The Quicksand Question

Here’s what kids, parents,
and grandparents have to say
to Ron Roy, author of
the
A to Z Mysteries
series:

“I like your books so much I can’t keep my eyes off them.”

—Seth R.

“My sister and I love when my mother reads your mysteries. We try to guess the mystery but never can!”

—Monica S.

“The map in front of the book makes me feel like I am in the story living in Green Lawn.”

—Ben J.

“My favorite character is Josh, because he’s so mischievous and you never know what he’s going to do next.”

—Erica F.

“I feel like I could take out 15 A to Z Mysteries!”

—Maggie K.

“I am so thrilled that my son has finally found books that are on his reading level that hold his interest. You’ve really made a difference in our house.”

—Kristin W.

“What a gift you have, Mr. Roy. You empower young children with the love of reading.”

—Jeanette B.

This book is dedicated to Greg Davis,
a constant source of encouragement.
—R.R.

To the Academy School in Brattleboro, Vermont.
—J.S.G.

CHAPTER 1

It was Saturday night. Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose were having a sleep-over in Josh’s barn.

Dink tipped a jarful of coins onto his sleeping bag. “I can’t believe the duck bank is nearly full,” he said.

“I know,” Ruth Rose said, emptying her piggy bank. “We’ve been saving for a whole year!”

“Quiet, you two,” Josh said, stacking nickels, dimes, and quarters on his sleeping bag. “I can’t count if you’re talking!”

The “duck bank” was a large plastic bank, shaped like a duck, that stood in the fire station on Main Street. It was four feet tall and made of clear plastic. Everyone in town had been dropping money into it. They were going to use the money to pay for a special bridge just for ducks.

For years, mother ducks had been crossing River Road to build nests in the woods near Bridge Lane. After their ducklings were born, the mother ducks would lead their ducklings back across the road to the river.

The problem was, the little ducks were hard to see. Many drivers had almost had accidents. Finally, the town held a meeting to decide what to do.

One person suggested hiring a duck crossing guard.

A man who had almost driven off
the road wanted the ducks rounded up and put in cages.

Another person suggested digging a tunnel under River Road.

But a girl from Dink’s school had the best idea. “My grandparents feed ducks in their yard in Florida,” she’d explained. “The ducks have to cross a busy street, so my grandfather built a little bridge. My grandmother sprinkled corn on the bridge to let the ducks know it was for them. Now the ducks use the bridge all the time.”

Everyone loved the idea.

Mr. Plank, the shop teacher at the high school, raised his hand. “The kids in my class can design the bridge,” he said. “When we’ve collected enough money, I’ll help them build it.”

Now the bank was nearly full. On Monday morning the money would be
counted by Mr. Fiskell, the president of the Green Lawn Savings Bank. As soon as school let out next week, Mr. Plank and the high school kids would start building the bridge.

Josh finished counting his money. “Nine dollars and ten cents,” he said. He rubbed his stomach. “Money makes me hungry!” He grabbed his backpack and pulled out a tin of chocolate chip cookies. He also had some apples, carrots, and dog biscuits.

In her stall, Polly the pony lay sleeping on a pile of hay. Josh’s dog,
Pal, was curled up next to her.

Outside, June crickets were chirping in the field behind the barn.

“I’ve got ten dollars and twenty-two cents,” Dink said. “What about you, Ruth Rose?”

“Fourteen dollars and thirty cents,” Ruth Rose said. “How much do you suppose is in the duck bank?”

Ruth Rose liked to wear all one color. Tonight her outfit matched her sleeping bag: she wore lime green shorts and T-shirt.

“A lot,” Josh said. “It’s up to the duck’s neck. And the three of us are putting in over
thirty
dollars!”

He opened the tin of cookies, took two for himself, and passed the rest to Ruth Rose.

“We should think of a name for the bridge,” he said. “How about Waddle Way?” He kicked off his sneakers and slipped into his sleeping bag.

Dink switched off his flashlight. “What about calling it Duck Drive?”

“How about Critter Crossing?” Ruth Rose said.

“I like that,” Dink said, yawning.

Josh shut off his flashlight. He snorted. “Critter Crossing, Ruth Rose? Gee, why not call it Bunny Bridge?”

Ruth Rose laughed in the dark barn. “Critter Crossing is good because other animals might use the bridge,” she said. “Bunnies, turtles, raccoons.…”

“Buffalo,” Josh added.

After a few minutes, the kids drifted off to sleep. Polly whinnied softly in her stall. Pal snored on his pile of hay.

Much later, something woke Dink. He sat up in his sleeping bag. Next to him, Josh and Ruth Rose were only lumps in the darkness.

Then Dink heard Polly stamp her hooves. When his eyes adjusted, he
could see that the white pony was standing. Pal was awake, too.

Dink crawled out of his sleeping bag and walked over to the animals. He stroked Polly’s warm nose. “What is it, girl?” he whispered.

Polly snorted and shook her mane. Dink knelt and scratched Pal behind his ears. “Bet you just had a bad dream,” he murmured.

Using his flashlight, Dink checked his watch. It was one o’clock, and he was wide awake. He pushed the barn door open and walked outside.

The night was warm and quiet. Even the crickets were asleep. Josh’s house was dark except for a small light over the back door.

Dink took a deep breath. The air smelled like the lawn had just been mowed. The springy grass felt cool under his bare feet. He yawned,
stretched, and walked around the barn.

