Chapter XIII. A Narrow Escape
 

Thanks to Phil's presence of mind, Dimples had landed lightly on her feet well outside the ring curbing. Had the lad held to her ankles even a second too long the result must have been serious, if not fatal, for Dimples would have been hurled to the ground head first.

As it was, Phil gave her a lift, enabling her to double and "ball," a circus term meaning to curl one's feet up under the body, then straighten them as needed to give the body balance either in turning a somersault or in falling.

In doing so, however, Phil had had no thought for his own safety. He plunged forward over the head of the ring horse, striking the ground on his head and face.

The force of his fall had been broken somewhat by his quickly throwing out his hands in front of him and relaxing the muscles of his body. Circus performers soon learn how to fall--how to make the best of every situation with which they are confronted. Despite this, his fall had been a severe and dangerous one.

"There, he has done it! I knew he would," cried Mr. Sparling, rushing to the ring. Quick as he was, Dimples was ahead of him. She leaped the ring curbing and dropped down beside him, not caring for the dust and the dirt that soiled her pretty costume.

"Phil! Phil!" she cried.

Phil did not answer at the moment.

"Is he hurt--is he killed?" demanded Mr. Sparling excitedly.

"Of course he is hurt. Can't you see he is?" answered Dimples testily.

She turned the boy over and looked into his face. The dirt was so ground into the handsome, boyish face as to make it scarcely recognizable.

"Lift him up. Get some of the attendants to carry him back!" commanded the woman impatiently.

"No, no!" protested Phil in a muffled voice, for his mouth was full of sawdust and dirt. "I'm all right. Don't worry about me."

"He's all right," repeated the showman. "I'll help you up, Phil."

Phil, like the plucky performer that he was, declined their offers of assistance and struggled to his feet. He was dizzy and staggered a little, but after a moment succeeded in overmastering his inclination to faint.

A fleck of blood on his lips showed through makeup and sawdust.

"I'm all right. Don't worry about me," he said, with a forced smile.

Dimples sought to brush the dirt from his face with her handkerchief, but he put her aside gently, and, with a low bow, threw a kiss to the audience.

Their relief was expressed in a roar of applause.

Phil staggered over to where the ring horse still lay near the center of the ring and knelt down beside it, examining the leg that was doubled up under the animal.

The ringmaster cracked his whip lash as a signal for the animal to get up, but the faithful old horse, despite its efforts to rise, was unable to do so.

"What is the matter with him?" demanded Mr. Sparling.

"Jim has broken a leg, I think," answered Phil sadly. "Too bad, too bad!"

The lad patted the head of the horse and ran his fingers through the grey mane. Tears stood in Phil Forrest's eyes, for he had ridden this horse and won most of his triumphs on its resined back during the past three years.

"Dimples, I guess we have ridden Jim for the last time," said Phil in a low voice. "Hadn't you better start the other acts, Mr. Sparling. The audience will become uneasy."

"Yes, yes," answered the showman, waving his hand to the band, a signal that they were to play and the show to go on as usual. "Are you sure, Phil--sure Jim has not merely strained the leg?"

"I am sure. He never will perform again."

Dimples brushed a hand across her eyes.

"I shall cry when I get back to my dressing tent. I know I shall," she said, with a tremor in her voice that she strove to control.

Then Dimples smiled bravely, waving a hand at the audience, though her heart was sad.

"What had we better do with him, Phil?"

"We can do nothing at present--not until the show is ended. Then, there is only one thing to do."

"You mean he will have to be--"

"Yes, Dimples, he will have to be shot," answered Phil.

"But the audience?"

"Have a couple of attendants come in here and pretend to be working over Jim. That will make the audience think the animal's foot is injured rather than fatally hurt," suggested Phil Forrest.

"A good idea," said Mr. Sparling, giving the necessary orders.

Tell them not to disturb the spot, not trample it down.

"Why?" questioned the showman in surprise.

"I'll tell you later. I have my own reasons."

Phil motioned to Teddy to approach.

"Sit down here in the ring and watch the horse and the men around him," directed the Circus Boy. "I'll tell you why later."

The show went on with a snap and dash. Meanwhile, Phil, his clothes torn, his face grimy with dirt, started down the concourse toward the pad room, hand in hand with Little Dimples.

Their progress was a triumphal one so far as the audience was concerned, for the people cheered them all the way and until the slender riders had disappeared behind the crimson curtain just beyond the bandstand.

