapped his fingers. “How old are you?”


“The same as my Mara.”

As if waiting to hear her name called, Mara emerged from the camper. She acknowledged Donny silently and stood beside her father. Donny saw the resemblance, except that Mara was not fierce. In the dappled sunlight, she was beautiful, softer than the day before. Instead of the showbiz costume, she wore jeans and a faded, oversize shirt, one her father had discarded.

“You are free? No strings?” Arpad said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Mara tells me you can juggle. Mara tells me the truth always. You will show me what you can do later. First, we have a little test, a … what do you call it?” Arpad turned to his daughter.

“Initiation,” she said.

“It is nothing,” Arpad said. He swatted away an imaginary bug. “It is entertainment!”

“We do a knife-throwing act,” Mara explained. “My father is an expert. In many things, but with knives he is the best. Normally I am the victim, the one who stands still in front of the target.”

Mara gestured to a six-foot tall board on which thin punctures formed the outline of a body, a ghost of herself. Meanwhile Arpad retrieved a black leather case. It snapped open to reveal a double row of steel knives. They glittered in the sun.

“You will be so good as to stand there,” Arpad said. He took a knife from the case and examined the blade.

Donny looked at Mara, and she smiled.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Stand perfectly still. Don’t flinch. The knives must stick as close to you as possible. That is the point.”

In a daze, Donny moved into position. Mara made sure he was flat against the board. Her hand pressed against his stomach.

“One more thing,” Arpad said. “Keep your eyes open. If you blink, I know you do not trust me.” He held a knife in each hand, thumb and index finger on the tip of the blade.

Donny blinked rapidly, then raised his eyelids as far as they would go.

“So, you juggler, you fearless young man,” Arpad said to the world, “you who dare to speak to my daughter, the one I love more than my own life, are you ready to face death?”

Panic raced through Donny from head to foot, but he held firm. Mara stood within arm’s length, watching. Loud and clear, he shouted:


Featured image: Shutterstock, Vladimir Sviracevic and James Weston

100 Years Ago: The Women Who Ran Off with the Circus

In a time before television or Twitter, the traveling circus was a dominant, all-American form of entertainment. The young and old, rich and poor alike would gather to witness the exotic animals and superhuman acrobatics under the big top each summer. Traveling circuses would shut down entire towns with their parades and engulf the country in “sawdust and spangles.”

The larger-than-life showmen behind the country’s great circuses, like P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, and the Ringling Brothers, are still household names, but many of the performers, daredevils, and animal trainers who astounded their audiences and made weekly headlines have been forgotten.

Part of the appeal of circus folk lay in the mystery surrounding them. Who were they and where did they come from, these people who descended on the most provincial towns with strange talents and glamorous costumes? At the turn of the century, the circus spotlight began to shine on women, highlighting their athletic talents juxtaposed with dainty beauty.

Historian Janet M. Davis writes in The Circus Age that “In an era when a majority of women’s roles were still circumscribed by Victorian ideals of domesticity and feminine propriety, circus women’s performances celebrated female power, thereby representing a startling alternative to contemporary social norms.”

According to “The Circus Girl,” an article by L.B. Yates that appeared in the Post 100 years ago, the intrigue of the female circus performer was heightened by press agents who sowed fictional accounts to local papers of either some rich society girl or poor waif who had found a calling as a trick horse rider in the circus. It was usually a fabrication, as Yates claimed, since the vast majority of circus performers were born into the profession.

But the treatment of this new crop of female performers, in the press and in the culture, was a tightrope act of sorts. The circus offered a home for some outsiders and castaways and provided independence and adventure for its female stars. For audiences, it afforded titillating, exotic glimpses of the limits of the human body while promising to uphold decency in its ranks.

The women of the American circus during its golden age worked tirelessly to perfect their acts, stealing shows and breaking stunt records at a unique time in history that straddled the old conventions with the new promise of suffrage and feminism.

Lillian Leitzel

Photo of early 20th century circus performer, Lillan Leitzel.
Lillian Leitzel ( Buffalo Courier, February 4, 1923 )

“I resent having people come to my tent, stare at me as though I were a freak and then turn away laughing, as if they’d seen some wild animal,” the famous aerialist Lillian Leitzel told the Post in 1920. “They seem to assume that circus people have not got beyond the primitive stage of the cave man and are an aggregation of unlettered louts wholly devoid of the commonest sense of social amenities.”

Leitzel was indeed rich in social amenities, and she was also just plain rich. According to historian Janet M. Davis, the performer was making up to $200 a week in 1917 with Ringling Brothers (worth more than $4,000 in 2020), and it wasn’t uncommon for female circus stars to rake in more than their male counterparts. She had her own train car that contained a piano, and at each stop she would dress in her own private tent. By the 1920s, she was pulling in $500 per week, according to John Culhane in The American Circus.

Known as a brassy primadonna, Leitzel grew up in a Czech circus family and began in the gymnasium at 3 years old. Her signature act was to bound up the rope and hold her hand in a loop while throwing her body up and around, dislocating her shoulder over and over again as she performed her “one-arm planges.” As a percussionist carried on a drumroll, the audience would count her swingovers, one time as many as 249.

“Accidents? Oh, well, they’re liable to happen any time,” Leitzel told the Post. “But I never think of that. Whenever a performer gets to studying about the chances he or she is bound to take, he has outlived his usefulness. An acrobat must have hundred per cent nerves.”

She entertained other elite performers, senators, businessmen, and especially children in her private car. She was known for giving parties for all of the circus children and lavishing gifts and sweets on them, possibly because she was stripped of a childhood herself, according to Culhane.

Leitzel encouraged women to exercise to stay healthy, in spite of lingering Victorian notions that athleticism made women ugly and manlike. “Down with the corset,” she told newspapers in 1923. “Put a brick in the atrocious garment and hurl it into the Niagara River.” She encouraged women to take up swimming or some other sport they enjoyed, promising “you can eat what you want and work off the energy in exercise.”

Leitzel married the Mexican trapeze artist Alfredo Codona, and their passionate celebrity marriage was rife with jealousy and resentment. When Leitzel traveled to Europe in 1931, Codona went separately with an equestrian with whom he was having an affair. In Cophenhagen, Leitzel was performing her one-arm planges when the brass ring she was holding snapped, and she fell 20 feet onto her head. Although she insisted on continuing her act, her handlers sent her to the hospital. She died the next morning from a concussion.

Mabel Stark

Newspaper photo of circus performer Mabel Stark with one of her trained tigers.
Mabel Stark ( The Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 24, 1923 )

Mabel Stark was working as a nurse — with a stint as a burlesque dancer — when she found a calling to work with big cats in Venice, California around 1911. She stumbled onto the grounds of the traveling Al G. Barnes Circus and became obsessed with Bengal tigers. Stark joined the show, and within a few years she was a big cat trainer. Stark was the first American woman to take up the dangerous profession, let alone to achieve such renown.

Over the years, she became one of the most famous tiger (and lion and panther) tamers in the world, joining the Ringling Brothers in 1920. Newspapers gushed over her unique wrestling act. Stark would roll around with any of her 18 tigers, giving the impression of a perilous struggle.

Although Stark spent most of her time with her cats and treasured them dearly, she never lost sight of the risk of working with tigers. She gave some insight to a Public Ledger reporter in 1923: “The tone of the voice, the determination of it, has a great deal to do with subduing wild animals. Don’t let uncertainty or fear creep into your tones, or you’re gone. A great life, so to speak, if you don’t weaken.”

As with many who work with predator animals, Stark sustained serious injuries throughout her career (according to a profile in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1950). In Maine, she was mauled in the ring and required 378 stitches. In Arizona, she was bitten by a tiger named Nellie and finished her act with a limp left arm. In spite of it all, she continued to defend her fierce friends and the connection she had with them.

Stark’s story ultimately ended in tragedy. After retiring from the circus in the late 1930s, she settled in at an amusement park called Jungleland. Stark was let go for insurance reasons, and then one of her tigers escaped and was shot. The devastated near-80-year-old took her own life.

May Wirth

Photo of Australian circus performer May Wirth doing a somersault from one horse to another.
May Wirth ( The Critic, July 12, 1916, National Library of Australia )

Billed as “The World’s Greatest Rider,” May Wirth was only 17 when she made her first appearance in the Ringling Brothers’ show at Madison Square Garden. The Australian transplant wore a giant hair bow and leapt from horse to horse, completing flips and twists that dazzled audiences and — sometimes moreso — other riders.

