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A Pumpkin Head Ghost
"How does it look?" asked Jessie, stepping down from the ladder. She stood on the lawn and looked up at the fall decorations on Grandfather's big white house.
"It's very pretty," said ten-year-old Violet. She tied a yellow ribbon to a pot of purple mums. Purple was Violet's favorite color. She placed the pot next to the front door.
"Nice job, Jessie," said Henry. "I will put the ladder away for you when I am done here." Henry was hammering a post into the ground. At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the four Alden children. "That feels nice and sturdy," he said. "Are you ready, Benny?"
Henry, Jessie, and Violet looked down at six-year-old Benny. They burst out laughing. Their little brother was covered in straw from head to toe. He was stuffing an old pair of pants and shirt.
"I can't tell which one is the scarecrow and which one is Benny," said Henry.
Benny jumped up. "I am Benny!" he cried. "And this is Sam. But he's not done yet."
"Let me help," said Jessie. Jessie was twelve and often acted like a mother to her younger brother. She pinned Sam's shirt to his pants. She struggled to button all the buttons on the bulging shirt.
"Sam sure is a fat scarecrow," said Violet.
"I stuffed him with a lot of straw," said Benny. "I didn't want him to be hungry."
Violet smiled. "Scarecrows don't get hungry," she said.
"But I sure do!" Benny cried. Benny was famous for his big appetite.
Henry patted the round stomach of the scarecrow. "If only it were that easy to fill up Benny!" he said. Henry began to tie the scarecrow to the post.
"Wait!" Benny cried. "Sam doesn't have a head yet. What can I use to make a head?"
"How about a pumpkin head?" asked Henry. "We could carve a face into it and light a candle inside it at night."
"Cool idea!" Benny cried. "That would be spooky!"
"I would like some pumpkins to decorate the front porch, too," Jessie said.
Just then Grandfather drove up the driveway. "The house looks terrific," he called out the open window. The four Aldens were orphans. After their parents died, they ran away and lived in an abandoned boxcar in the woods. Their grandfather found them and brought them to live with him in his big house in Greenfield.
"Do you like my scarecrow, Grandfather?" Benny asked. "I named him Sam. But we need to find a pumpkin to make his head. I'm going to make him a spooky scarecrow."
"Well, would you like to come with me?" Grandfather asked. "I am on my way to visit old friends of mine, George and Mae Beckett. They have a farm. I am sure that they have pumpkins for sale."
"We'd love to," Jessie said. She brushed the straw from Benny's clothes and the children piled into Grandfather's car.
After a short ride, Grandfather turned onto a dirt lane. A sign by the road read Beckett Farm: Hayrides, Pumpkins, Flowers, and Fresh Farm Vegetables for Sale. The sign was crooked. It looked as though it might fall over.
"That's odd," said Grandfather. "That was a new sign. George put it up just last year. I wonder what happened to it?"
They drove up the lane. "What a beautiful place," Violet said. Fields and hills surrounded them. The leaves on the trees were turning bright shades of yellow and orange and red.
Grandfather parked the car on a gravel lot next to a farm stand. "This looks like the perfect place for you children to pick out some pumpkins. Why don't you look around? I will go find my friends."
The farm stand had pumpkins and pots of flowers for sale.
"There are so many flowers!" Violet said, looking at the display racks. A small goat stuck its head through a fence. It tried to nibble on the flowers.
"Look at that horse over there," Henry said. "It is as black as midnight." The beautiful mare grazed on the grass in a nearby field.
Jessie admired the colorful autumn wreaths. "Look, Henry. Wouldn't this be nice on the front door?" she asked.
A loud groan made them turn quickly. Benny was standing in a pile of pumpkins. He was trying to lift one of the biggest ones. His face was quite red.
"Stop that! Get away from there!" An angry woman shouted from a small booth at the back of the farm stand. She walked out of the booth and straight up to Benny.
"What do you think you are doing?" she asked accusingly.
Jessie hurried to her brother's side. "We are only shopping for some pumpkins," she explained. "Is there something wrong?"
The woman put her hands on her hips. She looked carefully at the pumpkins. "If you crack any of these pumpkins open, you must pay for them."
