Chapter XIII. Through Rings of Fire
 

"If there should happen to be a wind we might cut a rope or two and let the big top down on them," suggested parade manager.

"Yes; it would put them out of business for the night performance, but we don't want them to fill up for the afternoon show. That's when they are going to get the money. You see, Sparling's show is bigger and better known than ours, and showing there the same day we are liable to get the worst of it. Can't you suggest anything else?"

"If you don't like letting the big top down on their heads, and providing there is no wind to make the attempt worthwhile, I would suggest another way."

"The scoundrels!" breathed the listener above their heads.

"What's your suggestion?"

"Stampede the elephants."

"That's a dandy! And we know how to do it, eh, Lawrence?"

The parade manager nodded emphatically.

"They'll never know what happened to them. We can do it before the show gets to the lot if you think best?"

Sully shook his head.

"No. We'll wait till just as the doors are about to open for the afternoon show. Mind you, I'm not saying we shall do it. I'll think about the matter. Perhaps I can think up a better plan after I have gone over the matter."

"Where's that boy you told me about?"

Sully motioned toward the end of the car where Phil was locked in the linen closet.

"What you going to do with him?"

"Drop him when I get ready."

"But aren't you afraid the other outfit will get wind of what you are doing? It's pretty dangerous business to lock up a fellow like that."

"I don't care whether they get wise to it or not. They won't know where he is. After we get to the border I don't care a rap for them," and the showman snapped his fingers disdainfully. "They can't touch us on the other side of the Niagara River and they'd better not try it. Maybe Sparling won't be in business by that time," grinned the showman with a knowing wink.

Sully rose, and shortly afterwards left the car with his parade manager.

Phil sat down on the floor of his compartment with head in hands, trying to think what he had better do. These men were planning a deliberate campaign to wreck his employer's show.

"Something must be done!" breathed the boy, clenching his fists until the nails bit into the flesh, "But what can I do, I can do nothing unless I can get away from here, and they will not let me out, at least not until we have gotten by Corinto."

The more he thought and planned the greater his perplexity became. There seemed no way out of it. His only hope now seemed to lie in Mr. Sparling becoming alarmed at his absence, and instituting a search for him. His employer would quickly divine something of the truth after Phil had remained silent for two or three days. Perhaps, even now, the owner of the Great Sparling Combined Shows had sent someone on to learn what had become of his star bareback rider.

Phil's train of thought was suddenly interrupted by the door of his compartment being violently jerked open.

The lad's first impulse was to tell Sully, who now stood facing him, what he had overheard. Upon second thought, however, Phil decided that it would be much better to give the showman no intimation of what he had learned.

"Come out, young man."

Phil complied, glad to be free of his narrow chamber, no matter what the reason for the summons might be.

"What do you wish of me now?"

"Come into my office and I'll tell you. I understand you are a bareback rider," continued Sully, after they had seated themselves in his little office, the door being locked behind them.

"So you say."

"And a good one at that?"

Phil made no answer. He had not the least idea what was coming.

"My principal bareback rider stepped on a switch frog this morning and turned his ankle. He is out of the running for a week. I need a man more than I ever did. Do you want to join this show?"

Phil gazed at him in amazement.

"You haven't money enough to induce me to."

"Perhaps I have, but I won't induce with it," grinned the owner. "I've a plan to suggest."

"What is it?"

"If you will ride for me until we get to Corinto I'll give you seventy-five dollars."

The Circus Boy was on the point of making an emphatic refusal, when he suddenly checked himself and remained silent, as if thinking the proposition over.

"Well, what do you say?"

"If I do as you wish, when will you let me go?"

"Perhaps after we leave Corinto."

"I don't believe you intend to do anything of the sort."

"You think I'd lie to you?" blustered Sully.

"I'm not saying that. But I know you are not above doing worse things. I'll tell you what I will do."

"Yes."

"I'll ride for you today for twenty-five dollars."

"Done!"

"Payable in advance, you know."

"I guess you don't trust me?"