Wirth was an orphan who performed as a five-year-old contortionist and was eventually adopted by the down-under circus rider Marilyas Wirth Martin. According to the Braathens, two Madison, Wisconsin circus buffs writing in The Capital Times in 1973, Will Rogers witnessed young Wirth riding in her home country and predicted “the day would come when there would be but two types of bareback riders in the world, May Wirth and all the others.”

When the Braathens asked about her legendary forward somersault, Wirth recalled that Mr. Ringling was skeptical that anyone could complete such a trick, and when she tried it for him: “I missed it and fell on my back right in front of Mr. John. I got up like a streak of lightning, ran and vaulted onto the horse again and did the stunt over for him, this perfectly, and did the somersault feet to feet. That earned me my first season’s contract with John Ringling.”

The sweetheart of the circus made the front page of The New York Times after an unfortunate slip in 1913 caused her to be dragged around the track behind her horse by her feet. Nine years later, the paper reported that she had accepted the challenge of riding a bull, and better yet: “Miss Wirth not only rode the bull, reputed to be a most ferocious beast, 3 years old and weighing 2,400 pounds, but she rode him standing on her hands upon his back.”

Wirth retired from the big top in 1937 and went to live with her mother in New York. She later moved to Sarasota, where the Ringling Museum and Circus Hall of Fame was located. She was inducted in 1964.

Read “The Circus Girl” by L.B. Yates from the July 17, 1920, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: 1890-1900, Calvert Litho. Co., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The Circus Age by Janet M. Davis

The American Circus by John Culhane

Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940 by Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene

“Fifty-Two Weeks for Florette” by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander Heermann wrote short stories and serials for the Post under the pen name “Elizabeth Alexander.” Her story “Fifty-Two Weeks for Florette” was a finalist for the O. Henry Prize in 1921. The tearjerker tale follows the son of a traveling acrobat as he falls away from his mother’s life.

Published on August 13, 1921

Content warning: Racial slurs


It had been over two months since Freddy Le Fay’s bill had been paid, and Miss Nellie Blair was worried. She had written to Freddy’s mother repeatedly, but there had been no answer.

“It’s all your own fault, sister. You should never have taken Freddy,” Miss Eva said sharply. “I told you so at the time, when I saw his mother’s hair. And of course Le Fay is not her real name. It looks to me like a clear case of desertion.”

“I can’t believe it. She seemed so devoted,” faltered Miss Nellie.

“Oh, a girl like that!” Miss Eva sniffed. “You should never have consented.”

“Well, the poor thing was so worried, and if it meant saving a child from a dreadful life — ”

“There are other schools more suitable.”

“But, sister, she seemed to have her heart set on ours. She begged me to make a little gentleman out of him.”

“As if you could ever do that!”

“Why not?” asked Mary, their niece.

“That dreadful child!”

“Freddy isn’t dreadful!” cried Mary hotly.

“With that atrocious slang! Won’t eat his oatmeal! And he’s such a queer child — queer! So pale, never laughs, doesn’t like anyone. Why should you take up for him? He doesn’t even like you. Hates me, I suppose.”

“It’s because we are so different from the women he has known,” said Mary.

“I should hope so! Well, sister, what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know what to do,” sighed Miss Nellie. “He hasn’t any other relatives as far as I know. And the summer coming on, what shall we do?”

“Nothing for it but to send him to an orphanage if she doesn’t write soon,” said Miss Eva.

“Oh, auntie, you wouldn’t!”

“Why not? How can we afford to give children free board and education?”

“It’s only one child.”

“It would soon be a dozen, if we once started it.”

“I’ll wait another month,” said Miss Nellie, “and then, really, something will have to be done.”

The girl looked out of the window.

“There he is now,” she said, “sitting on the stone wall at the end of the garden. It’s his favorite spot.”

“What on earth he wants to sit there for — away from all the other children! He never plays. Look at him! Just sitting there — not moving. How stupid!” exclaimed Miss Eva impatiently.

“I do declare, I believe he’s fallen asleep,” said Miss Nellie.

Freddy was not asleep. He had only to close his eyes and it would all come back to him. Memories that he could not put into words, sensations without definite thought, crowded in upon him. The smell — the thick smell of grease paint, choking powder, dust, gas, old walls, bodies and breath, and sharp perfume; the sickening, delicious, stale, enchanting, never-to-be-forgotten odor of the theater; the nerves’ sudden tension at the cry of “Ov-a-chure”; their tingling as the jaded music blares; the lift of the heart as the curtain rises; the catch in the throat as Florette runs on to do her turn.

Florette was a performer on the trapeze in vaudeville. Her figure was perfect from the strenuous daily exercise. She was small, young and a shade too blond. First she appeared in a sort of blue evening dress, except that it was shorter even than a debutante’s. She ran out quickly from the wings, bowed excessively, smiled appealingly, and skipping over to the trapeze seized the two iron rings that hung from ropes. Lifting her own weight by the strength in her slender wrists, she flung her legs upward and hooked her knees into the rings. Then hanging head downward she swung back and forth; flung herself upright again, sat and swung; climbed to the topmost bar of the trapeze and hung down again. Her partner ran on and repeated her monkeylike maneuvers. Then Florette held his hands while he swung upside down; he held Florette while she swung upside down. They turned head over heels, over and over each other, up and down, catching and slipping, and adjusting their balance, in time to gay tunes.

Sometimes the audience clapped. Sometimes they were too familiar with their kind of flirtation with death to clap. Then Florette and her partner would invent something a little more daring. They would learn to balance themselves on chairs tilted on two legs on the trapeze, or Florette would hang by only one hand, or she would support her partner by a strap held in her teeth. Sometimes Florette’s risks were great enough to thrill the audience with the thought of death.

Trapeze artist in flight above a circus crowd.The thought of a slip, broken bones, delighted the safe people in comfortable chairs. They laughed. Florette laughed, too, for Freddy was waiting in the wings.

There were mothers in the audience who cooked and mended, swept and dusted, ran up and down innumerable stairs, washed greasy dishes, wore ugly house dresses, slaved and scolded and got chapped hands, all for their children. Florette, always dainty and pretty, had nothing to do but airily, gracefully swing, and smile. Other mothers spent their lives for their little boys. Florette only risked hers twice a day.

While the partner played an accordion Florette ran out for her quick change. Freddy was waiting, with her dress hung over a chair. He flew to meet her. His eager, nimble fingers unfastened the blue frock. He slipped the next costume over her head without mussing a single beloved blond hair. The second costume was a tightfitting silver bodice with a fluff of green skirt underneath. Freddy had it fastened up in a twinkling. Florette ran out again and pulled herself up into the trapeze.

While Florette went through the second part of her act Freddy folded up the blue costume and trudged upstairs with it. Florette’s dressing room was usually up four flights. Freddy put the blue dress on a coat hanger and wrapped a muslin cover about it. Then he trudged down the four flights again, with the third costume over his arm. It was a Chinese jacket and a pair of tight short blue-satin trousers, and Freddy was very proud of this confection. He stood as a screen for Florette while she put on the trousers, and there are not many little boys who have a mamma who could look so pretty in them.

Florette skipped out lightly and finished her act by swinging far out over the audience, back and forth, faster and faster, farther and farther out, until it seemed as if she were going to fling herself into the lap of some middle-aged gentleman in the third row. His wife invariably murmured something about a hussy as Florette’s pretty bare legs flashed overhead. The music played louder, ended with a boom from the drum. Florette flung herself upright, kissed her hands, the curtain fell, and the barelegged hussy ran up to the dressing room where her little son waited.

Freddy had already hung up and shrouded the silver-and-green costume, and was waiting for the Chinese one. He pounced upon it, muttered about some wrinkles, put it into place and went to the dressing table to hand Florette the cold cream. He found her make-up towel, all caked with red and blue, which she had flung down on the floor. He patted her highly glittering hair and adjusted a pin. He marshaled the jars and little pans and sticks of grease paint on her shelf into an orderly row and blew off the deep layers of powder she had scattered. Then he took down her street dress from its hook and slipped it deftly over her shoulders and had it buttoned up before Florette could yawn. He handed her her saucy bright hat. He flung himself into his own coat.

“Well, le’s go, Florette!” cried Freddy gayly, with dancing eyes. He had never called her mamma. She was too little and cute.

