Dreams Divided
By Indy and Chris Silva

Authors' note--This story continues the plotline started in parts one through four. Reading those is not absolutely necessary to understanding this installment, but it helps. This part details the resolution of the relationships between Chip, and Foxy and Lahwhinie. We dedicate this installment to Deborah Walley, whose talents brought to life two great characters who each are spotlighted here.

Chapter 1 - It Takes A Cat

       Far from the crowds of humans, the Brooklyn Museum of Art was a magnet mainly to the purveyors of the cultured set. Examples of antiquity from the Incas, Africans, Polynesians, Egyptians, Chinese and many other ancient empires were evident. Armor, chariots, hieroglyphics, and sarcaughagi highlighted the many artifacts of their centerpiece, the Egyptian Room. Tonight, six additional pairs of eyes watched these relics, even after the humans had departed and the main lights had been turned off. These six waited in the shadows, like the silent sentinels in some Egyptian tomb. Then, one of them whispered.
       “Lookit all the neat shiny stuff!” Dale said. Gadget surveyed the exhibits with an air of appreciation. “The accumulated physical history of the human race all in one place.Golly, it’s fascinating.”
       “Yeah, and if we’re not careful Fat Cat’s going to end up with one of those shiny things,” Chip said. “Are you sure it’s for tonight, Monty?” Monty came over next to Chip. “That’s what Zipper told me. He’s been following those goons o’ Fat Cat’s for a week and this is where it’s all supposed to happen, tonight.”
       Lahwhinie kept a close watch. “They’ve gotta be crazy to think they’ll pull this off. Stealing an Egyptian cat vase and getting out with it in the same night? If they’re as stupid as you described them, they’re caught already.” Chip gave a laugh. “That’s never stopped Fat Cat before.” Monty rolled up his sleeves in anticipation. “Our job will be to gift wrap them and leave ‘em for the authorities and make sure the vase is okay.”
       “All we need is someone to hook the alarms back up once they bypass them, like my sister, little miss genius,” Lahwhinie said, thumbing at Gadget. “We could’ve all stayed home and played parcheesi.”
       “Lahwhinie, be nice to yer sister,” Monty said. “Gadget luv, think you can get things wired up again?” Gadget rubbed her chin in thought. “Well, as long as they don’t do something drastic like steal the wiring. If they follow their past tendencies, they’ll likely find a way around the alarms and not even bother with them. I’m eager to see what they’ll do to get to the vase. It’s rigged with a pressure-sensitive base and a tomato to boot.”
       “A tomato to boot?” Lahwhinie said. “Is that some silly technical jargon?” Chip saved Gadget the trouble, which considering her explanations was likely a good thing. “A tomato is tech-speak for infrared sensors. I’m curious to see what they’ll do, too. Could they shut the power down somehow?” Gadget looked back at the case they were protecting. “Well, if they did there’s a backup generator to the alarm systems. It might not kick in right away, though. Maybe that’s what they’re betting on.”
       “We could break something and see if anything happens,” Dale suggested.
       “Best hold off on that, mate,” Monty said. “The museum likely wouldn’t look kindly on us fer that. You gonna be able to handle yourself in a scrap, Chip? I know it’s been a month now since that injury of yours, but are ya sure you’re ready ta rumble?” Chip had already considered that, but even if he hadn’t it wouldn’t have made a difference. “It’s still a little sore, Monty, but I can do anything that needs to be done. They better be ready to rumble.”
       A slight buzzing sound echoed through the room as Zipper rejoined the others. “They’re coming! I saw them outside.” Lahwhinie looked woefully at her reflection in a nearby glass plate. “Great, I knew I shouldn’t have spent all that time doing my hair today.”

       Now it was a waiting game. The group settled in, and in another ten minutes the power went off. A window in the room adjoining theirs came open and Mepps climbed in, then threw a rope down for the others. Gadget peered at them through a device that looked like a miniature version of a submarine’s periscope. “Hmm, my infrared night scope still shows the sensors working at the case. I guess their backup systems must only cover the cases themselves—very poor planning on their part, if you ask me. I’d have at least two redundant backups built in.”
       Lahwhinie’s adrenalin was beginning to flow. “So, do we rush them now and beat them to a pulp?” Chip shook his head. “No, we wait for the right moment. Gadget, can you trip one of the other alarms without doing too much damage?”
       “Sure, no problem, Chip. Just give me the word,” Gadget replied.
       Monty had been watching with Zipper at the corner of the wall they were standing against and now both came back. “On yer guard, mates,” Monty whispered. “They’re coming this-a-way...” Dale crouched down next to Gadget. “I think from now on I should start carrying my foil with me. That’d come in handy.”
       Monty rolled up his sleeves a little higher. Lahwhinie saw that and rolled up her own, trying to remember the fighting skills she’d learned as a child. If it had been up to her she would’ve rigged the security system to electrocute the bad guys, but it seemed the others were too wishy-washy to do things the right way.
       The grimy bunch of goons crept into the room. Mepps was wearing a pair of night vision goggles similar in function to Gadget’s night scope and Gadget immediately brought it to Chip’s attention. The Rangers left the shadows and hid behind a display case on the chance that Mepps would look in their direction. Mole and Wart were carrying equipment with them and began assembling it.
       “Careful with that, Mole!” Wart said. “Fat Cat will skin us if we break this stuff and don’t get the vase!” Chip called the others into a huddle. “We can incapacitate Mepps if we turn the lights on with his night vision goggles on. That would take care of him for a little while.”
       “Right, Chip,” Gadget whispered back. “But that’ll have to wait until the external power kicks back in.”

       The goon squad assembled a robotic arm similar to what one would see in a prize-grabbing machine. Mepps used a glasscutter, and soon a hole big enough for the two-foot vase was cut in the top of the display case. The trio moved the arm into position, carefully avoiding the infrared sensors. Mepps began to guide the arm’s grabber into place over the hole. “Oh boy! This is gonna be like fishing down at the pier...” Mepps said.
       “GO! Rescue Rangers, charge!” Chip shouted, his voice echoing throughout the room and causing the goons to turn in shocked surprise. Monty thundered ahead and tackled Mepps, which saved Gadget having to do anything because his move knocked Mepps’ hand off the control and sent the grabber into one of the infrared beams. Alarms went off at once.
       Dale struck a dramatic pose. “Surrender, bad guys, or face the wrath of the new and improved Rescue Rangers!” Lahwhinie ran past him. “Finally, someone to sink my teeth into!” Mepps saw Lahwhinie coming, and Gadget from another direction. “Hey, I thought there was only one of those girl mice...oh no! I’m seeing double.”
       Mole took off his woolen cap and scratched his head. “Uh...I guess we should catch them, or maybe we should run away.” Snout tugged on both their arms. “Come on you guys, the alarm’s been tripped! The jig is up!” Mepps started to go, when Lahwhinie jumped on his back from behind, and began punching on him. Mepps frantically tried to get her off. “Hey, leggo!”
       “Uh, hey mouse, you’re gonna get us caught!” Mole said, not sure just what to do, as usual. Wart saw that they were beaten and knew the drill, so he just turned and bolted for the window. “See you around, rodents!”
       “Wait for me!” Mepps shouted, Lahwhinie still pummeling him. “Let go, mouse lady, or I’ll get caught!”
       “Right now, I think that’s the point!” Lahwhinie shouted back. Mepps again tried to shake her off, but Lahwhinie was too strong and was pulling out some of his fur. “Hey, I’m beginning to like this crime fighting shtick. Say ‘uncle’, you mangy tabby!”
       “Uncle who?” Mepps asked.
       “Say it!”
       Mepps winced as she pulled out some more fur. “Okay, okay! Uncle, you mangy tabby!”
       Monty walked over by Mepps. “Let him go, lass. The job’s done.” Lahwhinie jumped off and once Mepps was free he ran for the hills. Mole obediently ran beside him to join Rat and Wart. Mole looked over his friends, dejected. “Does all this mean I don’t get a candy bar?”

       The police were at the museum in moments and soon began investigating the crime scene. Chip took hold of his jacket lapels. “Well, a good night’s work everyone. The police can take it over from here.” Lahwhinie put her hands on her hips, facing Chip. “That’s it? You just let them get away so they can commit crimes again? Shouldn’t we break some of their arms and legs to remind them not to do stupid things like this? How are they ever going to learn right from wrong if we don’t hurt them a lot?”
       Monty took his excitable daughter aside. “Now lass, it’s like I told ya. We’re the good guys, so we don’t stoop to the bad guys’ level.”
       “Yeah, we’d be no better than they are if we did something like that,” Dale said. Lahwhinie gave a look that showed she thought that was the lamest idea ever. “Did they ever break your arms and legs to keep you from doing good deeds? At some point they’re going to beat you, it’s the law of averages. You keep letting them go, so the odds grow greater that you’ll lose to them. And don’t think they’ll let you go when they have you by the throat.”
       “Actually by the law of averages we’d have been dead years ago,” Gadget said. “They’ve caught us eleven times, but their plans have never come to fruition.”
       “Yeah, I think you’re over-reacting Lahwhinie,” Chip added. “Fat Cat’s the only brain among them, and even he’s not altogether that bright. As long as we stick together as a team, there’s no way he’ll beat us. Besides, his gang always slips up and makes mistakes.” Dale nodded raising his index finger in emphasis. “And good will always triumph over evil!” Lahwhinie wasn’t buying it. “So it shows that he’s almost as stupid as his henchmen. If he was really as smart as he thinks he is he would’ve gotten a competent gang, or even incompetent ones—they’d still be better than the ones he has.”
       Chip led the way out of the room once the coast was clear, and the conversation resumed. “Fat Cat’s sort of paranoid, Lahwhinie. He’s afraid to have any smart people around him for fear that they’d threaten his position as crime kingpin.”
       “So what you’re saying is that your opponents are always doing something stupid like this. But they could get lucky, you know. It happens,” Lahwhinie said. Dale brought out the four-leaf clover he always kept with him. “No matter how lucky they get, we’ll always be luckier! We’re just lucky that way.”
       Lahwhinie was finding the talk tiring. “Save your luck for the Irish. I’ll take a good solid weapon in my hands any day over that. I guess it would be pretty hard to make a portable volcano to use on them...” Chip broke her train of thought. “Come on, Lahwhinie. Your mom’s going to be eager to see us all back home again.”

       Twenty minutes later, the Rangers were gathered around the sofa telling Eva what all had happened. She had wanted to come, but Monty had insisted she stay since she had the baby to think about now. Eva had agreed reluctantly, but now she was listening intently. “Vell done, everyone! You Rangers would have made good agents in anyone’s organization.”
       “I still don’t see what was accomplished,” Lahwhinie said. “We let them go.” Chip knew that Gadget’s sister had come a long way, but it was obvious she still had progress to make. “Lahwhinie, you don’t have to maim people to accomplish something. The Rangers are built on the idea of protecting the public good, but we aren’t vigilantes. Even with criminals like Fat Cat and his gang, we don’t want to see them killed. We won’t let them get away with anything, but they’re still living beings and we have to respect that.”
       **And one day you’ll be respecting them while you’re on a one way trip through Fat Cat’s digestive tract,** Lahwhinie thought.
       Dale for his part was just glad to be back in the action. His time alone with Gadget had been wonderful, but now it was time to get back to being a Ranger for them both. “Don’t worry, Lahwhinie. You did a good job on your first real mission! C’mon, everyone, let’s celebrate with a night of TV watching! I’ll get the popcorn!”

       Dale went off to get the snacks ready, and Chip got up to turn on the television. Instead of a movie, Stan Blather was on the set. “...and word has just come in that the Louvre in Paris has been robbed. A rare emerald statue in the shape of a cat was taken from their Far East collection. French authorities were baffled to explain the statute’s disappearance.”
       The scene now showed a French policeman outside the museum. “Zee alarms were tripped, but when we arrived zhere was no one in zee building! Zee doors were all locked and zhere was no way out!” Stan Blather’s face returned to the screen. “And there you have it, a daring robbery tonight in Paris. We now return you to your movie, It Takes a Thief.”
       Chip sat up and took notice of the announcement. “Now there’s the kind of crime I’d like to get my hands on! A real mastermind, by the sound of it.” Gadget gave Dale some room as he came back in, then started in on the snacks. “Golly, don’t you think it’s strange that we stop some thieves from stealing a cat motif vase from this museum and in Paris a cat statue is stolen from another museum, almost at the same time?”
       “I guess that leaves your friends out of it,” Lahwhinie said, swiping some food for herself. Monty followed suit. “Aw, sounds like coincidence ta me, Gadget luv. After all, ya can’t be in two places at once!” Zipper joined in the eating binge. “Yeah, not even ol’ Fat Cat could do that.” Dale scarfed down some pretzels. “Fat Cat couldn’t steal candy from a sleeping baby.”
       “Or gold statues from baby squirrels,” Zipper added. Something about what Monty said bothered Chip. He got quiet and began to think. “No, not under normal circumstances...” Lahwhinie looked at Chip curiously. “What’s wrong with him?”
       “Shush, the lad’s thinking,” Monty said.
       Chip realized that Gadget was also right—the two robberies were very similar, and Chip for one didn’t believe in coincidence. “The easy getaway, no trace of anyone having been there...it could be...”
       “Who, dad?” Chip hadn’t even noticed Theo come out from his room, but now he was right behind him at the couch. It was past his bedtime, but right now that wasn’t important. “I think I was right a month ago. Fat Cat’s the one that stole the modemizer!”
       Monty didn’t like the sound of that. “Well, that’ll make things a bit o’ a challenge, seeing as how he can just jump from place to place with it.”
       “He probably wouldn’t set it up in the casino. Even he’s not that stupid,” Dale said. Lahwhinie began to see what Chip had been thinking. “So, the job we just stopped was a simple diversion? Boy, he is dumb.”
       “Well, not really,” Chip said. “He was using that to flaunt his real crime in our faces. Now he’s already got a head start on us, assuming I’m right. He could be anywhere on the planet right now, stealing anything. We were fortunate that he forgot the time difference between here and Paris—I’m sure he thought the news wouldn’t get back to us for quite some time. But if it is him and he’s using the modemizer, we’ve got to devise a way to stop him!”
       Gadget’s mind immediately began working on the problem. “That won’t be easy, Chip. We don’t know where he’s operating from, if he has anyone helping him operate the machine and no idea what his next target is or even the phone number of his system.” Gadget paused for a moment and her brows lowered in grim reflection. “And there’s another reason we need to stop him, too. That fix that Nimnul and I did on the modemizer was just jury-rigged—it wasn’t meant to last forever. One of the times he uses it, that makeshift filament in the molecular regurgitater will likely give out.”
       “What happens to him then?” Theo asked.
        “Well, there’s a small possibility that the machine would just short out. But the filament I used was made from a paperclip—gosh, I really should have put more thought into this before now—and if it melts instead of breaking, it could trigger a wholesale cascade effect throughout the entire motherboard and create a negative feedback loop!” Gadget said.
       “What does that mean?” everyone asked.
       Gadget looked at them all with a measure of trepidation. “It’s going to blow up.”


Chapter 2 - A Rolling Fat Cat Gathers No Rangers/Inventing and Late Vigils

       Not too far away from Ranger Headquarters, the Happy Tom Cat Food Factory was the site of a late-night rendezvous. The beaten goon-squad was in Fat Cat’s office, awaiting his arrival.
       “Gee, I thought he’d be here be now...” Mepps said, playing with a paperweight. Mole looked at the telephone on Fat Cat’s desk. “Maybe he had a problem fitting into the telephone wire...” At that moment, the phone rang. The receiver rose into the air as if by its own volition and in a few moments Fat Cat himself materialized and took a satisfied seat in his own office chair, removing the modemizer that had been strapped to his head.
       “Yes! This ridiculous machine actually works!” Fat Cat said, holding the cat statue he’d stolen. “Amazing that any human would be so clever as to come up with a scheme like this. I knew someday it would pay off if I kept an eye on that Nimnul fellow. All I had to do was bide my time and wait for the right moment to snatch this piece of crazy-looking hardware. Now, it's where it belongs—with the greatest criminal genius of all time! Bwah hah hah hah!”
       “Uh...Jesse James?” Mole asked.
       Fat Cat reached over and clouted him. “No, you simpering fool! Mepps, did your expedition to the local museum go as planned?”
       “They beat us and chased us away like always,” Wart said.
       “Hey! They only beat on me...” Mepps added.
       Fat Cat stroked the head of the emerald cat he had in his hand, and his voice become lower and more smooth. “Good, I knew I could count on you for that. Those ridiculous Rangers have thwarted me for years, but now I have the ultimate equalizer! With this little beauty, they can never catch me or know where I’ll be next!”
       Mole pointed to the phone. “Couldn’t you use their phone line and catch them while they're asleep?” Fat Cat nearly clouted him again, but found he was in too good a mood at the moment. “Do I look like I’d fit in any place a chipmunk or mouse would live in, you buffoon? Now, get the tools and get ready! We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us tonight!” Mole watched as Fat Cat jumped up. **Why not just tap into their phone line and send in Rat or me? We’re small enough. No one listens...I sure like candy.**
       “That sounds great, boss,” Mepps said. “What are you gonna steal next?”
       “It’s what we’re going to steal, Mepps,” Fat Cat said with glee, putting the cat statue in his safe. “Everyone join hands with me—it’s time we paid a visit to India, and hunt what every cat loves to stalk...only my prey will be much more profitable...” With that, the others linked hands and Mepps took Fat Cat’s right hand. With his left, the husky feline placed the receiver atop the modemizer and then dialed the number. The entire bunch disappeared into the phone, which promptly hung itself up.

       Gadget’s revelation that the modemizer was in danger of exploding had set the Rangers into action quickly. Eva volunteered to help Gadget work on the problem in spite of Monty’s concerns. She’d told him she’d just serve in a supervisory status. The problem was exactly what they would do—that is until Chip remembered his last trip to Nimnul’s lab.
       “Wait! We’ve got the blueprints of the modemizer in the trunk of the RangerWing,” Chip said, snapping his fingers. “Where has my mind been? I picked them up that day Lahwhinie went with Theo and me! Gadget, do you think you and your mother could build us our own modemizer?”
       “Ya probably blocked it out ‘cause that was the day of the stabbing, lad,” Monty sad.
       “Golly, with the plans we could have one done in a jiffy, Chip!” Gadget said. Eva brightened at the idea of doing something and feeling useful. “It vill be vonderful to work with Gadget and see what our two heads will come up with.”
       A few moments later Lahwhinie discreetly left the room. Theo noticed her and waited until the others went outside to follow her. Gadget and Eva took the plans into Gadget’s workshop and began discussing ideas at once, with the others looking on in interest. Meanwhile, Theo cracked open the door to what used to be Gadget’s room. Lahwhinie was sitting on the edge of the foot of the bed, saying nothing.
       “Aunt Lahwhinie, are you okay?” Theo asked.
       Lahwhinie sighed. “Oh, nothing for you to be worried about. You’re smart and have a future. You don’t have a brilliant mother and a genius sister who outshine you at every opportunity—always a constant reminder of how dumb I am.”
       Theo came and sat next to her. “Beating yourself up like this won’t change things, you know. You can only feel sorry for yourself so long. I know, because I did that for a year after mom and dad died. I felt like it was my fault and I felt bad about it every day. But finally someone cared enough to tell me it wasn’t my fault. Aunt Lahwhinie, it’s not your fault.” Lahwhinie gave the boy a hard look. “Not my fault that I’m dumber than a bag of...of those things you hit other things with...”
       “Hammers?” Theo suggested.
       “Yeah, that’s the ticket,” Lahwhinie said. “See what I mean? They’ve got more brains in their tails than I have in my entire body. Uh, sorry about your folks, Theo...” Theo looked up at the Hawaiian mouse. “Aunt Lahwhinie, I don’t think you’re dumb. Maybe you have more trouble learning than other people, but you’re definitely not dumb.”
       Lahwhinie gave out a snort. “Thanks, Theo. At least one of us thinks so.”

       Meanwhile, Eva and Gadget were talking mile-a-minute in the workshop. They had already improved the design of the modemizer to prevent the unique problem they were facing with Nimnul's version. Then another identically-sized piece of paper that had been stuck to the modemizer blueprints came off.
       “Vhat is that?” Eva asked.
       Gadget gave the paper a good look-see. “Hmm...looks like Nimnul’s plans for his metamorphicizer. Gosh, that’s strange. The metamorphicizer was developed before the modemizer. He must’ve stopped making it and went on to the other—that explains it! He used the same technology for the molecular regurgitater that he used to make the metamorphicizer work! Strange that he didn’t realize it could be unstable, especially considering how bad an effect the metamorphicizer ended up having on him.”
       Eva looked over the second blueprint and realized Gadget was right. “Well, now ve must take these plans and make something to stop our feline fiend before he can steal again. This is so exciting to be able to work with you, Gadget dahling!”
       Gadget smiled at her mother’s enthusiasm, and shared it. “I’m enjoying it too, mom! It’s so nice to work with someone who thinks like I do—and you do that more than anyone I know of, even Sparky.” Gadget pointed to the power-output readings Nimnul had written down for the modemizer. “Look mom, the overall bandwidth usage suggests that anytime the modemizer is used it would supercede any other packets of information coming through the lines. Do you know what that means?”
       “Ve could trace them, my clever little dahling,” Eva said.
       “Exactly!” Gadget said. “But now the question is how do we do it?”
       Eva gave it some thought, rubbing her chin the same way Gadget often did. “Well, vhen I began tracking down the remaining members of R.O.D.E.N.T.S., I needed a way to trace them—even on scrambled lines. I built a harmonious packet tracer that would seek out any outgoing signals from a specified start point and track the information packets to their destination. Ve could easily adapt that technology to create a “modemizer” bloodhound. It vhas very kind of the professor to give us the exact power frequency the machine uses.”
       Gadget was immediately impressed. “Golly, mom! What else did you build?”
       “Too much to explain in one sitting, dahling, and most of it was not good,” Eva said. “But if I can use the knowledge I have accumulated over a lifetime to help others, than perhaps I can begin to pay the vorld back some for how I misused my talents all that time.” Monty had been at the door when she said that, and he came over and hugged his wife. “Lass, you’ve already done that just by coming back. But I’m roight glad that lass I met in Nairobi’s still around.”
       “And I’m glad that the vunderful, handsome mouse that I met there still wanted me around,” Eva said.
       “Not to mention her daughter,” Gadget said, then looked around in sudden realization. “Hey, where’s Lahwhinie?” Monty shrugged his arms. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen her for a while. Well, she’s not the social type I guess.” Eva thought a moment, then touched her husband’s arm. “Oh, Monty! You mentioned the stabbing earlier, dahling. She probably got upset. Maybe you should go and check on her.”
       Monty brought his hand to his face, feeling like a fool for having said that in front of his girl. “Yeah, maybe she’s a bit down still about it.” Monty gave Eva a quick kiss on the cheek. “Gadget, ain’t it wonderful being’ married?” Gadget looked over her shoulder at Dale, who’d been quietly watching them all this time. “Well, Dale is a lot easier to get a hug out of than my tools.”

       Monty gave Gadget a quick hug, and Dale grinned while Monty headed for the door. “I’ll go talk to the lass and see if she’s feeling down.” Monty knocked on Lahwhinie’s door. “Lahwhinie, luv. Can I talk to ya, darlin’?” Lahwhinie came to the door, and Monty was a bit surprised to see that Theo had been in there with her. “Sure, dad. What’s up?”
       “I just wanted to say I’m sorry for bringing up the stabbing earlier and I also just wanted to see if you were okay,” Monty said tentatively. Lahwhinie thumbed back at Theo. “Don’t worry, I’ve got my own personal therapist now. He doesn’t even charge by the hour.” Theo felt awkward and came to the door too. “Hi, Uncle Monty. I was just telling her about some of my own experiences when I was a kid.”
       Monty put a hand on each of their shoulders. “I know the two o’ you had it hard growing’ up. I can’t make the old hurts go away, but I can do my best to see that there’s no more of them in the future. I’m sorry I can’t do more for either o’ you, but we all love ya both and we’ll do all that we can to make every minute from now on as happy as can be.”
       “Thanks, Uncle Monty,” Theo said. “Did Aunt Eva and Aunt Gadget figure anything out?” Monty looked back toward the workshop. “Yeah, they think that they can put something together to see where he’s going.”
       “Well, might as well join the peanut gallery. Come on, adviser,” Lahwhinie said, opening the door the rest of the way. Monty took notice that Lahwhinie took hold of Theo’s hand as they went to the workshop. Chip was in there now as well, and Eva and Gadget were already deep into building the modemizer and tracer.
       “C’mon, Lahwhinie! It’s like watching an inventing race!” Dale said with enthusiasm. Monty watched Eva and Gadget's hands fly and their mouths spout technobabble at an incredible pace. “Look at them go! Ain’t seen teamwork like that since I was at Luxemburg during the team finals o’ the world league of cheese eaters...”

       The two inventors spent the rest of the night on their work, going out of the treehouse early the next morning to gain needed parts. Just before ten the next day, mother and daughter came out of the workshop, covered in grease and smiling.
       “Well, we did it! We now have a way to track Fat Cat and go to wherever he is!” Gadget said. Eva glowed with the satisfaction of success. “We vill track down the big cat in no time!”
       “Great, we haven’t stomped him in a long time!” Dale said. Zipper smiled mischievously. “Wait till he encounters the smarter, stronger, more self-confident and better speaking Rangers. He and his goons will never know what hit them!”
       “And then it’s clobberin’ time!” Monty said. Chip was more than satisfied and pulled on his jacket lapels. “All right, it’s only a matter of time now. Eva, can you rig your scanner to give off an alarm whenever Fat Cat makes his move?”
       “I already built that in, Chip,” Eva said.
       “Good! Then I suggest we leave the scanner on tonight, with the alarm where we can hear it. If Fat Cat goes after another trophy, we’ll be ready for him!” Chip said. Monty gave his wife a congratulatory hug. “We’ll take turns doing watch over the gizmo. So what’s the plan, Chip, if something does happen?”
       Chip took a seat on the sofa and did some thinking. “No one goes off on their own. We’ll need the whole team to deal with Fat Cat. Whoever hears the alarm, wake the others and everyone be ready to go at a minute’s notice. Theo, you’ll stay here and protect your Aunt Eva.” Theo knew Chip was patronizing him. “Please, dad. I’m not a little kid, so you don’t have to pretend that’d fool me. Just tell me to stay here and let Aunt Eva protect me, because I’m too young to go. Don’t worry, I’ll follow orders and be good. Just remember, when I’m old enough, I’m gonna go on every mission!”
       Chip chuckled and rubbed his son’s head. “All right, Theo. No mincing words anymore, and I’m sure you’ll make a fine addition to the team when you’re ready.” Theo gave him a thumbs-up. “You better believe that, dad. This is what I was born for.” Monty patted Theo on the back. “Well mates, sounds like our new recruit’s gonna be a bonzer star once he’s of age. Reminds me o’ meself when I was a nipper. I’ll take the first watch, Chipper. You kin spell me in two hours.”
       “I’ll relieve you at two, Chip,” Dale said.
       “And I’ll relieve you at four,” Zipper said.
       “And I’m usually awake around six anyway,” Gadget said. “Okay, I think we’re set!”
       “What about me?”
       No one had noticed that Lahwhinie had been paying rapt attention to what was going on. Everyone had an apologetic look on their faces, including Chip. “Oh, sorry Lahwhinie. I guess I wasn’t thinking. You can take my watch, and I’ll take Dale’s.”
       Lahwhinie studied his face. “You sure? You trust me with something like this?” Chip got up off the sofa and walked over to her. “From the moment you asked to be included, you made yourself a part of this team. I trust my team to get the job done, including you.”
       Lahwhinie gave him a small smile. “Okay, I promise I won’t screw this up.” Chip took Lahwhinie’s hand and shook it. “Welcome to the Rangers, Lahwhinie.” Then Chip felt awkward, letting go of her hand, and turned to the others. “Okay everyone, let’s get some rest now. If that alarm goes off in the middle of the night, we’ll need to have extra sleep to compensate.”
       “It still doesn’t feel right going to sleep the same day you woke up,” Dale said. Gadget hugged her husband. “Don't worry, dear. You'll live. Golly, it’s fun to be inventing again. I can’t wait to try this new device out!” Monty stayed by Eva as she plugged in the scanner, and then he set up a chair right outside the workshop so he could hear it. Monty kissed his wife good night. “I’ll be there in a couple o’ hours, luv.”
       Dale and Gadget climbed the stairs to the lair. “Are you saying that the modemizer that you and your mom built hasn’t been tested at all?” Dale asked.
       “No, is that a problem?” Gadget asked. “I’m sure it’ll work with no problems.” Dale cringed reflexively, then grinned. “Nope, no problem! It’s nice that things are returning to normal.”
       Chip and Theo headed for their room, but Theo stopped when Lahwhinie was about to go into her room. Theo looked up at her with worry. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Lahwhinie smiled very slightly. “Don’t worry, adviser. I’ll muddle through.”
       “Thanks for helping out, Lahwhinie,” Chip said. “I’m glad you decided to be part of the team.” Lahwhinie tilted her head in a slight shrug. “Might as well do something to pass the time.” Chip and Theo headed into their room and closed the door. “Well, that was sure a surprise. Never thought she’d volunteer for anything,” Chip said.
       “Yeah, I was surprised too,” Theo said, “But with some help, she could be a real Ranger.” Chip had his own thoughts when it came to that. “Maybe. She seems, I dunno, lazy or something. She didn’t listen to me at all when we were in the casino. Still, she did volunteer. Maybe she’s finally going to buckle down and take responsibility for her life.”
       Theo came over in front of his dad. “Never treat her like it, but do what you’re doing for me. It’s like teaching another kid how to be a Ranger. Like me, she’s used to doing what she wants when she wants.” Chip put on his nightclothes, but kept his fedora and jacket right by the bed. “But she’s not a child, Theo. She’s a young woman who’s coasted through life up to now. I must admit, it’s strange that she’s not as smart as her mother and Gadget. After all, she comes from a very intelligent family. In some ways, she does seem like a child now that you mention it.”
       “Who’s she ever had to teach her how to be responsible?” Theo asked pointedly.
        Chip got into bed. “Good point. Well, I guess that’ll be the Rangers’ job now, and especially Monty’s. I was glad that she asked to be included, though. It’s the first real positive sign I’ve seen from her since she opened up to Monty and Eva.” Theo climbed up into his bunk. “Yeah, it’s nice that she’s starting to be nice.”
       Once Eva cleaned up, she found Monty waiting for her in the main room. Monty stood up from the sofa. “Ah, ya look clean as a brand new penny, lass. You seemed to have a roight good time with Gadget today.”
       “Oh yes, dahling,” Eva said, sitting down on the sofa, and Monty did the same. “It vhas exciting to work at her side and feel useful again.” Monty detected a sense of melancholy in her voice. “I'm sorry, luv. I shoulda thought about how hard adjusting to this life could be for ya.”
       Eva put her hands in her lap. “I vould not trade our time together for anything, Monty. I am relieved to not be living the life of deception anymore, but I must admit I do not feel the same sense of purpose I used to have. Of course, being a mother and wife is very nice, but still...”
       “Say no more, luv. Ya need something to feel a part of the goings-on, and it's only roight you should. You're part of the Rescue Rangers now, after all,” Monty said. Eva hugged him. “Thank you, dear. I vill begin seeking out the role for myself. Now you had best get to watching the alarm, Monty.” Monty kissed his wife good night. “I'll be there in a while, lass.”

       Monty finished his two-hour vigil without incident, and Lahwhinie was right on time to relieve him. He offered to stand her watch as well, but she absolutely refused, saying it was “her duty”. Monty looked at her fondly, and left it to her. Lahwhinie took a seat in the chair, and then the night sounds began to take over—the settling of the treehouse, the snoring in the various rooms, the call of an owl outside. Soon it developed a rhythm of its own and Lahwhinie began to doze. She got up and poured some coffee and returned. She wasn’t too worried, because she was a light sleeper anyway—but this time she’d be ready. Still, the sounds took over again and she was almost out when a hand touched her and she flinched.
       “It’s okay, it’s only me,” Chip said quietly.
       “Don’t do that! I could’ve killed you!” Lahwhinie said.
       Chip smiled a bit. “Well, that’s not exactly how I’d planned to spend the evening. Thanks for joining in, Lahwhinie. You did just fine.” Lahwhinie stood up. “No I didn’t. I nearly feel asleep.” Chip could see the streak of perfectionism in her that he held himself to. “But you didn’t fall asleep, that’s the point. Lahwhinie, don’t try to be a perfectionist—I made a lot of people resentful by that. You did surprise me though by volunteering. It was good to be able to include you.”
       “Well, it’s about the only thing I’m good for around here,” Lahwhinie said with frustration. “Call me again if you need someone to sit around and wait for a phone to ring.” Lahwhinie got up and started to go, then Chip spoke again. “I’ve come to learn that every life is special. You’re a special person, Lahwhinie, whether you want to admit it or not. You’re a part of this team now, and I’m not going to give up on you. Lahwhinie, I want you to know I forgive you for what happened in Hawaii.”
       Lahwhinie looked back at him to see if he was serious. “Thanks, I guess. Wake me if something happens. Good night, Chip.” Chip sighed. At least he’d tried. “Good night, Lahwhinie. Oh, and Theo says good night, too.” Lahwhinie smiled briefly. “Tell him I said good night and sweet dreams.” Chip was surprised at those words coming from her, but he nodded in kind. “Will do, and thanks for being so nice to him. He’s needed friends.” Lahwhinie was in the hallway when Chip heard her reply.
       “So have I.”
       Chip knew then, he would try to help her. But how? That was a puzzle for sure. The idea of a puzzle brought him back to his favorite pastime, and Chip sat down and began his shift. He’d brought his Sureluck Jones with him, and there was no better time to read than the still of the night. He immediately lost himself in the Adventure of the Lonesome Lackey, one of Jones’ later stories. Reading helped him, particularly when there was little action like there had been lately. Now, adventure could be but a moment away. Chip read on, and the time passed quickly.
       Two hours later, Dale came in. “How goes it, Chip? No news from the front?” Dale asked. Chip closed his book. “So far, Sureluck’s getting more business than we are. I still feel kinda bad that we pulled you two back from your honeymoon, even for this. Is Gadget really okay with this?”
       “Chip, we both wanted to get back here,” Dale assured him. “This is home, where we all belong.” Chip stood up. “Okay, just checking. I tend to get one-tracked all too easily, and right now my thoughts have mostly been on Gadget’s sister. She’s so downhearted, Dale. I just wish there was a way to bring her around.”
       Dale was ever the optimist. “Don’t worry, she's got the greatest family to look after her. Give her some time...then she will be assimilated…resistance is futile!” Chip gave him a half-smile. “You and your television watching. I hope she doesn’t end up as a robot, though. I was encouraged by her volunteering and she actually smiled once when I mentioned Theo. I think the boy’s developed a bond with her, which may do her more good than anything else.”
       “They have a lot in common,” Dale agreed. “Chip, I just wanted to say that you’re doing a good job as dad to Theo. I know he’s been with us for only a month or so, but he already feels like family.” Chip motioned toward his room. “I can’t take any credit there. Theo’s a great kid. He sought me out, and came as a son ready-to-order. I’m grateful that he’s mine, though. He means a lot to me.”
       “We have Theo here and soon Monty will have another child. Wow, two children living here in Ranger HQ,” Dale said. “It’ll be wild, but fun! Maybe even one day Gadget and me will adopt some of our own. Maybe one day, you and Foxy can do the same. Even Zipper and Honey.” Chip gave a quick laugh. “And to think, I used to think kids would cramp my style. Yeah, I knew all the answers—or the ones I wanted to know. Then he comes along. Dale, we’re right where we said we’d never be...just like our parents.”
       Dale laughed as well. “Well, now that we’re there it’s not so bad is it? I like what I am and where I am in life.” Chip shook his head in amusement. “Yeah, who knew being so square could be so cool? Good night, Dale. It’s great to have you and Gadget back.”
       “Good night, Chip, and just remember—no matter how old we get I’ll always be younger than you,” Dale said, winking. “Ha, who says you can never go home again?”

       Chip shook his head and waved good night. Dale sat quietly with a sketchbook in hand, using his imagination to draw a picture of what Monty and Eva’s as yet unborn child would look like. He lost himself in it, just as Chip did in his reading. Just before dawn, a soft voice spoke from behind him.
       “That’s beautiful, Dale. Who is it?” Gadget asked. Dale turned to see Gadget standing next to him. “It’s Monty and Eva’s child. This one’s a girl.” Dale turned the sketch book to a different page. “And this is the child as a boy.” Gadget studied his work, and as always it was good. “You ought to show those to them. I bet they’ll want to have both. It’s so strange, though. I’m going to have a sister or brother that’s over twenty years younger than I am.”
       “When you’re with the baby, you’ll have to keep telling people that it’s not your baby,” Dale said, grinning. Gadget looked from the picture to him. “You know you’re right? I hadn’t even thought of that. Dale, I know I asked this before in reference to your parents but you aren’t disappointed that we’ll never have a baby of our own, are you?”
       Dale took her hand. “No, Gadget. I could never be disappointed by you, ever. We can still adopt kids. Look at how Chip and Theo are! If you didn’t know it, you’d just assume that they were father and son.” Gadget smiled at the reference to them. “Well, I think people will be able to guess when it comes to us. I know, Dale, you’re wondering if I want children. I’m not sure I do...yet. We’re just starting out, and things have changed so much. I’d like for everything to get a little more stable before we think about a family.”
       Dale was glad—and relieved. “Don’t worry. I’m as unsure as you are at this point. I think it’d be neat, but it’s an awesome responsibility. Little people who will count on us to protect and guide them through their entire life. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.” Gadget helped Dale up and hugged him. “We’ve got a lifetime to decide that, dear. Right now, I’m just glad I have you.”
       Dale smiled at the friendly reminder and hugged his wife again. He went on up to the lair, and Gadget went on inside the workshop instead of taking the chair. She’d saved a few minor jobs to do, and now she got to work on them to aid in passing the time.


Chapter 3 - Peaches and the Little Napoleon/A Secret Discovered, a Secret Revealed/
Green Eggs and Ham, With a Taste of the Islands Thrown In.

       When the sun’s rays had warmed the treehouse again, breakfast found everyone at the table and no alarm as yet. There was much speculation on how long the wait would be, but it was all guesswork. Theo picked at his cereal with his spoon. “Dad, what if he does try coming here? Fat Cat’s never the type to give up easily, and maybe he’s waiting until he can get his paws on the gigantico gun and shrink himself!”
       Chip knew that was plausible, but not likely. “We know him too well, Theo. He’s got a new toy and will keep right on stealing. He’s obsessive as a cow trying to reach the grass outside its fence. His only desire’s to accumulate wealth and exercise power. He won’t deviate from that course, even to eliminate us—unless we get in the way.”
       “I hope you’re right,” Theo said. “I’d hate to wake up one night and find a mini version of that ugly-looking tabby by my bed. But if you know how he thinks, can’t you just predict where he’ll go next anyway?” Chip shrugged. “It’s a big world out there and there’s an endless list of treasures to steal. Fat Cat’s like a kid in a candy store right now. He’s going for a cat motif, but he could strike anywhere next. We’ve got to be patient.”
       Dale cut up his cheese flapjack. “Yeah, there’s no tellin’ where he’ll strike next. He might go after the crown jewels again, or the Hope diamond or go after the rarest bird in the world for a snack!” Chip turned from listening to Dale back to Theo. “As an example of his obsession, he once sank numerous human ships just to try to get a single rare fish that was on one of them.”
       “An’ made me look like a fool in the process,” Monty said, showing some ire at the memory. “I still owe that post-scratchin’ pea brain for sinking my house all that time ago! Maybe we can send him ta Siberia with that blooming thing—one way o’ course.” Lahwhinie brought over some of her fresh-baked muffins. “From what you guys told me about what happened to you when that machine malfunctioned, he might end up there in pieces.”
       Gadget immediately grabbed a muffin, as she’d already developed a taste for them since she and Dale had returned from their honeymoon. “Or if his henchmen are with him, like a very abstract totem pole—that is assuming the explosion doesn’t just kill them.” Lahwhinie was about to say that would be a good thing, but then remembered that her views on justice were quite different from the rest of the Rangers. “Yeah, that’d be a crying shame.”
       The way she’d said it, combined with her unexpected answer, had Chip on the verge of laughter. He knew it wasn’t a laughing matter, but her deadpan delivery had him pursing his lips to keep him from letting it out. Then she looked at him. “What? Don’t you think I have any empathy for those worthless scum, fit only for destruction?”
       That was all it took. A laughing fit took hold of Chip, and the others hadn’t been far away either. Chip fell out of his chair for laughing. Lahwhinie shot out of her seat and walked away. “Okay, that’s it! Good day, everyone.” Chip got up in a hurry and ran after her, catching her before she got to her room and still giggling some. “Lahwhinie, I wasn’t laughing at you! I was laughing with you! What you said was so funny, because you said it so matter-of-fact! ‘Don’t you think I have any empathy for those worthless scum, fit only for destruction.’?”

       Chip grinned at her, barely holding back the giggles. The look on Lahwhinie’s face made it clear that she wasn’t amused. “Chip, shut up...and go away.” The humor left him then, and he went toward concern. “Please, Lahwhinie. Don’t be this way. I didn’t mean for it to hurt you.”
       “Well, you did hurt me, Chip, and in front of everyone no less! Thanks a lot. Like I don’t think little enough of myself as it is. I thought you were my friend,” Lahwhinie said, marching off. Chip thought he knew pain when that knife had struck him in the shoulder, but it was nothing like this. She’d cut him to the quick, and he didn’t know what to do. He took her hand to prevent her from leaving.
       “I’m sorry, Lahwhinie,” Chip said. “You’re right, I didn’t think about how you might react. I swear I won’t do it again.” Lahwhinie spun around, her eyes moist, and they were nose to nose. “Don’t ever humiliate me again, Chip, or I’m out of here, forever! You got that?”
       It was too much for him. Chip let her hand go and stomped outside, trying to get some control back. What had come over him? Why had he allowed himself to laugh like that, when he knew that she might not understand it? Why? Chip stood at the railing, and beat his clenched fists down on the railing. “Way to go, dummy.”
       Lahwhinie was surprised by Chip’s sudden departure and she quickly followed.She watched his display, disapproving. “For crying out loud, Chip, get over it! I accept your apology already, so stop acting like an idiot. And I thought I was overreacting.” Chip spun around, his emotions in his voice. “Do you think it’s easy for me to keep making mistake after mistake and still not know when I’m hurting people? I swore I’d never do that to anyone again, and then blammo! It all blew up in my face.”
       “Fine, then we’re both idiots in our own ways,” Lahwhinie said. “How about you stop pointing out my shortcomings and I won’t point out yours?” Chip allowed himself a few seconds. “All right, then.”
       “Good, now stop acting like mister perfect and come back to breakfast. I’m sure everyone’s hiding right inside the door right now listening in to our conversation, so this’ll give them a few moments to rush back into the kitchen and pretend they weren’t listening,” Lahwhinie said.

       Chip went back inside with Lahwhinie. Sure enough, they both heard scuffling as they approached the kitchen door. Chip went in right after her, and their audience was all silent as they sat down. Chip went back to his breakfast, not looking up. “Don’t worry. It’s all worked out.”
       “That’s great,” Monty said evenly. “We’re working’ like a real team again.” Chip didn’t say much more at the table, and Gadget took notice of it. She knew that something unpleasant must have happened, so she made an opportunity for herself by staying in the kitchen to help Monty wash dishes. Chip had stayed at the table, moping, and when she saw her chance Gadget whispered a word to her father. Monty left, and Gadget sat down next to Chip.
       “Chip, what happened between you and Lahwhinie?” Gadget asked. Chip took off his fedora and raised his eyebrows. “Well, she was deeply offended that I laughed at her and she let me know it. I apologized and we made up.” Gadget knew there was likely more to it than that. “Are you sure that’s all there was to it? You didn’t let her force you in making any promises, did you?”
       “What are you implying?” Chip asked pointedly.
       Gadget looked at Chip with concern. “Chip, I know you’ve recovered a great deal but Lahwhinie’s a very manipulative person. I’m...afraid that she’ll try to gain control of you. Chip, I don’t want to see you get hurt.” Chip shook his head. “Don’t worry, Gadget. I’ll be fine. I really did hurt her feelings earlier and I had every reason to apologize. I’m wise to her, Gadget. I’ll be careful.”
       Gadget placed a hand on his. “I know that this may not seem to be my business, but you and Theo seem to be closer to Lahwhinie than she’ll let me be. What’s your assessment of her right now?” Chip allowed his thoughts of the past hour to leave him and took on a more objective view. “She feels helpless and worthless. I think she feels she has nothing to offer you, Monty or Eva as a family and that she has nothing to offer to the Rescue Rangers.”
       Gadget stood up, frustrated. “But she does have things to offer! She showed in that battle with us in Hawaii that she’s very resourceful and intelligent. She also has a good handle on the criminal mind, which makes her useful in our line of work. Chip, I just want to hug her and tell her she’s every bit as important as I am. I feel such an empathy for her. She is my sister after all.”
       “Just go to her and hug her and say that, then. If you give her any options she’ll always pull away,” Chip said. Gadget blinked when he said that. “Do you really think I should? I’m scared that if I’m too forward, I’ll drive her away.” Chip squeezed her hand reassuringly. “Gadget, if something doesn’t change soon she may very well leave anyway.”

