A/N: Welcome! Thank you for reading and possibly reviewing and/or favoriting! It's much appreciated! So...I was working on some ideas for different one-shots I could write, and this one occurred to me and wouldn't leave me alone, so I wrote it. It's absolutely just for fun, and I know it's not my deepest or most insightful work and that the storyline is shamefully overused. That being said, it was fun to write (yeah, I'm twisted like that), and I hope it's also fun to read. It's a Western AU where Frank and Joe are eighteen and seventeen.
I Knew You'd Come Back
Arizona Territory, 1876
"Well, chalk another case up for the Hardy Boys." Joe Hardy dropped the reins of his horse and stretched his arm while the bay ambled onward of its own accord. The blond seventeen-year-old was riding alongside his older brother on the road from Buckskin to Castle Dome, Territory of Arizona. It had been a long ride, but they were almost there.
"Not quite yet." Frank, who was eighteen, dark-haired, and more cautious than his brother, reached around to feel if his saddlebag was for sure not there.
Joe laughed. "It's not going to disappear, Frank. It's tied on."
"I know," Frank said. "It's just that the case isn't really solved until we get this money back to the bank in Castle Dome. I wish the sheriff back in Buckskin would have been a little more cooperative."
"Oh, well, at least he didn't insist on us escorting the bank robbers back to Castle Dome, too. He had a point about it not being safe to take the prisoners and the money back at the same time and he didn't have enough deputies to send one group with the prisoners and one group with the money."
"Yeah, but is sending the money with us any safer?" Frank countered.
"Sure it is," Joe insisted. "Who would think of it that the sheriff would send the money back with two boys under the age of twenty?"
"Nobody, because it's a really dumb plan," Frank said. "I can't help thinking we're being set up for something."
Joe puffed his cheeks out and shifted in his saddle as he considered that. "What would a sheriff be setting us up for?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'm too suspicious," Frank admitted. "I'll just be glad when this money is safely out of our hands and in the hands of the Castle Dome bank."
A feeling of apprehension dropped over Joe following his brother's words. Yet, with the hot, desert sun overhead and only three miles to go, both boys were too tired to worry about too much of anything besides getting into Castle Dome and hopefully finding a way out of this heat.
Because of that, the buildings of the tiny mining town were one of the most welcome sights either Hardy brother had ever seen. They reined their horses to a stop in front of a wooden water trough and let them have a drink. Each boy pumped water from the pump and drank a little. Joe even splashed some over his head to try to cool down.
"Sure is a small town," Frank commented.
He and Joe had never actually been there before. When they had heard that the Castle Dome bank had been robbed, they headed there, but one thing led to another and they had ended up solving the case and catching the bank robbers in the nearby town of Buckskin.
"Not too friendly, either," Joe added.
About a dozen people had gathered in the street and were staring at the boys as if they were a sample of some species that they had never seen before. It was a little disconcerting, to say the least.
"They probably don't get too many strangers around here," Frank said. "And don't forget that the last strangers they had come through here robbed the bank, so I don't blame them for not being friendly."
"Yeah, but they don't have to stare at us like we were some kind of circus freaks." Joe pulled the collar of his jacket up and pushed the brim of his hat down as if to hide his identity.
"What are you doing?" Frank asked. "You go around looking like that and people are going to think you're a bank robber."
"I just don't like being stared at," Joe said.
Frank gave him a playful push. "Come on. Let's get down to the bank."
The street was so short that it wasn't worth getting back on their horses, so they led the two animals down to the front of the bank and tied them to the hitching post. The entire way, people continued to stare at them until Frank was almost tempted to try to hide in his hat and coat like Joe had.
They were about to go into the bank when a middle-aged man with a graying mustache and a star-shaped badge pinned to his chest approached them. "Greetin's." He tipped his hat to them.
"Hello," Frank replied. "Are you the sheriff here?"
"That I am," the man confirmed. "Sheriff Cullen. And what do the two of you call yourselves?"
Frank held out his hand for the sheriff to shake, but the man ignored. With a glance at Joe, Frank said, "I'm Frank Hardy. This is my brother, Joe. We, uh, came from Buckskin. I believe the sheriff there telegraphed you about us bringing the money from that bank robbery back after we caught the bank robbers."
"Well, now, yes. Yes, he did." Sheriff Cullen pushed his hat back farther. "I'm glad he did, too. I reckon you've got the money in your saddlebag there?"
