The Leopard Man’s Story
«But there was one man, Wallace, who was afraid of nothing. He was the lion-tamer, and he had the self-same trick of putting his head into the lion’s mouth. He’d put it into the mouths of any of them, though he preferred Augustus, a big, good-natured beast who could always be depended upon.
«As I was saying, Wallace—’King’ Wallace we called him—was afraid of nothing alive or dead. He was a king and no mistake. I’ve seen him drunk, and on a wager go into the cage of a lion that’d turned nasty, and without a stick beat him to a finish. Just did it with his fist on the nose.
«Madame de Ville—»
At an uproar behind us the Leopard Man turned quietly around. It was a divided cage, and a monkey, poking through the bars and around the partition, had had its paw seized by a big gray wolf who was trying to pull it off by main strength. The arm seemed stretching out longer end longer like a thick elastic, and the unfortunate monkey’s mates were raising a terrible din. No keeper was at hand, so the Leopard Man stepped over a couple of paces, dealt the wolf a sharp blow on the nose with the light cane he carried, and returned with a sadly apologetic smile to take up his unfinished sentence as though there had been no interruption.
«—looked at King Wallace and King Wallace looked at her, while De Ville looked black. We warned Wallace, but it was no use. He laughed at us, as he laughed at De Ville one day when he shoved De Ville’s head into a bucket of paste because he wanted to fight.
«De Ville was in a pretty mess—-I helped to scrape him off; but he was cool as a cucumber and made no threats at all. But I saw a glitter in his eyes which I had seen often in the eyes of wild beasts, and I went out of my way to give Wallace a final warning. He laughed, but he did not look so much in Madame de Ville’s direction after that.
«Several months passed by. Nothing had happened and I was beginning to think it all a scare over nothing. We were West by that time, showing in ‘Frisco. It was during the afternoon performance, and the big tent was filled with women and children, when I went looking for Red Denny, the head canvas-man, who had walked off with my pocket-knife.
«Passing by one of the dressing tents I glanced in through a hole in the canvas to see if I could locate him. He wasn’t there, but directly in front of me was King Wallace, in tights, waiting for his turn to go on with his cage of performing lions. He was watching with much amusement a quarrel between a couple of trapeze artists. All the rest of the people in the dressing tent were watching the same thing, with the exception of De Ville whom I noticed staring at Wallace with undisguised hatred. Wallace and the rest were all too busy following the quarrel to notice this or what followed.
«But I saw it through the hole in the canvas. De Ville drew his handkerchief from his pocket, made as though to mop the sweat from his face with it (it was a hot day), and at the same time walked past Wallace’s back. The look troubled me at the time, for not only did I see hatred in it, but I saw triumph as well.
«‘De Ville will bear watching,’ I said to myself, and I really breathed easier when I saw him go out the entrance to the circus grounds and board an electric car for down town. A few minutes later I was in the big tent, where I had overhauled Red Denny. King Wallace was doing his turn and holding the audience spellbound. He was in a particularly vicious mood, and he kept the lions stirred up till they were all snarling, that is, all of them except old Augustus, and he was just too fat and lazy and old to get stirred up over anything.
«Finally Wallace cracked the old lion’s knees with his whip and got him into position. Old Augustus, blinking good-naturedly, opened his mouth and in popped Wallace’s head. Then the jaws came together, CRUNCH, just like that.»
The Leopard Man smiled in a sweetly wistful fashion, and the far-away look came into his eyes.
«And that was the end of King Wallace,» he went on in his sad, low voice. «After the excitement cooled down I watched my chance and bent over and smelled Wallace’s head. Then I sneezed.»
«It . . . it was . . .?» I queried with halting eagerness.
«Snuff—that De Ville dropped on his hair in the dressing tent. Old Augustus never meant to do it. He only sneezed.»