Chapter XXIII. The Lion Hunt
 

For a moment there was silence. Then the people began shouting.

"Bring lights, men!" thundered the owner of the show.

Being so near the outer edges of the tent, the people had escaped almost without injury. Many had been bruised as the canvas swept over them, knocking them flat and some falling all the way through between the seats to the ground, where they were in little danger.

"Wait till the lights come! Phil! Phil!"

Phil Forrest did not answer. He had been knocked clear into the center of the arena by a falling quarter pole, and stunned. The Circus Boy's head was pretty hard, however, and no more than a minute had passed before he was at work digging his way out of the wreck.

"Phillip!"

"Here!"

"Thank heaven," muttered the showman. "I was afraid he had been killed. Are you all right?" Mr. Sparling made his way in Phil's direction.

"Yes. How--how many were killed?"

"I hope none," replied Mr. Sparling. "As soon as the lights are on and all this stuff hauled out of the way we shall know."

Most of the canvas had been blown from the circus arena proper so that little was left there save the seats, a portion of the bandstand, the wrecks of the ruined poles and circus properties, together with some of the side walls, which still were standing.

By this time the tornado, for such it had developed into, had passed entirely and the moon came out, shining down into the darkened circus arena, lighting it up brightly.

About that time torches were brought. The people had rushed down from the seats as soon as the big top had blown away.

"I want all who have been injured to wait until I can see them," shouted Mr. Sparling. "Many of you owe your lives to this young man. Had you started when the blow came many of you would have been killed. Has anyone been seriously hurt?"

A chorus of "no's" echoed from all sides.

The showman breathed a sigh of relief. A bare half dozen had to be helped down from the seats, where they had been struck by flying debris, but beyond that no one obeyed Mr. Sparling's request to remain.

The men had run quickly along under the seats to see if by any chance injured persons had fallen through. They helped a few out and these walked hurriedly away, bent on getting off the circus lot as quickly as possible after their exciting experiences.

"No one killed, Phil."

"I'm glad of that. I'm going to look for Wallace. Better get your men out right away, or he'll be too far away for us ever to catch him again. Have the menagerie men gone to look for him?"

"I don't know, Phil. You will remember that I have been rather busily engaged for the past ten or fifteen minutes."

"We all have. Well, I'm going to take a run and see if I can get track of the lion."

"Be careful. Better get your clothes on the first thing you do."

"Guess he hasn't any. His trunk and mine have gone away somewhere," nodded Teddy.

"Never mind the clothes. I'm on a lion hunt now," laughed Phil, starting from the enclosure on a run.

"Nothing can stop that boy," muttered Mr. Sparling. The owner was all activity now, giving his orders at rapid-fire rate. First, the men were ordered to gather the canvas and stretch it out on the lot so an inventory might be taken to determine in what shape the show had been left. Others were assigned to search the lot for show properties, costumes and the like, and in a very short time the big, machine-like organization was working methodically and without excitement.

It must not be thought that nothing was being done toward catching the escaped lion. Fully fifty men had started in pursuit immediately after the escape. They had been detained for a few minutes by the blow down, after which every man belonging to the menagerie tent, who could be spared, joined in the chase.

The lion cage, one of the few left remaining on the lot, had been blown over as it was being taken away. The shock had burst open the rear door and Wallace was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to regain his freedom. An iron-barred partition separated him from his mate. Fortunately this partition had held, leaving the lioness still confined in the cage.

The attendants quickly righted the cage, making fast the door so that there might be no repetition of the disaster.

Seeing Phil hurrying away Teddy took to his heels also, and within a short distance caught up with his companion.

"You going to look for that lion, Phil?"

"Yes."

"So am I."

"You had better stay here, Teddy. You might get hurt."

"What about yourself?"

"Oh, I'm not afraid," laughed Phil.

"Don't you call me a coward, Phil Forrest. I've got as much sand as you have any time."

"Why, I didn't call you a coward. I--"

"Yes, you did; yes, you did!"

"Don't let's quarrel. Remember we are on a lion hunt just now. Hey, Bob." hailed Phil, discovering one of the menagerie attendants.

"Hello."

"Which way did he go?"

"We don't know. When the blow down came we lost all track of Wallace. He's probably headed for the open country."

"Where are the searchers?"

"All over. A party went west, another north and the third to the east."

"What about the village--did no one go that way to hunt for him?"

"No; he wouldn't go to town."

"Think not?"

"Sure of it."

"Why not?"

"He'd want to get away from the people as quick as he could. You don't catch Wallace going into any town or any other place where there's people."

"I noticed that he came in under the big top where there were about three thousand of them," replied Phil dryly.

"He was scared; that's what made him do that."

