THE BOY FISH
MARVELOUS DOINGS IN A BIG TANK
Author of "Joe Strong, the Boy Wizard," "Joe Strong on the Trapeze," etc.
WHITMAN PUBLISHING CO. RACINE, WISCONSIN
JOE STRONG, THE BOY FISH
Bass drums were booming, snare drums were rattling, above them sounded the shrill notes of the bugles. There was the rumble of big-wheeled wagons, now and then an elephant trumpeted or a lion gave a hungry roar. Gay banners fluttered, glistening spears flashed with points of light, gaily attired women and men sat on the backs of swaying, ugly camels, or galloped on mettlesome steeds. And looking at it all was a vast throng of eager-eyed men, women and children. It was the opening performance of the circus.
"Good crowd all right," remarked Joe Strong, as he came back to the dressing tent from a preliminary survey of the audience. He took up one hole in the belt of his acrobatic suit of tights.
"Full house—is there?" asked a dark-complexioned, foreign-looking man, as he rubbed some rosin on the soles of his soft shoes, so they would not slip when he attempted some feat high up on a trapeze bar, or let himself down a rope head first, disdaining the use of his hands.
"I should say it is a full house!" went on Joe as he, too, west over to the rosin box. "They'll have to do as they do in theatres, and hang out the S.R.O. sign if it keeps on. It looks as though there would be standing room only before long, it certainly is starting the season good."
"I'm glad to hear it," remarked Tonzo Lascalla, one of a trio of "brothers" with whom Joe Strong did more or less dangerous things on the high trapeze. "If the owners take in plenty of money they may give us more salary."
"Not much danger of that," averred Tom Jefferson, who did a "strong man" act. "Still, we can't complain. We get pretty goad money as it is."
There came a different note into the music. There were a few sharp notes on a bugle, and the strong man, who had been lying down on some boxes covered with blankets, sprang to his feet.
"Grand entry's over," he remarked. "I've got to go on!"
"And so have I!" added a clown, who had been busily engaged in painting one half of his face white and the other black. "Here we are again gentlemen!" and he turned two or three somersaults on the grass of the dressing, tent. "Whoop-la-la!" and out he ran to make his appearance in the ring. A gale of laughter followed, testifying to the effects of his antics.
"All ready, Joe?" asked Sid Lascalla, the other member of the acrobatic trio.
"Why, that isn't our call, is it?" asked Joe, who was relacing one of his shoes.
"No, but it will come in a few minutes. Are you going to try the long swing and double catch this afternoon?"
"I think we might as well, don't you? We've had enough practice at it, even though this is the first show of the season. What do you say, Tonzo?"
"Oh, I'm ready for it."
"So am I, then," added Sid. "Only let's be sure the life net is all right. The ring-attendants are apt to be a bit careless at first."
"I'll look after it," promised Joe.
The lacing of his shoes seemed to give the young trapeze performer some little concern. He did not want them too tight, and, on the other hand, they must not be loose enough to give any play to the ankles. For in a great measure the life of the young man who was soon to thrill the big audience with his daring depended on the firmness of his stand.
A fine figure of youthfulness was Joe Strong as he stood in his closely fitting red tights, tall and straight as an Indian arrow, with not an ounce of superfluous flesh, and yet not over-muscled. But the muscles he had were powerful. One could see his biceps ripple under his tights as he bent his arm, and when he straightened up there were bunches back of his shoulders that told of power there. His legs, too, on the strength of which he depended for many tricks, were symmetrical with muscles, and his hands and wrists showed force.
The young acrobat finally seemed to be satisfied with his shoes, and nodded his readiness to his two partners. In the first part of the program the three worked together as the "Lascalla Brothers," though there was no real relationship. But the name showed well on the bills, and, as a matter of fact, the three performers looked sufficiently alike.
When his part with the trio was over Joe Strong was in an act by himself, for he had made quite a name as a daring performer. He strolled over toward the entrance to the main tent—the entrance used by the performers as they emerged from the dressing tents. A girl riding a beautiful horse galloped out from the ring as Joe reached the place.
"How goes it, Helen?" asked Joe, as the rider drew her horse to one side. The animal rubbed his nose against Joe's hand. "No, I haven't any sugar now, Rosebud," said Joe with a smile. "There aren't any pockets in this suit," he went on with a laugh.
"I'll give him some as soon as I get off," promised Helen Morton, or "Mademoiselle Mortonti" as she was called on the circus bills.
"How did everything go?" asked her companion.
"Fine, Joe. Rosebud never behaved better, and the crowd was certainly generous in the way of applause."
"Glad to know it. I heard some of it. Pretty good opening then?"
"I call it so, yes."
Again the trumpet blared in a new note, and there was a scurrying on the part of some performers to leave the rings and raised platforms, while others came bustling from the dressing tent to take their places in providing entertainment for the circus throng.
"See you later!" called Joe as he hurried back to join the two Lascalla Brothers, that they might run into the ring together and stand posed for a moment, their arms on one another's shoulders, before they began their act.
"All right," answered Helen, as she rode away on her fine trick horse, Rosebud; for Helen was a fancy rider, and, in addition, had taught the animal to do many difficult tricks.
It was the first performance of the spring season for the Sampson Brothers' Circus. The winter had been spent in Bridgeport, as far as the animals were concerned, the quarters of many out-door shows being there. The performers had done as they pleased for the idle months when tent shows are out of the question. Some had filled engagements in theatres, while others had gone into retirement, some to evolve new exploits, thrilling acts and tricks.
Joe Strong had spent part of his winter doing gymnasium work. He had later filled in a few weeks on a theatrical circuit doing feats of magic. At this he was an expert, and in this line of work he had been engaged before joining the circus.
Helen Morton had been in the South, her horse with her, and she had returned a few weeks previously, joining the circus in Bridgeport to get in some needed practice before starting out on the road. Now the show was in full swing. It was a pleasant day, and a record-breaking throng had crowded into the tents. What more could circus folk ask?
"Hello, Ben!" called Joe, as he hurried back to join his two partners. "All ready for your 'death-defying dive?'"
"Yes, as ready as I'll ever be, I guess," was the somewhat despondent answer of a frail-looking youth, who was attired in a shimmering green suit made to resemble fish scales.
"Why, what's the matter, Ben Turton?" asked Joe, as he placed his hand on the shoulder of the "human fish," as Ben was known; for he did a diving act in a large glass tank filled with water, staying under about three minutes without breathing, and performing some tricks in the limpid depths.
"Oh, I don't know, Joe, what the matter is," Ben said. "I guess I'm just tired."
"What! After your winter's rest?"
"I didn't have much rest. I played two circuits."
"Oh, that's right, so you did. I'd forgotten. But is it the same old trouble you complained of last season?"
"Yes, my head—back here," and Ben put his hand to the base of his head. "But don't say anything about it. Maybe it will wear off when I get to working. I've got to go on with the act, anyhow."
"Say, it's too bad, Ben. Maybe if you were to speak to Jim Tracy——"
"No. I won't do that, Joe. Never mind about me. There's your call."
"So it is. I'll see you again. Come on, Sid—Tonzo!"
Joe clasped hands with his two fellow trapezists, and together they ran lightly out to the ring. Benny Turton followed more slowly. He was to begin his act in a few minutes. The big glass tank, filled with water, was waiting for him out on a raised platform.
"I don't know what's the matter with me," he murmured. "I feel just as if something were going to happen. Oh, pshaw! I mustn't be such a kid. It'll be all right. I've gone under hundreds of times before."
He stood looking out into the main tent. He saw Joe Strong and the other two Lascallas on the trapezes high up above the life net. This the trapeze performers had inspected with unusual care, for it was the opening act of the season and, as Sid had said, some of the attendants who put it up might have been careless, particularly as a lot of new men were always hired at the beginning of the season.
After some rather usual and not very difficult acts, to get themselves warmed up, the Lascallas prepared for one of their "thrillers."
Joe climbed to a small platform, fixed high up on one of the poles at one side of the tent. Sid Lascalla occupied a similar position on the other side. Between them swung Tonzo on a trapeze.
"All ready!" cried Joe.
"Ready!" answered Sid.
Together they swung down from their platforms, each one grasping a trapeze bar. Tonzo swung first toward Sid who, at a signal, let go, and turning over and over in the air reached out his hands at the proper moment and grasped those of Tonzo. The two, clinging together, hung there a moment, swinging to and fro in a long arc.
Then, with a yell to show he was coming, Joe Strong let go of his trapeze, and launched himself toward the other two. He whirled himself about in a dizzying succession of somersaults, and then, straightening out with a jerk, he grasped the dangling legs of Sid, and hung there by his hands, the two lower acrobats being supported by Tonzo, who clung from his trapeze by his knees.
There was a burst of applause at this clever and rather dangerous trick. It was dangerous even with the life-net below them, for had the men fallen together, in a heap, they would have been hurt in spite of the net.
But the trick was over successfully. First Joe dropped into the net, then Sid and finally Tonzo, each one somersaulting down.
