Once more the prod was brought into use. Jupiter waxed angry. With a great cough, he curled his trunk about the heavy gangplank, wrenching it free from its resting place.
Raising the planking high above his head he hurled it into the river.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced Teddy Tucker, in a loud voice, "you have witnessed a most satisfying, edifying, gratifying, ennobling, superb and sublime spectacular prelude, as our press agent would say. But, if you know what's good for you, you will now hasten to the high places, for there's going to be something doing around here in about a minute."
Teddy was no false prophet in this instance.
Strutting up to the angry Jupiter the Circus Boy slapped him playfully on the trunk.
"You bad boy. I thought January was the limit, but I have changed my mind. You—"
Suddenly Jupiter's trunk curled about the lad. The angry elephant raised the boy far above his head and hurled him up into the air as he had done with the gangway, except that he threw Teddy in another direction.
PHIL FORREST TO THE RESCUE
"Catch Teddy! Catch him!" shouted Mr. Sparling.
"The boy has gone into the river!" cried half a dozen voices at once.
"No; the bull threw him toward the boat. He may have shot right on over and into the water or he may still be on the upper deck," answered Mr. Kennedy, as he plied his prod industriously, shouting his orders to the other elephants that already were showing signs of restlessness.
By this time a boat had been launched from the dock, and half a dozen men had gone in search of the lost gangway that was now floating slowly down the river some distance away.
"Ahoy, boat!" bellowed Mr. Sparling. "Row around to the other side and see if Tucker is in the river."
At the same time the owner of the show was running toward the "Marie." He plunged into the mass of equipment on the lower deck, lost his footing and went rolling under a lion's cage. He was on his feet and bounding up the stairs almost in the next second.
Just as he reached the upper deck he met Phil Forrest emerging from the cabin, attracted by the uproar.
"What's the matter, sir?"
"Teddy," answered the showman shortly.
"Oh, that boy again! What is it?"
"Jupiter tossed him."
"Where is he?"
"Maybe in the river. Help me look for him up here. They are searching for him on the other side of the boat."
Phil started on a run along one side of the deck, Mr. Sparling taking the other side.
"Here he is. Ahoy, boat! Go and get the gangway. I have the boy here," called Mr. Sparling.
Phil hurried over to where Mr. Sparling was bending over Teddy, who lay doubled up against the pilot house.
"Is he hurt?"
"I don't know. I'll tell you when I get him untangled. He seems to be standing on his head. Lucky if his neck isn't broken."
"Teddy's neck is too tough to be easily broken. I think he is merely stunned," said Phil.
The showman straightened the Circus Boy out, and Teddy suddenly sat up, rubbing his head and neck gingerly.
"Did January kick me?" he demanded wonderingly.
"No; Jupiter threw you up here. Are you hurt?"
"I'm worse than that. I'm like the carpenter who swallowed a tape measure. I'm dying by inches."
Mr. Sparling uttered an impatient exclamation.
"Take care of him, Phil. I must get back. There is trouble down there."
The showman hurried away, and Phil saw at once that his companion had sustained a severe shock, but nothing of a serious nature.
"You're all right, Teddy. What is the trouble down there?"
Teddy, still rubbing himself, explained what had happened.
Just then there came a call from below.
"Can you come down here?"
"Of course. What is it?"
"Mr. Sparling wants you."
"I'll be right there."
The lad, instead of taking the time to go down the companionway, swung over the side of the boat and dropped lightly to the wharf. Such is the advantage of being a showman.
"Mr. Kennedy is having trouble with the bulls, Phil," explained Mr. Sparling.
"Yes; so Teddy told me."
"He thinks you may be able to suggest some way out of our difficulty. Mr. Kennedy has great confidence in your resourcefulness."
"What have you done thus far?"
Mr. Sparling explained briefly, Phil giving close attention.
"Have they found the gangplank yet?"
"Yes; they are towing it up to the dock now."
Phil waited until they had hauled the gangway up and put it in place.
"Will you try her, so that I can see how she works, Mr. Kennedy?" asked the lad after the gangway had been chained down so securely that the elephant would have difficulty in ripping it loose.
Jupiter was just as stubborn as he had been before. Phil observed three or four showmen standing near him on the other side.
"Please step back, all of you," he said. "Mr. Sparling, will you see that no one comes near the elephants? I'll see what I can do. Back him off, Mr. Kennedy."
This done, Phil stepped back along the line until he came to the big elephant Emperor.
"Good old Emperor," cried the Circus Boy soothingly. "Here's a lump of sugar."
Emperor tucked the sugar far back in his pink mouth. Then Phil, taking hold of the trunk, petted it affectionately, next tucking it under his arm.
"Come along, old fellow. You need not be afraid," he said, starting toward the ship, with Emperor following meekly and obediently. At the gangway he stopped and examined the passageway carefully.
"Are you sure it is strong enough to support them, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Yes, it will hold two at once."
Once more Phil took hold of the trunk and led Emperor across and into the boat, the elephant making no protest; though, knowing him as he did, Phil saw that the animal was timid. The beast's confidence in the little Circus Boy overcame his fears, however.
Emperor got another lump of sugar as the result of his obedience.
"See if Jupiter will follow," called Phil.
Jupiter would not.
Observing this, Phil swung Emperor around and led him to the dock.
"What are you going to do?" asked Mr. Sparling.
"Perhaps nothing at all. If Mr. Kennedy failed I do not see how I shall be able to accomplish anything. Get Jupiter up to the gangway, please."
This was done.
"When I say the word, you give Jupiter the hook good and hard and quick. I'll promise you that something will happen. See here; didn't I tell you fellows to keep away from those elephants?" demanded the boy, observing two figures edging up toward Emperor.
"Clear the dock!" roared Mr. Sparling.
A sudden thought seemed to strike Phil. He left Emperor and stepped around to the other side of the animal walking about and peering into the faces of the people who now were standing back at a respectful distance. Most of them proved to be villagers, with a few circus people sprinkled among them.
"Did you notice who those two men were who were standing on the other side, Mr. Sparling?" he asked in a low tone.
"I wanted to know."
"Why do you ask that question?"
"Because I am suspicious of them, that's all."
Making sure that the dock was clear, Phil led Emperor up to Jupiter, placing the former's head against the hips of the stubborn elephant.
"Now!" he shouted, at the same time giving Emperor the signal to push.
The big elephant threw all his great strength into a forward movement. Jupiter, taken off his guard, plunged across the gangplank, with Emperor pushing him along, the former trumpeting wildly in his fear and rage. Another minute, and Jupiter was landed safely on the lower deck of the "Fat Marie."
ALL ABOARD FOR THE GULF!
Day was breaking.
Clouds of dense black smoke were rolling from the funnels of the Sparling fleet, while steam was hissing from the overburdened safety valves.
The show was ready for its start down the river. The "Little Nemo" had already hoisted anchor and was drifting with the current awaiting the signal to start her engines.
"All ashore that's going," sang a voice on each of the two boats lying at the dock.
The boats' whistles broke out in three deafening, prolonged blasts each.
"Cast off!" bellowed the pilots.
Hawsers were hauled in and the distance between the dock and the boats slowly widened.
"We're off," shouted Teddy, waving his hat joyously.
"We will be more so, unless we get some sleep," warned Phil. "I would suggest that you and I turn in for a few hours. We both need a beauty sleep."
"I don't," answered Teddy promptly.
"No, sir. I'm handsome enough as it is. Even the fool donkey stands aghast when he comes face to face with my surpassing beauty."
"How about the elephants?" twinkled Phil.
"Elephants don't count, at least not after twelve o'clock at night."
"I move that we turn in just the same. We will sleep until sometime before noon, then we can get up and enjoy the ride. I understand we shall not reach the next stand until sometime this evening. This is going to be a great trip, Teddy."
"It has been," nodded the other boy. "Where do we show first?"
"Milroy, I believe is the name of the place. I never heard of it before."
"And probably you never will want to again, after you have been there. That is the case with most of these little tank towns. A fellow wonders where all the people come from who go to the show."
The lads went to their cabin and were soon sound asleep. They realized how tired they were when first they got into bed.
"This is great!" muttered Phil, as, lying in his bed, he felt the cool air drifting in over him.
When they awakened the sun was at its zenith.
Phil consulted his watch.
"Wake up, Teddy. It is twelve o'clock."
Teddy sleepily dragged himself from his bed, pulled himself wearily to the window and threw open the blinds.
"Where are we?" asked Phil.
"Ask the pilot," grumbled Teddy. "How do you suppose I know? This water looks like a big mud puddle. I'm hungry; aren't you?"
"Yes, I am. What are we going to do for breakfast? I never thought to bring along a lunch."
"I've got an egg," chuckled Teddy.
"You are welcome to it. I don't care for any, thank you."
Just then there came a rap on their door.
Phil opened it and looked out.
"Mr. Sparling wishes to know if you are ready for breakfast?" asked the man, whom they recognized as the showman's personal servant.
"Am I ready for breakfast?" shouted Teddy. "Tell Mr. Sparling he ought to know better than to ask a question like that. What's this, a joke? We can't get any breakfast on this old tub."
"Mr. Sparling directs me to ask you to join him in his cabin for breakfast in ten minutes."
"Thank you. Tell him we shall be on hand," smiled Phil.
"I hope it isn't a joke," grumbled Teddy, pulling on his trousers.
"Now, isn't that fine of Mr. Sparling, old fellow?" asked Phil, with glowing eyes.
"Tell you better after I sample the breakfast. I'm suspicious."
"You need not be. Mr. Sparling would not be so unkind as to invite us to eat breakfast with him unless he had some breakfast to offer us."
"Well, I hope it's straight," muttered the doubting Teddy. A few minutes later the lads presented themselves at the door of the owner's cabin.
"Good morning, boys; how did you sleep last night?" he greeted them, with a cordial smile and a handshake for each.
"I was dead to the world," answered Teddy, with his customary bluntness of speech.
"I guess we all were," smiled the showman. "All day and all night was rather trying, but we shall not have the same trouble after this; at least not after the next stand. Everything should be in excellent working order after Monday. Sit down and have some breakfast with me."
An appetizing meal had been spread in the cabin. Teddy surveyed the table with wistful eyes.
"I did not know you were going to serve meals on board," said Phil.
