Chapter IX. Phil Makes a Discovery
 

"I guess I'll leave my bag in the station and go over to the lot," decided the lad.

"The stake and chain gang will just about be on the job by this time."

It is a well known fact in the circus world that there is no better place to get information than from the stake and chain gang, the men who hurry to the lot the moment their train gets in and survey it, driving stakes to show where the tents are to be pitched, and it is a familiar answer, when one is unable to answer a question to say: "Ask the stake and chain gang."

That was exactly what Phil Forrest had in mind to do.

He followed a show wagon to the circus lot, where he found the men already at work measuring off the ground with their surveyor's chains, in the faint morning light.

"Morning," smiled Phil, sauntering over to where he observed the foreman watching the work of his men.

"Morning," growled the showman. Phil knew he would growl because the fellow had not yet had his breakfast.

"Seems to me the circuses are coming this way pretty fast?" suggested the lad.

"What d'ye mean?"

"I hear that there are to be two over in Corinto within two days--yours and--and. What's the name of the other one?"

"Sparling's," grunted the foreman.

Phil grinned appreciatively. He had drawn his man out on the first round.

"That's it. That's the name. I shouldn't think he'd want to show in the same place the day after you had been there?"

"Why not?"

" 'Cause the folks will all spend their money going to your show."

The foreman threw back his head and laughed.

"That's exactly what they will do, kid. That's what we want them to do. We'll make that Sparling outfit get off the earth before we get through with them. The boss has his axe out for that outfit."

"Indeed?" cooed Phil.

"Yes. He's going, between you and me, to keep a day ahead of them all the way over this circuit."

"Smart, very smart," laughed Phil, slapping his thigh as if he appreciated the joke fully. "Have an orange. I always carry some about with me when I'm going to visit a circus."

"Thanks, that will taste good at this time of the morning. It will keep me going until the cook tent is ready. The cook tent is where we get our meals, you understand. 'Course you don't know about those things."

"No indeed!"

"Outsiders never do," replied the man.

"I was wondering something a moment ago, when you told me about getting ahead of the other fellow."

"Wondering?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"Wondering how you know where the other fellow is going?"

"That's a dark secret, kid," answered the stake and chain foreman, with a very knowing wink.

"But if you know where he is going he must know where you are billed for at the same time," urged Phil.

"He don't."

"But why not?"

"In the first place we bill ourselves only a few days ahead. And, in the second, we have a way of finding out where Sparling is going for the next month or so ahead. Sometimes further than that."

"Well, well, that's interesting--" The foreman hurried off to give some directions to his men, slowly returning a few minutes later.

"I should like to know how you do it?"

"Say kid, there's tricks in the show business just the same as in any other. Mebby there's somebody with the Sparling outfit who keeps us posted. Mind you, I ain't saying there is; but that there might be."

"Oh, I see," muttered Phil, suddenly enlightened. "Then someone in the other show is giving away his employer's secrets. Fine for you, but pretty rough on the other fellow."

"Let the other fellow take care of himself, the same way we do," growled the foreman, following it with a threatening command to one of his men.

"That hardly seems fair," objected Phil.

"All is fair in war and the circus business. You seem a good deal interested in this competition business?" snapped the man with sudden suspicion in voice and face.

"I am. But where is this--this Sparling show going to--do you know what towns they are going to play for the next month? Can you tell that, too?"

"I can come pretty close to it," grinned the showman, whereupon he named the towns on Phil's route list without so much as missing one of them. But the stake and chain foreman did not stop here; he went on and gave a further list that Phil only knew of as having heard mentioned by Mr. Sparling in his various conversations with the circus lad.

Phil was amazed.

"Then they must be going west. I see," nodded the boy.

"No, you don't see. You only think you do."

"No?"

"No. If you was a showman and knew your business you'd know that the Sparling outfit was going to make a sudden turn after a little, and head for Dixie Land."

"Down south," exclaimed Phil.

"Sure. Why not? You see you lubbers don't know any more about the show business than--"

"And you are going to follow them?"

"Follow them? No. We're going to lead them. They'll follow us."

"You're like a wildcat train then?"

"Something of the sort."

"Where's the boss?"

"There he comes now. I'll have to hustle the men, or he'll scorch the grass off the lot with his roars."

The foreman hastened to stir up his surveyors and Phil moved off that he might get a better look at Mr. Sully, the owner of the show. Phil found him to be a florid-faced, square jawed man whose expression was as repulsive as it was brutal. Sully wore a red vest and red necktie with a large diamond in it. He gave the Circus Boy a quick sharp look as he passed. "I'll bet he will know me the next time he sees me," muttered Phil. "But whether he does or not I have made some discoveries that Mr. Sparling will be glad to know about, though they will not make him particularly happy, I'm thinking."

