Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
The gunman staggered back, still trying to get the pistol slide to work.
Frank cleverly circled to his left until his attacker's back was to Joe.
Seeing his chance, Joe slashed in and cut the guy's legs out from under him with a rolling block. The gun flew into the air, landing at Frank's feet.
He kicked it into the underbrush.
Joe was on top of the thug immediately, throwing quick punches to his ribs.
The guy rolled to one side. When Joe tried to put him in a headlock, he found himself staring at the tip of a six-inch dagger blade.
“Get off me, punk!” the man spat through the ski mask.
Joe backed away.
The thug scrambled to his feet. He jabbed the knife at each of the Hardys as they circled in close. It was obvious to Frank the man had both martial arts and weapons training.
“Stay back, Joe,” he warned.
“That's right!” the man yelled, obviously trying to make his voice sound lower than it was. “Stay back or I'll gut you like a fish.”
He went to his snowmobile and tried to start it. When nothing happened, he kicked it in anger.
He jogged over to the Hardys' sled and rolled it upright. It started with no problem.
The thug tucked the knife back into his ski suit and got on. “Have a nice long hike back to the house,” he said. “Neal Jordan will be long gone before you get there.”
He zoomed off into the woods.
“Who was that?” Joe asked. “Did one of the parachutists circle back and get behind us, or are we dealing with more than two people?”
“I don't know,” Frank said. “I thought I recognized
his voice for a minute, but now I can't place it.”
Joe went over to the man's wrecked sled to see if he could use his mechanic's skills to get it running.
“Frank, take a look at this,” he said, pointing to a small backpack strapped to the back of the snowmobile. “Our friend forgot something.”
Frank unhooked the pack and opened it. “Maps,” he said, pulling things out. “Maps just like the ones I saw in Salazar's room. A set of crampons, and hereâtwo folding ice axes.”
Frank tossed an ax to Joe, dumped the crampons, and stuck the other ax in the pocket of his jacket. He opened one of the maps and traced his finger along a red line.
“Looks like I was right,” he said. “They're headed for this deep gorge. We're not that far from it now.”
“Then I say we keep following the tracks,” Joe said firmly. “There's no way I'm retreating to the house while there's still a chance we can rescue Neal.”
Frank looked out into the woods. “I agree. We've got two or three hours of daylight left. Let's go.”
Together they fell into a jog, staying to one side of the snowmobile tracks. They kept their eyes and ears open in case of another ambush.
A few snowflakes began to weave their way through the trees. Then, minutes later, the sprinkle turned into a heavy snowfall.
Frank picked up the pace. “We've got to hurry,” he said. “This snow will cover the tracks in no time.”
Around fifteen or twenty minutes later the Hardys came to the edge of a large clearing.
Frank held out his hand, motioning for Joe to stop. The brothers slowed to a walk and crept up behind a big pine with low-hanging branches.
Frank slowly pulled one branch down a little, creating a small window between two limbs. He saw a clearing that extended fifteen or twenty feet up to the edge of an enormous ravine. The rock face on the far side was nearly vertical and dropped down at least two hundred feet.
Frank waved Joe up. “We have our kidnappers,” he whispered.
Joe instantly recognized all three of the men standing thirty yards or so away in the clearing. “Salazar, Sammy Fear, andÂ .Â .Â . Ken Ardis!” he said. “Agent Ardis, man. We should've known it was an inside job.” Ardis had Neal Jordan by the collar of his ski jacket.
“No wonder Ardis didn't want us watching Neal at the Max Games,” Frank said. “Without us around, it would've been easy for him to set it up so Fear and Salazar could nab Neal.”
“And no wonder help doesn't seem to be on the way,” Joe added. “Ardis must have been faking when he said he got hit by a tranquilizer dart. He never radioed the house.”
Frank nodded. “He got himself a snowmobile and came after us.”
They could hear the three men talking, but couldn't make out the words.
Joe peeked through the limbs in both directions. “Where's Amanda Mollica? She definitely got on the plane with Fear and Salazar, but I don't see her.”
“She might be keeping watch,” Frank said. “Be careful.”
Joe pointed to a pile of snow-covered branches a few yards in front of them. “There are the snowmobiles,” he said. “They hid them under those branches.”
