Chapter XXII. Overboard into the River
 

"I can't understand it," Phil mused, as the soft evening breezes lulled him into slumber.

"What! What!" he cried suddenly. "What is it? I'm falling!"

The deck of the "Marie" all at once seemed to have dropped from beneath him. He felt himself falling through space. What could it mean?

With the showman's instinct the Circus Boy quickly turned his body, spread out his hands and righted himself.

The night was black, and as yet he had not succeeded in collecting his senses sufficiently to decide what had happened. He knew that he was falling, but that was all.

There was a sudden splash as his body struck the water. Phil shot right down beneath it and the waters of the Mississippi closed over him.

He understood then what had happened, but not for an instant did he lose his presence of mind. Phil had caught his breath as his feet touched the water, and now that he had sunk beneath the surface he began to kick vigorously and work his hands to check his downward course.

A moment of this and he felt himself rising toward the surface. Phil was as good a swimmer as he was a performer in the circus ring, and he felt no nervousness, even though his position at that moment was a perilous one.

Almost at once he felt his head above the surface of the river, but his eyes were so full of muddy water that he could see nothing at all. Instead of trying to swim, Phil lay over on his back, floated and began blinking industriously to get the water out of his eyes. He soon found that he could see once more, though at that moment there was nothing to be seen in the blackness of the night.

"There's the 'Marie,'" he cried. Phil raised his voice in a good lusty howl for help, but none heard him. He could see the lights of the steamboat and they appeared to be far away.

"There is only one thing left for me to do, and that is to strike out for the shore. I wonder which way the shore is?"

Once more he raised himself in the water, for an instant, and gazed toward the rapidly disappearing lights of the 'Marie.'

"She is going downstream, so if I swim to the left I should reach shore after a while," decided the lad.

He did not know that the boat had in the meantime made a sharp turn to her right and that in turning to the left he would be swimming downstream, making his attempt to reach shore a difficult one indeed.

The lad struck out manfully, swimming with long, easy strokes, aided considerably by the current which was sweeping him downstream much faster than he thought.

"I'm glad I have only my pajamas on," decided the lad. "If I had all my clothes on I fear I should have a pretty tough fight. It's bad enough as it is."

Talking to himself, in order to keep up his courage, he swam steadily on, now and then pausing to swim on his back to rest himself. He had gone on for nearly an hour when the lad began to wonder why he had not reached shore.

"Surely the river cannot be so wide at this point. I must have drifted downstream considerably. Perhaps I haven't been going in the right direction at all."

He tried to find out which way the drift was, in order to make up his mind as to the direction in which the shore lay. In the darkness, however, he was unable to determine this, so he began swimming again, trusting to luck to land him on something solid, sooner or later. He knew that this must occur, but whether his strength would hold out that long he could not say.

All at once he caught a peculiar drumming sound. It reminded him of a partridge that he had once heard in the woods, but it seemed a long way off and he could not identify it.

"I guess it must be my heart, up somewhere near my mouth, that I hear," said the boy with a short mindless laugh. "Maybe I am going to pieces. If I am I deserve to drown."

About that time Phil decided to turn over on his back and rest for a moment.

The instant he did so he uttered a sharp exclamation. His eyes caught sight of something that he had not seen before. It looked to him like some giant shadow, from which twinkled hundreds of lights.

"It is the 'Marie'!" cried the boy. "They are coming back for me. No, no, it cannot be the 'Marie,' for this boat is coming from the opposite direction. Yes, it surely is a steamboat!"

Though Phil did not know it, this was one of the big river packets bound down the river from St. Louis.

"I must get out of the way, or they will run me down, but I want to keep close enough so I can hail them. I hope this is where I get on something solid again."

A few minutes of steady swimming appeared to have taken him out of the path of the river boat. Then Phil rested, lying on his back, watching the boat narrowly.

"In almost any other position or place, I might think that was a pretty sight. As matters stand, now, it looks dangerous to me."

His position was more perilous at that moment than he even dreamed.

"H-e-l-p! H-e-l-p!" called Phil, in what he thought was a loud tone.

There were no indications that his cry had been heard by those on board the steamboat. He tried it again, but with no better success than before.

"I have simply got to keep on yelling my lungs out until I attract their attention. I am afraid I shall never reach shore unless I am picked up. I might be able to keep afloat until daylight, but I doubt it. I shall get so chilled, before then, that I shall have to give up. I've got some fight left in me yet, just the same."

"A-h-o-y, boat! Help!"

On came the steamer, steadily.

Suddenly Phil discovered something else. She had changed her course. The boat seemed to be drawing away from him! His heart sank, but almost at once, the boat turned again, following the tortuous channel of the stream.

She now was sweeping almost directly down upon him. He heard some call on the upper deck.

"They are going to run me down!" he gasped.

Phil threw all his strength into an effort to swim out of the path of the swiftly moving boat, but he feared he would not be able to clear her.

The lad uttered a loud shout, then dived deep, coming up at once only to find himself almost against the side of the moving craft.

He grabbed frantically, hoping that his hands might come in contact with some projection to which he could cling, but the slippery sides of the hull slid past him at what seemed almost express train speed.

He was almost on the point of diving again to get away from the dangerous spot, when suddenly, his fingers closed over something. It was a rope, one of the hawsers that had not been fully hauled in when the boat left the last landing place some miles up the river.

