We meet Rudolpho Gambini, an aging circus performer who specializes in escape stunts. In the opening, Gambini suffers from smoke inhilation after failing to escape a "burning coffin."
His family gets him out just in the nick of time, and in the wake of this experience, Gambini accepts his wife's advice and agrees to retire. He angrily disowns his oldest son, Stefano, when he learns he does not want to continue the family act. Turns out Marco, too, wants nothing more to do with performing when it passes to his generation but keeps silent to please his father, and he even agrees to undergo training to take over in a few years.
Later, Gambini and his family plan several performances in Walnut Grove, thanks in part to promoter Mrs. Olesen, who gleefully welcomes the circus to town.
After school, the schoolchildren watch the practices, and Albert is smitten ... not only by the new girl in town, but by Gambini's daring feats. Albert decides he, too, must be just like Gambini and devotes more time to imitating his stunts than his schoolwork.
Other children do likewise. Willie nearly blows up the Mercantile when he attempts the "cannonman" act with Nancy's cat, Pepper. Of course, Mrs. Olesen is far more concerned over Pepper's fate (since Nancy is crying over the cat's apparent death; the cat was uninjured) than she is over the fact that Willie's actions could have blown Walnut Grove off the map and killed people, but Nels recognizes how serious Willie's actions were.
After hearing a comment from another man about how he can't wait for the performers to do their high-flying stunts without nets, Nels expresses to Charles his grave concerns about Gambini's influence on the children. Charles agrees and, after learning that Albert has tried increasingly dangerous stunts, forbids his adopted son to go to the show.
Nels will also not allow Nancy to take a coveted announcing job at the opening show, of course over his wife's objections; she has made a darling little cape and outfit for her little girl to wear.
In the end, both Albert and Nancy disobey their parents ... only to have them witness Gambini fail to escape the "burning coffin" on opening night. Only this time, the results are deadly, and a saddened Albert has learned a hard lesson about hero worship.