"And that very emotion may have sent him into the town. I'm going over there to start something on my own hook. Are you going along Teddy?"

"You bet I am. I always did like to hunt lions."

"When you are sure you are going away from the lion, instead of in his direction," suggested Phil, laughingly. "What's that you have in your hand?"

"It's an iron tent stake I picked up on the lot. I'll fetch him a wallop that'll make him see stars if I catch close enough sight of him."

"I don't think you will get quite that close to Wallace."

"I'll show you."

By this time the word had spread all over town that the whole menagerie of the Sparling Combined Shows had escaped. The streets were cleared in short order. Here and there, from an upper window, might be seen the whites of the frightened eyes of a Negro peering down, hoping to catch sight of the wild beasts, and fearful lest he should. "If it was an elephant we might trail him," suggested Teddy.

"That's not a half bad idea. The dust is quite thick. I wish we had thought to bring a torch with us."

"I'll tell you where we can get one."

"Where?"

"One of the markers set up to guide the wagon drivers to the railroad yards. There's a couple on the next street above here. I saw them just a minute ago."

"Teddy you are a genius. And to think I have known you all this time and never found it out before. Come on, we'll get the torches."

They started on a run across an open lot, then turning into the street above, saw the torches flaring by the roadside half a block away. Jerking the lights up the lads ran back to the street they had previously left.

"Where shall we look?"

"We might as well begin right here, Teddy. I can't help believing that Wallace is somewhere in the town. I don't believe, for a minute, that he would run off into the country. If he has he'll be back in a very short time. You remember what I tell you. If we can get track of him we'll follow and send word back to the lot so they can come and get him."

"Why not catch him ourselves?"

"I don't think we two boys had better try that. I am afraid it would prove too much for us."

"I've got a tent stake. I'm not afraid. Why didn't you bring a club?"

"I have the ringmaster's whip. I prefer that to a club when it comes to meeting a wild lion. Hello, up there!" called Phil, discovering two men looking out of a window above him.

"Hello yourself. You fellows belong to the circus?"

"Yes. Have you seen anything of a lion around this part of the town?"

"A tall fellow about my size, with blue eyes and blonde hair," added Teddy.

"Stop your fooling, Teddy."

"A lion?"

"Yes."

"Only one?"

"That's all," replied Phil a bit impatiently. "Have you seen him?"

"Why, we heard the whole menagerie had escaped."

"That is a mistake. Only one animal got away--the lion."

"No; we haven't seen him, but we heard him a little while ago."

"Where, where?" questioned the boy eagerly.

"Heard him roar, and it sounded as if he was off in that direction."

"O, thank you, thank you," answered Phil.

"Say, are you in the show did you say?" now catching sight of Phil's tights under the bright moonlight.

"Yes."

"What do you do?"

"I am in the big trapeze act, the flying rings and a few other little things."

"Is that so?"

"Yes. Well, you'll have to excuse us. We must be going."

"You boys are not going out after that lion alone, are you?"

"Yes, of course."

"Great Caesar! What do you think of that? Wait a minute; we'll get our guns and join you."

"Please, I would rather you would not. We don't want to kill the lion, you see."

"Don't want to kill him?" questioned the man in amazement.

"Certainly not. We want to capture him. If the town's people will simply stay in their homes, and not bother us, we shall get him before morning and no one will be the worse for his escape. Wallace is worth a few thousand dollars, I suppose you are aware. Come along, Teddy."

Leaving the two men to utter exclamations of amazement, the lads started off in the direction indicated by the others.

"What did I tell you, Teddy? That lion is in the town at this very minute. He's probably eating up someone's fresh meat by this time. Hold your torch down and keep watch of the street. You keep that side and I'll watch this. We will each take half of the road."

The Circus Boys had been around the animals of the menagerie for nearly three years now, it will be remembered, and they had wholly lost that fear that most people outside the circus feel for the savage beasts of the jungle. They thought little more of this lion hunt, so far as the danger was concerned, than if they had been chasing a runaway circus horse or tame elephant.

All at once Teddy Tucker uttered an exclamation.

"What is it?"

"I've landed the gentleman."

"You sure?"

"Yes; here are his tracks."

"That's so; you have. Don't lose them now. We'll run him down yet. Won't Mr. Sparling be pleased?"

"I reckon he will. But we have got to catch the cat first before we can please anybody. I wonder how we're going to do it?"

"We shall see about that later."

The boys started on a trot, holding their torches close to the ground. Their course took them about on another street leading at right angles to the one they had been following.

All at once they seemed to have lost the trail. Before them stood a handsome house, set well back in a green lawn. The house was lighted up, and evidently some kind of an entertainment was going on within.

