All Steamed Up
"Looking back, it's easy to see that Pa's plan to rob the circus was a really bad idea..."
Issue #7: Sunday 13 March 2022
This is the longest story I’ve posted here on A Flash in the Pan, so you might find it more comfortable to read in the new Substack app for iPhone or iPad.
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I think I enjoyed writing this story more than any other I’ve written. I hope you enjoy reading it.
The Great Circus Robbery
Looking back, it’s easy to see that Pa’s plan to rob the circus was a really bad idea.
At the time, though, it seemed to make as much sense as any of his crazy ideas. And I was only twelve then, so what did I know?
There was just Pa and me, living in the draughty rooms above the scrapyard. Ma had left us two years ago, ran off with a door-to-door brush salesman, Pa said, and good riddance. I wasn’t so sure about the ‘good riddance’. I missed Ma.
Anyway, we were in the front room when we heard the hullabaloo out in the street. Pa poked his head out the window. “Lizzie,” he said in that gruff voice of his, “get down there and see what’s going on.”
So I ran down into the yard, past all the piles of junk and scrap metal, and out into the road. It’s the main road that runs through the town. Seeing as how we lived in the scrapyard, you’d be right in guessing this was the poor side of the town.
A bunch of kids was out there, all yelling and cheering, and some grown-ups, too, waving their hats. And along down the road comes the circus.
It was a big outfit, trundling into town on twenty outsized wagons, all pulled along in a line by the biggest steam tractor I’d ever seen. As it came into town, it started to sound its whistle, high and piercing and all full of mystery and promise.
All of the wagons were covered in huge pictures showing the delights of the circus: the trapeze artists, the steam-horse riders, the jugglers, the mechanical elephants, the clowns, the sleek steel lions and tigers. A crowd of kids surged along the road, following the train. My heart skipped a beat and I found myself clapping my hands with joy. Me! I should have known better.
Then I remembered Pa, and I turned back to tell him what was going on, but he’d followed me down into the street and now stood glaring after the wagons.
“A circus, Pa!” I said, unnecessarily.
“Follow ‘em, Lizzie,” he said. “See where they fetches up. And count the kids.”
“You heard. Count how many kids there is.” I nodded, and dashed off after the wagons.
I followed them all down the road, across the bridge, up the main street and out the other side of town. All along the way, the circus picked up more and more kids trailing after it. As I walked, I looked around, counting the kids. Four hundred, at least, and more coming every step of the way. It’s a big town.
At last, the steam tractor reached the waste land down by the river and turned in a wide, wide curve, drawing the wagons into a huge circle, neat as you please. I sat on the ground to rest my feet.
Just as soon as the tractor stopped, panels dropped open on the side of every wagon, facing towards the centre. Roustabouts in striped shirts jumped down and began pulling gear out of the wagons. Almost before I knew it, a big carpet of red and white canvas lay filling the circle, and they were starting to raise a tall, thick pole at the centre, pulling it up with a winch on the tractor.
After a while, sighing, I got to my feet and started back. It was dark by the time I got back to the scrap yard, but Pa had at least lit the lantern, and I found my way into the rooms without tripping over any junk.
A plate of bread and cheese was on the kitchen table, and I started to wolf it down. Pa sat there, drinking beer from the bottle. “Well?” he said sourly.
“Four hundred, fifty seven. Well, four fifty eight if you count me.”
“I don’t count you for nothing, Lizzie. Four hundred fifty seven. Let’s see, each kid has two parents, mostly. Hmmm...”
I swallowed a chunk of bread. “But some kids only got one parent, Pa, like me.”
He nodded. “And lucky you are to have me, Lizzie. How much is the tickets?”
He hadn’t asked me to find that out, but I’d looked anyway. “Five dollars for grown ups, three dollars for kids. You and me could go for eight dollars,” I said eagerly “They’ll be in town for the next three days.”
Pa rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Might have to go. Pity. But we might have to. So, Lizzie, how much is that all up?”
That took a little longer, and I stared at the wooden ceiling, figuring it out. “If every kid and every parent goes, then pretty close on five thousand dollars, Pa.”
He grunted, and then smiled, showing his missing teeth. “Five thousand dollars. Nice tidy sum, that,” he said. “Be nice to have that in my pocket.”
“You shut your mouth. I’m thinking.”
He must have thought all through the night, because in the morning he had a grin from ear to ear. “Lizzie,” he said, “I’ve got a treat for you. You and me is going to the circus. On the last day.”
So we went to the circus on the last afternoon, dressed up in our Sunday clothes. Pa in a grubby black suit and me in my white dress, the one I’d had to let out twice since Ma left. We got there nice and early to be sure of getting in and, as Pa said, “to have a bit of a look-see.”
