When the boys went into his office they found the chief painfully writing in a huge notebook and confronted by three excited figures. One of these was Ike Harrity, the old ticket seller at the city steamboat office. The others were Detective Smuff of the police force and Policeman Con Riley, both trying their best to look important and composed.
Ike Harrity was frankly frightened. It was plain that something very much out of the ordinary had happened. Harrity was a timid and offensive old chap who had perched on a high stool behind the wicket at the steamboat Office day in and day out for as many years as any one in Bayport could remember.
"I was just countin' up the mornin's receipts," he was saying, in a frightened and high-pitched voice, "when in comes this fellow and he sticks a revolver in front of my nose - "
"Just a minute," interrupted the chief grandly, as the boys entered. He dipped his pen in the inkwell and poised it in the air, as he peered at the lads over his spectacles.
"What are you boys doing here? Can't you see we're busy?"
"I came to report a theft," said Chet Morton. "My roadster has been stolen."
"Why, it was a roadster this fellow drove up to my office in!" cried Ike Harrity. "A yellow roadster."
"Ha!" said Detective Smuff. "A clue!" He immediately fished a notebook out of his pocket and began rummaging around for a pencil.
"Never mind, Detective Smuff," observed the chief heavily. "I'll take any notes that are needed."
Detective Smuff, duly squelched, put back his notebook in confusion.
"What fellow?" Frank asked. "Who drove up to your office in a yellow roadster?"
"The hold-up man," declared Harrity. "This morning, A fellow tried to steal the steamboat money on - "
"Now just a minute. Just a minute!" demanded the chief. "Let me say a word here, The situation is this. A man drove up to the steamboat office a little while ago and tried to hold up Mr. Harrity. But a passenger happened to come into the office just then and the fellow got frightened and ran away. Is that right?"
"That's right," said Harrity.
"I'll make a note of it," said the chief, suiting the action to the word. When he had scribbled industriously for some time he raised the pen again and pointed it at Chet.
"Now you," he observed, "say that somebody stole a yellow roadster from you this morning."
"Yes, sir! From our farm. He was seem driving into Bayport just a little while ago."
The chief made a note of it.
"And you," he said, pointing the pen at Ike Harrity, "say the hold-up man drove up to the office in a yellow roadster?"
"That's right, chief. That's right. A yellow roadster, it was. And now that I come to think of it, I've seen Chet Morton's car before and it was the spittin' image of it."
"Then," declared the chief, putting down his pen with the air of one making a momentous Discovery, "it looks to me very much as if the hold-up man and the fellow that stole the car is one and the same man."
Detective Smuff wagged his head solemnly in admiration of this feat of deduction. "I believe you're right, chief," he declared.
"Of course he's right," said Frank. "It couldn't be any one else. The point is this- where did the hold-up man go ? Did he leave in the car? Did any one follow him?"
"He left in the car all right," said Harrity. "But nobody followed him. I telephoned for the police."
"Did you notice the color of this man's hair?" asked Frank suddenly.
"What's that got to do with it?" asked Detective Smuff.
"Never mind. It may have a great deal to do with it. Did you notice the color of his hair?" repeated Frank, turning to Harrity.
"It was short," said Harrity firmly. "Short and dark."
Frank and Joe looked blankly at one another.
"Are you sure?" asked Joe.
"I'm positive," declared Harrity. "I was face to face with him. He was a dark-haired man, and his hair was cut awful short. I noticed that."
"You're sure he wasn't red-headed?" "I'm sure of it."
"What's all this about?" asked Chief Collig suspiciously. "What has the color of his hair to do with it?"
"Well," admitted Frank, "we were pretty sure that the man who stole Chet's car had long red hair."
"Hum!" muttered the chief doubtfully "Then if that was the case, the man who stole the car and the man who tried to hold up the office isn't one and the same fellow after alL"
"I don't know what to make of it," confessed Frank.
Just then a short, nervous little man was ushered into the office. He introduced himself as the passenger who had gone into the steamboat office at the time of the attempted hold-up, and he presented himself in answer to a call from the chief.
In reply to questions, the newcomer, who gave the prosaic name of Henry J. Brown and said he was from New York, told of entering the office and seeing a man run away from the wicket with a revolver in his hand.
"What color was his hair ? Did you notice?" asked Frank eagerly.
"I can't say I did," answered the little man, "It all happened so quickly I didn't realize that it was a hold-up until the man was out the door. Then I saw him jump into the roadster and drive away. But - wait a minute, I did notice the color of his hair. Just as the car was disappearing down the street. You couldn't help notice. He was red-headed. He had long red hair."
