Chapter X. His First Bareback Lesson
 

"Where's that boy?"

"He'll catch it if he ever dares show his face in this dressing tent again."

This and other expressions marked the disapproval of the performers of the manner in which their enclosure had been entered and disrupted.

"Don't blame him; blame the mule," advised Mr. Miaco, the head clown.

"Yes; Teddy wasn't to blame," declared Phil, who had entered at that moment. "Did he do all this?" he asked, looking about at the scene of disorder.

"He did. Lucky some of us weren't killed," declared one. "If that mule isn't cut out of the programme I'll quit this outfit. Never safe a minute while he and the kid are around. First, the kid gets us into a scrimmage with the roustabouts, then he slam bangs into the dressing tent with a fool mule and puts the whole business out of the running."

"Was Mr. Sparling--was he mad?" asked Phil, laughing until the tears started.

"Mad? He was red headed," replied Miaco.

"Where's Teddy?"

"He got stuck in the strong man's trunk there. The boss had to pull him out, for he was wedged fast. Then the young man prudently made his escape. If the boss hadn't skinned him we would have done so. He got out just in time."

"Are you Phil Forrest?" asked a uniformed attendant entering the dressing tent.

"Yes; what is it?"

"Lady wants to see you out in the paddock."

"Who is it?"

"Mrs. Robinson."

"I don't know any Mrs. Robinson."

"He means Little Dimples," Mr. Miaco informed him.

"Oh."

Phil hurried from the tent. Dimples was sitting on a property box, industriously engaged on a piece of embroidery work. She made a pretty picture perched up on the box engaged in her peaceful occupation with the needle, and the lad stopped to gaze at her admiringly.

Dimples glanced down with a smile.

"Does it surprise you to see me at my fancy work? That's what I love. Why, last season, I embroidered a new shirt waist every week during the show season. I don't know what I'll do with them all. But come over here and sit down by me. I ought to thank you for saving my life this afternoon, but I know you would rather I did not."

Phil nodded.

"I don't like to be thanked. It makes me feel--well, awkward, I guess. You froze, didn't you?"

"I did," and Dimples laughed merrily.

"What made you do so--the horse?"

"Yes. I thought he was going to fall all the way down, then by the time I remembered where I was I couldn't turn to save my life. I heard you call to me to do so, but I couldn't. But let's talk about you. You hurt your back, didn't you?"

"Nothing to speak of. It will be all right by morning. I'm just a little lame now. Where were you--what show were you with last year?"

"The Ringlings."

"The Ringlings?" marveled Phil. "Why, I shouldn't think you would want to leave a big show like that for a little one such as this?"

"It's the price, my dear boy. I get more money here, and I'm a star here. In the big shows one is just a little part of a big organization. There's nothing like the small shows for comfort and good fellowship. Don't you think so?"

"I don't know," admitted Phil. "This is the only show I have ever been with. I 'joined out' last season--"

"Only last season? Well, well! I must say you have made pretty rapid progress for one who has been out less than a year."

"I have made a lot of blunders," laughed Phil. "But I'm learning. I wish, though, that I could do a bareback act one quarter as well as you do. I should be very proud if I could."

"Have you ever tried it?"

"No."

"Why don't you learn, then? You'd pick it up quickly."

"For the reason that I have never had an opportunity--I've had no one to teach me."

"Then you shall do so now. Your teacher is before you."

"You--you mean that you will teach me?"

"Of course. What did you think I meant?"

"I--I wasn't sure. That will be splendid."

"I saw your elephant act. You are a very finished performer-- a natural born showman. If you stay in the business long enough you will make a great reputation for yourself."

"I don't want to be a performer all my life. I am going to own a show some of these days," announced the boy confidently.

"Oh, you are, are you?" laughed Dimples. "Well, if you say so, I most surely believe you. You have the right sort of pluck to get anything you set your heart on. Now if my boy only--"

"Your boy?"

"Yes. Didn't you know that I am a married woman?"

"Oh my, I thought you were a young girl," exclaimed Phil.

"Thank you; that was a very pretty compliment. But, alas, I am no longer young. I have a son almost as old as you are. He is with his father, performing at the Crystal Palace in London. I expect to join them over there after my season closes here."

"Is it possible?"

"Yes, and as my own boy is so far away I shall have to be a sort of mother to you this season. You have no mother, have you?"

"No. My mother is dead," answered the lad in a low voice, lowering his eyes.

