Chapter IV. A Friendly Audience
 

The afternoon performance had passed without a hitch. While there were many town people there the greater part of the audience, which nearly filled the big tent, was composed of visitors from the country.

Great applause greeted the performances of Phil Forrest and Teddy Tucker, but the two Circus Boys were saving their best efforts for the evening performance when all their friends would be present.

Mrs. Cahill, after her tumble, had been picked up by the lads who insisted that she shake the trunk of Emperor before he left the lawn. And now that she had seen the afternoon show, taking a motherly pride in the performance of her boys, as she proudly called them, the kindhearted woman sat down to a meal in the cook tent, which proved one of the most interesting experiences of her life.

As the hour for the evening performance approached there was an unusual bustle in the dressing tent. By this time the whole show had taken a keen interest in the affairs of the Circus Boys, who had been known to the performers--at least, to most of them--for the past two years.

Teddy had paid sundry mysterious visits to the horse tent, and held numerous confidential conversations with the equestrian director, all of which was supposed to have been unknown to Mr. Sparling, the owner of the show.

But, while Teddy was nursing his secret, Mr. Sparling also was keeping one of his own, one which was to be a great surprise to the two Circus Boys.

The first surprise was given when the clowns came out for their first entry. Lining up in front of the reserved seats, where the high school boys and girls sat, they sang a song in which they brought in the names of every member of Phil's class. This elicited roars of laughter from the spectators, while the school boys and girls waved their crimson and white class flags wildly.

The whole class was there as the guests of the management of the show. This was one of Mr. Sparling's surprises, but not the only one he was to give them that night.

Next came the leaping act, somersaulting from a springboard and in the end jumping over the herd of elephants. Teddy was so effectively disguised by his clown makeup that, for some time, the class did not recognize him. When finally they did, through some familiar gesture of his own, the boys and girls set up a perfect howl of delight in which the audience joined with enthusiastic applause, for Teddy, with all his clumsy ways, was one of the best tumblers in the show. He had developed marvelously since the close of the show the fall before.

Never had Teddy tumbled as he did that night. He took so many chances that Mr. Sparling, who was on the side lines, shouted a word of caution to him.

"You'll break your neck, if you're not careful."

In answer to the warning, Teddy took a long running start and did a double turn in the air, over the backs of the elephants, landing plump into the waiting arms of a bevy of painted clowns, the spectators evincing their appreciation by shouting out Teddy's name.

Teddy's chest swelled with pride as he waved his hand and shook his head as if to say: "Oh, that's nothing! You ought to see me when I'm really working."

The band played on and the show moved along with a merry medley of daring deeds and furious fun from the clowns.

At last, in response to the command of the ringmaster's whistle, the band ceased playing and silence fell over the tent as the ringmaster raised his hand for silence.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "The next act will be a bareback riding feat unexcelled in any show in the world. In ring No. 1 the famous equestrienne, Little Dimples, will entertain you with her Desperate, Daring Dips of Death that defy imitation. In ring No. 2 you will recognize a fellow townsman--a townsboy, I should say. It will not be necessary for me to mention his name. Suffice it to say that, although he has been riding for less than a year, he has already risen to the enviable position of being one of the foremost bareback riders of the sawdust arena. I think that's all I have to say. Your friends will do the rest."

The ringmaster waved his hand to the band, which instantly blared forth and to its music Phil Forrest tripped lightly down the concourse, being obliged to go three-fourths of its length to get to the ring where he was to perform.

His journey led him right past the grandstand seats where his admiring school fellows were sitting, or rather standing. As a matter of fact, every one of them had risen to his feet by this time and was shouting out Phil's name.

As he drew nearer they began to chant, keeping time with his footsteps and the music of the band:

"Phil, Phil--Phillip F! Rah, rah! Siss-boom-ah!"

The Circus Boy grinned happily and waved his whip at them as he passed.

"I hope I won't make a fool of myself," he thought.

He had no intention of doing so. He had a few tricks that he was going to show his friends, and incidentally surprise Mr. Sparling himself, for Phil, who now owned his own ring horse, had been practicing in secret all winter on the act that he was going to attempt for the first time in public that evening.

Discarding his slippers and chalking the bottoms of his riding pumps, Phil began his act by riding standing on the rump of his mount, to get his equilibrium and his confidence at the same time.

Then the lad began throwing himself into his work, which increased in speed as the moments passed, until his supple, slender body was flashing here and there on the back of the handsome gray, causing the eyes of the spectators fairly to ache in their efforts to keep track of him.

The people voiced their excitement by yells of approval and howls of delight.

"My, but that boy can ride!" muttered Mr. Sparling, who had been watching the act critically. "In fact, I should like to know what he cannot do. If he had to do so, he could run this show fully as well as can I--and perhaps better at that," added the showman, with a grin.

Now the band struck up the music for the concluding number of the act.

"I wonder what he has up his sleeve," mused Mr. Sparling shrewdly, suspecting that Phil was about to try something he had never done in the ring before. "I hope he won't take any long chances, for I can't afford to have anything happen to my little star performer."