"I am not, generally speaking. This is different. I would not ask our people to go all day without anything to eat. I have had a cold meal prepared in the main cabin, with hot coffee to wash it down. I thought you boys might like to join me here for a real meal. Having a real meal is one of the privileges of the owner of the show, you know," replied Mr. Sparling, with a hearty laugh, in which the boys joined.
"I was going to eat my egg," said Teddy humorously.
"It is very kind of you, Mr. Sparling," said Phil. "We were just wondering what we should do for breakfast, and Teddy, as he has just told you, was thinking of eating the ostrich egg."
"I presume so," replied Phil, with a short laugh.
"It would make a fellow strong," declared Teddy in defense of his egg.
"I agree with you, my boy. I ate a piece of one once, and it was quite the strongest thing I ever tackled."
"That's a joke. Ha, ha!" replied Teddy, with serious face.
The lads were, by this time, on such terms of intimacy with their employer that they felt free to talk with him as they would to each other. At least Phil did, and in all probability Tucker would have done so at any rate.
"Do we unload tonight, Mr. Sparling?" questioned Phil.
"No, I think not. Tomorrow morning will be time enough. I never like to do any more work on Sunday than is absolutely necessary."
Phil nodded his approval.
"I believe in observing the day, and besides, our people need the rest and the relaxation. That reminds me of what I wanted to say. You did a very clever piece of work last night, both of you."
Teddy glanced up in surprise.
"Yes; I got a roughhouse from the donkey and the elephant. I'm a sort of a good thing all around. When the fool donkey gets through wiping up a whole county with me, the elephant takes a hand—a trunk, I mean—and lands me high and dry on the roof of the 'Fat Marie.'"
"You mean the deck," corrected Phil.
"I don't know what you call it, but it was hard enough when I struck it. Next time I'm going to have a net spread to catch me. I'll bet I would have made a hit in the ring with that donkey wrestling bout. I guess I will try it on some of these times, providing I can get the donkey to work the way he did last night."
"As I said before, there is something I want to ask you, Phil," repeated the showman.
"Did it not strike you that Jupiter acted very peculiarly last night?"
"Yes. I did not see the first of it, but I saw enough."
"What did you think about it?"
"I did not know what to think."
The showman shot a keen glance at the Circus Boy's thoughtful, serious face.
"What do you think today?"
"That it was perfectly natural for Jupiter to balk going across the gangplank."
"How about him having hurled Teddy to the deck of the 'Fat Marie'?"
"That is different."
"Did it arouse any suspicions in your mind, my boy?"
Phil reflected for a moment, toying absently with his fork.
"Candidly, it did, Mr. Sparling. It struck me as peculiar at the time, and, as I thought it over, I became more and more convinced that there was some reason for Jupiter's action beyond what we saw."
The showman nodded, as if Phil's suggestion agreed with his own ideas.
"What do you think happened?" he asked.
"What do you think?"
"I will confess that I don't know, Phil. You had some reason for driving everyone away from the bulls there on the dock, did you not?"
"Yes, I did not want anyone to bother them while we were trying to get them on board."
"I understand," said Mr. Sparling, with a nod.
"Did you notice who was there on the dock at the time, Mr. Sparling?"
"No, not particularly."
"Was it some of the show people?"
"I am unable to say. I saw you drive two men off in particular, but I did not look at them closely. Did you know them?"
"Perhaps. They got away rather too quickly for me to make sure."
"Who do you think they were?"
Phil did not answer at once.
"Come, who were they, Phil?"
"I don't know, Mr. Sparling."
"I did not mean it exactly that way. You think you recognized them, and as I said before, I want to know who you think the men were?"
"I would rather not say, Mr. Sparling," answered the Circus Boy, looking his employer squarely in the eye.
"It is your duty to tell me."
"Not unless I am sure. It would be unjust to do so, and I know you would not wish to force me to be unjust."
"You are a queer boy, Phil Forrest," said the showman, gazing at the lad intently.
"I wish I knew who I thought they were, if they had anything to do with my aerial flight last night," growled Teddy. "They would have reason to think a Kansas cyclone had struck them."
No one paid any attention to Teddy's remark.
"I will tell you what I think, however, Mr. Sparling," continued Phil.
"That's what I am trying to get you to do."
"I think some person with evil intent did something to Jupiter to anger him, thus causing him to turn on Teddy. And it is my opinion that if you will examine the animal you will find the evidences on the animal himself," declared the Circus Boy boldly.
Mr. Sparling uttered an angry exclamation.
Teddy, who had tilted back in his chair as he listened to the conversation, went crashing to the floor, overturning table, dishes and all.
That broke up the conference of the morning.
EGG, EGG, WHO'S GOT THE EGG?
"I've lost my egg! I've lost my egg!"
Teddy Tucker's shrill voice was heard from one end to the other of the "Fat Marie." An hour had elapsed since his mishap in Mr. Sparling's cabin, during which time the lads had been sitting on the after deck of the boat.
Phil had been very thoughtful. Perhaps he had not done right in keeping his real suspicions from Mr. Sparling. Yet he was firm in his purpose not to say who he thought the men were. He was not at all certain, in his own mind, that his eyes had not deceived him.
There could be no doubt, however, that some person or persons had pricked Jupiter on a tender part of his anatomy just as Teddy Tucker was patting the trunk of the great beast.
Teddy had gone to his cabin for a moment, and no sooner had he opened the door than he discovered that all was not as it should be there.
"What's this? What's all this fuss about?" questioned Phil.
"My egg! My egg!"
"What about your egg?"
"It's gone, it's gone!"
"But I thought you locked it in your trunk?"
"That's what I did."
"Then how can it be gone?"
"It is, I tell you. Come and see, if you don't believe me."
"Of course I believe you, but I do not see how it would be possible for your egg to be taken when it was locked in your trunk," objected Phil.
Teddy grasped his companion by the arm and rushed him to the cabin.
"There, look!" exclaimed Teddy, pushing Phil into the room.
Teddy's trunk was open, most of its contents lying in a confused heap on the cabin floor.
Phil's face grew serious.
"Now, let's understand this. Was your trunk in that condition when you came in here a little while ago?"
"Are you sure?"
"Well, some of the stuff was sticking out, but the cover was down."
"The trunk was unlocked?"
"Sure it was."
"You are positive that you locked it?"
"I know it was locked."
"Is anything missing—have you looked to make sure?"
"I tell you my egg has been taken."
"I know. Has anything else been taken?"
"I was so excited that I didn't look."
"Then, do so now."
Teddy dropped down beside his trunk, and began going over his belongings, most of which were lying heaped on the floor. He examined everything closely.
"How about it?"
"I—I guess it is all here—but my egg is not, Phil."
"So I heard you say before."
"Where is it—where is it?"
"How do you suppose I know? You are lucky that nothing else was taken. Is the lock broken?"
"No. Somebody had a key."
"Almost any key made for an ordinary trunk will fit these steamer trunks." Phil proved this by selecting and trying three keys on his own key ring, each of which locked and unlooked Teddy's steamer trunk with ease.
"I'll bet you took my egg for a joke."
"Teddy Tucker, how can you say so," demanded Phil indignantly. "Did I ever do a thing like that?"
"No, I guess you didn't," admitted the boy. "But it's gone."
"It is evident that we have a thief on board. Mr. Sparling must be informed of this at once," decided Phil firmly. "You remain here and I will go and fetch him."
In a few moments the Circus Boy returned with Mr. Sparling. The showman made a careful examination of the room and the trunk on his own account. His face was flushed and angry.
He went over the same ground with his questions that Phil already had done.
"Do you suspect anyone, Phil?"
"I do not. Whom should I suspect? Nothing like this has ever happened in the Sparling show since I have been connected with it."
"You are right. It won't be healthful for the man who is responsible for this, if I catch him," growled the showman. "Somebody must be unusually fond of ostrich eggs to go to this length for one. If anyone in this show chances to dine on ostrich egg in the next twenty-four hours we shall know whom to accuse of the theft."
"I do not think you will get the opportunity," said Phil, with a peculiar smile.
"What do you mean by that remark?"
"That it was not taken because the thief wanted to eat it. He would not be foolish enough to do that."
"Probably to get even with Teddy."
Mr. Sparling eyed him sternly.
"You mean somebody had a grudge against Teddy?"
"I do not know."
"Teddy, who is it in this show who has a grudge against you?"
"I don't know of anybody unless it's January," he made solemn reply.
"The fool donkey? Bah!"
"I guess the donkey did not unlock your trunk and steal your egg, Teddy," answered Phil, a half smile curling his lips.
"I am not going to ask you again whom you suspect. I take it for granted that you will keep your eyes open from now on."
"I certainly shall, Mr. Sparling."
"If you are unable to find out who is responsible for certain things I am sure there is no use in my trying to do so."
"I do not know about that, Sir. I shall try. If I find out anything worthwhile I shall come to you and tell you."
"I shall expect you to do so. And, Teddy!"
"You are to say nothing of this occurrence to anyone on the boat. Do not mention that your precious egg has been lost or stolen, nor appear as if anything out of the ordinary had occurred."
Teddy nodded his understanding.
Mr. Sparling understood his boys better than they knew. He was confident that Phil Forrest had a shrewd idea as to who had aroused the anger of the elephant, Jupiter, as well as to the identity of the person who had stolen the egg from Teddy Tucker's trunk.
The Circus Boy, however, kept his own counsel.
He made a trip down to the lower deck and had a long conversation with Mr. Kennedy, the elephant trainer, while Teddy Tucker moped in his cabin, mourning over the loss of his egg.
The show reached Milroy shortly before dark that evening, after a most delightful trip down the river. The horse tents were unloaded and pitched on the circus lot and the stock stabled in them so the animals could get their rest and food.
Some of the show people strolled out through the little town, while others remained on board the boat and went to bed. All hands slept aboard that night. Bright and early, on the following morning, the boats were unloaded and the tents pitched, the men working much better for their day on the river.
Everyone appeared to be in high good humor and the wisdom of Mr. Sparling's methods was apparent. The tents went up more quickly that morning than at any time that season.
Breakfast under the cook tent was a jolly meal. Teddy had nearly forgotten the loss of the ostrich egg, but Phil Forrest had not. Phil, while not appearing to do so, was watching certain persons in the dressing tent, among them being Diaz, the Spanish clown.
During the dressing hour before the afternoon performance the clown had his trunk open to get out some costumes which were at the bottom, beneath the lower tray.