Even though we were early, a long queue waited at the little wooden ticket booth.
To one side of the big top, just behind the booth, a man was polishing one of the mechanical elephants. Looking back over it now, I think it would all have been all right if Pa hadn’t spotted the elephant. Its brass and chrome shone bright in the sunshine, as the keeper applied the cloth to the plated segments of its trunk and its long brass tusks. Two other smaller elephants stood behind it.
When Pa saw the big elephant, something lit up in his eyes just as bright as the gleam of the elephant’s tusks. “Lizzie,” he hissed. “You see that beast? How much metal you reckon there is in that elephant?”
I had a bad feeling already, but I looked across at the mechanical elephant and thought about it. It was more than twice as high as the man, and three times as long. “Three, four tons, maybe,” I said doubtfully. “But Pa...”
“Lizzie, you go over there, and talk real nice to the man. Ask him to give you a ride on the pretty elephant. Go on, you know what to do.”
I did, from long practice. I talked to the man polishing the machine. I lisped. I simpered. I hated myself. Plenty of other kids stood around, open mouthed and wide eyed, but I out-persuaded them all.
“Please, mister,” I said again, for maybe the tenth time. “Just let me climb up on him.”
Eventually, he laughed. “All right then, little miss. Just for a minute, now. No, none of you other kids, you didn’t ask nice enough.”
He reached up, lifted a metal flap and pulled a small red lever in the elephant’s side. With a hiss, a big section opened up and out folded a neat little set of steps. I tripped up them, quick as you please, and the elephant’s keeper followed. Up on top of the elephant, set inside its back, there was a seat. I sat down in it with a plump. In front of me I could see a panel with half-a-dozen levers and dials, all nice and easy to my hand. The keeper, still standing on the steps, took a big brass key out of his pocket, put it in a hole in the panel, and turned it. It hissed and shivered, and suddenly the elephant came alive, all shuffling and shifting beneath us. The dials flickered.
“Does it all work by steam?” I asked innocently.
The keeper shook his head. “No, little miss, this here is a right new thing called the in-ter-nal com-bus-tion eng-ine. Instead of coal it uses this black stuff they discovered in Texas, kind of like lamp oil. I just have to pour it in at the start of each show.”
He moved two of the levers, and the elephant picked up its feet, right dainty, and walked forward a step or two. Then he laughed, set the levers straight and took out the key. “Come on, now, that’s enough. I’ll get into big trouble if we’re not ready for the show, and I’ve got two more elephants to polish.” And so we climbed down again. Some of the other kids stuck out their tongues at me. I stuck mine back.
I rejoined Pa in the queue. He was now much nearer the ticket booth.
“There’s a key,” I whispered to him. “And it works by levers. What are you going to do?”
“You recognise that key again if you saw it?”
I nodded. My memory is as good as my number figuring. And it was an unusual key.
“Okay, now shut up while I buys our tickets.”
Pa took an age to pay for the tickets. He’d brought a pocketful of pennies, nickels and dimes, and counted them out real slow while the old man at the booth fumed and tapped his fingers. But Pa did it on purpose. All the time he was looking real careful at the booth, and at the big cash tin where the money was kept. Then he dropped a dime and it bounced over the counter into the booth. Pa leaned way over then, pretending to try to grab the coin. He told me later he’d been able to see the little safe at the back where they must put the tin overnight. The old man cursed and pushed him back out, and finally gave us our tickets.
Well, the circus show was a real treat, even though Pa kept fidgeting and shuffling. His mind wasn’t on the show. But it was a treat for me. Pa never took me anywhere unless there was a reason, and this was the first circus I’d ever seen.
I gasped with fright as the trapeze artists threw themselves about far above the audience, spinning in the air. The tightrope walker juggled and jumped on the wire, all without a net. Then the bareback riders danced on the backs of the steam horses as they flashed around the ring, pistons pumping and gears whirling.
Then the human cannonball. They brought out this real big steam catapult, and he climbed into the seat at the end of the big arm. They pumped up the steam and then — pow! — the arm slung forward, and the guy flew right across the tent, bounced off the canvas at the top, and then dropped into a net. I thought he’d be stone dead, but he just jumped out, took off his helmet, and bowed. Everybody cheered.
Scariest of all was the big-cat tamer, who cracked his electrical whip as the big clockwork machines crouched and roared at him, opening their mouths to show their rows of razor-sharp steel blades. I nearly fainted when the tamer put his head in the mouth of the biggest lion, pulling it out just in time before the metal jaws slammed shut.
And finally, the elephant parade.
