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The narrator describes the first week of August as motionless and hot—the “dog days,” when people do things that they will regret. During a particular first week of August, three things happen that seem unrelated. Mae Tuck sets out for the woods near Treegap to visit her sons. Winnie Foster thinks about running away from her home. A stranger appears at the Fosters’ gate. The narrator states that “the wood” at the edge of Treegap was the “hub of the wheel,” the central connection of the events.
The road to Treegap is winding and pleasant outside of town. The road becomes dusty and unpleasant when it reaches the town. The Fosters live in the first house on the left. The house is well-maintained and gives off the feeling that it should be left alone. The “slim few acres of trees” across from the house, which also belong to the Fosters, seem like they should not be bothered as well. The narrator points out that, had someone made a road through the wood, people would have noticed a large ash tree and a spring, and this would have been a disaster.
It is the first week of August. Mae Tuck wakes up, excited that she gets to see her two sons. She wakes up her husband and tells him that she is going to take the horse to meet the boys. The husband is unhappy that Mae woke him up. He was having a dream where he had “never heard of Treegap.” Mae tells her husband that there is nothing to worry about, since no one in Treegap will remember her. It has been ten years since she was last there. She gets dressed and puts a music box in her pocket. The narrator states that Mae, her husband, and their two sons, Jesse and Miles, have looked the same for eighty-seven years.
Winnie Foster sits on her front lawn. She is upset. She believes that her family is too controlling. They never let her do what she wants. After throwing pebbles at a toad, Winnie tells the toad that she wants to do something that will make a difference in the world, but first she will need freedom from her family. She plans to run away in the morning, while her family is still sleeping.
A tall, thin, mysterious old man in a yellow suit walks up to Winnie Foster’s gate. She is catching fireflies. He asks her if she knows many people around town. Winnie tells the stranger that her father knows most people and that her grandmother has lived in the house since the area was mostly a forest. Winnie’s grandmother comes out of the house and is rude to the stranger. All three hear a distant melody coming from the wood across from the house. Winnie’s grandmother says that she heard the song long ago and believes that it is the music of elves. Winnie says that it sounds like a music box. The stranger asks the grandmother about the music, but Winnie and her grandmother go into the house without answering. The stranger stands in the road for a long time.
Winnie wakes up early the next morning but decides that she does not want to run away. Instead, she decides to go into the wood for the first time. She wanders for a long time, enjoying the wood and trying to find what made the music she heard the night before. She comes across a teenage boy with ratty clothes and no shoes, drinking from a spring by a large tree. He introduces himself as Jesse. Winnie introduces herself and tells him that it is her wood. She thinks that he is beautiful. Winnie asks Jesse how old he is. First, he replies that he is 104, but then says that he is seventeen. Winnie tells him that she is ten, almost eleven. She asks if the spring is good to drink. Jesse immediately becomes worried and tells her that she should not drink the water. Mae Tuck and Jesse’s brother, Miles, arrive and realize that Winnie has seen the spring. Mae says, “The worst is happening at last.”
Mae Tuck puts Winnie on her horse and all of them leave the wood. Winnie realizes that she is being kidnapped. Mae tells Winnie not to be scared and that they do not want to hurt her. They pass the stranger from the night before on the road and Winnie does not cry out for help. When they reach a stream outside of town, they stop. Winnie realizes that she is small and weak and should not have left on her own. She begins to cry. Jesse, Miles, and Mae are all concerned, wishing that they had a better solution than kidnapping Winnie. Mae takes out her music box and it seems to calm Winnie. Mae hands it to Winnie and tells her to wind it. Winnie tells her that she heard the music the night before and was told it was elves. Jesse tells Winnie that she needs to help them.
Mae, Jesse, and Miles tell Winnie that they first found the spring eighty-seven years ago. Back then, the wood was a large forest, as Winnie’s grandmother had described it. The entire Tuck family, and the horse, drank from the stream. Then, they settled in a valley not far away. Soon, the Tuck family discovered that they could not be injured, and they had stopped aging. Miles was married, but his wife thought his lack of aging was unnatural. All the Tuck family’s friends thought that they practiced witchcraft. They tell Winnie that if she had drunk from the spring, she would have stayed a little girl forever, never able to grow up. They explain to Winnie that it would be very bad if everyone knew about the spring.
Winnie is skeptical but finds the Tuck family very convincing. Mae Tuck says that she feels bad that Winnie’s parents will worry, but they need Winnie to talk to Angus, Mae’s husband. The Tucks promise to bring Winnie home the next day. Winnie agrees. She likes the Tuck family, especially Jesse. As they travel, she thinks that they are her friends and that she was running away after all. She also considers that she might get to live forever. Winnie and the Tuck family do not notice that the stranger in the yellow suit overheard the Tuck family’s story by the stream and that he is following far behind them.
Winnie and the Tucks travel to their house to introduce Winnie to Angus. Mae gives Winnie her hat for protection from the hot August sun. Winnie appreciates all the open space and fields. The Tuck house is small and red, with a pond next to it. Angus Tuck comes out to meet his family and is pleased that they have brought Winnie. He tells Winnie that her arrival is the best thing to happen in “at least eighty years.”