As Joe jumped out of the net to get ready for his next act, he saw Benny Turton leap off his platform to dive into the tank of water. It was the beginning of the acts of the "human fish."
"He seems to be all right," thought Joe. "I guess he was just nervous about the first day."
He watched the youth, and saw him make a clean dive into the water. Then there should have followed on Benny's part some queer little tricks designed to bring forth a laugh.
But as Joe watched through the glass sides of the tank, he saw a look of agony come over Ben's face. The boy seemed doubled up in a cramp, and his hand went to the back of his head.
"There's something wrong!" thought Joe in a flash. "Benny's in bad! I've got to help him!"
Joe knew the danger of creating a panic in a crowd. Whatever was done must be done quietly so as not to alarm the audience. Joe glanced about. Near him was Bill Watson, a veteran clown, pretending to play a game of ball all by himself.
Joe ran over to Bill and whispered in his ear:
"Quick, Bill! Benny's got a cramp in the tank! We've got to get him out in a hurry. Come on with me!"
JOE FILLS IN
For a moment Bill Watson looked as though he did not understand what Joe said to him.
"It's Ben—in the tank—something wrong," whispered Joe.
"I get you!" said Bill quickly. He dropped the big stick he was pretending to use as a bat, and hurried with Joe to the big glass tank. As yet no one else seemed to have noticed anything wrong with the "human fish." Other acts were going on around him, and the crowd, watching through the glass sides of the tank, appeared to take it all as a matter of course. Ben was still under water, but he was doing nothing save swimming about slowly—altogether too slowly, Joe thought, for it indicated that whatever ailed the "human fish" was increasing in intensity.
"What's the matter?" asked Jim Tracy of Joe, as the young acrobat and Bill hurried across the tent. "Why aren't you two going on with your acts?"
Jim Tracy was head ring-master and one of the owners of the circus.
"Ben's in some kind of a fit," answered Joe. "We've got to get him out of the tank."
"Whew! Great Scott!" exclaimed the ring-master in a low voice. "Can we do it without starting a panic?"
"We've got to," said Joe fiercely. "If the audience knows that he's nearly drowned——"
"They mustn't know," agreed Tracy. "Come on."
They fairly ran toward the glass tank. By now Ben had settled down on the bottom, an inert form. He had been unable to hold his breath under the water, and it was filling his lungs. Joe Strong thought quickly.
He might dive into the tank and pull Benny out, for Joe had more than once on a hot day cooled off in the water in which the "human fish" did his act. But if Joe did that now it would let the people know something was wrong.
"But we've got to get Benny up!" Joe reasoned.
He saw, lying near the tank, one of the elephant goads—"ankus" is the Indian name for the instrument. It is shaped like a boat-hook, but is sharper.
Joe quickly caught this up. Jumping to the platform, on which the tank stood, Joe whispered to Bill Watson and Jim Tracy to stand as near him as possible.
"We can sort of screen our movements that way," he said.
Reaching the hook down into the water, Joe caught it in a portion of Benny's "fish" suit. It was an easy matter to raise the now almost drowned performer to the surface, and then lift him out into the arms of Joe, the ring-master and the clown.
"We'll have to carry him to the dressing tent and have a doctor," said Jim Tracy. "And we'll have to do it on the quiet. Get some of the clowns, Bill, and have them march in a body, carrying Benny between them. Make it look as if it was all a part of the show. Carry it off as well as you can. Though what in the world I'm going to do to explain why the tank act isn't finished, I don't know. But we've got to take care of Benny first. Is he alive yet?"
"Just about," answered Joe, making a hasty examination.
Bill Watson quickly summoned some of his fellow clowns, and on a stretcher which two of the eccentric men had been using in a funny act of their own, Benny was carried from the main tent. The clowns so surrounded him that not a glimpse did the audience have of the stretched-out, silent, green-clad figure.
"Pretend it's all a joke," whispered the ringmaster fiercely.
"Sure," muttered Bill Watson.
It was a pretty grim joke, and only the great necessity for not starting a panic in the crowd of sightseers would have induced any one to take part in it.
And while poor Ben is being carried where he can have medical attention, new readers will be told briefly something about Joe Strong as he figures in the previous books of this series.
The first volume is entitled "Joe Strong, the Boy Wizard; Or, The Mysteries of Magic Exposed." Joe, whose mother had been a circus rider under the name Madame Hortense, and whose father, a sleight-of-hand worker, was known as Professor Morretti, was, at the opening of the story, an orphan, living with Mr. and Mrs. Amos Blackford in the town of Bedford. Deacon Blackford had taken care of Joe since the boy was about five years old, and was, in a sense, his foster-father.
Joe inherited from his mother an ability to ride almost any kind of horse, and he had nerves that made him unafraid to do circus tricks at great heights. As a boy he had climbed the village church steeple, to the delight of his companions and the horror of his foster-parents.
One day "Professor Rosello" gave an exhibition of magic in Bedford, and new events in Joe's life dated from then. The young man saved the professor's life, and then, because of threatened punishment on the part of Deacon Blackford, Joe ran away from home, eventually joining Professor Rosello, who made him an assistant.
Joe Strong was then started on his career to become a magician, and he "made good," as they say in theatrical circles. He invented some startling tricks and was a great help to the professor. At one time Joe's foster-father made a serious charge against him, and our hero was on the verge of arrest.
The second volume of the series is called: "Joe Strong On the Trapeze; Or, The Daring Feats of a Young Circus Performer." In that book Joe is first met helping Professor Rosello do a "fire trick" on the stage. Something went wrong with the electrical current and the magician was in danger of being burned to death. Joe's quick work saved Professor Rosello, but the shock was so great that the magician had to give up his stage work. The professor offered to lease the show to Joe, but the young performer had received a very good offer from the Sampson Brothers' Circus to become a trapeze performer, and he accepted.
Joe had formed the acquaintance of a few of the circus folk some time before in a casual way, and he had shown what he could do on the flying rings and the trapeze, which resulted in his engagement.
Jim Tracy, the ring-master, took quite a fancy to Joe, and Benny Turton, who did the "human fish" act, was very fond of our hero. As for Joe, he was more than interested in Helen Morton. So much so, that when it came to a question of whether or not to stay with the circus Joe decided to remain, just because he thought he might be of service to the girl rider.
He had been of great assistance to her in helping recover money left to her by her grandfather, and which a rascally law clerk nearly secured for himself. Bill Watson, the veteran clown, was also much interested in Helen and her inheritance, and he mentioned, casually, that perhaps Joe might come into money. For Mrs. Strong, who, before her marriage, was Janet Willoughby, came of a wealthy English family that had cast her off when she married Professor Morretti. But though Joe had written to England he had, as yet, received no encouraging word as to any inheritance that might come to him through his mother.
Joe is now beginning his second season with the Sampson Brothers' Circus, and the opening performance was marked by the accident which happened to Benny Turton.
"Quick now, boys!" urged the ring-master, as he walked along with the clowns who were carrying the half-unconscious form of the water performer. "I don't believe the crowd knows anything about it."
And this seemed to be the case. There were so many other things going on in the circus, so much to attract the attention, that it is doubtful if any in the throng realized that anything out of the ordinary had taken place in the big, glass tank. They may have supposed that every time, after his dive, the "human fish" was carried out that way to get ready for his next act.
For there were other parts to Benny's act. The dive into the water was really only the beginning, and no wonder Jim Tracy was anxious as to what could be done to "fill them in."
For the feats of the "human fish" had been widely advertised, and were "billed big," as it is called, on the posters. If the crowd saw no more than had been given them—merely a high dive into a comparatively shallow tank—there would be grumbling.
But, for the time being, there were no murmurings as the crowd expected Benny to come back.
Into the dressing tent the limp form, clad in its scaly green suit, was tenderly carried.
"You got him out in good shape, Joe, with that elephant hook," said Bill Watson.
"Yes. It came in nicely," said Joe, his eyes fixed on the white face of his friend. What had happened to Benny? Would he live?
Tenderly the boy—for he was only a boy—was laid on one of the cots in the dressing tent. Word of the accident had quickly but quietly passed among the circus folk, and already a messenger was on his way to summon a physician. Meanwhile first aid was being administered, for circus people have to hold themselves ready to deal with all sorts of emergencies and accidents.
"I guess he'll pull through," remarked Bill Watson, when it was seen that Benny was breathing, though very faintly.
"It was a close call," remarked another clown.
"That's what it was," agreed Jim Tracy. "A good thing you saw him in time, Joe."
"It was just chance I did, though I sort of had an eye on him. He said he didn't feel well when he started out to-day."
The physician came in. A quick examination told him the boy would live.
"Though it was a close call," he said. "There's something the matter with him besides nearly having drowned."
"What is it?" asked the ring-master.
"I can't tell. I will have to make a more careful examination—and in a hospital."
"Hospital? Then he can't go on with his act now—I mean in half an hour or so?"
"Go on with his act! I should say not, my dear sir! Why, the boy is near death yet. I must give him heroic treatment. I will call an ambulance."
