Chapter II. On the Road Once More
 

All was bustle and excitement.

Men were rushing here and there, shouting out hoarse commands. Elephants were trumpeting shrilly, horses neighing; while, from many a canvas-wrapped wagon savage beasts of the jungle were emitting roar upon roar, all voicing their angry protest at being removed from the winter quarters where they had been at rest for the past six months.

The Great Sparling Combined Shows were moving out for their long summer's journey. The long trains were being rapidly loaded when Phil Forrest and Teddy Tucker arrived on the scene late in the afternoon.

It was all new and strange to them, unused as they were to the ways of a railroad show. Their baggage had been sent on ahead of them, so they did not have that to bother with. Each carried a suitcase, however, and the boys were now trying to find someone in authority to ask where they should go and what they should do.

"Hello, Phil, old boy!" howled a familiar voice.

"Who's that?" demanded Teddy.

"Why, it's Rod Palmer, our working mate on the rings!" cried Phil, dropping his bag and darting across the tracks, where he had espied a shock of very red hair that he knew could belong only to Rodney Palmer.

Teddy strolled over with rather more dignity.

"Howdy?" he greeted just as Phil and the red-haired boy were wringing each other's hands. "Anybody'd think you two were long lost brothers."

"We are, aren't we, Rod?" glowed Phil.

"And we have been, ever since you boys showed me the brook where I could wash my face back in that tank town where you two lived. That was last summer. Seems like it was yesterday."

"Yes, and we work together again, I hear? I'm glad of that. I guess you've been doing something this winter," decided Rodney, after a critical survey of the lads. "You sure are both in fine condition. Quite a little lighter than you were last season, aren't you, Phil?"

"No; I weigh ten pounds more."

"Then you must be mighty hard."

"Hard as a keg of nails, but I hope not quite so stiff," laughed Phil.

"What you been working at?"

"Rings, mostly. We've done some practicing on the trapeze. What did you do all winter?"

"Me? Oh, I joined a team that was playing vaudeville houses. I was the second man in a ring act. Made good money and saved most of it. Why didn't you join out for the vaudeville?"

"We spent our winter at school," answered Phil.

"That's a good stunt at that. In the tank town, I suppose?" grinned the red-haired boy.

"You might call it that, but it's a pretty good town, just the same," replied Phil. "I saw many worse ones while we were out last season."

"And you'll see a lot more this season. Wait till we get to playing some of those way-back western towns. I was out there with a show once, and I know what I'm talking about. Where are you berthed?"

"I don't know," answered Phil. "Where are you?"

"Car number fourteen. Haven't seen the old man, then?"

"Mr. Sparling? No. And I want to see him at once. Where shall I find him?"

"He was here half an hour ago. Maybe he's in his office."

"Where is that?"

"Private car number one. Yes; the old man has his own elegant car this season. He's living high, I tell you. No more sleeping out in an old wagon that has no springs. It will be great to get into a real bed every night, won't it?"

Teddy shook his head doubtfully.

"I don't know 'bout that."

"I should think it would be pretty warm on a hot night," nodded Phil.

"And what about the rainy nights?" laughed Rodney. "Taking it altogether, I guess I'll take the Pullman for mine--"

"There goes Mr. Sparling now," interjected Teddy.

"Where?"

"Just climbing aboard a car. See him?"

"That's number one," advised Rodney. "Better skip, if you want to catch him. He's hard to land today. There's a lot for him to look after."

"Yes; come on, Teddy. Get your grip," said Phil, hurrying over to where he had dropped his suitcase.

"But it's going to be a great show," called Rodney.

"Especially the flying-ring act," laughed Phil.

A few minutes later both boys climbed aboard the private car, and, leaving their bags on the platform, pushed open the door and entered.

Mr. Sparling was seated at a roll-top desk in an office-like compartment, frowning over some document that he held in his hand.

The boys waited until he should look up. He did so suddenly, peering at them from beneath his heavy eyebrows. Phil was not sure, from the showman's expression, whether he had recognized them or not. Mr. Sparling answered this question almost at once.

"How are you, Forrest? Well, Tucker, I suppose you've come back primed to put my whole show to the bad, eh?"

"Maybe," answered Teddy carelessly.

"Oh, maybe, eh? So that's the way the flag's blowing, is it? Well, you let me catch you doing it and--stand up here, you two, and let me look at you."

He gazed long and searchingly at the Circus Boys, noting every line of their slender, shapely figures.

"You'll do," he growled.

"Yes, sir," answered Phil, smiling.

"Shake hands."

Mr. Sparling thrust out both hands toward them with almost disconcerting suddenness.

"Ouch!" howled Teddy, writhing under the grip the showman gave him, but if Phil got a pressure of equal force he made no sign.

"Where's your baggage?"

"We sent our trunks on yesterday. I presume they are here somewhere, sir."

