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- The Rose in the Ring - 2/73 -
which these weary travelers turned their steps, was stretching out its hands to clasp Opportunity and Prosperity as those fickle commodities rebounded from the vain-glorious North; the smile was creeping back into the haggard face of the Southland; the dollars were jingling now because they were no longer lonely. The bitterness of life was not so bitter; an ancient sweetness was providing the leaven. The Northern brother was relaxing; he was even washing the blood from his hands and extending them to raise the sister he had ravished. There was forgiveness in the heart of fair Virginia--but not yet the desire to forget. The South was coming into its own once more--not the old South, but a new one that realized.
Intermittent strains of music came dancing up into the hills from the heart of S--. The wayfarers looked at each other in the darkness and listened in wonder to these sounds that rose above the swish of the restless rain.
"It's a band," murmured one of the two behind.
"Yas, 'r; a circus band," vouchsafed the guide, a sudden eagerness in his voice. "Van Slye's Great and Only Mammoth Shows--"
"A circus?" interrupted one of the men gruffly. "Then the whole town is full of strangers. That's bad for us, Blake."
"I don't see why. He's more than likely to be where the excitement's highest, ain't he? He's not too old for that. We'll find him in that circus tent, Tom, if he's in the town at all."
"First circus they've had in S---- in a dawg's age," ventured the guide, with the irrelevancy of an excited boy. "Rice's was there once, I can't remember jest when, an' they was some talk of Barnum las' yeah, they say, but he done pass us by. He's got a Holy Beheemoth that sweats blood this yeah, they say. Doggone, I'd like to see one." The guide had not ventured so much as this, all told, in the six hours of their acquaintanceship.
"Well, let's be moving on. I'm wet clear through," shivered Blake.
Silence fell upon them once more. No word was spoken after that, except in relation to an oath of exasperation; they swung forward into the lower road, their sullen eyes set on the lights ahead. Heavy feet, dragging like hundredweights, carried them over the last weary mile. Into the outskirts of the little town they slunk. The streets were deserted, muddy, and lighted but meagerly from widely separated oil lamps set at the tops of as many unstable posts.
Some distance ahead there was a vast glow of light, lifting itself above the housetops and pressing against the black dome that hung low over the earth. The rollicking quickstep of a circus band came dancing over the night to meet the footsore men. There were no pedestrians to keep them company. The inhabitants of S---- were inside the tents beyond, or loitering near the sidewalls with singular disregard for the drizzling rain that sifted down upon their unmindful backs or blew softly into the faces of the few who enjoyed the luxury of "umberells." Despite the apparent solitude that kept pace with them down the narrow street,--little more than a country lane, on the verge of graduating into a thoroughfare,--the three travelers were keenly alert; their squinting, eager eyes searched the shadows beside and before them; their feet no longer dragged through the slippery, glistening bed of the road; every movement, every glance signified extreme caution.
Slowly they approached the vacant lots beyond the business section of the town, known year in and year out to the youth of S---- as "the show grounds." Now they began to encounter straggling, envious atoms of the populace, wanderers who could not produce the admission fee and who were not permitted by the rough canvasmen to venture inside the charmed circle laid down by the "guy-ropes." At the corner of the tented common stood the "ticket wagon," the muddy plaza in front of it torn by the footprints of many human beings and lighted by a great gasoline lamp swung from a pole hard by. Beyond was the main entrance of the animal tent, presided over by uniformed ticket takers. Here and there, in the gloomy background, stood the canvas and pole wagons, shining in their wetness against the feeble light that oozed through the opening between the sidewall and the edge of the flapping main top, or glistening with sudden brightness in response to the passing lantern or torch in the hand of a rubber-coated minion who "belonged to the circus,"--a vast honor, no matter how lowly his position may have been. Costume and baggage wagons, their white and gold glory swallowed up in the maw of the night, stood backed up against the dressing-tent off to the right. The horse tent beyond was even now being lowered by shadowy, mystic figures who swore and shouted to each other across spaces wide and spaces small without regulating the voice to either effort. Horses, with their clanking trace-chains, in twos and fours, slipped in and out of the shadows, drawing great vehicles which rumbled and jarred with the noise peculiar to circus wagons: tired, underfed horses that paid little heed to the curses or the blows of the men who handled them, so accustomed were they to the proddings of life.
And inside the big tent the band played merrily, as only a circus band can play, jangling an accompaniment to the laughter and the shouts of the delighted multitude sitting in the blue-boarded tiers about the single ring with its earthen circumference, its sawdust carpet and its dripping lights.