Then they would go to the hotel, never the best, where they were stopping. The room with its greenish light, its soiled lace curtains, the water pitcher always cracked, the bed always lumpy, the sheets always damp, was home to Freddy. Florette made it warm and cozy even when there was no heat in the radiator. She had all sorts of clever home-making tricks. She toasted marshmallows over the gas jet; she spread a shawl on the trunk; or she surprised Freddy by pinning pictures out of the funny page on the wall. She could make the nicest tea on a little alcohol stove she carried in her trunk. There was always a little feast after the theater on the table that invariably wabbled. Freddy would pretend that the foot of the iron bed was a trapeze. How they laughed! On freezing nights in Maine or Minnesota, Florette would let Freddy warm his feet against hers, or she would get up and spread her coat that looked just like fur over the bed.

When they struck a new town at the beginning of each week Freddy and Florette would go bumming and see all the sights, whether it was Niagara Falls or just the new Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. Freddy would have been sorry for little boys who had to stay in one home all the time — that is, if he had known anything at all about them. But the life of the strolling player was all that he had ever known, and he found it delightful, except for the dreaded intervals of “bookin’ the ac’.”

The dream of every vaudevillian is to be booked for fifty-two unbroken weeks in the year, but few attain such popularity. Florette’s seasons were sometimes long, sometimes short; but there always came the tedious worrying intervals when managers and agents must be besought for work. Perhaps she would find that people were tired of her old tricks, and she would have to rehearse new ones, or interpolate new songs and gags. Then the new act would be tried out at some obscure vaudeville house, and if it didn’t go the rehearsals and trampings to agents must begin all over again. Freddy shared the anxieties and hardships of these times. But the only hardship he really minded was the loss of Florette, for of course the pretty Miss Le Fay, who was only nineteen on the agents’ books, could not appear on Broadway with a great big boy like Freddy.

However, the bad times always ended, and Florette and Freddy would set out gayly once more for Oshkosh or Atlanta, Dallas or Des Moines. Meals expanded, Florette bought a rhinestone-covered comb, and the two adventurers indulged in an orgy of chocolate drops. With the optimism of the actor, they forgot all about the dismal past weeks, and saw the new tour as never ending.

Freddy felt himself once more a real and important human being with a place in the sun, not just a child to be shushed by a dingy landlady while his mother was out looking for a job. He knew that he was as necessary a part of Florette’s act as her make-up box. He believed himself to be as necessary a part of her life as the heart in her breast, for Florette lavished all her beauty, all her sweetness on him. No Johns for Florette, pretty and blond though she was. To the contempt of her contemporaries, Florette refused every chance for a free meal. Freddy was her sweetheart, her man. She had showered so many pretty love words on him, she had assured him so often that he was all in the world she wanted that Freddy was stunned one day to hear that he was to have a papa.

“I don’ wan’ one,” said Freddy flatly. “I ain’t never had one, an’ I ain’t got no use for one.”

Florette looked cross — an unusual thing.

“Aw, now, Freddy, don’ be a grouch,” she said.

“I don’ wan’ one,” repeated Freddy.

“You ought to be glad to get a papa!” cried Florette.


“Makes you respectable.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’d believe I was a widow — in this profession?”

Freddy still looked blank.

“Well,” said Florette, “you’re goin’ to get a nice papa, so there now!”

Then the cruel truth dawned on Freddy. It was Florette who wanted a papa. He had not been enough for her. In some way Florette had found him lacking.

Tactfully, Freddy dropped the subject of papas, wooed Florette and tried to atone for his shortcomings. He redoubled his compliments, trotted out all the love words he knew, coaxed Florette with everything she liked best in him. He even offered to have his nails filed. At night, in bed, he kissed Florette’s bare back between the shoulder blades, and snuggled close to her, hugging her desperately with his little thin arms.

“Flo,” he quavered, “you — you ain’t lonesome no more, are you?”

“Me? Lonesome? Whatcher talkin’ about, kid?” sleepily murmured Florette.

“You ain’t never lonesome when you got me around, are you, Flo?”

“Sure I ain’t. Go to sleep, honey.”

“But Florette — ”

Florette was dozing.

“Oh, Florette! Florette!”

“Florette, if you ain’t lonesome — ”

“Sh-h-h, now, sh-h-h! Le’s go to sleep.”

“But, Florette, you don’ wan’ — you don’ wan’ — a pop — ”

“Sh-h-h! Sh-h-h! I’m so tired, honey.”

Florette slept. Freddy lay awake, but he lay still so as not to disturb her. His arms ached, but he dared not let her go. Finally he slept, and dreamed of a world in which there was no Florette. He shuddered and kicked his mother. She gave him a little impatient shove. He woke. Day was dawning. It was Florette’s wedding day. Freddy did not know it until Florette put on her best coral-velvet hat with the jet things dangling over her ears.

“You ain’ gonna wear that hat,” said Freddy severely. “It’s rainin’.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna wear this hat,” said Florette, pulling her blond earbobs into greater prominence. “An’ you put on your best suit an’ new necktie. We’re goin’ to a weddin’.”

Her tone was gay, arch, her eyes were happy.

“Who — whose?” Freddy faltered.

“Mine!” chirped Florette. “I’m goin’ to get you that papa I promised you.”

Freddy turned away.

“Sulkin’!” chided Florette. “Naughty, jealous boy!”

The new papa did not appear so formidable as Freddy had expected. In fact, he turned out to be only Howard, Florette’s acrobatic partner. Freddy philosophically reflected that if one must have a new papa, far better so to call Howard; who necessarily encroached on Florette’s time, than a stranger who might take up some of her leisure hours.

But Freddy received a distinct shock when the new papa joined them after the evening performance and accompanied them up to their room.

Freddy had always regarded Florette’s room as his too. He felt that the new papa was an intruder in their home. Alas! It soon became all too apparent that it was Freddy who was de trop, or, as he would have expressed it, a Mister Buttinski.

They were having a little supper of pickles and cheese and liver sausage and jam. Florette and the papa drank out of a bottle by turns and laughed a great deal. Florette seemed to think the papa very clever and funny. She laughed at everything he said. She looked at him with shining eyes. She squeezed his hand under the table. Freddy tried in vain to attract her attention. Finally he gave up and sat staring at the oblivious couple with a stupid expression.

“That kid’s half asleep,” said the new papa.

Florette looked at Freddy and was annoyed by his vacant eyes.

“Go to bed right away,” she commanded.

Freddy looked at her in amazement.

“Ain’t you goin’, too, Florette?” he asked.

“No, you go on — go to sleep.”

“Git into that nice li’l’ cot an’ go by-by, said the new papa genially.

Freddy had not seen the cot before. It had been moved in during his absence at the theater, and stood white, narrow and lonely, partly concealed by a screen.

“I — I always slep’ with Florette,” faltered Freddy.

This seemed to amuse the new papa. But Florette flushed and looked annoyed.

“Now, Freddy, are you goin’ to be a grouch?” she wailed.

Freddy was kissed good night, and went to sleep in the cot. He found it cold and unfriendly. But habit, the much maligned, is kind as well as cruel; if it can accustom us to evil, so can it soften pain. Freddy was beginning to assume proprietary airs toward the cot, which appeared in every town, and even to express views as to the relative values of cots in Springfield, Akron or Joliet — when one night he woke to hear Florette sobbing.

Freddy lay awake listening. He had sobbed, too, when he was first banished to the cot. Was Florette missing him as he had missed her? Ah, if she at last had seen that papas were not half so nice as Freddys, he would not be hard on her. His heart swelled with forgiveness and love. He stole on tiptoe to Florette’s bedside.

“Flo,” he whispered.

The sobbing ceased. Florette held her breath and pretended to be asleep. Freddy wriggled his little thin body under the covers and threw his arms around Florette. With a gulp, she turned and threw her arms around him. They clasped each other tight and clung without speaking. They lay on the edge of the bed, holding their breath in order not to wake the papa who snored loudly. Freddy’s cheeks and hair were wet, a cold tear trickled down his neck, his body ached from the hard edge of the bed; but he was happy, as only a child or a lover can be, and Freddy was both.

In the morning the papa was cross. He did not seem to care for his own breakfast, but concentrated his attention on Freddy’s. Freddy had always been accustomed to a nice breakfast of tea and toast and jam, but Howard insisted on ordering oatmeal for him.

“Naw, Freddy can’t stand oatmeal,” Florette objected.

“It’s good for him,” said Howard, staring severely at his son across the white-topped restaurant table.

“I don’ see no use forcin’ a person to eat what they can’t stomach,” said Florette.

“Yeah, tha’s the way you’ve always spoiled that kid. Look a’ them pale cheeks! Li’l’ ole pale face!” Howard taunted, stretching a teasing hand toward Freddy. “Mamma’s boy! Reg’lar sissy, he is!”

He gave Freddy a poke in the ribs. Freddy shrank back, made himself as small as possible in his chair, looked mutely at Florette.

