Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
“Watch those trees!” Joe Hardy shouted as the hydroplane buzzed over an island of mangroves, nearly grazing the top branches.
“Yee-haw!” Dusty Cole hollered, pulling up the nose of his small aircraft. “I didn't really scare you, did I, Joe?”
“No, Mr. Cole, not really,” Joe replied, pushing back his blond hair and wiping the sweat off his brow.
“Dusty is a daredevil even when he's not riding rodeo,” Chet Morton shouted over the roar of the engine. Chet and Frank Hardy were squeezed into the backseat of the plane.
Chet had been invited by his friend Dusty Cole to attend the Swampland Rodeo that was to take
place over the weekend, and he had asked Frank and Joe to come with him. Right now they were headed for Dusty's remote fishing camp, where they would stay during the rodeo.
A flock of white birds took flight as the hydroplane approached one of the thousands of islands that dotted the Everglades in southern Florida.
“Egrets!” Frank shouted. He glanced at the travel book he had brought with him from the Bayport Library.
“Anyone else hungry?” Chet asked, stuffing a handful of potato chips into his mouth. “It may be the last real food we'll eat for a while.”
“You'd better slow down, Chet,” Joe said with a smile, “or you won't be able to pull yourself up into the saddle for the steer-roping competition.”
“It's okay. These are those new low-fat chips,” Chet explained between crunches. “So I figure I can eat twice as many.”
“We'll stock up on grub at the Swampland Trading Post,” Dusty assured them as the plane began the descent, heading toward a large pond in the middle of the sprawling swampland.
“This is like landing on huge water skis,” Frank said as he looked at the water below.
“That's right,” Dusty said. “Hydroplanes have runners instead of wheels. The runners, or pontoons, can float very much like water skis.”
Dusty skipped the pontoons along the surface
of the water and then glided toward the Swampland Trading Post, which was just a wooden shack perched at the water's edge. It was a combination general store, boat- and horse-renting outfit, and the only commercial establishment in Gator Swamp.
The second that Chet was on solid ground, he pulled a rope from his duffel bag and lassoed a dock post. “I've been practicing on parking meters back in Bayport. I'm ready to rope some steer.”
“Ever since you met Chet and his dad at that rodeo they attended in Wyoming last summer,” Frank told Dusty, “Chet's gone cowboy crazy.”
“He's come to the right place,” Dusty replied.
As the group was stepping onto the front porch of the store, angry shouts erupted from the direction of the parking lot. Frank spotted a Native American man with long gray hair holding a hunting knife against the neck of a policewoman.
“Move and I'll cut your throat!” The man growled his threat.
“Hey, put it down! Are you nuts?” Joe cried out as he and the others rushed toward the scene.
Seeing them coming on the run, the man released the officer. “Dusty Cole!” he called out cheerfully. How are you?”
“Great, just great!” Dusty replied as the group approached.
“Wait a second,” Joe said. “You know this guy?”
“Who, Angus? For twenty-some years,” Dusty said, slapping the man's shoulder. “I've known Angus Tallwalker ever since he opened the Swampland Trading Post.”
“What were you just doing?” Frank asked Tallwalker, still confused.
“I was just showing Deputy Miles how one of the robbers held a knife to my throat,” Tallwalker replied, slipping his knife back into its sheath.
“You were robbed?” Joe asked.
“Yup,” Tallwalker said. “Two robbers broke into a bank vault in Miami a couple of days agoâthe day the big storm hit us. Got away with half a million dollars. The police had a roadblock waiting here at Frog's Peninsula.”
“What does that have to do with you?” Dusty broke in.
“Well, if you clam up long enough, I'll tell you,” Tallwalker said, ribbing his friend. “To avoid the roadblock, the robbers turned into the trading post, ditched their car, and stole one of my airboats at knife point.”
“An airboat can motor right through the saw grass in only a few inches of water,” Dusty explained. “A fan pushes the boat right along the surface.”
Deputy Miles, who had been waiting patiently, now tapped her pencil on her notepad. “Let's get on with the investigation. You were telling me that
you never got a look at the robbers, is that right?” she asked Tallwalker.
“No. They were wearing black hoods,” Tallwalker replied.
“Have they found the robbers' boat?” Frank wondered.
boat,” Tallwalker corrected.
“No,” Frank said. “I mean
boat. This place is called Frog's Peninsula, right?” Tallwalker nodded. “So, we're surrounded on three sides by water,” Frank continued. “If the crooks drove out onto the peninsula, then they would have reached a dead end unless they had a boat waiting for them.”
Deputy Miles raised her eyebrows. “Good point. I'll be sure I look into that,” she said, making a note on her pad. “Do you read a lot of mysteries?”
them,” Chet cut in. “Frank and Joe
mysteries! They've helped the police in our hometown of Bayport crack dozens of tough cases, and I've been a tremendous assetâ”
“But we're all on vacation right now,” Joe interrupted, trying to stop Chet before he could say any more. The Hardys preferred not to tell too many people what they did, in case they needed to go under cover.
The radio in the squad car crackled, and Deputy Miles leaned in to take the call. “That was the Coast Guard. They just found your stolen airboat,” she said.
“Where?” Tallwalker asked.