"That's right." Frank unfastened the saddlebag. "We weren't sure whether we should take it straight to the bank or to your office first."
"Don't make much difference." Cullen pointed at the building directly next to the bank with the word "SHERIFF" spelled out in all capital letters. "Let's take it down to my office anyhow."
He unceremoniously relieved Frank of the saddlebag and started off toward his office. Joe started to follow, but he noticed Frank hesitate.
"What's the matter?" he whispered.
"Something's not right about this." Frank glanced between the bank and the sheriff's office. "Something's not right at all. I'll tell you after we talk to the sheriff."
The sheriff's office also housed the local jail. It was a small, one-room building, stuffy from the heat, and as soon as they walked in, Frank and Joe saw that the single cell was occupied by two men, one asleep on the bunk and the other leaning against the wall.
Sheriff Cullen dropped the saddlebags on his desk with a loud thump. He and the deputy began removing the money and counting it.
"It's all there," Frank assured him and handed him a piece of paper. "Here's a receipt from the sheriff in Buckskin showing that."
The sheriff didn't bother to look at the receipt. He and the deputy just kept counting. When they were finished, they tallied the amounts they had counted together.
"Nineteen thousand, three hundred, and eighteen dollars," Sheriff Cullen announced.
Frank and Joe both nodded.
"And forty-three cents," Joe added.
The sheriff nodded slowly as he looked at the two boys. Then he turned to his deputy. "Where's the report that the president of the bank filled out?"
"I've got it right over here." The deputy opened a drawer of a cabinet and took out a sheet of paper. "Says here that just about thirty thousand dollars even were stolen from that bank."
Frank and Joe glanced at each other.
"That's not what we heard," Frank said. "We were told it was about twenty thousand, and that's how much we've brought back."
"Well, it doesn't matter much to me what you heard," the sheriff said. "Thirty thousand dollars were stolen from that bank, and you're ten thousand short."
"That's all the money those bank robbers had on them," Joe argued. "It's not our fault they didn't have all the money with them. Maybe they spent it already."
Frank stepped on Joe's feet before he said any more without thinking it over. It had only been two days since the robbery had taken place; it wasn't very likely that the robbers had already spent ten thousand dollars in that short of time. "They could have hidden the money, or possibly there was a third robber who already took his share of the money."
"Well, now," Sheriff Cullen said, "those are some interesting theories, but I don't believe any of them."
"And why not?" Joe demanded.
"First off, if they tried to spend that money anywhere in the area, especially that large of an amount, any honest merchant would have been suspicious and reported it. Second, why would have they hidden ten thousand dollars and not the whole amount? Third, we know there were only two bank robbers."
"How do you know that?" Frank asked.
"Because they're standing right in front of me."
Sheriff Cullen and his deputy both pulled out their guns and pointed them straight at Frank and Joe. For a moment, all the Hardys could do was blink in disbelief and confusion.
"What?" Joe finally managed to splutter. "We're not the bank robbers. We caught the bank robbers and brought the money back."
"A clever story," Sheriff Cullen said. "One of the cleverest I've ever heard. You rob the bank, then you find two poor fools, haul them back to the sheriff in Buckskin, and bring back over half the money. When you're asked where the rest of the money is, you say you don't know anything about it. Very clever."
"That's not how it was at all," Joe argued.
"The sheriff up in Buckskin spotted you from the description right away," Cullen continued.
"The description?" Frank repeated. "But I thought the men were wearing masks and the teller hadn't been able to give much of a description of them."
"Well, now, he gave a partial one," the sheriff explained. "Two young men, no older than twenty-five. With the masks over your faces, he wouldn't have known you weren't even twenty. One dark-haired, the other blond. The dark-haired one slightly taller than the blond. You two fit that description perfectly."
"Us and several thousand other young men," Joe argued.
"Well, now, that may be true," the sheriff admitted, "but do you see several thousand other young men around here?"
"No," Frank said, "but there doesn't have to be. The two men we took into Buckskin also fit that description."
"You'll have your chance to argue it in front of a judge," the sheriff told him. "At least, you will when the circuit judge comes around here. That'll be two months from now."
"Two months?" Joe burst out. "You can't hold us for two months without any kind of proof. What about those two fellows we brought in?"
"They've been cleared," Cullen said. "They had alibis for the day the bank was robbed, and the sheriff in Buckskin confirmed them."
