Chapter VIII. In the Sawdust Arena
 

The lad repressed an inclination to cry out, for the thing that had encircled his waist and raised him up seemed to be tightening about him.

A familiar voice just behind him served to calm Phil's disquieted nerves.

"Don't be frightened, kid. It's only Emperor having a little joke. He's a funny fellow," said the elephant's attendant.

Phil had read somewhere that elephants possessed a keen sense of humor, and now he was sure of it. But he never thought he would have an opportunity to have the theory demonstrated on himself.

The elephants were on their way to participate in the grand entry, and there was not a minute to spare now. Emperor on his way into the other tent had come across his new-found friend and recognized him instantly, while Phil had not even heard the approach of the elephants.

No sooner had the elephant discovered the lad than he picked him up with his trunk, slowly hoisting the boy high in the air.

"Steady, Emperor! Steady!" cautioned the attendant. But Emperor needed no admonition to deal gently with his young friend. He handled Phil with almost the gentleness of a mother lifting a babe.

Phil Forrest experienced a thrill that ran all through him when he realized what was taking place.

"We can't stop to put you down now, my boy. You'll have to go through the performance with us. Grab the head harness when he lets you down on his head. You can sit on the head without danger, but keep hold of the harness with one hand. I'll bet you'll make a hit."

"I will if I fall off," answered Phil a bit unsteadily.

As it was, the unusual motion made him a little giddy.

"That's a good stunt. Stick to him, Forrest," directed a voice as they swept on toward the ring.

The voice belonged to Mr. Sparling, the owner of the show. He was quick to grasp the value of Phil's predicament--that is, its value to the show as a drawing card.

By now the people began to understand that something unusual was going on, and they asked each other what it was all about.

"It's Phil Forrest riding the elephant," shouted one of the lad's school friends, recognizing him all at once. "Hooray for Phil!"

There were many of the pupils from his school there, and the howling and shouting that greeted him made the lad's cheeks burn. But now, instead of wanting to crawl under something and hide, Phil felt a thrill of pleasure, of pride in the achievement that was denied to all the rest of his friends.

The inspiring music of the circus band, too, added to his exhilaration. He felt like throwing up his hands and shouting.

Suddenly he felt something tugging at his coat pocket, and glancing down gave a start as he discovered the inquisitive trunk of Emperor thrust deep down in the pocket.

When the trunk came away it brought with it a lump of sugar that Phil did not know he possessed. The sugar was promptly conveyed to the elephant's mouth, the beast uttering a loud scream of satisfaction.

"Emperor, you rascal!" laughed Phil, patting the beast on the head.

Once more the trunk curled up in search of more sugar, but a stern command from the trainer caused the beast to lower it quickly. The time for play had passed. The moment had arrived for Emperor to do his work and he was not the animal to shirk his act. In fact, he seemed to delight in it. All elephants work better when they have with them some human being or animal on which they have centered their affections. Sometimes it is a little black and tan dog, sometimes a full-grown man. In this instance it happened to be a boy, and that boy Phil Forrest.

"Waltz!" commanded the trainer.

If Phil's head had swum before, it spun like a top now. Round and round pirouetted the huge beasts, keeping in perfect step with the music of the band, and tighter and tighter did the lad grip the head harness of old Emperor. Phil closed his eyes after a little because he had grown so dizzy that he feared he would fall off.

"Hang on, kid. It'll be Christmas by and by," comforted the trainer humorously.

"That's what I am trying to do," answered Phil a bit unsteadily.

"How's your head?"

"Whirling like a merry-go-round."

He heard the trainer chuckling.

The spectators were shouting out Phil's name all over the big tent.

"Fine, fine!" chuckled James Sparling, rubbing his palms together. "That ought to fill the tent tonight."

The spectators realized, too, that they were being treated to something not down on the bills and their shouts and laughter grew louder and louder.

"Do you think you could stand up on his head?" came the voice of the trainer just loud enough for Phil to hear.

"Me? Stand on the elephant's head?"

"Yes. Think you can do it?"

"If I had a net underneath to catch me, maybe I'd try it."

"Emperor won't let you fall. When I give the word he'll wrap his trunk around your legs. That will hold you steady from the waist down. If you can keep the rest of yourself from lopping over you'll be all right. It'll make a hit--see if it don't."

