Chapter XVI. His First Setback
 

"Tha--thank--"

"Out with you!"

Laughing, his face flushed with pride and satisfaction, Phil did move. Not even pausing to note what direction he should go, he hurried on toward the village, perhaps more by instinct than otherwise. He was too full of this wonderful thing that had come to him--success--to take note of his surroundings.

To Phil there was no rain. Though he already was drenched to the skin he did not know it.

All at once he pulled himself up sharply.

"Phil Forrest, you are getting excited," he chided. "Now, don't you try to make yourself believe you are the whole show, for you are only a little corner of it. You are not even a side show. You are a lucky boy, but you are going to keep your head level and try to earn your money. Twenty dollars a week! Why, it's wealth! I can see Uncle Abner shaking his stick when he hears of it. I must write to Mrs. Cahill and tell her the good news. She'll be glad, though I'll warrant the boys at home will be jealous when they hear about how I am getting on in the world."

Thus talking to himself, Phil plodded on in the storm until he reached the business part of the town. There he found a store and soon had provided himself with a serviceable rubber coat, a pair of rubber boots and a soft hat. He put on his purchases, doing up his shoes and carrying them back under his arm.

The parade started at noon. It was a dismal affair--that is, so far as the performers were concerned, and the clowns looked much more funny than they felt.

Mr. Miaco enlivened the spirits of those on the hayrack by climbing to the back of one of the horses drawing the clowns' wagon, where he sat with a doll's parasol over his head and a doll in his arms singing a lullaby.

The people who were massed along the sidewalks of the main street did not appear to mind the rain at all. They were too much interested in the free show being given for their benefit.

The show people ate dinner with their feet in the mud that day, the cook tent having been pitched on a barren strip of ground.

"This is where the Armless Wonder has the best of us today," nodded Teddy, with his usual keen eye for humor.

"How is that?" questioned Mr. Miaco.

" 'Cause he don't have to put his feet in the mud like the rest of us do. He keeps them on the table. I wish I could put my feet on the table."

Everybody within hearing laughed heartily.

In the tents there was little to remind one of the dismal weather, save for the roar of the falling rain on the canvas overhead. Straw had been piled all about on the ground inside the two large tents, and only here and there were there any muddy spots, though the odor of fresh wet grass was everywhere.

The afternoon performance went off without a hitch, though the performers were somewhat more slow than usual, owing to the uncertainty of the footing for man and beast. Phil Forrest's exhibition was even more successful than it had been in the last show town. He was obliged to run back to the ring and show himself after having been carried from the tent by Emperor. This time, however, his stage fright had entirely left him, never to return. He was now a seasoned showman, after something less than three days under canvas.

The afternoon show being finished, and supper out of the way, Phil and Teddy returned to the big top to practice on the flying rings, which they had obtained permission to use.

Mr. Miaco, himself an all around acrobat, was on hand to watch their work and to offer suggestions. He had taken a keen interest in Phil Forrest, seeing in the lad the making of a high-class circus performer.

The rings were let down to within about ten feet of the sawdust ring, and one at a time the two lads were hoisted by the clown until their fingers grasped the iron rings.

With several violent movements of their bodies they curled their feet up, slipping them through the rings, first having grasped the ropes above the rings.

"That was well done. Quite professional," nodded the clown. "Take hold of this rope and I will swing you. If it makes you dizzy, tell me."

"Don't worry; it won't," laughed Phil.

"Give me a shove, too," urged Teddy.

"In a minute."

Mr. Miaco began swinging Phil backwards and forwards, his speed ever increasing, and as he went higher and higher, Phil let himself down, fastening his hands on the rings that he might assist in the swinging.

"Now, see if you can get back in the rings with your legs."

"That's easy," answered Phil, his breath coming sharp and fast, for he never had taken such a long sweep in the rings before.

The feat was not quite so easy as he had imagined. Phil made three attempts before succeeding. But he mastered it and came up smiling.

"Good," cried the clown, clapping his hands approvingly.

"Give me another swing. I want to try something else."

Having gained sufficient momentum, the lad, after reaching the point where the rings would start on their backward flight, permitted his legs to slip through the rings, catching them with his feet.

He swept back, head and arms hanging down, as skillfully as if he had been doing that very thing right along.

"You'll do," emphasized the clown. "You will need to put a little more finish in your work. I'll give you a lesson in that next time."

Teddy, not to be outdone, went through the same exhibition, though not quite with the same speed that Phil had shown.

It being the hour when the performers always gathered in the big top to practice and play, many of them stood about watching the boys work. They nodded their heads approvingly when Phil finished and swung himself to the ground.

Teddy, on his part, overrated his ability when it came to hanging by his feet.

"Look out!" warned half a dozen performers at once.

He had not turned his left foot into the position where it would catch and hold in the ring. Their trained eyes had noted this omission instantly.

The foot, of course, failed to catch, and Teddy uttered a howl when he found himself falling. His fall, however, was checked by a sharp jolt. The right foot had caught properly. As he swept past the laughing performers he was dangling in the air like a huge spider, both hands and one foot clawing the air in a desperate manner.

There was nothing they could do to liberate him from his uncomfortable position until the momentum of his swing had lessened sufficiently to enable them to catch him.