"He's gone over in some of these yards," breathed Phil. "Let's take the place that's lighted up, first. He'd be more likely to go where there is life. He--"

Phil's words were cut short by a shriek of terror from the lighted house followed by another and another.

"He's there! Come on!"

Both boys vaulted the fence and ran to the front door. By this time shriek upon shriek rent the air. The lads burst into the house without an instant's hesitation.

"Upstairs!" cried Phil, bounding up three steps at a time.

A woman, pale and wide-eyed, had pointed that way when she saw the two boys in their circus tights and realized what they had come there for.

In a large room a dozen people, pale and frightened were standing, one man with hand on the door ready to slam it shut at first sign of the intruder.

"Where--where is he?" demanded Phil breathlessly.

"We were playing cards, and when somebody looked up he saw that beast standing in the door here looking in. He--he went down in the back yard. Maybe you will be able to see him if you go in the room across the hall there. There's a yard fenced off there for the dogs to run in."

Phil bounded across the hall followed by two of the men.

"Does that stairway lead down into the back yard?" questioned Phil.

"Yes, yes."

"Was the door open?"

"Yes, yes."

"Is it open now?"

"Yes. We can feel the draft."

"Show me into the room and I'll take a look."

One of the men, who evidently lived in the house, stepped gingerly across the hall, turned the knob and pushed the door in ever so little. Phil and Teddy, with torches still in hand, crowded in.

As they did so their guide uttering a frightened yell, slammed the door shut, and Phil heard a bolt shoot in place.

The boys found themselves in a large room running the full depth of the house. It had been rigged up, as a gymnasium, with the familiar flying rings, parallel bars and other useful equipment.

All this they saw instinctively. But what they saw beyond all this caused the Circus Boys to pause almost spellbound.

"He's in there! He's in there!" shouted half a dozen voices at the same moment. Then the lads heard the people rush down the stairs and out into the street shouting and screaming for help.

Crouching in the far corner of the room, lashing its tail, its evil eyes fixed upon them, was the lion Wallace.

"Wow!" breathed Teddy.

Phil with eyes fixed upon the lion reached back one hand and tried the door behind him. It was locked.

"Teddy, don't make any sudden moves," cautioned Phil in a low voice. "We're locked in. Give me your torch. Now edge over to that open window and drop out. We can't both try it, or Wallace will be upon us in a flash. When you get out, run for the lot. Run as you never ran before. Get the men here. Have them rush Wallace's cage here. Be careful until you get out. Those people have locked us in. I shouldn't dare open the door anyway, now, for he'd catch us before we could get out. I know the ways of these tricky cats."

"Phil, he'll kill you!"

"He won't. I've got the torches. They're the best weapons a man could have--they and the whip."

Teddy edged toward the window while Phil with a stern command to the lion to "charge!" at the same time cracking the whip and thrusting the torches toward the beast, checked the rush that Wallace seemed about to make.

Teddy dropped from the window a moment later. Then began an experience for Phil Forrest that few boys would have had the courage to face.

Not for an instant did the Circus Boy lose his presence of mind. He took good care not to crowd Wallace, giving him plenty of room, constantly talking to him as he had frequently heard the animal's keeper do, and keeping the beast's mind occupied as much as he could.

Now and then Wallace would attempt to creep up on Phil, whereupon the lad would start forward thrusting the torches before him and crack the whip again. Wallace was afraid of fire, and under the menacing thrusts of the torches would back cowering into his corner.

For a full half hour did Phil Forrest face this deadly peril, cool, collected, his mind ever on the alert, standing there in his pink tights, almost a heroic figure as he poised in the light of the flaring torches, the smoke of which got into his lungs and made him cough. He did all he could to suppress this, for it disturbed and irritated Wallace, who showed his disapproval by swishing his tail and uttering low, deep growls of resentment.

Phil backed away a little so as to get nearer the window that he might find more fresh air. Wallace followed. Phil sprang at him.

"Charge!" he commanded making several violent thrusts with the torches, at which Wallace backed away again and crouched lower. Phil saw that the lion was preparing to jump over his head; and, discovering this, the lad held one torch high above his head and kept it swaying there from side to side.

Suddenly he made another discovery.

The light seemed to be growing dim. A quick glance at the flames of the torches told him what the trouble was.

He dared not let his eyes dwell on the flame for more than a brief instant for the glare would so blind him that he would not be able to clearly make out the lion. To lose sight of Wallace for a few seconds might mean a sudden and quick end to Phil Forrest, and he knew it full well.

The lad backed a bit closer to the window, keeping his torches moving rapidly to hide his movements.

Wallace, watching the torches did not observe the action.

"The torches are going out," breathed Phil. "If the folks don't come soon I've got to jump through window glass and all or Wallace will spring."

Phil was in a desperate situation.