Chapter XVI. An Unexpected Promotion
 

Phil responded rather reluctantly. He would have much preferred to sit out in the paddock talking circus with Little Dimples.

He found Mr. Sparling striding up and down in front of the elephant enclosure.

"I hope nothing very serious happened, Mr. Sparling," greeted Phil, approaching him.

"If you mean damages, no. A few people knocked down, mostly due to their own carelessness. I've got the claim-adjuster at work settling with all we can get hold of. But we'll get it all back tonight, my boy. We'll have a turn-away this afternoon, too, unless I am greatly mistaken. Why, they're lining up outside the front door now."

"I'm glad for both these things," smiled Phil. "Especially so because no one was killed."

"No. But one of our bareback riders was put out of business for a time."

"Is that so? Who?"

"Monsieur Liebman."

"Oh, that's too bad. What happened to him?"

"Someone ran him down. He was thrown and sprained his ankle. He won't ride for sometime, I reckon. But come over here and sit down. I want to have a little chat with you."

Mr. Sparling crossed the tent, sitting down on a bale of straw just back of the monkey cage. The simians were chattering loudly, as if discussing the exciting incidents of the morning. But as soon as they saw the showman they flocked to the back of the cage, hanging by the bars, watching him to find out what he was going to do.

He made a place for Phil beside him.

"Sit down."

"Thank you."

"I was just running up in my mind, on my way back, that, in actual figures, you've saved me about ten thousand dollars. Perhaps it might be double that. But that's near enough for all practical purposes."

"I saved you--" marveled Phil, flushing.

"Yes."

"How?"

"Well, you began last year, and you have started off at the same old pace this season. Today you have gone and done it again. That was one of the nerviest things I ever saw. I wouldn't have given a copper cent for your life, and I'll bet you wouldn't, either."

"N-o-o," reflected Phil slowly, "I thought I was a goner."

"While the rest of our crowd were hiking for cover, like a lot of 'cold feet,' you were diving right into the heart of the trouble, picking up my principal equestrienne. Then you sent her away and stopped to face the herd of bulls. Jumping giraffes, but it was a sight!"

By this time the monkeys had gone back to finish their animated discussion.

"I do not deserve any credit for that. I was caught and I thought I might as well face the music."

"Bosh! I heard you calling for Emperor, and I knew right away that that little head of yours was working like the wheels of a chariot in a Roman race. I knew what you were trying to do, but I'd have bet a thousand yards of canvas you never would. You did, though," and the showman sighed.

Phil was very much embarrassed and sat kicking his heels into the soft turf, wishing that Mr. Sparling would talk about something else.

"The whole town is talking about it. I'm going to have the press agent wire the story on ahead. I told him, just before I came in, that if he'd follow you he'd get 'copy' enough to last him all the rest of his natural life. All that crowd out there has come because there was a young circus boy with the show, who had a head on his shoulders and the pluck to back his gray matter."

"Have you talked with Mr. Kennedy?" asked Phil, wishing to change the personal trend of the conversation.

"Yes; why?"

"Did he say what he thought was the matter with Jupiter?"

"He didn't know. He knew only that Jupiter had been 'off' for nearly two days. Kennedy said something about a bad stomach. Why do you ask that question?" demanded the showman, with a shrewd glance at the boy.

"Because I have been wondering about Jupiter quite a little since morning. I've been thinking, Mr. Sparling."

"Now what are you driving at? You've got something in your head. Out with it!"

"It may sound foolish, but--"

"But what?"

"While Jupiter was bad, he showed none of the signs that come from a fit of purely bad temper--that is, before the stampede."

"That's right."

"Then what brought it on?" asked Phil looking Mr. Sparling squarely in the eyes.

For a few seconds man and boy looked at each other without a word.

"What's your idea?" asked the showman quietly.

"It's my opinion that somebody doctored him--gave him something--"

The showman uttered a long, low whistle.

"You've hit it! You've hit it!" he exclaimed, bringing a hand down on the lad's knee with such force that Phil winced. "It's one of those rascally canvasmen that I discharged. Oh, if ever I get my hands on him it will be a sorry day for him! You haven't seen him about, have you?"

