Chapter XV. The Chariot Race
 

Tom's costume was a splendid imitation of a cowboy. He wore tan-colored overalls and a jumper, the jumper being slashed up at the sides like an Indian's coat. On his head was a very broad sombrero, this hat having really come from the plains, as it belonged to a Western farmer who had lately moved to Meadow Brook.

Presently Tom appeared again, this time riding the fiery Sable.

"Hurrah! hurrah!" shouted the boys, as Tom drove into the ring like a major.

Bert now stepped into the middle of the ring alongside of some soap boxes that were piled up there.

"Now you see ladies and gentlemen," began Bert, laughing a little at the show in broad daylight, "you see this (the soap boxes) is a mail coach. Our cowboy will rob the mail coach from his horse just as they used to do in the mountains of Arizona."

Snap went the whip, and away went Sable around the ring at a nice even canter. After a few turns around Tom urged his horse on a little until he was going on a steady run. Every one kept quiet, for most of Meadow Brook people had heard how Sable had run away some days before.

"There ought to be music," whispered Jack to Harry, for indeed the circus was so real it only lacked a brass band.

Now Bert put on top of the soap boxes Harry's canvas schoolbag stuffed full of papers.

"This is the United States mail," he said. "We will understand that the coach has stopped for a few minutes."

Sable was going along splendidly by this time, and everybody said what a pretty little horse he was.

"He's goin' to steal the mail box now!" whispered Flossie to Freddie. "I hope Sable won't fall or anything."

Snap! snap! went the whip as the horse ran faster and faster.

All of a sudden Tom got a good tight hold on the reins, then he pulled up alongside of the mail coach, leaned over, grabbed the mail bag, and spurred his horse at full speed around the ring.

"Hurrah! hurrah!" shouted everybody.

"Well done!" called Uncle Daniel.

"Couldn't be better!" exclaimed Mr. Bobbsey.

Tom waved his hat now and patted Sable affectionately, as all good riders do when their horses have done well in the ring.

The men admired the little horse so much they came up and asked the "cowboy" a lot of questions about him, how old he was and who broke him in.

"One more number," called Bert. "The chariot race."

At this all took their seats again, and out trotted two clowns, Jack and August, each riding in a little goat wagon.

The goats were decorated with the Fourth of July buntings and the wagons had the tailboards out and were tipped up like circus chariots.

The clowns pulled up in line.

"One, two, three!" called Bert, with a really big revolver up in the air.

"Ready! Set! Go!" Bang! went the revolver (a blank cartridge, of course) and away started the chariots.

Jack wore a broad green belt and August had yellow. Jack darted ahead!

"Go it, green!" shouted one group of boys.

"Pass him, orange!" called another crowd.

Now August passed Jack just as they crossed the line.

"One!" called Bert. "We will have ten rounds."

In the next the wagons kept almost even until just within a few feet of the line, then Jack crossed first.

"Two!" called Bert, while all the boys shouted for their favorite.

In the next three or four turns the riders divided even. Finally the last round was reached and the boys had tied; that is, both were even when the round started. This of course made the race very interesting, as both had equal chances of winning.

"I'll put a dollar on green," called Mr. Bobbsey. "For the fresh-air fund."

"I'll put one on orange," called Uncle Daniel, "for the same charity."

Then the ladies all wanted to bet, but Bert said it was against the rules to allow betting.

"We will take all the money you want to give us," said Bert, "but we cannot allow betting on the races."

"All ready!" called the ringmaster, holding his revolver high in the air again.

Bang went the gun!

Off went the chariots!

My, how those little goats did run!

"Go it, green!"

"Go it, orange!"

Shout after shout greeted the riders as they urged their steeds around the ring.

Suddenly Jack's chariot crossed in front of August.

"Foul!" called Bert, while Jack tried his best to get on his own side again.

"Back! back!" yelled Jack to his horse (goat), but the little animal was too excited to obey.

Finally fat August Stout, the funniest clown: dashed home first and won the race!

"Hurrah for Nero!" called everybody. "Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" shouted the boys long and loud.

The circus was over!

The money was counted, and there was exactly twenty-three dollars to be given the poor children in the Meadow Brook Fresh-Air Camp.

Wasn't that splendid? And to think everybody had such a good time too!

Freddie and Roy were allowed to ride home in the goat wagons, and they tried to race along the way.

A committee of five boys, Bert, Harry, Jack, Tom, and August, took the money over to the fresh-air camp the next day, and the managers said it was a very welcome gift, for new coats were needed for some sick children that were expected to come out from the city as soon as provision could be made for them.

Somebody dropped a two-dollar bill in the ticket box," August told his companions. "Then there were the other two dollars from the race, besides some fifty-cent pieces I don't know who gave. Of course we couldn't make all that just on five- and ten-cent seats. And I took in two dollars on the peanuts besides."

