But though Joe did not lose materially by the desertion of Ham, if that was what it was, since he could now depend on Ted, the young circus man many times found himself wondering if he would ever see the old fire-eater again.
The circus opened one afternoon in a large city—one in which lived many thousands of men employed in a large ship-building plant.
“There’ll be big crowds here,” said Mr. Moyne, as he walked toward the ticket wagon in preparation for the rush. “And it’s here we’ll have to look out for bogus coupons.”
“Why?” asked Joe, who was getting ready for his acts.
“Because in every other case the swindlers have worked their game where there was a big plant engaging many men of what you might call rough and ready character—ready to take a chance on scalped admission tickets, and rough enough to fight if they were discovered. So I’m going to be on the watch.”
“It’s just as well to be,” decided Joe. He turned back into the tent which was his combined dressing room and a storage place for his various smaller bits of apparatus and the chemicals he used in his fire act.
Before giving his last act Joe always washed his hands and face and rinsed his mouth out with a chemical preparation that would, for a time, resist the action of fire. It was a secret compound, rather difficult to handle and make, and Joe had taught Ted Brown how to do it.
The young fellow was handing Joe this mixture, some of which was also used by all who took part in the blazing banquet scene, when the flap of the tent was suddenly pushed aside and Harry Loper entered.
“Stop!” he cried, raising a restraining hand. “Don’t use that solution, Mr. Strong! It’s doped! Don’t use it!”
Joe, who had been about to apply some of the stuff to his hands, turned in surprise. He was alarmed at the strange look on the face of the youth who acted as his helper in the high wire and in some of the trapeze acts.
“Don’t use that stuff!” cried Harry. “It’s doped!” and then he sank down on a chair and, burying his face in his hands, burst into tears.
A STRANGE SUMMONS
Joe Strong looked from the sobbing Harry Loper to the amazed Ted Brown. The latter’s face showed his great surprise. For an instant Joe had an ugly suspicion that his new assistant had played him false—that, because of jealousy or from some other motive, he had mixed the chemicals in some way to make them ineffective. This would spoil the illusion, or it might even cause injury.
“Look here, Harry! what’s the matter?” cried Joe, purposely using a rough voice, so as to stop, if possible, the display of emotion on the part of the youth. “Act like a man, can’t you! If you’ve done some mean trick tell me about it. What do you mean when you say this mixture is doped?”
“Just that!” exclaimed Harry, looking up with haggard face. “I can’t stand it any longer. I promised not to tell, but I’ve got to. I—I can’t see any harm come to you.”