Ralph on the Overland Express/15

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"I declare!" exclaimed Ralph Fairbanks.

"For mercy's sake!" echoed Fred Porter.

Both stood spellbound just within the grounds of the Fairbanks' home, where they had arrived. Over towards the dividing lot line of the next door neighbor, their eyes had lit upon an unusual and interesting scene.

Two figures were in action among the branches of the great oak tree. They were boys, and their natural appearance was enough to attract attention. They were leaping, springing, chasing one another from branch to branch, with a remarkable agility that made one think of monkeys and next trained athletes.

"Who are they, anyway?" demanded Fred.

"They are new to me," confessed the young engineer.

The two strangers were about of an age, under sixteen. It would puzzle one to figure out their nationality. Their faces were tawny, but delicate of profile, their forms exquisitely molded. They suggested Japanese boys. Then Ralph decided they more resembled lithe Malay children of whom he had seen photographs. At all events, they were natural tree climbers. They made the most daring leaps from frail branches. They sprung from twigs that broke in their deft grasp, but not until they had secured the purchase they aimed at in the act to send them flying through the air to some other perilous point in view. Their feats were fairly bewildering, and as one landed on the ground like a rubber ball and the other chased him out of sight in the next yard, Ralph conducted his companion into the house with these words:

"That's odd enough to investigate."

He did not announce his arrival to his mother, but led Fred up to his room. As he passed that now occupied by the Foggs, it made his heart glad to hear the fireman crowing at the baby to the accompaniment of a happy laugh from the fireman's wife.

"You can wash up and tidy up, Porter," he said to his friend. "I'll arrange for an extra plate, and take you down later to meet the best mother in the world."

"This is an imposition on you good people," declared Fred, but Ralph would not listen to him. He went downstairs and out the front way, and came around the house looking all about for some trace of the two remarkable creatures he had just seen. They had disappeared, however, as if they were veritable wood elves. Passing the kitchen window, the young engineer halted.

"Hello!" he uttered. "Zeph Dallas is back again," and then he listened casually, for Zeph was speaking to his mother.

"Yes, Mrs. Fairbanks," Ralph caught the words, "I'm the bad penny that turns up regularly, only I've got some good dollars this time. On the mantel is the money I owe Ralph for the clothes he got me."

"But can you spare the money?" spoke Mrs, Fairbanks.

"Sure I can, and the back board, too," declared Zeph, and glancing in through the open window Ralph noted the speaker, his fingers in his vest armholes, strutting around most grandly.

"I can't understand how you came to get so much money in two days," spoke the lady. "You couldn't have earned it in that short space of time, Zeph."

"No, ma'am," admitted Zeph, "but I've got it, haven't I? It's honest money, Mrs. Fairbanks. It's an advance on my wages—expense money and such, don't you see?"

"Then you have secured work, Zeph?"

"Steady work, Mrs. Fairbanks."

"What at, Zeph?"

"Mrs. Fairbanks," answered the lad in a hushed, mysterious tone of voice, "I am hired as a detective."

"You're what?" fairly shouted Ralph through the window.

"Hello! you here, are you?" cried Zeph, and in a twinkling he had joined Ralph outside the house. "Yes, sir," he added, with an important air that somewhat amused Ralph, "I've landed this time. On both feet. Heart's desire at last—I'm a detective."

Ralph had to smile. He recalled the first arrival of honest but blundering Zeph Dallas at Stanley Junction, a raw country bumpkin. Even then the incipient detective fever had been manifested by the crude farmer boy. From the confident, self-assured tone in which Zeph now spoke, the young railroader was forced to believe that he had struck something tangible at last in his favorite line.

"What are you detecting, Zeph?" he inquired.

"That's a secret."

"Indeed—and what agency are you working for—the government?"

"That," observed Zeph gravely, "is also a secret—for the present. See here, Ralph Fairbanks, you're guying me. You needn't. Look at that."

With great pride Zeph threw back his coat. It was to reveal a star pinned to his vest.

"Yes," nodded Ralph, "I see it, but it doesn't tell who you are."

"Don't it say 'Special'?" demanded Zeph, with an offended air.

"Yes, I see the word."