Phil's trunk, it will be remembered, was close by that of the clown's. The Circus Boy took advantage of the opportunity to peep into the open trunk while Diaz was rummaging over its contents. So absorbed did Phil become in his own investigation that he forgot for the moment that the owner of the trunk might resent such curiosity.
All at once Phil glanced down at the clown. He found the dark eyes of Diaz fixed upon him, and the lad flushed in spite of himself.
Diaz slowly rose to his feet. Thrusting his face close to that of the lad he peered into the boy's face.
"What you want?"
"Nothing, thank you."
"You look for something in the trunk of Diaz, eh?"
"What for you look?"
"Maybe I was looking for an egg. Maybe I thought the clown Diaz carried a supply of freshly laid eggs in his dressing-room trunk," said Phil in a tone too low for the others to catch, all the time holding the eyes of the clown in a steady gaze.
The eyes of the clown expressed surprise, but there was so much grease paint and powder on his face that the boy could not tell whether the fellow had flushed or not.
That Diaz was angry, however, was clear.
"What you mean?" demanded the clown, with a threatening gesture.
"If you do not know, I don't believe I care to explain just now."
"What you mean?" repeated the clown, his voice rising to a higher pitch. "You—you think I a thief?"
"If I thought so I might be too courteous to say so," was the calm retort. "What makes you imagine that I think you a thief? You must have some reason—you must believe there is some truth in your self-accusation, or you would not be so quick to resent it."
"Remember, I have not accused you of anything. You have accused yourself."
Perhaps there was method in Phil's nagging—perhaps he was trying to goad the Spaniard into an admission that could be used against him. If that were his purpose he had only partly succeeded.
Diaz, who had closed the cover of his trunk with a bang, now sprang to the trunk again, jerking up the cover with such force as to nearly wrench it from its hinges.
Two trays came out and were hurled to the ground as the owner dived deeper and deeper into the chest.
"What's the matter? Have you gone crazy?" questioned Phil, laughing in spite of himself. "Come on, now; don't lose your temper. If you will stop to consider, you will recall that I have said nothing at which you might possibly take offence."
To this the clown made no reply.
All at once he straightened up with a snarl that reminded Phil of the cough of the tiger out in the menagerie as the beast struck viciously at its keeper when the latter chanced to step too close to the bars of the cage.
Diaz stood all a-quiver.
"This looks like trouble of some sort," muttered Phil Forrest. "But I don't quite understand what he could have been hunting for in the trunk."
Phil's question was answered a few seconds later.
>From the folds of the clown's costume his hand suddenly shot upward. The hand held a knife. The hand shook from rage as the knife was brandished aloft.
"Hello, so that's the game, is it?"
The Circus Boy stood his ground unflinchingly. He did not appear to be disturbed in the least, though his situation at that moment was a critical one.
"Diaz! Diaz! Drop that knife!" ordered Phil sternly.
Instead of obeying the command the clown leaped upon him, or upon the spot where Phil had been standing a second before. The lad had sprung back far enough so that the descending knife cut only the empty air.
Again the knife flashed up. Just as it was being raised, the boy leaped again. This time he sprang toward the enraged clown, rather than away from him.
Ere the knife could be brought down, Phil gripped the wrist holding the weapon, giving the wrist a quick, sharp twist that brought a roar of pain from Diaz.
The knife dropped to the ground. Phil calmly stooped and picked it up, while the clown was nursing his wrist and groaning.
Several performers, realizing that something out of the ordinary was going on in that corner of the tent, hurried over.
"What's the matter here?"
"Diaz was showing me his knife. It's a beauty, isn't it?" answered Phil, with a pleasant smile. "I think, however, it is a little too pretty for a circus. Were I in your place, Diaz, I should keep it in my trunk else someone may steal it."
The lad coolly raised the lid of the trunk, dropping the knife in. The others, not noting that the clown was hurt, and that his wrist had been twisted by the Circus Boy almost to the breaking point, turned back to their own corners and continued their labors preparatory to entering the ring.
"Mr. Diaz," said Phil in a low voice, bending over the clown, "your temper is going to get you into serious trouble one of these fine days. I am sorry I had to hurt you. But let me tell you one thing. If you attack me again I shall be compelled to give you the worst licking you ever had in your life. Put that in one of your fool caps that you throw around the arena, so you won't forget it. Behave yourself and you will find that I am a pretty good friend."
TRYING OUT A NEW ACT
"Well, Dimples, I hope you and I do not make sad exhibitions of ourselves this evening."
"I hope not, Phil. I am sure you will not, but I am not so sure of myself."
The afternoon performance had passed off without incident, save that the performers had given a much better show than usual. Everyone felt fresh and strong after his Sunday rest.
It was now evening. The band was playing its loudest, the clowns were fast and furious in their fun, and the animals out in the menagerie tent were doing their part toward raising a din that might have been heard at least half a mile away.
Phil Forrest had already been in for his trapeze act, and after changing his costume had come out again for the bareback riding number, to which he always looked forward with pleasurable anticipation.
At the same time Little Dimples, the star female bareback rider, had come up and joined him and the two fell to talking, as they always did whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Long ago the circus woman had constituted herself the "mother of the Circus Boys," as she expressed it. She always insisted on doing their sewing for them, helped them to plan their costumes and gave them friendly advice on all occasions.
The act which they were entering the ring to perform on this particular evening was a new one. The two had been practicing it since the beginning of the season—practicing in secret that they might put it on as a surprise to Mr. Sparling.
This was what is known as a "brother and sister act." That is, the strong man and woman proposed to perform on the back of the same horse, and at the same time.
The brother and sister act was not a new act by any means, but they had added ideas of their own to it until it had become novel. They had essayed some daring and sensational features which were sure to create a sensation with any audience before which the act was performed.
"It is a small town," said Dimples. "We don't care if we do fall off, do we, Phil, my boy?"
"We most certainly do care. At least, I do. Where's your professional pride, Dimples?" demanded Phil, with an indulgent smile.
"In my feet, I guess," answered the woman, with a merry laugh. "I am making my living with my feet. Were they not so sure, enabling me to stand on the slippery back of a ring horse, I should not be drawing the fine salary that I now have. Neither would you."
"Here we are at the ring," interrupted Phil. "The audience is applauding us before we begin. They must be expecting something out of the ordinary."
As a matter of fact, the two riders made a very pleasing appearance as they entered the ring. Phil, slender, athletic, manly; Dimples exquisitely dainty, looking almost as fragile as a piece of Dresden china, they were a pair to attract attention anywhere.
The spectators did not even dream that Little Dimples was a married woman, with a son almost as old as Phil Forrest himself.
They kicked off their slippers, chalked their feet, then Phil assisted his companion to the back of the horse.
The band struck up a lively tune, the ringmaster cracked his whip, and Phil leaped to the back of the ring horse beside Dimples.
"We are off," smiled the lad.
"I hope not," laughed the woman happily.
Further conversation for the moment was interrupted, for the time had arrived to begin their work in earnest. The two threw themselves into a series of graceful positions, neither very difficult nor very dangerous, but to Mr. Sparling, who was watching their performance from a seat directly opposite to them, their work was more attractive than anything of the kind he ever had seen.
The next time they started in, after the brief intermission, Phil and Dimples varied their performance by leaping from the ring horse, then, taking a running start, jumping to the back of the galloping animal. Only once did Phil miss, and Dimples not at all.
She greeted his failure with a merry laugh that goaded the lad to renewed efforts.
"Have you forgotten how to jump?" teased Dimples.
"I'll show you whether I have or not. Keep him up close to the ring curb and stand back as far as you can."
"What are you going to do?" she questioned suspiciously.
"Going to prove to you that I have not forgotten how to jump," answered Phil, with determination.
"Please don't do anything foolish," warned the dainty rider. "It is too early in the season to break your neck. Just think what you would miss were you to do so this early—think what I should miss. Come up here and be sensible—that's a good boy."
The ringmaster paid no attention to their chatter, which was in tones too low for the audience to catch.
Phil placed the little jumping board in place, upon which the riders step just as they are leaping to the back of the ring horses. Then the lad backed up.
"Keep him up lively," he said to the ringmaster.
All at once the lad started on a brisk run across the sawdust arena.
"Yip!" encouraged Dimples.
"Yip! Yip!" answered Phil.
The lad leaped up into the air just as if he had been hurled there on springs. As he leaped his legs were curled up under him, and his working mate saw that he was not going to land on the back of the horse at all. Still she dared not speak to him, now. She knew that to attract Phil's attention at that moment might mean a bad fall for him, for a performer must have his mind on his work when attempting any dangerous feat.
To the surprise of everyone who witnessed the act, Phil Forrest cleared the back of the ring horse, fairly flying past the astonished eyes of Little Dimples.
He landed lightly well outside of the ring curbing, on the soft turf.
The audience broke out into a roar of applause and a ripple of hand clapping ran over the arena from the appreciative performers. They wholly forgot themselves in their surprise and approval of the feat.
"Wonderful!" breathed Mr. James Sparling. "That boy is worth a thousand dollars a week to any show."
"Have I forgotten how to jump?" demanded the Circus Boy exultingly, as the ring horse slowed down to a walk, Phil stepping along by the side of it looking up into the eyes of Little Dimples.
"Indeed you have not. It was wonderful. Don't you ever dare try it again, however. Why, suppose you had dropped on an iron tent stake? You would have at least been disabled for life."
"I presume I should have been. I happened to know there were no stakes where I landed. I made sure of that before I made the leap."
"You are a wise boy, even if an imprudent one. We try the shoulder stand next, do we not?"
"I haven't the routine in my mind yet. Don't you dare let me fall."
"Supposing we save the shoulder stand until the last. Let's do the somersault first," suggested Phil.
"Very well; I don't care."
The music started and the little couple began their work again.
Dimples sprang up to the hip of the Circus Boy, leaning far out to one side, holding to one of Phil's hands, a very pretty though not perilous feat for a sure-footed ride.
This they varied by throwing themselves into several different poses.
"Now the turn," breathed Phil.
He deftly lifted the little woman down to the horse just in front of himself. Having done so, Phil grasped Dimples firmly about the waist with his strong, muscular young hands.
"If you drop me I'll never speak to you again."
"I shall not drop you. You know the cue?"
The lad nodded to the ringmaster, indicating that the latter was to urge the horse on to a faster gallop.
