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The Traveling Tomatoes
"My tomatoes are moving!" Six-year old Benny Alden stood in the garden. He squinted one eye and looked down a row of tomato plants. Yesterday, the row was nice and neat. Today the rows looked zig-zagged.
Benny's brother and two sisters gardened nearby. The Alden children were helping grow vegetables behind The Applewood Café, one of their very favorite restaurants.
"Plants don't just get up and walk around," said his sister Jessie.
"These did," said Benny.
Fourteen-year-old Henry walked over and stood behind Benny. The two brothers peered down the row of tomatoes. "They do look cockeyed," said Henry. "Have you measured them?"
"Not yet," said Benny. He opened the "Measuring Workbook" Henry had made to teach him how to measure things. Benny learned how to use a scale to measure how much things weighed. Here in the garden, he used a ruler to measure how far apart he planted the plants. "I planted the tomatoes two rulers, or twenty-four inches apart," he said. "But look." He moved the ruler this way and that between the plants. They measured ten inches apart, or thirty-six inches, all sorts of odd numbers.
Jessie pulled weeds nearby. The twelve-year-old still did not believe plants could move around all by themselves. "Maybe animals dug around your plants," she said. "It might have been raccoons, or dogs, or rabbits."
"Jessie's ... probably ... right," huffed ten-year-old Violet. She tugged and lugged a small wagon through the soft garden soil. The wagon was piled high with stacks of old newspapers. "Remember, last week your ... turnips were all ... jumbled up?" she said. "That's why we made Spooky."
Spooky the Scarecrow smiled down at them. He wore the faded shirt and old pair of pants Grandfather had donated to the garden. The children had stuffed the clothing with straw. They made Spooky's head out of a muddy green bag they'd found in the alley behind the Café. Benny used Violet's markers to draw a smiley face. Jessie stuffed the bag with straw and Violet sewed the head to Spooky's body. When the scarecrow was ready, Henry nailed Spooky to a large post in the middle of the garden. Spooky was supposed to keep critters from eating the food in their garden.
Benny looked at Spooky, then looked at his messy tomato plants. "You're not scaring anything," he said. "I should have given you a scarier face."
Jessie and Violet lifted the newspapers off the wagon. They spread them on the ground around the plants. The newspapers would keep weeds from growing.
After a little while, Violet noticed that her sister had stopped working. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Jessie perched on her hands and knees, peering down at a page of the Greenfield Gazette. "Listen to this," she said. "'Baffling Bank Robbery. It's been two months since a thief disguised as an armored car driver robbed the Greenfield Bank. The robber looked like—'"
Applewood Café's back door banged open. "Time for lunch," called Laura Shea, the café's owner. She balanced a chubby baby on each hip. She smiled at the young gardeners. "Anyone hungry?" The Aldens didn't need to be called twice. They quickly ran inside to wash up.
There were many things the children loved about the small café. Henry, who was very good at building things, liked the old saws, hammers, and other tools hanging everywhere around the room. Benny liked the café's "Then and Now" photos. In one old "then" photo, Greenfield farmers drove horses and carts along Main Street to carry their vegetables to market. The "now" photo showed the same street filled with cars and shops. Benny especially liked the photos showing the café the day the Sheas bought it. Laura and David Shea stood smiling in front of a rickety old house. They smiled even though the porch was falling off and the roof was falling in. Prickly weeds grew all around, and the windows were boarded up with big sheets of metal. A faded red, white, and blue sign that read "For Sale by Sally" stood in front.
Violet, who liked things clean and tidy, liked the "now" photo better. The Sheas had painted the old house powder blue. They'd put on a new roof and porch. Large windows replaced the sheets of metal. The weedy back yard became a beautiful garden. The ugly old house changed into a bright, cozy restaurant.