"Of course," Jessie said. "We will be very careful."
"You'd better be!" The woman gave Benny an angry look and walked away.
"I didn't hurt any of the pumpkins," Benny said.
Jessie pulled some straw from Benny's hair. "I know you didn't," she said. She saw the angry woman watching them from beside her booth.
Just then, Grandfather walked across the lawn and waved to the children. "The Becketts would like to meet you," he said. "Come on up to the farmhouse."
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny walked with Grandfather toward the house.
"It's just like a picture in a magazine!" Violet said. "I wish I had my camera."
A large pumpkin patch stretched out behind the old white house. Next to the house was a big red barn. The Becketts looked like they were the same age as Grandfather. They were sitting on their wide front porch. A delicious aroma floated through the screen door.
"Wow! Something smells really good!" Benny said.
Mrs. Beckett smiled. "That's my apple pie," she said. "I've just taken it out of the oven. It is cooling on the table."
Benny took a long, deep breath. "My nose can almost taste your pie," he said.
Grandfather laughed. "George and Mae, I'd like to introduce you to my grandchildren, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny."
"You have a beautiful farm," Violet said.
"And big pumpkins!" Benny added. "But I didn't hurt any of them."
The Becketts seemed confused. Jessie explained about the angry woman.
"Oh, George. You should never have let Bessie come back to work at the farm." Mrs. Beckett looked at the Aldens. "We had to fire Bessie last season," she explained. "She has a bad temper. She was not very polite to the customers."
Mr. Beckett's leg was in a big cast. It was propped on a chair. His crutches leaned against the side of the house. "I'm sorry that Bessie was so rude to you, children. She runs the farm stand for me. She should be nice to customers, but sometimes she is not. I can't afford to fire her right now, though. I need the help. It is hard to run a farm with a broken leg."
"That's true," Mrs. Beckett said. "But Bessie has been calling in sick quite a lot lately. She is not as much help as she should be."
"How did you break your leg, George?" asked Grandfather.
Mr. and Mrs. Beckett exchanged a worried glance, then looked at the children.
Just then, a woman with curly red hair marched out of the house onto the porch. "I'll tell you how my father broke his leg. He was chasing after a pumpkin-head ghost in the middle of the night," she said. "Like an old fool."
Benny had been sitting in a small rocking chair. He jumped to his feet. "You have ghosts?" he asked.
Jessie put her arm around her brother. "There are no such things as ghosts," she said.
Mr. Beckett introduced his daughter Sally to the Aldens. "Sally lives in Florida," Mr. Beckett said. "But she is here on the farm for a visit." Then Mr. Beckett turned to Benny. "And your sister, Jessie, is right," he said. "There are no such things as ghosts."
Sally crossed her arms. "Well then what was it that spooked your horse? I thought you said that a pumpkin head ghost ..."
"Sally! Please!" Mrs. Beckett looked nervously toward the children.
"Fine." Sally sighed. She flung her purse over her shoulder. "I am heading into town," she said. "I have a lot to do."
"Please do not go to see Dave Bolger again, Sally," Mr. Beckett said.
"Dad, I have a lot of errands to run. But I might stop in Mr. Bolger's office, too. He is waiting for an answer. And I am, too. You know how much I want you and Mom to come live in Florida."
Mr. Beckett began to shake his head. "Sally, we have already answered you. I'm sorry, but we do not want to move to Florida."
"But your grandchildren hardly ever get to see you!" Sally threw her hands in the air. "And you are both too old to be here alone on this farm. It makes me worry."
Mr. Beckett gripped the arms of his chair. "Sally, we love this farm. And we are perfectly able to take care of it. We are not selling it!"
A man wearing jeans and a flannel shirt walked up to the house. "Tractor's broken again, George," he said. "We'll have to cancel the hayride for the children from the nursery school." Mr. Beckett introduced the man to the Aldens. He was Jason Wylie, a neighbor who also worked on the farm.
"But I just fixed the tractor yesterday," Mr. Beckett said to Jason. "It was working fine this morning."
