Chapter IX. The Mule Distinguishes Himself
 

The audience had half risen, believing that the girl would surely be killed. It did seem that it would be a miracle if she escaped without serious injury.

But the Circus Boy, his every faculty centered on the task before him, proposed to save her if he could.

He sprang up on the ring curbing, stretching both hands above his head as far as he could reach, bracing himself with legs wide apart to meet the shock.

It is not an easy task to attempt to catch a person, especially if that person be falling toward you head first. But Phil Forrest calculated in a flash how he would do it. That is, he would unless he missed.

It all happened in much less time than it takes to tell it, of course, and a moment afterwards one could not have told how it had occurred.

The Circus Boy threw both hands under Dimples' outstretched arms with the intention of jerking her down to her feet, then springing from the curbing with her before both should topple over.

His plan worked well up to the point of catching her. But instantly upon doing so he realized that she was moving with such speed as to make it impossible for him to retain his balance.

Dimples was hurled into his arms with great force, bowling Phil over like a ninepin. Yet, in falling, he did not lose his presence of mind. He hoped fervently that he might be fortunate enough not to strike on a stake, of which there were many on that side of the ring.

"Save yourself!" gasped the girl.

Instead, Phil held her up above him at arm's length. When he struck it was full on his back, the back of his head coming in contact with the hard ground with such force as to stun him almost to the point of unconsciousness. As he struck he gave Dimples a little throw so that she cleared his body, landing on the ground beyond him.

The girl stretched forth her hands and did a handspring, once more thorough master of herself, landing gracefully on her feet. But Phil had undoubtedly saved her life, as she well knew.

Without giving the slightest heed to the audience, which was howling its delight, Dimples ran to the fallen lad, leaning over him anxiously.

"Are you hurt?" she begged, placing a hand on his head.

"I--I guess not," answered Phil, pulling himself together a little. "I'll get up or they'll think something is the matter with me."

"Let me help you."

"No, thank you," he replied, brushing aside the hand she had extended to him. But his back hurt him so severely that he could only with difficulty stand upright.

Phil smiled and straightened, despite the pain.

At that Dimples grasped him by the hand, leading him to the concourse facing the reserved seats, where she made a low bow to the audience; then, throwing both arms about Phil, she gave him a hearty kiss.

Thunders of applause greeted this, the audience getting to its feet in its excitement. Had it been possible, both the boy and Miss Dimples would have been borne in triumph from the ring.

"Come back and sit down while I finish my act," she whispered.

"You're not going to try that again, are you?" questioned Phil.

"Of course I am. You'll see what a hit it will make."

"I saw that you came near making a hit a few moments ago," answered the lad.

"There, there; don't be sarcastic," she chided, giving him a playful tap. "If you feel strong enough, please help me up."

Phil did so smilingly; then he retired to his place by the center pole, against which he braced his aching back.

"Turn after you have gotten over the rough spot," he cautioned her.

Dimples nodded her understanding.

This time Phil held his breath as he saw her crouching ever so little for her spring.

Dimples uttered another shrill "yip!" and threw herself into the air again.

He saw, with keen satisfaction, that this time she was not going to miss. Dimples turned in the air with wonderful grace, alighting far back on the broad hips of the gray horse with bird-like lightness.

Phil doffed his hat, and, getting to his feet, limped away, with the audience roaring out its applause. They had forgotten all about the boy who but a few moments before had saved Little Dimples' life, and he was fully as well satisfied that it should be so.

Just as he was passing the bandstand the educated mule, with Teddy Tucker on its back, bolted through the curtains like a projectile. The mule nearly ran over Phil, then brought up suddenly to launch both heels at him. But the Circus Boy had seen this same mule in action before, and this time Phil had discreetly ducked under the bandstand.

Then the mule was off.

"Hi-yi-yi-yip-yi!" howled Teddy, as the outfit bolted into the arena. The old hands with the show discreetly darted for cover when they saw Teddy and his mule coming. Like Phil Forrest, they had had experience with this same wild outfit before. There was no knowing what the bucking mule might not do, while there was a reasonable certainty in their minds as to what he would do if given half a chance.

"Hi! Hi! Look out!" howled Teddy as they neared the entrance to the menagerie tent, where a number of people were standing. The boy saw that the mule had taken it into his stubborn head to enter the menagerie tent, there to give an exhibition of his contrariness.

In they swept like a miniature whirlwind, the mule twisting this way and that, stopping suddenly now and then and bracing its feet in desperate efforts to unseat its rider.

But Teddy held on grimly. This rough riding was the delight of his heart, and the lad really was a splendid horseman, though it is doubtful if he realized this fact himself.

A man was crossing the menagerie tent with a pail of water in each hand. The mule saw him. Here was an opportunity not to be lost.

Teddy's mount swept past the fellow. Then both the beast's heels shot out, catching both the pails at the same time. The two pails took the air in a beautiful curve, like a pair of rockets, distributing water all the way across the tent, a liberal portion of which was spilled over the water carrier as the pails left his hands.

The man chanced to be Larry, Teddy's enemy. Teddy was traveling at such a rapid rate that he did not recognize the fellow, but Larry recognized him, and thereby another account was charged up against the Circus Boy.

But the mule, though the time limit for his act had expired, had not quite satisfied his longing for excitement. Whirling about, he plunged toward the big top again.

"Whoa! Whoa!" howled Teddy, tugging at the reins. But he might as well have tried to check the wind. Nothing short of a stone wall could stop the educated mule until he was ready to stop. The ringmaster had blown his whistle for the next act and the performers were running to their stations when Teddy and his mount suddenly made their appearance again.

"Get out of here!" yelled the ringmaster.

"I am trying to do so," howled Teddy in a jeering voice. "Can't go any faster than I am."

"Stop him! You'll run somebody down!" shouted Mr. Sparling, dodging out of the way as the mule, with ears laid back on his head, dashed straight at the showman.

"Can't stop. In a hurry," answered Teddy.

On they plunged past the bandstand again, the mule pausing at the paddock entrance long enough to kick the silk curtains into ribbons. Next he made a dive for the dressing tent.

In less time than it takes to tell it, the dressing tent looked as if it had been struck by a cyclone.

Clubs and side poles were brought down on the rump of the wild mule, most of which were promptly kicked through the side of the tent. Teddy, in the meantime, had landed in a performer's trunk, smashing through the tray, being wedged in so tightly that he could not extricate himself. Added to the din was Teddy's voice howling for help.

The performers, in all stages of dress and undress, had fled to the outside.

Then, the mule becoming suddenly meek, pricked forward his ears, ambled out into the paddock and began contentedly nibbling at the fresh grass about the edges of the enclosure.

About this time Mr. Sparling came running in. His face was red and the perspiration was rolling down it.

"Where's that fool boy?" he bellowed. "Where is he, I say?"

"Here he is," answered the plaintive voice of Teddy Tucker.

"Come out of that!"

"I can't. I'm stuck fast."

The showman jerked him out with scant ceremony, while Teddy began pulling pieces of the trunk tray out of his clothes.

"Do you want to put my show out of business? What do you think this is--a cowboy picnic? I'll fire you. I'll--"

"Better fire the mule. I couldn't stop him," answered the boy.

By this time the performers, after making sure that the mule had gone, were creeping back.

"I'll cut that act out. I'll have the mule shot. I'll-- Get out of here, before I take you over my knee and give you what you deserve."

"I'm off," grinned Teddy, ducking under the canvas.

He was seen no more about the dressing tent until just before it was time to go on for the evening performance.