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CHAPTER VI

Mysterious Collision

THE others watched in frozen horror, fully expecting the grenade to go off in Frank’s hand. The next second he tossed it from the broken window. Everyone stood as if in a trance, waiting for the explosion.

But it never came.

The boys and Aunt Gertrude drew shaky sighs of relief. “Must be a dud,” said Frank. “I’ll check.”

He ran downstairs and around to the rear of the garage. He immediately spotted the grenade lying in the grass. With his foot he gingerly turned it over. In the bottom gaped a round, unplugged hole. “It’s a dummy, all right,” Frank said to himself.

Next, he looked about for any signs of the grenade thrower. There was no one in sight and no clues to the person’s identity. Quickly Frank picked up the grenade and returned to the lab.

Aunt Gertrude, recovered from her fright, was highly indignant. “I don’t care if that-that bomb is a fake!

What a wicked thing to do! The villain responsible should be tarred and feathered!” She paused for breath. “Frank, you were very brave, but you shouldn’t take such chances!”

Her nephew smiled. “I’ll try not to, Aunty.”

With a warning for the boys to be extra cautious, Miss Hardy left. Chet and Joe had by now swept up the broken glass and the young sleuths turned their attention to the grenade. Joe lifted it and studied the hole closely.

“Look, there’s a note where the firing pin should be!” He unrolled the paper and the boys read the typed words:

Keep off Shore Road or next time this will be a real one.

The message was unsigned, and when they dusted the grenade it showed no fingerprints except the Hardys’. The weapon was clearly of foreign manufacture.

“Think Slagel threw it?” Joe suggested, recalling the missing glove.

“Or one of his pals,” Frank replied. “At any rate, our conference wasn’t overheard. What say we start today on our two-part plan?”

After the window had been boarded up, the Hardys and Chet started for the door. Joe grinned. “Chet!

You forgot to drink your parsnip juice.”

“Oh-er-yeah, I almost forgot,” he muttered, plodding over to the table. Grimacing, he downed the liquid, choking on the last few gulps.

“Good?” Frank asked, chuckling.

Chet wiped his lips and beamed at the brothers before leading the way vigorously down the stairs, the map under one arm.

“Nutritional!” he called back.

Chet rode at the rear of Joe’s motorcycle as the three boys headed for a wooded area near Springer Road. This was the most northern of the three roads they suspected as the thieves’ possible escape route.The trio spread out and began combing the area for clues. There was little traffic this far north. The air was close, and the pitch pines afforded little shade.

In white sneakers and saggy dungarees, Chet trudged along between the Hardys. He occasionally consulted a botanical handbook.

They reached farmland and doubled back along the edge of the woods. Finding no tire marks or buildings, the boys returned to the motorcycles and rode a few hundred yards south. They began combing another patch of trees.

Five minutes later the trio heard a noise behind a thicket-covered hill. Frank motioned for silence and the boys hid behind a large rock.

The crunch of turf became louder. When the person had almost reached the rock, Frank revealed his presence.

“Well, Frank Hardy! And Joe, and Chet! What brings you city fellers all the way out here?”

“Scratch! What a surprise!”

Before them stood the disheveled figure of Scratch Cantrell, a well-known local drifter and long-time acquaintance of the Hardys. Scratch lived alone in the woods. Under a straw hat and ragged gray overcoat, he wore brown trousers, patched in several places. Two pieces of clothesline provided him with suspenders, and rusty sewing scissors, with which he shaved, were tucked into a belt loop. The boys explained their interest in the Shore Road mystery.

“Have you noticed any cars in the woods around here, Scratch?” Frank asked.

Removing his hat, the drifter scratched his wispy hair. His voice was gravelly. “No, haven’t seen none.

But I’ve heard ‘em.”

“Heard them?”

“Yep, about two days back. I was just waterin’ down my campfire when I heard a motor in the woods, then a noise like a crash. Didn’t find nothin’. Sounded like a siren on the highway later.”

“The siren may have been the police pursuing one of the stolen cars!” Joe observed.

But they were puzzled by Scratch’s story, particularly the mention of a “crash.” Unfortunately, the grizzled man could not remember where the incident had occurred.

Scratch did recall something else, however. “I saw a man drive out of these woods the other day, and another time walking along Shore Road.”

Frank asked what the man looked like.

“Big guy, bald, kinda mean-lookin’. Wasn’t happy when I seen him pullin’ out of the woods.”

Quickly Joe took out the picture of Slagel. “Is this the man?”

Scratch nodded. “He had a walkin’ stick. Don’t know why he was carryin’ the cane-he didn’t seem to limp.”

Encouraged by news that Slagel had been in the area recently, the boys thanked Scratch and returned to the motorcycles. Soon they were cruising homeward.Chet felt weary from their trek and lack of food. “But I’m going to keep on with my vegetable juices,” he declared valiantly.

Joe grinned. “Here’s luck!” He pretended to drink a toast.

Presently Frank remarked, “I have a hunch we’ll be meeting Slagel soon.” At that moment he saw something on the beach that made him stare in astonishment. “Look! Two men are tied up down there I”

Flashing across the road, the Hardys stopped their motorcycles abruptly, then rushed down to the two men. They lay behind a dune, and had been visible from the road for only a moment. From their clothing, the boys believed they were fishermen. Both were distraught. One of them pointed to the north as Joe untied him and ripped the gag off his mouth. “We were jumped and our car stolen. Can you fellows catch that thief?”

“How long ago did it happen?” Frank asked as he freed the other man.

“Two-three minutes-a brown Condor with white wall tires.”

Frank groaned, realizing they had passed the car moments before! “We could never catch him now, unless- Joe! Let’s try the old Pine Road shortcut!”