"I thought I caught a glimpse of him on the street yesterday during the parade, but he disappeared so quickly that I could not be sure."

Mr. Sparling nodded reflectively.

"You probably heard how Emperor ducked him and--"

"Yes; you remember I came up just after the occurrence. I'll tell you what I want you to do."

"Yes?"

"I'll release you from the parade for tomorrow, and perhaps longer, and I want you to spend your time moving around among the downtown crowds to see if you can spot him. If you succeed, well you will know what to do."

"Want me to act as a sort of detective?" grinned Phil.

"Well, you might put it that way, but I don't. You are serving me if--"

"Yes; I know that. I am glad to serve you in any way I can."

"I don't have to take your word for that," laughed Mr. Sparling. "I think you have shown me. I have been thinking of another matter. It has been in my mind for several days."

Phil glanced up inquiringly.

"How would you like to come out front?"

"You mean?"

"To join my staff? I need someone just like you--a young man with ideas, with the force to put them into execution after he has developed them. You are the one I want."

"But, Mr. Sparling--"

"Wait till I get through. You can continue with your acts if you wish, just the same, and give your odd moments to me."

"In what capacity?"

"Well, for the want of a better name we'll call it a sort of confidential man."

"I appreciate the offer more than I can tell you, Mr. Sparling. But--but--"

"But what?"

"I want to go through the mill in the ring. I want to learn to do everything that almost anyone can do there."

The showman laughed.

"Then you would be able to do what few men ever have succeeded in doing. You would be a wonder. I'm not saying that you are not that already, in your way. But you would be a wonder among showmen."

"I can do quite a lot of things now."

"I know you can. And you will. What do you say?"

"It's funny, but since you told me of the accident to your bareback man, I was going to ask you something."

"What?"

"Rather, I was going to suggest--"

"Well, out with it!"

"I was going to suggest that you let me fill in his place until he is able to work again. It would save you the expense of getting a new performer on, and would hold the job for the present man."

"You, a bareback rider?"

Phil nodded.

"But you can't ride!"

"But I can," smiled the lad. "I've been at it almost ever since we started the season. I've been working every day."

"Alone?"

"No. Mrs. Robinson has been teaching me. Of course, I am not much of a rider, but I can manage to stick on somehow."

The manager was regarding him thoughtfully.

"As I have intimated strongly before this, you beat anything I ever have seen in all my circus experience. You say you can ride bareback?"

"Yes."

"I should like to see what you can do. Mind you, I'm not saying I'll let you try it in public. Just curious, you know, to see what you have been doing."

"Now--will you see me ride now?"

Mr. Sparling nodded.

"Then I'll run back and get ready. I'll be out in a few minutes," laughed the boy, as, with sparkling eyes and flushed face, he dashed back to the dressing tent to convey the good news to Little Dimples.

"I knew it," she cried enthusiastically. "I knew you would be a rival soon. Now I've got to look out or I shall be out of a job in no time. Hurry up and get your working clothes on. I'll have the gray out by the time you are ready."

Twenty minutes later Phil Forrest presented himself in the ring, with Little Dimples following, leading the old gray ring horse.

"Come up to ring No. 2," directed the owner. "They haven't leveled No. 1 down yet. How's this? Don't you use the back pad to ride on?" questioned Mr. Sparling in a surprised tone.

"No, sir. I haven't used the pad at all yet."

"Very well; I'm ready to see you fall off."

Phil sprang lightly to the back of the ring horse while Dimples, who had brought a ringmaster's whip with her, cracked the whip and called shrilly to her horse. The old gray fell into its accustomed easy gallop, Phil sitting lightly on the animal's hip, moving up and down with the easy grace of a finished rider.

After they had swept twice around the ring, the boy sprang to his feet, facing ahead, and holding his short crop in both hands, leaning slightly toward the center of the ring, treading on fairy feet from one end of the broad back to the other.

Next he varied his performance by standing on one foot, holding the other up by one hand, doing the same graceful step that he had on both feet a moment before.

Now he tried the same feats riding backwards, a most difficult performance for any save a rider of long experience.

