Chapter XXII. In a Lively Blow-Down
 

From that moment on, until the close of the season, Phil Forrest retained his place on the aerial trapeze team, doubling up with his other work, and putting the finishing touches to what Mr. Sparling called "a great career on the bars."

But Phil, much as he loved the work, did not propose to spend all his life performing above the heads of the people. He felt that a greater future was before him on the ground at the front of the house.

Only a week remained now before the show would close for the season. Even in Texas, where they were showing, the nights had begun to grow chilly, stiffening the muscles of the performers and making them irritable. All were looking forward to the day when the tents should be struck for the last time that season.

"What's the next stand?" asked Phil in the dressing tent a few nights after his triumphal performance on the trapeze.

"Tucker, Texas," answered a voice.

"What's that?" shouted a clown.

"Tucker, I said."

"Any relation to Teddy Tucker?"

"I hope not," laughed the head clown.

"A place with that name spells trouble. Anything by the name of Tucker, whether it's Teddy or not, means that we are in for some kind of a mix-up. I wish I could go fishing tomorrow."

All in the dressing tent chuckled at the clown's sally.

"I know what you'd catch if you did," grumbled Teddy.

"Now, what would I catch, young man?" demanded the clown.

"You'd catch cold. That's all you can catch," retorted Teddy, whereat the laugh was turned on the clown, much to the latter's disgust.

Tucker proved to be a pretty little town on the open plain. There was nothing in the appearance of the place to indicate that they might look for trouble. However, as the clown had prophesied, trouble was awaiting them--trouble of a nature that the showman dreads from the beginning to the end of the circus season.

The afternoon performance passed off without a hitch, the tent being crowded almost to its capacity, Phil Forrest throwing himself into his work in the air with more spirit and enthusiasm than he had shown at any time since he took up his new work.

At Mr. Sparling's request, however, the lad had omitted his triple somersault from the trapeze bar. The showman considered the act too dangerous, assuring Phil that sooner or later he would be sure to break his neck.

Phil laughed at the owner's fears, but promised that he would try nothing beyond a double after that. He remembered how quickly he had lost himself when he attempted the feat before. Few men are able to do it without their brains becoming so confused that they lose all sense of direction and location.

The evening house was almost as large as that of the afternoon, as usual the audience being made up principally of town people, the country spectators having returned to their homes before night. The night set in dark and oppressive.

Soon after the gasoline lights were lighted the animals began growling, pacing their cages restlessly, while the lions roared intermittently, and the hyenas laughed almost hysterically.

It sent a shiver down the backs of nearly everyone who heard it-- the shrill laugh of the hyenas reaching clear back to the dressing tent.

Teddy Tucker's eyes always grew large when he heard the laugh of the hyena.

"B-r-r-r!" exclaimed Teddy.

"You'll 'b-r-r-r' worse than that before you get through," growled a performer.

"Why?"

" 'Cause it means what somebody said the other night--trouble."

"What kind of trouble does it mean?" asked Phil.

"I don't know. Some kind of a storm, I guess. You can't always tell. Those animals know more than we human beings, when it comes to weather and that sort of thing," broke in Mr. Miaco the head clown.

"Well, you expected something would happen in a town called Tucker, didn't you?"

"Are you going to be with this show next season, Teddy?" questioned the clown who had taunted him before.

"I hope to."

"Then I sign out with some other outfit. I refuse to travel with a bunch that carries a hoodoo like you with it. I feel it in my bones that something is going to happen tonight, and just as soon as I can get through my act I'm going to run--run, mind you, not walk--back to the train as fast as my legs will carry me. That won't be any snail's pace, either."

The performers joked and passed the time away until the band started the overture, off under the big top. This means that it is about time for the show to begin, and that the music is started to hurry the people to their seats.

All hands fell silent as they got busy putting the finishing touches to their makeup.

"All acts cut short five minutes tonight," sang the voice of the ringmaster at the entrance to the dressing tent.