"Now what are those two children going to do?" wondered the owner of the show. "One is as daring as the other. It's a wonder they have gone along without knocking themselves out. I believe they are going to do a turn."
That was exactly what they were preparing. "Now," said Phil sharply.
The pair rose from the back of the ring horse as one person. They leaped gracefully and deliberately into the air, doubled their legs under them and performed one of the most graceful somersaults that had ever been seen in the Sparling shows, landing lightly and surely on the resined back of the old ring horse.
Dimples sat down, and Phil, dropping lightly to the ground, threw a kiss to the audience.
The spectators, fully appreciating what had been done, went fairly wild in their enthusiasm.
Mr. Sparling was no less so. In his excitement he forgot time and place and ran into the ring, where he threw an arm about Phil Forrest, giving him a fatherly hug.
Dimples pouted prettily.
"That's what I call partiality," she complained.
Mr. Sparling promptly lifted her from the back of her horse, and stood the blushing little performer on the sawdust by the side of Phil.
How the spectators did applaud, many standing up in their seats waving hats and handkerchiefs in their excitement and enthusiasm!
Mr. Sparling was always doing these little, intensely human things, not with any idea of winning applause, but out of sheer big-heartedness. They did much toward spreading the reputation of the Sparling show and popularizing it as well.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced the showman when quiet had once more been restored, "you will pardon me for interrupting the performance, but as the owner of the show I want to say a few words on behalf of my star performers, Little Dimples and Master Phil Forrest."
The audience interrupted him with a cheer.
"The act which you have just witnessed is as great a surprise to me as it could possibly have been to you. It is the first time these two performers ever attempted it in public. I might say, also, that it is the first time to my own knowledge that any performers in the world ever succeeded in getting away with a feat of that sort. I thank you for your approval. The performance will now proceed."
After the applause which this little speech elicited had died away the band once more began to play.
Phil and Dimples commenced a series of acts, jumping from and to the back of the horse whose speed was increased for the purpose.
In the next rest Dimples called the attention of her associate to the clown Diaz, who was not far from them at the moment.
Dimples had been in the show business so long that her intuition had become very keen. Nothing of consequence happened under the big top, or beneath the low-roofed dressing tents, that she did not know of, or at least surmise. Especially keen was she in all matters relating to Phil Forrest and Teddy Tucker, and her interest had in many instances served to save the lads from unpleasant consequence.
"I don't like that fellow, Phil," Dimples remarked, referring to Diaz.
"I think he is a bad man."
"I hope not. He is impulsive and—"
"Revengeful and ugly," finished Dimples.
"As I said, he is impulsive, like all of his race."
"What has been going on with you lately, Phil?"
"I don't understand what you mean?"
"Oh, yes, you do."
"You mean with regard to Diaz?"
"That's what I mean. Have you had any trouble?"
"We had a slight disagreement," admitted the lad.
"Tell me about it."
"Wait! There goes the music."
The ringmaster's whip cracked its warning and the gray horse started at a slow gallop. Phil was up beside his companion with agility and grace. The first round or two they stood poised on the horse, while Phil related briefly what had taken place between himself and Diaz.
"Come, aren't you two going to get to work?" demanded the ringmaster.
"You attend to your own work. We'll look out for ours," snapped Dimples.
"Yes, and if you think you can do better just come up and try," added Phil, with a good-natured laugh. "Up, Dimples!"
He threw her lightly to his shoulders, on which the woman stood poised, making as graceful and pretty a picture as had ever been seen in a circus ring. Fragile as she was, it seemed as if Phil were all too slender to support her weight.
The act brought a whirlwind of applause.
"You look out for him, Phil. I—"
The ring horse had suddenly stumbled, its nose plowing up the sawdust in a cloud.
Phil, with rare presence of mind, lifted the feet from his shoulders and hurled the girl far from him.
"Land on your feet!" he shouted, then Phil plunged off, head first.
A NARROW ESCAPE
Thanks to Phil's presence of mind, Dimples had landed lightly on her feet well outside the ring curbing. Had the lad held to her ankles even a second too long the result must have been serious, if not fatal, for Dimples would have been hurled to the ground head first.
As it was, Phil gave her a lift, enabling her to double and "ball," a circus term meaning to curl one's feet up under the body, then straighten them as needed to give the body balance either in turning a somersault or in falling.
In doing so, however, Phil had had no thought for his own safety. He plunged forward over the head of the ring horse, striking the ground on his head and face.
The force of his fall had been broken somewhat by his quickly throwing out his hands in front of him and relaxing the muscles of his body. Circus performers soon learn how to fall—how to make the best of every situation with which they are confronted. Despite this, his fall had been a severe and dangerous one.
"There, he has done it! I knew he would," cried Mr. Sparling, rushing to the ring. Quick as he was, Dimples was ahead of him. She leaped the ring curbing and dropped down beside him, not caring for the dust and the dirt that soiled her pretty costume.
"Phil! Phil!" she cried.
Phil did not answer at the moment.
"Is he hurt—is he killed?" demanded Mr. Sparling excitedly.
"Of course he is hurt. Can't you see he is?" answered Dimples testily.
She turned the boy over and looked into his face. The dirt was so ground into the handsome, boyish face as to make it scarcely recognizable.
"Lift him up. Get some of the attendants to carry him back!" commanded the woman impatiently.
"No, no!" protested Phil in a muffled voice, for his mouth was full of sawdust and dirt. "I'm all right. Don't worry about me."
"He's all right," repeated the showman. "I'll help you up, Phil."
Phil, like the plucky performer that he was, declined their offers of assistance and struggled to his feet. He was dizzy and staggered a little, but after a moment succeeded in overmastering his inclination to faint.
A fleck of blood on his lips showed through makeup and sawdust.
"I'm all right. Don't worry about me," he said, with a forced smile.
Dimples sought to brush the dirt from his face with her handkerchief, but he put her aside gently, and, with a low bow, threw a kiss to the audience.
Their relief was expressed in a roar of applause.
Phil staggered over to where the ring horse still lay near the center of the ring and knelt down beside it, examining the leg that was doubled up under the animal.
The ringmaster cracked his whip lash as a signal for the animal to get up, but the faithful old horse, despite its efforts to rise, was unable to do so.
"What is the matter with him?" demanded Mr. Sparling.
"Jim has broken a leg, I think," answered Phil sadly. "Too bad, too bad!"
The lad patted the head of the horse and ran his fingers through the grey mane. Tears stood in Phil Forrest's eyes, for he had ridden this horse and won most of his triumphs on its resined back during the past three years.
"Dimples, I guess we have ridden Jim for the last time," said Phil in a low voice. "Hadn't you better start the other acts, Mr. Sparling. The audience will become uneasy."
"Yes, yes," answered the showman, waving his hand to the band, a signal that they were to play and the show to go on as usual. "Are you sure, Phil—sure Jim has not merely strained the leg?"
"I am sure. He never will perform again."
Dimples brushed a hand across her eyes.
"I shall cry when I get back to my dressing tent. I know I shall," she said, with a tremor in her voice that she strove to control.
Then Dimples smiled bravely, waving a hand at the audience, though her heart was sad.
"What had we better do with him, Phil?"
"We can do nothing at present—not until the show is ended. Then, there is only one thing to do."
"You mean he will have to be—"
"Yes, Dimples, he will have to be shot," answered Phil.
"But the audience?"
"Have a couple of attendants come in here and pretend to be working over Jim. That will make the audience think the animal's foot is injured rather than fatally hurt," suggested Phil Forrest.
"A good idea," said Mr. Sparling, giving the necessary orders.
Tell them not to disturb the spot, not trample it down.
"Why?" questioned the showman in surprise.
"I'll tell you later. I have my own reasons."
Phil motioned to Teddy to approach.
"Sit down here in the ring and watch the horse and the men around him," directed the Circus Boy. "I'll tell you why later."
The show went on with a snap and dash. Meanwhile, Phil, his clothes torn, his face grimy with dirt, started down the concourse toward the pad room, hand in hand with Little Dimples.
Their progress was a triumphal one so far as the audience was concerned, for the people cheered them all the way and until the slender riders had disappeared behind the crimson curtain just beyond the bandstand.
Phil quietly washed the dirt from his face, and pulling on his street clothes over his ring costume, started to reenter the arena.
At that moment Mr. Sparling came hurrying in. The two met in the pad room.
"Phil, how did that accident happen?" demanded the showman.
"You saw it, did you not, Mr. Sparling?"
"Yes. But I was unable to understand how it occurred."
"That is exactly what is bothering me," answered the lad, with a peculiar smile that the owner of the show was not slow to catch.
"You suspect something?"
"I suspect I got a bump that I shan't forget soon," laughed the Circus Boy. "It is a wonder I did not break my neck."
"You undoubtedly saved Dimples' life at the risk of your own. You are the pluckiest lad—no, I'll say the pluckiest man I have ever known."
"Don't make me blush, Mr. Sparling."
"Nevertheless, I wish you wouldn't take chances on that act again. Give the audience the same old act and they will be satisfied with that."
"Didn't you like the act?"
"It was the finest exhibition of its kind that I ever saw. I hope neither the Ringlings, nor Barnum and Bailey, nor any of the big shows get a peep at that act."
"Because were they to do so I would be sure to lose my little star performers right in the middle of the season," laughed the owner.
"Oh, I hardly think so. I do not wish to leave this show. Had it not been for you I should still be doing chores for my board and clothes back in Edmeston. Now wouldn't that be fine?"
"Very," grinned the showman.
"Whatever I have accomplished I have you to thank for."
"You mean you owe to your own brightness and cleverness. No, Phil, you are a boy who would have succeeded anywhere. They can't keep you down—no, not even were they to sit on you."
"If Fat Marie, with her five hundred and odd pounds, were to sit on me, I rather think I would be kept down," answered the Circus Boy, with a hearty laugh in which Mr. Sparling joined uproariously.
"What is Teddy doing out in the ring?"
"I left him there to keep an eye on the injured horse."
"Until I could get back and make an examination."
"Very well; I want to see you after you have done so."
"I will look you up."
With that Phil hurried out into the arena. None of the spectators appeared to recognize the lad in his street clothes. Besides, he tried to avoid observation. He might have been one of the spectators, except that he picked his way, among the ropes and properties down through the center, where the public were not allowed to go.
"The rest of you may go," said Phil, reaching the ring where Jim lay breathing heavily. "Thank you for easing off old Jim. I know he appreciates it."
