Chapter XIX. Marooned in a Freight Car
 

"Catch him! Catch him! Catch that man!"

The parade was just passing when Phil shouted out the words that attracted all eyes toward him. It was to a policeman that he appealed.

The lad had discovered a shock of red hair above the heads of the people, and was gradually working his way toward the owner of it, when all at once Red Larry discovered him.

Red pushed his way through the crowd and disappeared down an alleyway, the policeman to whom the boy had appealed making no effort to catch the man.

"What kind of a policeman are you, anyway?" cried Phil in disgust. "That fellow is a crook, and we have been on the lookout for him for the last four weeks."

"What's he done?"

"Done? Tried to poison one of the elephants, and a lot of other things."

"The kid's crazy or else he belongs to the circus," laughed a bystander.

Phil Forrest did not hear the speaker, however, for the boy had dashed through the crowd and bounded into the alley where he had caught a glimpse of a head of red hair a moment before.

But Larry was nowhere in sight. He had disappeared utterly.

"I was right," decided Phil, after going the length of the alley and back. "He's been following this show right along, and before he gets through he'll put us out of business if we don't look sharp."

Considerable damage already had been done. Horses and other animals fell ill, in some instances with every evidence of poisoning; guy ropes were cut, and the cars had been tampered with in the railroad yards.

All this was beginning to get on the nerves of the owner of the show, as well as on those of some of his people who knew about it. Things had come to a point where it was necessary to place more men on guard about the lot to protect the show's property.

At each stand of late efforts had been made to get the police to keep an eye open for one Red Larry, but police officials do not, as a rule, give very serious heed to the complaints of a circus, especially unless the entire department has been pretty well supplied with tickets. Mr. Sparling was a showman who did not give away many tickets unless there were some very good reason for so doing.

Phil, in the meantime, had been at work in an effort to satisfy his own belief that Larry was responsible for their numerous troubles. Yet up to this moment the lad had not caught sight of Red; and now he had lost the scoundrel through the laxity of a policeman.

There was no use "crying over spilled milk," as Phil told himself.

The lad spent the next hour in tramping over the town where the circus was to show that day. He sought everywhere for Red, but not a sign of the fellow was to be found.

As soon as the parade was over Phil hastened back to the lot to acquaint Mr. Sparling with what he suspected.

"Do you know," said Phil, "I believe that fellow and his companion are riding on one of our trains every night?"

"What?" exclaimed the showman.

"You'll find I'm right when the truth is known. Then there's something else. There have been a lot of complaints about sneak thieves in the towns we have visited since Red left us. You can't tell. There may be some connection between these robberies and his following the show. I'm going to get Larry before I get through with this chase."

"Be careful, Phil. He is a bad man. You know what to expect from him if he catches you again."

"I am not afraid. I'll take care of myself if I see him coming. The trouble is that Red doesn't go after a fellow that way."

Phil went on in his three acts as usual that afternoon, after having spent an hour at the front door taking tickets, to which task he had assigned himself soon after his talk with Mr. Sparling.

It was instructive; it gave the boy a chance to see the people and to get a new view of human nature. If there is one place in the world where all phases of human nature are to be found, that place is the front door of a circus.

The Circus Boys, by this time, had both fitted into their new acts as if they had been doing them for years--Phil doing the bareback riding and Teddy tumbling in the leaping act, both lads gaining the confidence and esteem more and more every day of their fellow performers and the owner of the show.

That night, after the performance was ended, Phil stood around for a time, watching the men at work pulling down the tent. He had another motive, too. He had thought that perchance he might see something of the man he was in search of, for no better time could be chosen to do damage to circus property than when the canvas was being struck.

Then everyone was too busy to pay any attention to anyone else. Teddy had gone on to pay his usual evening visit to the accommodation car and at the same time make miserable the existence of the worthy who presided over that particular car.

Phil waited until nearly twelve o'clock; then, deciding that it would be useless to remain there longer, turned his footsteps toward the railroad yards, for he was tired and wanted to get to bed as soon as possible.

He found the way readily, having been over to the car once during the morning while out looking for Red Larry. The night was very dark, however, and the yards, at the end from which he approached them, were enshrouded in deep shadows.

On down the tracks Phil could see the smoking torches where the men were at work running the heavy cages and canvas wagons up on the flat cars. Men were shouting and yelling, the usual accompaniment to this proceeding, while crowds of curious villagers were massed about the sides of the yard at that point, watching the operations.