"They didn't have alibis when we caught them," Joe argued. "They confessed to us that they robbed the bank."
"They say they didn't," Cullen replied, "and I'd rather take the word of two men proved to be honest citizens than a couple of bank robbers."
Joe spluttered in a fury, but the whole thing was so absurd that he couldn't make a coherent statement. Even Frank was reduced to staring incredulously at the sheriff's accusations.
Finally, he announced in a steady voice, "We want to see a lawyer. I would also like to send a telegram to our father, Fenton Hardy. Right now, he's in Yuma, investigating a case. He's a detective."
"Well, now, it's your right to see a lawyer, sure enough," Cullen said, "but as for telegraphing your pa, I'm going to have to tell you no. Who's to say you're really telegraphing your pa and not some associates who'll come and try to bust you out?"
"Sheriff," the deputy spoke up, "we got a real problem here. The jail's already full-up. Where are we going to put these two?"
The sheriff rubbed his stubbly chin thoughtfully. "Well, now, that is a question. I reckon there's only one place we can put them. Up to the prison camp."
"You can't put us in a prison camp without a trial," Frank burst out.
"Where we put you is up to us," Cullen told him. "If you didn't want to be put in a prison camp, you oughtn't have robbed the bank."
"We didn't rob the bank," Joe insisted.
However, it did no good. Cullen refused to listen to reason, and before he even gave the Hardys the chance to contact a lawyer, he had three men specially deputized to help him escort the prisoners to the prison camp he had mentioned.
It was getting dark by the time they arrived. Frank and Joe were assigned numbers and then they were shown into a crude, wooden barracks where they were told to find bunks, most of which were already taken.
"Something tells me this place isn't exactly operating legally," Joe whispered to Frank.
"Quit talking," one of the guards ordered him gruffly. "Just find a bunk and don't cause any trouble."
There were no bunks close to each other, and so that put an end to any conversations for that night.
The next morning, Frank and Joe, along with the other prisoners, were led out to an open quarry, handed picks or shovels and told to begin digging. Fortunately, now they were able to be close enough to one another to talk.
"I think I'm beginning to see what's going on here," Frank said to Joe in a low voice. There were guards nearby, and he didn't want to be overheard.
"I can see it, too," Joe said. "That Sheriff Cullen and his deputies and probably the whole town of Castle Dome is out of their heads."
"No, I don't think so. I think this was a carefully laid-out trap, and you and me are the poor idiots who stepped right into it."
"What do you mean a trap?"
"I mean, I think this whole thing was planned from the beginning," Frank said. "I don't think they were trying to catch us in particular - just whoever was unlucky enough to get caught in it."
"Listen." Frank glanced over his shoulder to make sure they weren't being watched. Then he leaned on his pickaxe while he explained. "There were a lot of things Sheriff Cullen said that didn't add up. For instance, that the sheriff in Buckskin had us spotted as the bank robbers. If that was the case, he would have arrested us, not handed us the money and let us go our way."
"I noticed that, too," Joe agreed. "Cullen and probably that other sheriff wanted us arrested. That much is obvious. What I'm asking is why? Are they hiding something that they think we're going to find out about?"
"I don't think they know who we are at all, or care, for that matter. They would have done the same for anyone who brought those two bank robbers in. They probably set those two free as soon as we'd gone."
"That still doesn't explain why."
"Because they need people to do this." Frank waved his hand in a general direction toward the quarry.
"To dig in the rocks?" Joe gave him an incredulous look. "It seems like a lot of bother for that."
"Not if they think they can find silver this way. I remember hearing that there was a silver strike near here a couple of years ago. It petered out pretty fast, and all they were finding was lead. Since there's not near the market for lead as there is for silver, most people moved on from here. Cullen and the rest of them probably are still holding out hope that there's silver here, but they don't have the money to pay people to look for it."
"Ah, I'm beginning to see now," Joe said. "So they arrest people on trumped up charges and make them work their mine as slave labor pretty much. That bank robbery turned out pretty handy for them, then."
"I don't think the bank got robbed at all," Frank told him. "It's right next to the sheriff's office in a dying town. Nobody would take the chance to rob it, not when they're probably not going to get anything out of it. I doubt the twenty thousand we got back was even in the bank to begin with. It probably belongs to whoever's holding the reins of this operation."
