Can one man make a difference? Jake Scott means to try.
First, though, he'll need some things: Tents. Performers. And maybe, if he's lucky, an elephant.
Young men with no current prospects for love and only limited ones for success in business normally while away their free time in some convenient, friendly place which serves cheap alcohol, although those with natures more fastidious - or who simply don’t want to become involved in a spontaneous fistfight - usually pick one which also offers cleaner floors and cheaper coffee. The two young reporters from the City Times had picked one which had both of these, although the two of them were currently not concerned with the former and had split the difference on the latter by having their coffee Irish style. They were an unremarkable looking pair, both just slightly below average height, one stockier with curly brown hair while the other was slender and had wavy hair so dark it was almost black. The dark-haired one took a drink of his coffee, making a face at the bitterness. “I’m telling you, Elwin, we could do it! You keep saying we can’t change anything…”READ MORE
“Because we can’t.”
“…But we could! Well, sort of. By example! If we could do the thing, and do it right, that would make a difference, wouldn’t it?”
Elwin sighed. “You want us – us – to start a circus,” he observed, rolling his eyes. “You are so drunk, Jake.”
“I am not drunk.” Jake sat up a little straighter, as though his improved posture would prove it. “Come on, you really want to keep doing what we’re doing forever? We’re not getting anywhere, Elwin. And you agreed with me when that last story broke, you agreed that something ought to be done by someone.” A sidelong, somewhat calculating look. “I seem to remember you ripped your shirtsleeve, you got so worked up.”
“I…that was an accident, it was a cheap shirt,” his friend protested, and then he stopped, brown eyes narrowing behind his glasses. “No. Jacob Scott, that is the most ridiculous idea…”
“Why?” Jake let himself slump again. He really wasn’t drunk, it had just been a long, cold day and he was tired. He cocked his head. “You could do it, you know you could. It’s not like we’d get rich or anything…but maybe, just maybe, we could make a difference?”
“You mean like the one we’re not making now?” Elwin had to smile. The City Times had been getting progressively more…sympathetic to certain political concerns in the area, which meant the ability of its reporters to actually report things was becoming more and more curtailed. Both of them were frustrated, and several of the better journalists on staff had already left the paper to work elsewhere – which meant the paper’s reputation was starting to slip as well. And Jake had been stuck on this idea of his for months now, even though he was an educated, reasonable man and the idea was completely ridiculous. “So you think that we should start a circus, and just by running it honestly and fairly we’d make a difference. By becoming traveling entertainers at a time when the country is saturated with them.”
“But it isn’t.” Jake took another drink and then fished his notebook out of his coat with fumbling not-drunk fingers. He flipped the pages until he found the one he wanted, tapping the list on it with his forefinger. “The cities and the larger towns are saturated, yes – they’re drowning in big-top wire acts and sordid freak shows. But there are whole areas of the country which have never had a circus come through, and that would be our audience, Elwin. One tent, one ring. A small but polished show. And a sideshow that isn’t skirting the edges of half a dozen laws and basic human decency besides.”
Elwin frowned, taking the notebook away from him to have a closer look. He flipped a few pages, finding routes, lists of doable acts, and a sketched-out idea for something that would take the place of the freak show. It was all very thoroughly thought out, down to a wind-up mechanism which could be used to raise the large tent and therefore avoid the need for a small army of roustabouts. “I…Jake, I apologize. I thought you were just full of hot air, wanting to do something different, but…you know, I actually think this could work.”
Jake smiled, taking back his notebook and tucking it away again. “I don’t blame you for not thinking it was a real plan – it sounds like something a schoolboy would come up with, I realize that. But I could run this, I know I could. And I want you to help me. Be my first act?”
“I think I might like that,” Elwin told him. His mind, lubricated by the cheap watered whiskey in the coffee rather than being slowed by it, was starting to run with the idea. He was more than capable of doing a strong-man act, he knew he was. And wouldn’t it be a relief to not have to hide his musculature, or conceal his strength? Not that he’d want to wear the nearly indecent costumes some male circus performers had adopted, he wasn’t some kind of exhibitionist, but being just a little bit on exhibit, being cheered for his natural ability…it had a certain appeal. And it wasn’t like he had any family who would object. “We’re going to need more than one, though. What did you want to do for an animal? I saw that you’d crossed off lions and tigers.”
“Because feeding them is too expensive, and they’re too dangerous,” Jake told him. Enthusiasm was sparkling in his blue eyes. “Horses are good. An elephant…well, we can dream. It’s not like you can just go get an elephant from a stable, after all.”
“Not from a stable, no.” Elwin started to smile. “I do know of someone who might be willing to be your second act, a man I met when the paper was covering…well, stupidity in action, let’s put it that way. I can at the very least introduce you to him and we can talk; he’s a genius with horses, and his family keeps a small farm where they breed and raise them. Next weekend, when we’re off?”
