Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
 

It seemed a foolhardy thing to do, but Phil understood exactly how to go about it. If he were able to turn the team, he would undoubtedly save them from plunging into the seats where hundreds of people were sitting. A trained circus horse always will avoid the spectators, but there is no accounting for what a green animal will do.

Grasping the bit of the animal nearest to him, Phil threw his whole weight into the effort. To his intense satisfaction the team swerved, half turned and dashed across the arena again. This time, however, they did not go far. The outfit smashed into the main center pole, and Phil went on, sitting down violently in the middle of the concourse, unhurt, but more or less shaken up.

By that time ring attendants had caught the frightened horses. All danger was over.

Phil Forrest was loudly cheered by the spectators, but his borrowed officer's uniform was a hopeless wreck. It was torn beyond any possibility of repair.

Upon investigation, which Phil made at once, he found that the cap that held the chariot wheel in place, had been removed. No trace of it ever was found, and Phil well knew that the mysterious enemy was once more at work. The news was conveyed to Mr. Sparling, with the information that Phil had gleaned.

He also bore the unwelcome tidings to his employer that their leading woman chariot driver had broken both arms and that she would not perform again that season, if ever again.

Mr. Sparling was so angered over this latest outrage that he was scarcely able to control himself. Yet he knew that it would be best to maintain silence until the detective had had an opportunity to make an investigation. Some of the circus people, however, had voiced a suspicion that the accident was a deliberate attempt to do the show an injury, and this was quickly passed from lip to lip, until almost everyone had heard it. The show people accepted the situation quietly, as was their wont, nevertheless they were very much excited. There was no telling when they themselves might fall victims to the mysterious enemy, and each one vowed to run down the scoundrel who they knew must be a member of the circus family.

Phil made some guarded inquiries, but was unable to learn whether or not anyone had been observed about the chariots that day. The hub cap, of course, might have been removed while the chariots were still on the boat, but in that event its loss would no doubt have been noticed, for the caps were of brass, large and prominent.

Phil decided that the act must have been committed just before the chariots were driven into the arena for the Roman races.

In this, Phil Forrest was right.

The solution of the mystery was at hand, however, and was to come in a most unexpected manner.

Supper had been eaten, and most of the performers were out on the lot, enjoying the balmy air of the early evening for the few moments left to them before they would be obliged to repair to the dressing tent to make ready for the evening performance.

Phil decided to go in, after finishing a talk with Mr. Sparling in the latter's private tent. As the lad passed through the menagerie tent the attendants were lighting the gasoline lamps there and hauling them up the center poles.

Under the big top, however, one could not see half its length. The lights there would not be turned on for fifteen or twenty minutes yet. Not a person was in sight as Phil entered the tent, making his way slowly down the concourse. He paused half-way down, seating himself on a grandstand chair in one of the arena boxes, where he thought over the latest exploit of the show's enemy.

"This time they were not after me, but after the outfit itself," he muttered. "That is the time the fellow showed his hand, and it gives me an idea. I--hello, there is someone who acts as if he did not wish to be seen."

Phil sat still and watched. Someone had slipped in under the tent down at the other end, directly across the arena from where the bandstand was located. It had now become so dark in the tent that Phil could not make out the fellow's features. In fact, the man was a mere shadow.

"I wonder what he is doing there?"

Then a thought struck Phil Forrest like a blow.

"That's where they put the big net between performances."

Phil crept down into the arena and made his way back to the entrance to the menagerie tent, where he quickly slipped out into the open and ran down along the outside of the big top at his best speed. As he drew near the spot where he had seen the man, he moved cautiously.

Finally Phil dropped down and peered under the tent. He was less than ten feet from where the fellow was at work. The Circus Boy could catch a "rip, rip" now and then.

"The fiend is cutting the net," he muttered. "I wonder who he is. Ah, I know him now! He is one of the tent men. I never thought he was in this thing. I must catch him--I must make the attempt, for he may get away. I don't even know the fellow's name, nor do I understand his enmity toward the show or myself."

Phil wriggled in under the tent, now, not fearing discovery, for inside the tent, it was quite dark. Slowly raising himself to his feet, he edged nearer, step by step, to where the man was at work. The man had partly spread the net out by this time, to make sure that he was cutting it in the right place so that it would give way beneath the weight of the performer unfortunate enough to drop into it first.