"Well, we're all satisfied," said Harry. "And I guess everybody had a good time."

"Sure they did," spoke up Tom, "and I hope Bert will come out here next year to help us with another big circus. They're the best fun we ever had."

For some days every boy and girl in Meadow Brook talked about the circus, which had really been a greater success than even the boys themselves had expected.

It was a warm afternoon quite late in July - one of those days that make a boy feel lazy and inclined to stretch himself.

Bert and Harry were down back of the barn sitting on the fresh stack of hay that had just been piled up by John the stableman.

"Did you ever try smoking?" Harry asked Bert suddenly, as if he had discovered something new and interesting.

"No!" answered Bert in surprise. "Father wouldn't let me smoke."

"Neither would pa," said Harry, "but I suppose every fellow has to try it some time. I've seen them make cigarettes out of corn silk."

"I suppose that is not as bad as tobacco," replied Bert.

"No," answered Harry, "there's no harm in corn silk. Guess I'll try to roll a cigarette."

At this Harry slid down off the hay and pulled from the fast withering corn some dry silk.

With a good handful he went back to Bert.

"I've got some soft paper," he said, sitting down again and beginning the task.

Bert watched with interest, but really had no idea of doing wrong.

"There!" exclaimed Harry, giving the ends of the cigarette a twist. "How is that?"

"Pretty good," answered Bert; "looks like a real one."

"Let's try it!" went on Harry.

"Not in the hay," exclaimed Bert; "you might drop the match."

At this Harry slid down along the side of the stack, and Bert followed.

It did seem wrong as soon as Harry struck the match, but the cigarette being only corn silk made the boys forget all the warnings never to smoke.

Harry gave a puff or two. Then he choked a little.

"Kinder strong," he spluttered. "You try it!"

Bert put the cigarette in his mouth. He drew it once or twice, then quickly tossed it aside.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed. "Tastes like old shoes!"

At that time John came up and piled on some more hay. The boys of course had to act as if nothing had happened, and dared not look around to find the lighted cigarette even though they wanted to very much.

"I hope it went out," Bert said, as John walked away again.

"If it didn't it's under the hay," said Harry, somewhat alarmed. "But I guess it's out."

"My, look at the storm coming!" Bert exclaimed suddenly. "We ought to help John with that load of hay."

"All right," said Harry, "come along!" and with this the two boys started on a run down through the fields into the open meadow, where the dry hay was being packed up ready to put on the hay rick.

John, of course, was very glad of the help, for it spoils hay to get it wet, so all three worked hard to load up before the heavy shower should come up.

"All ready!" called John, "and no time to lose."

At this the boys jumped up and all started for the barn.

"There's smoke!" exclaimed Harry in terror as they neared the barn.

"The barn is afire!" screamed John the next minute, almost falling from his seat on the wagon in his haste to get down.

"Quick! quick!" yelled the boys, so frightened they could hardly move.

"The hose!" called John, seeing flames now shoot out of the barn windows, "Get the hose, Harry; it's in the coach house. I'll get a bucket while you attach the hose."

By this time everybody was out from the house.

"Oh, mercy!" cried Aunt Sarah. "Our whole barn will be burned."

Uncle Daniel was with John now, pouring water on the flames, that were gaining in spite of all efforts to put them out.

"Where's the firemen!" cried little Freddie, in real tears this time, for he, like all the others, was awfully frightened.

The boys had a stream from the hose now, but this too was of no account, for the flames had shot up from the big pile of dry hay!

"The firemen!" called Freddie again.

"There are no firemen in the country, Freddie," Nan told him. "We have to put the fire out ourselves."

"We can't then," he went on, "and all the other barns will burn too."

There was indeed great danger, for the flames were getting ahead rapidly.

All this time the terrific thunderstorm was coming up.

Clap after clap of thunder rolled over the hills and made the fire look more terrible against the black sky.

"The rain!" exclaimed Uncle Daniel at last, "The rain may put it out; we can't."

At this one terrific clap of thunder came. Then the downpour of rain. It came like a very deluge, and as it fell on the flames it sent out steam and smoke but quickly subdued the cracking and flashing of the fire.

Everybody ran to the back porch now but John and Uncle Daniel. They went in the coach house at the side of the barn.

"How could it have caught fire?" Aunt Sarah said. But Harry and Bert were both very pale, and never said a word.

How heavily the rain did pour down, just like a cloudburst! And as it struck the fire even the smoke began to die out.

"It's going out!" exclaimed Harry. "Oh, I hope it keeps on raining!"

Soon there was even no more smoke!

"It's out!" called John, a little later. "That was a lucky storm for us."