“Aw, cut it out, Howard,” she begged. “Quit raggin’ the kid, can’t you?”

“Mamma’s blessed sugar lump!” jeered Howard, with an ugly gleam in his eye. “Ought to wear a bib with pink ribbons, so he ought. Gimme a nursin’ bottle for the baby, waiter!”

The impertinence of this person amazed Freddy. He could only look at his tormentor speechlessly. Freddy and Florette had been such great chums that she had never used the maternal prerogative of rudeness. He had never had any home life, so he was unaware of the coolness with which members of a family can insult one another. Howard’s tones, never low, were unusually loud this morning, and people turned around to laugh at the blushing child. The greasy waiter grinned and set the oatmeal which Howard had ordered before Freddy.

“Now then, young man,” commanded Howard sternly, “you eat that, and you eat it quick!”

Freddy obeyed literally, swallowing as fast as he could, with painful gasps and gulps, fighting to keep the tears back. Florette reached under the table and silently squeezed his knee. He flashed her a smile and swallowed a huge slimy mouthful.

“You ain’t eatin’ nothin’ yourse’f, Howard,” said Florette acidly. `W’y don’ you have some oatmeal?”

“Tha’s right!” shouted Howard. “Side with the kid against me! Tha’s all the thanks I get for tryin’ to make a man out o’ the li’l’ sissy. Oughts known better’n to marry a woman with a spoiled brat.”

“Sh-h-h!” whispered Florette. “Don’ tell the whole resterunt about your fam’ly troubles.”

“Say,” hissed Howard, bending down toward her and thrusting out his jaw, “lay off o’ me, will yer?”

“Lay off yourse’f!” retorted Florette under her breath. “If you wanna fight le’s go back to the hotel where it’s private.”

“I don’ min’ tellin’ the world I bin stung!” roared Howard.

Florette flushed up to the slightly darker roots of her too-blond hair.

“You?” she gasped furiously. “After all I’ve put up with!”

“Say, you ain’t got any kick comin’! I treated you white, marryin’ you, an’ no questions asked.”

“What-ta you mean?” breathed Florette, growing deathly pale.

Freddy, alarmed, half rose from his chair.

“Sit down there, you!” roared Howard. “What-ta I mean, Miss Innocence?” he said, mimicking Florette’s tone. “Oh, no, of course you ain’t no idea of what I mean!”

“Come on, Freddy,” Florette broke in quickly. “It’s a katzellammer. He ain’t got over last night yet.’

She seized Freddy’s hand and walked rapidly toward the door. Howard lurched after her, followed by the interested stares of the spectators. On the street he caught up with her and the quarrel recommenced.

The act went badly that afternoon. It must be hard to frolic in midair with a heavy heart. Under cover of the gay music there were angry muttered words and reproaches.

“Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” Florette would trill happily to the audience as she poised on one toe. “What-ta you tryin’ to do — shake me off’n the bar?” she would mutter under her breath to her partner.

“Tha’s right! Leggo o’ me an’ lemme bus’ my bean, damn you!” snarled Howard. And to the audience he sang, “Oh, ain’t it great to have a little girlie you can trust for — life!”

They were still muttering angrily as they came off. The handclapping had been faint.

“Aw, for God’s sake, stop your jawin’!” half screamed Florette. “It ain’t no more my fault than it is yours. If they don’ like us they don’ like us, tha’s all.”

She ran up the stairs sobbing. Howard followed her. They shared a dressing room now. It was small, and Freddy was in the way, although he tried to squeeze himself into the corner by the dingy stationary washstand. Howard shoved Freddy. Florette protested. The quarreling broke out afresh. Howard tipped over a bottle of liquid white. Florette screamed at him, and he raised his fist. Freddy darted out of his corner.

“Say, ya big stiff, cut out that rough stuff, see?” cried little pale Freddy in the only language of chivalry that he knew.

Howard whirled upon him furiously, calling him a name that Freddy did not understand, but Florette flung herself between them and caught the blow.


“He certainly looks as if he had fallen asleep,” Miss Nellie Blair repeated. “Better run out and get him, Mary. He might tumble off the wall.”

As Mary went out a maid came in.

“A gen’l’mun to see you, Miss Blair,” she announced.

“Is it a parent?” asked Miss Nellie.

The maid’s eyebrows twitched, and she looked faintly grieved, as all good servants do when they are forced to consider someone whom they cannot acknowledge as their superior.

“No ma’am, he doesn’t look like a parent,” she complained. “He really is a very queer-lookin’ sort of person, ma’am. I wouldn’t know exactly where to place him. Shall I say you are out, ma’am?”

“Yes,” said Miss Eva. “No doubt he wants to sell an encyclopedia.”

“No, let him come in,” said Miss Nellie. “It might be a reporter about Madame d’Avala,” she added, turning to her sister. “Sometimes they look queer.”

“If it turns out to be an encyclopedia I shall leave you at once,” said Miss Eva. “You are so kind-hearted that you will look through twenty-four volumes, and miss your dinner — ”

But the gentleman who came in carried no books, nor did he look like one who had ever been associated with them. Carefully dressed in the very worst of taste from his scarfpin to his boots, he had evidently just been too carefully shaved, for there were scratches on his wide ludicrous face, and his smile was as rueful as a clown’s.

“The Misses Blair, I presume?” he asked in what was unmistakably his society manner, and he held out a card.

Miss Eva took it and read aloud, “Mr. Bert Brannigan, Brannigan and Bowers, Black-Face Comedians.”

“Ah?” murmured Miss Nellie, who was always polite even in the most trying circumstances.

But Miss Eva could only stare at the rich brown suit, the lavender tie and matching socks and handkerchief.

“Well?” said Miss Eva.

Mr. Brannigan cleared his throat and looked cautiously about the room. His heavy clownlike face was troubled.

“Where’s the kid?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“What child?” Miss Eva snapped.

“You’ve come to see one of our pupils?” Miss Nellie faltered.

“Yeah. Hers.”


“W’y, Miss Le Fay’s li’l’ boy.”

“Oh, Freddy?”

“Sure! Does he — he don’t — you ain’t tole ‘im yet, have you?”

“Told him what?”

“My God, don’t you know?”

Bert Brannigan stared at the ladies, mopping his brow with the lavender handkerchief.

“Please explain yourself, Mr. Brannigan,” said Miss Eva.

“She’s dead. I thought you knew.”

“Miss Le Fay is dead?” gasped Miss Nellie.

“Why weren’t we told?” asked Miss Eva.

“It was in the papers,” said Bert. “But they didn’t give Florette no front-page headlines, an’ maybe you don’t read the theatrical news.”

“No,” said Miss Eva.

“Well, not bein’ in the profession,” Mr. Brannigan said, as if he were apologizing for her.

He sat down and continued to mop his brow mechanically. The two sisters stared in dismay at the clown who had brought bad news.

“W’at I don’ know is how to tell the kid,” said Bert. “He was nutty about Florette; didn’t give a darn for no one else. I bin on the bill with them two, lots of times, an’ I seen how it was. The money ain’t goin’ to be no comfort to that kid!”

“The money?”

“Florette’s insurance — made out to him. Tha’s w’y I come. She wan’ed him to stay on here, see, till he was all educated. They’s enough too. She was always insured heavy for the kid. They’s some back money comin’ to you too. She tole me. The reason w’y she didn’ sen’ it on was because she was out of luck an’ broke, see?”

“But why didn’t Miss Le Fay write to us?” asked Miss Nellie. “If she was in difficulties we — ”

“Naw, Florette wasn’ that kind; nev’ put up any hard-luck story, y’ un’erstan’. But she’d bin outa work, sick. An’ w’en she come back it looked like her ac’ was a frost. I run up on her in K.C., an’ — ”

“What is K.C.?”

“Why, Kansas City! We was on the bill there two weeks ago. Me an’ Florette was ole friends, see? No foolishness, if you know what I mean. I’m a married man myse’f — Bowers there on the card’s my wife — but me an’ Florette met about five years ago, an’ kep’ on runnin’ onto one another on the bill, first one place an’ then another. So she was glad to see me again, an’ me her. ‘W’y, w’ere’s Freddy?’ I says first thing. An’ then I never seen any person’s face look so sad. But she begun tellin’ me right off w’at a fine place the kid was at, an’ how the theayter wasn’t no place for a chile. An’ she says, ‘Bert, I wan’ him to stay w’ere he’s happy an’ safe,’ she says. ‘Even if I nev’ see him again,’ she says. Well, it give me the shivers then. Psychic, I guess.”

Bert paused, staring into space.