The biggest elephant, the one I’d climbed, was in the lead, followed by a medium size one and then a baby one. The keeper rode the lead elephant, pushing and pulling the levers to make it stop, rear up and lift its metal trunk into the air. It picked up and balanced a big red ball and then tossed it to the smaller elephant behind. Its own rider, a woman in a spangly costume, repeated the trick and then tossed the ball to the baby elephant at the rear. A little midget girl rode that one, and she made the machine catch the ball, roll it on the ground and then leap up onto it to balance there while I held my breath, sure as anything that it was going to fall off. But no, she just jumped it down to the ground again.
I clapped and clapped until my hands were sore. But Pa just sat there, silent and glowering. “Eight dollars,” he muttered.
We left the tent, but we didn’t go home right away. We strolled off down to the river and behind a few trees. One big tree had a fork in it, and Pa clambered up and pulled out the old brass telescope he’d found in the scrap one day.
He was up there a long time, and it was starting to get dark. I was getting cold, and hungry. But that was nothing new, living with Pa. Finally, he gave a satisfied grunt. “Just like I thought,” he said. “They just locks up the booth. The money’ll be in that safe I saw. I was hoping it’d just stay in a tin, easy to grab, but the safe makes it harder.”
He climbed down from the tree. “Come on, we need to go home and get some stuff.”
We came back well after midnight. A half-moon was just starting to edge up into the sky behind the trees. Pa and me were now both dressed in black, and I pulled a little four-wheeled trolley, the kind a mechanic uses when he has to fix something underneath a carriage.
When we got close to the place where the tent was pitched, Pa made me stand behind a tree while he looked over the circus ground with his telescope again. After a while, he said: “Looks quiet enough. Come on, but keep your little trap shut and step real quiet.”
Together we crept up to the tent. Just to one side, where I’d seen them first, the huge mechanical elephants stood, right pretty with the moonlight gleaming off their metal. Close by was the wooden ticket booth. The door had a big padlock on it.
“Now,” Pa whispered. “The dumb thing to do would be to try to pick that padlock. I ain’t dumb. I got this.” And out of one leg of his pants he pulled a long, thin, flexible saw. We went around to the back of the booth and he threaded the saw between two boards and started sawing. It didn’t make much of a sound. In a couple of minutes he had two boards cut, top and bottom, making a neat hole. He stuck his head in and spent a minute or two looking around.
He pulled back and blinked in the moonlight. “Dark in there. The safe’s just here, bigger’n I thought,” he said, patting the wooden boards to his right. He picked up the saw again and quietly set to work.
Within a half-hour he had cut away all the boards behind the safe. I could see its metal back glinting. It was just under three foot square, maybe. Pa positioned the little trolley just behind it, digging it in to the soft ground so its top was level with the bottom of the safe. Then he went back to sawing. Another board or two, and Pa could squeeze past it into the booth.
I heard him grunting and cursing softly for a long while, and the back of the safe moved, just a little. But not enough to get it onto the trolley. Pa squirmed back out. “Can’t move the damn thing!”
“Can’t you just open it, Pa?”
“Would I be a-shoving on it if I could open it? It’s got one of them dial things, saw it this afternoon. We gotta get it back to our shed and drill it. But it’s too damned heavy. Nope. This is where that elephant comes in.”
“The elephant? But, Pa, we don’t have the key.”
“Lizzie, your Pa ain’t stupid. There’s a big set of hooks on the wall in there, and keys on 'em. Ten to one says they puts all the keys there. Get in here and find that key, Lizzie. Do something useful for a change.”
Resentfully, I crawled through and tried to look at the keys, but it was so dark inside I couldn’t make out one key from another. I felt over them, trying not to clink them against each other, thinking real hard about the key I’d seen. I picked out three of them which felt about right, and crawled out again. Under the bright moonlight, it was easy. “This one,” I said.
“Took you long enough,” Pa said ungratefully. “Now, this is the tricky bit.” He fetched the long rope we’d brought with us, and tied it round the safe, through the big steel handle on the door.
“I figured we was gonna have to do this, Lizzie. Besides, if we can get that elephant away quiet-like, and into our big shed before sunrise, I’ll have it broken down into scrap afore anyone comes a-knocking. Got to be worth at least as much as what’s in the safe. Maybe more. I’m gonna be rich!”
“Don’t you mean we, Pa? We’re going to be rich?”
“Yeah, yeah. Now go and climb up on that elephant and use that key.”
“But Pa, I never...”
“Just do as I says. Get on that big thing and get ready to make it move.”
Well, as I sidled up to the huge elephant, Pa spooled out the rope he’d tied to the safe. Then he looped the free end high up around the elephant’s back legs and made it tight.