The Sheas grew much of the food they served at the café. But then last year, Mrs. Shea had twins! After Sophie and Tatum were born, she was worried that she would be too busy with the babies and the café to plant the vegetables. The Aldens volunteered to help out in the garden. They enjoyed hard work, and they were happy to lend a hand where they could.
The Aldens learned plenty of new things while working in the garden. The secret to The Applewood Café garden was something the Sheas called "Black Gold." One day Mrs. Shea showed the Aldens three big cans full of rich black soil called compost.
"Rumpelstiltskin spun gold out of straw," she'd told them. "David and I spin gold out of garbage." She had picked up a fat worm and held it in her palm. "At the end of each day, we toss our kitchen and garden scraps into these cans. Hundreds of red wrigglers live inside. We feed the worms free meals, and they turn the garbage into gold." As the worm moved, it left behind something that looked like a small piece of pencil lead.
"Is that ... worm poop?" asked Benny. Mrs. Shea laughed. "It's called a casting. But, yes, Benny, it is worm poop. And it's this 'black gold' that makes our plants grow so big and strong."
The Aldens had been amazed that something so small could make such a big difference.
Now their lunch was ready at the café. "Here you go," said Mrs. Shea, setting the plates on the table. Benny and Henry ate the Hopple-Popple, which was eggs scrambled with pieces of hot dogs, potatoes, and onions. Violet's tuna salad was mixed with grapes and raisins and served inside a scooped-out tomato picked fresh from the garden. Jessie ordered the fresh fruit plate that came with a cup of strawberry yogurt and slice of banana bread.
As the hungry gardeners dug into their delicious meals, other customers arrived for lunch. A sour-faced woman walked in with a husky young man. She plucked a menu from the counter and bent her nose to the page.
"Who can read such small print?" she complained. "And what are those?" She pointed at pretty little plants decorating the tables. "Is that parsley?" she said. "Mint? Basil?" She sniffed. "Whoever heard of putting herbs on tables instead of flowers? Humph!"
"Come on, Aunt Faye." The man led her into the café. "Let's find a table."
As they passed the Aldens, the woman peered at everyone's food. "What is that supposed to be?" she asked.
"Oh," said Jessie, "this is—"
But the woman wasn't listening. She frowned at the children's clothing. "Hasn't anyone taught you how to dress for a restaurant?" She glowered at Violet's braids. Violet had clipped them up on top of her head to keep them from dragging in the garden dirt. "Such an odd hairstyle," said the woman.
"Let's go, Aunt Faye." The burly man led his aunt to a table. "I told you we should have gone to Le Grand Paris. You won't find noisy children dining at fine French restaurants."
Benny glanced at his brother and sisters. "Were we being noisy?" he whispered.
"We were not," Violet whispered back.
A man wearing a vest with many pockets sat at the table behind the Aldens. He leaned a metal detector against the wall. The children often saw people using detectors in the park and at the beach. They knew that the detectors found coins, jewelry and other metal objects people lost.
Mr. Shea, who was the café's chef, came out of the kitchen to the Aldens' table. "How's my fantastic four?" he said, his voice booming. He slid a dish of fresh-baked cookies on the table. Then he set down a piece of paper and a pen. "Here's your puzzle for the day," he said. "Have fun."
The children bent over the paper. Every time they came in, Mr. Shea gave them a new photo puzzle to solve. "Find Ten Differences," it said at the top of the page. Below were two photos of a park. At first, the photos looked exactly alike. But as the children searched, they found differences.
"This photo has four shovels in the sandbox," said Benny. "The other has five." Henry circled the shovels with a pen.
Jessie pointed to the bike. "This has a bell on the handlebars," she said. "The other has a toy Tyrannosaurus Rex."
The children circled seven more differences but they couldn't find the tenth. "We'll look at this later," said Henry. "We should get back to work." Henry and the girls stood but Benny kept studying the two pictures. "Benny?" said Henry.
Benny didn't hear him. He stared at the photos so hard his eyeballs hurt. "There!" he cried, jabbing the photo with his finger. "There!"