       Gadget knew he was right, and she didn’t waste any more time. The mouse inventor left, and went to seek out her mirror image. She found Lahwhinie in her old room, sitting on the bed and looking at the small pack she’d brought with her. “You’re thinking about leaving, aren’t you?” Gadget asked.
       Lahwhinie didn’t look at her. “Not yet anyway. I was just looking for some postcards I brought from Hawaii. I’m getting a little homesick. Why do you care?”
       Gadget paused for a moment at Lahwhinie’s brusque way of speaking, but she remembered what Chip had said. She quickly sat next to her sister and hugged her. “Lahwhinie, I do care about you! And I think you can make something of yourself here with us if you’ll give us a chance. You showed at our first meeting that you’re cunning and intelligent—there’s always good ways to use those qualities. Please, say you’ll stay! I don’t want to lose you.”
       Lahwhinie was surprised by this unexpected display of affection.What did Gadget have to gain by wanting her to stay? “Why? I’ll just get in the way and cause trouble. Anyway, I just don’t think I can stand being around you and mom, when you’re both brilliant and I’m dumb as a post.”
       Gadget could not have been more surprised. “Dumb? Sis, you may be more up-front than most people I know, but you’re just as intelligent as I am! You managed to out-fox me in Hawaii, and I’m nobody’s fool. I don’t know how you invented that scheme to fool those tribesmice, but that took real creativity. You understand how criminals think, and we can use that kind of knowledge around here. If you want to help me in the workshop, just ask—I didn’t think you’d be interested in that, but I’d be glad for your help.”
       Lahwhinie looked up at Gadget, and Gadget was shocked at the level of sadness in the face. “Gadget, they tried teaching me stuff like that when I was a kid, it just didn’t work.” Gadget took hold of Lahwhinie’s shoulder. “But did they find out why? I can’t believe that you’re any less intelligent than I am. There’s got to be a reason!”
       “Yeah, the family brains all went to you and didn’t leave me with squat,” Lahwhinie said, throwing the postcards across the room. Gadget thought through the possibilities and the wheels of her mind grinded on the problem. Then she remembered something from her own childhood.
       “Lahwhinie, there’s a knothole on the floor to your left. Do you see it?” Gadget asked. Lahwhinie looked to the right. “No, what are you talking about?” Gadget’s eyes lit up and her voice got excited. “Lahwhinie, I think I know what the problem is! Come on with me to the workshop!” Lahwhinie sighed and followed her sister. “Yeah, whatever.”
       Lahwhinie and Gadget went into the workshop and Gadget prepared some of her equipment. “Lahwhinie, I haven’t ever seen you with a book. Do you have a favorite book?”
       “No!” she said defensively.
       Gadget had suspected as much. “Okay. You obviously have a good memory of your early years. And we know you can cook—did you learn cooking from a cookbook or did you learn by watching your native friends?” Lahwhinie didn’t see the point to any of this. “I learn better from watching than I ever did from reading.”
       Gadget brought one of her machines over and disassembled it slowly in front of Lahwhinie while they talked. “Okay, let's test your associative memory. You saw me take my machine apart, now watch as I put it back together...” She cleaned some of the parts and then put it back together again. “Now, can you tell me which part is out of place”
       Lahwhinie pointed to a part. “That thingamajig isn’t properly attached to that other doohickey.” Gadget removed the part and put it in the opposite way. The little motor hummed to life immediately. “You’re right! See, all you had to do was watch me disassemble and reassemble my mini-centrifuge and you immediately saw what was wrong!”
       Lahwhinie heaved a sigh. “Lot of good that’ll do me.” Gadget’s eyes danced with realization. “But don’t you understand? That means you’re not stupid! In fact, I didn’t learn well out of books myself early on. I’m the same way you are—I learn much better by direct observation and hands-on techniques.”
       “Then I’m happy for you. But I’m still dumb,” Lahwhinie said flatly.
       Gadget began to work on another device and handed a numbered list to Lahwhinie. “Could you read that out loud to me? It’s the instructions I wrote down on the procedure to replace the gaskets on this motor for my shop generator. I’ve been needing to do it for some time now.”

       Lahwhinie hesitantly took the paper and tried to read. She held it close to her face, then moved it away, then squinted, then turned it upside down, then right side up. She crushed it up and threw it away and stormed out of the room. Gadget knew for sure now. “Lahwhinie, wait! Come back!”
       Gadget chased after her sister and as fate would have it Chip was in Lahwhinie’s line of fire as she tried to make for the outside. “Chip, stop her!” Gadget shouted. “I’ve got to tell her something!” Chip jumped in front of the door and bodily blocked her escape. If looks could kill, he would've been dead in an instant. “Get...out...of...my...way!” Lahwhinie shouted, throwing Chip aside with her Erskine strength.
       Gadget raced up, and knew her strength was the equal of her sister’s. Lahwhinie couldn’t break free of Gadget’s grip, though she screamed and twisted in her efforts. Monty and the others had gotten up now, very concerned at this turn of events. Gadget shook her sister and made Lahwhinie look at her. “Lahwhinie, just...give me a chance to talk! I know...what’s wrong with you!”
       “Oh please!” Lahwhinie said, her temper up. “Stop with the phony pity! Why don’t all of you just leave me alone! I’m getting sick of all of this!” Monty was growing ever-concerned. “Gadget, what’s this all about? And why’re ya tussling with your sister?”
       “Yes, please explain this, dear!” Eva said, worried for both her girls.

       Gadget kept an iron grip on Lahwhinie, who was growing more impatient by the second. “Lahwhinie told me that she thought she was stupid, so I tested her intelligence informally. Mom, dad, she’s fine. But I also figured out that she has a unique way of learning that’s kept her disadvantaged all her life. Lahwhinie’s dyslexic.”
       Chip’s eyes widened at Gadget’s conclusion. “That would certainly answer some questions.” Lahwhinie quit fighting her sister, and turned a curious look to her. “Dyslexic? What’s that mean?” Eva walked over and put an arm around her daughter. “Dear, it means that you have a very creative mind, but you do not take in information like others do. It means that you likely have problems reading and remembering short-term facts. You also would have problems remembering verbal exchanges and you likely have difficulties with your sense of direction.”
       “How do you know that?” Lahwhinie asked.
       Gadget looked her sister in the eye. “I guessed it, Lahwhinie, because I’m dyslexic too.” Lahwhinie was amazed, as were all the others except Eva. “I’m...confused,” Lahwhinie said. “How?”
       Gadget lead Lahwhinie over to the sofa. “Sis, it’s something you’re born with. When I was with my other mom and dad, they tested me early on for intelligence when I started showing signs of being above-average. The doctor said I had genius-level potential, but that I wouldn’t learn like other kids. Dad and mom taught me at home, and worked to show me ways that I could learn things like abstract concepts. I had a lot of trouble reading at first, but dad was patient and kept getting me to say the sounds out loud. Sis, I know you feel stupid but you’re not. You’re just like me.”
       “Yeah, right,” Lahwhinie said, disbelieving.
       Eva joined the two girls on the sofa. “Gadget, I had never thought of this before but I have some of those signs myself. Are there other indicators?” Gadget looked over to her mother. “Well, you tend to have problems associating spoken words with the words written on a page. You have difficulty putting your thoughts into words at times. You can have vision problems, but eye exams won’t show a problem. Emotionally, you can be high-strung with a short attention span. Self esteem problems are common, and while you may be high in intelligence you don’t score well on tests for it.”
       “Well, that does kinda sound like me...” Lahwhinie said. Dale came over and put his arm around Gadget. “Is this dys-whatchamacallit the reason you have problems making decisions and all? Like the time you decided to use the towel and the suntan lotion to stop that squid?” Gadget nodded. “Yeah, dyslexic people sometimes have problems making decisions under stress. We can take in a whole lot of information at once and just not know what to do with it all.”
       “But why didn’t you ever tell us, Gadget? You didn’t even tell me,” Dale said, holding her hands. Gadget’s eyelids lowered, and her face turned away from her husband. “I didn’t know what you or the others would think. I’m sorry, honey. I should’ve told you at least, but I’d kept the secret all this time and I guess I was always afraid you or others would see me as different somehow.”

       Lahwhinie watched as Dale turned Gadget’s face to him, smiled and hugged her. Gadget cried and smiled too as she hugged Dale back. Lahwhinie didn’t quite understand it, but it seemed a little better now. “Okay, for the sake of argument let’s say you’re right and I’m dyslexic. So what’s to be done about it?”
       Gadget dried her eyes. “Well, first off it’s not brain damage. Dyslexia’s just a label that’s used to mean that you think in multidimensional terms. You can learn anything anyone else can, but only a certain way. You’re lucky in a way—when mom and dad helped me to learn to read they didn’t have phonics programs back then. I expect with your intelligence you’ll be reading very well within a month or so—if you’re willing to try.”
       Lahwhinie’s eyelids raised in amazement. “Really?” But before Gadget could react, Lahwhinie frowned and barged past everyone. “Give me some time to think about it.” Lahwhinie first walked then ran to her room. Monty and Eva quickly followed and returned a minute later. “She’s upset’s all,” Monty said, then looked over at Gadget. “That was a moighty brave thing ya did, letting that secret o’ yours out like that, luv. I’m mighty proud of ya.”
       “Thanks, I hope it was enough to convince her to let us help her,” Gadget said. Eva gave her girl a hug. “Dahling, you did the right thing. The R.O.D.E.N.T.S. trained me fully, but I do remember having some problems at first. Still, I vhas so naturally adept and hungry to learn that it did not stop me. If they had only known, they vould have been able to fully train her instead of dumping her from the program.”
       “Guess it was a blessing in disguise, then,” Monty said. “Well, it was a rough way to avoid being’ a spy. They messed her up pretty good, but ya gave us hope, Gadget darlin’.” Chip had been very relieved that Gadget had intervened, but now his mind was filled with questions. “Gadget, do you mean to say that her entire demeanor—the tough-person attitude and her seeming lack of caring for others may all originate from a learning disability?”
       Gadget hadn’t thought about that, but when she did she nodded. “Yes, but that’s just part of it. She was abused and mistreated badly growing up, so it all contributed to the person she is now.” Dale looked toward the hall where Lahwhinie had run to a minute ago. “Zowie. I remember what it felt like when I thought I was a dummy. We’ve gotta help her get smart!”
       “Gadget, can you do it?” Chip asked. “Can you help her, or show us how to help her?” Gadget brightened at the idea. “Sure! The only thing is, will she let us? The poor dear’s probably embarrassed right now and hurt too. I wish I hadn’t had to tell her in front of everyone, but maybe it’s for the best. Now we all know about both of us. But the first step’s got to come from her.”
       During this exchange, one inhabitant of headquarters had stayed on the sidelines. Theo had remained quiet and snuck away from the group to follow Lahwhinie. He’d seen and heard it all from the hall, and had hid when Lahwhinie had run past Chip’s room and burst into her own. He almost went in, but decided to wait when he heard her crying. She needed time to reconcile things.

       For several days, Lahwhinie either kept to her room or said very little to anyone. Theo talked to Gadget and the others, absorbing all the information on Lahwhinie’s problem he could. The young Ranger-in-training waited his chance, and knew she’d give him one. It came when Lahwhinie picked up a book and went out into the park. He followed her, and got close enough to hear her trying to read.
       “Stupid Dr. Seuss...it’s all just nonsense to me,” Lahwhinie said, tossing the book away. Theo stepped over to her, picking it up. “Well actually, Dr. Seuss does write nonsense but you can learn to read it. I still remember my phonics courses from the orphanage.”
       Lahwhinie rolled her eyes. “Great, even you know. You’re just a kid and you could read rings around me.” Theo ignored Lahwhinie’s mild protest and sat next to her. “Green Eggs and Ham? One of my old favorites!” Lahwhinie looked at the book like it was the plague. “It’s just stupid nonsense. Just like all the other books.”
       “Aunt Lahwhinie, you’re just trying to excuse yourself,” Theo said gently. “C’mon, you can get this if you try. Will you try, please?” Lahwhinie sighed and looked back at the book. “Great, a kid half my age is teaching me how to read. This is stupid.” Theo knew she was going to give it a go. “Don’t think of me as a kid, then. I’m just a friend who’s rooting for you. Please?”
       “Just don’t tell the others how dumb I am and that we’re reading Green Eggs and Ham,” Lahwhinie said. Theo spit into his hand and held it out. “On my honor.” Lahwhinie had started to shake when Theo’s expectoration stopped her. “Eewww! Uh, I’ll just take your word for it.” Theo chuckled a little, and wiped his hand clean. They opened the book and Lahwhinie began to read. She looked at the page uncomfortably and started in, pronouncing the words phonetically. “Sahm...eye...om”
       “Sam, Aunt Lahwhinie. It rhymes with am,” Theo said.
       Theo smiled at her. “Cool, you got it! Now, try it faster.”
       “Sam..eye..am...Sam eye am.”
       “Right. Now the next line,” Theo said.
       “That’s...am...eye...am,” Lahwhinie read. Theo shook his head and covered up all but the first word. “Now try it. I’ll move my finger and you read each word as it’s revealed.” Lahwhinie grimaced put obeyed. “That...Sam...eye..am.”
       “Awesome! See, you’re catching on!” Theo said encouragingly. Lahwhinie was still embarrassed, but put her finger over the next line and copied Theo. “That..Sam..eye..am.” Then she went down to the next line. “Eye...do...naht...lie-ek...that...Sam eye am!” Theo clapped his approval and she kept going. “Do...you...lie-ek...grin..eggs..and..hat. Grin eggs and hat?” Theo pointed to the picture next to the words. “See? The eggs are green. It’s green eggs. And that word is ham, like the ham next to the green eggs.”
       Lahwhinie shifted on the bench, but the boy was looking at her expectantly. “Do..you..lie-ek..”
       “Do..you..like..green..eggs..and..ham...I..do..not..like...them..Sam..eye..am.” Theo hugged her. “Terrific! You’ve already caught on a good bit. Keep going.”
       “Close. Would, said like the wood from a tree.”
       “Here or there…”

       Lahwhinie leaned her head back against the back of the bench. “I think that’s all I can take. It’s like running a marathon.” She looked up at the sky, sighing. “This is so embarrassing. I’m struggling to read a book most five year olds could recite from memory.” Theo held her hand. “It’s okay, Aunt Lahwhinie. You’re already pronouncing better, and we’ll work at it each day. You’ll see—soon you’ll have it down pat.” Lahwhinie gave a laugh. “Swell, then I can move up to Go Dog Go.”
       “It takes time to do the really important things. You were deprived of your rightful education by people who didn’t know any better. But once you have it, no one can take it away from you,” Theo said.
       Lahwhinie looked embarrassed and blushed deeply as she looked over to Theo. “When I can read better does that mean I’ll be able to write better too?” Theo nodded. “They usually go hand-in-hand. Once you know how to read the written words, you should be able to write them too. I’ll snatch some paper and pencils and we’ll practice. No one will think to ask what I’m doing with them.”
       Lahwhinie smirked at the idea of Theo stealing some paper and pencils, then she frowned. “That won’t be needed. They all know my problem so you don’t have to get the paper on the sly.” Theo found he was pleased with her reaction. “Okay, I didn’t want you to have to feel put-upon. My friend at the orphanage Morty Dickens was the same way you are and the guys would all team up to help him learn to read and write. We were all friends. I’m glad you’re my friend, Aunt Lahwhinie.”
       Lahwhinie couldn’t remember meeting a boy like this one before. He was so different. “Why? Why are you so different than every other guy that I’ve ever met, Theo? It’s more than just the fact you’re still a kid. You’re so...nice. I figured by now you’d at least have a big crush on me and there’d be little hearts in your eyes whenever you saw me but you don’t. You still treat me as well today as you did when you first met me. I’m sure you’ve heard some of what I did and what I was like before and you still...seem to respect me.”
       Theo shifted some on the bench. “Well, I used to be a lot different. I was always getting in trouble and having problems. But one day Father Flanagan asked to take me for a week. One day he took me on his missions work in the city and we saw some pretty bad things. When we got back, he sat me down and said, ‘I wanted you to see the need the world has for good people, Theophane. If you choose to do what’s right, you’ll always be needed.’ So here I am.”
       “So you think your being good is because you believe what he said?” Lahwhinie asked. Theo shrugged. “All I know is, it helped me to think about other people instead of me. I found I liked helping people and being a leader-type. That’s why I want to be a Rescue Ranger, like my dad. I want to grow up and help other people know that there’s at least one person around that cares enough to try to help them.”
       “Well, as they say, there’s a sucker born every minute,” Lahwhinie said.
       “I’ve seen every dodge and trick in the book,” Theo said. “But I haven’t seen anyone turn down somebody who honestly wants to help. I don’t care what your background is or what you did before. I don’t like you because of those things.” Lahwhinie didn’t know just how to take that. “Well, thanks...I guess.”
       “I wasn’t done yet. I like you because inside you’re really a good person, whether you know it or not. You need someone to like you, and show you who you are. And I guess I took the job,” Theo said, looking up at her. Now Lahwhinie felt a different brand of uncomfortable. “I’ve never liked having to rely on anyone, or oweing anyone anything. I don’t do anything for them and they don’t do anything for me. That way I’m always in control of my destiny.”

       Theo jumped off the bench and stood in front of her. “Aunt Lahwhinie, you’ve always relied on people some way or another. You didn’t make the clothes you’re wearing, you didn’t build the house you’re living in or any of the other ones for that matter. You didn’t give birth to yourself. No one gets where they are alone. We’re all dependent on each other to some extent, but if you’re concerned about oweing me, don’t be. I’m doing this solely to help you, because I want to. You don’t owe me anything, and I wouldn’t take anything in return.”
       “You are one really weird kid, Theo. Lucky for me,” Lahwhinie said, a slight smile forming. Theo smiled in return. “Aunt Lahwhinie, can’t you understand that the Rangers are the same way? What they’re doing, they’re doing because they want to. They’re not looking for you to pay them back.”
       Lahwhinie sighed. “I know, but how can you not feel obligated when they’re doing so much for me? They rescued me from that...Renaldo. Chip took a knife for me. They gave me a home and a family and now you’re teaching me to read. I feel like a sponge.”
       “Your time to give hasn’t come yet, but you have to learn to be a good taker, too,” Theo said. “The Rangers’d tell you that they all owe each other their lives several times over. None of them feels coerced by that. Chip saved my life twice over, and I owe him big time. There’s no way I could repay what he’s done, and I’m not going to try. But I’m grateful, and I’ll do what I can to show that gratefulness every day.”
       “Yeah, I guess. How could I make up for the fact that I tried to kill them all…repeatedly,” Lahwhinie said. Theo helped her up. “Well, not killing them now is a good start. You could do something nice for them all, just because you wanted to.”
       Lahwhinie started walking with him. “I’ll have to think about that. That’s not going to come easy for me.” Theo knew that already, but at least she sounded willing. “Well, don’t do it unless you decide it’s what you want to do. You could easily do something, like making some more of those awesome Hawaiian foods. It doesn’t have to be big, you know. Just something good you decide to do because you want to.”
       Lahwhinie thought back to the pictures she’d brought from her old home. “Well, I could clear out the living room and we could roast an entire pig in there.” Theo instantly jumped at the suggestion. “You mean like a luau? Cool idea! The guys could raid Dale’s shirt collection, and we could pipe in some Hawaiian-type music and all!”
       “You’re serious?” Lahwhinie said, looking into his eyes. “You think we...I could do something like that?” Theo smiled up at her. “Sure, why not? And if you tell the others what to do, I’m sure they’ll pitch in with getting things set up and all.” To Theo’s surprise, Lahwhinie actually smiled. “That’s a great idea. That’ll show these city folks a little bit of the island.”
       “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile that big. It looks good on you,” Theo said. To Theo’s even greater surprise, she hugged him. “Thanks, Theo.You’re a great friend.” Theo smiled the more. “Yes, I’m a great friend. I’m a great friend to the end. Though I won’t eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”
       “Well, that’s probably a smart thing. I don’t know much, but I know to generally not eat meat or eggs that are green,” Lahwhinie said matter-of-fact. Theo realized he’d have to work on his aunt’s sense of humor. “It’s always a smart way to go. Do you want to read some more now, or shall we go tell the others of your idea?”
       “I’ve had enough green eggs and ham for today. Let’s go tell them...our idea,” Lahwhinie said.

       Theo took hold of Lahwhinie’s hand as they changed their path toward home. He was bubbling all over with pleasure inside, but didn’t dare let it show. Finally, his aunt was beginning to show signs of life and he wasn’t going to do anything to wreck it. As the two of them went inside, the others were sitting at the couch talking. When Lahwhinie spoke, it was with actual enthusiasm. “I think we should have some fun today. We’ve been all stuck here watching the phone too long. I think it’s luau time!”
       The others all looked at each other in a combination of surprise and confusion. Was this the girl that had been acting like a grumpy old badger the last few days? Now she actually seemed peppy. Gadget got over the surprise and managed a grin. “Uh, okay. How do you have a luau?”
       “Boy, are you all bumps on a log! Move the furniture back, find some ukulele music, and dig out the floral shirts and dresses! I’ll need help to make the Hawaiian dishes, too,” Lahwhinie said, all business. Monty was relieved to see his daughter opening up. “Well, I was never one to turn down a party. I’ll help ya in the kitchen, Lahwhinie luv!”
       “I got plenty of Hawaiian shirts! And I have a surprise for Gadget that I was saving for just such an occasion!” Dale said. Gadget looked at him. “A surprise, Dale? Will I like it?”
       “I think so. Follow me! We’ll be back in a jiffy!” Dale said.
       Gadget and Dale went up to the lair, where Dale led her to his costume closet. He removed a box that he’d set aside some time ago and gave it to her. Gadget opened the box and held up what it contained. “Hawaiian print overalls!” Gadget hugged Dale. “Thanks, Dale! That’s so sweet. Could you help them down there? I’ll be down in a few moments. Gosh, these are cute! I’ve made my own clothes for years now. Who knew you were a clothes designer, too?”
       “Huh, I couldn’t sew to save my life. I had these custom-made for you by the same guy that made all my clothes,” Dale said. Gadget still couldn’t get over the novelty of them. “Oh, okay. It’s still a sweet thought.” Gadget hugged Dale again, and then he left to allow her to change. When she came down, the others blinked at the effect—white flowers with the purple background. “Well, what do you think?” Chip began giggling, seeing Dale and Gadget in matching clothes patterns. “Two coconuts in a tree!”
       Theo wasn’t going to let his dad get away with being a spectator. “Come on, dad. Be a sport and try a Hawaiian shirt. Do you have a spare, Uncle Dale?” Chip’s eyes began to shift around nervously. “Oh, I don’t think we need to go that far...why don’t I go out and pick up cooking supplies?” Then Chip began to giggle at the idea.
       “Please? Pleeeeeeese?” Theo prodded. “Actually, do you have two, Uncle Dale? I can wear one!” Chip shrugged his shoulders, and a smile broke out. “Well, when in Rome...just call me Don Ho.” Eva was so pleased with her girl that she was ready to cry. “Make up a list, Lahwhinie dahling and ve shall go get whatever you need.” Monty began heading for his room. “I think I’ve got me an old print shirt or two from the time I stopped over there on the way ta Bora Bora an’ the Philippines. Great idea, lass! It’s toime we had some fun around ‘ere!”
       When it came to fun, Dale was still the master. “Hey! I think we still have some of those giant ‘poster’ cards that Canina sent us over the years…and years, and years. Some of them’re from Hawaii, so we could put ‘em around the room for the look!” Now Lahwhinie appeared uncomfortable, but not because of Dale’s suggestion. “Mom, could I just tell you the list and you write it down? My writing’s got a long ways to go yet.” Eva hugged Lahwhinie. “I’m sorry, dahling. I will write it down and we will have a vunderful party.” Lahwhinie’s smile returned. “Good. Otherwise we’d probably be eating boot leather and police badges.”
       “Or green eggs and ham,” Theo added.

       Lahwhinie gave out a laugh, and then she, Gadget, Eva and Theo went into the kitchen to figure out what supplies they had and what they’d need. Everyone else got busy moving furniture and finding gaudy-looking clothes to wear. Monty helped Chip and Dale with the sofa. “Did you lads see how she came in an’ just opened up? Blimey, it’s like a whole different person! What happened?”
       “It was certainly a surprise,” Chip admitted. “Maybe Lahwhinie’s being impersonated by Gadget this time.” Dale grinned at Chip. “Sorry to burst your bubble there, but that’s Lahwhinie all right. Maybe she’s finally figured out she’s welcome here.”
       “Looks like once again that boy of yours came through for us, Chip,” Monty said. Chip looked at Monty in surprise as they completed moving the sofa and started upstairs to Dale’s shirt collection, “Theo? Well, it’s true that Lahwhinie does seem to like him and all.”
       Zipper had stayed on the sidelines, as he generally liked to listen. Now he threw in with the conversation. “Yeah, I guess he’s the only person she doesn’t have to impress or feel threatened by.” Dale stood up as they finished moving the sofa. “Well, I hope that whatever he did he can keep on doing it, for her sake.” Dale went to his bedroom and came back with a selection of floral shirts. “Take your pick, Chip! They’re all in your size!” Chip looked at them and picked one up. “Let’s see...I’ll take the red one with yellow flowers.”
       “Hey, good choice! Oh wait, I have something to go with it...never used it myself...” Dale ran back in the bedroom and began digging through his bureau drawer. In a minute he came back out holding a slender circle of red and yellow. “A matching hatband! There ya go, Chip! Now you’ll really look like a native!”
       “What did you have a hat band made for? You never wear a hat,” Chip said. Dale took on a sheepish look, and went to the bedroom again. Now he had a hat very similar to Chip’s in his hand. “You remember how I said I wanted to be you? Well, when you started wearing that hat I went and got one too, to wear up here. I never would’ve worn it around you, of course, but I was just pretending. The hatband was my idea, but it was just one of those silly things.” Chip patted his friend on the back. “Don’t worry, Dale. I’ll wear the band with pride. Wow, we can have a genuine Hawaiian luau without anyone trying to kill us this time!”
       “This is going to be fun,” Zipper said. “Things have been getting a bit boring, waiting for Fat Cat to try something.” Dale gave Chip a return pat on the back. “Thanks, Chip. I’m glad I chose to be me, though—even if you are the hero of millions. You said it, Zip! Let’s go islandish, everyone!” Zipper flew over to the record player. “Fortunately, Dale’s fondness for TV also includes soundtracks, but we may get a bit tired of the Hawaii Five-O soundtrack...wait! Here’s Don Ho sings Christmas!”

       The preparations went ahead smoothly under Lahwhinie’s direction. Monty went out—print shirt and all—and got them the extra ingredients they’d need. Soon everyone was seated on the floor and Don Ho was serenading everyone with a very eccentric version of “White Christmas”. Lahwhinie and Eva came out of the kitchen and gave everyone a bowl filled with a unique-looking food.
       “That looks...uh, different. What is it?” Dale asked. Theo took the bowl offered to him. “I’m sure that whatever it is, it’s good.”
       “It’s called poi,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s a mixture of mashed ripe bananas, pineapple and coconut cream.” Dale was all for that. “Great! I thought it was something weird and icky.” Dale began eating with vigor. Chip stuck a finger into it and tasted it. “Hey, it’s good! You know, this would make a good breakfast food. I wonder why no one over here’s thought of making this.”
       “Poi, it’s not just for luaus anymore!” Gadget joked. Monty downed his share in one fell swoop. “Mmm...you got that roight, Gadget luv! Lahwhinie, you’re an artist in the kitchen, jus’ like your dad. Thanks for going ta all this effort.” Lahwhinie found she liked being complimented. “Well, I felt I owed...I wanted to do something nice for all of you.” Zipper flew over to her. “I for one can say that I really appreciate it! Thanks a lot, Lahwhinie! This is great!”
       “Thanks, Zapper,” Lahwhinie said. “I was beginning to miss Hawaii a little, so I thought I’d share a bit of home with you guys.” Chip finished his poi. “It’s great, Lahwhinie. I’d forgotten how much real fun we had over there. Thanks for sharing it again with us.”
       Lahwhinie blushed slightly at that. “Well, I wanted you to get a feel for Hawaii without impending doom hanging over the celebration.” Chip grinned at that, but remembered not to laugh. “It does make for a better time.” Gadget stood up and hugged Lahwhinie in thanks. “Golly, this is really neat. Thanks, sis.”
       “Mega-dittos on that!” Dale said. “I’m a poi-boy now!” Theo had finished his too and led Lahwhinie to the middle of the room. “Tell us about Hawaii, Aunt Lahwhinie!” Eva came out of the kitchen with another dish. “Yes, tell us dahling. And everyone can listen while they sample your next delicacy. Vhat do you call this again?”
       “Maui mango bread. It was a favorite among the locals,” Lahwhinie said. Eva and Lahwhinie helped to serve the others and then Lahwhinie sat next to Theo on the floor, crossing her legs. “Well, what do you want to hear about Hawaii? One of the old stories or something?”
       “Anything. It must have been neat to be there!” Theo said.

       Lahwhinie let her thoughts range into the past. “Paradise has its moments. I remember listening to Hubba Hubba and some of the other locals tell their stories. Let’s see...well, you know that crazy dance we do call the hula? There’s a story that goes with that.”
       “Really? I thought they just danced around and spun flaming batons,” Theo said. Lahwhinie smiled a little. “Well, mostly they do nowadays. But Hubba Hubba told me that in the ancient days the reason they did the hula was to remember the time when Hi’iaka calmed her sister Pele.”
       Lahwhinie stood up. “You see, Pele was the volcano goddess and one day she became angry. So her sister Hi’iaka danced to appease her like this...” Lahwhinie started the rhythmic dance, moving her arms and hips. “Then as Hi’iaka danced, Pele began to calm down and the volcanoes became quiet. According to the old tradition, that’s how Hawaii was born. Nowadays people just do it because it’s fun.”
       Chip put his hand over Theo’s eyes. “That’s fascinating. Did they continue the dance as an act of continued appeasement to the gods or is it a ritual to remember the event?” Lahwhinie smirked at Chip’s reaction with Theo. “It was a ritual. It used to have chanting that went with it, but they haven’t done that since the time of King Kamehameha. Now, it’s done for the tourists mostly. There’s a lot that’s been left over from them, mainly their language. Do you know what aloha means?”
       “Oh, I know!” Dale said. “It means hello and goodbye!” Lahwhinie shook her head. “It means much more than that. Aloha kakahiaka (kah’ kah hee (y)ah’ kah) means “good morning”. Aloha ‘auinalâ (au’ (w)ee nah LAH’) means “good afternoon” and aloha ahiahi (hee (y)ah’ hee) means “good evening”. Aloha said alone has many meanings like hello and goodbye. It also means...love.” Dale turned to Gadget and smiled. “I aloha you, Gadget.” Lahwhinie looked over as Gadget smiled. “Now you say mahalo, Gadget. Mahalo means “thank you.”
       “Mahalo, Dale,” Gadget said, smiling.
       Lahwhinie sat back down. “Theo, we’d call you a keikikâne (kei’ kee KAH’ neh). A boy. The Hawaiian language has been passed down for ages without much change to it. Anything else you want to know about?
       “I know, teach me to do the hula!” Dale said, jumping up. Lahwhinie got back up again. “Okay. Let’s everyone do it. Form a line here on each side of me and get enough space so you’ll have elbow room.”
       Gadget took a place next to Dale. “Okay, Lahwhinie, you’re the boss.” Lahwhinie put Theo on her right and Chip on her left. Monty and Eva were next to Chip. Lahwhinie looked both ways as she explained. “Okay, now it’s all from the hips. Just rotate them slowly at first. Left, right. Left, right. Think like you’re using a hula hoop.”
       “Y’know, that never occurred to me before! The hula-hoop’s named after the hula!” Dale said. Lahwhinie kept moving and talking. “Okay, now while keeping it up with the hips move both of your arms to the left and flex your wrists. Just let the natural motion take over.” Dale began humming the Hawaii Five-O theme song while he danced. “Hey, this is fun! Gadget, now you can add the hula to the other dances you’ve learned.”
       “Yeah, and this one’s great exercise,” Gadget said, moving her hips. “Lahwhinie, isn’t there something about the dance itself telling a story?”
       “That’s something that professional hula dancers can do. The movements of the arms and hips are learned in a sequence that re-tells some of the ancient stories,” Lahwhinie said. Monty had to stop after another minute. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of ya, but me back’s telling me that I ain’t done this in quite some time! Still, it’s bonzer fun.”
       Chip looked over at his son, energetically going at it. “Having fun over there, Theo?” Theo was all smiles. “Yeah! I was just wondering if we get to throw those flaming batons around.” Lahwhinie laughed. “You’d better wait until lesson two for that, Theo. Fire dancing takes a lot of practice.” The record ended and the dancing stopped. Chip was about to go back for some more poi when Lahwhinie cleared her throat. “Oh, by the way Chip, we’re married now.”
       Chip twisted around to look at her in shock, not watching where he was going, and toppled over onto the floor. “WHAT?”
       “I’m kidding!” Lahwhinie said, helping him up. “It’s an old joke that any guy who dances the hula with a girl on her immediate left is instantly married to her. And what you did happens almost every time. The tourists eat it up.”
       Chip was visibly relieved. “I bet it got a few laughs out of the locals.” Theo had never seen Chip quite that panicked. “Great joke, Aunt Lahwhinie! If you’d become married to dad, that would have made you my mom!” Lahwhinie turned at looked at Theo suddenly. She hadn’t even thought of that, and actually blushed. “Oh well, at least I’d have my adviser around. Say, there’s one more course to go. Hang on, everyone...” Lahwhinie went into the kitchen and came out with a covered dish. “This was the natives’ best dessert—macadamia nuts and coconut shreds covered with…”
       “Poi?!” Dale asked hopefully.
       Lahwhinie uncovered the dish and the aroma instantly told Dale the answer. “Chocolate!” Lahwhinie could see she had a dessert freak on her hands. “Bingo! Go easy on them, though. They’ll put ounces on you so quick that you’ll be doing the hula for a week to get back to normal.” Dale tried one. “Hey, they’re chocolate covered nuts! Lahwhinie, you’re the greatest!” Theo was instantly next to Dale. “Chocolate! All right!”
       The group munched down on the tasty dessert and Lahwhinie got compliment after compliment. Everyone pitched in with cleaning the dishes, but no one wanted the luau to end. After four flips of Don Ho, the night was far spent.
       “Well, I guess it’s time to get back to alarm-sitting,” Chip said, bringing them back from paradise. “I’ll take the first watch tonight. Thanks for everything, Lahwhinie. You really outdid yourself, and gave us all a great night to remember.”
       “You’re welcome, Chip,” Lahwhinie said. “This place is finally starting to feel a little like home and the people are finally starting to feel like family. Chip, don’t ever take Theo for granted. He’s been there for me to lean on since the first day he got here.” Chip reached over and rubbed his son’s head. “I knew he had something special going for him when I met him. I’m glad you’re able to lean on him, and I hope you’ll consider us all friends now.” Lahwhinie smiled. “Not just friends, Chip. You’re like an older brother and Theo’s like a younger one.”
       Chip smiled in return then got up. “Thanks again, Lahwhinie. And aloha.” Lahwhinie smiled at Chip and hugged Theo, then headed for her room. Monty watched her go, and then looked back at the smiles all around. “It’s been a grand noight. Can’t remember a better time I had.”
       “Vhas our first wedding reception not just as grand, Monty, dahling?” Eva asked. “I recall us dancing in each others arms till dawn.” Monty blushed in embarrassment then nodded. “Too right, lass. And we had African jungle drums ta keep up the beat that time! Still, this was mighty good o’ me little girl.”
       Zipper was munching on a chocolate-covered nut. “It’s strange. She was so reserved when she came here, but now she’s nice and even kind.” Eva had to admit, it was a great change. “Perhaps vhat she needed was someone to teach her how to be that way, since she had no one before. Before, it was either use others or be used be used by them.”
       Dale had come in from the kitchen, where he’d found the leftover poi. “But what’s so amazing is that she can be that nice! It was almost like having two Gadgets in the room at once. Not that I’d forget which one I belong to…” Gadget hugged Dale. “Yeah, you’re a one-mouse chipmunk.”

       With a will, they moved all the furniture back in place. Lahwhinie had listened from the shadows of the hall, and gave a reluctant smile at the fact that they weren’t mocking her behind her back. She left for her room with good memories fresh in her mind. Chip continued with the conversation once they’d reconvened on the sofa. “Well, as much as I hate to leave paradise I guess it’s time. Monty, will you spell me in a couple of hours?”
       “Sure, mate. I’ll wake ya then. Goodnight, mates. This was a fun shindig!” Monty said, heading off with Eva. Dale called after him, “Wake me when you’re done, Monty.”
The group said good-night to each other, and Theo went with Chip to his station just outside the workshop. Soon the two of them were alone. “Hey dad, you should’ve seen your face when she said you two were married. I wish I’d had a camera!” Theo said.
       “Don’t get carried away with the idea, Theo,” Chip said. “But on a related topic, how would you feel about Foxy as your mom? Would you mind a bat for a mom?”
       “Foxy was great. She’s a nice person, caring and considerate. Do you think she’ll be coming back here, dad? I mean, she does have her family now,” Theo said. Chip picked up his Sureluck Jones book. “I hope so. We parted as a test to see if our feelings of being alone was the only thing keeping us together, but it’s been over a month and I miss her so much. I’ve been using this case to try to fill the void, but at moments like this that I really feel her absence. I still need her and love her...and I hope she feels the same about me.”
       “Well, from what I saw she really liked you,” Theo said. “I have a feeling that unless she meets someone down there she’ll be back. She seemed to have eyes for you.” Chip knew he was right on that point. “But what if she does meet someone down there? I’m a chipmunk, they’d be a bat. How could I compete against that?”
       Theo knew it had to be hard for him to choose, with two girls who each had the potential to make him happy. “Dad, you can’t live Foxy’s life for her. That’s just what you told me you were trying to avoid. If it’s meant to be, she knows where you live. If it’s not, well then you’ve always got other avenues to explore.”
       “I know, but I haven’t heard from her in a while and absence makes the hard grow fonder…or forgetful…and maybe I’m fading from her memory,” Chip said. Theo could see that Dale wasn’t the only Robin Hood fan of the bunch. “I wouldn’t bet on it. You’re a pretty hard person to forget, you know. If I was separated from you I’d think about you all the more.”
       Chip hugged his son. “It’s comforting to know that I mean something to others. Now, it’s past your bedtime. I’ll see you tomorrow, Theo.” Theo hugged him back. “Okay, aloha dad. Thanks for being nice to Lahwhinie. It meant a lot to her.”
       “Good night, Theo, and thanks for being her little brother,” Chip said, taking up his post. He smiled at the memory of the evening and then the quiet of night surrounded him as he took out his book to read.


Chapter 4 - Immortalized in Song/A Deadly Shootout/Left and Right
A Most Honorable Suggestion/Troubling Feelings

        Again, the Rangers made their shifts without any alert. As he strode into the main room the next morning, Chip was beginning to wonder if Fat Cat’s spree was a one-shot. His train of thought was derailed by a post-bird’s whistle.
        “Package for Chip Maplewood!”
        Chip was about to walk outside when a blur went past him. A pigeon screamed for help and Chip and the others ran out to find Lahwhinie had pinned Gary, their long-time post-bird, to the wall. “Okay, who are you working for and what's in there? A package bomb? A miniature nuclear device, maybe?!” Gary struggled to point to his hat. “I'm with the US Postal Service, animal division! Please, ask them!”
       “He's right, lass! Ol' Gary's been bringing us our mail ever since we got 'ere!” Monty said. Lahwhinie let him down, but kept her eye on him. ”All right, you're clear. It's nothing personal, Jerry. We've got a crime boss on our hands who could strike at any time.” Gary adjusted his hat and tie. “Well, all I can say is he's not going to sneak up on anyone. Here Chip, it's for you. Sign here.”
       Chip signed for the rather large package and carried it inside as Gary gratefully flew off. Monty came over and helped Chip set it on the dining table. “What’s in the box, mate?” Chip inspected the box, but it revealed no immediate secrets. “HmmIdunno, let me turn it around...” The package was from Laredo Records, a label none of them had heard of before. Monty waited curiously to see what the contents might be, and Chip cut the twine around the box with his pocketknife. He undid the brown paper, opened the labeled box and found a record on top along with a letter.
        “Why, it’s from Foxy!” Chip said. “And there’s a bunch of stuff in here. Looks like she got something for everyone!” Dale looked at the record. “Zowie! It is from Foxy!” Dale held up the album cover. “Look! She’s a star!” Indeed it was Foxy on the cover, dressed in a full cowgirl outfit with a country-western band behind her. The album was labeled, My Wings Were Meant For You.
        Theo was excited. “Put it on, Dad! Let’s hear Foxglove!”
        Chip found a letter enclosed a little further in. “Okay, let’s see what she wrote here. ‘Dear Chip. Guess what, I’m an overnight sensation! My uncle heard me singing a song I made up about you and he said that I was so good I should let a record-making friend of his hear it. I was so nervous, but I went through with it! The fellow was so impressed, he signed me to make a record right there and all I had was the one song!
        ‘I never knew making a record took so much work. The writing wasn't too hard, but then I had to sing everything what seemed a million times. Still, it was worth it! I took my advance and used some of it to buy you all some nice things. There’s a Zane Grey western novel for you, a cowboy hat for Theo, some real Texas jalapeño cheese for Monty, a denim vest for Eva, a silk neckerchief for Zipper, a collection of the best rocks of the West for Dale, a book on the invention of western firearms for Gadget and for Lahwhinie I got her a ranch shirt and denim skirt.
        ‘Hope everyone likes their gifts, and the record! Mr. Gaylord—that’s the record producer—says that if the record does well I’ll get what’s called royalties out of it and he may want me to come back and do another one! Well, my head’s in a whirl. I love you, Chip, and send my love to Theo and all the Rangers. Foxy’.”
        Theo took a look at the record's dust jacket. “The first song is, ‘Always Hold Your Chips Close To Your Heart’.” Lahwhinie looked up from her gifts and smiled. “You’re one lucky guy to have a girl that dedicates a song to you on her first album, Chip.” Eva helped to pass out the gifts to everyone. “Yes, she is such a nice girl. Just like my little ones.” Chip blushed at the compliment and the thought. “Well, Foxy’s pretty special and I have missed her being around. I never thought she’d miss me so much that it would get her into records! Okay Theo, let’s hear it.” Chip blushed again as the song began. He smiled, hearing her angelic voice, a voice that he’d missed so much. Immediately, Dale and Gadget came down from the lair.
        “Golly, that sounds like Foxy!” Gadget said.
        Theo held up the record. “It is her! She’s a recording star now.” The song was a slow-sung ballad, and Chip blushed yet again when she reached the chorus.
        Don’t ever let go of your love’s shine,
        No matter how far you’re apart
        Don’t ever gamble away
        You last bottom dollar,
        And keep your chips close to your heart...
       Zipper whistled when the song finished. “Wow, Chip. Sounds like she’s still got it bad for you.” Dale smiled grandly at Chip. “Wow, my best buddy’s the inspiration for a song! I hope she’ll still find time for us little people. Chip, you’re the boyfriend of what’s sure to be a country icon!” Gadget giggled and hugged Dale. “Why don’t you sing for me?” Dale thought quickly. “Singing’s one thing we superspies don’t do.” Theo watched the record needle eagerly. “Here comes another song! Hey, it’s ‘Rescue Me, Rangers’!”
       “Now we’re all famous!” Dale said, dancing around the room. The familiar tune played, each of them remembering how short a time ago Foxy had been there singing it. Monty was amazed how quick things had changed. “Crikey! Now she’s immortalized the Rangers in song. What’s next?”
       Chip was still silent, pondering the words of the songs he was hearing. He was deeply moved and felt a terrible pang of loneliness at her absence. Theo could see his father was upset, and wondered if he should let the record go at that, but Chip indicated to let it continue. Theo checked the album. “The next one’s called, ‘Father and Son’. Hey dad, she’s gonna sing about you and me!”
       Chip listened and put an arm around Theo and they listened to the song about the special relationship between father and son. The song also brought to his mind the events that happened in Texas and he smiled as he thought about the first time he and Theo met. It had only been little more than a month, but now to him Theo was his son as if born to the role. Gadget watched them both, smiling at their special relationship. “Gosh, that’s beautiful. Especially the way she said ‘a son found him a father/and a father found a son’. I’m glad we know her, and that we were able to help.”
       “I just hope she doesn’t forget about us,” Theo said. Monty pointed to the record. “Don’t see how she could, lad. Just about every word’s about Chip, you or the Rangers. Sounds like she’s got her heart set on coming back here. Chip me lad, that’s a fine girl ya helped.” Chip knew that, but he also knew this new development changed things. “But even if she returns, she may not want to be a Ranger any more. What if she becomes a huge singing star?” Chip then got a mischievous smile. “What if she asks us to join her on her next record? The Rockin’ Rangers!”
       “Sounds more like Foxy Fairmont and the Treehouse Gang,” Eva said. “But I vill be eager to see her again as well. Perhaps she will give us a live performance!”
       “Maybe she’ll go on tour!” Gadget said.
       Dale snatched up a pair of sunglasses and put them on. “We could be her roadies!” Zipper flew up next to Dale. “And I could be her manager! Colonel Zipper…not bad.”

