Chapter XIX. Teddy Distinguishes Himself
 

"The boss has an awful grouch on."

"Yes; I wonder what's the matter with him," pondered the clown.

His brother fun-maker shrugged his shoulders.

"Guess he's mad because of young Forrest's accident. Just got a good act started when he had to go and spoil it."

Not a hint of the suspicion entertained by the owner and his elephant trainer had been breathed about the show. Nearly a week had passed since Phil's narrow escape from death; yet, despite all the efforts of Kennedy or the shrewd observation of his employer, they were no nearer a solution of the mystery than before. The days passed, and with them the anger of James Sparling increased.

"That chum of Forrest's is a funny fellow," continued the first speaker. "He'd make a good clown?"

"Make? He's one already. Look at him."

Teddy was perched on the back of Jumbo, the trick mule of the show, out in the paddock, where the performers were indulging in various strange antics for the purpose of limbering themselves up prior to entering the ring for their acts.

The bright, warm sunlight was streaming down, picking up little flames from the glistening spangles sprinkled over the costumes of many of the circus folks.

Teddy and Jumbo had become fast friends--a strangely assorted pair, and whenever the opportunity presented itself Teddy would mount the ugly looking mule, riding him about the paddock or the ring when there was nothing going on under the big top. Every time the pair made their appearance it was the signal for a shout of merriment from the performers.

Teddy had perched himself on Jumbo's back while the mule was awaiting his turn to enter the ring, which he did alone, performing his act with nothing save the crack of the ringmaster's whip to guide him.

Somebody had jammed a clown's cap on Teddy's head, while someone else had hit it a smash with the flat of his hand, until the peak of the cap lopped over to one side disconsolately.

Teddy's face wore an appreciative grin, Jumbo's long ears lying as far back on his head as they would reach. To the ordinary observer it might have been supposed that the mule was angry about something. On the contrary, it was his way of showing his pleasure. When a pan of oats was thrust before Jumbo, or he chanced upon a patch of fresh, tender grass, the ears expressed the animal's satisfaction.

Jumbo could do pretty much everything except talk, but occasionally the stubbornness of his kind took possession of him. At such times the trick mule was wont to do the most erratic things.

"How'd you like to ride him in?" chuckled Miaco, who stood regarding the lad with a broad smile.

"If I had a saddle I wouldn't mind it," grinned Teddy's funny face as an accompaniment to his words.

Jumbo's equipment consisted of a cinch girth and a pair of bridle reins connected with a headstall. There was no bit, but the effect was to arch his neck like that of a proud stallion.

"You'd make the hit of your life if you did," laughed Miaco. "Wonder the boss don't have you do it."

"Would if he knew about it," spoke up a performer. "The really funny things don't get into the ring in a circus, unless by accident."

In the meantime the ringmaster was making his loud-voiced announcement out under the big top.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he roared, after a loud crack of his long-lashed whip, to attract the attention of the people to him, "we are now about to introduce the wonderful performing mule Jumbo, the only broncho-bucking, bobtailed mule in the world. You will notice that he performs without a rider, without human interference. Please do not speak to Jumbo while he is going through his act. Ladies and gentlemen, Jumbo, the great educated mule, will now make his appearance unaided by human hand."

The audience applauded the announcement.

At that moment the band struck up the tune by which Jumbo always made his entrance. At the first blare of the brass a fun-loving clown jabbed Jumbo with a pin. The mule did the rest.

"Here! Here! Get off that mule!" shouted the animal's trainer. "He's going on!"

"Let him go!" roared clowns and other performers.

Jumbo had never made as quick a start in all his circus career as he did that day. He fairly leaped into the air, though only one man understood the reason for the mule's sudden move.

With a bray that was heard all over the big top Jumbo burst through the red curtains like a tornado. There he paused for one brief instant, as if uncertain whether to do a certain thing or not.

Recalling the ringmaster's words, the spectators at first were at a loss to account for the odd-looking figure that was clinging to the back of the educated mule.

Suddenly they broke out into roars of laughter, while the performers peering through the red curtain fairly howled with delight.

Teddy was hanging to the cinch girth uncertain what to do. The ringmaster, amazed beyond words, stood gaping at the spectacle, for the moment powerless to use his usually ready tongue.

