Chapter I. On the Owner's Private Car
 

"Bates!"

The voice of James Sparling rose above even the roar of the storm.

A uniformed attendant stepped into the little office tent occupied by the owner of the Great Sparling Combined Shows. Shaking the water from his dripping cap, he brought a hand to his forehead in precise military salute.

"How's the storm coming, Bates?" demanded the showman, with an amused twinkle in his eyes as he noted the bedraggled condition of his messenger.

"She's coming wet, sir," was the comprehensive reply.

And indeed "she" was. The gale was roaring over the circus lot, momentarily threatening to wrench the billowing circus tents from their fastenings, lift them high in the air preparatory to distributing them over the surrounding country. Guy ropes were straining at their anchorages, center and quarter poles were beating a nervous tattoo on the sodden turf. The rain was driving over the circus lot in blinding sheets.

The night was not ideal for a circus performance. However, the showmen uttered no protest, going about their business as methodically as if the air were warm and balmy, the moon and stars shining down over the scene complacently.

Now and again, as the wind shifted for a moment toward the showman's swaying office tent, the blare of the band off under the big top told him the show was moving merrily on.

"Bates, you are almost human at times. I had already observed that the storm was coming wet," replied the showman.

"Yes, sir."

"I have reason to be aware of the fact that 'she is coming wet,' as you so admirably put it. My feet are at this moment in a puddle of water that is now three inches above my ankles. Why shouldn't I know?"

"Yes, sir," agreed the patient attendant.

"What I want to know is how are the tents standing the blow?"

"Very well, sir."

"As long as there is a stitch of canvas over your head you take it for granted that the tops are all right, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"The emergency gang is on duty, of course?"

"They're out in the wet, sir."

"Of course; that is where they belong on a night like this. But what were you doing out there? You have no business that calls you outside."

"I was helping a lady, sir."

"Helping a lady?"

"Yes, sir."

"What lady?"

"The English Fat Girl got mired on the lot, sir, and I was helping to get her out," answered the attendant solemnly.

"Pshaw!"

"Yes, sir."

"You will please attend to your own business after this. If the English Fat Girl gets mired again we will have the elephant trainer bring over one of the bulls and haul her out. She won't be so anxious to get stalled after that, I'm thinking," snapped the showman.

"Yes, sir."

"What act is on now under the big top?"

"The ground tumblers are in the ring, sir."

Mr. Sparling reflected briefly.

"Has Mr. Forrest finished his work for the evening?"

"I think so, sir. He should be off by this time."

"Can you get to the dressing tent without finishing the job of drowning at which you already have made such a good start?" demanded the showman quizzically.

"Yes, sir," grinned Bates.

"Then, go there."

The attendant started to leave the tent.

"Come back here!" bellowed the showman.

Bates turned patiently. He was not unused to the strange whims of his employer.

"What are you going to do when you get to the dressing tent?"

"I don't know, sir."

"I thought not. You are an intelligent animal, Bates. Now listen!"

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Sparling scowled, surveying his messenger with narrowed eyes.

"Tell Mr. Philip Forrest that I wish to see him in my private car at the 'runs,'"--meaning that part of the railroad yards where the show had unloaded early that morning.

"Yes, sir."

"Wait! You seem anxious to get wet! Have the men strike my tent at once. It is likely to strike itself if they do not get busy pretty quick," added the showman, rising.

The messenger saluted, then hurried out into the driving storm, while Mr. Sparling methodically gathered up the papers he had been studying, stuffing them in an inside coat pocket.

"A fine, mellow night," he said to himself, peering out through the flap as he drew on his oilskins. Pulling the brim of his sombrero down over his eyes he stalked out into the storm.

A quick glance up into the skies told his experienced eyes that the worst of the storm had passed, and that there was now little danger of a blow-down that night. He started off across the circus lot, splashing through the mud and water, bound for his comfortable private car that lay on a siding about half a mile from the circus grounds.

He found a scene of bustle and excitement in the railroad yards, where a small army of men were rushing the work of loading the menagerie wagons on the first section, for the train was going out in three sections that night.

"It is a peculiar fact," muttered the showman, "that the worse the weather is, the louder the men seem called upon to yell. However, if yelling makes them feel any the less wet, I don't know why I should object."

The showman quickly changed his wet clothes and settled himself at the desk in his cosy office on board the private car. He had been there something like half an hour when the buzzing of an electric bell called the porter to the door of the car.

A moment later and Phil Forrest appeared at the door of the car.

"You sent for me, did you not, Mr. Sparling?"

"Why, good evening, Phil," greeted the showman, looking up quickly with a welcoming smile on his face.

"I call it a very bad evening, sir."

"Very well, we will revise our statement. Bad evening, Phil!"

"Same to you, Mr. Sparling," laughed the lad. "Yes, I think that fits the case very well indeed."

"And now that we have observed the formalities, come in and sit down. Are you wet?"

"No; I went to my car and changed before coming in. I thought a few minutes' delay would make no difference. Had you sent for me on the lot I would have reported more promptly."