The Hardys watched as Salazar dropped a climbing rope over the lip of the ravine.
Ducking down to his hands and knees, Joe crawled under the lowest branches.
“What're you doing?” Frank whispered.
Joe didn't answer. Still on his hands and knees, he stole out to the snowmobiles. Keeping one eye on the kidnappers, he gently reached under a branch and disconnected a spark plug wire on one of the sleds.
He was about to crawl around to get to another one when he saw Fear turn and walk in his direction.
He scampered back to cover next to Frank.
Fear carried one more branch over and dropped it on the snowmobiles. He checked his watch.
“We've got forty-five minutes to meet Amanda at the plane,” he shouted to Ardis.
“Shut up, Sammy,” Ardis yelled. “Keep working.”
As Fear jogged back to the others, Frank turned to Joe. “Now we know the odds. Two of us against three of them. Mollica's not around.”
The Hardys watched as Salazar, using the rope, started climbing down into the ravine.
When his head disappeared over the edge, Joe elbowed his brother in the side. “Let's rush them now,” he whispered. “We can take Ardis and Fear while Salazar's on the rope.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Wait,” he said. “We don't know what's going on yet.”
Joe ignored him. He burst through the branches of the tree and charged straight for Sammy Fear.
Frank had no choice but to follow. Setting his sights on Agent Ardis, he sprinted forward at full speed.
Joe drove his shoulder into Fear's thin body, slamming him to the ground. He heard the breath escape from the sky surfer's lungs.
He didn't wait for Sammy to recover. Grabbing him by the collar, Joe cracked him in the jaw with two quick jabs. Fear's body went limp.
A few yards away Frank was having a tougher time with the rogue Secret Service agent.
Ardis immediately shoved Neal aside and went into a tae kwon do stance the second he recognized
Frank. The two faced off against each other, circling slowly.
Frank stepped close and whirled into a spinning back kick.
Ardis ducked, landed a quick hook to Frank's belly, then danced clear.
Frank sucked up the pain. With a loud “Ki-yai,” he faked a straight right hand. The instant he saw Ardis flinch, Frank lifted his right foot high into the air and hacked it down on Ardis's headâa perfectly executed ax kick.
Ardis dropped to one knee.
His face a grimace of rage, Neal Jordan stepped in and punched the agent in the jaw. Ardis collapsed.
“Nice shot, Neal!” a voice called. “Now get down on the groundâall of you!”
Frank looked over. Rick Salazar had climbed back up the rope and now had a pistol pointed right at Neal.
Salazar waved the gun in front of him, directing the Hardys and Neal to move away from his cohorts and lie facedown in the snow.
A couple of minutes later, he'd revived both Fear and Ardis.
“That was exciting, wasn't it,” Ardis said, rubbing his jaw. He walked over to Neal and kicked him in the ribs. “I'm through baby-sitting you, kid. This time tomorrow, I'll be sitting on a beach somewhere with ten million dollars in the bank.”
“My dad will catch you,” Neal said bitterly. “No matter where you go.”
Sammy Fear lifted Neal to his feet. “Don't count on it, dude.” He shoved Neal toward the rope at the edge of the ravine. He kicked at Frank and Joe. “Get up! Get over there with him.”
Salazar stuck the gun in Neal's face. “Okay. Frank, you go first.” He nodded toward the rope. “There's a cave about forty feet down the face of the ravine. Climb down to it.”
Keeping his eyes glued to Salazar, Frank headed down the rope. Looking up, he saw Joe and Neal being forced down after him.
Frank soon came to the cave. It was about fifteen feet wideâabout the size of a one-car garage.
Frank swung onto the ledge of the cave, then helped Joe and Neal safely in.
When they'd cleared away from the rope, Salazar zipped down using a rappelling harness. He pointed the gun at Frank.
“Step back, man.” He unhooked and stepped into the mouth of the cave.
Ardis rappelled down next. He stepped into the cave and shrugged off a backpack. He tossed it on the ground in front of the teens as Fear entered the cave.
“What's that?” Joe asked.