"All right, doc. You know best. But I don't know what I'm going to do," and Jim Tracy shook a puzzled head. "The crowd will expect the tank act—he didn't do more than start it. It's been advertised all over the country. I don't know where I can get some one to take his place. This sure is hard luck, though, of course, it isn't Ben's fault, and I want you to take the best care of him you can. But who in the world can I put in on the tank act?"
"Put me in," said Joe Strong in a quiet voice.
"You?" cried Jim Tracy.
"Yes," answered the young acrobat "I can fill in all right. Let me finish out Benny's tank act."
JOE IN THE TANK
Jim Tracy seemed hardly to know whether or not Joe was in earnest. They stood together, a little distance away from the cot on which lay Benny Turton, only just recovering consciousness.
"Do you really mean it, Joe?" asked the ring-master.
"I certainly do," was the answer. "I don't say I can do all the tricks Ben did, for I haven't practised them. But I may be able to improvise a few of my own."
"But can you stay under water as long as he could, Joe? That's the point. You know we bill him as remaining under a fraction over four minutes, and challenge the world to produce his equal. We even invite the public to hold their watches and keep time for themselves.
"As a matter of fact, Ben never stayed under more than four minutes, though he once, in his earliest attempts, did make it four even. But the public isn't very critical on that point. As a rule the women get nervous, and I've often heard some of 'em call out to him not to drown himself.
"But the crowd would surely expect the act to last three minutes under water—I mean three minutes at a time. Can you do that?"
"I think I can. In fact I can do better than three minutes."
"Are you sure, Joe?"
"Of course he is," broke in a new voice, and Joe and the ring-master turned to see Helen Morton standing beside them. She had finished her act some time before.
"I heard that something had happened to Benny," she said, "and I came in to see if I could do anything. I heard what you and Joe were saying, Jim, and I couldn't help speaking as I did. I know Joe can stay under water more than three minutes."
"How?" asked the ring-master. He seemed dazed by the way things were happening. "How do you know, Helen?"
"I timed him—I held the watch on him, as you call it."
"That's what she did," confirmed Joe.
He then told, Helen adding her share to the story, how one hot day, being warm from exercises in the circus tent, he had put on a bathing suit, and gone into Benny's glass water-filled tank to cool off. While there Joe, who was an adept in the water, as are many boys who live in the country near a river, decided to test himself for under-water endurance. He filled his lungs with air and went under.
"And he stayed more than three minutes," testified Helen.
"Well, if you can do that, maybe we can pull off the act yet," agreed the ring-master, with a sigh of relief.
There was a hasty consultation. By this time the ambulance had arrived and Benny was put in it to be taken to the hospital. The physician promised to give the boy every attention, and to let the circus management know at once how he was getting along.
"Just what he is suffering, from, I can't say," the doctor stated, "but it is something serious, I fear. It was something that made him incapable of helping himself or calling for help."
"All right, Joe," said the ring-master, when it was certain Benny could not finish his act. "You'd better get ready to go into the tank. Can you wear Benny's suit?"
"I guess so, but it will be a pretty tight fit. It's wet, too, and it isn't going to be easy to get into it."
The green, scaly, fish suit had been taken off Benny before he was put into the ambulance.
Joe found he could squeeze into the suit. It was of rubber, and stretched some.
"I'll be ready in a few minutes," he told the ring-master. "You go out and make whatever announcement you please. Sort of tone it down for me, for I don't know that I can please the public on such short notice, particularly as I haven't practised any of Ben's tricks."
"Can't you do some of your own?" asked Helen, as she was leaving the tent, having come back to see how Joe looked in the fish suit. "I mean some of those you used to do with Professor Rosello?"
"That's so—I might," said Joe reflectively. "I've got a box of apparatus in my trunk."
"I'll help you get it out," offered the pretty little trick rider.
"Thanks," murmured Joe.
Jim Tracy hurried out to the main tent, where he knew the crowd would be waiting for the rest of the tank act. The ring-master signaled to the band that he was going to say something.
The music stopped.
"Ladies and gentlemen," began Jim Tracy, "there has been a slight mishap to Mr. Turton, who, a little while ago, dived into this glass tank which you see before you," and he waved a hand toward the tank. "Mr. Turton is unable to go on with the act for the present, being, in fact, under the care of one of your local physicians. As you all know we advertised to show the 'human fish,' and if there is one thing more than another that the Sampson Brothers try to do it is to keep their word—keep faith—with the public. As we advertise so we do. And I say, without fear of successful contradiction, that there is not one act down on the show bills or posters—not one pageant, not one wild animal, not a riding act, not a driving act, not a trapeze act, which we advertise, that we do not give you complete, in full and in its entirety.
"We have advertised to give you a fancy diving act in a glass tank of water, and you have all seen that. Mr. Turton before he was unfortunately taken ill, did that part of his act. But he is unable to go on. And I am now about to introduce to you a young man who will take his place. You have all seen him. But a little while ago he thrilled you, in company with his partners, the Lascalla Brothers, in a high trapeze act. It was while doing this that the young man I am about to bring to your favorable notice saw Mr. Turton in distress in the tank. Mr. Joe Strong, as he is known in private life, acted promptly and pulled Mr. Turton from the tank. He saved his life, though, in order not to alarm you, we did not let that fact become known until just now."
There was a murmur in the crowd, and some applause. Clearly the announcement was a surprise.
"What do you think of that?" was asked on all sides.
"And now," went on Jim Tracy, "following the invariable policy of the Sampson Brothers' Circus, we are going to keep our word again, and give you just what we advertised we would—a wonderful under-water act, full of thrills, and interesting in the extreme. But I must crave your slight indulgence, and I feel sure that, under the circumstances, you will extend it to, not only myself and the show management, but to the young man who has volunteered to take the place of the 'human fish' on such short notice.
"You will see by the circus posters that we claim Mr. Turton can stay under water four minutes. This he has done time and again, as you who have seen him before can bear witness. And if any of you think it is easy to do that, just take out your watch, and hold your breath for four minutes out here in the tent—not under water, where to breathe means death—yes, ladies and gentlemen—death!"
The ring-master paused impressively.
"Now we do not claim that Mr. Strong will be able to stay under water four minutes. Three, I believe, is his limit. But you must remember, ladies and gentlemen, that he is doing this act in public for the first time, and that merely to help out the show and prevent you from being disappointed.
"He will endeavor to remain under water three minutes at a time, and will also offer for your approval a few tricks. But I wish to state that staying under water even three minutes is a feat of no mean ability. We do not say that no one else can do it, though we have a standing offer of a thousand dollars to any one who will duplicate the feat of Mr. Turton, and remain under four minutes. But under the circumstances that offer is withdrawn.
"But if any of you think it is easy to stay under three minutes just try to hold your breath for the time Mr. Strong remains under water. I venture to say none of you can do it."
Again the ring-master paused for dramatic effect. Then he took out his watch, and looked toward the entrance to the dressing tent. One of the attendants signaled that Joe was ready.
"Ladies and gentlemen," went on Jim Tracy, "I now take great pleasure in introducing to you Joe Strong, the boy fish, and I crave your slight indulgence under the circumstances. Remember he is only filling in at an emergency. So do not be over critical. Mr. Strong!"
The band blared out as Joe walked up on the platform beside the ring-master and threw off his bath robe, revealing himself in the scaly green suit Benny had worn.
Joe bowed right and left.
"I will now leave Mr. Strong to entertain you, my friends," concluded the ring-master.
There was another blare of music, and Joe started up the steps that led to the platform from which Benny had dived. Joe was going to start the trick in the same way.
"Though I hope what happened to Benny, whatever it was, doesn't happen to me," thought the young acrobat.
He poised for an instant on the small platform, and then with a quick spring launched himself into the air. Joe brought into play one of his trapeze tricks, and turned three somersaults before he struck the water. In he went, with a little splash, and, a moment later, he opened his eyes under water, staring out through the glass sides of the tank at the expectant throngs in the circus tent.
There was applause at Joe's rather fancy dive—a more elaborate entering of the water than Benny had been in the habit of presenting. But Joe could not hear the people clapping, for he was under water, and all sound was lost to him. He could, however, see the motions of their hands, and by the interested looks on their faces he judged that the audience was pleased.
"Now if I don't get rattled when I do some of my tricks, I may be able to pull off a good stunt in the tank," thought Joe. "Well, here goes for it, anyhow."
All this while, of course, Joe was under water and could not breathe. But he had first deflated and then inflated his lungs to their fullest capacity, and he felt sure he could remain at least three minutes, possibly longer, without coming to the surface.
The glass tank in which Joe was performing—Benny's tank, to be exact, for the "human fish" owned it—was practically a big glass box. That is, four sides of it were of glass, measuring eight feet each way, thus giving Joe nearly eight feet of water into which to dive.
