Chapter XVII. The Circus Boys Win New Laurels
 

"Bareback riders out!" shouted the callboy, poking his head into the dressing tent.

"Get out!" roared a clown, hurling a fellow performer's bath brush at the boy, which the youngster promptly shied back at the clown's head, then prudently made his escape to call Little Dimples in the women's dressing tent.

Phil Forrest, proud and happy, bounded out into the paddock, resplendent in pink tights, a black girdle about his loins, sparkling with silver spangles.

Little Dimples ran out at about the same time.

"How do I look?" he questioned, his face wreathed in smiles.

"If you ride half as well as you look today, you will make the hit of your life," twinkled Dimples merrily. "There, don't blush. Run along. The band is playing our entrance tune. Mr. Ducro will be in a fine temper if we are a second behind time."

For that day, and until Phil could break in on another animal, Little Dimples had loaned her gray to him, for Phil did not dare to try the experiment of riding a new horse at his first appearance. Altogether too much depended upon his first public exhibition as a bareback rider to permit his taking any such chances.

Dimples owned two horses, so she rode the second one this day.

As Phil walked lightly the length of the big top, which he was obliged to do to reach ring No. 1 in which he was to ride, his figure, graceful as it was, appeared almost fragile. He attracted attention because of this fact alone, for the people did not recognize in him the lad who had that morning stayed the stampede of the herd of huge elephants.

"Now keep cool. Don't get excited," warned Dimples as she left him to enter the ring where she was to perform. "Forget all about those people out there, and they will do the rest."

Phil nodded and passed on smiling. Reaching his ring he quickly kicked off his pumps and leaped lightly to the back of his mount, where he sat easily while the gray slowly walked about the sawdust arena.

"Ladies and gentlemen," announced the equestrian director. "You see before you the hero of the day, the young man who, unaided, stopped the charge of a herd of great elephants, saving, perhaps many lives besides doing a great service for the Sparling Combined Shows."

"What did you do that for?" demanded Phil, squirming uneasily on the slippery seat where he was perched.

"Unfortunately," continued the Director, "our principal male bareback rider was slightly injured in that same stampede. The management would not permit him to appear this evening on that account, for the Sparling Combined Shows believe in treating its people right. Our young friend here has consented to ride in the regular rider's place. It is his first appearance in any ring as a bareback rider. I might add that he has been practicing something less than three weeks for this act; therefore any slips that he may make you will understand. Ladies and gentlemen, I take pleasure in introducing to you Master Phillip Forrest, the hero of the day--a young man who is winning new laurels on the tanbark six days in every week!"

The audience, now worked up to the proper pitch of enthusiasm by the words of the director, howled its approval, the spectators drumming on the seats with their feet and shouting lustily. Phil had not had such an ovation since the day he first rode Emperor into the ring when he joined the circus in Edmeston.

The lad's face was a few shades deeper pink than his tights, and nervous excitement seemed to suddenly take possession of him.

"I wish you hadn't done that," he laughed. "I'll bet I fall off now, for that."

"Tweetle! Tweetle!" sang the whistle.

Crash!

At a wave of the bandmaster's baton, the band suddenly launched into a smashing air.

The ringmaster's whip cracked with an explosive sound, at which the gray mare, unaffected by the noise and the excitement, started away at a measured gallop, her head rising and falling like the prow of a ship buffeting a heavy sea.

Phil was plainly nervous. He knew it. He felt that he was going to make an unpleasant exhibition of himself.

"Get up! Get going! Going to sit there all day?" questioned the ringmaster.

Phil threw himself to his feet. Somehow he missed his footing in his nervousness, and the next instant he felt himself falling.

"There, I've done it!" groaned the lad, as he dropped lightly on all fours well outside the wooden ring curbing, which he took care to clear in his descent.

"Oh, you Rube! You've gone and done it now," growled the ringmaster. "It's all up. You've lost them sure."

The audience was laughing and cheering at the same time.