“And then?” Miss Nellie asked gently.

“Well, like I was tellin’ you, Florette had been playin’ in hard luck. Now I don’ know whether you ladies know anything about the vodvil game. Some ac’s is booked out through the circuit from N’ Yawk; others is booked up by some li’l’ fly-by-night agent, gettin’ a date here an’ a date there, terrible jumps between stands, see, and nev’ knowin’ one week where you’re goin’ the nex’, or whether at all. Well, Florette was gettin’ her bookin’ that way. An’ on that you gotta make good with each house you play, get me? An’ somethin’ had went wrong with the ac’ since I seen it las’. It useter be A Number 1, y’ un’erstan’, but looked like Florette had lost int’rust or somethin’. She didn’t put no pep into it, if you know what I mean. An’ vodvil’s gotta be all pep. Then, too, her an’ that partner of hers jawin’ all the time somethin’ fierce. I could hear him raggin’ her that af’noon, an’ me standin’ in the wings, an’ they slipped up on some of their tricks terrible, an’ the audience laughed. But not with ’em, at ’em, y’ un’erstan’! Well, so the ac’ was a fros’, an’ they was canceled.”


“Fired, I guess you’d call it. They was to play again that night an’ then move on, see?”

“Oh, yes.”

“An’ they didn’t have no bookin’ ahead. Florette come an’ talked to me again, an’ she says again she wanted Freddy to be happy, an’ git a better start ‘n she’d had an’ all. ‘An’, Bert,’ she says, ‘if anything ev’ happens to me you go an’ give ‘um the money for Freddy,’ she says.”

“Poor thing! Perhaps she had a premonition of her death,” murmured Miss Nellie.

Bert gave her a queer look.

“Yeah — yes, ma’am, p’raps so. I was watchin’ her from the wings that night,” he went on. “The ac’ was almos’ over, an’ I couldn’t see nothin’ wrong. Howard had run off an’ Florette was standin’ up on the trapeze kissin’ her han’s like she always done at the finish. But all of a sudden she sort of trem’led an’ turned ha’f way roun’ like she couldn’t make up her min’ what to do, an’ los’ her balance, an’ caught holt of a rope — an’ let go — an’ fell.”

Miss Nellie covered her face with her hands. Miss Eva turned away to the window.

“She was dead w’en I got to her,” said Bert.

“Be careful!” said Miss Eva sharply. “The child is coming in.”

“Freddy wasn’t asleep at all,” said Mary, opening the door. “He was just playing a game, but he won’t tell me — Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn’t know anyone was here.”

Freddy had stopped round-eyed, open-mouthed with incredulous delight.

“Bert!” he gasped. “The son of a gun!”

“Freddy!” cried the Misses Blair.

But Bert held out his arms and Freddy ran into them.

“Gee, Bert, I’m glad to see ya!” rejoiced Freddy.

“Me too, kid, glad to see you! How’s the boy, huh? Gettin’ educated, huh? Swell school, ain’t it?” babbled Bert, fighting for time.

“Aw, it’s all right, I guess,” Freddy replied listlessly, glancing at the Misses Blair. Then turning again with eager interest to Bert, “But say, Bert, what in the hell a — I mean what-ta you doin’ here?”

“Why — ah — ah — jus’ stoppin’ by to say howdy, see, an’ — ”

“Playin’ in N’ Yawk?”


“Jus’ come in?”


Freddy drew his breath in quickly.

“Say, Bert, you — you ain’t seen Florette anywheres?”

“Why, ye-yeah.”

“Where is she, Bert?”

There was a deathly hush.

Then Miss Eva motioned to Miss Nellie and said, “If you will excuse us, Mr. Brannigan, we have some arrangements to make about the concert tonight. Madame d’Avala is to sing in the school auditorium, a benefit performance,” and she went out, followed by her sister and niece.

“Where’s Florette?” Freddy asked again, his voice trembling with eagerness.

“I — seen her in K. C., sonny.”

“How’s the ac’?”

“Fine! Fine! Great!”

“No kiddin’?”

“No kiddin’.”

“Florette — all right?”

“Why, what made you think any different?”

“Who hooks her up now, Bert?”

“She hires the dresser at the theater.”

“I could ’a’ kep’ on doin’ it,” said Freddy with a sigh.

“Aw, now, kid, it’s better for you here, gettin’ educated an’ all.”

“I don’t like it, Bert.”

“You don’t like it?”


“You don’t like it! After all she done!”

“I hate this ole school. I wanna leave. You tell Florette.”

“Aw, now, Freddy — ”

“I’m lonesome. I don’t like nobody here.” His voice dropped. “An’ — an’ they don’t like me.”

“Aw, now, Freddy — ”

“Maybe Miss Mary does. But Miss Eva don’t. Anyway, I ain’t no use to anybody here. What’s the sense of stayin’ where you ain’t no use? An’ they’re always callin’ me down. I don’t do nothin’ right. I can’t even talk so’s they’ll like it. Florette liked the way I talked all right. An’ you get what I mean, don’t you, Bert? The kids are stuck up, too, Bert. But they don’t know nothin’. Why, they don’t know nothin’, Bert! Why, there’s one boy ain’t ever been inside a theater! What-ta you know about that, Bert? Gee, Bert, I’m awful glad you come! I’d ’a’ bust not havin’ somebody to talk to.”

Bert was silent. He still held Freddy in his arms. His heart reeled at the thought of what he must tell the child. He cleared his throat, opened his mouth to speak, but the words would not come.

Freddy chattered on, loosing the flood gates of his accumulated loneliness. He told how Florette had bidden him “learn to be a li’l’ gem’mum,” and how he really tried; but how silly were the rules that governed a gentlemanly existence; how the other li’l’ gem’mum laughed at him, and talked of things he had never heard of, and never heard of the things he talked of, until at last he had ceased trying to be one of them.

“You tell Florette I gotta leave this place,” he concluded firmly. “Bert, now you tell Florette. Will you, Bert? Huh?”

“Freddy — I — Freddy, lissen now. I got somethin’ to tell you.”


“I — I come on to tell you, Freddy. Tha’s why I come out to tell you, see?”

“Well, spit it out,” Freddy laughed.

Bert groaned.

“Whassa matter, Bert? What’s eatin’ you?”

“I — I Say, Freddy, lissen — lissen now, Freddy. I — ”

“Florette! She ain’t sick? Bert, is Florette sick?”

“No! No, I — ”

“You tell me, Bert! If it’s bad news about Florette — ”

His voice died out. His face grew white. Bert could not meet his eyes.

“No, no, now, Freddy,” Bert mumbled, turning away his head. “You got me all wrong. It — it’s good news, sonny.”

Like a flash Freddy’s face cleared.

“What about, Bert? Good news about what?”

“Why — ah — why, the ac’s goin’ big, like I tole you. An’ — an’ say, boy, out at one place — out at K.C., it — why, it stopped the show!”

“Stopped the show!” breathed Freddy in awe. “Oh, Bert, we never done that before!”

“An’ so — so she — ah, Florette — y’see, kid, account of the ac’ goin’ so big, why, she — has to — go away — for a little while.”

“Go away, Bert! Where?”

“To — to — Englund, an’ — Australia.”

“To Englund, an’ Australia?”

“Yeah, they booked her up ’count o’ the ac’ goin’ so great, see?”

“Oh, Bert!”

“Yeah. An’ lissen. She’s booked for fifty-two weeks solid!”

“Fifty-two weeks! Oh, Bert, that ain’t never happened to us before!”

“I know. It’s — great!”

Bert blew out his breath loudly, mopped his forehead. He could look at Freddy now, and he saw a face all aglow with love and pride.

“When’s she comin’ to get me, Bert?” the child asked confidently.

“Why — why, Freddy — now — you — ”

Bert could only flounder, and look dismayed.

“She ain’t goin’ off an’ leave me!” wailed the child.

“Now lissen! Say, wait a minute! Lissen!”

“But, Bert! Bert! She — ”

“Say, don’t you wanna help Florette, now she’s got this gran’ bookin’ an’ all?”

“Sure I do, Bert. I wanna he’p her with her quick changes, like I useter.”

“You he’p her! Say, how would that look in all them swell places she’s goin’ to? W’y, she’ll have a maid!”

“Like the headliners, Bert?”


“A coon, Bert?”

“Sure! Like a li’l’ musical com’dy star.”



“But, Bert, w’y can’t I go, too?”

“Aw, now, say — w’y — w’y, you’re too big!”

“What-ta y’ mean, Bert?”

