Tom's point was a protected piece of land where the marsh was hard and the grass especially sweet. About seventy wild ponies, exhausted by their morning's run,stood browsing quietly, as if they were in a corral. Only occasionally they looked up at their captors. The good meadow and their own weariness kept them peaceful prisoners.
At a watchful distance the roundup men rested their mounts and relaxed. It waslike the lull in the midst of a storm. All was quiet on the surface. Yet therewas an undercurrent of tension. You could tell it in the narrowed eyes of themen, their subdued voices and their too easy laughter.
Suddenly the laughter stilled. Mouths gaped in disbelief. Eyes rounded. For afew seconds no one spoke at all. Then a shout that was half wonder and halfadmiration went up from the men. Paul Beebe was bringing in the Phantom and acolt!
Even the wild herds grew excited. As one horse, they stopped grazing. Every headjerked high, to see and to smell the newcomers. The Pied Piper whirled out andgathered the mare and her colt into his band. He sniffed them all over as if tomake sure that nothing had harmed them. Then he snorted at Phantom, as much asto say, "You cause me more trouble than all the rest of my mares put together!"
The roundup men were swarming around Paul, buzzing with questions.
"How'd you do it, Paul?" Wyle Maddox called over the excited hubbub.
"Where'd you find 'em?" shouted Kim Horsepepper.
Paul made no answer. The questions floated around and above him like voices in adream. He went hot and cold by turns. Did he do the right thing by bringing thePhantom and her foal in? Miserably he watched the Phantom's head droop. Therewas no wild sweep to her mane and her tail now. The free wild thing was caughtlike a butterfly in a net. She was webbed in by men, yelling and laughing.
"Beats all!" he heard someone say. "For two years we been trying to round up thePhantom and along comes a spindling youngster to show us up."
"'Twas the little colt that hindered her."
"'Course it was."
"It's the newest colt in the bunch; may not stand the swim."
"If we lose only one colt, it'll still be a good day's work."
"Jumpin jupiter, but it's hot!"
The men accepted Paul as one of them now — a real roundup man. They wereclapping him on the shoulder and offering him candy bars. Suddenly he rememberedthe bar Grandpa had pressed into his hand. He took off the wrapper and ate —not because he was hungry, but because he wanted to seem one of the men. Theywere trying to get him to talk. "Ain't they a shaggy-lookin' bunch?" KimHorsepepper asked.
"Except for Misty," Paul said, pointing toward the Phantom's colt. "Her coat issilky." The mere thought of touching it sent shivers through him. "Misty," hethought to himself wonderingly. "Why, I've named her!"
The little foal was nursing greedily. Paul's eyes never strayed from the two ofthem. It was as if they might disappear into the mist of the morning, leavingonly the sorrels and the bays and the blacks behind.
Only once he looked out across the water. Two lines of boats were forming apony-way across the channel. He saw the cluster of people and the mounts waitingon the shores of Chincoteague and he knew that somewhere among them was Maureen.It was like a relay race. Soon she would carry on.
"Could I swim my mount across the channel alongside the Phantom?" Paul askedWyle Maddox anxiously.
Wyle shook his head. "Watch Eyes is all tuckered out," he said. "Besides,there's a kind of tradition in the way things is handled on Pony Penning Day.There's mounted men for the roundup and there's boatmen to herd 'em across thechannel," he explained.
"Tide's out!" he called in clipped tones. "Current is slack. Time for the poniesto be swinimed across. Let's go!"
Suddenly the beach was wild with commotion. From three sides the roundup mencame rushing at the ponies, their hoarse cries whipping the animals into action.They plunged into the water, the stallions leading, the mares following,neighing encouragement to their colts.
"They're off!" shouted Wyle Maddox, and everyone felt the relief and triumph inhis words.
Kim thumped Paul on the back as they boarded the scow for the ride back. "Don'tfret about yer prize," he said brusquely. "You've got the Phantom sure thistime. Once in the water she can't turn back."
But he was wrong!