The Hunt Is Intensified

“HEY!” Oscar Smuff shouted. “You be careful with that penknife! The man who owns this place don’t want you ruinin’ his cars!”

Frank Hardy looked up at the detective. “I’ve watched my father scrape off flecks of paint many times. The way he does it, you wouldn’t know anybody had made a mark.”

Smuff grunted. “But you’re not your father. Easy there!”

As cautiously as possible Frank picked off flecks of the red paint in a spot where it would hardly be noticeable. Taking a flashlight from his pocket, he trained it on the spot.

Joe, leaning over his brother’s shoulder, said, “There was light-blue paint under this red, not yellow.”

“Right,” Frank agreed, eying Smuff intently.

The detective reddened. “You fellows trying to tell me this isn’t Chefs jalopy?” he demanded. “Well, I’m telling you it is, and I’m right!”

“Oh, we haven’t said you’re wrong,” Joe spoke up quickly. Secretly he was hoping that this was Chet’s car, but reason told him it was not.

“We’ll try another place,” Frank said, straightening up, and walking around to a fender on the opposite side.

Here, too, the test indicated that the car had been painted light blue before the red coat had been put over it.

“Well, maybe the thief put blue on and then red,” said Smuff stubbornly.

Frank grinned. “We’ll go a little deeper. If the owner of this establishment objects, we’ll pay for having the fenders painted.”

But though Frank went down through several layers of paint, he could not find any sign of yellow.

All this time Chet had been walking round and round the car, looking intently at it inside and out. Even before Frank announced that he was sure this was not the missing jalopy, Chet was convinced of it himself.

“The Queen had a long, thin dent in the right rear fender,” he said. “And that seat cushion by the door had a little split in it. I don’t think the thief would have bothered to fix them up.”

Chet showed his keen disappointment, but he was glad that the Hardys had come along to help him prove the truth. But Smuff was not giving up the money so easily.

“You haven’t proved a thing,” he said. “The man who runs this place admitted that maybe this is a stolen car. The fellow who sold it to him said he lived on a farm outside Bayport.”

The Hardys and Chet were taken aback for a moment by this information. But in a moment Frank said, “Let’s go talk to the owner. We’ll find out more about the person who brought this car in.”

The man who ran the used-car lot was very cooperative. He readily answered all questions the Hardys put to him. The bill of sale revealed that the former owner of the red jalopy was Melvin Schuster of Bayport.

“Why, we know him!” Frank spoke up. “He goes to Bayport High-at least, he did. He and his family moved far away. That’s probably why he sold his car.”

“But Mr. Smuff said you suspected the car was stolen,” Joe put in.

The used-car lot owner smiled. “I’m afraid maybe Mr. Smuff put that idea in my head. I did say that the person seemed in an awful hurry to get rid of the car and sold it very cheap. Sometimes when that happens, we dealers are a little afraid to take the responsibility of buying a car, in case it is stolen property. But at the time Mr. Schuster came in, I thought everything was on the level and bought his jalopy.”

Frank said that he was sure everything was all right, and after the dealer described Melvin Schuster, there was no question but that he was the owner.

Smuff was completely crestfallen. Without a word he started for his own car and the boys followed. The detective did not talk on the way back to the Morton farm, and the boys, feeling rather sorry for him, spoke of matters other than the car incident.

As the Hardys and Chet walked into the Morton home, the two girls rushed forward. “Did you find it?” Iola asked eagerly.

Chet sighed. “Another one of Smuff’s bluffs,” he said disgustedly. He handed back the money which his friends had given to help pay the detective.

Frank and Joe said good-by, went for their motorcycles, and took Callie home. Then they returned to their own house, showered, and went to bed.

As soon as school was over the next day, they took the gray wig and visited Schwartz’s shop. The owner assured them that the hair piece had not come from his store.

“It’s a very cheap one,” the man said rather disdainfully.

Frank and Joe visited Flint’s and Ruben Brothers’ shops as well. Neither place had sold the gray wig. Furthermore, neither of them had had a customer in many weeks who had wanted a red wig, or who was in the habit of using wigs or toupees of various colors.

“Today’s sleuthing was a complete washout,” Joe reported that night to his father.

The famous detective smiled. “Don’t be discouraged,” he said. “I can tell you that one bit of success makes up for a hundred false trails.”

As the boys were undressing for bed later, Frank reminded his brother that the following day was a school holiday. “That’ll give us hours and hours to work on the case,” he said enthusiastically.

“What do you suggest we do?” Joe asked.

Frank shrugged. Several ideas were brought up by the brothers, but one which Joe proposed was given preference. They would get hold of a large group of their friends. On the theory that the thief could not have driven a long distance away because of the police alarm, the boys would make an extensive search in the surrounding area for Chet’s jalopy.

“We’ll hunt in every possible hiding place,” he stated.

Early the next morning Frank hurried to the telephone and put in one call after another to “the gang.” These included, besides Chet Morton, Alien Hooper, nicknamed Biff because of his fondness for a distant relative who was a boxer named Biff; Jerry Gilroy, Phil Cohen, and Tony Prito. All were students at Bayport High and prominent in various sports.

The five boys were eager to co-operate. They agreed to assemble at the Hardy home at nine o’clock. In the meantime, Frank and Joe would lay out a plan of action.

As soon as breakfast was over the Hardys told their father what they had in mind and asked if he had any suggestions on how they might go about their search.