“W’y, kid, you talk’s if you never bin in the p’fession. How ole does Miss Le Fay look? Nineteen, tha’s all. But with a great big boy like you taggin’ on — W’y, say, you’d queer her with them English managers right off. You don’ wanna do that now, Freddy?”

“No, but I — ”

“I knew you’d take it sensible. You always bin a lot of help to Florette.”

“Did she tell you, Bert?”


“A’right. I’ll stay. When — when’s she comin’ to tell me goo’by?”

“Why — why — look-a-here. Brace up, ole man. She had to leave a’ready.”

“She’s gone?”

“Say, you don’ think bookin’ like that can wait, do you? It was take it or leave it — quick. You didn’t wan’ her to throw away a chancet like that, huh, Freddy? Huh?”

Freddy’s head sank on his chest. His hands fell limp. “A’ right,” he murmured without looking up.

The big man bent over the child clumsily and tried to raise his quivering chin.

“Aw, now, Freddy,” he coaxed, “wanna come out with me an’ — an’ have a soda?”

Freddy shook his head.

“Buy ya some candy too. Choc’late drops! An’ how about one o’ them li’l’ airyplane toys I seen in the window down the street? Huh? Or some marbles? Huh? Freddy, le’s go buy out this here dinky li’l’ ole town. What-ta ya say, huh? Le’s paint this li’l’ ole town red! What-ta ya say, sport?”

Freddy managed a feeble smile.

“How come you so flush, Brudder Johnsing?” he asked in what he considered an imitation of darky talk. “Mus’a’ bin rollin’ dem bones!”

“Tha’s a boy!” shouted Bert with a great guffaw. “There’s a comeback for you! Game! Tha’s what I always liked about you, Freddy. You was always game.”

“I wanna be game!” said Freddy, stiffening his lips. “You tell Florette. You write to her I was game. Will ya, Bert?”

A bell rang.

“Aw, I gotta go dress for supper, Bert. They dress up for supper here.”

“A’right, kid. Then I’ll be goin’”

“Goo’-by, Bert. You tell her, Bert.”

“So long, kid.”

“Will ya tell her I was game, Bert?”

“Aw, she’ll know!”

Madame Margarita d’Avala found herself in a situation all the more annoying because it was so absurd. She had promised to sing at the Misses Blair’s School for the benefit of a popular charity, and she had motored out from New York, leaving her maid to do some errands and to follow by train. But it was eight o’clock, and the great Madame d’Avala found herself alone in the prim guest room of the Misses Blair’s School, with her bag and dressing case, to be sure, but with no one to help her into the complicated draperies of her gown. There was no bell. She could not very well run down the corridor, half nude, shouting for help, especially as she had no idea of where the Misses Blair kept either themselves or their servants. The Misses Blair had been so fatiguingly polite on her arrival. Perhaps she had been a little abrupt in refusing their many offers of service and saying that she wanted to rest quite alone. Now, of course, they were afraid to come near her. And, besides, they would think that her maid was with her by this time. They had given orders to have Madame d’Avala’s maid shown up to her as soon as she arrived, and of course their maid would be too stupid to know that Madame d’Avala’s maid had never come.

Margarita d’Avala bit her lips and paced the floor, looked out of the window, opened the door, but there was no one in sight. Well, no help for it. She must try to get into the gown alone. She stepped into it and became entangled in the lace; stepped out again, shook the dress angrily and pushed it on over her head, giving a little impatient scream as she rumpled her hair. Then she reached up and back, straining her arms to push the top snap of the corsage into place. But with the quiet glee of inanimate things the snap immediately snapped out again. Flushing, Madame d’Avala repeated her performance, and the snap repeated its. Madame d’Avala stamped both feet and gave a little gasp of rage. She attacked the belt with no better luck. Chiffon and lace became entangled in hooks, snaps flew out as fast as she could push them in. Her arms ached and the dress assumed strange humpy outlines as she fastened it up all wrong.

She would like to rip the cursed thing from her shoulders and tear it into a million pieces! She felt hysteria sweeping over her. She knew that she was going to have one of her famous fits of temper in a minute.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Madame d’Avala screamed aloud, stamping her feet up and down as fast as they could go. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Damn! Damn! Damn!”

She did not swear in Italian, because she was not an Italian except by profession. Her name had been Maggie Davis, but that was a secret between herself and her press agent.

“Oh! Damn!” screamed Madame d’Avala again.

“Ain’t it hell?” remarked an interested voice, and Madame d’Avala saw a small pale face staring at her through the door which she had left ajar.

“Come in!” she ordered, and a small thin boy entered, quite unabashed, looking at her with an air of complete understanding.

“Who are you?” asked Madame d’Avala.


“Well, Freddy, run at once and find a maid for me, please. Mine hasn’t come, and I’m frantic, simply frantic. Well, why don’t you go?”

“I’ll hook you up,” said Freddy.


“Sure! I kin do it better’n any maid you’d get in this helluva school.”

“Why, Freddy!”

“Aw, I heard you sayin’ damn! You’re in the p’fession, huh? Me too.”

“You too?”

His face clouded.

“I mean — I useter be.”

“Oh! And now — you have retired?”

“Yeah — learnin’ to be a gem’mum. Lemme there,” said Freddy, stepping behind Madame d’Avala. “Say, you’ve got it all started wrong.” He attacked the stubborn hooks with light, deft fingers.

“Why, you can really do it!” cried Madame d’Avala.

“Sure! This ain’t nothin’.” Freddy’s fingers flew.

“Careful of that drapery. It’s tricky.”

“Say, drapery’s pie to me. I fastened up lots harder dresses than this.”


“Sure! Florette had swell clo’es. This’n’s swell too. My, ain’t it great to see a classy gown again!”

Madame d’Avala laughed, and Freddy joined her.

“Say, you seen the teachers at this school?” he asked. “You seen ’em?”

Madame d’Avala nodded.

“Nice ladies,” said Freddy in an effort to be fair. “But no class — you know what I mean. Way they slick their hair back, an’ no paint or powder. Gee, Florette wouldn’t wear their clo’es to a dog fight!”

“Nor I,” said Madame d’Avala; “I love dogs.”

“I tole Miss Eva she ought to put peroxide in the rinsin’ water for her hair like Florette useter, but it made her mad. I b’lieve in a woman fixin’ herself up all she can, don’t you?” asked Freddy earnestly.

“Indeed, I do! But tell me, who is Florette?”

So Freddy told her all about his mother, and about the good fortune that had come to her.

“Fifty-two weeks solid! Some ac’ to get that kinda bookin’, huh?” he ended.

“Yes! Oh, yes, indeed!”

“There y’ah now! Look at yourse’f! See if it’s a’right.”

Madame d’Avala turned to the mirror. Her gown fell in serene lovely folds. It seemed incredible that it was the little demon of a few minutes before.

“Perfect! Freddy, you’re a wonder. How can I thank you?”

“Tha’s a’right. You’re welcome.”

He was regarding her with worshipful eyes.

“You’re awful pretty,” he breathed.

“Thank you,” said Madame d’Avala. “Are you coming to my concert?”

“No, they put us to bed!” cried Freddy in disgust. “Puttin’ me to bed at 8:30 every night! What-ta y’ know about that! Jus’ w’en the orchestra would be tunin’ up for the evenin’ p’formance.”

“What a shame! I’d like to have you see my act.”

“I bet it’s great. You got the looks too. Tha’s what it takes in this p’fession. Make a quick change?”

“No, I wear the same dress all through.”

“Oh! Well,” he sighed deeply — “well, it’s been great to see you anyway. Goo’by.”

The great lady bent down to him and kissed his forehead.

“Good-by, Freddy,” she said. “You’ve helped me so much.”

Freddy drew in a long breath.

“M-m,” he sighed, “you know how I come to peek in your door like that?”

“Because you heard me screaming damn?”

“No, before that. Comin’ all the way down the hall I could smell it. Smelled so nice. Don’t none of these ladies use perfume.

“I jus’ knew somebody I’d like was in here soon’s I got that smell.”

“Oh, Freddy, I like you too! But I’ve got to hurry now. Good-by. And thanks so much, dear.”

She started out the door.

“Oh, gee! I can’t go to bed!” Freddy wailed.

“Come along then!” cried Madame d’Avala, impetuously seizing his hand. “I’ll make them let you go to the concert. They must!”

They ran down the hall together hand in hand, Freddy directing the way to the Misses Blair’s study. Miss Eva and Miss Nellie and Mary were there, and they looked at Freddy compassionately. And though Miss Eva said it was most unusual, Miss Nellie agreed to Madame d’Avala’s request.

