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    illustration of a circus horse

    The Lion Tamer’s Son

    Joe Lang finds himself an orphan in the opening chapter of Sawdust in His Shoes.

    By Eloise Jarvis McGraw

    July 4, 2024

    From Sawdust in His Shoes, this week’s featured ebook.

    An outsider becomes a hero and a boy becomes a man in this classic coming-of-age tale from the heyday of the three-ring circus, by three-time Newbery Honor Book author Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

    All his life Joe Lang was to remember that night – the night that tossed him into a new world.

    It started out exactly as usual; he ate his dinner in the cook-tent with Mo Shapely the clown, and Dad and Etta. Then he and Mo walked over to the wagon they shared to dress for the evening performance. All around them were the sounds and smells of the circus – the chant of the guying-out crews, the rattle of cage doors, the stench of the animal tent, the sharp pungence of sawdust, and the shrill cries of a group of small boys enjoying a free-for-all in the dust behind the ringmaster’s wagon. They were sounds and smells that were as much a part of life to Joe as the air he breathed, for he had never been away from them in all his fifteen years.

    Capper, the old collie, crawled out from under Mo’s bunk as they stepped into the wagon, and Joe reached over to scratch his ears while the clown switched on a light.

    “Another show, another dollar!” remarked Mo as he straightened the shade of the lamp and set it on the little chest at the back of the wagon.

    Joe grinned absently; it was an old joke. Mo couldn’t start putting on his makeup until he’d said it. He pulled his jersey off over his head and glanced with satisfaction at the new costume – spangled blouse, sleeveless scarlet bolero jacket, and pearl-gray trousers – that hung on the door of the wardrobe. Mo caught the look and clapped him on the shoulder as he went to fish his own baggy pants and enormous shoes out of the trunk.

    “They done a good job on your new rig, kid,” he commented. “Figure it’ll bring you good luck tonight?”

    “It better!” retorted Joe. “It’s time I got the star billing in that troupe! Did you see the stall Marie pulled in the afternoon show?”

    “Sure, I saw it. It’s getting so she needs a ladder to get up on a horse. Them Morelli sisters never were much good.”

    “But Marie’s the worst of all!” Joe shook his head in disgust and dropped down on the edge of his bunk to take off his shoes. It was an outrage to his pride every time he stepped into a ring with the sisters. They were second rate performers; they were careless and sloppy in their movements. They were on their way down, while Joe was just beginning to come into his own.

    Born in a circus wagon with the chants of the candybutchers on the midway serving him as lullabies, he had grown up in a lusty atmosphere of rivalries and conflicts, had battled furiously with the other circus children over top billing before he even understood what the term meant. He had learned early to look after his own interests; it was the way to get along. You carried yourself boldly and confidently, and lesser folk stepped back out of your way; if they didn’t, you found out why, and if it meant a scrap that was all the better. And above all, you remembered you were a Lang and your act must be good enough to get star rating.

    Joe had ridden his first horse when he was little more than a baby; at nine he was doing two shows a day and billed as the “Youngest Bareback Rider in the World.” When he had grown too tall for a child’s act he had slaved to learn more difficult feats, had taken a whole year off from performances to do it. And now that he was almost grown up, the manager had put him in with the Morellis!

    illustration of a circus rider

    Artwork by Pers Crowell.

    “Marie kills the whole act, Mo, you know she does!” he fumed. “What am I doing playing second fiddle to those three has-beens? I’m fifteen now, and I’ve been in the ring since I could walk. When do you think Old Man Riley will let me star in a good troupe? Has he ever let slip anything to you?”

    Mo turned his wizened, sad little face from the makeup mirror, drawing it down into an expression of comical despair. “Now, Joe,” he begged. “Don’t go calling Riley an old man in front of me! I was in show business when he was wearing short pants, and I ain’t even a hundred yet! Fact of the matter is,” he went on, picking up a stick of white grease paint and leaning over to frown at his image in the mirror, “Riley don’t know a good rider when he sees one. You ought to of been in a star spot a year ago.”

    Joe sighed. “You should know. You taught me,” he said. “Trouble is, you’re not the manager, and Riley is!”

    “Never you mind. It can’t be much longer. One of these days the folks out front’ll start hollering for you, and Riley’ll have to catch on. An audience knows good riding from bad, all right!”

    “Them gillies!” Joe sniffed scornfully.

    Mo whirled about and shook the grease paint admonishingly in Joe’s face. “Gillies they may be,” he said. “But they’re the folks that pay to get in. Don’t you ever forget it, kid.”

