Chapter XXIII. The Mystery Solved
 

As he neared the village Phil began to shout and wave his hat. After a time his shouts attracted the attention of some of the people on the circus lot, which was on his side of the village.

"It's Emperor coming back!" cried someone. "There's somebody on him," added another.

"I'll bet the day's receipts that it's that rascally Phil Forrest," exclaimed Mr. Sparling, examining the cloud of dust with shaded eyes. "How in the world did it ever happen? I've been hunting all over the outfit for that boy this morning. Young Tucker said he thought Phil had remained behind, and I was afraid something had happened to the boy or that he had skipped the show. I might have known better. What's that back of him?"

"Somebody chasing them, boss," a tentman informed him.

"And they're going to catch old Emperor sure."

"Not if I know it," snapped Mr. Sparling. "Hey, Rube!" he howled.

Canvasmen, roustabouts, performers and everybody within reach of his voice swarmed out into the open, armed with clubs, stones and anything they could lay their hands upon.

"There's a posse trying to catch Phil Forrest and old Emperor. Get a going! Head them off and drive them back!"

Every man started on a run, some leaping on horses, clearing the circus lot, riding like so many cowboys. As they approached the lad perched on the bobbing head of the elephant the showmen set up a chorus of wild yells, to which Phil responded by waving his hat. He tried to stand up on Emperor's head, narrowly missing a tumble, which he surely would have taken had not the elephant given him quick support with the ever-handy trunk.

"They're shooting at me," cried Phil, as he swept by the showmen.

"Line up!" commanded Mr. Sparling.

His men stretched across the highway, with the mounted ones in front, his infantry behind. Soon the horsemen of the pursuing party came dashing up and brought their horses to a sudden stop.

"What do you want?"

"We demand the turning over of the elephant which one of your men stole from us. They've wrecked the blacksmith shop and there'll be a pretty bill of damages to pay! Come now, before we take you back with us."

Mr. Sparling grinned.

"Perhaps you don't know that you are in the State of Ohio at the present moment, eh? If you'll take my advice you'll turn about and get home as fast as horseflesh will carry you. My lawyer will be in your town today, and he will arrange for the payment of all just damages. We decline to be robbed, however. We've got the elephant and we're going to keep him."

"And we're going to have the boy that broke in and released him."

"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Mr. Sparling jovially. "I guess you'll have the liveliest scrimmage you ever had in all your lives if you attempt to lay hands on that boy. Come, now, get out of here! If you attempt to raise the slightest disturbance I'll have the bunch of you in the cooler, and we'll be the boys to put you there if the town officials don't act quickly enough."

"Boys, I guess it's up to us," decided the leader of the party.

"Looks that way."

"Then what do you say if we stop and see the show?"

"Good idea!"

"I don't care how many of you go to the show; but, mark me, it will cost you fifty cents a head, and at the first sign of disturbance you'll see the biggest bunch of trouble headed your way!"

"It's all right, Mr. Sparling. We admit we've been done."

And that was the end of it. Mr. Sparling's lawyer visited the town where the disturbance had occurred on the previous day, and at his client's direction made a settlement that should have been wholly satisfactory to the injured parties. Ordinarily the showman would not have settled the case, in view of the fact that neither he nor any of his employees was directly responsible for the series of disasters. He did it almost wholly on account of Phil Forrest, who had asked him to.

"Well, young man, I've paid the bills," announced Mr. Sparling that afternoon before the evening performance.

"Thank you," glowed Phil.

"Stop that! If there's any thanks in it, they're coming to you. Between you and the elephant we'll have another turn-away today. You have already put a good bit of money in my pocket, and I'm not forgetting it. I have made definite arrangements for you and your chum to have a berth in a closed wagon after this. You will be good enough to offer no objections this time. What I say goes."

"I hope I did not do anything wrong in taking Emperor away. I'm afraid my conscience has troubled me ever since. But I didn't intend to do anything wrong or to cause any further damage than already had been done."

"You did perfectly right, Forrest. That was a stroke of genius. As for damage, I tell you I have settled all of that. One of these days you come in when I'm not busy and we'll talk about next season. I want you to stay with me."

Phil left his employer, the lad's face flushed and his eyes sparkling. Altogether, he was a very happy boy. The only real cloud that had darkened his horizon was that anyone should feel such an enmity toward him as to desire to take his life; or, at least, to cause him so serious an injury as to put an end to the career that now seemed so promising.

"I know why, of course," mused the lad. "It was jealousy. I am more sure than ever as to the identity of the man who did it. When I get a good opportunity I am going to face him with it. I'm not afraid of the man. As it is, he might try it again; but if he understands that I know he will not dare try it, fearing I may have told someone else."

Having come to this wise conclusion, Phil proceeded to the big top, where he and Teddy Tucker were to take their afternoon practice on the flying rings, pausing on the way to pass a handful of peanuts to Emperor, who was again in his place, and give the elephant's trainer a happy nod.

"I've noticed of late that Signor Navaro acts rather grouchy over you boys working on his apparatus. You want to look out for these foreigners. Some of them are revengeful," cautioned Mr. Miaco.

Signor Navaro was the leading performer in the flying-rings act. With him was his young son, Rodney Palmer and a young girl performer, whose father was a clown in the show.