Not a very great depth for a high dive, but there are tricks of diving, as all know, and dives from a pole sixty feet high into a tank not more than four feet deep have been made. For this the instant the surface of the water is struck the body must curve upward, also curving upward the extended arms and hands. The result is a "shallow dive," and a shot to the surface of the water almost as soon as it is entered. However, a dive into shallow water is always a dangerous thing even for an expert swimmer.
The glass tank was then of good size for the purpose for which it was designed. The top was, of course, fully open, and the bottom was of metal, covered with a layer of white sand. This not only made an agreeable surface on which the performer could recline, but it reflected the light, and made every action of the person under water visible to the audience.
The glass, being on all four sides of the tank, of course gave a clear view all around the big circus ring, and as the tank stood on a raised platform the "human fish" act was one of the best-viewed acts in the show. At each corner of the tank were heavy metal strips which held the glass sides. The metal strips were bound with rubber to prevent leakage.
As has been said, Joe deflated his lungs just before he took his dive. He did this by standing in a drooping position, with his shoulders sagging forward. He actually pressed from his lungs all the air possible. This was to enable him to fill them again with a fresh supply, rich in oxygen. For it is with the air he takes into his lungs before he plunges into the water that a diver keeps himself alive.
Joe had watched Benny inflate his lungs, and Joe himself had a way of his own of doing this, for he had often swum comparatively long distances under water when a boy, and he had learned the necessity of fully and properly filling his lungs with air.
"Well, it seems to be going all right so far," thought Joe as he found that it was no harder to stay under water now than it was the time he had practised before in the tank, with Helen timing him. "Now for a few tricks."
It had been Benny's habit to swim about after entering the tank, imitating a fish as nearly as possible. Perhaps it would be more correct to say a seal; for a seal in the water more nearly resembles a human being than does a fish, which has no need of breathing air into the lungs, as a seal does. The gills of a fish are so constructed as to extract the oxygen from water, serving the purpose the lungs do in the air. Probably all know that a fish can "drown," if the functions of the gills are interfered with.
"Now for some fancy swimming," thought Joe. He began whirling about in the water, as he had seen Benny do, turning over and over in a graceful fashion, just as a seal does. Joe really turned backward and forward somersaults under water, but of course he did it more slowly than the feats would be performed in the air. And in a sense it was easier, for the water supported him all around.
For the present Joe was not trying for an endurance test, and when he had shown three or four different styles of swimming—the old-fashioned breast stroke, the Australian crawl, the overhand style, and so on—he came up.
This was not done to get air, as he had not been under more than two minutes, and he could stay much longer than that. But it was to make the act last a little longer, and to give the ring-master a chance to make a further announcement as to what was to take place.
Always, on a stage, in a theatre or in a circus, the effect of an act is "heightened" as it is called, it is made more dramatic and the public is more deeply impressed, if some one, even the performer, states just what is going to be done, with, perhaps, a reference to the danger or difficulty of it. In this case there was no particular danger, as Joe could come up whenever he wanted to. But it is not easy to stay under water for three minutes.
Joe shot up to the top of the water, and climbed, dripping wet, out on to the rubber-covered platform. He nodded to Jim Tracy to let the ring-master know he was now ready for the second part of the performance.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" cried the circus man, "Mr. Strong will now show you how long he can remain under water. He is going to attempt to stay three minutes—possibly longer. Of course that is not the record, but you are aware of the circumstances under which this act is being done to-day. During his stay under water Mr. Strong will do some tricks to amuse you. Ready!"
The band blared out as Joe bowed, and once more he made himself ready for the under-water act. While Jim Tracy had been speaking Joe had deflated his lungs, and now he took a full, long and deep breath. Then in he plunged.
As soon as he was on the bottom of the tank, lying full length on the bed of soft white sand, an attendant lowered to him a metal box containing some of Joe's trick apparatus.
"If I have to do this tank act often I can get some water-proof apparatus made," thought Joe. "But I guess Benny will be back on the job in a few days. I might teach him how to do tricks."
Raising himself on his elbow, with his head resting on his hand in a careless and comfortable attitude, as though lying under water without breathing were the most natural thing in the world, Joe juggled with three small iron balls, using only one hand. It was an easy enough trick to do "on land" so to speak, but Joe found that the balls did not move so freely in the water, and he had to make his motions slower. However, the trick seemed to be appreciated, for he could see the people applauding.
"If I only had some celluloid playing cards, I could do some tricks with those under water," Joe reasoned, as he kept juggling the balls. "Water won't hurt celluloid. I must have a pack made." Joe was an adept at card tricks, and they would show off well under water, he thought.
In order that the audience on all sides of him might see, Joe now turned slowly about under water, facing to the four sections of the tank.
He was beginning to wonder how many minutes had now ticked off, but he knew it could not be three yet, though he was beginning to feel the strain. He had not had as much practice at holding his breath under water as Benny Turton.
"It might be a good thing to have a clock just outside the tank where I could look at it," thought Joe. "That's another point I'll suggest to Benny when he gets back to work."
After his juggling act was over Joe did a few simple "disappearance" tricks—that is he showed objects, such as cubes and balls, in his hands and then, by a mere motion, he caused them to vanish. This he accomplished by the familiar "palming" method. Also he concealed the things in the false bottoms of two metal vases he was using under water.
It was not a very finished performance, and Joe really had not had time to work out as many details as he wished. But he was doing very well, and the audience seemed pleased. At any rate a panic had been averted and the circus crowd was not given a chance to find fault because something down on the programme had not been given. The management had kept faith with the public.
Joe's head was beginning to ache a little now, and his chest felt the strain of holding his breath. But he was not going to come up yet. Benny had done a trick of picking up in his mouth a number of metal coins from the bottom of the tank. Joe wished he had practised that trick, but he had not, and he knew it would be risky to attempt it. However, he decided to try and see if he could open his mouth under water.
It was not easy, but he did it. A little water got down his throat, but he found that by pressing the back of his tongue up against his soft palate he could close the opening to the throat and wind-pipe, and, at the same time, open his mouth.
"If I keep on I'll be able to eat under water," thought Joe, "and that's something Ben can't do—or, at least, hasn't done."
Then Joe bethought himself of a little finish to his tank act. He knew he must bring it to a close soon now, for he was about at the limit of his ability to hold his breath.
It might be said that the ability to hold one's breath differs greatly in individuals. It follows that a person of large lung capacity is able to fill himself with a greater amount of oxygen than a person whose lungs are not well developed.
The world's record, it is said, is four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, and is held by a man. A girl, about eighteen years old, has remained under water doing various things, such as picking up objects in her mouth, three and a half minutes. It can be seen that it is not always a man or a boy who has the largest lung capacity. This girl was not remarkable for size, being, in fact, rather frail. But she had under-water endurance down to a science, and it is even said that her last record was four minutes.
Sponge and pearl divers of tropical countries are credited with power to remain under water for long periods—some claim five minutes—but the records give about three minutes as the average, though it is possible that some exceptional individual may equal five minutes. But they have to work hard while under water, and, of course, divers go deeper than the eight feet in Joe's tank.
Opening his mouth under water gave the young performer an idea.
He stretched out his arms in a tired and lazy manner, yawned with wide-open mouth as though sleepy, and then, using the box his tricks came in as a pillow, he stretched out on the sandy bottom of the tank, and pretended to go to sleep.
And this, coming at the end of his little performance, and when he had been under water nearly three minutes, made quite an impression on the crowd. There was some laughter at Joe's comical antics, but there were also murmurs of wonder at his endurance.
However, Joe was about at the end of this now. His head felt dizzy and it seemed as if his lungs would burst through his chest, so great was the confined pressure on them now.
Still he knew he must not hurry up, gasping for breath. Benny never did that, but came out as though he could have stayed under all day if he had cared to. It made a far neater finish to the act.
So Joe slowly opened his eyes, pretended to look at a watch as though it were time to get up, and then he slowly floated to the top of the water.
And oh! how good it did feel to get that breath of air. He wanted to gulp in a whole lot of it at once, but he held himself in reserve, and tried to breathe naturally. It was hard work, though.
"Three minutes and four seconds!" announced the ring-master, as he held up his watch. "If I am wrong correct me, friends."
"Good work! Fine, Joe!" cried the ring-master. "You saved the day for us. I put some one else on your trapeze for the time being. I thought you wouldn't want to go on."
"No, hardly. Glad you did. Do you think it went all right?"
"It sure did!"
"Oh, Joe! I'm so glad—for you!" exclaimed Helen as the young performer went down the steps to the ground.
"Look out! I'll get you all wet!" he warned her.
"I don't mind," she answered blushingly. "Oh, it was great!"
"I'll do better, next time," Joe said. "I wonder how Benny is? I think I'll go to the hospital and find out as soon as I get into my regular clothes."
"I'll go with you," offered Helen.
The two young people, their circus work over for the afternoon, were soon on their way to the hospital. The doctor who had attended Benny in the tent met them.
"Well, what's the news?" asked Joe.
"It's bad, I'm sorry to say," was the answer.
"Is—is Benny going to die?" asked Helen, clasping Joe's arm.