"Quite right, my boy. No, there was nothing urgent. The storm did not interfere much with the performance, did it?"

"No. The audience was a little nervous at one time, but the scare quickly passed off."

"Where's your friend?"

"Teddy Tucker?"

"Yes."

"He was having an argument with the Strongest Man on Earth when I left the dressing tent," laughed Phil. "It was becoming quite heated."

"Over what?"

"Oh, Teddy insisted on sitting on the strong man's trunk while he took off his tights. There was a mud hole in front of Teddy's trunk and he did not wish to get his feet wet and muddy."

"So the Strongest Man on Earth had to wait, eh?" questioned the showman with an amused smile.

"Yes. Teddy was threatening to thrash him if he did not keep off until he got his shoes on."

Mr. Sparling leaned back, laughing heartily.

"Your friend Teddy is getting to be a very belligerent young man, I fear."

"Getting to be?"

"Yes."

"It is my opinion that he always has been. Teddy can stir up more trouble, and with less provocation, than anyone I ever knew. But, you had something you wished to say to me, did you not?"

"To be sure I had. Something quite important. Have you had your lunch?"

"No; I came directly to the train from the lot."

"I am glad of that. I thought you would, so I ordered supper for two spread in the dining compartment. It must be ready by this time. Come. We will talk and eat at the same time. We have no need to hurry."

The showman and the Circus Boy made their way to the dining compartment, where a small table had been spread for them, which, with its pretty china, cut glass and brightly polished silver, made a very attractive appearance.

"This looks good to me," smiled Phil appreciatively.

"Especially on a night like this," answered Mr. Sparling. "Be seated, and we will talk while we are waiting for supper to be served."

Readers of the preceding volumes of this series will need no introduction to Phil Forrest and Teddy Tucker. They well remember how the Circus Boys so unexpectedly made their entry into the sawdust arena in "The Circus Boys on the Flying Rings" after Phil by his quick wit had prevented a serious accident to the lion cage and perhaps the escape of the dangerous beast itself. Both boys had quickly worked their way into the arena, and after many thrilling experiences became full-fledged circus performers.

Again in "The Circus Boys Across the Continent," the lads won new laurels on the tanbark. It will be recalled, too, how Phil Forrest at the imminent risk of his own life trailed down and captured a desperate man, one of the circus employees who, having been discharged, had followed the Sparling Show, seeking to revenge himself upon it. It will be remembered that in order to capture the fellow, the Circus Boy was obliged to leap from a rapidly moving train and plunge down a high embankment.

But their exciting experiences were by no means at an end. The life of the showman is full of excitement and it seemed as if Teddy and Phil Forrest met with more than their share in "The Circus Boys in Dixie Land." Phil Forrest, while performing a mission for his employer, was caught by a rival circus owner, held captive for some days, then forced to perform in the rival's circus ring, leaping through rings of fire in a bareback riding act. The details of Phil's exciting escape from his captors are well remembered, as will be his long, weary journey over the railroad ties in his ring costume. It was in this story that the battle of the elephants was described, all due to the shrewd planning of Phil Forrest.

The following season found the Great Sparling Shows following a new route. In "The Circus Boys on the Mississippi," the lads embarked with the circus, on boats, which carried them from town to town along the big river. It was on this trip that Phil Forrest met with the most thrilling experience of his life, and it was only his own pluck and endurance that saved him from a watery grave at the bottom of the Mississippi.

And now, for the fifth season, the Circus Boys are found under canvas again, headed for the far west.

"How are things going with you?" questioned Mr. Sparling after the two had seated themselves at the table in the dining compartment.

"Rather slowly, Mr. Sparling."

"How is that?"

"I haven't enough to do this season. I am afraid I shall get lazy, unless you give me something else to do."

"Let me see; how many acts have you this season?"

"I am on the flying trapeze, then I do a single bareback riding act and a double with Little Dimples, the same as I did last season."

The showman nodded reflectively.

"Besides which, you attend to numerous business details for me, manage the side shows, keep an eye on the candy butchers, make yourself responsible for the menagerie tent and other things too numerous to mention. Yes; you should have a few more things to do," grinned the showman. "I could run this show with a dozen men like you, Phil. In all my circus experience I never saw your equal."

Phil flushed. He did not like to be complimented. He did his work because he loved it, not wholly for the handsome salary that he was now drawing from the little red ticket wagon every week. Phil was ambitious; he hoped, as has been said before, to have a show of his own someday, and he let no day pass that he did not add to his store of knowledge regarding the circus business.

In this ambition Mr. Sparling encouraged him, in fact did everything possible to aid the lad in acquiring a far-reaching knowledge of the vocation he had chosen for his lifework.

"Thank you, Mr. Sparling. Let's talk about something else."

"We will eat first. You probably will enjoy that more than you do my compliments."

"I am sure of it," answered the lad with a twinkle in his eyes.

"I have been thinking of giving you some additional work."

Phil glanced up at his employer with quickened interest.

"Yes, I am thinking of closing you."

