Chapter XI. The First Night with the Show
 

"Teddy, you and I are a pair of lucky boys. Do you know it?" asked Phil.

Each, with his bag of belongings, was on his way to the circus lot, the boys having bid good-bye to their friends in the village.

The people with whom Teddy lived had given a reluctant consent to his going with the circus, after he had explained that Phil Forrest had gotten him the place and that Phil himself was going to join the show. The lad told them he was going to make a lot of money and that someday he would pay them for all they had done for him. And he kept his word faithfully.

"Maybe. I reckon Barnum & Bailey will be wanting us first thing we know," answered Teddy.

"We shall be lucky if we hold on to the job we have already. Did Mr. Sparling say what he would pay you?"

"No, he didn't think of that--at least I didn't. Did he tell you how much you were going to get?"

Phil nodded.

"How much?"

"I don't think I had better say," answered the lad doubtfully. "If you ask him and he tells you, of course that will be all right. I shall be glad to do so then. It isn't that I don't want you to know, you understand, but it might be better business, just now, to say nothing about it," added Phil, with a wisdom far beyond his years.

"Dark secret, eh?" jeered Teddy Tucker.

"No; there's no secret about it. It is just plain business, that's all."

"Business! Huh! Who ever heard of a circus being business?"

"You'll find business enough when you get in, Teddy Tucker."

"Don't believe it. It's just good fun and that's all."

They had reached the circus lot by this time and were now making their way to Mr. Sparling's tent.

"We have come to report, sir," announced Phil, entering the tent with Teddy close behind him. "We are ready for work."

There was a proud ring in Phil Forrest's voice as he made the announcement.

"Very well, boys. Hand your baggage over to the man at the baggage wagon. If there is anything in either of your grips that you will want during the night you had better get it out, for you will be unable to get into the wagon after the show is on the road. That's one of the early wagons to move, too."

"I guess there is nothing except our tooth brushes and combs that we shall need. We have those in our pockets."

"Better take a couple of towels along as well."

"Yes, sir; thank you."

"The cook tent is open. Go over and have your suppers now. Wait a moment, I'll go with you. They might not let you in. You see, they don't know you there yet."

Mr. Sparling, after closing and locking his trunk, escorted the lads to the cook tent, where he introduced both to the manager of that department.

"Give them seats at the performers' table for tonight," he directed. "They will be with the show from now on. Mr. Forrest here will remain at that table, but the other, the Tucker boy, I shall probably turn over to you for a coffee boy."

The manager nodded good naturedly, taking quick mental measure of the two lads.

The boys were directed to their seats, which they took, almost as if in a dream. It was a new and unfamiliar experience to them. The odor of the food, the sweet scents from the green grass underneath their feet, all so familiar to the showman, gave Phil and Teddy appetites that even a canvasman might have envied.

The performers glanced at them curiously, some of the former nodding to Phil, having recognized in him the boy who had ridden the elephant into the arena in the grand entry.

"Not so much after all, are they?" grunted Teddy.

"They are all human beings like ourselves, I guess," replied Phil.

Stripped of their gaudy costumes and paint, the performers looked just like other normal beings. But instead of talking about the show and their work, they were discussing the news of the day, and it seemed to the two lads to be more like a large family at supper than a crowd of circus performers.

Rodney Palmer nodded good naturedly to them from further up the long table, but they had no more than time to nod back when a waiter approached to take their orders. Teddy ordered pretty much everything on the bill, while Phil was more modest in his demands.

"Don't eat everything they have," he warned laughingly.

"Plenty more where this came from. That's one good thing about a show."

"What's that?"

"If the food gives out they can eat the animals."

"Better look out that the animals don't make a meal of you."

"Joining out?" asked the man sitting next to Phil.

"Yes, sir."

"Ring act?"

"I don't know yet what I am to do. Mr. Sparling is giving me a chance to find out what I am good for, if anything," smiled Phil.

"Boss is all right," nodded the circus man. "That was a good stunt you did this afternoon. Why don't you work that up?"

"I--I'll think about it." Phil did not know exactly what was meant by the expression, but it set him to thinking, and out of the suggestion he was destined to "work up" something that was really worthwhile, and that was to give him his first real start in the circus world.

"What's that funny-looking fellow over there doing?" interrupted Teddy.

"That man down near the end of the table?"

"Yes."

"That's Billy Thorpe, the Armless Wonder," the performer informed him.

"And he hasn't any hands?" wondered the boy.

"Naturally not, not having any arms. He uses his feet for hands."

"What's he doing now?"

"Eating with his feet. He can use them almost as handily as you can your hands. You should see Billy sew, and write and do other things. Why, they say he writes the best foot of anybody in the show."

"Doesn't he ever get cold feet?" questioned Teddy humorously.

"Circus people are not afflicted with that ailment. Doesn't go well with their business."

"May I ask what you do?" inquired Phil.

"I am the catcher in the principal trapeze act. You may have seen me today. I think you were in the big top then."

"Oh, yes, I saw you this afternoon."

"How many people are with the show?" asked Teddy.

"At a rough guess, I should say a hundred and fifty including canvasmen and other labor help. It's a pretty big organization for a road show, the biggest in the country; but it's small, so small it would be lost if one of the big railroad shows was around."

"Is that another armless or footless wonder next to Billy Thorpe?" asked Teddy.

"It's a freak, yes, but with hands and feet. That's the living skeleton, but if he keeps on eating the way he's been doing lately the boss will have to change the bills and bill him as the fattest man on earth."

"Huh!" grunted Teddy. "He could crawl through a rat hole in a barn door now. He's thin enough to cut cheese with."

