“I’d like to know where all the animals are,” said Dick, wearily. “I haven’t seen a blamed thing since we started.”
“Africa’s just like all the one horse circuses,” replied Doc. “They advertise the greatest collection of wild animals in captivity and when you get there all they have is a mangy lion and a couple of motheaten elephants.”
“Golly! Wouldn’t you like to see a real lion, or an elephant, or something?” sighed Dick.
“Look! Look!” exclaimed Doc suddenly. “There! There! See ’em?”
In the distance a small herd of springbok ran swiftly and gracefully across the veldt, the dainty little animals occasionally leaping high into the air. As the animals disappeared the boys again relapsed into attitudes of watchful waiting.
“I wish they’d been lions,” said Dick.
The train, deserting the open country, entered a great forest, dark, gloomy, mysterious. Mighty trees, festooned with vines, rose from a tangle of riotous undergrowth along the right-of-way, hiding everything that lay beyond that impenetrable wall of flower-starred green,—a wall that added to the mystery of all that imagination could picture of the savage life moving silently behind it. There was no sign of life. The forest seemed like a dead thing. The monotony of it, as the hours passed, weighed heavily upon the boys.
“Say,” said Doc, “I’m getting tired of looking at trees. I’m going to practice some of my magic tricks. Look at this one, Dick.”
He drew a silver coin from his pocket, a shilling, and held it upon his open palm. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he declaimed. “We have here an ordinary silver shilling, worth twelve pence. Step right up and examine it, feel of it, bite it! You see that it is gen-u-ine. You will note that I have no accomplices. Now, ladies and gentlemen, watch me closely!”
He placed his other palm over the coin, hiding it, clasped his hands, blew upon them, raised them above his head.
“Abacadabra! Allo, presto, change ears and be gone! Now you see it, now you don’t!” He opened his hands and held them palms up. The coin had vanished.
“Hurray!” shouted Dick, clapping his hands, as he had done a hundred times before, for Dick was always the audience.
Doc bowed very low, reached out and took the coin from Dick’s ear, or so he made it appear. Then into one clenched fist, between the thumb and first finger, he inserted the stub of a lead pencil, shoving it down until it was out of sight. “Abacadabra! Allo! Presto! Change cars and be gone! Now you see it, now you don’t!” Doc opened his hand and the pencil was gone.
“Hurray!” shouted Dick, clapping his hands, and both boys broke into laughter.
For an hour Doc practiced the several sleight of hand tricks he had mastered and Dick pretended to be an enthusiastic audience; anything was better than looking out of the windows at the endless row of silent trees.
Then, quite suddenly and without the slightest warning, the monotony was broken. Something happened. Something startling happened. There was a grinding of brakes. The railway carriage in which they rode seemed to leap into the air; it lurched and rocked and bumped, throwing both boys to the floor, and then, just as they were sure it was going to overturn, it came to a sudden stop, quite as though it had run into one of those great, silent trees.
The boys scrambled to their feet and looked out of the windows; then they hastened to get out of the car and when they reached the ground outside they saw excited passengers pouring from the train, asking excited questions, getting in everyone’s way. It did not take Dick and Doc long to learn that the train, striking a defective rail, had run off the track and that it would be many hours before the journey could be resumed. For a while they stood about with the other passengers idly looking at the derailed carriages but this diversion soon palled and they turned their attention toward the jungle. Standing quietly upon the ground and looking at it was quite different from viewing it through the windows of a moving train. It became at once more interesting and more mysterious.
“I wonder what it is like in there,” remarked Dick.
“It looks spooky,” said Doc.
“I’d like to go in and see,” said Dick.
“So would I,” said Doc.
“There isn’t any danger—we haven’t seen a thing that could hurt a flea since we landed in Africa.”
“And we wouldn’t go in very far.”
“Come on,” said Dick.
“Hi, there!” called a man’s voice. “Where you boys goin’?”
They turned to see one of the train guards who chanced to be passing.
“Nowhere,” said Doc.
“Well whatever you do, don’t go into the jungle,” cautioned the man, moving on toward the head of the train.
“You’d be lost in no time.”
“Lost!” scoffed Dick. “He must think we’re a couple of zanies.”
Now that someone had told them that they must not go into the jungle, they wanted to go much more than they had before, but as there were many people upon this side of the train, they were quite sure that someone else would stop them, should they attempt to enter the jungle in plain view of passengers and train crew.