Jason shrugged. He had a dark oil stain on his hand. When he saw Henry staring at it, he quickly stuffed his hand into his pocket. "Nothing I can do about it," he said. "I don't know anything about tractor engines. Anyway, this is a farm, not a nursery school playground."
Sally turned toward her parents. "See what I mean?" she said. "There is nothing but problems here." She and Jason walked together toward the gravel parking lot. They stood talking next to Sally's car. Sally seemed to be explaining something to Jason. He nodded his head several times. He glanced up at the porch, then quickly turned away.
Mrs. Beckett stood up. "I think we could all use a nice piece of pie," she said. "Is anyone interested?"
"I am!" Benny cried, jumping up. "I'm starving!"
Jessie shook her head at her little brother.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude," Benny said. "I guess I just got excited. The pie smells so good."
Mr. Beckett laughed as he struggled to his feet. "You were not rude. I'm excited, too! My wife makes the best pie in the whole county. You will love it."
Violet handed Mr. Beckett his crutches. Benny rushed to hold the door open.
The old farm kitchen had a wooden floor and a big, round table. The table was covered with a red and white checked tablecloth. The freshly baked pie sat in the center. Jessie set plates out for everyone while Mrs. Beckett made coffee. Henry and Violet filled four tall glasses with milk.
Mrs. Beckett looked tired. She sat at the table and cut big slices of pie for everyone.
Mr. Beckett sat beside his wife. He put his hand over hers. "It was such a bad time to break my leg," he explained. "This is a busy time of year on our farm."
"Yes," said Mrs. Beckett. "In the fall, we have many customers who come here for our haunted hayrides. They buy a lot of pumpkins and flowers, too."
"Haunted hayrides?" Benny looked around the kitchen with wide eyes. "But I thought you said there were no ghosts here."
"They're not real ghosts, Benny," Grandfather said.
"It is all for fun," Mr. Beckett explained. "Customers get a hayride in the dark around the farm."
"It sounds scary," said Violet.
"It is a little scary, Violet," said Mrs. Beckett. "We hire people to dress up in spooky costumes. But everyone knows it is just pretend. People like to be scared for fun on a haunted hayride. Afterwards, we give out cookies and hot apple cider. And if you don't like to be scared, we have fun hayrides in the daytime, too."
"Wow! This is an awesome farm," Benny said.
"Thank you," said Mr. Beckett. "We do love it here. It is a special place. I don't think we could ever sell it to Dave Bolger."
"Has Dave Bolger made you an offer?" asked Grandfather.
"Yes," Mrs. Beckett said. "He has offered us a lot of money for it. Sally wants us to sell the farm and buy a retirement home in Florida. That way, we could live close to her and our two grandchildren." Mrs. Beckett looked around her cozy kitchen. "But we are not ready to give up our farm."
"And Mr. Bolger will not leave us alone!" Mr. Beckett said. "He makes a new offer every week."
Jessie poured more milk into Benny's glass. "Is Mr. Bolger a farmer, too?" she asked. "He must understand how you feel about your farm."
"No," said Mr. Beckett. "He does not understand. Mr. Bolger is a builder. He bought the Wilson farm next to ours. He built a lot of houses there. Now he wants to buy our farm so he can build more houses." Mr. Beckett looked out the window at his fields.
Mrs. Beckett wiped crumbs from the table. "Our daughter, Sally, might be right about one thing, though," she said. "We have been having a lot of problems lately. And until George gets that cast off his leg, I don't know how we will be able to keep up with things around here."
"We could help," Henry said.
"Yes," Jessie agreed. "We would be happy to help out on your farm."
Mr. Beckett looked surprised. "Farm work can be very hard," he said.
Grandfather smiled. "My grandchildren don't mind hard work. And they like to be helpful."
"That would be wonderful," Mr. Beckett said. "If you're sure you don't mind, we could really use the help."
"We don't mind at all," Violet said.
Suddenly, everyone seemed to be staring at Benny. He was carefully plucking the last little crumbs from his plate. Then he began to lick a small bit of apple from his fork.
"Oh, Benny," Jessie said. "I think you have gotten it all."
