Chapter VI. A Bolt From the Clouds
 

"The old hen has laid an egg! The old hen has laid an egg!"

The performance was moving merrily on, the gasoline lamps shedding a bright glow over the golden haze of the circus tent, when a diminutive clown rushed into the arena bearing something in his arms.

To the spectators it was just another clownish act, and they laughed uproariously. The circus people, however, realized at once that something not down on the bills was taking place, and they cast wondering glances at the little clown, who was dancing about in high glee.

"Get out of here!" growled the ringmaster angrily. "What do you mean by breaking into the performance in this way. Out of here, I say!"

"The old hen has laid an egg!" repeated the clown, holding aloft the object that all might see.

Teddy Tucker, for it was he, cared nothing for the crowds occupying the seats. In fact, it is doubtful that he gave any thought to them at all.

"What do you mean?" demanded the ringmaster.

"The ostrich. Don't you see?"

"The ostrich?"

"Yes, she's laid an egg."

Quick to appreciate the value of the clown's interruption, the ringmaster took the great egg that Teddy had brought in, and held it aloft.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, as the band suddenly ceased playing, "wonders never cease in the Great Sparling Shows. You have been treated to startling feats of skill upon the lofty flying swings; you have witnessed desperately dangerous displays of unrivaled aerialism, and you are about to observe the thundering, furious Roman chariot races three times about the arena--"

"Say, what are you trying to get at?" growled Teddy Tucker. "Give me back that egg."

"But a sensation greater than all of these is in store for you, though you did not know it. The tallest hen in the world has laid an egg for your instruction and amusement--the ostrich has immortalized the town of Milledgeville by laying an egg within its sacred precincts, and my friend, Teddy Tucker, in discovering it, has accomplished an achievement beside which the discovery of the north or south pole is a cheap side show."

The audience yelled its approval and appreciation.

"Young man, what do you intend to do with this wonderful and rare specimen?"

"What do I intend to do with it?"

"Yes. Is it your purpose to present it to this beautiful little city, to be placed among its other treasures in the city hall?"

"Well, I guess not!"

"What, then?"

"I'm going to eat it. That's what I'm going to do with it," answered Teddy in a voice loud enough to be heard all over the big top.

The people shouted.

"Give me that egg!" demanded the Circus Boy, grabbing the big white ball and marching off toward the paddock with it, to the accompaniment of the laughter and applause of the audience.

"Now that we have seen this remarkable Easter achievement, the performance will proceed," announced the ringmaster, blowing his whistle and waving his hand.

The band struck up; the performers, grinning broadly, took up their work where they had left off upon the entrance of Teddy Tucker with the giant egg.

The incident had served to put both performers and audience in high good humor. Mr. Sparling was not present to witness it. He was busy down by the docks, attending to the loading of such of the show's equipment as was ready to be packed away for shipment on the Sparling fleet.

Perhaps it was just as well for Teddy, that the owner of the show was not present, as he might have objected to the Circus Boy's interruption of the performance.

Teddy was irrepressible. He stood in awe of no one except the Lady Snake Charmer, and did pretty much as he pleased all the time. Yet, beneath the surface, there was the making of a manly man, a resolute, sturdy character of whom great things might be expected in the not far distant future.

As the performance proceeded an ominous rumbling was suddenly heard.

"I think it is going to storm," Phil confided to his working mate on the flying trapeze.

"Sounds that way. Is that thunder I hear?"

"Yes."

"Guess it won't amount to much. Just a spring shower. You will find a lot of them along the river for the next month or so."

"I have always heard that rivers were wet," replied Phil humorously, swinging off into space, landing surely and gracefully in the arms of the catcher in the trapeze act.

"I think we had better cut the act short."

"Oh, no, let's go on with it," answered Phil. "I am not afraid if you are not."

"Afraid nothing. I remember still what a narrow escape we had last season just before that blow-down, when Wallace, the big lion, made his escape. That was a lively time, wasn't it?"

"Rather," agreed Phil.

The ringmaster motioned to them to bring their act to a close, and the band leader, catching the significance of the movement, urged his musicians to play louder. The crash of cymbals and the boom of the bass drum and the big horns almost drowned out the rumbling of the thunder.

Those up near the dome of the tent, still going through their acts, now heard the patter of heavy rain drops on the canvas top. The lights throughout the tent flickered a little under the draught that sucked in through the openings in the tent and the open space at the top of the side walls.

The audience showed signs of restlessness.

"It is only a spring shower, ladies and gentlemen," announced the ringmaster. "You have no cause for alarm. The hats of the ladies are perfectly safe. This tent is waterproof. You could soak it in the Mississippi without getting a drop of water through it. That's the way the Sparling show looks out for its patrons. Nothing cheap about the Sparling outfit!"

