Chapter XX. The Barnyard Circus
 

When next Phil opened his eyes he was lying on the grass on the shady side of a freight car with someone dashing water in his face, while two or three others stood around gazing at him curiously.

"Whe--where am I?" gasped the boy.

"I reckon you're lucky to be alive," laughed the man who had been soaking him from a pail of water. "Who be ye?"

"My name is Phil Forrest."

"How'd ye git in that car? Stealing a ride, eh? Reckon we'd better hand ye over to the town constable. It's again the law to steal rides on freight trains."

"I've not stolen a ride. It's no such thing," protested Phil indignantly.

"Ho, ho, that's a rich one! Paid yer fare, hey? Riding like a gentleman in a side-door Pullman. Good, ain't it, fellows?"

"Friends, I assure you I am not a tramp. Someone assaulted me and locked me in that car last night. I've got money in my pocket to prove that I am not a tramp."

The lad thrust his hands into his trousers' pockets, then a blank expression overspread his face. Reaching to his vest to see if his watch were there, he found that that, too, was missing.

"I've been robbed," he gasped. "That's what it was. Somebody robbed and threw me into this car last night. See, I've got a lump on my head as big as a man's fist."

"He sure has," agreed one of the men. "Somebody must a given him an awful clout with a club."

"What town is this, please?"

"Mexico, Missouri."

"Mexico?"

"Yes."

"How far is it from St. Joseph?"

"St. Joseph? Why, I reckon St. Joe is nigh onto a hundred and fifty miles from here."

Phil groaned.

"A hundred and fifty miles and not a cent in my pocket! What shall I do? Can I send a telegram? Where is the station?"

"Sunday. Station closed."

"Sunday? That's so."

Phil walked up and down between the tracks rather unsteadily, curiously observed by the villagers. They had heard his groans in the freight car on the siding as they passed, and had quickly liberated the lad.

"Do you think I could borrow enough money somewhere here to get me to St. Joseph? I would send it back by return mail."

The men laughed long and loud.

"What are you in such a hurry to get to St. Joe for?" demanded the spokesman of the party.

"Because I want to get back to the circus."

"Circus?" they exclaimed in chorus.

"Yes. I belong with the Sparling Combined Shows. I was on my way to my train, in the railroad yards, when I was knocked out and thrown into that car."

"You with a circus?" The men regarded him in a new light.

"Yes; why not?"

This caused them to laugh. Plainly they did not believe him. Nor did Phil care much whether they did or not.

"What time is it?" he asked.

"Church time."

He knew that, for he could hear the bells ringing off in the village to the east of them.

"I'll tell you what, sirs; I have got to have some breakfast. If any of you will be good enough to give me a meal I shall be glad to do whatever you may wish to pay for it. Then, if I cannot find the telegraph operator, I shall have to stay over until I do."

"What do you want the telegraph man for?"

"I want to wire the show for some money to get back with. I've got to be there tomorrow, in time for the show. I must do it, if I have to run all the way."

The men were impressed by his story in spite of themselves; yet they were loath to believe that this slender lad, much the worse for wear, could belong to the organization he had named.

"What do you do in the show?"

"I perform on the flying rings, ride the elephant and ride bareback in the ring. What about it? Will one of you put me up?"

The villagers consulted for a moment; then the spokesman turned to Phil.

"I reckon, if you be a circus feller, you kin show us some tricks, eh?"

"Perform for you, you mean?"

"Yep."

"Well, I don't usually do anything like that on Sunday," answered the Circus Boy reflectively.

"Eat on Sunday, don't you?"

"When I get a chance," Phil grinned. "I guess your argument wins. I've got to eat and I have offered to earn my meal. What do you want me to do?"

"Kin you do a flip?"

Phil threw himself into a succession of cartwheels along the edge of the railroad tracks, ending in a backward somersault.

"And you ride a hoss without any saddle, standing up on his back--you do that, too?"

"Why, yes," laughed Phil, his face red from his exertion.

"Then, come along. Come on, fellers!"

Phil thought, of course, that he was being taken to the man's home just outside the village, where he would get his breakfast. He was considerably surprised, therefore, when the men passed the house that his acquaintance pointed out as belonging to himself, and took their way on toward a collection of farm buildings some distance further up the road.

"I wonder what they are going to do now?" marveled Phil. "This surely doesn't look much like breakfast coming my way, and I'm almost famished."

The leader of the party let down the bars of the farmyard, conducting his guests around behind a large hay barn, into an enclosed space, in the center of which stood a straw stack, the stack and yard being surrounded by barns and sheds.