"Hold your right steady!" cautioned Miaco. "If you twist it you'll take a beauty tumble."

Teddy hadn't thought of that before. Had Miaco known the lad better he would not have made the mistake of giving that advice.

Teddy promptly turned his foot.

He shot from the flying rings as if he had been fired from a cannon.

Phil tried to catch him, but stumbled and fell over a rope, while Teddy shot over his head, landing on and diving head first into a pile of straw that had just been brought in to bed down the tent for the evening performance.

Nothing of Teddy save his feet was visible.

They hauled him out by those selfsame feet, and, after disentangling him from the straws that clung to him, were relieved to find that he had not been hurt in the least.

"I guess we shall have to put a net under you. Lucky for you that that pile of straw happened to get in your way. Do you know what would have happened to you had it not been?" demanded Mr. Miaco.

"I--I guess I'd have made a hit," decided Teddy wisely.

"I guess there is no doubt about that."

The performers roared.

"I'm going to try it again."

"No; you've done enough for one day. You won't be able to hold up the coffeepot tomorrow morning if you do much more."

"Do you think we will be able to accomplish anything on the flying rings, Mr. Miaco?" asked Phil after they had returned to the dressing tent.

"There is no doubt of it. Were I in your place I should take an hour's work on them every day. Besides building you up generally, it will make you surer and better able to handle yourself. Then, again, you never know what minute you may be able to increase your income. People in this business often profit by others' misfortunes," added the clown significantly.

"I would prefer not to profit that way," answered Phil.

"You would rather do it by your own efforts?"

"Yes."

"It all amounts to the same thing. You are liable to be put out any minute yourself, then somebody else will get your job, if you are a performer of importance to the show."

"You mean if my act is?"

"That's what I mean."

The old clown and the enthusiastic young showman talked in the dressing tent until it was time for each to begin making up for the evening performance.

The dressing tent was the real home of the performers. They knew no other. It was there that they unpacked their trunks--there that during their brief stay they pinned up against the canvas walls the pictures of their loved ones, many of whom were far across the sea. A bit of ribbon here, a faded flower drawn from the recess of a trunk full of silk and spangles, told of the tender hearts that were beating beneath those iron-muscled breasts, and that they were as much human beings as their brothers in other walks of life.

Much of this Phil understood in a vague way as he watched them from day to day. He was beginning to like these big-hearted, big-muscled fellows, though there were those among them who were not desirable as friends.

"I guess it's just the same as it is at home," decided Phil. "Some of the folks are worthwhile, and others are not."

He had summed it up.

Sometime before the evening performance was due to begin Phil was made up and ready for his act. As his exhibition came on at the very beginning he had to be ready early. Then, again, he was obliged to walk all the way to the menagerie tent to reach his elephant.

Throwing a robe over his shoulders and pulling his hat well down over his eyes, the lad pushed the silken curtains aside and began working his way toward the front, beating against the human tide that had set in against him, wet, dripping, but good natured.

"Going to have a wet night," observed Teddy, whom he met at the entrance to the menagerie tent.

"Looks that way. But never mind; I'll share my rubber coat with you. We can put it over us and sit up to sleep. That will make a waterproof tent. Perhaps we may be able to find a stake or something to stick up in the middle of the coat."

"But the canvas under us will be soaked," grumbled Teddy. "We'll be wetter than ever."

"We'll gather some straw and tie it up in a tight bundle to put under us when we get located. There goes the band. I must be off, or you'll hear Emperor screaming for me."

"He's at it now. Hear him?"

"I couldn't well help hearing that roar," laughed Phil, starting off on a run.

The grand entry was made, Phil crouching low in the bonnet on the big beast's head. It was an uncomfortable position, but he did not mind it in the least. The only thing that troubled Phil was the fear that the head gear might become disarranged and spoil the effect of his surprise. There were many in the tent who had seen him make his flight at the afternoon performance, and had returned with their friends almost solely to witness the pretty spectacle again.

The time had arrived for Emperor to rise for his grand salute to the audience. Mr. Kennedy had given Phil his cue, the lad had braced himself to straighten up suddenly. A strap had been attached to the elephant's head harness for Phil to take hold of to steady himself by when he first straightened up. Until his position was erect Emperor could not grasp the boy's legs with his trunk.

"Right!" came the trainer's command.

The circus boy thrust out his elbows, and the bonnet fell away, as he rose smiling to face the sea of white, expectant faces before him.

While they were applauding he fastened the flying wire to the ring in his belt. The wire, which was suspended from above, was so small that it was wholly invisible to the spectators, which heightened the effect of his flight. So absorbed were the people in watching the slender figure each time that they failed to observe an attendant hauling on a rope near the center pole, which was the secret of Phil's ability to fly.

Throwing his hands out before him the little performer dove gracefully out into the air.

There was a slight jolt. Instantly he knew that something was wrong. The audience, too, instinctively felt that the act was not ending as it should.

Phil was falling. He was plunging straight toward the ring, head first. He struck heavily, crumpling up in a little heap, then straightening out, while half a dozen attendants ran to the lad, hastily picking him up and hurrying to the dressing tent with the limp, unconscious form.