       The record ended, and they decided to save the other side until that night. Everyone enjoyed their presents and particularly Lahwhinie, who seemed to get a real kick out of the western duds. The group split up and Chip went to the police station to check on regular business. It was still slow, and did nothing to distract him from the thoughts of Foxy and whether she would return.
       But what if she decided to have a career now? He couldn’t exactly blame her, not with that voice. And what if she asked him to leave and go with her? Chip dismissed the thought for now and returned home. When he got there, Theo was galloping around on a broomstick and waving his new cowboy hat. Theo froze when he saw Chip enter and immediately looked embarrassed.
       “Uh, I was just sweeping the floors…” Theo said.
       “Riiight. Well, you and Old Paint will find a dustpan in the hall closet. And from now on, remember to ride the range on the veranda, okay?” Chip asked. Theo put his hat back on and got the dustpan and headed out to the veranda when Chip stopped him. “Hold on there, pardner! You’ve got to take care of your horse first. See all the hoof marks he made? Go sweep ‘em up, and once the stable’s clean old Black Bart will be waiting outside for you.” Theo smiled and began sweeping the floor, and instead of going out Chip got another broom and began helping him clean up. “I’m glad you’re enjoying your gift. A hat’s not just an accessory, it’s a personal statement.”
       “Yeah, and for Jake Stone it’s another great disguise. ‘Course it’s also good for Six-Gun Slim, the lightning-draw gunfighter! When the stable’s clean, old Black Bart had better be fast, or Six-Gun will win the day!” Theo said, his imagination taking over. Chip gave a chuckle at Theo’s antics, but then a question he’d meant to ask before came up. “Who exactly is Jake Stone?”
       Theo looked around, not wanting anyone else to hear. They finished up, and Theo began to talk as they went outside. “Well, life gets dull in an orphanage y’know. So when I learned about you and the Rangers, I made up Jake Stone because I imagined him with you guys. He’s taken on lots of roles over the years—freedom fighter, warrior, rescuer, just about everything. Most often he’s an intelligence agent in international espionage, taking on deadly missions and always making it back alive. It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it.”
       “What does Jake look like?” Chip asked. Theo shifted his feet, looked around again and then slowly raised his arm and pointed at Chip. Chip was surprised to again find that another person used him as their idealized self. “Theo, I’m flattered.”
       “You’re the most exciting figure that ever came into my life!” Theo said. “I could imagine you doing anything and everything, and I imagined myself being you—or rather my version of you. I used to spend entire nights just dreaming up fantastic missions for Jake Stone to go on, and eventually I became Jake Stone. But you’re always what I aspired to be from the start.”

       Once they were out on the veranda, Chip breathed in the clean air of the park, enjoying the feel of the wind on his fur. “Well, I’ll have a lot to live up to and a big job teaching you to be just as exciting and heroic as Jake Stone, then.” Theo took a seat on one of the lawn chairs. “Dad, when you got hurt I was so scared. All my life I’ve always believed that Jake Stone would come back alive, but when they said you were bad off, it came to me that Jake might not always get back. Don’t ever die, dad!” Chip heard the fear in his voice and hugged his boy. “You can count on that, son. I expect to be around to see your children and your children’s children at least.”
       Chip spit in his hand and held it out to Theo. Theo did the same, and they shook hands. Then Theo jumped into his dad’s arms. “Thanks, dad.” Chip laughed, “You’re welcome, son. I’ll always be there for you, no matter what.” Theo wiped his eyes, trying not to show his tears. “Hey dad, you know what?”
       “What’s that, son?” Chip asked.
       Theo jumped down, grabbed his hat and stuck it on. His voice became as western as he could make it. “It’s time fer a show-down, Black Bart!” Chip whistled the famous confrontation music from The Good the Bad and the Ugly as he flexed his hands above his “holsters” and squinted at Theo.
       “Alright, Jake, get ready ta draw,” Chip said, employing his own western drawl. Theo shook his head disapprovingly. “No, dad! We’ve go to get at opposite ends of the veranda first. It’s not right unless you have the long and slow approach!”
       Chip began moving in slow motion. “Oooooooookkkkkkkkkaaaaaaayyyyyy...” Theo began giggling. “Not that slow, dad! You know, get over there and make like you’ve got chaps and spurs on—come deliberate, and be ready to face off against Six-Gun Slim!”
       Chip went to the end of the veranda, then slowly turned and again began whistling, walking bow-legged as he approached Theo. Lahwhinie appeared at the door in her new duds and was about to come out when Jake saw her. “You’d better stay back, ma’am. Lead’s about to fly!” She looked strangely at Theo and Chip, then realized what was going on and played along. Lahwhinie smiled and shook her head, taking on a pleading voice. “Oh, be careful, handsome nameless stranger. You’re our only hope!”
       “I know, Miss Clementine. But don’t you fret none. Ol’ Six-Gun Slim won’t let Black Bart take over this one-horse town!” Slim said. Theo kept approaching, trying to look tough. Black Bart squinted at Six-Gun Slim and looked him up and down. “Only one o’ us is walking away from this, Slim.” Theo sneered at his opponent across the dusty street as a tumbleweed crossed between them. “Yeah, I know. They’ll have to drag you up to Boot Hill, sidewinder! Now, any time you’re ready...” Bart and Slim spent the next few moments trying to out-sneer each other.
       Bart brought up both guns, but Slim was faster. Chip clutched in the area of his heart. “Ugh! I can’t believe it! He got me...” Chip began twisting and turning about, tripping over furniture. Lahwhinie had to smile some at Chip’s job of tearing up the scenery on the death scene. At least, the gunfighter’s energy was spent. “Looks like I’m a gonna die with my boots on...metaphorically, I mean...” Then Bart expired.
       Lahwhinie rushed over the triumphant Slim and hugged him. “Six Gun, you’ve saved the town and all of us! Whatever can I do to repay you?” Theo tipped his hat in reply. “Jus’ doing my duty, ma’am. But if you’re willing, there’s a sarsaparilla with our names on it inside the saloon down yonder.”
       “Well, you might have to settle for coconut milk instead, Slim,” Lahwhinie replied. Theo took “Miss Clementine’s” hand and they walked inside. Chip got up and followed them in. Theo took his hat off as they went into the kitchen. “You’re a pretty good pretender, Aunt Lahwhinie. Have you had a lot of practice at it?” Lahwhinie got the coconut milk ready. “Theo, I’ve pretended more in any one year of my life than you will in all your days.” Theo understood what she was talking about. “I guess that explains it, then. I bet you’re really good at charades.”
       “Yes, in my line of work it was important to be able to read people and their... needs without tipping them off as to what I was really doing,” Lahwhinie said, trying to spare him. This caught Theo’s interest immediately. As he sat down at the kitchen table, he looked on her with curiosity. He was about to ask her if she was a spy, but then he remembered her screams from a few nights back and decided against it.
       “Well, I’m glad you’re here now anyway,” Theo said. “I always have fun when you’re around.” Lahwhinie sat down next to him. “Thanks, Theo. That’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me in quite that way.”
       “Really? But you’re such a cool person! You mean you’ve never had fun before?” Theo asked. Lahwhinie’s voice got quiet. “I’ve had lots of fun before, but it was always at the expense of others.” Theo felt bad for her. “Aw, then you haven’t had real fun. Trust me, nothing beats the pure fun of a game where everyone gets to join in. Ever play mad libs? Now that’s a fun time!” Chip remembered Lahwhinie’s trouble with language and decided to spare Theo any embarrassment before he suggested playing. “Chess, have you ever played that, Lahwhinie?”
        Surprisingly, Lahwhinie nodded. “All the time when I was little. They tried to get us all learn it. It was okay, I guess.”
       “From what I saw from our encounter in Hawaii, you have a quick and cunning mind. We could try developing that along with your vocabulary, the difference being that this time you can learn willingly rather than unwillingly, if you want,” Chip offered. Lahwhinie hesitated, studying Chip for a minute. After she found no guile in his features, she nodded slightly. “No pressuring, right? And we stop when I say stop.”
       “Don’t worry, Aunt Lahwhinie. I’ll keep dad in line. He won’t work you to death.” Chip nodded his agreement. “Only what you can handle, Lahwhinie.” Lahwhinie gave her consent. “All right. Where do we start?”
       “Well, right now I think you’re doing the right thing,” Chip said. Theo’s helping you to read and he seems to be doing a good job there. How’s your writing coming along?” Lahwhinie put a hand on Theo’s shoulder, “My tutor’s been helping me a lot. He thinks in a few weeks I could move up to books without pictures.”
       “She’s the best student in her class!” Theo said, grinning.
       “Good. Have you starting working on writing yet, Lahwhinie?” Chip asked.
       “Not as much. I like to do things one at a time. Reading first, then writing. Today, Dr. Seuss and tomorrow, Herman Melville and Victor Hugo,” Lahwhinie said. Chip was glad she was taking this in a good mood. “Okay, but remember they go hand-in-hand. When it comes to books, Sureluck Jones is the greatest. I’ll look forward to the day when you can read his adventures—that’s one of the best treats I’ve ever had in my life.”
       Lahwhinie looked him in the eyes. “If I read them, you’d better watch out, Chip. If I’m as smart as mom and Gadget think I can be, then I might turn out to be as good or a better detective than you.” Chip found himself smiling at her enthusiasm. “If that’s the case, then I’ll give you my deerstalker hat and be your Blotson. Say, it’s a nice day. Why don’t we all go out for a walk in the park? That’s always a good place to learn things.” Lahwhinie looked suspiciously at Chip for suggesting such a thing, but he appeared to be sincere. Then she saw Theo’s hopeful face. “Okay, that sounds good.”

       The three of them went walking, and soon were surrounded by the many types of trees in the solitude of the park. Chip stopped amid a bunch of trees and suggested they go left toward the fountain. When they taken a few steps, Theo and Chip discovered Lahwhinie was walking the other way. The two guys quickly went back over to her. “Sorry about that. I forgot about mentioning directions.”
       Lahwhinie walked past them with annoyed look on her face, but her cheeks flamed a deep red. “No problem…” Chip knew she was embarrassed. He thought fast, and his eyes caught a particular rock. “Lahwhinie, wait. I think it’s time to give you something to remember to help you with that.”
       Chip picked up the rock and gently took her hand and placed it in hers. The left edge was rough, but the right side was smooth. “All right, now I want you close your eyes and feel both sides of the rock.” Lahwhinie studied him for a moment but obeyed and moved her fingers along the rock’s contours. “Okay, I did that. Now what am I doing holding a rock?”
       “Now, just listen to the sound of my voice and don’t think about anything but my voice and the rock. The left side of the rock is rough. The right side of the rock is smooth. Now feel it again,” Chip said. Lahwhinie heaved a frustrated sigh but repeated, “Left is rough, right is smooth. How does this help?” Chip’s voice was slow and clam. “Now, without opening your eyes I want you to point to the left.” Lahwhinie felt the rock and then pointed left.
       “Good. Now point to the right,” Chip said. She did so, but then opened her eyes and let the rock drop. “This is only useful if I carry the rock with me everywhere! How about I wear a pair of gloves with ‘left’ and ‘right’ knitted on them?” Chip knew she was only having more self-esteem problems, so he didn’t react to her sarcasm.
       “Lahwhinie, you did just fine. The rock’s meant to give you a sensation to associate the idea with,” Chip said.
       “It‘ll take time to learn association,” Lahwhinie said, doubtfully. Chip gave the matter thought. She couldn’t just walk around with a rock in her hand, and even making a necklace out of it would be an insult to her mind. Chip studied her a moment, and then it all came together. “Well, there’s an easy way to help yourself. You wear earrings, right?”
       “Only clip-on ones,” Lahwhinie said. “Having pierced ears is an identifying characteristic to the authorities and I’ve tried my best to miss their company.” Chip pointed to her left ear. “All right, for the time being just clip one on that ear and leave the other off. Then all you have to do is feel your ears, and remember that rough is left and smooth is right.”
       Lahwhinie felt of her left ear reflexively. “I guess I could just get one pierced now. That way I can’t get them mixed up.” Theo grinned up at Chip. “Who’d ever have guessed a thing like earrings could be that valuable? Nice thinking, dad.”

       The three of them spent the rest of the day around the park and come evening Lahwhinie had her mom pierce her left ear. Eva had been trained in field surgery among other things, so the operation was only minor to her. Now, Lahwhinie was trying to resist the urge to rub the spot on her ear where her mother had inserted a gold post that Gadget had sterilized for her while Lahwhinie talked with her mother.
       “That vhas a smart idea that Chip had. I like him—he’s a good person,” Eva said. Lahwhinie looked at her ear in a hand mirror. “Yeah, it was a good idea. I have to admit that. It’s easier than admitting I still don’t know left from right.” Eva checked the ear for any signs of trouble and finding none she put her cleaned instruments away. “Vell dahling, you won’t get those mixed up again. I can’t tell you how happy I am for you, dear! You will soon the scholarly-type, and showing us all how intelligent you are.”
       “Yeah, maybe,” Lahwhinie said.
       Eva sat down next to her and took her hands. “How can you doubt yourself, dahling? You have already shown great aptitude, and ve all believe in you. Young Theo and Chip certainly do, or they would not go to such lengths to help you.” Lahwhinie put the mirror down. “I suppose, but what do they have to gain by helping me?”
       “Vhat did Monty and the others have to gain by helping me? They do it because they want to, Lahwhinie. I was taught as you vere that it is best to look out for one’s self. There is no happiness in that. True happiness is in true giving, where you look for no return. They know that, and that is vhy they help you—it makes them happy.”
       “Could I ever be happy being a do-gooder like them?” Lahwhinie asked. Eva took the mirror Lahwhinie had placed on the table and put it away. “You tell me, dahling. How did you feel when you decided to give the luau party?” Lahwhinie smiled some at that. “It felt good. I was having fun with people and no one trying to take advantage of anyone else. I could let my guard down a little and not feel threatened.”
       “That’s because you vere giving of yourself, and you knew the others would not take advantage of you,” Eva said. “Everyone can be a do-gooder, if they try. They can also be a do-badder. But doing good is the most fun, because everyone shares in it. You get to be a part of the thing you made possible and benefit from it too.”
       “Is this what being a family is really like?” Lahwhinie asked suddenly. Eva hugged her gently. “Yes my little one, or rather what it should be like. Oh my precious, I am so wishing that your life had been better! But from now on, I vill do all I can to see that you are happy. I will never let you be taken from me again.” Lahwhinie took Eva’s hand. “And we’ll both make sure that nothing happens to the new one.” Eva squeezed Lahwhinie’s hand in return. “Yes, and I am thinking that he or she vill be very fortunate to have a big sister like you around. I am so glad you are with us, and I am very pleased with you.”
       “Really?” Lahwhinie asked.
       Eva nodded and smiled. “You are very brave to have taken on your challenge as you have. Your father and I love you because you are our girl, and nothing vill change that. But your courage also makes us pleased, and your father speaks of little else. You are vunderful, dahling.” Lahwhinie found that their being pleased also pleased her. “I just wish we could’ve been a real family, from the beginning. It would’ve been nice.”

       Eva felt good about everything as she went into the main room, then heard noises from the gym. She peeked in and smiled when she saw Theo in there, fighting an imaginary foe with a series of karate moves.
       “You left your guard open, Theo. Your opponent could have dispatched you with a round kick,” Eva said. Theo stopped and faced Eva as she came into the room. “You know about karate, Aunt Eva?” Eva smiled again at the surprise in his voice. “I know that I have not shown my skills very often, but I am an expert in the martial arts thanks to my training.”
       Theo's eyes grew wide with anticipation. “Would you teach me, Aunt Eva? Please?” Eva took Theo into the kitchen, where Lahwhinie was sitting at the table, and they took seats as well. “Now Theo, why do you vant to learn the art of self-defense?”
       “I’ve got to be able to handle everything! I'm probably going to be the leader of the Rangers someday like my dad, so that means I'll be responsible for the lives around me,” Theo said. Lahwhinie grinned at the boy's thoughts. “You’ve got it all figured out already, huh?” Theo nodded. “Sure, Aunt Lahwhinie. Say, do you know karate too?”
       Lahwhinie's eyelids lowered. “They trained me some when I was little, but it’s been years.” Eva reached over and caught her daughter's hand. “I know dear, I know. Those memories are hard. We must start to make the new memories, and it is time I passed on some of my knowledge to you. Vould you like me to teach you self-defense?” Eva asked. Lahwhinie looked up and nodded. “As long as my adviser's going to learn, it wouldn't hurt to have a refresher.”
       “Good, very good! I am not as mobile as I could be now, but I can still instruct,” Eva said, turning back to Theo. “If your father approves, you may join Lahwhinie, and I vill be glad to teach you.” Theo jumped up and ran into the main room, where the others were watching television and planted himself in front of Chip. “I want to be the new Bruce Lee!”
       Eva laughed at his antics, as Chip looked first at Theo and then at her as she and Lahwhinie followed him. “Vell, it will take time. Still, if you are attentive and obey commands well, then you will soon be able to defend yourself against anyone in this room, including myself.”
        Chip tried to figure out what conversation he was supposed to be privy to. “Okay, what's up, Theo?” Theo's eyes were dancing. “Aunt Eva’s a karate master and she’s offered to teach me as well as Lahwhinie! Can I dad, can I?” Chip took a deep breath. “Theo, I don't usually approve of using force. It's better to use your mind, and fight only when you have to.”
       “I agree, Chip,” Eva said. “I vould not be teaching Theo to be a fighter, but to defend himself.” Lahwhinie approached Chip. “You’re always worried about him, so why not let him do something that’ll allow him to keep himself safe?” Chip thought it over for a long minute. “Theo, will you promise to use your training only when you have to, and not to hurt anyone purposefully?”
       “Don't worry, Chip. I vill not teach him unless he agrees to just that,” Eva said. Chip addressed Theo again. “So do you agree, Theo?” Theo bowed like he'd seen the kung-fu fighters do in the movies. “On my life, I will not dishonor my father or my sensei.” Eva bowed in return. “I accept your word, Theo. I vill train you well.” Theo eyed the dining room table, grinning. “Will I be able to break boards with my head?”
       “What did boards do to you, that you vant to break them?” Eva asked, the joke evident in her voice. Theo squinted his eyes and tried to sound like one of those poorly-dubbed kung-fu movie heroes. “A board killed my first kung-fu teacher! I must learn more kung-fu to beat it and have revenge!” The group all got a laugh out of his impression, and Dale in particular. “Ah, yourkungfuisgood. But you have much to learn, grasshopper!” Dale said. Theo looked around at Ranger HQ. “It’s no Shaolin Temple, but it’ll do.”
       “Don’t sweat the showy stuff, mate,” Monty said. “Long as ya kin handle yourself in a scrape, you’ll do fine. Right, me love?” Eva watched as Theo make several practice kicks at imaginary targets. “With his enthusiasm, I think he vill do better than fine. But Theo, I vill not train anyone who will not use his training wisely. Your father is right, you must promise never to use this knowledge to attack someone frivolously or fight out of anger or to intimidate.” Theo was about to spit in his hand to shake on it, but remembered how appalled most people were of that display, so he refrained. “I promise, Aunt Eva. Only to protect others or for self-defense.”
       “Me too, mom,” Lahwhinie said. Eva gave them both a traditional bow and they returned it. “Ve begin tomorrow.”

       Theo thanked Eva again and could talk of nothing else all the way until bedtime. Once he went off, discussion varied from such subjects as Fat Cat to the future of Foxy’s singing career. When the grown-ups retired as well, Lahwhinie caught Chip’s attention in the hall. “Chip, I just wanted...well, thanks for helping me out.”
       “You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help you and I’m glad you were willing to let us all help you,” Chip said. Lahwhinie nodded and offered her hand. Chip brought his arm out quickly, and winced slightly in reflex. Lahwhinie gave him a guilty look. “I’m sorry about that. Guess if I’d been thinking that night you wouldn’t have gotten that wound.”
       Chip was glad that they’d put that behind them. As Theo said, it was a rookie mistake. “Well, you’re wiser for the experience, so I have no regret that it happened.” Lahwhinie kept holding his hand until she realized it, and then let go and blushed for a moment. “Um, do you think you could...you know, help me to learn more things? My sense of direction in general’s about as good as left and right for me. I had no idea how to get back to here from the woods today.”
       “Sure, I’ll...we’ll all help you, Lahwhinie. You’ve just started your climb to achieve your full potential,” Chip said, with encouragement. Lahwhinie raised her eyes up to look at his, and smiled some. “Thanks, Chip. I’m not that good at sounding grateful, but I am. And if I go on another mission, I’ll make sure not to get you stabbed again.” Chip smiled. “Thanks, Theo and I would appreciate that.” Lahwhinie just stood there looking at him for a few quiet moments, and then forced herself to move toward her room. “I’ll…I’ll see you later. Good night, Chip.” Chip watched her go. “Good night, Lahwhinie. Pleasant dreams.”
       Lahwhinie looked back and smiled again, then closed her door. She leaned back on it, and brought her hands to her cheeks, which were now beet-red. What had come over her? Lahwhinie took a couple of deep breaths, and headed for bed. Whatever it was, surely it would leave by morning…

       As Dale and Gadget said good night, Eva turned to Monty, her face jubilant. “Oh I am so looking forward to tomorrow! I vill be able to teach, and spend time with my girl.” Monty smiled down at her. “Looks like ya found a role around here, luv. Theo's sure excited about it all, too.”
       “Yes, and he is a good boy. He vill be an excellent student if I am any judge,” Eva said. Monty was relieved as he and Eva walked to their room. He'd been worried that she wouldn't find a place in the scheme of things easily, but now she had a purpose again. The big Aussie gave a silent nod of thanks in the direction of Lahwhinie and Theo's rooms as he and his wife entered their own room.

       Meanwhile, Theo was jubiliant and nearly dancing around Chip's room. “Hey, dad! Can you believe it? I’m going to be a karate master!” Chip helped him up to his bunk. “Yes, Grasshopper, but you must be patient and practice hard. This won’t happen overnight.”
       “Jake Stone’s a fast learner. Say, why don’t you join in? Do you know karate already, dad?” Theo asked. Chip rubbed his shoulder. “Well, maybe in the future. My arm still isn’t a hundred percent. Even though it’s been more than a month, it’s still getting better.”
       Theo turned over on his mattress facing Chip and put his elbows on the bed and his head on his hands. “Okay. But you should really learn the art of self-defense, dad. I want you to be safe, and if you’d known it before you probably could’ve handled that lady with the knife.” Chip couldn’t come up with a counter argument. “Okay, son. When my arm is better, I’ll train with you.”
       “Neato! The karate chipmunks! Say, and maybe you and Aunt Lahwhinie could be sparring partners, then. You did a great job with that rock lesson and all, dad. I think you gave her back some confidence,” Theo said. Chip had been very pleased that had gone well. “I hope so. She certainly has changed since she got here. I think she really believes now that she can make something of her life and that she’s not stupid.”
       Theo thought a little more then spoke again. “Dad, if you marry Foxy would you leave the Rangers?” It had been on Chip’s mind as well. “It’s my life’s work—my joy, aside from you now that is. But we’d be a family then, and I’d have to put you and Foxy first. If the two of you wanted me to quit, then I would.” Theo jumped off the upper bunk, landing with a thud. “But dad, I don’t want you to quit! I like life here an’ the only thing I ever want is to be a Rescue Ranger!” Chip put his hands on Theo’s shoulders. “Son, family is what’s most important and that must come first. You’ve helped me to see that and I only want the best for you and for Foxy, if she does marry me.”
       Chip helped him back up to bed. “I want to stay here and be a Ranger, but my family must come first.” Theo turned and looked back at him. “But what if Foxy makes you choose between marrying her and going on tour or something with her and staying here? I guess I’m just scared she’ll make you choose. I’m just getting used to living again, and now we might be going who-knows-where. I like Foxy quite a lot dad, but it’s...I guess I’m being selfish.”
       Chip climbed up to the top bunk with Theo and sat next to him. “Theo, just be calm. You must do what’s best for others first. I’ve learned that very important lesson and I won’t forget it. When Foxy gets back, we’ll see what happens. Maybe she misses being a Ranger too. I don’t think she’d ask me to give up being a Ranger.”
       “You just don’t know what it’s like being an orphan, dad. I’ve still got things I haven’t unpacked because part of me still remembers the feelings in the orphanage. I’d like to stay and make new friends and continue to help Aunt Lahwhinie too. It would be nice having a mom, though,” Theo said. Chip put his good arm around his son. “I know you want the whole family thing, and I do too. We’ll both have to be patient, son. I honestly feel that Foxy will come back to us, and that she’ll want to stay.” Theo got back into bed. “Well, we’ll know soon enough. I’m sure she’ll be up here as soon as the time’s up. Dad, did you ever think your life would be like this—I mean, with me and all?”
       Chip went back down then looked up at Theo. “Well, I have wondered what it would be like to be a dad. Now that I have you, it’s great. I have to selfishly admit I’m glad we got to skip the changing diapers and terrible two’s phase of your childhood. But it’s a great phase, seeing the baby’s first steps and saying their first words. Well, we can both have those things when you have kids.”
       “Yeah, but you’ve got my teenage years to come yet,” Theo said, winking. Chip knew that would be an adventure in itself. “Yeah, the teen years. Soon, you’ll be asking to borrow the keys to the RangerWing or RangerMobile to take your date out.” Theo drew back in disgust. “Dating?! Ugh. Who would I want to take out, anyway?” Chip grinned knowingly. “You’ll have an answer to that when you hit the teen years. Then you’ll see girls in a whole new light.”
       “So Aunt Lahwhinie tells me,” Theo said. “She says if I was older, I’d be falling all over myself. How do you handle that kind of stuff, dad?” Chip changed into his nightclothes. “That’s where wisdom from experience comes in handy. I’m more cautious about relationships now.”
       “In other words, there’s no way to know until you get there. But I couldn’t imagine going gaga over some old girl,” Theo said, turning on his nightlight. “Good night, dad.”
       “Good night, son. And be careful, sometimes the girls go gaga over the guys,” Chip said, getting in bed. Theo hadn’t considered that variant. “There’s a scary thought. Okay, good night.”

Chapter 5 - A Dream in Double-Vision/Karate Kids/An Unexpected Visit
Baby Talk/An Unrequited Feeling

       Back in Lahwhinie’s room, the young mouse had fallen asleep some time ago. The nightmares had not recurred since that troubling night, much to Monty and Eva’s relief. But now something new was happening. Lahwhinie was in a human’s house, but she was as big as a human herself. The place was nice, and had a southwestern feel to it. Lahwhinie couldn’t quite place it, but knew she’d seen this somewhere before. She was still in her western duds, but that didn’t have her attention anymore. Instead, her eyes were on two very similar-looking blonde-headed human girls coming down the fancy stairway.
       “Hey, where am I and who are you two?” Lahwhinie asked. The twin on the left answered first. “Well, you’re in our house in Monterey. My name’s Sharon McKendrick.”
       “And I’m her sister, Susan,” the other replied. Sharon and Susan each put their hands together and smiled. “Surprise!” Lahwhinie had long forgotten about these two, but now she remembered. “Wait, you two are from the Parent Trap! So what am I doing here? Shouldn’t it be me and Gadget here as the separated twins?”
       “Well, Sharon and I talked it over and we decided you could probably use a good girl-to-girl talk,” Susan said. Sharon stepped forward to match the closeness of her sister to Lahwhinie. “Yes, and we know that you’re still nervous about talking to Gadget and all, so we figured you wouldn’t mind talking to us.” Sharon and Susan sat on a large sofa and indicated for Lahwhinie to sit down across from them. Lahwhinie sat on the sofa and fidgeted nervously. “No offense, but this is really creepy being here with you two.”
       “Oh, we’ve been figments of your imagination for simply years!” Susan said. “Of course, you haven’t thought about us in quite some time. Guess things are getting better for you, huh?”
       “Yeah, somewhat. Better than before,” Lahwhinie admitted.
       “You’ve got a mom and a dad now, just like us,” Susan continued. “And it’s...I don’t know...sorta funny that you should turn out to have a twin sister like I did with Sharon. Did you feel that prickly feeling when you found out about it the first time?”
       “You might say it was burning me up…” Lahwhinie said. Sharon leaned closer to Lahwhinie. “But how do you feel about her now?” Lahwhinie cogitated on that. “Well, I don’t hate her as much as I used too. She’s been nothing but nice to me.”
       “And the others have been cool, too. That Chip is marvy!” Susan said.
       “Yeah, like Ricky Nelson in fur,” Sharon added. “Too bad he’s not human.” Lahwhinie instantly got defensive. “Oh, please! Don’t bring up Chip. He’s spoken for already and for once I’m not going to hurt someone to get what I want...uh...well, I’m not going to do anything to him.”
       Susan knew she was holding back. “Aw, come on! You can be up-front with us, we’re not snitch-babies! You liked him holding your hands when he gave you the rock, didn’t you?” Lahwhinie was finding this too uncomfortable. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do to me, but stop. I do like him, and I like them all. I will not say or do anything. His heart belongs to Foxglove and I’m for once not going to get in the way.” Lahwhinie stood up. “I hurt him in Hawaii and I nearly got him killed in a knife fight. I don’t want to do anything else wrong.” Sharon stood up with her. “Hey, it’s your dream, sister. It’s not our fault you have it for him. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here for you to talk to.”
       Lahwhinie spun around. “Just wake me up. I don’t want to think about it anymore! I’ll find someone else, then he can be happy and…maybe I can be happy too.” Susan began walking her toward the door. “All right, but you can’t hide it from yourself, you know. If I were you, I’d at least let him know. Then you’d know if he has any feelings for you or not.”
       “I’m the identical twin of the girl he was madly in love with and losing her was devastating to him. For a mirror image of her to say she liked him could only do him a world of harm. If Foxy doesn’t come back for him, then maybe I’ll say something, but I’m doing nothing until she makes her feelings clear,” Lahwhinie said.
       “Have it your way,” Susan said. “C’mon, Sharon. Let’s go ride Shotsie.” Sharon followed Susan outside. “Bye, Lahwhinie. I still say Chip’s the living end.” The girls left the house and when they did Lahwhinie’s eyes fluttered open. She turned over, and thought a while on what they’d said. Then she let out a frustrated sigh and went back to sleep.

       The dream did not return, and Lahwhinie was up early to begin karate practice. After breakfast, Eva put on her karate outfit and was about to go to the gym when a knock came at the main door. It was Bink.
       “Oh, hi there. Is Theo around?” Bink asked. Eva opened the door wide for her. “Good morning, dahling. I believe he is in the kitchen eating breakfast. Vhy don’t you go in and say hello to him?” Bink appeared apologetic. “Well, mom said I shouldn’t invite myself in. I just wanted to know if he could come out and play awhile. It’s boring having nothing to do.” Eva could tell this was a girl after her own heart. “Vell, we were going to start martial arts training today with him and my little Lahwhinie. Would you care to join us?”
       Bink’s eyes got huge. “Martial arts?! That would be the coolest! I’ve always wanted to learn. I’ll have to call my mom first and ask permission, but I’d sure love to do it!” Eva escorted Bink inside. “Then call her, dahling. I’m sure Theo would enjoy having a friend his own age to train with.” A light blur named Bink went scampering into headquarters. She talked mile-a-minute on the phone, but finally her mother got a word or two in and asked to talk to Eva. Bink looked at Eva with desperate intensity. Once the two ladies had spoken for a few minutes, Eva said “you’re welcome” and hung up.
       “Your mother said yes, dahling, so you may join us. When the others are done with breakfast, we will begin,” Eva said. Bink did a little victory dance. “Ya-hoo! Oh...thanks, ma’am.”
       “You are welcome,” Eva said, chuckling. “It is nice that Theo has made friends already. Would you like some breakfast, dear?” Bink looked toward the kitchen. “I already ate at home, but if you don’t mind I’ll just go in and say hello to everyone.”
       Eva escorted Bink in, and naturally Bink ended up eating another breakfast before it was over. Theo was a little uncomfortable with everyone’s looks toward him at first, but when he found out Bink would be joining him for karate practice he warmed up to the idea fast. “This is great, now we can both be kung-fu Rangers when we’re older!”
       “And we can practice together, too! Just like DarkWing and QuiverWing!” Bink added. Theo looked right at her. “Okay, but I’m not going to be Honker Muddlefoot.” Bink laughed and so did the others that understood the reference. “Mrs. Erskine, how long will it take for us to get good at self-defense?”
       “You may call me Aunt Eva, dahling, if you wish. It takes years of practice to be come very good,” Eva said. Bink’s tail drooped some. “Years, Aunt Eva? Well, I guess we’d better get started now before I’m ancient.” Eva smiled at these children’s assessments of age. “Yes, you vould be thirteen or fourteen by that time, too old to use your abilities to fight crime.”

       Breakfast ended and the three students entered the gym along with their sensei. Most of the first day was spent on regular exercise and a talk on how to responsibly use karate—mainly for the youngsters. Lahwhinie waited until her mother was done, then spoke up. “So once we’re all proficient, how do we know when it’s okay to use our abilities and fight?”
       “That knowledge only comes with wisdom and maturity,” Eva said. Theo raised his hand. “Yeah, it’s like what that Mr. Miagi guy says. You have to have respect for yourself and for others, then you’ll know. Right, Aunt Eva?”
       “I do not know of this Mr. Miagi, but it is the way you should look at all things,” Eva said. Theo was amazed at this. “You mean you haven’t seen any of the Karate Kid movies? Wax on, wax off!” Eva knew a generation gap when she saw one. “I have not been to see a movie since before you were born. In fact, I have not been to see a movie since even before Lahwhinie was born.”
       “Wow, I thought everyone had at least seen Titanic!” Bink said. “Maybe the drive-in’ll show Karate Kid sometime. You’ve got to see that. Oh, and Star Wars and Field of Dreams…”
       “Don’t forget the Star Trek movies and all the Dirk Suave movies too,” Theo added. “Aunt Eva, you need to have more fun!” Eva wondered just what their definition of fun was. “Come to think of it, I did see Star Wars. That is the last movie I have watched.”
       “Then you’ve got to see the re-done version,” Theo said. “It’s really cool. Maybe on off-days we can take you to the movies and educate you on the really important stuff. Like Jurassic Park, with all those dinosaurs! Oh, I guess we sorta interrupted you. Does this class have homework?” Eva had been waiting for a break in the talking. “Now that I vill be having another baby, I can at last rest and enjoy a movie. Once the baby is here, I will again have precious little free time. As for homework, you must keep in training and watch what you eat so that you do not get fat and lazy.”
       “I exercise all the time, but I just eat whatever,” Bink said. “What should karate students eat?” Eva thought a moment. “Healthy things, with low fat, low salt, low sugar.”
       “Low sugar? Does that mean candy’s out, too?” Theo asked in despair.
       “Not entirely, but you must not eat too much of it. All things in moderation, dahling,” Eva said. Lahwhinie looked over at her fellow-student. “Don’t worry, you guys. I think I know what she’ll want us to have. I can make us up some tropical foods that’ll be all-natural and still taste good. That’s one nice thing about Hawaiians—we know how to live healthy and have a good time doing it.”
       “Excellent, dahling. That will be very helpful,” Eva said. Theo got a playful look on his face. “I’ll do anything if it means I’ll be able to break boards with my head.” Bink hadn’t really gotten to know Lahwhinie yet and much of her attention had been pulled toward the female mouse. Now that she’d learned Lahwhinie was Hawaiian, Bink’s curiosity was too much for her. “Wow, you’re from Hawaii? I love your complexion.”
       “Well, thank you,” Lahwhinie said. “But being Gadget’s evil twin makes it hard for me to stand out.” Bink was nobody’s fool. “You don’t sound evil to me. You just said ‘thank you’.”
       “Okay, not evil, but how about...her cynical twin?” Lahwhinie offered. Bink giggled, and grinned. “I think you’re pretty, and pretty cool. Do you talk Hawaiian too?” Lahwhinie found herself warming up to the newcomer. “Sure. What would you like to know?”
       “What’s my name in Hawaiian?” Bink asked.
       “Well, the word for ‘girl’ in Hawaiian is kaikamahine (kai’ kah mah hee’ neh). Bink was totally blown away. “Radical!” Lahwhinie headed out of the gym with her. “What's your name, by the way?” Lahwhinie asked. Bink lowered her voice. “Well, everyone calls me Bink but I like Becky or Rebecca.”
       “The Hawaiian for Becky is Peke and Rebecca is Lepeka.” Bink was wowed, and Theo was instantly intrigued. “What's Theo in Hawaiian, Aunt Lahwhinie?” Lahwhinie paused a moment. “The closest I could come is for Theodore, which would be Keokolo. So I guess Theo would be Keo.”
       “Neato! Peke and Keo! They'd be great code names.” Bink asked Lahwhinie a few more questions and then it was time for her to go home. Bink thanked everyone for letting her come and Eva told her when to be back for the daily weekday lessons. Bink gave Eva a quick hug, and waved goodbye to Theo and Lahwhinie.

       Theo was pumped up the rest of the day from his first lesson and it took some patience on the part of the Rangers to settle him back down. Monty watched as Theo was practicing breaking an imaginary board. “Lad, I’ll say this fer ya—you’ve got more spunk than even I did as a wee nipper. Why I kin remember when...”
       “When you decided to become the best wallaby-rider in the outer territories!”
       Monty and the others turned to find Cheddarhead and Kate at the door. Gadget ran over and hugged them. “Golly! The whole family’s here! Hello Kate, Charlie!”
       “Hello again, dearie,” Kate said. “How’s that husband o’ yours behaving himself?” Gadget smiled at the question. “Dale’s a perfect gentleman. How are you two doing?” Chedderhead’s reply was cut off when Theo entered the room. “Wow! You must be Uncle Monty’s mom and dad! Hi, I’m Theo. Chip’s my dad.” Cheddarhead eyed Theo with the look of someone who knows he’s found a kindred soul. “So you’re the grand lil’ bloke Monty phoned us about! Wish you’d been with us, lad. Just got back from the rattlesnake rodeo down in Clearwater, Mississippi! You shoulda seen all those rattles going at once! I picked out the nastiest one o’ the lot and rode ‘im till his skin fell off!”
       “That sounds neat!” Theo said. “Maybe dad will let me go to something like that when I’m older. I’ve been to a rodeo, and that was fun.” Cheddarhead came over and gave the boy a gentle pat on the back. “Oy, you look like a lad who loves adventure. If ya stay with it, you could grow up ta be just like Cheddarhead Charlie!” Kate poked Charlie in the stomach. “There’s already room in there for a few of the lad already.”
       Eva and Lahwhinie emerged from their rooms and Eva gave them both a welcoming hug. “Velcome, dear Kate and Charlie, dahlings. Thank you so much for visiting.” The rest of the team came in as well and after some handshakes and backslaps, Lahwhinie came forward. “Uh, hello again. I know I never said much before but it’s nice knowing you.”
       Kate swept Lahwhinie off her feet and into a big hug. “Now we’re happy to know you to, darlin’ granddaughter. You and your sister are the apple of our eyes, along with your mom and dad too. We love all of ya.” Cheddarhead caught her up next and spun her around a couple of times then set her down. “Katie’s got it roight, lass. We’re plumb glad ta see ya both, and all of ya!”
       “I see you’ve met Theo already, Cheddarhead,” Chip said. “I think he takes after you some.”
       “I see myself as a combination of all the great heroes of myth and legend,” Theo said.
       “Then you got it right on the konk, Chip-o,” Cheddarhead said. Lahwhinie for her part tried and failed to suppress her appreciative smile. “Thanks, it’s nice to know you care so much about us.”
       “Like Kate said, we love all of ya, and now we find out that there’s even another little one on the way!” Cheddarhead said. Cheddarhead went over to Eva. “Are ya doing okay, lass? It’s roight amazing that there’s gonna be a third grandchild in the family.”
       “Everything is vunderful, Charles. I cannot hardly wait,” Eva said. Lahwhinie couldn’t ignore the irony of it all. “It’s weird, mom’s having a baby when her two grown daughters are old enough to have kids of their own.”
       “Aw, don’t let that worry you any, dearie,” Kate said. “We Erskines only do things when we see fit to do them and not before. Your grandfather was long enough in proposing to me. I never thought his knees would quit shaking.”
       “I wonder if it’s going to be a boy or a girl?” Theo mused. Kate leaned over and put an ear to Eva’s stomach and motioned for everyone to be silent. She moved her ear several times and stood up with a smile on her face. “It’s going to be a boy!”
       “Huh? How can you know that?” Chip said.
       “Call it an eighth sense, dearie,” Kate replied. Dale was confused. “An eighth sense? I thought we only had six. What’s your seventh sense?” Kate patted Dale on the face. “Well, these are things only a woman can ever know, luv.”
       Dale nodded, but then his curiosity lingered. “Oh. Gadget, you won’t use your seventh and eighth senses against me, will you?” Gadget got a crazed look in her eyes and waved her hands in strange ways. “Of course not, Dale. Why would I ever use my powers against you…” Then she burst out giggling. The others joined in, but Dale was still wondering about this. Cheddarhead saw it and put an arm around the munk’s shoulders. “Don’t let it worry you, Dale me lad. All you gotta do is treat her good, and you’ll never run afoul o’ trouble.” Gadget hugged Dale and kissed his cheek. “Don’t worry, Dale. I’ve already done my bewitching.”
       With the Erskines at headquarters, the pace of the day picked up considerably. Theo was totally absorbed with hearing Cheddarhead’s stories, and they naturally continued all the way until dinner. Monty fixed supper, and Lahwhinie again helped by fixing a Hawaiian dessert. When the last bite was eaten, Cheddarhead pushed back from the table and patted his belly in satisfaction.
       “So you two don’t mind being grandparents again?” Monty asked.
       “Mind, son?” Cheddarhead said. “Why, we Erskines have always been centered ‘round family. We might travel the earth, but we’ll drop everything when a family member’s in need!”
       “This child will indeed be fortunate, with so many to love him,” Eva said. Kate gave a look over at Eva. “Will you need help when it’s time for his arrival, Eva? We’d be glad ta drop back in and help out around the due date. Of course, we’ll likely come for that event anyway!”
       “All help will be welcome, Kate dahling,” Eva said. “I have had precious little experience raising my children. I vasn’t there for my little dahlings after they were born. I want to be able to see this child grow up.” Gadget was content, having her family with her. “Well, one thing’s for sure. He’ll have lots of aunts and uncles to help him get a good start in life. How long can you two stay this time?”
       “Well, we have a few days, but we’re due in Katmandu by the end of the week.We have an obligation to climb to the top o’ mount Everest with some friends of ours and we can’t get out o’ the arrangement. But we’ll be back soon as we can, luv,” Cheddarhead said. Theo’s natural curiosity was piqued. “Wow, Mount Everest! Have you ever seen the abominable snowman, grandpa Erskine?” Charlie looked at the boy like he was silly for asking such a question. “Seen him? Why, old Mike’s an good friend of ours. A bonzer pal he is!”
       “Whoa, that’s awesome! I bet there isn’t anything you don’t know!” Theo said. Kate knew she’d have to intercede or they’d be there all night. “Well, lad, there’s plenty we don’t know. But the fun in life’s finding out as much as you can.” That brought Theo back to his other source of excitement. “Yeah, and now I’m finding out how to break boards and take on ten people at once!”
       Eva swallowed quickly and spoke up. “Now Theo, remember your training is called self-defense. The fighting is never a proper way to handle things. Would you not agree, Cheddarhead?” Charlie fidgeted nervously for a few moments. He didn’t want to lie to Theo and he knew the answer Eva wanted. “Yeah, self-defense is important. Ya don’t want to be a bloke that just starts trouble for the fun o’ pushing others around. Use yer abilities for good, lad.”
       “Grandpa Erskine, when is it okay to fight then?” Theo asked. Charlie didn’t hesitate on this one. “When the other bloke don’t give you any other choice.” Chip decided to take the spotlight off their guest. “It’s also right to defend a lady’s honor, especially if she’s been insulted or pushed around. And if you’re in a situation where you’ve tried other routes but nothing else works. The important thing is, not to let yourself get pushed into a fight—usually that leads to your opponent having all the advantage because he goaded you into it.”
       “And watch out for wicked women like me that used to goad guys into fighting over me,” Lahwhinie added. “Some people just like to manipulate people for fun.” Theo was swimming in information, and didn’t know what to make of it all. “I’m beginning to understand why you said I was easier to be around at this age, Aunt Lahwhinie.”
       “Yeah, when you get older you find out it’s a lot more complicated that you could ever imagine,” Lahwhinie said. “But you’re wise beyond your years, Theo. So we figured you could handle this much reality.”
       “Just think before you act, son,” Chip said. “She’s right, it’s not always clear what you should do. If you have a chance, ask one of us. If you don’t, ask yourself what we’d do.” Theo saluted. “Okay, filed away for future reference.”

