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The act they had worked out involved Barker reciting a question at random from a list of equations, which he had solved in advance with the help of a slide rule, and both sets of fingers and toes. The donkey would begin slowly tapping its heavy hoof, 1 ... 2 ... 3 ..., until it reached the correct answer. It was Barker's job to then discretely lower one eyebrow, twice lick his lips, and wiggle his left hip in a counterclockwise fashion. This was the donkey's unmistakable cue to stop counting.
"Step right up, step right up," he crooned, having set up shop in the town square of Milledgeville, an easy mark, to be sure, Barker reckoned. His brief stint as a snake oil salesman had left the man with a lingering taste for the spotlight, not to mention a surprising knack for elocution and public speaking. In no time, he had drummed up a group of curious head-scratchers, ready to witness the uncanny calculations of this most mysterious Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, Professor of Mathematics.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," Barker began most assuredly, passing his hat into the crowd. He then described in rapturous detail the doctor's many unique attributes, his unparalleled facility with numbers, his patriotic service during the Great War, his private audiences with kings and queens. As in all of life, lying was of very little consequence here. Already, Barker could hear the coins piling up in his chapeau.
The routine was the same in every town. Barker charmed the assembled audience with his polished stage presence, and the great Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, representing progress and intellect, stomped the people free, with his mighty hoof of knowledge, from the shackles of their disbelief.
"What's one plus two?" Barker might ask. Or, "How many times does two go into six?" Or, more impressive still, "What's left if you take 12 from 15?"
Without fail, Dr. Hawthorne would begin tapping, 1 ... 2 ..., and, just as he reached the correct answer, 3 ..., the man would begin his series of spastic movements, and the donkey would stop tapping and return his feet to their neutral position. The townspeople oohed and aahed, and there was much clapping and shaking of hands all around. And much handing over of money.
The two went on like this for some time, each quietly carrying out his end of the bargain, though with gradually waning concern for the other. Barker spent his evenings in pursuit of steak dinners and loose women, while Dr. Hawthorne frequently found himself tied up outside, alone with his thoughts. Still, he managed to derive some pleasure from the performances themselves, and this proved to be reward enough for the donkey, as effective a carrot on a stick as the equally effective, actual carrot on a stick the man used to guide themselves from town to town.
No matter where they went, they encountered no shortage of fools willing to accept as fact the falsified mental acuity of a mangy farm animal, and more importantly, willing to part with their money in order to do so. By the time they reached Macon, Barker could have done the show in his sleep, and so he would never have anticipated that a vulgar woman in floral print might suddenly cry out from the back of the crowd, bringing the performance to a screeching halt.
"How do we know it ain't no trick?"
"What?" Barker replied, caught quite off guard.
"How do we know it ain't no trick if you're the one what asks all the questions?" The crowd fell silent, awaiting Barker's response.
"Well — he's used to my voice, is all." He began to sweat.
"I say hogwash!" the woman continued, every eye in the world seeming to shift back and forth between man and animal.
"Alright, fine then!" Barker threw his hands up. "But I warn you—" He felt his bottom lip begin to quiver. "—a donkey can only know so much math!"
"Professor Hawthorne," the woman said, rushing forward as if to request the blessing of a minister. "What's the square root of nine?"
The doctor cocked his head to one side, and held it there for some time, quite obviously thrown off by the question.
"Well, go on then!" a voice shouted.
"Is ya good at math or ain't ya?" came another.
Dr. Hawthorne sighed, shook his head, and began to stomp.
Barker knew exactly how this would play out. Without his command to stop, the donkey was sure to go on tapping forever. But how could he give the signal, when he hadn't even an educated guess as to what the phrase "square root" might imply?