Jim looked up pleadingly as Phil bent over him, patting the animal on his splendid old gray head.
The attendants went about their duties.
"How'd this happen, Phil?" questioned Teddy.
"I fell off; that's what happened."
"Yes, I know you did, but there's more to it. I wonder if it's got anything to do with the loss of my egg?"
"I guess not."
"You guess not? Well, I know something, Phil."
"I should hope you do."
"I mean about this accident."
Phil gazed at his companion keenly.
"What do you know?"
"Look here," said Teddy, pointing to a depression in the sawdust arena.
Phil bent over, examining the spot closely. When he rose, his lips were tightly compressed and his face was pale.
"Don't mention this to anyone, Teddy. Promise me?"
" 'Course I won't tell. Why should I? But I found out about it, didn't I?"
"Yes; at least you have made a pretty good start in that direction. I shall have to tell Mr. Sparling. It would not be right to keep this information from him."
"N-n-o-o. Then maybe he'll organize a posse to hunt for my egg."
"Oh, hang your old egg!"
The Roman chariot races were on, the rattle of the wheels, the shouts of the drivers drowning the voices of the two boys.
"Teddy, you'll have to get back and change your clothes. The performance is about over. That makes me think. I have on my ring clothes under this suit and I must hurry back to my bath and my change."
The performance closed and the rattle and bang of tearing down the big white city had begun. The boys were engaged in packing their trunks now, as were most of their fellow performers.
"What's that?" demanded Teddy, straightening up suddenly.
"Somebody fired a shot," answered another performer.
Phil knew what it meant.
A bullet had ended the sufferings of the faithful old ring horse off under the big top. The Circus Boy turned away, with a blinding mist in his eyes.
"Poor old Jim!" he groaned.
Off under the women's dressing tent another pair of ears had heard and understood, and Little Dimples, burying her head in her hands wept softly.
"Poor old Jim!" she, too, murmured.
THE PILOT GETS A SURPRISE
The happiness of the day had been marred by the accident, but, like true circus men, all hands took the disaster in the matter-of-fact manner characteristic of their kind.
The show people, in couples and singly, took their way to the river, where they boarded the boats. Already wagons were rumbling down on the docks and cages were being quickly shunted into position for their journey down the river that night.
Everything moved with as much method as if the show had been traveling in this way from the beginning of the season.
The performers were enjoying the novel experience of river traveling too thoroughly to turn into their berths early. A cold lunch had been spread in the main cabins of the "Marie" and the "River Queen" for the performers, while from the cook tent, baskets had been prepared and sent in for the use of the laborers after they had completed their night's work and finished loading the show.
All this was appreciated, and it was a jolly company that lined the tables in the two larger boats. Leather upholstered seats were built into the sides of the cabin, and with mouths and hands full, the circus people soon took possession of the seats, where they ate and chatted noisily.
"Funny thing about Jim," said one of the performers. "What do you suppose made him fall, Mr. Miaco?"
"I don't know. Probably for the same reason that anyone falls."
"What is that?"
"Stumbled over something, I guess."
"Hey, Teddy, what ailed the ring horse?" called a voice as the Circus Boy sauntered in and espying the tables made a dive for them.
"I guess he was hungry," mumbled Teddy, his mouth full of ham sandwich.
"What makes you think that?"
" 'Cause he bit the dust."
A general groan was heard in the cabin.
"Throw him overboard!"
"I know a better way to punish him for that ghastly joke."
"Take the food away from him, tie him up and make him watch us eat," was the answer.
A shout of laughter greeted the proposition.
The pilot of the "Marie," a heavily bearded man named Cummings, broke out in a loud guffaw.
All eyes were turned upon him.
"I reckon I kin tie him up if you says the word," he volunteered.
"All right; tie him up," shouted the performers, scenting fun.
Teddy eyed the pilot out of the corners of his eyes and placidly munched his sandwich. The pilot, in the meantime, had stepped to the rear end of the cabin, where, from a box of life-preservers he took a piece of Manila rope.
"I believe he is going to do it," said a clown, nudging his companion.
"You mean he is going to try it," answered the other. "Watch for some fun. He thinks Teddy is an easy mark."
"He will be in this case. That fellow, Cummings, is hard as a rail fence. He could handle two of Teddy."
In the meantime Tucker had strolled to the table, from which he took a large sandwich, buttered it well, then returned to his seat, not appearing to observe the pilot's movements at all.
As he sat down the lad was observed to open the sandwich, removing the thin slice of ham and stowing the latter in his coat pocket. Then he sat thoughtfully contemplating the two pieces of buttered bread as if trying to decide whether or not he should eat them.
"Get up, kiddie," said Cummings, grasping the boy by the shoulder. "Get up and take your punishment like a little dear."
Teddy got up, carelessly, indifferently, while the pilot stretched the rope to its full length.
The boy saw that he was in earnest.
Quick as a flash Teddy had plastered one half of the sandwich, buttered side in, right over the eyes of Cummings.
The second half of the sandwich landed neatly over his mouth, pressed home by a firm fist.
Cummings could not speak, neither could he see. At that moment he was perhaps the most surprised man on the Mississippi River. At least he appeared to be, for he stood still. He stood still just a few seconds too long.
Teddy had seized the rope. With it he made a quick twist about the body of the pilot, taking two turns, then drawing the rope tight and tying it, thus pinioning the hands and arms of the pilot to his sides.
"Yip-yeow!" howled Teddy.
The show people shrieked with delight.
"You'll tie up a Circus Boy, will you?" jeered Teddy. "You'll have to grow some first. No Rube with a bunch of whiskers on his face like that ever lived who could tie up a real circus man."
Teddy had drawn nearer to impress his words upon the pilot, when all of a sudden the man's hands gripped the lad. The boy never had felt quite so strong a grip on his body. Cummings had not handled a pilot wheel on the Mississippi for thirty years without acquiring some strength in hands and arms.
Teddy, failing to pull away, grappled with his antagonist, all in the best of humor, though his face bore its usual solemn expression.
"Gangway," cried Teddy humorously. "I'm going to give him a bath in the river."
Then began a lively scrimmage. Back and forth the combatants struggled across the cabin floor, the growls of the pilot drowned in the shouts and jeers of the performers.
All at once, Teddy tripped his antagonist and the two went down into a heap, rolling under the main table on which the lunch had been spread.
"Look out for the table!" warned a voice.
"Sit on it, some of you fellows, and hold it down!"
The suggestion came too late. The table suddenly rose into the air, landing upside down with a crash, at one side of the cabin. A moment more and the two combatants were wrestling on roast beef and ham sandwiches, potato salad and various other foods.
"I guess this has gone about far enough," decided Mr. Miaco, the head clown. "We'll have a fight on our hands, first thing we know. If Teddy really gets angry you'll think the 'Sweet Marie' is in the midst of a cyclone."
"The 'Fat Marie,' you mean," corrected a voice.
With the assistance of two others Miaco succeeded in separating the combatants, after which he untied the rope, releasing the pilot.
Teddy was grinning broadly, but Cummings was not. The latter was glowering angrily at his little antagonist.
"Shake?" asked Teddy, extending a hand.
"No, I'm blest if I will! I'll not shake hands with anybody who has insulted me by buttering my face," growled the pilot.
"You'll be better bred if you are well buttered," suggested Teddy.
"Oh, help!" moaned The Fattest Woman on Earth.
"Put him out! Put him out!" howled several voices in chorus.
"Yes, that's the thing! We can stand for some things some of the time, but we won't stand for everything all of the time," added a clown wisely.
Half a dozen performers picked Teddy up bodily, bore him to one of the open windows and dumped him out on the deck.
"Here, what's all this commotion about?" commanded Phil, who, at that moment, came from his cabin to the deck.
"They threw me out," wailed Teddy.
"I made a pun."
"Tell it to me."
Teddy in short, jerky sentences, related what had been done and said. Phil leaned against the rail and shouted.
"I—I don't blame them," he gasped between laughs. "It is a wonder they did not throw you overboard."
"They had better not try it."
"But what about the pilot—what happened to him?"
"May—maybe they have put him out, too."
"You have a way of getting into trouble, Teddy. Mr. Cummings will love you for what you have done to him, I can well imagine."
"About as much as I love him, I guess. He got too bold, Phil. He had to have a lesson and Teddy Tucker was the boy who had to teach it to him. Say, go in and gather me a sandwich out of the wreck, will you?"
"Not I. Go and get your own sandwich. I'm going to see Mr. Sparling in his cabin. He has sent for me."
Teddy sat out on deck while the others were picking up the table, the dishes and the ruined food. It would not do for Mr. Sparling to come in and see how they had wasted the food he had had prepared for them. The probabilities were that they would get no more, were he to do so. Teddy watched the proceedings narrowly from the safe vantage point of the deck.
In the meantime Phil had gone to Mr. Sparling's cabin, where the showman was checking up the day's receipts.
"A pretty good day, Phil," smiled Mr. Sparling.
"I am glad to hear that, sir."
"Two thousand dollars in the clear, as the result of our two performances today. Do you know of any other business that would pay as much for the amount invested, eh, Phil?"
"I do not, sir."
"You see, it is a pretty good business to be in after all, provided it is run on business principles, at the same time treating one's employees like human beings."
"How would you like to have an interest in a show?"
"I am going to, someday. It may be a long time yet before I have earned money enough, but I shall if I live," said the Circus Boy quietly but with determination.
"So you shall. I intend to have a talk with you on this subject, one of these days. What I wanted to talk with you about is Jim's loss. I am glad it wasn't your ring horse, Phil. Have you anything to say about the animal breaking his leg?"
"Out with it."
"Somebody is to blame for that accident."
"Someone planned that accident."
"Teddy and myself examined the ring, that is, Teddy already had done so before I returned, and he discovered something—we both decided what must have happened."
"Yes," urged the showman as Phil paused.
"A round hole about a foot deep had been dug in the ring. This had been covered with a shingle and the sawdust sprinkled over to hide the shingle. It was a deliberate attempt to do someone an injury."
Mr. Sparling eyed him questioningly.
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be. Jim didn't happen to step on the shingle until we were doing the pyramid, then of course something happened. It is a wonder that neither Little Dimples nor myself was injured."
"Phil, we simply must find out who is responsible for this dastardly work."
"And when we do—when we do—"
"What then, Mr. Sparling!"