       Next morning, the sounds of training filtered in from the gym. Once Lahwhinie and Theo had finished their exercises and received instruction on form and balance they went outside for another reading session. Lahwhinie had kept up her studies, and Theo was happy that his aunt was showing progress.
       “Isn’t this great, Aunt Lahwhinie? We’re gonna be kung-fu masters. Then we’ll really kick evil’s butt!” Theo said with gusto. Lahwhinie rubbed her sore muscles. “Right now, I think it’s my butt that’s getting kicked. I haven’t trained hard like this ever. Guess it’s good for shedding those few extra ounces, though.”
       Theo watched as she sat down in the grass and he joined her. “Do you feel better about everything now? You’re gonna keep staying with us, right?” Lahwhinie was about to open their latest book when she put it back down and looked at him. “Hey, why not? I mean, I’m getting treated decent for the first time in my life. That’s not exactly something you just pack up and walk away from.”
       “Good, it’s neat having you around. You have neat grandparents too,” Theo said.
       “Yeah, I think I see where a lot of my conniving comes from. Still, it’s nice to see that it can be used without hurting somebody. Okay, enough chit-chat. What’s this new book about, again?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “I got this one from Dale. This one’s from the movie Robin Hood, one of the best movies ever made!” Theo said. Lahwhinie opened the book, richly illustrated. “In...by-gone...days, when Prince John ruled...En-gland...he filled his...treas-ur-ee...with all the gold and jewels he could find. If a...pop-u-lar-i-ty...contest had been held, the gree-dy Prince would have finished last.” Theo was very pleased. “That’s great! Your reading’s really improving.” Lahwhinie smiled in satisfaction. “Thanks. What does bygone mean?”
       “It’s like yesteryear. A fancy-pants way for saying it happened in the past,” Theo said. Lahwhinie looked at the word in the book again. “Oh, okay. I still have to fight the urge to say something else when I run into a word like that. I thought it was ‘bug one’ at first, but I knew that didn’t make sense.”
       “Good thinking. Just ask when you have a word you don’t know, and soon you’ll be reading like a pro!” Theo said. Lahwhinie kept on reading. They had just gotten through the archery tournament when Lahwhinie stopped again. “It’s a pretty cool story. I’ve missed a lot not reading and all. Theo, does your dad think this way—like a Robin Hood, I mean?” Theo didn’t know quite what she was asking, but nodded. “Sure. He’s a hero and heroes fight against injustice and evil.”
       “Well, I meant more than that...I mean, like Robin Hood risking all of that just to see that girl at the tournament. And then he tells Marion he loves her more than anything, just before he’s bailed out of an execution. Does Chip think like that?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “Well, I haven’t talked that much with him about Foxglove, but I could imagine him and her in that scene,” Theo said. Lahwhinie didn’t say anything to that, but instead went back to reading. When she’d finished the book, the mouse again turned to Theo, “Thanks, Theo. You’ve been a real help.”
       “You’re welcome. That’s what I’m here for. All you guys gave me a home and a family. I owe you all everything,” Theo said. As they finished and got up, Chip had returned from the police station and caught up with them. “Hello, you two! How’d it go today?”
       “Aunt Lahwhinie’s reading better and better!” Theo said.
       “Thanks to my adviser here. If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to rest after all that reading,” Lahwhinie said, walking back toward the treehouse without any further ado. Chip took a couple of steps in her direction. “But I was just going to ask...well, maybe she isn’t in the mood for another lesson today. Did she seem okay to you, Theo?”
       “She thanked me for my help and she wondered if you were like Robin Hood,” Theo replied. Chip was taken aback at that comparison. “Robin Hood? Why would she wonder something like that?”
       “That’s the book we were reading and she just wondered if you were like that,” Theo said. Chip thought the matter over. “Well, maybe she saw that Robin was a nice and honorable guy and she wondered if I was like that too. She’s probably still not used to trusting guys.” Theo supposed he was right. “That probably has a lot to do with it, but she likes all of us. So, it’s a start.” Chip had to agree with Theo’s reasoning, and they went back inside. Lahwhinie was on the sofa, and Chip walked over to her. “Is everything okay? I thought we were going to have another mental exercise this morning. I’m not pushing you too hard, am I?”
       “No. I’m just getting used to being Lahwhinie the Erskine, rather than Lahwhinie the temptress. I’m just going through a bit of an identity crisis, that’s all. I’ll get over it,” Lahwhinie said. Chip decided to let it go at that. “Oh. Okay, then.” Chip flopped down on the sofa next to her and started watching television.
       “I sure wish we had a case going,” Chip said. “Life around here gets slow sometimes, but I guess it’s good in a way. The less we do means fewer problems out there. Still, if Fat Cat would just make his move then we’d see some action.”
       “So, do you think Theo will like Foxglove as a mom?” Lahwhinie asked.
       The question caught him off-guard and Chip blinked a couple of times as he moved his attention to Lahwhinie. “I guess Theo’s been talking about it to you some. I hope he will—I know Foxy liked him when she met him. They weren’t together that long, so they didn’t really have a chance to bond. But Theo’s concerned that she might want to pursue a career. I hadn’t really thought about that until he brought it up.”
       Lahwhinie was beginning to wonder what he had been thinking about. “You could be her roadie. Do you think she’d ask that of you?” Chip gave the only reply he could. “I don’t know...I tried to sound confident with Theo, and I still don’t think she would. If she becomes famous over this, then that’s something I’ll have to take into account. I really don’t want to leave the Rangers—all my life’s tied up in this treehouse.”
       “Well, I’m sure you’ll do the right thing for you, her and Theo,” Lahwhinie said quickly. Chip leaned back and watched the show some more, but the idea nagged at him. “Lahwhinie, what would you do? If you loved someone, or at least felt you loved them, would you put everything else aside...sorry, I shouldn’t push my problems on you. You’re probably getting annoyed with me.”
       Lahwhinie kept looking at the set. “I don’t mind. The least I could do is help you if I can.” Lahwhinie sighed, “If you feel you’re in love with someone, then you should do what’s best for them, even if they never know how you really feel.” Chip was glad to see that Lahwhinie had some sense to her. “You’re right. I can see that Foxy and I are going to have to have a long talk when she gets here. Thanks, Lahwhinie. You have a way with explaining things. Maybe I should make you my adviser.”
       “Just cut out the middlewoman and talk to Theo,” Lahwhinie said. Chip chuckled at her remark, then caught himself. He was relieved to see that Lahwhinie didn’t react badly to it. “He is a smart boy, but you have a rare wit about you. I’m sorry I laughed at you when you used it before. I’d never do that again.”
       “Thanks, Chip. I’d appreciate that,” Lahwhinie said. “How long till Foxglove returns? Counting the minutes?” Chip smiled wistfully. “Almost. About the only time I don’t constantly miss her is when I’m doing something with Theo or you. Thanks again, Lahwhinie. I never thought this would happen, but you’re a good friend to have around.” Chip patted her hand as he got up and went to the kitchen. Lahwhinie sighed again and continued watching TV.

       As day melded into night, the now-routine activities of the Rangers took over. Lahwhinie was grateful in a way that Chip didn’t seem to notice the way she’d looked at him. It was better all the way around, Lahwhinie told herself, as she laid down and her eyes began to moisten. Two more days passed, and the waiting game became more tedious. It was just after six in the morning when Chip came to relieve Lahwhinie.
       “Your turn,” Lahwhinie said. “Not a peep out of that thing, and it’s been the better part of a month now. How much longer do we keep this up?”
       “As long as it takes. Justice can’t afford to sleep,” Chip said. Lahwhinie stretched and yawned. “At this rate, I’m going to be reading War and Peace before that bloated beach ball does something. Why don’t we just...”
       The alarm went off.


Chapter 6 - Playing Phone Tag/Disconnected/If You Think You're Confused...

       Lahwhinie and Chip looked at each other for a moment and then ran to awaken the others. Within two minutes, they were all dressed and assembled. Chip spoke hurriedly to his son. “Theo, you know you have to stay here with your Aunt Lahwhinie and Eva.”
       “Yeah, yeah. Safety first,” Theo said dejectedly.
       “Hey, why can’t I go?” Lahwhinie asked. “Mom can look after him!”
       “Neither of you has enough training yet,” Chip countered.
       Lahwhinie folded her arms. “Okay, I get the message.”
       Gadget called them into her workshop and pulled a drop cloth off of a new invention—a half-size replica of the modemizer with a convenient sliding door built in so it could be used like a walk-in transporter. “Mom and I finished work on our own Rangerizer a week ago. Do you have the coordinates yet?”
       “Yes, Gadget,” Eva said. “Fats Cat is in for a surprise.”

       Near the Manhattan bridge stands a monument to the trade of the costliest little items man has devised. The New York Jewelers Exchange is one of the safest buildings in existence for bearers of such rarities. But even the finest alarm designer could not anticipate the singular entrance of a group of animals through a phone line. In an unoccupied room on the building’s fifth floor, a phone’s ring echoed and the criminal band appeared.
       Fat Cat cased the area, then turned to his goon squad who were carrying all the tools. “All right, you miserable lot of sneak thieves, this entire floor’s ripe for the picking. The fools—they put all their security into keep people from reaching beyond the first floor. They never thought of anyone bypassing it all with a phone call! Nyah ha ha haah!”
       “Is this where they keep their candy bars?” Mole asked hopefully. Mepps looked around dully. “What is it we’re here to steal again, boss?”
       It was at times like these that Fat Cat wished he’d kept the Jamaican fruit bats. “For the fourteenth time, this is the diamond dealers’ floor and we’re stealing all the diamonds! To the humans, this exchange is the ‘fat cat’ of all the jewelry dealers. So what better than a Fat Cat to relieve them of their wares? Now, get to work! We’ve only got two hours before the humans get here. We wouldn’t want to be late dialing out, would we?”
       The henchmen headed for the safes and began their efforts to open them. Fat Cat rubbed his paws in gleeful expectation. “Oh, this crime will put me into the immortals of villainy! To think, it’s all due to that crackpot scientist Nimnul. I’ll have to see what else that skittish scientist has come up with. But the best part is, those repulsive Rangers have no possible way to stop me! Do you hear that, Rangers? You’ll never get the best of me again!”
       Wart looked over from watching Snout trying to crack the safe. “What are we going to steal next, Fat Cat?” Fat Cat pulled on his mustache. “I’d thought of getting you all some brains, but perhaps my next target will be the famous Tiger’s Eye tourmaline in Istanbul. Or the jade cat statue in Tokyo to join my other beauty. Oh, the possibilities!” Fat Cat’s thoughts were interrupted by a ker-chunk. “Boss, we got this safe open!” Snout said. Mepps pulled out a tray of diamonds. “Hey, look we’re rich!”
       “Mmmm, candy bars…” Mole said.
       “Bring it here! Bring it here!” Fat Cat said, his voice jubilant. The goons emptied the drawers of all the diamonds and Fat Cat threw them up into the air like a little child, playing. “At last! All my aspirations are coming true! Look at them, gentlemen—these pretties are the things dreams are made of...”

       “I’m afraid the only dreams you’ll be having from now on are from prison, Fat Cat!” Fat Cat and the others all turned to see the Rangers standing at the door to the room they were in
       “THE RESCUE RANGERS!? Nooooooooooooo! Get them!” Fat Cat shouted. The goon squad started to make a move, but Fat Cat’s playing with the diamonds had left them strewn all over the floor around them. Mepps hesitated to move. “Uh boss, are you sure you want us to...”
       “MOVE IT!!”
       The henchmen obeyed and ran at the Rangers. However, the diamonds acted like marbles to trip them up and they all went skating across the hard floor.
       “Look out!” Chip said.
       “My diamonds!” Fat Cat shouted.
       Fat Cat began to scoop up the gemstones around him, while his accomplices tried to maintain their footing. “Lookit! Let’s make it harder for ‘em!” Dale said. Dale started pitching diamonds their way and soon the others followed suit. In moments, four thugs thudded to the floor. Monty grabbed up a dustpan and rang Mepps’ bell. Gadget used her harpoon gun to tie up Wart’s feet. Mole tried to regain his footing and kept losing the battle. Snout alone managed to get to his greedy boss.
       “Boss, we’d better split!” Snout said.
       “Not without my diamonds!” Fat Cat protested.
       While Monty tied up the rest of the goon squad, Chip and the others advanced on the two villains. “It’s too late for that, you moth-eaten furball!” Chip said. Dale was right next to him. “Yeah! We’re gonna to put your little ice escapade on ice!” Fat Cat grinned wickedly. “Oh, what a clever play on words. I never thought you had it in you.”
       “You’d be surprised what a little self-confidence can do! Now, surrender!” Dale said. Fat Cat’s eyes were positively vicious. “Don’t be stupid, my ridiculous Ranger. I still have the upper hand!” Fat Cat began to move toward the modemizer
       “Fat Cat, stop! That modemizer’s dangerous!” Gadget shouted. Zipper flew ahead and buzzed around Fat Cat’s head to distract him. “Give up, fat boy!”
       “Away, you insipid fly!” Fat Cat said. “So you can talk, eh? Well, it won’t help you! I now possess the ultimate power in crime!” Mole was still falling all over himself. “Boss, you’re not gonna leave us are you?” Fat Cat tsked at Mole. “I do regret having to part ways with you, but risk is a part of all crimes. Arrivaderci!” Fat Cat grabbed the modemizer and Snout got under it with him. Dale, Gadget and Chip were closest and rushed toward Fat Cat. “You’re not getting away this easy, Fat Cat!” Chip shouted.
       “Oh, no? Watch me!” Fat Cat said.

       Fat Cat dialed a number on the phone next to him and put it on the modemizer. The device activated, but in moments it was going haywire. Lights blinked on and off, and a high-pitched whine came from somewhere within. Fat Cat’s eyes went from showing anger to fear. “What’s...what’s going on with this thing?”
       “The internal circuitry’s corrupted! It’s going to explode!” Gadget shouted. The machine began to shake, and Fat Cat shook with it as he held it. The whine got worse and Fat Cat tossed the modemizer away from him and it landed in the middle of the room. Monty and Zipper were heading to help the others when the overload began. Streams of energy shot out from the device in all directions.
       “Come on, Dale!” Gadget shouted. Gadget had taken Dale by the hand and they were running for cover when a burst of energy caught them both and they were knocked to the floor. Monty and Zipper tried to get to them, but the energy bursts prevented them. Fat Cat was backing away, when another burst surrounded him and instead of pushing him away it pulled him into the modemizer.
       “NOOOO ooooooooo.....” And then Fat Cat was gone.
       “Boss!” Mepps shouted.
       Chip was undaunted by the danger, and tried to deactivate the modemizer. He jumped on top of the metallic dome and pulled on the phone, but then it happened. Shards of energy spurt forth from the unusual device and sent Chip sailing across the room in a blinding flash just as the modemizer exploded with a horrible roar. No one could see for over a minute, and when everyone’s eyes returned to normal the sight wasn’t pretty. Parts were scattered everywhere, as were animals. The larger ones recovered first.
       “Fat Cat! What happened to him?” Wart asked groggily. Mole pointed to where the modemizer had been. “The telephone thing sucked him up!”
       “The boss...he’s gone!” Snout said.
       Mepps began to panic. “We’d better get out of here!” The leaderless goon squad ran for it in a hurry, then Monty’s eyes cleared enough to see again. He and Zipper had failed to get to Gadget and Dale, and they’d been forced to jump behind a filing cabinet as the modemizer exploded.
       “Sing out, everyone! Where are ya all?” Monty asked. Zipper buzzed weakly and flew over to Monty. “I’m okay, where’s Gadget and Dale? I thought they were knocked down over here...they’re not here! Hey, I don’t see Chip either. Chip?!” Chip stood and shook the debris off his hat. “I’m okay. What happened to Dale and Gadget? And Fat Cat for that matter. If there’s any justice, he’s getting a good comeuppance for doing something this monumentally stupid.” Chip began searching intently around the room, looking for his friends.
       Monty grew worried. “They ain’t here, neither one! D’ya suppose when that blighter blew it sent them somewheres?” Chip took off his hat. “I pray that’s the case. We need Eva here, fast! We don’t have much time before the humans get here. Use our Rangerizer and bring her here.” Zipper saluted and he and Monty activated the Rangerizer. Chip began to search the room.
       “Please be all right, guys...”

       For what seemed like an eternity, Dale saw the blinding flash. Then there was nothing—blackness. Slowly, his mind pushed himself back toward consciousness. Dale’s head felt like Honey’s troops were inside it, but he managed to raise it. They were someplace...where? “Wow, I guess the momeda-thingy transported us. Gadget, you were sure right about that...Gadget!” Gadget was still down, and Dale placed her on his lap and patted her face. “C’mon, Gadget. I know you’re in there...”
       “Dirk? Uh... I...uh, Dale!” Gadget managed. “What happened? Are you okay?”
       “Thank goodness...yes,” Dale said, hugging her close, and thankful his wife was still with him. “I guess we were the only ones caught by that thing.” Gadget's attention was caught by something else slowly moving in the shadows. “Look! Isn’t that Chip over there?” Chip stood and took off his hat. “I’m here too. It looks like we got phoned out of the diamond exchange. I hope the others are okay. We need to get back there as soon as possible.”
       “I’m just glad that my head’s on my own body this time!” Dale said. “That mode-thingamadoodle’s a menace!” Gadget rubbed her head, trying to clear the cobwebs. “Golly, I wonder what happened to Fat Cat?”

       In the far-flung wastes, near the trans-Siberian railway, a pay phone rang on a frozen pole. A portly cat appeared, and dropped into the snow. “Oh, joy. That blasted piece of malfunctioning junk sent me who-knows-where!” The crime boss turned around and saw a wooden fenced-in yard with a sign written in Russian that he naturally couldn’t read. Impatient, Fat Cat pushed the wood gate open and it closed shut behind him.
       “I wonder what that sign said...” Fat Cat said, looking around. From behind him a deep Russian voice sounded, “It said, ‘Beware of Dogs’.” Fat Cat turned around slowly. “D..d..dogs??” Fat Cat slowly looked behind him to find three Russian sled dogs peering at him with their wildish blue eyes.
       “Greetings, fat one. I am Vladimir Porchinski, and these are my associates,” Vladimir said, grinning toothily.
       “Pyotr Gorbov,” the second dog said.
       “Irene Vaskov,” the third added.
       Vladimir’s eyes never left the tubby tabby. “Now we are acquainted. We welcome you to our humble yard. A pity you will not be staying long...”

       Back at the scene of the explosion at the diamond exchange, the Rangerizer re-appeared and a very upset-looking Eva ran up to Chip. “Did you find anything? Anything at all?” Chip had been meticulously going over the area, looking for any clue to what had happened. “Fat Cat’s modemizer malfunctioned. Gadget and Dale vanished along with Fat Cat, and we need you to find out what happened. Can you trace where they went or do you need to examine the remains of the modemizer?”
       Eva surveyed the wreckage. “Oh, dear. I vill need to access the hookup where the receiver hooks up to the phone. I have my tracer with me, and I should be able to use it to determine vhere they went.”
       “What about the baby?” Chip asked. “Is it safe to use your Rangerizer in your condition?” Eva was appreciative of his concern. “Do not vorry, Chip. Our design is safe. Now help me with the phone, everyone...” With Monty’s help, Eva detached the receiver from the phone. She had Chip hold a probe she’d brought up to one of the copper connectors. The results showed up on her screen.
       “This is not good. Not good at all,” Eva said. Monty looked at his wife with grave concern. “What? What’s wrong? WHAT’S HAPPENED TO OUR BABY?”
       “Are they...they aren’t...” Zipper said. Eva shook her head. “I do believe the modemizer sent them somevhere, but I am not sure as to the place. They either were sent someplace in or near the city, or...”
       “Or?” Chip asked.
       “Someplace on the other side of the vorld,” Eva replied. Chip heard the voices of humans coming. “Okay Eva, you’ve got to use that genius of yours to find them. I’ll stay here for now and see if the police give us any more information.”
       “Vell, I can narrow it down to a city block with the equipment in the workshop at home. That will be our first stop,” Eva said. Eva, Monty and Zipper entered the Rangerizer quickly, and they soon re-appeared in the workshop. Eva went for Gadget’s tools, and Monty went out to check on Theo and Lahwhinie.
       Lahwhinie entered the living room, still in her nightgown and rubbing her eyes. “I went back to bed. What’s going on? What’s with the shouting?” Monty’s face was full of worry. “Fat Cat’s modemizer malfunctioned and sent Dale and Gadget somewhere. Your mother’s trying ta find the exact place.” Lahwhinie came to attention at once. “Gadget? Gadget’s gone? Are you sure they’re okay?”
       “No, I’m not sure. I was roight relieved when we didn’t find them hurt or wounded at the site of the explosion. But I’m worried,” Monty said. Lahwhinie held her father’s hand. “They’ve got to be okay, don’t worry, dad. My mom can do anything.She’ll find them.”
       “I just hope they’re not where Fat Cat is—he got pulled into that bloomin’ thing too!” Monty said, hugging Lahwhinie for some comfort. “Thanks, lass. Now, let’s go see how your mom’s doing.” Lahwhinie was stunned to think that her sister might be gone. “Okay, dad.” In Gadget’s workshop, Eva was making progress. She’d taken the reading from the phone and was narrowing down the trace. “They are...or at least could be in the city.” Eva consulted a city map and pointed to a particular area. “It vould appear one destination was here, down in the warehouse district.”

       “What are we waiting for? Let’s got get ‘em!” Monty said. Lahwhinie looked on as the Rangerizer vanished again. Moments later, it reappeared in an auto parts warehouse. The noise of their arrival echoed all throughout the big building.
       “Dale, Gadget?! Are you here?!” Eva shouted.
       “Gadget, luv? Dale, mate?” Monty echoed. Zipper pointed to an area ahead of them. “Look, tracks!” Indeed, an oily spot on the floor not ten feet away showed mouse and chipmunk footprints. Eva ran her finger through one of the prints. “They’re still fresh. Made within the hour.”
       “Looks good, luv. Three set of tracks!” Monty said. “Wonder who’s with ‘em?”
       “Possibly someone who lives here,” Eva mused. “They are alive, they must be! But do we leave the device and follow them, or return home and acquire a plane and come back to search?” Monty surveyed the scene. “I’ll follow on foot, lass. You go back and get Chip and the RangerPlane. They’ll likely have either headed for home or headed back to the diamond exchange. We can send ol’ Zip here back to the exchange just in case.”

       Monty hurried out, and within moments Zipper was off and flying and the Rangerizer had disappeared. Meanwhile, the lost Rangers were taking a shortcut via the sewer in a makeshift raft Gadget had made. “This is a lot safer than the streets, and we should be in range of the building in just over ten minutes!” Gadget said. Chip was glad things were going their way again. “They would probably have split up, some following us to the garage, some home and someone to stay back at the diamond exchange.”
       “Oh, I hope they’re all okay!” Dale said. “What’ll we do if Fat Cat and the others are still there?” Chip knew the answer to that. “What we always do, beat them.” Gadget concentrated on looking for any indication of which way she should go. “They’re likely long gone by now, Dale. I’m pretty sure I saw Monty and Zipper diving toward the filing cabinet in there, so they should be okay. Hang on, everyone!”
       Gadget used the tinker-toy pole she was holding to steer them right, into another sewer line. Another couple of minutes, and she pulled the small craft over to the side and the Rangers climbed out and up to find themselves just outside the diamond exchange
       “Way to go, Gadget! You hit it right on the nose!” Dale said. Gadget held the boat steady as Chip and Dale got out, then did so herself. “Golly, thanks, Dale. We’d better get in there so the others know we’re safe!”

       Eva had wasted no time, but had gone at once to get Chip. The police were now well-established at the crime scene and no new details had come up, so Chip left with her. A few seconds later, Chip and Eva got out of the Rangerizer in Gadget’s workshop and after explaining their findings to a now-dressed Lahwhinie, they got ready to go look for the others in the Plane. Eva was on the way when she stopped. “I am sorry, but I must rest now. I had forgotten how little exercise it takes to tire an expectant mother. Chip, you and the others go ahead. I vill stay here and be on guard in case the others come back first.”
       Chip remembered the horrors of the last modemizer malfunction and then he thought of Theo. “Son, I want you to wait here with Eva. We’re just going to pick up Dale and Gadget and we’ll be right back.”
       “But dad, I want to help! Can’t I come?” Theo asked. Chip started to waver, but didn’t. “Son, please stay here and look after Eva. She needs someone to look after her while we’re away. It’s your duty as a Ranger to help people in need.” Theo didn't want to, but he gave in. “Okay, you’re right. I’ll stay here and make sure she’s okay. Just make sure to bring them all back, all right?” Chip headed for the door. “You can count on that. We’ll be back in a little while. Don’t worry.”

       Zipper flew into the diamond exchange per Monty’s orders. He used his small size to easily bypass the normal deterrents to humans and was on the fifth floor in a matter of a few minutes. When he got there, he stopped short. “Gadget, Dale! You’re okay! Chip, what are you still doing here?”
       “Still? Gadget, Dale and I were sent halfway across town in that modemizer. Where’s everyone else? Are they okay?” Chip asked. Zipper did a double-take. “Well...yeah...but I thought…”
       “But nothin’!” Dale said. “What happened to Fat Cat and the others?” Zipper took his eyes off Chip. “Oh. Fat Cat disappeared into the modemizer and we don’t know where he is.” Gadget thought about it. “Hmm...given that we were sent just a short distance, a polarity reversal could've sent him to the ends of the earth.”
       “If there’s any justice, he’s getting a good comeuppance for doing something this monumentally stupid,” Chip said. Zipper was still confused. “Huh, seems like someone said that before. I must be flying on low fuel today. Well, we’d better get back to headquarters. The police’ll likely be scrounging the area soon.” Dale was all for that. “Wow, I’m glad we just got transported this time, rather than getting all switched around! We were lucky that there were no bad side effects!”
       “I agree,” Chip said. “We’ll need to regroup and try to find out what happened to Fat Cat.” Chip led the way, and the others followed. Zipper went along, but something about this felt all-wrong. He couldn’t be mistaken about Chip, could he?

       “No sign of them so far, Chip!” Lahwhinie said. She was using a pair of telescopic lenses that her mother had designed, and swept the scene below them. Then she stopped, and touched Chip on the arm and pointed. “Wait, I see dad down there. He’s signaling us to land.”
       Chip landed the RangerPlane near the Aussie, who came over quickly. “Any sign of them, Monty?”
       “Not so much as a hair, mate!” Monty said, climbing in. “Glad you two flew over when ya did. I was getting right tired o’ all this walking. Say, where’s Eva? Why ain’t she with ya?”
       “Mom was getting tired from all the running around so she’s with Theo back at HQ,” Lahwhinie said. Chip started the Plane back up as Monty got his bearings. “We need to swing back to the diamond exchange to check in with Zipper,” Monty said, then realized the full extent of what Lahwhinie was telling him. “Oy, the baby! Well, ‘least she quit when she needed to. Take ‘er up, lad, and then we’ll check on the lass quick as we can!”
       Chip concealed his growing concern as he flew to the diamond exchange while Monty filled Chip and Lahwhinie in on what he and Eva had seen. All they had to go on were footprints, and no telling if anything terrible had happened when they modemized. After what happened the last time, it could certainly be terrible. **No, I know that they’re fine. They’re going to be fine!** “Don’t worry, Dale and Gadget, we’re on our way!”

       At that moment, Dale and Gadget had again left the sewer after another trip to avoid the crowds of people and cars. Emerging at Central Park, they led the way to a familiar oak tree and opened the door.
       “Hey everyone! We’re back! Anyone here?” Dale asked. Theo emerged from the kitchen and was instantly glad to see who was along with them. “Wow! That was fast, dad. It’s good to see that you got back safe, Aunt Gadget, Uncle Dale!” Eva hugged Dale and Gadget. “We are so relieved you two are safe.”
       “Hello, Theo! It’s great to be back. Mom, where’s dad and Lahwhinie?” Gadget asked. Eva was suddenly confused. “What do you mean? Did you leave them behind?”
       “Huh? We haven’t seen them all day!” Dale said. “Well, not since the explosion anyway.” Now Theo was confused. “Wait, dad was with them just a few minutes ago in the RangerPlane. Didn’t you pick them up and bring them here, dad?” Chip joined the confusion club. “I wasn’t flying around! I’ve been with Gadget and Dale all along, son. What’s going on here?”
       “Maybe you were hurt in the accident and have lost your memory,” Eva thought out loud. Theo shook his head. “How can that be? You were just with Aunt Lahwhinie and Uncle Monty in the RangerPlane and heading out to the diamond exchange to see if Dale and Gadget had shown up.”
       Eva walked over to Chip and began inspecting his head. “Perhaps you should lie down, dahling.” Chip waived her off. “I tell you, I’m fine!” Eva had a thought. “One moment...” Eva pushed back Chip’s fur on his right shoulder to reveal the scar where the knife wound was. “The vound is there. But if you are Chip Maplewood, then who is in the RangerPlane vith my daughter?”
       Theo gave voice to his suspicion. “An evil twin?!” Dale grinned at the idea. “You never told us that you had an evil twin, Chip. Wait, maybe it’s Ditz! Do you suppose he’s come back?” Gadget looked at the chipmunk in front of her speculatively. “Golly, I don’t think so.” Gadget quickly scribbled down a complex mathematical problem on a piece of paper and handed it to Chip. “Could you solve this problem for me, Chip?”
       “You gotta be kidding!” Chip said.
       “Hungry? I think we have some urkburgles in the fridge, nice and fresh...” Dale offered. Chip had had enough of this. “Dale, I am not a Fleeblebroxian! I’m plain old Chip Maplewood, and I’m starting to wonder just who is impersonating me! But if it’s Ditz out there, what would he have to gain by pretending to be me?” Whatever the case, Chip wasn’t going to wait around. “What’re we standing around here for? Let’s get the RangerWing and follow them!” Gadget sensed Chip’s concern and shared it. “Right, Chip! Let’s go!”
       “Rescue Rangers, to the Rescue!” Dale said.

       The RangerPlane’s inhabitants scoured the city for a while longer, but with no success. Monty turned to Chip. “Chipper, we’d best head back in and see if they’ve turned up at headquarters! If not, we’ll head right back out.”
       “You’re probably right,” Chip said. “They’re probably back at HQ, safe and sound by now.” Lahwhinie could tell he was covering his own doubts and patted his hand. “Don’t worry, Chip. We won’t say aloha to the day until they’re back safe.”
       “Thanks, Lahwhinie. They’re probably all waiting for us to get back now,” Chip said as he turned the Plane around and they headed back in toward headquarters. In the distance, Gadget spotted them from the RangerWing and they turned their course to follow them in.
       The Plane landed first, and its inhabitants were inside headquarters before the sound of the RangerWing drew near. Eva saw Chip come in, and thought for a second it was Gadget behind him. When she realized otherwise, her face took on a measure of alarm. “Monty, Lahwhinie, it is nice to see you both safe. Chip, have you found Gadget and Dale on your flight?”
       “Nope, no sign of them yet. Are you all right, Eva? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something,” Chip said. Theo stood up from his place on the sofa. “Funny you should say that...Chip.” Chip looked at Theo strangely. “What do you mean...Theo? Is something wrong?”
       “Vell, when Dale, Gadget, Zipper and...they get back that will help to...this slight problem will perhaps be resolved,” Eva said. Chip didn’t follow her at all. “What problem? What do you mean?” Outside, the RangerWing landed and the four Rangers rushed in. For several long seconds, no one said anything as the Chip Maplewood at the door stared at the Chip Maplewood inside headquarters, and vice-versa.
       “Uh oh, we got a problem...” Gadget said.

Chapter 7 - Hello, Mr. Chips/Identity Crises/The Greatest Maplewood of Them All

       --Author’s note: To prevent the following exchanges from becoming impossible to follow, the Chip who flew in the RangerPlane with Lahwhinie will be labeled Chip One. The one who was with Dale and Gadget all day will be labeled Chip Two.--

       Monty looked first to one, then the other. “Crikey! It’s like deja vu, in person yet!”
       “Two dads?!” Theo exclaimed.
       Chip One pointed to the chipmunk at the door. “An imposter! What do you think you’re doing, pretending to be me?” Chip Two’s brows lowered as he entered the room. “Me? Who are you, trying to take impersonate me!” Chip Two opened his jacket to show his scar. “See, I’ve got the knife wound from Fat Cat’s!”
       All eyes turned accusingly to the Chip next to Theo. He didn’t say anything, but opened his jacket as well, and pushed back his fur to show—an identical scar. Dale’s head was swimming. “Okay, I’d say this just entered into the realm of the super-weird. How can there be two Chips?”
       “There isn’t!” Chip One said. “This one’s an imposter, I tell you! Look, test us. Ask us something that only I would know.” Dale walked up to him and whispered something in his ear. Chip One got a look of rage on his face and suddenly bonked Dale on the head. “Yeah, only the real Chip would know that...”
       “See? Dale knows I’m telling the truth!” Chip One said. “Why don’t you fess up, you doppelganger?”
       “I’m the real Chip!” Chip Two protested. “Ask me something!” Dale shrugged. “Well, there is something else.” Dale went up to Chip Two and whispered in his ear. Chip blushed, then bonked Dale as well. Dale looked at the others and shrugged. “They both knew things that only the real Chip would know! Real super-personal stuff that only he and I know.”
       Chip One stepped forward. “Okay, smarty! What’s my favorite Sureluck Jones line?” Chip Two walked up to him. “There’s always a chance, as long as one can think.”
Chip One gasped at the answer, then the respondent asked one of his own.
       “Who gave me this hat and jacket?” Chip Two asked.
       “Sean Maplewood, my grandfather, on my 16th birthday,” Chip One replied.

       Gadget looked at the two of them, staring each other down. “Golly mom, is it possible this happened because the modemizer malfunctioned?” The two Chips looked each other over in exactly the same fashion for any sign of falsity. When they both reached in at the same instant to pull out a magnifying glass, Monty raised his hands in exclamation.
       “Something’s moighty strange ‘bout this!” Monty said. “You two both seem ta be Chip, but we know only one of ya kin be Chip! So which one is it?”
       “ME!” the Chips said.
       “Okay, this is really freaking me out,” Theo said. “Only one of you can be my dad!” Eva studied the matter over and had to take into account what her daughter had said. “I am afraid they both could be, Theo. Gadget, you may indeed have something.”
       Lahwhinie wasn’t ready to accept this. “Which of you taught me right from left?” Chip One thumbed at himself. “I did! It was a stone I picked up and handed to you, remember?” Chip Two came forward as well. “Then I suggested you get your ear pierced.” Lahwhinie looked at them both closely. “They’re identical in every way. I can’t tell them apart!”
       “They’re both the same. How is that possible?” Zipper asked.

       Eva approached the Chips. “Tell me, each of you. Vhat is the last thing each of you remembers at the time of the explosion?” Chip One went first. “The explosion and then waking up in the diamond exchange with Monty and Zipper.”
       “The explosion and then waking up in the garage with Dale and Gadget,” Chip Two said. Eva nodded. “I have a theory, but I cannot be sure without DNA confirmation. However, since Chip was the closest to the explosion and the effects seemed to vary with each person exposed to the modemizer’s emanations, it is just possible that the overload created a bounceback effect.”
       “Golly, you’re right!” Gadget said. “The backup to the molecular reguritator he built in must act like a safety net. It’s his answer to what Zipper mentioned earlier—a device that cancels the transfer and safely reorganizes whoever’s using it. The overload might’ve forced the digitized Chip and the buffered Chip to materialize at the same instant!”
       “Precisely,” Eva said. “It is not something that Nimnul vould have planned, but the additional energy output of the modemizer at the precise nanosecond it transferred Chip’s matter to energy must have provided the necessary catalyst and the regurgitator essentially processed him through the line but then forgot it did and registered it as a malfunction, triggering the backup and re-materializing him back at the exchange—only he did go through. So in essence, ve now have two Chip Maplewoods.”
       “Are you saying that we are both really Chip Maplewood?!” the Chips asked.
       Eva nodded. “It is the only rational explanation. The energies coursing through the modemizer, plus the random effects of that energy must have acted to give each of you what only one of you had before. Retroactive to the moment of the accident, the two chipmunks standing in front of me are essentially the same. A DNA test vill confirm it, of course.”
       “No way!” Theo said.
       Gadget shook her head, as if trying to deal with a contradiction to Einstein’s Theorem. “Golly!”
       Monty looked at them both. “Crikey!”
       “Zowie!” Dale added.
       “Buzz! Uh, I mean, unbelievable!” Zipper said.
       Lahwhinie always had a unique take on things. “Look on the bright side, there could’ve been two Fat Cats instead of two Chips.” Chip One looked at his double. “Well, if you are me or I’m you or we’re both us we need to confirm it.”
       Gadget was still confused by one thing. “Golly, it’s strange that it affected Chip so dramatically, yet it had no noticeable effect on Dale or I.” Dale for his part was just plain relieved that was the case. Chip Two returned Chip One’s glance. “Okay, if we’re both Chip, then we must both agree that we first need to establish that we are in fact two identical copies of the same person.”
       “As I said, the effect you described vould indicate a random and unique effect on each person dependent on their proximity to the energy source in question,” Eva said. “In the case of the Chips, it was to make two from one. Gadget, both you and Dale seemed to have been far away enough from it to have escaped any lasting effect.”
       “Zowie, I hope so!” Dale said. “There’d better not be duplicates of me and Gadget out there, too. I guess we’re on the way to see Sparky now?” The Chips replied as one, “Right! Rescue Rangers, away!” The two Chips led the way outside, in perfect stride together.

       When the group arrived at Sparky’s lab he cried out in alarm when he saw two Gadgets and two Chips enter his lab with the other Rangers close behind. “YAAAHHHH! I’m seeing double!” Chip One ran up to catch Sparky before he fainted. “No, no! It’s okay, Sparky. Meet Gadget’s twin sister, Lahwhinie.”
       “Oh, wow! Twice the intellect and twice the beauty! How can I help...you two… two?” Sparky asked, looking at one Chip then the other. Sparky put a hand over one eye to confirm it wasn’t a vision problem. Chip Two took Sparky’s hand down. “Well, Gadget and Lahwhinie are twins but we’re not. We think that one of us may be a duplicate created in a matter-energy transfer accident. We need a DNA scan to find out.”
       Sparky was trying to absorb all this. Why did he end up getting all the strange cases? “Uh...okay! But this will take a few days to get the results.” Chip One threw up his arms in frustration. “A few days? What do we do until then?”
       “Develop an idea for a new prime time sitcom! My Two Chips!” Dale joked. The Chips turned on Dale. “Dale, this isn’t funny!” Gadget was analytically amazed that even their reactions were mirrored. “Golly, it’s like having Chip in stereo or something. And on a good FM station at that.”
       “This is so weird,” Theo said. “I could have two dads instead of one, and they’re both Chip Maplewood!” Eva turned her thoughts to the technical side of all this. “We need to go over the plans and see about reversing the process.” Sparky raised his hands in alarm. “Whoa! If they were produced separately from a matter-energy malfunction, then putting them back together could rupture their energy states and create a quantum flux situation!” Monty scratched his head at that. “Sounds dangerous just listening to it. And who’s the one to tell either Chip that he’s gotta be evaporated?”
       “If you try it, they both could be evaporated—not to mention most of the planet…” Sparky said. Dale cringed at the idea. “That would probably be a bad thing.” Sparky nodded. “I’ll say. I’ve just taken up golf, and I’d miss my next lesson. But a quantum flux could disrupt the energy bonds between the very atoms of both Chips, releasing an explosion that would be greater than all the nuclear bombs in existence!” Zipper set down by Sparky. “I understand what you’re saying. We’d basically be trying to force two objects to occupy the same space at the same time.”
       “What objects?” Sparky asked.
       “Two Chips,” Zipper said.
       “Two Chips are trying to occupy the same space? It can’t be done! It could shred the space-time continuum, by Einstein! Oh, would you two like me to call you as soon as I have the results?” Sparky asked.
       “YES!” The Chips said.
       “Then I’d better get some samples...” Sparky said, taking some fur follicles from each of them. “Hmm...now how to label them? Guess I’ll make this one Chip One and the other Chip Two. One of you wouldn’t want to call himself Harold or something?” Theo was still trying to deal with all this. “Man, the past two months have had more excitement than I’ve had in the rest of my life combined. Now I’m on overload!”
       Sparky put a blue tag on Chip One’s jacket and sample bag, and a green tag on Chip Two’s jacket and sample bag. “There. Now don’t switch colors, or we’ll never keep you straight.”
       “Don’t worry, dad...s. We’ll get this all figured out in no time,” Theo said. Chip One rubbed his son’s head. “I hope so, son. Well, I guess there’s nothing else to do but go home. Thanks for helping out, Sparky.”
       “You’re all welcome. You make this job so interesting!” Sparky said. **I’ve got to sit down and write a book about all this.**

       The Rangers got home, and supper was spent mainly in everyone stealing glances at the Chips, including themselves. When they finished, each one got up at the same time
       “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Chip One asked.
       “Yes, but maybe we should wait till we get the results of the test, don’t you think?” Chip Two replied.
       “Yes, I think that’s best,” Chip One said. “And do you know what else I’m thinking?”
       “Yes, but there’s one of it and two of us,” Chip Two said.
       “So, you can be Sureluck on the odd pages and I’ll be Sureluck on the even ones,” Chip One offered.
       Theo decided to break up their one-sided conversation. “Uh, dads, what are your mom and dad going to say when they discover they suddenly have twins?” Chip One knew that Theo was having a tough time with all this. “Theo, we still don’t know for sure...although it’s looking more likely. There is one thing that I’m curious about though.”
       “What’s that, dad?” Theo asked.
       “Does my voice really sound like that?” Chip One asked, pointing at Chip Two.
       “I was wondering the same thing,” Chip Two said.
       Monty could see that things around headquarters weren’t going to settle down soon. “If this a going ta be permanent arrangement, we’re gonna have to make some mighty big changes around here, mates.” Eva interceded, taking charge. “I think perhaps it is a good idea to leave off normal vork until this mystery is definitively cleared up. Fats Cat seems to be taken care of for now. Perhaps you both need time to deal with this, as do we all.”
       Chip Two sat down on the sofa. “Maybe it’s time to take a break from Rangering. This year’s been one nightmare after another.” Chip One sat next to him. “You said it. Well, now we wait. What do you want to do to pass the time?” Both Chips managed to put aside the bizarre events and set about mentally preparing themselves for the vigil of waiting for Sparky’s reply, both hoping in their hearts that they were the “real” Chip. Both eventually found solace in Sureluck Jones’ novels.

       Theo stayed close to Lahwhinie for the rest of the evening, his initial excitement wearing off, replaced by nervousness. Dale was a whole other story. He kept his distance from both Chips, as he’d seen too many science fiction stories about things like this to feel comfortable for the time being. Both Chips had noticed of course, and now they both pretended not to notice as Dale crept by their open room door.
       “Guess I can’t blame Dale or any of the others,” Chip One said. “It’d be like Sureluck suddenly having a twin. How do you think he would have dealt with it?”
       “I’m not sure,” Chip Two replied. “It would’ve been hard for him to listen or take advice from anyone, even an equal. But I think they could work together, like he and his brother Bycroft.” Chip One shook his head. “You know that’s not true. He was impossible to get along with, and if there were two of him in the same room it would’ve been bedlam. I think you and I really are better off than Sureluck, though. So, what do you want to do about sleeping arrangements?”
       Chip Two inspected the bunk beds. “It’s only a temporary solution, but we could flip a coin for the bed each night. I think only one of us should use a sleeping bag or sleep out there on the couch.” Chip One grinned at him. “You want it to be a permanent arrangement as much as I do. We both need to feel we have a routine. Flip it, and I call heads.”
       “Figures,” Chip One said. “All right, I’ve got the couch. I’ll still come in to say good night to Theo and use the place to change and all, but of course you knew that.”
       “Sorry...Chip,” Chip Two said. “Say, what are we going to do about this? We can’t both be Chip. Even if we’re totally identical, there can only be one of us. Who’s going to have to give up the name and position?” Chip One started pacing. “You know the answer to that—neither of us wants to. I don’t think a coin toss is gonna solve that one.” Chip Two agreed. “No, but Theo’s going to make the choice even tougher. Who’s going to keep being his dad? And what about Foxy?”
       “I know, I know!” Chip One said. “She’ll freak when she sees us. She won’t know what to do.” Chip Two held up his hand to stop things. “Perhaps we should wait on that. Foxy and Theo...neither of us wants to make a wrong choice about them.”
       Chip One nodded, and grabbed the extra blanket under the bed. He met Theo in the hall, explained the arrangements to him, and hugged him good night. “Don’t worry, son. We’ll get this solved before it’s over.”
       “Thanks, dad...dads...oh, boy, the kids I’ll meet at school would never believe any of this for one second,” Theo said. Chip One sighed, “I’m having a hard time believing it myself...”

