Authors: Gertrude Chandler Warner
“It's them!” Benny gasped to Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and Violet. “I recognized the cowboy boots.”
“Let's go see,” Mr. Morgan said quickly to his wife. “The children should stay right here.”
The next half hour passed slowly as Violet and Benny waited for the Morgans to return. Finally Mr. Morgan appeared and rubbed his forehead wearily. “It's no use,” he said. “We checked the leather goods booth and walked all around the fairgrounds. They're nowhere in sight.”
“Oh, no,” Benny said. “Maybe they saw me and ran away.”
“Don't worry about it, Benny,” Mr. Morgan said. “You did a good job tipping us off. Now we know they're going to try again, and we'll have to be extra careful.”
At sunset, the Alden children piled into the back of the pickup truck for the ride back to Sunny Oaks. Benny was thrilled because his cantaloupe had won a third-place ribbon, and Jessie and Violet were very excited that their pies and jams had won prizes.
Wind Dancer was on everyone's mind, though. That night, back in the bunkhouse, Violet finally mentioned him. “It's scary to think those men are still around,” she said. “And that they're going to try again.”
“If only we could have caught them today, the whole thing would be over,” Henry said.
“Maybe not,” Jessie spoke up. “There might be other people at Sunny Oaks who are working with them.”
“Like Ms. Jefferies?” Benny asked.
Jessie shrugged. “It could be. Or what about Jed Owens? He said he's always worked on farms but he sure doesn't know anything about horses.”
“Why do you say that?” Henry was suddenly interested.
“Violet and I ran into him in the stable and he was surprised to see a goat there. I had to explain that Arnold sleeps in Oliver's stall lots of times.”
Everyone was quiet, thinking the same thing. There was going to be another attempt on Wind Dancer. But who? And when?
he next evening, the Morgans invited the guests to a wienie roast at the old pond. “We do this every year right after the fair,” Sarah explained to Jessie. “Everyone roasts their own hot dogs, and then we sit around the camp fire and sing. I guess you could say it's a Sunny Oaks tradition.” She and Danny were setting out crocks of baked beans and platters of potato salad on a long picnic table. Benny plunked down a giant vat of sauerkraut, and Violet arranged jars of mustard and relish.
“I think the fire's just about ready,” Henry said. He and Mr. Morgan had built a camp fire from hickory logs and tossed a few pine-cones on top to give it a woodsy scent. “Mmm, it smells good,” Violet said.
“It'll make the hot dogs taste even better,” Benny piped up. As usual, he was starving!
“Why don't you help yourself, Benny?” Mrs. Morgan said. “The rest of the guests are starting to wander over.” She handed him a hickory switch and he stuck a hot dog on the top. “Just remember to hold it over the flames, not in them.”
Benny accidentally let his first hot dog turn black on one side, but he was so excited that he ate it anyway with plenty of mustard and ketchup. The second one was even better because he had figured out how to rotate the hot dog so it cooked evenly.
“This is a beautiful spot,” Jessie said to Danny. The sun had already set over the pond, and they were sitting under a willow tree, balancing paper plates on their laps.
“This is where Dad takes Wind Dancer for his exercise,” Danny said, keeping his voice low. “You see that trail between the pine trees over there?” Jessie nodded. “It's the old bridle path, and it runs all the way around the pond. Wind Dancer gets a good workout, and it's really safe. No one can spot them.”
“I hope you're right,” Jessie said, a little shiver going down her back. She knew that Wind Dancer would never be completely safe as long as the two horse thieves were around.
After Benny had finished a second helping of blueberry cobbler, he stood up and stretched. A twinkling of lights at the edge of the pond caught his eye and he nudged Violet. “Hey, look at the lightning bugs,” he said. “There must be a hundred of them over there in the forest.”
“Oh, they're pretty. I love the way they blink on and off.” Violet scrambled to her feet. “Let's go over and see them.” After they carefully threw away their paper plates, Violet and Benny headed for the dense pine forest that ringed the old pond. The grown-ups were having coffee, and they knew it would be another hour or so before the camp songs started.
As they started to walk around the pond, Benny taught Violet what he had learned about the constellations. “You see that little group of stars all stuck together? That's the Seven Sisters,” he said proudly. “Henry said it's one of the easiest ones to spot. That's the very first constellation he taught me.”
“Oh, I think I see the Big Dipper,” Violet said. “Or is it the Little Dipper?” She brushed aside a pine branch and noticed that the sharp needles clung to her sweatshirt.
Benny tilted his head to one side. “No, you're right, it's the Big Dipper. I like that one, because it looks just like its name. Some of the other ones are hard to pick out.”
“That's funny,” Violet said in a strange voice. She was staring at the blanket of pine needles on the ground.
“Look over there,” she said, tugging at Benny's arm.
Benny shrugged. “It looks like the pine needles are all mushed down, that's all.”
“Those are tire tracks,” she said.
Benny stared, his eyes round. “I knew it! Henry said I was dreaming, but I knew I was right.” Quickly, he told Violet about seeing lights around the pond one night. “They weren't ghost lights, they were headlights!”
“Someone was out here snooping around,” Violet said. Her voice was shaky. “Do you think we should follow the tracks and see where they lead?”
Before Benny could answer, a shout went up from the direction of the camp fire. “Fire!”
“That sounded like Henry,” Violet said, grabbing Benny by the arm. “We better see what's up!”
They started to race back to the picnic area and then realized that everyone was heading in the opposite direction.
“Oh, no,” Benny wailed. “The fire must be back at the farm.”
“It's at the stable!” Violet shouted. She pointed to a thick coil of black smoke above the roof of the stable.