"Maybe the 'bank robbers' are even stockholders in this so-called mine," Joe conjectured. "We sure made a mess of things this time, Frank."
"And there's one thing we can count on: we're not getting a lawyer or a trial."
"In that case, looks like it's time for another daring Hardy escape," Joe said.
Frank nodded. "But we're going to have to think this one out carefully."
Joe glanced at the guards who had begun to notice that he and Frank were doing more talking than working. Joe dug in with his shovel. "Right. It's not going to be easy to get away from here."
"It's not just that," Frank said. "We also have to think about what we're going to do after we get away. We're surrounded by desert for miles in every direction and we'll be on foot. We have to get water and plenty of it, and we have to wait until we can learn where the nearest town with an honest sheriff or marshal is so we can head towards it instead of out into the open desert."
"Get back to work!" one of the guards shouted at them, putting an end to their discussion for the moment.
The night, Frank and Joe came back to the barracks exhausted. Nevertheless, now that they had the idea of escape in their heads, they weren't about to let a little thing like sleep get in their way. They determined that the first thing they needed to do was see if any of the other prisoners had any ideas or could shed some light on the situation.
They had both been forced to take top bunks, since any bottom bunks that came available were also taken immediately. Joe tried to strike up a conversation with the man who had the bunk below his. He was a big, hulking fellow with a scraggly beard and a bald head.
"What are you in for?" Joe asked. If, as he and Frank suspected, practically all the prisoners here were imprisoned unjustly, then this seemed a good way to get a conversation about what was going on started.
The man turned his head just enough to scowl at Joe out of one eye. "Murder."
Joe swallowed, taken aback by this answer. "Murder? Really?"
"Yeah," the man said. "I killed a nosy kid who wouldn't let me get to sleep when that's the one pleasure left to a man in this place."
Joe breathed a little easier. "Oh." He chuckled nervously. "You had me there for a minute."
"If you don't stop jabbering, I won't be kidding," the man warned him.
He looked and sounded serious, but Joe wasn't the sort to let a little thing like a death threat discourage him. "I'd be more careful who I threatened if I were you. The reason I ask what you're in for is because if you're not in for anything, my brother and I might be able to help you get out."
"Forget it, kid." The man closed his eyes and nestled his head farther into the pitiful excuse of a pillow that the prisoners were allowed.
"Forget it? Do you want to spend the rest of your life here?"
The man scoffed. "It's better than what happens to those that try to escape. The new men always talk about escaping, but once you've seen the punishment for that even once, you give up the idea pretty quick."
"Well, I don't," Joe said. "My brother and I have gotten out of worse situations than this."
"I doubt it. You know what they do to men what try to escape? First they whip 'em until they're half-dead. Then they leave 'em tied to that stake in the middle of the yard with no water in the sun until they're just about the rest of the way dead. Then they give 'em just enough water to revive 'em a bit, and then they hang 'em and leave 'em there a couple weeks."
Joe's eyes were wide and he swallowed hard again. He didn't try to continue the conversation and went back to Frank. Frank had had about the same luck.
"It looks like it's just the two of us," Frank said.
Joe nodded. "It won't be the first time. What's the plan?"
"Bide our time and watch. We've got to figure out their rotation of the guards and any weak points they might have. Maybe we can bribe one of the guards somehow. Anyhow, we keeps our heads down. We don't want any undue attention drawn to us or to get pegged as troublemakers."
"All right. That might take some time, though."
"If it does, all the better."
Joe gave his brother a quizzical look. "What do you mean?"
"When we don't get back to Yuma on time, Dad will come looking for us. He'll find us and get us out of here, and everybody else, too."
"That may be," Joe agreed, "but I'd rather not wait."
Even so, they had to wait while they worked out an escape plan. It wasn't always easy, but both of them did their best to act meek and not be defiant toward their captors, but not any more than any of the other prisoners, as they wanted to go as unnoticed as they possibly could.
The work was hard and the sun was hot. It was miserable to wait and watch, especially as it became more and more obvious that the only men who could be so cruel as to be guards in such a place as this were also cruel in a myriad of other ways. What was worse was that living under these conditions was affecting even the Hardys' indomitable spirits.