       Chip One went into the main room, to find that Lahwhinie was still in there. “Before you ask, I’m the one that you were with in the RangerPlane. We flipped a coin, and now I’ll be sleeping out here at least until we can work out something else.”
       “Uh...it’s okay...Chip,” Lahwhinie said tentatively.
       Chip sat down next to her. “I know it’s awkward, and he and I have quite a lot to work out including who helps you with lessons. I want to, but I suspect he wants to just as much. Boy, this is confusing.”
       “It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it?” Lahwhinie said, sympathizing with him some. “When you suddenly find out you have a twin, it changes everything. That’s how I felt in Hawaii when they told me but I had it a little easier, seeing as how Gadget and I just look the same. We didn’t share memories or anything like that.”
       Chip found he was glad to have Lahwhinie to talk to. “Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. I can sense what he’s thinking just by looking at his face, as he can me. I know myself better than anyone else, and what’s scary is I could see every eccentricity I have reflected in him. Now I don’t feel...unique.”
       Lahwhinie went back to watching her movie. “Well, as time passes, you two will probably start to change, each becoming different. You’ll be unique again soon. Stop worrying.” Chip knew it wasn’t that easy. “But we both can’t be Chip Maplewood! The Rangers can only have one leader. One of us is going to have to step aside, for the good of the others. I know that he’s as protective of himself as I am, but he’s also as selfless at heart. But you’re right—we are different people now, and we’re both free to make our own choices.”
       “But you both need to wait a little longer. You two still think too much alike.What’s going to happen to Theo and what about Foxglove?” Lahwhinie asked. Chip One leaned forward, and put his head in his hands. “I don’t know, Lahwhinie. Theo we can share, but ultimately he’s got to feel that one or the other of us is his father. Foxy...Foxy’s a different problem entirely. It would break her heart having to choose between one or the other of us. I don’t know what to do. I just...don’t know.”
       Chip sat up straight, his eyes defocusing. “I always wondered what it would be like to have a brother. Dale’s been like a brother to me, but growing up as an only child I tended to be a loner. Now suddenly there’s two of me and it’s like I’ve got a twin brother that’s just like me and I have to share my life with him.”
       “Join the club, Chip. At least your twin’s just like you. You don’t have to live in each other’s shadow,” Lahwhinie said.
       “One of us will,” Chip said. “One Chip’s going to be left out of the running, alone. If it’s me—what would I do? I’d have to leave here and everyone I care about and start all over. I don’t know if I could do that.” Lahwhinie looked back at him. “Who said one of you has to leave? You’re a great detective, we’d stop twice as much crime with two of you.” Chip shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. We both are Chip, and even if one of us steps aside, we both will be trying to do the same thing. It would be a constant reminder for one of us of what we might’ve had. Plus, I don’t think it would be good for Theo or Foxy. And I know he’s thinking the very same thing.”
       “Well, there’s lots of kids that have step-dads, so Theo could easily have two dads. So, one of you gets Foxglove...there are other girls out there,” Lahwhinie said. Chip looked at Lahwhinie for a long moment, and when she caught him at it he tried to cover up. Was there more to what she said than how it sounded? Chip tried to ignore those implications for his own good.
       “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. And there’s the possibility that Foxy might be so happy with her new career that she won’t want to marry right now. I’ve been blinded by love before, especially when it came to your sister,” Chip admitted. Lahwhinie grinned at him. “You still have a shot at Tammy. Steal her away from that Rob guy, before it’s too late.”
       Chip couldn’t help it. He had to laugh. “Me and Tammy...she’d run me ragged in a week. Tammy’s turned out to be a nice girl, though. I think she and Rob will be happy together.” Lahwhinie was glad to see that he could laugh, under the circumstances. “What if Foxglove is afraid to choose between you two? It will no doubt be very disturbing to see two of you.”
       “I’ve been thinking of that, too. Maybe he and I should decide and one of us would go on down to Hondo. It might be easier that way. But then that would mean choosing between Foxy and the Rangers, and neither of us will want to do that! This is a stickler,” Chip said. Then Chip paused and smiled a bit at Lahwhinie. “Thanks, Lahwhinie.”
       “Hey, that’s what friends are for, Chip,” Lahwhinie said.

       Theo followed his dad into the main room where his other dad was talking with Lahwhinie. “Uh, hi dad, Aunt Lahwhinie,” Theo said. Chip One stood up. “Hello, Theo. Couldn’t sleep in there?”
       “No. I was thinking I could sleep on the couch and you could use my bunk. It’s going to take me a little while before I get used to you two being my dads,” Theo said. Chip One came over to him. “Okay, I’ll go keep myself company. Thanks for the talk, Lahwhinie. It helped.”
       “Sure, no problem...Chips,” Lahwhinie said. Both Chips smiled at the little joke, and Theo took Chip One’s place on the sofa. He gave Chip One a hug as he headed for the bedroom. “I love you too, dad.”
       “Thanks, son. I love you too,” Chip One said. The Chips disappeared into their room and then Theo’s attention was on Lahwhinie.
       “So what did you tell him, huh?” Theo asked. Lahwhinie leaned back on the sofa, putting her arms behind her. “We talked about the future, and he feels one of them will have to give up being Chip, give up you and give up Foxglove.”
       “Yeah, that’s what the other one said. I don’t understand that, but I told the Chip in my room that they were both staying. I can handle the idea of two dads—eventually,” Theo said.
       “We could all get used to two Chips, they’d be like identical twins,” Lahwhinie said. “But the question is, can they get used to each other? They’d have to do something eventually so that we could tell them apart.” Theo looked at the television screen. “I’m not too worried about that. I think they’ll find a way to coexist soon enough.”
       Then Theo let down his guard and a shadow of fear came across his face. His voice became strained. “Aunt Lahwhinie, what if this duplication process has more side effects? What if it ends up killing them both? I don’t want to lose my dad!” Lahwhinie hesitantly pulled Theo close. “Your dad’s Chip Maplewood, a rough, tough hero. He said he’d always be there for you, right?” Theo hugged his aunt, grateful for the security. “Yes, but he couldn’t have foreseen this! Aunt Lahwhinie, I’m scared.”
       “Don’t be scared, Theo,” Lahwhinie said. “He’ll always be there for you. I’m just beginning to understand that feeling of security, now that my mom and dad are looking after me. Now that I can see it in other peoples lives, I finally see that there really is something called love and it can make people do amazing things and gives them strength to do things that seem impossible. Don’t worry, Theo. He’ll be fine, they both will.”
       Theo looked up at her face. “Do you really think so?” Lahwhinie was silent for a few moments, herself very surprised she had actually said something like that. “Yes.” Theo relaxed some, and hugged her again. “If you believe it, then I know I can. They’ll be okay.”
       “Good, now it’s time for all little chipmunks to go to sleep,” Lahwhinie said. She threw the blanket on his head and hit him with the pillow. Theo giggled some, and put the pillow in its right place. “Thanks, Aunt Lahwhinie. I wish...”
       Lahwhinie looked at him. “You wish what?”
       “I can’t say, or it wouldn’t come true,” Theo said smiling up at her. “Aloha, Aunt Lahwhinie.”
       “Aloha, Theo. Sleep well, my friend.”
       Theo watched her go. He’d thought about asking her to stay with him, but after talking with his aunt, sleeping alone didn’t seem so bad. She was so nice, that Theo wished—but, instead of thinking on it further he tucked the wish deep inside himself like a seed before it sprouts. As sleep gently overcame him, he hoped that seed would get to come up.

       The next couple of days were the same routine as the first. The Chips agreed that they couldn’t be seen in public together, for fear of what public opinion could do to the Rangers. Theo was getting used to the couch, and each of the Chips took turns checking on him in the middle of the night. Lahwhinie did too, but she didn’t let anyone know that. On the pivotal third day, the late morning found the two Chips in Dale’s lair. Dale looked on as the identical chipmunks put on fencing outfits and came into position
       “The first with three touches wins,” Chip One said.
       “Agreed,” Chip Two said. “We’re a little rusty, this should be fun.”
       The two Chips touched their epees together, and Dale put the guards on them to make sure neither one would hurt the other. “Okay, you two. I am referee here, so what I say goes. Keep it clean, and no monkey business! All right, anytime you’re ready.”
       “En guard!” the Chips said, and the battle began. Neither Chip wanted to give ground at first or show anything fancy. They circled each other and parried each other’s opening thrusts.
       “Looking for an opening?” Chip One asked.
       “Just like you,” Chip Two said. “Hah!” Chip Two tried to come in and under Chip One’s defense, but since each Chip knew the other’s fighting style and general thought patterns it was no problem for Chip One to counter him.
       “You’ll have to do better than that! Now let’s see you handle this!” Chip One said, attacking hard and fast, trying to knock Chip Two off-balance. Chip Two countered by going down and into a roll, then coming up and pressing an attack of his own. Neither one could seem to get the advantage of the other.
       “You’re...wearing out my patience...” Chip Two said. Chip One grunted with the same strain the other felt. “Same here...it’s time for the end game...” Chip One feinted as if he was going left, then came in right and got a touch. “Touché!” This only made Chip Two more determined. He tried the same trick on Chip One and scored a touch of his own.
       “Now let’s see who gets the end game,” Chip Two said. He pressed the attack again, and scored another touch, “Touché! Give up?”
       “Not on your life!” Chip One said. Chip Two played a defensive game now, trying to lure Chip One in. But he backed himself into a corner and couldn’t get out without suffering a second touch. Chip One whiffed his epee at his opponent. “Two to two. One more decides it.”
       “Let’s go.”
       The fight was fast and furious now. Epees clanged as the Chips fought for advantage. Then Chip Two tried a risky move, and lunged at Chip One. Chip One went down, and put his legs up to hurl Chip Two across the room. But Chip Two twisted in mid-air and came down right next to Chip One. He reached out and touched him with the sword—right when Chip One did the same to him.
       Dale came in immediately. “It’s a draw! Wow, you two really went at it.”
       “Of course, Dale. We are Chip after all,” Chip Two said. Chip One put away his epee. “Right. I guess neither of us is better than the other. Maybe together we could take on the grand master here and have a shot.” Dale didn’t know if he liked the sound of this. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? The two of you constantly trying to establish the pecking order, fighting in your own ways?”
       Chip One began removing his fighting outfit. “What do you want us to do? We both know that we’re the leader of the Rangers and that there can’t be two leaders. Something’s got to give.”
       “We’re open to an objective and fair solution, but we both want to be Chip,” Chip Two said. At that moment, Gadget come up the stairs. “Uh, guys? There’s a phone call for you. It’s Sparky, and he’s got the results.” Both Chips threw off their fencing suits and rushed for the stairs. Chip One held the receiver up so they both could hear. “Okay, Sparky, what are the results of the tests?” the Chips asked.
       “Uh, what tests?” Sparky asked back.
       “THE DNA TESTS!!”
       Sparky recovered himself. “Oh, right. Say, is there a problem with your phone, Chip? It sounds like I’m hearing you in stereo. Say, that’s not a bad idea—stereo voice on the phone.”
       “There are two of us, remember?” the Chips replied. “That’s the reason you did the tests!”
       “Oh, I did? Then I’d better get the results and tell you!” Sparky said. The Chips sighed heavily. “If it’s not too much trouble!” By now the rest of the group was crowded around the Chips, all listening intently. On some level, every one of them already knew what the results would show.
       Sparky was gone for a few moments, then he came back. “According to the DNA tests, your genetic codes are absolutely the same—even down to the individual base-pairs. I didn’t believe it myself at first, so I double-checked and triple-checked the findings. I even asked one of my comrades to check it independently and he agreed the results were absolutely identical. You two are both Chip Maplewood.”
       “Thanks, Sparky,” the Chips said resolutely. Chip One put down the phone.The Chips turned to the others. “That settles it, we’re both really Chip,” Chip One said. “No doubt about it now.”
       “Now we really have to decide on the future,” Chip Two said. Monty looked them over. “What’re you two gonna do? A fifteen-round, knock-down drag-out, winner-take-all?” Chip One shook his head. “No, fighting wouldn’t solve our problems. We need to get away for a while and think things out.” Chip One looked at Chip Two and knew he’d be able to read the thought that was written on his face.
       “You know, we don’t need just that. We need our hero. Our guide when we were growing up,” Chip Two said.
       “Your dad?” Theo asked.
       “No, our granddad. Sean Maplewood, the greatest Maplewood of them all,” Chip Two said. Gadget had rarely heard Chip mention him. “Your grandfather’s still alive? I didn’t know that. What’s he like, and where is he?” Chip Two knew that he didn’t talk about Sean much, but it was mainly because of the way he was. “Mom and dad taught me the regular things—go to bed on time, eat your greens and things of that nature. But Grandfather, he taught me to be a leader.”
       “He was everything,” Chip One added. “A munk scout who won the highest honors. An accomplished pianist and composer in his early days, a professor of music and eventually the leader of his own orchestra later on. He hobnobbed with the biggest performers of his day, and appeared in every major orchestra house in the world. I didn’t get to see much of him, but I’ve never forgotten any of those times. He knows everyone, and makes you feel like you’ve known him forever when he talks to you.”
       Dale didn’t understand either of their reasoning. “If you haven’t seen him that much, why would you feel he’s the person to go to?”
       “You’d have to understand granddad to know that,” Chip Two said. “He’s the kind of person who could take a problem you have and break it down for you in ways you’d never think of. I remember he taught me how to do algebra in one hour, where my teacher had been struggling to get the concept across to me. He’s a creative thinker, and he always seems to know what to say or do.”
       Chip One nodded in agreement. “Yeah, Roger was my dad but Sean was the dad that understood me. He’d come home two or three times a year to his lake retreat and I’d always go see him for a week or so at a stretch. Maybe if he’d been available to me all the time, I wouldn’t have listened to him so intently but to me he was everything I wanted in life. He could teach me anything, and all the musical skill I have I owe to him. That, and a lot more.”
       Eva broke up their train of thought. “Speaking of Roger, should you not tell him and Jennifer now? After all, they have a second son.” Chip One looked to his double. “I guess we’ll have to. Maybe it’d be better if they came here and we all explained it to them together.”
       “Yeah, why prolong the inevitable,” Chip Two agreed.
       Theo took both his fathers’ hands. “Don’t worry, we’re a family and we’ll deal with this like a family. And I get to meet my great-grandfather! Hey, why didn’t you tell me about him before?”

       Chip One went to the phone, and called up his parents. They didn’t understand why Chip wouldn’t elaborate on the “immediate need for them to come”, but they started at once. When they knocked on the door, Monty answered it. “Come on in. I think we’d better let Chip do the explaining.” Roger and Jennifer headed into the main room and Chip—or rather, Chips—stood up and faced them.
       “Hello, mom. Dad,” the Chips said.
       Roger led Jennifer to the couch. “I can see it’s going to be one of those days.” Jennifer stared at the two visions of her son. “Uh, why are there two of you?”
       “Is this some kind of cruel joke?” Roger asked. “Dale, are you hiding behind a Chip mask?” Dale came in from the kitchen. “Nope, it’s not me. We now have two Chip Maplewoods.”
       “Two?!” Jennifer said. “But that’s not possible. I only came home from the hospital with one. Someone please explain this to me!” The Chips took turns and caught them up on everything that had happened. “And Sparky confirmed that we’re the same person an hour ago, right down to our DNA,” Chip One said. “I know you never planned to have twins, mom, but here we are just the same.”
       The Maplewoods took turns looking at each other with shocked expressions and mouths hanging open in disbelief. Jennifer spoke first. “Well, I suppose the results could have been worse...” Roger looked first at one, then the other. “True. We’ve always been thankful for our son, now we have twice as much to be thankful for.”
       “You’re mad at us, aren’t you?” Chip One asked.
       “Just like the time we left the water running in the sink and opened the door so it would freeze and make icicles,” Chip Two said.
       “It took us two days to clean up the mess from that one. Never did get any icicles out of it, either,” Chip One added.
       Roger shook his head, mainly in amazement. “We’re not mad....”
       “Just utterly astonished, that’s all,” Jennifer said. Roger got up and touched both his sons to make sure they were both really there. “I didn’t think there was anything left about your work that could surprise us anymore after all that you’ve told us about your cases, but this one is just…too much to believe.”
       “Yeah. ‘It’s a real humdinger’, like grandpa Sean would say,” Chip One said. “We’re thinking about going to see him. He could always figure things out, and this problem needs some figuring. His open invitation’s still open, isn’t it?”
       “Uh, of course,” Roger said. “But we should go with you. He’s heard your case stories too, but this is sure to be a big surprise to him as well.” Jennifer tentatively came forward and hugged her boys. “We’ll stick with you through this, boys. Oh my, what are we going to call you two to tell you two apart?” Chip Two took his mother’s hand. “That’s why we need to get away for awhile. Only one of us can be Chip. We need to figure out which one.” Theo refused to be left behind this time. “I get to come too, don’t I? I wanna get to see the legend, and I don’t want to be left out.”
       “None of us wants to be left out,” Monty said. “This affects the lot of us.” Chip Two shook his head. “It’s like when you went to rescue Lahwhinie, you told me it was a matter for family and I think this is as well. Chip?”
       “It’s a family matter, but the Rangers are all family so Monty does have a point,” Chip One said. “Sean’s got that big ol’ lodge up there, so we could all go.” Chip Two didn’t like the idea. “Someone needs to stay here and keep the Rangers running in our absence.”
        Chip One looked at his counterpart, thought a bit longer, then nodded and faced the others. “I think we’d better just go ourselves. You all are family to us, but we’re going to need time alone or with Sean alone to decide this. It’s nothing personal, and you’re all still very special to both of us.”
       “What about me?” Theo asked. Chip Two turned to Chip One. “What do you think?” Chip One looked at his son. “Theo, will you promise to give us the time we need and to stay with your grandparents if we ask you to?”
       “I promise!” Theo said.
       Zipper brought up another topic. “Uh, what do we do if Foxglove calls when you’re away?” They both took on looks of concern about Foxy. “Tell her Theo and I have gone to see his great-grandfather. That’s all she needs to know for now.”
       “Golly, when are you going?” Gadget asked. Chip One headed for his room. “Might as well get packed. The sooner we settle this business, the better it’ll be for everyone.” Dale followed Theo and the Chips to their room. “Theo, could I talk to them for a little while, privately?”
       “Sure, Uncle Dale. I’ll finish packing my stuff in the main room,” Theo said, leaving. The Chips came to attention as Dale closed the door. “All right Dale, what is it?” Chip One asked. Dale didn’t know quite how to put it. “Well, I’ll admit that I’ve been very freaked out by this like the rest of them and I admit it’ll take time for me to adjust to this. And I know that Theo and Foxy are your main concerns, but I just wanted you guys to know that you’re both still my best friends and will always be, even if one of you has to change. So no matter what, I’ll be there for both of you. Friends to the end.”
       The Chips came forward together and gave Dale a group hug. “Thanks, Dale.”
       “We’ll find an answer,” Chip Two said. “I’m sure grandpa Sean will help.”
       “Look after things while we’re gone, okay?” Chip One asked. Dale wiped his eyes. “Of course, and I’ll talk to Gadget and see if we can have a new room ready for the new Ranger that comes back.”
       “Thanks,” Chip One said. “Hopefully, the new Ranger will be willing to come back and use it.” Dale couldn’t say anything more and quickly turned and returned to the living room and sat next to the Maplewoods. “How are you two holding up? I know it’s tough to accept having a second Chip into the family.” Roger turned from the conversation he was having with Gadget and Lahwhinie. “Many’s the time I said it was a good thing there was only one of him in the world. Now there’s two, and it’s going to be a challenge to get used to this—for them and for us.”
       “Why would you be glad there was only one of him?” Lahwhinie asked. Jennifer gave out a laugh. “Oh, that’s Roger’s idea of a joke, Lahwhinie. Roger used to say that to me every time that Chip would get into one of his hair-brained schemes or perform some kind of scientific study that ended up damaging some part of the house. But we always forgave him, and we knew it was only his way of feeling himself out. He’s turned out to be a good boy—or rather boys.”
       “At least they’re too grown-up to do stuff like that now. But if you miss it, I can destroy your home and stuff like that, just like dad used to do,” Theo offered. Jennifer laughed lightly, and picked Theo up. “I think once around the block is enough for us, but you’re always welcome at our house. As are all of you. We’d like to have you all over sometime for dinner.”
       “We’ll even put out the good silver for you,” Roger added. “Been looking for a good excuse to use it again.” Eva for one was agreeable. “Well, when we celebrate the birth of the person that one of the Chips will become.” Before the discussion could continue, the two Chips emerged.
       “We’re ready to go,” Chip Two said. “Mom, dad, we’ll stop by your place on the way so you can get whatever you need. Ready, Theo?” Theo gave everyone a hug before he headed for the door. “Bye, everyone. I’ll miss you all.”
       The Chips followed suit. Chip Two shook Lahwhinie’s hand at the door, and walked on out. Chip One did the same, but then hugged her as well and whispered ‘Aloha’ in her ear. The Maplewoods all climbed into the RangerPlane and headed off out of the park as their friends all watched them go. None of them moved until the last sight of the Chips was gone. Then slowly, they filtered back inside and the waiting began.


Chapter 8 - A Decision/The Maplewood Line/A Bit of Swashbuckling/The Sound of Dreams

       The flight was quiet, as no one really knew what to say. They stopped off at the Maplewoods’ home, and Roger and Jennifer returned soon with their bags. Sean Maplewood had retired from his profession two years ago. He was the kind that kept saying he’d let it go, but he never let things go easy. Now, he lived up on Lake Flaccid in a huge lodge that Chip had fond memories of. The trip took the better part of the daylight hours, and when they sighted the lodge both Chips’ eyes gleamed. The big place was set on a hill, surrounded by tall timber with Lake Flaccid at the bottom.
       Sean had chosen the location well, as he did with most things. No human could have built on the small abutment his rustic home rested on, but it was perfect for a chipmunk. Chip Two guided the RangerPlane in, and carefully found the small area of clearing next to the lodge. None of them was surprised when Sean did not appear at the door.
       “Let’s go, everyone,” Roger said. “He’ll be waiting for us in the den, just watch.” Theo was in awe of the size of the place. “I hope he doesn’t mind us stopping in and bringing all this weirdness.” Chip One pushed him forward. “Oh, nothing’ll shake grandpa. He’s been everywhere, and seen it all.”
       “He might raise an eyelid at seeing two Chips, but he never lets his emotions out in public,” Chip Two agreed. “Well, unless he’s in his element which is his music.” Theo looked up at them both. “Wow, he sounds neat. I hope he likes me.”
       “We will see,” Jennifer said. “I was worried when I met him the first time because he seemed so stolid. I didn’t know how he would treat young Chip. But he took him off into one corner of the room and spent almost the whole time telling him about music. He has charm to him, but he only lets it out when he wishes.”
       Theo realized that this was not merely a social call. “Sorry, dads. We’re here for you, not for me.” The Maplewoods walked up to the rugged lodge, a thing of heavy timbers and support beams. It looked like it could withstand a direct hit from a bomb and not feel it. The big door was unlocked, and when Roger opened it, they immediately heard the sounds of a piano.

       Theo looked everywhere as they entered, trying to take it all in. There were paintings, old photographs and memorabilia from every part of the world on the high walls. The procession took a left through a spacious kitchen, and then up a half-dozen steps to the den. Theo drew in a breath at the sight. Huge picture windows revealed a view of the lake and hills that was awe-inspiring. In the foreground, an old but intelligent-looking chipmunk played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a baby grand. He was dressed in a concert jacket, and looked like he was on stage at some grand theater.
       Sean finished the piece, closed the lid on the keyboard and stood up. “Well, it’s been some time since you have visited. You know where everything is. I see there’s been a change with you, Chip. You seem to have acquired a doppelganger. And I see we have someone new here. What might your name be?”
       Theo hesitantly stepped forward. “Uh, hello sir. I’m Theo...phane. Chip adopted me a few months ago…sir.” Sean stepped forward and extended his large hand. He had a commanding look to him and a voice that had deepened with age. Theo shook it, and wondered at the mystique of his great-grandfather. Sean took a seat again on the piano stool and bade Theo join him.
       “Theophane...I knew a Theophane once. He was a violinist from Prague, I believe. He could play Paganini’s works better than most. So you are my great-grandson. What did you think of my playing just now?” Sean asked.
       “I liked it very much, sir,” Theo said. “I hope you don’t mind us dropping in on you like this.” Sean closed the cover on the piano’s keyboard. “There are advantages to solitude, Theophane. One of them is convenience. However, it was not convenient for any of you to come, so I make allowances when people visit me. I gather from your elders’ faces that this is not merely a social call.”
       “Uh, no. We’re here because of the two Chips. And you can call me Theo, I don’t like Theophane,” Theo said. Sean raised an eyebrow. “I rather thought you didn’t. Very well then, Theo. Would you mind escorting my son and daughter-in-law into the library? It’s straight across, through the kitchen. Roger, you’ll find a new first edition of Moby Dick that was sent to me by that bookbinder in Belgium. Jennifer, pardon me for not escorting you, but I prefer this room in the afternoons. Kindly shut the door behind you, and we will re-establish communications at the supper table.”
       “Okay, sir,” Theo said. “Come on, Grandma and Granddad, we’ve been dismissed.” Jennifer came over to Sean and he kissed her hand like the gentleman he was. “Thank you for receiving us, Sean.” Roger shook his father’s hand. “I’ll catch you up on all the news from the New York Symphony. I brought along all the reviews from the year.”
       “Very good. You are both as thoughtful as ever. Show young Theo the library, and my scrapbooks. I’m sure it will amuse him,” Sean said.

       Roger and Jennifer left, along with Theo. Sean got up and took a seat in a chaise lounge. His demeanor softened some, and his voice became more friendly. “So Chip, what have you gotten yourself into this time? Is this the work of a friend, or an enemy?”
       “An accident while stopping an enemy,” Chip Two said. Chip One sat down next to Sean. “I was caught in a matter-energy transfer beam and when the device that generated it exploded, it materialized two of me. We’re both in essence the same person.” Sean’s demeanor didn’t change. “I see. And now you both are faced with having the same life, but only one can live it. So you have come to ask my opinion.”
       “Yes,” the Chips said. Chip Two sat in the chair on Sean’s other side. “The Rangers think that we could just share the position of leader, but we both know it’d never work. One of us has to give it up, and we don’t know how to decide.”
       Sean reached over to a small table next to his lounge. He opened a wooden music-box and removed a photograph, and held it out. Chip Two took it and brought it back for both Chips to study. It was a picture of a rather beautiful female chipmunk in an operatic outfit from a long time ago.
       “That was a miss Yelana Peschkina, one of the greater divas among chipmunks of the early part of the century. She had a register that sounded like the legendary sirens that drew human males to their deaths. I met her at a concert I gave in Minsk, 56 years ago. It was wartime, and she asked me to help her,” Sean said.
       Chip One knew Sean was warming up to one of his stories. “What did she need help with?” Sean leaned back in his chair, pressing his fingers together. “If you knew what wartime meant, you would know what the problem was. Yelana wanted to leave Russia before the war broke out, and defect to America. It was not unheard of, but it carried the same amount of danger that defections had in the cold war.”
       “I’m sorry, granddad, but how does this tie in with our suddenly being twins?” Chip Two asked. Sean poured himself some water from a carafe, and sipped it. “Like all good answers, they take time. There was a further problem with Yelana’s desire to leave. She was engaged to marry a fellow-performer in her company, one Sergei Blasnova. To smuggle one out was risky—two was doubly so. Yelana begged me to helped them, and knew we were leaving the country the next day. I was young and arrogantly confident, so I accepted. We disguised them as members of the orchestra, and boarded our transport.”
       “And?” the Chips asked.
       Sean leaned back again, letting the memories of it all run before his eyes. “It nearly worked. We got to the airport at Minsk, but as we were boarding we were also observed. I knew that the guards would ask to see our papers, and what that would mean for Yelana and Sergei. I boarded and told them the guards would be coming. They spoke quickly in Russian, and Sergei got up. ‘I will go back’, he said. ‘Get the plane away and save my beloved’.”
       Chip One interrupted, impatient. “I’m sorry for being so rude, but I still see no connection.”
       “All in good time,” Sean said. “Yelana clung to his arm, and shouted, ‘I cannot live knowing that you would be in a slave farm, Sergei!’ They continued to argue, and could find no resolution. Then I saw the guards coming, walking up the gangway. I knew that they would not be able to decide for themselves in time, because they would both be hauled away to die a slow death in Siberia. I decided to kill them both.” Chip Two stared at Sean, disbelieving. “Okay, I didn’t need to know that. What are you saying? One of us should be killed to deal with the dilemma?”
       “You really killed them? Right then and there?” Chip One asked.
       Sean smiled and took another sip of water. “I shouted to my prop master to get me the gun we used for stage shows. We did some skits along with the music, and for one of them we used a gun that fired blanks. The prop master loaded the gun and flipped it to me just in time, for the guards boarded then. I knew enough Russian that they were demanding that Sergei and Yelana debark from the plane.
       “Yelana shouted at them and they ran down the aisle toward us. I shouted in broken Russian that they did not want to live if they were not free. I took aim, and shot them both. Fortunately, they caught on and slumped down, crumpled on the floor. Then I aimed the gun at the guards, and forced them off the plane. I used it yet again to coerce the pilot to take off. Yelana and Sergei made it to America, and I never went to Russia again.”

       Chip One had a semi-comical look on his face. “Are you saying one of us should fake our own death?” Chip Two was simply frustrated. “But we already know that one of us needs to do that. What we want to know is, how do we decide which one of us does it?” Sean leaned forward. “My point is, make a decision or life will make one for you. Your time for this is limited, and you must put aside every other concern and talk this out immediately. You may not have anyone to bail you out like Yelana and Sergei did.”
       Chip Two stood up in frustration. “That’s why we’re here! We need your help and you’ve only told us what we already know.”
       “Can’t you give us a sound piece of wisdom like you always have?” Chip One asked.
       “If you know the problem, then you have half the puzzle solved. You have to determine the shape of the answer, but I will try to help you. Each of you has been my favorite for a long time. Tell me, what is the determining factor?” Sean asked.
       “It’s a combination of things,” Chip One said. “When there was one Chip, he was about to marry Foxglove. He had a son, and had his head on straight for once with his leadership role. But now there are two Chips. Which one gets the brass ring?”
       “You’re looking at too much at once,” Sean said. “Let’s take the first problem. You say you were about to marry Foxglove. Had she accepted before this unique fission?” Chip Two nodded. “Yes, but we separated for a few months, just to test the strength of those feelings. But the signs have been hopeful.”
       “And you both believe that when she returns, her feelings will be unchanged?” Sean asked. The Chips both hesitated. “We don’t know.” Sean drank a little more water. “Very well. Now as to young Theo, he seems an intelligent young boy and reminds me much of you at his age. Would you say that he loves you both equally?”
       “He told us that he would always consider both of us to be his father and even if one of us was no longer Chip in name, he’d still love us both equally,” Chip One said. Sean noted it duly. “No difficulty there, then. Now as to the Rangers. Will they accept only one leader, or is that only your perception?” Chip Two spoke up again. “They’ve said that they felt there could be two leaders, however in practicality we’d keep getting in each other’s way. There can only be one leader in any group. One of us would have to follow the other and trust them and not second-guess their judgment.”
       “And in this case, two cooks spoil the soup,” Sean said. “So, the two determining factors are the Rangers and Foxglove. I’d like to stage a little test with you both. You’ll find blank sheets of paper and pencils on the table behind you. I want each of you to privately write out the answers to four questions I ask you and then give me the papers without looking.”
       The Chips got the paper and pencils and sat down. Sean began. “Question one, would you be willing to leave the Rangers to marry Foxglove? Second, would you be willing to not marry Foxglove to remain with the Rangers? Third, could you give up Foxglove? Fourth, would you be happy with Foxglove no matter what life you led?”
       The two Chips wrote down their answers and Chip One brought the papers over. Sean kept them separate as they both had the same handwriting and looked down first at the answers Chip One had given him:

        1. Yes.
        2. I’m not sure.
        3. Only for someone else who loved me
        4. Maybe
        Then he opened up the paper for Chip Two’s replies:
        1. I don’t know.
        2. I don’t know.
        3. I don’t think so.
        4. Maybe.
       Sean showed them the answers and the Chips were surprised at the differences. “I guess we aren’t totally identical after all,” Chip Two said. Sean folded up the papers and looked at Chip One. “You’re both uncertain as to what you want. Do I take it that ‘yes’ from you wasn’t a strong one?”
       Chip One nodded. “Yeah, I was just trying to convince myself.”
       “Okay, then. Uncertainty breeds discontent. You must both come to a decision on what it is you want. Do you both want to stay a Rescue Ranger?” Sean asked.
       “Yes,” they replied. Sean stood up. “Okay. Then I suggest that one of you decide to remain leader, and one of you marries Foxy. That would seem the most equitable method.”
       “But how do we decide?” Chip Two asked.
       “Flip a coin?” Chip One added.
       Sean studied them both. “I don’t think either of you would abide by that. No, this is a decision that requires a method more becoming.” Sean went to the mantelpiece, and retrieved a pair of dueling pistols and loaded them. “Gentlemen, you will decide by the honorable method. Now, stand back-to-back in the middle of the room.”
       Chip Two looked at his grandfather quizzically when Sean offered him a pistol. “You know, I don’t quite remember you using such violent methods when I was a kid.” Nonetheless, Chip Two lined up with Chip One, back to back.
       “Are you cuh-razy?!” Chip One asked.
       “Neither of you are little boys anymore, you are men,” Sean said. “Men must solve their difficulties as men. And cuh-razy is in the eye of the beholder. You will take five steps, and turn. The Chip on my left has the honor of firing first.”
       “Isn’t the point of a duel having both guys fire at once?” Chip Two asked. Sean shook his head. “This is not a bloodsport, this is a duel of honor. Each of you will have the opportunity of eliminating the other. Now, march!” Chip Two hesitantly took five steps and turned to face the other Chip, but kept his pistol pointing to the floor. Chip One watched him nervously. “It might would be easier in a way, you know. You could just shoot me and then there would be only one Chip.” Chip Two looked at him. “There’s about as much chance of me shooting you as in you shooting me. Who are we kidding?” Chip One raised his pistol, and aimed it right at Chip Two. “Then it’s time we quit kidding.”
       “Then do it. I won’t shoot you,” Chip Two said. He closed his eyes, and Chip One fired—off to the left. Then he walked over and hugged his alter ego. “I couldn’t kill you, anymore than I could kill myself,” Chip One said. “I think I understand what grandpa's saying. It’s time we really starting talking to each other like grown-up munks and get this over with.”

       Theo and the Maplewoods rushed into the room at the sound of the gunshot and were greatly relieved to see both Chips still alive. Sean waived them off. “It’s quite all right. Theo, your fathers needed to come to a decision and they did—they’ve decided to decide. Let us all retire to the kitchen. A slight repast before dinner will help things along. Chips, remember this—we make decisions all the time every day. Make the best one you can.”
       Sean and the others left, and the Chips were left to each other. “I think he’s right,” Chip One said. “We need to share our lives. We both want to stay, and we should choose who will lead and who will marry.”
       “But we both want to have it all. Who gives up what?” Chip Two asked.
       “Let’s not look at it that way,” Chip One said. “Let’s look it as who will choose to lead and who will choose to marry. Tell me, what’s happened to you since the explosion? Did your talk with Theo give you any kind of perspective on this?” Chip Two crossed his arms. “He’d like us to be a complete family, and that means a mom. He wants to be a Ranger and he’s afraid of my leaving the group. But he wants me to be happy and I of course want him to be happy.”
       “Have you talked any with Lahwhinie since the accident?” Chip One asked.
       Chip Two wondered at that question. “Not really. Have you?” Chip One nodded. “Yeah, several times. We went out searching together for Dale and Gadget—and unknowingly you. She talked with me a little there, and then more on the sofa last night. She was really nice about it, and when we left I hugged her. I don’t know if I’m making a fool of myself, but I think I’ve got feelings for her too as well as Foxy.”
       “On some level, I have to admit it doesn’t surprise me,” Chip Two said. “But are they real feelings or just residual feelings for Gadget because Lahwhinie looks just like her?” Chip One smiled at his counterpart. “You know I’m grappling with that, but it’s not just physical attraction. You know as well as I do that we’ve both enjoyed being around her as a person now that she’s changed some. When we talked last night, it felt like I could feel part of her reaching out to me. I think she likes me, because she didn’t back off when I hugged her either time. The memories of Gadget are still there, but this is...I don’t know...different.”
       “But she’s different now. Maybe she does really like you.”
       Chip One spun about. “Theo? What are you doing here?” Theo blushed. “Uh, just making sure you guys didn’t start shooting at each other again. Sorry, I’ll go.” Chip One held up his hand. “No, wait! You said, ‘maybe she does really like me.’ Do you know something that we don’t? She’s talked to you more than either of us put together.” Theo couldn’t betray Lahwhinie’s trust. “I don’t want to say too much, because she talks to me in confidence. But she is a lot different, just in the time that I’ve known her.”
       “Yeah, I figured that from last night,” Chip One said. “Theo, I want your honest opinion. Based on what you’ve seen, do you think any feelings I might feel for her are a residual of my feelings for Gadget?”
       “I don’t know,” Theo said. “I don’t know how much you liked Gadget. Maybe, maybe not.”
       “That’s an honest answer, anyway. I liked Gadget, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, it was mainly because she was Gadget. I mean, because of the way she treats everyone including me. I just read too much into it, and assumed a lot on her part. But I don’t think I’m assuming anymore,” Chip One said. “I’ve tried to keep a safe distance on purpose where Lahwhinie’s concerned. And I know she’s different from Gadget—very different.”
       “I’ll say this much, she likes the fact that you’ve stayed away from her,” Theo said. Chip One could see that Theo was a definite plus to have around. “I sensed that too. She’s almost a paradox—she likes my company, but doesn’t want to get close. I never bothered to learn why Gadget was the way she was, but I know Lahwhinie now. I’d never push myself on her, or do anything she didn’t want to do. I’ve come to....respect her.”
       Theo walked on into the room. “And she’s starting to respect herself. That’s why she hasn’t tried anything with you.” Chip Two had been listening all this time with understandable interest. Chip One turned from Theo and addressed his double. “I’ve been afraid that if I let Lahwhinie know how I felt, it would drive her away and then I’d have nothing because you would get Foxy by default. But I can’t have them both, and unlike you I think I’d be happy with either of them. Are you willing to take the risk of Foxy saying no and not being leader, if I take the risk of Lahwhinie not liking me and not having a future chance with Foxy?”
       Chip Two thought it over. “Everything in life’s a gamble. I say we both take the chance. But you’ve got to promise me, Theo, that I’ll still be as much your dad as him if none of these other things work out.”
       “Don’t worry, you both are every inch my dad,” Theo said. “If ever you two lived up to what I believe in with Chip Maplewood, it was when you just made that decision. You both thought of others before yourself, without a guarantee of happiness. And if either of them turns you down, they’re cuh-razy!”

       The Chips and Theo came into the kitchen—a spacious thing of wood and metal. They sat down at the huge circular table in the middle of the room that sported a lazy susan in the middle. Sean brought out the fixings, and soon everyone was chowing down on an early supper. Then they all returned to the music room where Sean played favorite after favorite on the piano. The old chipmunk’s eyes gleamed, as he secretly enjoyed having an audience to perform for again. At the end of Moon River, they all clapped for him and the after-dinner talk began.
       Jennifer turned to her boys. “Son..sons, you’re sure that you’re willing to abide by the decisions you’ve made? I knew that you two were about ready to talk, but you did talk things out pretty fast. You each will have to live with the consequences, come what may.”
       “Well, it all depends on Foxglove,” Chip Two said. “If she does choose one of us, that is. She might be so horrified by this that she wants neither of us.” Sean got up from the piano. “Well, I think you two boys made the only decision you could. You’ll have to break it to her easy, though. It might be easier if the Chip that’s going to stay with her does that. Say, we can’t go around calling you both Chip all the time. One of you guys needs a new name.”
       Chip Two spoke up first. “I’ve never been fond of it, because it didn’t fit with the “Chip” image, but I could use my middle name, Noel.” Jennifer knew this was a tough decision. “Are you sure, darling? Don’t feel like you’re being pushed into it.”
       “What I need to know is, are you still going to let me be your son? I don’t want to be left alone if all this happens,” Chip Two said. Jennifer came over and took his hand. “Oh, of course you will! You’re both our boys, and we’ll stick by each of you. It’s strange you chose the name Noel. That was the one I picked out for you, but your father wanted Chip. I guess we both got to pick in the end.”
       “Maybe you knew something, Jen. You always seem to,” Roger said. Chip Two, now Noel Maplewood, looked himself over. “Perhaps I can dye my fur a different color or something to make us less identical. Maybe you can tell people that I’m Chip’s cousin. When we’re in private I’ll call you mom and dad and Chip, in public, Aunt Jennifer, Uncle Roger and cousin Chip.” Chip shook his head. “Noel, that wouldn’t be right. You don’t have to give up all your status just because of this. You’re my brother, and I’ll never say anything different. Maybe instead of dyeing your fur, you could just wear a different hatband or something. No need to be drastic about it.”
       “It’s too easy to cling to the old Chip,” Noel said. “I need to make a clean break or I’ll be under your feet forever.” Jennifer agreed. “Maybe a change of clothes is in order, Chip. Noel, we still have the Bogart outfit you wore. It might need altering, but you always did like it.”
       “Perhaps,” Noel said. “But people need to be able to tell us apart instantly. They need to know who Chip is and I can’t be the one they mistake for Chip.”
       “He’s right, dear,” Roger said. “Noel, we’ll help you to find your own identity. Maybe your grandfather will have some ideas along the line too.” Sean waved his arm, gesturing at his house. “I’ve got costumes here I’ve collected from around the world. In fact, the outfit both Chips are wearing was a favor I got from Henry Harrison. You’re welcome to anything in my wardrobe that fits, Noel.”
       “Thanks, grandfather. Theo, how do you feel about this?” Noel asked.
       “Well, it’s easier than calling you both Chip all the time,” Theo said. “I think it’ll make it easier on Foxy, too. Do you two mind if I call you by your first names when you’re together like this? You’re both going to answer if I say ‘dad’.”
       “Sure, no problem,” Noel said.
       “Absolutely. That’s no problem, Theo,” Chip agreed. Theo breathed a little easier. “I can live with that, Chip. Say Noel, maybe great grandpa Sean’s got a costume from France. You could wear a beret and look like one of those cool Parisian guys.”
       “Ack! I would prefer not to look like a Parisian,” Noel said.
       “How about a Mexican caballero?” Theo asked. “You could wear a sombrero and all and look like Clint Eastwood in that movie where he fooled the bad guys with that stove door under his clothes.” Noel knew it was going to take planning. “We’ll think of something. Perhaps something not movie related.”
       “Maybe go western like Foxy and wear a cowboy hat and get you some western duds! Then you’d be Noel, the cowboy chipmunk!” Theo said. Chip pretty well knew Noel’s reaction to that. “We probably should let Noel choose for himself, Theo. After all, it is a big decision.” Noel was already running the alternatives through his head. “I’m a city chipmunk, I don’t think I could adjust to the wild west. But who knows? Maybe she’ll win me over to the west.”

       Noel stood before them all. “Mom, dad, Theo, Chip, Grandfather, how would you feel if I actually do marry Foxglove? Would you all be okay with that?” Sean looked the young munk in the eyes. “From what you’ve written me about her and her picture, she seems nice enough. She certainly was there for you when you needed her, and that counts. You’ll have to adopt children though, like your brother Chip.”
       “I just hope that we’re fortunate enough to find other children as wonderful as Theo’s been,” Noel said, getting a smile out of Theo. Jennifer hugged Noel. “I’m sure you will, son. We only saw Foxglove briefly during the time of Dale and Gadget’s wedding, but she’s a lovely person. I do admit, I hadn’t considered that you would marry a bat. It is a rather uncommon match, but if she comes back I expect that will be evidence enough of her dedication.”
       Roger caught his son’s attention. “Noel, the main thing is that you’ll be happy. You haven’t been very happy up until now, and even when you talk about Foxglove your eyes light up. Your mother and I are glad that you’ve found someone that makes you that happy.” Noel knew this was a point of no return, and it showed on his face. “But now what happens? What if I go to her and she rejects me? What if she’s really in love with the persona of Chip and flies to his arms rather than mine?”
       “I think you know better than that, Noel,” Theo said. “She loves what’s on the inside, not the clothes and the look. If you’re so worried, why don’t you go on down to Hondo first and explain things? That way, she’d have more time to get used to you without Chip around.”
       “Maybe, but it’s unfair in a way. Wouldn’t it be best to let her be there and choose between us?” Noel asked.
       “And choose how?” Chip said, speaking up. “We’re both essentially the same munk. A clothes change isn’t going to make that much difference. She’ll still know it’s the same person inside, and she’ll feel bad having to choose between us. I’d rather you go on down there than see her heart broken, trying to choose one of us to marry.” Noel had to admit, there were some advantages to having an exact duplicate of himself. “Okay, that does seem wise.” Jennifer interrupted again. “Noel, will you stay with us until we all leave? Let’s let this be a family celebration time.”
       “Sure, mom. We’re all family,” Noel said.
       “That’s a good idea, Jen,” Roger said. “It’s been a long time since this many Maplewoods have been collected under one roof. Dad, will you tell us some of the family history stories tonight?” Sean broke out into a smile. “Certainly, it would be a pleasure.”