Detective Smuff looked blankly at the chief and the chief looked blankly at everybody else, particularly at Henry J. Brown of New York
"I knew it!" declared Joe exultantly. "It was the same man!"
"It can't be the same man!" said the chief wearily. "You boys don't know what you're talking about. Mr. Harrity says he had short dark hair. Now how could he have short, dark hair and long, red hair at the same time! I ask you that! How could he?"
Chief Collig propounded this query with the expression of one who has triumphantly settled all difficulties.
"He had short, dark hair!" said Harrity doggedly.
"And I'm sure he had long, red hair!" shouted Henry J. Brown, very indignantly. "Do you think I'm blind? Do you think I'll tell a lie about it?"
"He had dark hair."
"It was red."
"It was dark."
"Stop it!" commanded Chief Collig.
"I don't think either of you know what kind of hair he had. Probably he was bald-headed But I'll send word out to keep a watch for the yellow roadster. I'll notify the police in other towns too. I guess that's all that can be done now."
And with that, the Hardy boys and Chet Morton had to be content.
When they left the office it was with little hope that the thief or the car would be found. Their misgivings were justified. "When they returned to see Chief Collig that night they learned that no word had been received concerning the yellow roadster from any of the outlying towns or villages and that despite a diligent search conducted by Detective Smuff and other members of the Bayport force, the Roadster had not been located in the city.
Chet's Auto Horn
Fenton Hardy, the internationally famous detective, was reading in the library of his home that evening when his sons tapped on the door.
Although he was a busy man, Mr. Hardy was not the type of father who maintains an air of aloofness from his family, the result being that he was on as good terms with his boys as though he were an elder brother.
"Come in," he shouted cheerfully, putting aside his book, and when Frank and Joe entered the room he motioned to a deep leather sofa near the window. "Sit down. What have you been doing all day? Burning up all the roads in the country, I suppose ?" He grinned amiably at them and puffed vigorously at his pipe.
"Well, we didnt travel very far today dad," Frank replied. "We were - well, we - we were - "
"Investigating," prompted Joe.
"Aha!" exclaimed Mr. Hardy, in mock surprise. "So my sons were investigating, eh? What was it? A murder? A plot to blow up the White House? A train wreck? Something 'big, I hope."
When he heard about the day's events, Mr. Hardy shook his head.
"I'm disappointed in you," he said solemnly. "I really am. To think that sons of mine should investigate a car theft. I thought you wouldn't bother about anything less than a murder!" His eyes twinkled, and the Hardy boys, who were accustomed to their father's good-natured banter, smiled back at him.
"We weren't just practicing detective work, dad," explained Frank. "You see, Chet Morton's roadster was stolen this morning."
"Is that so!" exclaimed Mr. Hardy, genuinely concerned. "Why, that's too bad. Chet was mighty proud of that car, wasn't he?"
"Yes, he was. And it hasn't been found yet."
"No trace of the thief?"
"'He tried to hold up the steamboat ticket office after he stole the car."
Mr. Hardy whistled.
"Why you have been on a case worth while. Tell me all about it."
He settled back in his chair while his son filled im the story of the day's doings. When they told of the difference of opinion as to the color of the man's hair he did not laugh with them, as they had expected, over the argument between Harrity and Mr. Brown. On the contrary, he knitted his brows and his face wore a serious expression.
"It wasn't any ordinary auto thief you were dealing with," he said slowly. "I've no doubt the man who tried to rob the ticket office and the man who almost ran you down on the shore road were one and the same. And the same man stole Chet Morton's car."
"But how about the color of his hair? There must have been two men," said Joe.
"Think so? I have my own theories. But then-the average witness is very unreliable. For instance, I'll give you a test You have each seen. Superintendent Norton of Bayport high school-well, how often?"
"About two or three thousand times, I guess," answered Frank.
"Over a period of three years. Well, what color is his hair?"
Frank looked blankly at Joe.
"Why, it's-it's - "
Joe scratched his head.
"Brown, isn't it?"
"I think it's black."
"You see!" said Mr. Hardy smilingly.
In this case, powers of observation have not been trained. A good detective has to school himself to remember all sorts of little facts like that, until it gets to be a habit with him. Both of you have been looking at Mr. Norton for about three years and you don't know the color of his hair. And if I asked you whether he was in the habit of wearing laced shoes or buttoned shoes you would be stumped altogether. As a matter of fact, Mr. Norton is bald and he wears a chestnut wig. You never noticed that? He always wears buttoned shoes, he belongs to the Elks, and his favorite author is Dickens." The boys looked at their father in amazement. "But, dad, you've never met him." "I've never been introduced to him, but I've passed him on the street a number of times. When your powers of observation have been trained as mine have been it's no trick at all to take away a mental photograph of a man after seeing him once. If you are specially observant it isn't hard to notice such details as that regarding the wig, A wig never has the same appearance as natural hair.»
