Big Al fought like a madman, but Frank and Joe hung on. The outlaw screeched in pain as Frank applied bone-cracking pressure to his wrist, and a moment later the gun dropped from Big Al's numbed fingers.
Frank heard it fall and for an instant slackened pressure as he kicked the revolver out of reach.
The momentary diversion gave Big Al the chance he needed. Digging his fingers into Joe's throat, he hurled the boy hard against the rocky wall. Joe sank to the ground, stunned.
"Now I'll take care of you, kid!" Big Al snarled at Frank.
The huge outlaw was more than a match for Frank alone. Frank fought desperately to maintain his hold, but Big Al grabbed his shoulder, jerked him loose, and drove a punch to Frank's face. Frank staggered back, tripped over a rock, and fell heavily to the ground.
"Don't try anything more or I'll beat your brains out!" Big Al warned as he groped for his lost gun.
Meanwhile, Joe had recovered from the pounding Big Al had given him, and was feeling around stealthily for one of the shovels. His fingers closed around a wooden handle just as Big Al spoke. Seizing the implement, Joe sprang to his feet and swung hard in the direction of Big Al's voice.
There was a thudding impact, a gasp, and the sound of a body hitting the ground.
"I got him, Frank!" Joe exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
"Sure-just woozy." Frank pulled himself together and began searching for a flashlight. A moment later he found one and switched it on. Big Al lay stretched on the floor of the cavern, unconscious.
"Good work, Joe! I thought we were goners," Frank confessed, still panting from the struggle. "Let's tie him up before he comes to."
The boys took off their belts and strapped the gang leader's wrists and ankles tightly. Then, with Frank taking his shoulders and Joe his legs, they managed to lug their prisoner through the mine tunnel. The outlaw's roan horse was standing outside, hitched to a rock.
"Stay here and guard him," Frank said to his brother as they dumped their prisoner across the horse's back. "I'll go and get the gold."
Making two trips, Frank hauled out the four bags. Then he stood watch over the unconscious outlaw while Joe went to retrieve their horses.
Joe soon sighted the two animals wandering through the snow along the foot of the mountainside.
Evidently the scent of the wolves, or their snarling, had frightened the horses away from the cave.
Joe quickly rounded up their mounts and brought them back to the mouth of the mine tunnel. Big Al had not yet recovered consciousness and Frank was tying him fast to the roan.
"I found some rope in his saddlebag," Frank explained.
The boys loaded the gold into their saddlebags, then Joe attached the lead rope of Big Al's horse to the saddle of his own mount.
The outlaw was showing signs of reviving. Joe rubbed snow in his face to bring him around faster. As the man's eyes opened, he roared with rage and struggled violently against his bonds. But he soon realized he was helpless.
Big Al's face took on a sullen scowl. "I hope that gold brings you punks and Dawson and Onslow the same kind of bad luck it brought me!" he muttered viciously. "That gold should've been mine twenty-five years ago!"
"You mean when you were Black Pepper, and you and your gang tried to snatch it from those four miners?" Joe asked.
"You know that too, eh?" The outlaw glared at the Hardys. "All right, it's true. I was Black Pepper, and I'd have had the gold if that skunk Dawson hadn't cheated me out of it!"
"Cheated you?" Frank retorted sarcastically.
"Because I'd put sand and gravel in the gas tank of his plane. But he managed to take off, and after he crashed a bad storm came up-so we couldn't even find the wreck."
Big Al went on bitterly, "Other jobs came up after that, and I was dodging lawmen. But I never forgot there was a fortune in gold somewhere in these mountains. When my men and I came up here to lie low after that payroll robbery, I figured this was my chance. I'd have had the whole loot if it hadn't been for you!"
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Frank asked. "You'd never have found where Dawson hid the gold if you hadn't overheard us talking at the cabin."
Big Al laughed harshly. "Sure. Even before you two showed up, I was hidin' in the horse shed attached to the cabin and was tryin' to find out what was goin' on. But once I wised up to the fact that Dodge was really Dawson, I'd have choked the truth out of him!"
"Just out of curiosity," Joe said, "how did you find the mine today? For that matter, how did you survive the storm?"
"I'm used to this country, kid-found a snug place to hole up for the night,"Big Al said boastfully. "This morning I spied your tracks leadin' to that wolf cave. But I spotted the pack before I went barging in. So I searched around and found the real mine tunnel. After that, all I had to do was keep strikin' matches till I saw where the tunnel ended."
"Come on, Joe. We've spent enough time talking," said Frank. "Let's get started!"
The boys knew the trip back to Lucky Lode would be treacherous, especially with a heavy load of gold and the task of keeping a close eye on Big Al. They quickly mounted and started off. Just as the trio emerged from the valley, the Hardys shouted joyfully. They had sighted Hank Shale and Sheriff Kenner topping Lone Tree Ridge!
"Boys! Are you all right?" Hank yelled as he and the sheriff spurred forward to meet them.
Frank and Joe told their story and turned Big Al over to the sheriff. Hank had listened with growing astonishment and admiration.
"You sure are wonders," he said to Frank and Joe. "We were afraid you'd be frozen stiff by now. And here you're bringin' back Big Al and the gold! And you solved the mystery o' Bart Dawson!"
"Your pa should be mighty proud of you lads!" Sheriff Kenner added.
The boys grinned and Frank said, "I'm glad we could help out." Then he asked the men, "How did you get here?"
The sheriff explained that after handcuffing Slim and Jake, he and Hank had tried to follow the boys and the fleeing gang leader. But in the darkness, with the other two outlaws on their hands, the chase had proved impossible.
"So we took 'em back to Lucky Lode," said Kenner. "We arrested Burke. He made a full confession about being Slip Gun-the gang's spy in town-and pushing the boulder into Hank's cabin. Later that day we started back to search for you. We looked everywhere and had just given up hope when we ran into Dodge-or Dawson, rather-on his way back and heard part of the story."
"How's Dad?" Frank asked anxiously.
"Doin' fine. Fact is, the doc says he can take the tape off'n his ribs in another day or so," Hank replied.
"We practically had to tie him down to keep him from comin' along."
Late that night the lights of Lucky Lode were sighted and by midnight the party rode into town.
Frank and Joe and their father held a warm reunion at Ben Tinker's cabin.
Dawson was also on hand as the boys told their story of finding the gold and capturing Big Al.
"I can't get over it," said Ben Tinker. He chuckled. "Regardin' you, Dawson, bein' Dodge and you not knowin' it. No wonder you didn't recognize me when I saw you one time up in Helena." Ben cackled with satisfaction. "Reckon now folks'll believe I ain't given to imaginin' things!"
Frank and Joe, glad the case was solved, wondered what kind of adventure would come their way next.
They were soon to find out when confronted by The Shore Road Mystery.
Mr. Hardy looked proudly at his sons, then said, "Incidentally, boys, I had a call from Chicago after you left, saying the police had traced that phony taxi driver. Also, those friends of Big Al's, Hop-kins and his hoods, were rounded up, thanks to your phone tip. They all just made full confessions. By the way, Hopkins never had a chance to send Onslow's map to Al. The gang was going to pull a bank holdup that afternoon, but your escape ruined their plans."
"Speaking of plans, I wonder what Mike Onslow's will be when he learns he's rich," Frank mused.
Joe chuckled. "Let's phone him first thing in the morning and find out. And I'd give a mint to see Aunt Gertrude's face when she hears about the gold!"