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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Smiling Annie's snake circus

There weren't that many women on the Speewah, but the ones that were there made up for it by the great ideas they used to have.  Take the time Smiling Annie's Alice and Greasy Smith's second youngest, Gertie decided to take some Speewah snakes down to the big smoke and put on a circus.

They'd thought about doing some acts themselves, but they reckoned party tricks like riding a bicycle with three rolls of barbed wire and six loose melons was too ordinary.  They tried to get Mick to do a strongman act for them, but he reckoned they'd be better off with snakes, because city folk are both scared of and fascinated by snakes.

The first thing Alice and Gertie did was to sit down and plan the acts they could use.  First up they had some adding adders, where you would ask an easy sum, and the snakes would stick up enough heads over the side of the container to give you the answer.

It was a fake, of course, because adders are deaf, and couldn't hear the question, but they had a pup, the runt of one of the litters sired by Mick's dog, and it could hear all right.  So it'd listen to the question, then nose enough of the adders, which would stick their heads up, rather than get nipped on the tail by the pup if they didn't do it right.  But even if it was a fake, the customers wouldn't know it was just a dog doing the sums, and so they'd be impressed.

The next thing they decided on was a snaky equivalent of a lion-taming act, and for this, they decided to use a young python they found eating scrub bulls in the back paddock.  What happened was they were looking for a horse that had gone missing, and they thought this python might know something about it, so they reckon Alice ripped its jaws open, and Gertie stepped inside, but all there she could see was a scrub bull that was bellowing and roaring for all it was worth.

As it happens, Smiling Annie was there as well, and she held the snake's tail, and the next bit was her idea.  "Let's see," she says.  "The tent's only got four 'roo hides in it, so you can fit about four hundred people, but you'll never get all of that snake into the ring.  It'd be best if you train it to open its jaws, then you can bring the front end in, just after you've fed it a bull, because snakes don't roar, but your customers won't know that the roar they hear is coming from the bull, not the snake."

Gertie being the small one, she got the job of being the tamer of what they now called "Grendel, the world's biggest worm", which was a bit of a fake, seeing as how it was really a python, and people sort of knew that worms didn't have two-metre teeth, but it still looked real impressive.  Mind you, they could see a problem if they had to do matinees, because it took Grendel a full day to digest a bull, but in the end that wasn't a problem.

Next up, they decided, was a high-wire act.  That was easy, because the got some of the plaiting snakes.  These are the only little snakes that can withstand the big snakes in the back paddock, and that's because they plait themselves together into a whip, and lash any big snake that comes near them, and they're highly intelligent, so Annie rounded some up and explained what was on offer: a chance to see a bit of the country, free milk, plenty of frogs, and a chance to give Grendel a free lashing at any matinee performance.  Of course, they'd need fancy uniforms, but the rest of the plaiting snakes had a whip-around, and in no time at all, they had lashings of cash.

Mind you, Grendel wasn't too happy about the idea, as he'd had a few encounters with plaiting snakes, even in his young life, but that was no problem.  The girls just got Smiling Annie to come around and smile at him, and he decided that the whole idea has a lot of merit, and it was only for matinees.

Anyhow, the plaiting snakes were ideal for the high wire, but they worked themselves into a bigger routine, where they started out as a trapeze act, and swung back and forth, adding more snakes to the plait, then whipping up to tie off on the other post.  It was a mistake for the girls to agree to this, because the plaiting snakes used this as an excuse to get more of their family into the show, and that was the first step towards the disaster that was to come.

There was another step when they tried to get some drop bears to ride tiptail snakes.  These tiptails are completely harmless snakes, which only eat wild grapes and spinifex seeds, but when the wind gets up, the seeds blow around pretty fast, so they need to be even faster, and they rear up and race along on just the tip of their tail, cutting down on friction.  Well the drop bears would ride the tiptail snakes all right, but the first time the snakes reared up on their tails, two of the bears went feral, and bit the snakes on the neck.  And even though Mrs Greasy Smith had filed down the bears' teeth for them, it still hurt the tiptails.

Now I know I said the tiptails are harmless, but they also have a very mean streak and a nasty sense of humour, especially when something annoys them.  I've seen more than one horse rider chased by tiptails after taking a horse over a tiptail nursery, and there's nothing more upsetting that galloping full speed, and having four hissing snakes either side of you, four more behind you, and a couple of small ones jumping over you, even when you know they're dead-set vegetarians.

But while you can bluff a horse rider, drop bears have no imagination at all, so what the tiptails did was to race around the practice ring, faster and faster, and then lean out and bash the drop bears against the poles.

So given the time it took to catch a drop bear alive and file its teeth, it just wasn't worth it, so the tiptails were reduced to doing gymnastics and precision high diving, but people had seen all that before.  Flash Jack reckoned they ought to get the tiptails riding the drop bears, saying they could call it bear-back riding, but the girls wouldn't be in it.

Anyhow, Flash Jack had been telling the girls about hoop snakes for years, and they were never sure whether he was having a lend of them or not.  So now they put the word on him to put up or shut up, and he had to admit that there weren't any such animals.

That was no problem to Gertie.  She had gone out and collected four young taipans — had to kill the mother, of course, but she got the young ones before they knew they were snakes, and brought them up with another litter of pups, fairly bright little pups they were, too, second cousins of Mick's dog, and the snakes grew up thinking they were dogs.

But as cattle workers, the taipans were a dead loss, because every time they nipped a bull in the heels, it'd die.  No worries, though, Gertie took them and trained them to hold their tails carefully in their mouths, with the poison fangs either side of the tail.  Then she helped them get upright, and tried to get them to hoop along, but they just couldn't manage it, so all they could do in the end was run them down a ramp and across the ring, or wheel them around the ring.

The juggling snakes were pretty good as well, and the strong snake act was Grendel's tail, coming in through a flap in the roof — brought the house down once or twice until they got the cross-bracing right, and the snakes on unicycles were brilliant.

The snake charming wasn't much good though, as they had some of the adding snakes playing a tuba between them, two on the mouthpiece, and one on each key with Gertie coming out of the basket, but they forgot that all the adders were deaf, so nobody enjoyed that much, except the snakes.

But in the end, the whole show went broke.  You see, you can't really have a circus without clowns, and there was just no way you can keep a red nose on a snake, because the elastic kept slipping off.  So after all that effort, Alice and Gertie had to let the snakes go back into the bush again, where all of the snakes, including the adders, multiplied.

Still, circus training dies hard, and even today, you can find cooperative groups of plaiting snakes driving scrub bulls into the mouths of a large old python in the Speewah back paddock, assisted by a couple of taipans which sometimes seem to let out just the hint of a yelp.

You'll know the python straight off, as he's only got one tooth left.  And you'll find these adders that pop their heads up over a log to look at you if you shout out a sum, but you have to shout real loud.  So I suppose the snakes got something out of it, even if the girls didn't.

Crooked Mick was able to use the tent, though.  He turned it over, put loops around the base, and used it as a dilly-bag to carry his spare shears and a bit of a snack when he was heading off somewhere, and Gertie and Alice took Greasy's second bullock team out on the road for a spell till they got over their disappointment.

It was hard on the bullocks though, because Greasy just said to take them out on the road, and they assumed he meant them to carry the bullocks and they got embarrassed, but that's another story.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

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