       Sean stood up, and took hold of a custom-carved walking cane. He didn’t use it for walking, since he was still able to get around. Rather, he used it to point upward to a series of ten paintings high upon the wall. “These are the Maplewood ancestors. I was fortunate enough to inherit these paintings, and thus keep our heritage together.” Sean motioned Theo over and pointed to the first painting far to the left. “Theo, that is your great-grandfather ten times over, Arthur Cruxley Maplewood.”
       Theo went over near the painting, and Chip held him up so he could get a good look at it. The scene was a naval one, and Arthur was on the deck of a ship. Arthur had the Maplewood face and nose, but he was taller than most of the Maplewoods, and was holding a sextant. He was dressed in a fine outfit that reminded Theo of one he’d seen on the human Christopher Columbus.
       “I didn’t know that there were any chipmunk sailors!” Theo said. “What did he do?” Sean went back over to his favorite chair. “Arthur was on the ship of Ferdinand Magellan. In the year 1519, your ancestor was exploring the different countries of Europe. He was from England, as was our original line—there is more to tell about them, but the paintings represent our most distinguished ancestors.
       “To continue, Arthur happened to be in the right place at the right time for he arrived in Spain just as Magellan was preparing to sail around the world—the first attempt by anyone to do so.”
       Theo’s eyes grew wide and he sat spellbound as his great-grandfather continued his tale. Sean walked over to a world map on the wall and traced a path with his cane. “The journey was far from easy. Magellan and his men left Spain in five ships in the fall of that year and sailed toward Africa. At that point, they were already out of familiar waters and went around the bottom of the big continent. The men were scared to go on, but then Arthur showed up. He had stowed away in the hold, and being the adventurous sort he had gone on deck. He scampered right out on the spar jutting out from the front of the ship to see what lay ahead.”
       Sean took the pose here of Arthur, putting his hand up just above his eyes as if he was looking out into the distance. “Magellan saw Arthur and said, ‘You see? This tiny chipmunk shames you all! He is ready to see what lies beyond. Do any of you say less?’ Well, none of them did and from that day Arthur was ship’s mascot.”
       “Wow! What other neat things did these other people do?” Theo asked.
       “Well, it took a long time for them to cross the waters. Magellan named the ocean they crossed the Pacific, because the waters were so calm. Family legend has it that he considered Arthur a good luck omen, and he named him Afortunado, which meant ‘lucky’ in his native Portuguese. Finally, they reached South America. They stayed that winter near Argentina, and had a mutiny of some of the Spanish sailors who were envious of Magellan because he was Portuguese. Arthur barely escaped being captured himself by those rogues, who intended to kill the captain’s favorite mascot.”

       The stories continued for hours, until Theo fell asleep and they all said good night. The following morning, the Maplewood clan woke up to the sounds of Sean’s record player. The elder Maplewood traditionally started his day with a selection from one of his orchestral performances in the music room. The others dressed, and found him in the music room with his baton going at full force. “Ah, good morning. Nothing like The 1812 Overture to get a day going fast. So young Theo, have you ever been boating? I have a boat down by the lakeshore, and I’m sure you could recruit one of the family into taking you for a spin.”
       “I’ve never been on a boat before, sir. Maybe after breakfast I can get one of my dads to take me out on the water,” Theo said. Sean took on a grin. “Maybe even both of them.” Theo ate with a will, then as he finished first he returned his attention to the elder Maplewood. “Great grandpa Sean, do you think I’ll get my own painting someday?” Sean grinned at him. “If you’re anything like your fathers, you will. You look to have the moxie to get the job done. Now, I’m sure you’d like that boating trip and I’d like some time with Roger and Jennifer. Why don’t you take your dads down there and clear the lake of pirates?”
       Noel left the room and a short time later he came out wearing a green shirt and no hat. “Okay, I’m ready.” Noel got a round of looks from everyone. It was strange to see him without the jacket and hat. Chip nodded to him, and got up. “Is old Terrible Tom, the scourge of Tortuga, still lurking about down there grandpa?”
       “I wouldn’t be surprised, boy,” Sean said. “Theo, down on the lake there’s a big rock jutting out that looks just like a pirate ship in silhouette. The boys will show it to you.” Theo’s adventurous spirit was already up. “Thanks, sir. Come on, dads! Last one there has to row, row, row the boat!”

       Theo dashed out the door. Chip finished and stood up as well. “Looks like we’re in for an adventure. Come on, bro.” Chip went out, and Noel followed. There was a steep trail that led down to the lakeshore, and it was obvious why Sean did not volunteer to go down that way. Once they had cleared the trees, the clayish bank lay before them. A nice wooden boat lay upside-down near the waterline, covered with a tarp that was pegged down. The three adventurers soon had the boat ready and Theo got up in the front of the craft while his two dads paddled the boat out into the lake.
       “Uh, just in case we capsize or we’re attacked by sharks or anything, I forgot to mention that I can’t swim,” Theo said. Chip grabbed a life preserver and gave two others to Noel and Theo. “Good thought, Theo. Safety first. Hey Theo, look off to your left!” Theo turned, and there was the pirate craft laying at anchor. The big rock looked like the outline of one of the dreaded ships, with a small finger of rock pointing out in front suggesting a spar.
       Noel’s eyes shone with memory. “We spent many a day here in the lake, fighting pirates and looking for buried treasure.” Chip had the same look. “Yeah, and on the other side of the rock there’s a smaller rock that we called Terrible Tom. We’d grab rocks off the shore and pretend we were firing cannonballs at him!”
       “And don’t worry about the swimming,” Noel said. “When we get back to HQ, we can teach you to swim in the fountain.” Theo looked away from the big rock to his dads. “Did you guys have many friends growing up? Besides Dale that is. This is about the only thing you’ve ever told me about your childhood. Didn’t you guys have a happy time?” Chip and Noel looked at each other knowingly. “Well, there were some good times but mom and dad just weren’t the active types that we were,” Chip said. “If we wanted to play, we had to do it by ourselves most of the time. We didn’t make friends easily either.”
       “Dale managed to become our best friend, despite our initial efforts to not let him. Still, he persisted and he won us over,” Noel added.
       “As we grew, we became more isolated from the others. We still did things like sports and all, but we had more fun just being on our own. Reading became more than a pastime, and our dreams were to be like the great heroes we read about,” Chip said.
       “Well, I’m not like that. I should fit in pretty good with other kids,” Theo said.
        Chip pulled down Theo’s baseball cap over his face. “Yeah, you and Jake Stone. Say, speaking of the other kids how are you doing with Bink? She seemed pretty eager to come back over, especially when she found out you were getting self-defense lessons.”
       Theo looked away. “We’re getting along pretty good. She’s nice.”
       “I’m glad to hear that,” Noel said. “I think she likes you, from what I’ve seen of her. She’s probably glad to have found someone that’s as adventurous as she is. And how are those self-defense lessons coming? Is Eva teaching you something useful?”
       “The lessons are going good. I still haven’t learned to break a board with my head yet, but one day I shall. Say dads, is there a particular reason that both of you keep falling in love with non-chipmunk women? Did you have a bad experience with a girl of our kind when you were younger?”
       “I guess you could say that, but I never thought about it in that sense,” Noel said. “But Gadget, Foxy, that’s true.”
       “Well, there was Melinda Brooking though,” Chip said. “She was the head cheerleader at school, and one of the prettiest chipmunks you’ll ever see. She used guys like the jewelry she wore—as adornments. She got us to take her to the senior prom, and then promptly dumped us once we were there for this college guy. We spent the rest of the dance alone and embarrassed. I think there’s still some resentment from that.”
       “Very true. We never did quite get over that. Later, Dale and I flirted with a nightclub singer named Clarice, but that was the last chipmunk girl we ever liked,” Noel said. Chip caught Noel’s attention. “All it took was one look at Gadget, and all other girls fell aside in comparison. I wish we’d known what we know now. We’d certainly have treated her better.”
       “But we’ve made great strides and now Gadget’s our friend,” Noel countered. Theo crossed his arms. “Well as for me, I’m gonna marry a chipmunk girl, yes sir.” Chip grinned at Theo’s determined statement. “Oh, you’ve got it all figured out, do you? Have you met any prospects yet, or do you plan to wait until you can fly the RangerWing?” Theo shifted his eyes. “I can wait until I have my pilot’s license. Haven’t met any girls I’m serious about yet, but I’m looking. There is one I’d like to meet sometime, though.”
       “Oh, and who’s that?” Noel asked. Theo got a wistful look on his face. “Rhonda Means.” Chip gave Theo a curious look. “The actress? Theo, she’s my age! Why her?” Theo looked at Chip like he couldn’t believe his dad asked the question. “Dad! Rhonda Means is the coolest! She’s like the female James Bond, well except that she doesn’t go around with a different guy every time. Still, she’s one cool spy!”
       “Theo, she’s an actress. She doesn’t really do all those things. That’s what stunt doubles are for,” Noel said.
       “So, you’re saying that I shouldn’t limit my options and I should date other species?” Theo asked. Chip was glad the conversation was coming to something sensible. “Well, it’s your choice but take your time deciding anyway. I’m sure going to do that this time. Lahwhinie almost requires it—plus I’m concerned that she’ll grab the nearest object and crack it over my head if she doesn’t like me telling her I love her.”
       Noel gave Chip a hard look. “You just said you loved her. Is that how you really feel or how you want to feel?” Chip did a double-take. He’d meant to say “respect”, but that wasn’t what came out. “Uh, did I say love? Well, maybe I do love her some, just a little, anyway. Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
       “No, I just don’t want you hurting her or getting hurt yourself. We know that she’s never been in love and has never been willing to trust any man with that kind of attachment,” Noel said. Theo knew that all too well. “You should probably talk to Monty and Eva before you say anything to Aunt Lahwhinie.”
       “That’s why I said I’d take it slow,” Chip said. “Look, I know she’s not like Foxy or Gadget. A month ago, I’d have thought I was a lunatic for thinking I would have any kind of relationship with this girl. But she’s changed so much, and I realized on that sofa that I’d come to care for her. But you’re right, Theo. I should talk to Monty first—I’m sure he’ll have a word or three for me.”
       Theo smiled at the thought that came to him. “Wow, just think—he’d have Chip and Dale for son-in-laws!” Chip smiled back. “And you for a grandson. Well, let’s leave that be for now. Captain Theo, I see Terrible Tom o’ Tortuga off the starboard bow! What be your orders, cap’n?”

       Theo drew out an imaginary cutlass, giving it his best pirate talk. “We come about, attack and send ‘em to Davey Jones’ locker, sez I!” The boat turned toward the big rock, and they nestled up to a sand bar where the brigands loaded up on ammo. Then they cast off, and bravely faced down the terror of the seven seas
       “Cannon loaded and ready, sir! Waiting fer yer order...” Noel said, saluting.
       “Let loose with all guns, Mr. Noel!” Theo shouted. With a timely “Arrrrgh!” from Noel, the air was soon filled with rocks as all three of the mighty pirate-fighters fired on Terrible Tom and his ship with a will. “They be coming about, cap’n!” Chip said. Theo saw it, and knew it was to be a pounding match now, cannon for cannon. “Evasive, Mister Chip! Hoist the mizzen, and bring ‘er into the wind!”
       “Aye, aye!”
       The boat-turned-clipper ship tacked around and came up for another attack. Theo scored a direct hit on Terrible Tom. Noel pumped his fist. “Ye got him, sir! Look at how Tom’s flailing about the decks!” Theo stood up and shouted, “That’ll learn ye to sail in the same ocean as Theo the Great!” Chip and Noel joined in with Theo, celebrating the demise of the dread pirate, and with the day won they rowed for home. Theo sat down, basking in the glory of the moment. “That was fun. You guys are the best dads any kid could have!”
       “You bring out the kid in us,” Chip said.
       “Yeah. Thanks, Theo. It’s nice to have fun again,” Noel added.

       They parked the boat at the shore and replaced it as it had been. Once back at the lodge, they told of their brave exploit with all the trimmings they could muster. Lunch tasted all the better for their activity on the water, and when it was over they went into the library. This room had a rich feel to it, with mahogany bookshelves and more books than you could count.
       “I’m what’s known as a bibliophile, Theo,” Sean said, pointing out the tomes of various shapes and sizes. “I collect books, particularly old and rare ones. I have several first editions in my collection, and books on the strangest topics. One of my favorites is a work done by the first head of the R.A.S., Sir Reginald Worthington. It was a privately-printed book and never released to the general public. It was a great recounting though, and reads like a spy novel.” Theo looked at the books with a sense of wonder. “We know Bianca Râboga of the R.A.S. She’s Aunt Gadget’s aunt and Aunt Eva’s sister!”
       “Bianca Râboga. Yes, I know of her. I believe I met her and her husband once about twelve years ago. It was my last full year on tour—I changed to selected cities after that. I met them at my command performance here in New York. Good people,” Sean said. He went to one shelf, which contained a row of scrapbooks. “Here is the family’s life in pictures, and some of our ancestors as well. You’re free to look through them, Theo. Everything’s labeled.”
       Theo took the book gratefully. “Thank you, sir.” Theo sat and began paging through it. He didn’t notice when Sean sat down next to him. “I think you’ll find some pictures of your father in that one, starting around the middle of the book. He was a rascal, and into everything when he was little. I knew from the start he would amount to something.”
       Theo flipped to the middle of the book, then a moment later he burst out laughing. Jennifer came over and grinned at the picture. “Oh, I’d forgotten how adorable he looked in that little sailor suit!” Chip and Noel ran in. “NOOOOOO! Not that picture!!” Sean had already blocked their path, though.
       “Boys, everyone has baby pictures. You must bear the burden as well,” Sean said. Roger pointed over at Theo, still laughing. “It could be worse, boys. It could be your girlfriends looking at those instead of your son!” Noel was fidgeting. “If anyone shows Foxy those pictures, I’m disowning myself.”
        “Aw, c’mon!” Theo said, a grand smile on his face. “It’s not like you were running around naked or something. I bet Foxy and Lahwhinie would think it’s cute.” Chip crossed his arms. “Yeah, once they got off the floor from laughing at it. That’s only because they don’t have any baby pictures of themselves for their parents to embarrass them with. The pics stay here!”
       “Now Chip, when did we ever embarrass you?” Roger asked. Chip blushed slightly at the memory. “Uh, well...it was never on purpose.” Jennifer looked at Roger. “I bet he’s thinking about the birthday party we gave him when he was seven. We invited all his schoolmates over, and had a wonderful time.”
       Noel covered his face with his hand. “Please, don’t even bring that up. It scarred me for life.” Theo was all-curious in a moment. “What happened? What happened?” Roger gave his sons a glance then replied. “Oh, it was all innocent. One of the girls named Trisha Dobbs gave Chip his present and then kissed him in front of everyone. You should have seen your father’s face! It was so unexpected that everyone laughed, but he didn’t understand and ran off and locked himself in his room. It took quite a bit of negotiation to get him out again.”
       “So that’s where your fear of public displays of affection came from,” Theo said.
        Chip was somewhere between frustrated and angry. “Dad, why did you have to go and tell him that? But it’s true, and I had to endure constant ribbing over that for weeks. I remember years later Trisha told me that she’d had a crush on me, but by then she was already going steady with Tommy Carnes.”
       “That was a shame, too. She was such a nice girl…” Jennifer said. Noel sat down by Theo. “Theo, I promise you we’ll never do anything like this to embarrass you.” Theo didn’t believe it for a second. “Uh, huh. Yeah, I’ve heard that one. You won’t be able to help it once parent syndrome kicks in. It’s an automatic reflex.”
       “Theo, you are wise beyond your years,” Sean said. Noel didn’t have it out of his system yet though. “Don’t forget, you’re past the little child stage so you don’t have to worry about embarrassing pictures and little child mistakes and embarrassing incidents that parents like to rub their children’s noses in.”
       Jennifer stood in front of her son. “Oh Noel, we never tried to embarrass either of you. You were just such a sensitive child. I’ll never forget the day you came home from your first day of high school. This young girl named Melinda had followed you, and she shouted, “Goodbye, Chipper!” to you. You yelled back, ‘Don’t call me Chipper!’ and stormed into the house.”
       “See, you just did it again,” Noel said. “The cute and amusing things you remember of my childhood were to me humiliating events that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to purge from my memory.” Jennifer hugged Noel. “Honey, we remember those things because they were about you. We didn’t always realize how hard you took things, but we always tried to respect your personal space and give you privacy.”
       Noel grimaced. “If that’s the case, please don’t bring up things like this when Foxy is around. That will make me very happy.” Roger nodded. “If that’s what you want, son. But you should realize that we spent many a day concerned about you. We knew that you were different from the start. You were a very intelligent boy, but you didn’t like to play with the other kids. You never seemed to be able to understand when one of them was doing something in fun, or not.”
       “We were relieved when you made friends with Dale. You mellowed somewhat, but still your social skills never seemed to mature. We worried about you many a day, son, but we knew we couldn’t talk with you about it, or you would withdraw into your shell. Perhaps we should have been more forceful—then you might could’ve avoided some of the problems you’ve had. That you’ve both had.”
       Noel decided dwelling on the past was fruitless. “Well, this year’s certainly brought about a dramatic change in our lives. I’m sorry, mom and dad. I should’ve spoken a little more diplomatically.”
       “You weren’t to blame, either of you,” Chip said, knowing he felt the same thing. “I—we made the mistakes with Melinda and so on. Hopefully, we’re both wise enough now to make it work with Foxy and Lahwhinie.”

       The remainder of the day was spent reminiscing with Sean about his adventures, Roger’s childhood and the early days of Roger and Jennifer’s marriage. After supper, it was more of Sean’s piano tunes. This time, Chip and Noel did a piano duet, much to Theo’s surprise and pleasure. When bedtime came, Theo was still talking about it. “Maybe I should see if I have any musical talent. Maybe I should take some lessons.”
       “If you like,” Chip said. “Sean had mom and dad sign us up early.” Noel gave out a laugh. “Yeah, I remember. Miss Yeardley, every Tuesday at four.” Theo wasn’t put off by them. “Well, I want to be able to do it all so I might as well try it all.”
       “We could teach you the basics,” Chip said. “We learned piano and guitar. I’ve still got my old guitar around.” Theo was glad to hear he wouldn’t have to shell out his allowance for one. “That would be so cool! I could play guitar and break boards with my head!”
       “Just don’t break the guitar over your head,” Noel said. “It belonged to grandpa. But he’d be glad that another Maplewood would be playing it.” Theo made like he had a pad and pencil in his hands. “Note to self, do not use guitar during martial arts practice.”

       The threesome settled down in their beds. Chip hadn’t played that guitar in a long time now, and the thought of it had him thinking of music. As he drifted off, he had a thought come over him. Then all of a sudden, he was standing on a stone veranda behind a vast stone house. A beautiful courtyard lay before him, with a mirror-like lake beyond. It looked familiar, and yet it didn’t. Chip looked around, and then two figures emerged from the house.
       “Lederhosen! Why can’t the Austrians learn to dress like common decent Englishmen?” Henry Higgins said. Baloo slapped him on the back. “Hey, Higgy! Go with the flow. After all, we’re here to help little britches!” Chip was beginning to think these two had nothing better to do than bother him. “Oh no, not you two again. Wait, let me guess, I’m not in love with Lahwhinie, right?”
       Higgins adjusted his Tyrolean hat. “Well, for once a perceptive reply! I see that time with her’s done you some good. I must admit, I was surprised. I never thought anyone could make anything but a sow’s ear out of that shrill shrew. But somehow, you and that lad of yours were able to get through to her.”
       Chip’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying? That she’s the one?”
       “Sounds like you’re doing a good job of saying that, little britches,” Baloo said. Chip immediately started pacing the veranda. “But is she right for us? Can she be open enough to be part of a marriage? Can she be a good mom to Theo, and a good wife to me? Can I be a good husband to her? Can she change enough for us to be a family?”
       Higgins gesticulated with his arms. “This isn’t a ruddy multiple-choice exam! It’s your life, lad! You already know that the girl’s a chum with you—something that took me far too long with Eliza. I was happy with that, but you know as well as I that she won’t be. The turtle’s poking her head out of her shell, and will need reassurance. You can’t go quickly with this one, or she’ll be back in that carapace before you can blink. As for the rest, you’ll have to find out when you choose to face her like a man and ask.”
       Chip was aware of that of course, but knowing it and acting on it were two different things entirely. “She called me a friend, and I won’t jeopardize that trust. I’ll take my time and learn how she feels about me.” Baloo picked him up in his paw. “There’s just one problem with that, little britches. The ball’s in your court now. Can you hide your feelings from her the next time you see her? Are you ready to face that challenge now?”
       “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at this point. She’s only just learned to trust men. If I say something, she might think that I’m just flirting with her or trying to take advantage of her. I’ll let her know I like her, but to say love is still out of the question,” Chip said.
       Baloo shook his head. “You’re still leavin’ part of the equation out, Chip. What if she already has feelings for you? What if she loves you?” Chip looked the big bear in the face. “I could destroy everything that’s been built so far with a single utterance of that word if she doesn’t feel the same way.”
       “Then it’s time to for you to know, either way,” Higgins said.


Chapter 9 - Is This A Private Dream, or Can Anyone Join In?

       Headquarters had become quiet without the Chips. Lahwhinie had been particularly so, and had barely said a word to anyone. A half-hour before Chip was resting on his bed, Lahwhinie, Gadget and Dale were sitting on the sofa in headquarters as a movie ended. At a glance from Gadget, Dale excused himself to “go clean his swords” and went up to the lair.
       “I’ll be up in a little while, Dale,” Gadget said after him. Lahwhinie turned down the volume on the set. “That was a pretty good movie, the only thing wrong was the hero not killing the main villain.”
       “Well, you heard Westley’s reasons. Besides, he’d have been no better than Prince Humperdink if he’d done that. I just love that movie! Romance, adventure, mostly dead heroes...” Gadget said. Lahwhinie paused, then nodded. “Chip and Theo probably like this movie, since they’re both the swashbuckling hero type.”
       Gadget smiled a little at Lahwhinie’s mention of them. “You’ve missed them, haven’t you?” Lahwhinie sighed. “Yeah, I guess I do. Theo’s become my shadow and Chip’s always there with some kind of support.” Gadget pulled her legs under her and turned on the couch toward her twin. “What do you think of Theo? He’s certainly made an impact since he’s come here, huh?”
       “Yeah, he’s a great kid,” Lahwhinie said, stating the fact. “He’s like a kid brother. He’s a good son...to Chip that is.” Gadget was so glad to be able to talk to her sister this way. For the first time, she felt like the wounds between them were healed. “Yes, and Theo’s done Chip a world of good. Chip’s come a long way in the past few months. I need to speak to him when he gets back and tell him just how good he’s doing as leader. Or rather, how good they’re doing. Golly, I hope they can work that problem out okay.”
       “Well, they’ll figure it out somehow,” Lahwhinie said. “Theo gets two dads.” Gadget lowered her brows. “I’m not so sure of that myself. I mean, one of them could marry Foxglove and go away with her. I guess in that event the other Chip would stay here for now at least, and probably Theo would too. But maybe they’ll both decide to stay. Of course, Foxy might choose to stay here and the one that didn’t marry her might feel too much an outsider to stay. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
       Lahwhinie sat up on the couch, Indian style. “This place is going to fill up fast. We’ll have so many Rangers that we’ll be able to work on shifts and have daycare, with mom and the baby and Theo around.” Lahwhinie spoke up again before Gadget could. “Helping people’s in Chip’s blood. They’ll both stay.”
       “It’s sure different, having a family around,” Gadget said. “I like it, after having spent so many years feeling alone. It’s great to have mom and dad, and grandparents and more relatives than I can keep up with on a slide rule. And of course, it’s great having you for a sister. Did I tell you I liked that cowgirl outfit you’re wearing now? It’s really nice on you.” Lahwhinie looked down at her outfit. “Thanks, but it still gets me as many strange looks as my Hawaiian outfit did. I need to find a new look.”
       “Well, I’ll be glad to help and I’m sure mom and any of the others would. Say, maybe when the Chips come back you can ask one of them to go on a shopping tour with you. I bet neither of them would mind, and particularly the one that gave you that hug on the way out…”
       Lahwhinie saw the accusing smile on Gadget’s face and held up a hand. “Whoa! Hey, don’t play matchmaker. Chip and I have an understanding. He doesn’t try flirting with me and I don’t seduce him. That’s a good, healthy relationship. Chip likes virtuous, loving women. I’m not his type.”
       Gadget looked at her sister with an “are you serious” tone. “Sis, I’m not trying to do anything. But there’s nothing wrong in liking him, you know. And in case you didn’t notice, you’ve done a lot of changing yourself since you’ve been here. I like the person you’ve become, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chip did too.”
       “Well, maybe so, but don’t try getting us together. I don’t want to wreck our friendship and I don’t want to hurt Theo by getting chummy with his dad,” Lahwhinie said. Gadget felt strange being the one who could see more than her sister, but in this case it was true. “Theo likes you both, Lahwhinie. I don’t think it would hurt him. But you’ll have to face Chip yourself when he comes back. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t shutting him out arbitrarily.”

       Gadget got up, and shut off the television. Lahwhinie knew her sister meant well, but she wasn’t used to sharing like this. **Great, so much for my being able to deal with this issue by myself.** “Now what? I have a friend, and I’ve never let myself ever be more than that.”
       “Why not, sis?” Gadget asked. “What are you afraid of? Oh, strike that. But if you like Chip, and it seems like you do, why not tell him? He’s not going to try to take advantage of you, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Lahwhinie crossed her arms defensively. “It’s too soon. I’ve finally been able to like him as a friend. I didn’t think I could ever do that.”
       Gadget came over and took her hands. “I didn’t think I could ever be happy with anyone either, but I’d never trade Dale for anything. He treats me like a best friend, and more. I just wish you could know that feeling of belonging and sharing for yourself. You should get to have some happiness, too.”
       Lahwhinie looked her sister in the eyes. “It’s because I look like you. That’s the only reason he has the hots for me. Take that away and I’m the wretched creature that you found in Hawaii.” Gadget smiled and shook her head slowly. “No, sis. And I don’t think you believe that anymore, either. I’m glad to say he likes you because of you, not for what you look like. You may not be able to accept it right now, but that’s the truth.”
       “Then it’s only because he sees me as weak or inferior to him. A thing to be pitied. But when I can read and write properly and I become better educated, then he won’t find me so attractive,” Lahwhinie said. Gadget’s voice became adamant. “Can’t you understand, sis? I’ve seen the way he behaves around you. Chip respects you, and he wouldn’t do that with someone weaker or inferior to him. And the chipmunk I saw hugging you didn’t feel sorry for you. If anything, he was showing that he’d miss you too.”
       “Miss me? Yeah, right,” Lahwhinie said.
       Gadget felt such empathy for this mirror of herself, that she hugged her. “Oh, he’s missing you all right. You told me yesterday that he came to you for advice on the sofa that night. I’ve rarely known Chip to ask anyone’s advice on anything. He must feel he can trust you.” Lahwhinie shifted her weight around. “Well, it was the least I could do for him.”
       “Well, no one asks advice of someone who’s ‘weak and inferior’, or of someone they pity,” Gadget said. “I think he likes you, and quite a lot. You just don’t know how important you are—to him, and to all of us. I’ll go on to bed now, but think about what I said. I’d let him make the next move, though. If he does, he’ll probably go to dad.”

       Chip turned around as the rear door of the mansion opened, and Noel and Foxglove came out in evening dress. Chip wasn't surprised by much anything at this point, so he decided to go along with the drama being played out for him and treat them both as real. “Foxy, I guess Noel’s told you what happened.”
       Noel was dressed in a tuxedo and Foxy was wearing a silk gown that flattered her. “He did. I’m happy that we all get to be content and with the person we really love. It would’ve been unbearable if I’d been forced to choose between you two. I love you both so much! But you’re such a wonderful guy, even Lahwhinie gets to have one of you if she wants you. We’re both lucky girls.”
       Chip was surprised yet again. “Then you’re okay with me and Lahwhinie? I was concerned that you might feel bad about that. I do love you, too, but I also love her.” Foxy hugged him gently. “I admit, it will be strange seeing the man I love with another woman. At the same time, I have the man I love all to myself. It’ll just take a little time to get used too.” Chip hugged her back, and shook Noel’s hand. “I know he’ll make you happy, Foxy. Noel, take good care of her.”
       “I intend too. She’s the breath that gives me life,” Noel said. “I’ve waited a lifetime to finally know what real love is like and now, with her, I finally do.” Chip turned and looked out toward the courtyard and lake. “Now it’s time I faced up to whether she feels anything for me or not. If this is anything like the movie, she’ll be out by the gazebo.” Foxy tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. “You’re weary from going through life alone. Go, and out there somewhere is a young lady, who I think will never be alone.” Chip’s eyes widened at her words, and he turned back to look at Foxy. She nodded, and Chip started off, accompanied momentarily by Higgins and Baloo.

       Meanwhile, near the gazebo in question, a female mouse had indeed appeared. She was wearing a pearlish-colored party dress, complete with silken sleeves and frills. Beside her were twin human girls, her size. Sharon was admiring the surroundings. “Oh, that gazebo’s marvelous! Glassed in, and double doors on both sides.”
       “Marvelous? It’s the living end!” Susan said. “Oh and speaking of marvelous, that dress of yours is too, Lahwhinie! You look great.” Lahwhinie wrinkled her nose at the sight. “I look like an idiot. What is this? A tea party? I hate tea, got any coffee? So what’s up with you two?”
       “Don’t you know?” Susan asked. “It’s where you wanted to meet him in your dreams.” Sharon checked Lahwhinie over to see that all was perfect. “Sure, and you want to look the part. After all, it’s not every day you meet the guy of your dreams.” Lahwhinie drew back a step. “That’s because the man of my dreams doesn’t exist. Men are scum...with a few, very few exceptions.”
       “Correction, he didn’t exist. But he does now, and he’s on his way here. If you thought he was scum, he couldn’t be here now. So you’re just trying to gyp yourself out of a nice time,” Susan said with emphasis. Lahwhinie took on a smug look. “All right, let’s see Mr. Dreamy. Yawn, the suspense is killing me.” Susan stood aside. “Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to see who it is on your own, sister. This is as far as Sharon and I can go.” Susan and Sharon began to walk toward the woods surrounding the clearing they were in and Lahwhinie didn’t like that at all. “Hey! Where are you going? Don’t just leave…oh great, now what?”

       Lahwhinie walked into the large gazebo and began looking it over. Chip had left the mansion and was walking through the woods when a clearing showed ahead. Baloo and Higgins pointed the way. Chip emerged from the edge of the woods, and suddenly he realized he was in a fine Austrian suit. Then he looked up and saw her. Chip held his breath, almost fearing that the vision before him would vanish if he moved.
       “What are you waiting for, little britches? Go on!” Baloo said. Chip’s feet were cemented in place. “But what if she says no? What if she...” Higgins pushed him forward. “You’ve got to face your problem square-on, lad. Now, stout heart and get out there before she bolts!”
       Chip tried to control the pounding of his heart as his walked into the clearing. Could that really be Lahwhinie in that dress? **Well, it’s only a dream after all. It’s not like I can’t talk to a dream.** Chip approached, and as he entered the gazebo she turned and saw him. She immediately took a seat on a bench opposite him, and Chip sat on the one where he was.
       Lahwhinie chuckled, “You’re my dream guy?!”
       Chip blinked at her remark, but decided to play along. “Well, this is a dream isn’t it? And I’m the only guy here.” Lahwhinie stood up. “Maybe it is, but this is still ridiculous. Of all people I end up with, a guy that I tricked into going into an artificial volcano.” Chip remembered the setting and place, and looked into her eyes. “I know that you must have been concerned that both of us Chips would just fight over Foxy, but it didn’t turn out that way. I’ve come to care about you, and I couldn’t fight with my twin over marrying her when I was in love with...someone else.”
       Lahwhinie knew the line, as she’d seen this movie too. “In love with me. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard guys say that? Love’s a meaningless word to me.” Chip stood up, and began walking to her. “I can imagine, but how many meant it? I don’t want you to feel you have to do anything for me to love you. I love you already, just for who you are.” Chip reached down and took her hands. “You make me feel good about life when you’re around. When you’re not there, there’s a gap that I just can’t fill. Your happiness means everything to me—so much, that if you’d be happier without me...I’d leave you in peace.”
       Lahwhinie looked up at him skeptically. “That proves it, this is a dream. No guy thinks or talks like that. Besides, you’d have said the same thing to Foxglove.” Chip shook his head. “This is a dream, but my love for her is different from my love for you. I can’t explain it, but love’s different when you experience it with different people. And if this was real, I would say those things to you—or at least I’d try. I’d be so scared of hurting you or pushing you away, I don’t know if I could...” Chip stopped as his eyes began to glisten.
       “Don’t know if you could do what, Chip?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “I don’t know if I could ever tell you how much I love you. How much I’ll always love you, even if you never really know it,” Chip said, kissing her hand lightly. “I love you, Lahwhinie. And I really have forgiven you completely for what happened in Hawaii. You’re no longer that person.”
       Lahwhinie stood up quickly, blushing, her hands going to her cheeks. “Chip! Uh...we hardly know each other...this is probably just something left over from your feelings for Gadget. Don’t waste yourself on me, I’m nothing like her.” Chip sighed, and shook his head again. This was sure a strange dream. “I got over Gadget quite a while ago. You’re not Gadget, you’re special in your own way. If you could see yourself through my eyes, you’d know it. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
       Lahwhinie put her hands down. “But what do you see in me, Chip? Is it pity? What makes you think you love me?” Chip smiled at her. “Boy, I wish I had time to tell you everything I see in you, but even dreams can’t last forever. You’re a warm-hearted person who’s been badly mistreated during most of her life, and is afraid that if she loves someone she’ll lose control and be mistreated again. That’s the last thing I’d do to you, because I do love you. And what I feel for you isn’t pity—it’s respect.”
       Lahwhinie frowned. “Respect me? But I haven’t done anything!”
       “Haven’t you? You came to us totally lost and resentful about life, but you reached out to my son and you took the opportunity life gave you,” Chip said. “You battled your disability, and you overcame it. You reached out to us all with that great party, and I can’t remember a better time. And then you were willing to talk to me like you are now, and not seduce me. You’ve done more than you know, and I see you for what you are—a caring person that’s trying to find her life again. I want to be there for you, and help you find yourself.” Lahwhinie tried to look away from his eyes but couldn’t. “What happens if you get really attached to me and I don’t love you?”
       “Then tell me. It will hurt, but I’d rather know than having you try to spare my feelings,” Chip said. Lahwhinie cast her eyes down at that. “You deserve better than me, Chip. But if it’s me that you really like...then…maybe I might feel the same way...” Chip wanted to touch her face, but he knew she might misinterpret it even at this point. He kept his hands in hers and smiled at her.
       “True love isn’t given because it’s deserved. It doesn’t have anything to do with deserving. Don’t you understand, I’m not asking you to make me happy! I want to make you happy, by sharing myself like you did when you gave us the party,” Chip said.
       “But it was nothing, Chip.”
       Chip shook his head, his hands trembling slightly in hers. “It was everything, because it was you giving it by your own choice. You couldn’t have given any of us a better gift, if you’d spent a million bucks on it. It meant more, because you were giving of yourself! It’s one of the reasons I love you, because you know how to make me feel good even when I don’t want to. You have that wonderful sense of humor, and you even manage to surprise me with it. That’s worth more than I can say.”
       Lahwhinie looked back at him, a slight smile forming. “You like my biting sarcasm and cynicism?” Chip nodded. “Sure, because it’s so well-crafted. Besides I really enjoy laughing. I’d forgotten how much, until you helped me to find it again.”
       “Chip, just remember I don’t like to be laughed at, so laugh carefully in my presence,” Lahwhinie said.
       “I’ll remember, at least if I can remember this dream,” Chip said. “But I never laughed at you, even that time you got mad. I was laughing with you, or so I thought. You know, I’ve never seen you laugh. I bet you’ve got a great laugh hiding in there somewhere.” Lahwhinie looked away slightly. “Well, maybe someday I’ll have something to laugh about.”
       “I look forward to it. Well, since this is a dream and all, I don’t feel any hesitation about asking this next question. Will you dance with me?” Chip asked. Lahwhinie took his arm. “Sure, why not? Let’s go for the whole song and dance thing while we’re at it. I’m sure someone’s going to start singing any old time too.”
       From somewhere, music started up. Baloo elbowed Higgins from the bushes, and Higgins gave him a snide look. Chip let go of Lahwhinie’s right hand, and placed it slowly on her hip making sure not to move too quickly. Then he led her in step to the music, and they started dancing around the inner edge of the gazebo.
       “Not too shabby, Chip. Did you take lessons?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “Mrs. Randolph, every Tuesday for a year. I can do everything from a waltz to a tango. I can even swing dance some from watching it, but I haven’t done this in years except for the prom. I don’t know if I’d ask you to dance for real, because it brings back the memories of when I was dumped at my senior prom for another guy. But for you, I’d risk it,” Chip said. Lahwhinie hadn’t danced in ages, and found to her interest she liked it. “Well, it was her loss not to know a good thing when she had it.” Chip looked into her eyes again. “And do you know?”
       “I don’t know... yet.”
       The music changed, and Lahwhinie recognized it. She smirked slightly at its appropriateness, and along with it a familiar female voice to both of them started to sing the lyrics:

        Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
        Perhaps I had a miserable youth,
        But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
        There must have been a moment of truth…
        For here you are, standing there, loving me
        Whether or not you should…
        So somewhere in my youth, or childhood,
        I must have done something good…
       The music and the dance ended, and this time both of them reached for each other. Their lips came to within a hair of each other, and then…it was over. Lahwhinie woke up with a start, suddenly disoriented by being in her own bed and nightgown. “Well, so much for Mr. Dream Guy. Still, he was a good dancer. But that would never happen for real.”

        Chip woke up with a start, suddenly disoriented by being in bed in the lodge and his nightclothes. “Wow, that was some dream. I never thought she’d say those things to me like that even in a dream, and then she danced with me and all. Wish it’d go that easy in real life.” In their respective beds, Chip and Lahwhinie turned over and tried to find rest again before the dawn came.
        “Not in a million years…”

       Chip awoke the next morning to find the aroma of roasted acorns filling his nostrils. Sean was famous for his roasting techniques with acorns, and knew just how long to marinate an acorn to get the best flavor out of it. Noel, Chip and Theo all raced each other to the kitchen, where Sean had the delectable treats over a fire.
        “Watch out boys! Here it comes!” Sean said. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the acorns from the wire basket he was holding with a pot-holder. The nuts flew over his shoulder and ended up in a serving basket firmly attached to the table. Theo lapped up the wonderful aroma. “Wow, home cooking! I haven’t had that since... well, since Monty and Lahwhinie made breakfast the other day. Still, it’s all ages ahead of orphanage food.”
        Noel cautiously ate one of the hot acorns. “I love Granddad’s roasted acorns, a delight that could be enjoyed usually only once a year so they should be savored, rather than devoured.” Sean sat down as Roger and Jennifer came in to join them at the table. “Roger here can certainly remember it from his childhood. My father showed me the trick when I was a wee lad. ‘That’s the old Maplewood touch’, he’d say. Took me a couple of years of trying to perfect it. Well Theo, you may be used to home cooking, but are you used to spiced roasted acorns?”
        “No sir!” Theo said, digging in heartily. “Uncle Monty’s a great cook, but he uses cheese—lots and lots of cheese and only rarely uses acorns.” Chip ate one of the delicacies slowly. “That’s another reason they should be savored, Theo. They’re very tasty, but the spice marinade is potent. Grandpa told us the recipe comes down from the times of the Pilgrims.”
        Theo soon found himself reaching for his glass of water and downing it. “Thanks, dad. One bite at a time...” Theo took a small bite of his next acorn. Jennifer smiled as she remembered making the same mistake at first. “Mmm, I look forward to these every year.”
        Noel pulled out his picture of Foxglove. “This is going to be strange, going home to a world where I’m no longer Chip.” Chip instinctively reached into his own jacket pocket, forgetting that everything on them including the pictures had been duplicated. “Well, you’ll always be Chip in a sense. You just won’t have the name. But Foxy’s going to love you just the same.”
        “I hope that’s true,” Noel said. “I hope she can accept what’s happened to us and what I’ve done.” Roger took hold of Noel’s arm. “If she’s the kind of girl I think she is, she’ll be the one comforting you. Noel, let her know that we’re looking forward to seeing her again. Perhaps she’ll favor us all with a song or two when she comes.” Noel looked back at the picture, reminiscing. “Yeah, she has a beautiful voice. We should've brought the album she sent, granddad. She dedicated songs to us, to the Rangers and to me and Theo.”
        Theo slipped out of the room and returned with the album. “I grabbed it at the last minute, and stuck it in with my things. I sorta figured you’d want to hear her again before you went home, and I was sorta hoping that everything would quiet down like this. Here you go, dad.” Noel went to the turntable, placed the record on it and turned it on. He returned to the table with the others, then closed his eyes and let Foxy’s angelic voice wash over him.
        Sean closed his eyes as well, which was where Chip had gotten in the habit of it. “She reminds me of a singer I once heard near Sydney one time. Lovely voice.” Jennifer tapped her foot along to the music. “Well, it sure won’t be quiet when she’s around. Everyone will be asking for requests.”
        “I could get used to it,” Noel said.
        Roger winked at his son. “I bet you could. And I bet further that we’re about to hear a whole batch of ‘Noel’ songs, and I don’t mean Christmas!” Theo grinned playfully. “My first and only Noel on Noel.”
        Chip broke in with a question. “Do you think you’ll be coming right back with her once you see her, or will you take some time down there?” Noel let out a small sigh. “I haven’t a clue. It’s for her to decide the future and for me to accept her wishes.” Sean chuckled at that idea. “Boy, she’s going to say that very thing to you. You two have to make the decision as one, and that’s always the way. Give her plenty of elbow room, so she can take in all her opportunities.”
        “I know. I just want her to be happy, hopefully with me,” Noel said.

       Chip and Noel thanked Sean for letting them come, as did everyone else. Theo stuck right by his great-grandfather all the way to the Plane and Sean helped him in. “Now Theo, you get one of your fathers to bring you up here every now and again. There’s a lot more Maplewoods to tell you about. And someday if you wish, I’ll teach you about music.” Theo hugged Sean. “I will. Thanks, great-grandfather!”
        The RangerPlane got up a head of steam with its wings and took off. They circled the lodge as Sean waved to them for a few moments and then he headed back inside his lodge. As they left Lake Flaccid behind, two young chipmunks were glad for the trip and a younger one was gladder still. With the tailwind, they got back to the Maplewoods’ house just past lunchtime.
        Roger opened the door. “Why don’t you fellows come in and eat with us before you head out? Noel, you’re going to be in the air for quite a while. You’ll need extra food.” Noel hesitated, but then walked on up. “Okay, sounds good, dad. I need to build up my courage for what lies ahead.”
        **You aren’t the only one,** Chip thought as he and Theo followed the others inside. Jennifer soon had lunch out, and the little house was full of life. After they had eaten, Jennifer packed an extra bag of food for Noel. “Now remember to dress warmly, son. It gets cold out there in the country at night. Do you have a sweater?”
        “No, I’ll need one,” Noel said. “Oh, I need to get something out of the Plane. I’ll be right back.” Noel headed out the door and returned a minute later carrying his hat and jacket, then he walked over to Theo. “Son, now that I’m no longer Chip it’s only fitting that these be passed on to someone who will keep the flame of heroism burning in future generations.Wear them with pride, but not too much pride.” Noel put the fedora on Theo’s head and handed him the leather jacket.
        Theo couldn’t believe it. “But...but dad! I can’t take these. They’re part of you!” Noel took the fedora off him and rubbed his head. “And so are you. So it’s not a loss to me.” Theo inspected the fedora and jacket. “Well, I could wear the hat if I put a liner in it, but the jacket’s too big.”
        “You’ll grow into it,” Noel said.
        Theo tried on the hat again. It was a bit too big, but already it seem to suit him. Theo put it down carefully along with the jacket, and hugged his father. “I’ll treat them real good, dad. And I’ll understand if you want them back someday.”
        “No, they’re yours, now and forever. There’s no one other than you that I would want to have them,” Noel said. Theo had suspected as much, but he knew how much sentimental value these things had. Chip and Roger came out of Roger’s room with a sweater for Noel.
        “Here, son,” Roger said, handing it to him. “It’s a cardigan, and sure to make your Foxy take notice.” Noel slipped the sweater on. “Thanks mom, dad. Maybe a sweater can be my new style.” Jennifer looked him over appraisingly. “You never know, Noel. You may start a new fashion trend. Soon, all the young men will be wearing cardigans again!” Noel gave his mom a quick hug. “Thanks. Well, I think the time has come for us to be off.” Roger joined in with a hug of his own. “Call us when you know something, son. We’ll be waiting.”
        “I hope to call you soon with good news,” Noel said, hugging his mother and father once again for good measure. Jennifer walked him to the door. “Don’t worry, honey. I have a feeling everything’s going to be all right.”

