The Hardys looked at each other, dismayed. Jack Wayne! The pilot who had taken them up only the day before yesterday.
“If Wayne came down in these woods,” Frank said soberly, “I'm afraid he's in bad shape.”
The campers decided to combine looking for him with hunting for the articles stolen from the Morton truck. They listened to the rest of the broadcast while packing up, but there was no other news of particular interest to the boys.
Frank and Joe suggested that they proceed in the direction from which the siren sound had come, and the five set off. As they scrambled along through the dense thickets, the boys talked about the disturbing broadcast.
“A stowaway might have knocked Wayne out,” Frank suggested. “But you've given me an idea, Chet. Maybe Wayne didn't crash. He may have been kidnapped!”
Nevertheless, all the boys watched for signs of an accident as they pressed deeper into the path less woodland. Talk ceased when they began ascending a rugged slope. Perspiration drenched the shirts of the hikers by the time they reached the ridge. Chet was puffing, and his face was as red as a beet.
“Let's rest here awhile, fellows, and look over the valley,” he suggested.
“Maybe we can spot something if we climb one of the trees,” said Tony.
He walked toward an old fir, which towered like a sentinel.
“Stand on my shoulders and catch the first branch,” Biff offered.
He leaned over to help him, and Tony soon was on his way up the tree. When he reached the top he shaded his eyes with one hand.
“Swell view,” he called. “I can see all the way to the bay.”
“Any sign of Jack's plane?” Joe called up.
“Or of the thieves who stole my stuff?” Chet shouted.
The reply was negative to both questions, but Tony continued to gaze around him in every di rection. Suddenly he cried out:
“I see something shiny way off there.” He pointed deeper into the forest. “Maybe it's part of the lost plane.”
The youth climbed down and led the way over swampy ground and through a tangle of tamaracks in the direction of the gleaming object. After an hour's hike, he said:
“I guess I've found it. It's not a plane. It's a pond.”
The boys followed Tony through a clump of thick brush. Beyond it in the sun lay a good-sized body of water.
“Oh, brother,” exclaimed Chet, “could I use a swim right now!”
The other boys agreed and stripped off their clothes.
“Race you across the pond, Frank,” Joe called, taking a shallow dive.
He beat his brother to the far side by only one length. They pulled up on the bank and sat down.
Frank, looking about him, noticed the remains of a campfire nearby. He got up and walked over to it. There were several backbones of fish. Someone had cooked and eaten there recently!
“I wonder if it was one of the gang we're after,” he said excitedly. “Say, here are some good footprints!”
The young detectives tried to follow them, but the going was too painful on their bare feet.
“Let's come back when we have shoes on,” Joe suggested.
They swam back to the other shore and reported their discovery.
“Now we're getting somewhere,” said Chet. “But gosh, I'm awful tired. Can't we wait awhile before we chase that guy?”
The Hardys offered to follow the trail of the footprints while the others did some fishing. Immediately after lunch Joe and Frank resumed their search for the unknown fisherman. His marks were plainly visible in the soft ground near the pond, but as soon as the earth grew hard, they ended.
“Let's continue in the same direction,” Frank suggested. “The fellow may have a cabin up ahead.”
They went on for a quarter of a mile but found nothing, and decided that the man must have changed his course. Frank thought it might be a good idea for all of the campers to remain in the vicinity of the pond for a while.
“That man will probably come back,” he added.
The Hardys rejoined their friends. At sunset they moved camp across the pond, out of sight of the stranger's old campfire.
The boys enjoyed Tony's catch of sunfish, then listened to the radio. There was no word of the missing Jack Wayne, the newscaster said. Presently Chet began to yawn loudly, and all decided that it was time to turn in.
“Don't sleep too soundly,” Frank told his brother. “Keep one eye open for visitors.”
Joe nodded. It was not long before the heavy breathing of the other three boys blended with the sounds of the woodland night. Frank and Joe dozed fitfully. An hour later Frank leaned over and nudged his brother.
“I'm sure I heard footsteps,” he whispered, looking around. “There they are again!”
A slight sound of crackling underbrush came to their ears. Suddenly a light flashed. It was trained directly on the Hardy boys.
“Who are you?” Frank shouted, leaping out of his bag and arousing the entire camp.
There was no answer. The light went out and retreating footsteps hurried off in the underbrush.
Frank put on his shoes, grabbed his flashlight, and darted after the intruder.
“Chet, Biff, Tony, watch camp! There may be others! Come on, Joe!” he shouted.
One thing was certain. The stranger knew his way in the dark. Soon he was so far ahead of the boys that they could no longer hear his sprinting footsteps.
“I hate to give up,” Frank said in disgust. “But we'd never find him now.”
They turned back, wondering if the intruder had been one of the thieves they were after, or only some hermit who did not want his hideout to be discovered.
Upon reaching camp, they found the others excited and worried. Biff had picked up a note the mysterious caller had dropped. It was evident that the purpose of his visit had been to leave a warning. The piece of dirty paper bore a message written in pencil:
Get out of these woods. You're in danger.
“Maybe we ought to leave,” Chet said.
The Hardys were convinced that the warning note proved that a person or persons in North Woods did not want the boys around. Unless the writer had something to hide, why would he object to their presence?
“We'll stay,” said Frank.
“Let's set up watches,” Joe suggested.
