Chapter XV. An Unwelcome Visitor
 

The boats of the Sparling fleet had been moving steadily downstream for several hours, their passengers, in the majority of instances, sound asleep, lulled by the gentle motion and the far away "spat, spat, spat," of the industrious paddle wheel at the stern of each craft.

Teddy had prudently kept away from the main cabin for the rest of the evening; when Phil turned in, Teddy was sleeping sweetly. His active part in the affair in the cabin had not caused him any loss of sleep.

With the pilot, Cummings, however, matters had been different. Mr. Cummings had been steadily at the wheel of the "Marie" since the boats had sailed shortly after one o'clock in the morning.

The pilot's temper had suffered as the result of his experience in the cabin, and the jeers aud laughter of the circus people had not added to his peace of mind. At intervals he would break out into a tirade of invective and threats against Teddy Tucker, who had so humiliated him.

"I'll get even with that little monkey-face! They ought to put him in the monkey cage where he belongs," growled the pilot, giving the wheel a three-quarter turn to keep the boat from driving her prow into the bank, for which he had been steering to avoid a hidden sand bar.

"I'll tell the manager tomorrow, that if he doesn't keep that boy away from me, I'll take the matter into my own hands and give that kid a trouncing that will last him till we get to New Orleans."

The darkness of the night, just before the dawn, hung over the broad river. Doors and windows of the pilot house were thrown open so that the wheelman might get a clear view on all sides.

All at once Cummings seemed to feel some presence near him. He thought he caught the sound of a footfall on the deck. To make sure he left the wheel for a few seconds, peering out along the deck, on both sides of the pilot house.

He saw no one. The air was filled with a black pall of smoke from the "Marie's" funnel, the smoke settling over the boat, wholly enveloping her from her stack to the stern paddle wheel.

"Huh!" grunted the pilot, returning to his duties.

Yet his ears had not deceived him. Something was near him, a strange shape, the like of which never had been seen on the deck of the "Fat Marie", in all her long service on the Mississippi.

"If that fool boy comes nosing around here I'll throw him overboard--that's what I'll do," threatened Cummings. "I'll show him he can't fool with the pilot of the finest steamboat of the old line. I--"

The pilot suddenly checked himself and peered out to starboard.

"Wha--what?" he gasped.

Something darkened the doorway. What he now saw was a strange, grotesque shape that looked like a shadow itself in the uncertain light of the early morning.

"Get out of here!" bellowed the pilot, the cold chills running up and down his spine.

The most frightful sound that his ears had ever heard, broke suddenly on the quiet of the Mississippi night.

"It's the lion escaped!"

Cummings grabbed a stout oak stick that lay at hand--the stick that now and then, when battling with a stiff current, he used to insert between the spokes of the steering wheel to give him greater leverage.

With a yell he brought the stick down on the head of the strange beast. The roar or bray of the animal stopped suddenly.

Whack! came the echo from the club.

Cummings sprang back. He slammed the pilot-house door in the face of the beast, and closed the windows with a bang that shook the pilot house. In his excitement the pilot rang in a signal to the engineer for full speed astern.

About that time something else occurred.

With a terrific crash one of the windows of the pilot house was shattered, pieces of glass showering in upon the pilot like a sudden storm of hail.

Crash!

Another window fell in a shower about him. He tried to get the door on the opposite side of the pilot house open, but locked it instead and dropped the key on the floor.

All this time the "Fat Marie's" paddle wheel was backing water and the craft, now swung almost broadside to the stream, was working her way over toward the Iowa shore.

Bang!

A section of the pilot-house door fell shattering on the inside, and what sounded like a volley of musketry, rattled against the harder woodwork of the pilot house itself.

Frightened almost out of all sense, Cummings began groping excitedly for his revolver. At last he found it, more by accident than through any methodical search for it.

The pilot began to shoot. Some of his bullets went through the roof, others through the broken out windows, while a couple landed in the door.

At last the half-crazed Cummings was snapping the hammer on empty chambers. He had emptied his revolver without hitting anything more than wood and water.

The fusillade from the outside still continued.

By this time the din had begun to arouse the passengers on the boat. Phil Forrest was the first to spring up. He shook Teddy by the shoulder, but, being unable to awaken his companion, jerked the boy out of bed and let him drop on the floor.

"Get a net! What's the matter down there!" yelled Teddy. "Hey, hey, did the mule kick me? Oh, that you Phil? What's the row--what has happened?"

"I don't know. Come on out. Something has gone wrong. Hear those shots?"

"Wow! Trouble! That's me! I knew I couldn't dream about angels without something breaking loose."

Phil had thrown the door open and bounded out to the deck. Just as he did so the pilot leaped from the front window of the pilot house, climbed over the rail and dropped to the deck below. The volleying, the thunderous blows still continued.

A loud bray attracted their attention to the other side of the boat.

"What's that?" demanded Phil, starting off in that direction.

"It's January! It's January!" howled Teddy Tucker. "I would know that sweet voice if I heard it in the jungles of Africa. Where is he?"

"Over here somewhere. Come on. I can't imagine what has happened."