In answer Jake raised his mug, and Elwin obligingly clinked his against it. “Next weekend it is. And in the meantime, maybe we can design a poster, something we can show to people…”
It ended up being two weeks before they were able to get away for a few days – a fire at a factory in the city had all the newspapers scrambling to steal readers from each other, so the two young men had actually been busy with somewhat more respectable journalism than usual. But finally they were on a train headed out into the country, and then hitching a ride on a delivery wagon which was heading past the farm. “I sent a message ahead to make sure he was still here,” Elwin told Jake as they walked up the smooth-graded road which led to the whitewashed farmhouse past paddocks where some fine large horses were out for exercise. “He seemed pleased enough to hear from me, so at least we shouldn’t need to be worried about being chased off the property – not at first, anyway. Let me do most of the talking just in case, though. Peter can be…touchy when it comes to his animals.”
A man working with a yearling horse on a leading rein directed them around the farmhouse to the stables, and finally to the man they’d come to see. Who recognized Elwin at once and did seem glad to see him. “Tell me they’re not doing a follow-up, you can’t be that low on news to write about.”
“Oh, we’re not,” Elwin assured him, grinning. “Although I’ll write one up anyway, just to try to convince my editor that he should cover the cost of our train tickets. Peter, this is my friend and fellow reporter Jacob Scott. Jake, this is Peter Cody, the genius I’ve been telling you about.”
“Elwin exaggerates a lot, Mr. Scott,” Peter told Jake, taking his hand in a firm, callused grip. He was tan and slim, even smaller than Jake, but he had the wiry whipcord muscles of a man whose work requires a more limber kind of strength. “He just doesn’t understand four-legged animals all that well – although he does much better than I ever will at working with the two-legged ones.”
“Those kind can be trickier,” Jake admitted. “And considerably more malicious – at least a mean horse usually has a reason.”
“A mean horse usually has a bad owner,” Peter corrected him. “But I’m guessing you’re not here to talk about horses.”
Jake was surprised, and it showed. “We’re not?”
“I didn’t tell him,” Elwin informed Peter. He was grinning, and he patted his right-hand coat pocket in a meaningful way that was lost on Jake. “Want to see if she remembers?”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Your editor must really be a very gullible man. All right, come on – and no yelling or running,” he warned the mystified Jake. “Eloise startles easily.”
“Eloise?” But the other two men were already walking around the side of a very large barn – Jake thought it must be doing double-duty as a hay barn – which was screened by trees and tall fencing. The part of his mind that was a journalist cataloged that as pointing to the barn containing something that wasn’t supposed to be visible from the road, or generally from the house. Specially bred horses, maybe? Jake had seen some beauties before, including some draft horses which were so big their riders used ladders to mount them, but other than that he wasn’t really very knowledgeable when it came to breeds of horses…and then they came around the side of the oversized barn, and the creature chewing hay in the paddock looked up.
It was an elephant. Not an incredibly large one, in fact not all that much larger than the draft horses Jake had been so astounded by in the past…but still, an elephant. Right here in front of him, an elephant. He was going to kill Elwin.
Elwin, however, was not waiting around after getting to witness his friend’s reaction. He walked slowly across the paddock, stopping some four feet in front of the watching elephant, and then held his arms out from his sides. “Do you remember me, princess?” he asked.
The elephant blinked long-lashed eyes at him and flapped her ears, and then her trunk snaked out and rooted in his right-hand coat pocket, drawing out the apple he had secreted in it. She conveyed the apple to her mouth and ate it, and then the trunk snaked back out and wrapped around Elwin’s waist, pulling him closer. He was absolutely beaming. He patted her face, stroked the gently grasping trunk. “You are such a smart girl,” he praised. “It’s good to see you again too.” He waved his free hand at Jake, whom Peter had led closer. “Eloise, this is my friend Jake.”
“Say hello, Eloise,” Peter requested, and the elephant let go of Elwin, raised her trunk and bugled softly – and then cocked her head and extended her trunk to ‘shake’ Jake’s hand. “That’s a good girl. I’ll bring you a cabbage in a little bit, all right? We’re going into your barn to talk now.”
The elephant’s response to this was to grab hold of Elwin again, and then release him and let out a softer, sadder bugle. “I’ll come back out to see you, princess,” Elwin promised, patting her trunk again. “We’ll just be in the barn.”
Eloise flapped her ears at him, but she trundled away to her watering trough and Peter hurriedly directed the other two men into the barn. “She will squirt me,” he warned. “So unless you both want to go home wet, we’ll just stay in here until she’s moved away from the trough.” He raised an eyebrow at Elwin. “You’re up to something, I just know it.”
“I’m up to offering you a job working for Jake,” Elwin told him. “We’re sick of the paper; half of the other reporters have already left, and half of what’s left aren’t worth a byline because that would imply they’re actually practicing some kind of journalism. But a few months ago there was this horrific story going around…”
“I heard about it.” Peter was nodding. “My father would have rolled over in his grave if he’d seen that. He worked for a circus, for a man named Dorian,” he explained to Jake. “Mr. Dorian was a good man, not like what’s running those traveling slave-shows now.”