While the fishermen hurried toward a farmhouse to alert the police, the Hardys and Chet raced to the motorcycles.

“Will I slow you down?” Chet puffed anxiously.

“No.” Joe motioned for him to get on. “But hold tight-don’t lean back!”

They sped along the highway for a quarter mile, then chugged up a dirt rise to the old overland route.

This was stony and overgrown, but a shorter way to the north.

Through the clouds of dust, Joe and Chet could barely make out the crouched form of Frank ahead.

Chet held on tautly.

“Heads!” Frank cried back, as Joe and Chet barely ducked under a broken oak limb.

Minutes later, they came out to the highway. He’d still have a lead on us, but we may be able to catch him now,” Frank murmured.

They proceeded north, passing several cars. Whizzing beside pastures, they approached a cloud of dust at the Pembroke Road intersection.

“Come on! Let’s try the turnoff!”

The boys took the curve, squinting for a glimpse of the stolen brown car. Suddenly they heard a crashing sound!

“That came from the woods!” Joe exclaimed, staring to his right.

They proceeded slowly among the trees until they came to some tire tracks. Seeing no car or evidence of a collision, the boys followed the trail. At a turn in the tracks, Frank noticed something on the ground. “A clue!” Here and there were flecks of brown paint. He scooped them up and wrapped them in a handkerchief. The trio continued following the tracks, but they only led the boys back to the highway.

“Beats me,” Frank said. “Whoever drove in seems to have driven right out again. But why?”On the way back, they dropped off the paint flecks at the police station for analysis.

At the Hardy garage Chet pulled a gnarled mass of broken leaves and stems from his dusty pocket. “My plant specimens!” he groaned. “Ah, what scientists must suffer-and all for nothing! Fellows, could we postpone our first night watch until tomorrow? I’m tired-and hungry.”

The Hardys agreed, feeling sorry for their chum. After Chet left, the brothers had supper and opened a special-delivery packet which had arrived that afternoon from their father. To their surprise, it contained data on Slagel.

“Dad is sure a wonder!” Joe declared.

Information on the man’s recent moves was scant, but the report said that Slagel had been dishonorably discharged from the Army and had served a prison term in Leavenworth. A list of several aliases was given, as well as an indication he had been born left-handed, but now used either hand.

Later, while the boys were studying a small map, the doorbell rang. Mrs. Hardy answered it. When she came back into the living room, their mother seemed perplexed.

“That’s strange. A man was at the door. He wore a blue winter face muffler and didn’t identify himself.

When I told him that your father wasn’t at home, he seemed hesitant. Finally, before leaving, he asked me to give this to you boys.” She handed Frank a small, white envelope.

On the front of it was the drawing of a bottle.

CHAPTER VII

Flight Sniper

IMPATIENTLY, Frank tore open the envelope and removed a folded message. It was a photostat of an aged, incomplete message. He read it aloud:

”’. . . when the ftorm broke . . . alone . . . to give our pofition in the hope that . . .’”

Frank glanced at Joe. “The Dodds’ Pilgrim clue! Each small s looks like an f, the way an s was written centuries ago!”

He continued. “ . . . vegetation no protection . . . fhelter but crafh of countleff . . . breaking black illozvf . . . high vein of gold . . .’”

In the margin was a crude drawing of a leaf. Frank passed the paper to his brother. “That’s all. Looks as if part of it has been cut off at the end.”

The brothers spent the rest of the evening trying vainly to interpret the message and speculating on the identity of the visitor.

“As I make it out,” Frank remarked, “the storm in this message is the hurricane in which Elias Dodd perished with his family.”

“And the question is, where?”“Apparently they found some cover, for it mentions vegetation. If only we knew what kind. The leaf drawing must be a clue.”

Joe tapped his head with a pencil. “But if Elias Dodd’s bottle washed up on the shore, wouldn’t the family have been out at sea?”

His brother had second thoughts. “There’s something about the words ‘vegetation’ and ‘shelter’ that suggests a location on land. Besides, wouldn’t Elias Dodd have needed some kind of shelter in which to write the note?”

“That figures,” Joe replied. “What do you make of the last part?”

Frank reread the final fragments. “. . . crafh of countleff breaking black illowf . . . high vein of gold”

“I don’t get it,” Joe muttered. “Were there ever veins of gold in this area?”

Frank offered to find out. He went into the hall, where Joe heard him talking on the phone with Chet.

Presently Frank returned, excited.

“Joe! I think I may have it!”

“What?”

“The answer to at least most of the message.” Frank explained, “It figures that this fifth word from the end could be ‘willows,’ referring, in other words, to black willow trees. A hurricane would certainly cause many branches to ‘break’ and even, whole trees to ‘crash.’”

“Sure,” Joe said, puzzled. “But if there were ‘countless’ black willows, they would be in an inland forest. I still don’t see how any bottle could reach the sea from there.”

Frank grinned. “I had a hunch and asked Chet to check it. Have you ever noticed where most black willows seem to grow?”

Joe recalled some of their past camping trips. “Near rivers or other bodies of water. Shadow Lake, and of course Willow River.” Suddenly Joe caught the drift of Frank’s reasoning. “Willow River, of course.

That would account for Elias Dodd’s message reaching the sea!”

Frank said thoughtfully, “And gold is often found in stream beds.”

Neither of the brothers recognized the crude drawing of the leaf. “Chet may be able to identify it,” Frank said.

Joe suggested that they check in town about past gold mines or claims to any in Bayport history.

“Good idea,” Frank agreed. “Now for the big question-is this message a copy of the real one?”

