Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Webpages in Archive
BY ROBERT ALLEN LUPTON
This story isn’t about Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of his creations, or about the founder of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, Vern Coriell, but the story is about a book collector, who collects Burroughs’ first editions and other titles. He works in a circus, so I guess we could say that the story, Animal Crackers was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Vern Coriell. The story isn’t about Vern, but it’s about someone a little like Vern, but in a place where everything goes wrong. This is how it came about.
I met Vern at the 1978 Worldcon in Phoenix, Arizona. John Guidry, Pat Adkins, and I drove there from New Orleans with a rented waterproof storage rack on top of a 1975 Buick LaSabre and hours of Tarzan on Radio tapes. We drove straight through in twenty-one hours, 1550 miles. The math says that’s an average of 73 miles an hour.
The three of us shared two connected dealer’s tables and an hour after we got set up, this man walked up and said, “Hello, John Guidry. I need to use part of your tables for the weekend.”
I started to protest, but Pat and John overruled me. “It’s Vern Coriell. He publishes the Burroughs Bulletin.” I reluctantly agreed. Over the next two days, Vern and I became well-acquainted. I was fascinated with his circus and carnival stories. We both juggled and we both could ride unicycles. Vern said he could do both at once. I never could.
Another thing we had in common was time working on the road. One advantage of travel was we got to visit countless bookstores across the country. It was amazing what a person could find in a small bookstore outside of Texarkana.
One concern we discussed was that when you’re on the road, how do you secure and protect what you’ve purchased. I was never on the road for more than a month, but Vern traveled for entire seasons. “Where do you hide that newly found first edition of A Princess of Mars? You can’t just leave it in the room or on the seat of your car.”
Vern said, “I hide them. Circus folks are mostly honest, at least to each other, but I hide them anyway. Most of the other carnies never would have considered that books and old magazines had any value at all, but me being like I am, I hide them."
I asked where he hid them. He replied that that wasn’t my concern. He was right.
In the years since then, I often thought about where one could safely hide things in a circus. What would happen if BAD PEOPLE wanted your valuables? Ever individual is honest, but when you’ve got a hundred people, someone isn’t. It could be your significant other. It could be your best friend.
Vern had better luck than the protagonist in “Animal Crackers.” His wife, Rita, was a wonderful partner and companion.
I wrote this story for an anthology, “COLP: Treasure.” The COLP being the initials of the editor for Gypsum Sound Tales, an Australian Publisher. The book is available from Amazon. I included it in my short story collection, “Hello, Darkness,” also available from Amazon.
Just one final note. I bought several issues of the Burroughs Bulletin and a copy of the Jim Pierce autobiography from Vern. I also paid him two years dues. The dust wrapper on the Pierce book was damaged. Vern told me not to worry, but to join the Burroughs Bibliophiles and he’d send me a new dust jacket with the next issue of the Burroughs Bulletin. I paid him for two years membership.
Years later I bought a second copy of the Pierce book to obtain a better DJ and eventually found the Bulletins on line. As for that promised mailing from Vern, it must have been lost in the mail. I’m still waiting.
ANIMAL CRACKERSAnna asked her boyfriend, Greg, “Tell me again why we signed on with this fleabag of a traveling show. They’re paying us half of what we were making with Gehring’s Greatest Show on Earth. I was terrified on the drive south of Tennessee. The roads in this part of the country are crap and the bridges look like they were built before Columbus. I held my breath every time we drove across one.”
“Their strongman, Bernie Corel, collected science fiction and fantasy books. Ten years ago when World War Two ended, Forest Ackerman, the guy who published “Famous Monsters of Filmland” catalogued Bernie’s collection. He had autographed copies of books by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, and J. R. R. Tolkien. There was even a signed copy of “Alice In Wonderland.” Charles Dodson, that’s Lewis Carroll’s real name, even did a sketch on the flyleaf.”
Anna pulled the Eldorado and Gulfstream trailer into the performers’ parking area. She set the emergency brake. “So we’re here to find a bunch of damn books.” Honey baby, you better be right about this.”
“I know I am. Bernie died three years ago. Somewhere in this carnival is a treasure trove of books. His signed copy of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is worth ten grand by itself. It’s not just the books. Bernie bought and sold books too. He haunted book shops, junk shops, and estate sales for years and sold his finds to big-time collectors. He never spent a dime and he didn’t trust banks. He converted every penny into gold and jewels. I figured out where he hid his stash. Remember that magazine he published. He put the clues in the last issue. Look.”
Greg pulled out a copy of the last issue of “Bernie’s Bibliophiles.” A series of numbers were listed on the title page: T5, 160303, 091208, 1171507, 211708, 1301704, and 1181306. Anna shrugged, “So what.”
“It’s a clue. T5 means the fifth Tarzan novel, “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.” The numbers are the page number, line number, and word number of the clues. 160303 means page sixteen, line three, word three. The word at that location in the first edition of the book is treasure. The clues read “Treasure gold and jewels under beast feet.” He and I worked together building animal wagons during several off-seasons. I know where he hid his stuff.”