A laugh greeted his remarks.

A blinding flash faded the gasoline lamps to a ghostly flame. A few seconds later a crash that shook the earth followed, causing the audience to shiver with nervous apprehension.

Teddy had come out and was gazing aloft. He grinned at Phil, noting at the same time that all the lofty performers were preparing to come down.

"Hello, fraid-cats up there!" jeered the Circus Boy.

"You get out of here!" snapped the ringmaster. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I'm working."

"Yes, I see you working. Go on about your business and don't bother me. Don't you think I have anything else to do except to watch you, in order to prevent your breaking up the performance?"

"You ought to thank me for keeping you busy," chuckled Teddy, making a lively jump to get out of the way of the long lash that snapped at his heels.

Perhaps there was method in Teddy Tucker's movements. He strolled out into the concourse, gazing up at the crowded seats, winking and making wry faces at the people, as he moved slowly along, causing them to laugh and shout flippant remarks at him.

This was exactly what he wanted them to do. It gave Teddy an opportunity to talk back, and many a keen-pointed shaft did he hurl at the unwary who had been imprudent enough to try to make sport of him.

While this impromptu act was going on the minds of the people were so occupied that they forgot all about the storm.

The rain was now beating down on the big top in a deluge, and despite the ringmaster's assurance that the canvas would not leak, a fine spray was filling the tent like a thin fog, through which the lights glowed in pale circles.

"Even the lamps have halos," Teddy informed the people. "I had one once, but the ringmaster borrowed it and forgot to return it. But I don't care. He needs a halo more than I do."

A howl greeted this sally.

Teddy was about to say something else, after the first wave of laughter had swept over the audience, but no one heard him speak.

Another flash, more brilliant, more blinding than any that had gone before it, lighted up the tent. The big top seemed suddenly to have been filled with fire. Thin threads of it ran down quarter and center pole; circles of it raced about the iron rings used in various parts of the tent, then jumped into the rigging, running up and down the iron braces and wire ropes used to brace the apparatus.

The flash was accompanied by a report that was terrifying. At that instant a great ball of fire descended from the damp top of the tent, dropping straight toward the concourse. Teddy Tucker chanced to be standing just beneath it. He had glanced up when the report came, to see if any damage had been done aloft.

"Wow!" breathed Teddy.

Just then the ball burst only a few feet above his head, scattering fire in all directions.

Teddy fell flat to the ground.

He was up almost at once.

"I'm all right! How's the rest of the family?" he howled.

The rest of the family were too much concerned with what was taking place in the big top to notice the Circus Boy's humor.

Then Teddy observed that the center pole was split from end to end. The lightning bolt had followed it from its peak to the ground. Several of the side poles had already given way, and the lad saw the dome of the tent slowly settling.

"Hitch it! Anchor it!" he bellowed.

The attendants were too frightened to give heed to his words.

Phil Forrest was coming down a rope, hand under hand, as rapidly as he could travel.

"Snub the rope or you'll have the tent down on you!" he shouted.

Teddy darted forward, throwing himself upon the heavy rope that held the dome in place.

At that instant the rope on which Phil Forrest was descending gave way, and Phil came straight down.

He landed on Teddy Tucker's head and shoulders, knocking Teddy flat on the ground, where the little Circus Boy lay still. Yet he had, with rare presence of mind, snubbed the heavy rope around a tent stake, keeping the free end of the rope in hand, and holding desperately to it.

Nor did Teddy release his grip on the rope, now that he had been knocked unconscious. He held it in place, the strands wound firmly about his arm, though inch by inch he was slipping toward the heavy tent stake. Phil had received a severe shaking-up, but he was on his feet quickly, looking about to see on whom he had fallen.

When he discovered that Teddy had been the victim, Phil groaned.

"I'm afraid I have finished him!"

Teddy had now been drawn along by the rope until his head was against the tent stake.

"Quick! Lend a hand here!" shouted Phil.

He wrenched the rope loose from Tucker's hands, taking a twist about his own arms and holding on with all his might.

Several ring attendants came to their senses about that time and rushed to his assistance.

"Take care of Teddy!" cried Phil.

The ringmaster turned Teddy over and looked into the lad's face. At that, Teddy opened his eyes and winked. The ringmaster jerked him to his feet and shook him vigorously.

This restored the boy to his normal condition.

"Hello, folks!" howled Teddy, turning a handspring, falling over a ring curbing as he did so.

The people forgot their fear and greeted Teddy with wild applause. The Circus Boy had saved a blow-down and perhaps many lives as well.