“Any ideas about who brought it?” Joe asked.

“One,” Frank answered. “Professor Martin Dodd, though I don’t understand why he wouldn’t identify himself.”

Joe remembered their last meeting with Jack and his father. “Mr. Dodd did suggest there was an urgency about solving the Pilgrim mystery. Let’s start treasure sleuthing early tomorrow.”

Mrs. Hardy brought the morning mail to the breakfast table next day. The brothers received more lettersof complaint from Bayport residents, but the last letter Joe opened had a Bridgewater postmark. He paled as he read it.

“Look at this!” he exclaimed, passing the typed letter to Frank. It said: Hardys-You were suckers to back us. Don’t meddle any more.

“It’s signed ‘Jack’!” Frank cried out.

After the initial shock caused by the note, Frank became suspicious. “This doesn’t sound like Jack. Did you save that grenade note? This typing looks the same.”

The boys went upstairs and Joe produced the paper. He followed his brother into Mr. Hardy’s study, where Frank got out a file on typewriter clues.

“I’m convinced of it!” he said at last. “Certain information here points to one interesting fact- both were typed by the same person. Also, the letters typed by the left hand are much darker-“

“Which might mean,” Joe broke in, “that the person is-or was-left-handed. Slagel!”

After marking on the map the streams running into Willow River, Frank and Joe picked up Chet at the Bayport Museum. Still tired from yesterday’s trek and overland chase, Chet was nevertheless proud about his part in the black-willow clue. He agreed to be their lookout for a plant like that in the drawing.

The boys’ plan was to cover certain areas daily in their search for the treasure. Right now they would sleuth in a region north of Route 7, keeping a lookout for willow groves. The only stream in the region, shaded by old black willows, offered no clues to any gold or buried treasure and Chet saw no plants matching the leaf sketch.

“What’s the next assignment?” Chet asked. He pulled a small, wrapped raw cauliflower from his pocket, took off the paper, and started to eat it. “Ever try this?” he asked. “Very nourishing.”

“It just so happens we have,” Frank replied. “What say we have our first stakeout tonight?”

“Here?” Chet asked, munching.

“No. Out at Springer Road.”

“Why don’t we make it an overnight?” Joe proposed. “In the meantime, we’ll finish fixing our motorcycle radio.”

The others liked the idea. After supper the three assembled packs and drove out to Springer Road. The boys set up a three-man shift among some trees. The night passed slowly as the Hardys and Chet each took a turn watching the night traffic for two hours, then sleeping during the next four.

No thefts were reported over the radio, and the cars using the turnoff, which they logged by hour and description, were few and not suspect. An hour after sunrise on Saturday morning Frank woke the others and, disappointed, they headed home.

“You think maybe they’ve stopped stealing cars?” Chet yawned.

“I doubt it,” Joe yelled back. “But there may have been a theft that hasn’t been reported yet.”

Joe’s guess proved to be correct. Presently an announcement came over the police band that a car had been stolen several hours earlier outside a Shore Road gas station.”That proves one thing,” said Frank. “The thieves don’t use Springer Road.”

“One down, two to go!” Joe exulted. “Tonight we move to Route 7. Maybe we’ll get a nibble on Mr.

Slagel or his cronies.”

Later that morning Joe called the Bayport Records Office for information about old gold claims.

“Any luck?” Frank asked as Joe hung up.

“Not yet. The only man who could tell us anything about mineral history in Bayport is out of town and won’t be back until Monday.”

That afternoon the Hardys met Chet to comb another area in their search for the Pilgrim treasure. Chet, in khaki shorts and a pith helmet, looked like an overstuffed safari guide. They hunted through several thickets and a stream bed near a farm owned by John Apperson, but found no trace of gold.

“We’ve hardly seen a willow twig all day,” Chet moaned disconsolately as they sat on a rock to rest. He picked a burr out of his sneakers. “And I haven’t spotted any plant with a leaf like in that drawing. Might as well look for a pine needle in a haystack.”

“Still,” said Frank, “with what we covered today, we can eliminate a lot of that shadowed area on our map.”

Suddenly Joe had an idea and hopped down.

“A bird’s-eye view of this whole region might reveal some small streams not on any of our maps. Think we could get hold of Larry Dillon at the airfield?”

“He’s usually free this late in the afternoon,” Frank said. “Let’s try him!”

The airport lay not far from their present location, and it took them less than half an hour to reach the field. They skirted the modern terminal and soon reached a smaller hangar where several single-engine aircraft stood poised about the taxiing area.

Sidestepping grease puddles, the boys entered the silver hangar and found Larry in a small, makeshift office. He was just getting into a leather flight jacket and greeted them warmly.

“Sure, I’ll be glad to take you fellows around for a buzz!” The tall, crisp-voiced pilot smiled.

He slapped Chet heartily on the back and winked at Frank and Joe. “What do you think-shall we charge him for extra freight? Chet, you look as if you’re dressed for a jungle adventure!”

Chet grinned. “My outfit is just for solving mysteries-and the cause of science!”

They followed Larry across the field to a handsome red, high-wing craft. Moments later, they were airborne.

“Any place in particular?” Larry asked above the din of the motors as he banked away from the sun.

“North Bayport would be fine,” Frank answered.

As they flew eastward, coastal breakers came into view far below. They looked like a white lace fringe in the gentle wind. While Chet held the map spread out on his lap, Frank and Joe gazed through binoculars.”I’m sorry these windows don’t give you a bigger view,” the pilot remarked. “At least we have good visibility today.”

“This beats feet any day,” Chet remarked languidly. “There’s Bayport already!”