"But how do you know he belongs to the Elks!" asked Joe.
"He wears the lodge emblem as a watch sharm."
"And how do you know his favorite author is Dickens?"
Three separate occasions that I met Mr. Norton I noticed that he was carrying a book, Once it was 'Oliver Twist.' Another time it was A Tale of Two Cities. The third time It was 'David Copperfield.' So I judged that his favorite author must be Dickens. Am I right?"
"He always talks Dickens to us at school," said Frank.
"It's simple enough, once you get the habit," remarked Mr. Hardy. "You must train yourselves to be observant, so that in time you will automatically remember little details about people you meet and places you've visited. Now, if Harrity and Mr. Brown had been observant, in spite of the fact that they were surprised and frightened, they would have been able to give the police a very thorough description of the man who tried to hold up the steamboat office. And if the man happened to be a professional thief the description would have helped the officers ascertain who he was, because once a man has served a prison term, his description is kept on file. As it is, all we know about him is that he is probably red-headed. That isn't very much to go on."
"I'm afraid Chet hasn't much chance of re-severing his roadster," said Joe.
"You never can tell," remarked his father
"It may turn up some time. Perhaps the thief will get himself into trouble yet. Keep your ears and eyes open. And now, if you don't mind, I have some reports to write - "
Frank and Joe took the hint and left their father to his work. But although they talked long into the night on possible ways and means of recovering Chet's car, they were able to devise no plan for tracing the thief.
And through the week that followed there were no further clues. Chet had given up all hope of seeing the roadster again.
"I sure miss the old bus," he told the Hardy boys after school on Friday afternoon. "I have to take my chances on catching rides in and out of town now. "Why, last night I walked half way home before a car came along and gave me a lift."
"Saturday will be a pretty dull day for you now."
"You just bet your sweet life it will be dull. Nothing to do but sit around the farm."
"Better come with us tomorrow," suggested Joe. "A bunch of us are going fishing up near the dam. You can meet us at the crossroads near Willow river."
"Good idea!" said Chet. "What time?"
"Fine! I'll be there. Gosh, I see where I get a ride home. There goes a hay wagon.
It's heading right for the next farm.
A long wagon rumbled slowly toward the boys. A lean and solemn farmer perched on the front seat, half asleep. The horses dawdled along.
"That's Lem Billers - the laziest man around the county," said Chet. "Watch me have some fun with him."
Chet took from his pocket an automobile horn. He had originally bought it for the roadster but had not had time to install it before the car was stolen. The horn was of a new type, very small, yet it had a particularly loud shriek.
The Hardy boys grinned as they saw Chet step out into the road and swing himself lightly on the back of the wagon. Mr. Billers was bringing some supplies back to the farm and Chet was hidden from view by a bag of flour.
As the wagon rumbled past, Chet sounded the automobile horn.
It shrieked sharply and insistently.
Mr. Billers, being a lazy man, did not even look behind. He simply tugged lightly at the reins and the horses edged over to the side of the road.
Having heard the horn, Mr. Billers expected an automobile would pass. But when no car flashed by he turned indolently in his seat and looked behind. The roadway was clear. There was not an automobile in sight. He did not see Chet doubling up with laughter, on the back of the wagon. He gazed doubtfully at the Hardy boys, who were standing at the curb, trying to conceal their smiles.
"Could 'a' swore I heard a horn," grunted Mr. Billers. Then he tugged at the lines and brought the horses into the middle of the road again.
Instantly the horn shrieked again. This time it was even louder and more insistent than before. It seemed that an automobile was right behind the wagon, clamoring to pass.
Almost automatically, Mr. Billers yanked at the reins and the horses again went to the side of the road.
But again no car went by.
Again Mr. Billers looked behind. Again, to his astonishment, he saw that the roadway was clear.
"Hanged if I didn't think I heard a horn!" exclaimed Mr. Billers, greatly puzzled, as he drove on again. "My ears must be goin' back on me."
But in a few minutes the horn shrieked again. Frank and Joe, who were walking along the sidewalk, keeping abreast of the wagon so as not to miss the fun, chuckled as they saw Mr. Billers once more pull on the reins to guide the horses to the roadside.
The farmer recollected how he had been fooled on the previous occasions and he looked quickly around. But there was no car in sight.