As a matter of fact both Phil and Teddy Tucker had become star performers, and were so featured on the circus bills, where their pictures had been placed for this, their third season out. The year before they had appeared on the small bills in the shop windows, but now they had the satisfaction of seeing themselves portrayed in life-size on the big boards.

Phil sent his ring horse forward at a lively gait, which grew faster and faster, as he sat lightly on the animal's rump, urging it along.

All at once he bounded to his feet, poised an instant, then threw himself into a succession of handsprings until he resembled a whirling pink and gold wheel.

This was a new act in the circus world, and such of the other performers as were under the big top at the moment paused to watch it.

No one was more surprised than Mr. Sparling himself. He knew what a difficult feat it was that the Circus Boy had not only essayed, but succeeded in doing. Phil kept it up at such length, and with such stubborn persistence, that the owner of the show feared lest the lad, in his dizziness might get a bad fall.

Doing a series of such rapid handsprings on the level ground is calculated to make a performer's head swim. But how much more difficult such an effort is on the slippery back of a moving horse may well be imagined.

Finally, red of face, panting, breathless, Phil Forrest alighted on his feet, well back on the ring horse's rump.

"Be ready to catch me," he gasped.

The ringmaster understood.

Phil urged his horse to a run about the sawdust arena.

"Now, what's that fool boy going to do?" wondered Mr. Sparling.

All at once Phil Forrest threw himself up into the air, his body doubling like a ball as he did so.

One--two--three times he whirled about in his marvelous backward somersault.

"Let go your tuck!" commanded the ringmaster, meaning that Phil was to release the grip of his hands which were holding his legs doubled close against his body.

The lad quickly straightened up, spreading his arms to steady himself in his descent. Fortunately he was dropping feet first, due to his instant obedience of the ringmaster's order.

Perhaps that alone saved the Circus Boy from breaking his neck, for so dizzy was he that he was unable to tell whether he was dropping feet or head first.

He alighted on his feet and the ringmaster caught him deftly.

"Stand steady a minute, till you get your bearings, Phil."

Phil needed that moment to steady himself, for the big top seemed to be whirling about on a pivot.

Now he began dimly to hear the thunders of applause that greeted his really wonderful performance.

"Can you stand alone now?"

"I think so," came the faint reply that was instantly drowned in the great uproar.

But the lad wavered a little after the ringmaster had released his grip. Steadying himself quickly, Phil pulled on his slippers and walked slowly from the ring, dizzy, but happy with the shouts of his school fellows ringing in his ears.

He heard the voice of Mr. Sparling close by him, saying:

"Great, great, my boy! Finest exhibition ever seen in a sawdust ring!"

Phil tripped proudly past the grandstand seats, where the boys were howling like a pack of wild Indians.

But just then something else occurred to attract their attention.

A donkey, long-eared, long-haired, dirty and unkempt trotted into the ring and spun about like a top for a full minute.

On the ludicrous-looking beast's back sat a boy in the makeup of a blackface clown. In his mouth was a harmonica, that he played lustily, as he sat facing to the rear with his back toward the donkey's head.

At that moment something else was observable. Instead of traveling head first, as any self-respecting donkey is supposed to do, this particular donkey was walking backwards. Yes, he was galloping backwards.

The instant the audience noted that, their cheers changed to howls of delight. The clown was Teddy Tucker, and the donkey was the surprise he had been storing up for this very occasion. While the audience laughed and jeered, Mr. Sparling looked on in surprise not unmixed with amazement. Here was the very thing he had been looking for, but had been unable thus far to find.

"It's a winner!" he cried, as Teddy Tucker and his strange mount ambled by him in a gait such as never had been seen in a sawdust arena before.

Right around the arena traveled boy and donkey. When opposite the grandstand seats, where the high school students were sitting, Teddy nearly drove them wild by drawing out the class colors which he had been hiding under his coat.

In a shrill, high-pitched voice he gave utterance to the high school class yell, which was instantly taken up by the class and eventually by the spectators themselves, until all seemed near the verge of hysterics.

Phil, instead of proceeding directly to the dressing tent, had waited by the bandstand to watch the new act of his companion, and he, with others of the performers, was laughing heartily as he leaned against the bandstand. Teddy knew he made a funny appearance, but just how ludicrous he could have little idea.

"Whose donkey is that?" demanded Mr. Sparling, hurrying up just as Phil and the other circus folks were congratulating the lad.

"He's mine," rejoined Teddy.

"Where did you get him?"

"I bought him. Think I stole him? Been training him all winter. Like him?"

"It's a great comedy act. He's engaged. Turn him over to the superintendent of ring stock and tell him to make a place on the train for the brute."

"I've already done so."

"Oh, you have, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Anybody would think you owned this show, the way you give orders around here."

"I'm willing, and so's the donkey," grinned Teddy.

"For what---to go on at every performance?"

"No; to own the show. We're going on right along, anyway. Gid-dap!"

"Hopeless!" muttered Sparling, shaking his head.