"No, he won't die, but it will be a long while before he can join the circus again."
Joe Strong gave a low whistle. It expressed at once surprise and dismay. He looked at Helen, and saw in her eyes deep sorrow for the unfortunate youth. For Benny Turton was loved by every one in the circus. His act was so peculiar that there was no professional jealousy against him, as there was against other performers, including Joe. And Benny was a gentle youth.
"Not able to join the circus again," repeated Joe.
"No," replied the physician.
"What is the trouble?" Helen queried. "Was he hurt in the tank?"
"Well, it wasn't an accident, if you mean it that way," went on the doctor. "But his injuries and condition are due to long-continued tank-work."
"How is that?" inquired Joe. He was interested, not only because he liked Benny Turton, but from a personal standpoint. Joe might have to give several more performances in the tank before some one was obtained to fill Benny's place, or until a new "thriller" was substituted for the tank scene, and Joe did not wish to run any chances. He had felt no ill effects from his immersion, save a slight inconvenience due to holding his breath, and this had passed as soon as he was out of the water.
"Your friend Benny's trouble," said the physician, "is due to staying so long under water. I don't mean staying under too long at one time—there is a limit which nature fixes in that case. But I understand he has been doing this act twice a day now for some years. He works, so I am told, under about eight feet of water. Of course divers have withstood greater pressures than that, but Benny has done it so constantly that he had injured himself."
"Permanently?" Joe asked.
"That remains to be seen. But it is certain now that he is in great danger of becoming deaf and dumb."
"Oh!" exclaimed Helen, sympathetically. "Poor Benny, never to speak or hear again!"
"Well, we may be able to save him, but that can not yet be said with certainty," stated the doctor. "You see the water pressure on his ear drums, and on his vocal cords, caused by his act in picking up coins in his mouth while under water, has, to a certain extent, injured them. He is in a bad way now."
"Can he speak?" asked Helen.
"Only a little. And he can hear less."
"We'd like to see him," put in Joe.
"I think that can be arranged," the doctor said. "I'll go and find out how he is now."
"That was the meaning of all the pains and queer feelings Benny had," said Joe to Helen, as they were left alone in the waiting room of the hospital. "You know he often spoke about a pain at the back of his head."
"Yes, you mentioned it several times," Helen remarked. "Oh, I am so sorry for him! I wonder if there is anything we can do for him."
"I'll find out when we see him," answered Joe. "But I don't know what I ought to do. If he can't go on with his act to-night——"
"Oh, surely he can't!" Helen interrupted.
"No, I reckon not," Joe agreed slowly. "Well, that means I'll have to do it, I suppose, if they have it billed. It won't do to shut it off suddenly. We'll have to wait until we get to another town, and we show here another day. I guess I'll have to let Jim Tracy know that Benny won't be with the show again right away."
"I suppose that would be best," Helen said. "We'll go back to the tent as soon as we've seen Benny."
They found the young circus tank-actor propped up in the clean, white hospital bed, with a pleasant-faced nurse hovering about him. Benny looked pale and wan, though perhaps some of his pallor was caused by the white pillows and bedspread.
"Well, old man, how goes it?" asked Joe, as he walked up, with extended hand.
Benny smiled, but did not answer.
"You'll have to speak louder," the nurse said. "He's quite deaf, you know."
Joe, for the moment, had forgotten. He repeated his question in louder tones.
Benny fumbled under the bedclothes and brought out a pad and pencil.
"The doctor doesn't want him to speak for a while," the nurse explained, for the physician, after telling Joe and Helen they might go up, had been called to see another patient. "He will write his answers, and he can hear if you speak quite loudly."
"I'm feeling better. Glad you came. What did they do about my act?"
"Oh, I went through with it—after a fashion," said Joe, making himself understood. "It's all right, Ben. I didn't do as well as you, of course, and I couldn't stay under as long. But I did the best I could."
"We're mighty sorry this happened to you, but if you take a rest you'll be all right again."
"That's just it," Benny wrote on the pad. "I can't afford to take a rest. I must get back as soon as I can to help support my mother."
Joe did not know what to say. But he shook his head, and, after a moment's thought, remarked.
"Well, you can't work to-night, Ben, so I'll go into the tank again for you. After that we'll see what's to be done. Now don't you worry, everything will be all right."
"We all miss you," said Helen, as she shook hands with the youth. "Get well as soon as you can and come back to us."
Benny nodded, and tears came into his eyes, so that he turned away his head.
"I don't like to drive you away," the nurse put in smiling, "but I think he has seen you long enough for the present."
"May I come back later?" asked Joe.
"Perhaps—if the doctor says so. But we'll take good care of him."
"Oh, I know that!" Joe declared.
He and Helen bade Benny good-bye and went out, feeling rather sad. It had all happened so suddenly, and the prospects were not very bright for the young circus performer.
"What's to be done?" asked Helen.
"I don't know," Joe was frank enough to say. "I'll have to have a talk with Jim Tracy."
The ring-master shook his head when Joe reported to him the unsatisfactory result of the visit to the hospital.
"It looks bad, Joe," said Jim.
"That's what I think."
"Can you go into the tank again to-night?"
"I guess so. You'll have to fill in part of my trapeze work though."
"Well, I can do that more easily than I can get some one to work the tank act. It's lucky you practised that."
"It was luck—nothing else. Well, I'll do the best I can. I'm going to see Benny to-morrow, and there may be a change for the better."
"I hope there is. I don't want to lose him out of the show."
Joe went into the tank again at night. It was rather more spectacular in the evening, for special lights above the big glass box filled with water made it sparkle when the bubbles arose as Joe went through one trick after another.
He did pretty much as he had done in the afternoon, and his act was even better received. The crowd applauded loudly. Joe did not try to stay under water any longer at the evening performance than he had done in the afternoon.
"Time enough to work up that end of it if I have to keep on with the act," he thought.
When he saw Benny at the hospital the next day, it was made certain that Joe would have to keep on with the act, at least for the present, if it was to be billed with the circus.
Poor Benny was worse, instead of better. He could hardly hear and he was too weak to write much. But he did manage to scribble a note:
"Dear Joe," he wrote. "I don't know what to do. I haven't been able to save any money, and my mother is an invalid, needing much care. I must try to get back to the tank as soon as possible."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," wrote Joe in reply, for he did not wish to shout for fear of annoying the patients in the rooms near by. "Now don't worry, Ben. It will be all right."
Then Joe wrote out a promise, the keeping of which made quite a change in his prospects, and, for a time, caused him to be misjudged by his friends.
But Benny had a happier look on his face when Joe went out, and the suffering boy put under his pillow a precious piece of paper.
THE SHOW MOVES ON
"What's the news?" asked Jim Tracy, as Joe came back from the hospital.
"Not very good," was the reply. "Benny's worse."
"Then he won't be with us to-day?"
"No, and not for some days to come, I fancy."
"Will you do the act this afternoon and to-night then, Joe? You see we've billed it big here, and it's too late to make a change in this town. When we move on we can drop out that act without its being so noticeable. If necessary I can have that part of our bill poster advertising covered up with blank sheets, though I hate to. But that's all there is to be done if Benny can't act."
"No, he can't act," Joe said. "I'll go on to-day, of course. The Lascalla Brothers won't kick, will they?"
"I don't care if they do. You can do your principal stunts with them, and we'll shove the tank act back on the programme so as to give you a chance to make the change. I suppose, though, if you keep too much out of the Lascalla act they will be kicking."
"They may want another partner," suggested Joe.
"That's right," agreed the ring-master. "But there's one thing, though. If they ask to have Sim Dobley back again I'll tell 'em it can't be done. I won't have that fellow around. That's flat, let me tell you."
Sim Dobley at one time was one of the Lascalla trio. He was discharged for misconduct, and Joe was given his place in an emergency. This angered Sim and he threatened revenge. Though the other two Lascallas—Tonzo and Sid—wanted Sim back, and though Joe suspected them of at least once trying to cause him to get a humiliating fall, nothing had come of Sim's threats.
"Yes, they may want him back," Joe admitted. "But I don't know just what I can do. I'll go on with as much of my trapeze work here as I can, and also do the tank act. But when we move on——"
"We'll talk of that later," interrupted the ring-master. "Well, what is it?" he asked as a man came running up to him.
"A boy just got clawed by the lion," the man said. "Went too near the cage."
"Blame those kids!" cried Jim. "Well, I'll be right over. Have some of the animal men attend to the lad, and I'll get a doctor. Was he one of our boys?"
"No, some kid who wanted to carry water for the elephants. He isn't clawed bad—just on his hand."
"Well, I'm glad it isn't bad."
In spite of his vexation against the lad, Jim had a kind spot in his heart.
The ring-master went to see about the lad, who, it appeared, in his eagerness to get a view of the animals in their cages, had gone too near the one containing a dangerous lion. With a quick, cat-like motion of his great claw, the big beast had ripped some skin from the boy's outstretched hand. A doctor soon made him comfortable.
Joe looked for Helen to tell her about Benny.
