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Joe Strong The Boy Fire-Eater - The Most Dangerous Performance on Record
by Vance Barnum
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JOE STRONG THE BOY FIRE-EATER

OR

THE MOST DANGEROUS PERFORMANCE ON RECORD

BY VANCE BARNUM

Author of "Joe Strong, the Boy Wizard," "Joe Strong and His Wings of Steel," "Joe Strong and His Box of Mystery," etc.

1916



JOE STRONG, THE BOY FIRE-EATER



CHAPTER I

THE VANISHING LADY

"Ladies and gentlemen, if you will kindly give me your attention for a few moments I will be happy to introduce to your favorable notice an entertainer of world-wide fame who will, I am sure, not only mystify you but, at the same time, interest you. You have witnessed the death-defying dives of the Demon Discobolus; you have laughed with the comical clowns; you have thrilled with the hurrying horses; and you have gasped at the ponderous pachyderms. Now you are to be shown a trick which has baffled the most profound minds of this or any other city—aye, I may say, of the world!"

Jim Tracy, ringmaster and, in this instance, stage manager of Sampson Brothers' Circus, paused in his announcement and with a wave of his hand indicated a youth attired in a spotless, tight-fitting suit of white silk. The youth, who stood in the center of a stage erected in the big tent, bowed as the manager waited to allow time for the applause to die away.

"You have all seen ordinary magicians at work making eggs disappear up their sleeves," went on the stage manager. "You have, I doubt not, witnessed some of them producing live rabbits from silk hats. But Professor Joe Strong, who will shortly have the pleasure of entertaining you, not only makes eggs disappear, but what is far more difficult, he causes a lady to vanish into thin air.

"You will see a beautiful lady seated in full view of you. A moment later, by the practice of his magical art, Professor Strong will cause the same lady to disappear utterly, and he will defy any of you to tell how it is done. Now, Professor, if you are ready—" and with a nod and a wave of his hand toward the youth in the white silk tights, Jim Tracy stepped off the elevated stage and hurried to the other end of the circus tent where he had to see to it that another feature of the entertainment was in readiness.

"Oh, Joe, I'm actually nervous! Do you think I can do it all right?" asked a pretty girl, attired in a dress of black silk, which was in striking contrast to Joe Strong's white, sheeny costume.

"Do it, Helen? Of course you can!" exclaimed the "magician," as he had been termed by the ringmaster. "Do just as you did in the rehearsals and you'll be all right."

"But suppose something should go wrong?" she asked in a low voice.

"Don't be in the least excited. I'll get you out of any predicament you may get into. Tricks do, sometimes, go wrong, but I'm used to that. I'll cover it up, somehow. However, I don't anticipate anything going wrong. Now take your place while I give them a little patter."

This talk had taken place in low voices and with a rapidity which did not keep the expectant audience waiting. Joe Strong, while he was reassuring Helen Morton, his partner in the trick and also the girl to whom he was engaged to be married, was rapidly getting the stage ready for the illusion.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Joe, as he advanced to the edge of the stage, "I am afraid our genial manager has rather overstated my powers. What I am about to do, to be perfectly frank with you, is a trick. I lay no claim to supernatural powers. But if I can do a trick and you can't tell how it is done, then you must admit that, for the moment, I am smarter than you. In other words, I am going to deceive you. But the point is—how do I do it? With this introduction, I will now state what I am about to do.

"Mademoiselle Mortonti will seat herself on a stage in a chair in full view of you all. I will cover her, for a moment only, with a silken veil. This, if I were a real necromancer, I should say was to prevent your seeing her dissolve into a spirit as she disappears. But to tell you the truth, it is to conceal the manner in which I do the trick. You'd guess that, anyhow, if I didn't tell you," he added.

There was a good-natured laugh at this admission.

"As soon as I remove the silken veil," went on Joe, "you will see that the lady will have disappeared before your very eyes. What's that? Through a hole in the stage did some one say?" questioned Joe, appearing to catch a protesting voice.

"Well, that's what I hear everywhere I go," he went on with easy calmness. "Every time I do the vanishing lady trick some one thinks she disappears through a hole in the stage. Now, in order to convince you to the contrary, I am going to put a newspaper over that part of the stage where the chair is placed. I will show you the paper before and after the trick. And if there is not a hole or a tear in the paper, either before or after the lady has disappeared, I think you will admit that the lady did not go through a hole in the stage floor. Won't you?" asked Joe Strong. "Yes, I thought you would," he added, as he pretended to hear a "yes" from somewhere in the audience.

"All ready now, Helen," he said in a low voice to the girl, and an attendant brought forward an ordinary looking chair and a newspaper.

Joe, who had done the trick many times before, but not often with Helen, was perfectly at ease. Helen was very frankly nervous. She had not done the trick for some time, and Joe had introduced into it some novel features since last presenting it. Helen was afraid she would cause some hitch in the performance.

"You'll be all right," Joe said to her in a low voice. "Just act as though you had done this every day for a year."

Placing the chair in the center of the stage and handing Joe the newspaper, the attendant stepped back. Joe addressed the audience.

"You here see the paper," said the "magician," as he held it up. "You see that there is no hole in it. I'll now spread it down on the stage. If the lady disappears down through the stage she will have to tear the paper. You shall see if she does."

Joe next placed the chair directly over the square of paper and motioned to Helen. Her plain black dress, of soft, clinging silk, swayed about her as she took her place.

"I might add," said Joe, pausing a moment after Helen had taken her seat, "that in order to prevent any shock to Mademoiselle Mortonti I am going to mesmerize her. She will then be unconscious. I do this for two reasons. In totally disappearing there is sometimes a shock to a person's mentality that is unpleasant. To avoid indicting that on Mademoiselle Mortonti I will hypnotize her.

"The other reason I do that is that she may not know how or when she disappears. Thus she will not be able to see how I do the trick, and so cannot give away my secret."

Of course this was all "bunk" or "patter," to use names given to it by the performers. It kept the attention of the audience and so enabled Joe to do certain things without attracting too much attention to them. As a matter of fact he did not mesmerize Helen, and she knew perfectly well how the trick was done. Those who have read previous books of this series are also in the secret.

Joe waved his hands in front of Helen's face. She swayed slightly in her chair. Then her eyes closed as though against her will, and she seemed to sleep.

"She is now in the proper condition for the trick," said Joe. "I must beg of you not to make any sudden or unnecessary noise. You might suddenly awaken her from the mesmeric slumber, and this might be very serious."

As Joe said this with every indication of meaning it, there was a quick hush among the audience. Even though many knew it was only a trick, they could not help being impressed by the solemn note in Joe's voice. Such is the psychology of an audience, and the power over it of a single person.

"She now sleeps!" said Joe in a low voice. As a matter of fact, Helen was wide awake, and as Joe stood between her and the circus crowd she slowly opened one eye and winked at him. He was glad to see this, as it showed her nervousness had left her.

"Now for the mystic veil!" cried Joe, as he took from his helper a thin clinging piece of black silk gauze. He tossed this over Helen and the chair, completely covering both from sight. He brought the veil around behind Helen's head, fastening it there with a pin.

"To make sure that Mademoiselle Mortonti sleeps, I will now make the few remaining mesmeric passes," said Joe. "I must be positive that she slumbers."

He waved his hands slowly over the black robed figure. A great hush had fallen over the big crowd. Every eye was on the black figure in the center of the raised stage in the middle of the big circus tent. All the other acts had temporarily stopped, to make that of Joe Strong, the boy magician, more spectacular.

As Joe continued to wave one hand with an undulating motion over the silent black-covered figure in the chair, he touched, here and there, the drapery over Helen. He seemed very solicitous that it should hang perfectly right, covering the figure of the girl and the chair completely from sight in every direction all around the stage.

The music, which had been playing softly, suddenly stopped at a wave of Joe's hand. He stood for a moment motionless before the veiled figure.

"Her spirit is dissolving into thin air!" he said in a low voice, which, nevertheless, carried to every one in the crowd.

Suddenly Joe took hold of the veil in the center and directly over the outlined head of the figure in the chair. Quickly the young magician raised the soft, black silk gauze, whisking it quickly to one side.

The audience gasped.

The chair, in which but a moment before Helen Morton had been seated, was empty! The girl had disappeared—vanished! Joe stooped and raised from the stage the newspaper. It showed not a sign of break or tear.

Then, before the applause could begin, the girl appeared, walking out from one of the improvised wings of the circus stage. She smiled and bowed. The act had been a great success. Now the silent admiration of the throng gave place to a wave of hand clapping and feet stamping.

"Was it all right, Joe?" asked Helen, as he held her hand and they both bowed their appreciation of the applause.

"Couldn't have been better!" he said. "We'll do this trick regularly now. It takes even better than my ten thousand dollar box mystery. You were great!"

"I'm so glad!"

The two performers were bowing themselves off the stage when suddenly there came the unmistakable roar of a wild beast from the direction of the animal tent. It seemed to shake the very ground. At the same time a voice cried:

"A tiger is loose! One of the tigers is out of his cage!"



CHAPTER II

A DANGEROUS SWING

There is no cry which so startles the average circus audience as that which is raised when one of the wild animals is said to be at large. Not even the alarm that the big tent is falling or is about to be blown over will cause such a panic as the shout:

"A tiger is loose!"

There is something instinctive, and perfectly natural, in the fear of the wild jungle beasts. Let it be said that a tiger or a lion is loose, and it causes greater fear, even, than when it is stated that an elephant is on a rampage. An elephant seems a big, but good-natured, creature; though often they turn ugly. But a lion or a tiger is always feared when loose.