By the time they had dashed back to the stable, the smoke was gone and a small group of people had gathered around Jed Owens.
“What happened?” Violet asked Danny.
“It was a false alarm,” Danny said. “But it's a good thing Jed was here to take care of it.”
“So the stable wasn't on fire after all?” Benny asked. He stepped into the middle of the circle and looked right at Jed Owens.
“Luckily it was just a tin drum filled with garbage,” the young man told him. “Somebody must have tossed a match into it, and some dried twigs and leaves ignited.”
“That was a careless thing to do,” Mr. Morgan said gruffly.
“It sure was,” Jed agreed. “I'm just glad that I caught it in time.”
Benny was puzzled. “But how come you were here? Didn't you go to the cookout?”
Violet thought that Jed looked a little uncomfortable. “No, you see, I wasn't feeling very well, and I decided to stay in my room and rest. I had just started reading, when I thought I smelled smoke. So I ran right outside and put out the flames.”
Violet had a nagging feeling that something was wrong, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Everything Jed said made sense, but why did she feel so uneasy?
In the middle of the night, the answer came to her, and she sat straight up in bed. “The pine needles!” she said out loud.
“What?” Benny sat up sleepily and rubbed his eyes.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Go back to sleep.” She waited until he fell back on the pillow and then sat up, her chin cupped in her hand. Now she knew why she had felt something was wrong the whole time Jed Owens was talking. His sweater was covered in pine needles, just like her sweatshirt! The story about reading in his room was a lie. She knew exactly where he had beenâin the pinewoods, spying on them! But what was he up to? And who had set the fire?
he following morning, Violet told Henry and Jessie about the tire tracks she and Benny had spotted near the old pond.
“You're sure they were fresh tracks?” Henry asked.
Violet shrugged. “I think so.”
“They might have been left by visitors,” Jessie suggested. “Maybe the Morgans drove down there after dinner. The pine forest looks so pretty in the moonlight.”
“The pine trees!” Violet exclaimed. “I almost forgot to tell you something else important.” She quickly explained about seeing pine needles on Jed Owens's sweater.
Henry frowned. “I don't know what to say, Violet. The pine needles don't really prove anything one way or the other. Maybe he was in the woods earlier in the day.”
“Maybe,” Violet said doubtfully.
“Anyway, we can't do anything unless we're really sure,” Henry added.
Later that morning, Violet spotted Mr. Morgan waving to her from the cornfield, and she hurried over to him.
“Violet,” he said pleasantly. “You're just the person I've been looking for. I've got a surprise for you.”
Mr. Morgan glanced over his shoulder and said in a low voice, “I just found out that Wind Dancer is going home tomorrow. His owners will be here first thing in the morning to pick him up.”
“He's leaving? But we never got to see him up close,” Violet said. She couldn't hide her disappointment. She knew she would probably never have a chance to see a real racehorse again.
“Don't worry, you're going to get your chance tonight,” Mr. Morgan told her. “You can even feed him a little treat if you want.”
“I can?” Violet was thrilled.
Mr. Morgan nodded. “I'm taking Wind Dancer out to the old pond for the last time, and you're all welcome to come see him.” Mr. Morgan's blue eyes twinkled. “After all, if it weren't for you Aldens, he might have been stolen by now.”
“We'll all be there!” She couldn't wait to tell the others.
“Oh, and why don't you bring Daisy with you? She's gotten over her fear of horses, and I think it would mean a lot to her.”
“It means a lot to all of us,” Violet told him. “Thanks!”
Violet hurried over to Benny, Jessie, and Henry, who were eating lunch with Daisy at the picnic table.
“You mean we'll get to ride Wind Dancer?” Benny said, munching on a ham-and-cheese sandwich. He had taken off his tool belt and had laid it carefully on the table.
“No, I don't think so,” Violet said. “We'll just watch him exercise with Mr. Morgan.”
Benny's face fell. “Oh, I wanted to pretend I was a real jockey.”
“Cheer up, Benny,” Jessie said. “You'll probably see him trot and gallop and do all the things that racehorses do.”
“Maybe Mr. Morgan will let you hold the reins,” Daisy piped up. “He lets me lead Oliver in and out of his stall.” Daisy giggled.
Violet smiled at her. Daisy was completely different from the shy, frightened little girl who had come to Sunny Oaks. She was happy and full of confidence.
There was a full moon later that evening when the Aldens crept quietly out of the bunkhouse. Daisy was waiting for them, a big smile on her face.
“We're really going to see Wind Dancer,” she whispered, taking Jessie's hand. “I can hardly believe it.”
They had crossed the yard and were just heading down the dusty path to the old pond when they spotted Mr. Morgan walking rapidly toward them.
“Hi, kids,” he greeted them. “I forgot Wind Dancer's blanket, and I'm going to dash back to the stable and get it. Why don't you go ahead and see him? He's tethered to a tree at the edge of the pond.”
“We'll take good care of him,” Violet promised.
They walked steadily for the next quarter mile, but when they rounded the bend, they were in for a shock. The two men who'd tried to steal Wind Dancer were loading him into a horse van!
“Oh, no!” Jessie cried. “They're stealing him!”
The men turned at the sound of her voice. “C'mon, move it!” Ryan said gruffly to Hank. They quickly slammed the van doors shut and jumped into the cab.
“They're getting away!” Henry said as the men gunned the engine. He sprinted after the van, but stopped when it made a tight U-turn and headed back toward them. Jessie reacted immediately and pulled Daisy and Benny into a shallow gully next to the path.
“I'll go for help!” Violet yelled. She darted through the woods back to the stable, her heart beating fast. She had to get to Mr. Morgan in time or Wind Dancer would be gone forever!