Mrs. Robinson became so absorbed in his riding that she forgot to urge the gray along or to crack the whip. The result was that the old horse stopped suddenly.

Phil went right on. He was in a fair way to break his neck, as he was plunging toward the turf head first.

"Ball!" she cried, meaning to double oneself up into as near an approach to a round ball as was possible.

But Phil already had begun to do this very thing. And he did another remarkable feat at the same time. He turned his body in the air so that he faced to the front, and the next instant landed lightly on his feet outside the ring.

Phil blew a kiss to the amazed owner, turning back to the ring again.

By this time Mrs. Robinson had placed the jumping board in the ring--a short piece of board, one end of which was built up about a foot from the ground. Then she started the ring horse galloping again.

Phil, measuring his distance, took a running start and vaulted, landing on his feet on the animal's back, then, urging his mount on to a lively gallop about the sawdust ring, he threw himself into a whirlwind of graceful contortions and rapid movements, adding some of his own invention to those usually practiced by bareback riders.

Phil dropped to the hip of the gray, his face flushed with triumph, his eyes sparkling.

"How is it, Mr. Sparling?" he called.

The showman was clapping his hands and clambering down the aisle from his position near the top row of seats.

"You don't mean to tell me you have never tried bareback riding before this season?" he demanded.

"No, sir; this is my first experience."

"Then all I have to say is that you will make one of the finest bareback riders in the world if you keep on. It is marvelous, marvelous!"

"Thank you," glowed the lad. "But if there is any credit coming to anyone it is due to Mrs. Robinson. She taught me how to do it," answered Phil gallantly.

Little Dimples shook a small, brown fist at him.

"He knows how to turn a pretty compliment as well as he knows how to ride, Mr. Sparling," bubbled Dimples. "You should just hear the nice things he said to me back in the paddock," she teased.

Phil blushed furiously.

"Shall I ride again?" he asked.

"Not necessary," answered the owner. "But, by the way, you might get up and do a somersault. Do a backward turn with the horse at a gallop," suggested Mr. Sparling, with a suspicion of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

"A somersault?" stammered Phil, somewhat taken back. "Why--I-- I--I guess I couldn't do that; I haven't learned to do that yet."

"Not learned to do it? I am surprised."

Phil looked crestfallen.

"I am surprised, indeed, that there is one thing in this show that you are unable to do." The manager broke out into a roar of laughter, in which Little Dimples joined merrily.

"May I go on?" asked the lad somewhat apprehensively.

"May you? May you? Why, I--"

At that moment Teddy Tucker came strolling lazily in with a long, white feather tucked in the corner of his mouth.

The showman's eyes were upon it instantly.

"What have you there?" he demanded.

"Feather," answered Teddy thickly.

"I see it. Where did you get it?"

"Pulled it out of the pelican's tail. Going to make a pen of it to use when I write to the folks at Edmeston," answered the boy carelessly.

"You young rascal!" thundered Mr. Sparling. "What do you mean by destroying my property like that? I'll fine you! I'll teach you!"

"Oh, it didn't hurt the pelican any. Besides, he's got more tail than he can use in his business, anyway."

"Get out of here!" thundered the manager in well-feigned anger. "I'll forget myself and discharge you first thing you know. What do you want?"

"I was going to ask you something," answered Teddy slowly.

"You needn't. You needn't. It won't do you any good. What is it you were going to ask me?"

"I was going to ask you if I might go in the leaping act."

"The leaping act?"

"Yes, sir. The one where the fellows jump over the elephants and--"

"Ho, ho, ho! What do you think of that, Phil? What do you--"

"I can do it. You needn't laugh. I've done it every day for three weeks. I can jump over four elephants and maybe five, now. I can--"

"Yes, I have seen him do it, Mr. Sparling," vouched Phil. "He is going to make a very fine leaper."

The showman removed his broad sombrero, wiped the perspiration from his brow, glancing from one to the other of the Circus Boys.

"May I?"

"Yes, yes. Go ahead. Do anything you want to. I'm only the hired man around here anyhow," snapped the showman, jamming his hat down over his head and striding away, followed by the merry laughter of Little Dimples.