Mr. Billers gazed down the roadway for a long time. Then he sighed, with the air of one whose patience has been long tried.
"Must be somethin' the matter with my ears," he muttered, and drove on.
At this moment a luxurious sedan swept around a corner and drew up close behind the wagon. There was a chauffeur at the wheel and he sounded his horn impatiently, for the road was narrow and he was unable to get past.
Lem Billers smiled darkly to himself and paid no attention.
"There it goes again," he grumbled. "I must be hearin' things. Hang me if I'll turn out any more when there ain't no car there to turn out for."
The wagon continued in the center of the road. The chauffeur of the car glared at Lem Billers' back and sounded the horn again. Still the farmer paid no attention.
Chet, limp with laughter, almost rolled off the wagon. Frank and Joe could control their mirth no longer, and leaned against a telephone post with shouts of glee.
The chauffeur, believing that the boys were laughing at him because he could not get past became purple with anger. He sounded the horn again and again, and finally, when Lem Billers obstinately refused to pay any attention, he looked wildly about for a policeman.
As luck would have it, Constable Con Riley was ambling along Main Street at that moment, wondering if it would soon be supper time and hoping his wife would serve corned beef and cabbage that evening. He was aroused from his trance by the chauffeur, who brought the sedan to a stop and ran over to him.
"Officer-arrest that man!" roared the chauffeur, pointing to Lem Billers.
"What for?" demanded Con, taking off his helmet and scratching his head.
"Obstructing the traffic. He won't let me pass. I've been sounding my horn for the last five minutes, and he won't let me go past."
"Oh, no!" said Constable Riley. «' He can't get away with that. Not while Con Riley's on the beat." And with that he ran out into the road, shouting to Lem Billers to stop.
At the constable's command, the farmer halted his wagon and gazed in amazement at the chauffeur and the officer as they came running up to him.
"Why won't you let him pass!" demanded the constable.
"Don't say you didn't hear me?" roared the shauffeur. "I sounded my horn fifty times."
"Sure, I heard a horn," admitted Billers, "But," he added triumphantly, "I didn't see no car."
"Are you blind?" asked Riley. "There's the car."
Lem Billers looked behind. At sight of the sedan, his jaw dropped.
"Well, I'll be hanged!" he declared sadly. It must be my eyes is goin' back on me. Not my ears. I looked behind three times and I couldn't see no car."
"Don't believe him, officer," said the chauffeur. "He didn't even turn around."
"I did!" contended Mr. Billers.
"Then why didn't you let me pass?"
"You didn't have no car. I heard a horn, but I didn't see no car."
Thereupon the argument grew fast and furious. Constable Riley was vastly puzzled. He didn't know what to make of it. Both the chauffeur and Lem Billers appeared to be telling the truth, yet there was something wrong somewhere. He took it all down in a notebook, while Mr. Billers and the chauffeur grew angrier and angrier at each other until finally they were on the point of settling the matter with their fists.
In the meantime there was a steadily growing line of cars and wagons blocking the Street, unable to get past because of the wagon and the sedan. A constant chorus of automobile horns sounded. Angry drivers roared at the officer to clear the road.
Constable Riley threw up his hands in disgust.
"Get on your way, both of you," he commanded. "I can't stand here arguing all afternoon."
And while Lem Billers, wondering whether his eyes or his ears had deceived him, drew his horses to the side of the road and muttered strong threats of vengeance against the chauffeur. the traffic tangle gradually abated. When he finally resumed his journey, the Hardy boys could see Chet Morton lying limply in the back of the wagon with tears of laughter running down his face. As for Frank and Joe, they laughed all the way home and during supper that evening their spasmodic outbursts of chuckles puzzled their parents extremely.
Next day was Saturday, and immediately after breakfast the Hardy boys asked their mother to make up a lunch for them, as they intended to spend the day in the woods with a number of their school chums.
Mrs. Hardy quickly made them a generous package of sandwiches, not forgetting to slip in several big slices of the boys' favorite cake, and the lads started out in the bright morning sunshine, with the whole holiday before them.
They met the other boys, half a dozen in all, on the road at the outskirts of the town. And so whistling and chattering and telling jokes, the group trudged along the dusty highway. Once in a while they would explore along the fences for berry bushes, and occasionally a friendly scuffle would start, to end with both laughing contestants covered with dust.
When they reached the crossroads Chet had not yet appeared, so they rested in the shadow of the trees until at length the chubby youth came panting along the road, his lunch bag in his arm.
