CHAPTER 17. The Dangerous Climb

“JOE!” Frank called repeatedly as he slowly circled the island searching for his brother. The young sleuth had nearly reached the cliff when his shouts were answered by a faint cry.

“Here! Over here!” Then silence.

Frank thought the sounds had come from a clump of tangled underbrush and hastened to it. Pulling aside the snowy branches, he saw Joe. The blond boy was so numb that he could barely move his lips. Quickly Frank untied the cords on his brother’s ankles and wrists.

“Think you can walk?”

“I’ll try,” came the faint reply.

Joe leaned heavily on his brother and the pair made their way haltingly towards the cabin. When they drew near, Frank shouted, “Biff! Hurry!”

The muscular youth came sprinting outside and together he and Frank carried Joe into the living-room and placed him on the sofa. Chet, heaving a sigh of relief, rushed to get a blanket.

After a few minutes, Joe felt stronger. Presently he drank a cup of hot cocoa, then said, “I’m okay.”

Just then he noticed Ike and Tad, standing glumly next to the fireplace. Joe grinned. “Did you have a nice warm wait in the woodshed, fellows?” As they scowled, Joe told his story without mentioning why he had gone to the cliff or what he had found there.

When Joe had finished, Biff strode over angrily to Ike and Tad. “What’s Hanleigh after on Cabin Island?”

“That’s what we wanted to find out,” Ike answered. “”Say, won’t you guys give us a lift to Bayport so we can find the Hawk?”

“Are you kidding?” Chet retorted scornfully. “You expect a ride in the Hardys’ ice-bus after you tried twice to wreck it?”

“How did Hanleigh find out we were going to stay on Cabin Island?” Joe queried.

“We were picking him up down the road when he spotted you packing the Seagull,” Tad explained. “Hanleigh eavesdropped on you near the boathouse and heard your plans.”

“We’ve just been doing his dirty work,” Ike said sourly.

“You could have injured someone seriously throwing that log at the Seagull,” Frank said. “Mr. Jefferson was knocked out.”

“Don’t blame me. I wasn’t there!” Ike whined.

“It’s true,” Tad admitted. “Hanleigh and I wore masks. It was his idea to disable your boat.”

“But how could you be sure we would be coming out in the Seagull at that time?” Joe asked.

“We were on our way to the island when we saw you,” Tad replied. “Hanleigh changed his mind about the trip and decided to ram you. He made me take him ashore to pick up a log. Then we lay in wait near the inlet. We didn’t realize you had the old man until too late.”

Despite further intensive questioning, Ike and Tad stuck to their statement that they knew nothing of Hanleigh’s quest on Cabin Island, nor had they seen a boy answering Johnny Jefferson’s description. Finally the troublemakers departed, grumbling, to walk home.

As soon as the door had closed behind them, Joe swung off the couch. “Fellows,” he said, “I’ve something to tell you.”

“And about time!” exclaimed Frank. “I’ve been burning with curiosity. Why did you ask Mr. Jefferson about the hot springs?”

“And what were you doing on the cliff?” Chet put in.

Joe interrupted. “Take it easy. Let me explain. I think I know where Johnny Jefferson is.”

“Where?” chorused the others.

“In a cave in the cliff.”

“How do you figure that?” Biff asked.

Joe told about spotting the patch of dark ground from the cabin roof. “At first I figured there was a hot spring melting the snow. Later it occurred to me that, instead, there might be a cave under the spot. If someone built a fire in it and there were crevices in the roof leading to the surface, the smoke would come up and the heat would melt the snow.”

Frank’s eyes flashed with excitement. “Great deduction, Joe!”

“I got only as far as the circle of stones,” Joe went on. “Smoke was coming up, so I’m sure somebody was in the cave-probably Johnny. But Hanleigh knocked me out even before I could look for the entrance.”

“Then he dragged you to a place where you could freeze waiting to be rescued,” Biff put in grimly.

“The mouth of the cave is probably in the cliff face!” Frank declared. He jumped up and started pulling on his parka. “Come on! We’ll surprise Johnny and bring him back here!”

“Wait!” exclaimed Chet. “First lunch!”

After a quick snack, the boys headed for the cliff. On the way, Frank told his brother about the meeting with Yussef.

Joe whistled. “Hanleigh’s a sharp operator, all right. I wish I could’ve made him admit he was after the medals. He was plenty upset when he found out we had the book and the coded message. I’m sure he hasn’t solved the cipher yet,” Joe added.

When the boys reached open ground at the top of the cliff, they were met by an icy blast from the bay. Frank glanced anxiously at the leaden sky.

“Storm coming,” he muttered.

Joe showed them the sheltered spot in the circle of stones. No smoke was rising.

“The fire must have gone out,” Frank commented.

“Since the cave is right under here,” said Chet, “the way down may be nearby.”

“Let’s look for footprints leading to the edge of the cliff,” Biff suggested.