But the chances are not one in a hundred that a circus lion or a tiger, getting out of its cage, would attack any one. The creature is so surprised at getting loose, and so frightened at the hue and cry at once raised, that all it wants to do is to slink off and hide, and the only harm it might do would be to some one who tried to stop it from running away.

Joe Strong, Jim Tracy, and the other circus executives and employees knew this as soon as they heard the cry: "A tiger is loose." Who raised the cry and which of the several tigers in the Sampson show was out of its cage, neither Joe nor any of those in the big tent near him knew. But they realized the emergency, and knew what to do.

"Keep your seats! Don't rush!" cried Joe, as he released Helen's hand and hurried to the front of the platform. "There is no danger! The animal men will catch the tiger, if one is really loose. Stay where you are! Keep your seats! Don't rush!"

It is the panic and rush that circus men are afraid of—the pushing and "milling" of the crowd and the trampling under foot of helpless women and children.

There was some commotion near the junction of the animal tent and that in which the main performance took place. What it was, Joe did not concern himself about just then. He felt it to be his task to prevent a panic. And to this he lent himself, aided by Helen, Jim Tracy, and others who realized the danger.

And while this is going on and while the expert animal men are preparing to get back into its cage the tiger which, it was learned afterward, had got out through an imperfectly fastened door, time will be taken to tell new readers something about Joe Strong and the series of books in which he is the central character.

Joe Strong seemed destined for a circus life and for entertaining audiences with sleight-of-hand and other mystery matters. His father, Alexander Strong, known professionally as Professor Morretti, was a stage magician of talents, and Joe's mother, who was born in England, had been a rider of trick horses.

His parents died when Joe was young. He did not have a very happy boyhood, and one day he ran away from the man with whom he was living and joined a traveling magician, who called himself Professor Rosello. With him Joe, who had a natural aptitude for the business, learned to become a sleight-of-hand performer.

In the first book of the series, entitled "Joe Strong, the Boy Wizard; Or, the Mysteries of Magic Exposed," is told how Joe got on in life after his first start. Joe was not only a stage magician, but he had inherited strength, skill and daring, and he liked nothing better than climbing to great heights or walking in lofty and dizzy places where the footing was perilous. So it was perhaps natural that he should join the Sampson Brothers' Show. And in the second book is related, under the title, "Joe Strong on the Trapeze; Or, the Daring Feats of a Young Circus Performer," what happened to our hero under canvas.

Joe loved the circus life, even though he made some enemies. But he had many friends. There was Helen Morton. Then there was Benny Turton, who did a "tank act," and was billed as a "human fish." Jim Tracy, the ringmaster, Bill Watson, the veteran clown, and his wife, the circus "mother," Tom Layton, the elephant man who taught the big creatures many tricks, were only a few of Joe's friends.

Among others might be mentioned Senor Bogardi, the lion tamer, Mrs. Talfo, the professional "fat lady," Senorita Tanzalo, the pretty snake charmer, and Tom Jefferson, the "strong man." Joe loved them all. The circus was like one big family, with, as might be expected, a "black sheep" here and there.

Joe became an expert on the trapeze, and, later, when Benny Turton was temporarily in a hospital, Joe "took on" the tank trick. In the third volume some of his under-water feats are related, while in the fourth book Joe's acts on a motor cycle on the high wire are dealt with.

With his "Wings of Steel," Joe caused a sensation, and after an absence from the circus for a time he joined it again, bringing this act to it.

Eventually Joe was made one of the circus owners, and now controlled a majority of the stock. He had also inherited considerable money from his mother's relatives in England, so that now the youth was financially well off for one who had started so humbly.

The book immediately preceding this one is called "Joe Strong and His Box of Mystery; Or, the Ten Thousand Dollar Prize Trick." In that volume is related how Joe constructed a trick box, out of which he made his way after it was locked and corded about with ropes. Helen Morton helped him in this trick, which was very successful.

The circus management offered a prize of ten thousand dollars to whomsoever could fathom how the trick was done. Bill Carfax, an enemy of Joe's and a former circus employee, tried to solve the problem but failed.

The box trick was a great attraction for the circus, and Joe was in higher favor than before.

He had been on the road with the show for some time when the events detailed in the first chapter of this book took place.

By dint of much shouting and urging the people to retain their seats and not rush into danger, Joe Strong and the others succeeded in calming the circus crowd. Meanwhile there was much suppressed excitement.

"Is the tiger caught? Is he back in his cage?" was asked on every side.

While Joe and his fellow showmen were calming the crowd, the animal men were having their own troubles. Burma, one of the largest of the tigers, had got loose, having taken advantage of the open door of his cage. He rushed out with a snarl of delight at his freedom. His jungle cry was echoed by the roar of a lion in the next cage, and this was followed by the cries and snarls of all the wild jungle beasts in the tent.

Fortunately the animal tent was deserted by all save the keepers, the audience having filed into the tent where the main show was going on.

"Head him off now! Head him off!" cried Tom Layton, the elephant man, as he saw the tiger dart out of its cage—a flash of yellow and black. "Head him off! Don't let him get in the main top!"

"That's right! Head him off!" cried Senor Bogardi, the lion tamer. "He won't hurt any one—he's too scared!"

This was true, but it was difficult to believe, and some of the people seated in the "main top," or big tent, who were nearest the animal tent, hearing the cries and learning what had occurred, spread the alarm.

Burma, the tiger, slunk around in behind the cages of the other animals. All about him were men with clubs and pointed goads, with whips and pistols. The circus men had had to cope with situations like this before. They surrounded the tiger, advancing on him in an ever-narrowing circle, and in a short time they drove him into an emergency cage which was pushed forward with the open door toward him. Burma had no choice but to enter, to get away from the cracking whips and the prodding goads. And, after all, he was glad to be barred in again.

So, without causing any harm except for badly frightening a number of people in the audience, the tiger was caged again, and the circus performance went on.

Joe Strong did his Box of Mystery trick. The usual announcement of a reward of ten thousand dollars to whomsoever could solve it was made, and there was great applause when Joe managed to get out of the big box without disturbing the six padlocks or the binding ropes.

"I'm glad Bill Carfax isn't here to make trouble, trying to show how much he knows about this trick," said Joe to the ringmaster, as he stepped off the stage at the conclusion of the trick.

"Yes, you put several spokes in Bill's wheels when you turned the laugh on him that time," said Jim Tracy. "I don't believe he'll ever show up around our circus again."

But they little knew Bill Carfax. Those who have read the book just before this will recall him and remember how unscrupulous he was. But his plans came to naught then. Any one who wishes to learn how the wonderful box trick was worked will find a full explanation in the previous volume.

Helen Morton received much applause at the conclusion of her act with her trick horse, Rosebud. Joe Strong's promised wife was an accomplished bareback rider, as well as one of her fiance's helpers in his mystery tricks.

"Well, I'm glad to-day is over," said Helen to Joe that night, as they went to the train that was to take them to the next city where the circus performance would be given. "What with doing the vanishing lady act for the first time in a long while and the tiger getting loose, we have had quite a bit of excitement."

"Yes," agreed Joe. "But everything came out all right. I'm going to put on a new stunt next week."

"What's that?" asked Helen. "Something in the mystery line?"

"No. I'm going back to some of my high trapeze work. You know, since we lost Wogand there hasn't been any of the big swing work done."

"That's so," agreed Helen. "But I've been so busy practicing the vanishing lady act with you on top of my other work that I hadn't given it a thought. But you aren't going to do that dangerous trick, are you?"

"I think I am," Joe answered. "It's sensational, and we need sensational acts now to draw the crowds. I used to do it, and I can again, I think, with a little practice. I'm going to start in and train to-morrow."

"I wish you wouldn't," said Helen, in a low voice, but Joe did not seem to hear her.

The big swing was a trapeze act performed on the highest of the circus apparatus. Part of this apparatus consisted of two platforms fastened to two of the opposite main poles, and up under the very roof of the big top.

Midway between the platforms, which were just large enough for a man to stand on, was a trapeze with long ropes, capable of being swung from one resting place to the other. It was, in reality, a "big swing."

Joe's act, which he had often done, but which of late had been performed by a man billed as "Wogand," was to stand on one platform, have the long trapeze started in a long, pendulumlike swing by an attendant, and then to leap down, catch hold of the bar with his hands, and swing up to the other platform. If he missed catching the bar it meant a dangerous fall; a fall into a net, it is true, but dangerous none the less. Its danger can be judged when it is said that Wogand had died as an indirect result of a fall into the net. He missed the trapeze, toppled into the net, and, by some chance, did not land properly. His back was injured, his spine became affected, and he died.

When circus performers on the high trapezes fall or jump into the safety nets, they do not usually do it haphazardly. If they did many would be killed. There is a certain knack and trick of landing in a net.

Joe Strong, ever having the interest of the circus at heart, had decided to do this dangerous swing. He was an acrobat, as well as a stage magician, and he had decided to take up some of his earlier acts which had been so successful.

"But I wish he wouldn't," said Helen to herself. "I have a premonition that something will happen." Helen was very superstitious in certain ways.

But to all she said, Joe only laughed.

"I'm going to do the big swing," he replied simply.



CHAPTER III

TOO MANY PEOPLE

Hundreds of men toiling and sweating over stiff canvas and stiffer ropes. The thud of big wooden sledge hammers driving in the tent stakes. The rumble of heavy wagons, and a cloud of dust where they were being shoved into place by the busy elephants.

On one edge of the big, vacant lot were wisps of smoke from the fires in the stove wagons, and from these same wagons came appetizing odors.

Here and there men and women darted, carrying portions of their costumes in their hands. Clowns, partly made up, looked from their dressing tents to smile or shout at some acquaintance who chanced to be passing by.