"Where are you fellows taking me? Going to put me in the stable with the live stock?" questioned Phil, laughingly.

"You want some breakfast, eh?"

"Certainly I do, but I'm afraid I can't eat hay."

The men laughed uproariously at this bit of humor.

"Must be a clown," suggested one.

"No, I am not a clown. My little friend who performs with me, and comes from the same town I do, is one. I wish he were here. He would make you laugh until you couldn't stand without leaning against something."

"Here, Joe! Here, Joe!" their guide began calling in a loud voice, alternating with loud whistling.

Phil heard a rustling over behind the straw stack, and then out trotted a big, black draft horse, a heavy-footed, broad-backed Percheron, to his astonishment.

"My, that's a fine piece of horse flesh," glowed the lad. "We have several teams of those fellows for the heavy work with the show. Of course we don't use them in the ring. Is this what you brought me here to see?"

"Yep. Git up there."

"What do you mean?"

"Git up and show us fellers if you're a real circus man."

"You mean you want me to ride him?" said Phil.

"Sure thing."

"How?"

"Git on his back and do one of them bareback stunts you was telling us about," and the fellow winked covertly at his companions, as much as if to say, "we've got him going this time."

"What; here in this rough yard?"

"Yep."

Phil considered for a moment, stamping about on the straw-covered ground, then sizing up the horse critically.

"All right. Bring me a bridle and fasten a long enough rein to the bit so I can get hold of it standing up."

He was really going to do as they demanded. The men were surprised. They had not believed he could, and now, at any rate, he was going to make an effort to make good his boast.

A bridle was quickly fetched and slipped on the head of old Joe. In place of reins the farmer attached a rope to the bridle, Phil measuring on the back of the horse to show how long it should be cut.

The preparations all complete, Phil grasped the rein and vaulted to the high back of the animal, landing astride neatly. This brought an exclamation of approval from the audience.

"Now git up on your feet."

"Don't be in a hurry. I want to ride him around the stack a few times to get the hang of the ring," laughed Phil. "It's a good, safe place to fall, anyway. Do I get some breakfast after this exhibition?" he questioned.

"That depends. Go on."

"Gid-dap!" commanded Phil, patting the black on its powerful neck. Then they went trotting around the stack, the men backing off to get a better view of the exhibition.

On the second round Phil drew up before them.

"Got any chalk on the place?" he asked.

"Reckon there's some in the barn."

"Please fetch it."

They did not know what he wanted chalk for, but the owner of the place hurried to fetch it. In the meantime Phil was slowly removing his shoes, which he threw to one side of the yard. Bidding the men break up the chalk into powder, he smeared the bottoms of his stockings with the white powder, sprinkling a liberal supply on the back of the horse.

"Here, here! What you doing? I have to curry that critter down every morning," shouted the owner.

Phil grinned and clucked to the horse, whose motion he had caught in his brief ride about the stack, and once more disappeared around the pile. When he hove in sight again, the black was trotting briskly, with Phil Forrest standing erect, far back on the animal's hips, urging him along with sharp little cries, and dancing about as much at home as if he were on the solid ground.

The farmers looked on with wide-open mouths, too amazed to speak.

Phil uttered a shout, and set the black going about the stack faster and faster, throwing himself into all manner of artistic positions.

After the horse had gotten a little used to the strange work, Phil threw down the reins and rode without anything of the sort to give him any support.

Probably few farm barnyards had ever offered an attraction like it before.

"Come up here!" cried the lad, to the lighter of the men. "I'll give you a lesson."

The fellow protested, but his companions grabbed him and threw him to old Joe's back. Phil grabbed his pupil by the coat collar, jerking him to his feet and started old Joe going at a lively clip.

You should have heard those farmers howl, at the ludicrous sight of their companion sprawling all over the back of the black, with Phil, red-faced, struggling with all his might to keep the fellow on, and at the same time prevent himself taking a tumble!

At last the burden was too much for Phil, and his companion took an inglorious tumble, head first into the straw at the foot of the stack, while the farmers threw themselves down, rolling about and making a great din with their howls of merriment.

"There, I guess I have earned my breakfast," decided the lad, dropping off near the spot where he had cast his shoes.

"You bet you have, little pardner. You jest come over to the house and fill up on salt pork and sauerkraut. You kin stay all summer if you want to. Hungry?"

"So hungry that, if my collar were loose, it would be falling down over my feet," grinned the lad.