When they reached the city nestled around the sprawling, horseshoe-shaped inlet, Frank had Larry fly northward. They strained to pick up traces of small streams or ponds not on the map. Seeing none, they turned south, circling several tunes before reversing direction again.

“I guess the map is accurate,” Frank said, after they had failed to uncover anything not charted. “Have you seen a spot that could be a hideout, Joe?”

“No. Every building looks accounted for on the map.” Chet supported Joe’s observation.

“Could we go down a little lower, Larry, for a couple of final spins?”

“Roger! Hold on!”

The plane nosed gracefully to a course nearer the ground. The black highway loomed larger, dotted with late-afternoon traffic. The shadow of their plane flickered on the surface of the blue sea.

They had just whined into a wide turn and started southward again, when they heard a ring of ripping steel to their rear. It was followed by a thudding flash of light inches away, and the shatter of glass in the instrument panel.

“We’re being shot at!” Frank cried out.

“Keep away from the windows!” Larry yelled. He climbed frantically to a higher altitude.

“Good night!” Joe said, stunned. “Are we hit badly, Larry?”

“The motor’s choking-I’m taking her back!”

As they pulled westward from the Shore Road area, the boys peered from the windows again, trying to determine the source of the bullets. But the altitude was too great.

Larry landed the plane safely. When investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board arrived, the Hardys were looking at one of the slugs in the fuselage.

“They’re from a submachine gun of foreign manufacture,” one of the men reported.

Frank whispered to Joe, “That dud grenade was foreign made too! Makes me think of Dad’s case.”

The Hardys apologized to Larry for the trouble they had caused. “Nonsense.” He smiled, wiping grease off his T-shirt. “I’ll let you know if we get any leads to the sniper.”

The boys rode to the Hardy home. There was no news of the missing Dodds or of the recently stolen cars.

Chet stayed to supper but proudly partook only of Mrs. Hardy’s cooked vegetables. Aunt Gertrude stared incredulously, but offered him no dessert.

Later, Chet borrowed an old shirt and dungarees from Frank for the night’s watch on Shore Road. After reassembling their gear they drove out to Route 7, the turnoff four miles south of Springer Road. The boys stationed themselves on a pine slope some fifty yards down the turnoff.”We’ll have to be on our toes tonight, men,” Frank said. “There’s more traffic on Route 7 than on Springer or Pembroke.”

As darkness fell, the three arranged their shifts for the night. Joe propped up a twig fork-support for the binoculars while his brother stationed their motorcycles. Chet, who was to have the third shift, settled down on his sleeping bag with a small flashlight, engrossed in a thick book on botany.

“You fellows are pretty lucky to have a botanist at your service,” he boasted, then yawned.

“Boy, are you going to itch tomorrow!” said Joe, and pointed to where Chet’s bag rested in a patch of poison ivy.

“Oh, all right, maybe I don’t know everything about botany,” Chet grumbled, dragging his gear to another spot.

Hours later Chet took his watch. He sat cross-legged before the field-glass tripod listening to the police calls and looking over the Hardys’ log of the cars which had passed that night. Presently he heard a motor.

“Maybe this is it!” he thought as two headlight beams appeared. The next instant Chet saw the dark-colored sedan suddenly speed up and roar wildly toward him on Route 7. It swerved, caromed off a bush, and raced down the road.

The noise awakened Frank and Joe. “That may be our first bite!” Frank yelled. “Let’s go!”

CHAPTER VIII

The Ring of Fire

IN seconds Frank and Joe had started their motorcycles, the headlights cutting the darkness of the woods. Racing along, the boys could see the red taillights of the speeding sedan ahead.

“Anything come over the police band?” Joe shouted back to Chet.

“Nothing about a theft.”

The gap diminished, and the boys realized the car was slowing down.

“Maybe he thinks we’re the police,” Frank called out.

But the sedan cut speed still more and began to make a U-turn. “He’s coming back. Let’s keep with him!” Frank urged.

The driver appeared to take no notice of their pursuit. The boys followed him back to the turn-off and then down Shore Road.

Joe called to Frank, “He’s heading for Bay-port!”

Dropping back, the boys trailed the car through the quiet city streets until it drew up before the Excelsior Hotel in the waterfront area. The Hardys swung behind a parked truck.Frank motioned for the binoculars. When Chet handed them over, Frank focused on the sedan’s driver, a bald thick-set man. He still did not seem to notice the boys as he crossed the street and entered the hotel.

Frank flashed an excited look at the others. “I think we’ve finally found our man!”

“Slagel?” Joe guessed hopefully.

“That’s right.”

Chet spoke up. “No wonder no hotel day clerks recognized his picture-he works-or steals-at night!”

“I don’t get it,” Joe said. “If Slagel stole that car, would he park it right in Bayport? And why the U-turn back on Route 7?”

“Or why speed up suddenly when he made the turn off Shore Road?” Chet interrupted.

“I don’t know,” Frank said, “but I’m going in the hotel for a second. Joe, take down the license and description of the car.”

Frank came out of the hotel a few minutes later and rejoined the boys.

“The night clerk knows Slagel under the alias of James Wright,” he reported. “Apparently Slagel has kept these late hours since checking in two weeks ago.”

“That’s about when the Shore Road thefts began!” Chet exclaimed.

The Hardys felt they should go to police headquarters and report the episode.

While Joe watched the motorcycles, Frank and Chet ran up the steps to headquarters. But when they reappeared, they looked disappointed.

“A car was stolen all right, but not the one driven by Slagel.”

“Crumb!” Joe muttered. “It looks as if we’ll have to stick with the Route 7 turnoff. Still, do you think Slagel is connected with the theft in some way?”