All this was the Sampson Brothers' Circus in preparation for a day's performance.

Joe Strong, having had a good breakfast, without which no circus man or woman starts the day, strolled over to where Helen Morton was just finishing her morning meal.

"Feeling all right?" he asked her.

"Well, yes, pretty well," she answered.

"What's the matter?" asked Joe quickly, as he detected an under note of anxiety in the girl's voice. "Is your star horse, Rosebud, lame or off his feed?"

"Oh, no," she answered. "It's just—Oh, here comes Mother Watson, and I promised to help her mend a skirt," said Helen quickly, as she turned to greet the veteran clown's wife. "See you later, Joe!" she called to him over her shoulder as she started away.

The young magician moved away toward his own private quarters.

"I wonder what's the matter with Helen," he said. "She doesn't act naturally. If that Bill Carfax has been around again, annoying her, I'll put him out of business for all time. But if he had been around I'd have heard of it. I don't believe it can be that."

Nor was it. Helen's anxiety had to do with something other than Bill Carfax, the unprincipled circus man who had so annoyed her before Joe discharged him. And, as Joe had said, the man had not been seen publicly since the fiasco of his attempt to expose Joe's mystery box trick.

"Well, I suppose she won't tell me what it is until she gets good and ready," mused Joe. "Now I'll go in and have a little practice at the big swing before the parade."

Joe did not take part in the street pageant, though Helen did, riding her beautiful horse to the admiration, not only of the small boys and their sisters, but the grown-up throng in the highways as well. Helen made a striking picture on her spirited, but gentle, steed.

It was not that Joe Strong felt above appearing in the parade. That was not his reason for not taking part. He had done so on more than one occasion, and with his Wings of Steel had created more than one sensation.

But now that he did a trapeze act, as well as working the sleight-of-hand mysteries, his time was pretty well occupied. He had not, as yet, done the big swing in public since that act was abandoned on the death of the man who had been injured while doing it. But Joe had been perfecting himself in it. He had had a new set of trapezes made, and had ornamented them and the two platforms in a very striking manner. In other words, the trick had a new "dress," and Joe, as one of the circus proprietors, hoped it would go well and attract attention.

This was from a business standpoint, and not only because Joe was himself the performer. Of course it was natural that he should like applause—all do, more or less. But Joe was one of the owners of the circus—the chief owner, in fact—and he wanted to make a financial success of it. Nor was this a purely selfish reason. Many persons owned stock in the enterprise, and Joe felt it was only fair to them to see that they received a good return for their investment. Any trick he could do to draw crowds he was willing to attempt.

So, while the parade was being gotten ready, Joe went inside the main top, which by this time was erected, to see about having his platforms and trapeze put in place. In this he was always very careful, as is every aerial performer. The least slip of a rope may cause disaster, and no matter how careful the attendants are, the performers themselves always give at least a casual look to their apparatus.

"All right, Harry?" asked Joe of one of the riggers who had charge of putting up the platforms and the big swing.

"Sure, it's all right, Mr. Strong!" was the answer. "I should say so! I don't make no mistakes when I'm putting up trapezes. You'll find everything shipshape and proper. Going to have a big crowd to-day, I guess."

Joe looked at Harry Loper closely. The young man had never talked so much before, being, on the whole, rather close-mouthed. As the man passed Joe, after giving a pull on the last rope, the young magician became aware that Harry had been drinking—and something stronger than pink lemonade.

"I'm sorry about that!" mused Joe, as the rope rigger passed on. "If there's any place a man ought not to drink it's in a circus, and especially when he has to rig up high flying apparatus for others. It was drink that put Bill Carfax out of business. I didn't know Harry was that kind, I never noticed it before. I'm sorry. And I'll take extra precautions that my ropes won't slip. You can't trust a man who drinks."

Joe shook his head a bit sadly. He was thinking of Bill Carfax, and of the fact that he had had to discharge the man because, while under the influence of liquor, he had insulted Helen. Then Bill had tried to get revenge on Joe.

"I hope it doesn't turn out this way with Harry Loper," mused Joe, as he began climbing up a rope ladder that led to one of the high platforms. And as Harry had to do with the placing of this ladder, Joe tested it carefully before ascending.

"I don't want to fall and be laid up in the middle of the circus season," mused the young circus man, with a frown.

However, the ladder appeared to be perfectly secure, and as Joe went up, finally reaching the high platform, he felt a sense of exhilaration. Heights always affected him this way. He liked, more than anything else, to soar aloft on his Wings of Steel. And he liked the sensation when he leaped from one platform toward the swinging trapeze bar, aiming to grasp it in his hands and swing in a great arc to the other little elevated place, close under the top of the tent.

There was a thrill about it—a thrill not only to the performer but to the audience as well—and Joe could hear the gasps that went up from thousands of throats as he made his big swing.

But, for the time being, he gave his whole attention to the platform and its fastenings. The platforms were not very likely to slip, being caught on to the main tent poles, which themselves were well braced.

The real danger was in the long trapeze. Not only must the thin wire ropes of this be strong enough to hold Joe's weight, but an added pressure, caused by the momentum of his jump. And not only must the cables be strong, but there must be no defect in the wooden bar and in the place where the upper ends of the ropes were fastened to the top of the tent.

"Well, this platform is all right," remarked Joe, as he looked it over. "Now for the other and the trapeze."

He went down the rope ladder and climbed up another to the second platform. The show would not start for several hours yet, and the tent was filled with men putting in place the stage for Joe's magic tricks and other apparatus for various performers. The parade was just forming to proceed down town.

Joe found that Harry Loper had done his work well, at least as far as the platforms were concerned. They were firmly fastened. The one to which Joe leaped after his swing needed to be considerably stronger than the one from which he "took off."

The next act of the young circus performer was to climb up to the very top of the tent, and there to examine the fastenings of the trapeze ropes. He spent some time at this, having reached his high perch by a third rope ladder.

"I guess everything is all right," mused Joe. "Perhaps I did Harry an injustice. He might have taken some stimulant for a cold—they all got wet through the other night. But still he ought to be careful. He was a little too talkative for a man to give his whole attention to fastening a trapeze. But this seems to be all right. I'll do the big swing this afternoon and to-night, in addition to the box trick and the vanishing lady. Helen works exceedingly well in that."

Having seen that his aerial apparatus was all right, Joe next went to his tent where his magical appliances were kept. Many stage tricks depend for their success on special pieces of apparatus, and Joe's acts were no exception.

Joe saw that everything was in readiness for his sleight-of-hand work, and then examined his Box of Mystery. As this was a very special piece of apparatus, he was very careful about it. His ability to get out of it, once he was locked and roped in, depended on a delicate bit of mechanism, and the least hitch in this meant failure.

But a test showed that it was all right, and as by this time it was nearly the hour for the parade to come back and the preliminaries to begin, Joe went over to the circus office to see if any matters there needed his attention.

As he crossed the lot to where the "office" was set up in a small tent, the first horses of the returning parade came back on the circus grounds. Following was a mob of delighted small boys and not a few men.

"Looks as if we'd have a big crowd," said Joe to himself. "And it's a fine day for the show. We'll make money!"

He attended to some routine matters, and then the first of the afternoon audience began to arrive. As Joe had predicted, the crowd was a big one.

The young performer was in his dressing room, getting ready for the big swing, which he would perform before his mystery tricks, when Mr. Moyne, the circus treasurer, entered. There was a queer look on Mr. Moyne's face, and Joe could not help but notice it.

"What's worrying you?" asked Joe. "Doesn't this weather suit you, or isn't there a big enough crowd?"

"That's just it, Joe," was the unexpected answer. "There's too big a crowd. We have too many people at this show, and that's what is worrying me a whole lot!"

Joe Strong looked in surprise at the treasurer. What could Mr. Moyne mean?



CHAPTER IV

THE RUSTED WIRE

"Yes," went on the circus treasurer, as he rubbed his chin reflectively, "it's a curious state of affairs, and as you're so vitally interested I came to you at once. There's going to be trouble!"

"Trouble!" cried Joe with a laugh. "I can't see that, Mr. Moyne. You say there's a big crowd of people at our circus—too much of a crowd, in fact. I can't see anything wrong in that. It's just what we're always wanting—a big audience. Let 'em fill the tent, I say, and put out the 'Straw Seats Only' sign. Trouble! Why, I should say this was good luck!" and Joe hastened his preparations, for he wanted to go on with the big swing.

"Ordinarily," said Mr. Moyne, in the slow, precise way he had of speaking, brought about, perhaps, by his need of being exact in money matters, "a big crowd would be the very thing we should want. But this time we don't—not this kind of a crowd."

"What do you mean?" asked Joe, beginning to feel that it was more than a mere notion on the part of the treasurer that something was wrong. "Is it a rough crowd? Will there be a 'hey rube!' cry raised—a fight between our men and the mill hands?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that!" the treasurer hastened to assure Joe. "The whole thing is just this. There are a great many more people in the main top now than there are admission prices in the treasurer's cash box. The books don't balance, as it were."

"More people in the tent than have paid their way?" asked Joe. "Well, that always happens at a circus. Small boys will crawl in under the canvas in spite of clubs."

"Oh, it isn't a question of the small boys—I never worry about them," returned Mr. Moyne. "But there are about a thousand more persons at the performance which will soon begin than we have admission prices for. In other words there are a thousand persons occupying fifty cent seats that haven't paid their half dollar. It isn't the reserve chairs that are affected. We're all right there. But fully a thousand persons have come into the show, and we're short five hundred dollars in our cash."

