CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- Back in the sixth grade, Katie Von Holm had to read a book called "Misty of Chincoteague."
She loved it -- a beautiful yarn, she thought, about made-up kids on a make-believe island who get to own a fairy tale pony named Misty.
"It was the only part of language arts I ever liked. It had to do with horses and I love horses," said Katie, now 13. "Nobody in my class could even pronounce Chincoteague. Not even my teacher."
"We didn't know it was real," said her mother, Linda Von Holm.
The Atlanta family found that the fabled pony swim and auction, which gave birth to the story of Misty almost 50 years ago, is as real as the $800 charged to Mrs. Von Holm's Citibank Visa card yesterday for the purchase of a month-old brown filly.
"The Misty story is about a boy who had his heart set on getting one special horse," said Katie, who wears a pair of horse charm rings. "Then I found out about how they auction them and tag them and all that neat stuff and it made me want to come here even more."
"A real place," said her mother. "Not a storybook."
The Von Holms' investment in the local legend of this seven-milesliver of sand off the Virginia coast was part of a record $78,950 taken in by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department fund-raiser yesterday on the auction of 78 foals born this year.
Last year, 67 were auctioned for $65,300. The fire department owns the herd and drives it to auction each year from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, where people from around the country, from the Amish to the yuppies, bid on them.
Once a quaint parochial practice in a town that still strikes some as "Mayberry with ponies," where front-yard lemonade stands line the streets, the annual swim and auction have become so well-known that some liken it to the running of the bulls each year in Pamplona, Spain.
"Except that we don't shed any blood," said Lloyd Belton, a member of the fire department assigned to handle reporters this year, which included camera crews from as far away as France and Japan.
Two years after reading Marguerite Henry's 1947 classic, Katie came across a story on the ponies in National Geographic magazine. Her interest in the event renewed and her love of horses unabated, she and her mother went to their local library to commence a computer search for Chincoteague.
A pair of articles eventually popped up, both about the pony swim, an unbridled thrill for a kid like Katie, who owns 13 finches, 16 ducks, three dogs, two cats, a frog and a turtle, and has ridden horses since first grade.
"My mom's a travel agent, and every year I get to pick anywhere in the world to go on vacation," she said. "I picked here."
And so they came, bringing with them Katie's cousin Jamie Maertz, also 13, their luggage and curiosity about a place they had only read about.
Katie and her mom also brought along an admonition from her father, similar to admonitions heard by many of the 40,000 people who came to town this week: "Don't you dare come home with a pony."
Despite her father's orders, Katie still wanted a pony in the way that only a kid can really wish for something. Her desire built over the 12-hour trip from Atlanta, through Wednesday morning's swim across the channel, when she waded knee-deep into the marsh as the firemen, self-anointed "saltwater cowboys," herded the animals over.
At 8 a.m. yesterday, Katie, her mom and cousin Jamie walked to the Main Street carnival grounds and edged their way through thousands crowding the corral for a good look at the foals offered by auctioneer Bernie Pleasant.
Mrs. Von Holm had told the girls they could bid up to $200, which she upped to $350 the night before as Katie and Jamie stayed up for hours thinking of names for a horse they'd yet to see: Tea-quee, Topaz, First Star.
The first pony offered, a male born two days ago and too young to be separated from its mother, will be kept until October with the mare who bore him. He was a painted horse, brown with large white markings, similar to Misty, according to Mr. Pleasant, who declared it "the perfect Chincoteague pony."
Wilmer Weaver, who made the trip from Fredericksburg, Pa., said, "I look for a star on their foreheads, but everybody's different. Some people like Fords, some people like Chevys."
At 9:15 a.m., 36 horses later, as Katie and her mom stood sweating under a blistering sun, a male came up for bid. To this point, none of the bids had stayed within the Van Holms' budget for more than a minute. And before she knew it, Linda Von Holm had given her little girl the high sign so many times that her bid was up -- $500, $600, $700 and then $800. ("Temporary insanity," she said later.)
When it appeared that even this bid would be overtaken, one of the firemen noticed the disappointment on Katie's face and asked that the bidding be stopped then and there. While waiting for a decision from Mr. Pleasant, the fireman coaxed the crowd to moan "Awwww," and the auctioneer was swayed: Katie Von Holm had earned her first horse.
The family had no intention of breaking the promise not to bring a horse back to Atlanta, but had a better idea, one that suited a 13-year-old whose vacation reading is a book called "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."
They would retain ownership of the foal -- Tea-quee of Chincoteague -- but give it back to the fire department to live with the herd on Assateague for the rest of its life.
"It'll be a lot happier with its family," said Katie. "And nobody can ever take this one away."