Chapter XXI. When the Crash Came
 

There was rejoicing on the part of his fellows, and relief in the heart of Mr. Sparling when, along toward noon next day, Phil Forrest came strolling on the circus lot at St. Joseph.

His friends, the farmers, had not only given him food and lodging, but had advanced him enough money for his fare through to join the show. His first duty was to get some money from Mr. Sparling and send it back to his benefactors.

This done, Phil repaired to the owner's tent where he knew Mr. Sparling was anxiously waiting to hear what had happened to him.

Phil went over the circumstances in detail, while Mr. Sparling listened gravely at first, then with rising color as his anger increased.

"It's Red Larry!" decided Mr. Sparling, with an emphasizing blow of his fist on the desk before him.

"After I thought the matter over that was what I decided--I mean that was the decision I came to."

"Right. Another season I'll have an officer with this show. That's the only way we can protect ourselves."

"Do all the big shows carry an officer?" asked Phil.

"Yes; they have a detective with them--not a tin badge detective, but a real one. Don't try to go out today. Get your dinner and rest up for the afternoon performance. I think you had better go to the train in my carriage tonight. I'm not going to take any more such chances with you."

"I'll look out for myself after this, Mr. Sparling," laughed Phil. "I think it was only two days ago that I said I wasn't afraid of Larry--that he couldn't get me. But he did."

That afternoon, as Phil related his experiences to the dressing tent, he included the barnyard circus, which set the performers in a roar.

Phil felt a little sore and stiff after his knockout and his long ride in the freight car; but, after taking half an hour of bending exercises in the paddock, he felt himself fit to go on with his ring and bareback acts.

Both his acts passed off successfully, as did the Grand Entry in which he rode old Emperor.

That night, after the performance, Phil hurried to the train, but kept a weather eye out that he might not be assaulted again. He found himself hungry, and, repairing to the accommodation car for a lunch, discovered Teddy stowing away food at a great rate.

"So you're here, are you?" laughed Phil.

"Yep; I live here most of the time," grinned Teddy. "They like to have me eat here. I'm a sort of nest egg, you know. It makes the others hungry to see me eat, and they file in in a perfect procession. How's your head?"

"Still a size too large," answered Phil, sinking down on a stool and ordering a sandwich.

As the lads ate and talked two or three other performers came in, whereupon the conversation became more general.

All at once there came a bang as a switching engine bumped into the rear of their car. Teddy about to pass a cup of steaming coffee to his lips, spilled most of it down his neck.

"Ouch!" he yelled, springing up, dancing about the floor, holding his clothes as far from his body as possible. "Here, you quit that!" he yelled, poking his head out of a window. "If you do that again I'll trim you with a pitcher of coffee and see how you like that."

Bang!

Once more the engine smashed into them, having failed to make the coupling the first time.

Teddy sat down heavily in the middle of the car, just as Little Dimples tripped in. In one hand he held a sandwich half consumed, while with the other he was still stretching his collar as far from his neck as it would go.

"Why, Teddy," exclaimed Dimples, "what are you doing on the floor?"

"Eating my lunch. Always eat it sitting on the floor, you know," growled the boy, at which there was a roar from the others.

"What are they trying to do out there?" questioned Phil.

"Going to shift us about on another track, I guess. I was nearly thrown down when I tried to get on the platform. I never saw a road where they were so rough. Did you?"

"Yes; I rode on one the other night that could beat this," grinned Phil.

A few minutes later the car got under motion, pushed by a switching engine, and began banging along merrily over switches, tearing through the yard at high speed.

"We seem to be in a hurry 'bout something," grunted Teddy. "Maybe they've hooked us on the wrong train, and we're bound for somewhere else."

"No, I don't think so," replied Phil. "You should be used to this sort of thing by this time."

"I don't care as long as the food holds out. It doesn't make any difference where they take us."

"What section does this car go out on tonight, steward?" questioned Phil.

"The last. Goes out with the sleepers."

"That explains it. They are shifting us around, making up the last section and to get us out of the way of section No. 2. I never can keep these trains straight in my mind, they change them so frequently. But it's better than riding in a canvas wagon over a rough country road, isn't it, Teddy?"

"Worse," grunted the lad. "You never know when you're going to get your everlasting bump, and you don't have any net to fall in when you do. Hey, they're at it again!"

His words were almost prophetic.

There followed a sudden jolt, a deafening crash, accompanied by cries from the cooks and waiters at the far end of the car.

"Get a net!" howled Teddy.

"We're off the rails," cried the performers.

"Look out for yourselves!"

Little Dimples was hurled from her stool at the lunch counter, and launched straight toward a window from which the glass was showering into the car.

Phil made a spring, catching her in his arms. But the impact and the jolt were too much for him. He went down in a heap, Little Dimples falling half over him.

He made a desperate grab for her, but the woman's skirts slipped through his hand and she plunged on toward the far end of the car.

"Look out for the coffee boiler."

A yell from a waiter told them that the warning had come too late. The man had gotten a large part of the contents of the boiler over him.

But all at once those in the car began to realize that something else was occurring. Somehow, they could feel the accommodation car wavering as if on the brink of a precipice. Then it began to settle slowly and the mystified performers and car hands thought it was going to rest where it was on the ties.

Instead, the car took a sudden lurch.

"We're going over something!" cried a voice.

Phil, who had scrambled quickly to his feet, half-dazed from the fall, stood irresolutely for a few seconds then began making his way toward where Little Dimples had fallen.

At that moment young Forrest was hurled with great force against the side of the car. Everything in the car seemed suddenly to have become the center of a miniature cyclone. Dishes, cooking utensils, tables and chairs were flying through the air, the noise within the car accompanied by a sickening, grinding series of crashes from without.