They thought of more reasons why any escape plan wouldn't work than ways to actually complete them. The difficulty of getting a container to carry water in was bad enough, but then there was also the difficulty of what to do once they got back to civilization and honest people. They would technically be fugitives from justice, so of course clearing themselves would be one of the first things to do. Yet they had no way of doing that. There was no one who could state definitely that they hadn't been in Castle Dome the day of the robbery, and no doubt Cullen could come up with any number of witnesses necessary to say that they had been. Their accusations against the prison camp and the way it was run would be dismissed, especially if they had had to walk across the desert. Their story would probably be chalked up to either lies or delusions unless they could find just the right person to tell it to.
The only thing that kept them from giving up in despair was remembering that they always had their father, and he was a powerful ally. If they didn't escape, neither doubted for a minute that he would find them, and if they did escape, they would telegraph him first thing and make sure he knew what was going on.
And in spite of their dampened spirits, they were little by little formulating a plan. They had both noticed that canteens and full water kegs were kept at one end of the enclosure, relatively unguarded. It would be no difficult thing for each of them to grab a couple of canteens. They debated whether one or two each would be better, but since they had no idea where any good water was, they opted to take the extra weight of having two canteens each.
The prison was understaffed. It probably wasn't easy to find men depraved enough to work there. At night, there were only four guards on duty, and their patrol was fairly predictable. Joe was certain that they would have time to climb the fence without being noticed, and though Frank wasn't so sure, he was willing to give it a try.
The biggest issues they faced then was to find a way to hide their tracks and to know which direction they should take. When they were at work in the mine, they could see a hill to the northeast with a rocky top. They thought that if they could make it there, they could at least slow their pursuers down. As for the direction, from listening to conversations among the guards, they decided to strike out to the west by northwest once they reached the rocks.
If they timed it just right, they were confident they could put a lot of miles between them and that camp before anyone would even notice that they were gone. A night with a new moon was coming up, and so they decided to wait for that, since the extra darkness would help.
Their plan might have gone off without a hitch if it hadn't been for something that happened the day before they were to try it.
The two of them were separated by some distance while they worked. Frank was next to a small man who looked as if he could have been as much as sixty years old, and Frank was beginning to seethe that a man of that age was being treated this way. He was putting all his anger into using his pickaxe when he saw the man next to him waver for a moment and then fall in a dead faint. Frank dropped his pick and was at the man's side in an instant, rubbing his wrists as he tried to revive him.
A guard came a shoved Frank away. "Here, get away from him. Get back to work."
"He's ill," Frank argued. "He needs water."
"I know what he needs." The guard grabbed the man and roughly pulled him to his feet, roughly slapping his face. When the man had woken up a little, the guard shoved a pick into his hands and told him to get back to work.
"He's not going to last ten more minutes," Frank argued.
"You shut it." To punctuate his order, the man gave Frank a hard cuff.
Normally, Frank was level-headed and wasn't prone to unthinking outbursts of anger, but days of this treatment and this latest injustice had taken their toll on him. He sprang at the guard.
The man - if he deserved such an appellation - was expecting that. He dodged the charge, tripping Frank as he did so. Frank sprawled headlong. Then the guard, who was carrying a whip, flicked Frank on the shoulder with it.
"Now get back to work or you'll get worse than that," he said.
Frank reached around to touch his smarting shoulder. The whip had torn a hole in his shirt and split open the skin, but it was no worse than that. Frank's good sense had returned to him, and so he picked up his own pickaxe again and was about to go back to work.
The would have been the end of it except that Joe, who happened to be passing by, saw the whole thing. Unlike Frank, Joe wasn't normally level-headed. He was carrying a shovel and he swung it straight at the guard, connecting with the man's hip. The guard went down in a heap, but two more were on the scene in an instant.
They wrested the shovel away from Joe, and one of them raised his whip. Frank was ready to finish throwing away their only hope of escape by going to help his brother, but the guard whom Joe had hit saved him from having to. The man was red-faced, completely livid, and he grabbed the wrist of the guard who was about to strike Joe with the whip.
"Let me take care of that one myself," he said.
He handed off his own whip and then raised his fists. If it was a fight he wanted, Joe was willing to oblige. He ducked under the guard's first punch, and then quickly followed up his advantage with two punches of his own. The guard obviously didn't expect this boy to be such an accomplished fighter. He reeled back and picked up the shovel for himself.