        Chip, Noel and Theo were alone in the Plane now but there wasn’t much talking going on between them. After all, what else was left to say? They landed at Ranger Headquarters, and found that only Monty was there. “Grand ta see ya back, lads. The gals and Zipper went out shopping. Say, right nice sweater there Chip. I’m tempted ta steal that one off o’ ya.”
        Noel smiled at the idea of Monty trying to fit into the sweater. “Well, I can try to find it in your size, Monty. And my name’s Noel now. He’s Chip. I’m officially his long lost twin brother.” Monty looked to Chip, and he nodded. “We decided it was for the best. Noel’s going on down to Texas to see Foxy, and I’m staying here as leader of the Rangers.”
        “That was a roight noble gesture, Noel,” Monty said. “I’m sure yer brother here appreciates it. I’m mighty glad ta hear that things are getting back ta normal, though. Say Noel, you going down there to stay or will ya ask her to come back?”
        “I don’t know, Monty. It’s up to Foxy,” Noel said. Monty nodded his understanding. “Gotcha, mate. You aren’t leavin’ right off, are ya? The lasses’ll want ta see ya before you go.” Noel looked at the clocks on the wall. “Are they going to be back soon? I don’t want to wait too long.” Monty shrugged his shoulders. “No tellin’, mate. When Eva goes shopping, she goes. Already been gone fer a couple o’ hours...”
        “Now dahling, you know that for me shopping is an important social activity. But we are back!” Eva’s voice drew the guys’ attention and then Lahwhinie held it because she had on a brand new outfit. It was conservative, yet complimentary. The top was a white blouse under a jacket just a shade darker than royal blue. She wore a silk scarf with her traditional Hawaiian colors for a bit of splash. Suit pants of the same color as the jacket and flats completed the ensemble.
        Noel waved hello to them. “Hi, Lahwhinie. Nice outfit. Hello Eva, did you two have a good time?”
        “Nice look, Aunt Lahwhinie,” Theo added, running up to her and to Eva and giving each a hug. Lahwhinie slowly turned around, showing every angle. “It’s different. I’m trying to get used to it, but for an island girl who’s worn traditional garb most of her life it’s a big step. What do you think, Chip…uh, Chips?”
        Noel pointed to himself. “I’m Noel now. He’s Chip.” Chip finally found his voice. “It looks...very nice, Lahwhinie. I like it.” Lahwhinie noticed they were dressed differently now, but she hadn’t expected a name change. “Noel? You mean one of you is giving up being Chip? I’d have thought you two would at least have a few battle scars from that.” Noel smiled at the thought. “Well, we knew we both couldn’t be Chip, so we decided to take different paths. I’m going to be leaving shortly. I’m heading down to Texas to proclaim my undying love for Foxglove.”
        “While I’m staying here, and seeing to the Rangers,” Chip said. “It was just a choice we had to make, even if it wasn’t easy.” Theo grinned admiringly at his fathers. “It was neat seeing real leadership in action.” Monty shook both their hands. “I’m glad it didn’t come ta blows or anything, lads. Say uh...Noel...you’d best be off, lad. It’ll be almost dark by the time you reach the lone star state.”
        Noel looked outside. “Yeah, you’re right. I better go call Foxy and get going. Tell the others I said hello. I'll call you guys as soon as I know anything.” Noel walked to the hall and picked up the phone. “I hope she’s there... please be there...” It was Bedivere that answered. “Howdy, this heah’s Bedivere Fairmont, uncle to the soon-ta-be famous singin’ sensation Foxy Fairmont! Who might this be?”
        “Hi, this is No...Chip Maplewood. Is Foxglove there, sir?” Noel asked. Bedivere’s voice was at once warm and friendly. “Chip! Good ta hear from you, pardner! As a matter of fact, she ain’t here right now. She’s gone over into Hondo for another recording session. Got a bunch o’ big-wigs coming in ta hear mah niece sing! She’ll be back at the ranch tonight if ya wanna call back. I know that filly’d be pleased as a calf in clover ta hear from ya, boy!”
        Noel smiled in relief. “Actually, I was thinking of stopping by tonight. If it’s okay, that is.”
        “Coming on down early, eh?” Bedivere said. “Well, can’t say as I blame ya, boy. I figgered that there record she sent would be enough bait on the line t’draw you on down. I’ll have a place for you set at the main table, and all the family will be waiting fer ya. YEE-HAW!” Noel was glad now that he’d reached Foxy’s uncle first. “Thanks, Bedivere. I’ll be there. Don’t tell her if possible, because I want it to be a surprise.”
        “Son, a passel o’ wild prairie dogs full o’ loco weed couldn’t make me tell! Come on down, and welcome pardner!” Bedivere said.
        “I can’t wait. See you tonight then, sir,” Noel said. Bedivere’s attention was pulled away from the phone at that moment. “Okay...hey, Hoss! Drive ‘em straight in. No, straight! Chip, I’ve gotta go. We just brought in our new wild stock o’ bombardier beetles! Don’t worry, we’ll have everything in shape by suppertime. Bye!” Noel hung up the phone, and found that Chip was standing nearby waiting to know.
        “Is she okay?” Chip asked
        “She’s fine. Bedivere just invited me to dinner. I’m going to surprise her,” Noel said. “Hopefully in more ways that one.” Chip put an arm around Noel’s shoulder. “Once she knows...tell her that—huh, I don’t know what to tell her. Tell her I’m glad for her and that I hope she’ll come back and see us sometime.”
        Noel headed for Chip’s room, gathering up his pack. “She’s probably going to have a hard time believing all this, so don’t be surprised if you get a call from her just to prove that we’re in two places at the same time.”
        “Yeah, I can imagine. ‘Is Chip Maplewood there? Yes, I know there’s one standing right next to me, but do you have a spare?’ I just hope she doesn’t flip out,” Chip said. Noel headed for the chest of drawers. “I just need to pack some clothes and make one stop in town before I head for Texas.”
        Chip knew what that stop would be, because he’d planned on making it himself once. “I understand. You...you go ahead. And I hope you can make her happy, once and for all.” Noel continued packing “Thanks, Chip. For letting us be together.” Chip offered his hand, and Noel shook it gladly. Then the two who had been one hugged each other.
        “I’ll be waiting to hear from you, Noel,” Chip said.
        “Thanks, brother,” Noel said. “Well, I gotta get ready.” Chip watched as Noel continued his preparations, then left and closed the door. Chip thought about going into the main room, but instead he just went and peeked around the corner. Lahwhinie was with her parents, telling her father about the places she’d been today. Chip’s heart was glad to see her smiling some, but he also knew that Noel was right. **It’s too soon. She’s just starting to be happy again. I want to be able to go in there and hug her and say that I love her, but she means too much to me to chance that. It’s about to get lonely around here.**
       Chip went back to his room and closed the door, where Noel was packing. “You’re as scared as I am, aren’t you.”
        “Yes. What if she says yes? What if she says no?” Noel asked.
        “She’ll be overcome with joy to see you, but once that wears off you’ll have some explaining to do. I think we both know she can handle what’s happened, but she also has her career to think of,” Chip said.
        “Yeah, I know,” Noel said, sitting on the bunk bed. “But what if she is really willing to be my wife? Can I give her all that she needs to be happy in life?” Chip sat down with him. “I don’t think any of us really knows that, no matter who it is. I sure don’t with Lahwhinie, but I’ll try if she lets me. At least you love her and you’re on her side—that’s more than a lot of people get.”
        Noel looked over at his brother. “Chip, I’ll need to get the engagement...necklace.” Chip went to the closet, and brought out a wooden box and opened it. Inside were several valuable items that Chip had collected or inherited over the years. Chip removed the necklace and gave it to Noel. “Here, she deserves the best.”
        “Thanks, Chip. I wasn’t sure you’d be willing to part with our...your treasures. Since Foxy doesn’t have fingers in the traditional sense, we knew we’d have to give her a necklace. I’ll stop by the jeweler’s and get the wedding band too—just in case,” Noel said, hugging Chip again. “Thanks, Chip. I gotta run.”
        “Goodbye Noel,” Chip said. As he left, Chip whispered “Goodbye, Foxglove.” He placed the box back in its place—he’d planned on giving that necklace to Foxy himself and now the fact of it was setting in hard. Chip shut the closet and walked out in time to wave goodbye to Noel at the door.
        The sound of the RangerWing outside was the last indicator of Noel’s presence and then he was gone. Chip had gone to the door to watch him go, and now he walked back inside. Monty, Eva, Lahwhinie and Zipper didn’t say anything but watched him. Chip motioned toward Theo with his head. “C’mon, son. I’ll show you how your dad threw the winning touchdown to win the state title.”


Chapter 10 - A Heart Deep in Texas/A Sobering Talk/Noel's Trial

        As Chip went outside with his son, Theo’s other father made headway toward Hondo. He knew Chip was hurting, because he would have been in his place. Still, only one of them could be with Foxglove and the choice was made. Noel flew determinedly, his thoughts centered on what he'd say to Foxglove when he got there. After more hours of flying than he could account for, Noel reached the outskirts of Hondo around dusk.
        Everything was just as he’d remembered, and now his nervousness was mounting. He was so eager to see Foxy, but scared at the same time. The eagerness won out, and he set down at the Double D. Noel checked the ranch house, but no one was there. Then he found a note written in Bedivere’s scrawl – We’re down just past the corral. Look for the campfire and listen for the music. Noel gathered his courage and followed the sounds of merriment. His ears soon caught the beautiful sound of Foxy’s voice and he smiled. “Please Foxy, be mine,” he whispered.
        Foxy wasn’t the only one singing, though. A whole group was accompanying her in vocals and instruments. When the song ended, Noel was close enough to see that it had to be her band. They were talking and laughing and having a great time around the fire, as were Foxy’s family. Noel hesitated when he felt someone tap him from behind.
        “Howdy, son,” Bedivere said in hushed tones. “She doesn’t know you’re coming, like I promised. I’d used up about every excuse in the book to get away from them to look for ya. Say, you look different. Did you change your clothes?”
        “Yes, but the change is more than just my clothes. I’ll explain later,” Noel said. He leaned back over to Bedivere, whispering. “Before she notices I’m here, could you request that she sing ‘Always Hold Your Chips Close To Your Heart’?” Bedivere grinned knowingly. “Son, it’d be a rootin’ tootin’ pleasure. She’s been talking about nothin’ but you for ages. Now she can finally see ya again. By the way, are you gonna approach the fire from this here direction?”
        “I wanted to wait till the song is over. Why do you ask? Do you have something in mind?” Noel asked. Bedivere chuckled, and nudged him. “Nope, I just don’t want ta git run-over when she sees ya! I’ll be on the opposite end, in safety.” Noel smiled at the joke and shook his wing. “You’re a good friend, Bedivere. Say, before any of this happens and if it all works out, are you and her family going to be okay with a chipmunk in the family?”
        “Chip, we hear your name all day long,” Bedivere said. “It’s like you’ve been here all this time, so’s I don’t reckon you’ll have a lot of choice if I read my cards right. You do love her still, don’t ya pardner?” Noel showed him the necklace. “I’ve come here to show her how much I love her. I never want to be apart from her again, if she’ll have me.” Bedivere slapped him on the back, knocking Noel down. “That’s good enough fer me! I’ll be taking my place now. Listen for the song. It’s her favorite, so it won’t take much of a coax to do it.” Noel was encouraged by Bedivere’s assurances of her affection, but the anxiety had him pacing nervously. “Please, please, Foxy.”

        Foxy was sitting by the fire with her group, now known as the Fairmont Four. They consisted of a male and female mouse, a bat and a roadrunner who towered over the others and wore overalls. Everyone else wore western duds including Galahad, Daisy, and their children. Little Foxy was right at Foxy’s feet, as Foxy had become a second mother to her in many ways. Foxy on her part had a white cowboy hat on with a custom-made red-and-white jacket and matching blouse and skirt. Her shiny white boots completed the ensemble. She smiled as Bedivere came back to the fire.
        “Hey, uncle! We were about to send out a search party for you!” Foxy said, the happiness evident in her voice. Bedivere sat down on one of the logs surrounding the large campfire. “Thanks, Foxy. I was just getting another bit of prairie air in me. Say, why don’t y’all sing that purty song about Chip you wrote again?”
        “Yes, dear. Go ahead,” Daisy said.
        The male mouse whose name was Hubert strummed his guitar, and the backup singers took up the chorus. When it was her time, Foxy chimed right in…
        Someday there’ll come a time
        When you have to rise and face up
        To the challenges that life brings
        And puts up in your way
        When that day comes to you
        And you have to chance it all
        Stay true to your heart’s voice
        No matter come what may
        Don’t let go of your love’s shine,
        No matter how far you’re apart
        Don’t gamble your last bottom dollar,
        And keep your chips close to your heart...
        When love seems so far away
        And there’s no one to comfort you
        Don’t you ever give up hope
        That he’ll come back to you someday…
        You’ve got to take your chances
        And believe hard till the end
        That someday soon you’ll see him come
        But until that day this here’s what you’ll say…
        Don’t let go of your love’s shine,
        No matter how far you’re apart
        Don’t gamble your last bottom dollar,
        And keep your chips close to your heart...
        No, don’t ever let go of your love’s shine,
        No matter how far you’re apart
        Don’t ever gamble away
        You last bottom dollar,
        And keep your chips close to your heart...
       Noel took advantage of the silence that followed the end of the song and stepped into the light of the fire. “Hello Foxglove, my dear love.” Foxy had started to turn and thank her band, but then she saw him and her heart seemed to skip a beat. She’d been wanting to see him so much right then, and that song always turned her thoughts to him. Her voice came out as a whisper at first.
       “Chip...Chip! CHIP!”
       Foxy jumped up and rushed to him, covering him with affection. “It’s you! It’s really you!” Noel threw his arms around her and gave her a kiss as intense and fur raising as the one that he had given her before they had last parted. Foxy looked up into his eyes. “I don’t know how I could live another day without you.” Foxy grabbed his hands with her wings and she started dancing around. “Oh darling, I kept hoping you’d come early! Now my life’s complete!” Noel knew that the time to ask was now. He let her go and took the necklace out of his pocket and placed it over her head, then he knelt in front of her and took a wing in his hands.
       “Foxy, would you make my life complete? Would you be with me forever...as my wife?” Noel asked. Foxy barely noticed the jeweled necklace. Her whole attention was on him, and her eyes shone as big as Texas. “There’ll only be one chipmunk I ever want and that’s Chip Maplewood.Yes, honey!” Noel swept her up in his arms and spun her around. “YEEHAW!!” Bedivere took up the yell himself. “Now that there’s a yell worthy of my nephew-to-be. Right, Galahad?” Galahad knew his girl was happy now, and he couldn’t think of anyone else he’d rather her be happy with. “Sure is, Bedivere. Chip, welcome to the family.” Daisy hugged his neck. “You’ve made our girl very happy. Welcome, son!” Noel was still overcome and hugged his future inlaws. “Whew, this is so overwhelming! But, there are some things that we need to talk about, Foxy.”
       “Okay, Chip. But dance with me first? Last time we danced it wasn’t so nice. You deserve to have good thoughts from every dance from now on,” Foxy said. The band started up ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ and Foxy looked to him expectantly. Noel took her in his arms and held her as if he never wanted to let her go, which in truth he did not. “Anything for you, Foxglove.”

       The other Fairmonts joined in, Bedivere dancing with Little Foxy in his arms. Song led to song, and the time began to slip away. Before Noel realized it, it was late and Bedivere walked over, yawning. “Well son, we’ve got a busy day at the ranch tomorrow. We’ll give you and mah niece here some time to enjoy yourselves. You behave yourself now, pardner.”
       Galahad hugged her daughter. “See? I knew he would come all along.” Daisy followed suit. “Good night, you two. We love you both.” The band followed after wishing Noel and Foxy well. Then the two lovers were alone by the fire. Foxy sighed in contentment, alone with the munk of her dreams at last. “I’ll introduce you to the band in the morning. They’re staying on here with us for a few days’ vacation. They all wanted to see the ranch and have some time away from the city.”
       Then the aforementioned fact really struck Foxy. “Oh Chip, you’re really here! And you’re mine! I don’t care if I don’t have another birthday party. I’ve got the present I always wanted!” A pained look came over Noel’s face as he took Foxy’s wings in his hands and led her to a bench. “I need to tell you about something that happened a short time ago. I should’ve told you about this before I proposed, but I couldn’t contain my love for you any longer and I lost my head. You’re probably wondering why I’m dressed like this.”
       Foxy took on a look of concern. “What is it, dear? Did you give up the Rangers to come to me?” Noel took a deep breath. “I don’t even know how to start explaining what happened. The answer to your question is yes and no. I want you to be happy, and for your happiness I would give up anything, even the Rangers. You’re the most important thing in my life. But the Rangers won’t be lacking a leader because even if I leave the Rangers, Chip will still be in charge.” Noel saw her confusion but kept on. “A malfunctioning device made by professor Nimnul created two of us. There are two Chip Maplewoods now, both of us totally identical in thought and action...and in our love for you. Only one of us could be Chip, so I gave that up so that I could be here with you. I use my middle name now, Noel...Noel Maplewood.”
       Foxy looked at him with utter skepticism. “How can there be two of you? Chip, this isn’t like you! You don’t need to make up a story to be with me. I know it must’ve hurt to leave the Rangers, but it’s okay to admit it.”
       “I knew you’d find it hard to believe, but it’s the truth. I wouldn’t have come all this way, and proposed and then lie to you as to why I’m here. After talking it over with Chip and our parents, I’m now Chip’s long lost brother Noel. If you don’t believe me, call HQ and talk to Chip. I told him we’d probably call.”
       Foxy wanted to believe him, and for the most part she did. Still, two Chips? “If there is another Chip, then I need to talk to him too. Let’s go to the ranchhouse.” Noel helped Foxy to her feet and stood by when they got to the ranchhouse. “Chip and I have agreed to share joint custody of Theo. He misses you, almost as much as I did.” Foxy dialed the number, and it was Dale that answered. “Hiya, Foxglove! I think I know who you wanna talk to...” The line was silent for a few moments, but Foxy’s ears could pick up Dale’s voice whispering “go ahead.”
       “Hello, Foxy. It’s true,” Chip said. Foxy quickly glanced at Noel, then at the phone. “Hello, cutie. Uh, are you really telling me that there are two of you?” Chip didn’t blame her one bit for being confused. “I’m sure Noel’s explained it, but yes. He’s as much me as I am. It was just a freak accident, but we had to decide who would stay with the Rangers and who would go to you. Noel and I agreed for several reasons that it was right that he go. I do love you, but Noel Maplewood’s the one with you now.”
       “We’ve even had DNA tests done, and we are completely identical,” Noel said. “The Chip you love is here…and there.” Chip waited for Foxy to reply but when she didn’t he knew he’d have to do the talking. “Foxy, I know it must be a shock but I’m okay with Noel being your husband. Since we were separated, I realized that I needed to be here with the Rangers. Noel stayed devoted to you, so we both agreed to make sacrifices.”
       Foxy felt like she was going to faint. “Chip, Noel, I don’t know what to say. If you were any other people I was dealing with, I wouldn’t believe it for a moment. But after my time with Winifred and the things you’ve told me about your other adventures, I know that such things could happen. How will you two get along, and what place is there for me in the Rangers?”
       “Do you want to be a Ranger?” Chip asked. “What about your singing career?” Foxy stole a look back at Noel. “Well, I don’t know if it’s what’s right for me. As a singer I entertain people, but with the Rangers I really help people.”
       “You could do both, you know. Just take time off when you want and go sing. I’m sure Noel will go with you. You’re welcome to come here as long as you like. Noel and I get along fine,” Chip said. Foxy suddenly had a different concern. “I know how you were hurt by lost love, Chip. Will you be okay with Noel and I?”
       “You know how we both were affected by Gadget and Dale. I’m more mature now, and I can handle it. It’ll take some getting used to, but I’d rather have you both here,” Chip said. Foxy could sense his emotional turmoil and sympathized greatly with it. “Oh Chip, I’m so sorry. You’ve been hurt so much. I don’t want to hurt either of you, but I love you…both of you so much.”
       “I know, Foxy,” Chip said. “But there’s something else you should know. Since Noel and I have been separated, I’ve started to grow closer to Lahwhinie while he stayed devoted to you. This wouldn’t have happened except for the circumstances surrounding the accident. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I don’t want to keep anything from you. I still love you, but I now have feelings for her too. I plan to talk to Monty and see what he advises, but I wanted you to know first.”
       Foxy took a few moments before she replied. “Nothing would make me happier than for us all to be happy, with anyone who could make you so.” Chip inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Foxy. I knew you’d be understanding, but I’ve felt bad about it. Are you sure you’ll be okay coming back, knowing that?”
       “Well, it will certainly take some getting used too, but I think I could get used to it. Uh, how do you think Theo will feel about Noel and I?” Foxy asked. Chip’s voice was reassuring. “Noel’s his dad as much as I am. He’s one gung-ho kid, so don’t worry about him. He’ll be real glad to see you.”
       “Okay, but when you talk to him about this, tell him that Noel proposed and I accepted,” Foxy said. Chip knew it would happen, but there was a pang in his heart—it could have been him. Still, he knew his destiny lied elsewhere now. “That’s great, Foxy. I’ll let him and the others know right away. What’s your schedule like now? Can you come up right away?”
       “Perhaps give us a few days here. I’d like Noel to have some time with his soon-to-be extended family,” Foxy said. Chip certainly understood that. “Okay, we’ll leave the light on for you. And don’t feel uncomfortable about being around me when you get here. Just think of me as a very dear friend, and I’ll think of you as my favorite sister-in-law.” Foxy tried to control herself, and only partially succeeded. “Okay, Chip, I just don’t want this to hurt you...more than it already has.” Chip heard her crying and once again used his voice to reassure her. “I was too proud to go to anyone before, Foxy. I won’t be that way again. I know I have friends here who will get me through it. I’m glad you’re still one of them.”
       “I wish I was there to give you a hug, Chip. I’ll have to save it for when I see you next. This is so strange, I’m talking about how much I love you, when you’re also standing right here with me,” Foxy said.
       “Weird, isn’t it?” Chip said. “But I know you love me—after all, you’re marrying the other me. You’re still making me happy, Foxy. It’s just one of those quirks that life throws at you.” Foxy laughed nervously. “But this is ridiculous! I hope things work out for you and Lahwhinie, Chip. You deserve to be happy.”
       “Well, we’ll see. I don’t even know if she’s interested at all in a relationship. And as for deserving, you were the one who bailed me out, remember? So if anyone deserves anything it’s you,” Chip said. Foxy smiled. “Well, I got you, babe! One of you anyway. I don’t suppose you could make that machine make another me for you?”
       “I admit I thought about it, but the effect of the modemizer was apparently random. Besides, it might kill you and then neither of us would have you. I’d much rather you be happy with Noel.”
       “Okay, cutie. I’m sorry it ended up this way, Chip. I love you, and it hurts me to let you go, even if it is for you.”
       “I know, Foxy. It’s not anyone’s fault, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing you and Noel when you come.” Foxy felt more tears coming. “Thank you, Chip. Farewell, my dear, dear friend.” Chip for his part had a knot in his throat the size of Hondo. “Goodbye, Foxy. Tell Noel I wish him the best.”

       Chip hung up the phone, and walked into the main room. The Rangers were all there waiting, and Dale patted him on the back. “We’re with you, Chip. Wish I’d been able to help you better with the last problem like this.”
       “Me too,” Gadget said. “We all want you to know that we’re behind you, and we’re sorry for what’s happened.” Chip took his friends’ hands. “Thanks Gadget, Dale. I know I didn’t go to any of you before, but I’ll never do that again. You’re all my family, and I’ll never turn away from you again.”
       “Any news on how they’re doing?” Zipper asked. Chip took a seat at the sofa. “Yes, he proposed and she accepted. Foxy said it would be a few days yet, but they both plan to come back here. Her future’s not written in stone, but for now she seems to want to be a Ranger again.”
       Monty nodded, smiling. “She’s a roight bonzer lass, she is. I’ll be glad ta have her under me roof again.” Eva came up and took Chip’s hand, concerned. “How are you holding up, Chip?” Chip found he liked Eva’s attention the way he liked his own mother’s. “Okay, I guess. She’s marrying me, but it’s not me. It’s confusing, but I still consider her a good friend as she does me. I’m just going to need time.”
       Gadget had sat down next to him and now she hugged him. “Well, you’ve got us and casework. That’s a combination that’s been good for Chip Maplewood in the past.” Lahwhinie was standing with Dale and Eva, not exactly sure what to do. “And if you get bored, I’ll teach you more Hawaiian and you can hire yourself out to the R.A.S. as an interpreter.”
       “ Mahalo, Lahwhinie,” Chip said, winking.

       The night was a restless one for Chip. He was so stirred up inside he couldn’t rest so he went from his bed into the main room, careful not to wake Theo. He turned on the television low and tried to lose himself in repeats of Gilligan’s Island. Monty had heard Chip leave his room, knowing that he’d probably have trouble sleeping. He had helped Dale, Gadget, Foxy, Zipper and even Honey, but Chip was the only person whom he had not had a chance to talk to.
       He got out of bed, careful not to wake Eva, and slowly made his way to the living room where he found Chip lazily gazing at the tube. Monty sat next to him in his nightclothes. “Havin’ trouble sleepin’ mate? Want me to whip up something for you to eat?” Chip grimaced slightly but didn’t look at him. “I’m not really hungry, but thanks. I guess you can add my story to your collection, Monty. It’s not everyday a fellow loses a girl to himself. I didn’t realize how alone I’d feel until now.”
       “Chip, you’ve never been alone, mate. Ya got a bonzer army o’ friends and family ta be with ya through thick and thin.”
       Chip was wondering if this was a good time to bring up Lahwhinie or not. He remembered the image of her talking to the others earlier and decided to wait a bit. “I know, Monty. But you can be alone in a crowd of people. I just seem to keep striking out where girls are concerned...well, call it batting .500. But Foxy’s engaged now, and I’m not.”
       Monty couldn’t imagine anything more frustrating. “Well lad, love’s never an easy thing. Look how my life’s been.” Chip glanced over his way. “That’s true. You had to wait a long time for your happiness to come. Now you’ve got a wife that loves you, and two daughters and a son on the way besides, if Kate has it right. You’ve got a great family, and now Lahwhinie’s joined in with you.”
       “You’re part of the way there, mate,” Monty said. “You got a great boy there. One day you’ll find a princess ta marry and you’ll be happy, and Theo too.” Chip averted his eyes, and at that moment Lahwhinie went into the kitchen and came back with a late-night snack. She waved to Monty and then smiled at Chip and went back to her room. Monty turned back to continue talking with Chip and noticed a fading blush on his cheeks.
       Chip recovered himself as quickly as he could. “Well, where were we? Oh uh, Theo. Yeah, I’m glad to have him around. He’s a great boy and I plan to raise him to take my place one day. It’s a great thing to know he’ll carry on the line.” Monty noticed Chip’s reaction, but decided to wait till Chip brought up the issue. “He’s certainly got his heart set on being a Ranger. Born ta the role, if ya ask me.”
       “You know, I really hadn’t thought of the Rangers lasting past us, but with Theo and your child coming maybe the Rangers will outlast us.” Chip looked into Monty’s eyes, and suddenly he knew that he knew. Chip let his shoulders sag. “Okay, I admit it. I’m dodging the issue. I guess you saw my reaction just then. If you need to break an arm or something, could you make it the left one? I’d like the right one to have some more healing time.” Monty smiled and patted Chip on the shoulder. “Relax lad, I’m not up in arms over it. Ta be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea but I’ll give ya credit, you’ve been a perfect gentleman and I thank you for that, Chip.”
       Chip leaned back on the sofa. “Whew. I wasn’t looking forward to more time in traction. Don’t ask me how it happened, because I’m not sure myself. Somehow in talking with her and helping her I’ve come to...respect Lahwhinie. I never thought I’d be saying something like this, but I like her. I may even love her. I know, you’re thinking that this is Chip turning from one girl to the next but it didn’t happen that way. I can’t explain it because it started when I was still one munk, but I never gave it real consideration then. But now...now, I’m considering it.”
       Monty accepted that, but knew the course he was plotting could be precarious. “Just take it easy on her, lad. She’s had a lot of bad times with guys. She’s been hurt deep and she’s not lookin’ ta be hurt again. Just remember, she’s me darling daughter and I want what’s best for her. Yer a new man, Chip...two new men, ta be precise. But you’ve been a big help to her, and Theo—well, he’s been a downright blessing.”
       “I wasn’t even going to say anything at first, because I don’t want to hurt her,” Chip said, glad that he could finally talk to Monty. “I’ve made so many mistakes in my time, that I was afraid to even say hello to her tonight. I don’t even know if this makes sense, but when I’m talking to her I feel better about myself. That’s strange, because she spends half the time cracking cynical jokes. Somehow, I like them. Monty, I’ve faced down bad guys left and right. I’ve kept my cool in deadly situations. But when she just looks at me now, I can’t keep my composure!”
       Chip folded his hands in front of him. “To tell the truth, I’ve been afraid to say much anything to her. She’s as strong as Gadget, and I don’t relish the idea of ticking her off. So, what do you advise? Should I ask her out somewhere and see what she says or just bide my time and hope that she says something?”
       “Just keep treating her as a friend,” Monty said. “Let her make the first move, ‘cause she’s the one who needs to decide when or if she’s ever ready to trust you with something like that.” Chip turned off the television. “I guess you’re right. Monty, does the emptiness ever go away?”
       “Only when you find her, but in a pinch a good cheese chowder’ll fit the bill,” Monty said, his eyes twinkling. Chip chuckled, and followed Monty into the kitchen where they both got a snack. Once they finished up, Chip helped Monty clean the dishes.
       “Well, I’m glad you know anyway,” Chip said. “I’ll never let her know, unless she opens the door. And if she doesn’t love me, then so be it. Thanks for not maiming me, Monty.” Monty dried and put up another plate. “No problem, mate. Now if that Rat Capone fella ever showed up and tried something, then he’d get it bad. That reminds me, I still owe him a savage beating for darin’ ta strike Gadget when we were lookin’ fer those toy boats.” Chip hadn’t thought about that in some time, but Monty’s mention of it had him thinking similarly. “I wouldn’t mind slapping him around for that myself, though I expect Dale would insist on going first. If anyone tries something with Lahwhinie, I’ll let them have it too...that is, assuming Lahwhinie leaves anything for me to let them have it with.”
       Monty chuckled. “She’ll be a handful, no matter how much she mellows with time. No one will walk all over her.”
       “That’s for sure. Well, good night Monty. Good talking with you,” Chip said, heading for the kitchen door. Monty put up the last of the dishes. “Nice to talk to you too, mate. You were the only one I haven’t dispenced me lifetime o’ wisdom to. I’m glad I could help. And Chip, if she does like ya, in that way...I approve.”
       Chip nodded, and left for bed. Theo was still asleep when he got there, and Chip slipped under the covers. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but now Lahwhinie’s father knew. **At least I’m still alive. But what now? I know I can be a friend to her, but what if she never responds to me? Well, Chip Maplewood, there’s other girls.** Chip tried to console himself with the idea, but it didn’t help much. It wouldn’t be easy, but then nothing ever really was. The leader of the Rangers fell asleep, with no idea of what tomorrow would bring.

       “YEEEEE-HAAAAAW! Wake up, wake up! The work won’t get done on its own!” Bedivere went all about the ranch yard, waking up its sleepy denizens. Noel jerked out of his bed, and for a moment was disoriented before he remembered where he was. The chipmunk cracked his lids open and squinted at the old clock on the barn wall. “ Five a.m.?! You got us up at five a.m.!?”
       “Right sorry ‘bout that, pardner,” Bedivere said at the door to the bunkhouse. “We’re jest getting off late today. I figgered you and Foxy and her band would like t’come watch me and the hands brand these here beetles. You city slickers’ll never see anything like this at home!”
       Noel had to admit, what Bedivere said was true. “Bug branding, that will certainly be something new. This should be good, she said she’d introduce her band to me this morning. So Bedivere, what are Texas bat weddings like? She’d probably rather have a wedding among her own kind rather than in New York.” Bedivere worked on making a lariat loop as they walked through the barn over toward where Foxy had roosted for the night. “Well, we bats do things a particular way out in these parts. Indian customs have kinda merged in with the traditional stateside ceremony. It’s not too different from what you’re used to, though. Of course, you’ll have to pass the wedding test.”
       Noel stopped short. “Test? What test?”
       Bedivere looked at him with surprise. “What? You mean they didn’t tell ya, boy? Well, you’re in pretty good condition, but usually no one proposes to a girl unless he’s been in training fer a few months. You’ll have to ride a wild prairie dog for at least ten seconds to prove your strength, climb the heights of Mount Rawhide to prove yer endurance, and eat nothing but jalapeño peppers while doing it all to prove your mettle. Oh, and you have to do all that in one day—sunup to sunset. You’ll start from right outside the barn, and we’ll be waiting for you when you get back. There’s a mess of jalapeños in the barrel by the outer wall.”
       Noel couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’re joking, right? Pulling a prank on a city slicker?” Bedivere walked Noel over to the barn opening. “Does that look like I’m kidding?” The old bat pointed to the corral where a bucking prairie dog was excitedly moving about in a stall. Bedivere grabbed up a pack, and stuffed a bunch of the fire-hot peppers in them. Then he went back inside and brought out a ranch outfit for Noel, complete with hat, shirt, leather vest, chaps, boots and spurs.
       “Better get a move on, buckaroo! You’re burnin’ daylight! Foxy’ll be down at the corral by the time ya get dressed and set on Firebrand,” Bedievere said. Noel looked from the duds in his hands back to Bedivere. “Okay, but just beware. I’m going to be a bit ornery for a few days after all this, not to mention sick as a dog.” Noel quickly got dressed and strapped on his pack “Lead on, Bedivere.”

       All the ranch hands were gathered, and they cheered Noel on as he climbed the pole fence and entered the chute. Firebrand was below him, pawing the ground and waiting. Then Foxy emerged with the other ladies from the ranch house. “Noel, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about this! I didn’t know about it until a couple of weeks ago, and then I was sort of overcome by the singing and all last night. It’s required of every male who asks for a lady bat’s hand, and has to be done the day after the proposal. You aren’t mad, are you?” Noel hugged Foxy. “Nothing worth having should be easy to win. I don’t mind, but I’ll need a few days to recover from the tests though.” Foxy pointed to the wild prairie dog. “Well, you just watch yourself cutie. That Firebrand’s as tough as they come.”
       Bedivere slapped Noel on the back, nearly knocking him off the fence. “Just hold on tight with yer legs, grab that rope like it’s a part of yer hand and you’ll do fine! Okay boys, it’s time!” The hands helped Noel into position on Firebrand. The wild critter had a makeshift saddle on him, and Noel grabbed the rope attached to the bridle on the prairie dog’s head. The band had formed an audience on the far side of the corral and was yelling Noel’s name. A hired hand went into the corral and got ready to open the gate.
       “Got a good grip, son?” Bedivere asked.
       Noel had never been in a spot like this before. Five pounds of wild prairie dog beneath him and ten seconds to glory. “I’m ready, Bedivere. Let ‘er rip!” Foxy kissed his cheek and flew off the fence. “Go to it, honey!” The gate flew open and Firebrand was off and bucking. Noel strained hard, using his legs to stay down on the saddle as well as he could. The wily prairie dog tried everything—rearing, twisting, turning. Noel was still on, and then Firebrand stopped and attempted to pitch him off. Noel grabbed the pommel of the saddle and held on for dear life. “Whoaohoh!”
       “Ride ‘im, chipmunk!” Bedivere shouted.
       “Go, darling! Go!” Foxy said.
       Noel was being bounced and jounced all around the corral but it soon became evident that he wouldn’t be thrown. The ten seconds passed, and he was secure in place. A loud cheer went up as Bedivere announced Noel’s success. Noel stayed where he was until the hands came to help him. When they got him out of the corral, Noel went and leaned against the outer fence to catch his breath. He felt a nudging from behind. It was Firebrand, nosing him through the corral poles. Bedivere saw it as Foxy ran ahead of him and hugged Noel then kissed him.
       “Son, that was a mighty fine ride!” Bedivere said. “And ol’ Firebrand’s taken a likin’ to ya! No one’s ever stayed on him as long as you did. Reckon he’s chosen a pardner, and I’ve never seen a prairie dog yet with bad judgment. Take a couple minutes and get ready ta go. Mount Rawhide’s a fer piece off—I’ll get the map.” Foxy still had her wings around him. She was dressed in another cowgirl outfit today, a jacket of felt with intricate beadwork sewn in. The white and blue colors were repeated on her long skirt and she still wore her white hat and boots along with her white blouse. “Oh Noel, you were wonderful! You aren’t hurt, are you?”
       Noel leaned on the railing for a breather. “Well, I’ll be walking funny for a while, but otherwise okay.” Foxy hugged him in her excitement. “I’m so glad! Now all you have to do is get to the top of Mount Rawhide, get a branch of mountain laurel and come back. That’s the only place it grows around here, so we’ll know that you’ve been there.” Noel took Foxy’s face in his hands. “Foxy, no test will come between us. I’d climb Mount Everest or swim any ocean to be with you. I’ve made you wait, I’ve made you feel second best, and now the time’s come to prove that I love you more than life itself.” Noel leaned in an whispered, “I’d even eat these nasty peppers while doing all of that.”
       Foxy giggled. “I know you love me, dearest. This is just for tradition’s sake, but you’ll do it and better than anyone. My Noel’s the greatest chipmunk that ever lived!”
       “And it took you to bring that out in me,” Noel said. “Start making the wedding plans, Foxy. I’m headin’ for the hills!” Noel took one of peppers out of his pack and ate it. He grimaced and looked ill. “Yuck! Okay, where’s that mountain?” Bedivere came over with the map and showed Noel where he was going. It was a good twenty miles of prairie and sagebrush to Mount Rawhide and then several hundred feet up to the top “..and once ya have the laurel branch, you’re home free! But there is one little thing you might haveta watch out for.”
       **Oboy, here it comes.** “Locusts? Molten lava? Rattlesnakes? Aliens?” Noel asked.
       “Nothin’ so easy, laddie buck. Mount Rawhide’s home to the gila monsters in these parts. You should be able ta skirt ‘em on yer way up, but comin’ down you’ll haveta go right through their home terry-torry. Jest watch yerself and don’t advertise your presence and you’ll be okay. If ya can’t get past them, just wait ‘cause their bite’s poisonous—not to mention they’re big enough ta eat ya.” Foxy gasped at the thought. “Gila monsters? Oh, Noel!” Noel put on airs to ease Foxy’s concerns. “Oh, is that all? Well, as a Ranger I’ve encountered many worse things that than. This’ll be a walk in the park compared to Fat Cat.”
       “Don’t get overconfident, cowpoke,” Bedivere warned. “Those critters are poison mean and they hate intruders. You’ll need ta be as silent as Boot Hill and quick as a Texas twister.” Noel found himself looking forward to the challenge now. “Well, just wait till they cross paths with a Rescue Ranger. They’ll never know what hit them.”
       Bedivere handed him a lariat, and the hands led out Firebrand for Noel. The tough steed nudged Noel again, letting him know it was okay for him to ride. Foxy straightened Noel’s hat and kissed him long and tenderly. “I’ll be waiting for you, cutie.”
       “Don’t worry, Foxy. I’ll be back in a flash, then we’ll be together forever,” Noel said, then turned Firebrand out of the yard and the prairie dog reared as Noel waved his hat. “Forward, my faithful steed! Adventure and danger awaits us!”

       At that moment, Chip got up at Ranger Headquarters. For some reason, his body felt sore and a little queasy this morning but he couldn’t remember pulling a muscle. Chip shrugged it off and when he came into the kitchen Monty and Eva were already in there. Eva had on her karate outfit, as she’d been keeping the kids and Lahwhinie busy with learning the martial arts.
       “Good morning, young munk! You look quite chipper this morning!” Eva said, politely joking. Chip sat down, and Monty brought his breakfast over. “I feel as though a lifetime of pressure and weight’s been lifted from my shoulders. As they say, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’.”
       “Vell, that is as good an attitude to have as any,” Eva said. “Monty told me about his little talk with you last night. Vould you like to join us in karate class this morning, Chip?” Chip thought it over a minute, then shook his head. “I think I’ll pass on that. For now, anyway.”
       “I understand. You are still recovering from the vound outside and now inside. But you should not feel you have to stay away from our daughter or not have good times. Just remember she is recovering too, and do not ask her to do what she is not yet able. You are such a kind munk, Chip. I know that much of her change is due to you. Let her continue to find herself, as you did,” Eva said.

       Breakfast continued without much comment after that, and then Theo and Lahwhinie came in wearing their karate outfits. Bink arrived soon after, in a new outfit of her own that her mom had made for her. She bounded into the kitchen, showing off her costume. “Isn’t it great? Mom said that she was very grateful to you, Mrs. Erskine. She said the house is almost back in order now, since I’ve had things to keep me occupied.” Eva smiled at the way Bink had put it. “You’re velcome, dear. Martial arts helps to focus the mind and give direction to a person’s energy.”
       “And I just love it! Don’t you, Theo?” Bink asked. Theo zoomed through his breakfast. “Yeah! I want to be able to do all those cool things they do in the movies—leap onto rooftops, fly through the air, shoot balls of fire out of my hands. I know that’ll take time, but seriously I want to know how to defend myself. We rodents rarely have the advantage of size against an enemy, so we need to know how to survive.”
       Monty sat down next to him. “Well lad, size ain’t everything ya know. Why, I kin remember tanglin’ with a mess of the ruddiest-lookin’ dingos you ever saw! They terrorized me neighborhood back home in the outback. One day we all were ready fer ‘em, and threw everything at them but the kitchen sink! ‘Course, they wrecked a few o’ our houses an’ all, but it was a bonzer fight! Those mangy mongrels never showed their hairy faces again.”
       Eva was constantly having to balance things out between her husband’s stories and the lessons she gave. “Just remember you two—fighting is not the first option or the second. We have brains in our heads for thinking first. So think first, and only fight if you must.” Lahwhinie paused from her breakfast to respond. “Well, I’ll have to see that in action to believe it.” Eva looked over at her. “Perhaps you vill, daughter. I have heard that Chip here is the thinking type. Is that not how you would go about it, Chip?”
       “That’s right, Eva,” Chip said. “When the Rangers go into a situation, I try to plan ahead for every contingency so no one gets hurt. It doesn’t always work, but planning and quick thinking pays off in the end.”
       Lahwhinie crossed her arms. “Well, I still say that destroying an enemy’s the fastest and most effective way of dealing with them. I’m willing to keep my options open, though.” Chip turned his attention to Lahwhinie, and found to his relief that it was easier talking to her now that he knew Monty and Eva knew. “It would be easier to take someone out in the short run, but whatever we do has consequences. It’s true that Fat Cat or our enemies would kill us if they could, but if we kill them then we’re just doing the things that the Rangers were founded to stop. We have to have a better standard than they do—not for them, but for people like these.” Chip indicated Theo and Bink. “I’d like to leave my boy and kids like Bink with a better world than the one I came into,” Chip said. Lahwhinie knew she could argue this point for a long time, but decided not to make an issue of it. “Okay, you have a point there, Chip.”
       Chip was glad to see that she was mellowing some. “I know that the Rangers may never get much recognition for what we do, but it’s the doing that makes the difference. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my life now than help people. There’s nothing so great as giving someone else the gift of happiness. I’m just beginning to realize how great it is myself.” Chip excused himself and got up. “I’ve got to go in to the station. I’ll be back by the time the karate lesson’s over. We’ll make a sky patrol this afternoon, too, so everyone be ready.” Lahwhinie stood up. “After you’re done flying around, why don’t we do something fun? I...we don’t want you getting depressed about Noel and Foxy.We need to keep your spirits up.”
       “Can I come too?” Theo asked.
       “Sure, if we can drag your dad away from his work long enough for some fun,” Lahwhinie said. Chip was relieved to hear that Theo was coming, as he hadn’t been sure what brand of fun Lahwhinie had in mind. He immediately chastized himself for that throught, knowing that she’d changed a great deal now. “Well, I’ll leave it up to the two of you. You can surprise me after sky patrol, and we’ll see what adventure awaits us.”