The showman was opening and closing his fingers nervously.
"Don't ask me," he replied in a low, tense voice. "I don't want to see the man. I should do something I would be sorry for all the rest of my life. Good night, Phil."
Phil Forrest left the cabin and strode thoughtfully away to his own room, where he was soon in bed. Phil, however, did not sleep very well that night.
AN UNWELCOME VISITOR
The boats of the Sparling fleet had been moving steadily downstream for several hours, their passengers, in the majority of instances, sound asleep, lulled by the gentle motion and the far away "spat, spat, spat," of the industrious paddle wheel at the stern of each craft.
Teddy had prudently kept away from the main cabin for the rest of the evening; when Phil turned in, Teddy was sleeping sweetly. His active part in the affair in the cabin had not caused him any loss of sleep.
With the pilot, Cummings, however, matters had been different. Mr. Cummings had been steadily at the wheel of the "Marie" since the boats had sailed shortly after one o'clock in the morning.
The pilot's temper had suffered as the result of his experience in the cabin, and the jeers aud laughter of the circus people had not added to his peace of mind. At intervals he would break out into a tirade of invective and threats against Teddy Tucker, who had so humiliated him.
"I'll get even with that little monkey-face! They ought to put him in the monkey cage where he belongs," growled the pilot, giving the wheel a three-quarter turn to keep the boat from driving her prow into the bank, for which he had been steering to avoid a hidden sand bar.
"I'll tell the manager tomorrow, that if he doesn't keep that boy away from me, I'll take the matter into my own hands and give that kid a trouncing that will last him till we get to New Orleans."
The darkness of the night, just before the dawn, hung over the broad river. Doors and windows of the pilot house were thrown open so that the wheelman might get a clear view on all sides.
All at once Cummings seemed to feel some presence near him. He thought he caught the sound of a footfall on the deck. To make sure he left the wheel for a few seconds, peering out along the deck, on both sides of the pilot house.
He saw no one. The air was filled with a black pall of smoke from the "Marie's" funnel, the smoke settling over the boat, wholly enveloping her from her stack to the stern paddle wheel.
"Huh!" grunted the pilot, returning to his duties.
Yet his ears had not deceived him. Something was near him, a strange shape, the like of which never had been seen on the deck of the "Fat Marie", in all her long service on the Mississippi.
"If that fool boy comes nosing around here I'll throw him overboard—that's what I'll do," threatened Cummings. "I'll show him he can't fool with the pilot of the finest steamboat of the old line. I—"
The pilot suddenly checked himself and peered out to starboard.
"Wha—what?" he gasped.
Something darkened the doorway. What he now saw was a strange, grotesque shape that looked like a shadow itself in the uncertain light of the early morning.
"Get out of here!" bellowed the pilot, the cold chills running up and down his spine.
The most frightful sound that his ears had ever heard, broke suddenly on the quiet of the Mississippi night.
"It's the lion escaped!"
Cummings grabbed a stout oak stick that lay at hand—the stick that now and then, when battling with a stiff current, he used to insert between the spokes of the steering wheel to give him greater leverage.
With a yell he brought the stick down on the head of the strange beast. The roar or bray of the animal stopped suddenly.
Whack! came the echo from the club.
Cummings sprang back. He slammed the pilot-house door in the face of the beast, and closed the windows with a bang that shook the pilot house. In his excitement the pilot rang in a signal to the engineer for full speed astern.
About that time something else occurred.
With a terrific crash one of the windows of the pilot house was shattered, pieces of glass showering in upon the pilot like a sudden storm of hail.
Another window fell in a shower about him. He tried to get the door on the opposite side of the pilot house open, but locked it instead and dropped the key on the floor.
All this time the "Fat Marie's" paddle wheel was backing water and the craft, now swung almost broadside to the stream, was working her way over toward the Iowa shore.
A section of the pilot-house door fell shattering on the inside, and what sounded like a volley of musketry, rattled against the harder woodwork of the pilot house itself.
Frightened almost out of all sense, Cummings began groping excitedly for his revolver. At last he found it, more by accident than through any methodical search for it.
The pilot began to shoot. Some of his bullets went through the roof, others through the broken out windows, while a couple landed in the door.
At last the half-crazed Cummings was snapping the hammer on empty chambers. He had emptied his revolver without hitting anything more than wood and water.
The fusillade from the outside still continued.
By this time the din had begun to arouse the passengers on the boat. Phil Forrest was the first to spring up. He shook Teddy by the shoulder, but, being unable to awaken his companion, jerked the boy out of bed and let him drop on the floor.
"Get a net! What's the matter down there!" yelled Teddy. "Hey, hey, did the mule kick me? Oh, that you Phil? What's the row—what has happened?"
"I don't know. Come on out. Something has gone wrong. Hear those shots?"
"Wow! Trouble! That's me! I knew I couldn't dream about angels without something breaking loose."
Phil had thrown the door open and bounded out to the deck. Just as he did so the pilot leaped from the front window of the pilot house, climbed over the rail and dropped to the deck below. The volleying, the thunderous blows still continued.
A loud bray attracted their attention to the other side of the boat.
"What's that?" demanded Phil, starting off in that direction.
"It's January! It's January!" howled Teddy Tucker. "I would know that sweet voice if I heard it in the jungles of Africa. Where is he?"
"Over here somewhere. Come on. I can't imagine what has happened."
"The animals have escaped. There's a lion on the hurricane deck!" they heard a voice below shout in terrified tones.
"Do you think that's it?" called Phil.
"Lion, nothing! Didn't I tell you I knew that voice? There he is now. See him hand out the hoofs at the pilot house. He must have a grudge against Cummings. I know. He's paying the fellow back for trying to tie me up."
"But—but, how did he ever get up here?"
"Go it, January! Kick the daylights out of him! I'll give you a whole peck of sugar if you kick the house into the river, pilot and all."
"Whoa! Whoa, January!" shouted Phil.
The donkey, for it was January himself, and not a savage beast that was acting the part of a battering ram and rapidly demolishing the pilot house, paused for a second; then, moving to a new position, he began once more hammering at the structure.
"How did he ever get up here, Teddy?"
"I don't know. I know I am glad he did, that's all. Let him kick."
"I'm going to try to catch him."
"Keep away, Phil. He'll have you in the river. He has a fit. Wait till he comes out of it."
"Why, the boat is moving backwards," cried Phil.
"Yes, it is."
"Maybe January has kicked the machinery out of gear."
The circus people were by this time on deck, and, like Teddy and Phil, many of them were in their pajamas. They had heard the cry, "the animals have escaped," and many of the people were gazing apprehensively about.
"It's all right," shouted Teddy. "It is only January, taking his morning exercise."
About that time Phil, who had run around to the other side of the pilot house, discovered that it was empty. There was no pilot there.
Understanding came to him instantly. January had either kicked or frightened Cummings out.
"The boat is running wild!" he called. "Find the pilot or we shall be on the shore before we know it."
Phil did not wait for them to find the pilot. Instead, he climbed in through one of the broken windows and grasped the wheel.
"I've got to stop this going astern first of all," he decided.
He could see the banks now, and they seemed perilously near in the faint morning light. The other boats of the fleet were steaming up in answer to the signals of distress that Cummings had blown in his excitement.
"What is it? Are you sinking?" called a voice through a megaphone from the deck of the "River Queen."
"No, we are all right," answered Phil, leaning out of the window.
"You'll be high and dry on the Iowa shore if you don't watch sharp. Where are you going?"
"Don't know. Keep out of the way or we're liable to run you down."
Phil grabbed a bell pull and gave it a violent jerk. The engines stopped suddenly, to the Circus Boy's great delight. January had ceased his bombardment and now stood with head thrust though one of the broken windows, gazing in inquiringly at Phil Forrest.
"If one bell stopped the engine, another bell should be the signal to go ahead," reasoned the lad, giving the bell pull two quick jerks. He was right. The machinery started and he could hear the big paddle wheel beating the river into a froth.
The lower deck was in an uproar. Men were shouting and running about, trying to discover what animals had escaped, as the pilot insisted that the hurricane deck was alive with them.
"Get that pilot up here, if you have to drag him. I don't know where the channel is, and I am liable to put the whole outfit aground any minute," shouted Phil Forrest. "Teddy, never mind that idiotic donkey. We're in a fix. Get downstairs, at one jump, and see that the pilot is brought up here lively."
"I'll fetch him. You watch me," answered the irrepressible Teddy, starting off on a run.
January had all at once grown very meek. He stood gazing thoughtfully off over the river.
"What is the trouble here?" roared Mr. Sparling dashing up to the pilot house at that moment.
"That is exactly what I have been trying to find out," answered the Circus Boy.
"Yes, it's Phil."
"What are you doing in there?"
"Steering the boat."
"Piloting the—where is the pilot?"
"Somewhere below. I have sent Teddy after him. You see, January was trying to kick the pilot house off the boat and into the river. The pilot, thinking the animals had escaped, fled. When I came up this craft was traveling astern and January was making a sieve of this little house. I have got the 'Marie' going forward, but I may run her aground if he doesn't come along pretty soon."
Mr. Sparling reached the companionway in two bounds, and, leaping to the lower deck, caught the pilot by the coat collar, shaking off the two circus men who had hold of Cummings.
"You get up to that pilot house or you'll be in the worst fix in your whole river career." Mr. Sparling accompanied the words with a violent push that sent the pilot headlong toward the stairway. But the showman was by the fellow's side by the time he had gotten to his feet, and began assisting him up the companionway, while Teddy Tucker followed, prodding the pilot in the back with a clenched fist.
Into the pilot house they hurled the man, Cummings.
"Now, you steer! If it had not been for that boy we might have lost our whole equipment. I don't care anything about your old boat, but I'm blest if I am going to let a fool pilot wreck us—a pilot who is afraid of a donkey."
"I'll quit this outfit tomorrow," growled Cummings. "I kin pilot steamers, but I can't fight a menagerie and a pack of boys with the very Old Nick in them. Get away from that wheel!" he commanded, thrusting Phil aside.
Mr. Sparling had him by the collar once more.
"You do that again, and I'll take it out of you right here!" declared the showman savagely.
"I'll bet he's the fellow who stole my egg," declared Teddy, eyeing the pilot sternly.
BETRAYED BY A SNEEZE
"How did that beast get up here?" demanded Mr. Sparling.