"That's the way I used to sit up and watch the circus get out of town," mused Phil, grinning broadly, as he began hunting for the sleeper where his berth was.

All at once the lights seemed to disappear suddenly from before his eyes. Phil felt himself slowly settling to the ground. He tried to cry out, but could not utter a sound.

Then the lad understood that he was being grasped in a vise-like grip. That was the last he knew.

When Phil finally awakened he was still in deep, impenetrable darkness. The train was moving rapidly, but there seemed to the boy to be something strange and unusual in his surroundings. His berth felt hard and unnatural. For a time he lay still with closed eyes, trying to recall what had happened. There was a blank somewhere, but he could not find it.

"Funny! This doesn't seem like No. 11. If it is, we must be going over a pretty rough stretch of road."

He put out both hands cautiously and groped about him. Phil uttered an exclamation of surprise.

"Good gracious, I'm on the floor. I must have fallen out of bed."

Then he realized that this could not be the case, because there was a carpet on the floor of No. 11.

This was a hard, rough floor on which he was lying, and the air was close, very different from that in the well-kept sleeping car in which he traveled nightly from stand to stand.

In an effort to get to his feet the lad fell back heavily. His head was swimming dizzily, and how it did ache!

"I wonder what has happened?" Forrest thought out loud. "Maybe I was struck by a train. No; that couldn't be the case, or I should not be here. But where am I? I might be in one of the show cars, but I don't believe there is an empty car on the train."

As soon as Phil felt himself able to sit up he searched through his pockets until he found his box of matches, which he always carried now, as one could not tell at what minute they might be needed.

Striking a light, he glanced quickly about him; then the match went out.

"I'm in a freight car," he gasped. "But where, where?"

There was no answer to this puzzling question. Phil struggled to his feet, and, groping his way to the door, began tugging at it to get it open. The door refused to budge.

"Locked! It's locked on the outside! What shall I do? What shall I do?" he cried.

Phil sat down weak and dizzy. There was nothing, so far as he could see, that could be done to liberate himself from his imprisonment. Chancing to put his hand to his head, he discovered a lump there as large as a goose egg.

"I know--let me think--something--somebody must have hit me an awful crack. Now I remember--yes, I remember falling down in the yard there just as if something had struck me. Who could have done such a cruel thing?"

Phil thought and thought, but the more he thought about it the more perplexed did he become. All at once he started up, with a sudden realization that the train was slowing down. He could hear the air brakes grating and grinding and squealing against the car wheels below him, until finally the train came to a dead stop.

"Now is my chance to make somebody hear," Phil cried, springing up and groping for the door again.

He shouted at the top of his voice, then beat against the heavy door with fists and feet, but not a sign could he get that anyone heard him.

As a matter of fact, no one was near him at that moment. The long freight train had stopped at a water tank far out in the country, and the trainmen were at the extreme ends of the train.

In a few moments the train started with such a jerk that Forrest was thrown off his feet. He sprang up again, hoping that the train might be going past a station there, and that someone might hear him. Then he began rattling at and kicking the door again.

It was all to no purpose.

Finally, in utter exhaustion, the lad sank to the floor, soon falling into a deep sleep. How long he slept he did not know when at last he awakened.

"Why, the train has stopped," Forrest exclaimed, suddenly sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Now I ought to make somebody hear me because it's daylight. I can see the light underneath the door. I'll try it again."

He did try it, hammering at the door and shouting at intervals during the long hours that followed. Once more he lighted matches and began examining his surroundings with more care. Phil discovered a trap door in the roof, but it was closed.

"If only there were a rope hanging down, I'd be up there in no time," he mused. I wonder if I couldn't climb up and hang to the braces. I might reach it in that way. I'm going to try it."

Deciding upon this, the Circus Boy, after no little effort, succeeded in climbing up to one of the side braces in the car. From the plates long, narrow beams extended across the car, thus supporting the roof. Choosing two that led along near the trap, Phil, after a few moments' rest, gripped one firmly in each hand from the underside and began swinging himself along almost as if he were traveling on a series of traveling rings, but with infinitely more effort and discomfort.

His hands were aching frightfully, and he knew that he could hold on but a few seconds longer.

"I've got to make it," he gasped, breathing hard.

At last he had reached the goal. Phil released one hand and quickly extended it to the trap door frame.

There was not a single projection there to support him, nor to which he might cling. His hand slipped away, suddenly throwing his weight upon the hand grasping the roof timber. The strain was too much. Phil Forrest lost his grip and fell heavily to the floor.

But this time he did not rise. The lad lay still where he had fallen.