Winnie’s home was orderly and clean. The Tuck home is full of cobwebs and clutter. Winnie is surprised by it, but she thinks that it feels comfortable. Mae shows her around the small house and explains to her that they “make things to sell.” Winnie sees items carved from wood and stitched fabric. Mae tells Winnie that the Tucks did not deserve to live forever, whether it is a blessing or a curse. Mae explains to Winnie that they cannot stay anywhere too long, or people start to get suspicious of them. Mae also tells her that Jesse and Miles travel around, finding what work they can, but they meet during the first week of August every ten years so that they can be a family.
Winnie eats dinner with the Tucks and is surprised that they do not sit around a table and use napkins. While all of them eat in silence, Winnie reconsiders her situation. She starts to believe that the Tucks are actually criminals and that she has been kidnapped. Winnie tells them that she wants to go home. Mae tells Winnie that she will take her home after Angus talks to her. Mae mentions that they passed someone on their way from the spring to their home (the stranger in the yellow suit). Winnie says that he probably told her father that the Tucks have taken her. After some discussion, Angus says that they need to get Winnie home soon.
Angus takes Winnie out on the pond in a small rowboat. He describes the pond and all the living things in and around it. He tells her that they are all part of the wheel of life. He then tells her that the Tucks are like rocks on the side of the road, since they do not change and are no longer on the wheel of life. He tells her that he would accept dying if it meant he could change. Angus tells Winnie that if people knew, they would all come and drink from the spring, but later they would regret living forever, as Angus does. Miles appears at the edge of the pond and yells to Angus and Winnie that someone has stolen the family horse.
The stranger in the yellow suit arrives at the Fosters’ home, riding the Tucks’ horse. It is almost midnight, but there are lights on inside the house. He knocks on the door and tells Winnie’s grandmother that he has good news: he knows where Winnie has been taken.
Angus Tuck wonders if a common thief stole their horse, or if the thief had some special reason. Mae tells him that he worries too much, and that the problem will have to wait until morning. Winnie sleeps on the sofa, but it is uncomfortable. She is also unhappy that she does not have her nightgown or her usual bedtime routine. Mae comes to check on her. Then Angus comes to check on her. The Tucks feel sorry that they have taken Winnie from her home. Winnie feels cared for, but still unhappy about being kidnapped. Lastly, Jesse comes to talk to Winnie. He tells her that she could wait until she is seventeen, then drink from the spring, and then the two of them could enjoy the world together. Winnie still thinks he is amazing. Winnie is confused and conflicted whether any of the Tucks’ stories are true.
Back at the Fosters’ home, the stranger in the yellow suit talks to Winnie’s family. He tells them that they are fortunate that he saw who took Winnie and that the kidnappers are “rough country people.” He tells them that he will help save their daughter if the Fosters give him ownership of the wood. The stranger tells them that once they have legal papers signed saying that he owns the wood, he will ride out with the town constable and bring back Winnie and the kidnappers. He also says that Mr. Foster is not allowed to come.
The stranger in the yellow suit and the constable ride out after midnight to retrieve Winnie. The constable is fat and lazy. He is not in a hurry to save Winnie. The constable tells the stranger that he should have reported the kidnapping right away, instead of waiting until midnight. The stranger tells the constable that he wanted to make sure he knew where the kidnappers took Winnie. He then tells the constable that the Fosters have sold him the wood. The constable is shocked. The constable keeps trying to have a conversation with the stranger while they ride, but the stranger does not want to talk to him. The stranger gives the constable directions to the Tucks’ house and rides ahead, saying that he will keep watch over the Tucks until the constable arrives.
Winnie wakes up at the Tuck house and is greeted by Miles. Winnie decides that she loves the Tuck family, but still wants to go home. Miles takes Winnie out in the rowboat to catch fish for breakfast. Miles tells her that he thinks he should do something important for the world. Winnie says that it would be nice if nothing had to die and Miles tells her that the world would be overcrowded with all kinds of life. Winnie thinks about the world being overcrowded by mosquitos and agrees. Miles catches a fish and Winnie becomes upset, watching it flop and gasp in the boat. She tells him to throw it back in the water. Miles does so, but he tells her that eating meat is natural and that it means humans must kill animals. Winnie says that she understands.
Miles tells his family that they did not catch any fish that they wanted to keep, and the family has flapjacks for breakfast. When Jesse grins at Winnie, her heart starts thumping. They wonder how they will get Winnie home without the horse. Winnie considers what it would be like to grow up in the untidy house and drink from the spring when she is seventeen. While they are eating, there is a knock on the door. The Tuck family is surprised because no one has ever knocked on their door. Mae goes to the door and Winnie recognizes the voice of the stranger in the yellow suit, saying, “Good morning, Mrs. Tuck.”