Of all the crazy things my Pa ever did — and there was a whole lot of them — this was probably the craziest. I don’t know how he thought he could get the elephant and the safe away ‘quiet-like’. But he always had big ideas, my Pa.
As I stood staring, he waved his hand urgently at me, silently telling me to climb up.
I looked hard for the little flap the keeper had lifted to get to the lever for the stairs. It wasn’t easy in just the moonlight, but I felt all over the elephant’s side and found it at last.
I pulled the lever, and the stairs came down again real smooth, but the hiss and the thump they made sounded awful loud in the silence of the night. I stopped, sure someone would wake up and call out, and I could see Pa standing stock-still, too. But we heard nothing, and so I tip-toed up the stairs onto the elephant’s back and sat down.
Which of the levers did I need to pull? I sat there in a panic. There were more of them than I remembered, and none of them had any labels. Was there a lever to pull up the steps? Maybe, but I sure didn’t know which one.
“Lizzie!” hissed my Pa. “Get that danged thing a-moving!”
I took a deep breath. All I could do was try. I put in the key and turned it. The key didn’t move. I turned it the other way, and suddenly the huge machine came alive again, trembling and shifting. And making more noise than I expected.
I grabbed the two biggest levers desperately, hoping they were the ones the keeper had used, and yanked on them. The elephant began to step forward. I heard a twang as the rope pulled taut behind me.
That’s when it all went wrong.
“Liz...” I heard a sudden loud, ripping crash behind me, and I jumped in fright. I looked back. The rope was pulling the safe, all right. But it hadn’t pulled neatly out of the hole Pa had cut. Instead, it had shifted to one side, and torn half of the wooden wall right out of the booth. And it had missed the little trolley, and was bouncing by itself along the ground.
Lights came on in one wagon after another. A loud yell came from the nearest one, as the ring-master stumbled out in his nightgown. Other figures quickly joined him.
Next thing I knew, Pa was clambering up the steps to perch dangerously behind me.
“Quick, Lizzie, quick! You gotta get us out of here!”
Desperately, I pulled harder on the levers, and the elephant began to speed up, though it was still more like a fast walk than a run. But it steadily got quicker.
We crashed out of the pen, accidentally caught one of the tent ropes in the elephant’s tusks, drew it taut, and then snapped it with a loud crack.
We were headed for some trees. How was I supposed to steer this thing? I’d never driven anything more than our little pony trap, and our old pony always knew where he was going, just needed a twitch of the reins. There weren’t any reins on the elephant.
Pa was yelling, and in a panic I looked down at the levers I was holding. Two levers. Why did it need two levers, not just one? I pushed the left-hand lever forward a little, and suddenly the elephant swerved to the right. We missed the trees by a fraction, and then I pulled the lever back so that we were going straight again.
I glanced behind. Everyone in the circus was up and milling around, and I could see a couple of people heading towards the other elephants. They were all yelling. So much, I thought, for ‘real-quiet like’.
The safe was bumping on the ground behind us, lurching and tumbling, but still tied to the rope. It was slowing us down, jerking back on the elephant every few bounces. If it got caught in something...
“Pa!” I yelled. “You got to cut the rope!”
Pa was wild-eyed, crazy-looking, as he tried to keep his balance behind me. “No! Never!”
“Pa, they’ll catch us!”
“But... five thousand dollars, Lizzie, five thousand dollars!”
“They’ll catch us, Pa! It’s too late!”
“Aw, hell...!” But he lay down on the elephant’s back and began to shuffle towards its tail. Meanwhile, I tried to steer the huge machine onto the road through town. Maybe, I thought, maybe if we got far enough away we could get back home and hide this thing in our shed before they saw us.
I heard a sudden snap. The elephant surged forward with a jerk. Now it was going a lot faster, almost running, striding along with heavy footsteps. I could hear Pa cursing. He told me later he’d nearly fallen right off, had just managed to hang on to the tail and climb back up.
The town loomed up in front of us. Only a few lights were on. I had lost track of the time, but it must have been around four or five in the morning. The sun would be coming up soon.
I looked back again. That wasn’t a good idea. Not too far behind, I could see the middle-sized elephant racing after us, and on its back the lady rider I’d seen in the circus ring, in her night-gown, whirling a lasso. She threw it, but the loop fell way behind us. I figured that so long as we kept going, the longer legs of the bigger elephant would leave them further and further behind.
Then, in the distance behind, I saw two of the steam horses. They must have taken a while to build up steam, not like the elephant, with its magical internal combustion engine. But once they got going, they would run a whole lot faster than us.
