And that’s about the way any conversation concerning Mt. Indrasil or Mr. Legere usually broke up – hurriedly, with many hard-forced excuses.
We said farewell to Illinois and comfort at the same time. A killing hot spell came on, seemingly at the very instant we crossed the border, and 114
it stayed with us for the next month and a half, as we moved slowly across Missouri and into Kansas. Everyone grew short of temper, including the animals. And that, of course, included the cats, which were Mr. Indrasil’s responsibility. He rode the roustabouts unmercifully, and myself in particular. I grinned and tried to bear it, even though I had my own case of prickly heat. You just don’t argue with a crazy man, and I’d pretty well decided that was what Mr. Indrasil was.
No one was getting any sleep, and that is the curse of all circus performers. Loss of sleep slows up reflexes, and slow reflexes make for danger. In Independence Sally O’Hara fell seventy-five feet into the nylon netting and fractured her shoulder. Andrea Solienni, our bareback rider, fell off one of her horses during rehearsal and was knocked unconscious by a flying hoof. Chips Bailey suffered silently with the fever that was always with him, his face a waxen mask, with cold perspiration clustered at each temple.
And in many ways, Mr. Indrasil had the roughest row to hoe of all.
The cats were nervous and short-tempered, and every time he stepped into the Demon Cat Cage, as it was billed, he took his life in his hands.
He was feeding the lions ordinate amounts of raw meat right before he went on, something that lion tamers rarely do, contrary to popular belief. His face grew drawn and haggard, and his eyes were wild.
Mr. Legere was almost always there, by Green Terror’s cage, watching him. And that, of course, added to Mr. Indrasil’s load. The circus began eyeing the silk-shirted figure nervously as he passed, and I knew they were all thinking the same thing I was: He’s going to crack wide open, and when he does –
When he did, God alone knew what would happen.
The hot spell went on, and temperatures were climbing well into the nineties every day. It seemed as if the rain gods were mocking us. Every town we left would receive the showers of blessing. Every town we entered was hot, parched, sizzling. And one night, on the road between Kansas City and Green Bluff, I saw something that upset me more than anything else.
It was hot – abominably hot. It was no good even trying to sleep. I rolled about on my cot like a man in a fever-delirium, chasing the sandman but never quite catching him. Finally I got up, pulled on my pants, and went outside.
We had pulled off into a small field and drawn into a circle. Myself and two other roustabouts had unloaded the cats so they could catch whatever breeze there might be. The cages were there now, painted dull silver by the swollen Kansas moon, and a tall figure in white whipcord breeches was standing by the biggest of them. Mr. Indrasil.
He was baiting Green Terror with a long, pointed pike. The big cat was padding silently around the cage, trying to avoid the sharp tip.
And the frightening thing was, when the staff did punch into the tiger’s flesh, it did not roar in pain and anger as it should have. It maintained an ominous silence, more terrifying to the person who knows cats than the loudest of roars.
It had gotten to Mr. Indrasil, too. “Quiet bastard, aren’t you?” He grunted. Powerful arms flexed, and the iron shaft slid forward. Green Terror flinched, and his eyes rolled horribly. But he did not make a sound. “Yowl!” Mr. Indrasil hissed. “Go ahead and yowl, you monster Yowl!” And he drove his spear deep into the tiger’s flank.
Then I saw something odd. It seemed that a shadow moved in the darkness under one of the far wagons, and the moonlight seemed to glint on staring eyes – green eyes.
A cool wind passed silently through the clearing, lifting dust and rumpling my hair.
Mr. Indrasil looked up, and there was a queer listening expression on his face. Suddenly he dropped the bar, turned, and strode back to his trailer.
I stared again at the far wagon, but the shadow was gone. Green Terror stood motionlessly at the bars of his cage, staring at Mr. Indrasil’s trailer. And the thought came to me that it hated Mr. Indrasil not because he was cruel or vicious, for the tiger respects these qualities in its own animalistic way, but rather because he was a deviate from even the tiger’s savage norm. He was a rogue. That’s the only way I can put it.
Mr. Indrasil was not only a human tiger, but a rogue tiger as well. The thought jelled inside me, disquieting and a little scary. I went back inside, but still I could not sleep.
The heat went on.
Every day we fried, every night we tossed and turned, sweating and sleepless. Everyone was painted red with sunburn, and there were fistfights over trifling affairs. Everyone was reaching the point of explosion.
Mr. Legere remained with us, a silent watcher, emotionless on the surface, but, I sensed, with deep-running currents of – what? Hate?
Fear? Vengeance? I could not place it. But he was potentially dangerous, I was sure of that. Perhaps more so than Mr. Indrasil was, if anyone ever lit his particular fuse.
He was at the circus at every performance, always dressed in his nattily creased brown suit, despite the killing temperatures. He stood silently by Green Terror’s cage, seeming to commune deeply with the tiger, who was always quiet when he was around.
From Kansas to Oklahoma, with no letup in the temperature. A day without a heat prostration case was a rare day indeed. Crowds were beginning to drop off; who wanted to sit under a stifling canvas tent when there was an air-conditioned movie just around the block?
We were all as jumpy as cats, to coin a particularly applicable phrase.
And as we set down stakes in Wildwood Green, Oklahoma, I think we all knew a climax of some sort was close at hand. And most of us knew it would involve Mr. Indrasil. A bizarre occurrence had taken place just prior to our first Wildwood performance. Mr. Indrasil had been in the Demon Cat Cage, putting the ill-tempered lions through their paces.
One of them missed its balance on its pedestal, tottered and almost regained it. Then, at that precise moment, Green Terror let out a terrible, ear- splitting roar.
The lion fell, landed heavily, and suddenly launched itself with rifle-bullet accuracy at Mr. Indrasil. With a frightened curse, he heaved his chair at the cat’s feet, tangling up the driving legs. He darted out just as the lion smashed against the bars.
As he shakily collected himself preparatory to re-entering the cage, Green Terror let out another roar – but this one monstrously like a huge, disdainful chuckle.
Mr. Indrasil stared at the beast, white-faced, then turned and walked away. He did not come out of his trailer all afternoon.
That afternoon wore on interminably. But as the temperature climbed, we all began looking hopefully toward the west, where huge banks of thunderclouds were forming.
“Rain, maybe,” I told Chips, stopping by his barking platform in front of the sideshow.
But he didn’t respond to my hopeful grin. “Don’t like it,” he said. “No wind. Too hot. Hail or tornadoes.” His face grew grim. “It ain’t no picnic, ridin’ out a tornado with a pack of crazy-wild animals all over the place, Eddie. I’ve thanked God mor’n once when we’ve gone through the tornado belt that we don’t have no elephants.
“Yeah” he added gloomily, “you better hope them clouds stay right on the horizon.”
But they didn’t. They moved slowly toward us, cyclopean pillars in the sky, purple at the bases and awesome blue-black through the cumulonimbus. All air movement ceased, and the heat lay on us like a woolen winding-shroud. Every now and again, thunder would clear its throat further west.
About four, Mr. Farnum himself, ringmaster and half-owner of the circus, appeared and told us there would be no evening performance; just batten down and find a convenient hole to crawl into in case of trouble. There had been corkscrew funnels spotted in several places 117
between Wildwood and Oklahoma City, some within forty miles of us.
There was only a small crowd when the announcement came, apathetically wandering through the sideshow exhibits or ogling the animals. But Mr. Legere had not been present all day; the only person at Green Terror’s cage was a sweaty high-school boy with clutch of books.
When Mr. Farnum announced the U.S. Weather Bureau tornado warning that had been issued, he hurried quickly away.