Chapter XXIII. The Deserted Village
 

But Teddy had distinguished himself. When the town awakened next morning there were loud clamorings for the arrest of the showman who had dared to unfurl a circus advertisement from the top of the city's flag pole. The showmen guilty of the deed were many, many miles away by that time, engaged in other similar occupations.

At McAlister, a booming western town, the opposition were still hard on the heels of Car Three. Try as he would Phil Forrest was able to shake them off no longer than a few hours at a time.

A new plan occurred to him, and immediately upon his arrival at McAlister he wired Mr. Sparling to send a brigade into the next town ahead, to bill the place, in order that Car Three might make a jump and get away from its rivals.

A brigade, it should be known, is a crew of men that does not travel on a special car. They go by regular train, traveling as other passengers do, dropping off and billing a town here and there, as directed by wire.

The answer came back that the brigade would relieve him at the next stand.

While this had been going on young Tucker had been listening to a most interesting tale of a deserted town some twenty miles beyond where they were then working. The deserted town was known as Owls' Valley. It had been a prosperous little city up to within two months previous, when, for reasons that Teddy did not learn, the inhabitants had taken a sudden leave.

This information set Teddy Tucker to thinking. A deserted village? He wished that he might see it. He had heard of deserted villages, and this one was of more than ordinary interest, because, the moment he heard of it, a plan presented itself to his fertile mind.

"I'll bet they will not only nibble at the bait, but will swallow it whole," he decided exultingly after he had thoroughly gone over the plan, sitting off by himself on a pile of railroad iron. "I'll take Billy into my confidence. Billy will spread the word, and then we shall see what will happen."

When Billy came in Teddy called him aside and outlined his plan.

Billy returned from the conference grinning broadly, but Teddy was serious and thoughtful.

However, he decided not to tell Phil what he had done. Perhaps Phil might not approve of it. Phil was so peculiar that he might visit the rival cars and tell them that certain information they had obtained was not correct.

Be that as it may, a few hours later three car managers visited the station, leaving orders that their cars were to be switched off at Owls' Valley.

"That fellow, Forrest, thought he would play a smart trick on us and slip into a town not down on his route, where he was going to have all the billing to himself," said the manager of the yellow car, late that evening.

"Where is Owls' Valley?" asked one of his men.

"About twenty miles west of here. It will be a short run. He will be a very much surprised young man when he wakes up in the morning and finds us lying on the siding with him."

The train to which the cars were to be attached was not to leave until sometime after midnight. When it finally came in all the advertising car crews were in bed and asleep. Teddy Tucker, however, was not only wide awake, but outside at that.

"Couple us up next to your rear car, and put the other fellows on the rear if you will," he said to the conductor. "They are going to Owls' Valley, but we are going through. Please say nothing to them about what I have told you. Here's a pass for the circus."

The rest was easy. Soon the train was rumbling away, with Teddy the happiest mortal on it. But he did not go to bed. Not Teddy! He sat up to make sure that his plans did not miscarry. Owls' Valley was reached in due time, and the Circus Boy was outside to make sure that no mistake was made. He did not propose that Car Three should, by any slip, be sidetracked at the deserted village.

Very shortly afterwards they were again on their way, and Teddy went to bed well satisfied with his night's work. When the men woke up early next morning a new train crew was in charge, for the advertising car was making a long run.

Phil was the first to awaken. As was customary with him he stepped to the window and peered out.

"Why, we seem to be the last car on the train. There were three opposition cars behind us when we started out last night. I wonder what that means?"

Quickly dressing, he went out on the platform. Leaning over he looked ahead. Car Three was the only show car on the train.

"That is queer. I do not understand it at all."

Hurrying in to the main part of the car Phil called to the men.

"Do any of you know what has become of the opposition?" he asked.

"Why, aren't they on behind?"

"No one is on behind. We are the last car. Those fellows have stolen a march on us somewhere. I can't imagine where they dropped off, though; can you?"

"Maybe they have switched off on another road," suggested a voice.

"No other road they could switch off on. There is something more to this than appears on the surface. I'll go forward and ask the conductor."

Phil did so, but the conductor could give him no information. Car Three was the only show car on the train when the present conductor had taken charge.

Phil was more puzzled than ever. He consulted his route list, to make sure that he himself had not made a mistake and skipped a town that he should have billed. No; there was only one town he had missed, and that was the one the brigade was to work.

About this time Teddy sat up, rubbing his eyes sleepily.

"What's up?" he inquired, noting that his companion was troubled.

"That is what I should like to know," answered Phil absently.

"Tell me about it. Anything gone wrong?"

"I don't know. The opposition has disappeared."

"Disappeared?"

"Yes; they disappeared during the night, and I cannot imagine where they have gone. They must have dropped in on some town that we should have made, and I am worried."

Teddy pulled up a window shade and studied the landscape for several minutes.