Groans were already distinguishable above the deafening crashes.

Those who were able to think realized that the accommodation car was falling over an embankment of some sort.

Through accident or design, what is known as a "blind switch" had been turned while the engine was shunting the accommodation car about the yards. The result was that the car had left the rails, bumped along on the ties for a distance, then had toppled over an embankment that was some twenty feet high.

It seemed as if all in that ill-fated car must be killed or maimed for life. A series of shrill blasts from the engine called for help.

The crash had been heard all over the railroad yards. Railroad men and circus men had rushed toward the spot where the accommodation car had gone over the embankment, Mr. Sparling among the number. He had just arrived at the yards when the accident occurred.

Fortunately, the wrecking crew was ready for instant service, and these men were rushed without an instant's delay to the outskirts of the yard where the wreck had occurred.

However, ere the men got there a startling cry rose from hundreds of throats.

"Fire! The car is on fire!"

"Break in the doors! Smash the sides in!"

Yet no one seemed to have the presence of mind to do anything. Phil had been hurled through a broken widow, landing halfway down the bank, on the uphill side of the car, else he must have been crushed to death. But so thoroughly dazed was he that he was unable to move.

Finally someone discovered him and picked him up.

"Here's one of them," announced a bystander. "It's a kid, too."

Mr. Sparling came charging down the bank.

"Who is it? Where is he?" he bellowed.

"Here."

"It's Phil Forrest," cried one of the showmen, recognizing the lad, whose face was streaked where it had been cut by the jagged glass in the broken window.

"Is he killed?"

"No; he's alive. He's coming around now."

Phil sat up and rubbed his eyes.

All at once he understood what had happened. He staggered to his feet holding to a man standing beside him.

"Why don't you do something?" cried Phil. "Don't you know there are people in that car?"

"It's burning up. Nobody dares get in till the wreckers can get here and smash in the side of the car," was the answer.

"What?" fairly screamed Phil Forrest. "Nobody dares go in that car? Somebody does dare!"

"Come back, come back, Phil! You can't do anything," shouted a fellow performer.

But the lad did not even hear him. He was leaping, falling and rolling down the bank, regardless of the danger that he was approaching, for the flames already showed through a broken spot in the roof of the car, which was lying half on its side at the foot of the embankment.

Without an instant's hesitation Phil, as he came up alongside, raised a foot, smashing out the remaining pieces of glass in a window. Then he plunged in head first.

The spectators groaned.

"Dimples! Dimples!" he shouted. "Are you alive?"

"Yes, here. Be quick! I'm pinned down!"

Phil rushed to her assistance. Her legs were pinioned beneath a heavy timber. Phil attacked it desperately, tugging and grunting, the perspiration rolling down his face, for the heat in there was now almost more than he could bear.

With a mighty effort he wrenched the timber from the prostrate woman, then quickly gathered her up in his arms.

"I knew you'd come, Phil, if you were alive," she breathed, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Do you know where Teddy is?" he asked, plunging through the blinding smoke to the window where voices already were calling to him.

"At the other end--I think," she choked.

The lad passed her out to waiting arms.

"Come out! Come out of that!" bellowed the stentorian voice of Mr. Sparling. But Phil had turned back.

"Teddy!" he called, the words choked back into his throat by the suffocating smoke.

"Wow! Get me out of here. I'm--I'm," then the lad went off into a violent fit of coughing.

By this time two others, braver than the rest, had climbed in through the window.

"Where are they all?" called a voice.

"I don't know. You'll have to hunt for them. I'm after you, Teddy. Are you held down by something, too?"

"The whole car's on me, and I'm burning up."

Phil, guided by the boy's voice, groped his way along and soon found his hands gripped by those of his little companion.

"Where are you fast?"

"My feet!"

It proved an easy matter to liberate Teddy and drag him to the window, where Phil dumped him out.

Mr. Sparling had climbed in by this time, and the wrecking crew were thundering at the roof to let the smoke and flames out, while others had crawled in with their fire extinguishers.

There were now quite a number of brave men in the car all working with desperate haste to rescue the imprisoned circus people.

"All out!" bellowed the foreman of the wrecking crew. "The roof will be down in a minute!"

"All out!" roared Mr. Sparling, himself making a dash for a window.

Others piled out with a rush, the flames gaining very rapid headway now.

"Phil! Phil! Where's Forrest?" called Mr. Sparling.

"He isn't here. Maybe--"

"Then he's in that car. He'll be burned alive! No one can live five minutes in there now!"

The fire department had arrived on the scene, and the men were running two lines of hose over the tracks.

"Phil in there?"

It was a howl--a startled howl rather than a spoken question. The voice belonged to Teddy Tucker.

Teddy rushed through the crowd, pushing obstructors aside, and hurled himself through the window into the burning car. He looked more like a big, round ball than anything else.

No sooner had Tucker landed fairly inside than he uttered a yell.

"Phil!"

There was no answer.

"Where--"

Teddy went down like a flash, bowled over by a heavy stream of water from the firemen's hose.

As it chanced he fell prone across a heap of some sort, choking and growling with rage at what had befallen him.

"Phil!"

"Yes," answered a voice from the heap.

"I've got him!" howled Teddy, springing up and dragging the half-dazed Phil Forrest to the window. There both boys were hauled out, Teddy and Phil collapsing on the embankment from the smoke that they had inhaled.

"Phil! Teddy!" begged Mr. Sparling, throwing himself beside them.

"Get a net!" muttered Teddy, then swooned.