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The Haunted Bridge
"What kind of mystery is it, Mrs. McGregor?" asked six-year-old Benny. The youngest Alden couldn't keep still. He was bouncing up and down with excitement in the backseat of the family van.
Mrs. McGregor, who was sitting up front beside Grandfather Alden, looked over her shoulder and smiled. "It's Norah's story to tell, Benny," she said. "Not mine."
Henry gave his little brother a playful nudge. "Hold your horses, Benny," he said. "It won't be long before we're at Eton Place." At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the Aldens.
"I guess I can hold my horses a little bit longer," said Benny. He didn't like to wait.
Norah Eton, a good friend of the Aldens' housekeeper, had invited Mrs. McGregor and the four Alden children to come for a visit in the country. There was an old mystery that needed solving, and Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny were eager to hear all about it. There was nothing the Aldens liked better than a mystery. And together they'd managed to solve quite a few.
Twelve-year-old Jessie looked up from the map she was studying. "We make a left at the next road, Grandfather," she told him. Jessie was the best map reader in the family. She always knew how to get where they were going.
"Oh, now I remember!" Mrs. McGregor nodded. "It's been so long since I've been out this way, my memory's a bit foggy."
"How long has it been, Mrs. McGregor?" Grandfather Alden asked, as they turned off the highway onto a gravel road full of twists and turns.
"Let me see, now ... Norah's great-niece, Pam, was just a toddler the last time I saw her," said Mrs. McGregor. She thought for a moment "Now she would be about Violet's age."
At the mention of her name, ten-year-old Violet turned away from the window. "Will Pam be staying with her great-aunt Norah all summer?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, I imagine so," Mrs. McGregor answered. "She usually does. You see, her parents own an antique store in the city. They spend their summers traveling all over the country hunting for treasures."
Benny's eyebrows shot up. "Treasures?"
"Interesting old things to sell in their store," explained Mrs. McGregor. "They stop at every flea market and swap meet they can find."
That sounded like fun to Benny. "Why doesn't Pam go along?"
"Travel can be tiring," put in Grandfather, who often went away on business.
"Yes, indeed," agreed Mrs. McGregor.
"I imagine Pam would much rather spend her summers with her great-aunt Norah."
"That makes sense," said Henry.
Mrs. McGregor went on, "When Norah and I were young, we loved exploring Eton Place—all the fields and the streams and the woods. The property's been in the Eton family for a long time. As a matter of fact," she added, "Norah's putting together a history of the Eton family. She even hired a college student to help with the research."
"That must be interesting," said Jessie. "I'd like to put together a history of the Alden family sometime."
Benny tapped on his sister's shoulder to get her attention. "Don't forget to mention Watch, Jessie," he reminded her. Watch was the family dog.
"Oh, Benny!" Jessie laughed. "I'd never forget Watch."
"How about our boxcar?" asked Benny.
"I'd never forget our boxcar, either," Jessie told her little brother. "Our old home is an important part of our family history."
After their parents died, Jessie, Henry, Benny, and Violet had run away. They found an old boxcar in the woods and stayed there for a while. Then James Alden found his grandchildren and brought them to live with him in his big white house in Greenfield. He even gave the boxcar a special place in the backyard. The children often used their former home as a clubhouse.
"I'm glad I brought my camera along," said Violet. "We can take pictures of our trip to go in our family history."
James Alden smiled into the rear view mirror. "Photos are a great way to keep a record of the times."
"I wonder what they did in the olden days," Jessie said thoughtfully, "before cameras were invented."
"They didn't have cameras back then?" Benny sounded surprised.
Violet shook her head. "Not until the 1820s." Violet knew a lot about photography. It was one of her hobbies.
"You're becoming a real expert, Violet," said Henry.
"Thanks, Henry." Violet beamed. "But I still have a lot to learn."
Grandfather spotted a small gas station. He pulled up close to the gas pumps. A woman with gray streaks in her dark hair came over to the car.