Slowly they sauntered to the rear end of the train and passed around it onto the opposite side. There was no one here and right in front of them was what appeared to be an opening through the tangled vegetation that elsewhere seemed to block the way into that mysterious hinterland that lay beyond the solid ranks of guardian trees. Dick glanced quickly up and down the train. There was no one in sight.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s just take a little peek.”
It was only a step to the opening, which proved to be a narrow path that turned abruptly to the right after they had followed it a few paces. The boys stopped and looked back. The right-of-way, the train, the passengers—all were as completely hidden from view as though they had been miles and miles away, but they could still hear the hum of voices. Ahead the little path turned toward the left and the boys advanced, just to look around the turn; but beyond the turn was another. The path was a very winding one, turning and twisting its way among the boles of huge trees; it was quiet and dark and gloomy.
“Perhaps we’d better not go in too far,” suggested Doc.
“Oh, let’s go a little way farther,” urged Dick. “We can always turn around and follow the path back to the train. Maybe we’ll come to a native village. Gee! wouldn’t that be great?”
“Suppose they were cannibals?”
“Oh, shucks! There aren’t any cannibals any more. You afraid?”
“Who me? Of course I’m not afraid,” said Doc, valiantly. “All right then, come ahead,” and Dick led the way along the little path that bored into the depths of the mighty, frowning jungle. A bird with brilliant plumage flew just above them, giving them a little start, so silent and deserted the forest had seemed, and a moment later the little path led them into a wide, well-beaten trail. “Golly!” exclaimed Doc, “this is more like it. Say, I could scarcely breathe in that little path.”
“Sst! Look!” whispered Dick, pointing.
Doc looked and saw a little monkey solemnly surveying them from the branch of a nearby tree. Presently it began to chatter and a moment later it was joined by a second and then a third little monkey. As the boys approached the monkeys retreated, still chattering and scolding. They were cute little fellows and Dick and Doc followed in an effort to get closer, and, all the time, more and more monkeys appeared. They ran through the trees, jumping from branch to branch; skipping about, jabbering excitedly.
“If my cousin, Tarzan of the Apes, were here, he’d know just what they were saying,” said Dick.
“Let’s get him to teach us,” suggested Doc. “Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to talk to the animals, the way he does? Gee! I wish they’d let us get a little closer.”
On and on the boys went, their whole attention absorbed by the antics of the little monkeys; forgetting time and distance, trains, passengers; forgetting all the world in this wonderful experience of seeing hundreds of real, live monkeys living their own natural life in the jungle, just as their forefathers had lived for ages and ages. How tame and uninteresting and pathetic seemed the poor little monkeys that they had seen in zoos. The boys passed several little trails running into the bigger one, but so wholly was their attention held by the antics of their new friends that they did not notice these, nor did they note a branch of the big trail that came in behind them from their left while they were watching some of the monkeys in the trees at their right.
Perhaps they were not very far from the train. They did not think about it at once, for their minds were occupied with more interesting things than trains. Presently, however, as they followed the winding of the broad game trail, laughing at the antics of the monkeys and trying to make friends with them, a still, small voice seemed to whisper something into the ear of Dick. It was that old spoilsport, Conscience, and what it said was: “Better start back! Better start back!” Dick glanced at his watch.
“Gee!” he exclaimed. “Look what time it is! We’d better start back.”
And then Doc looked at his watch. “Golly!” he cried; “I’ll say we ought to start back, it’s almost dinner time. How far do you suppose we’ve come?”
“Oh, not very far,” replied Dick, but his tone was not very positive.
“Say, I’ll bet it would be great in here at night,” cried Doc.
Just at that instant, from the heart of the jungle, a sound broke the peace of the forest—a terrible sound that started with a coughing noise and grew in volume until it became a terrific roar that made the ground tremble. Instantly the little monkeys disappeared as though by magic and a silence, more fearful than the awful voice, settled upon the dark and gloomy wood. Instinctively the boys drew close together, looking fearfully in the direction from which that fearsome sound had come. They were brave boys; but brave men tremble when that voice breaks the silence of an African night.
Little wonder, then, that they turned and fled into the direction from which they had come, away from the author of that rumbling roar.
And, still running, they came to the fork in the trail, the fork that they had passed, careless and unheeding, a short time before. Here they were bewildered and here they hesitated. But only for a moment. They were young and possessed all the assurance of youth, so off they went again running swiftly along the wrong trail.