My sister and her giggling friends chased us from the nice, cool swimming hole and into the scorching hot desert. That's how Matt and I ended up on the ridge overlooking the Colorado River, sweat running down our armpits fast as that river below. Matt and I hunkered between some boulders to watch a herd of bison rambling along the low-flowing water, heading south. All at once they perked up--all of them. Ears went back and, like they were one animal instead of forty, they whirled around and ran, practically trampling the newborn calves. Funny watching the little ones trying to keep up. As mean as their moms can be during a fight with wildcats, they sure could forget about the kids at a time like this.
"What got them so riled?" Matt raised up on his knees and leaned his elbows across the biggest boulder. Our horses, Sage and Ben stopped chewing on desert grass to look too. "Jesse, what is that?"
I leaned on his shoulder and stretched around his shaggy brown curls. Below and about a hundred yards north, something big was approaching. Couldn't see what it was, a mile-long cloud of dust hung like a wet dishrag.
A breeze carried some of it up to where we watched. Matt sneezed. A break in the thick cloud gave me a peek--and I realized... "They're here, they're here!" I jumped up, stumbling over a clump of beavertail cactus. I landed on my face; my hat flew off.
"Who's here? Jesse, wait up."
I plucked a thorn out of my knee as a caravan of wagons and horses clunked and rattled along the dirt road below. Matt kept yelling even after I threw myself on Sage. I nudged her with my heels and she picked her way down the rocky trail.
"Jesse, wait a minute." I half-turned in the saddle to see Matt standing with one foot in Ben's stirrup. "What's going on?"
I stretched a little further to see him better. "Matt, my friend, that is a traveling circus coming to town."
"A traveling circus. Great. How'd you hear? Where are you going?"
"I'm going to be first to ask for a job. Uncle Isaiah says it's the most fun a person can ever have." I kicked Sage into a gallop the second she set a hoof on level sand. I hadn't been so excited in a hound's age.
Matt caught up to us near the road. We waved as the wagons clattered by. Most of the drivers, dressed in colorful baggy clothes, flipped both reins into one hand and waved back. The wagons thumped over the rutted road on the way toward Cattle Creek in the Arizona Territory. It was 1865 and I --Jesse Johnson--had just turned twelve. My friend, Matt, was going on thirteen.
"There must be a hundred wagons," he shouted. I gave him the look I always give when he's being ridiculous, so he said, "Well, thirty anyway. Hey, what's that?" He pointed at what looked like a cage on wheels. Inside, a huge orange and black striped cat struggled to keep its balance on the bumpy road.
"That there's a tiger!"
Ben's eyes were about as big as my mother's best china plates. "Wow. Look at him."
We stared as about a hundred more cages on wheels went past. Well maybe not a hundred, but they all held wild animals; lions and bears and monkeys, animals I'd only seen in picture books. And tied to the very last one was a string of bigger animals, including two elephants and a brown animal with a long neck and two humps on its back.
"What in tarnation is that?" I asked.
"Beats the heck outta me. Smells pretty rank, though, don't he? How'd you know about this circus anyway?"
"You're forgetting my uncle Isaiah writes for the newspaper. He receives all sorts of news over the telegraph. They'll be in town three days and I'm going to get a job with them."
I laughed knowing Matt's allergy to anything physical. "Yeah, buddy, a job." We rode along for a while, unable to see through the dust cloud but unwilling to move away. Sneezing sometimes.
After a while Matt asked, "You reckon they'll give us both jobs?"
Must be this circus-thing was contagious. "My father says they hire people in every town. People to run errands, clean up, help pitch the tents--stuff like that."
We followed the train until it stopped just outside of town. All the wagons bunched up behind the leader in old man McGregor's field. It wasn't used for much of anything since he up and died a coupla years ago.
One of the men, who must have been the boss, yelled and pointed a lot, telling the wagon drivers where to set up. All the wagons carrying animals moved to the eastern side of the field--down wind. The Conestogas, where the circus workers lived, went to the west end, leaving a giant opening in the middle. I told Matt that's where the bigtop would go.