"Not for a minute."

"Well, I must say you are brutally frank."

"That's the way I do business," answered the lad proudly.

"But see here, young man, you must agree that you will make no effort to get away," demanded the showman a sudden thought occurring to him.

"I shall make no such agreement. If I get a chance to get away I'll do it, you may depend upon that. I will agree, however, to make no outcry nor to appeal to anyone to help me. If I can't manage it my own way, I'll stay here till I can. Remember, I'm going to beat you if I can, and if I can't, why Mr. Sparling will settle with you. He will do it properly, too."

The showman leaned back and guffawed loudly.

"I never saw a kid like you yet. You beat anything that ever got into a freak tent. You are so infernally honest that you give me notice you're going to try to escape from me. Thanks, my boy, for the timely warning. I'll see to it that you don't get away until I am ready to lose you. If you try it you must expect some rough treatment, and you'll get it too."

"Very well; I accept the terms. How about the payment in advance?"

Sully drew a roll of bills from his pocket counting out the sum agreed upon.

"If you should happen to get away I'd be out the money?"

"I'll send it back to you in that event."

"Ho, ho, ho! I believe you would, at that."

"I certainly shall."

"Say, kid, don't it ever give you pain to be so awfully honest?"

"I'll confess that it does when I am doing business with a man like you."

"Oh! That one landed. That was a knockout," chuckled the showman, rising. "I'll be back after you with the rig pretty soon. We've got to fix up some togs for you to ride in, but I guess we can do that all right. I'll have to put you back in your cage in the meantime." It lacked an hour and a half of the time for the afternoon performance to begin when Sully called with his carriage for his new star. Phil was ready, as far as he was able to be, and really welcomed the opportunity to get out in the air again. But he was so stiff from the confinement in the narrow linen closet that he did not feel as if he should be able to ride at all.

The drive to the circus lot was without incident, and Phil embraced the opportunity to familiarize himself with the town and its surroundings as fully as was possible under the circumstances. He had tried to form some plan by which to make his escape, but had given it up and decided to trust to luck.

There was another reason for his having decided to ride in the Sully Hippodrome Show that day, and every day thereafter, providing he was not able to get away before leaving Corinto. He hoped that Mr. Sparling might have sent someone on to find out what had become of him. This was sure to be done sooner or later, especially when the showman found that his letters were not being answered, but were being returned to him, as had been arranged for before Phil left his own show.

Reaching the lot they drove around to the paddock where Phil and his new employer entered the dressing tent. Even there the lad was given no chance to break away. It seemed to him that every person connected with the show had been set to watch him. When he entered the dressing tent he was subjected to the curious gaze of the performers, most of whom understood that he was to ride that day in the place of the injured performer, but who knew nothing further about the matter.

Some difficulty was experienced in getting a pair of tights that would fit Phil, but after awhile this was arranged.

"You sit down here and wait now," directed Mr. Sully.

"No; I've got something else to do. Bring the horse out in the paddock and let me see what I have to ride," answered Phil.

While they were getting out the ring horse, the lad indulged in a series of bends and limbering exercises out in the paddock, working until the perspiration stood out in great beads.

This done Phil sprang up to the back of the ring horse, and while an attendant held the animal in a circle with a long leading strap, Phil rode the horse about the paddock a few times until he had become familiar with the motion and peculiarities of the animal.

"How is he in the ring, fast or slow?"

"Just steady. Been at it a long time," the attendant informed him. "He's steady. You can depend on him."

"Yes; he acts so. I'll look at the ring when I go in."

The owner of the show had been a keen observer of these preparations. He noted, too, Phil appeared entirely to have forgotten about his desire to escape.

"That kid acts to me as if he knew his business," he reflected. "If he rides the way I think he can, I'm going to get him away from Sparling if I have to double the wages he's drawing now. And money talks!"

The band began to play in the big top. Phil glanced at the showman.

"When do I go on?"

"Second number."

The lad nodded, and sat awaiting his turn to enter the arena. He did not have to ask when the moment had arrived. The attendant started to lead the ring horse in and Phil quickly fell in behind, following them in.