“It won’t be much use,” Frank said, shaking his head. “This wind will have swept them away.”

The boys walked to the rim and looked down at the jumble of ice-coated crags which jutted out, hiding the sheer wall below. Biff shivered. “One slip and goodbye, Charlie!”

“Maybe we’d better forget about it,” Chet said hopefully.

“No,” Frank answered. “If Johnny Jefferson can get down there, so can we. But we need our climbing boots and flashlights.”

“I’ll go back and get them,” Chet volunteered quickly, and started towards the cabin.

“Hurry!” Frank called after him. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“It’s dark in here already,” Chet muttered as he entered the woods. He ploughed along the trail the boys had made earlier, wishing he had not come alone. The white woods was eerie and the pines moaned and tossed in the wind, showering him with snow.

Once Chet put up an arm to protect his face and stumbled off the trail into a clump of brush. He fought clear, found the path again, and went on.

Suddenly the wind stopped. Startled by the silence, Chet paused.

Why did he feel he was not alone?

As he stood, breathing heavily, he heard a low moan behind him. It rose into a weird cry and trailed off into silence.

Chet’s lips opened and closed, but he made no sound. With effort he forced himself to look back. Was there something tall and white standing against a snowy bush? As he strained to see, the thing vanished among the trees. With a hoarse cry Chet plunged down the trail and did not stop until he was in the cabin. Gasping, he locked the door and leaned against it.

“Can’t be sure I saw anything,” he had to admit, a little ashamed. “But I heard that weird cry, I know.”

The thought of his companions waiting on the cold cliff top forced Chet to gather up the boots and flashlights and go out again. By the time he came to the end of the woods, he was red-faced from running.

“Over here!” Frank called, and Chet hastened along the cliff top to where his friends were waiting.

“Fellows,” he burst out, “there’s another ghost here! I saw it in the woods!”

Joe grinned and took the equipment from his plump friend. “Great joke, Chet, but we’ve heard it before.”

“I’m not kidding! It gave a terrible–“

“We’ve no time to waste,” Frank broke in, hanging a flashlight on his belt. “Get your gear on.” Grumbling, Chet obeyed.

“We think this is the best place to start down,” Frank told him.

He walked to a crevice in the cliff edge about six feet deep, and lowered himself to the bottom. From there he stepped on to a flat icy ledge, digging in hard. Beyond it stood another jutting stone. Frank moved ahead, and, one by one, the others followed him on rough footholds across the cliff:

Occasionally they stopped and examined the rocky wall for an opening, but saw none. Once Chet glanced towards the inlet and froze at the sight of the drop.

“Don’t look down!” Joe shouted.

Frank, making his way along a ledge, stopped to look back at his companions. Just behind him was a narrow opening between the cliff and a slab of rock which angled out from it. About twenty feet above, Frank could see the circle of stones.

“This may be the cave!” he thought, and signaled to the others.

As they stood in a line on the ledge, he indicated the opening and gestured for silence. Then Frank led the way into a dark passage which opened into a rock chamber, dimly lit by a pile of glowing embers.

“Nobody here!” exclaimed Joe, his voice sounding hollow.

Against one wall was a stack of cans, food boxes; and pots. Nearby lay a sleeping bag, a box of tumbled clothes, and an unlit paraffin lamp.

“This is the hideout, all right,” Frank said. “We’ll settle down and wait for Johnny.”

“It might take a long time,” Biff remarked.

“I doubt it,” said Frank. “With a storm coming up he’s probably heading for here right now.”

For a while the boys sat in silence, then suddenly they tensed. A footstep in the passage!

As they scrambled to their feet, Biff stumbled over the lantern. It turned over and clattered across the stone floor. Instantly the footsteps in the passage stopped, then hurried away.

“After him!” Frank cried out. “Johnny!” he called. “Come back! We’re friends!”

As the boys emerged from the passage they were met by roaring wind and swirling snow. Frank shouted again, but the words were lost. Daylight was nearly gone. The boys peered back across the cliff, but there was no sign of anyone.

Anxiously the Hardys looked upwards. Had the boy tried to climb to the crags above the cave mouth?

“No one there!” said Joe.

“Don’t see him here or anywhere!” shouted Biff.

With sinking hearts the four looked around the cliff, each with the same unspoken fear.

Chet suggested, “Maybe he’s hiding behind a rock.”

“Let’s hope so,” Frank thought grimly, then said aloud, “No one could survive a storm on this cliff. If Johnny’s hurt or hiding, we must find him.”

It was decided that Joe and Biff would examine the cliff from above. Frank and Chet clambered down towards the ledge. Now and then they stopped and shouted, and looked for a figure among the crags. But Johnny was not in sight nor did he reply.

When they reached the jutting rocks at the ledge, the boys lay down and peered over the edge. With a gasp Frank pointed. Something white lay among the jagged rocks at the base of the cliff.

“A wreck!” Chet said. “An ice-yacht!”

“And there’s somebody in it!” exclaimed Frank.