“The Last Great Clown Hunt”

by Chris Furst

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #352, Nov/Dec 2008)

[ Download this issue as an ebook ]

It was clown-hunting weather. The leaves of the box elders were beginning to turn in the draws that cross-stitched the Musselshell River country. Frost fastened on the dry summer grass. I rose early one morning and marked a pair of trumpeter swans forging south under a bank of fast-moving clouds, their calls torn away in the ragged wind that smelled of burnt sugar. It was time to gather the musty costumes, clean the slide whistles, bag up the guns, and spin the lures of cotton candy.

My name is Jack Wilson. Ever since back in ‘22 I’ve worked as a guide, leading wealthy hunters who hope to bag the coveted Three Ring Slam: a trophy clown from every major tribe. Along with my tracker, stone-faced Keaton, I’ve hunted renegades from the Montana reservations every fall and smeared the faces of fat city men with the ritual blood and greasepaint from their kills. But fifteen years is a long time in this game, and the prey dwindles every year.

It wasn’t always that way. My father was the first clown agent for the Emmett Kelly Reservation. I remembered how he would take me and my brother, Billy Boy, along on his visits to the clowns, and how we watched that day when the tribes first arrived. Wave upon wave they came, the Kellys and their subsidiary tribes, the Chuckos with their whirling carousel hats, the yipping Zipps, and a small band of JoJos, spreading through the valley on their wagons and elephants. It seemed there was no end to them. Hundred-year-old flivvers flopped in on limping tires, disgorging scores of clowns. Bedraggled jugglers held dirty ninepins limp by their sides; their faces brightened a little when they saw us rubes. Two weary elephants, Dinky and Snaggletusk, dragged the steam calliope into the shade of a solitary cottonwood.

Billy Boy gaped at the straggling procession and toddled after the shaman, a gaunt giant sporting a battered top hat.

Chief Hairy Eyeball jolted up in his square-tired Pierce Arrow to parley with my father. Hairy Eyeball stood proud in his baggy brown pants, greasy shirt and filthy waistcoat, his wig and tie askew, his shabby derby hat set at a careless angle, and three days’ stubble shading through his makeup. He tripped on his floppy brogans and somersaulted to attention.

“What the hey,” he said. “Put ‘er there.”

Father reached out to shake hands and received a jolt from the ceremonial hand buzzer that sent him sprawling in the dirt.

“Allow me,” said Hairy Eyeball. Bowing to dust off Father’s suit, he squirted him with a lapel flower, then spent a long minute pulling a knotted rainbow-print kerchief from his coat pocket. He wiped Father’s face, and stuffed the kerchief into his sleeve.

The chief signaled that the preliminaries were over with a mighty blast on the klaxon.

“Well met, John Wilson.”

“Well met, Hairy Eyeball.” Father turned to the throng and welcomed all of the clowns to the reservation.

The Chief chuckled and, speaking through a megaphone, launched into his patter.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this here’s gonna be our headquartersfor the duration.” A chorus of slide whistles drew out a mournful, minor tune. Hairy Eyeball raised his arms and gestured for silence.

“I know we’ve given up a lot,” he said, “but from what I can see, this looks like our last best place. Come on, let’s get to work. We have a circus to run! And for Zoot’s sake, water those elephants!”

The calliope hissed to life, and the clowns passed the cigar butt before they erected the big top and the sideshow tents. Even in defeat they were magnificent.

* * *

My wife, Lucy, was caught up in the Portland Massacre. She was working as a mime when a berserker clown cadre grabbed her off the street to use as a human shield. I never knew if it was the police or the clowns who’d shot her, but after Lucy’s death, something changed in me and I moved back to Montana.

There were some guides who used laugh tracks, bicycle horns, amplified kazoos, and calliope detectors, but I was determined that my clients earn their kill in the old way. Classic guns, nothing automatic, nothing high-tech. A minimum of sound effects.

One had to be careful to make a clean kill, too, for a wounded clown could turn on the hunter or, worse yet, maul a client. I carried a rifle and a revolver for just such instances.