Behind the barn was a broad meadow. Next to the meadow was River Road, and on the other side of that was Indian River. On a sunny day, you could see the light glinting off the river. But now the meadow, the road, and the river were covered in darkness.

Dink was about to go back inside when he noticed two dots of light in the distance.

Car headlights,
he thought.
What’s a car doing in the meadow?

Then the lights disappeared. Dink smiled at himself. Of course the car wasn’t in the meadow—it was on River Road.

Dink slipped back into the barn, crawled into his sleeping bag, and closed his eyes.

Suddenly Polly started to whinny and Pal began barking.

“What’s going on?” Josh asked
groggily. He switched on his flashlight and turned the beam on Polly.

“Look at her!” Ruth Rose said.

Polly’s eyes were rolling in fright. She rose on her hind legs and kicked at her stall. Pal barked and ran over to Josh. “Something’s been bugging them,” Dink said. “They woke me up a little while ago.”

Then all three kids smelled it.

“Smoke!” Josh yelled, kicking his way out of his sleeping bag.

The kids ran outside, expecting to see something burning. But the night was peaceful and dark.

Then Dink walked behind the barn. “Guys, over here!” he shouted.

Josh and Ruth Rose hurried around the corner. Dink pointed toward the river. A small orange blaze flickered in the night.

“There’s a fire in the meadow!” Josh said.

It took Green Lawn’s fire truck only five minutes to get to the fire. Dink and Ruth Rose stood next to the barn. They watched with Josh and his family as the firefighters put out the blaze.

“I wanna go see the fire truck!” Josh’s brother Bradley announced, wiggling in his father’s arms.

“Afraid not,” his dad said. “Besides, the fire’s out, and you’re going to bed.”

“No, I wanna stay up!” Bradley’s twin, Brian, complained. “It’s time to play!”

Josh’s dad just laughed.

Dink looked at his watch. It was about one-thirty. Across the meadow, he could see the fire truck’s lights. The firefighters’ voices sounded muffled.

A few minutes later, they saw the fire engine leaving. Soon the taillights disappeared on River Road. “Okay, the excitement’s over,” Josh’s mother said, taking Brian’s hand. “Back to bed, everyone.”

“You three get some sleep,” Josh’s dad said as he carried Bradley toward the house.

“Okay, Dad,” Josh said. The kids and Pal straggled into the barn. Pal flopped into the hay pile next to Polly again, and the kids climbed into their sleeping bags.

Suddenly Dink popped up. “Hey, guys, I just realized something. I may have seen who set the fire!” he said.

“What’re you talking about?” Josh asked.

“Polly woke me up before we smelled the fire,” Dink explained. “I went out to look around and saw headlights over by the river!”

“Maybe someone was camping,” Ruth Rose said. She yawned. “We can check in the morning.”

It’s already morning,
Dink thought, copying Ruth Rose’s yawn. He lay back down. As he was falling asleep, he heard a scratchy sound in the dark.

He froze, imagining some night creature crawling over—or
into—
his sleeping bag.

Then he heard munching, and he smelled cookies.

“Josh!” Dink said. “You almost gave me a heart attack!”

“Sorry,” Josh said, swallowing. “I was hungry!”

When the kids woke up, sunlight was streaming through the dusty barn window. Birds chirped. The kids kicked
out of their sleeping bags and stepped into their sneakers.

“Let’s go see that fire,” Josh said. His clothes were wrinkled and his hair stood in spikes.

Pal gazed up at Josh with big brown eyes.

“Okay, you can come, too,” he said, snapping Pal’s leash onto his collar. Ruth Rose fed Polly a carrot, and then they left the barn.

The sun peeked through the trees as the kids hiked across the meadow. The tall grass was heavy with dew. Their sneakers and legs were soon soaked.

“Look!” Ruth Rose said. Straight ahead was a soggy pile of blackened wood. The air stunk of smoke and wet ashes.

The ground was even wetter here. There were still puddles from the firefighters’ hoses. Dink noticed deep footprints in the mushy, trampled grass.

“Why would somebody light a fire here?” Josh asked, looking around. They were standing near the edge of River Road. On the other side of the road, a short bank dropped off to Indian River.

“Maybe they were roasting marsh-mallows,” Ruth Rose said. She found a long stick and began poking the mess of charred wood and ash.

“In the middle of the night?” Josh asked. “Who eats then?”

Dink laughed. “You do, Mr. Cookie Monster.”

Josh grinned.

“What’s this?” Ruth Rose asked.

She picked up a hunk of wood and wiped it clean. It was about six inches long and three inches wide. Both ends were charred, but the middle hadn’t been burned. Stamped into the board with black ink were the letters ET CO. “What’s ET CO?” Josh asked.

“CO could be the first two letters of
Connecticut,
” Ruth Rose said.

“Or
Colorado,”
Dink added.

“I wonder if someone started the fire just to get rid of this,” Ruth Rose said, examining the narrow piece of wood.

“It would be nice to know how many letters got burned off,” Dink said. “ET CO could be part of lots of words, like
pet comb
or
wet coat.”

“Or
sweet cotton candy,
” Josh added.

“The CO could be short for
corporation,
” Ruth Rose suggested, shoving the wood into her back pocket.

“I think it stands for
get cookies!
” Josh yelled. He started to run. “Last one back to the barn doesn’t get any!”

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