Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
“I thought the desert would be nothing but sand dunes,” Joe Hardy said. “There isn't any sand here, let alone dunes.”
Standing beside a white U.S. Forest Service car, Joe looked out at a sweep of pale green trees, dark green bushes, and cacti growing from sand-colored earth. A hundred yards away, a mountain with rocky cliffs rose steeply out of the desert. In the distance were other brown hills and mountains.
Joe thought it felt strange to be wearing just a T-shirt and jeans in the dead of winter, but he was having no trouble getting used to it. He and his older brother, Frank, were on winter break from school. Fenton Hardy, their father, had brought them with him on a business trip to Arizona. Once Fenton had completed his business, they'd rented a
motor home and driven two hundred miles into the desert for a surprise visit to Winton Grisham, an old college friend of Fenton's.
Joe leaned against the car and looked over at his father and Frank, who, like him, were wearing sunglasses. His father was catching up on things with Grisham, or Grish, as he liked to be called. What a cool job, Joe thought, to be a park ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It was the largest natural preserve in the lower forty-eight states, right on the U.S.-Mexico border. Joe thought Grisham looked every inch the part of head park ranger. A burly man with sandy hair and large, powerful hands, he wore a cowboy hat and a green shirt with a name tag.
To make the trip more interesting, though, Joe almost wished they could find some sort of mystery to solve. Back in their hometown of Bayport, Frank and Joe spent much of their time investigating crimes and had become crack detectives, even though Joe was only seventeen and his brother eighteen. Their father was a famous professional detective, and the brothers had learned a lot from him.
Grish tipped his hat back and reached into the trunk of his car for a large water jug and some cups. He poured four cups of water and handed three of them to the Hardys.
“This is typical weather for early January,” Grish said in answer to Frank's question. “The daytime temperatures are in the fifties or sixties. Summer
time highs are well above a hundred, though, which is why we have a rule about always carrying water.”
“The plants here don't seem to need much water,” Frank said. “They look tough.”
Joe pointed to a small cactus. “Those spines look like something I wouldn't want to tangle with,” Joe said.
Grish smiled. “That cactus is called a jumping cholla. Pieces of it can break off and stick to your foot or hand so easily they seem to jump right off the plant. Out on the range, you can sometimes see cattle with pieces of cholla stuck to their lips.”
“Yikes,” Joe said, stepping away from the cactus.
“As I was saying, the rains are often months apart,” Grish said. “To conserve water, the cacti swell up and store it in their tissues.”
Pointing to a tall, slender cactus that looked like a rocket ship with arms, Joe asked Grisham what it was.
“That's a saguaro cactus. It's the one that a lot of people think of when they think about the desert here in the Southwest.”
Then he pointed to another cactus in the distance. “See that tall one over there?” About fifteen feet tall, it looked like a cluster of many long, tubular branches that started at the ground and came up to a rounded tip. “It's called an organ pipe cactus. This park is named for themâOrgan Pipe Cactus National Monument. All the wildlife and plants here are protected. To disturb or remove anything is considered a violation.”
Grisham glanced at his watch. “But listen, I have to get you guys back to the campground. I've got some work to do at my office before suppertime.”
“Right, and we should start fixing some grub,” Frank said. “Isn't that how they say it out here in the West?”
“Well, not anymore,” Grish said, shaking his head with amusement. “Maybe they used to.”
“Grish, how about joining us for dinner at the campground?” Fenton asked. “We've got a lot of catching up to do after all these years.”
Grish said, “That would be great, but I have to get a few things done first. Say, how long has it been since we've seen each other?”
“About twenty years, old friend,” Fenton said.
Grish got into the car on the driver's side and said, “I hate to think it's been that long.”
The three Hardys climbed in, with Frank and Joe in back. As Grish drove, Joe ran a hand through his blond hair and looked at the thick vegetation. He wondered how any living thing could survive the heat and dryness of summer.
As if to answer his question, Grish said, “This desert probably looks pretty harsh to you boys. In fact, during the day, when the heat is most intense, most of the creatures keep themselves sheltered. At night, though, they all come out looking for food.”
“How do they find food in the dark?” Joe asked.
“Good noses and good night vision,” Grish said. “Some eat seeds and leaves, and others go hunting
for the ones that eat seeds and leaves. You'll hear the coyotes tonight for certain. They sing all night.”
Grish drove along a one-way dirt road that wound around the mountain.
“Those cliffs look pretty steep,” Frank said. “With all the tourists around, do you ever have a problem with climbers getting hurt?” The Hardys were trained rock climbers. They had brought along ropes and gear, hoping to do some climbing in this strange environment.
“There are accidents every year,” Grish said. “You can count on that. Those little mountains beside us are called the Diablosâthe Devil Mountains. In the winter we usually have to rescue a few people who don't know how to climb safely. No problem with climbers in the summer, though: the rocks are too hot to touch, and nobody with any sense goes climbing.”
At that moment something odd at the side of the road caught Joe's eye. He looked out the window and saw bushes crushed flat, as if someone had driven a truck over them.
“Whoa!” Joe exclaimed. “Grish, stop! Look back there. Someone's been doing some serious off-road driving.”