"The animals have escaped. There's a lion on the hurricane deck!" they heard a voice below shout in terrified tones.

"Do you think that's it?" called Phil.

"Lion, nothing! Didn't I tell you I knew that voice? There he is now. See him hand out the hoofs at the pilot house. He must have a grudge against Cummings. I know. He's paying the fellow back for trying to tie me up."

"But--but, how did he ever get up here?"

"Go it, January! Kick the daylights out of him! I'll give you a whole peck of sugar if you kick the house into the river, pilot and all."

"Whoa! Whoa, January!" shouted Phil.

The donkey, for it was January himself, and not a savage beast that was acting the part of a battering ram and rapidly demolishing the pilot house, paused for a second; then, moving to a new position, he began once more hammering at the structure.

"How did he ever get up here, Teddy?"

"I don't know. I know I am glad he did, that's all. Let him kick."

"I'm going to try to catch him."

"Keep away, Phil. He'll have you in the river. He has a fit. Wait till he comes out of it."

"Why, the boat is moving backwards," cried Phil.

"No!"

"Yes, it is."

"Maybe January has kicked the machinery out of gear."

The circus people were by this time on deck, and, like Teddy and Phil, many of them were in their pajamas. They had heard the cry, "the animals have escaped," and many of the people were gazing apprehensively about.

"It's all right," shouted Teddy. "It is only January, taking his morning exercise."

About that time Phil, who had run around to the other side of the pilot house, discovered that it was empty. There was no pilot there.

Understanding came to him instantly. January had either kicked or frightened Cummings out.

"The boat is running wild!" he called. "Find the pilot or we shall be on the shore before we know it."

Phil did not wait for them to find the pilot. Instead, he climbed in through one of the broken windows and grasped the wheel.

"I've got to stop this going astern first of all," he decided.

He could see the banks now, and they seemed perilously near in the faint morning light. The other boats of the fleet were steaming up in answer to the signals of distress that Cummings had blown in his excitement.

"What is it? Are you sinking?" called a voice through a megaphone from the deck of the "River Queen."

"No, we are all right," answered Phil, leaning out of the window.

"You'll be high and dry on the Iowa shore if you don't watch sharp. Where are you going?"

"Don't know. Keep out of the way or we're liable to run you down."

Phil grabbed a bell pull and gave it a violent jerk. The engines stopped suddenly, to the Circus Boy's great delight. January had ceased his bombardment and now stood with head thrust though one of the broken windows, gazing in inquiringly at Phil Forrest.

"If one bell stopped the engine, another bell should be the signal to go ahead," reasoned the lad, giving the bell pull two quick jerks. He was right. The machinery started and he could hear the big paddle wheel beating the river into a froth.

The lower deck was in an uproar. Men were shouting and running about, trying to discover what animals had escaped, as the pilot insisted that the hurricane deck was alive with them.

"Get that pilot up here, if you have to drag him. I don't know where the channel is, and I am liable to put the whole outfit aground any minute," shouted Phil Forrest. "Teddy, never mind that idiotic donkey. We're in a fix. Get downstairs, at one jump, and see that the pilot is brought up here lively."

"I'll fetch him. You watch me," answered the irrepressible Teddy, starting off on a run.

January had all at once grown very meek. He stood gazing thoughtfully off over the river.

"What is the trouble here?" roared Mr. Sparling dashing up to the pilot house at that moment.

"That is exactly what I have been trying to find out," answered the Circus Boy.

"What, Phil?"

"Yes, it's Phil."

"What are you doing in there?"

"Steering the boat."

"Piloting the--where is the pilot?"

"Somewhere below. I have sent Teddy after him. You see, January was trying to kick the pilot house off the boat and into the river. The pilot, thinking the animals had escaped, fled. When I came up this craft was traveling astern and January was making a sieve of this little house. I have got the 'Marie' going forward, but I may run her aground if he doesn't come along pretty soon."

Mr. Sparling reached the companionway in two bounds, and, leaping to the lower deck, caught the pilot by the coat collar, shaking off the two circus men who had hold of Cummings.

"You get up to that pilot house or you'll be in the worst fix in your whole river career." Mr. Sparling accompanied the words with a violent push that sent the pilot headlong toward the stairway. But the showman was by the fellow's side by the time he had gotten to his feet, and began assisting him up the companionway, while Teddy Tucker followed, prodding the pilot in the back with a clenched fist.

Into the pilot house they hurled the man, Cummings.

"Now, you steer! If it had not been for that boy we might have lost our whole equipment. I don't care anything about your old boat, but I'm blest if I am going to let a fool pilot wreck us--a pilot who is afraid of a donkey."

"I'll quit this outfit tomorrow," growled Cummings. "I kin pilot steamers, but I can't fight a menagerie and a pack of boys with the very Old Nick in them. Get away from that wheel!" he commanded, thrusting Phil aside.

Mr. Sparling had him by the collar once more.

"You do that again, and I'll take it out of you right here!" declared the showman savagely.

"I'll bet he's the fellow who stole my egg," declared Teddy, eyeing the pilot sternly.