Chapter VII. Trying the Culprit
 

"Stop him!" howled Larry, as he, followed by half a dozen blue-shirted fellows, bolted into the arena in pursuit of the lad who had emptied the pail of muddy water over him.

Teddy, still clinging to the pail, was sprinting down the concourse as if his very life depended upon it. A canvasman, hearing Larry's call, and suspecting the boy was wanted for something quite serious, rushed out, heading Teddy off. It looked as if the lad were to be captured right here.

But Teddy Tucker was not yet at the end of his resources. He ran straight on as if he had not observed the canvasman. Just as he reached the man, and the latter's hands were stretched out to intercept him, Teddy hurled the pail full in the fellow's face. Then the lad darted to one side and fled toward the paddock.

The canvasman had joined the procession by this time. Into the dressing tent burst the boy, followed by Larry, the others having brought up sharply just before reaching the dressing room, knowing full well that they had no business there and that their presence would be quickly and effectively resented. Larry, consumed with rage, did not stop to think about this, so he dashed on blindly to his fate.

At first the circus performers in the dressing tent could not imagine what was going on. Clotheslines came down, properties were upset and in a moment the tent was in confusion.

"Stop that!" bellowed an irate performer.

Larry gave no heed to the command, and Teddy was in too big a hurry to stop to explain.

Suddenly Phil Forrest, realizing that his little companion was in danger, gave a leap. He landed on Larry's back, pinioning the fellow's arms to his sides.

"You stop that now! You let him alone!" commanded Phil.

Before the canvasman could make an effort to free himself, Mr. Miaco, the head clown, took a hand in the proceedings. Throwing Phil from the tentman, Miaco jerked Larry about, and demanded to know what he meant by intruding on the privacy of the dressing tent in that manner.

"I want that kid," he growled.

"Put him out!" howled a voice.

"What do you want him for?"

"He--he dumped a pail of water over me. I'll get even with him. I'll--"

"How about this, Master Teddy?" questioned Mr. Miaco.

Teddy explained briefly how the fellow Larry and a companion had ducked him under the water tank, and had ruined his clothes, together with causing him to miss his train.

"This demands investigation," decided Mr. Miaco gravely. "Fellows, it is evident that we had better try this man. That is the best way to dispose of his case."

"Yes, yes; try him!" they shouted.

"Whom shall we have for judge?"

"Oscar, the midget!"

The Smallest Man on Earth was quickly boosted to the top of a property box.

"Vot iss?" questioned the midget, his wizened, yellow little face wrinkling into a questioning smile.

"We are going to try this fellow, Larry, and you are to be the judge."

"Yah," agreed Oscar, after which he subsided, listening to the proceedings that followed, with grave, expressionless eyes. It is doubtful if Oscar understood what it was all about, but his gravity and judicial manner sent the whole dressing tent into an uproar of merriment.

After the evidence was all in, the entire company taking part in testifying, amid much merriment--for the performers entered into the spirit of the trial like a lot of schoolboys--Oscar was asked to decide what should be done with the prisoner Larry.

Oscar was at a loss to know how to answer.

"Duck him," suggested one.

This was an inspiration to Oscar. He smiled broadly.

"Yah, dat iss."

"What iss?" demanded the Tallest Man On Earth. "Talk United States."

"Yah," agreed Oscar, smiling seraphically. "Duck um."

"Larry, it is the verdict of this court that you be ducked, as the only fitting punishment for one who has committed the crime of laying hands on a Circus Boy. Are we all agreed on the punishment meted out by the dignified judge?"

"Yes, yes!" they shouted. "The rain barrel for him."

"Men, do your duty!" cried Mr. Miaco.

"I wouldn't do that," interposed Phil. "You haven't any more right to duck him than he had to put Teddy under the water tank. It isn't right."

But they gave no heed to his protests. Willing hands grabbed the red-headed tentman, whose kicks and struggles availed him nothing. Raising him over the barrel of water they soused him in head first, ducking him again and again.

