Chapter V. The Circus Boys' Surprise
 

"Come, Phil and Teddy. I want you to take a little walk with me," called Mr. Sparling early next morning after they had finished their breakfast.

That morning orders had been given in each of the sleeping cars, for the performers to pack their belongings, ready to be moved from the cars.

The show people could not understand it, and gossip was rife among them as to the meaning of the unusual order.

Orders also had been given to the various heads of departments to prepare to desert the train, bag and baggage.

"Where are we going?" demanded Teddy suspiciously.

"For a walk. You need not go along, unless you wish to," added the showman.

"Of course I wish to go. Do you think I want to stay on the lot when anything is going on somewhere else, eh?"

"There would be plenty going on, if you remained. I am sure of that," replied Mr. Sparling, with a short laugh. "Come along, boys."

Still wondering what it was all about, Phil and Teddy walked along with their employer. They passed on through the business street of the town, then turned off sharply, heading for the north. A few moments of this and they turned to the left again.

"Hello, there's the river," announced Teddy.

"Yes, that is the river."

"I wish I could take a boat ride."

"You shall have one tonight."

"Good!"

Phil glanced at Mr. Sparling inquiringly.

"Oh, look at that funny boat!" cried Teddy. "It's yellow. I've heard of a yellow dog, but I can't say that I ever heard of a yellow boat. And it has a paddle wheel on behind. Well, if that isn't the limit! Why, there are three of them. What are they, Mr. Sparling?"

Phil's eyes already were widening. He had caught sight of something that shed a flood of light on the mystery--the surprise that Mr. Sparling had in store for them. But he was not positive enough to commit himself.

A moment more, and he knew he was not wrong.

"Teddy, if you will read the words on the side of that boat nearest to us, you will understand, I think."

"T-h-e," spelled Teddy.

"The," finished Phil.

"S-p-a-r-l-i-n-g, Sparling. C-o-m-b-i-n-e-d Shows. Well, what do you think of that?"

"I hardly know what to think, yet," answered Phil Forrest. "The Sparling Combined Shows. Do you mean to say--?"

"I haven't said a word," answered Mr. Sparling, with a merry twinkle in his eyes. "I am waiting for you to say something."

"I--I am afraid I am too much astonished to say much. Do you mean we are going to take to the river?"

"Exactly."

"With the show?"

"Yes."

"Hooray!"

"What's that?" demanded Teddy.

"Didn't you hear?"

"I heard, but I don't understand. What's it all about? What is it about those yellow boats over there?"

"The Sparling Circus is going down the Mississippi," Mr. Sparling informed him.

"On those things?"

"On those boats."

"Then I think I'll walk. You don't catch me riding on any boat that has to have a wheel on behind to help push it along. No, siree, not for mine!"

"But, Teddy, they are fine boats," said Phil.

"They are among the few typical Mississippi River steamers," broke in Mr. Sparling. "I got them far up the river last winter. When I first conceived the plan of sending my show down the river, on the river itself, I took a trip out here to look over the ground--"

"You mean the water," corrected Teddy innocently.

"A little of both, my boy. I found that no show since the early days of the barnstorming outfits had ever attempted the feat. I learned a number of things that made me all the more anxious to try it. The next question was a boat. I heard of some of the old broad-beamed river craft that were out of commission up stream. I found them exactly suited to our requirements, and I rented them for the season. It cost quite a sum to have them fixed up, but you will find them just the thing for our work. What do you think of the idea?"

"Great!" breathed Phil. "It fairly takes my breath away."

"When--when do we move in?" asked Teddy Tucker wonderingly.

"We begin moving in this morning. I have given the orders to have the property removed from the trains and brought here, now--that is, all that will not be needed for today's performances. Tonight all hands will sleep on the boats. How will you like that, boys?"

"Fine!" answered Phil, with glowing eyes.

"I'll tell you after I try it," added Teddy prudently.

Across the sides of each boat, in big black letters, were the words, "The Sparling Combined Shows." Below this lettering appeared the names of the boats. The "River Queen" was the name emblazoned on one, several shades more yellow than the other two.

