Chapter XVII. Eavesdroppers!
 

"Look out!"

"There he is!"

"Grab him!"

Phil had bounded to his feet, realizing that he could no longer conceal himself from them. As he did so, both men sprang toward him, the Circus Boy eluding them by a leap to one side.

The men made a rush for him. At first Phil was inclined to stand his ground and give battle, but he reasoned that, being two to one, the chances were against him and that even if he were not captured, he might sustain injuries that would keep him out of the ring.

That was the deciding factor with Phil Forrest. Although he would have preferred facing his enemies, he whirled instead and started on a run, with both men pursuing him at top speed.

"He's out-running us. He'll get away!" cried one of the men. "Run, run! Run for all you're worth!"

But they might as well have spared their effort. Phil was fleet of foot, and after getting a slight lead over them he turned sharply to his right, leaped a fence and lay down.

The men quickly discovered that they had lost their prey. Then they became alarmed.

"Get out of here, quick! He will be following us!"

The men turned and ran swiftly in an opposite direction.

"Do you think he recognized us?"

"I don't know. We can tell by the way he acts when we get back; that is if he doesn't follow us now. We had better separate and go back to the lot. From there we can go along with the wagons and not be noticed. Don't let him bluff you."

"Have no fear for me."

The plotters separated and cautiously made their way back to the lot where they were soon lost among the crowd of men at work taking down the tent.

"I believe one of those two men was Diaz," declared Phil, as he once more tried to place the voice that he had seemed to recognize. "They have given me the slip, too. I know what I'll do. I will hurry back to the boat and when Diaz returns I will face him and make him betray himself if I can. I shall have him then."

Having decided on his course of action, Phil struck off at a trot across the field. He soon reached a back street of the village, and from there ran at full speed to the docks.

All was activity here. The lad cast a quick glance about, though he did not expect to find the man for whom he was looking. Without pausing in his rapid gait he ran up the companionway to the upper deck, where he intended to watch at the rail for the arrival of Diaz from the lot.

As he leaned over the rail he felt someone stir near him. Glancing up quickly, the Circus Boy started almost guiltily. There, beside him, sat Diaz on a camp stool with his feet on the steamer's rail, calmly watching the loading operations on the deck below.

"Good evening, Mr. Diaz," said Phil quickly recovering his self-possession.

Diaz uttered an unintelligible grunt, but did not deign to turn his head.

"Hey, Phil, is that you?" called the voice of Teddy from further down the deck.

"Yes," answered Phil, rising and moving aft. "How long have you been here?"

"About an hour."

"Do you know who is sitting over there?"

"Over where?"

"There by the rail?"

"Sure, I know. That's our old friend Diaz," grinned Teddy.

"How long has he been there?"

"He came in when I did." "An hour ago?"

"Yes."

Phil was perplexed.

"I do not understand it at all."

"Don't understand what?"

"Something that occurred this evening."

Teddy's curiosity was aroused.

"What is it all about, Phil?"

"I should prefer not to talk about it here, Teddy. I will tell you after we get to bed and there is no one about to overhear us. There is a rascally plot on foot."

"A plot?"

"Yes. I know very little about it, but I know enough to warn me that you and I will have to keep our eyes open or else we shall find ourselves in serious difficulties before we realize it."

"Is that so? Tell me who the plotters are, and I'll turn January loose on them," explained Teddy. "Do you think they are the fellows who stole my egg?"

"I don't know. Where is Mr. Sparling?"

"I haven't seen him since I ran into him and bowled him over off on the lot."

Phil laughed.

"As I have said many times before, you are hopeless, Teddy. I must go now. If you see Mr. Sparling, please let me know, but say nothing to anyone about what I have just told you."

"I won't."

Phil walked back to the point on the deck where he had first stopped to look over the rail, and, drawing up a stool sat down. He began studying the faces of the belated performers who came straggling down to the dock, singly and in pairs. None seemed to be in a hurry; not a face appeared to reflect any excitement. After an hour of this Phil felt sure that all the company had been accounted for.

Mr. Sparling had arrived about twenty minutes earlier, and was standing on the dock giving orders. As the lad saw the owner enter the boat he turned away and hurried downstairs.

"When you are at liberty, I should like a few moments conversation with you, sir," announced Phil.

"I am at liberty, now, my lad," answered the showman with a smile and a friendly slap on the boy's shoulder.

"I would rather not talk here, Mr. Sparling," answered Phil in a low tone.

"Something doing, eh?"

"There is."

"Is it important that you should talk with me at once, or will a little later on answer the purpose?"

"Later on will do. It is not so urgent as that."

"When the men get these menagerie cages all shifted on deck I will meet you in my cabin. That will be in about twenty minutes, Phil."

"Very well, sir; I will be on hand."

Phil walked away, watched the loading operations for a few minutes, then strolled to the main cabin on the upper deck, where lunch was being served as usual.

The Circus Boy appeared more light-hearted than usual that evening, as he chatted and joked with his friends among the performers. He did not wish the man or men whom he had overheard off on the lot to know that he was the eavesdropper. He felt that he could make better progress in his investigation were they not on their guard.

