Chapter XII. The Human Football
 

"Ever try clowning, young man?" asked the Iron-Jawed Man.

Teddy Tucker shook his head.

"Why don't you?"

"Nobody ever asked me."

"Then you had better ask the boss to let you try it. Tell him you want to be a clown and that we will take you in and put you through your paces until you are able to go it alone."

The show had been on the road for nearly two weeks now, and every department was working like a piece of well-oiled machinery. The usual number of minor disasters had befallen the outfit during the first week, but now everything was system and method. The animals had become used to the constant moving, and to the crowds and the noise, so that their growls of complaint were few.

In that time Teddy and Phil had been going through their act on the flying rings daily, having shown great improvement since they closed with the show the previous fall. Their winter's work had proved of great benefit, and Mr. Sparling had complimented them several times lately.

Teddy was now devoting all his spare time to learning to somersault and do the leaping act from the springboard. He could, by this time, turn a somersault from the board, though his landing was less certain. Any part of his anatomy was liable to sustain the impact of his fall, but he fell in so many ludicrous positions that the other performers let it go at that, for it furnished them much amusement.

However, Teddy's unpopularity in the dressing tent had been apparent ever since he and the educated mule had made their sensational entry into that sacred domain, practically wrecking the place. Teddy and his pet had come near doing the same thing twice since, and the performers were beginning to believe there was method in Tucker's madness.

It had come to the point where the performers refused to remain in the dressing tent while Teddy and the mule were abroad, unless men with pike poles were stationed outside to ward off the educated mule when he came in from the ring. But Teddy didn't care. The lad was interested in the suggestion of the Iron-Jawed Man. Had he known that the suggestion had been made after secret conference of certain of the performers, Tucker might have felt differently about it. There was something in the air, but the Circus Boy did not know it.

"What kind of clown act would you advise me to get up?" he asked.

"Oh, you don't have to get it up. We'll do that for you. In fact, there is one act that most all clowns start with, and it will do as well as anything else for you. You see, you have to get used to being funny, or you'll forget yourself, and then you're of no further use as a clown."

"Yes, I know; but what is the act?"

"What do you say, fellows--don't you think the human football would fit him from the sawdust up?"

"Just the thing," answered the performers thus appealed to.

Mr. Miaco, the head clown, was bending over his trunk, his sides shaking with laughter, but Teddy did not happen to observe him, nor had he noticed that the head clown had had no part in the conversation.

"The human football?" questioned Teddy dubiously.

"Yes."

"What's that?"

"Oh, you dress up in funny makeup so you look like a huge ball."

"But what do I do after I have become a football?"

"Oh, you roll around in the arena, falling all over yourself and everybody who happens to get in your way; you bounce up and down and make all sorts of funny--"

"Oh, I know," cried Teddy enthusiastically. "I saw a fellow do that in a show once. He would fall on the ground on his back, then bounce up into the air several feet."

"You've hit it," replied a clown dryly.

"I remember how all the people laughed and shouted. I'll bet I'd make a hit doing that."

"You would!" shouted the performers in chorus.

The show was playing in Batavia, New York, on a rainy night, with rather a small house expected, so no better time could have been chosen for Teddy's first appearance as a clown.

"Had I better speak to Mr. Sparling about it?"

"Well, what do you think, fellows?"

"Oh, no, no! The old man won't care. If you make them laugh, he'll be tickled half to death."

"What do you say? Is it a go, Tucker?"

"Well, I'll think about it."

Teddy strolled out in the paddock, where he walked up and down a few times in the rain. But the more he thought about the proposition, the more enthusiastic he grew. He could see himself the center of attraction, and he could almost hear the howls of delight of the multitude.

"They'll be surprised. But I don't believe I had better go on without first speaking to Mr. Sparling. He might discharge me. He's had his eye on me ever since the mule tore up the dressing tent. But I won't tell Phil. I'll just give him a surprise. How he'll laugh when he sees me and finds out who I am."