    Joe grinned, and snapped at the grease stick with his teeth, laughing at the way Mo snatched it to his bosom: “I won’t forget,” he promised absently, and reached for the new costume. He drew the trousers over his long legs, admiring their silvery color. With the bright scarlet jacket they’d look plenty flash in the ring, he thought, a lot better than the old white ones. When he starred in a troupe of his own, he’d have a nice gray horse, to match.

    Mo finished the last of his makeup and got up from the table, and Joe stepped over to the mirror eagerly, adjusting the scarlet jacket over his shoulders.

    “How does it look, Mo?” he said, in as casual a tone as he could manage.

    He knew already that it looked terrific. He stared at his own reflection in the mirror, at the dark, angular face with its bold black eyes and black hair, at the flashing red of the jacket and the muscular lean legs in their gray gabardine. His shoulders stiffened in the proud erectness that was characteristic as he met Mo’s eyes in the glass.

    “Sa – ay!” commented the clown, and his white-painted face spread in a broad smile. “That’s all right, boy, that’s all right! Turn around, let’s have a look. What you blushing for, hey?”

    Joe gave him an embarrassed shove and dropped into the chair, reaching for his own makeup box. In spite of Mo’s teasing, he was so excited over the new rig that his hands shook a little as he applied the grease paint. The costume would bring him luck; he felt it in his bones.

    Dad stuck his head in the door a few minutes later, on his way to the animal tent. “Serena’s acting fidgety this evening,” he explained, “and I’ve got to see if I can get her quieted down before the show starts. Wanted to see your new costume, though, son. I think it’s great!”

    Joe smiled his thanks, but he didn’t get the same kick out of Dad’s approval that he did out of Mo’s. It had never been the same, with Dad, since he’d married Etta eight years ago. Before that, he’d done his best to be father and mother both to Joe, and they’d had a closeness that Joe prized above all else. He admired his father passionately, both as a man and a lion tamer, which Daniel Lang had been for twenty-five years. But you could never tell what would happen to a man when he was married to the wrong person. Etta was not of the circus. She hated the circus. And because to Joe the circus was everything, the only possible life, the two of them had been at sword’s points since the beginning. She had robbed him of Dad, made Dad into a stranger. Only Mo had stuck by, unchanged.

    Joe studied his father as he leaned in the doorway, wondering for the hundredth time how a man like that, who could handle lions and tigers as if they were rabbits, would put up with a woman like Etta. Why didn’t he crack the whip over her once in a while? She needed it worse than old Serena, the lioness. “Etta coming to watch the act tonight?” Joe asked, just to be saying something. He knew the answer already.

    “Oh, not tonight. She’s got one of her headaches, and besides, you know it makes her nervous to see me in the cage. She’ll get over it one of these days.”

    “I’ll get over what?” put in Etta herself, appearing beside Dad in the doorway. She put her arm through his and smiled up at him in that sugary way that always made crawlers go up Joe’s back. He swung angrily around to the mirror, daubing the color on his neck with more violence than necessary, hearing Dad’s voice answer with that tone of apology it always had when he talked to her.

    “Well, who wouldn’t get nervous?” she came back shrilly. “All those awful brutes in there, just waiting for a chance to eat you up – I won’t ever get over it! I had a different upbringing, you know, not like these show women!”

    Joe ground his teeth together, exchanged a black look with Mo, in the mirror. That upbringing of Etta’s! They’d probably never hear the end of it. Just because she was born an ordinary gillie, she thought she was too good for circus life, and she couldn’t quit talking about it. As if that were something to be proud of!

    Joe flashed a look at her frizzed blond hair, her mouth whose very shape showed that it did nothing but nag and complain. He thought of his mother, who’d been born in a circus wagon, as he had been. She’d been on hand to watch Dad’s act every night of the world; one of Joe’s earliest memories was the way she would stand in her pink velvet costume that she wore on the tightwire. She’d wait at the edge of the big tent for Dad’s act to be over, then pat him on the back and tell him how good he was, and walk back to the wagon with him. If that was what Etta meant by “show women” she was right – she’d never be one. She didn’t have the courage!

    He threw down the eyebrow pencil in a burst of impatience. What was she hanging around for, anyway? “Did you want something special, Etta?” he asked stiffly.

    Etta’s face changed, and she put on the sweet, innocent look she used for Joe when Dad was around. “Oh, sure, honey, I forgot. If you’ll give me those practice pants of yours I’ll mend them for you tonight. I noticed a rip was starting.”

    Dad cut in hastily. “Now that’s right nice of you, Etta, but don’t worry with that this evening. Not with a headache. Joe can mend them himself, can’t you, kid?”