"Oh, I'm so sorry for him!" she exclaimed. "Is there anything I can do?"
"I don't believe so," was the answer. "He'll have to stay in the hospital for a while."
Joe did not find it exactly easy to fill the role of two performers, but he did his best, and cheerfully, for he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Jim Tracy for giving him a chance in the circus.
Joe first had to dress for the trapeze work, and go through with those exploits which were not easy, especially the long swing and the triple suspension. Then Joe, alone, did an act which has been fully described in the book just previous to this one. It is called the "drop back to instep hang," and Joe did it in such a way that it was very thrilling. The act looked as though an accident had happened and that Joe was falling from the trapeze. But he caught himself in the nick of time.
Joe also did some tricks on a long suspended rope, fastened high in the tent. He slid rapidly down this, headforemost, without the use of his hands. He dropped until it seemed certain that his head would hit the ground, but he stopped himself when about an inch away, amid the plaudits of the crowd.
Then, when he had finished this thrilling work, Joe had to hurry to the dressing tent and put on the green fish suit.
The young "fish" was more at home in the tank on the second day than he had been when he first made his bow to the public in the shimmering, green, scaly suit. He was not so nervous, and this made it easier for him to hold his breath.
Joe also worked in a few new tricks. He spent the morning of the second day of the circus going over his box of apparatus, and he made some changes in certain pieces to enable them to be used under water. Joe tried to get some celluloid playing cards, but found they would have to be made to order, so he wrote to Professor Rosello, his former chief, and asked him to get them for him.
The professor was still resting, and his show, under lease, was on the road. Joe kept up a correspondence with the man who had given him such a good start toward becoming a public entertainer, and the professor was always glad to hear of the success of his protege.
The circus performers who knew Benny, and there were few who at least did not have some sort of an acquaintance with him, were very sorry to learn of his disablement.
"Well, it's too bad he can't be with us!" said motherly Mrs. Talfo, the fat woman. "Benny sure was a nice little boy, and I'm certainly sorry for him."
"So am I," affirmed Senorita Tanlozo, the snake charmer. "He got me some medicine once, when I had a terrible toothache, and I'll never forget it."
"And will he not ever be able to appear in public again?" asked Senor Bogardi, the lion tamer.
"I don't know about that," answered Joe. "Never is a long while. He'll have to stay in the hospital for some time, the doctor says."
"Ugh! Hospitals!" exclaimed Madame Bullriva, the strong woman. "Deliver me from them. They mean all right—those doctors and nurses—but it's awful trying to lie on your back and want a drink of water."
"Especially if you happen to know that you could get up and lift a barrel of it, if you weren't ill," put in Tonzo Lascalla. "Yes, I, too, am sorry for Benny. But it is what will happen to all of us in this business."
"What will happen?" asked the snake charmer.
"Oh, we will be down and out some day. You may play once too often with that big constrictor which you let twine about your waist. Some day he will squeeze you too hard—Poof! You are dead!"
"Well, I must say you are not very cheerful!" exclaimed Senorita Tanlozo.
"Oh, well, what matter?" asked the trapeze performer, with a shrug of his shoulders.
The circus parade was over. The procession had returned to the grounds and dinner was being served. The afternoon performance would soon be under way.
"Well, Joe, all ready for another swim?" asked Helen, as she passed the "boy fish" (as he had been dubbed by some) on her way to look after Rosebud.
"Yes, all ready to get wet again," he answered. "How's the nice horse?"
"All right. He was asking for you," and she laughed at her little joke.
Joe's trapeze work went off well, and, hurrying to the dressing tent, he donned the green suit. Again the ring-master made his announcement about Joe, and the youth, inflating his lungs to their capacity, plunged in.
Joe knew the value of a laugh, even in a thrilling scene, and this time he had prepared a few simple but laughable tricks to perform under water. They all worked well, and Joe brought the act to a close with his "sleep," which again won him applause.
That afternoon Joe paid another visit to the hospital where Benny was a patient. The "human fish" was in great pain, and Joe could only see him for a few minutes.
"I think we shall have to operate on him, eventually," the doctor said.
Joe wrote Benny a cheering message, and hurried back to the tent to get ready for the evening performance.
The tank act went off well, and to add to it Bill Watson, the veteran clown, rigged up a pole and line, and pretended to be fishing in the big glass box. Joe, who entered into the spirit of the occasion, caught the hook as he was lying on the sandy bottom, and fastened on it a rubber boot, which Bill pulled up and regarded with comical gravity.
When amid applause Joe came up out of the tank after an immersion of nearly three and a quarter minutes, Jim Tracy gave orders to have the water emptied out, and the tank packed for transportation. The glass sides were removable.
"I don't know whether we'll have any use for it again or not," said the ring-master. "How about it, Joe?"
"I'll tell you later," was the answer.
"Say, what about Benny Turton?" asked Tom Jefferson, the strong man, as the performance came to a close and the crowd was filing out. "Can he travel on with us?"
"No," answered Joe. "He will have to stay behind when the show goes on."
And, as the circus was to play in another town the next day, the show "moved on."
Benny Turton, the "human fish," was left behind. But it had to be so. There was no other way.
"Poor boy," murmured Helen, as she thought of the slight figure resting in the white hospital bed. "Poor boy! I suppose they'll all forget him soon—when they have a new act in place of his."
But Joe Strong did not forget the promise which he had written on Benny's pad—the promise which was under the pillow of the "human fish."
Joe Strong turned over in his berth in the circus sleeping car. Something had awakened him from a sound sleep. At first he was not aware what it was, but as his brain cleared he realized that it was some sound of confusion outside the car.
"Where are we?" he asked, for he saw Tonzo Lascalla, his trapeze partner, peering from between the curtains of his berth across the aisle.
"I think we are in," was the answer, meaning that the circus train had reached its destination. "We are on the siding, but it isn't time to get up yet, thank goodness."
"Yes, let us sleep," begged a yawning voice. "Keep still, can't you?"
"Sounds as if something had happened," commented Joe. He looked out of the window of his berth, but it was too dark yet to see more than a confused jumble of black shapes moving about. Joe saw another train on the track alongside of the sleeping cars. It was a train of "flats," on which the animal cages were carried.
"Look out now! There he goes! Get after him, some of you men!" a voice ordered.
There was a crash of breaking wood, more shouts and the noise of a cracking whip.
"Or maybe shots!" exclaimed Joe, half aloud. "I wonder if any of the wild animals have escaped."
A moment later, however, there was the sound of laughter.
"Whoop!" a man yelled. "Here he comes at us! Look out! There, he's got Bill down!"
There were excited yells, and a voice, presumably Bill's, was heard to exclaim:
"Get off my leg, you big brute! Wow! If you step on me again I'll be as flat as a board seat! Here, somebody take him off me!"
There was a stir inside the sleeping car, for most of the occupants were now awake.
"For the love of Mike!" grumbled Tom Jefferson, the strong man. "Can't they let a person get his sleep? Are they giving a private rehearsal out there, or what's going on?"
"I guess some of the animals are loose," said Joe, "though it doesn't seem to be serious."
More shouts, mingled with laughter, seemed to testify to this view of it.
"I'm going out to see what it is," decided Joe. He looked off toward the east. A faint glow there told that dawn was beginning to break, though it was still very dark. "I've had enough sleep," Joe reasoned, "and I can't get any more with all that racket going on under my car window."
He quickly dressed and went out, he alone of those in his car caring to see what the trouble was. The rest of the circus men preferred to turn over for a possible "forty winks" more.
As Joe was making his way toward the place where he could see a crowd of men about some central object, he heard a voice calling to him from one of the windows of the sleeping car occupied by the women of the circus troupe.
"What has happened?" some one asked. "Is it a wreck?"
"No, nothing as bad as that, I guess, Helen," Joe replied, recognizing the tones of the pretty trick rider. "Some of the animals seem to be out. I'm going to see."
"Come back and tell me about it. I hope it isn't one of the cats."
"So do I," Joe said. "But I don't believe it is. I'll let you know."
Circus folk and animal men in general speak of lions, tigers and other beasts of the feline tribe as "cats," and elephants, camels, horses and their like are known in show parlance as "hay animals," because hay is their principal fodder.
Joe hurried on to the crowd gathered about one of the flat cars.
"Look out! He's loose again!" came the yell, and Joe saw the crowd part, and a big ungainly animal come charging through.
"It's the hippopotamus!" cried Joe. "The big brute is loose!"
The big animal, the "blood-sweating behemoth of Holy Writ," as it is sometimes called on the circus bills, was out of his tank wagon, and seemed to enjoy his liberty.
"Look out there!" some one in the crowd yelled to Joe. "If he stamps on you there won't be anything left of you."
"I guess that'll be true enough," thought Joe. For the hippopotamus weighed nearly two tons, being one of the largest specimens in captivity.
On came the big beast, now and then opening its huge mouth, as Joe could see in the light that was beginning to break. Some of the crowd of men came rushing after the hippopotamus with ropes, but the animal moved faster than one would suppose a creature of his bulk could travel.