"You don't tell me!" cried Joe. He saw that Mr. Moyne was very much in earnest. "Have the ticket men and the entrance attendants been working a flim-flam game on us?"

"Oh, no, it isn't that," said the treasurer. "I could understand that. But the men are perfectly willing to have their accounts gone over and their tickets checked up. They're straight!"

"Then what is it?" asked Joe.

"That's what we've got to find out," went on Mr. Moyne. "In some way the thousand people have come in without paying the circus anything. And they didn't sneak in, either. A few might do that, but a thousand couldn't. They've come in by the regular entrance."

"Did they force themselves past without tickets?"

"No, each one had the proper coupon."

"Has there been a theft of our tickets?" demanded the young magician and acrobat.

"No, our ticket account is all right, except there are a thousand extra entrance coupons in the box—coupons taken in by the entrance attendants. It's a puzzle to me," confessed the treasurer. "There is some game being played on us, and we're out to the tune of five hundred dollars by it already."

"Is there any way of finding out who these persons are who have come in without paying us and having them ejected?" asked Joe.

"I don't see how," admitted Mr. Moyne. "If they were in reserved seats it could be done, but not in the ordinary un-numbered fifty cent section. The whole situation is that we have a thousand persons too many at the show."

"Well, we'll have a meeting of the executive body and take it up after the performance," said Joe, as he quickly prepared to get into his aerial costume. "We'll have to go on with the performance now; it's getting late. If we're swamped by people coming along who hold our regular tickets we'll have to sit 'em anywhere we can. If we lose five hundred dollars we'll make it up by having a smashing crowd, which is always a good advertisement. I'll see you directly after the show, Mr. Moyne."

"I wish you would," said the harassed treasurer. "Something must be done about it. If this happens very often we'll be in a financial hole at the end of the season."

He departed, looking at some figures he had jotted down on the back of an envelope.

Joe Strong was puzzled. Nothing like this had ever come up before. True, there had been swindlers who tried to mulct the circus of money, and there were always small boys, and grown men, too, who tried to crawl in under the tent. But such a wholesale game as this Joe had never before known.

"Well, five hundred dollars, for once, won't break us," he said grimly, as he fastened on a brightly spangled belt, "but I wouldn't want it to happen very often. Now I wonder what luck I'll have in my big swing. I haven't done it in public for some time, but it went all right in practice."

Joe looked from his dressing room. He was all ready for his act now, but the time had not yet come for him to go on. He saw Helen hastening past on her way to enter the ring with her horse, Rosebud, which a groom held at the entrance for her.

"Good luck!" called Joe, waving his hand and smiling.

"The same to you," answered Helen. "You'll need it more than I. Oh, Joe," she went on earnestly, "won't you give up this big swing? Stick to your box trick, and let me act with you in the disappearing lady stunt. Don't go on with this high trapeze act!" she pleaded.

"Why, Helen! anybody would think you'd been bitten by the jinx bug!" laughed Joe. "I thought you were all over that."

"Perhaps I am foolish," she said. "But it's because—"

She blushed and looked away.

"I suppose I should take it as a compliment that you are so interested in my welfare," said Joe, with a smile. "And, believe me, I am. But, Helen, I can't back out of this act now. It's been advertised big. I've got to go on!"

"Then do be careful, won't you?" she begged. "Oh, do be careful! Somehow, I have a feeling that—Oh, well, I won't set you to worrying by telling you," she said quickly, with a laugh, in which, however, there was no mirth. She smiled again, trying to make it a bright one; but Joe saw that she was under a strain.

"I'll be careful," he promised. "Really, there's no danger. I've done the stunt a score of times, and I can judge my distance perfectly. Besides there's the safety net."

"Yes, I know, but there was poor—Oh, well, I won't talk about it! Good luck!" and she hurried on, for it was time for her act—the whistle of the ringmaster having blown.

Joe looked after the girl he loved. He smiled, and then a rather serious look settled over his face. Like a flash there had come to him the memory of the too loquacious Harry Loper, who had fitted up his aerial apparatus.

"There can be nothing wrong with that," mused Joe. "I went over every inch of it. I guess Helen is just nervous. Well, there goes my cue!"

He hurried toward the entrance, and then he began to ponder over the curious fact of there being a thousand persons too many at the performance.

"We'll have to straighten out that ticket tangle after the show," mused Joe. "It's likely to get serious. I wonder—" he went on, struck by a new thought. "I wonder if—Oh, no! It couldn't be! He hasn't been around in a long while."

Out into the tent, filled with a record-breaking crowd, went Joe to the place where his high trapeze was waiting for him. The band was playing lively airs, on one platform some trained seals were juggling big balls of colored rubber, and on another a bear was going about on roller skates. In one end ring Helen was performing with Rosebud, while in another a troupe of Japanese acrobats were doing wonderful things with their supple bodies.

Joe waved his hand to Helen in passing, and then he began to ascend to his high platform. When he reached it and stood poised ready for his act, there came a shrill whistle from Jim Tracy, the ringmaster, who wore his usual immaculate shirt front and black evening clothes—rather incongruous in the daytime.

The whistle was the signal for the other acts to cease, that the attention of all might be centered on Joe. This is always done in a circus in the case of "stars," and Joe was certainly a star of the first magnitude.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" cried Jim Tracy, with the accented drawl that carried his voice to the very ends of the big tent. "Calling your attention to one of the most marvelous high trapeze acts ever performed in any circus!"

He pointed dramatically to Joe, who stood up straight, ready to do his act.

"Are you ready?" asked the man who was to release the trapeze, which was caught up at one side of the platform opposite Joe.

"Ready," answered the young acrobat.

The man pulled a rope which released a catch, letting the trapeze start on its long swaying swing. The man pulled it by means of a long, thin cord, until it was making big arcs, like some gigantic pendulum.

Joe watched it carefully, judging it to the fraction of an inch. He stood poised and tense on the gayly decorated platform, himself a fine picture of physical young manhood. The band was blaring out the latest Jazz melody.

Suddenly, from his perch, the young acrobat gave a cry, and Jim Tracy, on the ground below, hearing it, held up his white-gloved hand as a signal for the music to cease.

Then Joe leaped. Full and fair he leaped out toward the swinging bar of the big trapeze, the snare drum throbbing out as he jumped. He was dimly conscious of thousands of eyes watching him—eyes that looked curiously and apprehensively up. And he realized that Helen was also watching him.

As true as a die, Joe's hands caught and gripped the bar of the swinging trapeze. So far he was safe. The momentum of his jump carried him in a long swing, and he at once began to undulate himself to increase his swing. He must do this in order to get to the second platform.

As the young performer began to do this, he looked up at the wire ropes of his trapeze.

It was a look given instinctively and for no particular purpose, as Joe's eyes must rest, most of all, on the second platform where he needed to land, to save himself from a bad fall.

As his eyes glanced along the steel cables on which his life depended, he saw, to his horror, a spot of rust on one. And at the spot of rust several of the thin strands of twisted wire were loose and frayed.

The cable seemed about to give way!



CHAPTER V

A FIRE SENSATION

Joe Strong had to think quickly. Every acrobat, every person who does "stunts" in a circus, must; for something is always happening, or on the verge of taking place. And when Joe looked up and saw the rusted wire and noted the fraying strands, several thoughts shot through his mind at once.

"That rust spot wasn't there this morning when, I looked at the trapeze," he mused. "And it hasn't rained since. How did it get there?"

He thought of the too talkative Harry Loper, and an ugly suspicion associated itself with him. But Joe had no time for such thoughts then. What was vital for him to know was whether or not the thin wire cable would remain unbroken long enough for him to reach the maximum of his swing, and land on the platform. Or would he fall, spoiling the act and also endangering himself?

True he might land in the net in such a way as to come to no harm, as he had done many times, and as many performers before him had done. But the danger was that in a sudden and unexpected drop downward he might not be able to get his limbs in the proper landing position.

Joe Strong had nerve. If he had lacked it he would never have been so successful. And at once he decided on a courageous proceeding.

"I'll bring all my weight suddenly on that left hand cable," he mused, as he swung to and fro, from side to side of the big tent. "If it's going to break it will do so then. And I'll be ready for it. I'll then keep hold of the trapeze bar, which will be straight up and down instead of crosswise, and swing by that. The other cable seems all right." This was a fact which Joe ascertained by a quick inspection.

There was no time for further thought. As he swung, Joe suddenly shifted his weight, bringing it all on the frayed and strangely rusted cable. As he half expected, it gave way, and he dropped in an instant, but not far.

The watching crowd gasped. It looked like an accident. And it was, in a way, but Joe had purposely caused it. As the wire broke Joe held tightly to the wooden bar, which was now upright in his hands instead of being horizontal. And though it slipped through his fingers, perhaps for the width of his palm, at last he gripped it in a firm hold and kept on with his swing.

And then the applause broke forth, for the audience thought it all a part of the trick—they thought that Joe had purposely caused the cable to break to make the act more effective.

To and fro swung Joe, nearer and nearer to the second platform, and then, reaching the height of the long arc, he turned his body and stepped full and fair on the little square of velvet-covered boards.

With a lithe contortion, Joe squirmed to an upright position, recovering his balance with a great effort, for he had been put out in his calculations of distance, and then, turning, he bowed to the crowds, revolving on the platform to take in every one.

Again the applause broke forth, to be drowned in the boom and ruffle of the drums as the band began to play. There is little time in a circus, where act follows act so quickly, for long acknowledgments.

The other performers came into the rings or on to the raised platforms, and Joe descended by means of the rope ladder. Helen met him, and they walked toward the dressing rooms.

"That was a wonderful trick, Joe," she said. "But I didn't see you practice that drop."