"Big top?" He scrunched his nose.
"A bigtop is a huge tent." I spread my arms wide apart. "Inside they have shows where wild animals do stunts, acrobats and clowns, trained ponies and high wire acts." Then I had to explain about wild animal stunts and high wires.
Right off, the whole valley changed. Seemed like everyone had a job and got right to it. The boss guy, with shaggy black hair and an equally shaggy mustache, raced around pointing and shouting at everybody--not mean-like, just giving directions. He wore brown trousers with green suspenders, a bright yellow shirt, green striped vest, and a green bandana tied around his neck. We waited for him to be less busy so we could ask him for jobs before half the town got here. I wanted the best jobs for us.
Just when we figured it was time to go over, Sheriff Benson rode up. I always thought he looked kind of like a sad old hound dog with his jowls hanging way down. He and the boss man shook hands. We sneaked closer to hear what they were saying.
"How long will you be in town?" the sheriff asked.
The man flicked ashes off a fat stogie and jammed it under the mustache. "Vee vill have two shows every day, tomorrow through Wednesday. Vee leave at dawn on Thursday."
Matt frowned hearing the man's strong accent. I shrugged 'I don't know' back at him.
"Sounds good. I ask only one thing--that you keep your people in line."
The circus owner blew smoke between his yellow teeth and scowled at the sheriff. "What you mean?"
"Mr. Mikos, your people drank too much and disrupted my last town with their loud partying. I won't have it. There will be no trouble, you understand?"
Mr. Mikos scowled and opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but slammed it shut, bowed and stalked away.
The sheriff's spurs thunked on the trampled grass all the way back to his horse.
I ran to Mr. Mikos before he could get busy again. "Hello, sir. My name is Jesse Johnson and this is my friend Matt Beebe." I pointed a thumb back over my shoulder.
Mr. Mikos frowned looking where my finger aimed. I peeked back and realized I was alone. Matt was nowhere in sight. I gave Mr. Mikos a queer look and kept talking. "My friend and I were wondering if you might have jobs for us."
The man flicked ashes on my boots. I held back the urge to shake them off. He said, "We have many jobs for strong boys. I pay you all the food you can eat, free tickets to shows and five cents for a day's work. You come back at sunup, yes?"
"Yes, sir. We'll be here. Thank you, sir." I raced to my horse and found Matt staring open-mouthed at the huge tent being unfolded in the middle of the field. A dozen guys held the edges and opened the colossal canvas. Other men threw poles on the ground next to it; they banged loudly against each other. Two men carried wooden stakes and huge mallets to pound them into the ground.
"Matt." No answer. "Matt." I whacked him on the shoulder. "MATT!"
He shook himself and looked at me. "Jesse, I've never seen anything like this. Look at the size of that tent."
"Well, you're going to see it from the inside starting at dawn."
"You mean we got jobs?"
"Told you." I screwed up my face and tossed out my best 'circus-owner' imitation, "Vee have many jobs for strong boys like you."
Matt grinned. "Did he say what kind of jobs?"
"No, but my uncle says they have you help out, like carrying stuff or cleaning things. It's like when you work at Emma's Restaurant. She gives you stuff to do that--"
"Yeah, stuff she doesn't want to do herself. Jeez, Jesse, I don't know about this."
"What? Did you think you were going to do, a circus act?"
He didn't answer.
We headed for town. We wanted to be the first ones spreading the news about the circus' arrival in Cattle Creek. There was hardly anyone on the street. Mostly people stayed inside on hot days like this.
"Let's get some licorice." I flicked Sage's reins around the rail out front of the General Store.
"How much will we get paid?" Matt asked.
I guessed he figured if he wasn't going to like the job, he might like the pay. "Five cents a day, free tickets and all the food we can eat. You should love that part," I said.