And I brought down renegades for the government, but I was developing less and less taste for the work. Entire tribes of clowns had been wiped out: the Bartys, the Kokos, the Rootie-Kazooties. Now even the proud Karamazovs and the once-numerous Bozos were reduced to bands of pitiful remnants that eked out a living as exhibits in Ripley’s museums across the country.

* * *

I was throwing bundles of bottle rockets into the back of the pickup when Crosswhite, the new regional clown agent, called from Bozeman.

“Wilson,” he shouted, “there’s been a breakout!”

“Don’t see how it’s any of my business, Crosswhite.” There was no love lost between us. Crosswhite was CEO of the Nimrod Channel and an ambitious, mean lickspittle, fresh into a D.C. political appointment and sent by the Interior Department to deliver the clowns an ultimatum: Hand over the renegades or see their winter supplies cut off.

“I can make it your business,” he said. I heard the smile in his voice. “Billy Boy’s gone greasepaint and is leading the renegades. I want you to bring him in.”

“What’s my brother got to do with it?” I said. “He’s a performance artist in Santa Barbara. Bullshit. Let somebody else clean up your mess.”

Billy Boy had always identified with the clowns more than I had. I admired clowns for their anarchy, for their free lives on the prairie and under the big top, but for Billy Boy it was love. From the first day he met them, when he rode with the shaman atop Snaggletusk, he knew that he belonged with the clowns. At sixteen he underwent the secret initiation rites and became a member of the Emmett Kellys.

How far had he gone this time?

“Come on, Crosswhite, I doubt Billy Boy would even show up in Montana, let alone lead some breakout.”

Crosswhite laughed. “Wilson, are you listening? They’re grabbing hostages. Your brother’s in trouble up to his big red wig. The Kellys made him their new chief.”

That stopped me for a moment. “Wait, that’s impossible,” I said.

“Wilson, Hairy Eyeball is dead.”

The cold wind cut through my parka.

“Billy Boy and that crazy old shaman, Runs With Scissors, they’re going around like the Messiah and John the Baptist, talking to the other tribes, preaching the stilt dance. They think the clowns can recover their old power.”

I had glimpsed the stilt dancers only once. Billy Boy and I were watching them through a gap in the big top when the shaman caught us. He ran me off; he allowed Billy Boy to stay. I still had a hard time picturing Billy Boy as one of them. To me he’d always seemed like a clown wannabe.

“And he has Catlin,” said Crosswhite.

A year ago, Keaton and I had accompanied the artist Fitzhugh Catlin on a last-ditch expedition to capture the major clown chiefs in paint before they died out. Each day for three months Catlin set up the blocks of velvet on his easel and painted the clown chiefs, barnums, and ringmasters I’d forced to stand before him. We lived in tents and wagons, shared the clowns’ simple but hearty farethe corn dogs and the cotton candy, the Cracker Jacks and sno-cones, the buffalo wings and deep-fried candy bars. We drank deep from barrels of pink lemonade or tipped back gulps of Mickey’s Big Mouth. I grew strong and content on the food and the outdoor air, but I knew, as we followed the clowns on their way to winter quarters, that they suffered my presence only because my brother had taken the initiation.

“Can’t the feds handle this?” I asked.

“Abetting a breakout, hmm, that’s good for about ten years,” he said. “Of course, we could also sell the ranch pour encourager les autres.” I heard him shuffling some papers. “And there is the tiny problem of your contract. Pinchot was far too lax with you, Wilson. You still owe us a year out of your life.”

I looked south. A figure was running at a steady pace along the river road, kicking up dust. It had to be Keaton. I recognized his skinny frame even at a distance.

“All right. What do you want?” I sighed.

“Bring in Billy Boy. Minimum violence, minimum fuss. And I get to film.”

* * *

Let me tell you about Keaton. The first thing you noticed was his dour, impassive expression that never changed, even in battle. Keaton he had no first name as far as anyone knewwas the best tracker in the business, able to sniff out circus smells from miles off: roasted peanuts, cheese popcorn, cotton candy, stale beer, moldy canvas, elephant dung, and the blood trail of killer clowns. If a clown put on a polka dot, Keaton knew about it. If a motorcycle clown gelled his liberty spikes, Keaton caught it on the wind. The clowns considered him a traitor for helping the hunters, and made no secret of marking him for special torture if he were to be caught.

