Chapter IV. The Circus Comes to Town
 

The Sparling Combined Shows came rumbling into Edmeston at about three o'clock the next morning. But, early as was the hour, two boys sat on the Widow Cahill's door-yard fence watching the wagons go by.

The circus was one of the few road shows that are now traveling through the country, as distinguished from the great modern organizations that travel by rail with from one to half a dozen massive trains. The Sparling people drove from town to town. They carried twenty-five wagons, besides a band wagon, a wild-west coach and a calliope.

"Phil! Phil! Look!" exclaimed Teddy, clutching at his companion's coat sleeve, as two hulking, swaying figures appeared out of the shadows of the early morning.

"Where?"

"There."

"Elephants! There's two of them."

"Ain't that great? I didn't suppose they'd have any elephants. Wonder if there's any lions and tigers in those big wagons."

"Of course there are. Didn't you see pictures of them on the bills, Teddy?"

"I don't know. Dan Marts, the postmaster, says you can't set any store by the pictures. He says maybe they've got the things you see in the pictures, and maybe they haven't. There's a camel! Look at it! How'd you like to ride on that hump all day?" questioned Teddy gleefully.

"Shouldn't like it at all."

"I read in my geography that they ride on them all the time on the--on--on Sarah's Desert."

"Oh, you mean the Sahara Desert--that's what you mean," laughed Phil.

"Well, maybe."

"I should rather ride an elephant. See, it's just like a rocking chair. I could almost go to sleep watching them move along."

"I couldn't," declared Teddy. "I couldn't any more go to sleep when a circus is going by than I could fly without wings."

"See, there comes a herd of ponies. Look how small they are. Not much bigger than St. Bernard dogs. They could walk right under the elephants and not touch them."

"Where do they all sleep?" wondered Teddy.

"Who, the ponies?"

"No, of course not. The people."

"I don't know unless they sleep in the cages with the animals," laughed Phil. "Some of the folks appear to be sleeping on the horses."

"I'd be willing to go without sleep if I could be a showman," mused Teddy. "Wouldn't you?"

"Sure," agreed Phil. "Hello! There come some more wagons. Come on! We'll run down to meet them."

"No; Let's go over to the grounds where the circus is coming off. They'll be putting up the tents first thing we know."

"That's so, and I want to be around. You going to work any, Teddy?"

"Not I. I'm going to see the show, but you don't catch me carrying pails of water for the elephants for a ticket of admission that don't admit you to anything except a stand-up. I can stand up cheaper than that."

Both boys slipped from the fence, and, setting off at a jog trot, began rapidly overhauling and passing the slow-moving wagons with their tired horses and more tired drivers.

By the time Teddy and Phil reached the circus grounds several wagons were already there. Shouts sprang up from all parts of the field, while half a dozen men began measuring off the ground in the dim morning light, locating the best places in which to pitch the tents. Here and there they would drive in a stake, on one of which they tied a piece of newspaper.

"Wonder what that's for," thought Phil aloud.

"Hey, what's the paper tied on the peg for?" shouted Teddy to a passing showman.

"That's the front door, sonny."

"Funniest looking front door I ever saw," grunted Teddy.

"He means that's the place where the people enter and leave their tickets."

"Oh, yes. That's what they call the 'Main Entrance,'" nodded Teddy. "I've seen it, but I don't usually go in that way."

With the early dawn figures began emerging from several of the wagons. They were a sleepy looking lot, and for a time stood about in various attitudes, yawning, stretching their arms and rubbing their eyes.

"Hey, boy, what town is this?" questioned a red-haired youth, dragging himself toward the two lads.

"Edmeston."

"Oh, yes. I remember; I was here once before."

"With a show?" asked Teddy.

"Yes, with a Kickapoo Indian medicine man. And he was bad medicine. Say, where can I wash my countenance?"

"Come on; I'll show you," exclaimed Teddy and Phil in the same breath.

They led the way to the opposite side of the field, where there was a stream of water. While the circus boy was making his morning toilet the lads watched him in admiring silence.

"What do you do?" ventured Phil.

"I perform on the rings."

"Up in the air?"

"Uh-huh."

"Ever fall off?"

"I get my bumps," grinned the red-haired boy. "My name is Rodney Palmer. What's your names?"

They told him.

"We're going to be circus men, too," Teddy informed him, but the announcement did not seem to stir a deep interest in the circus boy. He had heard other boys say the same thing. "Is it very hard work?"

"Worst ever."

"When do you sleep?"

"When we ain't awake."

"And you perform on the flying rings?"

Rodney nodded his head indifferently.

"I should think you'd burn the tent up with that head of red hair," grinned Teddy.