Since it was already one o'clock, each was assigned to an hour's sentry duty. However, the rest of the night passed without incident.
At six they all arose. Frank, who had been on watch the past hour, said he had discovered a narrow, clear stream near the pond.
“Good drinking water,” he said.
Chet was sent off with the canteens while the others prepared breakfast. He had been gone only a few minutes when he let out a war whoop.
The boys dashed in the direction from which Chet's shout had come. Chet was leaning far over an undercut in the bank, tugging at something which they could not see.
The stout boy turned his head and motioned. “Come here quick! I've found the stolen canoe!”
A Cry for Help
IN the tiny lagoon, almost hidden by the eelgrass at the water's edge, floated a canoe.
“Are you sure it's the same canoe?” Joe asked. Chet pointed to a deep nick in the varnished wood, saying Wells Hardware had knocked something off the original price because of the imperfection.
“Maybe the other stolen stuff isn't far away,” Joe said enthusiastically.
“You mean the thief hid the canoe here?” Chet asked.
“It might have drifted down the river,” Joe suggested. “There aren't any paddles in it.”
“Let's go up the river after breakfast and take a look,” said Frank.
The Hardys fashioned two crude paddles. While Biff and Tony remained to watch the camp, the other three started up the river. Joe kneeled in the bow and Frank in the stern. Chet sat down in the middle facing Frank.
“Joe, you watch the left bank for signs of the thief,” Frank suggested as his crude paddle dipped into the shallow, rock-filled water. “I'll take the right.”
“What about me?” Chet queried. “Don't I look anywhere?”
“You're ballast,” Joe needled. “All you do is sit tight.”
But Frank was more serious. “Watch the rear, Chet. See if anybody steps out of hiding after we go past.”
The three boys proceeded slowly upstream. All eyes strained for a glimpse of a human being, a hut, or any other place where the stolen rifles, tools, and camp equipment might be hidden.
For a long time there was silence except for the gurgling of the ripples around the rocks and the dipping of the paddles.
Then Joe let out a whistle. He indicated a lean to near the riverbank.
“Let's investigate it,” he said, resting his paddle.
They landed and Chet held onto the canoe while Frank and Joe looked in the lean-to. A pair of hiking boots stood in one corner.
“They're new,” Frank remarked as he exam ined them. “Say, here's a long scratch.” The shiny leather on the right one had been deeply marred.
“The fellow who slipped on the rock in the woods!” Joe guessed. “I wonder where he is.”
“One of us ought to hide here to see who comes for the shoes,” said Frank. “Suppose we all paddle off, so if he's around here now, he won't be suspicious. One of us can sneak back through the woods.”
Joe volunteered. At a bend in the river, he hopped ashore and carefully retraced his way to the lean-to.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by. Merely sitting and waiting behind a large tree began to irk the restless boy. He decided to do a little scouting.
“But which way?” he wondered.
While Joe stood trying to decide, his nostrils caught the scent of wood smoke. He knew he was too far from the boys' camp for smoke to be detected. Turning slowly and sniffing the air at intervals, he finally concluded it was coming from a direction at right angles to the river.
Keeping an alert watch for anything suspicious, Joe headed inland. The scent grew stronger. It was not long before he came to a small clearing, in the center of which smoldered a campfire. Nobody was in sight.
The young detective remained in concealment a few minutes. Then he examined the ashes. The heat they still radiated was mute evidence that somebody had been there within the past few minutes. Was he the person who used the lean-to?
“Maybe he went back there,” Joe thought. “I'd better find out.”
As he started through the woods again, a gleaming object on the ground caught his eye. It was a heavy trap, half-concealed by a frond of ferns, its steel jaws set for prey. Joe's foot had just missed it!
He bent down to examine the trap. Judging from the condition of the rabbit-meat bait, it must have been set recently.
Suddenly Joe had the eerie feeling that he was being spied upon. He glanced ahead just in time to see the head of a man duck out of sight in a nearby thicket. The stranger had light-colored hair and sharp eyes. Though Joe had caught only a quick glimpse of the face, he knew that he had seen it before.
“The salesman at the Mortons' farm!” he muttered.
Joe raced after the retreating man. Realizing that it might be foolhardy to assume the chase alone, Joe gave a bird whistle that the Hardys often used as a signal.
Frank and Chet, farther upstream, heard the whistle and answered with a similar signal.
But so intent were they in trying to locate Joe's direction that they did not notice a ledge of submerged rock until it was too late. The jagged ledge tore a gaping hole in the canvas a few feet behind the prow of the canoe. Water came pour. ing in.
His foot just missed the trap!
Frank strained at the crude paddle to drive the canoe ashore. Despite their efforts, water was halfway to the gunwales when the bow scraped the pebbly bottom of the left bank.
“Whew! Just made it!” Chet exclaimed.
“Wait here!” Frank said, then dashed downstream along the bank. The whistle sounded again!
Within a few seconds Frank found himself at a sharp bend in the river. Joe was nowhere in sight. Frank whistled. There was no reply.
“Where'd he go?” Frank murmured.
He hoped his brother was not in danger. But where to look for him was a puzzle.
Frank decided to go back to Chet. Joe might have headed in that direction.
“Didn't you find Joe?” Chet asked, wide-eyed.
“Not yet. The sound seemed to come from both sides of the stream,” Frank replied, perplexed. “I hope it doesn't mean somebody was imitating our bird call.”