He was also remarkably brave. During the brief Clown War he distinguished himself when he carried Major Vegas from the field at the Battle of the Little Big Top. I’m told that the savage Kokos counted coup on Keaton more than sixty times, yet he never faltered.

I trusted him with my life, in a bar fight as much as in the hunt. Once, we went to San Francisco for some R&R, and one night we took in a show at a comedy club. Maybe we were making a mistake. At his lowest point, Keaton had worked as a rodeo clown in Sawdust Pete’s Wild Clown Show, but had quit in disgust. Maybe I should have paid attention to the twitch at the corner of his mouth. Both of us had been drinking, enjoying a tour through the beers of the world, when the first performer took the stage. I don’t know what was so disappointing about the show, other than the fact that it was a collection of rimshot jokes and jousts with hecklers. I so wanted the comedian to wear greasepaint, a whirligig hat, a bulbous nose, and floppy shoes. Our mood grew ugly, and I had to hold back Keaton from assaulting the headliner, an overpaid, over-curled, over-dyed, red-haired young man in a horizontal-striped shirt. The club’s bouncer punched Keaton, but my tracker merely licked away the trickle of blood from his lower lip.

Keaton shielded his eyes with his left hand and peered intently toward the back of the club. He pivoted to face in the opposite direction and shielded his eyes with his right hand, staring out into the street. He removed a large title card from inside his shirt. In elaborate woodcut lettering it read, GIVE UP YET? The bouncer was infuriated and swung at Keaton again, but Keaton feinted right and the bouncer punched the bricks instead. We made our exit.

* * *

Keaton and I prepared to bring in Billy Boy and rescue Catlin and the hostages. I put on a belt of false noses and a polka-dot camo shirt. I wore a new orange wig so I could approach clowns without spooking them. Keaton removed his porkpie hat, dipped his index finger into a jar of molasses, drew an oval on the top of his scalp, and clamped a crumpled, bloodstained war boater on his head. We were ready.

* * *

We set out before dawn for the camp of the Emmett Kellys. As we came over a rise I saw the big top, a disheveled memory of the magic I remembered from childhood, its canvas torn and stained with mildew. Greasy smoke curled from under the tent flap. Dinky the elephant, emaciated, held his trunk in his mouth and shook his head from side to side while doing a mad little shuffle at the end of his chain. He had worn a circle three feet deep and had rubbed the skin raw on his trunk. Snaggletusk’s skull and twisted ivories stood guard above the entrance to the funhouse. Faded wigs hung from the eaves.

“Are you getting this?” Crosswhite asked the cameraman.

I warned them all to say nothing until Catlin and the other hostages were well away. I cared little what happened to Crosswhite, but I felt uneasy about endangering the camera crew.

A hostile reception party met us in the center of camp. Kelly Two-Step blew a blast on the air horn.

Billy Boy came out of his tent to parley. I hadn’t seen my brother in seven years and was unprepared for the changes in him. In addition to the Kellys’ sad clown makeup, he had pasted decals of the decimated tribes on his forehead.

“What the hey, Billy Boy.”

“What the hey, Jack. Long time.” Billy Boy crossed his puffy sleeves over his chest and examined us. “You bring guns and cameras. Which one will you shoot first?”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said. “Let the hostages go, stop the stilt dance, and we’ll give you safe conduct back to the reservation.”

“A lot of conditions,” he said. “We’ll see. Let us parley.”

As he motioned me toward his tent, Billy Boy caught sight of Keaton and stopped.

“It’s bad enough that my own brother deals in death,” said Billy Boy. “But you dare to bring the traitor Stoneface Keaton to my camp.” He spat at the tracker’s feet.

Brazen young clowns approached Keaton and honked their klaxons in his ears and threw confetti in his eyes, but he stood imperturbable as ever. Others surrounded the cameraman and the soundman and somersaulted over their equipment bags.

The tallest of the Kellys, the old shaman Runs With Scissors, strode from the funhouse and wrenched away Crosswhite’s leather bag. Velvet sketches for Catlin’s series on the extinct tribes spilled to the ground.

“Ho ho ho!” said Runs With Scissors. “Lookee what we have here, boys and girls.”

