The July morning was already hot when Jennie walked to the barn to feed Skipper. When she opened the barn door, he whinnied noisily and stamped his hooves impatiently. Jennie put his grain into a pail and took it into his stall, then filled his manger with sweet-smelling hay. She took his water bucket outside to clean and fill it and noticed that the warm summer air was very still. There wasn’t even a hint of a cooling breeze.
It’s going to be too hot again to go riding, she thought. The past several weeks had been much warmer than usual, and not a drop of rain had fallen. The fields were so dry that they made crunching sounds underfoot.
After giving Skipper his fresh water, Jennie walked up through the meadow and the old apple orchard to the edge of the woods where Grumpy, the fat woodchuck, had made his burrow. Sometimes he would come out and nibble at the clover while she watched, and occasionally he came close enough to snatch a carrot from her hand. If she moved too quickly, he would sit up and chatter as though he were scolding her for interrupting his meal. But this morning he was nowhere in sight. Except for a squeaking chipmunk dashing along the old stone wall, everything was quiet. Not even the birds were twittering in the woods. It almost seemed that all the wild creatures that usually scurried around the farm had gone away.
Jennie walked back to the barn and opened the door to Skipper’s stall. He nudged her with his soft nose, then cantered out of the barn with a clatter of hooves and headed for the far end of the field, where he could graze in the shade of the old apple trees.
Seeing her mother headed for the vegetable garden, Jennie ran to join her. The peas and beans were ready for picking, and some of the tomatoes were turning red.
“Are you going to ride over to Marie’s today?” Mother asked.
“No, it’s still too hot. I let Skipper out in the meadow, it’s cooler for him there.”
For half an hour they worked at filling a basket with plump green peas. Now and then Jennie would open a pod and eat the sweet sun-warmed peas. When the basket was brimming, they started back to the house. Suddenly her mother said, “What’s the matter with Skipper?”
At the far end of the meadow, Skipper was galloping back and forth, sometimes pausing to gaze into the woods. He gave a loud, shrill whinny, then raced toward the barn. When he saw Jennie and her mother approaching the fence, he ran to them, snorted, then dashed frantically back across the meadow, stopping at the stone wall to paw the ground.
“He acts as though something is frightening him,” Jennie’s mother said. “Do you suppose there’s a bobcat up there?”
As she spoke, Skipper galloped back to where they stood at the fence. He nickered and nudged Jennie’s shoulder in the direction of the woods. He seemed to be asking her to go with him. Then he was gone again to the end of the field, where he pranced and reared near the edge of the woods. Normally Skipper was quiet and gentle, but now he was acting like a wild horse.
Jennie’s big brother, Tim, joined them at the fence. “Something sure is upsetting Skipper,” he said. “Better stay here, Jen, until I find out what’s the matter.” As Tim climbed over the fence and headed into the field, he thought that he detected a wisp of smoke.
Skipper saw Tim and raced toward him, whinnying loudly. He skidded to a stop, nudged Tim, then galloped back to the edge of the woods where he stood shaking his head and tossing his mane. Jennie and her mother waited and watched.
Tim reached the horse, climbed over the stone wall, and disappeared into the woods. A moment later he came pelting back, shouting, “Call the fire department! There’s a big brushfire just beyond the edge of the woods, and it’s burning this way! It could destroy everything! That’s what Skipper has been trying to tell us.”
Soon two fire trucks came roaring up the road, their sirens wailing. Close behind them were two forest-service trucks with large water tanks.
All the long day Jennie stayed close to the house, wondering what was happening in the woods. Twice the forest-service trucks returned to fill their big tanks at the water hole near the house.
In the late afternoon Tim returned to the house—dirty, hot, and covered with soot.
“Is the fire out?” asked Jennie as she handed him a sandwich and a glass of cold milk.
“Not quite,” replied Tim, “but they have it under control, and they’re digging trenches so that it won’t spread anymore.”
It was nearly dark when the fire trucks rolled out of the woods and turned into the driveway. Jennie and her mother carried platters of sandwiches and jugs of cold water and milk to the tired, soot-begrimed men. The fire chief came over to Jennie and smiled as he said, “Your brother told us that it was your horse that discovered the fire. If it hadn’t been for him, the whole woods might have gone up in flames.”
The next day when Jennie went to pick up the mail, on top of the mailbox was a big bag of carrots with a note that read: “To Skipper, our honorary fireman, from everyone in the fire department.”