"If they're not in your car, let me know."

"If you will be good enough to tell me where our car is I will find out at once."

The showman consulted a typewritten list.

"You are both in car number eleven. The porter will show you the berths that have been assigned to you, and I hope you will both obey the rules of the cars."

"Oh, yes, sir," answered Phil.

"I know you will, but I'm not so sure of your fat friend here. I think it might be a good plan to tie him in his berth, or he'll be falling off the platform some night, get under the wheels and wreck the train."

"I don't walk in my sleep," answered Teddy.

"Oh, you don't?"

"I don't."

Mr. Sparling frowned; then his face broke out into a broad smile.

"I always said you were hopeless. Run along, and get settled now. You understand that you will keep your berth all season, don't you?"

"Yes, sir. What time do we go out?"

"One section has already gone. The next and last will leave tonight about ten o'clock. We want to make an early start, for the labor is all green. It'll take three times as long to put up the rag as usual."

"The rag? What's the rag?" questioned Teddy.

"Beg pardon," mocked Mr. Sparling. "I had forgotten that you are still a Reuben. A rag is a tent, in show parlance."

"Oh!"

"Any orders after we get settled?" asked Phil.

"Nothing for you to do till parade time tomorrow. You will look to the same executives that you did last year. There has been no change in them."

The lads hurried from the private car, and after searching about the railroad yard for fully half an hour they came upon car number eleven. This was a bright, orange-colored car with the name of the Sparling Shows painted in gilt letters near the roof, just under the eaves. The smell of fresh paint was everywhere, but the wagons being covered with canvas made it impossible for them to see how the new wagons looked. There were many of these loaded on flat cars, with which the railroad yard seemed to be filled.

"Looks bigger than Barnum & Bailey's," nodded Teddy, feeling a growing pride that he was connected with so great an organization.

"Not quite, I guess," replied Phil, mounting the platform of number eleven.

The boys introduced themselves to the porter, who showed them to their berths. These were much like those in the ordinary sleeper, except that the upper berths had narrow windows looking out from them. Across each berth was stretched a strong piece of twine.

Phil asked the porter what the string was for.

"To hang your trousers on, sah," was the enlightening answer. "There's hooks for the rest of your clothes just outside the berths."

"This looks pretty good to me," said Phil, peering out through the screened window of his berth.

"Reminds me of when I used to go to sleep in the woodbox behind the stove where I lived last year in Edmeston," grumbled Teddy in a muffled voice, as he rummaged about his berth trying to accustom himself to it. Teddy never had ridden in a sleeping car, so it was all new and strange to him.

"Say, who sleeps upstairs?" he called to the porter.

"The performers, sah--some of them. This heah is the performers' car, sah."

"How do they get up there? On a rope ladder?"

Phil shouted.

"You ninny, this isn't a circus performance. No; of course they don't climb up on a rope ladder as if they were starting a trapeze act."

"How, then?"

"The porter brings out a little step ladder, and it's just like walking upstairs, only it isn't."

"Huh!" grunted Teddy. "Do they have a net under them all night?"

"A net? What for?"

"Case they fall out of bed."

"Put him out!" shouted several performers who were engaged in settling themselves in their own quarters. "He's too new for this outfit."

Phil drew his companion aside and read him a lecture on not asking so many questions, advising Teddy to keep his ears and eyes open instead.

Teddy grumbled and returned to the work of unpacking his bag.

Inquiry for their trunks developed the fact that they would have to look for these in the baggage car; that no trunks were allowed in the sleepers.

Everything about the car was new and fresh, the linen white and clean, while the wash room, with its mahogany trimmings, plate glass mirrors and upholstered seats, was quite the most elaborate thing that Teddy had ever seen.

He called to Phil to come and look at it.

"Yes, it is very handsome. I am sure we shall get to be very fond of our home on wheels before the season is ended. I'm going out now to see if our trunks have arrived."

Phil, after some hunting about, succeeded in finding the baggage man of the train, from whom he learned that the trunks had arrived and were packed away in the baggage car.

By this time night had fallen. With it came even greater confusion, while torches flared up here and there to light the scene of bustle and excitement.

It was all very confusing to Phil, and he was in constant fear of being run down by switching engines that were shunting cars back and forth as fast as they were loaded, rapidly making up the circus train. The Circus Boy wondered if he ever could get used to being with a railroad show.

"I must be getting back or I shall not be able to find number eleven," decided Phil finally. "I really haven't the least idea where it is now."

The huge canvas-covered wagons stood up in the air like a procession of wraiths of the night, muttered growls and guttural coughs issuing from their interiors. All this was disturbing to one not used to it.

Phil started on a run across the tracks in search of his car.

In the meantime Teddy Tucker, finding himself alone, had sauntered forth to watch the loading, and when he ventured abroad trouble usually followed.