"You see," said the clown, nodding his head at Teddy.

"No, I hear," grumbled Teddy. "What's it all about?"

"Don't ask me. I don't know. I'm not running this show."

"Lucky for the show that you aren't," muttered the Circus Boy.

"What's that?"

"I was just thinking out loud, I guess."

"It's a bad habit. Don't do it when I'm around. All hoodoos talk to themselves and in their sleep."

The show was started off with a rush, the Grand Entry having been cut out again, as is frequently the case with a show where there is a long run ahead, or a storm is expected. That night those in the dressing tent could only surmise the reason. The hyena's warning was the only thing to guide the performers in their search for a reason for the haste. But they took the situation philosophically, as they always had, and prepared for the performance as usual.

The performance had gotten along well toward the end, and without the slightest interruption. All hands were beginning to feel a certain sense of relief, when the shrill blasts of the boss canvasman's emergency whistle were heard outside the big top.

Phil had just completed his trapeze act and was dropping into the net when the whistle sounded.

He glanced up and made a signal to the others in the air. They dropped, one by one, to the net and swung themselves to the ground, where they stood awaiting the completion of the piece that the band was playing.

"Wind, isn't it?" questioned Mr. Prentice.

Phil nodded.

He was listening intently. His keen ears caught a distant roar that caused him to gaze apprehensively aloft.

"I am afraid we are going to have trouble," he said.

"It has been in the air all the evening," was the low answer. "Wonder if they have the menagerie tent out of the way?"

It was being taken down at that moment, the elephants having been removed to the train, as had part of the cages.

All at once there was a roar that sent the blood from the faces of the spectators. The boss canvasman's whistle trilled excitedly.

"There go the dressing tents," said Phil calmly as a ripping and rending was heard off by the paddock. "I hope it hasn't taken my trunk with it. Glad I locked the trunk before coming into the ring."

The band stopped playing suddenly. The tent was in absolute silence.

"It's a cyclone!" shouted a voice among the spectators.

A murmur ran over the assemblage. In a moment they would be in a mad rush, trampling each other under foot in their efforts to escape.

Phil bounded toward the band.

"Play! Play!" he shouted. "They'll stampede if you don't. Play, I tell you!"

The bandmaster waved his baton and the music of the band drowned out the mutterings of the storm for the moment.

Suddenly the roaring without grew louder. Ropes were creaking, center and quarter poles lifting themselves a few inches from the ground, dangerously.

"It's blowing end on," muttered Phil, running full speed down the concourse in his ring costume.

"Keep your seats!" he shouted. "There may be no danger. If the tent should go down you will be safer where you are. Keep your seats, everybody."

Phil dashed on, shouting his warning until he had gotten halfway around the tent. Mr. Prentice had taken up the lad's cry on the other side.

Then the blow fell.

The big top bent under the sweep of the gale until the center poles were leaning far over to the north. Had the wind not struck the tent on the end it must have gone down under the first blast. As it was, canvas, rope and pole were holding, but every stitch of canvas and every pole was trembling under its burden.

"Sit steady, everybody! We may be able to weather it."

Phil saw that, if the people were to run into the arena and the tent should fall, many must be crushed under the center and quarter poles.

Up and down he ran shouting words of encouragement, and he was thus engaged when Mr. Sparling worked his way in from the pad room, as the open enclosure between the two dressing tents is called. Phil had picked up the ringmaster's whip and was cracking it to attract the attention of the people to what he was trying to tell them.

Somehow, many seemed to gain confidence from this plucky, slender lad clad in silk tights, who was rushing up and down as cool and collected as if three thousand persons were not in deadly peril.

Nothing but Phil Forrest's coolness saved many from death that night.

A mighty roar suddenly drew every eye in the tent to the south end where the wind was pressing against the canvas with increasing force.

Phil stood near the entrance, the flap of which had been quickly laced and staked down when the canvasmen saw the gale coming upon them.