Phil quietly washed the dirt from his face, and pulling on his street clothes over his ring costume, started to reenter the arena.

At that moment Mr. Sparling came hurrying in. The two met in the pad room.

"Phil, how did that accident happen?" demanded the showman.

"You saw it, did you not, Mr. Sparling?"

"Yes. But I was unable to understand how it occurred."

"That is exactly what is bothering me," answered the lad, with a peculiar smile that the owner of the show was not slow to catch.

"You suspect something?"

"I suspect I got a bump that I shan't forget soon," laughed the Circus Boy. "It is a wonder I did not break my neck."

"You undoubtedly saved Dimples' life at the risk of your own. You are the pluckiest lad--no, I'll say the pluckiest man I have ever known."

"Don't make me blush, Mr. Sparling."

"Nevertheless, I wish you wouldn't take chances on that act again. Give the audience the same old act and they will be satisfied with that."

"Didn't you like the act?"

"Like it?"

"Yes."

"It was the finest exhibition of its kind that I ever saw. I hope neither the Ringlings, nor Barnum and Bailey, nor any of the big shows get a peep at that act."

"Why?"

"Because were they to do so I would be sure to lose my little star performers right in the middle of the season," laughed the owner.

"Oh, I hardly think so. I do not wish to leave this show. Had it not been for you I should still be doing chores for my board and clothes back in Edmeston. Now wouldn't that be fine?"

"Very," grinned the showman.

"Whatever I have accomplished I have you to thank for."

"You mean you owe to your own brightness and cleverness. No, Phil, you are a boy who would have succeeded anywhere. They can't keep you down--no, not even were they to sit on you."

"If Fat Marie, with her five hundred and odd pounds, were to sit on me, I rather think I would be kept down," answered the Circus Boy, with a hearty laugh in which Mr. Sparling joined uproariously.

"What is Teddy doing out in the ring?"

"I left him there to keep an eye on the injured horse."

"Why, Phil?"

"Until I could get back and make an examination."

"Very well; I want to see you after you have done so."

"I will look you up."

With that Phil hurried out into the arena. None of the spectators appeared to recognize the lad in his street clothes. Besides, he tried to avoid observation. He might have been one of the spectators, except that he picked his way, among the ropes and properties down through the center, where the public were not allowed to go.

"The rest of you may go," said Phil, reaching the ring where Jim lay breathing heavily. "Thank you for easing off old Jim. I know he appreciates it."

Jim looked up pleadingly as Phil bent over him, patting the animal on his splendid old gray head.

The attendants went about their duties.

"How'd this happen, Phil?" questioned Teddy.

"I fell off; that's what happened."

"Yes, I know you did, but there's more to it. I wonder if it's got anything to do with the loss of my egg?"

"I guess not."

"You guess not? Well, I know something, Phil."

"I should hope you do."

"I mean about this accident."

Phil gazed at his companion keenly.

"What do you know?"

"Look here," said Teddy, pointing to a depression in the sawdust arena.

Phil bent over, examining the spot closely. When he rose, his lips were tightly compressed and his face was pale.

"Don't mention this to anyone, Teddy. Promise me?"

" 'Course I won't tell. Why should I? But I found out about it, didn't I?"

"Yes; at least you have made a pretty good start in that direction. I shall have to tell Mr. Sparling. It would not be right to keep this information from him."

"N-n-o-o. Then maybe he'll organize a posse to hunt for my egg."

"Oh, hang your old egg!"

The Roman chariot races were on, the rattle of the wheels, the shouts of the drivers drowning the voices of the two boys.

"Teddy, you'll have to get back and change your clothes. The performance is about over. That makes me think. I have on my ring clothes under this suit and I must hurry back to my bath and my change."

The performance closed and the rattle and bang of tearing down the big white city had begun. The boys were engaged in packing their trunks now, as were most of their fellow performers.

"What's that?" demanded Teddy, straightening up suddenly.

"Somebody fired a shot," answered another performer.

Phil knew what it meant.

A bullet had ended the sufferings of the faithful old ring horse off under the big top. The Circus Boy turned away, with a blinding mist in his eyes.

"Poor old Jim!" he groaned.

Off under the women's dressing tent another pair of ears had heard and understood, and Little Dimples, burying her head in her hands wept softly.

"Poor old Jim!" she, too, murmured.