Benny looked up. His face turned red.
Mrs. Beckett hid a small smile. "We do need help around here," she said. "For example, there is one piece of apple pie left. It is too small to save, but I do not like to throw food away."
Benny sat up straight in his chair. "I can help with that!" he said. He held his plate out to Mrs. Beckett.
Grandfather laughed. "When it comes to eating, Benny can always be counted on to help out."
While Grandfather spoke with the Becketts, the children walked back to the farm stand to pick out their pumpkins. Jessie found a few to decorate the front porch. Benny discovered a bright orange one that would be a perfect pumpkin head for his scarecrow.
"I'll carry these to the car," Henry offered.
"I will go pay for them," Violet said. She took the money that Grandfather had given her and walked to the small booth. She did not see Bessie. Violet walked to the side door of the booth and knocked. The door opened slightly when she touched it. Violet saw a roll of tickets, a plate of snacks for sale, and a box with money in it.
"Hello?" she called. But no one was inside. Violet decided to put the money in the cash box. As she left the small booth, she heard someone talking—someone with an angry voice. She could not make out the words. But she saw Bessie standing in the trees on the other side of the field. She seemed to be arguing with a man in a dark suit. Violet hurried back to the car.
Grandfather started the engine and the Aldens headed for home. Violet wondered about what she had seen.
There certainly did seem to be a lot of problems on the Beckett farm.CHAPTER 2
Farm Stand Trouble
"I can't wait until it is dark!" Benny cried.
"It won't be long now," Jessie said. "I will go find a candle."
Henry lifted the pumpkin head onto the top of the scarecrow. Watch, the Alden's wire-haired terrier, barked excitedly.
"You carved such a scary face into that pumpkin," Violet said. "I don't think Watch likes it very much."
Benny rubbed Watch's head. "Don't worry, Watch. Sam is just pretend. He is for fun. Scarecrows can't hurt anybody. They can't even move!"
When Jessie came back, she placed a candle inside the pumpkin head. The eerie face glowed in the dark.
"Oh, my! That scarecrow gave me a fright!" Mrs. McGregor, the Aldens' housekeeper, stood on the front lawn. She held a big platter filled with marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. "You have been working so hard out here," she said. "I thought you might like a snack."
"Wow! S'mores!" Benny cried. He jumped up and took the platter from Mrs. McGregor. "Thank you!"
Mrs. McGregor lit a small fire in the fire pit. Soon all four children were toasting marshmallows. Benny made a double-decker sandwich. He piled lots of chocolate and gooey marshmallows between his graham crackers. Just as he opened his mouth to take a big bite, there was a loud screech and a honking horn.
Violet jumped. "What was that?" she asked.
Henry pointed toward the road that ran in front of Grandfather's house. "There was almost a bad accident out there. One car stopped and another one came close to hitting it."
"I wonder why a car would stop in that spot?" Jessie asked. "That's odd."
The drivers shouted at each other, but the children could not hear what they said.
Violet stood up. "I hope everyone is all right."
Finally, both cars drove off. The Aldens watched the two sets of red taillights disappear down the road into the darkness.
"Everything seems to be fine now," Henry said.
After the children finished their s'mores, Henry put out the fire.
Jessie blew out the candle in the pumpkin head. "We should get some rest," she said. "We promised we would be at the Beckett farm early tomorrow morning."
After a big breakfast of blueberry pancakes made by Mrs. McGregor, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny hopped on their bicycles and rode to the farm. They stopped to rest by the sign at the farm's entrance.
Henry jumped off his bike. "I think this sign is even more crooked than ever," he said. "I'm sure I can fix it. I'll ask Mr. Beckett for some tools."
"Look at that!" Violet exclaimed. She pointed at a smashed pumpkin underneath the sign. "That wasn't there yesterday."
Just then, a speeding blue car turned sharply into the lane.
"Watch out!" cried Jessie. She pulled Benny out of the way just in time.
The car did not stop. The man behind the wheel blew his horn at the Aldens and raced toward the farmhouse. It looked like Jason. A cloud of dust followed him.
Excerpted from The Pumpkin Head Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2009 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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