“For,” said gentle Miss Nellie, drawing Madame d’Avala aside and lowering her voice — “for we are very sorry for Freddy now. His mother — ”

“Oh, yes, she has gone to England.”

“Why, no! She — is dead!”

“Oh, mio povero bambino! And how he adores her!”


“And what will he do then?”

“He can stay on here. But I am afraid he doesn’t like us,” Miss Nellie sighed.

“Has he no one else?”

“No — that is, a stepfather. But his mother put him here to save him from the stepfather’s abuse, and — and all the coarsening influences of stage life, if you understand.”

“Ah, yes, I understand,” said Madame d’Avala. “And yet I think I understand the little one too. He and I — we have the same nature. We cannot breathe in the too-high altitudes. For us there must be dancing in the valley, laughter and roses, perfume and sunshine — always sunshine.”

“Oh — er — yes,” replied Miss Nellie, taken aback by this effusiveness, which she could only explain as being foreign.

“It’s 8:30,” said Miss Eva, looking at her watch.

“Ah, then I must fly,” cried Madame d’Avala.

“Goo’by!” said Freddy wistfully.

Au revoir,” said Madame d’Avala, and electrified the Misses Blair by adding, “See you after the show, kid.”

“I am very lonely, too,” said Margarita d’Avala after the concert — “lonely and sad.”

“You are?” Freddy cried in amazement. Then, practically, “What about?”

“It’s about a man,” confessed the lady.

“Aw g’wan!” exclaimed Freddy incredulously. “Say,” lowering his voice confidentially, “lemme tell you something! They ain’t a man on earth worth crying for.”

“How did you know?” asked Margarita.

“Flo — Florette used to say so.” Then a cloud passed over his face. “She used to say so,” he added.

There was a moment’s silence, while the lady watched him. Then Freddy’s mobile face cleared, his eyes shone with their old gay confidence.

“Say, I’m tellin’ you!” said Freddy, spreading his feet apart, thrusting his hands in his pockets. “I ain’t got no use for men a-tall! An’ you take my advice — don’t bother over ‘em!”

Margarita laughed. She laughed so hard that Freddy had to join her, and without knowing how, he was by her side, holding onto her hand while they both rocked with merriment. When they could laugh no more he snuggled up to the shoulder that smelled so nice. His face became babyish and wistful. He stroked the satin of the lovely gown with one timid finger, while his blue eyes implored hers.

“Ladies an children is nicest, ain’t they?” he appealed.

Suddenly the great Margarita d’Avala caught him in her arms and drew him to that warm beautiful breast where no child’s head had ever rested.

“Oh, Freddy, Freddy!” she cried. “You are right, and I must have you!”

“You kin, s’long’s Florette’s away,” said Freddy.

Cover Collection: The Circus Is in Town!

Trapeze artists, clowns, elephants… the exotic magic of the circus has long been a part of the American tradition. These colorful Saturday Evening Post illustrations capture the spirit of the Big Top.

Following the Circus
Charles Bull
October 17, 1903

Charles Bull painted dozens of covers featuring animals — cows and cats, owls and eagles, deer and dogs — for The Saturday Evening Post and its sister publication, Country Gentleman. This was his only cover showing animals at the circus.

Circus Clown with Elephant and Dog
J.C. Leyendecker
May 23, 1908

Leyendecker painted six circus-themed covers for the Post, most of which featured the majestic elephant. That little black and white dog must have been Leyendecker’s muse, appearing on at least 16 of his Post covers.

Circus Parade
J.C. Leyendecker
June 17, 1916

Our art critic, David Apatoff, notes that the original paintings that were reproduced on the cover of the Post were far larger than the magazine — sometimes four or five times larger. And they were painted with oil paint on canvas, just like fine art in the greatest museums. Often, Post cover artists had been trained in a classical fine art tradition. Leyendecker, for example, trained in Paris at the Académie Julian. For more on this particular painting, read Apatoff’s article, The Hidden Talent of Post Cover Artists.

Between the Acts
Norman Rockwell
May 26, 1923

A look behind the scenes at the big top reveals the house of disciplined practice that result in a show that delights the circus-goers in the ring. The pup learns his lesson under the stern eye of the older dog, who manages a degree of dignity despite the absurdity of the costume.

Circus Calliope
E.M. Jackson
May 23, 1925

These music-making “steam pianos” were often seen on riverboats and in circuses. Most had 32 whistles. The sound will be forever associated with the circus.

Circus Bareback Rider
J.C. Leyendecker
May 14, 1932

Leyendecker masterfully captures the tension between the muscular strength of the horse and the delicate balancing act of the rider. The horse reflects the astonishing colors of the circus around him.

Circus Bareback Riders
Maurice Bower
April 6, 1935

Maurice Bower offers another view of circus horses and riders. Horses were a favorite subject of Bower’s; he painted numerous covers featuring them pulling stagecoaches, sulkies, and firetrucks.

Barnside Circus Poster
Stevan Dohanos
August 4, 1945

Stevan Dohanos showed that circuses meant palate-tickling excitement to cows too. Poster paste — a succulent mixture of flour and water, and copper sulphate to keep it from souring — seems to be the bovine equivalent of a dry martini. The two Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey bill posters, Bill Feigley and Bob Aikens, who consented to pose for Dohanos, kept a wary eye on horned kibitzers while covering previous circus posters with their own particular brand.

Clown Band
Stevan Dohanos
June 26, 1948

Stevan Dohanos painted the big parade down Main Street, once a standard feature of that great summer day, The Day the Circus Came to Town. “Circuses don’t parade much anymore,” said the artist in 1948, “but I think it’s a grand old custom and I wish I could help restore it.” The clowns were members of the famous Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey team, with the sad-faced Emmett Kelly pretending to play the clarinet. The clowns posed for Dohanos in the back lot behind Madison Square Garden, between performances in New York.


Kinkers, Cons, and Canvasmen: Circus Scams Circa 1900

An anonymous con man explains how he separated men from their money in 1909.

For more on scams, please read

In 1909, Post reporter Will Irwin found a gambler willing to describe the con games he operated. The gambler, who remained anonymous, was generous with the details.

He described how he and a band of fellow “grafters” followed travelling circuses as they toured the country. They knew how to spot, and play, the gullible “marks” in the crowd of circus-goers. The pickings were particularly good when the circus toured small farm towns. The circus, being perhaps the only professional entertainment the farm families saw all year, drew customers from miles away. And farmers made easy targets.

The nameless gambler here describes several of the games used: the “cloth,” the “roll-out,” and, of course, the shell game.

The gambler admits that the games, when described, seem so obviously rigged that even the most ingenuous country boy could have seen through them. But “natural greed” blinds the victims to the scam “until his eagerness for big money kills his common-sense.”

While it took a calm head and a steady hand to cheat people with cards, dice, and peas under a shell, eluding the consequences was more challenging. A grafter acting as the “fixer” would visit the local guardians of morality — sheriff, justice of the peace, or judge, even an accommodating mayor — and bribe them for permission to run con games in their town, usually for the price of a few circus tickets.

The real test was not mastering the trick of a rigged game, though. It was finding the cunning, muscle, and quick reflexes to avoid the consequences when a sucker realized he’d been cheated.

The Confessions of a Con Man: Life with the Old-Time Circus

March 6, 1909

This circus was a little nine-car concern which had some territory in Indiana and Michigan — we cut a zigzag course all the season. We showed a few poor trapeze and bareback turns, a small menagerie, and some clowns.

It is an axiom in the circus business that first-class ring acts don’t pay in the country. When you strike the cities you find them more critical. Farm people care mainly for the menagerie. A circus is always divided into two camps, the performers — we call them “kinkers” — and the gamblers. The kinkers are the most retiring and exclusive people in the world. Half of them can’t tell you the name of the town they’re playing. They don’t seem to have any interest in anything but their acts. They go to their bunks when the performance is over, get up next morning at the stop, practice, do their turns, eat, and back to the bunks again. They hate the grafters on principle, because the gambling games make so much noise and trouble. The canvasmen, as a rule, side with the grafters.

Scene of a circus

We had two shell games, a “cloth” and a “roll-out” team. I don’t have to explain the shell game, I guess.

“Cloth” is an easy-money dice game. The operator has before him a sheet of green felt, marked off into figured squares—eight to forty-eight. The player throws eight dice, and the dealer compares the sum of the spots he has thrown with the numbers on the cloth. Certain spaces are marked for prizes, five or six are marked ” conditional,” and one, number twenty-three, is marked “lose.” The dealer keeps his stack of coins over the twenty-three space, so that it isn’t noticed until the time to show it.