Frank shrugged. “What gets me is the stolen car. The thief may have used Pembroke Road, but it’s also possible we missed him in chasing Slagel.”

The three boys rode back to the turnoff for their gear before dropping Chet at home and returning to their own house. They spent a quiet Sunday, their only detective work being to call headquarters, but there was no news about the Dodds or the car thieves.

After breakfast Monday morning the Hardys phoned Chet and promised to meet him and the girls later in the day for a swim off the Sleuth, the Hardys’ sleek motorboat.

Then they rode into town, parked, and posted themselves in sight of the Excelsior Hotel. They did not have long to wait. Slagel, dressed in Army surplus trousers, boots, and a summer jacket emerged. He was carrying a cane in his left hand.

“He doesn’t limp,” Frank remarked. “Wonder why he carries a cane.”

Slagel jumped into the black sedan and pulled out. The Hardys followed on their motorcycles, and saw him come to a halt two blocks away before a paint store. He entered and soon emerged with cans ofpaint in either hand. After several trips, he had loaded some twenty gallons into the trunk. He had just slammed the trunk shut when he glanced back at the watching boys.

A chill went down Joe’s back. “Think he knows we’ve been tailing him?”

“He sure doesn’t act like it,” said Frank.

Slagel went to a telephone booth on the curb, dialed, and spoke briefly. Presently he returned to his car and moved into the Bayport traffic.

“It looks like Shore Road again,” Frank noted, as Slagel rounded Barmet Bay a little later.

Farther north, where the road curved inland and had pastureland on both sides, the traffic thinned. Slagel increased speed, but the Hardys kept him in sight. Suddenly a moving mass of brown and white appeared just ahead of them.

“Cattle!” Frank exclaimed.

He and Joe were forced to slow down as the cows were driven across the road toward a wide meadow on their left.

“We’re really blocked,” Joe shouted.

Fortunately, no fence separated the highway from the meadow, and the boys were able to steer off the road. But by the time the cattle had crossed, Slagel’s car had disappeared around a curve.

Then Frank saw the farmer who had driven the cattle across the road. He was the same short, white-haired man who had caused their spill a week before with his stalled truck.

Parking their vehicles, the Hardys approached him, but he spoke first. “What do you kids think yer doin?

If yer gonna ride wild, jest keep off my land-you mighta killed one o’ my prize critters!”

Frank’s eyes blazed. “This isn’t an authorized cattle crossing-you should know better than to drive your herd across a major road without giving some kind of warning!”

Seeing no point in futher heated words, Frank turned from the irate farmer and the boys rode off.

On the way home they discussed their unsuccessful pursuit of Slagel. “At least,” said Frank, “we know where he’s staying. Maybe next time we’ll have better luck.”

Back home for lunch, the boys spoke to their mother and Aunt Gertrude about the farmer.

“A farm just south of Pembroke Road?” their aunt asked. “Laura, wouldn’t that be George Birnham?”

Yes,” said Mrs. Hardy. “He has lived here a number of years.”

“Do you know anything else about him?” Frank said.

“An odd man,” Aunt Gertrude replied. “I believe his grandfather was given the land by a member of the Dodd family, though Birnham has never done very well with it. I gave him an order over the phone once.

He sold me some half-rotten tomatoes, and I told him a thing or two!”

Out of curiosity Joe consulted the new telephone directory. “Frank! Birnham’s name is in here-which means he lied about having no phone! Why?” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “He’s blocked us off two times. What if it wasn’t coincidence- that there’s some tie-in between him and Slagel?”“Let’s pay a visit to his farm tonight,” Frank answered. “If Biff will team up with us, we can still watch Route 7 too. Have you the same hunch about Slagel’s paint that I do?”

“If you mean it’s for repainting stolen cars- yes,” Joe replied. “And that does make the hide-out north of here.”

Suddenly Frank remembered the flecks of paint they had found near the car tracks in the woods. He phoned Chief Collig to learn the test results. The police were convinced they were from the stolen car and the tire prints also. “My men have rechecked the area where you boys found the paint chips but couldn’t come up with anything more.”

“How about the collision noises, Chief?”

“The police have heard them too-once when a patrol was on the tail of a stolen car. But that’s not all. Do you know who the first victim of the auto thefts was?”

Frank tried to recall the papers two weeks back. “Wasn’t it a farmer somewhere out on Shore-“

“A farmer named George Birnham!”

“Birnham!” Frank exclaimed. In view of the boys’ latest suspicions, this seemed a strange twist.

That afternoon Frank and Joe took the Pilgrim clue with them and combed another patch of woods in the vicinity of Willow River.

It was three o’clock when they came upon a granite rock formation near a wooded slope. Nearby were several black willow trees.

“It looks as if somebody else has been sleuthing around here,” Frank said. He pointed to traces of footprints and digging. “These were all made by one person.”

The stone looked as if it had been there a long time. But it was too small to have afforded shelter for a whole family even three hundred years ago. Joe looked without success for traces of a gold vein.

“Let’s take a look at Birnham’s farm by daylight,” Frank suggested, and they rode off.

After parking at some distance, the two cautiously made their way along the dirt road turning off to the farm. The road was just beyond the rise at which they had lost sight of Slagel’s car that morning. At a distance they could see Birnham working in a field. But there was no sign of Slagel’s car. The brothers returned to their motorcycles.

Frank, gazing ahead, suddenly cried out. Above the tips of a thick birch forest a couple of miles ahead, a circular formation of black smoke could be seen rising. “That looks like the start of a forest fire! We’d better find out and then report it!”

Swiftly the boys shot north toward the column of smoke. When they braked to a halt at the forest edge, a crackling sound reached their ears.