Thus deciding, the lad ran through the tents out to the front door, where he asked for Mr. Sparling, knowing that by this time the owner's tent had been taken down and packed for shipment, even if it were not already under way on the flying squadron.

He learned that Mr. Sparling was somewhere in the menagerie tent. Hurrying back there, Teddy soon came upon the object of his search. At that moment he was standing in front of the cage of Wallace, the biggest lion in captivity, gazing at that shaggy beast thoughtfully.

"Mr. Sparling," called Teddy.

The showman turned, shooting a sharp glance at the flushed face of the Circus Boy.

"Well, what's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong, sir."

"Come to kick about feed in the cook tent?"

"Oh, no, no, sir! Nothing like that. I've come to ask a favor of you."

"Humph! I thought as much. Well, what is it?"

"I--I think I'd like to be a clown, sir."

"A clown?" asked the showman, with elevated eyebrows.

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Sparling laughed heartily.

"Why, you're that already. You are a clown, though you may not know it. You've been a clown ever since you wore long dresses, I'll wager."

"But I want to be a real one," urged Teddy.

"What kind of clown?"

"I thought I'd like to be a human football." This time Mr. Sparling glanced at the boy in genuine surprise.

"A human football?"

"Yes, sir."

"What put that idea into your head?"

"Some of the fellows suggested it."

"Ah! I thought so," twinkled Mr. Sparling. "Who, may I ask?"

"Well, I guess most all of them did."

"I know, but who suggested it first?"

"I think the Iron-Jawed Man was the first to say that I ought to be a clown. He thought I would make a great hit."

"No doubt, no doubt," snapped the showman in a tone that led Teddy to believe he was angry about something.

"May I?"

Mr. Sparling reflected a moment, raised his eyes and gazed at the dripping roof of the menagerie tent.

"When is this first appearance to be made, if I may ask?"

"Oh, tonight. The fellows said it would be a good time, as there would not be a very big house."

"Oh, they did, eh? Well, go ahead. But remember you do it at your own risk."

"Thank you."

Teddy was off for the dressing room on a run.

"I'm It," he cried, bursting in upon them.

"Get the suit," commanded a voice. "He's It."

Somebody hurried to the property room, returning with a full rubber suit, helmet and all. As yet it was merely a bundle. They bade Teddy get into it, all hands crowding about him, offering suggestions and lending their assistance.

"My, I didn't know I was so popular here," thought the lad, pleased with these unusual attentions. "They must think I'm the real thing. I'll show them I am, too."

"Get the pump," directed the Iron-Jawed Man.

A bicycle pump was quickly produced, and, opening a valve, one of the performers began pumping air into the suit.

"Here, what are you doing?" demanded Teddy.

"Blowing you up--"

"Here, I don't want to be blown up."

"With a bicycle pump," added the performer, grinning through the powder and grease paint on his face.

"Say, you ought to use that on the press agent!"

The performers howled at this sally.

Teddy began to swell out of all proportion to his natural size, as the bicycle pump inflated his costume. In a few moments he had grown so large that he could not see his own feet, while the hood about his head left only a small portion of his face visible.

"Monster!" hissed a clown, shaking a fist in Teddy's face.

"I guess I am. I'd make a hit as the Fattest Boy on Earth in this rig, wouldn't I? I'll bet the Living Skeleton will be jealous when he sees me."

"There, I guess he's pumped up," announced the operator of the bicycle pump.

"Try it and see," suggested a voice.

"All right."

Teddy got a resounding blow that flattened him on the ground. But before he could raise his voice in protest he had bounded to his feet, and someone caught him, preventing his going right on over the other way.

The performers howled with delight.

"He'll do. He'll do," they shouted.

"Don't you do that again," warned the boy, a little dazed.

The time was at hand for the clowns to make their own grand entry.

"Come on, that's our cue!" shouted one, as the band struck up a new tune.

"I--I can't run. I'm too fat."

"We'll help you."