Joe paused. He wasn't in so much of a blind fury to put himself within striking distance of a shovel. The man swung it at him viciously, and Joe took a step back to avoid it. That was when he realized that he was only a couple of steps away from a five-foot drop behind him. He would have to make his way to the wide if he was going to get out of reach of that shovel. He began inching himself away.
By this time, the other two guards were laughing at their enraged compatriot. However, as Joe came closer to them, one of them gave him a shove back toward the other guard. That guard made another swing with the shovel. Joe tried to sidestep and duck at the same time - and ended up stepping right over the small embankment.
"Joe!" Frank sprang forward to stand on the edge of the small hole.
Joe was sitting at the bottom, rubbing his right wrist and wincing with pain as he did so.
"Hurt yourself?" the guard taunted him. A wicked grin spread over his face as he climbed down. "Let me see." He grabbed Joe's arm, and Joe couldn't repress a sharp cry as he did so.
"I'll bet anything it's broken," one of the other guards said.
"I think you're right," said the one who had jumped down to inspect Joe's injury. "Well, that's tough for you, boy. You're going to have to keep working all the same."
Joe didn't answer. There was nothing like falling into a hole, breaking a wrist, and realizing that all chances of escape were now ruined to put things into perspective. He cast Frank an apologetic glance.
"Hey, you, get back to work." One of the other guards gave Frank a rough shove.
For a moment, Frank ignored it. He realized what a serious turn things had taken, too, and any threat the guards posed paled in comparison. Then he reluctantly picked up his pickaxe again and went back to work.
"You, too, boy." The guard hauled Joe to his feet by his injured arm. Apparently the idea of forcing Joe to work with a broken wrist satisfied the man's thirst for revenge, for he made no further moves to punish him, although for the rest of the day, he did stay close by, ready to give Joe a flick of his whip whenever Joe slowed down at all. And with the way his wrist hurt, that was often.
The one saving grace was that it was almost the end of the day. Frank and Joe had never been so eager to get back to the barracks, and as soon as the other prisoners were asleep (it never took long), they held a hasty conference.
"How's your wrist?" was Frank's first question.
"Not good," Joe replied. "I don't think it's really broken like those guards were saying, but it's at least pretty badly sprained."
Frank grimaced. "I guess that's the end of our escape plan. You can't very well climb over the fence with a possibly broken wrist."
"I don't know…" Joe started to say.
"We're not taking unnecessary chances," Frank cut him. "We should be grateful that we're even alive after what we did today, even if it does mean staying in this place a little longer. That was pretty stupid of both of us."
"But, Frank," Joe argued, "maybe we were stupid, but you can still get away, and I think you'd better try. If I can't climb that wall, I definitely can't keep working all day long with this wrist. We've got to get out as soon as possible, and it looks like our best chance for that is for you to try it yourself."
"No. We stick together, whatever happens. We both know by experience that we're better off when we've got each other to watch out for us."
Joe decided to take another tack. "Then there's that old fellow you were trying to help to begin with. Do you think he can wait until either Dad finds us or my wrist is better, which is not going to happen if I have to keep using it? Even if none of these men want to do anything to help themselves, it doesn't mean they deserve to stay here and possibly die when we could save them."
There was nothing Frank could say to argue with that. He hated the idea of leaving Joe here, but there wasn't any other choice. It was out of the question for Joe to try climbing the wall; Frank wasn't even completely positive he could do it himself.
"All right. We'll try it."
They waited until the guard had gone past, and then Frank slipped out, with Joe wishing him good luck in a whisper as he went. Frank made his way first of all to where the water was cached and picked out two full canteens. He slung those over his shoulder and then made his way to the wall.
It was made of wood, and the only handholds on it were the long boards that were nailed lengthwise across it. The wall was about fifteen feet high and there were four evenly-spaced lengthwise boards. Since one was at almost the very top, Frank estimated that there was about four feet between each. This wasn't going to be easy, and it would have been outright impossible if Frank had been any shorter.
He climbed onto the first board and slowly raised himself up until he was standing on it. His calculations must have been just slightly off because by stretching his arms and standing on his toes, he was just barely able to reach the third board. From there, he practically had to haul himself up by main force until he could get his feet onto the second board. Then he had to repeat that operation. From there, though, he could reach the top easily. He pulled himself up and over and then lowered himself down as far as he could on the other side. It was still a good eight or nine-foot drop, and hung there for a few seconds before he gritted his teeth and let go.