“It’s a fire all right, and there may be a house and people in there!” Joe exclaimed.

The Hardys hopped off and ran into the woods.

Soon billows of choking smoke swirled their way. Tying handkerchiefs over their noses, the boys hurried forward. A minute later they reached a clearing, circled by flames.In the middle of the ring of fire a man lay unconscious!

“It’s Scratch!” Joe cried out.

Instantly he and Frank leaped over singeing flames toward the helpless man!

CHAPTER IX

The Spider’s Net

BY the time Frank and Joe dived through the last patch of searing flame, licks of fire had almost reached Scratch’s prone figure.

Joe tied his shirt over the drifter’s face and pulled him up into a fireman’s carry. With Frank holding the man’s legs, the boys dashed back through the flames, not stopping until they were a hundred yards from the spreading conflagration.

To the Hardys’ relief, fire fighters were arriving, and the woods echoed with heavy vehicles, sirens, and shouts.

The Hardys coughed violently for several minutes while slapping their smoking trousers. Scratch was just reviving as three state policemen approached.

“How did it happen?” one of them asked.

“We don’t know,” said Frank, and explained what they had seen.

Scratch sat up, blinking, and thanked the boys for his rescue. The officer turned to him. “Scratch, have you been careless with one of your camp-fires?”

“No, sir,” he said. “I heard a car in the woods hereabouts, and come to take a look. Next thing I knew, somebody put a funny-smellin’ rag in front o’ my face. After that, I don’t remember.”

The officer looked skeptically at Scratch, but the Hardys were startled. Liquid gas again! “This fire could have been planned,” said Frank. “It was arranged in a perfect circle.”

“I guess you’re right,” the officer conceded.

After the fire was out and the police completed a fruitless search for clues to the arsonist, the officers and firemen left. Forest rangers continued inspecting the scene.

Scratch drew the boys aside. “I owe you fellers my life.” He smiled. “Least I kin do is tell you about the tre-men-dous spider I seen.”

“Spider?”

“Yep, last night, leastwise, it looked like one.” The drifter shivered. “Big enough to be a man, but it sure didn’t move like one!”

“Sounds weird!” Joe said.”Where did you see it, Scratch?” Frank asked.

“On a rock ledge down the road a piece. I was strollin’ towards my camp when he crawled out o’ sight. I never seen a human spider in a web!”

The Hardys, knowing that Scratch was apt to exaggerate, did not take his story seriously. They did not want to hurt his feelings, so they pretended to be impressed.

“We’ve got to get going,” said Joe. “Take care, Scratch.”

When the boys came out to the highway, Joe glanced at his watch. “Jeepers! We promised to meet Chet and the girls for a swim half an hour ago!”

They whizzed off. At the dock where the Sleuth was berthed, they were met with reproving glances. Not only were they late, but disheveled.

“Promises, promises,” purred Iola Morton, as Joe slunk down the ramp. Chet’s slim, brunette sister had small features and twinkling eyes, and looked very pretty in an aqua-colored swimsuit.

“Frank Hardy, it’s about time!” sang out another voice. Callie Shaw, a slim blonde in a red suit, gasped at the boys’ sooty appearance.

Chet sat comfortably in the back of the boat, finishing a piece of watermelon. “Wow! You look like boiled frankfurters. Wrap yourselves in rolls, with a little mustard, and I’ll break my diet!”

The others laughed, then Frank explained their delay. “We’ll change and be right with you.”

The brothers ran to a nearby bathhouse. Then they rejoined the others and started up the Sleuth’s motor.

The sleek blue-and-white craft moved swiftly out into the bay, its bow chopping through glistening breakers. Frank steered around the tip of the bay and headed the Sleuth north. They cast anchor near a small cove.

Chet had hit the water before the anchor. “Come on in!” he gurgled, surfacing with immense satisfaction.

Amidst jokes about a “salt bath,” the sooty Hardys followed the girls overboard.

The bracing water refreshed them. After a rest in the motorboat, the five swimmers decided to go in again. They waited for a black fishing boat to pass. It anchored a short distance away. Then Callie dived in. Several seconds went by. She did not reappear.

“Something may have happened to Callie!” Iola said fearfully. The three boys dived in at once and plunged beneath the surface. Twenty feet down Frank’s blood chilled. Callie, her face blanched with fear, was struggling violently.

She was enclosed in a small, tightly wound net!

His lungs bursting, Frank reached her, grasped the net, and started upward. When they broke surface, Callie was choking and too weak to swim. Desperately, Frank bore her to the Sleuth. Joe cut the nylon net and Callie was lifted over the side. She gestured that she was all right, but it was several minutes before she could explain what had happened.

“Some man-he was in a black skin-diving suit and mask-grabbed me and threw the net around . . .”

The sound of a motor reached their ears. The fishing boat nearby was heading away.”He may have come from that boat!” said Frank. “Let’s find out! There was a black fishing boat around just before the accident to Jack’s boat!”

They pulled anchor and Frank steered the Sleuth after the fishing boat. The boys signaled to the pilot several times. He cut his engine as they drew alongside.

The fisherman, young and slim, wore a checkered sport shirt and a white yachting cap. He appeared annoyed at being disturbed.

“What do you want?” he asked curtly.

“Know anything about a skin diver around the cove back there?” Frank asked.

The young man started his motor. “Skin diver? No.” His craft roared away.

Upset by the near-fatal accident to Callie, the five young people headed back to the boathouse. The Hardys bade good-by to Chet, Callie, and Iola, who planned to report the incident to the maritime authorities.

As the brothers were locking up, they saw Tony docking his Napoli. They related their recent adventures.