"Who, Cummings?" asked Teddy innocently.
"No, no! The donkey."
"Oh! Maybe he came up through the smoke stack. If you will look at it you may find donkey tracks on the inside of the stack."
"That will do, that will do, young man."
It was found upon investigation that January had gnawed his halter until only a thin strand held it together, which was easy for the donkey to break. Then he began an investigation of the boat, ending by his climbing the broad staircase and frightening the pilot.
Next morning the pilot house looked as though it had been through a shipwreck. The whole craft, in fact the entire fleet, was laughing at the expense of Cummings, who now kept to himself, studiously avoiding the other people. January was tied up with a dog chain after that, and was not heard from again during any trip of that season; that is, beyond his regular acts in the sawdust arena.
The next day Phil Forrest began his investigation in earnest. He knew that Mr. Sparling looked to him to discover who had caused so much trouble in the show, besides which, Phil took a personal interest because of the attempt that had been made on the lives of Little Dimples and himself.
Teddy suggested that he go through the pilot's belongings, expressing the firm belief that they would find the ostrich egg were they to do so.
Phil consulted Little Dimples, that afternoon, as to her opinion of the occurrences of the past week, but the star bareback rider could shed no light on them, beyond the fact that certain people with whom Phil had had difficulties might bear watching.
"That's what I think," answered the Circus Boy. "I do not like to accuse anyone unjustly, but I have these suspicions of the Spanish clown."
"Have you mentioned your suspicion to Mr. Sparling, Phil?"
"Do you intend to do so?"
"Not unless I find some facts to support my suspicion."
"You will get to the bottom of the mystery, I am sure," smiled the woman.
"I am not so sure. Why do you think so?"
"Because you are one of the cleverest boys I ever knew, that's why. I should hate to have you on my track if I were guilty of any particular crime that you were trying to run down. I should expect to land in jail, and I think I should come straight to you and give myself up," added the woman with a merry laugh.
"I wish I were all that you think I am, Dimples."
"You are. You saved my life again yesterday. I'm going to pay you back, however. Someday, when you fall overboard, Little Dimples is going to jump right in and rescue you—haul you out by the hair of your head—"
"You can't, it is cut too short."
"Then I will pull you out by an ear."
"I shall make it my business to fall in, then, at the first opportunity," laughed Phil. "It would be worthwhile."
Dimples gave him a playful tap.
"You can turn a compliment as well as you can do a turn in the ring, can't you Phil Forrest?"
Despite their narrow escape from serious accident, Phil and Dimples went through their double act in the ring that day and evening with perfect confidence. Previous to going on, Phil had had a ring attendant go over the sawdust circle on his hands and knees, making a careful examination of it, to be sure that the ring had not been tampered with.
>From that time on until the act went on, the ring was watched, though Phil did not believe the miscreant would attempt to lay another trap for him so soon. Still, he took nothing for granted.
That night after the performance, the air being warm and balmy, the Circus Boy strolled out on the lot, sitting down on a little knoll to think matters over. There was plenty of time, for the boat would not leave for two or three hours, and Phil wanted to be alone.
Lights were twinkling on the lot like fireflies. There was shouting and singing, but little of this conveyed itself to Phil, for his mind was on other things.
All at once he pricked up his ears. He caught the sound of running footsteps.
"Someone is coming this way," he muttered. "I wonder what that means? Surely none of the circus people would come here. They would go around by the road."
The lad concealed himself behind the knoll, peering over the top of it. He resolved not to show himself until he had discovered the identity of the newcomers.
They proved to be two men who halted a short distance beyond him, and began to converse in guarded tones. It was so dark that Phil could scarcely distinguish their figures and their voices were pitched so low that it was impossible for him to hear what they were saying.
"This looks queer," Phil muttered. "I wish I could hear what they are talking about. Perhaps they are town fellows who have been chased off the lot because they were in the way. At any rate, I'm going to try to find out what they are up to. Hello, they are coming right over here."
Phil crouched down behind the knoll and listened. The men turned slowly and came toward him. All at once one of them stumbled on the very knoll behind which he was secreted.
The man uttered a growl.
"Come, sit down," he said to his companion.
"We better go on," answered the other.
"No hurry. We've got all the time in the world. If we miss the boat we can swim. That was a narrow escape. In a minute more we'd had that wagon fixed so they would never have got off the lot with it."
"Hello," muttered Phil under his breath. "Something surely is going on here. One of the voices I have heard before, and the other I seem to recognize. I believe that first fellow belongs to the show. I am almost sure of it."
"You think the fellow suspects?"
"The tall one does. But he doesn't know whom be suspects."
"We have to take care."
"But we will get both before the end of the season."
"You bet we will. I have a plan that—"
"What is it?"
"It is this."
Phil had buried his head in the grass and compressed his body into the smallest possible space that he might avoid discovery. He could hear the two men breathe, and he reasoned that they might hear him as well.
"You know the big net?"
"You mean the one over which the flying four perform?"
"What about it?"
"It can be fixed."
"By weakening some of the strands on each side."
"That is good, but suppose someone noticed."
"Not if it is done right. I don't mean to do it all at once. I'll doctor one or two strands every day until the net is so weakened that it won't hold."
"Yes, but how will you do this so no one will see?"
"I'll tell you. After the act is over they roll the net up and carry it out. It is dumped just outside the pad room, where it is picked up by one of the property wagons later in the evening. It's in the same place every night."
"I think somebody may see us do it."
"No danger. Keep cool; that's all. We'll get even with those fellows. We have got to before we can carry out the other plans we have talked over. They are too sharp. Sooner or later they will get wise to us, and we've got to get them out of the way before we go any further. The work must be done in a natural sort of way, so that no suspicion is aroused."
"Yes, that's so. But what about the others? You want to hurt them, too?"
"I don't care, so long as we get the right one, how many get their bumps."
"That's right. But only one of them is on trapeze. What you do about other?"
"It is the tall one that I want most. He's got to be put out of the running. It won't kill him, but it will lay him up in a hospital for the rest of the season, and that's enough for us."
"The other one will be taken care of after we get through with the first. The small fellow is sharp, but he can't see beyond his nose. It's easy to fool him."
"The fiends!" muttered Phil. "I believe they are plotting against Teddy and me. I have a good notion to sail into them right here and settle it. I believe I could whip the two of them. I—"
At that instant a blade of grass tickled Phil's nose. He raised his head quickly.
"What's that?" exclaimed one of the plotters.
"I heard nothing."
"You didn't? Well, I did. There's someone around here and close by us."
"Perhaps it was a squirrel in the grass. There is no one here."
The blade of grass had done its work, however. Phil tried hard to control himself, but he knew he was going to sneeze.
All at once the sneeze came, louder than he had ever sneezed before.
The men leaped to their feet in sudden alarm.
"There he is!"
Phil had bounded to his feet, realizing that he could no longer conceal himself from them. As he did so, both men sprang toward him, the Circus Boy eluding them by a leap to one side.
The men made a rush for him. At first Phil was inclined to stand his ground and give battle, but he reasoned that, being two to one, the chances were against him and that even if he were not captured, he might sustain injuries that would keep him out of the ring.
That was the deciding factor with Phil Forrest. Although he would have preferred facing his enemies, he whirled instead and started on a run, with both men pursuing him at top speed.
"He's out-running us. He'll get away!" cried one of the men. "Run, run! Run for all you're worth!"
But they might as well have spared their effort. Phil was fleet of foot, and after getting a slight lead over them he turned sharply to his right, leaped a fence and lay down.
The men quickly discovered that they had lost their prey. Then they became alarmed.
"Get out of here, quick! He will be following us!"
The men turned and ran swiftly in an opposite direction.
"Do you think he recognized us?"
"I don't know. We can tell by the way he acts when we get back; that is if he doesn't follow us now. We had better separate and go back to the lot. From there we can go along with the wagons and not be noticed. Don't let him bluff you."
"Have no fear for me."
The plotters separated and cautiously made their way back to the lot where they were soon lost among the crowd of men at work taking down the tent.
"I believe one of those two men was Diaz," declared Phil, as he once more tried to place the voice that he had seemed to recognize. "They have given me the slip, too. I know what I'll do. I will hurry back to the boat and when Diaz returns I will face him and make him betray himself if I can. I shall have him then."
Having decided on his course of action, Phil struck off at a trot across the field. He soon reached a back street of the village, and from there ran at full speed to the docks.
All was activity here. The lad cast a quick glance about, though he did not expect to find the man for whom he was looking. Without pausing in his rapid gait he ran up the companionway to the upper deck, where he intended to watch at the rail for the arrival of Diaz from the lot.
As he leaned over the rail he felt someone stir near him. Glancing up quickly, the Circus Boy started almost guiltily. There, beside him, sat Diaz on a camp stool with his feet on the steamer's rail, calmly watching the loading operations on the deck below.
"Good evening, Mr. Diaz," said Phil quickly recovering his self-possession.
Diaz uttered an unintelligible grunt, but did not deign to turn his head.
"Hey, Phil, is that you?" called the voice of Teddy from further down the deck.
"Yes," answered Phil, rising and moving aft. "How long have you been here?"
"About an hour."
"Do you know who is sitting over there?"
"There by the rail?"
"Sure, I know. That's our old friend Diaz," grinned Teddy.
"How long has he been there?"
"He came in when I did." "An hour ago?"
Phil was perplexed.
"I do not understand it at all."
"Don't understand what?"
"Something that occurred this evening."
Teddy's curiosity was aroused.
"What is it all about, Phil?"
"I should prefer not to talk about it here, Teddy. I will tell you after we get to bed and there is no one about to overhear us. There is a rascally plot on foot."
"Yes. I know very little about it, but I know enough to warn me that you and I will have to keep our eyes open or else we shall find ourselves in serious difficulties before we realize it."
"Is that so? Tell me who the plotters are, and I'll turn January loose on them," explained Teddy. "Do you think they are the fellows who stole my egg?"
"I don't know. Where is Mr. Sparling?"
"I haven't seen him since I ran into him and bowled him over off on the lot."
"As I have said many times before, you are hopeless, Teddy. I must go now. If you see Mr. Sparling, please let me know, but say nothing to anyone about what I have just told you."
Phil walked back to the point on the deck where he had first stopped to look over the rail, and, drawing up a stool sat down. He began studying the faces of the belated performers who came straggling down to the dock, singly and in pairs. None seemed to be in a hurry; not a face appeared to reflect any excitement. After an hour of this Phil felt sure that all the company had been accounted for.