"I guess we shall have to call her the 'Yellow Peril,'" laughed Phil. "Don't you think that would be an appropriate name?"

Mr. Sparling laughed good-naturedly.

The companion boat to the "Queen" was named the "Mary Jane." Teddy promptly renamed her the "Fat Marie," in honor of The Fattest Woman on Earth, much to the amusement of Phil and Mr. Sparling.

The "Nemah" was the third boat of the fleet, a much smaller craft than either of the others. The owner intended to use the "Nemah" as the Flying Squadron of the show, the boat that went ahead of the main body of the show, bearing the cook tent, kitchen equipment and as much other property as could be loaded on it.

"Well, Teddy," said Mr. Sparling, "in view of the fact that you and Phil have renamed the 'River Queen' and the 'Mary Jane,' I suppose you will not be satisfied until you have rechristened the 'Nemah.' What will you call her?"

"'Little Nemo,'" answered the lad promptly.

"You boys beat anything I ever came across in all my circus experience," remarked Mr. Sparling.

"Where do we sleep?" asked Phil.

"The cabins are all on the upper decks. The lower decks will be used wholly for the equipment. I have had all the partitions ripped out, down there, and the deck flooring lowered a little so that the elephants will have room to stand. I have also had smaller wheels put on all the wagons. Had I not done so the wagons would not have gone in through the openings on the sides."

"What about the tent poles?" asked Phil. "You never will be able to drive a pole wagon on board."

"You have an eye to business, I see. Have you noticed that the center poles are spliced this season?"

"Yes, I did observe that."

"It was for the purpose of easier handling. The poles will all be swung to the upper decks in bundles. In the morning they will be lowered to the wagons, which can be done without much difficulty. All the poles, except those belonging to the big top, will go out on the 'Little Nemo,' as you have named her. At first, handling the show will be a little awkward, but we shall soon get the hang of it and fit into the new arrangement just as if we had been always traveling on boats. Traveling on the water, you see, we shall be able to show on both sides of the river all the way down, which we could not do were we traveling by train. That will give us a long season, short runs overnight and a fine outing. Everybody will be delighted with the change, don't you think so?"

"If not, they will be pretty hard to please, I should say," rejoined Phil. "Why, it will be a regular vacation--all summer!"

"How far do we go?" asked Teddy.

"The length of the river."

"To the Gulf of Mexico?"

"Yes. New Orleans probably will be our last stand of the season. That is, if we do not get wrecked on the big river."

"We can swim out if we do," suggested Teddy.

"I hope nothing of the sort will occur. I think our new plans will make a great hit along the river."

"They cannot help but do so. We shall have a fine business, I know," smiled Phil," and our rivals will be green with envy."

"May we go on board?"

"I hardly think you will have time this morning, Teddy. You boys had better get back to the lot now. I will let you run the show, Phil, as I shall be busy most of the day arranging for the transfer to our new quarters. I chose Saturday for the purpose, as it will give us plenty of time. We probably shall not get away from here much before daylight."

"What boat do we berth on?"

"The 'Fat Marie,'" answered the showman, with a laugh. "I believe I'll have these new names of yours painted on the boats. They certainly make a hit with me. Skip along, now!"

Almost too full of the new plans to talk, the Circus Boys hurried back to the circus lot. Mr. Sparling's surprise had been a surprise, indeed.

By the time they reached the lot the news had been circulated that the show was to take to the river, and the show people were discussing excitedly the new plan.

All was bustle and excitement, and the occupants of the dressing tent, who were preparing for the parade, crowded about the boys to hear of the new boats.

The Sparling show had never gone along with the snap and enthusiasm that it did that afternoon. The performers were on their mettle and the little town was treated to a performance such as it had never seen before.

Teddy distinguished himself by landing on his head on the somersaulting mat, narrowly escaping breaking his neck, and Phil took an unexpected header into the big net during his trapeze act, getting a jolt that made his head ache for an hour afterwards. Nothing else of an exciting nature occurred during the afternoon performance, but at the evening show the circus people were not so fortunate.

At that performance they met with excitement enough to last them for a long time.