Charlie O’Brien, Circus Vargas’ owner, encounters an elderly man named Jacob Jankowski, who is separated from his nursing home group. The two strike up a conversation and Jacob reveals he had a career in the circus business and was present during one of the most infamous circus disasters of all time, equal in seriousness to the 1944 Hartford circus fire and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus wreck.
Jankowski tells his story to O’Brien, starting in 1931 when he was a 23-year-old veterinary medicine student at Cornell University. During his final exam, he is informed that his parents were killed in a car accident. His father has left huge debts, and the bank was foreclosing on Jacob’s home. Feeling there is no point in returning to school, and having no home to go to, he jumps onto a passing train where he meets a kind old man named Camel.
Jacob wakes up the next morning and discovers that he jumped on the Benzini Bros. circus train. He sees a beautiful young woman named Marlena Rosenbluth, and meets August, the circus’s ringmaster, head animal trainer, and Marlena’s husband. Jacob reveals he studied veterinary science and August hires Jacob as a vet for the circus animals after Jacob tells August that Silver (a show horse) has laminitis.
August instructs Jacob to fix Silver and keep him performing as long as possible. But Jacob cannot bear to see Silver’s suffering and takes it upon himself to tell Marlena and shoots Silver. August is furious with Jacob’s decision to euthanize Silver against orders. To show Jacob who is boss, he threatens to throw him off the moving train — telling him that an animal’s suffering is nothing compared to a man’s, and that Jacob must carry out all of August’s future orders if he wishes to keep his job.