Phil was hungry, and he was anxious to get back to the village to write a letter, but decided that he would wait until the tents were up. Then again, he wanted to see the wagons brought on so he could count them and get a fair inventory of the show and what it possessed. He soon discovered that the Sully Hippodrome Circus was no one-horse affair, though considerably smaller than the one with which he was connected.

Not until the people were getting ready for the parade did Phil leave the lot. Then he hastened downtown and got his dinner and breakfast all in one, after which he sat down to write a full account of what he had learned to Mr. Sparling.

"There, if anything happens to me he is pretty well informed so far. It's enough to enable him to lay those plans he has in mind, whatever they may be. I can see him hammering his desk and getting red in the face when he reads this letter."

Phil was cautious enough not to mention the name of the Sully show in his letter, and tried to couch it in such terms, that while Mr. Sparling would understand perfectly, another might not.

Phil took the letter to the post office, then went out on the sidewalk where he stood leaning against a lamp post to watch the parade, which he did with critical eyes.

"A pretty good-sized show," he mused. "But all their trappings are second hand. They have bought them up from some show that has discarded them. That's one thing the Sparling outfit never does. All their stuff is new nearly every season. Sully may have some of our old trappings, for all I know."

The parade was a long one; there were a good many cages, besides a fair-sized herd of elephants.

"Hm-m-m! Three tuskers among the bulls," muttered Phil. "Pretty well up to our herd, but I wouldn't trade Emperor for any two of them, at that."

After the parade had passed, Phil once more strolled over to the circus lot and hung about until time for the afternoon performance to begin, when he bought a ticket and entered, occupying a reserved seat where he could see all that was going on.

The lad smiled at the thought of how his position had changed. He was so used to being over there in the ring that it did not seem quite right for him to be occupying a chair in the audience. He could scarcely resist the impulse to hurry back to the dressing tent and prepare for the ring.

The grand entry came on; then his attention was centered on the performance, which he watched with the keen eyes of an expert, noting the work of every performer, completely forgetting the cheering audience in his absorption.

It was really a fair performance. He was forced to admit this, especially of the aerial acts. But the bareback riding he did not think compared favorably with his own, especially so far as the men riders were concerned. One woman rider was very good, indeed.

Phil drew a long breath when the performance had come to an end. A circus performance, to him, was a matter of the keenest interest. The fact that he himself was a circus performer did not lessen that interest one whit, but rather intensified it. Yet the glamour of his youthful days had passed. It was now a professional interest, rather than the wondering interest of a boy who never had seen the inside of the dressing tent.

Phil did not hang about the grounds. He went downtown, but was once more on hand for the evening performance, where he noted that the show was cut short fully half an hour, and this without apparent good reason.

He had made the acquaintance of a "candy butcher" during the hour before the show, and from him had learned some further details that were of interest to him and his investigation.

The Circus Boy, after watching the striking of the tents, returned to the railroad station and took a late train for the town where the circus was to show next day. It was not a long run, so he took a day coach. In it he saw several familiar faces--faces that he had noticed about the circus lot that afternoon, and from their appearance he was forced to conclude that these men belonged to the shows.

"Those fellows are crooks, as sure as I am alive," decided the lad, after listening to the conversation of the couple just ahead of him. "That's what Mr. Sparling told me. I could hardly believe it. I'll spend part of the time outside tomorrow and make sure. I shall know those fellows when I see them, if they are on the grounds."

It had not occurred to Phil Forrest that he might be recognized also, though he knew full well that circus people had keen eyes, especially in an outfit such as this.

The next morning he hunted up his friend the candy butcher, inviting that worthy to take breakfast with him which the lad, a boy about his own age, was glad to do. From the "butcher" Phil learned a whole lot of things that added to his store of knowledge, among them being the fact that Sully's outfit was even worse than it had been painted.

Mingling with the crowds about the main entrance, before the doors were opened that afternoon, Phil once more saw the same men he had observed on the train the previous evening. From their actions he was more than ever satisfied that he had not been mistaken in his estimate of them.

"I shouldn't be surprised if they were looking for some pockets to pick," mused the lad, "but I do not see them doing anything yet."

As a matter of fact, the men were plying their trade, but his eyes had not been quick enough to catch them at it. Phil, however, was more successful just before the evening show.

Standing among the people massed out in front he saw a man's hand steal slowly toward the handbag of a well-dressed woman. Phil traced the hand back until he made out the owner, who was one of the same men that had come through on the train with him.

A gasoline torch lighted the operation faintly, and Phil gazed with fascinated eyes while the stealthy hand opened the bag quickly extracting its contents.

Almost at the instant the woman looked down, perhaps attracted by the tug at the bag.

"I've been robbed!" she cried.

The words stirred Phil to instant action.

In another second the thief felt a vise-like grip about the wrist that held the plunder.

"Here's the man that did it, madam. Call an officer," said Phil calmly.