These spaces marked “conditional” are used in a great many gambling games, such as spindle; they’re the most useful thing in the world for leading the sucker on. For when he throws “conditional,” the dealer tells him that he is in great luck. He has thrown better than a winning number. He has only to double his bet, and on the next throw he will get four times the indicated prize, or, if he throws a blank number, the equivalent of his money. He is kept throwing “conditionals” until his whole pile is down; and then made to throw twenty-three — the space which he failed to notice, and which is marked “lose.”

You may ask how the dealer makes the sucker throw just what he wants. Simplest thing in the world. The man is counted out. The table is crowded with boosters, all jostling and reaching for the box, eager to play. The assistant dealer grabs up the dice, adds them hurriedly, announces the number that he wants to announce, and sweeps them back into the box. If the sucker kicks, a booster reaches over next time the dice are counted, says “my play,” and musses them up. The player never knows what he has thrown.

“Roll-out” has many variations. The operator stands in a buggy, spieling for a new line of licorice candy. He announces that, in order to introduce the goods, he is going to take an extraordinary measure. He is going to wrap up a twenty-dollar bill in one of the packages and sell it at a reduced figure to a gentleman in the audience. After a little bidding, a booster buys it for fifteen or sixteen dollars and shows his twenty-dollar bill to the crowd. This pulls on the sucker, who has been marked and felt out from the moment that he arrived on the grounds. When he buys his twenty-dollar bill — maybe it is fifty or a hundred if he looks good for it — he finds only a dollar bill in the package — a sleight-of-hand trick does the work.

Doesn’t it sound foolish for me to sit here and tell you that people are roped into such a play as that? But if I could tell the whole story of one of these swindles, put in the dialogue, the little gestures and stage business, you would see how gradually his natural greed is brought out in the sucker until his eagerness for big money kills his common-sense. Human greed is the best booster of the confidence man.

Conmen playing cards

In my time with this show I saw the rise and development of one of the greatest American gamblers. I call him Big Blackey, which is near to his name. When I joined he was just an ignorant canvasman from the West Virginia mountains. I used to see him hanging around the shell games—a great, big, raw-boned fellow, with a face a good deal like Lincoln’s. He watched the shells until he saw how they did it, borrowed some apparatus, and learned to be a good manipulator. By the end of the season we had him regularly at work.

Really, there isn’t a lot in manipulating shells. The “pea” is a little ball of very soft rubber, like the composition they use in printing rollers. It is so squashy that when pressed it becomes as thin as paper. The manipulator never has to lift his shell at all. He simply catches the pea under the edge of the shell, and rubs until it pops out under his hand. He picks up the pea between two of his fingers and holds it there until he is ready to roll it back—under the wrong shell. It was in understanding suckers and handling men that Blackey shone. That big, fishy eye of his saw the soft one the minute he stepped into the crowd. When Blackey had his man spotted he used all his boosters and tappers to the very best advantage — even in the first season I used to stand around and watch him, as an education in keeping things going. He had plenty of nerve and could fight with the best of us when there was any trouble. But he kept out of trouble all he could—he was strictly business, that Blackey.

I got my first real experience as fixer that year, and I learned a lot about stalling. When the show struck town I saw the chief of police first — he was generally easy. I have bribed them with tickets alone. Next I fixed the justices of the peace, and once in a while I attended to the mayor. Ten or twenty dollars apiece would usually satisfy the officials of a small town. I’d explain carefully that we didn’t intend to take away big Money from any one. All we wanted was permission to run a few legitimate games of chance. There should be a little license allowed on circus day.

Mayors that I couldn’t buy I worked in another fashion. I could always give them free tickets for themselves and families. When the mayor’s party arrived my assistant would take them in hand, and keep them entertained about the big top until supper-time.

The town authorities, no matter how heavily they were bribed, seldom let the shows run all day. Generally, some skinned sucker would put up such a kick that the authorities would awake to the nature of our harmless little games, and close us out. I’d stall the police as long as I could; when I reached the end of my devices I would let them arrest a dealer or two. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the prisoners would be taken before one of my bribed justices and let off with a little fine, which came out of the “nut.” On account of this danger we started the games as soon as the parade began, threw in a lot of boosters, and kept things going at top speed. If we had taken in a thousand or twelve hundred dollars before the police came down on us, we were satisfied.

The hardest part of my job, though, was stalling the weeping suckers who came around to demand their money back. My methods varied with the man. In the case of a big, blustering, cowardly fellow, a straight, swift punch in the jaw was sometimes the best medicine. If he got me arrested for it I could always bring witnesses to show that he had started a disturbance and threatened me. Sometimes I would laugh at my man, telling him that he got what he might expect. Sometimes I’d sympathize, promise on behalf of the management that the affair would be looked into. I learned one thing early — never give anything back unless you give it all back. For if you do return a part it proves the weakness of your position, and the’ sucker howls harder than ever for the rest. Moreover, the other suckers hear about it, and you have to settle with them all. On one occasion I had to hand over a roll of three hundred and fifty dollars which we had taken at the shells. The sucker, it turned out, was brother-in-law of the chief of police; and though the chief was bribed, it didn’t prevent him from threatening to arrest the whole outfit unless we gave up.

As we struck into the Michigan woods we began to come against the French-Canadian lumbermen — soft but troublesome. When they lost they always wanted to fight. They were big, strong chaps, but their methods were unscientific—mostly wrestling and clawing the air. Scraps became more and more common around the show. We made so much noise at night, settling up with the day’s picking, that the kinkers threatened to quit. The farther north we went the more troublesome they got. It culminated in a border town of Michigan — Oscoda, I think. We had put in a great day. I had the officials sewed up, and the games went on until late at night. In the early afternoon we caught a big lumberman, who seemed to be a kind of leader, for seventy-five dollars at “roll-out.” He raged up and down, trying to stop the circus. The canvasmen threw him out of the lot. His mates ran up to help him. I scraped my way through the mob and got to the leader. Instead of listening to me, he came at me with his arms flying. I let him have it in the jaw. I don’t know what might have happened if the town police hadn’t broken up the mob.

I thought the police would close us out right there; but they were too well fixed. Nevertheless, I saw trouble; and I went from game to game advising the boys to go easy. The money was rolling in like water, and they only said, “Let ’em come on.”

“All right,” said I; “they will.”

At half-past eight, with the performance going on inside and the games still drawing in the side-show tents, I heard that “zaa-zaa” sound of a mob. I ran to the corner of the lot. About two hundred men in their shirt sleeves were approaching in a bunch. It appears that a little Frenchman, who had been done out of fifty in the shell game, had gone down to their hang-out and aroused his mates. They were coming to lick the circus.

I ran toward the side-shows, yelling “Laying-out pins!” at the top of my voice. That call always brings the grafters out for a fight. A laying-out pin is a thin iron stake which the boss canvasman uses to mark out the tent space; it is a great weapon in a fight—just heavy enough to lay a man out, and just light enough to bend over his head without breaking his skull.

The grafters, about twenty-five in all, jumped to their pins and gathered in front of the big tent. The French-Canadians stopped at the corner of the lot, howling and yelling. I said, “Boys, if they come in a bunch, beat them to it.” I knew that if the fight came off close to the tent we stood to lose good canvas, besides making a panic inside.

And all at once the Frenchmen rushed at us in a long line.

“Now,” said I. The grafters charged in a compact bunch like one of those football wedges. They hit the mob right in its center, and went through. I didn’t have time to see what happened next, for I found my own hands full. I had stayed back, like a general, to direct things. Well, when our fellows went through, the end of the line kept on, and a few stragglers reached the big tent. They were about crazy with excitement, and they seemed to have some idea of wrecking the show. Three of them grabbed

the stake-ropes and began to pull. I came up from behind and let the nearest one have it with my laying-out pin. The others dropped the ropes and came at me separately.

I got the leader with a punch in the pit of the stomach — quarters were too close for the pin. The canvasmen attended to the other fellow. When I had time to look around the Frenchmen were flying in every direction, with the grafters chasing them in bunches of three or four. It appears that our wedge had gone clear through the line. Before the enemy could form again our fellows had turned back and charged through them in the opposite direction, taking some of them in the rear. That finished them; they just turned and beat it.

We carted off seven Frenchmen to the hospital. I don’t know that any of them were disabled for life, but some looked to be pretty badly hurt. Besides a few bruises and cut heads, the only injury we had was one broken arm.

Featured image: All illustrations from “The Confessions of a Con Man” by Will Irwin from the March 6, 1909, issue of The Saturday Evening Post