Ralph on the Overland Express/16
ZEPH DALLAS AND HIS "MYSTERY"
"Whistling language?" repeated Fred Porter. "Is there one?"
"Aha! didn't I say I was going to show you something you never heard of before? You bet there is a whistling language!" chuckled Zeph—"and I'm now about to demonstrate it to you. You see these two boys? Well, they are natives of Gomera, the smallest of the Canary Islands They were raised in a district where at times there is no living thing within sight, and the vast wilderness in the winding mountains is broken only by the crimson flower of the cactus growing in the clifts of the rock."
"You talk like a literary showman, Zeph Dallas," declared Fred.
"Well, I'm telling the story as I get it, ain't I?" demanded Zeph in an injured tone and with a sharp look at Fred, as if he suspected that he was being guyed. "Anyhow, I want to explain things so you'll understand."
"Go right ahead, Zeph," insisted Ralph encouragingly, "we're interested."
"Well, up among those big stone terraces is the whistling- race. They are able to converse with one another at a distance of three miles."
"That's pretty strong," observed Fred. "But make it three miles."
"A Silvando will signal a friend he knows to be in a certain distant locality. He does it by setting his fore fingers together at a right angle in his mouth, just as you'll see these two Canaries do in a minute or two. An arrow of piercing sounds shoots across the ravine."
"Arrow is good—shoots is good!" whispered Fred, nudging Ralph.
"There is a moment's pause—" continued Zeph.
"Oh, he's read all this in some book!" declared Fred.
"Then there comes a thin almost uncanny whistle from far away. Conversation begins, and as the sounds rise and fall, are shrill or drawn, so they are echoed. Then comes the ghostly reply, and then question and answer follows. They talk—all right. Travelers say so, and a lot of scientific fellows are now on the track of this strange tribe to investigate them before civilization makes of their talk a dead language. Kara—ready!" called out Zeph to the boy at tht bush. "Karo—attention!"
"Sare," answered the little fellow, his bright twinkling eyes full of intelligence.
"Ask him how many!" said Zeph "—see?" and he touched himself, the boy and Ralph and Fred with his forefinger in turn.
Out rang a series of rising interrogatory sounds. There was a pause. Then from the boy stationed at the bush came quick responsive toots—one, two, three, four.
"Tell Kara to bring you this—see, this?" and Zeph stooped down and touched the sodded yard with his hand. Karo whistled again. Immediately Kara wheeled, stooped also, and was at their side in an instant, tendering a handful of grass.
"Say, this is odd all right," confessed Fred thoughtfully.
"Tell Kara to climb a tree next," spoke Zeph. More "whistle talk," and agile as a monkey Kara was aloft, making dizzying whirls among the branches of an oak nearby. "I tell you, it would stun you to watch these little fellows at play. It's like a piccolo or a calliope to hear them talk—yes, sir, talking just as knowingly as we do."
"Who are they, anyway?" spoke Fred curiosly.
"I've told you—Canaries."
"Yes, but where did you pick them up?"
"That's a secret. You see," responded Zeph, looking duly wise and mysterious, "those boys were imported to this country by a peculiar old man, who wanted servants around him who weren't gabbing about his affairs and asking him questions all the time. Well, he's got them, hasn't he? I'm working for that man, or rather for a friend of his. Detective work," continued Zeph, rather proudly. "I've told Ralph. These two boys have been shut up in the house for two months. They just pined for fresh air, and trees—oh! trees are their stronghold. When I started out with them they made for the first tree like birds for a roost. I have taken them out for an airing, and I ran down here to report to Ralph how I was getting on, and brought them along with me for the novelty of the thing."
"Do they live near here?" inquired Ralph.
"No," answered Zeph, "we had to come by rail. I can't tell you where they live, but it's on a branch of the Great Northern. I've got to get back to-night. We've had our supper, Ralph. I just wanted to settle up the bills I owed you. I'll say good-bye to your mother and get to the depot."
Zeph and his charges trooped to the kitchen door. Zeph spoke a few words to Mrs. banks. His companions bowed her a polite and graceful adieu, and Ralph accompanied their former boarder to the street.
"See here, Ralph," said Zeph to the young engineer in parting, "I don't want you to think I wouldn't tell you everything."
"That's all right, Zeph."
"But honestly, I've solemnly agreed not to lisp a word about what I am really about or the people concerned in it."
"That's all right, too," declared Ralph.
"I'll say this, though," resumed Zeph: "I'm working on a strange and serious case. It's no play or fooling. I'm getting big pay. I may do a big thing in the end, and when I do, if I do, I'm coming straight to tell you all about it."
Ralph watched Zeph and his charges disappear down the street with a great deal of curiosity and wonderment in his mind. A great many lively and unusual incidents were coming to the front recently, but this one was certainly enough out of the ordinary to give him food for profound thought.
Ralph rejoined Fred in the garden, and took him into the house and introduced him to his mother. Mrs. Fairbanks won the heart of the manly young fellow, as she did the love of all of her son's friends.
It was a pleasant, happy little coterie, that which sat down at the table soon afterwards to enjoy one of Mrs. Fairbanks' famous meals.
"I'm ashamed!" declared Fred, after his seventh hot biscuit with freshly churned butter that made his mouth water, "but eating houses and hotels, Mrs. Fairbanks, make a roving, homeless fellow like me desperate, and if a third helping of that exquisite apple sauce isn't out of order, I'll have another small fish."
"I'm spoiled for regular cooking, Bessie," declared Fogg to his wife. "Mrs. Fairbanks is fattening us till we'll be of no use at all."
"You are all flatterers," said Mrs. Fairbanks warningly, but with a pleased smile.
"I'll take another piece of cake, ma'am, providing you'll promise me the little exercise of helping you wash the dishes afterwards," spoke Fred.
He interested the widow with his animated, interested talk as he bustled around the kitchen, wearing a big apron while drying the dishes. Then when this task was completed, he and Ralph went out to the little summer house and comfortably seated themselves.
"Now then," remarked the young railroader with a pleasant smile, "now for your confession, Fred."
"No, sir," objected his comrade vociferously, "I've done nothing that's wrong to confess. It will be an explanation."
"All right," agreed Ralph, "open the throttle and start the train."
At that moment there was an interruption. A chubby, undersized boy came swiftly through the gateway. He was advancing up the steps of the house when Ralph halted him.
"Hi, there, Davis!" he challenged. "What's wanted?"
"Oh, you there, Fairbanks!" responded Ned Davis, the red-headed call boy for the roundhouse of the Great Northern, familiarly known as "Torchy." "Extra orders for you and Fogg—you're to take out a special to-night."