The lad soon became so interested in the progress of the work that he was excitedly shouting out orders to the men, offering suggestions and criticisms of the way they were doing that work.

Now, most of the men in the labor gang were new--that is, they had not been with the Sparling show the previous season, and hence did not know Teddy by sight. After a time they tired of his running fire of comment. They had several times roughly warned him to go on about his business. But Teddy did not heed their advice, and likewise forgot all about that which Phil had given him earlier in the evening.

He kept right on telling the men how to load the circus, for, if there was one thing in the world that Teddy Tucker loved more than another it was to "boss" somebody.

All at once the lad felt himself suddenly seized from behind and lifted off his feet. At the same time a rough hand was clapped over his mouth.

The Circus Boy tried to utter a yell, but he found it impossible for him to do so. Teddy kicked and fought so vigorously that it was all his captor could do to hold him.

"Come and help me. We'll fix the fresh kid this time," called the fellow in whose grip the lad was struggling.

"What's the matter, Larry? Is he too much for you?" laughed the other man.

"He's the biggest little man I ever got my fists on. Gimme a hand here."

"What are you going to do with him?"

"I'll show you in a minute."

"Maybe he's with the show. He's slippery enough to be a performer."

"No such thing. And I don't care if he is. I'll teach him not to interfere with the men. Grab hold and help me carry him."

Together they lifted the kicking, squirming, fighting boy, carrying him on down the tracks, not putting him down until they had reached the standpipe of a nearby water tank, where the locomotives took on their supply of fresh water.

"Jerk that spout around!" commanded Larry, sitting down on Tucker with a force that made the lad gasp.

"Can't reach the chain."

"Then get a pike pole, and be quick about it. The foreman will be looking for us first thing we know. If he finds us here he'll fire us before we get started."

"See here, Larry, what are you going to do?" demanded the other suspiciously.

"My eyes, but you're inquisitive! Going to wash the kid down. Next time mebby he won't be so fresh."

And "wash" they did.

Suddenly the full stream from the standpipe spurted down. Larry promptly let go of his captive. Teddy was right in the path of the downpour, and the next instant he was struggling in the flood.

The showman dropped him and started to run.

Teddy let out a choking howl, grasping frantically for his tormentor. A moment later the lad's hands closed over Larry's ankles, and before the man was able to free himself from the boy's grip Teddy had pulled him down and dragged him under the stream that was pouring down in a perfect deluge. The Circus Boy, being strong and muscular, was able to accomplish this with slight exertion.

Larry's companion was making no effort to assist his fallen comrade. Instead, the fellow was howling with delight.

No sooner, however, had Teddy raised the man and slammed him down on his back under the spout, than the lad let go of his victim and darted off into the shadows. Teddy realized that it was high time he was leaving.

The man, fuming with rage, uttering loud-voiced threats of vengeance, scrambled out of the flood and began rushing up and down the tracks in search of Teddy.

But the boy was nowhere to be found. He had hastily climbed over a fence, where he crouched, dripping wet, watching the antics of the enraged Larry.

"Guess he won't bother another boy right away," grinned Teddy, not heeding his own wet and bedraggled condition.

The two showmen finally gave up their quest, and all at once started on a run in the opposite direction.

"Now, I wonder what's made them run away like that? Surely they aren't scared of me. I wonder? Guess I'll go over and find out."

Leaving his hiding place, the lad retraced his steps across the tracks until finally, coming up with a man, who proved to be the superintendent of the yard, Teddy asked him where sleeping car number eleven was located.

"Eleven? The sleepers have all gone, young man."

"G-g-gone?"

"Yes."

"But I thought--"

"Went out regular on the 9:30 express."

Teddy groaned. Here he was, left behind before the show had all gotten away from its winter quarters. But he noted that the train bearing the cages and other equipment was still in the yard. There was yet a chance for him.

"Wha--what time does that train go?" he asked pointing to the last section.

"Going now. Why, what's the matter with you youngster? The train is moving now."

"Going? The matter is that I've got to go with them," cried the lad, suddenly darting toward the moving train.

"Come back here! Come back! Do you want to be killed?"

"I've got to get on that train!" Teddy shouted back at the superintendent.

The great stock cars were rumbling by as the boy drew near the track, going faster every moment. By the light of a switch lamp Teddy could make out a ladder running up to the roof of one of the box cars.

He could hear the yard superintendent running toward him shouting.

"He'll have me, if I don't do something. Then I will be wholly left," decided Teddy. "I'm going to try it."

As the big stock car slipped past him the lad sprang up into the air, his eyes fixed on the ladder. His circus training came in handy here, for Teddy hit the mark unerringly, though it had been considerably above his head. The next second his fingers closed over a rung of the ladder, and there he hung, dangling in the air, with the train now rushing over switches, rapidly gaining momentum as it stretched out headed for the open country.