The stranger in the yellow suit steps into the Tucks’ house and explains what he has done. He tells them that he grew up hearing stories about a family that never grew older. He spent his life trying to find them. He tells them that he now owns the wood. He plans to drink from the spring and then sell the water from the spring, but only to "certain" deserving people, and it will be very expensive. He asks the Tuck family if they want to help him advertise the water, by doing demonstrations where they survive things that would normally be fatal. The Tucks tell him that he cannot sell the water. The stranger grabs Winnie and takes her out the front door, telling the Tucks that he will have Winnie drink the water and use her in the demonstrations. Mae grabs Angus Tuck’s old shotgun and clubs the stranger in the back of the head with it. The Treegap constable rides up in time to see everything.
The constable checks on the stranger in the yellow suit and says that he is still alive. He aims his shotgun at the Tuck family. Winnie tells the constable that the Tucks did not kidnap her: she came with them willingly. The constable is confused by this. He instructs Angus to take the stranger inside and keep him alive until a doctor can help him. The constable then tells Mae that she must be locked up and that he will take Winnie back to her family. Winnie tells Angus that “everything will be ok.” The constable rides with Winnie. Mae rides ahead of them. Winnie thinks that it would be terrible if Mae Tuck went to the gallows, because she would not die.
The constable brings Winnie home and her family is relieved to see her. Winnie is grateful for their affection, but she also feels a connection to the Tuck family. Winnie tries to tell her family that she left with the Tucks because she wanted to, and that they are good people, but her family refuses to believe her. Winnie sits and thinks about whether she wants the stranger in yellow to live. She thinks about what Angus told her in the rowboat and how terrible it would be if more people knew about the spring. The constable arrives and tells the Fosters that the stranger in yellow died and that Mae will “hang for sure.” Winnie feels that she must somehow save Mae, but she does not know what she will do.
Winnie goes outside and sees the toad that she talked to a few days ago. Winnie’s grandmother tells her not to stay outside for too long, because of the heat. Jesse sneaks over and talks to Winnie. He tells her that Miles is going to remove the bars from the window of the jail so Mae can escape. Jesse gives Winnie a bottle of water from the spring, so that she can drink it when she turns seventeen, and then come find him. Winnie wants to help Mae. Winnie offers to take Mae’s place in the jail, hiding under a blanket, so that the constable will not realize until morning that Mae escaped. Jesse agrees and Winnie feels as though she will make a difference in the world.
Winnie hides the bottle of spring water that Jesse gave her. She goes outside and sees a change in the sky, and she believes that it will rain. During the hot day, she becomes bored waiting for midnight. She is restless in her room, thinking about how the Tuck family needs her. Winnie knows that when the constable brings her home again, her family will be upset that she helped the Tucks. She will not be able to explain why she did it. She knows that her family may never trust her again. She falls asleep in her room but wakes up again, just before midnight.
Winnie sneaks out of her house and meets Jesse. Winnie keeps thinking of lines from an old poem: “Stone walls do not a prison make / nor iron bars a cage.” They travel to the jail and meet Miles at the barred window to Mae’s cell. Miles removes the nails around the bars and then waits for a lightning strike. As the thunder rolls, he pulls the bars free from the window. Mae escapes and all of them hug and kiss Winnie. Jesse tells her, “Remember!” Winnie climbs into the cell and Miles puts the bars back. With the next flash of lightning, Winnie can see that the Tucks have gone.
Two weeks after the storm and Mae’s escape, Winnie sits in her front yard. The constable was very upset when he found her and told her that she had helped a murderer escape. He told her that she should be punished, but she was too young. Winnie’s family was ashamed of what had happened, but Winnie explained to them that the Tucks were her friends and she loved them. Even though Winnie is not allowed to leave her yard, she is pleased that children now come and talk to her, because the jailbreak has made her interesting. Winnie sees the same toad again, just outside her fence. A large dog wanders over and starts barking at the toad. Winnie grabs the toad through the fence and saves it from the dog. Winnie gets the bottle of water that Jesse gave her and pours it over the toad. She thinks that if the story about the spring is true, she can always get more water from the wood. She sets down the toad and tells it, “You’re safe. Forever.”
Seventy years later, Angus and Mae Tuck ride their wagon into Treegap, pulled by the same horse. The town has changed. There are cars and modern stores, and the town is much larger. They notice that the wood is gone. They stop at a diner and ask the counterman about the wood. He says that a large tree was hit by lightning and the whole wood burned down. It was later bulldozed. Angus walks through town to a cemetery and finds a large monument with several stones surrounding it. It is the family plot of the Fosters. He finds one that says: “In Loving Memory / Winifred Foster Jackson / Dear Wife / Dear Mother / 1870–1948.” Angus gets emotional and salutes Winnie’s grave. He returns to Mae and tells her that Winnie is gone. He also says that they all knew that she would not return to them. Mae says that there is no need to travel back to Treegap anymore. On the way out of town they see a toad in the middle of the road. Angus moves the toad off the road and comments that the toad must “think it’s going to live forever.”