"Well, then, that's me—special secret service, see? Of course, I don't look much like a detective, just common and ordinary now, but I'm going to buy a wig and a false beard, and then you'll see."

"Oh, Zeph!" exclaimed Ralph.

"All right, you keep right on laughing at me," said Zeph. "All the same, I'm hired. What's more, I'm paid. Look at that—I've got the job and I've got the goods. That shows something, I fancy," and Zeph waved a really imposing roll of bank notes before the sight of the young engineer.

"Your employers must think you a pretty good man to pay you in advance," suggested Ralph.

"They do, for a fact," declared Zeph. "They know they can depend upon me. Say, Ralph, it's funny the way I fell into the job. You never in your life heard of the slick and easy way I seemed to go rolling right against it. And the mystery; the deadly secrets, the—the—hold on, though, I'm violating the eth—eth—yes, ethics of the profession."

"No, no—go on and tell us something about it," urged Ralph. "I'm interested."

"Can't. I've gone too far already. Sworn to secrecy. Honestly, I'm not romancing, Ralph, I'm working on a case that reads like a story book. Some of the strange things going on—they fairly stagger me. I can't say another word just now, but just the minute I can, you just bet I'll tell you all about it, Ralph Fairbanks. Say, you haven't seen two boys around here, have you—two tiny fellows? I left them in the garden here. They're in my charge, and I mustn't lose sight of them," and Zeph began looking all around the place.

"Two human monkeys, who make no more of flying through the air than you or I do to run a race?" inquired Ralph.

"That's them," assented Zeph.

"They were here a few minutes ago," advised Ralph, "but I don't see them just now. I wondered who they were. The last I saw of them, they were chasing one another over our neighbors' lot over there."

"I must find them," said Zeph. "They are another of my responsibilities. I hear them."

As Zeph spoke, there proceeded from the alley a mellow and peculiar but very resonant whistle. It was followed by a responsive whistle, clear as a calliope note. Then into view dashed the two boys for whom Zeph was looking. They were still chasing one another, and the foremost of the twain was making for the house. As he passed a tree full tilt, without the least apparent exertion he leaped up lightly, seized a branch, coiled around it like a rubber band, and his pursuer passed under him at full speed.

"This way, Kara—hey, Karo," called out Zeph, and the two strange lads came up to him with a fawn-like docility, in keeping with the mild, timid expression of their faces.

"Sare," spoke one of them with a bow, and his companion repeated the word. They both bowed to Ralph next, and stood like obedient children awaiting orders. Ralph was silent for fully a minute, studying their unfamiliar makeup. At that moment Fred Porter, having come down stairs the front way, strolled around the corner of the house.

"This is my friend, Fred Porter—Zeph—Zeph Dallas, Porter," introduced the young railroader, and the two boys shook hands. Porter became instantly interested in the two strange lads.

"I'm going to show you fellows something," said Zeph, "something mighty remarkable, something you never saw before, and it's going to beat anything you ever heard of. About those two boys. Kara!"

One of the two lads instantly moved to the side of Zeph, who beckoned to him to follow him. He led the boy ten feet away behind a thick large bush, his back to the others.

"Karo," he spoke again, and the other boy allowed him to turn him around where he stood his back to the other boy.

"See here, Zeph," spoke Ralph with a broad smile, "are you going to give us a detective demonstration of some kind, or a sleight-of-hand demonstration?"

"Quit guying me, Ralph Fairbanks," said Zeph. "You're always at it, but I'm going to give you something this time that will make you sit up and take notice, I'll bet. Those boys came from a good many thousand miles away—from the other side of the world, in fact."

"They look it," observed Fred Porter.

"Gomera," exclaimed Zeph.

"Where's that now?" inquired Fred.

"It is the smallest of the Canary Islands."

"Oh, that's it!"

"And they talk without saying a word," was Zeph's next amazing announcement.

"Whew!" commented Fred dubiously.

"They do. It's that I'm going to show you. Perhaps those boys are the only two of their kind in the United States. They are Silvandos."

"What are Silvandos, Zeph?" inquired Ralph.

"Silvandos," replied Zeph, with manifest enjoyment of the fact that he was making a new and mystifying disclosure, "are persons who carry on a conversation through a whistling language."