Ardis grinned. “A couple of jugs of water. One sleeping bag.” He broke into a laugh. “Sorry, we
thought we were going to have only one guest at our cave hotel.”
They all paused. The beating sound of a helicopter approaching filled the cave.
“Those idiots at the house must've finally figured out that you're missing,” he said to Neal.
“Give it up, Ardis,” Frank said. “The other agents must know by now that you're behind all this.”
Salazar peeked out of the cave, then turned to Ardis. “Exactly like I said, man. We're completely hidden. The only way that helicopter's going to find them is if they fly down into the ravine.”
Ardis faced Frank. “They'll all think I was kidnapped along with Neal,” he said. “The only person with a clue is DuBelle, and she won't have any memory of what happened once that tranquilizer wears off.”
The sound of the helicopter faded into the distance.
“Go easy on that water,” Ardis said as he started back up the rope. “You may be here for a very long time.”
Ardis climbed out of sight. A couple of minutes later the rope slithered out of view as one of the men pulled it up.
Joe went to the cave entrance and looked up. A small ledge projected about fifteen feet up, shielding them from view above.
“Salazar was right,” Joe said glumly. “There's no way a chopper will see us.”
Frank and Neal stood next to Joe and peered over the edge.
Neal picked up a pebble and chucked it. It arced out and down into the ravine. They didn't hear it hit bottom.
“It's a long way down,” Neal said.
They heard the sound of snowmobiles racing away.
“They're gone,” Frank said. He went over and checked the pack that Ardis had dropped. As he'd said, there was one cheap sleeping bag and some gallon jugs of water.
“How long will that last?” Neal asked.
“Not long,” Frank replied. “One, two days. We'll probably freeze to death before that.”
“We know the identities of the kidnappers,” Joe said. “I bet Ardis isn't going to tell anyone where we are.”
Neal kicked the sleeping bag. “He wants us to keep quiet permanently.”
Frank nodded. “We've got to escape. Joe, you have that ice ax I gave you? I'm going to try to free climb out of here.”
Joe smiled and tossed the ice ax they'd found in Ardis's pack to his brother. “I can't believe they didn't search us,” he said.
Frank pulled his ax from his jacket pocket and hung it on his belt with the other one. “They were in too much of a hurry, I guess.” He returned to the mouth of the cave.
“Can you make it?” Neal asked.
“I can try,” Frank said. “Here, give me a boost, Joe.”
Joe cupped his hands together. Frank stepped in the hand cradle and pushed himself up past the roof of the cave.
“IÂ .Â .Â . justÂ .Â .Â . needÂ .Â .Â . to get past thisÂ .Â .Â . ledge,” he said, concentrating hard.
Joe pushed Frank as high as he could, then watched as his brother wriggled up over the ledge and onto the sheer face of the wall. He was on his own now.
Joe turned away from the cave entrance. He didn't want to see Frank fly past if he fell.
Up on the wall, Frank stopped a second to rest. He looked down, then quickly back at the wall. That had been a mistake.
Although it was cold out, Frank was sweating. His palms were slick. Here he was, two hundred feet up without a safety line. One mistake and he was bug splatter on the rocks below.
Making sure his feet were secure on the ledge, Frank wiped the sweat from each hand on his pants.
He started climbing. Reaching up for a handhold, he edged up a foot or so. He found a small knot of rock to his right and placed his foot on it. With his left hand, he found a narrow fissure and wedged two fingers in. Even though it hurt like crazy, he pulled himself up. It felt as if the skin was being ripped from his fingers.
He made good progress; it wasn't snowing anymoreâthat was a good thing. When he hit a patch of ice or a slippery spot, he would pull one of the ice axes from his belt and find a secure place to hammer it in.
Nearing the top, he jammed the toe of his boot into a crack. He tugged on the ice ax over his head. It seemed tight.
He took a deep breath and pushed.
It was as though someone had kicked a step ladder out from under him. The support disappeared from under his foot and Frank flopped against the wall. He hung on for dear life, supported only by the two ax handles.
He looked down in time to see the rock fall away, ricochet off the wall, then tumble into space.
Inside the cave, Neal let out a frightened shout.
“Frank!” Joe yelled, spinning to face the mouth of the cave. He looked at Neal. “What did you see?”