"Fill 'er up?" the woman asked with a friendly smile. She was wearing blue overalls with the name DARLENE embroidered across the front.
Grandfather nodded. "You read my mind."
While Darlene filled the tank, the children hopped out of the car. They set to work washing the windows and the headlights.
"You folks on vacation?" Darlene asked them.
Jessie nodded. "We're spending a week in the country."
"At Eton Place," Benny added.
As Darlene replaced the cap on the gas tank, she lowered her voice. "A word of advice," she said. "Don't go fishing from the old stone bridge. Some say it's haunted." Her eyes twinkled but her voice was serious.
The children were so surprised by Darlene's word that they were speechless. Before they had a chance to ask any questions, Grandfather had paid the bill and they were on their way again.
"Eton Place sounds a little ... spooky," Benny said as they drove along.
"You don't believe there's really a ghost, do you?" Henry asked in his sensible way.
"Um, no," Benny said. But he didn't sound too sure.
Violet added, "Darlene was just teasing."
"I imagine she was talking about the ghost of the Chattering Bones," put in Mrs. McGregor.
The children all looked at their housekeeper in surprise. "The ghost of the what?" said Benny, his eyes round. "Did you say—"
"Oh, look!" Mrs. McGregor broke in, as the car rounded a curve. "There's the mailbox!"
Benny craned his neck. "Where?" he asked. He had been thinking about chattering bones. They were a scary thought.
Mrs. McGregor pointed to the side of the road. Sure enough, up ahead was a mailbox set atop a post. The shiny gold lettering on the side of the mailbox read: ETON PLACE.
Grandfather turned the station wagon into a long driveway that wound through the trees. They slowed to a stop when they came to a big plum-colored house with a large porch. On one side was an orchard. On the other, a flower garden.
"Oh, a purple house!" Violet cried with delight as she scooted sideways out of the wide backseat. Purple was Violet's favorite color. She almost always wore something purple or violet.
"Yes, the house has always been plum-colored," said Mrs. McGregor as Henry opened the car door for her. "Thanks to Meg Plum."
As Grandfather lifted the suitcases out of the car, Jessie noticed a tall, silver-haired woman in a flowery-blue sundress standing near the orchard. She was talking to a man in a business suit. As if feeling Jessie's eyes on her, the woman suddenly looked over.
"Margaret!" The tall woman rushed towards Mrs. McGregor. "How wonderful to see you!"
"It's been too long," said Mrs. McGregor, returning her friend's warm hug.
"And this fine-looking group must be the Alden family!" Norah Eton said.
Mrs. McGregor proudly introduced everyone. "Welcome to Eton Place!" Norah said, a smile spreading across her face. "I can't wait for you to meet my niece. I know she'll enjoy your company."
"We're looking forward to meeting Pam," said Jessie, speaking for them all.
"Guess what, Mrs. Eton?" Benny put in. He was still thinking about the mystery.
"We're pretty good at tracking down clues," he told her proudly.
"So I've heard," said Norah. "I'll tell you all about the old mystery after dinner, Benny. But you have to promise me one thing."
"All right," said Benny. "What is it?"
"You must call me Norah."
"Okay, Norah," agreed Benny. "It's a deal!"
Just then, a voice boomed out. "I'm Spence Morton." The man in the business suit walked toward the group and put out his hand for Grandfather to shake. "I hope you're not here about the bridge, too," he said. "I made a fair offer, but I'll go higher if necessary."
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny looked at each other in bewilderment. Was this the same bridge Darlene had mentioned?
Spence Morton went on, "I was passing through town and happened to pick up a local paper." He pulled a newspaper out from under his arm and thumped a finger under a picture of an old stone bridge. "This is exactly what I've been looking for!" he told them, his eyes glittering behind gold-rimmed glasses. "My wife takes great pride in her English garden," he added, "and this charming bridge will be perfect for the stream that runs through it."
"That bridge is not for sale," Norah stated icily. "As I said before, you're wasting your time."
The man did not look pleased to hear this. "Everything has a price tag," he insisted.