“Take a map,” he said, “with our house as a radius and cut pie-shaped sections. I suggest that two boys work together.”

By nine o’clock his sons had mapped out the search in detail. The first recruit to arrive was Tony Prito, a lively boy with a good sense of humor. He was followed in a moment by Phil Cohen, a quiet, intelligent boy.

“Put us to work,” said Tony. “I brought one of my father’s trucks that he isn’t going to use today.” Tony’s father was in the contracting business. “I can cover a lot of miles in it.”

Frank suggested that Tony and Phil work together. He showed them the map, with Bayport as the center of a great circle, cut into four equal sections.

“Suppose you take from nine o’clock to twelve on this dial we’ve marked. Mother has agreed to stay at home all day and act as clearing house for our reports. Call in every hour.”

“Will do,” Tony promised. “Come on, Phil. Let’s get going!”

The two boys were just starting off when Biff and Jerry arrived at the Hardy home on motorcycles. Biff, blond and long-legged, had an ambling gait, with which he could cover a tremendous amount of territory in a short time. Jerry, an excellent fielder on Bayport High’s baseball team, was of medium height, wiry, and strong.

Biff and Jerry were assigned to the section on the map designated six to nine o’clock. They were given further instructions on sleuthing, then started off on their quest.

“Where’s Chet?” Mr. Hardy asked his sons. “Wasn’t he going to help in the search?”

“He probably overslept. Chet’s been known to do that,” Frank said with a grin.

“He also might have taken time for a double breakfast,” Joe suggested.

Mrs. Hardy, who had stepped to the front porch, called, “Here he comes now. Isn’t that Mr. Morton’s car?”

“Yes, it is,” Frank replied.

Chet’s father let him off in front of the Hardy home and the stout boy hurried to the porch. “Good morning, Mrs. Hardy. Good morning, Mr. Hardy. Hi, chums!” he said cheerily. “Sorry to be late. My dad had a lot of phoning to do before he left. I was afraid if I’d tried to walk here, I wouldn’t have arrived until tomorrow.”

At this point Mr. Hardy spoke up. “As I said before, I think you boys should work in twos. There are only three of you to take care of half the territory.” The detective suddenly grinned boyishly. “How about me teaming up with one of you?”

Frank and Joe looked at their dad in delight. “You mean it?” Frank cried out. “I’ll choose you as my partner right now.”

“I have a further suggestion,” the detective said. “It’s not going to take you fellows more than three hours to cover the area you’ve laid out. And there’s an additional section I think you might look into.”

“What’s that?” Joe inquired.

“Willow Grove. That’s a park area, but there’s also a lot of tangled woodland to one side of it. Good place to hide a stolen car.”

Mr. Hardy suggested that the boys meet for a picnic lunch at Willow Grove and later do some sleuthing in the vicinity. “That is, provided you haven’t found Chet’s jalopy by that time.”

Mrs. Hardy spoke up. “I’ll fix a nice lunch for all of you,” she offered.

“That sure would be swell,” Chet said hastily. “You make grand picnic lunches, Mrs. Hardy.”

Frank and Joe liked the plan, and it was decided that the boys would have the picnic whether or not they had found the jalopy by one o’clock. Mrs. Hardy said she would relay the news to the other boys when they phoned in.

Chet and Joe set off on the Hardy boys’ motorcycles, taking the twelve-to-three segment on the map. Then Mr. Hardy and Frank drove off for the three-to-six area.

Hour after hour went by, with the searchers constantly on the alert. Every garage, public and private, every little-used road, every patch of woods was thoroughly investigated. There was no sign of Chet’s missing yellow jalopy. Finally at one o’clock Frank and his father returned to the Hardy home. A few moments later Joe and Chet returned and a huge picnic lunch was stowed aboard the two motorcycles.

When the three boys reached the picnic area they were required to park their motorcycles outside the fence. They unstrapped the lunch baskets and carried them down to the lake front The other boys were already there.

“Too bad we can’t go swimming,” Tony remarked, “but this water’s pretty cold.”

Quickly they unpacked the food and assembled around one of the park picnic tables.

“Um! Yum! Chicken sandwiches!” Chet cried gleefully.

During the meal the boys exchanged reports on their morning’s sleuthing. All had tried hard but failed to find any trace of the missing car.

“Our work hasn’t ended,” Frank reminded the others. “But I’m so stuffed I’m going to rest a while before I start out again.”

All the other boys but Joe Hardy felt the same way and lay down on the grass for a nap. Joe, eager to find out whether or not the woods to their right held the secret of the missing car, plunged off alone through the underbrush.

He searched for twenty minutes without finding a clue to any automobile. He was on the point of returning and waiting for the other boys when he saw a small clearing ahead of him. It appeared to be part of an abandoned roadway.

Excitedly Joe pushed on through the dense undergrowth. It was in a low-lying part of the grove and the ground was wet. At one point it was quite muddy, and it was here that Joe saw something that aroused his curiosity.

“A tire! Then maybe an automobile has been in here,” he muttered to himself, although there were no tire marks in the immediate vicinity. “No footprints, either. I guess someone tossed this tire here.”

Remembering his father’s admonitions on the value of developing one’s powers of observation, Joe went closer and examined the tire.

“That tread,” he thought excitedly, “looks familiar.”

He gazed at it until he was sure, then dashed back to the other boys.

“I’ve found a clue!” he cried out. “Come on, everybody!”