With a glad cry, both the lad's hands closed over the precious rope. His joy was short lived. He found himself dropping back, the river craft still gliding past him.

The rope was paying out over the boat's side in his hands.

Phil Forrest was never more cool in his life, but he now began to realize the well-nigh hopeless position in which be found himself placed.

Suddenly the rope ceased paying out with an abruptness that jerked him clear out of the water. He fell back with a splash, all but losing hold of the rope as he did so.

"I've got it! I've got it!" exulted the lad. A rush of water filled his mouth, almost suffocating him.

"I guess I had better keep my mouth closed," thought the boy.

He was directly astern of the steamboat by this time, and this placed him in a much more favorable position than he had been while dragging along at the side.

Phil began resolutely to work himself along the rope hand over hand. It was a desperate undertaking, one calling for strength and courage of an unusual kind, but he never hesitated. His breath came in long, steady, sighs, for he was going though the water at such a rate of speed that breathing was made doubly difficult.

"It is a good thing I am a circus performer. I should probably have been at the bottom of the river long ago, had I not been a ring man."

At last, after what seemed hours of struggling, he had succeeded in working his way past the stern paddle wheel, and up under the stern of the ship. He twisted the rope about one arm, and with his head well out of water lay half exhausted while he was shot through the water at high speed.

A few minutes of this, and Phil, considerably rested, began to pull himself up.

Ordinarily this hand over hand climb would have been an easy feat for the Circus Boy. As it was, however, the lad was forced to pause every foot or so, and, twisting the rope about an arm and a leg, hang there between sky and water, gasping for breath, every nerve and muscle in his body a-quiver.

Few men, no matter how strong nor how great their endurance, could have gone through what Phil Forest had endured that night.

He was glad to be out of the water, where he was in imminent danger of being drowned as the boat jerked him along. Of course he was not obliged to cling to the rope, but the chances of his reaching shore, were he to let go, he felt were very remote.

"I am glad Teddy is not here," muttered Phil with a half smile as he thought of his companion back on the "Marie" fast asleep. "I wonder what he will think when he finds that I am missing? I hope they do not turn about and come back to look for me, for I hardly think they will be able to do that and make their next stand in time."

Once more the lad began pulling himself up the rope. At last, to his great relief, his fingers closed over the stern rail of the river boat. Phil pulled himself up as if he were chinning the bar, though in this case he chinned it only once.

Elbows were braced on the rail, then the right leg was thrown over and Phil Forrest was high and dry on the deck of a great river steamer, after an experience that perhaps never had befallen a human being on the Mississippi before.

He found himself standing face to face with an officer of the boat, who proved to be the mate. The man was so astonished at the dripping figure that had come over the stern, that, for the moment, he did not speak.

"Good evening," greeted Phil politely.

"Who are you?" demanded the mate sternly.

"I guess I am Old Neptune himself. Maybe I am a mermaid. At least I have just risen from the sea, and mighty glad I am that I have risen."

The officer seized Phil. Leading the boy to where the light shone from the main cabin window, he peered into the lad's face. Evidently fairly well satisfied by his brief glance into the honest eyes of the Circus Boy, the officer quickly turned and led Phil to the forward end of the boat, where he summoned the captain, who was lying down in the pilot house.

"What's this? Whom have you here?"

"I don't know, sir," answered the officer. "He came over the side half a mile above here."

"What--what's this--came over the side?"

"Yes, sir."

"Impossible!"

"I saw him. I was standing astern when he climbed over the rail."

"See here, young man, what does this mean?"

"I fell from a boat, sir, further up the river. I was trying to swim ashore when you nearly ran me down. You see, I did not know you were going to make that sharp turn and I did not have time to get out of the way."

"That is not a likely story, young man. How did you get aboard this boat? That is what I want to know."

Phil explained that he had caught hold of a rope.

"Is there a rope trailing, mate?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Find out."

The mate returned a few moments later with the information that a hawser was dragging astern.

"Wonderful!" breathed the captain. "How did you ever do it, and you only a boy?"

"I am pretty strong, even if I am a boy," smiled Phil.

"What is your name?"

Phil gave it.

"How did you happen to get in the river?"

"I told you I fell in, or something of the sort, from the 'Fat Marie.'"

"Never heard of her."

"I think she was called the 'Mary Jane.'"

"Oh, that's that circus boat--the Sparling Circus?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you belong to the circus?"

"Yes. I am a bareback rider and a trapeze performer."

Both men gazed at him with new interest.

"Well, you beat anything that I ever heard of. You certainly must be a performer if you did a thing like that. I remember the pilot's telling me he thought he heard someone cry out from the river, but as the call was not repeated, he thought he must have been mistaken. Come in, and we will put you to bed."

"I have no money with me, sir," said the lad. "If you will extend the courtesies of your craft to me, I will see that you are well paid after I reach my show once more."

"We will take care of you. Never mind about the pay."

"By the way, where is your next landing place?"

"Memphis."

Phil gave a low whistle.

"Where do you want to go?"

"Corinth, I believe is the stand we show at tomorrow."

"That's not far from Memphis. We will land you at Memphis in the morning and you can take a train back, getting you to Corinth in plenty of time for your show. I will see that you have a ticket."

"Thank you ever so much. You are very kind."

The Circus Boy was put to bed and in a few minutes he was sound asleep, thus far not much the worse for his thrilling experience, though he was completely exhausted, as he realized after he had tucked himself in his berth.