    Sure I can, thought Joe resentfully. I’ve done it all my life, since Mother died, and I guess once more won’t hurt me. What’s the pitch, anyway?

    He eyed Etta with suspicion. Whenever she started acting sweet and helpful it meant she was trying to get something out of Dad. “I already sewed them up,” he stated shortly. “You go on and enjoy your headache.”

    “Now, Joe –” began Dad, but Etta cut in.

    “I try, Dan,” she complained, shrugging. “Well, see you after the show.”

    She put her hand to her head with a weary gesture, and disappeared from the lighted doorway. Joe sighed with relief, and shoved the makeup box to one side.

    “What time is it getting to be?” he asked as he stood up.

    Mo glanced at his watch. “Nearly seven. Let’s go over with your dad and see what’s up with Serena.”

    The three of them threaded their way through the jumble of wagons toward the animal tent. Dad was silent, flicking his whip against his shiny black boot as he walked.

    “You could try and be a little nicer to Etta, Joe,” he said after a minute. “After all, you don’t have to see much of her since you moved in with Mo. She’s a fine girl, when you know her.”

    “Sorry, Dad,” mumbled Joe. “We just don’t seem to hit it off.”

    He sighed, thinking of the time before he’d begun bunking in Mo’s wagon. A fine girl, was she? Well, he’d got to know her pretty well in those days, when he’d been small enough to whip. Of course she’d never let Dad see any of that, but he had vivid memories of going to sleep crying, with his whole back sore.

    I wish she’d try it now, he thought, stiffening with the old rage. She’d run into a little trouble.

    He stopped in front of Serena’s cage, staring at her without seeing her, his mind busy with the problem of Etta. Then he realized that Mo was tugging at his arm.

    “Let’s go,” whispered the clown. “Your dad can handle her better if we ain’t here.”

    “Okay,” Joe said, “See you in the ring, Dad!” he called over his shoulder, then on a sudden impulse he turned and came back. “I’ll try to do better – about Etta, I mean. I know it’s rough on you, Dad.”

    “Don’t worry, son,” said his father with a smile. He clapped Joe on the shoulder. “Do your best tonight – you got to live up to that new rig, you know!”

    Joe grinned in return, made him a mock salute, and followed Mo out of the tent. He felt better, somehow, having said that. Dad was a great guy, underneath. The greatest in the world.

    Always afterward, he was glad the little scene had taken place.

    They strolled about the grounds, he and Mo, as they loved to do, watching the lights snap on and the whole circus gather itself for the burst of gaiety that was a performance. The guying-out crews were making their final check on the ropes and stakes. Out on the midway, the grifters whom Mr. Riley pretended not to see were gathering behind the side-show banner line, preparing their games of chance. Near Joe and the clown in the “back yard,” old Oscar, the bull-man, was lining his elephants up for the opening parade; Tony Fuccini, eldest son of the family of aerialists known as the Flying Fuccinis, emerged from his wagon just in front of them. Joe grinned and waved. He and Tony had grown up together, and had discovered their biceps in the course of giving each other black eyes. These had finally become so numerous that the manager had threatened to sack them both if they showed up once more in the ring looking like battle-scarred gladiators. They’d had to stop scrapping with the championship undecided.

    Riley’s circus was only a small truck or “mud” show. Unlike the fabulous Boxley Brothers, which was the largest in the world, it did not travel by train. As in the old days in England, which Dad had so often talked about, each performer’s family had its own wagon, which provided living quarters for the whole season on the road. Great trucks pulled the wagon trains overland and carried the mountain of gear necessary to set up a show.

    Joe, like all other circus people, dreamed of one day performing for Boxley’s. But sometimes he wondered just how it would be, with no home-like red wagon to live in. In a big circus, wagons were used as dressing rooms and for other purposes, but not homes, and surely no amount of luxurious train riding would make up for the lack of a few shabby but beloved square feet to call your own.

    He stood for a moment beside the clown, watching the first of the evening’s audience straggle in through the main gate. Judging from the afternoon’s crowd, there should be a large one for tonight’s show. They were in Pineville, Oregon, a county seat and a good-sized town.

    “Looks like a good night for the grifters,” Mo commented. “The spenders are coming early.”

    Joe shook his head in wonder. “Why is it, Mo, that they never catch on to them grifters’ tricks?” he said. “Looks like they just ask to have their money taken away! Do you reckon gillies are just plain foolish? Imagine a spangles thinking he could win anything off of old Ben Jurgens, over there!”