Looking back for so long hadn’t been a good idea. There was a mighty crash, and the elephant staggered to one side. We’d smashed into a sidewalk verandah. I moved levers quickly to get it straight again.
Pa was just behind me again. “Lizzie!” he gasped.
“What, Pa?” He looked pretty bad. Bewildered, I guess. Cutting loose that safe must have been the hardest thing he’d ever done.
“Nothing, nothing. Just keep going, Lizzie.”
Now here came the two steam horses. As one of them came up alongside us, puffing steam, its rider yelled for us to stop. Pa just shook his fist at him. And then the man stood up on the horse’s back, just like he’d done in the big top. He balanced there for a second and then jumped across at the elephant, hung on to one of the tusks like it was a trapeze bar, and then swung up to grab at Pa.
I screamed as the two struggled together, but then Pa landed a punch and the man slipped off. He can’t have been hurt much, because he did a somersault or two when he hit the ground and then stood up straight.
His horse, running all by itself, veered off the road and smashed into the window of Mrs Baker’s millinery store. Glass went everywhere, and the horse stopped still with a flowery hat spinning on its head, hissing steam. If I hadn’t been so scared, I would have laughed.
The townspeople were leaning out of windows now, and coming to their doors, staring as the elephant thundered down the street, followed by the rest of the circus.
The rider of the second steam horse kept swerving in front of us, trying to get me to stop, or at least to turn aside, but I tried to ignore him. The make-it-go levers were pulled as far back as I could get them, but as I glanced down, I could see that one of the dials had a needle flickering on the edge of a little wedge of red. What did that mean? Was it running out of steam? Or — what was it? — that oil stuff the keeper had talked about?
We were almost at the end of the street now, nearing the little bridge over the river. But before we reached it, a loud, loud, whistle sounded behind us, almost like a mechanical scream. Pa cursed. “They got the steam tractor going. It’s damn fast when it ain’t hauling all them wagons. And it’s pulling something behind it.”
I looked back again. The tractor was pulling the steam catapult. A moment later the catapult gave out a huge puff of steam, and then came a bang. The human cannonball flew through the air, right towards us.
Pa yelled as the cannonball man thumped into him head-first, and the two of them fell forward over my back into the little seat. For a minute, all three of us were struggling together, all arms and legs. The cannonball man had on his black helmet, and he was banging it into Pa’s head. Blood was streaming down Pa’s face.
And then I saw Pa pull out his knife.
It was too much. There was no way we were going to get away now, and if Pa used that knife, he’d hang. I pushed my hands past them and grabbed every lever I could and pulled them all.
With a terrible jerk, the elephant stopped. Then it reared up on its hind legs, its trunk raised high in the air. Its back tilted and tilted and tilted until it was straight up like a wall. All three of us fell out and down onto the road. Luckily, I was the last and I fell on top, and wasn’t hurt much. But Pa was underneath us all, and he got knocked out cold.
As I lay there on the road, dazed, the crowd of circus people caught up with us and I found myself staring up into the gleaming jaws of one of the steel tigers. I gave a little scream, but it was on a leash, and its panting keeper pulled it back and turned it off. It was all over.
Pa went to jail for a long time. In fact, he’s still there. I visit him whenever we’re in town. That isn’t all that often, though, since we travel around so much. See, when the circus folk realised that it had all been Pa’s idea, and that I was pretty much all on my own now, they took me in and kind of adopted me. That’s right. I ran away with the circus!
That was more than a year ago. Since then, I’ve learned to do a heap of different acrobat tricks. They call me “The Amazing Leaping Lizzie” now.
But last night something real special happened. That’s kind of why I’ve been writing all this down.
See, yesterday we arrived in a big town out west and last night we put on our show. So there I was under the big top, doing handstands on the back of Raja (that’s the name of the big elephant Pa and me stole). At the end of the act, I did a somersault, leapt off his back, and spun down to a perfect landing in the sawdust. Lots of applause.
And as I straightened up, a big buxom woman in the front row stood up and shrieked “Lizzie, Lizzie!”
It was Ma.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this Story
I really can’t recall where this story idea came from, but I had fun writing it (probably too much fun, which means it ran a good deal longer than it probably should have). It’s probably most suitable for a younger audience, of about the age Lizzie is in the story.
It appeared in eSteamPunk magazine in February 2013, and was voted the best story of the issue by readers.
That’s all for now. See you next time.
Hi David - I am not a big steampunk fan but I really enjoyed the idea of the circus animals being animatronics (or whatever the steam-driven analog is). And a good ending with the young girl getting the opportunity to join the circus. Not sure about the surprise return of the mother in the last bit but overall a very enjoyable story.