"I thought as much. Mothers don't like to have their boys join a circus; but, if they knew what a strict, wholesome life a circus performer has to lead, they would not be so set against the circus. Don't you think, taking it all in all, that we are a pretty good sort?" smiled Dimples.

"I wish everyone were as good as circus folks," the boy made answer so earnestly as to bring a pleased smile to the face of his companion.

"You shall have a lesson today for that, if you wish."

"Do I?"

"Then run along and get on your togs. As soon as the performance is over we will get out my ring horse and put in an hour's work."

"Thank you, thank you!" glowed Phil as Mrs. Robinson rolled up her work. "I'll be out in a few moments."

Full of pleasurable anticipation, Phil ran to the dressing tent and began rummaging in his trunk for his working tights. These he quickly donned and hurried back to the paddock. There he found Dimples with her ring horse, petting the broad-backed beast while he nibbled at the grass.

"Waiting, you see?" she smiled up at Forrest.

"Yes. But the performance isn't finished yet, is it?"

"No. The hippodrome races are just going on. Come over to this side of the paddock, where we shall be out of the way, and I'll teach you a few first principles."

"What do you want me to do first?"

"Put your foot in my hand and I will give you a lift."

The lad did as directed and sprang lightly to the back of the gray.

"Move over on the horse's hip. There. Sit over just as far as you can without slipping off. You saw how I did it this afternoon?"

"Yes--oh, here I go!"

Phil slid from the sloping side of the ring horse, landing in a heap, to the accompaniment of a rippling laugh from Dimples.

"I guess I'm not much of a bareback rider," grinned the lad, picking himself up. "How do you manage to stay on it in that position?"

"I don't know. It is just practice. You will catch the trick of it very soon."

"I'm not so sure of that."

"There! Now, take hold of the rein and stand up. Don't be afraid--"

"I'm not. Don't worry about my being afraid."

"I didn't mean it that way. Move back further. It is not good to stand in the middle of your horse's back all the time. Besides throwing too much weight on the back, you are liable to tickle the animal there and make him nervous. The best work is done by standing over the horse's hip. That's it. Tread on the balls of your feet."

But Phil suddenly went sprawling, landing on the ground again, at which both laughed merrily.

Very shortly after that the show in the big top came to a close. The concert was now going on, at the end nearest the menagerie tent, so Phil and Dimples took the ring at the other end of the tent, where they resumed their practice.

After a short time Phil found himself able to stand erect with more confidence. Now, his instructor, with a snap of her little whip, started the gray to walking slowly about the ring, Phil holding tightly to the bridle rein to steady himself.

"Begin moving about now. Tread softly and lightly. That's it. You've caught it already."

"Why not put a pad on the horse's back, as I've seen some performers do?" he questioned.

"No. I don't want you to begin that way. Start without a pad, and you never will have to unlearn what you get. That's my advice. I'm going to set him at a gallop now. Stand straight and lean back a little."

The ring horse moved off at a slow, methodical gallop.

Phil promptly fell off, landing outside the ring, from where he picked himself up rather crestfallen.

"Never mind. You'll learn. You are doing splendidly," encouraged Dimples, assisting him to mount again. "There's the press agent, Mr. Dexter, watching you. Now do your prettiest. Do you know him?"

"No; I have not met him. He's the fellow that Teddy says blows up his words with a bicycle pump."

"That's fine. I shall have to tell him that. Remember, you always want to keep good friends with the press agent. He's the man who makes or unmakes you after you have passed the eagle eyes of the proprietor," Dimples laughed. "From what I hear I guess you stand pretty high with Mr. Sparling."

"I try to do what is right--do the best I know how."

She nodded, clucking to the gray and Phil stopped talking at once, for he was fully occupied in sticking to the horse, over whose back he sprawled every now and then in the most ridiculous of positions. But, before the afternoon's practice had ended, the lad had made distinct progress. He found himself able to stand erect, by the aid of the bridle rein, and to keep his position fairly well while the animal took a slow gallop. He had not yet quite gotten over the dizziness caused by the constant traveling about in a circle in the narrow ring, but Dimples assured him that, after a few more turns, this would wear off entirely.

After finishing the practice, Dimples led her horse back to the horse tent, promising Phil that they should meet the next afternoon.

Phil had no more than changed to his street clothes before he received a summons to go to Mr. Sparling in his private tent.

"I wonder what's wrong now?" muttered the lad. "But, I think I know. It's about that row we had this morning out on the lot. I shouldn't be surprised if I got fined for that."

With a certain nervousness, Phil hurried out around the dressing tent, and skirting the two big tents, sought out Mr. Sparling in his office.