"The fiend!" repeated Phil, clenching his fists. "I'm glad I am the one to discover him. Mr. Man, I have a score to settle with you and I'm going to begin the settling up now."

Phil crouched low. He was now only a few feet from the stooping figure.

All at once the boy threw himself forward. He landed on the man, forcing him to the ground. As he struck, Phil raised his voice in the showmen's rallying cry.

"Hey, Rube!" he shouted in a sing-song voice that was heard in the dressing tents and even out in the menagerie tent.

His first care, then, was to pinion the man so he could not use his hands, for the Circus Boy knew that his captive had a knife in one hand.

Men came running from all directions, Mr. Sparling among the number, for he had been in the menagerie tent when the cry reached him, and feared some fresh trouble was at hand.

"What is it? Where is it?" roared the showman.

"Here, here! Bring lights. Bring--"

The man beneath him began to struggle. In fact the fellow staggered to his feet, the boy being too light to hold him down.

Phil grabbed him about the waist, pinioning the man's arms to his sides. Then began a desperate struggle, during which the combatants fell to the ground, rolling over and over in their fierce battle.

"It's Phil Forrest!" shouted the owner.

He sprang forward and with a mighty tug, jerked the tentman free of the Circus Boy's body. At that instant the fellow leaped to his feet and started to run.

"Stop him!" howled Phil.

Teddy, who had come running up, suddenly stooped over and constituting himself a battering ram, ran full tilt into the tentman, the boy's head landing in the pit of the circus hand's stomach. The fellow went down, whereupon Teddy promptly sat on him until the others reached the scene.

"Now, what does this mean?" demanded the showman sternly.

"It means that I caught this fellow cutting the net. If you will look at it you will find it to be badly mutilated, I think." An examination proved that Phil was right. Mr. Sparling had all he could do to prevent the angry circus men from wreaking their vengeance on the wretch then and there.

Teddy, in the meantime, had been peering into the man's face.

"I know him! I know him!" howled the Circus Boy, dancing about.

"You know him?"

"Yes, do you remember Bad Eye who was mixed up with Red Larry, the fellow we sent to jail two or three seasons ago?"

"Yes."

"That's Bad Eye," pointing to the prisoner, "and he is bad medicine, besides."

"Is it possible?" muttered Phil, a new light breaking over him.

Suddenly Teddy uttered a yell.

"I've got him! He's the fellow who stole my egg." Teddy made a dive for the prisoner, but strong hands pulled him away.

Bad Eye, it developed, smarting under the punishment that had been meted out to his companion, had once more joined the show, determined upon revenge. He had in the meantime grown a full beard, so that no one recognized him. Now, Phil Forrest knew why the voice was dimly familiar to him when he had heard it that night out on the lot.

Caught red-handed, Bad Eye made a full confession. And to the surprise of everyone, he implicated Manuel, the assistant to the Spanish clown. Bad Eye admitted having thrown Phil Forrest overboard, as well. He denied having stolen Tucker's egg, placing the full responsibility for this on the shoulders of Manuel.

What was done with the egg was never known, though Manuel was believed to have thrown it overboard. Diaz, after his one violent outbreak, had made no further evil attempts.

Bad Eye and Manuel were tried and convicted in due time, and placed where they would do the show no further harm.

The show went on, and after several successful weeks, reached New Orleans, where the final performance of the season was given. All hands then turned their faces northward. Teddy and Phil decided to take a steamship for New York, thence proceeding to their home by train. Each lad was a few thousand dollars richer than when he had joined out in the spring.

They waved their adieus to Mr. Sparling from the deck of an ocean steamer next morning as the big ship slowly poked its nose out into the gulf.

"You can't down the Circus Boys," said Phil, with a pleased smile as they leaned over the rail.

"At least, not this season," added Teddy.

But the exciting experiences of the Circus Boys were not yet at an end. The lads will be heard from further in another volume, under the title: "The Circus Boys on the Plains; Or, The Young Advance Agents Ahead of the Show."

In this forthcoming volume the lads pass through a phase of circus life never experienced by them before. They will find, too, that all the thrills of the circus life are not confined to the sawdust arena, but that there is every whit as much excitement and real peril in the daily life of the advance man on the advertising car ahead of the show.