Jeanne Molnar, her husband and their three young sons came to this Eastern Shore island for a vacation last week and went home with a pony.

The family, from Quakertown, Pa., wasn't planning to do more than watch the pony swim and auction made famous in Marguerite Henry's book "Misty of Chincoteague."

But at Thursday's auction, pony number 9 won their hearts -- and a $300 bid won the month-old brown bay colt.

"I've been wanting a pony for about three years," said Jeremy Molnar, 13. "I dreamt it, but I never thought I would get one."

The Molnars were not the only ones whose dreams -- and pocketbooks -- were captured by the wild foals from Assateague Island. Fifty-four foals were auctioned to the tune of more than $12,000, which went to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

According to Chincoteague legend, the ponies are descendants of a herd that was tossed from a Spanish galleon during a storm three centuries ago. They swam to shore and, the story goes, have since roamed wild among the pines and salt marshes of Assateague.

Once a year, volunteer firefighters round up the ponies and herd them across the quarter-mile Assateague Channel, whirling tradition and tourism into a week of "pony penning" festivities that draw 35,000 people to the island.

The auction is the week's commercial climax, netting thousands of dollars for the fire department and eliciting plaintive cries of "Daddy, pleeease buy me a poneeee."

Auctioneer Bernie Pleasants, from Bumpus, Va., who has run the auction for 18 years, emits a fast-paced pitch as smooth as sand.

His voice erupting like automatic rifle shot, his tongue practically lapping the microphone, Pleasants praises the ponies and cajoles the crowd:

"This is a little filly out of that same Misty herd, this little girl has got the sweetest kindest little face, just a little doll baby and she'd be just the sweetest thing standing out in your front yard . . . $375, $375, $375, what do you think, darlin,' $400, we got $400, $425, four hunn-er-ed and fif-tee, whooo!"

Ron Cells of Annandale, N.J., bid $400 for a buckskin colt, then leaned down from the bleachers to tell his wife, "You just bought a horse."

"I said, 'What?' " Carol Cells recounted moments later, as she wiped tears of surprise from her cheeks and posed for snapshots with colt number 28, which turned out to be a present from her husband for her 47th birthday.

"I'm still in a state of shock . . . wait 'til I call my kids, they'll never believe this," she said.

Meanwhile, the crowd had turned its attention to colt number 29, and Pleasants hadn't skipped a beat:

"This is without a doubt one of the most unusual, beautiful colts you're ever going to find. The only place you can buy that colt right there is on Chincoteague Island, and today . . . $275, $275, look at what a cute thing it is, $300, $300, ma'am, it's your turn, $325, have I got $325? We're taking Mastercard, Visa, traveler's checks and cash but no personal checks . . . . "

C.P. Burns perched on a fence, watching the tourists watch the sale. A would-be cowboy at age 72, Burns is a small man in faded jeans, with a coil of rope hooked over his left arm and a voice that sounds as if it's been scraped over a washboard.

He's been coming here from his home in Fairplay, Md., to help with pony penning for more than 30 years. "Ever since the day I was born I wanted to be a cowboy. I didn't make it, but I sure did try," Burns said.

For the most part, pony penning is a week-long holiday, but the celebration is tinged with some persistent tensions -- the resentment of some old-timers toward the crush of tourists and the concerns of animal welfare advocates about the swim and sale.

In a brief, testy discussion with Pleasants after the auction, several members of the American Horse Protection Association, based in Washington, urged that the foals not be sold until they are at least four months old.

"They're taking these horses that are too young -- they're babies," said Susan West, director of investigations for the group.

Each person who buys a pony receives an envelope of instructions for its care from the Horse Protection Association. And staff members say the situation has improved from past years; for instance, visitors are no longer allowed to haul the ponies home in house trailers or station wagons, but must use approved horse vans.

"If they [firefighters] want to sell them, fine," said West, "but they should keep them here until they're old enough.