Instead of getting angry at the boy's thrust, Rodney glanced at Teddy with a half questioning look in his eyes, then burst out laughing.

"You're a cheerful idiot, aren't you?" he twinkled. "I'll tell you why I don't. Confidentially, you know?"

"Sure."

"I wear a wig when I'm performing. Mebby if it wasn't for that I might set something on fire. I must get over on the lot now."

"You're in a lot already," Teddy informed him.

"We call the place where we pitch the tents 'the lot.' The cook tent must be up by this time, and I'm half starved. The performance was so late yesterday afternoon that they had the cook tent down before I got my supper. Will you come along?"

They did.

"Do you think there is anything I could do to earn a ticket to the show today?" asked Phil.

"Yes, there's most always something for a boy to do."

"Whom do I ask about it?"

"Go see the boss canvasman. I'll point him out to you as we go along."

"Thank you. You want to see him, too, Teddy?"

"No; I don't have to."

"That's him over there. He's a grouch, but just don't let him bluff you. Yes, the cook tent's about ready. I'll sneak in and hook something before breakfast; then mebby I'll come back and talk with you."

"We'll look for you in the show this afternoon," said Phil.

"All right, if I see you I'll swing my hand to you," Rodney replied, starting for the cook tent, where the meals were served to the show people.

"Now, I'm going to see that boss canvasman," announced Phil. "See, they are laying the pieces of the tents flat on the ground. I suppose they fasten them all together when they get them placed, then raise them up on the poles."

"I guess so. I don't care much so long as I don't have to do it."

"Teddy Tucker, actually you are the laziest boy I ever knew. Why don't you brace up?"

"Don't I have just as good a time and better, than you do?"

"Guess you do."

"Don't I get just as much to eat?"

"I presume so," admitted Phil.

"Don't I see all the shows that come to town, and go to all the picnics?"

"Yes."

"Then, what's the use of being any more'n lazy?"

Teddy's logic was too much for his companion, and Phil laughed heartily.

"Look, the elephant is butting one of the wagons," cried Teddy.

"No, they are using the elephant to push the cage around in place. I wonder what's in it," said Phil.

A roar that fairly made the ground shake answered Phil's question. The cage in question held a lion, and a big, ugly one if his voice was any indication. The great elephant, when the cage was being placed, would, at a signal from its keeper, place its ponderous head against one side of the cage and push, while a driver would steer the wagon by taking hold of the end of the tongue.

It was a novel sight for the two boys, and they watched it with the keenest interest. A man dressed in riding clothes, carrying a short crop in his hand, was observing the operations with equal interest. He was James Sparling, the proprietor and manager of the Great Combined Shows, but the lads were unaware of that fact. Even had they known, it is doubtful if Mr. Sparling would have been of sufficient attraction to draw their attention from the working elephant.

All at once there was a warning shout from Mr. Sparling.

The men set up a yell, followed by a sudden scurrying from the immediate vicinity of the cage that the elephant had been shunting about.

"Stop it! Brace it!" bellowed the owner of the show, making frantic motions with his free hand, cutting circles and dashes in the air with the short crop held in the other.

"What's the row?" wondered Teddy.

"I--I don't know," stammered Phil.

"The elephant's tipping the lion cage over!" shouted someone. "Run for your lives!"

For once in his life Teddy Tucker executed a lightning-like movement. He was one of several dark streaks on the landscape running as if Wallace, the biggest lion in captivity, were in reality hard upon his heels. As he ran, Teddy uttered a howl that could have been heard from one end of the circus lot to the other.

A few of the more fearless ones, the old hands of the show, did not attempt to run. Instead they stood still, fairly holding their breaths, waiting to see what would happen next.

Mr. Sparling was too far away to be able to do anything to prevent the catastrophe that was hanging over them, but it did not prevent him from yelling like a madman at the inactive employees of the show.

At the first cry--the instant he comprehended what was happening-- Phil Forrest moved every bit as quickly as had his companion, though he leaped in the opposite direction.

All about on the ground lay tent poles of various length and thickness, side poles, quarter poles and the short side poles used to hold the tent walls in place. These were about twenty feet in length and light enough to be easily handled.

With ready resourcefulness and quick comprehension, Phil pounced upon one of these and darted toward the cage which was toppling over in his direction.

The roof of the lion cage that housed Wallace projected over the edge some six inches, and this had caught the keen eyes of the lad at the first alarm. His plan had been formed in a flash.

He shot one end of the side pole up under the projecting roof, jammed the other end into the ground, throwing his whole weight upon the foot of the pole to hold it in place.

For an instant the tent pole bent like a bow under the pull of the archer. It seemed as if it must surely snap under the terrific strain.