Feeling her rider leave her back the gray dropped her gallop and fell into a slow trot.

Phil scrambled to his feet very red in the face, while Mr. Sparling, from the side lines, stood leaning against a quarter pole with a set grin on his face. His confidence in his little Circus Boy was not wholly lost yet.

"Keep her up! Keep her up! What ails you?" snapped Phil.

All the grit in the lad's slender body seemed to come to the front now. His eyes were flashing and he gripped the little riding whip as if he would vent his anger upon it.

The ringmaster's whip had exploded again and the gray began to gallop. Phil paused on the ring curbing with head slightly inclined forward, watching the gray with keen eyes.

Phil had forgotten that sea of human faces out there now. He saw only that broad gray, rosined back that he must reach and cling to, but without a slip this time.

All at once he left the curbing, dashing almost savagely at his mount.

"He'll never make it from the ground," groaned Mr. Sparling, realizing that Phil had no step to aid him in his effort to reach the back of the animal.

The lad launched himself into the air as if propelled by a spring. He landed fairly on the back of the ring horse, wavered for one breathless second, then fell into the pose of the accomplished rider.

"Y-i-i-i--p! Y-i-i-i-p!" sang the shrill voice of Little Dimples far down in ring No. 1.

"Y-i-i-i-p!" answered the Circus Boy, while the spectators broke into thunders of applause.

Mr. Sparling, hardened showman that he was, brushed a suspicious hand across his eyes and sat down suddenly.

"Such grit, Such grit!" he muttered.

Phil threw himself wildly into his work, taking every conceivable position known to the equestrian world, and essaying many daring feats that he had never tried before. It seemed simply impossible for the boy to fall, so sure was his footing. Now he would spring from the broad back of the gray, and run across the ring, doing a lively handspring, then once more vault into a standing position on the mare.

Suddenly the band stopped playing, for the rest that is always given the performers. But Phil did not pause.

"Keep her up!" Forrest shouted, bringing down his whip on the flanks of his mount and, in a fervor of excitement and stubborn determination, going at his work like a whirlwind.

Mr. Sparling, catching the spirit of the moment scrambled to his feet and rushed to the foot of the bandstand, near which he had been sitting.

"Play, you idiots, play!" shouted the proprietor, waving his arms excitedly.

Play they did.

Little Dimples, too, had by this time forgotten that she was resting, and now she began to ride as she never had ridden before, throwing a series of difficult backward turns, landing each time with a sureness that she never had before accomplished.

Tweetle! Tweetle!

The act came to a quick ending. The time for the equestrian act had expired, and it must give way to the others that were to follow. But Phil, instead of dropping to the ground and walking to the paddock along the concourse, suddenly brought down his whip on the gray's flanks, much to that animal's surprise and apparent disgust.

Starting off at a quicker gallop, the gray swung into the concourse, heading for the paddock with disapproving ears laid back on her head, Phil standing as rigid as a statue with folded arms, far back over the animal's hips.

The people were standing up, waving their arms wildly. Many hurled their hats at the Circus Boy in their excitement, while others showered bags of peanuts over him as he raced by them.

Such a scene of excitement and enthusiasm never had been seen under that big top before. Phil did not move from his position until he reached the paddock. Arriving there he sat down, slid to the ground and collapsed in a heap.

Mr. Sparling came charging in, hat missing and hair standing straight up where he had run his fingers through it in his excitement.

He grabbed Phil in his arms and carried him into the dressing tent.

"You're not hurt, are you, my lad?" he cried.

"No; I'm just a silly little fool," smiled Phil a bit weakly. "How did I do?"

"It was splendid, splendid."

"Hurrah for Phil Forrest!" shouted the performers. Then boosting the lad to their shoulders, the painted clowns began marching about the dressing tent with him singing, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

"All out for the leaping act," shouted the callboy, poking his grinning countenance through between the flaps. "Leapers and clowns all out on the jump!"