"Stop him! Stop him, somebody!" came a voice. "If he gets on the track an engine may hit him!"
That, Joe knew, would be a serious loss. For the animal was valuable, having cost the Sampson Brothers four thousand dollars originally, and his value had increased. Joe remembered hearing that Jumbo, the big elephant, many years ago, had been struck by an engine and killed, his skeleton now being in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"Get him! Get him!" begged the head animal man.
"I wish I could!" thought Joe.
As he moved to get out of the way of the beast the young acrobat stumbled over a coil of rope which had been used to let some of the heavy wagons down the gangplank off the flat cars.
"If I could only lasso him with the rope it might stop him," thought Joe. "But I don't know how to manage a lasso, even if I could tie a noose in this rope. And I don't see how one lassoes a hippo anyhow. However, here goes! I'll do the best I can. Maybe I can tangle his feet up in the kinks of the rope so he'll fall."
Joe caught up the rope, and, without trying to straighten out the coils, threw it at the big animal, which was opposite him, Joe having leaped to one side. And he did by accident what the circus men had for some time been trying to do by design. He threw coils of the rope about the short legs of the "river horse" and down went the hippopotamus with a thud.
"That's the stuff! Good work!" cried the animal's keeper. "Quick now, boys! Rope him!"
Before the beast could get up he was pounced upon by a crowd of the animal men and securely bound with ropes.
"Whew!" exclaimed the keeper, as he faced Joe in the now gray dawn of the morning, "that was some work!"
"How did he get loose?" Joe asked.
"The bottom dropped out of his wagon. Must have been rotten. He dropped with it and started off on his own hook. He walked all over a lot of us while we were trying to corner him."
"Walked on us! Say, he danced a jig on my stomach!" complained Bill Dudley, one of the animal men, as he came limping up. "Have you got him safe?"
"Yes," replied the keeper.
"Well, don't let him get loose again. He almost made a pancake of me!"
The circus men now led the subdued beast to temporary quarters until his own cage could be repaired, and the work of unloading the rest of the circus was proceeded with.
"Is it all right?" Helen asked Joe, as he walked back to his car.
"Yes. The excitement is all over. It was the hippo," and he told what had taken place.
"And you caught him?" asked Helen.
"Oh, it was just luck," said Joe modestly. "I didn't take any chances, you may be sure."
"Maybe he thought you were a friend of his, because you work in a tank, too," laughed Helen, for the wagon in which the hippopotamus was kept was in two parts, one end being a tank for water.
"Maybe," agreed Joe. And at that laughing speech there came to mind a matter he knew must be settled. What would be done about Benny's tank act? The question would come up that day.
Breakfast was served to the circus folk in the big tent, which had been put up in advance. The earliest arrivals at the circus ground are the tent men, the cooks with their big stoves on heavy wagons, and the animals. So that when the performers get up they generally find a hot breakfast ready for them.
After the meal Joe strolled across the lot, watching the men at work. Some of them were gathered about the wagon containing the glass tank in which Benny, the "human fish," had done his act.
"You needn't open that," said Jim Tracy, who was already around, looking after his many duties. "We won't set up the tank."
"Why not?" asked one of the men.
"Because Benny isn't with us any more. We'll have to cut out the fish act."
Joe Strong heard this, and came to a sudden decision—and yet not so sudden, either, for he had given it considerable thought.
"Look here, Mr. Tracy," he said. "I don't believe we'll have to give up the tank act after all."
"Well, can't I do it well enough?"
"Oh, it isn't a question of that, Joe. You sure did make a hit with it. But I thought you'd rather keep at your trapeze work."
"So I would—for a while at any rate. But why can't I do part of the trapeze act, and the rest of my stunts in the tank? I like it. I'm sure I can do better the more practice I have. I'll make you that offer—to do the tank act and as much of my trapeze work as I have time for. What do you say?"
"Why, I guess I'll say 'yes,'" replied the ring-master. "I only thought you were doing it to fill in at our opening engagement; to prevent the public's howling, Joe. But if you want to keep on with it, why, I'm willing, and thankful too."
"All right, I'll do it!" decided Joe.
"Good! Unpack the tank, boys!" cried Jim Tracy. "Set her up and fill her with water. We'll have a 'boy fish' act after all!"
Since Joe Strong had decided that he would make of the tank act a better performance than had been possible the first two days of the opening of the circus season, he now resolved to watch the setting up of the big glass box. Joe wanted to learn all he could about the accessories of the act, for he had some new ideas he intended to put into effect if he found that he could succeed in the new work that had come to him by accident.
"Perhaps I can get up a new idea in regard to dressing the act," thought Joe. "If I can, it may take even better than it has, and I can hold the public with me until I can develop my lung power and stay under an even four minutes, or perhaps longer."
To "dress an act" means, in stage language, to set up the scenery and to wear certain costumes, in other words the external fittings that serve to make the act more or less spectacular.
Some acts are "dressed" very simply. That is, there may be only a simple room scene, with a table or chair. Then the actor depends on his action or his "lines" to make an impression on the public.
Another act may be a very showy one with elaborate fittings and expensive costumes, and in this case, as a rule, the acting proper and the lines are not of so much importance.
In Joe's case he had no "lines," or spoken words, to attract the attention of his audience. It is hard to make the voice carry in a big circus tent, and even an accomplished ring-master often fails in this respect. Of course in Joe's case he could not talk under water, and aside from the introduction on the part of Jim Tracy there were no "lines."
"But I have an idea," mused Joe, "that I could dress the act differently from Benny's performance. He had it a little too plain. I don't know just what I want, but it's got to be something different. I'm going to experiment."
Of course there was no time that day to make changes. Already it was nearly time for the parade to be formed on the circus grounds. Joe, as well as several of the other performers, did not go in the parade, for they had to get ready the special apparatus connected with their acts. In Joe's case, he had to look after his trapezes, and now, in addition, the tank, in order to make sure that all was in proper shape. Of course there were men whose duties were to see to these things for the performers, but Joe took no chances—he supervised everything himself very carefully, as did Tonzo and Sid Lascalla.
For when one's life depends on the strength of a wooden bar or on the firmness of a rope, it behooves one to look well to the apparatus.
In regard to the tank, of course, there was comparatively little danger, even should one of the glass sides break or a leak occur. The worst would be that the water would escape and the act be spoiled. But Joe did not want that to happen, so he carefully watched the men as they took out the parts of the tank and began fitting them together on the raised platform where Joe's act would occur.
A supply of white sand for the bottom of the tank was carried with the glass box. When the water was drained off it after the night performance, the sand was put in a box to be used over again.
Joe watched the men slip the big sheets of heavy plate glass into the metal holding strips at the corners of the tank and tighten up the rubber water-proof fittings. Then the sand was spread over the bottom, the steps, by which Joe reached a little platform on the edge of the water-filled tank, were put in place, and the act was nearly "set."
"Well, I guess I can't do much more with it now," thought Joe as he saw the tank completed. "I'd better see about my trapezes."
As he crossed to another part of the tent he saw Helen giving some orders about a few pieces of apparatus she used in her tricks with Rosebud.
"Well, Joe," asked the girl, "you haven't caught any more hippos, have you?"
"No, Helen, one a day is enough. How is everything with you?"
"All right. I'm going to give Rosebud his sugar."
"I'll walk along with you. I'm going to see about my trapezes."
"Oh, aren't you going to do the tank act? I thought I saw the men setting it up."
"You did. I'm going to do a double turn—at least for a while."
"Good luck to you!"
Joe's trapeze work was simpler now that he had added the underwater feature to his circus acts, and it did not take him long to see that the bars, ropes and rings were in perfect condition, all fastenings secure and made so they would not slip when the strain from a long swinging jump came on them.
Then, having a little time on his hands before he would have to go on for the afternoon show, Joe went in to town, to stroll about. The place was filled with country visitors who had come in to see the circus, this being the center of a thriving farming community. Joe, going into a drug store to get an ice cream soda, saw in the window of an establishment next door a large aquarium, in which goldfish were swimming about amid long, waving, green aquatic grass.
"There's my idea!" exclaimed Joe, aloud. "Or one of them, anyhow."
"Did you speak to me?" asked an old gentleman, who was just coming out of the drug store as Joe went in.
"No, sir. I beg your pardon. I just thought of something."
"Oh, I see," and with a smile the gentleman passed on, while Joe, still thinking deeply, went in to get his soda.
"Well?" asked the clerk, suggestively, as Joe paused at the marble fountain.
"I'll have a goldfish sundae," said Joe, reflectively.
"What? Say, come again, young fellow! This isn't a joke shop," and the clerk seemed rather angry.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," Joe hastened to say. "I mean a chocolate nut sundae. I was thinking of goldfish—that's all."
"That's different," laughed the clerk. "I thought you were trying to jolly me with the name of a new drink."
And while Joe ate his cream his thoughts were busy with the idea which had suddenly come to him.