    “Oh, have a heart, boy!” returned the clown with a grin. “What do you expect? Circus people know the inside of that sort of thing.”

    “But for years them gillies have been doing it! Used to be lots worse than it is now, even. They come back, and come back – and get fleeced every time. You’d think they’d catch on after a while!”

    “You’re too quick to judge ’em, Joe,” Mo told him as they turned away. “Gillies are just like anybody – I’ve known a lot of them, every bit as fine as any spangles I ever knew.”

    Joe looked at him in disbelief. “You’re just kidding, aren’t you, Mo?”

    “No, I’m not just kidding. You wait’ll you’ve lived a little longer, boy. You never knew anybody outside a circus.”

    “I’ve known Etta!” exploded Joe. “And that’s all I care about knowing, thanks just the same! You can have all the gillies in the world, Mo, I’ll take one good joey like you.”

    Mo laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, shaking his head. “You’re a good kid,” he said. “And you’re circus to the bone, ain’t you?”

    As they started back to the wagon, a group of small children, shepherded by an older girl, straggled past them staring about with enormous eyes.

    “Lookit the elephants!” shrilled one little boy, pointing. “And look there, see? Cotton candy! Let’s buy some, Martha!” wheedled a tiny girl, tugging at her sister’s hand.

    “We got no money for extra stuff!” snapped the older child, but she gazed with longing eyes at the cones full of pink fluff. “Come along now, stay close by.”

    The little girl began to cry bitterly, and Joe, with a sheepish grin at Mo, stepped over to her, fumbling in the pocket of his dressing gown.

    “Hey, punk, you want that cotton candy awful bad?” he said, touching the little girl on the arm.

    “Yes!” she wailed without glancing at him.

    “Well here, go on and get some. Get enough for everybody, huh?”

    The others were staring at him owl eyed, and the older girl in the midst of a polite refusal caught a glimpse of the red jacket under his robe.

    “Gee, are you somebody in the circus?” she asked in awe.

    “Sure I am. I ride a horse.”

    “You do! He rides a horse!” she repeated excitedly to the smaller ones. “In the circus!”

    Joe slipped the nickels into the tiny girl’s pocket, smiling at her wonder-struck face. “Hurry and eat your cotton candy; then come on into the tent. If you’re a good girl I’ll do an extra flip for you!” he whispered.

    Waiting in the entrance alley half an hour later, he surveyed the crowd with a practiced eye. Pineville seemed to be a great town for circuses. The bleachers were full, the grandstand was a sellout. He fingered the spangles on his new jacket, his foot tapping to “Thunder and Blazes,” the march whose spirited rhythms filled the big top, and grinned in spite of himself with excitement. The windjammers in the bandstand were blowing themselves red in the face. Even the trombone player, whom Joe knew to have a sick baby and a lot of debts, was blaring out the music as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

    What a life! thought Joe. The familiar feeling of being lighter than air surged through him as he watched Mo’s hilarious antics at the other side of the tent. You could forget all the years of training, all the bad meals and the wearisome moving from place to place, the minute the music got hold of you and the good smell of the tanbark hit you in the face! He took a long breath of it, closing his eyes and feeling his heart thud with the delicious nervousness that always seized him just before he was to go on.

    He whirled about at a touch on his arm, and saw Marie Morelli, pirouetting coyly before him.

    “See you got your new rags on – how you like mine?” she giggled.

    “Fine – looks swell,” Joe told her, but he looked the costume over sharply, wondering if it would outshine his own. The other two Morelli sisters appeared at that moment, and he had a chance to see them all together. They were all in gray, their brief circular skirts spangled with red sequins. Too bad their legs were knotty with muscle, and getting a lot too chubby, besides. His face relaxed as he turned again to watch the ring. Their sequins would never out-glitter his own finery.

    There! That was the long drum roll that announced their act. He drew back against the tent flap as the elephants pounded out past him, trunk-to-tail, and reached to thump Mo, who pattered breathless in their wake. Then he was running across the parade circle among the Morelli sisters, the lights blinding him, the ringmaster’s voice reaching his ears in snatches.

    “Proud to present – center ring – greatest of all equestrian teams in the world – Morelli Sisters – and in addition – son of the famous English circus family – Joe Lang!”

    The drums rolled again deafeningly, and ended in a crash of cymbals as the four paused in the center ring to bow.

    Then the old rosinback horse, Snowy, stepped into the ring and the act began. One by one the Morelli sisters ran across the ring and vaulted to Snowy’s back. Then Joe, too, raced for Snowy as she came opposite and with that familiar, exhilarating sensation of flying, hurled himself through the air to land on his toes among the gray, spangled skirts.

