Chapter VIII. A Rival in the Field
 

Zoraya was left behind. She was sent to a hospital where she was destined to remain many weeks, before she would be able to be moved to her little home in Indiana. She never performed again.

In the meantime the Great Sparling Combined Shows had moved majestically along. They had left the United States and were touring Canada, playing in many of the quaint little French villages and larger towns, where the Circus Boys found much to interest and amuse them.

Teddy and Shivers had made a great hit in their "brother" clown act, which was daily added to and improved upon as the show worked its way along the Canadian border.

One day Phil, who had been downtown after the parade, where he went to read the papers when he got a chance, came back and sought out Mr. Sparling in the latter's private tent.

"Well, Phil," greeted the owner cordially, "what's on your mind?"

"Perhaps a good deal, but possibly nothing of any consequence. You will have to decide that."

"What is it?" questioned Mr. Sparling sharply.

"Do we show in Corinto?"

"Yes; why?"

"I thought I had heard you mention that we were to do so."

"Why do you ask that question?"

"I'll answer it by asking another," smiled the Circus Boy. "When do we make that stand?"

The showman consulted his route book.

"A week from next Tuesday," he said. "Anything wrong about that?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"Nothing except that there is another show billed to play there the day before."

"What?"

Mr. Sparling bent a keen gaze on Phil's face, to make sure the lad was not joking.

"Yes, the Sully Hippodrome Circus is billed there for Monday."

"Where did you find that out?"

"I read it in a St. Catharines' paper down at the hotel this morning. I thought you would be interested in knowing of it."

"Interested? Why, boy, it will kill our business. So Sully is cutting in on us, is he? I thought he was playing the eastern circuit. He threatened to get even with me."

"Even?"

"Yes. Sully was once a partner in this show, but he proved himself so dishonest that I had to take legal measures to get him out. He got money from some source last season, and put a show of his own on the road. He has a twenty-five car show, I understand. Not such a small outfit at that. But I hear it is a graft show."

"What's a graft show? I must confess that I never heard of that before."

"A graft show, my boy, is a show that gets money in various ways. They frequently carry a gang of thieves and confidence men with them, who work among the spectators on the grounds before the show, robbing them and getting a commission on their earnings."

"Is it possible that there are such dishonest people in the show business?" marveled the lad.

"Not only possible, but an actual fact. I am happy to say, however, that there are few shows that will tolerate anything of that sort."

"I'm glad I did not have the misfortune to get with one of them," smiled Phil. "Are any of the big shows graft shows?"

"None of them. But about this heading us off?"

"Yes; what will you do about it?"

"We'll be there on Monday, too," decided the showman after a moment's reflection.

"On Monday?"

"Yes."

"Then--then you intend to skip a date somewhere?"

"We shall have to."

Mr. Sparling was a man of resource and quick action. He made up his mind in a minute as to what course to follow.

"I'm going to detach you from the show for a few days, if you don't mind, Phil," decided Mr. Sparling.

"I am glad to serve you in any way that you think I can," answered the lad with a flash of surprise in his glance.

"I know that. What I want you to do is to join that show right away."

"Join them?"

"I do not mean that exactly. I want you to go to the town where they are playing tomorrow, I will get the name of the town before the day is over. Follow the show right along from town to town until next Monday, paying your way when you go in and keeping your eyes open for their game. You, with your shrewdness, ought to have no difficulty in getting sufficient evidence to help me carry out my plans."

"What sort of evidence do you wish me to get?"

"Make a mental note of everything you see that is not regular, and if they have a route card get a copy of that. It's perfectly regular, young man," hastened the showman, noting Phil's look of disapproval. "You are not doing anything improper. I do not ask you to pry into their private affairs. We have a right, however, to find out if we can, what their plans are with relation to ourselves. If they are playing Corinto the day before we do, just by mere chance, then I shall make no further objections, but if they are planning to move along ahead of us and kill our business--well, that's a different matter."

"I see," nodded Phil. "Who will take my place in the ring work here?"

"We will get along without it, that's all. It doesn't matter so much in these small towns. I don't care if you do not join out until we get to Niagara Falls. We'll be playing in the real country then."

"And working south?"

"Yes. As soon as the weather gets cooler we will head for the south and stay there until the close of the season. They are going to have a big cotton crop in the south this fall, and there will be lots of money lying around loose to be picked up by a show like ours."

"When do you want me to start?" asked Phil.

"Just as soon as I can get an answer to a telegram that I'm going to send now. You will be off sometime this afternoon. But perhaps you can go on in your acts--no, I guess you had better not. You'll be missed at night if you do."

"Yes; that's so."

"I shall have some further directions for you. So long, for the present."

Phil turned away thoughtfully. Shortly after the afternoon performance Mr. Sparling sent for Phil again, the lad having in the meantime packed a few necessary articles in his bag preparatory to the journey that lay before him.

"The other show will be at St. Catharines tomorrow. Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir. What time can I get away?"

"Five o'clock. You will be there in the morning in time to see them set the tents. Let me warn you that Sully is ugly and unscrupulous. If he were to know what you are there for it might get you into a mix-up, so be careful."

"I'll be careful. Have you any further instructions?"

"I want to give you some money. You can't travel without money."

"I have plenty," answered Phil. "I will keep my expense account and turn it in to you when I get back. Where do you wish me to join you?"

"Corinto, unless you think best to come back in the meantime. That is, if you get sufficient information. You know what I want without my going into details, don't you?"

"I think so."

"Now, look out for yourself."

"I'll try to."

"You have not mentioned to anyone what you are going to do, of course?"

"Certainly not. Not even to Teddy. Perhaps if you will, you might make the explanation to him," suggested Phil.

"Yes; I'll do that as soon as you have gotten away. He'll be raising the roof off the big top when he misses you."

Phil extended his hand to his employer, then turned and hurried from the tent. First, the boy proceeded to the sleeping car in which he berthed, for his bag. Securing this he had just time to reach the station before the five o'clock train rumbled in.

The lad boarded a sleeping car and settled himself for the long ride before him, passing the time by reading the current magazines with which he provided himself when the train agent came through. Late in the evening the lad turned in. Riding in a sleeping car was no novelty to him, and he dropped asleep almost instantly, not to awaken again until the porter shook him gently by the shoulder.

"What is it?" questioned Phil, starting up.

"St. Catharines."

The lad pulled the curtains of his berth aside. Day was just breaking as he peered out.

"There they are," he muttered, catching sight of a switch full of gaudily painted cars bearing the name of the Sully Hippodrome Circus. "They have just got in," he decided from certain familiar signs of which he took quick mental note. "Looks like a cheap outfit at that. But you never can tell."

Phil Forrest dressed himself quickly and grasping his bag hurried from the car, anxious to be at his task, which, to tell the truth, he approached with keen zest. He was beginning to enter into the spirit of the work to which he had been assigned, and which was to provide him with much more excitement than he at that moment dreamed.