"I--I'll try it."

"Wait till I give the word, then get up on all fours, but don't straighten up till you feel the trunk about you. We'll make a showman of you before you know it."

"I seem to be the whole show as it is," grumbled Phil.

"You are, just now--you and Emperor. Good thing the other performers are not in the ring, or they would all be jealous of you."

"I wish Uncle Abner could see me now. Wouldn't he be mad!" grinned Phil, as the memory of his crabbed relative came back to him. "He'd come right out after me with his stick, he'd be so angry. But I guess Emperor wouldn't let him touch me," decided the boy proudly, with an affectionate pat to which the elephant responded with a cough that sounded not unlike the explosion of a dynamite cartridge.

"All ready now. Don't be afraid. Hold each position till I give you the word to change it."

"Ready," announced the lad.

"Emperor! Jupiter!"

The twitching of a ponderous ear of each animal told that they had heard and understood.

"Rise!"

Phil had scrambled to all fours.

"Hold him, Emperor!"

The great trunk curled up, ran over the boy's legs and twined about them.

"Up you go, kid!"

Phil raised himself fearlessly, straightened and stood full upon his feet. That strong grip on his legs gave him confidence and told him he had nothing to fear. All he would have to do would be to keep his ears open for the trainer's commands both to himself and the beast, and he would be all right.

He felt himself going up again.

The sensation was something akin to that which Phil had once experienced when jumping off a haystack. He felt as if his whole body were being tickled by straws.

The elephants were rising on their hind legs, uttering shrill screams and mighty coughs, as if enraged over the humiliation that was being put upon them.

It seemed to Phil as if Emperor would never stop going up until the lad's head was against the top of the tent. He ventured to look down.

What a distance it was! Phil hastily directed his glances upward.

At last the elephant had risen as high as he could go. He was standing almost straight up and down, and on his head the slender figure of the boy appeared almost unreal to those off on the seats.

Thunders of applause swept over the assemblage. People rose up in their seats, the younger ones hurling hats high in the air and uttering catcalls and shrill whistles, until pandemonium reigned under the "big top," as the circus tent proper is called by the showmen.

"Swing your hat at them!"

The trainer had to shout to make himself heard, and as it was Phil caught the words as from afar off.

He took off his soft hat and waved it on high, gazing wonderingly off over the seats. He could distinguish nothing save a waving, undulating mass of moving life and color.

It was intoxicating. And Phil Forrest went suddenly dizzy again.

"I'm losing my head," rebuked the lad. "If I don't pull myself together I shall surely fall off. Then they will have something to laugh at rather than to applaud."

He took himself firmly in hand. But the applause did not abate one whit.

"Watch out, we're going down," warned the trainer.

"Right!"

The elephant trainer's command came out like the crack of a ringmaster's whip.

Slowly the great beasts lowered themselves toward the sawdust ring.

"Stoop over and grab the harness!"

Phil did so.

"Sit! Let go, Emperor!"

The trunk was released instantly and Phil plumped to the beast's head once more, amid the wildest applause.

The band swung into another tune, which was the signal for the next act to be brought on. At the same time the ringmaster blew a shrill blast on his whistle.

The trainer left the ring with his charges by an exit that he seldom departed through. But he did so in order to leave Phil near the place where his seats were, first having ascertained where these were located.

"Put him down, Emperor! Down, I say!"

Emperor reached up an unwilling trunk, grasped Phil about the waist and stood him on the ground. At the trainer's command the beast released his hold of his friend and as the hook was gently pressed against his side to hurry him, Emperor started reluctantly away.

Phil, with flushed face, a happy look in his eyes, had turned to run up the aisle to his seats, when, with a loud trumpeting, Emperor wheeled, and breaking away from his trainer, swept down toward the spot where he had left Phil Forrest.

The movement almost threw those in that section into a panic. Women screamed, believing the animal had suddenly gone crazy, while men sprang to their feet.

Phil had turned at the first alarm, and, observing what was taking place, with rare presence of mind trotted down to the arena again.

He reached there about the same time that Emperor did.

With a shrill scream Emperor threw his long trunk about the lad, and before Phil had time to catch his breath, he had been hurled to the elephant's back.

Uttering loud trumpetings the great elephant started on a swift shamble for his quarters, giving not the slightest heed to his trainer's commands to halt.