Phil shot a sharp glance at Mr. Miaco, then dropped his eyes.

"I guess nobody would be jealous of me," laughed the lad. "I'm only a beginner, and a clumsy one at that. All I can do is to ride an elephant and fall off, nearly killing myself."

"Nevertheless, you take my advice."

"I will, thank you."

The boys began their work after putting on their working clothes, consisting of old silk undershirts and linen trunks. This left them free for the full play of their muscles, which, by this time, were of exceptionally fine quality. Not big and bunchy, but like thin bands of pliable steel. Both Phil and Teddy appeared to have grown half a head taller since they joined out with the circus.

"Put a little more finish in that cutoff movement," directed their instructor. "The way you do it, Teddy, you remind me of a man trying to kick out a window. There, that's better."

And so it went on. Days came and went and the steady practice of the two circus boys continued, but if Mr. Sparling knew what they were doing he made no reference to it. He probably did know, for little went on in the Sparling Combined Shows that he was not aware of.

Nothing out of the routine occurred, until, late in the season, they pitched their tents in Canton, Ohio, when something happened that brought to a climax the certainty of the careers of the circus boys.

All day long the clouds had been threatening. But, though keen eyes were watching the scudding clouds, no apprehension was felt, as it was believed to be but a passing thunderstorm that was coming up.

The storm did not break until late in the afternoon when the show was more than half over. Phil had made his grand entry on Emperor, and Teddy had nearly sent the spectators into hysterics by his funny antics on the back of Jumbo, the educated mule.

All at once the circus men glanced aloft as the shrill whistle of the boss canvasman trilled somewhere outside the big top. The audience, if they heard, gave no heed. They were too much interested in the show.

To the showmen the whistle meant that the emergency gang was being summoned in haste to stake down emergency ropes to protect the tent from a windstorm that was coming up.

Phil took a quick survey of the upper part of the tent. Two acts were just beginning up there. A trapeze act was on, and the four performers were swinging out on the flying rings.

Both sets of performers were in rather perilous positions were the wind to blow very hard, as Phil well understood. He stepped off until he found a quarter pole at his back against which he leaned that he might watch the better the lofty performers.

All at once there was a blast against the big top that sounded as if a great blow had been delivered. The audience half rose. The tent shook from end to end.

"Sit down!" bellowed the ringmaster. "It's only a puff of wind."

Before the words were out of his mouth a piercing scream roused the audience almost to the verge of panic.

Phil, whose attention had been drawn to the people for the moment, shot a swift glance up into the somber haze of the peak of the big top.

Something had happened. But what?

"They're falling!" he gasped.

The blow had loosened nearly every bit of the aerial apparatus under the circus tent.

"There go the trapeze performers!"

Down they came, landing with a whack in the net with their apparatus tumbling after them. But they were out of the net in a twinkling, none the worse for their accident. Almost at the same moment there were other screams.

"There go the rings!"

There was no net under the flying ring performers. Two of them shot toward the ground. When they struck, one was on top of the other. The man at the bottom was Signor Navaro, his son having fallen prone across him. The two other performers in the act had grabbed a rope and saved themselves.

Men picked the two fallen performers up hastily and bore them to the dressing tent, where Phil hastened the moment he was sure that all danger of a panic had passed. The gust of wind had driven the clouds away and the sun flashed out brilliantly.

A moment later the performance was going on with a rush, the band playing a lively tune.

Phil, when he reached the dressing tent, learned that Signor Navaro was seriously hurt, though his son was suffering merely from shock. The father had sustained several broken bones.

Phil approached the injured performer and leaned over him. The man was conscious.

"I'm sorry, very sorry, sir," breathed the boy sympathetically.

"You needn't be. You'll get what you want," murmured the circus man.

"I don't understand," wondered Phil.

"You'll get my act."

"Is that what you think I have been working for?"

Signor Navaro nodded.

"You are mistaken. Of course, if you are not able to perform any more this season I shall try to get it, but when you are able to go to work I shall give it up willingly, even if I succeed in getting it during that time. Is that why you played that trick on me?" demanded the lad.

"You know?" questioned Signor Navaro, with a start.

Phil gave a slight nod.

"Why did you put the file in my trunk--the file you cut the wire with?"

"I thought I dropped it in my own trunk. Somebody surprised me and I was afraid they would catch me with it in my hand and suspect."

"That's what I thought."

"You are sharp. And you told no one?"

"No. But I had made up my mind to tell you. I didn't think it would have to be this way, though. I'm sorry it is."

"Well, I have my punishment. It served me right. I was crazed with jealousy. I--how is the boy?"

"Not badly hurt, I believe. He will be all right in a few days, and I hope you will be able to join out in a short time."

Signor Navaro extended a feeble hand, which Phil pressed softly.

"Forgive me, boy. Will you?"

"Yes," whispered Phil.

"And you will tell no--"

"There is nothing to tell, Signor Navaro. If there is anything I can do for you, tell me, and I shall have great happiness in doing it," breathed the lad.

A final grip of the hands of the boy and the injured performer followed, after which Phil Forrest stepped back to make way for the surgeon, who had hurried to a wagon to fetch his case.