"We'll see about that." Norah's mouth was set in a thin, hard line.
"Mark my words," said Spence Morton, "I'll do whatever it takes to get what I want." With that, he turned and walked away.
Norah sighed. "Every time I turn around lately, there's Spence Morton. Yesterday I found him measuring my bridge! Can you believe it?"
Mrs. McGregor shook her head. "The nerve!"
"He isn't a bad person, but ..." Norah stopped and let out a long sigh.
"But," finished Grandfather, "he just won't take no for an answer."
Norah nodded slowly. "I wish now I'd never let the newspaper do that write-up on my bridge." Then, changing the subject, she added, "Will you join us for a late dinner, James? There's plenty to go around."
"Thanks, Norah," he said, "but the sun's already going down, and I still have some business to take care of."
Grandfather gave a cheery honk as he drove away. Everyone waved, then headed toward the plum-colored house.
Mrs. McGregor looked around as they stepped inside. She smiled at Norah. "I see you've made some changes," she said.
"Yes, I finally got around to fixing the house up a bit," said Norah. As she led the way to the stairs, she shook her head. "But what a mess! Walls torn down ... floorboards pulled up. This place was a real disaster area for a while."
Upstairs, a room with plum-patterned wallpaper was waiting for Mrs. McGregor, another with fan-shaped windows for Violet and Jessie. A third bedroom with twin beds and fringed blue bedspreads was just right for Henry and Benny.
"We've been keeping dinner warm for you," Norah told them. "Anybody hungry?"
Benny waved his hand in the air. "I am! I am!" he cried, to no one's surprise. The youngest Alden was always hungry.
Norah laughed. "Well, come on down as soon as you've settled in."
It didn't take the Aldens long to unpack. They were waiting for Violet to finish brushing her hair when Benny cried, "Look!" He was peering through one of the fan-shaped windows.
Jessie could tell by her little brother's face that something had startled him. "What's going on, Benny?" she asked, stepping up beside him.
"Look down there!" Benny said, his eyes wide.
"What is it?" Henry hurried over, with Violet close behind.
"It's a bridge!" declared Benny.
The Aldens huddled around, straining to see out into the gathering darkness. Sure enough, the shadowy outline of a curved stone bridge could be seen in a far corner of the backyard.
"There must be a creek behind the house," noted Henry.
Violet said, "I can't be sure, but I think that's the bridge that was in the newspaper."
"Got to be," said Jessie. "That's the one Spence Morton wants to buy. I'm sure of it."
Benny nodded. "I bet it's the haunted bridge Darlene was talking about. We're not supposed to go fishing from it, remember?"
"Of course we can go fishing from it, Benny," Henry insisted. "The bridge isn't haunted."
"No one goes fishing from that bridge," said a voice behind them. "No one does. Ever."CHAPTER 2
A Strange Verse
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny turned around quickly in surprise. A young girl about Violet's age was standing at the opened door, watching them. She was wearing jeans and a green T-shirt. Her blond curls were held back from her face with a beaded headband.
"You must be Pam," Jessie said with a friendly smile.
"That's right. And you must be the Aldens."
"Yes. I'm Jessie, and this is Henry, Benny, and Violet." Jessie motioned to her brothers and sister in turn.
"I don't get it," said Henry. "Why doesn't anyone go fishing from—"
Before Henry could finish his thought, Pam wheeled around and walked off.
The Aldens looked at one another in confusion. "Pam sure seemed in a hurry to get away," Violet said with a puzzled frown.
"I guess she didn't want to talk about the bridge," said Jessie. "I wonder why."
Henry shrugged. "Beats me."
"I bet it is haunted," Benny said in a hushed voice. "I just bet!"
"Help yourself to more meatballs, Benny," Norah urged at dinner.
The youngest Alden didn't need to be coaxed. "Thanks," he said, eagerly adding a few more to his plate of spaghetti.
Mrs. McGregor turned to Norah's great-niece. "You've really grown since I saw you last, Pam," she said with a warm smile.