The car skidded to a stop. “Where?” Fenton asked.
“Right back there,” Joe said. “Grish, back up a bit.”
Grish backed the car along the road until they drew even with the path of crushed plants. Parallel
tracks from a heavy vehicle ran for two dozen yards. Perpendicular to the road, they were marked by crushed and broken branches. Two yards past the end of the tracks was a hole about four feet across, as far as Joe could tell. He could also make out several small crushed pulpy cacti that had been destroyed by the careless driver and were now bleeding a white liquid.
“What in the world happened here?” Fenton asked. “This is a disaster.”
Grish said nothing for a moment, then drew a long breath. “It's a disaster, all right,” he said. “This national park is a protected area. Someone is clearly defacing this land. We've got a situation here that needs to be dealt with.”
“Who would do something like this?” Joe asked. “Off-roaders?” He began to open his door to get out, but Grish stopped him.
“We don't have time to stop right now, Joe,” Grish said. “I've already seen the damage.” He put the car into gear and pulled away.
“Those aren't the tracks of an off-road vehicle,” Frank said. “See the double-tire marks? Those must have been made by a large truck.”
“What's the story, Grish?” Fenton asked.
Grish said, “Those tracks were found this morning. I wasn't going to say anything, because I'm a stickler for the rules, and the rules say I'm not supposed to discuss an ongoing investigation.”
“But who would drive a big truck out in the desert?” Frank asked.
“Cactus thieves,” Grish said.
Frank and Joe responded in unison: “Cactus thieves?”
“Yes,” Grish said. “Cactus thieves. Someone has been stealing large cactus specimensâsaguaros and organ pipes mostly, as far as I can tell. I'm pretty sure I know who is involved. It's one of my maintenance workers, David Kidwell. I think I'll be having him arrested pretty soon.”
“What makes you think it's him?” Frank asked. “How many maintenance workers do you have?”
“I have three others,” Grish said, “but Kidwell used to be a landscaper in Phoenix, working with a nursery specializing in desert plants. He's the only one who would know how to remove large specimens.”
Joe pointed toward an organ pipe cactus and said, “Those long arms look as if they would break off if someone tried to move the plant.”
Grish nodded. “That is true of a large plant like that one, yes. But a medium-size one could have its arms braced with ropes and a wooden frame. Even a large organ pipe could be stolen if the thieves knew what they were doing.”
“Why would anyone want to steal a cactus?” Frank asked.
“Money,” Grish told him. “Desert landscaping is becoming popular in the cities of the Southwest. People like to plant cactus and other desert flora in their yards. Builders get more money from new-comers if the development looks like the desert.
Some of them will pay lots of money for good specimens of rare types. Of course, organ pipe cacti must be planted where there is no frost, but there are areas of California and Texas like that. A large, professionally transplanted organ pipe specimen would be worth thousands of dollars.”
“Wow!” Joe said. “I had no idea.”
“Isn't it a federal offense to disturb the desert habitat?” Fenton said.
“Absolutely,” Grish said. “The term we use for stealing cacti is cactus rustling. Just like the cattle rustling from the days of the Old West.”
“How many cacti have you lost?” Frank asked.
“I'm not sure,” Grish said. “Ten or twelve, maybe. Right now I'm hoping to catch Kidwell in the act. But I'd appreciate it if you guys would let the matter drop and not talk about it. The investigation has been going on for a couple of months, and you're only here for a few days. I don't want the thieves to get spooked by too much talk. And besides, it's the rule.”
“I think you know you can trust us,” Fenton said to Grisham.
“Maybe Joe and I can help you with the investigation,” Frank volunteered.
Grish looked skeptical. “No offense,” he said, “but I doubt that a couple of amateur detectives tramping all over the desert would be much help.”
An indignant look flashed across Joe's face. “Amateur?” he repeated.
“It's okay, Joe,” Frank said. “Chill out. Maybe
we'll just keep our eyes open while we're on vacation here.”
“Well, as I said,” Grish replied, “no offense, but this is a job for someone who knows the territory. I've even asked for help from a cactus cop in Phoenix. The problem is that government budgets are being cut, people are being laid off, and it takes longer to get things done. I'm pretty frustrated with the whole system.”
“A cactus cop?” Fenton asked.
“I'm not kidding,” Grish said. “Arizona has investigators called cactus cops who try to stop the cactus rustlers.”
Joe laughed. “That sounds a lot like the marshal going after the cattle rustlers,” he said. “We really are in the Old West, aren't we?”
“Well, not exactly the
West,” Grish said. “But some things don't change much.”
Joe pointed ahead toward a plume of dust rising above the desert along the road. “Look at that dust trail,” he said. “Someone is headed this way pretty fast.”
“Sometimes the tourists go tearing along these roads as if they were racing in the Indy Five Hundred,” Grish said. “It makes me mad.”
“I think you're forgetting something,” Frank said, growing tense. “This is a one-way road. Whoever that is is headed right at us.”
Grish's eyes grew wide. “You're right!” he exclaimed. A small blue pickup truck had come around the bend and was barreling straight at them.
Grish veered sharply to the edge of the road, barely in time to avoid a head-on collision. The blue pickup roared past, leaving the air thick with dust.