The pilot, Cummings, was not in the cabin. He had not been seen there since his trouble with Teddy. Despite the pilot's determination to resign, he was still on duty, he and Mr. Sparling having come to a satisfactory understanding.

Teddy was helping himself liberally for the second time since his return from the lot.

"Do you think you will ever be able to satisfy that appetite of yours?" laughed Phil.

"I hope not," answered Teddy solemnly. "That's the only fun in life--that and the donkey."

Just then Mr. Sparling passed through the cabin on the way to his stateroom and office. He gave Phil a significant glance, to which the Circus Boy did not respond. A few minutes later, however, Phil strolled out to the deck. Reaching it he turned quickly and hurried aft, entering the passageway there and going directly to Mr. Sparling's quarters.

"Come in," invited the owner in response to Phil's gentle rap.

The blinds had been drawn up, though the windows were let down into their casings out of sight. Phil noted this in a quick glance.

"Sit down and tell me what has happened, Phil. I am sure you have made some sort of discovery."

"I have and I haven't."

"What do you mean?"

"That I am deeper in the mire than ever."

"Tell me about it."

"While I have made no discoveries that will help us much, I have learned just enough to understand that there is a diabolical plot on foot."

"Against whom?"

"I am not sure, but I think it is against Teddy and myself."

"Is it possible? Who are the plotters?"

"That is the worst of it; I do not know. I wish I did. I thought I had one of the men identified, but I find I am all wrong. I am more at sea than ever."

"Who did you think it was?"

"As long as I am mistaken, why should I accuse anyone?"

"You are right. Have you reason to believe it is someone connected with this show?"

"I am sure that at least one of the men is."

"Then there is more than one in this thing?"

"There are two men. At least I have seen two. There may be more for all I know."

"Now, tell me what it is all about. You haven't said a word regarding this plot yet," urged the showman drawing his chair around the corner of his desk and leaning forward with his hands on his knees.

Phil told how he strolled off into the field adjoining the circus lot, and went on in detail to relate all that had occurred after that. As he proceeded with his story the face of James Sparling grew serious and then stern.

"I presume I should have stood my ground and given battle to them, if for no other reason than to find out who they were," concluded the lad, somewhat ruefully.

"Phil Forrest, you should have done nothing of the sort," answered Mr. Sparling sharply. "You take quite enough risk as it is. You think the plot now is to tamper with the big net?"

"Yes, sir."

"Is it possible that such scoundrels are traveling with the Sparling shows?"

"I wish I did not think so."

"Phil, it is not the man who was responsible for several accidents the first year you were with us, is it?" demanded the showman shrewdly, darting a sharp glance at Phil.

"No, sir," answered the boy flushing a little. "That man is no longer with the show."

"I thought so. Now I have him located."

"The--the man I saw tonight--you know him?" gasped Phil.

"No. I did not mean that. I refer to the fellow who nearly caused your death three years ago."

"Oh!"

"You had some trouble with Diaz a short time ago, did you not?"

Phil was surprised that the showman was aware of this.

"Yes."

"Where is Diaz tonight?" demanded the showman almost sternly.

"In his stateroom, or else out on deck."

"Are you sure?"

Phil nodded.

"What time did he return from the lot?"

"He was here when I went on deck. He came to the boat directly after the performance."

"You are sure of this?"

"I am."

"You are a very shrewd young man, sir," said Mr. Sparling, with a mirthless smile. "However, these guilty men must be found and punished. You think their first efforts will be directed toward the net?"

"Yes, according to what I overheard. I have an idea, however, that they will not do so at once, fearing they may have been recognized, or at any rate that their plans are known to someone else."

"Do you think they recognized you?"

"I do not. I did not speak. I was on the point of doing so, then checked myself."

"Right! You are one in a hundred. I will have a watch kept on the net, and an examination made of it before every performance."

Phil smiled faintly.

"I am not afraid for myself."

"No, that's your greatest failing. You are not afraid of anything and you take very long chances. I hope you will be more cautious in the future. You must be careful, Phil, and you had better caution your partner, Teddy Tucker. Does he know of this?"

"No, but I intend to tell him. He is more interested in the possibility of recovering his egg than in any personal danger to himself or to me," said the Circus Boy with a short laugh.

"Keep your eyes open, and take care of yourself. If we fail to get a clue by the time we get to Des Moines I shall send to St. Louis for the best detective they have and put him on the case. Perhaps it would be best to do so now."

"I think--" began Phil, when his words were arrested by a loud noise just outside the cabin, on the deck.

Mr. Sparling and Phil started up, for the instant not understanding the meaning of the disturbance.

"Wha--what--" gasped the showman.

Phil ran to the window and looked out.

The deck at that point was deserted. He thought he saw a figure dodge into an entrance near the stern of the boat, and looking forward he discovered another disappearing in that direction.

The Circus Boy sprang for the door.

"What is it, what is it?" cried the showman.

"Eavesdroppers!" answered the lad, darting out into the passageway, followed closely by Mr. Sparling.

"You go that way and I'll go this," directed Phil.