He turned quickly, for the roar had seemed to be almost at his side. What he saw drew an exclamation from Phil that, at other times, might have been humorous. There was no humor in it now.

"Gracious!" exclaimed the lad.

There, within twenty feet of him stood a lion, a huge, powerful beast, with head up, the hair standing straight along its back, the mane rippling in the breeze.

"It's Wallace," breathed the lad, almost unable to believe his eyes. The biggest lion in captivity, somehow in the excitement had managed to escape from his cage.

"Now there'll be a panic for sure! They've seen him!"

"Sit still and keep still! He won't hurt you!" shouted Phil. "Now, you get out of here!" commanded Phil, starting toward Wallace and cracking the ringmaster's whip in the animal's face.

Just for the briefest part of a second did Wallace give way, then with a terrific roar, he bounded clear over the Circus Boy's head, bowling Phil over as he leaped, and on down to the center of the arena.

Phil had not been hurt. He was up and after the dangerous beast in a twinkling. The audience saw what he was trying to do.

"Keep away from him!" bellowed Mr. Sparling.

"Throw a net over him!" shouted Phil.

However, between the storm and the escaped lion, none seemed to have his wits about him sufficiently to know what was best to do. Had the showmen acted promptly when Phil called, they might have been able to capture the beast then and there.

Seeing that they were not going to do so, and that the lion was walking slowly toward the reserved seats, Phil sprang in front of the dangerous brute to head him off.

The occupants of the reserved seats were standing up. The panic might break at any minute.

"Sit down!" came the command, in a stern, boyish voice.

Phil faced the escaped lion, starting toward it with a threatening motion of the whip.

"Are you ever going to get a net?"

"Get a net!" thundered Mr. Sparling. "Get away from him, Phil!"

Instead of doing so, the Circus Boy stepped closer to the beast. No one made the slightest move to capture the beast, as Phil realized might easily be done now, if only a few had the presence of mind to attempt it.

Crack!

The ringmaster's whip in Phil's hands snapped and the leather lash bit deep into the nose of Wallace.

With a roar that sounded louder than that of the storm outside the lion took a quick step forward, only to get the lash on his nose again.

Suddenly he turned about and in long, curving bounds headed for the lower end of the tent. Mr. Sparling sprang to one side, knowing full well that it would be better to lose the lion than to stir up the audience more than they already were stirred.

Phil was in full pursuit, cracking his whip at every jump.

Wallace leaped through the open flap at the lower end of the tent and disappeared in the night.

Just as he did so there came a sound different from anything that had preceded it. A series of reports followed one another until it sounded as if a battery of small cannon were being fired, together with a ripping and tearing and rending that sent every spectator in the big tent, to his feet yelling and shouting.

"The tent is coming down! The tent is coming down!"

Women fainted and men began fighting to get down into the arena.

"Stay where you are!" shouted Phil. Then the Circus Boy did a bold act. Running along in front of the seats he let drive the lash of his long whip full into the faces of the struggling people. The sting of the lash brought many of them to their senses. Then they too turned to help hold the others back.

With a wrench, the center poles were lifted several feet up into the air.

"Look out for the quarter poles! Keep back or you'll be killed!" shouted Phil.

"Keep back! Keep back!" bellowed Mr. Sparling.

And now the quarter poles--the poles that stand leaning toward the center of the arena, just in front of the lower row of seats--began to fall, crashing inward, forced to the north.

The center poles snapped like pipe stems, pieces of them being hurled half the length of the tent.

Down came the canvas, extinguishing the lights and leaving the place in deep darkness. The people were fairly beside themselves with fright. But still that boyish voice was heard above the uproar:

"Sit still! Sit still!"

The whole mass of canvas collapsed and went rolling northward like a sail suddenly ripped from the yards of a ship.

The last mighty blow of the storm had been more than canvas and painted poles could stand.