"I didn't practice it," he remarked dryly. "I did it on the spur of the moment."

"Joe Strong! wasn't it dangerous?"

"Well, a little."

"What made you do it?"

"I couldn't help it."

"You couldn't help it? Joe—do you mean—?" She sensed that something was wrong, but walking around the circus arena, with performers coming and going, was not the place to speak of it. Joe saw that she understood.

"I'll tell you later," he said. "We have to get ready for the trick box and the vanishing lady stunt now."

"Oh, Joe! were you in much danger?" she asked in a low voice.

"Oh, not much," he answered, and he tried to speak lightly. Yet he did not like to think of that one moment when he saw the rusted and broken wire.

While Joe and Helen are preparing for the box act, which has been treated fully in the previous volume, the explanation of how the vanishing lady trick was accomplished will be given, though that, too, has been explained in an earlier volume.

A large newspaper is put on the stage and the chair set on the paper, thus, seemingly, precluding the possibility of a trap door being cut in the stage through which the lady in the chair might slip. The word "seemingly" is used with a due sense of what it means. The newspaper was not a perfect one. On one of its sides which was not exhibited to the audience, there was cut an opening, or trap, that exactly corresponded in size with a trap door on the stage. The paper, as explained in the previous book, is strengthened with cardboard, and the trap is a double one, being cut in the center, the flaps being easily moved either way.

The audience thinks it sees a perfect newspaper. But there is a square hole in it, but concealed as is a secret trap door.

When Joe laid the paper on the stage he placed it so that the square, double flap in it was exactly over the trap in the stage floor. He then drew the page of the paper that he had held out to the audience toward himself, exposing the trap for use, but because it was so carefully made, and the cut was so fine, it was not visible from the front.

Helen took her place in the chair, which, of course, was a trick one. It was fitted with a concealed rod and a cap, and it was over this cap, brought out at the proper moment, that Joe carefully placed the black veil, when he was pretending to mesmerize Helen. There was a cross rod, also concealed in the chair, and on either end of this, something like the epaulettes of a soldier, so that when these ends were under the veil and the cap was in place it looked as though some one sat in the chair, when, really, no one did.

Helen was in the chair at the start. But as soon as she was covered by the veil she began to get out The seat of the chair was hinged within its frame As Helen sat on it, and after she had been covered with the veil, she rested her weight on her hands, which were placed on the extreme outer edges of this seat frame. She pulled a catch which caused the seat to drop, and at the same time the trap beneath her, including the prepared newspaper, was opened by an attendant. The black veil all about the chair prevented the audience seeing this.

Helen lowered herself down through the dropped seat of the chair, through the trap, and under the stage. And while she was doing this it still looked as if she were in the chair, for the false cap and the extended cross rod made outlines as if of a human form beneath the black veil.

As soon as Helen was out of the chair and beneath the stage an attendant closed the newspaper and wooden floor traps. Joe then suddenly raised the veil, taking in its folds the false cap and the cross piece which had represented Helen's shoulders. They were thin and light—these pieces of trick apparatus—and no one suspected they were in the veil. The hinged seat of the chair snapped back in place by means of a spring, and when Joe stepped aside, holding the veil, there was the empty chair; and the newspaper, which he picked up, seemed to preclude the possibility of there having been a trap in the stage. But Joe was careful how he exhibited this paper to his audience.

And so it was that the lady "vanished."

"And now, Joe, tell me all about it!" demanded Helen, when the circus was over for the afternoon, and the box and vanishing tricks had been successfully performed. "What happened to your trapeze?"

"Some one spilled acid on one of the wire ropes, and it ate into the metal, corroding it and separating a number of the strands so that a little extra weight broke them," said Joe.

"Acid on the cable?" cried Helen. "How did you find out?"

"I just examined the wire. I knew it couldn't have rusted naturally in such a short time. There was a peculiar smell about the wire, and I know enough of chemistry to make a simple acid test! What kind of acid was used I don't know, but it was strong enough to eat the steel."

"Who could have put it on?"

"That I've got to find out!"

"Was it Harry Loper?"

"I taxed him with it, but he swears he knew nothing of it," said Joe. "I'm inclined to believe him, too. I charged him with drinking, and he could not deny that. But he said he met some old friends and they induced him to have a little convivial time with them. No, I don't believe he'd do it. He's weak and foolish, but he had no reason to try to injure me."

"Who would, Joe? Of course there's Bill Carfax, but he hasn't been seen near the circus of late."

"No, I don't believe it could have been Bill. I'll have to be on my guard."

"Do, Joe!" urged Helen. "Oh, I can't bear to think of it!"

"Don't then!" laughed Joe, trying to make light of it. "Let's go down town and I'll buy you some ice cream."

"But you're not going to give up trying to find out who put acid on the trapeze, are you?"

"No, indeed!" declared the young performer. "I have two problems on my hands now—that and trying to learn how too many persons came to the circus this afternoon," and he told Helen about the extra tickets.

"That's queer!" she exclaimed. "Some jinx bug must be after us!"

"Don't get superstitious!" warned Joe. "Now we'll forget our troubles. They may not amount to anything after all."

But, though he spoke lightly, Joe was worried, and he was not going to let Helen know that. They went into an ice-cream parlor and "relaxed," as Helen called it.

The two were on their way back to the circus lot, intending to go to supper and prepare for the evening entertainment, when there was a sudden alarm down the street, and, in an instant, the fire engines and other apparatus dashed past.

"A fire!" cried Joe. "Come on, Helen! It's just down the street!"

They could see smoke pouring from a small building and a crowd rushing toward it. Thither, also, the fire apparatus was dashing. Joe and Helen were among the early arrivals.

"What is it?" asked Joe of an officer. "I mean what sort of place is that?" and he pointed to the building, which was now obscured by smoke.

"Dime museum," was the answer. "Lot of fakes. I sent in the alarm. A fire-eater was trying some new stunt and he set the place ablaze, so the boss yelled to me. Come now, youse all have to git back!" and he motioned to the crowd, which was constantly increasing, to get beyond the fire lines.



CHAPTER VI

SOMETHING NEW

What with the clanging of the gongs on the engines and on the red runabouts that brought two battalion chiefs to the fire; the pall of smoke, with, here and there, the suggestion of a red blaze; the swaying excitement of the crowd; the yells of harassed policemen; the scene at the blaze of the dime museum was one long to be remembered by Joe Strong and Helen Morton—particularly in the light of what happened afterward.

"Joe, did you hear what he said?" asked Helen, as she moved back with the young acrobat in conformity with the officer's order.

"You mean that we've got to slide?"

"No, that a fire-eater started the blaze. Does he mean a professional 'fire bug,' as I have heard them called?"

"Oh, not at all!" exclaimed Joe. "A fire-eater is a chap who does such stunts in a museum, theater, or even in a circus. Sampson Brothers used to have one, I understand, from looking over the old books. But it wasn't much of an act. Golly, this is going to be some blaze!"

That was very evident from the increased smoke that rolled out and the crackle of fire that now could be heard above the puffing of the engines and the shouts of the mob.

"A regular tinder box!" muttered the officer who had told Joe the origin of the blaze. "Place ought to have been pulled down long ago. Git back there youse!" he yelled to some venturesome lads. "Want to git mushed up?"

The blaze was a big one, considerable damage was done, and several persons were injured. But quick work by an efficient department prevented the flames from spreading to the buildings on either side of the one where it had started.

Joe and Helen stayed long enough to see the menace gotten under control, and then they departed just as the ambulance rolled away with the last of the victims.

"That's the fire-eater they're taking to the hospital now," said the policeman who had first spoken to the young circus performers. "They took him into a drug store to wrap him in oil and cotton batting."

"Will he live?" asked Helen.

"Just a chance," was the answer. "Say, if I had to get my living eating fire I'd starve," confided the policeman. "It must be some stunt! I always thought it was a fake, but this fire burned real enough."

"Oh, it isn't all fake," said Joe, "though of course there's a trick about it."

"You seem to know," said the policeman, and he smiled at Joe and Helen. His chief troubles were about over with the departure of the ambulance and the knowledge that filtered through the crowd that the most of the excitement was over.

"Oh, I'm in the circus business," confessed Joe. "I never ate fire," he went on, "but—"

"Oh, I know you now!" cried the officer. "I was on duty out at the circus grounds this afternoon, and I went into the tent when you did that box act. Say, that's some stunt! Do they really pay ten thousand dollars to the fellow who tells how it's done?"

"Well, we've never paid out the money yet," said Joe, with a smile. "But it's there, waiting for some one to claim it."

"Then I'm coming to-night to watch you," said the officer, who appeared delighted that he had recognized one of the "profesh."

"Come along," replied Joe. "Here, wait a minute! There are a couple of passes. Come and bring a friend. If you tell how I do the trick you'll get the ten thousand. Only you'll have to post a hundred dollars as a forfeit to the Red Cross in case you don't guess right. That's included in the offer."

"Oh!" The officer did not seem quite so pleased. "Well, I'll come anyhow," he went on, accepting the passes Joe handed him. The policeman had allowed Joe and Helen to stay in an advantageous place where they could watch the fire.

"Where are they taking the man who did the dangerous trick that caused all the trouble?" asked Helen, as she prepared to walk on with Joe.

"To the City Hospital, Miss. He's a bad case, I understand."

"Poor fellow," murmured Helen. "Do you think we could go to see him, and do something for him, Joe?" she asked solicitously. "He's in almost the same line of business as ourselves."

"Well, I don't know," was the slow answer.

"I can fix it up if you want to see him—that is, if the doctors and nurses will let you," said the policeman. "I know the hospital superintendent. You just tell him that Casey sent you and it will be all right."