Mr. Sparling had arrived about twenty minutes earlier, and was standing on the dock giving orders. As the lad saw the owner enter the boat he turned away and hurried downstairs.
"When you are at liberty, I should like a few moments conversation with you, sir," announced Phil.
"I am at liberty, now, my lad," answered the showman with a smile and a friendly slap on the boy's shoulder.
"I would rather not talk here, Mr. Sparling," answered Phil in a low tone.
"Something doing, eh?"
"Is it important that you should talk with me at once, or will a little later on answer the purpose?"
"Later on will do. It is not so urgent as that."
"When the men get these menagerie cages all shifted on deck I will meet you in my cabin. That will be in about twenty minutes, Phil."
"Very well, sir; I will be on hand."
Phil walked away, watched the loading operations for a few minutes, then strolled to the main cabin on the upper deck, where lunch was being served as usual.
The Circus Boy appeared more light-hearted than usual that evening, as he chatted and joked with his friends among the performers. He did not wish the man or men whom he had overheard off on the lot to know that he was the eavesdropper. He felt that he could make better progress in his investigation were they not on their guard.
The pilot, Cummings, was not in the cabin. He had not been seen there since his trouble with Teddy. Despite the pilot's determination to resign, he was still on duty, he and Mr. Sparling having come to a satisfactory understanding.
Teddy was helping himself liberally for the second time since his return from the lot.
"Do you think you will ever be able to satisfy that appetite of yours?" laughed Phil.
"I hope not," answered Teddy solemnly. "That's the only fun in life—that and the donkey."
Just then Mr. Sparling passed through the cabin on the way to his stateroom and office. He gave Phil a significant glance, to which the Circus Boy did not respond. A few minutes later, however, Phil strolled out to the deck. Reaching it he turned quickly and hurried aft, entering the passageway there and going directly to Mr. Sparling's quarters.
"Come in," invited the owner in response to Phil's gentle rap.
The blinds had been drawn up, though the windows were let down into their casings out of sight. Phil noted this in a quick glance.
"Sit down and tell me what has happened, Phil. I am sure you have made some sort of discovery."
"I have and I haven't."
"What do you mean?"
"That I am deeper in the mire than ever."
"Tell me about it."
"While I have made no discoveries that will help us much, I have learned just enough to understand that there is a diabolical plot on foot."
"I am not sure, but I think it is against Teddy and myself."
"Is it possible? Who are the plotters?"
"That is the worst of it; I do not know. I wish I did. I thought I had one of the men identified, but I find I am all wrong. I am more at sea than ever."
"Who did you think it was?"
"As long as I am mistaken, why should I accuse anyone?"
"You are right. Have you reason to believe it is someone connected with this show?"
"I am sure that at least one of the men is."
"Then there is more than one in this thing?"
"There are two men. At least I have seen two. There may be more for all I know."
"Now, tell me what it is all about. You haven't said a word regarding this plot yet," urged the showman drawing his chair around the corner of his desk and leaning forward with his hands on his knees.
Phil told how he strolled off into the field adjoining the circus lot, and went on in detail to relate all that had occurred after that. As he proceeded with his story the face of James Sparling grew serious and then stern.
"I presume I should have stood my ground and given battle to them, if for no other reason than to find out who they were," concluded the lad, somewhat ruefully.
"Phil Forrest, you should have done nothing of the sort," answered Mr. Sparling sharply. "You take quite enough risk as it is. You think the plot now is to tamper with the big net?"
"Is it possible that such scoundrels are traveling with the Sparling shows?"
"I wish I did not think so."
"Phil, it is not the man who was responsible for several accidents the first year you were with us, is it?" demanded the showman shrewdly, darting a sharp glance at Phil.
"No, sir," answered the boy flushing a little. "That man is no longer with the show."
"I thought so. Now I have him located."
"The—the man I saw tonight—you know him?" gasped Phil.
"No. I did not mean that. I refer to the fellow who nearly caused your death three years ago."
"You had some trouble with Diaz a short time ago, did you not?"
Phil was surprised that the showman was aware of this.
"Where is Diaz tonight?" demanded the showman almost sternly.
"In his stateroom, or else out on deck."
"Are you sure?"
"What time did he return from the lot?"
"He was here when I went on deck. He came to the boat directly after the performance."
"You are sure of this?"
"You are a very shrewd young man, sir," said Mr. Sparling, with a mirthless smile. "However, these guilty men must be found and punished. You think their first efforts will be directed toward the net?"
"Yes, according to what I overheard. I have an idea, however, that they will not do so at once, fearing they may have been recognized, or at any rate that their plans are known to someone else."
"Do you think they recognized you?"
"I do not. I did not speak. I was on the point of doing so, then checked myself."
"Right! You are one in a hundred. I will have a watch kept on the net, and an examination made of it before every performance."
Phil smiled faintly.
"I am not afraid for myself."
"No, that's your greatest failing. You are not afraid of anything and you take very long chances. I hope you will be more cautious in the future. You must be careful, Phil, and you had better caution your partner, Teddy Tucker. Does he know of this?"
"No, but I intend to tell him. He is more interested in the possibility of recovering his egg than in any personal danger to himself or to me," said the Circus Boy with a short laugh.
"Keep your eyes open, and take care of yourself. If we fail to get a clue by the time we get to Des Moines I shall send to St. Louis for the best detective they have and put him on the case. Perhaps it would be best to do so now."
"I think—" began Phil, when his words were arrested by a loud noise just outside the cabin, on the deck.
Mr. Sparling and Phil started up, for the instant not understanding the meaning of the disturbance.
"Wha—what—" gasped the showman.
Phil ran to the window and looked out.
The deck at that point was deserted. He thought he saw a figure dodge into an entrance near the stern of the boat, and looking forward he discovered another disappearing in that direction.
The Circus Boy sprang for the door.
"What is it, what is it?" cried the showman.
"Eavesdroppers!" answered the lad, darting out into the passageway, followed closely by Mr. Sparling.
"You go that way and I'll go this," directed Phil.
MAKING A CAPTURE
The two ran down the corridor, Mr. Sparling heading for the forward end, Phil toward the stern.
"There he goes! I see him!" shouted the showman as a figure leaped out to the deck, slamming the door. "We have him now!"
Phil rushed out at the stern and started to run along the starboard side of the boat. As he emerged he caught sight of a figure running toward him, and behind the figure, Mr. Sparling, coming along the deck in great strides.
"Stop! We've got you!" shouted the showman.
Phil spread out his arms as the fleeing one drew near him, then threw them about the fellow, holding him in a firm grip.
"I've got him, Mr. Sparling!"
"Leggo of me! What's the matter with you? Anybody would think this was a high school initiation."
"Teddy," groaned Phil.
"What's that?" demanded the showman jerking Phil and his prisoner over to an open window through which a faint light was showing.
"It is Teddy Tucker, sir," said Phil releasing his hold.
"What does this mean, sir?" demanded the showman in a stern voice.
"That's what I want to know. You fellows chase me around the boat as if I were some kind of a football. It's a wonder one of you didn't kick me. Lucky for you that you didn't, too, I can tell you."
"Teddy, come to my cabin at once. Phil, bring him along, will you?"
"Yes," answered Phil Forrest. Phil was troubled. He could not believe it possible that Teddy was guilty of eavesdropping, and yet the evidence seemed to point strongly in that direction. Taking firm hold of his companion's arm he led him along toward Mr. Sparling's cabin.
"What's all this row about?" growled Teddy.
"That is what I hope you will be able to explain to Mr. Sparling's satisfaction," replied Phil. "However, wait till we get to his cabin."
Phil led Teddy to the door, thrust him in, then followed, closing and locking the door.
"Perhaps we had better close that window this time, sir."
Mr. Sparling drew up and locked the window.
"Sit down!" he commanded, eyeing Teddy keenly.
Teddy sat down dutifully and was about to place his feet on the showman's desk when Phil nudged him.
"Now, sir, what does this mean?"
"What does what mean? I never was any good at guessing riddles."
"What do you mean by eavesdropping at my cabin window?"
"Oh, was that your window?"
"It was and it is. And unless you can offer a satisfactory explanation, something will have to be done. That is one of the things that I shall not tolerate. I can scarcely believe you guilty of such a disgraceful act. Unfortunately, you have admitted it."
"That you were listening at my window."
"I never said anything of the sort."
"No, not in so many words; but when I asked you what you meant by doing so, you answered, 'Oh, was that your window?'"
"Certainly I said it."
"Then will you kindly explain why?"
"I wasn't listening at your window. I wasn't within half a block—half a boat, I mean—of it. What do you think I am?"
"Well, Teddy, for a minute I thought you had been guilty of an inexcusable act but upon second thought I begin to understand that it is impossible. There is some misunderstanding here."
Phil looked relieved, but Teddy was gazing at the showman with half-closed eyes.
"While Phil and myself were holding a confidential conversation here, someone was listening to us under that window. All at once the blind fell with a crash—"
"And so did the other fellow," interrupted Teddy, his eyes lighting up mischievously.
"Phil looked out quickly. He thought he saw someone dodging into the entrance aft, and at the same time he was sure someone was doing the same thing forward."
"I was the fellow who dodged in the forward entrance. Then you fellows started a sprinting match with me."
"Why did you run?"
"Oh, I suppose I might as well tell you all about it."
"Yes, if we are to make any headway it will be best to let you tell your story in your own way," answered Mr. Sparling with a grim smile.
"I was halfway between here and the pilot house, sitting down on the deck, leaning against the side of the deck-house. I had just gone to sleep, at least I think I had, when I woke up suddenly. I saw somebody down this way peeping in at a window. I became curious. I wondered if he was the fellow who stole my egg, so I got up to investigate. Just then he saw me."
"Well, what happened?"
"He was standing on a box. The box tipped over or he jumped off, I don't know which. I thought he was chasing me, and I ran."
"Afraid, eh?" jeered Phil.
"No, I wasn't afraid. I just ran because I needed the exercise; that's all. Do you think he really had my egg?"
"Who was the man, Teddy?"
"How do I know?"
"You saw him. Could you not—did you not recognize him?"
"No, it was too dark. I didn't wait long after I first discovered him, you know. I thought maybe it was that fellow Cummings, laying for me. I wish January had finished him while he had the chance."