The sand on the other side was hard-packed and the landing sent a painful shock through Frank's ankles. For a moment, he was afraid he had injured them, but the sensation soon wore off. Now all that was left was to head for the rocks. He set out at a trot. He was tempted to run, but he knew that all that would do was wear him out sooner, and he would need all the energy he had to get to safety.
Joe barely got any sleep that night between his throbbing arm and worrying about Frank. When the guards came around and banged on the door to wake up the prisoners, it was almost a relief. The prisoners were forced out of the barracks and lined up for an inspection.
When the guard counted the prisoners from Joe's barracks, the young detective could see the look of horror that came over his face and he almost chuckled. It wasn't just because of his satisfaction at causing one of these maniacs some distress; it also proved to him that they hadn't realized that Frank had escaped until just now.
There was a bustle of excitement as the guard sounded the alarm. All the prisoners were hustled back inside, but one guard caught Joe by the arm - fortunately his left arm.
"This one was with the one that escaped."
The warden had even been called out, and he came stalking toward Joe. He was a tall, intimidating man called Byron. Joe was nearly six feet tall himself, but Byron towered over him by a good six inches.
"The prisoner who escaped. Is he a friend of yours?" he demanded.
Despite the warden's height, Joe wasn't about to back down to him. "He's a good deal more than a friend. He's my brother."
"And he left you behind?" The warden raised an eyebrow.
Joe held up his swollen wrist. "I couldn't climb over the wall."
"Where did he go?" Byron asked.
Joe kept quiet this time. He had been questioned often enough to know when and what to say or not to say, but even if he had never been interrogated before, he would have had the sense not to answer that question.
Byron turned to his guards. "Get search parties out after that boy. I'll see if I can't get his brother here to tell me where he went."
He forced Joe into his office, and Joe thought that maybe his expertise about interrogations had failed him. It would have been better to try to deny even knowing Frank. Now Byron was going to keep questioning him, and he was undoubtedly come up with something a little more persuasive than just words.
Meanwhile, Frank was making his way across the desert. The night had been cold, but the chill had quickly worn off with the sunrise. He was going to have to be very careful with his water, and even though it was still early in the morning, it was looking like that was going to be no easy task. If he could only find a road or a house or a trail of hoofprints or anything, he would feel a little better. At least he could get some idea of where he needed to go.
He paused a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow. That's when he heard it. At first he thought the thumping was his own heart, but then he realized it couldn't be. It was a horse galloping on the sun-baked sand. Frank turned around to look. It was running as if to save its life, and there was no reason why anyone would be riding a horse that hard in this heat, except one: it was one of the guards who was about to catch him.
Frank looked wildly around. There was no cover anywhere. Setting his jaw, Frank took off at a run. He couldn't outrun a horse, but if he was going to get caught, it wasn't going to be out of lack of trying.
Joe was doubled over the arm of a rickety wooden chair. He could feel blood dripping from his nose and from his split lips. The interrogation had been going on for hours now, but Joe hadn't said a word. Byron was almost as tired as Joe was, and he was taking a momentary break.
Someone banged at the door. Joe didn't even look up. At this point, he really didn't care. As long as Frank had gotten away, that was the only thing that mattered.
Byron went outside to talk to whoever it was. When he came back in, he had a smirk on his face and a wad of cloth in his hand. He threw the wad of cloth at Joe.
"Take a look at that," he order.
Curious what this meant, Joe unfolded the cloth. His heart sank as he saw that it was a prison uniform shirt identical to the one he was wearing. There was a large, unmistakeable bullet hole in the back surrounded by a red bloodstain.
"It looks like it doesn't matter that you were so stubborn about where your brother was going," Byron taunted him.
Joe looked up at him slowly. "You'll pay for this."
Byron chuckled. "And just how are you going to make me pay? Your brother isn't coming back with the cavalry like you were hoping. My one regret is that we're not going to get to punish him properly. You are his brother, though. Maybe you wouldn't mind taking his place."
Joe put the shirt up to his face, hiding his expression as he fought with his emotions. "What good would that do, now that Frank's...dead." He said the last word in a hollow whisper.
"It'll discourage the others from making the same mistake," Byron said. He turned to one of the guards. "Tie him to the stake out in the yard. Then show that shirt to the other prisoners and get them back to work."
The shirt was ripped out of Joe's hands, and two of the guards began roughly pushing him toward the door.