“That’s my opinion of them exactly,” Jake told him. “There’s no excuse for the way most of them are run, or for the complete lack of concern for anything but money their owners display.”
His voice had risen a little, it was a passionate subject for him, and Peter’s eyes widened. But when Elwin would have interjected, the smaller man waved him silent. “Don’t tell me, you’re trying to fix it.” Jake nodded. “How? By running a circus, is that your idea? Get down in the mud with the pigs and then try to lever yourself up out of it?”
Jake straightened, blue eyes flashing. “There was never any reason for any of them to be in the mud in the first place,” he shot back. “They went there because they wanted to. They went there because they weren’t good men. I know who Graylie Dorian was,” he said. “He was one of the last good masters before this latest crop of carpetbagging miscreants took over the field. There was a reporter in New York who did a very large piece on him when he died, it’s quite a read. But suffice it to say, when that awful, sordid story came up all those months ago, I started to research the circus. She has her ups and downs, yes, but I had to think that the downs were only getting worse because we were letting them. We’re modern people, Mr. Cody. We know better than to do these things…but again, it comes down to men who just don’t care to be good. We’ve let them take over something that’s supposed to be magical, wonderful, inspiring. We’ve let them wallow it in the mud, and tar the performers with that same brush. No one should have to be ashamed to…to wish to employ their talents, to use the skills and abilities God gave them. It isn’t right, and it needs to stop.” His chin had lifted, his eyes were shining; he looked, even though Elwin knew he wasn’t doing it on purpose, every inch a ringmaster. “I did not know you had an elephant, Mr. Cody; I thought we were coming here to talk to you about horses, a subject Elwin told me you happen to be a genius at. But having seen Eloise…” He looked out through the doors to where the elephant, bored, was blowing water up into the air like a child playing, and he smiled. “God, she’s amazing. I don’t blame you a bit for keeping her safely hidden. I would, however, like to make you an offer: If Elwin and I can get this show off the ground, I’d love for you and Eloise to sign on – you’d be my second act to do so. All of the ring performers will be working for a percentage of the show’s take…but I’m afraid I’d have to pay Eloise’s share to you, because if I gave it directly to her she might eat it.”
Even Elwin’s eyes widened at that. “Wait,” Peter said, holding up a hand. “Wait, you’re saying you want to pay me…and pay her?”
Jake blinked at him. “She’d be a performer; performers get paid, that’s the way it works. Or at least, that’s the way it should work, right?”
The smaller man was just staring at him. “I don’t…I mean, I don’t know what to say, I really don’t. Elwin, is he for real?”
Elwin nodded slowly. “I didn’t believe in this plan of his at first either, to be honest. But he showed me all the research he’d done, all the plans he’d already made…and you know, I think we might actually be able to pull it off. And he’s right, if we can make a go of it with an honest circus…people will take notice.” He smiled. “We’d love to have you, Peter. I remembered you telling me when we first met that you didn’t want to stay here on the family farm forever. And of course you’ll have charge of any horses we get as well.”
“I can agree to that,” Jake put in, nodding. “I can ride fairly well, but I know very little about horses otherwise, so I’d be relying pretty heavily on your expertise.”
“I…I could do that.” Peter was nodding. “I’d…yes, Mr. Scott, the answer is yes. If you and Elwin here can get this thing off the ground…Eloise and I will be your second act.” He held out his hand and Jake took it, sealing the deal. “Just out of curiosity, what was your first act?”
Elwin blushed. “Well, that would be…me.” His friend’s eyebrows went all the way up, and his blush deepened. “I…that is to say…” He huffed, frustrated, and took off his jacket, handing it to Jake after pulling his handkerchief out of the pocket. He walked over to a very large bale of hay, wrapped the handkerchief around his hand to protect it from the twine…and then picked the bale straight up off the ground, lifting it high into the air with apparent ease – although he did wince when the sleeve of his striped cotton shirt ripped open from shoulder to elbow, unable to contain the bulk of the muscles bunching underneath it. “You owe me a new shirt,” he told Jake.
Jake snorted. “I’ll help you mend that one. Again.”
Peter was openmouthed. “I never would have guessed, Elwin,” he said. “Never in a million years.”
“I have my jackets tailored to hide it, and I do my best not to give myself away by getting excited and reacting to things physically,” Elwin told him, putting down the bale. “If the boys at the newspaper knew, I’d be getting tapped to second everyone and his brother in a fight. That’s not journalism, it’s pugilism.”
Jake handed him his jacket. “Half the people we currently work with wouldn’t know the difference.”
“Very true.” Elwin nodded to Peter. “We think we can have this off the ground within a year. Our first and most impressive trick, of course, is going to be coming up with enough money to get started, but we have a few ideas..."COLLAPSE
This book is currently in progress and does not yet have an estimated release date.