TEN-YEAR-OLD WILLA DUNLAP BLINKED HER eyes, once, twice, three times. Was she really seeing what she thought she was seeing?
“Wow, Ben,” Willa said to her younger brother. “I’ve never seen so many people on our beach!”
Willa and Ben stood together on the shore gazing out at the ocean. Next to Willa, nibbling
on a clump of marsh grass, was their gentle buckskin mare, Starbuck.
“It may be filled with people now,” Ben told his sister. “But in just a few days it will be filled with—”
“Ponies!” Willa cut in excitedly.
Willa and Ben traded a high five. It was the last week of July. To most it meant the middle of summer. But for those living on Chincoteague Island, it meant the world-famous pony swim.
Willa couldn’t wait to watch the wild ponies of Assateague Island swim across the channel to Chincoteague. Those who wanted an Assateague pony of their own could bid for one at the famous pony auction the next day.
“Do you think she remembers?” Willa asked as she patted the white star-shaped
mark on Starbuck’s butterscotch forehead.
“Remembers what?” Ben asked.
“Do you think Starbuck remembers swimming with the other ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague?” Willa asked.
“You know what they say,” Ben said with a shrug. “A horse never forgets.”
“I think that’s an elephant.” Willa smiled.
She couldn’t wait for the pony swim in just two days. For the past ninety years, the world-famous event had taken place each summer. For Willa and Ben it would be their first.
Willa felt lucky to live on Chincoteague. A year ago the Dunlaps had moved from Chicago to the island where her mom grew up. Willa missed the city, but she loved the
big old house her parents turned into an inn, her new friends, and most of all—having her own pony.
“I almost forgot something,” Willa said, clutching Starbuck’s rein to turn her around. “We promised Mom and Dad we’d help them today. Misty Inn is about to have a ton of visitors for the pony swim.”
“Okay,” Ben said as he slipped his foot into a stirrup, “but this time it’s my turn to ride Starbuck.”
Ben settled into the saddle. Willa took one last glance across the frothy white waters at Assateague Island. Then she, Ben, and Starbuck were on their way.
Willa walked her pony up the beach, then along the familiar trails leading to Misty Inn.
Starbuck seemed to know the way too, and she picked up her pace closer to home.
When they reached Misty Inn, their frisky puppy, Amos, was waiting outside the barn door. Amos loved the barn and the horses more than anything.
“I’ll fill the water bucket,” Ben said as Willa led Starbuck to her stall. Willa caught the horse gazing into the next stall, where their guest pony, Buttercup, stayed. But this week Buttercup’s stall would be empty.
“I know you miss Buttercup, Starbuck,” Willa said. “But she has an important job this week—to help Mr. Starling in the pony roundup.”
Amos playfully jumped up at Ben as he carried a bucket of fresh water to Starbuck. “You do remember the pony roundup,” he asked. “Don’t you, Starbuck?”
Starbuck gave a little snort.
Willa was about to grab Starbuck’s currycomb when she heard her dad’s voice calling from outside. “Willa, Ben, Grandma Edna’s here!”
Willa and Ben exchanged surprised looks. It was the day of the pony vet check on Assateague Island. Grandma Edna was a vet, so what was she doing at Misty Inn?
“Hi, Grandma Edna!” Willa called as she and Ben raced over from the barn.
“Hi, yourselves!” Grandma Edna said. She stood next to Mom and Dad, her pickup truck nearby. A shopping bag hung from one hand as she petted a purring New Cat with her other.
Grandma Edna placed the bag on the ground to wrap her arms around Willa and Ben. She smelled like salt water and ponies, which told Willa one thing. . . .
“You were at the vet check today, Grandma Edna,” Willa guessed excitedly. “Are the ponies ready for the big swim?”
“Resting up and ready as they’ll ever be,” Grandma Edna said. “But right now I come to Misty Inn with gifts and news.”
“Grandma is being mysterious, kids,” Mom added with a grin.
“What’s in the bag, Grandma Edna?” Willa asked. “Something for Starbuck?”
“Or us?” Ben asked eagerly.