"Time sure flies, doesn't it?" Norah took the basket of garlic bread that Violet handed her. "Pam was only a toddler when she spent her first summer with me." Norah reached out and gave her niece an affectionate pat on the arm.
Violet looked over at Pam. "You must miss your parents."
Pam's face turned red and she lowered her eyes.
"We miss Grandfather whenever he goes away on business," Benny chimed in as he wiped tomato sauce from his chin.
Pam looked glumly at her plate. "Who needs parents around all the time?"
The Aldens were surprised by her words, but they didn't say anything.
Just then, a young woman in a yellow halter top and matching shorts came into the room. She was very tall with lots of curly brown hair. "Sorry I'm late, Norah," she said, slipping into an empty chair beside Jessie. "I lose all track of time when I'm working."
"Not to worry," Norah said with a cheery smile. "Everything's still piping hot." Then she introduced Mrs. McGregor and the Aldens to Annette Tanning. "Annette's helping me research the Eton family. She's from out-of-state, so she'll be staying here until school starts again in the fall."
"You're in college, Annette?" Jessie asked, passing the salad along.
"Yes, I'm studying history." Annette placed a napkin over her lap. "When I saw Norah's ad for a research assistant, I jumped at it."
Norah smiled. "I was lucky to get such a hard worker."
"I really love looking through old things," Annette went on. "You never know what treasures you'll find."
That got Benny's attention. "You found a treasure?"
"Not a real treasure." Annette laughed nervously. "Nothing like that. Just interesting facts. That's all I meant about—" She stopped suddenly as if she knew she'd said too much.
Benny polished off his milk. "We're good at finding real treasures," he said proudly. "Right, Henry?"
"We have found a few," Henry admitted.
Seeing Annette's puzzled face, Mrs. McGregor explained, "These children are first-class detectives."
"Detectives?" Pam looked over in surprise.
"We solve mysteries," Benny told her with a grin. "That's our specialty."
Norah turned to her assistant. "I think we have just the mystery for them. Right, Annette?"
"What ...?" Annette held her fork in mid-air. "What are you talking about?" She sounded upset.
"Why, Meg Plum's mystery, of course," answered Norah. "What else?"
Suddenly Annette's whole manner changed. "If you don't think I'm doing a good job, Norah, just say so!" She stabbed at a meatball with her fork.
The Aldens were surprised. They stared at Annette with their mouths open.
"Of course I think you're doing a good job." Norah looked shocked. "What's gotten into you, Annette?"
"Well, for starters, I can't work with a bunch of kids in the way."
Benny put down his fork. "But we never get in the way."
Mrs. McGregor was quick to agree. "The Aldens are very self-reliant."
"Of course they are," agreed Norah. "No reason for anyone to be upset." But it was clear that Annette was upset.
"We'll do our best to help," Henry promised.
"Thank you, Henry," said Norah.
Annette looked as if she wanted to argue. But she didn't. She finished her dinner in silence, not looking too pleased. Then she excused herself and left the room.
Norah apologized for her assistant's behavior. "Annette has many good qualities, but she can be a bit moody sometimes."
When the Aldens were clearing the table, Henry let out a low whistle. "Annette sure doesn't want us helping out," he said.
Benny added, "She wasn't very friendly."
"I guess we'd better keep out of her way," said Jessie, filling the sink with hot, soapy water. The children agreed.
After leaving the kitchen spic-and-span, the four Alden children hurried out to the front porch. Norah and Mrs. McGregor were sipping iced tea and chatting. Pam was bent over a jigsaw puzzle nearby. Annette was nowhere in sight.
The Aldens made themselves comfortable. Then Benny looked at Norah—was she ready to tell them about the mystery?
Norah was ready. She took a last sip of her iced tea, then placed the empty glass on the table beside her. In the soft glow of the porch light, with the crickets singing in the dark, she began telling them an odd tale.
Excerpted from The Boxcar Children Spooky Special by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2006 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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