Jumbo launched into the arena.

"Get off!" thundered the ringmaster, suddenly recovering himself.

"I can't!" howled Teddy, though from present indications it appeared as if he would dismount without any effort on his own part.

Jumbo's heels flew into the air, then began a series of lunges, bucking and terrific kicking such as none among the vast audience ever had witnessed in or out of a show ring.

One instant Teddy would be standing on his head on the mule's back, the next lying on his back with feet toward the animal's head. Next he would be dragged along the ground, to be plumped back again at the next bounce.

No feat seemed too difficult for Jumbo to attempt that day.

"Stop him! Stop him!" howled the ringmaster.

Ring attendants rushed forward to obey his command, but they might as well have tried to stop a tornado. Jumbo eluded them without the least trouble, but their efforts to keep out of range of his flying hoofs were not so easy. Some of them had narrow escapes from being seriously injured.

Mr. Sparling, attracted by the roars of laughter of the audience and the unusual disturbance, had hurried into the big top, where he stood, at first in amazement, then with a broad grin overspreading his countenance.

Now Jumbo began a race with himself about the arena, following the concourse, now and then sending his heels into the air right over the heads of the spectators of the lower row of seats, sending them scrambling under the seats for protection.

A clown ran out with half a dozen paper covered hoops, which he was holding in readiness for the next bareback act.

He flaunted them in the face of the runaway mule.

Jumbo ducked his head under them and Teddy Tucker's head went through the paper with a crash, the mule's heels at that instant being high in the air.

With the rings hung about his neck, Teddy cut a more ridiculous figure than ever. The audience went wild with excitement.

Now the ringmaster, angered beyond endurance, began reaching for Teddy with the long lash of his whip. The business end of the lash once brushed the boy's cheek.

It stung him.

"Ouch!" howled Teddy as he felt the lash.

"Stop that!" exploded Mr. Sparling, who, by this time, had gotten into the ring to take a hand in the performance himself. He grabbed the irate ringmaster by the collar, giving him a jerk that that functionary did not forget in a hurry.

Jumbo, however, was no respecter of persons. He had taken a short cut across the ring just as the owner had begun his correction of the ringmaster. Jumbo shook out his heels again. They caught the owner's sombrero and sent it spinning into the air.

Mr. Sparling, in his excitement, forgot all about the ringmaster. Picking up a tent stake, he hurled it after the educated mule, missing him by a full rod.

The audience by this time was in a tempest of excitement. At first they thought it was all a part of the show. But they were soon undeceived, which made their enjoyment and appreciation all the greater.

Jumbo took a final sprint about the arena, Teddy's legs and free arm most of the time in the air. He had long since lost his clown's cap, which Jumbo, espying, had kicked off into the audience.

"You fool mule! You fool mule!" bellowed Mr. Sparling.

Jumbo suddenly decided that he would go back to the paddock. With him, to decide was to act. Taking a fresh burst of speed, he shot straight at the red curtains. To reach these he was obliged to pass close to the bandstand, where the band was playing as if the very existence of the show depended upon them.

Teddy's grip was relaxing. His arm was so benumbed that he could not feel that he had any arm on that side at all.

His fingers slowly relaxed their grip on the cinch girth. In a moment he had bounced back to the educated mule's rump. In another instant he would be plumped to the hard ground with a jolt that would shake him to his foundations.

But Jumbo had other plans--more spectacular plans--in mind. He put them into execution at once. The moment he felt his burden slipping over his back that active end grew busy again. Jumbo humped himself, letting out a volley of kicks so lightning-like in their swiftness that human eye could not follow.

Teddy had slipped half over the mule's rump when the volley began.

"Catch him! He'll be killed!" shouted someone.

All at once the figure of Teddy Tucker shot straight up into the air, propelled there by the educated mule. The lad's body described what somebody afterwards characterized as "graceful somersault in the air," then began its downward flight.

He landed right in the midst of the band.

Crash!

There was a yell of warning, a jingle and clatter of brass, several chairs went down under the impact, the floor gave way and half the band, with Teddy Tucker in the middle of the heap, sank out of sight.