Chapter I. The Lure of the Circus
 

"I say, Phil, I can do that."

"Do what, Teddy?"

"A cartwheel in the air like that fellow is doing in the picture on the billboard there."

"Oh, pshaw! You only think you can. Besides, that's not a cartwheel; that's a double somersault. It's a real stunt, let me tell you. Why, I can do a cartwheel myself. But up in the air like that--well, I don't know. I guess not. I'd be willing to try it, though, if I had something below to catch me," added the lad, critically surveying the figures on the poster before them.

"How'd you like to be a circus man, Phil?"

Phil's dark eyes glowed with a new light, his slender figure straightening until the lad appeared fully half a head taller.

"More than anything else in the world," he breathed. "Would you?"

"Going to be," nodded Teddy decisively, as if the matter were already settled.

"Oh, you are, eh?"

"Uh-huh!"

"When?"

"I don't know. Someday--someday when I get old enough, maybe."

Phil Forrest surveyed his companion with a half critical smile on his face.

"What are you going to do--be a trapeze performer or what?"

"Well," reflected the lad wisely, "maybe I shall be an 'Or What.' I'm not sure. Sometimes I think I should like to be the fellow who cracks the whip with the long lash and makes the clowns hop around on one foot--"

"You mean the ringmaster?"

"I guess that's the fellow. He makes 'em all get around lively. Then, sometimes, I think I would rather be a clown. I can skin a cat on the flying rings to beat the band, now. What would you rather be, Phil?"

"Me? Oh, something up in the air--high up near the peak of the tent--something thrilling that would make the people sit up on the board seats and gasp, when, all dressed in pink and spangles, I'd go flying through the air--"

"Just like a bird?" questioned Teddy, with a rising inflection in his voice.

"Yes. That's what I'd like most to do, Teddy," concluded the lad, his face flushed with the thought of the triumphs that might be his.

Teddy Tucker uttered a soft, long-drawn whistle.

"My, you've got it bad, haven't you? Never thought you were that set on the circus. Wouldn't it be fine, now, if we both could get with a show?"

"Great!" agreed Phil, with an emphatic nod. "Sometimes I think my uncle would be glad to have me go away--that he wouldn't care whether I joined a circus, or what became of me."

"Ain't had much fun since your ma died, have you, Phil?" questioned Teddy sympathetically.

"Not much," answered the lad, a thin, gray mist clouding his eyes. "No, not much. But, then, I'm not complaining."

"Your uncle's a mean old--"

"There, there, Teddy, please don't say it. He may be all you think he is, but for all the mean things he's said and done to me, I've never given him an impudent word, Teddy. Can you guess why?"

"Cause he's your uncle, maybe," grumbled Teddy.

"No, 'cause he's my mother's brother--that's why."

"I don't know. Maybe I'd feel that way if I'd had a mother."

"But you did."

"Nobody ever introduced us, if I did. Guess she didn't know me. But if your uncle was my uncle do you know what I'd do with him, Phil Forrest?"

"Don't let's talk about him. Let's talk about the circus. It's more fun," interrupted Phil, turning to the billboard again and gazing at it with great interest.

They were standing before the glowing posters of the Great Sparling Combined Shows, that was to visit Edmeston on the following Thursday.

Phillip Forrest and Teddy Tucker were fast friends, though they were as different in appearance and temperament as two boys well could be. Phil was just past sixteen, while Teddy was a little less than a year younger. Phil's figure was slight and graceful, while that of his companion was short and chubby.

Both lads were orphans. Phil's parents had been dead for something more than five years. Since their death he had been living with a penurious old uncle who led a hermit-like existence in a shack on the outskirts of Edmeston.

But the lad could remember when it had been otherwise--when he had lived in his own home, surrounded by luxury and refinement, until evil days came upon them without warning. His father's property had been swept away, almost in a night. A year later both of his parents had died, leaving him to face the world alone.

The boy's uncle had taken him in begrudgingly, and Phil's life from that moment on had been one of self-denial and hard work. Yet he was thankful for one thing--thankful that his miserly old uncle had permitted him to continue at school.

Standing high in his class meant something in Phil's case, for the boy was obliged to work at whatever he could find to do after school hours, his uncle compelling him to contribute something to the household expenses every week. His duties done, Phil was obliged to study far into the night, under the flickering light of a tallow candle, because oil cost too much. Sometimes his candle burned far past the midnight hour, while he applied himself to his books that he might be prepared for the next day's classes.

Hard lines for a boy?

Yes. But Phil Forrest was not the lad to complain. He went about his studies the same as he approached any other task that was set for him to do--went about it with a grim, silent determination to conquer it. And he always did.