An excited honking arose and just as quickly died. The Kellys silently passed the velvet boards among themselves. Real tears rolled down the painted cheeks they dabbed with giant handkerchiefs.

Billy Boy held the sketch of Hairy Eyeball at arm’s length. He gazed at the old chief’s picture so intensely, I thought he was trying to x-ray it.

“Come with me,” said Billy Boy. “I want you to see something. The camera crew stays outside.”

We entered the big top, followed by Runs With Scissors. Inside, light slanted into the tent through a rent in the roof. Catlin was lashed to the center pole, encased in a thick layer of pink cotton candy. He looked like a giant cocoon with a man’s head sticking out. Stilt dancers whirled around him in the center ring and squirted him with water rifles. I don’t know how he’d managed to withstand such torture, but he was alive.

Under the disapproving eye of Runs With Scissors, we sat down in the ringside seats.

“Good God, Wilson,” whispered Crosswhite. “You’ve got to stop this.”

Keaton flashed a title card at Crosswhite: SILENCE!

“Let Catlin go, Billy Boy,” I said.

Billy Boy ignored me and selected a pair of red and white stilts from a bundle near the seats. He tied on the stilts and waited to enter the dancers’ circle. At a signal from the shaman, the dancers parted.

Billy Boy was transformed the moment he stepped into the ring. He led the intricate steps of the stilt dance, shuffling clockwise then counter-clockwise around the center pole, circling closer to Catlin in ever tighter rings, faster and faster, all the while sustaining a tremolo on the slide whistle.

Billy Boy danced for maybe an hour before corkscrewing out of the circle. The dancers followed him and rested against poles and guy wires.

“I had a vision as I danced,” said Billy Boy, untying the straps and removing his stilts. “This artist’s death would serve no purpose. We cannot win this way. Let him go.”

Angry shouts rose from the stilt dancers.

“Power demands a sacrifice,” said Shot From Cannon.

“Catlin steals souls,” said Reedy Pagliaccio. “He must pay with his life.”

Runs With Scissors, clearly upset by Billy Boy’s decision, but deferring to the chief’s authority, was trying to hold back the more volatile stilt dancers.

“Cut him down,” said Billy Boy. “I have spoken.”

Keaton and I broke the hard casing of cotton candy and cut Catlin down. He sagged between us.

Billy Boy led us from the tent. The crowd of clowns murmured angrily when they saw that we had Catlin.

My brother tried to calm the Emmett Kellys, but slapsticks and slide whistles began to rain down upon us.

“What about the other captives?” demanded Crosswhite.

Keaton turned to slip Catlin away from the camp, but a small knot of clowns in unfamiliar dress blocked them and began launching themselves off the teeter-totter, all the while keeping a flight of ninepins in the air.

Crosswhite aimed at Billy Boy and fired. The bullet grazed the chief’s scalp. The clowns surrounded their leader for a moment, then turned as one, whooping and honking, and attacked us. We ran downhill toward the cover of the trees.

I looked back and saw Runs With Scissors tear off his ringmaster trousers. The shaman was strapped into a giant pair of red scissors. He stalked to the funhouse and pulled on a tasseled cord. The false front of the funhouse fell forward, revealing the hostages in cramped cages behind a display of fireworks. Clowns stuffed them twenty to a Volkswagen Beetle and sent them hurtling towards us.

Keaton held up two title cards: WATCH OUT. PINCER MOVEMENT. But it was too late. Swooping down the brow of the hill, a unit of berserker clowns snapped giant clacking pincers. They pierced the unfortunate camera crew again and again.

Only Keaton’s quick shooting kept us alive.

I don’t know how we did it, but we began to get the better of them. Dead and wounded clowns littered the earth. Runs With Scissors was gravely wounded and his scissors shattered. A handful of stilt dancers and berserkers gathered around him, chanting the death dirge.

The old shaman pulled a Zippo lighter out of his hat, flicked it open, and tossed it into the fireworks. “Under the big top, brothers! Under the big top!”

Keaton and I looked at each other. For the first time I could recall, he raised his right eyebrow. In his hand was a title card: DUCK!