Byron stopped them. "Just out of curiosity, where was your brother trying to go? It would have been a long walk in the sun."
Joe didn't meet his eye; he didn't trust himself for that. "I guess Landin doesn't have a telegraph office anyway, but it is the nearest town besides Buckskin."
Byron smiled as he watched Joe being tied to the tall pole in the center of the prison camp enclosure. This was going quite well.
It was only a few minutes before the horse caught up to Frank. Frank wasn't sure why the guard didn't just shoot at him, but maybe he wanted to bring him back alive. The horse came abreast of him and then cut in front of him so sharply that Frank had to skid to a stop and fell. The rider took a gun out of his holster and pointed it at Frank just as Frank looked up at him.
The two of them stared at each other for several long seconds. Then the rider put the gun back in his holster. "Well, you're not the fellow I was after."
Frank got to his feet. "And you're not the fellow I was afraid was after me."
The man was definitely not one of the prison guards. He had an open, honest face and moreover was wearing a green jacket instead of one of the guards' uniforms.
"You look like you could use some help, though," the man said.
"You can say that again," Frank replied. "I've got quite a story to tell you. My name's Frank Hardy, by the way."
"Joe Carter." The stranger held out his hand and Frank shook it.
"My brother's name is Joe," Frank said. "Believe it or not, he's in even more trouble than I am right now. I don't suppose your horse could carry us double to the next town? There's some men who will be coming after me, and we need to get away as quickly as we can."
"I'll bet there's men coming after you," Carter observed. "That's a prison uniform you're wearing, isn't it?"
Frank nodded. "Yes, but I guarantee you that the nearest sheriff's office is exactly where I want to go. If you take me, I'll tell you everything on the way."
Carter hesitated. "There's a man I'm looking for out here. He tried to kill my brother. I want him."
"My brother might die if you don't help," Frank pleaded. "If you do, maybe I can help you find your man."
"All right," Carter gave in. "I can't leave you out here anyway. But riding double is out of the question. We'll have to take turns."
Frank agreed to that, and the two headed toward the town of San Sebastian. On the way, Frank told Carter his story, much to the other man's horror. By some good fortune, they made it to the small town without seeing any sign of pursuers from the prison. They headed straight for the sheriff's office after Frank had secured Carter's promise that he would send a telegram to Fenton if the sheriff didn't believe Frank's story and locked him up.
Sheriff Matthews, however, had heard rumors of what was going on in Castle Dome before this, although he had never had cause or authority to start an official investigation into it. He believed Frank completely, especially after learning that Frank was the son of Fenton Hardy, whose work Matthews had heard of. The sheriff immediately sent a telegram to the proper authorities and a rescue party was organized to go out to the prison that very day.
Joe knew that the shirt had been a trick. Frank's shirt had a tear from where the guard had flicked him with the whip, and this shirt had been undamaged except for ordinary wear and, of course, the bullet hole. Then when he had held it up to his face, he couldn't even smell blood on it. Whatever the shirt had been stained with, it hadn't been fresh blood. Most likely the shirt was something the warden had had prepared a long time ago in case he would ever have to convince the other prisoners that a successful escapee had been killed in the attempt. Joe had used a trick of his own, though, by sending Byron's men on a false lead to Landin. With that extra bit of help, Frank was bound to get through. Now Joe just had to survive long enough for help to get there. The hot sun, the lack of water, and all his bruises weren't giving him much confidence in that regard.
Then there was a shout. "Riders coming!"
The guards scrambled in a panic. One went to fetch Byron while the others went to meet the strangers at the gate. Joe smiled. Frank was back with help.
"Who are you?" one of the guards shouted.
"Judge Barker," a man replied. "I have a prison inspector with me. We're here to investigate complaints of inhumane treatment of prisoners in this prison."
There was no choice for the guards but to open the gate. They knew the game was up, though, especially when they saw that Frank was one of the new arrivals. Byron had arrived by this time, and he tried to protest that Frank was an escaped prisoner. No one paid any attention.
Frank jumped down from his horse and ran to Joe's side. He untied him and gently lowered him into a sitting position.
"You all right?"
Joe nodded. He didn't quite have the strength to reply in words.
"Bring me some water!" Frank shouted.
Carter arrived and handed held out a canteen for Joe. After drinking from it, Joe's throat recovered a little, just enough to whisper, "I knew you'd come back, Frank."