Right behind the Circus Boy came Sully, the owner of the show, never taking his eyes off his captive for a moment. This amused the lad. He grinned broadly. It was a novel experience for him.

Soon the strains of music told him this was where he was to begin his act. The boy swung gracefully to the back of his mount. Instantly he had leaped to his feet Sully clapped his hands together approvingly.

"That's the way to do it. You've got the other fellow skinned forty ways!" he cried.

"In some ways," replied Phil significantly. "Otherwise not."

The ring was in excellent shape, much to the boy's surprise, and the horse was the best he ever had ridden. In a few moments Phil began to feel very much at home and to enjoy himself thoroughly.

The ring attendants brought out strips of bright yellow cloth, which two clowns held across the ring for the Circus Boy to leap over as his horse passed under. This did not bother him in the least, though he had never tried the act before. It was a relic of the old circus days that few shows had retained.

But Phil was on the point of balking when a clown came out with a handful of hoops covered with paper.

"You want me to jump through those things?" he questioned, during a brief intermission.

"Sure."

"Does the other man do that?"

"He does."

"Then I can do it, I guess."

"I reckon you can do anything on a horse that you happen to feel like," said the showman.

The band started up again and Phil sprang to his feet. A paper hoop was raised on the opposite side of the ring, the lad eyeing it hesitatingly.

"I'll go through it if I break my neck trying," he muttered, shutting his lips tightly together.

Smash!

The Circus Boy hurled himself through the tender paper, but the breaking paper stung his face like the crack of a whip lash, and Phil, instead of landing on his feet as he should have done, struck the back of his ring horse on all fours.

Sully growled angrily.

"You make a blunder like that again, and you'll be sorry for it," he bullied, shaking an angry fist at Phil, who turned a pair of surprised eyes on the showman.

"See here," retorted the lad with rising color, "I'm not in the habit of being talked to like that. If you don't like my riding I'll end the act right here. I'm not obliged to ride for you, you know."

"Go on, go on!" snapped the owner.

The next hoop Phil took as easily as if he had been doing that very same thing all through the season.

"Fine!" chuckled Sully. "He's a star performer, even if he does give me as good as I send."

Phil was hurling himself through a succession of hoops now. Then all at once, to his surprise and disapproval, five hoops of fire flared up before him and on all sides of him.

"Go through them!" shouted the showman.

"I won't!"

"You can't stop now. Are you going to let a little thing like that give you an attack of cold feet?" demanded Sully.

Thus appealed to, Phil Forrest thought better of it.

"Yip!--yip!" he cried sharply to the ring horse, riding straight at the first ring which he took without difficulty, though the hot flame on his cheeks made him shrink himself into a smaller compass than had been the case with the paper rings.

The audience was applauding him wildly, for somehow this slender, youthful figure appealed to them more strongly than had any other performer in the show thus far. One after another Phil took the flaming rings until he came to the last one which he approached with more confidence than he had any of the others.

He hurled himself at it with less caution than before. As he entered the hoop of fire his elbows caught it, and instantly the lad felt the fire burning through his silk ring shirt.

Without an instant's hesitation the boy leaped up into the air, clearing his horse by a full two feet.

The force of his throw sent the ring of fire soaring through the air, as he had, with quick intuition, imagined that it would.

Phil threw a splendid backward somersault almost slipping off the hips of the ring horse.

"Great!" exploded the owner.

The audience applauded wildly.

But the next instant Sully was not shouting approving words. The burning ring had slipped neatly over his own head and before he could throw it off, his clothes, as well, were on fire. Throwing himself down in the sawdust the showman rolled and rolled, uttering loud imprecations and threats, while audience and performers fairly screamed with delight.

He was up in a flash, expecting to find Phil making a dash for freedom.

"Stop him!" he bellowed.

Phil Forrest sat on the rump of the ring horse, grinning broadly at the predicament of the owner of the Sully Hippodrome Circus.