Anna hopped out of the Cadillac, rolled her eyes, and leaned back through the open window. “I’m gonna go get some grub and maybe a beer. Set up our trailer. I’ll meet you at the owner’s office in an hour to check-in. When’s our first show?”
“Tonight. Tomorrow we have two shows, a matinee and an evening performance.”
“Sure, baby. Like the rubes in this piece of crap town can support three performances. You better be right about this. You got a week and then I’m going back to the big time.”
“No worries, Cutie Pie. I’m taking over the strongman gig. Bernie’s props are still here. I’ll find those books. I can smell a first-edition Tarzan book from two counties away. Like Golem said, “Precious, my Precious.”
“Precious, my ass. I already hate this damn place.”
Greg unhooked the trailer and got it leveled and set in place. He met Anna at the circus’s office trailer. David Donald, the owner, ringmaster, and chief repairman, looked up from the accounting records. “Not that I’m not glad to see you two, but I don’t understand why headliners like you are slumming with a rinky-dink outfit like mine. Gerhing give you the axe?”
“Nothing like that. Anna’s working on a new routine. Her horses will be here before tonight’s show. She wanted to get it down pat before she takes it on the big circuit.”
Gerhing stood up. “That’s fine with me. Behave yourselves, stay sober, and don’t piss off the rubes. One of the lion wagons has a broken wheel. I’d appreciate some help fixing it.”
Greg winked at Anna and flexed his arms. “I’ll do it. Anna can take care of her horses. While I’m at it, I’ll check the undercarriages on all the wagons. It’ll give me something to do.”
Two dozen bright red animal wagons stood like caricatures of animal cracker boxes in two rows behind the Big Top. The lion wagon had two broken spokes. A roustabout was jacking up the wagon. Replacement spokes lay on the ground next to a wooden hammer. “Greg said, “Hey, Carnie. Belay that jack. I’ll hold up the wagon and you swap out the spokes.”
“Who the hell are you, Charles Atlas.”
“Close. I’m the new strongman. I perform as the “Son of Hercules.”
The roustabout moved the jack to one side. “Okay, show me what you got. You drop the wagon on me and I’ll beat you to death with this mallet.”
Greg bent and put his shoulder under the wagon. He braced his legs and lifted the wagon, lions and all, until the wheel cleared the ground. The roustabout quickly removed the iron ring around the wheel, knocked out the broken spokes, and seated the new ones. Three quick blows from the wooden mallet and the iron retaining ring was back in place. He remounted the wheel and locked the cotter pin on the axle.
Greg spotted three compartments under the lions’ cage on the wagon. They were well hidden, but they were there. His face was less than two feet from the nearest one and he could see the seams. They were painted over, but they were there. He’d pretend to make repairs and empty the hidden caches. Piece of cake.
“I told Gerhing that I’d inspect and make repairs on all the animal wagons. I’ll start with this one after the show tonight. Can you put the lions somewhere else?”
“Sure, the boss sold the midget horses to a rancher in Chickasha, Oklahoma so we’ve got an empty wagon. You want some help?”
“No, I got this. I have to earn my keep. Change of plans though. I’ll do the empty one tonight and the lion wagon tomorrow.”
“Tools and paint are in the maintenance tent. I’ll show you.”
Greg climbed into the empty horse wagon at about midnight. The floor creaked and sagged. Years of spilled water, urine, and God knows what else had taken their toll on the wood flooring. Greg scraped the floor down and traced the seams until he found the top of the first compartment. He pried it open. He shifted through several books wrapped in oilcloth. There were two leather pouches. One held a mixture of gold coins; Eagles, Double Eagles, and Canadian Maple Leafs. The other pouch was smaller, but a handful of diamonds and rubies were inside.
Greg carried the books to the Cadillac and put them in the cavernous trunk. He stuffed the gold and jewels inside a small cut in the rear of the driver’s seat. The other two compartments were empty. He replaced the flooring, caulked the seams, and repainted the floor. He got to bed at four AM, but was too excited to sleep.
He developed a regular daily routine. He got up in time to fight with Anna before lunch. Between shows, he’d meet with the roustabout, Hank, and pick the wagon to loot for the night. After the show, Hank would transfer the animals into the empty horse wagon for the night. Greg took his time. He did an excellent job replacing the worn and rotted floorboards, but why not, he was being exceptionally well paid.
After two weeks, he’d searched all three compartments in twenty of the twenty-four wagons. Over half the compartments were empty, but he didn’t care. The inside of the driver’s seat was full and the passenger’s seat was almost stuffed. He’d quit counting the gold coins and small pouches of jewels. He no longer took the time to peruse the books. The last compartment in the pygmy hippopotamus wagon had yielded a first edition of Dracula and three copies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He almost cried.
Anna shook him awake the next morning. “I hate this place. I want to leave. I caught three clowns peeking in my dressing room. One of the grooms keeps touching me and I hate this damn food. They don’t have a bagel in the state.”