Phil saw this, too. Now that the foot of the pole was firmly imbedded in the ground, there was no further need for him to hold it down. He sprang under the pole with the swaying cage directly over him, grabbed the pole at the point where it was arching so dangerously, and pulling himself from the ground, held to the slippery stick desperately.

Light as he was the boy's weight saved the pole. It bent no further.

The cage swayed from side to side, threatening to topple over at one end or the other.

"Get poles under the ends," shouted the boy in a shrill voice. "I can't hold it here all day."

"Get poles, you lazy good-for-nothings!" bellowed the owner. "Brace those ends. Look out for the elephant. Don't you see he's headed for the cage again?"

Orders flew thick and fast, but through it all Phil Forrest hung grimly to the side pole, taking a fresh overhand hold, now and then, as his palms slipped down the painted stick.

Now that he had shown the way, others sprang to his assistance. Half a dozen poles were thrust up under the roof and the cage began slowly settling back the other way.

"Hadn't you better have some poles braced against the other side, sir?" suggested Phil, touching his hat to Mr. Sparling, who, he had discovered, was some person in authority. "The cage may tip clear over on the other side, or it may drop so heavily on the wheels as to break the axles."

"Right. Brace the off side. That's right. Now let it down slowly. Not so hard on the nigh side there. Ease off there, Bill. Push, Patsy. What do you think this is--a game of croquet? There you go. Right. Now let's see if you woodenheads know enough to keep the wagon right side up."

Mr. Sparling took off his hat and wiped the perspiration from his forehead, while Phil stood off calmly surveying the men who were straightening the wagon, but with more caution than they had exercised before.

"Come here, boy."

Someone touched Phil on the arm.

"What is it?"

"Boss wants to speak to you."

"Who?"

"Boss Sparling, the fellow over there with the big voice and the sombrero."

Phil walked over and touched his hat to Mr. Sparling.

The showman looked the lad over from head to foot.

"What's your name?" He shot the question at the lad as if angry about something, and he undoubtedly was.

"Phil Forrest."

"Do they grow your kind around here?"

"I can't say, sir."

"If they do, I'd like to hire a dozen or more of them. You've got more sense than any boy of your age I ever saw. How old are you?"

"Sixteen."

"Huh! I wish I had him!" growled Mr. Sparling. "What do you want?"

"I should like to have a chance to earn a pass to the show this afternoon. Rodney Palmer said the boss canvasman might give me a chance to earn one."

"Earn one? Earn one?" Mr. Sparling's voice rose to a roar again. "What in the name of Old Dan Rice do you think you've been doing? Here you've kept a cage with a five-thousand-dollar lion from tipping over, to say nothing of the people who might have been killed had the brute got out, and you want to know how you can earn a pass to the show? What d'ye think of that?" and the owner appealed helplessly to an assistant who had run across the lot, having been attracted to the scene by the uproar.

The assistant grinned.

"He's too modest to live."

"Pity modesty isn't more prevalent in this show, then. How many do you want? Have a whole section if you say the word."

"How many are there in a section?" asked Phil.

" 'Bout a hundred seats."

Phil gasped.

"I--I guess two will be enough," he made answer.

"Here you are," snapped the owner, thrusting a card at the lad, on which had been scribbled some characters, puzzling to the uninitiated. "If you want anything else around this show you just ask for it, young man. Hey, there! Going to be all day getting that canvas up? Don't you know we've got a parade coming along in a few hours?"

Phil Forrest, more light of heart than in many days, turned away to acquaint his companion of his good fortune. Teddy Tucker was making his way cautiously back to the scene of the excitement of a few moments before.

"Did he get away?" Teddy questioned, ready to run at the drop of the hat should the danger prove to be still present.

"Who, the manager?"

"No, the lion."

"He's in the cage where he's been all the time. They haven't opened it yet, but I guess he's all right. Say, Teddy!"

"Say it."

"I've got a pass to the show for two people for both performances--this afternoon and tonight."

The interest that the announcement brought to Teddy's eyes died away almost as soon as it appeared.

"Going?"

"Am I going? I should say so. Want to go in with me on my pass, Teddy?"

The lad hitched his trousers, took a critical squint at the canvas that was slowly mounting the center pole to the accompaniment of creaking ropes, groaning tackle and confused shouting.

"They're getting the menagerie tent up. I'll bet it's going to be a dandy show," he vouchsafed. "How'd you get the tickets?"

"Manager gave them to me."

"What for?"

"I did a little work for him. Helped get the lion's cage straightened up. How about it--are you going in on my pass?"

"N-o-o," drawled Teddy. "Might get me into bad habits to go in on a pass. I'd rather sneak in under the tent when the boss isn't looking."