    Marie slipped off on one side of Snowy, the other two sisters on the other, leaving Joe circling alone, bouncing delicately in a toe-to-pommel, his head flung back with pride and delight. Then as the second horse, Cotton, stepped into the ring and fell into stride, he flipped himself off Snowy’s back in a somersault, landed on Cotton’s, and flipped to the ground.

    The usual roar of approval from the audience throbbed in his ears as the sisters took his place, starting their jockey work, vaulting to both horses in turn, first facing front, then facing backward, then standing each with her left foot on Snowy and her right on Cotton.

    Marie, Joe noticed out of the corner of his eye, knocked her knee heavily against Cotton’s back as she jumped. His lip curled as he paced smartly about the ring, catching his breath and waiting for his next cue. Why couldn’t Mr. Riley see how bad the sisters were? They looked like dray horses themselves!

    Snowy came around again, shedding Morellis as she came, and once more Joe floated to her back, landed on his knees for a roll-over, and hit the ground on the other side, only to vault back again the next instant, roll over, and hit the ring with the elasticity of a rubber ball. Rollovers were always sure fire with an audience, and the bleachers cheered wildly. By the time Cotton had replaced Snowy in the ring for the “fast finish,” running around and around as fast as he could go, with Joe and the sisters doing single and double jump-ups from every angle and direction, the noise was deafening.

    The act ended with everybody straddling Snowy except Marie, who came up to her feet in an arabesque. Then they thumped to the ground, one-two-three-four, and the sisters’ gray skirts swished past Joe as they ran to the front to take their bow, hogging the spotlight as usual. Flushed with resentment, Joe retreated, bounding lightly over the edge of the ring and starting at a dog trot for the exit.

    But wait! That cheering had a different sound tonight! He swung about to see the ringmaster beckoning frantically. As he retraced his steps, he made out at last what they were saying. “The boy!” a thousand voices were yelling, over and over. “Send out the boy!”

    He sprang to the ringmaster’s side, almost reeling with excitement. Why, listen to those gillies! They liked him, they loved him! It was himself, Joe Lang, they were yelling for! He bowed again and again, conscious only of that roar of applause and the ringmaster’s hand pounding his shoulder.

    Finally, he never remembered how, he was out of the big top and running along the exitway, laughing crazily, and beating himself on the thighs with his fists. Now they would know! Now Mr. Riley would have to give him a better billing! Away with the Morelli Sisters; those gillies wanted Joe Lang!

    He paused when he reached the fresh night air and dropped down upon the grass, panting. The roars of the big cats came to his ears faintly – that would be Dad, putting the lions through their paces.

    Mo dashed by him headed for his next cue, stopping long enough to give him a mighty clap on the back and a proud whisper – “I heard ’em, Joe, I heard ’em clear over to the wagon!” Then he was gone, and one of the lions screamed angrily from the tent.

    Joe scrambled to his feet, and started for the wagon. It would be good to fall down on that bunk for a while. The lion sounded off again, and his steps slowed a little. He hoped Serena wasn’t acting up.

    Then he heard it – that long, drawn-out, indescribably terrifying wail that goes up from a crowd when every voice in it is hoarse with fright. Oh, Lord in Heaven, what was happening? His throat suddenly went dry as dust. He wheeled and ran back toward the big top, staggering and stumbling on legs which were all at once numb with fear.

    That terrible wail rose again, and at its highest pitch broke into a wild confusion of noises – yells, hoarse shoutings, the scream of a lion, and the sound of feet trampling on the bleachers. Then the piercing crack of a single revolver shot – and everything grew still.

    With a final sobbing effort, Joe hurled himself into the exitway and ran heavily into the outstretched arms of Mo Shapely. One look into that tear-streaked face, distorted almost beyond recognition with grief, told Joe all he needed to know.

    “Dad!” he screamed, clutching Mo by the arms and shaking him blindly. “It’s Dad!”

    Mo nodded without a word.

    People were all around them now, a swimming sea of white faces as meaningless as a flurry of snowflakes. Voices spoke, hands seized his clothing – Joe saw, heard, felt nothing. His eyes were fixed on Mo’s outlandishly painted face; on his mouth that twisted in its effort to speak.

    He got it out, finally – just four shaky words, in a voice Joe had never heard before.

    “You’re my boy now,” he said.

    Contributed By EloiseJarvisMcGraw Eloise Jarvis McGraw

    Eloise Jarvis McGraw was an American author of children's books and young adult novels whose novels were named Newbery Honor Books three times in three different decades.

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