"Thanks; perhaps we will," said Joe.

There was a little time after supper before the performers had to go on with their acts, and Helen prevailed on Joe to take her to the hospital whither the injured fire-eater had been removed. They found him swathed in bandages, no objection being made to their seeing him after the magic name of "Casey" had been mentioned to the superintendent.

"We came in to see if you needed any help," said Joe to the pathetic figure in the bed. "We're in the same line of business, in a way."

"Are you a fire-eater?" slowly asked the man.

"No," Joe told him. "But I'm in the circus—Sampson Brothers'."

"Oh, yes, I've heard about it. A partner of mine was with 'em for years. Gascoyne was his name."

"That was before my time," said Joe. "But how are you getting on? Can we be of any help to you? We professionals must help one another."

"That's right. We get knocked often enough," was the reply. "Well, I'm doing as well as can be expected, the doctor says. And I'm not really in need of anything. The museum folks were pretty good to me. Thank you, just the same."

"How did it happen?" asked Helen.

"Oh, just my carelessness," said the man. "We get careless after playing with fire a bit. I put too much alcohol on the tow, and there was a draft from an open door, some draperies caught, and it was all going before I knew it. I tried to put it out—that's how I got burned."

"Then you really didn't eat fire?" asked Helen.

Joe and the man swathed in bandages looked at one another and a semblance of a wink passed between them.

"Nobody can eat fire, lady," said the museum performer. "It's all a trick, same as some your husband does in the circus."

Joe blushed almost as much as did Helen.

"We're not married yet, but we're going to be," explained Joe, smiling.

"Lucky guy!" murmured the man. "Well, as I was saying, it's all a trick," he went on. "Strong alum solution in your mouth, just a dash of alcohol to make a blaze that flares up but goes out quickly if you smother it right. You know the game," and he looked at Joe.

"Well, not exactly," was the reply. "I've read something of it. But, somehow, it never appealed to me."

"Oh, it makes a good act, friend!" said the man earnestly. "I've done a lot of museum and circus stunts, and this always goes big. There's no danger if you handle it right. I'll be more careful next time."

"You don't mean to say you'll go back to it, do you?" asked Helen.

"Sure, lady! I've got to earn my living! And this is the best thing I know. I'll be out in a week. I didn't swallow any, thank goodness! Oh, sure I'll go at it again."

Joe and Helen cheered the sufferer up as much as they could, and then departed. Joe privately left a bill of substantial denomination with the superintendent to be used for anything extra the patient might need.

On the way back to the circus, where they were soon to give their evening performance, Joe was unusually quiet.

"What's the matter?" asked Helen. "Are you thinking of that accident on the trapeze?"

"No," was the answer. "It's something different. I've got to get up a new act for the show. That trapeze act, even the way I had to do it this afternoon, isn't sensational enough. I've got to have something new, and I've about decided on it."

"What?" asked Helen.

"I'm going to become a fire-eater!" was the unexpected, reply.



CHAPTER VII

THE PAPER EXPERT

For a moment Helen Morton stared at Joe Strong as though not quite sure whether or not he was in his proper mind. Then, seeing plainly that he was in earnest, she seemed to shrink away from him, as he had noticed her shrink away, for a moment, from the burned man suffering there in the hospital.

"What's the matter, Helen?" asked Joe, trying to speak lightly. "Don't you want to see some more sensational acts in the show?"

"Yes, but not that kind," she answered with a shudder she could not conceal. "Oh, Joe, if you were to—" She could not go on. Her breast heaved painfully.

"Now look here, Helen!" he exclaimed with good-natured roughness, "that isn't any way to look at matters; especially when we both depend on sensations for making our living.

"You know, as well as I do, that in this business we have to take risks. That's what makes our acts go. You take a risk every time you perform with Rosebud. You might slip, the horse might slip, and you'd be hurt. Now is this new act I am thinking of perfor—"

"Yes, I may take risks, Joe!" interrupted Helen. "But they are perfectly natural risks, and I have more than an even chance. You might just as well say you take a risk walking along the street, and so you do. An elevated train might fall on you or an auto run up on the sidewalk. The risks I take in the act with Rosebud are only natural ones, and really shouldn't be counted. But if you start to become a fire-eater—Oh, Joe, think of that poor fellow in the hospital!"

"He didn't get that way from eating fire—or pretending to eat it—for the amusement of the public. He might just as easily have been burned the way he is by lighting the kitchen stove for his wife to get breakfast. His accident was entirely outside of his act, you might say. Why, I use lighted candles in some of my tricks. Now, if some one knocked over a candle, and it caused a fire on the stage and I was burned, would you want me to give up being a magician?"

"Oh, no, I suppose not," said Helen slowly. "But fire is so dangerous. And to think of putting it in your mouth! How can you do it, Joe? Oh, it can't be done!"

"Oh, there's a trick about it. I haven't mastered all the details yet, so as to give a smooth performance, but I can make an attempt at it."

"Joe Strong! do you mean to say you know how to eat fire?" demanded Helen, and now her eyes showed her astonishment.

"Well, not exactly eat it, though that is the term used. But I do know how to do it. I learned, in a rudimentary way, when I was with Professor Rosello—the first man who taught me sleight-of-hand. He had one fire-eating act, but it didn't amount to much. He told me the secret of it, such as it was.

"But if I put on that stunt I'm going to make it different. I'm going to dress it up, make it sensational so that it will be the talk of the country where circuses are exhibited."

"And won't you run any danger?" questioned the girl quickly.

"Oh, I suppose so; just as I do when I work on the high trapeze or ride my motor cycle along the high wire. But it's all in the day's work. And now let's talk about something pleasant—I mean let's get off the shop."

Helen sighed. She was plainly disturbed, but she did not want to burden Joe with her worries. She knew he must have calm nerves and an untroubled mind to do his various acts in the circus that night.

After supper and before the evening performance Joe made a careful examination of his trapeze apparatus. Beyond the place where the acid had eaten into the wire strands, causing them to become weakened so that they parted, the appliances did not appear to have been tampered with. Nor were there any clews which might show who had done the deed. That it could have happened by accident was out of the question. The acid could have gotten on the wire rope in one way only. Some one must have climbed up the rope ladder to the platform and applied the stuff.

"But who did it?" asked Jim Tracy, when Joe had told him of the discovery of the acid-eaten cable.

"Some enemy. Perhaps the same one who was responsible for our loss in tickets this afternoon," answered the young magician.

"Carfax?" asked the ringmaster.

"It might be, and yet he isn't the only man who's been discharged or who has a grudge against me. There was Gianni with whom I had a fight."

"You mean the Italian? Yes, he was an ugly customer. But I haven't heard of him for years. I don't believe he's even in this part of the country."

"And we haven't any reason to suppose that Carfax is, either, after his fiasco in trying to expose my Box of Mystery trick. But we've got to be on our guard."

"I should say so!" exclaimed the ringmaster. "And now about your trapeze act, Joe! Are you going to put it on again to-night?"

"Of course. It's billed."

"Then you'll have to hustle to rig up a new rope."

"I'm not going to put on a new rope," declared Joe. "The act went so well when I seemed about to fall, that I'm going to keep that feature in. I'll rig up a catch on the severed cable. At the proper time I'll snap it loose, seem to fall, swing by the dangling bar as I did before, and land on the platform that way. It will be more effective than if I did it in the regular way."

"But won't it be risky?"

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

"No more so than any trapeze act. Now that I'm ready for the sudden drop I'll be on my guard. No, I can work it all right. And now about these extra admissions? What are we going to do about them?"

"Well," said the ringmaster, "maybe we'd better talk to Moyne about them. If they ring an extra thousand persons in on us again to-night the thing will be getting serious."

The treasurer was called in consultation with Joe and Tracy and other circus officials, and it was decided to keep a special watch on the ticket wagon and the ticket takers that night.

Joe quickly made the change in his trapeze and tested it, finding that he could work it perfectly. Then he began to think of his new fire-eating act. He was determined to make that as great a success as was his now well advertised ten thousand dollar mystery box act.

The evening performance had not long been under way, and Joe had done his big swing successfully, when he was sought out by Mr. Moyne.

"The same thing has happened again," said the treasurer.

"You mean more people coming in than we have sold tickets for?"

"That's it."

"Well, where do the extra admissions come from? I mean where do the people get their admission slips from—the extra people?"

"That's what we can't find out," the treasurer aid. "As far as the ticket takers can tell only one kind of admission slip for the fifty cent seats is being handed them. But the number, as tallied by the automatic gates, does not jibe with the number of ordinary admissions sold at the ticket office. To-night there is a difference of about eight hundred and seventy-five."

"Do you mean," asked Joe, "that that number of persons came in on tickets that were never sold at the ticket wagon?"

"That's just what I mean. There is an extra source from which the ordinary admission tickets come. As I told you this afternoon, we are having no trouble with our reserved seats. There have been no duplicates there. But there is a duplication in the fifty cent seats, where one may take his pick as to where he wants to sit."

"Don't we have tickets on sale in some of the downtown stores?" Joe asked.

"Oh, yes, several of the stores sell tickets up to a certain hour. Then they send the balance up here for us to dispose of."

"How about their accounts? Have you had them gone over carefully?"

"They tally to a penny."

"How about the unsold tickets these agents send back to us? Isn't there a chance on the way up for some one to slip out some of the pasteboards, Mr. Moyne?"

"There is a chance, yes, but it hasn't been done. I have checked up the accounts of the stores, and there is the cash or the unsold tickets to balance every time. But somehow, and from some place, an extra number of the ordinary admission tickets are being sold, and we are not getting the money for them."

