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The Grandest Show on Earth

by Ron Van Sweringen

A hush fell over the crowd when the huge cat appeared, its orange and black coat glowing in the spotlight. Marmaduke the clown, his face covered in white greasepaint, watched the center ring.

“Don’t make a mistake, girl,” he shouted to the three hundred-pound tiger as she paced back and forth in the small secured enclosure, waiting to enter the big top’s main ring.

Billed as the Polis Brothers’ “Grandest Show On Earth,” the traveling circus and carnival was anything but. A conglomeration of washed-up performers, grips and two-bit hustlers traveling in buses and trucks from town to town behind the loaded boxcars.

The big top was set up overnight, usually outside of the city limits or in a run-down part of town along the train tracks. Lights were strung up along sideshow tents, their brightly painted canvas awnings flapping in the wind. Sawdust covered the ground and the smell of wild animals wafted among the locked iron cages.

June the 14th, 1943 was no different from any other night. “The Grandest Show On Earth” was playing a hick town in Alabama. A population of five thousand was the only requirement, along with a two hundred-dollar payoff to the sheriff for a fifty-dollar traveling sideshow permit.

Marmaduke the clown had crawled out of a drunken binge in Ardmore, Oklahoma six months before and talked his way into a job at twenty-five dollars a week, plus meals and a place to sleep. Luckily the show’s manager remembered his name from the good years when he had been a top draw for Barnum and Bailey.

“Lay off the sauce and don’t screw around with me, Marmaduke,” he said, chewing a cigar, “or I’ll feed you to Sheba. It’s costing me a damn fortune to feed her, but people pay money to see a man-eater.”

He was right. Sheba’s reputation as a killer was established. A year earlier she had attacked her handler and made front page news by devouring him on the spot. A lot of men, women and children in Dry Wells, Kansas, would never forget that performance. The upshot was a rifle marksman, now stationed beside the cage. His orders: shoot to kill if Sheba attacked again.

Watching the rifleman upset Marmaduke, although he did not show it. He continued his clown act, tossing a rubber chicken in the air and catching it in a bucket on his head. He felt affection for the big cat. He knew what it was like to be trapped. Alcohol made him a prisoner just like Sheba, without hope of escape.

Marmaduke witnessed the big cat’s cruel treatment by the lion tamer, day after day. He fed her rank meat and occasionally withheld water as punishment for her aggressive behavior. Marmaduke fell asleep at night with an empty bottle at his side, listening to Sheba’s mournful sound.

The silence continued, everyone holding their breath waiting for the lion tamer to enter the cage with Sheba. The cat sensed their excitement and her nervous pacing became noticeably more agitated. When the iron gate to the cage opened, her green eyes focused on the lone figure as she rushed into the larger space.

His odor was familiar along with his red jacket as he moved slowly in a large arc before her, one arm raised. In his raised hand was the thing Sheba hated and feared. The snake-like black streak that bit her with stinging pain when he brought his arm down.

“Play the game, girl,” Marmaduke shouted to Sheba, his voice lost in the roar of the crowd. “Don’t attack, stay alive.”

The whip lashed with the sound of a firecracker. Sheba retreated, taking her place on a raised platform in the middle of the ring. She swayed back and forth nervously, one large paw raised with claws extended, following the movement of her aggressor.

“Now bow down,” he shouted at her, his lash ripping the air and tearing into the flesh of her muzzle. “Bow down,” he shouted again as blood spattered her fur and a stinging pain raced through her brain. Sheba obeyed his command and dropped to a crouching position on the sawdust floor.

The crowd let out a roar of approval at Sheba’s submission, while the lion tamer took his bows. Marmaduke’s stomach rolled over seeing the blood ooze down Sheba’s fur. A feeling of panic seized him watching the big cat crouch under the lashing whip. He felt the animal’s pain and in that horrible instant, they were one.

“Stop it,” he screamed against the crowd roaring for more blood. Then Marmaduke made a decision. With all eyes on the lion tamer and Sheba, he released the lock on the cage door, swinging it open. Sheba instantly sensed her chance for escape, springing at Marmaduke in the open doorway. The marksman delivered freedom to them both.

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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