"Take him out. You'll drown him," begged Phil.

Then they hauled Larry out, shaking the water out of him. As soon as his coughing ceased, he threatened dire vengeance against his assailants.

Four performers then carried their victim to the opening of the dressing tent and threw him out bodily.

Instantly Larry's companions saw him fall at their feet, and heard his angry explanation of the indignities that had been heaped upon him. There was a lively scrambling over the ground, and the next instant a volley of stones was hurled into the dressing tent.

Phil was just coming out on his way to the main entrance as the row began. A stone just grazed his cheek. Without giving the least heed to the assailants, he turned to cross the paddock in order to slip out under the tent and go on about his business. Most lads would have run under the circumstances. Not so Phil. His were steady nerves.

"There he is! Grab him!" shouted Larry, catching sight of Phil and charging that Phil had been one of those who had helped duck him.

Such was not the case, however, for instead of having taken part in the ducking, Phil Forrest had tried to prevent it.

Larry and another man were running toward him. The lad halted, turned and faced them.

"What do you want of me?" he demanded.

"I'll show you what I want of you. You started this row."

"I did nothing of the sort, sir. You go on about your business and I shall do the same, whether you do or not."

Phil raised the canvas and stepped out. But no sooner had he gotten out into the lot than the two men burst through the flapping side wall.

The boy saw them coming and knew that he was face to face with trouble.

He adopted a ruse, knowing full well that he could not hope to cope with the brawny canvasmen single handed and alone. Starting off on a run, Phil was followed instantly, as he felt sure he would be, but managing to keep just ahead of the men and no more.

"I've got you!"

The voice was almost at his ear.

Phil halted with unexpected suddenness and dropped on all fours.

The canvasman was too close to check his own speed. He fell over Phil, landing on his head and shoulders in the dirt.

The lad was up like a flash. Larry was close upon him now, and with a snarl of rage launched a blow full at Phil Forrest's face. But he had not reckoned on the lad's agility, nor did he know that Phil was a trained athlete. Therefore, Larry's surprise was great when his fist beat the empty air.

Thrown off his balance, Larry measured his length on the ground.

"I advise you to let me alone," warned Phil coolly, as the tentman was scrambling to his feet. Already Larry's companion had gotten up and was gazing at Phil in a half dazed sort of way.

"Get hold of him, Bad Eye! What are you standing there like a dummy for? He'll run in a minute."

Phil's better judgment told him to do that very thing, but he could not bring himself to run from danger. Much as he disliked a row, he was too plucky and courageous to run from danger.

Bad Eye was rushing at him, his eyes blazing with anger.

Phil side-stepped easily, avoiding his antagonist without the least difficulty. But now he had to reckon with Larry, who, by this time, had gotten to his feet.

It was two to one.

"Stand back unless you want to get hurt!" cried Phil, with a warning glint in his eyes.

Larry, by way of answer, struck viciously at him. Phil, with a glance about him, saw that he could not expect help, for there was no one in sight, the performers being engaged at that moment in driving off the angry laborers, which they were succeeding in doing with no great effort on their part.

The lad cleverly dodged the blow. But instead of backing away as the canvasman's fist barely grazed his cheek, Phil, with a short arm jolt, caught his adversary on the point of his chin. Larry instantly lost all desire for fight. He sat down on the hard ground with a bump.

Now Bad Eye rushed in. Again Phil sidestepped, and, thrusting a foot between the fellow's legs, tripped him neatly.

Half a dozen men came running from the paddock. They were the fellows whom the performers had put to rout. At that moment the bugle blew for all hands to prepare for the parade.

"I guess I have done about enough for one day," decided Phil. "And for a sick man it wasn't a half bad job."

With an amused glance at his fallen adversaries Phil ran to the big top, less than a rod away, and, lifting the sidewall, slipped under and disappeared within.