As for Teddy--christened Theodore, but so long ago that he had forgotten that that was his name--he studied, not because he possessed a burning desire for knowledge, but as a matter of course, and much in the same spirit he did the chores for the people with whom he lived.

Teddy was quite young when his parents died leaving him without a relative in the world. A poor, but kind-hearted family in Edmeston had taken the lad in rather than see him become a public charge. With them he had lived and been cared for ever since. Of late years, however, he had been able to do considerable toward lightening the burden for them by the money he managed to earn here and there.

The two boys were on their way home from school. There remained but one more day before the close of the term, which was a matter of sincere regret to Phil and of keen satisfaction to his companion. Just now both were too full of the subject of the coming show to think of much else.

"Going to the show, Phil?"

"I am afraid not."

"Why not?"

"I haven't any money; that's the principal reason," smiled the boy. "Are you?"

"Sure. Don't need any money to go to a circus."

"You don't?"

"No."

"How do you manage it?"

"Crawl in under the tent when the man ain't looking," answered Teddy promptly.

"I wouldn't want to do that," decided the older lad, with a shake of the head. "It wouldn't be quite honest. Do you think so?"

Teddy Tucker shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

"Never thought about it. Don't let myself think about it. Isn't safe, for I might not go to the show if I did. What's your other reason?"

"For not going to the circus?"

"Yes."

"Well, I don't think Uncle would let me; that's a fact."

"Why not?"

"Says circuses and all that sort of thing are evil influences."

"Oh, pshaw! Wish he was my uncle," decided Teddy belligerently. "How long are you going to stand for being mauled around like a little yellow dog?"

"I'll stand most anything for the sake of getting an education. When I get that then I'm going to strike out for myself, and do something in the world. You'll hear from me yet, Teddy Tucker, and maybe I'll hear from you, too."

"See me, you mean--see me doing stunts on a high something-or- other in a circus. Watch me turn a somersault."

The lad stood poised on the edge of the ditch, on the other side of which the billboard stood. This gave him the advantage of an elevated position from which to attempt his feat.

"Look out that you don't break your neck," warned Phil. "I'd try it on a haymow, or something like that, first."

"Don't you worry about me. See how easy that fellow in the picture is doing it. Here goes!"

Teddy launched himself into the air, with a very good imitation of a diver making a plunge into the water, hands stretched out before him, legs straight behind him.

He was headed straight for the ditch.

"Turn, Teddy! Turn! You'll strike on your head."

Teddy was as powerless to turn as if he had been paralyzed from head to foot. Down he went, straight as an arrow. There followed a splash as his head struck the water of the ditch, the lad's feet beating a tattoo in the air while his head was stuck fast in the mud at the bottom of the ditch.

"He'll drown," gasped Phil, springing down into the little stream, regardless of the damage liable to be done to his own clothes.

Throwing both arms about the body of his companion he gave a mighty tug. Teddy stuck obstinately, and Phil was obliged to take a fresh hold before he succeeded in hauling the lad from his perilous position. Teddy was gasping for breath. His face, plastered with mud, was unrecognizable, while his clothes were covered from head to foot.

Phil dumped him on the grass beneath the circus billboard and began wiping the mud from his companion's face, while Teddy quickly sat up, blinking the mud out of his eyes and grumbling unintelligibly.

"You're a fine circus performer, you are," laughed Phil. "Suppose you had been performing on a flying trapeze in a circus, what do you suppose would have happened to you?"

"I'd have had a net under me then, and I wouldn't have fallen in the ditch," grunted Teddy sullenly.

"What do you suppose the folks will say when you go home in that condition?"

"Don't care what they say. Fellow has got to learn sometime, and if I don't have any worse thing happen to me than falling in a ditch I ought to be pretty well satisfied. Guess I'll go back now. Come on, go 'long with me."

Phil turned and strode along by the side of his companion until they reached the house where Teddy lived.

"Come on in."

"I'm sorry, Teddy, but I can't. My uncle will be expecting me, and he won't like it if I am late."

"All right; see you tomorrow if you don't come out again tonight. We'll try some more stunts then."

"I wouldn't till after the circus, were I in your place," laughed Phil.

"Why not!"

"Cause, if you break your neck, you won't be able to go to the show."

"Huh!" grunted Teddy, hastily turning his back on his companion and starting for the house.

Phil took his way home silently and thoughtfully, carrying his precious bundle of books under an arm, his active mind planning as to how he might employ his time to the best advantage during the summer vacation that was now so close at hand.

A rheumatic, bent figure was standing in front of the shack where the lad lived, glaring up the street from beneath bushy eyebrows, noting Phil Forrest's leisurely gait disapprovingly.

Phil saw him a moment later.

"I'm in for a scolding," he muttered. "Wonder what it is all about this time. I don't seem able to do a thing to please Uncle Abner."