“I only need another week.”
“You’ve got until tomorrow morning. I’ll be packed at sunrise. We can leave together or I’m taking the Caddy and driving north until I find a town with a diner that doesn’t serve grits.”
“Honey, I really only need a week. We’re going to be wealthy.”
“Money won’t help me in prison after I kill one of these grabby idiots. Tomorrow.”
Greg convinced Gerhing to move the strongman act into the first half of the show. He finished his performance and hurried to the maintenance tent. He had one night and four wagons to search. The chimpanzee wagon was a waste of time. The compartments were empty. That made sense. Chimps were smart and they’d open the compartments themselves. The gorilla wagon was empty as well.
The whistle sounded calling all performers for the grand finale parade. Greg slapped the last coat of paint on the gorilla wagon floor and yelled at Hank as he ran to the Big Top. “Put the apes in the horse wagon. The paint on their floor needs time to dry.”
After the parade, Greg considered the first of the last two wagons. The orangutan picked its nose and flipped the booger at Greg. The other two primate wagons were empty. This one probably was too. That left the tiger wagon. The wagon creaked and groaned as Maharaja and Raina, the matched pair of tigers, paced inside their cage. The tigers were always keyed up after a show.
Greg considered just quitting and not trying to search the tiger wagon, but if Greg had been Bernie, he’d have hidden the best stuff under the tigers. People tend to leave tigers to themselves. He told himself to walk away, but he knew he’d never forgive himself if he did. He picked up a crowbar and lantern. He crawled under the wagon. He found the first compartment, shoved the crowbar into the seam, and levered it open. Four bags of coins fell out. Three small sacks of jewels were tucked behind a dozen books. The tigers growled softly and pawed the floor above Greg’s head.
Greg carried the booty from the first compartment and stashed it in the Cadillac. He replaced the wooden plank and repainted it. He located the next compartment. It was empty. Maharaja whined and pawed the floor.
The third compartment was the mother lode. It took two trips to carry the gold coins to the Cadillac. He fell twice during the second trip. The skies had opened up with the kind of sudden southern thunderstorm that the locals called a toad strangler.
Anna watched him from the shadows. She hurried into the maintenance tent, picked up a large screwdriver, and crawled under the tiger wagon. She found the open compartment and jabbed the screwdriver upward through the crumbling wood. She withdrew the screwdriver and looked upward into the hole. A tiger’s eye gleamed in the reflection of the lantern’s light.
A tiger’s claw replaced the eye and ripped at the wood. Anna crawled away, tossed the screwdriver aside, ducked out of the tent, and hid while Greg re-entered. She ran to the Cadillac.
Greg slid back under the wagon and reached inside the compartment for one last check. He felt around with his hand. He reached as high as he could, but the top of the compartment was gone. He realized Maharaja must have ripped away the flooring, but before he could move his hand, the tiger bit down on it and jerked him upward.
The tiger pulled Greg’s arm, shoulder, and head into the cage. Greg kicked and flailed, but the tiger pulled harder. Raina joined her mate. She took one sniff, growled, and bit down on Greg’s face.
Anna didn’t wait to see what happened to Greg. She shivered in the pouring rain, but opened the car door, reached inside the passenger seat, and pulled out a pouch of gold coins. She smiled, unhooked the travel trailer, and drove toward the gravel road at the edge of the circus encampment.
The Cadillac slid all over the road. She’d told that idiot, Greg, that the tires were almost bald. It was hard to see in the rain. She flinched when the thunder came right behind the lightning. She stopped as she approached an ancient wooden bridge. The water in the Ogula River flowed over the wooden decking and was starting to wash out the road near the bridge. She crossed herself. This wasn’t the time to be faint-hearted.
She pointed the Cadillac straight ahead and drove slowly onto the old planking. The bridge creaked loudly enough to be heard above the rainstorm. Lightning struck a tree right behind her and she slammed on the brakes. The passenger side rear tire sounded like a cannon when it exploded under the weight of treasure. The driver’s side tire blew out a few seconds later.
Anna opened the door and stepped outside onto the water-covered bridge deck. The wood vibrated and shifted under her feet. She screamed and jumped back into the car and threw it into gear. The flat tires squealed and the car skidded sideways. The bridge collapsed and Cadillac plunged into the river. The extra weight carried it straight to the bottom.
The river washed sediment over the car. The raging waters washed away river bends, shallows, and sandbars. The river created a new channel throughout the night and it buried the Cadillac, treasure, and Anna beneath a newly created bank of mud and waterlogged timbers.
Hank found Greg’s remains the next morning. The circus owner called the local sheriff.
The sheriff didn’t care. He said, “I’m busy and it’s not my problem. You carnies can bury your own dead. I’ve got bridges to repair before the next storm.”
Robert Allen Lupton
8600 Glenridge PL NW
Albuquerque, NM 87114
Enjoy Robert's Amazing Array of ERBzine Submissions at
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2023 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.