Tony whistled. “You’ve been busy! I’m out in the Napoli nearly every day, so I’ll keep an eye on that fishing launch. It’s sure suspicious why the pilot pulled away so fast. Also, if I see anything of the Dodds’

boat, I’ll let you know.”

On the way home, Frank and Joe stopped at the Records Building to check on past gold claims in the vicinity. The clerk who was familiar with the older mineral files was there. They spoke with him in a small office adjoining musty rows of books.

“Gold?” the white-haired man repeated, smiling agreeably. “Are you fellows hoping to strike it rich before school resumes?”

“No.” Frank chuckled. “Our interest is historical. Have you any record of gold streaks at all-particularly north of Bayport?”

The old man shook his head. “No, son. To my knowledge, no gold has ever been found, or sought for that matter, within fifty miles of Bayport. But it’s odd you should ask too. Another fellow was in here just a few hours ago looking for the same information. Didn’t give his name.’ “What did he look like?” Frank cut in.

The clerk removed his spectacles. “Maybe forty, or fifty, dark hair, a beard. Sounded like an educated fellow.”

The boys thanked the clerk and drove home, wondering who the anonymous inquirer was. Someone who had knowledge of the Pilgrim clue? “The beard might have been a disguise,” Joe remarked. “I doubt that the man was Slagel, though. He’d never strike anyone as being an educated person.”

“The bearded man could be the missing professor-Martin Dodd!” Frank suggested.

Later, just before sunset, the boys were seated in Mr. Hardy’s study reviewing their sleuthing plans for the evening. Suddenly Joe stood up. “Frank! Let’s move our watch to Pembroke Road tonight!”

Frank knit his brows. “But we haven’t eliminated Route 7 yet.”“I think we can!” Joe said. “There seems to be a pattern shaping up: the stolen car U-turns, the warning notes from the same person, Jack’s things being found at theft scenes-whoever masterminds this operation has made an effort to throw the police off track. Well, what better way than to send Slagel around a turn-leaving skid marks-while someone else whisks the stolen car away to another spot, like Pembroke Road?”

“Joe, you’re right! Decoy maneuvers! That might also account for the tire tracks and paint we found in the woods!”

The Hardys agreed on a plan to watch both the Birnham farm and Pembroke Road. By now it was dark, so after contacting Biff Hooper and Chet, they met them midway out on Shore Road. There they split up, Biff and Joe going farther north with the motorcycles to watch the intersection. Chet and Frank went in Chet’s jalopy to George Birnham’s farm.

The moon had risen, but was occasionally obscured by clouds. Frank guided Chet to a secluded woods.

The jalopy was parked at the edge and the boys set out, carrying packs. Silently they walked across the dark farm fields where silvery mist gave the air a chill.

When the lights of Birnham’s farmhouse appeared on the west side of Shore Road, they stopped. There was no place to hide, but Frank pointed to deep furrows in a field.

“We can lie low between those and get a pretty good view of anything going on near the house.”

Chet followed Frank as he crawled under a wooden fence. The boys unrolled their sleeping bags between two rows of turned-up soil. Lying on their sides, they watched the house. Occasionally Frank glanced through his binoculars.

The hours passed slowly, uninterrupted except for the rhythmic chant of katydids and the boys’ whispers, both of them having decided to keep awake until one became tired. Chet bit noisily into his last carrot.

“Shhh!” Frank whispered. “Birnham will think somebody’s turned on that tractor I see over there!” Chet muffled his bites and laughter.

An hour later the boys saw a black sedan pull up the dirt road to the house. Frank watched through the binoculars. “It’s Slagel!” he whispered excitedly as Birnham came out on the porch. “So those two are in cahoots! Wish we could hear what they’re saying.”

Presently Slagel returned to his car and drove out, heading south on the highway. Then the farmer left the porch and walked to the end of the dirt road. Frank and Chet saw the squat figure duck under the fence and cross the field some fifty feet to their rear. Fortunately, the moon had gone under again.

“Keep as low as you can!” Frank whispered.

He and Chet listened keenly. In a moment they heard a motor starting up. Frank stole a backward glance and saw Birnham seated atop the large tractor to which a cultivator was attached.

“What’s he doing?” Chet asked, burrowing deeper into his sleeping bag.

Frank watched as the noisy vehicle began to move. The farmer did not turn on the headlights.

“He’s heading in our direction!” Frank gasped.

He could feel Chet shaking violently alongside him. “Quick!” said Frank. “Keep low and roll to the right!”Chet struggled to obey, but his eyes bulged with desperation. “I can’t-the zipper on my sleeping bag is stuck!”

Frank yanked wildly at the zipper, but it was no use!

CHAPTER X

Strange Roadblock

MUFFLING Chet’s yell, Frank rolled him violently over and landed quickly on top of him. The tractor and its whirling blades missed them by inches!

The vehicle’s sound grew fainter as Birnham continued ahead. As Frank looked up he noticed a large truck passing slowly on the road going in the direction of Bayport.

“It’s okay, pal,” he said, patting Chet. “But let’s get to the road before Birnham starts back on this row!”

Chet finally freed himself from the sleeping bag. Trailing it behind him, the heavy youth followed Frank across the field, running in a low crouch. Once beneath the fence, the boys paused to catch their breath, and saw Birnham turn.

“I’ve had it,” Chet moaned softly. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Shhh!”

Puzzled by the farmer’s strange activity, they watched his tractor, still without lights, churn earth at a rise near the highway. After twenty minutes, the vehicle stopped. Birnham cut the motor, jumped down, and returned to his house. In a few moments the building was dark.

“What was that all about?” Chet asked. “Did Birnham know we were here and do that just to scare us?”