Phil gave his companion a vigorous nudge under the table.

"You'll get into trouble if you are so free in expressing your opinions," he whispered. "Don't forget the advice Mr. Sparling gave you."

"Apple or custard pie?" broke in the voice of the waiter.

"Custard," answered Phil.

"Both for mine," added Teddy.

He got what he had ordered and without the least question, for the Sparling show believed that the best way to make its people contented was to feed them.

Mr. Sparling and his assistants, Phil observed, occupied a table by themselves. After he had finished the owner motioned to him to join them, and there Mrs. Sparling made a place for him by her side and thanked him briefly but warmly for his brave act.

"I shall have to keep an eye on you two boys," she smiled. "Any time I can help you with advice or otherwise you come right to me. Don't you be backward about doing so, will you?"

Phil assured her that he would not.

The two lads after some further conversation strolled from the cook tent.

"I think I'll go in and see how the animals are getting along," decided Phil, beginning to realize that he was free to go where he would and without fear of being ordered off.

Already people were gathering in front of the entrance for the night performance. The doors were advertised to open at seven o'clock, so that the spectators might have plenty of time in which to view the collection of "rare and wonderful beasts, gathered from the remote places of the earth," as the announcer proclaimed from the vantage point of a dry goods box.

Phil bought a bag of peanuts and took them in to his friend Emperor, the beast uttering a shrill cry of joy when he saw Phil approaching.

"I'll try to teach him my whistle," said the boy, puckering his lips and giving the signal that the boys of his school used in summoning each other.

"Think he'll remember that, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked of the trainer.

"Never forget it, will you, Emperor?"

The elephant coughed.

"Never forgets anything. Knows more than any man in the show now, because he has lived longer."

"How old is he?"

"Close to a hundred."

"You don't say?" marveled Teddy. "Hope I'll be able to squeal as loud as that when I'm a hundred. Has he got a hole through his trunk?"

"Not that anybody knows of."

"Come on; I want to see the fellow tame the tiger. I missed that today, because he didn't do it at the afternoon show."

They found Mr. Sparling standing in front of the cage. He, too, was there to watch the performance.

"This looks to me like ready money," he observed to Phil, nodding his head toward the people who were crowding into the tent.

"Mr. Forrest, will you ride Emperor in again tonight? I think that's one of the reasons they have come here," said the showman, shrewdly grasping the least thing that would tend to popularize his show.

"Certainly, sir. I shall enjoy it very much."

They now turned their attention to the cage where the trainer had begun with the savage tiger.

"Bengal is in an ugly temper about something tonight," announced Mr. Sparling in a low tone. "Better be careful, Bob," he cautioned, after having stepped up close to the cage.

"I'll take care of him," answered the trainer, without taking his eyes from the beast for the fraction of a second.

Phil had heard the dialogue and now drew closer to the cage, stepping under the rope and joining Mr. Sparling.

Teddy, of course, not to be left behind, crawled under the rope also.

"Sit down in front," shouted someone. "We can't see the animals play."

In a moment the spectators saw a play that was not down on the bills.

Bob was swinging the whip over Bengal's nose, the cruel lash cutting the tender snout with every blow. But he was not doing it from sheer cruelty, as many of the spectators who raised their voices in loud protest imagined.

Not understanding wild animals as the trainer did, they did not realize that this plucky fellow was fighting for his life, even though he used but a slender rawhide in his effort to do so.

Bengal was crowding him. The least mistake on the trainer's part now and the savage tiger would put a quick and terrible end to him.

"Stand back, everybody! Bring the prods!" bellowed Mr. Sparling.

Phil understood that something was wrong, though he never would have guessed it from the calm expression on the trainer's face.

Not a word did the performer speak, but his hand rained blows on the nose, while snarl after snarl was spit from between Bengal's gleaming teeth.

The trainer was edging slowly toward the door. He knew that nothing could be done with the beast in its present state of terrible temper.

His only hope was that at a favorable moment, when the attendants came with their long, iron bars, he might be able to spring from the door at his back, which he was trying to reach.

Phil's mind was working like an automatic machine. He saw now what the trainer was attempting to do, and was seeking for some means of helping the man. But what could a slender boy hope to do against the power of a great, savage brute like Bengal?

Phil concluded there was nothing.

A pistol flashed almost in the face of the two lads. Mr. Sparling had started away on a run to fetch the attendants who either had not heard or failed to heed his call.

"What did he do that f-f-for?" stammered Teddy.

"To drive the tiger back. It was a blank cartridge that he fired. I think the tiger is going to attack him. Yes, there he goes! Oh, that's terrible!"

The trainer had been forced against the bars at the back of the cage by the animal, whose length was more than the width of the cage itself.

In an unsuspected moment the beast had sprung upon the unfortunate man, and with one sweep of his powerful paw had laid the man low.

With a growl of savage joy, the brute settled back against the bars of the cage near which the lads were standing.

Women shrieked and men grew pale as they stood helpless to do aught to avert the impending tragedy.

Teddy slipped out from under the rope, his face ashen gray. But Phil stood his ground. He felt that he must do something.

Then his opportunity came. The beast's great silken tail popped out through the bars against which he was backing.

Phil Forrest, without an instant's thought of the danger into which he was placing himself, sprang forward.

His hands closed over the tail, which he twisted about his right arm in a flash, at the same time throwing up his feet and bracing them against a wheel of the wagon.

No sooner had he done so than Bengal, uttering a frightful roar, whirled. The force of the jerk as the brute turned hurled Phil Forrest against the bars of the cage with a crash, and Bengal's sharp-clawed feet made a vicious sweep for the body of the lad pressed so tightly against the bars.