The funhouse burst asunder in a shower of jagged shards and shrieking rockets and fiery wigs. Shot From Cannon rode the back of a Red Molotov before he, too, blew up in the afternoon sky. Snaggletusk’s skull landed five feet from our hiding place. The big top caught fire, its flaming canvas moaning like a dying animal. Random bottle rockets ignited the sideshows, and the entire circus burned to the ground. Dinky, unchained, fled past us into the badlands.

We limped back to our field camp, a clearing in a glade of aspens. We fell exhausted, and lay in grim repose.

* * *

Jack!” Billy Boy shouted from the aspens. “See how many fine clowns have died today. Why do we do this?”

“You’re not going to negotiate with him, are you?” said Crosswhite.

“Come into the clearing and we’ll talk a while,” I shouted back. I walked out toward the edge of the trees and waited for Billy Boy. He was dressed in his full regalia as chief of the Emmett Kellys. A shot fired behind me. Billy Boy was wounded in the shoulder, and he ran into the cover of the trees.

I turned.

“Crosswhite, you damn fool!”

We stood glaring at each other, our guns raised, until Keaton intervened.

He withdrew a thick stack of title cards from his shirt, fumbling with them before he found the ones he wanted.

WAIT, read the first card. I’LL GO AFTER HIM, read the second. Both cards had bullet holes in the top left corner.

Ten minutes later, Keaton came out of the aspen grove dragging Billy Boy on an orange sleeping bag and stopped beside our camp in the middle of the clearing. Blood seeped from an ugly wound on Billy Boy’s left shoulder. A shallow groove ran red where a bullet had grazed his skull, and his blood-damp hair hung down over his right eye. Kapok leaked out of rents in his sleeves. Keaton leaned Billy Boy against some duffle bags piled next to the lean-to.

Crosswhite came forward, his rifle pointed at my chest. “He’s mine, dammit! Get out of the way, I’m taking the last shot.” He raised the old Winchester and motioned Keaton to step aside.

Keaton placed himself between Billy Boy and Crosswhite.

“Wilson,” barked Crosswhite, “control your man!”

I stepped closer to Crosswhite and nodded to Keaton.

“Why don’t you shoot me, too, Crosswhite? Because you’ll have to, you know. There aren’t any cameras now to catch your heroics, so why don’t you just go ahead?”

“I don’t care if he is your brother. He’s vermin.”

I caught Crosswhite on the bridge of his nose with the butt of my rifle and sent him sprawling in the greasy grass. Then I picked up the antique Winchester and fired a shot into the ground by his head. Crosswhite, groaning and holding his shattered nose, screamed and tried to roll away.

“Bastid,” he sputtered, spitting blood and broken teeth.

I levered out the rest of the bullets, gripped the barrel, and brought the stock down again and again on a granite boulder until the wood crazed and flew off in long splinters. I jammed the muzzle into a crevice in the rock and jumped on the barrel, bent it out of true, and tossed it into the woods.

Keaton motioned me toward Billy Boy, who sat propped against Crosswhite’s gear.

“Hey, Billy Boy.”

He popped open one puffy eye and stared upward. He chuckled for a moment, then a spasm went through his body and he coughed up bright arterial blood.

“Jack, it’s you,” he whispered when the coughing stopped.

“It’s all right, Billy Boy.” I sat down and cradled him in my arms. “Try not to speak.”

He smiled weakly under the greasepaint frown. With his wounded right hand he fumbled in his pants pocket and pulled out a two-foot comb, a rubber chicken covered in blood, a leaky can of silly string, a strand of knotted scarves, another strand of scarves, a rusted slinky, a ball of purple Play-Doh, yet another strand of scarves, and finally the dented klaxon that was his badge of office. “Here, I want you to have it,” he said.

I took the klaxon from him bulb end first and squeezed out a loud Ah-oo-gah that echoed through the clearing.

Billy Boy was breathing like a wheezy concertina.

“You’ll take me to the big top, won’t you, Jack? They have clowns at the big top.” He sighed for a long count, and I knew he was dead.

I pressed his head against my own, smearing my face with blood and greasepaint.

Chris Furst is a California nomad who lives in upstate New York. He is a graduate of Clarion West. His work has appeared in Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies and Captain Kidd Monthly. He once tried to join the circus, but they wouldn’t have him.

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