"It is queer," said Joe. "I have an idea that I want to try out the first chance I get. Save me a bunch of these ordinary admission tickets. Take them from the boxes at random and let me have them."

"I will," promised the treasurer. "There is nothing we can do to-night to stop the fraud, is there?" he asked. Mr. Moyne was a very conscientious treasurer. It disturbed him greatly to see the circus lose money.

"I don't see what we can do," said Joe. "If we start an inquiry it may cause a fight. Let it go. We'll have to charge it to profit and loss. And don't forget to let me have some of those tickets. I want to examine them."

Mr. Moyne promised to attend to the matter. Joe then had to go on in his Box of Mystery trick, and when this was finished, amid much applause, he caused Helen to "vanish" in the manner already described.

The circus made considerable money in this town, even with the bogus admissions, and as the weather was fine and as the show would exhibit the next day in a big city for a two days' stand, every one was in good humor. Staying over night in the same city where they exhibited during the day was always a rest for the performers. They got more sleep and were in better trim for work.

The last act was finished, the chariot races had taken place, and the audience was surging out. The animal tent had already been taken down and the animals themselves were being loaded on the railroad train.

As Joe, Helen, and the other performers started for their berths, to begin the trip to the next town, the "main top" began coming down. The circus was on the move.

Soon after breakfast the next morning, having seen that all his apparatus had safely arrived, Joe visited Mr. Moyne in the latter's office.

"Have you a bunch of tickets for me?" asked the young magician.

"Yes, here they are—several hundred picked at random from the boxes at the entrance. I can't see anything wrong. If you're looking for counterfeit tickets I don't believe you'll find them," added Mr. Moyne.

"I don't know that I am looking for counterfeits," said Joe. "That may be the explanation, or it may be there is a leak somewhere in the ticket wagon."

"I'm almost sure there isn't," declared the treasurer. "But of course no one is infallible. I hope you get to the bottom of the mystery."

"I hope so myself," replied Joe, with a smile, as he put the tickets in a valise.

A little later he was on his way downtown. He had several hours before he would have to go "on," as he did not take part in the parade, and he had several matters to attend to.

Joe made his way toward a large office building, carrying the valise with the circus tickets. A little later he might have been seen entering an office, the door of which bore the name of "Herbert Waldon, Consulting Chemist."

"Mr. Strong," said Joe to the boy who came forward to inquire his errand. "Mr. Waldon is expecting me, I believe."

"Oh, yes," said the boy. "You're to come right in."

Joe was ushered into a room which was filled with strange appliances, from test tubes and retorts to electrical furnaces and X-ray apparatus. A little man in a rather soiled linen coat came forward, smiling.

"I won't shake hands with you, Mr. Strong," he said, "for I've been dabbling in some vile-smelling stuff. But if you wait until I wash I'll be right with you."

"All right," assented Joe. And then, as he caught sight of what seemed to be a number of canceled bank checks on a table, he smilingly asked: "Have you been paying your income tax?"

"Oh, no," answered the chemist with a laugh. "Those are just some samples of paper sent in for me to test. An inventor is trying to get up an acid-proof ink. I'm a sort of paper expert, among my other chemical activities, and I'm putting these samples through a series of tests. But you'll not be interested in them."

"I don't know but what I shall be," returned Joe, with sudden energy. "Since you are a paper expert I may be able to set you another task besides that of showing me the latest thing in fire-resisting liquids. Yes, I may want your services in both lines."

"Well, I'm here to do business," said Mr. Waldon, smiling.



CHAPTER VIII

JOE EATS FIRE

The chemist led the way into a little office. This opened off from the room in which was the apparatus, and where, as Joe had become more and more keenly aware, there was a most unpleasant odor.

"I'll open the window, close the laboratory door, and you won't notice it in a little while," said Mr. Waldon, as he observed Joe's nose twitching. "I'm so used to it I don't mind, but you, coming in from the fresh air—"

"It isn't exactly perfume," interrupted Joe, with a laugh. "But don't be uneasy on my account. I can stand it."

However, he was glad when the fresh air came in through the window. The chemist washed his hands and then sat down at a desk, inviting Joe to draw up his chair.

"Now, what can I do for you?" asked Mr. Waldon. "Is it fire or paper?"

"Well, since I know pretty well what I want to ask you in the matter of fire," replied Joe, "and since I've got a puzzling paper problem here, suppose we tackle the hardest first, and come to the known, and easier, trick later."

"Just as you say," assented Mr. Waldon. "What's your paper problem?"

Joe's answer was to take from the valise several hundreds of the circus tickets. They were the kind sold for fifty cents, or perhaps more in these days of the war tax. They entitle the holder to a seat on what, at a baseball game, would be called the "bleachers." In other words they were not reserved-seat coupons.

However, these tickets were not the one-time blue or red pieces of stiff pasteboard, bearing the name of the circus and the words "ADMIT ONE," which were formerly sold at the gilded wagon. These were handed in at the main entrance, and the tickets were used over and over again. Sometimes the blue ones sold for fifty cents, and a kind selling for seventy-five cents entitled the purchaser to a seat with a folding back to it, though it was not reserved.

But Joe had instituted some changes when he became one of the circus proprietors, and one was in the matter of the general admission tickets. He had them printed on a thin but tough quality of paper, and each ticket was numbered. In this way it needed but a glance at the last ticket in the rack and a look at the memorandum of the last number previously sold at the former performance, to tell exactly how many general admissions had been disposed of.

These numbered tickets were not used over again, but were destroyed after the day's accounts had been made up. At first Joe and some others of the officials had had an idea that the man who was charged with the work of destroying the tickets, instead of doing so, had kept some out and sold them at a reduced price. But an investigation proved that this was not the case.

"Some one is ringing in extra tickets on us," stated Joe to the chemist. "We want to find out who it is and how the trick is worked. So far, we haven't been able to find this out. As a matter of fact, we don't know whether there are bogus tickets in our boxes or not. We haven't been able to detect two kinds. They all seem the same."

"Some numbers must be duplicated," said Mr. Waldon, as he picked up a handful of the slips Joe had brought. "That's very obvious. The numbers must be duplicated in some instances."

"Yes, we have discovered that," returned Joe. "But the queer part is, taking even two tickets with the same number, we don't know which was sold at our ticket wagon and which is the bogus one. Here's a case in point."

He picked up two of the coupons. As far as eye or touch could tell they were identical, and they bore the same red number, one up in the hundred thousands.

"Now," continued Joe, "can you tell which of these two is the official circus ticket and which is the bogus one?"

The chemist thought for a moment.

"Have you a ticket—say one issued some time ago—which you are positive is genuine?" he asked.

"I'm ready for you there," answered Joe. "Here's a coupon that happened to escape destruction. It was one sold several weeks ago at our ticket wagon, before we noticed this trouble. I bought the ticket myself, so I know. I happened to be passing the wagon, and a boy was trying to reach up to buy a fifty cent seat. He wasn't quite tall enough, so I reached for him.

"Then, when I looked at him, I saw that fifty cents meant a lot to him. I gave him back his half dollar out of my own pocket, and passed him in to a reserved seat. But I forgot to turn the ticket in to the wagon, and it's been in my pocket ever since. Now I'm glad I saved it, for it will serve as a tester."

"Yes," admitted the chemist, "it will. It's a good thing you have this. But, Mr. Strong, this is going to take some time. I'll have to compare all these tickets with the admittedly genuine one, and I'll have to make some intricate tests."

"Well, I hoped you might be able to tell me right off the reel which of these coupons were good and which bad," said Joe. "But I can appreciate that it isn't easy. We certainly have been puzzled. So I'll leave them with you, and you can write to me when you have any results. I'll leave you a list of the towns where we'll be showing for the next two weeks. And now suppose we get at the fire-eating business."

"All right," was the reply of the chemist. "But with the understanding that you do all the eating. I haven't any appetite that way myself."

They both laughed, and then, for some hours, Joe Strong was closeted with the chemist.

When Joe emerged from the office of Mr. Waldon there was a look of satisfaction on the face of the young magician.

"I think I can make quite an act, after what you've told me," he said. "As soon as I get it perfected I'll send you word and you can come to see me."

"I will, if you aren't too far away," promised the chemist.

That night, following the closing of the performance, Joe invited Helen, Jim Tracy, and a few of his more intimate friends and associates into his private dressing tent.

"I have the nucleus of a new act," he said, when they were seated in chairs before a small table, on which were several pieces of apparatus. "Just give me your opinion of this."

Joe lighted a candle, picked up on a fork what seemed to be a piece of bread, and touched it to the candle flame. In an instant the object that was on the fork burst into a blaze, and, before the eyes of his friends, Joe calmly put the flaming portion into his mouth.

He closed his lips, seemed to be chewing something, opened his mouth, and showed it empty.

"A little light lunch!" he remarked, but his smile faded as Helen screamed in horror.



CHAPTER IX

THE CHEMIST'S LETTER

"Oh, Joe, you'll surely burn yourself!" exclaimed the startled bareback rider.

"Did you get burned?" questioned Mrs. Watson.

"Some trick!" declared the snake charmer.

For the moment there was some excitement, for this was a new act for the circus people.

Helen soon recovered her customary composure, and then she explained the cause of her excitement and the startled cry she had given. She had, of course, expected some trick with fire when Joe had summoned her and the others to his own private part of the dressing tents. But she had not expected to see him actually put the blazing material in his mouth.

"I thought there was some sleight-of-hand performance about it," she said. "I had an idea that you only pretended to put the blazing stuff in your mouth, Joe. And when I saw it I was afraid you'd breathe in the flames and—and—"

She did not need to go on, they all understood what she meant, for every one in the circus knew that Helen and Joe were engaged.