"Curious, isn't it?" he mumbled.

"Yes."

"I might make a guess where they went, Phil."

"You might guess?"

"That's what I said."

"Where do you think they have gone?"

"If I were to make a long-range guess, I should say that perhaps the cars of the opposition were sidetracked at Owls' Valley."

"Where is that? I never heard of the place."

"That, my dear sir, is the deserted village. Lonesome Town, they ought to call it."

"Where is it?"

"About twenty miles from the last stand; and, if they are there, they will be likely to stay there for sometime to come."

Phil had wheeled about, studying his companion keenly.

"You seem to know a great deal about the movements of the enemy. How does it happen that you are so well posted, Teddy Tucker?"

"I was hanging around the station when they gave the order to have their cars dropped off there," answered Teddy, avoiding the keen gaze of his companion and superior.

"Did you know the place was deserted?"

Teddy nodded.

"Did they?"

Teddy shook his head.

"How did they happen to order their cars dropped off there?"

"I--I guess somebody must have told them that--I guess maybe they thought we were going there."

"Thought we were going there?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Oh, because."

A light was beginning to dawn upon the young car manager. He surveyed Teddy from beneath half closed eyelids. Tucker grew restless under the critical examination.

"Say, stop your looking at me that way."

"Why?"

"You make me nervous. Stop it, I say!"

"Tell me all about it, Teddy," urged Phil, trying hard to make his tone stern.

"Tell you about what?"

"Why the opposition happened to think we were going to Owls' Valley."

"Maybe they just imagined it."

"And maybe they did not. You are mixed up in this, in some way, and I want to know all about it, Teddy Tucker. I hope you have done nothing dishonorable. Of course I am glad the other fellows are out of our way, but I want to know how. Come, be frank with me. You are avoiding the question. Remember I am the manager of this car; I am responsible for all that is done on it. Out with it!"

Teddy fidgeted.

"Well, it was this way. Somebody told them--"

"Well, told them what?" urged Phil.

"Told them they heard we were going to bill Owls' Valley."

"So, that's it, eh?"

Teddy nodded again.

"Did you give out any such information as that?"

Teddy shook his head.

"Who did?"

"I won't tell. You can't make me tell," retorted the Circus Boy belligerently.

"But you were responsible for the rumor getting out?"

Teddy did not answer.

"And those poor fellows are lying there on the siding, twenty miles from the nearest telegraph office?"

"I guess so." Tucker grinned broadly.

"And how are they going to get out?"

"Walk!"

Phil broke out into a roar of laughter.

"Oh, Teddy, what am I going to do with you? Do you know you have done very wrong?"

"No, I don't. The trouble with you is that you don't appreciate a good thing when you get it. You were wishing you could get rid of the opposition cars, weren't you?"

"Yes, but--"

"Well, you're rid of them, aren't you?"

"Yes, but--"

"And I got rid of them for you."

"Yes, but as I was saying--"

"Then what have you got to raise such a row about? You got your wish."

Teddy curled up and began studying the landscape again.

"I admire your zeal young man, but your methods are open to severe criticism. First you imperil the lives of three carloads of men by cutting them loose from the train; then you climb a flag pole, nearly losing your own life in the attempt, and now you have lured three carloads of men to a deserted village, where you have lost them. Oh, I've got to laugh--I can't help it!" And Phil did laugh, disturbed as he was over Teddy Tucker's repeated violation of what Phil believed to be the right and honorable way of doing business.

"Billy!" called Phil.

Mr. Conley responded promptly.

"I am not asking any questions. I do not want to know any more than I do about this business. I already know more than I wish I knew. I want to say, however, that when any more plans are made, any schemes hatched for outwitting our rivals, I shall appreciate being made acquainted with such plans before they are put into practice."

Teddy looked up in amazement. He had not the remotest idea that Phil even suspected who had been his accomplice. But the car manager had no need to be told. He was too shrewd not to suspect at once who it was that had carried out Teddy's suggestions and sidetracked the opposition where they would not get out for at least a whole day.

"Yes, sir," answered Billy meekly.

"I understand that the opposition are where they are likely to stay for sometime to come?"

"Yes, sir; so I understand."

"Oh, you do, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"You know all about it? Well, I thought as much. But I am sorry you have admitted it. That necessitates my reading you a severe lecture."

This Phil did, laying down the law as Conley never had supposed the Circus Boy could do. Billy repeated the lecture to the rest of the crew, later on, and all agreed that Phil Forrest, the young advance agent, had left nothing unsaid. Phil's stock rose correspondingly. A man who could "call down" his crew properly was a real car manager.

While the Sparling Show profited by Teddy's ruse, Phil felt unhappy that his advantage had come by reason of the falsehood that Teddy had told; and that night Phil read his young friend a severe lecture.

"If I find you doing a trick like that again," concluded Phil, "you close there and then."