And they did. With a clown on either side of him, Teddy was rushed through the silk curtains and out past the bandstand, his feet scarcely touching the ground. Part of the time the clowns were half dragging him, and at other times carrying him.

At first the audience did not catch the significance of it. Straight for ring No. 1 Tucker's associates rushed him. But just as they reached the ring they let go of him.

Of course Teddy fell over the wooden ring curbing, and went rolling and bouncing into the center of the sawdust arena. Phil had made his change in the menagerie tent after finishing his elephant act, and was just entering the big top as Teddy made his sensational entrance. He caught sight of his companion at once.

"Who's that?" he asked of Mr. Sparling, who was standing at the entrance with a broad grin on his face.

"That, my dear Phil, is your very good friend, Mr. Teddy Tucker."

"Teddy? You don't mean it?"

"Yes; he has decided to be a clown, and I guess he is on the way. The people are kicking on the seats and howling."

"I should judge, from appearances, that the other clowns were getting even more entertainment out of his act than is the audience."

"It certainly looks that way. But let them go. It will do Master Teddy a whole lot of good."

A clown jumped to the ring curbing and made a speech about the wonderful human football, announcing at the same time that the championship game was about to be played.

Then they began to play in earnest. Some had slapsticks, others light barrel staves, and with these they began to belabor the human football, each blow being so loud that it could be heard all over the tent. Of course the blows did not hurt Teddy at all, but the bouncing and buffeting that he got aroused his anger.

One clown would pick the lad up and throw him to a companion, who, in turn, would drop him. Then the audience would yell with delight as the ball bounced to an upright position again. This the clowns kept up until Teddy did not know whether he were standing on his feet or his head. The perspiration was rolling down his face, getting into his eyes and blinding him.

"Quit it!" he howled.

"Maybe you'll ride the educated mule through the dressing tent again?" jeered a clown.

"Bring the mule out and let him knock the wind out of the rubber man!" suggested another.

"How do you like being a clown?"

This and other taunts were shouted at the rubber man, Teddy meanwhile expressing himself with unusual vehemence.

Mr. Sparling had in the meantime sent a message back to the paddock. He was holding his sides with laughter, while Phil himself was leaning against a quarter pole shouting with merriment.

Suddenly there came the sound of a clanging gong, interspersed with shouts from the far end of the tent.

The spectators quickly glanced in that direction, and they saw coming at a rapid rate the little patrol wagon drawn by four diminutive ponies, the outfit so familiar to the boys who attend the circus.

The clowns were surprised when they observed it, knowing that the patrol was not scheduled to enter at this time. Their surprise was even greater when the wagon dashed up and stopped where they were playing their game of football. Three mock policemen leaped out and rushed into the thick of the mock game.

As they did so they hurled the clowns right and left, standing some of them on their heads and beating them with their clubs, which, in this instance, proved to be slapsticks, that made a great racket.

This was a part of the act that the clowns had not arranged. It was a little joke that the owner of the show was playing on them. Quick to seize an opportunity to make a hit, Sparling had ordered out the show patrol, and the audience, catching the significance of it, shouted, swinging their hats and handkerchiefs.

The three policemen, after laying the clowns low, grabbed the helpless human football by the heels, dragging him to the wagon and dumping him in. They dropped the human football in so heavily that it bounced out again and hit the ground. The next time, as they threw Teddy in, one of the officers sat on him to hold him.

The gong set up an excited clanging, and the ponies began racing around the arena the long way, and took the stretch to the paddock at a terrific speed, with the howls of the multitude sounding in their ears.

Reaching the dressing tent, the mock policemen let the air out of the rubber ball, whereat Teddy sat down heavily in a pail of water.

The performers danced around Tucker, singing an improvised song about the human football. Gradually the angry scowl on the face of the Circus Boy relaxed into a broad grin.

"How do you like being a clown now?" jeered the Iron-Jawed Man.

"Yes; how does it feel to be a football?" questioned another.

"I guess you got even with me that time," answered Teddy good-naturedly. "But say, that's easy compared with riding the educated mule."