"I once saw a little boy burned at a bonfire at which he was playing," went on Helen. "He died. Since then the sight of fire near a human being has always a bad effect on me. But I suppose I can get over it, if I know there is no danger," she said with a slight smile at Joe.

"Well, I can assure you there isn't the slightest danger," he declared. "If there was, I should be the first to give it up. I am as fond of living as any one."

"You don't show it, young man, in some of the tricks you do," commented Mrs. Watson, with the freedom befitting a "circus mother," and the privilege of an old friend. "You must remember that you don't live only for yourself," and she looked significantly at Helen.

"Oh, I'll be careful!" promised Joe. "And now I'll do the trick again for you, and let you see that it's absolutely harmless. Any of you could do it—if you knew how."

"Excuse me!" exclaimed Jim Tracy. "Not for mine!"

However they all watched Joe eagerly and interestedly, even Helen. He did not seem to make any unusual preparations. He merely took a drink of what seemed to be water. Then he ignited something in the flame of the candle and placed the burning stuff in his mouth, seeming to chew it with gusto.

"Oh!" exclaimed Helen. But beyond that and a momentary placing of one hand over her heart, she did not give way to emotion. Then, as Joe did the fire-eating trick again, Helen forced herself to watch him closely. As he had said, he took no harm from the act.

"Tell us how you do it," begged Bill Watson. "When I get over being funny—or getting audiences to think I am—I may want to live on something hot. How do you work it?"

"Well," said Joe, "if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not tell. It isn't that I'm afraid of any of my friends giving the trick away, and so spoiling the mystery of it for the crowds. It's just as it was in my box act. If any of you are asked how I do this fire trick you can truly say you don't know, for none of you will know by my telling, not even Helen, though she is in on the box secret. I'll only say that I protect my face and mouth, as well as hands, in a certain way, and that I do, actually, put the blazing material into my mouth. I am not burned. So if any one asks you about the act you may tell them that much with absolute truth. Now the question is—how is it going to go with the audiences? We need something—or, at least, I do—to create a sensation. Will this answer?"

"I should say so!" exclaimed Jim Tracy. "That ought to go big when it's dressed up."

"Oh, this is only the ground work," said Joe. "I'm going to elaborate this fire act and make it the sensation of the season. I've only begun on it. I got from a chemist the materials I want with which to protect myself, and I have shown, to my own and your satisfaction, that I can eat fire without getting harmed. So far all is well. Now I'm going to work the act up into something really worth while."

"But you'll still be careful, won't you, Joe?" asked Helen.

"Indeed I will," he assured her.

"Do the trick once more, Joe," suggested Bill Watson. "I'm coming as close as you'll let me, and I want to criticize it from the standpoint of a man in the audience."

"That's what I'm after," said Joe. "If there are any flaws in the act, now is the time to find it out."

Once more he set the material ablaze and put it into his mouth. Bill Watson watched closely, and, at the end, the old clown shook his head.

"I saw you actually put the fire in your mouth," he testified. "No one can do more than that. It takes nerve!"

Of course, no one can actually swallow fire and live. The slightest breath of flame on the lungs or on the mucous membrane of the throat and passages is fatal. So when the terms "fire-eating" or "fire-eater" are used it will be in the sense of its being a theatrical act. There is a trick about it, and the trick is this:

In the first place, the flame itself is produced by blazing alcohol. This produces a blaze, and a hot one, too, but there is no smoke. In other words, the combustion is almost perfect, there being no residue of carbon to remain hot after the actual flame is extinguished.

And now as to the actual putting into one's mouth something that is blazing hot: It all depends on a very simple principle.

If the hand be thoroughly wet in water it may be safely thrust for a fraction of a second into a flaming gas jet. But mark this—for the fraction of a second only. The water forms a protecting film for the skin, and before it is evaporated the hand must be taken out of danger. In other words, there is needed an appreciable time for the fire to beat the skin to the burning point.

This immunity from burns, to which the professional fire-eaters owe their success, comes from this film of moisture on their skin. They do not always use water—in fact, this is only serviceable for a momentary contact with flame, and, at that, on the hands or face. In case a longer contact is desired, a fire-resisting chemical liquid is used.

It is about the contact of flame with the tender mucous membrane surfaces of the mouth and throat that Joe, as a fire-eater, was most concerned.

In the first place, there is a constant film of the secretion called saliva always flowing in the mouth. It comes from glands in the throat and mouth, and is very necessary to good digestion.

Now, for a very brief period this saliva, which is just the same as a film of water on the hand, resists the fire. But professional fire-eaters do not depend on saliva alone. They use a chemical solution, and this is what Joe did when he drank something from a glass.

What that chemical solution was, Joe kept as a closely guarded professional secret. He feared, too, that some boy might make it, rinse his mouth out with it, and then, getting an audience of his chums together, might try to eat some blazing coals. He might, and very likely would, be severely burned, and his parents or those in charge of him would blame Joe for allowing such dangerous information to leak out.

So, though he guarded all his secrets of magic, he was particularly careful to keep this one to himself.

But Joe protected his mouth and throat with a fire-resisting liquid, the formula for which was given him by the chemist to whom he submitted the circus tickets.

The success of Joe and others of his kind depends also in this on a well known natural law. It is that there can be no combustion in the ordinary sense where there is no oxygen. As a candle will surely go out if enclosed in an air-tight receptacle—that is, it will go out as soon as it has burned up all the oxygen—just so surely will flame of any kind go out when a person closes his mouth on it. And as there is scarcely any air in the closed mouth—all of it going down the bronchial tubes into the lungs—it follows that the flame dies out almost instantly. That fact being considered, and the mouth and throat having been previously treated with the secret chemical, there is really not so much danger as appears.

As a matter of fact, a person inadvertently swallowing hot tea or coffee will burn or scald his mouth or tongue much more painfully than will a professional fire-eater. Most people know how painful a burned tongue is.

Joe told something of the history of fire-eating "champions" to his audience of friends, for it appeared that he had been reading up on the subject and was well informed. Then he announced that the private rehearsal was over.

"But I'm going to work this fire-eating up into something that will cause a sensation," he said. And he made good his promise.

It was about a week after this, and the circus had been traveling about, playing to good business, when Joe received a letter. In the upper left-hand corner was the imprint of Herbert Waldon, Chemist.

"I hope he has some news about the circus tickets!" exclaimed Joe. For the show had been losing money steadily by means of the bogus coupons; not as much as at first, but enough to make it necessary to discover the fraud. And, so far, Mr. Moyne had not been successful.

"Perhaps this explains the mystery," mused Joe as he opened the letter.



CHAPTER X

THE PET CAT

The typewritten sheet of the letter from Mr. Waldon enclosed two of the engraved circus coupons. They fluttered to the floor of Joe's private tent as he tore open the envelope.

"Well, either he has discovered something, or he has sent them back and given up," mused the young magician. "Let's see what he says."

Joe quickly took in the contents of the letter. In effect it stated that Mr. Waldon had discovered which were the bogus and which were the real circus tickets. He first gave an explanation of the chemical tests he used. Joe read this hastily, but carefully, then passed to the conclusions arrived at by the expert, who was an authority on various kinds of paper, as well as chemicals.

"The ticket I have marked No. 1 is a genuine coupon, issued by your circus corporation," said Mr. Waldon in his letter. "The slip marked by me as No. 2 is a counterfeit. You will observe that they both bear the red ink serial number 356,891.

"If you were a paper expert you would observe that the paper used in the two tickets is different. There is not a very great difference, and I am inclined to think that both the genuine and the counterfeit tickets were made on paper from the same mill, but of a different 'run.' That is, it was made at a different time.

"The printer who manufactured your tickets bought his paper from a certain mill making a specialty of this particular kind. Then some one, who must know something of your financial and business interests, had the bogus tickets made, and on the same kind of paper. But there is a slight difference, which I was able to detect by means of chemical reactions. The coloring matter used varied slightly, though the texture of the two kinds of paper is almost exactly similar.

"Now, having settled that point, the solution of the remaining equations of the problem rests with you. I can not tell who had the bogus tickets printed. You will have to go to the mill making the paper and find out to whom they sold this kind. In that way you will learn the names of all printers, using it, and by a process of elimination you will get at the one who printed the counterfeits.

"This printer may be an innocent party, or he may be guilty. That is for you and the detectives to determine. I hope I have started you on the right track. I shall be interested to hear, my dear Mr. Strong, how you make out in your fire-eating act."

"I'll tell him as soon as I try it on a real audience," said Joe, with a smile, as he folded the letter. "And so counterfeit tickets have been rung in on us! Well, I suspected that, since our own men were thoroughly to be trusted. Now to get at the guilty ones. And I shouldn't be surprised if I could name one of the men involved. But I'll call a meeting, and lay this before the directors."

The Sampson Brothers' Show was incorporated and was run strictly on business lines. There was a board of directors who looked after all business matters, and Joe was soon in consultation with them, laying before them Mr. Waldon's letter and the two marked tickets.

"It would take an expert to tell them apart," said Mr. Moyne, as he examined the coupons closely. "Well, what are we to do?"

"In the first place," declared Joe, "we must change our form of general admission tickets at once. That will stop the fraud, graft, or whatever you want to call it. Then we must do as Mr. Waldon says—look for the guilty parties. We'll have to hire some detectives, I think."

This plan was voted a good one, and steps were at once taken to change the form and style of the general admission tickets. Joe also wired for a man from a well known detective agency to meet the show at the next town. Then the printing shop which made the circus tickets was communicated with.

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