"You mean you are thinking of dropping me from the show?" asked the lad, gazing at the showman with steady, inquiring eyes.

"Well, I should hardly say that. I am afraid the Sparling Show could not get along without you. I am thinking very seriously of transferring you."

"Transferring me?" wondered Phil.

"Yes. By the way, do you know much about the advance work, the work ahead of the show?"

"Very little. I might say nothing at all, except what I have picked up by reading the reports of the car managers, together with the letters you write to these men."

"That is all right, as far as it goes, but there is a deal more to the advertising department of a show than you will ever learn from reports and correspondence."

"So I should imagine."

"Yes; the success, the very existence of a circus is dependent upon the work of the men ahead of it. Let that work be neglected and you would see how soon business would drop off and the gate receipts dwindle, until, one day, the show would find itself stranded."

"Nothing could strand the Sparling Show," interposed Phil.

"You are mistaken. Bad management would put this show out of business in two months' time. That is a point that I cannot impress upon you too strongly. Any business will fail if not properly attended to, but a circus is the most hazardous of them all."

"But the risk is worth taking," remarked Phil.

"It is. For instance, when a show has a business of sixteen or eighteen thousand dollars a day for several weeks, it rather repays one for all the trouble and worry he has gone through."

"I should say it does," answered Phil, his eyes lighting up appreciatively.

"And now we come to the point I have been getting at."

"Yes; what is it you have in mind for me?"

"I am going to ask you to join the advance for the rest of the season, Phil."

"I, join the advance?" questioned the lad in a surprised tone.

"Yes."

"And leave the show?"

"That will be a necessity, much as I regret to have you do so."

Phil's face took on a solemn expression.

"How would you like that?"

"I do not know, Mr. Sparling. I am afraid I should not know what to do with myself away from the glitter and the excitement of the big show."

"Excitement? My dear boy, you will find all the excitement you want ahead of the show. As for work, the work ahead is never finished. There is always plenty to do after you have finished your day's work. Besides, this branch of the business you must familiarize yourself with, if you are to go later into the executive branch of the circus business."

"I am ready to go wherever you may wish to send me, Mr. Sparling," said the young man in a quiet tone.

"I knew you would be," smiled the showman.

"Where will you send me, and what am I to do?" asked Phil, now growing interested in the prospect of the change.

"I have decided to send you out on Advertising Car Number Three. That is the busiest car of the three in advance of the show. You ask what you are to do. I will answer--everything!"

"Car Three," mused the Circus Boy.

"Yes; it is in charge of Mr. Snowden," continued the showman with a twinkle in his eyes, but which Phil in his preoccupation failed to observe. "I am thinking that Snowden will give you all you want to do, and perhaps a little more."

"When do you wish me to join?"

"At once."

"Now?"

"You may start as soon as you are ready."

"I am ready, now," replied the lad promptly.

"I did not mean for you to leave in quite such a hurry as that," laughed Mr. Sparling. "Besides, this is rather a bad night to make a change. Take your time, get your things in shape, and leave when you get ready."

"Does Mr. Snowden know I am to join him?"

"Yes; I have already written him to that effect--that is, I told him you probably would join at an early day."

"Where is Car Three now?"

Mr. Sparling consulted his route card.

"It is in Madison, Wisconsin, today. This car keeps about four weeks ahead of the show, you know. We are in Flint, Michigan, today. Do you think you can get away tomorrow?"

"Certainly. Where do we show tomorrow?"

"Saginaw."

"It will be an easy jump from there to Madison."

"Yes; but you will not catch the car at Madison. I think you had better plan to join them at St. Paul the day after tomorrow. Will that suit you?"

"Yes. I suppose my dressing-room trunk will be carried right along with the show?"

"Of course. You will close your season before the show itself does; then you can return to us, though I shall not expect you to perform. You no doubt will be a little rusty by that time."

"I should say I would be. But, Mr. Sparling--" added the boy, a sudden thought coming to him.

"Yes?"

"What about Teddy? Does he remain with the show?"

"Teddy? I had forgotten all about that little rascal. Yes, he-- but wait a moment. Upon reflection I think perhaps he had better go along with you. He wants to own a show one of these days, doesn't he?"

"I believe he does," smiled Phil.

"Then this will be a good experience for him. Besides, I should be afraid to trust him around this outfit if you were not here to look after him. He would put the whole show out of business first thing I knew. Yes, he had better go with you. And another thing--salaries in the advance are not the same, you know."

"I am aware of the fact, sir."

"You will draw the same salaries that other employees of Number Three do, and in addition to this I shall send you both my personal checks, so that you will be drawing the same money you now are."

"It is not necessary," protested Phil.

Mr. Sparling waved the objection aside.

"It is my plan. Go to your car and tell your friend to get ready now, and report to me in the morning at Saginaw for further instructions."

Phil rose. His face was flushed. He was now full of anticipation for the new life before him. And it was to be a new life indeed--a life full of astonishing experiences and adventures.

Phil bade his employer good night, and hurried away to his own car to tell the news to Teddy.