The smell of the thing! Who has ever forgotten it? The smell of the sawdust, the smell of the gleaming lights, the smell of animals and the smell of the canvas top! The smell of the damp handbills, the programs and the bags of roasted peanuts! Incense! Never-to-be- forgotten incense of our beautiful days!
Warm and dry and bright under the spreading top with its two "center poles" and its row of "quarters"; cold, dreary and sordid outside in the real world where man and beast worked while others seemed to play.
Groups of canvasmen now began to tear down the animal tent--the "menagerie," as it has always been known to the man who pays admission. An hour later, when the big show is over, the spectators will stream forth, even as their own blue seats begin to clatter to earth behind them, and they will blink with amazement to find themselves in the open air, instead of in the menagerie tent. As if by magic it has disappeared, and with it the sideshow and its banners, the Punch and Judy show, the horse tent, the cook tent, the blacksmith shop. Where once stood a dripping white city, now stretches a barren, ugly waste of unhallowed, unfamiliar ground, flanked by the solitary temple of tinsel and sawdust which they have just left behind, and which even now is being desolated by scowling men in overalls. The crowd oozes forth, to find itself completely lost in the night, all points of the compass at odds, no man knowing east from west or north from south in the strange surroundings. The "lot" they have known so well and crossed so often has been transformed into a trackless wilderness, through which strange objects rumble and creak, over which queer, ghastly lights play for the benefit of grumbling men from another world.
Blake and his companion, standing apart from the lank, wide-eyed guide, were conversing in low tones.
"We'd better make the circuit of the tents," said Blake, evidently the leader. "You go to the right and I'll take the other way round. We'll meet here. Keep your eye peeled. He may be hiding under the wagons where it's dry. Look out for these circus toughs. They're a nasty crowd."
Then he turned to the guide.
"We won't need you any longer," he said. "This is as far as we go. Here is your pay. If I were you, I'd buy a ticket and go inside."
"Yas, 'r," said the smileless guide, accepting the greenback with no word of thanks. A brief "good night" to his employers, and the lean mountaineer strolled over to the ticket wagon. He purchased a ticket and hurried into the tent. We do not see him again. He has served his purpose.
His late employers made off on their circuit of the tents, sharp-eyed but casual, doing nothing that might lead the circus men to suspect that they were searching for one among them. In the good old days of the road circus there were thieves as well as giants; if a man was not a thief himself, he at least had a friend who was. There was honor among them.
A scant hour before the three men came to the "showgrounds" their quarry arrived there. That Blake and his companion were man-hunters goes without saying, but that the person for whom they searched should be a hungry, wan-faced, terrified boy of eighteen seems hardly in keeping with the relentless nature of the chase.
The ring performance in the main tent had been in progress for fifteen or twenty minutes when the fugitive, exhausted, drenched and shivering, crept into the protected nook which marks the junction of the circus and dressing tops. Here it was comparatively dry; the wind did not send its thin mist into this canvas cranny. Not so dark as he may have desired, if one were to judge by the expression in his feverish eyes as he peered back at the darkness out of which he had slunk, but so cramped in shadow that only the eye of a ferret could have distinguished the figure huddled there. Chilled to the bone, wet through and through, this white-faced lad, with drooping lip and quickened breath, crouched there and waited for the heavy footstep and the brutal command of the canvasman who was to drive him forth into the darkness once more.
He had watched his chance to creep into this coveted spot. When the men were called to work at the horse tent he found his chance. It looked warm in this corner; a pleasant light on the inside of the two tents glowed against the damp sidewalls: here and there it glimmered invitingly under the bottom of the canvas. He knew that his tenancy must end in an hour or two: the big top would be leveled to the ground, rolled up and spirited away into the stretches that lay between this city and the next one, twenty miles away. But an hour or two in this friendly corner, close to the glare of the circus lights, almost in touch with the joyous, bespangled world of his ambitions, even though he was a hated and hunted creature, was better than the sopping roadside or the fields.
He knew that he was being hounded and that those who sought him were close behind. Once in the forest, far back in the hills, he had heard them, he had seen them. Off in other parts of the country men were looking for him. In the cities throughout Virginia and the adjoining states there were placards describing him ere this, and rewards were mentioned.
Resting in the bushes above the trail, late in the afternoon, he had seen Blake and his men. They had stopped to rest, and he could hear their conversation plainly. With all the wiliness of a hunted thing, he had slipped off into the forest, terrified to find that his pursuers were so close upon him.
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