Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
 

"Down, Wallace! Charge!"

The Circus Boy's whip cracked viciously, while the dying torches formed thin circles of fire as they were swung above the lad's head.

"I shan't be able to hold him off much longer. Wallace knows, as well as I do, that his turn is coming in a short time. If I happen to be within reach then, something surely is going to happen. Hark! What's that?"

Distant shouts were borne faintly to Phil's ears. He listened intently, catching another and welcome sound. The latter was the rumble of a heavy wagon, being driven rapidly along the paved street of the town.

"It's a circus wagon," breathed the lad, recognizing the sound instantly. "I hope it is the wagon."

He listened intently, keeping the torches moving, now and then cracking his whip and uttering sharp commands to Wallace.

The animal was growing more and more restless. His wild instincts were returning to him.

The torches were so low, now, that Phil could scarcely see the beast. Then, all at once, he realized that Wallace was creeping toward him unmindful of the lash or of the fading torches.

Phil waited, peering into the shadows. He was not afraid, as he recalled his sensations afterwards; but a strange little thrill seemed to be racing up and down his spinal column.

Then the lad did a daring thing. He sprang forward to meet Wallace. The astonished lion halted for a brief instant, and in that instant the Circus Boy thrust one of the torches full in his face. The flame burned the nose of the king of beasts and singed his brow as well.

Uttering a mighty roar Wallace cleared the floor, springing backwards and landing against the wall with such force as to jar several panes of glass from the window nearby.

"Phil! Phil! Are you there?" came a hesitating voice from behind the lad. It was the voice of Teddy Tucker on a ladder at one side of the window from which he had jumped earlier in the evening.

"Yes, yes. Be careful. Did you bring them?"

"We've got the cage. Mr. Sparling is here, too. He's half worried to death. What shall we do?"

"Have them draw the cage up in the back yard and back it against the open door. When that's done some of you come upstairs and throw the door open. Be sure to leave a light in the hall, but jump into the room across the hall as soon as you open the door. Wallace will scent his mate and I'll wager he'll trot right downstairs and jump into his cage. Have someone standing by to close the doors on him. Hurry now. Tell them my torches won't last five minutes longer."

Teddy slid down the ladder without waiting to place feet or hand on the rungs, and Phil's anxious ears told him the men were drawing the cage around to the rear yard.

Soon he heard footsteps on the back stairs. Wallace was showing new signs of agitation.

"All ready, in there?"

"All ready," answered Phil.

Teddy jerked the door open and leaping across the hall, shut himself in the room opposite. Wallace paused, his tail beating the wall behind him; then uttering a roar that shook the building, the shaggy beast leaped into the hall. There he paused for an instant. One bound took him to the foot of the stairs. The next landed him in the cage next to his mate. The cage doors closed behind him with a metallic snap.

Wallace was safe.

"Got him!" shouted a voice from below.

Phil drew a long sigh of relief. Someone dashed up the stairs on a run. It was Mr. Sparling. He grabbed Phil Forrest in his arms, hugging him until the dead torches fell to the floor with a clatter and the lad begged to be released.

"My brave Phil, my brave boy!" breathed the showman. "No one but you could have done a thing like that. You have saved the lives of many people this night, and what is more you have captured the most valuable lion in the world--you and Teddy. I don't know what to say nor how to say it. I--"

"I wouldn't try were I in your place," grinned Phil. "I presume you will have to settle with these people for the slight damage that has been done to their house."

"I'll settle the bills; don't you worry about that."

"Any more lions lying around loose in here?" questioned Teddy, poking his head in through the open door. "I and my little club are ready for them if there are."

"Shall we be going, Mr. Sparling?"

"Yes."

Together the three made their way down the stairs just as the cage was being driven from the yard. As soon as he could find the owner of the house the showman paid him for the damages.

"What shape is the big top in?" asked Phil as they walked slowly back toward the lot.

"Bad, very bad. I might say that it comes pretty near being a hopeless wreck. Still it may be patched up."

"I am sure of it. I know a blown-down tent is not half as hopeless as it looks. I saw the Robinson shows with a blown-down tent once."

"I have been thinking the matter over, Phil."

"Yes."

"We have only a few days more to go before the close of the season, and it seems to me that the best plan would be to close right here and go in. What do you think?"

"I think," answered Phil Forrest slowly, "that I should turn all hands loose and fix that tent up so the show will be able to make the next stand and give a performance by tomorrow night at latest. It can be done. If the tent is too badly torn to set up a six pole show, make it a four pole show, or use the menagerie tent for the circus performance. I should never have it said that the Sparling Combined Shows were put out of business by a gale of wind."

Mr. Sparling halted.

"Phil, there is an old saying to the effect that you can't 'teach an old dog new tricks.' It's not true. You have taught me a new trick. The Sparling shows shall go on to the close of the season. We'll make the next town, somehow, and we'll give them a show the like of which they never before have seen."

"If they had been here tonight they would have seen one such as they never saw before," grinned Teddy.

"Yes."

"A sort of Wild South instead of Wild West show," added the irrepressible Teddy.

All that night the showmen worked, Phil not even taking the time to discard his gaudy ring clothes. The next morning both he and Teddy were sights to behold, but the show had been loaded, and the big top straightened out and put in shape so that it could be pitched when the next town was reached. At last the boys decided to hunt up their trunks. They found them, after a long search. Getting behind a pole wagon they put on their clothes. An hour later they were on their way to the next stand, tired but proud of their achievements and happy.

The news of the accident to the show, as well as the capture of the big lion, Wallace, by the Circus Boys, had preceded them to the next town. Once more Phil Forrest and Teddy Tucker were hailed as heroes, which they really had proved themselves to be.

A very fair performance, considering their crippled condition, was given that afternoon. By the next day the show was on its feet again, and from then on to the close of the season, no other exciting incidents occurred.

Two weeks later the big top came down for the last time that year. On the afternoon of that happy day, the associates of the Circus Boys gave a banquet for the two lads under the cook tent, at which Teddy Tucker distinguished himself by making a speech that set the whole tent in an uproar of merriment.

Good-byes were said, and the circus folks departed that night bag and baggage to scatter to the four quarters of the globe, some never to return to the Sparling shows. Phil and Teddy returned to Edmeston to finish their course at the high school, from which they were to graduate in the following spring.

How the lads joined out with the circus the next season will be told in a succeeding volume entitled, "The Circus Boys on the Mississippi; Or, Afloat with the Big Show on the Big River." This was destined to be one of the most interesting journeys of their circus careers--one filled with new and exciting experiences and thrilling adventures.

Until then we will leave them to continue their studies in the little village of Edmeston.