The two were on their way back to the circus lot, intending to go to supper and prepare for the evening entertainment, when there was a sudden alarm down the street, and, in an instant, the fire engines and other apparatus dashed past.
“A fire!” cried Joe. “Come on, Helen! It’s just down the street!”
They could see smoke pouring from a small building and a crowd rushing toward it. Thither, also, the fire apparatus was dashing. Joe and Helen were among the early arrivals.
“What is it?” asked Joe of an officer. “I mean what sort of place is that?” and he pointed to the building, which was now obscured by smoke.
“Dime museum,” was the answer. “Lot of fakes. I sent in the alarm. A fire-eater was trying some new stunt and he set the place ablaze, so the boss yelled to me. Come now, youse all have to git back!” and he motioned to the crowd, which was constantly increasing, to get beyond the fire lines.
What with the clanging of the gongs on the engines and on the red runabouts that brought two battalion chiefs to the fire; the pall of smoke, with, here and there, the suggestion of a red blaze; the swaying excitement of the crowd; the yells of harassed policemen; the scene at the blaze of the dime museum was one long to be remembered by Joe Strong and Helen Morton—particularly in the light of what happened afterward.
“Joe, did you hear what he said?” asked Helen, as she moved back with the young acrobat in conformity with the officer’s order.
“You mean that we’ve got to slide?”
“No, that a fire-eater started the blaze. Does he mean a professional ‘fire bug,’ as I have heard them called?”
“Oh, not at all!” exclaimed Joe. “A fire-eater is a chap who does such stunts in a museum, theater, or even in a circus. Sampson Brothers used to have one, I understand, from looking over the old books. But it wasn’t much of an act. Golly, this is going to be some blaze!”
That was very evident from the increased smoke that rolled out and the crackle of fire that now could be heard above the puffing of the engines and the shouts of the mob.
“A regular tinder box!” muttered the officer who had told Joe the origin of the blaze. “Place ought to have been pulled down long ago. Git back there youse!” he yelled to some venturesome lads. “Want to git mushed up?”
The blaze was a big one, considerable damage was done, and several persons were injured. But quick work by an efficient department prevented the flames from spreading to the buildings on either side of the one where it had started.
Joe and Helen stayed long enough to see the menace gotten under control, and then they departed just as the ambulance rolled away with the last of the victims.
“That’s the fire-eater they’re taking to the hospital now,” said the policeman who had first spoken to the young circus performers. “They took him into a drug store to wrap him in oil and cotton batting.”