"I wonder if Jim Tracy will stand for it," he mused. "I've a good notion to do it without asking him. If he doesn't like it he can say so, and no great harm's done. I'll stand the expense myself. If I could get hold of the inheritance Bill Watson thinks ought to come to me through my mother, I'd pull off a still bigger stunt in this tank act. But I guess I'll never get any money from England."
So far Joe's efforts to prove that he was entitled to anything from his mother's estate had been unavailing.
"Yes," thought our hero, as he finished his cream and went out, stopping to look at the goldfish in the aquarium, "I'll do it and trust to luck."
Joe went into the store, which was a place where not only fish, but dogs, cats and birds were sold. He remained some little time in conversation with the proprietor, and some money changed hands. Joe was smiling when he came out.
"At least it will be different, whatever else it is," thought the boy fish, as he may now be called, for he was destined to be billed as that later on.
There was so much taking place in the big circus tent, or "main top" as it is called, that Joe's activities around the glass tank were hardly noticed. If any of the circus people saw him they probably believed he was just doing what Benny had often done, looking to see about the temperature of the water, and to be positive that the joints were not leaking.
And when, a little later, a circus attendant brought word to Joe that there was a man with a horse and wagon outside the tent who had a big box for Joe, even that caused no comment, for it was almost time for the show to start and every one was busy about his or her own affairs or special act.
But when Jim Tracy passed the platform on which the tank was standing, and saw a big canvas cover wrapped about the sides of the glass box, he opened his eyes in surprise.
"What's the idea, Joe?" he asked.
"Oh, just a little experiment," was the answer.
"Experiment! You're not going to fall down on the act, are you? Remember we have it billed in this town, and we're likely to play to record-breaking audiences both this afternoon and evening. You're not going to cut out the act, are you, after promising——"
"Cut out the act? Of course not!"
"But putting that canvas around the tank makes it look as though it was out of business."
"Oh, it isn't out of business at all," said Joe with a laugh. "In fact I hope it will draw more business than before. Just leave it to me, Jim. It will be all right, I'm sure. You go ahead and make the usual announcement, only don't pull any four-minute immersion on me, for I'm not up to that yet. Make it three and a quarter if you like, I think I can hold my breath that long."
"But I don't quite see, Joe."
"You don't need to, now. I want to spring it on you, as well as on the public. Just give me a man to yank off the canvas cover when I say the word, and that'll be all I want."
"All right, Joe. It's your affair, as long as you do as we've advertised."
"I'll do that and more, Jim Tracy. Leave it to me."
Joe's trapeze work came first on the programme, and while he liked this as well as ever and did his usual hair-raising feats, this day he was a bit impatient for the act to be over, so he could do what he had planned in the tank.
At last, however, he made his final swing, and dropped down into the life net amid the plaudits of the crowd. Then Joe hurried to the dressing tent to get into Benny's scaly, green, rubber suit.
"That's another thing I'm going to do when I get around to it," thought Joe, as he squeezed himself into the garments. "I'm going to have another suit, different, and of another color. I've got to change this act about to bring it up to my ideas."
Out on the little platform at the edge of the tank, Joe took his place. Jim Tracy, standing near by on the ground, pointed up to the queerly-clad figure and made his usual dramatic announcement.
"And now," finished the ring-master, "the boy fish will show you that it is as easy for him to live, move and have his being under water, as it is for ordinary mortals in the atmosphere of this earth. Ready!"
"Ready!" cried Joe, and he nodded to the attendant who stood ready to pull a rope that would let fall from the tank the canvas that concealed it from view.
A NEW STUNT
There was a hush of expectancy as Joe stood poised on the little platform above the tank. The band, that had blared out when Joe made his bow, had stopped playing, and the drummer was ready to sound a big "boom" on the bass instrument when Joe should plunge into the water.
The canvas came slithering down from around the sides of the glass tank, and at once there arose murmurs of admiration from the big crowd in the tent.
"How pretty!" women's voices said.
"Say, you did pull off something new!" murmured Jim Tracy, greatly pleased.
Joe had transformed the tank into a big aquarium. In the four corners were long, waving, green, aquatic plants, seemingly growing in the white sand.
The plants did not interfere with a view from all four sides through the transparent glass, but they added greatly to the effectiveness of the act. But, more than this, there were a score of large goldfishes swimming about in the tank, their brilliant scales reflecting back the light that came in from top and sides.
"Why, they're real!"
"They're real fish!"
Thus murmured the crowd, and Joe smiled at the sensation he had caused. That had been the idea which had come to him as he saw the aquarium of fish as he was going in to get his ice cream. He had bought the fish from the dealer, as well as the long streamers of aquatic plants, and had placed them in his tank, few if any of the circus folk being aware of the surprise Joe was planning.
"That sure is great!" declared Jim, who was as much surprised as any one in the audience.
Joe waited a moment for the crowd to appreciate the novel and pretty little scenic background he had provided for his act. Then, having inflated his lungs with air, he plunged gracefully into the tank of water.
There was a rush of the real fish to one end as the boy fish came down among them, and the flitting, glittering, golden bodies could easily be seen as they darted to and fro in alarm when Joe settled down on the white, sandy bottom.
Then, prevented by the glass sides from getting too far away from the strange creature who seemed almost as much at home in the water as they were, the fish began swimming about in all directions.
This was just what Joe wanted, for he knew it added to the effectiveness of the act. He believed that the audience would be fascinated in seeing him through the glass, surrounded as he was by real, live, swimming fish.
Waiting a moment to let the golden creatures become quiet, Joe began his own swimming movements, turning, circling and somersaulting in the limpid element. He slowly waved his hands to and fro, pretending to be playing with the fish. Sometimes one or two of them would slip through his fingers, and he might have caught them, only he did not want to injure them.
Joe had bargained for the biggest goldfish he could buy, so they could easily be seen from even the far end of the tent. At night, when there was no sunlight to illuminate the scene, a big gasoline incandescent light overhead and smaller ones arranged like footlights on a stage, to shine up, would make the tank of water even more plainly visible and more brilliant than in the afternoon.
"I guess I didn't make any mistake in this experiment," thought Joe, as he looked out through the glass and saw the crowd applauding.
His swimming exhibition at an end, Joe came out to prepare for the second part of his act—the under-water endurance feat, during which he did several simple tricks.
"Though the fish swimming about may spoil some of the juggling," Joe mused. "I never thought of that. However, it may make the act take all the better if it's a bit funny."
As a matter of fact, it did.
Joe took a little longer than usual to inflate his lungs this time. He was going to try to remain under water longer than he had done on the other occasions.
The iron box of tricks was slowly lowered into the tank, for Joe did not want to frighten the fish any more than he could help. Then he got in himself, not diving this time, as he had found on the first dive that the fish were very much startled.
"And as long as they are my silent partners in this act I must treat 'em fairly," thought Joe, as he went under water.
He did a little juggling with the iron balls, and, just as he had half anticipated, a big goldfish swam between his hand and the ball once, just as he was about to catch it. He, therefore, failed to get the ball, and, taking advantage of the occasion, he pretended to get angry. He shook his fist at the fish, which, of course, darted away.
Joe's comical little caper begot a laugh, and he made a mental note to work in that feature at all the performances. The value of a laugh is appreciated even in a circus act.
As Joe went through the tricks, pretending to swallow an egg and making it come out of his ear, causing several small objects to disappear, and doing other tricks that he had learned while on the road with Professor Rosello, Joe thought of something else.
"I wonder how that would work," he mused, for he could think, if not talk, under water while holding his breath. As a matter of fact active thinking did not make the time seem so long as when his attention was fixed on the number of minutes he was trying to stay under.
"I must see if I can't work out something like that," Joe continued to muse. "It ought to go well. I'd have to have some apparatus made for it, though. Well, one thing at a time. I'll stick to the fish stunt for a while yet."
Joe's head was beginning to throb now, caused by the continued water pressure and by the retention of his breath. He felt that he would soon have to go up to breathe.
"But I'll try to beat my own record, though it isn't much to boast of as yet," he decided.
He finished his tricks, and then, stretching and yawning, which always called forth a laugh, he straightened out on the white sand and pretended to go to sleep while the goldfish swam above him.
It made a pretty and effective scene, and the audience applauded well.
Joe was nearly at his limit of endurance, though he was not in such physical distress as he had been when first doing the act. He decided that he must come up, so, pretending to awaken, and to be extremely surprised at finding himself in a tank of water, with fish for companions, Joe slowly floated to the surface.
"Three minutes and twenty seconds!" announced Jim Tracy, who stood with his watch in his hand. "As I told you, friends, the boy fish has remained under water, not three minutes and a quarter, as I predicted he would, but five seconds longer. And let me tell you, my friends, five seconds is a long time—under water."
The crowd applauded again as Joe came out of the tank and bowed while he wrapped a bath robe about him to hurry to his dressing tent.
"Oh, Joe! It was fine!" cried Helen, as he passed her when she was getting ready to go into the ring with Rosebud. "It was so pretty! How did you ever think of it?"