“Sunk at the bottom of Florida Bay, I'm afraid,” Deputy Miles replied. “The boat must have capsized in the storm. That far from shore, with the ten-foot-high waves and the strong undertow, there's no way the robbers could have survived.”
Deputy Miles got into her squad car. “I'd appreciate it if you'd keep this to yourselves,” she continued. “We don't want the whole world hunting in Florida Bay for half a million dollars in stolen loot.”
After the squad car was gone, Frank said, “Judging from the map in my book, Florida Bay is huge.”
“Yep. It's really almost part of the Gulf of Mexico,” Dusty said.
“Why would the robbers take a little airboat out on the open sea in a squall?” Frank asked. “They must have known it would capsize.”
“Maybe they were trying to reach an island,” Joe offered. “Or they could have been heading all the way to Cuba.”
“People do crazy things when they're desperate,” Dusty remarked. “But we've got our own fish to fry. Frank, you come with me and Angus to the stable yonder.” Dusty pointed to a long, narrow wooden shed across the dirt parking lot. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. “Joe, here's a shopping list. You go into the store and start stocking up. And Chetâ” Dusty turned to the spot where Chet had been standing, but Chet was gone.
Joe spotted Chet in the junkyard next to the parking lot, practicing his lassoing skills on the side mirror of an old rusted car.
The bell on the door jingled as Joe entered the general store. He began placing canned goods on the counter to take to the fishing camp. The bell jingled behind him, and Joe turned to see a tall muscular man with red hair and a scruffy red beard standing in the doorway.
“Do you sell snorkeling equipment?” the red-haired man asked in a deep voice.
“I'm not sure,” Joe replied. “Is there any place to snorkel in a swamp?”
Joe was trying to be funny, but the red-haired man did not smile. “I'm going to Key West,” he muttered.
“Key West?” Joe asked. “That's a hundred miles from here.”
The red-haired man sneered. “Do you have snorkeling equipment or not?”
“I don't work here,” Joe replied. “But I think I saw some stuff on those shelves,” he added, turning to the back of the store.
Joe heard the bell jingle behind him. When he turned around, the red-haired man was gone. What's his hurry? Joe thought to himself, then decided to follow the man outside to find out.
Joe caught sight of the man boarding an airboat at the end of the dock. Another man stood in the boat, but his back was to Joe. Joe couldn't make out
any features, but he could see that the man wore a white cowboy hat with a curled brim and a black-and-orange feather in the band.
Joe heard the red-haired man grumble angrily, “This is never going to work.” Joe walked down to the dock to get a better look at the other man's face, when something suddenly wrapped around his ankle. Joe found himself falling head over heels into the swamp.
Joe splashed into the salty, murky swamp water.
“I'm sorry, Joe!” Chet offered Joe a hand up onto the dock and removed the rope noose from Joe's ankle. “I wanted to practice on a moving target, and you were the closest thing to a steer I could find.”
“Thanks for the honor, Chet,” Joe shot at his friend. “Next time, spare me. I'm soaked!”
Frank came rushing from the direction of the stable. “Are you all right, Joe?”
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “Some guy with a red beard came into the store wanting to buy snorkeling equipment. He said he was headed to Key West. I told him I didn't work here, and bam, he was gone.
He got into an airboat with a man in a white hat with an orange-and-black feather.”
Joe peered across the water, trying to block the glaring morning sun with his hand. “There they are!”
The airboat was heading up a narrow creek and disappeared behind some trees.
“Wow, they must have been in a hurry,” Frank remarked.
“Surprise!” Dusty called out. The boys turned to see Dusty and Angus Tallwalker leading two horses and a mule from the stable.
“As long as you've come all this way,” Dusty said, “I figured you should be real cowboys. Angus is loaning them to you for the weekend.”
Tallwalker nodded toward the gray horse. “His name is Stonewall, and this is Paint Can.” The second horse was a white pinto covered with small brown spots.
The mule brayed loudly. “Sorry about Old Caloosa,” Tallwalker said, patting the ancient mule on the neck. “But with all the people here for the rodeo, he's the last animal left in my stable.”
“That's okay, Mr. Tallwalker,” Joe assured him. “Horseback or muleback, we're happy to have the chance to ride.”
“You can ride them from here to the rodeo this afternoon,” Dusty said. “Right now, I need to get
you and our groceries out to the fishing camp. We've got a lot of hungry guests waiting.”
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Ten minutes later the hydroplane was touching down near a small island located at the point where Gator Swamp emptied into Florida Bay. “It's called Cole's Key, named after my great-grandfather, who settled here a hundred years ago,” Dusty said proudly.
A dozen cabins on stilts were scattered along the eastern shore of the sandy crescent-shaped key. The northern end of the small, low island was covered with dense saw grass.
“Welcome to Cole's Fishing Camp,” Dusty said as he tied the plane to its mooring on the floating dock. “Everybody told me I was crazy to build a fishing camp here, but the true enthusiasts seem to have found me.”
“I understand why you built it here,” Joe said, looking around. “This is one of the most peaceful places I've ever seen.”
The peacefulness was suddenly broken by the sound of a shotgun blast.
“What was that?” Chet asked.
“It must be Homer Janes, my caretaker,” Dusty said, sounding worried. “He owns a shotgun, but I don't know what he would be shooting at.”
“We'd better find out,” Frank said, as they all headed toward the sound of the blast.