"If I only had my roadster I wouldn't be late," he said, as he came up to them. "I've been so used to it that I've forgotten how long it takes to walk this far."
"Well, are we all set?" asked Frank.
"Everybody's here. Where are we going?"
"What do you say to Willow Grove ?"
"All those in favor say 'Aye'," demanded Chet, and there was a chorus of "Aye" from the crowd.
"It's unanimous," Chet decided. "Willow 'Grove it shall be. Let's go."
Willow Grove was about a mile farther on. It was some distance in from the road, and was on the banks of Willow River, from which it got its name. It was an ideal place for a picnic, and as it was somewhat early in the season at was hardly likely that other parties from the city would be in the grove that day.
Frank told the other boys about Chet's adventure with the auto horn and the story was greeted with shouts of laughter, which were redoubled when Chet told how he had later jumped down from the wagon and run along behind, shouting to Lem Billers to give him a side.
"It was a shame!" he confessed. "The poor old chap reined in his horses and made moved up and made me to sit on the seat beside him. He asked me if I had walked very far and then he told me all about his argument with the policeman and the chauffeur. I could hardly keep my face straight."
When the boys reached the lane that led toward Willow Grove from the main road they broke into a run and raced into the woods, shouting and yelling like wild Indians. Once in the friendly shade of the trees they capered about in the joy of their Saturday freedom. Chet took charge of the lunches and stored them in a convenient clearing, and then began the rush for the river.
The day passed in the usual fashion of such days. They swam, they ate, they loafed about under the trees, they played games at imminent risk of life and limb, they explored the woods, and otherwise enjoyed themselves with all the happy energy of healthy lads. Joe Hardy, who was an amateur naturalist in his way, went roaming off by himself during the afternoon while the other boys were enjoying their third swim of the day, and penetrated deeper into the woods.
He poked about in the undergrowth, examining various flowers and plants that came to his attention, but discovered no specimens that he had not seen before. He was just on the point of going back to the other lads when he saw before him a small clearing. It was a part of the grove in which he had never been, so he ploughed on through the bushes until he found himself in a clearing that appeared to be part of an abandoned roadway.
It was in a low-lying part of the grove and the ground was wet. At one point it was muddy, and in this mud Joe saw something that aroused his curiosity.
"Tire tracks, eh! There's been an automobile in here," he muttered to himself. "I wonder how on earth a car could get this far into the woods!"
Then he remembered his father's remarks on the value of developing his powers of observation, so he went over closer and examined the marks in the mud.
''That's a strange tread," he thought. ''I've never seen a tire mark quite like that before."
He gazed at it until he was sure that if he ever saw a similar auto tread again he would recognize it.
"That just goes to prove that dad was right," said Joe. "Probably I've seen auto tires like that often, but I've never noticed the markings, and now that I do notice one in particular it seems strange to me. But I wonder what an automobile was doing in here and how it came to get here in the first place!"
However, he gave the matter little further thought and retraced his steps through the woods until he returned to the other boys, who were getting dressed after their swim.
"I thought automobiles weren't allowed in Willow Grove," he said casually to Chet Morton.
"Neither they are. You have to park just inside the fence."
"Well, somebody brought a car right down Into the grove."
"They couldn't. There's no road."
"Well, there's a sort of clearing over there," said Joe, motioning in the direction from which he had just returned. "It looks as if it had been a road at one time."
"That's probably the old creek road. It hasn't been used for years."
"Well, it was used just this week. I saw the marks of an automobile tire over there not ten minutes ago. And it was a mighty peculiar tread, too. Like this-," and Joe commenced to draw a replica of the design in the sand, using a thin stick of wood as a pencil.
Chet Morton stared.
"Why," he exclaimed, "there's only one car In the city that has tires like that!"
"Mine!" exclaimed Chet, springing to his feet. "Where is this road you found?"
Joe Hardy quickly led the way and all the other boys came trooping along behind, the whole band thrown into a state of great excitement by this unexpected discovery. They all knew that Chet's car was of an unusual make and that the tires were distinctive. When they reached the clearing and Chet had examined the imprint in the mud he exclaimed:
"There's no mistake about it! My car has been here! No other car in the city has a tread like that!"
"Perhaps the car is still around here," suggested Frank quickly. "For all we can tell, the thief may have abandoned it and picked this road as a good place to hide it."
"It would be an ideal place," agreed Chet. "This road leads off the main highway, and it isn't often used. Let's take a look around, anyway."
The boys quickly scattered, some taking one side of the road, the rest taking the other.
For a while the search continued without success, but at last Frank and Chet, who were following the abandoned road farther down, gave a simultaneous cry.