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By the time and Grandpa set out on Watch Eyes and Billy Blaze, the wind had dropped to fifty miles an hour. Yet the water from the ocean was stealthily creeping up and up as if to reclaim this mote of land and take it back to the sea. Spilling and foaming, the tide continued to rise-flooding chicken farms, schoolyards, stores, and houses-in its surge to join ocean and bay.
Watch Eyes and Billy Blaze were used to surf and boggy marsh, for they had been on many a wild pony roundup. Feeling ahead for footholds they pushed forward, step by step, not seeming to mind the water splashing up on their bellies.
-Grandpa, on Blaze, cupped one hand about his mouth and yelled above the wind. "Turn off at Rattlesnake Ridge, Paul. We'll stop at Barrett's Grocery first and get the news."
Paul nodded as though he had heard. He was staring, horror-struck, at the neighbors' houses. Some had collapsed. And some had their front porches knocked off so they looked like faces with a row of teeth missing. And some were tilted at a crazy slant.
Anger boiled up in Paul-anger at the senseless brutality of the storm. He rode, shivering and talking to himself: "The big bully! Striking little frame houses that can't stand up to it, drubbing them, whopping them, knocking their props out."
A street sign veered by, narrowly missing the horses' knees. 98th Street, it said. Grandpa turned around to make sure he had read it aright. "My soul and body!" he boomed. "It scun clean down from Ocean City! That's thirty mile away!"
Without warning, Watch Eyes suddenly slipped and went floundering. Paul's quick hand tightened on the reins, lifting his head. He felt Watch Eyes jolt, then stretch out swimming. "Goit! Go it!" he shouted, and he stood up in his stirrups, feeling a kind of wild excitement. This was like swimming the channel on Pony Penning Day. Only now the water was icier and it was spilling into his boots, soaking his blue jeans and the pajamas he still had on. Yet his body was sweating and he was panting when they reached the store.
-In Barrett's store the smell of fresh-ground coffee and cheese and chewing tobacco was mixed with the stench of wet boots and dead fish. Paul stepped inside and closed the door.
Groups of men were standing, knee deep in water, gabbling to each other like long-legged shore birds. Paul waited by the door until Tom Reed beckoned him over.
"Yes, sir-r-r!" a man with a cranelike neck was saying, "I figure two, three pressure areas come together and made a kind of funnel."
Mr. Barrett was waiting on customers and listening at the same time. He leaned over the counter. "To my notion," he said, "this storm made a figure eight and come back again afore the tide ever ebbed."
Paul tugged at Tom's sleeve. " Mr. Reed," he whispered, what about Grandpa's ponies up to your place?"
"Don't know, Paul. And we won't 'til we can get back into the woods. Water's too deep to walk in, and the DUKWs are too busy rescuin' people."
The storekeeper leaned across the counter, nosing in between Paul and Tom Reed. "Who's next, gentlemen?"
Paul felt in his pocket, counting his money. "I have thirty-nine cents," he said. "I can buy two cans of beans."
"If only we'd of got some notice of this storm," Mr. Barrett was saying as he spilled the coins into the drawer. "With a hurricane you know ahead, and when it's over, it's over."
"Yup," the men agreed. "A hurricane blows crazy, then it's gone. But a tidal storm sneaks up on you and stays."
Wyle Maddox, the leader of the roundup men, had been listening as he crunched on an apple. He came over now to Tom Reed. "Tom," he said, "you're blest with mother-wit. You're the one knows most about sea and sky. How do you figure it?"
The small, spare man blushed. "Pshaw, Wyle, I'm no authority, but as I see it, the storm looped and come back, and kept a-pressin' and a-pressin' the water into the bay instead of letting it go out at ebb time."
"But why is the water so high on the bay side nearer the mainland?"
"'Cause usually it's a nor'west wind that helps the tide flow back out of the bay, but this time, wind blew nor'east and the water jes' swelled up into a bulge at the narrows, and it had to go somewheres."
The door suddenly opened, letting in the sound and cold of the wind, and with it came Grandpa Beebe, looking hale and ruddy alongside the lean fisherfolk.
"What's the news?" Mr. Barrett called out.
Grandpa looked from face to face. "Bad," he said. "Government's declared Chincoteague a disaster area."
A cry of scorn went up. "Disaster area? That's no news."
"But this is! A hull fleet of heelyacopters is comin' in from the military this afternoon and we're all supposed to e-vac-u-ate over to the main."
"Evacuate?" The word dropped like a time bomb. Then the explosion.
"Mebbe okay for sick folk."
"Yeh. Or the homeless."
"Me, I got a second story."
Everyone was talking at once. Everyone but Paul. He felt a hard lump in his stomach. He would refuse to go . . . unless they took Misty, too. The storekeeper rapped on the counter for silence. "Fellers, let's hear Mr. Beebe out."
-Grandpa took a moment before he went on. "Tide's supposed to come up higher," he announced. "Four feet higher."
"Four feet! Why, that'll flood the whole island. Every house, every store. Even the Fire House and the churches!"
"But that's only half the reason. Government says there could be an epidemic of the typhoid, 'cause of all the dead chickens and fish a-rottin' and mebbe"-Grandpa avoided Paul's eyes-"mebbe dead ponies."
The talk ceased. There was a sudden exodus. Men sloshing heavy-footed out of the store, getting into their boats, going home to their families, figuring out how to break the news.
"Come, Paul," Grandpa beckoned.
Paul followed along. "I bought us two cans of beans," he offered, not knowing what to say.
"Ain't goin' to need 'em," Grandpa said gruffly; then he turned to look at Paul. "They might taste real good, though, come to think of it."