"Where?" said the others.
Benny pointed to a small cloud in the corner of each picture. "This one is shaped like a bear, but this one is shaped like a dog."
"High-five!" cried the others, slapping Benny's hands. Benny may have been the youngest, but everyone agreed he was the Puzzle King of the Alden family.
When the children were done with lunch, they picked up their dishes to bring to the kitchen. "Henry," said Benny "when we get back to the garden, can I shovel some of our black gold around my onions?" The man with the metal detector leaned back in his chair, listening with interest.
"Good idea," said Henry.
"Laura said there's hundreds in the garbage cans," said Jessie. The man tilted his chair so far back he nearly fell over.
The children passed the table with the sour-faced woman. Her nephew chewed a hamburger with his mouth open. Bits of bun, ketchup, and burger dotted his shirt. He shoved a small hot pepper into his mouth. The woman stopped the Aldens. "You children," she said, "are not properly dressed for such a nice restaurant."
"We are helping in the garden," explained Violet. The children always brushed the dirt off their clothes and scrubbed their hands well before eating.
"Still," said the woman, "it is important to dress nicely at all times." She nodded toward her nephew who slurped a milkshake. "My nephew, Fenster used to be quite sloppy. When he first came to visit, I constantly looked through his drawers and closet, mending this, washing that. Thanks to my help, he now dresses well, and he traded his awful old truck for a lovely new car. Now he has a most important job." She patted Fenster's hand. "He volunteers with the Greenfield Special Events Committee." Fenster rolled his eyes and made a face as he popped another hot pepper in his mouth. His aunt smiled. "It is so very important to make a good impression on people."
The Alden children were too polite to say that it is what is inside a person that matters. What the children did notice was a grown-up man who had never learned to chew with his mouth closed.
The children went on towards the kitchen. "When will we be able to dig up some of our buried treasure?" asked Violet.
Fenster choked. He started coughing and gasping, "Slowly, dear," chided his aunt, "we must chew, chew, chew slowly." He grabbed his milkshake, gulping big swigs, making a huge milkshake moustache. Benny tried not to giggle.
Back in the garden, the children set to work. Their giant sunflowers towered over them. The bright yellow heads, heavy with sunflower seeds, were starting to bend. "We need to tie them to tall sticks," said Jessie, "so they don't plop over."
Benny plucked a cherry tomato from a vine and popped it into his mouth. It tasted warm and minty. Some overripe tomatoes lay splattered on the garden soil.
Henry put rocks on the sheets of newspaper his sisters had placed to keep the weeds from growing. The rocks would hold the newspaper down. He looked at the bank robbery article Jessie had started reading.
"What a strange story," Henry said. "The bank was robbed while we were away on vacation." He picked up the paper and read aloud:
BAFFLING BANK ROBBERY
It has been two months since a thief disguised as an armored car driver robbed the Greenfield Bank.
"The robber looked like Noah, our regular driver," said bank president Arlo Judge. "He came at 12:20, Noah's regular time. And he was driving the sort of silver armored car Noah drives. We handed him our moneybags, just like we always do. We didn't know we'd been robbed until an hour later when our real driver pulled up in the real armored car. By that time, the thief had escaped with the money."
Police have not found the fake armored car, the thief, or the money. No witnesses have come forward. There are still no clues to the robbery. Anyone with information should contact the Greenfield Police.
"I would have noticed a silver armored truck," said Benny, who could name almost every kind of car and truck.
"Someone must have seen something," said Jessie. "I can't believe there aren't any clues."
"Yikes!" Benny's feet flew out from under him and he landed with a thud.
"I'm okay," he said, scrambling up. "I just slipped on a tomato!"
Violet thought about the article, too. "Why was the armored car driver an hour late picking up the bank's money?" she asked.