“If not, why this night work without lights?” said Frank.

Chet grimaced. “Nuttiest thing I’ve ever seen!”

Exhausted, the two boys took shifts for the remainder of the night. When nothing more had transpired by sunrise, they drove north and rejoined Joe and Biff.

They had had an uneventful night at Pembroke Road but were excited by Frank and Chet’s adventure, and agreed that Birnham’s actions were indeed suspicious.

Frank asked, “Did you pick up anything on the radio?”

“Nothing new,” Biff said.

He climbed into Chet’s jalopy and they roared off. The brothers soon passed them on the motorcycles.

The Hardys were just entering Bayport when report of a theft came over the police band.

”. . . the car, reported missing at Lucas Street in Bridge-water was later recovered, abandoned on the other side of town. Owner, while sitting in his parked car, was gassed. No clues . . .”“In Bridgewater!” Joe exclaimed. “That’s not only the first theft someplace besides Shore Road, but the first time the thieves have failed! Apparently they were frightened off before they could get out of town.”

“So it was the car thieves who gassed Scratch and us,” said Frank. Another idea struck him.

“Bridgewater’s at the end of Pembroke Road, Joe-also, remember it’s the postmark on that phony typed note from Jack!”

“Come on! Let’s check on Slagel at the Excelsior!”

The Hardys cycled to the waterfront hotel, and Joe went in to inquire. When he emerged from the run-down doorway, his expression was not happy. “Slagel-or ‘James Wright’-checked out early this morning!”

The boys decided to sacrifice their treasure hunt for the day and check the hotels in Bridgewater for Slagel. First they stopped at a diner and had a quick breakfast. Afterward, they hurried to their motorcycles and started up. Just then a middle-aged man strode over to them.

“You’re the Hardy boys, aren’t you?” he demanded.

They nodded. “My car was stolen a week ago!” he shouted. “You and your father had a nerve giving bail money to car thieves and allowing them to escape! What are you doing to help? If my car is not recovered, I’ll hold you personally responsible!” The man stormed away.

Frank was depressed. “This feeling in town worries me, Joe-not because of the ridicule or threats, but because so many people seem to be convinced that the Dodds are guilty.”

As the Hardys coasted to the corner, Joe groaned. Approaching them with a broad smirk was the dumpy figure of would-be detective Oscar Smuff.

“What ho, it’s our two young sleuths!” he sang out flatly. “Any sign of your Dodd friends, the car thieves?”

Frank was too accustomed to Smuff’s ways to be incensed. “We think the Dodds are innocent,” he responded.

“If you boys were smart,” Smuff went on, “you’d memorize features of all the stolen cars, like I do. I’m watching the streets.”

“For the Dodds too?” Joe asked.

Smuff nodded smugly. “Or accomplices. I think a woman is involved in the racket somewhere, and if my deductions are correct, she’s got blond hair.”

He whipped out a note pad and glanced at a scribbled list. Then the “detective” looked up at a sedan stopping for a red light. Suddenly his eyes widened. “There’s one of the stolen cars now!”

Frank recognized the blond woman driver as Chief Collig’s wife and tried to restrain Smuff. But the self-appointed detective excitedly darted into the street and up to the sedan. Poking his head in the window, he started to accuse the woman loudly. She turned to face him indignantly.

The next moment Smuff stepped back, open-mouthed and flaming with embarrassment as he realized his mistake. By this time the light had changed and horns were blasting impatiently. Stuttering apologies, Smuff retreated rapidly, wiping his forehead. Mrs. Collig drove off and the deflated detective hastily returned to the sidewalk. He passed the grinning Hardys with a sheepish look and disappeared around acorner.

Still chuckling, Frank and Joe rode off. They passed the Birnham farm and turned down Pembroke Road on the way to Bridgewater.

“Everything seems to narrow down to this road-and now to Bridgewater,” Frank remarked. “And according to the map-some of Birnham’s property touches Pembroke.”

As the brothers passed an open field, they noticed a man ahead leaning comfortably on a fence. He held a walking stick in one hand.

“Slagel!” Joe exclaimed.

“It’s time we had a word with him!” Frank declared.

The Hardys rolled to a stop, hopped off, and hurried toward Slagel. He turned as if to walk away, but the boys confronted him.

“Mr. Wright-?” Frank began.

The broad-nosed, bald man wiped his sleeve across his face, drumming a cane on the fence. “What of it?” he drawled.

“We understand you worked for a Mr. Dodd- that is, when your name was Slagel.”

The man’s lips tightened. “It’s none of your business what I do!”

“Maybe not,” Frank said. “We just thought you might be able to give us a clue to where the Dodds might be.” He noticed Slagel’s expression change to a supercilious smile.

” ‘Fraid I can’t help you there,” said Slagel, leaning back. “Besides, why should I bother spendin’ my time here with car-thief bailers. Anyway, I’m doin’ work for Birnham now.”

“Like stealing cars?” Joe interjected.

Slagel’s face flushed. He leaned down and swung the end off his cane. A long silver blade pointed at Joe’s face!

“Beat it!” Slagel rasped viciously. “You’re tres-passin’ on private property!”

More surprised than awed by the lethal sword, Joe looked at Frank. At his brother’s signal, they walked back to their motorcycles. Slagel was still glaring lividly at them as they rode off in the direction of Bridgewater.

“At least we shook him up a bit.” Frank smiled. “Even if we can’t find out where he’s staying, we know for sure he’s in league with Birnham-and not just for farm work. That sword cane didn’t look very innocent.”

“But good for puncturing tires!” Joe added, remembering the flats reported on some cars near the stolen ones.

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