Chapter XIV. A Dash for Freedom
 

"Well, you are a star rider, anyway," announced Sully, with emphasis when he was once more leading Phil to the carriage to take him back to the linen closet on board the private car.

But Sully was less violent, and there was a twinkle in his eyes that Phil did not fail to catch.

"He's planning something," thought the boy, after being once more locked in his compartment. "I shouldn't be surprised if I had ridden a little too well today. But it's going to be the means of getting me my freedom. Someone surely will see me and recognize me."

That night Phil rode again, winning even greater applause than he had done at the afternoon performance. But a closer watch was kept over him, as Sully had imagined that the opportunities were greater for escape than in broad daylight. Phil had reasoned it out the same way, but he was in no hurry. He had done up his money in a little bag which he hung about his neck each time before going into the ring, so that it might not be stolen while he was performing, for, it will be remembered that the lad had no trunk in which to keep his valuables.

No chance to escape presented itself during the evening, however, and the lad was forced to return to his imprisonment again after the night performance.

"If you expect me to be in working order you should give me a decent place to sleep," he told Sully, while they were sitting at lunch in the private car that night.

Sully grinned and winked an eye.

"See anything green in my eye?"

"No. It's all red. I guess you see red most of the time."

"If you'll give me a promise, I'll let you sleep in a berth in this car tonight."

"What promise?" asked Phil, though he knew pretty well what the showman would demand.

"That you won't try to escape."

"I'll make no such promise."

"Then it's the linen closet for your."

"All right; I will sleep in the linen closet. I suppose you will want me to ride again tomorrow?"

"Sure thing!"

"Then don't forget the twenty-five dollars in advance."

"Say, that's more money than I'll pay for that act, good as it is," protested the showman.

"Very well; then I will stay in the closet and you can cut your bareback out. You do not have to pay it unless you want to."

Sully growled and handed out the money.

Phil put it in his pocket with a smile and half audible chuckle that did not tend to make Sully feel any the less irritable.

"Perhaps it is a good thing that I am a prisoner if I have got to stay with this outfit."

"Why?" snapped the showman.

"Because some of your light-fingered gentlemen would be dipping into my pocket, when I wasn't looking, and take the money away from me. That's the way you would get it back."

"That will be about all for you, boy," growled the showman. "That is, unless you are willing to tell me what you are here for?"

The Circus Boy laughed lightly.

"I have nothing new to say to that question."

"You've done your part well. You must have got busy pretty quick to have tipped off Sparling before we caught you."

"Tipped him off to what?" inquired Phil.

"Well, never mind what. You know and so do I."

After that the lad was sent to his closet to spend the night. The next day was a repetition of the previous one, except that Phil rode better than ever, if that were possible. But as he was riding under the name of the performer who had been injured, he could not make himself known.

Saturday came along, with the lad apparently as far from making his escape as ever. But what he had hoped would come to pass had done so in a measure. That is, the owner of the show had become a little careless in watching the boy.

Instead of accompanying Phil into the ring, Sully satisfied himself with standing by the entrance to the paddock, next to the bandstand.

This left Phil free to do pretty much as he chose, but he was almost as closely confined as if he were in the owner's private car, so far as getting away was concerned. But the boy's mind was working actively.

As he sat on the back of the broad-backed ring horse that afternoon, his eyes were looking over the tent questioningly.

"I believe I can do it," mused Phil. "If conditions are the same tonight that they are this afternoon I am going to try it."

Just then the band struck up and the lad rose gracefully to his feet ready to go through his act for the edification of the great audience.

Phil was making more money than ever before in his circus career, and he now had only one act instead of several. But he cared little for this. It was merely a means to an end.

At night he accompanied Sully to the lot as usual. Phil might have appealed to a policeman, or to one of the many people about him. It will be remembered, however, that he had given his word that he would do nothing of the sort, and Phil Forrest was not the boy to break his word after once having given it. He proposed to get away by his own efforts or else wait until rescued by the Sparling show.

As had been the case with the afternoon show Sully remained over by the bandstand while Phil went through his act.

"I'll finish my performance," decided the lad. "I want to give him his money's worth whether he deserves such treatment or not, and then I'll make my try. I can do it, I believe."

Nothing of what was passing in the mind of the Circus Boy, of course, was suspected by the owner of the show. Phil had just rounded off his act by a backward somersault and the attendant had slipped the bridle over the head of the ring horse preparatory to leading the animal back to the paddock and horse tent.

"You run along. I will ride him back," directed Phil innocently.

"Why?"

"Because I prefer to."

"Very well," answered the groom, turning away and walking slowly toward the paddock, while Phil, who had in the meantime slipped off to the ring, was quickly drawing on his slippers.

By this time Mr. Sully was looking at him, wondering why Phil did not get out of the ring, for another act was coming on, the performers for which already were moving down the concourse.

All at once the Circus Boy threw himself to the back of his mount, landing astride.

Phil brought his riding whip down on the back of the surprised animal with a force that sent the horse forward with a snort. They bounded out of the ring. Instead, however, of turning toward the paddock exit, Phil headed straight for the other end of the tent. There an exit led into the menagerie tent, or where that tent had been, for by this time it had been taken down and carted away to the train. A canvas flap hung loosely over the entrance, but it was not fastened down, as Phil well knew, being left free so people could pass in and out at will.

"Stop him!"

It was the voice of Sully and might have been heard in every part of the big top, though the people did not know what the command meant.

For the moment the circus attendants did not understand either. They had not noticed Phil riding away in the wrong direction.

"Stop him, I say!"

An attendant discovered what was going on and started on a run for Phil, who brought his whip down on the flanks of the ring horse again and again, driving the animal straight at the attendant. The result was that the fellow was bowled over in a twinkling. The horse cleared the man at a bound.

At this the audience roared. They saw that something unusual was taking place, though they did not understand what it all meant.

Half a dozen men ran toward Phil, while Sully himself was charging down the concourse as fast as he could go, roaring out his commands at the top of his powerful voice.

"Get a horse and follow him!" he shouted. "Run back and send one of the men out around the tent to head him off! He's running away with my best ring horse!"

Phil swept through the exit, bowling over two men who were standing there on guard, and nearly running down a group of boys who were standing just outside trying to get a glimpse into the tent.

As he gained the outer air he heard the hoof beats of a running horse bearing down on him from the left side of the big top.

The Circus Boy knew what that meant. They were after him already.