"This article doesn't give enough information," said Henry. "We'd probably need to go back and read the newspaper stories that were written right after the robbery. Maybe we should. I know I'd like to know what happened."
"Me, too. We can look up the articles at the library," said Jessie. "They keep all the issues of the Greenfield Gazette."
"Let's find out more!" said Benny. "It's just like a mystery." He thought for a moment. "It is a mystery."
It was decided. The Aldens would go to the library the next day and learn all they could about the great Greenfield Bank robbery.CHAPTER 2
The Bank Robbery
"You want to know more about the bank robbery?" asked Ms. Connelly, the head librarian.
"Yes," said Henry. "We'd like to read articles written the first few days after the robbery."
"Back in a jiffy," she said as she went into a room behind the front desk. It was well known around Greenfield that the Alden children loved a good mystery. They often used the library to track down clues.
Moments later, Ms. Connelly returned with an armload of newspapers. "These came out the week of the robbery," she said. "Let me know if you need more."
The children spread out on the carpet in the children's reading corner. Each of them took a newspaper to read. "BRAZEN BANK ROBBERY," read the headline of Violet's paper.
"This article says the silver armored car pulled up to the bank at its usual time," Violet said as she read. "The driver walked in, gave his usual greeting, picked up the bags of money, and left. An hour later, the real driver walked in."
Jessie held up her newspaper. "Here's a photo of the real driver," she said. A large man stared at the camera. He had a bushy black moustache. Long black sideburns stuck out of his driver's cap. He wore big sunglasses. The label under the photo said "Noah Gabriel, armored car driver."
While the other children searched the newspapers for articles, Benny looked at the news photos. Although the six-year-old could read many words, most newspaper stories still seemed hard to understand. Suddenly, he saw words he understood very well. "The circus comes to town," he read aloud.
"Benny that was great!" said Jessie. "Can you read more?" They all listened as Benny sounded out the story about the Spectacular Shayna Circus arriving in Greenfield.
One photo in the paper showed animals, clowns, and performers arriving in colorful circus railroad cars.
"Our boxcar doesn't look anything like these," said Benny.
It was true. The Aldens' boxcar wasn't nearly as fancy. They'd discovered it when they had been alone in the world. After their parents died, they ran away to live on their own. They feared they would be found and sent to live with their grandfather, who they had never met. They thought he might be mean to them. The children found shelter in an old railroad car in the woods. It quickly became their home, and they lived there happily until Grandfather found them. When the children saw how nice he was and how much he loved them, they went to live with him in Greenfield. Later, as a surprise, Grandfather had their boxcar brought to their backyard so they could play in it anytime they liked.
Benny looked at the picture of the circus train. He turned to Violet, who was a wonderful artist. "Maybe you could paint our boxcar to look like these circus train cars. Maybe you could—"
"Look!" Henry pointed at the date on Benny's newspaper. "The circus came to town the same day the bank was robbed!" He opened Benny's newspaper to a special circus section. In one, five people in bright yellow shirts stood under a sign that said,Greenfield Special Events Committee welcomes the Spectacular Shayna Circus. Four of the people greeted the circus ringmaster. The fifth person stood smiling and waving at the reporter's camera. It was a young man.
"That's the man at The Applewood Café," said Benny. "The one who said we were noisy."
Jessie nodded. "The one who chewed with his mouth open."
"His name is Fenster," said Violet, remembering. "His aunt said he volunteers on the Special Events Committee. It sure looks like a fun job."
"There's Chief Morgan," said Benny. The photo showed the chief of police keeping the crowds on the sidewalk. Behind him, a line of elephants led the circus parade down Main Street. "The March of the Elephants," said the caption. Behind the elephants, the hands of the giant city hall clock pointed straight up.
"This picture was taken at noon," said Violet. "The newspaper articles say the bank was robbed at twenty minutes after noon."
Henry tugged his bottom lip, thinking.
Excerpted from The Mystery of the Traveling Tomatoes by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2008 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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