“Hold your horses, you two,” Grandma Edna joked, and then continued. “It’s just something I
heard through the grapevine. Word has it some big-city travel critic will be staying at Misty Inn this week.”
“Travel critic?” Dad repeated.
“Does he or she want to write about Misty Inn?” Mom asked.
Grandma Edna nodded. “For some travel magazine, I heard. So you’d all better be at the top of your game.”
Willa’s eyes widened at the news. She had heard of movie critics, who wrote about blockbuster films, but never travel critics.
“Misty Inn has been open for months,” Mom told her own mother. “So we’re always at the top of our game.”
“Except the day the bathtub overflowed,” Ben said. He smiled guiltily.
“Edna, if we weren’t doing a good job,” Dad added, “the inn wouldn’t
be booked solid with guests this week.”
“One of those guests will be the travel critic,” Grandma Edna said. She flapped her hand impatiently. “Oh, do what you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Who is the critic, Grandma?” Willa asked as she picked up New Cat and held him close. “What’s his or her name?”
“Wish I knew, honey,” Grandma Edna said. “Most mystery critics go by some made-up name. So nobody at the inn will know who he or she is.”
“Mystery critic?” Willa repeated as New Cat jumped out of her arms and scampered away. “You mean like a spy?”
Ben exclaimed, “Maybe he’ll have awesome gadgets and land in our pasture in a black helicopter!”
“Ben, there will be no spies staying at Misty Inn this week,” Mom insisted. “And if one of our guests happens to be a critic, we have nothing to worry about.”
“We’ll just do what we always do, kids,” Dad added with a wink. “I’ll cook mouthwatering meals for our restaurant, Family Farm, and your mom will run the inn like a tight ship as always.”
“With your help,” Mom said, raising an eyebrow at Willa and Ben. “Right?”
“Riiiiight,” Willa and Ben said together.
But deep inside Willa was a bit worried. What if this mystery critic found something terribly wrong about Misty Inn and wrote a bad review?
Would Mom and Dad have to close the inn? Would they have to move back to Chicago?
Apartment buildings don’t allow horses, Willa thought. What would we do with Starbuck?
Grandma Edna interrupted Willa’s worries. “Now for the gifts. They’re just a few things to ensure a five-star rating from that mystery critic.”
Grandma Edna carefully pulled out items from her bag that Willa recognized from Miller Farm—a colorful tablecloth and two throw pillows, all embroidered with horse scenes.
“Just a few vintage things for the inn,” Grandma Edna explained. “You can display them to highlight the importance of the pony swim and auction this week.”
“Or impress the critic?” Dad asked playfully. “Thanks, Edna. They’re very nice.”
“They are nice,” Mom agreed. “But they’re old, too. You’ve
had them at Miller Farm since I was a little girl.”
“I think they’re neat,” Willa said, reaching out to take the tablecloth and pillows from Grandma Edna. “The brown horse on the bigger pillow reminds me of Starbuck.”
“Now there’s a girl with good taste,” Grandma Edna declared. “Amelia, Eric, I believe your daughter takes after me,” she said, getting into her truck and driving off.
Willa considered that a huge compliment. To many, Grandma Edna was the best vet on Chincoteague Island. And Willa was thinking of becoming a vet when she grew up.
With Ben behind her, Willa carried the treasured heirlooms into the house.
“Willa, did you hear what Grandma Edna said?” Ben asked. “There’s going to be a spy at Misty Inn.”
“Not a spy, a travel critic,” Willa corrected. She turned to Mom’s office computer, where the week’s guest list was open. “And it’s super- important, so we have to find out who he or she is so we can make sure this guest has an awesome time,” Willa said.
how do we know who the travel critic is when he or she has a fake name?” Ben asked.
“We’ll take a wild guess,” Willa said.
She and Ben studied the list. Most guests were checking in tomorrow, the day before the pony swim. Only one guest, an Anthony Fox, was checking in today, Monday.
“Fox,” Ben stated as he pointed to the screen. “That’s got to be him, Willa. I know it.”
“How?” Willa asked.
“Because he’s using the name Fox,” Ben explained, “and a mystery critic has got to be as sly—”
“As a fox,” Willa finished. “Good work, Sherlock. Something tells me we found our mystery critic.”