Chapter V. Doing a Man's Work
 

For one brief instant Phil Forrest's head was giddy and his breath fairly left his body from the speed with which he was propelled upward on the key rope.

But the lad had not for a second lost his presence of mind. Below him was some eight feet of the rope dangling in the air.

With a sudden movement that could only have been executed by one with unusual strength and agility, Phil let the rope slip through his hands just enough to slacken his speed. Instantly he threw himself around the center pole, twisting the rope around and around it, each twist slackening his upward flight a little. He knew that, were his head to strike the iron ring in the dome at the speed he was traveling, he would undoubtedly be killed. It was as much to prevent this as to save the tent that Phil took the action he did, though his one real thought was to save his employer's property.

Now the rapid upward shoot had dwindled to a slow, gradual slipping of the rope as it moved up the center pole inch by inch. But Phil's peril was even greater than before. The moment that heavy iron ring began pressing down on his head and shoulders with the weight of the canvas behind it, there would be nothing for him to do but to let go.

A forty-foot fall to the hard ground below seemed inevitable. Yet he did not lose his presence of mind for an instant.

"Give him a hand!" yelled the boss canvasman.

"How? How?" shouted the canvasmen. "We can't reach him."

"Get a net under that boy, you blockheads!" thundered Mr. Sparling, rushing over from his station. "Don't you see he's bound to fall, and if he does he'll break his neck?"

The boss canvasman ordered three of his men to get the trapeze performers' big net that lay in a heap near the ring nearest the dressing tent, for there were two rings now in the Great Sparling Combined Shows.

They dragged it over as quickly as possible; then willing hands grabbed it and stretched the heavy net out. At Mr. Sparling's direction the four corners of the net were manned and the safety device raised from the ground, ready to catch the lad should he fall.

"Now let go and drop!" roared Mr. Sparling.

They heard Phil laugh from his lofty perch.

"Jump, I say!"

"What, and let the tent down on you all?"

By this time the lad had curled his feet up over his head, and they saw that he was bracing his feet against the iron ring, literally holding the tent up with his own powerful muscles. Of course, as a matter of fact, Phil was holding a very small part of the weight of the tent, but as it was, the strain was terrific.

Hanging head down, his face flushed until it seemed as if the blood must burst through the skin, he hung there as calmly as if he were not in imminent peril of his life. Then, too, there was the danger to those below him. If the tent should collapse some of them would be killed, for there were now few quarter poles in place to break the fall of the heavy canvas.

"I say, down there!" he cried, finally managing to make himself heard above the uproar.

"Are you going to drop?" shouted Mr. Sparling.

"No; do you want me to let the tent drop on you? If you'll all get out there'll be fewer hurt in case I have to let go."

"That boy!" groaned the showman.

"Toss me a line and be quick about it," called Phil shrilly.

"What can you do with a line?" demanded the showman, now more excited than he had ever been in his life.

"Toss it!"

"Give him a line!"

"A strong one," warned Phil, his voice not nearly as far reaching as it had been.

"A line!" bellowed Mr. Sparling. "He knows what he wants it for, and he's got more sense than the whole bunch of us."

A coil of rope shot up. But it missed Phil by about six feet.

Another one was forthcoming almost instantly. This time, however, Mr. Sparling snatched it from the hands of the showman who had made the wild cast.

"Idiot!" he roared, pushing the man aside.

Once more the coil sailed up, unrolling as it went. This time Phil grasped it with his free hand, which he had liberated for the purpose.

"Now, be careful," warned Mr. Sparling. "I don't know what you think you're going to do; but whatever you start you're sure to finish."

To this Phil made no reply. He was getting too weak to talk, and his tired body trembled.

In the end of the key rope a big loop had been formed, this after the tent was up, was slipped over a cleat to prevent a possibility of the rope slipping its fastenings and letting the tent down.

Phil had discovered the loop when it finally slipped up so his one hand was pressed against the knot.

Every second the weight on his feet--on his whole body, in fact, was getting heavier.

