Chapter VI. Proving His Mettle
 

Familiar as they were with daring deeds, those of the circus people who witnessed Phil Forrest's dive gasped.

They expected to see the boy fall beneath the feet of the plunging pony, where he would be likely to be trampled and kicked to death.

But Phil had looked before he leaped. He had measured his distance well--had made up his mind exactly what he was going to do, or rather what he was going to try to do.

The pony, catching a brief glimpse of the dark figure that was being hurled through the air directly toward him, made a swift leap to one side. But the animal was not quick enough. The boy landed against the broncho with a jolt that nearly knocked the little animal over, while to Phil the impact could not have been much more severe, it seemed to him, had he collided with a locomotive.

"Hang on!" howled a voice from the wagon.

That was exactly what he intended to do.

The cloud of dust, with Mr. Sparling in the center of it, had not reached them, but his keen eyes already had observed what was going on.

"G-g-g-grab the woman!" shouted Phil.

His left arm had been thrown about the broncho's neck, while his right hand was groping frantically for the animal's nose. But during all this time the pony was far from idle. He was plunging like a ship in a gale, cracking the whip with Phil Forrest until it seemed as if every bone in the lad's body would be broken. He could hear his own neck snap with every jerk.

With a howl Miaco, the head clown, launched himself from the wagon, too. Darting in among the flying hoofs--there seemed to be a score of them--he caught the woman, jerked her foot free of the stirrup and dragged her quickly from her perilous position.

"She's free. Let go!" he roared to the boy holding the pony.

But by this time Phil had fastened his right hand on the pony's nostrils, and with a quick pressure shut off the animal's wind. He had heard the warning cry. The lad's grit had been aroused, however, and he was determined that he would not let go until he should have conquered the fighting broncho.

With a squeal of rage, the pony leaped sideways. A deep ditch led along by the side of the road, but this the enraged animal had not noticed. Into it he went, kicking and fighting, pieces of Phil's yellow robe streaming from his hoofs.

The lad's body was half under the neck of the pony, but he was clinging to the neck and the nose of the beast with desperate courage.

"Get the boy out of there!" thundered Mr. Sparling, dashing up and leaping from his pony. "Want to let him be killed?"

By this time others had ridden up, and some of the real horsemen in the outfit sprang off and rushed to Phil Forrest's assistance. Ropes were cast over the flying hoofs before the men thought it wise to get near them. Then they hauled Phil out, very much the worse for wear.

In the meantime Mr. Sparling's carriage had driven up and he was helping the woman in.

"Is the boy hurt?" he called.

"No, I'm all right, thank you," answered Phil, smiling bravely, though he was bruised from head to foot and his clothing hung in tatters. His peaked clown's cap someone picked up in a field over the fence and returned to him. That was about all that was left of Phil Forrest's gaudy makeup, save the streaks on his face, which by now had become blotches of white and red.

The clowns picked him up and boosted him to the wagon, jabbering like a lot of sparrows perched on a telephone wire.

"See you later!" shouted the voice of Mr. Sparling as he drove rapidly away.

Phil found his horn, and despite his aches and pains he began blowing it lustily. The story of his brave rescue had gone on ahead, however, and as the clowns' wagon moved on it was greeted by tremendous applause.

The onlookers had no difficulty in picking out the boy who had saved the woman's life, and somehow the word had been passed around as to his identity.

"Hooray for Phil Forrest!" shouted the multitude.

Phil flushed under the coating of powder and paint, and sought to crouch down in the wagon out of sight.

"Here, get up there where they can see you!" admonished a clown. "If you're going to be a showman you mustn't be afraid to get yourself in the spotlight."

Two of them hoisted the blushing Phil to their shoulders and broke into a rollicking song, swaying their bodies in imitation of the movements of an elephant as they sang.

At this the populace fairly howled with delight.

"He's the boy, even if he ain't purty to look at," jeered someone in the crowd.

"Handsome is as handsome does!" retorted a clown in a loud voice, and the people cheered.

After this the parade went on without further incident, though there could be no doubt that the exciting dash and rescue by one of their own boys had aroused the town to a high pitch of excitement. And the showmen smiled, for they knew what that meant.

"Bet we'll have a turn-away this afternoon," announced a clown.

"Looks that way," agreed another, "and all on account of the kid."

"What's a turn-away?" asked Phil.

"That's when there are more people want to get in than the tent will hold. And it means, too, that the boss will be good natured till it rains again, and the wagons get stuck in the mud so that we'll make the next town behind time. At such times he can make more noise than the steam calliope."

"He seems to me to be a pretty fine sort of a man, even if he is gruff," suggested Phil.

"The best ever," agreed several clowns. "You'll look a long way before you'll find a better showman, or a better man to his help, than Jim Sparling. Ever been in the show business, kid?"

Phil shook his head.

"Anybody'd think you always had been, the way you take hold of things. I'll bet you'll be in it before you are many years older."

"I'd like to," glowed the lad.

"Ask the boss."

"No, he wouldn't want me. There is nothing I could do now, I guess."

Further conversation was interrupted by the bugle's song announcing the disbanding of the parade, the right of the line having already reached the circus lot.

The clowns piled from the hayrack like a cataract, the cataract having all the colors of the rainbow.

Phil, not to be behind, followed suit, though he did not quite understand what the rush was about. He ran until he caught up with Miaco.

"What's the hurry about?" he questioned.

"Parade's over. Got to hurry and get dinner, so as to be ready for the afternoon performance."

All hands were heading for the dressing tent in a mad rush.

Phil was halted by the assistant manager.

The lad glanced down rather sheepishly at his costume, which was hanging in tatters, then up at the quizzically smiling face of the showman.

"I--I'm sorry I've spoiled it, sir, but I couldn't help it."

"Don't worry about that, young man. How did it happen?" he questioned, pretending not to know anything about the occurrence in which Phil had played a leading part.

"Well, you see, there was a horse ran away, and I happened to get in the way of it. I--"

"Yes, Forrest, I understand all about it. Somebody did something to that animal to make it run away and the boss is red headed over it."

"I--I didn't."

"No, that's right. It was lucky that there was one person in the parade who had some sense left, or there would have been a dead woman with this outfit," growled the assistant.

"Was she badly hurt?"

"No. Only bruised up a bit. These show people get used to hard knocks."

"I'm glad she is all right. Who is she?"

"Don't you know?"

"No."

"That was Mr. Sparling's wife whose life you saved, and I reckon the boss will have something to say to you when he gets sight of you again."