"If I can hold on a minute longer, I'll make it!" he muttered, his breath coming in short, quick gasps.

What he was seeking to do was to get the rope they had tossed to him, through the big loop. In his effort to do so, the coil slipped from his hands, knocking a canvasman down as it fell, but the lad had held to the other end with a desperate grip.

Now he began working it through the loop inch by inch. It was a slow process, but he was succeeding even better than he had hoped.

Mr. Sparling now saw what Phil's purpose was. About the same time the others down there made the same discovery.

They set up a cheer of approval.

"Wait!" commanded the owner of the show. "The lad isn't out of the woods yet. You men on the net look lively there. If you don't catch him should he fall, you take my word for it, it'll go mighty hard with you."

"We'll catch him."

"You'd better, if you know what's good for you. Goodness, but he's got the strength and the grit! I never saw anything like it in all my circus experience."

They could not help him. There was no way by which any of them could reach Phil, and all they could do was to stand by and do the best they could at breaking his fall should he be forced to let go, as it seemed that he must do soon.

Nearer and nearer crept the line toward the ground, but it was yet far above their heads. It was moving faster, however, as Phil got more weight of rope through the loop, thus requiring less effort on his part to send it along on its journey.

"Side pole! Side pole!" shouted the boy, barely making himself heard above the shouts below.

At first they did not catch the meaning of his words. Mr. Sparling, of course, was the first to do so.

"That's it! Oh, you idiots! You wooden Indians! You thick heads! Get a side pole, don't you understand?" and the owner made a dive at the nearest man to him, whereat the fellow quickly side-stepped and started off on a run for the pole for which Phil had asked. But, even then, some of the hands did not understand what he could want of a side pole.

The instant it was brought Mr. Sparling snatched it from the hands of the tentman. Raising the pole, assisted by the boss canvasman, he was able to reach the loop. The iron spike in the end of the pole was thrust through the loop, and by exerting considerable pressure they were able to force the loop slowly toward the ground.

"You'll have to hurry! I can't hang on much longer," cried Phil weakly.

"We'll hurry, my lad. It won't be half a minute now," encouraged Mr. Sparling. "Stand by here you blockheads, ready to fall on that rope the minute it gets within reach. Three of you grab hold of the coil end and pay it out gradually. Be careful. Watch your business."

Three men sprang to do his bidding.

"Here comes the loop!"

Ready hands grasped the dangling rope.

The two strands were quickly carried together and the weight of a dozen men thrown on them, instantly relieving the strain on Phil Forrest's body.

Phil had saved the big top, and perhaps a few lives at the same time. Now a sudden dizziness seemed to have overtaken him. Everything appeared to be whirling about him, the big top spinning like a giant top before his eyes.

"Slide down the rope!" commanded Mr. Sparling.

The lad slowly unwound the rope from his arm and feebly motioned to them that they were to walk around the pole with their end so they might hoist the iron ring to the splice of the center pole.

"Never mind anything but yourself!" ordered Mr. Sparling. "We'll attend to this mix-up ourselves."

Very cautiously and deliberately, more from force of habit than otherwise, the lad had let his feet down, and with them was groping for the rope.

"Swing the line between his legs!" roared the owner. "Going to let him stay up there all day?"

"That's what we're trying to do," answered a tentman.

"Yes, I see you trying. That's the trouble with you fellows. You always think you're trying, and if you are, you never accomplish anything. Got, it, Phil?"

"Y--ye--yes."

Twisting his legs about the rope the boy next took a weak grip on it with both hands, then started slowly to descend. This he knew how to do, so the feat was attended with no difficulty other than the strength required, and of which he had none to spare just at the present moment.

"Look out!" he called. He thought he had shouted it in a loud tone. As a matter of fact no sound issued from his lips.

But Mr. Sparling whose eyes had been fixed upon the boy, saw and understood.

"He's falling. Catch him!"

Phil shot downward head first. Yet with the instinct of the showman he curled his head up ever so little as he half consciously felt himself going.