        As Chip left the treehouse, he found himself looking out into the towering skyline in the distance. Even though some of them were a long ways off, they seemed close. Chip let the thought go, and ran down the tree on his all-fours. A couple of thousand miles away, a similar thought was running through the mind of Noel Maplewood concerning the rock formations in the distance.
       The land around him was flat, and way off in the distance he could now see his destination. Mount Rawhide was so named because it had a reputation for leaving humans with enough cuts and bruises to make their skin look like they’d been the victims of a Ginsu knife demonstation. Firebrand was racing along over the prairie soil, and Chip was glad that he seemed tireless.
       An hour later, rider and prairie dog stopped at the craggy base of Mount Rawhide. Noel looked up and saw several hundred feet of loose-rock paths and sheer walls to welcome him. Still, he was a chipmunk and chipmunks were born to climb. Noel patted Firebrand and picketed him near some berry bushes, which the prairie dog began to consume. “Don’t worry, Firebrand. This chipmunk is going to be back before you know it. If it takes climbing a mountain to prove my love for Foxy, then that what I’ll do.”
       Noel ate another pepper. “Ack! Yuck!”
       Firebrand snorted and went back to his eating. Noel found the combination of the peppers he’d eaten was playing havoc with his stomach. He ate another one, and it forced a unique reaction. Noel burped, and when he did the hot peppers somehow caused him to spout flame. The fire set a nearby dry bush ablaze, and Noel stomped out the flames.
       “That was unexpected! I wonder if this is why I was supposed to eat these terrible tasting peppers?” He ate another to see if he could recreate the occurence and he did. “If only Dale could see me now. He’d be green with envy, whereas I’m just green.”

        Noel climbed up the embankment, and found an old worn path to follow. It would have been treacherous for a human, but for him it was just fine. Well, that is until he saw the gila monsters. They were all asleep, sunning themsleves on the rocks of a nearby plateau as endotherms often will. Bedivere was right—it was no problem getting around them and Noel just walked up the path and past them. He almost thought that the old bat had been kidding when he said he’d have to come back through them when Noel rounded the corner and stopped.
       The path ended here, and the vertical climb began. It soon became evident why he couldn’t go back to the path, because coming down the cliff above the path angled down and in with no clawholds—a sheer fifty foot drop. Noel worked his way around the angled portion but noted that the loose rock could easily send him falling if he tried to come down the same way. He looked down and to the right, and found that the safe path indeed led through gila monster country. Noel gulped, and began climbing. Once he was past the area with loose rock it got easier, but there was a problem.
       “Where are the trees?! They have to be somewhere around here!”
       Noel searched the level he was on, but there was no sign. Still, there was a couple of hundred feet to go, so the gutsy chipmunk continued his assault. The walls were nearly vertical going up, and Noel found he had to make sure of his clawholds before putting his weight on them. Another half hour found him at the highest plateau. Noel stood and looked down. Firebrand was only a speck below. Up here, the wind was blowing harder and Noel had to grip his hat to keep it in place. There was a small cave in front of him, and paths leading left and right around it with rocks blocking his view as to what laid at the end of either path.
       Noel chose the right path, “I’d better hurry, time is of the essence.”
       Noel rounded the path and found that a small landslide had blocked the way to human progress. However, he had no problem fitting in the cracks between the large rocks and soon continued around the small plateau. As he reached the rear side of it, he heard a rustling behind him. Noel turned and found a mountain laurel in full bloom.
       Noel rushed up and began loading laurel leaves into his backpack. He also made a point of placing several of the small white flowers between some of the leaves, as they'd add to the beauty of Foxy's outfit. Noel followed the path around the plateau and found instantly he was very glad he hadn’t chosen the left path or the cave—each one led into a sheer drop on the other side, no doubt from the same source that caused the landslide on the right path.
       Noel adjusted his hat, knowing that nothing would stop him from proving to all the bats that he was worthy to marry Foxy. But then he was suddenly puzzled. If all bats had to do this, why didn’t they just fly to the top and get the leaves? He’d have to ask about the ”test” again when he got back to the ranch. Then Noel rounded the corner again where the cave was.
       “Oh, so that’s why.”
       In front of the cave was a large buzzard. It was scanning the skies for any sign of life, and Noel could just imagine a bat trying to fly past that monolith. Still, why didn’t Bedivere mention this danger? Noel waited until the buzzard went back into the darkness of the cave and flew off on the other side via the drop he’d seen. Then he made his way down by the safe path until he was almost within sight of the gila monsters. They were still sunning, but Noel knew that any slipup would alert them.
       “I should’ve brought the hang glider,” Noel said. A funny thought came to him, and for some reason he could just imagine Dale here, singing “Tip toe, through the Gilas…” Noel checked his pack again to be sure he had the peppers at the ready. He took a few in his hand and started down. The brave chipmunk made it past the first three, but he’d forgotten to take off his spurs. Metal grinded against rock as he passed close under one of the gila monsters and they all raised their heads.
       Noel quickly wolfed down the handful of peppers like Popeye would with his spinach, regardless of the consequences. “Alright, who wants a piece of me?”
       One of the nearby gila monsters scurried down off his rock and hissed at Noel, eyeing an easy meal. Noel knew it was only a matter of time, and sure enough the reaction happened. He clamped his mouth tightly, waiting until the creature got close. Then as it was ready to pounce, Chip let go with a fireball that would have done a volcano proud. The gila monster and its companions were spooked at the sight of the heated onslaught, and they backed up. Noel stared at them all, Clint Eastwood fashion.
       “Do you punks feel lucky?”
       He started slowly making his way down the trail, always keeping an eye on them. Only when he was fully down the embankment and Firebrand was in sight did he breathe a sigh of relief. Noel ran to his faithful steed, secured the pack and pulled up the picket stob. He waved his hat at the recalcitrant lizards and his prairie dog reared. “Hiyo, Firebrand! Away!”


Chapter 11 - The Trial's End/Travel Plans/The Dangers of Modern Art

       The day for Noel’s look-alike had been quite a lot smoother. Police headquarters was pretty quiet, with the only real news being the theft of a valuable ruby-encrusted tiepin from an exhibition of rare jewelry. No clues as yet, but Chip made a note to keep his eyes open in his part of the world. When the Rangers went out on sky patrol, Gadget used her visual technology to carefully search the hangouts of the likely animal suspects. Nothing turned up, which didn’t surprise Chip too much. After all, whoever stole the pin wouldn’t likely carry it around in broad daylight. As they landed, Gadget jumped out first.
       “Gosh, it’s nice to have a routine again,” Gadget said. “The honeymoon was great, but there really is no place like home.” Dale followed her up quickly. “You said it. Gimme action and adventure!”
       “Too right,” Monty said. “Say Dale, we ain’t seen much o’ you and Gadget lately. What’ve you two been up to?” Dale looked over at Gadget and grinned. “Well, we’ve both been people that liked to keep to ourselves before we were married, so now we’re trying to spend more time together. I’ve taken her to movies and shows and she’s teaching me more about machines and science.”
       Gadget put her arm around Dale. “Dale’s been helping me get going with my inventions again and I’ve been painting some more. I’m starting to get good at fencing, too! Too bad everyone uses guns or knives—sword fighting has style to it. Not that fighting with swords is good or right on a general basis. Wait, I mean that there’s a science to it, and you know with my mind being a scientific one as it is...”
       “A scientific one that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Dale said, hugging her. “I know what you mean, a sword isn’t as clumsy or random as a blaster, an elegant weapon from a more civilized time.” Gadget winked at him. “Right, Obi-Wan. Golly, I didn’t even know that they’d made so many movies about science! I’ve gotten so many ideas from just the last week’s movies that I could produce hundreds of inventions from them!”
       “Well, you’re probably the only person in the world that could make those inventions in real life,” Dale said. Gadget shrugged at the compliment. “I’m going to give a few things a try. But before you ask yet again, Dale, no I don’t know how to make a light saber. It’s highly improbable to create a device that could produce a laser of that intensity that would be held to a limited length.”
       “Aw, shucks!” Dale said. “How about a clumsy, random blaster then?” Gadget chuckled, and kissed him on the cheek “You know I’d never make anything that dangerous. Now, how about we go rollerskating tonight? We haven’t been in over a week.” Dale gasped in mock shock. “A week?! Egad! I’ve been neglecting you, my love! I promised you a life of fun and excitement, and I will not fail you!” Gadget walked in with Dale, heading toward her workshop where they’d stowed the rollerskates. “You’re plenty fun and exciting, Dale, and I don’t think anyone would accuse you of neglecting me. Say, would anyone like to go with us?”
       “Sure, I’ll go if you don’t mind the company,” Zipper said.
       “Great! I’m sure Katrina and her friends will be around again. They’ll love meeting another Ranger. Why don’t you ask Honey if she’d like to go?” Gadget asked. Zipper started to say something, then changed his mind. “I don’t think she’s ready for something like that...yet.” Dale sensed a problem. “How are things going with you and her? How’s her sister’s training going?” Zipper flew over to them. “Slowly but surely. Aliwicious is a big help, and Valeria’s a fast learner. I think with a few more weeks’ training, we can give her a chance.”
       “Golly, that’s wonderful, Zipper!” Gadget said. “Imagine, Honey being willing to give up all that for you. Do you think she’ll really come and stay with us?”
       “I’d like to think so, but it means leaving behind a world of power and luxury. I am encouraged that she even gave it the possiblity. She’s in the process of training her sister to take her place, after all,” Zipper said. Dale smiled at him. “I’ve always been surprised that she wasn’t put off by you proposing on your second date.” Zipper blushed slightly in embarrassment. “Well, you have to understand that in royal circles, often high-ranking people have little or no say in their choice of spouse. Arranged marriages are very common. What really surprised me is that there hadn’t been a marriage arranged for her, lucky for me. So for her, the idea of getting married to a virtual stranger isn’t uncommon. The fact that she knew me and liked me before my proposal is usually more than she would’ve gotten with an arranged marriage.”
       Chip and the others had been listening to the conversation, and now Theo joined them inside as well. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that,” Chip said. “It is strange that she hadn’t been promised to someone. Maybe there’s things we don’t yet know about her. I guess that’s par for the course, since she barely knows any of us except Zipper. Have fun at the skating rink, guys. I think my night’s been arranged, if my son and Lahwhinie have made a decision.”
       Lahwhinie grabbed her purse. “Well, I don’t care where we go.” Theo had but one objective. “Somewhere neat!” Chip looked down at his son’s eager face. “Excellent, we’ll go to the Guggenheim Museum!”
       “Oh well, whatever,” Lahwhinie said.
       “Uh yeah, that sounds swell, dad,” Theo said flatly.
       Chip instantly got the message, and thought fast. “We could see Times Square and tour the shops along the way...” Theo perked up again. “Okay, maybe there will be some crime we could fight on the way!”
       “Don’t go looking for trouble, Theo,” Lahwhinie said. “If you look for it, it’ll certainly find you.”

       Back at the ranch, Foxy was waiting for any news of her beloved. She had her ears pricked, trying to capture any sound at all. It had been hours now, and even though she knew it would take Noel the best part of the day she was beginning to get antsy. Daisy come over and comforted her. “Now don’t worry so, precious. You know that every potential bridegroom has to go through the ceremony. Noel’s a strong young munk. He’ll make it okay.”
       Foxy hugged her mother, a guilty expression on her face. “Mom, I felt so bad that I couldn’t tell him about this sooner. Do you think he’ll forgive me? Do you think he’s all right?” Daisy hugged her nervous daughter. “He’ll be here anytime now. I just know it.” Bedivere came up, catching the last of Daisy’s remarks. “Why, shore he will! That lad’s got a good head on his shoulders!” Bedivere was about to say more, when he stopped and listened. “Say, do y’all hear that? ‘Cross the plains.” Foxy lifted an ear. “It sounds like an ill chipmunk on a galloping prarie dog...it’s Noel!”

       It was a real shame that this wasn’t a movie, or the triumphant music would have been playing as the scene switched to Noel. Firebrand was coming home at a full gallop, and Noel was hanging on as well as he could. The peppers had made him queasy, and he had to concentrate to keep his hold on the reins. The bats cheered and threw their hats in the air as the chipmunk and his steed pulled up in the ranch yard, and Firebrand reared to accentuate the moment. The tired chipmunk got off, and was mobbed by Foxy and the others.
       “Way to go, boy!” Bedivere said. “Did you get what you went for?” Noel removed his backpack and handed it to Bedivere, then he collapsed out of the saddle. “ Water!!”
       “Oh, dearest!” Foxy said, rushing off and bringing back a bucketful of water that Chip downed immediately. Foxy looked at him expectantly. “Are you okay, now?” Noel wavered but was okay. “Is the test over? Did I pass it?” Bedivere checked the leaves and the flowers. “No doubt about it—those leaves and flowers are mountain laurel all right! The ceremony can take place right away!” The bats and the band members cheered at the announcement. Noel held up a hand. “Whoa there, pardner. I gotta get my family down here.” Bedivere forgot about that part. “All right, cowpoke. But the leaves and flowers are used in the ceremony. They’ll only keep for a few days. Do you think you’ll be able to round up your folks and friends okay?”
       “Well, I’ll get them here by hook or by crook! Foxy, are you sure you want to marry me?” Noel asked. Foxy gave him a smooch that would remove the greatest of doubt. “You and no one else, Noel Maplewood. C’mon, let’s go call your folks and the Rangers. I can’t wait to see them all again!”
       Noel struggled to his feet with Foxy’s help. “I guess this would be for the best anyway. I don’t like huge weddings and it’d be tough explaining to my extended family where Chip suddenly got a twin brother from.” Galahad came over and supported Noel’s other side, shaking his hand. “Welcome to the family, son. You’ve certainly more than proved yourself, to hear my girl tell it. Today was just icing on the cake.”
       Noel covered his mouth. “Please, don’t mention any kind of food! I feel sick as a dog right now!” Bedivere pulled the last of the peppers out of his pack. “Gila monsters gave you trouble, did they? I knew you’d figure out what the peppers were for. Y’see, the native bats and mice ‘round here found long ago they could milk these heah bombardier beetles for the juice inside of ‘em. It flames up when it hits the air, and the peppers soaked in the juice became part of the warrior’s test of endurance. Don’t worry none lad, the sickness’ll pass soon.”
       “Yeah, I’m sure there’ll be no ill effects from eating food laced with flammable acid,” Noel said. Bedivere let loose with a holler, and slapped Noel on the back. “That’s what I like ‘bout you, pardner! You’ve got a wit that would have a rattlesnake laughin’! Better go let your people know how thangs went. I’ll get set to make the preparations right away!”

       Noel staggered to the ranch house with Foxy giving him support. “This is it. We’ve waited and now we’re sure. I’m sorry that I made you wait this long, Foxy. I should’ve known my own heart better than this.” Foxy guided him to a chair. “I think I have to take a share of it, cutie. I could’ve accepted your proposal right off, but neither of us was ready then. Now we both know it’s right. I just wish I could’ve spared you that awful trial business but dad and the other bats insisted. By the way, they didn’t say so in front of you, but I heard them say just now they were very impressed with you. You completed the trial in one of the fastest times ever.”
       “Well, with a belly full of fire, you tend to move fast,” Noel said.
       Foxy giggled and kissed Noel. “Thank you, for doing that for me, and for everything. I wouldn’t be happy or successful now if it weren’t for you. Your name might have changed, but you’re the munk I fell in love with all that time ago. Noel, I’ll love you always.”
       “And I’ll always love you, Foxy. Now that Chip and I exist, I can give you my whole heart,” Noel said. Foxy hugged him close. “I always knew you’d come for me. Now I can sing my songs for you, and every one I write will let you know how happy you’ve made me.” Noel held Foxy in his arms, and there she was content for a long while. Then she remembered why they’d come into the ranch house.
       “Cutie, we’d better make those calls so everyone can get their plans straight,” Foxy said. Noel had been in another reality for a while but come back out of it. “Yeah. I thought Dale and Gadget were cutting it close with their short wedding plans, but this is a matter of days! I hope they can all make it here.” Noel dialed the number of his home, and Jennifer answered. “Hello? Maplewood residence.”
       “Hi mom, it’s me, Noel. I’ve got a bit of a surprise for you and dad,” Noel said.
       “Roger! Our boy’s getting married!” Jennifer shouted instantly.
       Roger stood up. “Which one?”
       “Oh wait, I got so excited. Honey, which one are you again? Is this Noel? You and Chip sound the same and your name slipped right by me!” Jennifer said, mile-a-minute.
       “It’s Noel. I’m down in Texas. Well, the problem is a Fairmont family custom I’ve run into. We need to get married in the next couple of days. How fast can you get to Hondo?” Jennifer dropped the phone. “It’s Noel, dear! He says he’s getting married down in Hondo right away and he wants us to come there!” Roger came to the phone and picked it up. “That’s great to hear, son, congratulations to you two! We’ll be down there as soon as possible We can probably just go with the Rangers. Did you call them yet?”
       “Not yet, dad. I wanted to call both of you first. Foxy and I are so happy, dad! I just know you’re going to love having her around,” Noel said. Roger was glad to hear such happiness in his son’s voice. “I’m sure we will. She’s such a wonderful girl, and she’ll be welcomed into the family with open arms.”
       “I’m going to call the Rangers now, dad. I expect they’ll say they can leave tomorrow. Do you think you and mom can be ready?” Noel asked. Jennifer grabbed the phone again. “We’ll be there with bells on, son. Don’t worry!”
       “Okay, thanks mom,” Noel said. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you both!” Noel and his parents said goodbye, and then Roger dialed the number for the Rangers. It was Monty who picked up. “Rescue Rangers—no case too small. That you, Dale? No problems at the rink, is it?”
       “Actually, this is Roger Maplewood. Noel just called us and he and Foxy are getting married right away and we need to be there in the next day or two or we’ll miss it!” Roger said. Monty smiled at the news. “He is? Crikey, that’s great news mate! Say, why ain’t Noel calling us himself? Is the bloke all right?” Roger realized what he’d done and laughed. “I guess I just beat him to it. They were both pretty excited and it rubbed off. Are you guys going to all come to the wedding?”
       “Are we? No way we’d miss out on this! All the others but Eva ‘n me are out on the town right now, but I’ll fill them in as they come back. We’ll leave first thing—come on over in the morning, and you kin join roight in!” Monty said. Roger figured that would be the reply. “We’ll need to pick up my dad before we go, I’m sure he’d want to be there as well to see his grandson’s wedding.”
       “He’s the one what lives up at Lake Flaccid ya went to see, right? If ya want, one of us could go up there at first light an’ fetch him back,” Monty said. “That way, he’d be here in time for everyone ta go when you got ‘ere.”
       “That would be great. Well, I better get off the line. Noel’s probably trying to get to you. You can pick us up here in the morning on the way out of town,” Roger said.
       “Too roight, Roge. I’ll let Noel know ‘bout the plans. Me little pal’s getting married—it’s gonna be a bonzer bash!” Monty hung up the phone, and immediately it rang again. “G’day, Noel! Or rather, congratulations, mate!”
       “I guess you were talking to dad,” Noel said. “Thanks, Monty. Foxy and I are getting married, how fast can you guys get here?”
       “Soon as we fetch yer granddad and get everyone assembled-like! Roight now, I’d say we’re getting out of here around noon so we’ll be there come nightfall tomorrow. The lads ‘n lasses are all out on the town tonight, so they don’t know yet. Don’t you worry though—ol’ Monterey Jack’ll make sure things go smooth!”
       “It seems like this will be an informal event, so I doubt you’ll need tuxes,” Noel said. After the formality of Gadget’s wedding, Monty liked the sound of that. “Suits me all right. We Erskines ain’t a formal lot except when there’s cheese involved. How’s the bride-ta-be doing?”
       “She’s beside herself and as excited about this as I am. This is going to be great!” Noel said, then changing his tone. “Sorry about springing this on all of you so suddenly, but it’s a Fairmont family tradition.”
       “Don’t you worry none, pally. I had a feeling you two’d not wait too long ta tie the knot. Better rest up tonight, mate. That wedding day kin be stressful,” Monty said. Noel’s voice was full of humor in his reply. “After what I just experienced, getting married will be a breeze! Monty, who should I ask to be best man? I’m unsure now. Dale’s been my best friend since before forever and let me be best man at his wedding but Chip is me, so that would make him closer. I was thinking of maybe even asking Theo to be best man. Any suggestions?”
       “When ya gotta make a decision like that, better ta let it rest until they’re there with ya. You’ll know what ta do,” Monty said.
       “Yeah, I need to think about it. Should we invite Tammy?” Noel asked.
       “Well, we kin try. I know she’d like ta come if she’s able. I’ll give her home a ring and see if she kin come”
       “Sounds good, Monty,” Noel said, then changed the topic again. “So how did things go when Chip got back?” Monty knew what he meant of course. “Ya mean with a certain girl? Chip and I ended up having a talk about Lahwhinie. Gotta admit, I was plumb surprised ta hear he had feelin’s for her. I’ve got nothing against the lad, and he’s agreed ta go slow with her.”
       “Good, I was worried about them. Theo doing okay?”
       “Roight as rain, mate. He’s out with Chip and Lahwhinie now—they’re out taking in the sights of the city.” Noel was relieved for more reasons than one. “That’s good. As long as they stay out of trouble, they’ll all get along great.”
       “It’s a start, anyway. Well, better get things in motion on this end. I’ll go ahead and call Tammy, then let Roge know that everything’s a go. How do ya feel, Noel?”
       “I’m glad all the uncertainty’s over. Now Foxy and I can be together without any doubt or uncertainty as to how we feel,” Noel said. Monty was glad for that too. “Glad to hear it. Have a good night down there!” Monty hung up the phone, and phoned Tammy immediately. She agreed at once, then Monty went into the kitchen to tell Eva. “Who’d have thought another Ranger would get married this quick, luv?” Eva put down the cup of tea she was drinking and was immediately at attention. “Who, dahling? Who is getting married?
       “Noel Maplewood an’ Foxy! Get yer bags packed, Eva, ‘cause we’re heading fer Hondo tomorrow!” Monty said. Eva clasped her hands in happines. “Vunderful! I love love so much. More happy people in our wonderful family!”
       Monty poured himself a cup and sat down with his wife. “And those two’re a couple that I know’ll be happy. Just wish that everyone else was here now. Dale, Gadget and Zipper should be back pretty soon, but Chip, Lahwhinie and Theo could be a while getting back. I hope they don’t run into any delays.”

        Monty’s concerns were ill-founded thus far. Times Square was proving to be entertaining for the sightseeing trio, and for Theo especially. The sights and sounds were right up his alley, and he had to try to look everywhere at once. Lahwhinie did some window-shopping, and took note of some fashion displays along the way. Chip for his part was glad that this was just a normal night. Soon, they reached their halfway point at the Guggenheim Museum.
       The place was closed already, but there was a rodent-sized entrance that gave them easy access and a chance at a private tour. The museum had rare and fascinating paintings from cultures across the planet. Lahwhinie wasn’t too impressed, but did listen as Chip told Theo about them.
       “Now here’s a fascinating period in painting, Theo. The works of Edgar Degas led into a period of impressionism where artists broke with re-creating reality,” Chip said, starting up a lecture. Lahwhinie saw that Theo was attempting to stay focused on his dad’s narrative, but was almost as bored as she was. It appeared that Chip was in for the long haul. She silently got Theo’s attention and indicated for him to come over to her.
       “You got a plan, Aunt Lahwhinie?” Theo whispered. Lahwhinie looked over at the fedora-clad chipmunk. “Leave the planning to Chip. I believe in entropy. Let’s go look at other stuff and he’ll catch up to us later.”
       Chip was still focused on the painting, letting his memory of it come up. He didn’t even notice they’d left, and five minutes later was still talking “...and see how Degas used the soft forms to create the feeling of lily pads on water? The French impressionists were truly the harbingers of the modern era of painting. Now over here...” Chip finally looked at the spot where he knew Theo should be, but neither he nor Lahwhinie was there.
       “I guess you just had to be there. Now where did they get off to?” Chip said.

       Lahwhinie and Theo had continued into some of the other rooms and were trying to “get” the modern art. Lahwhinie pointed at one of them. “I would’ve called this painting, ‘I was tired and I had a deadline’.”
       “And this one over here I would’ve called, ‘I needed the money since I couldn’t keep down my job at McDonalds’,” Theo quipped. The two art critics giggled some at their “gauche” descriptions of the various offerings. Once they’d worn those out, they went into the adjoining room and assaulted the next batch. Just as they were about to leave the room on the far side, two figures sprang from the shadows and grabbed them both from behind.
       “Hey lookit, Des! Interlopers, and art critics to boot!” a male voice said from behind.
       “Yes indeed, monsieur Rat,” a French female voice replied. “I wonder what brings them here at this time of night?” Lahwhinie’s captor spun her around and she came face to face with that denizen of the rodent mafia, Rat Capone. Rat for his part was surprised but surly. “Probably got wind of our little visit. All right, Dollface, start talkin’.And when you’re done talkin’ I still want ya ta be my moll!”
       Theo didn’t need very long to figure out who these two were. As a follower of all the Rangers’ cases, he remembered their names and pictures from the newspaper. “Rat Capone and Desiree de Lure. What are you to doing here, and teamed up at that?” Desiree held him tightly by his arm. “Well, little one, we are here to steal some art. Without your father’s interference, that is.” Theo’s face showed his surprise. “Hey wait! How did you know Chip was my dad?”
        “We’ve been watching you since you came in, waiting for the chance to have you all at a disadvantage,” Desiree replied. “And to answer your question, we heard you call him ‘dad’.”
       “Yeah, but enough of the small talk. We’re here on business, see? So, what do you say, Dollface? We could be close and cozy like this all the time if you say yes,” Rat said. Lahwhinie changed her voice to sound as much as she could like Gadget. “Golly, Mr. Capone, I’ve so hoped you would ask me that question. I’ve been thinking so much about what happened the last time we met.”
       Rat was so surprised he let go of her arm. “Uh, yeah. Good thing,” Rat said. “Dollface, I’ll shower you with more jewels than the queen of Sheba had! Youse can live it up in the lap of luxury and flatter me with your ever-so-good looks.”
       “Oh, there’s something I’ve wanted to do since the last time we met,” Lahwhinie said, nearly whispering it in his ear. She looked at him, a big smile on her face. “I’ve got a surprise for you, sweets.”
       “Lay it on me, baby!” Rat said, puckering up.

       Chip walked into the room just in time to see Lahwhinie pull her fist back and punch Rat Capone in the face as hard as she could. “I hope that hurts, you fat slug!” Rat’s eye swelled up where Lahwhinie socked him. “You dirty moll! No one hits Rat Capone and gets away with it!” Rat pulled his right arm back to slap her, but Lahwhinie was already two steps ahead of the mobster. Before Chip could even react to help her, she grabbed Rat’s left arm, and using her inborn strength and renewed defense training pulled him off-balance and slammed him to the floor. She gripped his arm hard and twisted it.
       “Owww! You weren’t like this before!” Rat cried out. Des had walked around this strange scene and was now standing next to Chip. “Is she always like this? I remember her being un peu more mild.”
       “Well, Gadget is more mild. Let me introduce you to her sister, Lahwhinie,” Chip said. Rat blinked in surprise. “Sister?! I shoulda known! So, you’re settling the score, eh? Why not forget all that and join up with me?” Lahwhinie kept a tight grip on Rat’s arm. “I’m sick of losers. How could I respect someone who’s as easy to beat as you? You should work for me!”
       “There’s that spunk again! Rat Capone don’t work for no one but himself! If you won’t be my moll, then you’re no better than the rest of that weak-kneed Ranger bunch including your sister! Right, Des? Hey, Des!” Rat said. Rat’s call for Des brought Chip to look around, and he gasped as he did so. Desiree had taken advantage of the moment, and now was holding Theo captive by the arm again. Chip would’ve slapped himself for allowing the mental lapse, but now wasn’t the time. “Let him go, Desiree! And I mean now!”
       Desiree spoke in an almost apologetic tone. “I know, it is as you say not the bravest act. But Desiree de Lure will not be joining monsieur Rat in jail tonight! I will just be taking your petit friend along for insurance. Au revoir!” Chip was surprised to see that Theo did not seem alarmed by the situation. Perhaps he didn’t realize the great danger he was in. Then Chip saw that Theo’s lips were moving - **Don’t worry, I got a plan.**
       Theo waited until Desiree was looking at Chip, then in a lightning move he grasped her wrist, twisted it, hooked his leg behind hers and with a mighty heave he threw her face down onto the floor, then he twisted her arm behind her just like Lahwhinie had done with Rat and put his knee on the back of her neck. “Don’t mess with us Maplewoods either!” Lahwhinie grinned in triumph. “Good job, Theo. I thought you’d remember that move from yesterday’s practice session. That’s how you lay down the law on these scum!”

       Chip looked first to one immobile crook, then the other. They were both astonished at their plight, and despite the danger his son and Lahwhinie had faced, Chip almost wanted to laugh at the absurd-looking situation. They bound each crook’s arms, and took them down to the animal section of the police station where they were only too glad to get their hands on these two wanted criminals. Before they threw Rat in the pokey, Chip noticed the ruby pin stuck in his coat lapel and told the officer in charge whose it was. When they were outside again, the reality of what had happened hit Chip and he stopped and knelt down by his son.
       “Son, are you all right?” Chip asked. “She could’ve kidnapped you, or who-knows-what!?” Theo smiled at his dad reassuringly. “I’m fine, dad. I’m still on an adrinaline rush from it though. That was so cool!” Theo and Lahwhinie did a high five. Lahwhinie was hyped up as well, and pounded her fist into her hand. “Next time he and Gadget meet, he should be a little more cautious, not knowing which of us it is!”
       Chip was caught between emotions, and now wasn’t sure just what to say. “Thank goodness neither of you was hurt. Son, you took a big risk that she’d be caught off-guard. And Lahwhinie, what if Rat had pulled a knife on you? I’d have been too far away to help out, and if either of you’d been injured...I know, I’m getting too worked up over this. You two took out two of the biggest names in the rodent underworld in one fell swoop! But Theo, now do you see why I wanted you to wait? I’m glad you both are okay, but our work involves risk.”
       Lahwhinie gave him a smug look. “Don’t worry about me, Chip. Don’t forget, I’m used to dealing with ruthless scum. I have no illusions about what people are capable of.” Theo on the other hand gave his dad a questioning one. “You said I shouldn’t fight unless in self-defense and that was self-defense, wasn’t it?” Chip crossed his arms. “Well yes, Theo, it was but...” Chip took a moment to breathe. “Theo, I was scared you’d be hurt or worse! I was hoping to protect you from this kind of situation until you were older, but maybe you’re already able to handle it. That’s just the first time my boy’s been in a life-threatening situation, and I felt helpless.”
       Theo hugged his dad. “I’m sorry I scared you, dad. I’ll be more careful next time. I know I have a lot to learn yet and I know that this was a lucky victory. I won’t let it go to my head.” Chip grinned and rubbed Theo’s head. “Maybe it’s better this way. At least now I know that you can take care of yourself to some extent.”
       Chip took Theo’s hand, and looked over at Lahwhinie. “Guess I’d better join in on Eva’s classes so I can handle myself as well as you and he can. I’ve been putting it off, because I don’t approve of using force like that. I’ve always been the one to think things through, but I have to admit those fighting skills would’ve come in handy several times in the past. And you were both able to immobilize your opponents without hurting them too badly.”
       Lahwhinie grinned in a way that gave Chip cold shivers. “You have no idea how much self-control it took to keep from breaking both his arms.” Chip rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t. I know I can count on you now in action, and that means a lot more to me than maiming some crook.” Lahwhinie smiled at the implication. “Hey, that’s right. I didn’t get you maimed this time. Thanks, Chip.”
       “No, thank you. I realized tonight that I should’ve been doing more to make sure the team was safe. Fortunately for me, you and Theo are already one step ahead of me,” Chip said.

       The trio proceeded on to the treehouse without saying much after that. Then Chip opened the door for Lahwhinie. “Just showing respect for a tough lady who’s more than earned it tonight.” Lahwhinie looked at him, then nodded and went in first. “You’re a swell guy, Chip. So, what’s for dinner?” Monty poked his head out of the kitchen as he heard Lahwhinie’s voice. “Glad ta see ya back, mates! There’s big news a-brewing. Settle down at the table and I’ll fill ya in!”
       A few minutes later, Monty brought out supper and told them about Noel’s big news. Chip agreed that Sean would want to go and he volunteered to go get him in the morning. Monty soon joined them. “Chip, I’ve been thinking. We’re talking about taking ten people going down there, what with Tammy accepting now. How’re we gonna get ‘em all there?” Chip began to puzzle it over, and then Eva chimed in. “Chip? My sister has told me about some of her exploits since I have returned. She mentioned an air-transport service called Albatross Air. They are still operating somevhere in the city.”
       “Sounds like a good idea,” Chip said. “Maybe you could call Bianca in the morning and ask her about it.” Theo, already excited from the night’s events, was even moreso now. “Wow, dad’s getting married...uh, my other dad. Wow...uh, does this make Foxglove my mom?”
       Chip ate heartily. “Well, one of them anyway. That is, assuming I ever get married.” Theo had several thoughts, but voiced his first concern. “What if they want to stay in Texas? Does that mean I have to jump back and forth between here and there?” Chip stopped and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Son, we both know you want to be a Ranger. I think Noel will keep that in mind. But we’ll wait and see what the situation is when we get there.”
        Theo felt a little better, but not by much. “Okay. I guess I’m just a little jumpy.”
        Lahwhinie looked over his way. “Don’t worry, Theo. Even if you spend some time down there, there’s a lot they could teach you. They’re all cowboys after all...or cowbats or something.” Theo held his hands up in a defensive move. “Theo, the karate cowboy! Does sound unique.” The exterior door opened again, and Gadget and Dale came in and sat down, followed by Zipper. “Sorry we’re late, but we lost track of time! We didn’t miss anything, did we?” Gadget asked.
       “Noel and Foxy are going to get married and we need to be there soon or we’ll miss the wedding. Better start packing,” Lahwhinie said. Dale’s eyes lit up. “Wowie-zowie! Ol’ Noel didn’t waste any time down there! Hey, this’ll be another Ranger wedding! I hope they’ll come up and see us once they’re settled. Or maybe they’ll even want to come back here!”
       “I sure hope so,” Theo said.
       Gadget turned her attention to her sister. “Hey sis, how was the sightseeing tour? You didn’t get bored, did you?” Lahwhinie made a show of yawning. “Nothing to write home about.” Theo jumped up. “We ran into Rat Capone and Desiree De Lure and we caught them and sent them to jail!”
       “Desiree de Lure?” Zipper asked.
       “And Rat Capone?” Gadget added.
       “And ya threw ‘em in the clink?” Monty asked.
       “Amazing!” Eva said.
       Dale stood up and went over to Chip. “Gosh Chip, you must’ve had your hands full! Tell us what happened! Tell us!” Chip started off slowly, not knowing how everyone present would take the news. “We were visiting the museum and we happened to run into Rat and Desiree casing the place. We talked for a few moments.”
       “Rat thought I was you, Gadget, and he suggested that I become his moll,” Lahwhinie said. “Well, I remember that you said he’d slapped you the last time you met so I pretended to be you, got real close and then I gave him a punch in the face! Then I threw that ratbag to the floor and pinned his arm behind him.”
       Theo took up the telling immediately. “Then when Desiree saw that he was beat, she grabbed me and was going to use me for insurance so I threw her to the floor and pinned her arm behind her just like you taught us, Aunt Eva! It worked great! Then we took them to the authorities!”
       Gadget blinked in amazement. “Jeepers, you just used brute force on them? And what were you doing, Chip?” Chip ducked his head a little. “Just standing there. I was as surprised as Rat and Desiree were.” Monty stood up. “What? Ya mean ya let me little girl face off with that nasty Rat Capone all alone?” Lahwhinie quickly interceded for Chip. “It was our fault, dad. Theo and I went off on our own and left Chip behind.” Eva stood as well, coming over to Monty who was giving Chip a tough stare. “Now take it easy, dahling. I have trained both of them, and I know they can handle themselves. I am sure that Chip was simply caught off-guard as to the level of their progress.”
       “Well, I won’t be again. When we get back, I want to join your self-defense class. It’s something all of us Rangers should have been trained in from the start,” Chip said. Lahwhinie nodded in approval. “That will be good. We’ll be the seven flying, fighting, kung-fu Rangers.” Gadget couldn’t hide her surprise at this. “Chip, are you sure? I mean, you haven’t advocated violence or force before.” Eva answered for him. “Gadget, self-defense is not advocating the use of force or violence. One trains so if the necessity arises one can defend one’s self.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “Like Mr. Miagi says, we train so we don’t have to fight! Wax on, wax off!” Dale was already making karate-like moves in the air. Gadget tapped her finger on her chin, thinking. “Well, I admit I like fencing so I guess karate’s similar. As long as we don’t have to use it unless it’s needed, it sounds okay.”
       Lahwhinie walked over to Gadget. “Yeah, we won’t hurt the bad guys...much. Just stop them from hurting others.” Monty shrugged. “Guess I’ll throw me hat in the ring too. I’ve dingo-wrestled before and boxed with the kangaroos, but I never learned those fancy-type moves. What about you, Zipper?”
       “I already know some self-defense, but a refresher won’t hurt. Sounds like we’re in defense training!” Zipper said. Chip saw approval from everyone’s faces. “All right, we’ll do it as a team. Is that all right, Eva?” Eva bowed ceremonially. “Certainly, Chip. I vould be honored to train all of you.”
       “Just don’t overdo it, luv,” Monty said. “You got that little baby to look after.” Eva waived off his concern. “Oh, I vill be just fine dahling! As their sensei, I will only demonstrate and observe. But I am sure our little one vill be glad to know his father is looking out for him.” Monty gave Eva a gentle hug. “You can bet yer bottom dollar on that, luv.”
       The remainder of supper was spent on getting tomorrow’s schedule straight. Once they’d worked it out, the Rangers decided to retire for the night to proceed with preparations and packing. Chip needed to particularly, since he’d be up before dawn. He stopped at his door as Lahwhinie came down the hall.
       “I won’t be able to talk to you again until tomorrow afternoon, so I just wanted to say that I wouldn’t have thought to do this without your example. Gadget told me privately that she wished she could have been there to see you sock Rat in the eye. It’s not our style, but I think for Rat even Gadget would make an exception,” Chip said.
       “I know,” Lahwhinie said. “But still, I don’t like the idea of anyone hitting my sister and getting away with it.” Chip balled up his fists. “At the time, I wanted to let the big goon have it but we were all manacled. Lahwhinie, I admit that when I met you this time I thought I’d never agree with any part of your way of doing things. Now that I’ve had time to think it over, I can see where some preventive action is acceptable.”
       Lahwhinie raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”
       “Well, like the situation we faced. It’s better to prevent a dangerous person from taking action if it can be done without unduly endangering yourself. It could save lives, not the least of which would be our own. I didn’t know you were so capable when you attacked Capone. I was…afraid for you until I saw you pin him,” Chip said.
       Lahwhinie shrugged, tilting her head. “Renaldo got the drop on me. It’s a mistake I don’t plan on making a second time. I know not to let my guard down with any man.” Chip couldn’t hide his admiration for her, and smiled despite her serious tone. “I pity the poor fool that tries to get the drop on you. Well, good night. I know I’ll be safe with Lahwhinie the fierce next door.”
       Lahwhinie smiled at that. “Thanks, Chip. Sorry we stole your thunder. I haven’t really had the chance to see that brain of yours in action.” Chip smiled back. “You will soon enough. There’s a time for action and a time for brainwork. Foxy’ll tell you about my brainwork in finding her family, no doubt. Or rather, Noel’s. Or both of us. Whatever.” Lahwhinie smiled again, then departed for her room. “Good night, Brainiac.”
       “Good night, Xena,” Chip replied.


Chapter 12 - Heading for Hondo/Stories of a Young Munk/A Texas Wedding

       The sky around Lake Flaccid was empty the next morning save for one lone small craft. Chip had gotten up before dawn and was privy to a beautiful sunrise. **Hope that’s a sign of good things to come for Noel and Foxy. Now on to granddad’s.** Chip landed the Plane on the hill by the lodge and found Sean on the porch enjoying the morning air.
       “What goes, Chip? I hardly expected to see you back this soon,” Sean said. Chip walked up and took a seat by him. “Grandpa, Noel’s getting married to Foxglove and you’re invited. The wedding’s in Hondo this evening. Are you game?” Sean stood up. “Boy, I haven’t left this lodge in nearly a year except to get supplies. I’m my own munk, and like it that way. But there’s one thing I’ll always leave for and that’s family. Let me pack a few things and we’ll be off.” Sean was inside for a few minutes and then came out with a leather travel case. “All right, let’s get to it.”
       Chip helped Sean into the Plane and they took off. Thanks to Chip’s forethought, they were back at Ranger Headquarters a full hour before noon. Already, the bags were gathered at the door and Tammy had come over and was talking up a storm as she always did when she got excited. “Oh, I just love weddings! And I wouldn’t miss Chip’s for the world! So what is it you’re waiting to tell me?”
       “Well, they were probably waiting for me. Hello, Tammy!” Chip said. Tammy turned and instantly she was confused. “But from all their talk, I thought you were down in Hondo...”
       “I am...sort of. Remember Nimnul’s modemizer? We had another run-in with it and it ended up making two of me. My twin’s taken the name of Noel Maplewood, and he’s marrying Foxy,” Chip said. Tammy just stared. “You...you mean there’s two of you now? Two Chips? This isn’t some big practical joke on me, is it?”
       “Are you calling my grandson a liar?” Sean asked.
       Tammy straightened at the elder chipmunk’s commanding voice. “Uh, no sir. I just never thought anything like that would happen. Two Chips?” Tammy walked over to Chip in a teasing fashion. “Man, if this had to happen why couldn’t it have been a few years back? I could’ve had my pick!”
       Chip grinned in kind. “I know it’s hard to believe. If I hadn’t been involved, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Gadget and Eva could explain what they think caused it. Noel—which is my middle name by the way—and I decided to divide the responsiblities of Chip. He gave up being Chip, and in return he was the one to propose to Foxglove.”
       Chip walked on into the main room with her. “A Chip by any other name is still Chip. I think you’d have found the road rough-going with either of us. But at least now you’ve got Rob. How’s he doing?” Tammy was instantly herself again at that question. “Oh, wonderful! Mom and Bink went with me over to the Roybrush house the other day. You ought to see it! They’ve got everything you could imagine. Well, his parents are just crazy about me, and I like them too. And Rob and I have great times together.”
       “That’s great. You deserve someone like Rob. Okay everyone, are we ready to go?” Chip asked. Eva hung up the phone she’d been talking on. “I just heard from Bianca. She has contacted Mr. Vilbur, or rather his son. He said he vould be glad to take several of us down there as a favor to his father’s favorite mouse. He very kindly agreed to come here, and should be on his vay soon. I called Roger and Jennifer and they are on their way here. Who else would like to fly on an albatross?”
       “Me, me, me!” Theo said. “I’ve never flown on a bird before!” Eva smiled and looked at the others. “Vell, that is three. Who will be the fourth?” Lahwhinie raised her hand. “I’ll go. The idea of flying on that plane all the way to Texas makes me nervous.”
       “Okay, that’s settled,” Chip said. “Monty, help me get the rest of the bags on the RangerPlane and we’ll be packed up by the time the albatross gets here.”

       Preparations proceeded along speedily, and soon the Plane was loaded and set. Gadget gave it a preflight check since it would be carrying full capacity. “All systems go, everyone! Say, I think I see our other transport coming. Look!” A large speck in the sky got even larger as an albatross came into view. Its graceful form and huge size was impressive to everyone, especially Theo. “Wow! Look at that, that’s the biggest bird I’ve ever seen! Is he going to be faster or slower than the Rangerplane?”
       “About the same, I should think,” Eva said. “And he flies so vell! I wonder why Bianca said she still dreams about Mister Vilbur...”
       As she spoke, the son of Wilbur descended and stuck his feet out to meet the ground. In moments, what was a noble-looking creature was transformed into a feather-covered beachball as he rolled over and over on the ground. At last, the hapless bird skidded to a halt.
       “Oh, so that vhas it…” Eva said.
       The albatross dusted himself off and acted like nothing was wrong. He had the same voice and mannerisms as his father. “Hello there, folks! I trust I’m at the right tree?” Theo called him over. “Yeah! We’re the Rescue Rangers and we have to be in Texas for a wedding tonight! I hope you’re fast.”
       “Fast? Why you haven’t experienced flying til you’ve been up with the Ace! I was the top gun from my flight class. I have the need for speed!” Wilbur Jr. said. Theo’s eyes went wide with wonder. “Cool! Uh, do you always land like that?” Wilbur Jr looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, that? Don’t give it another thought! It only happens about every two times...”
       “Out of a hundred?” Eva asked hopefully.
       “Out of five, actually. Don’t worry though—my passenger module has the latest seatbelts on them!” Wilbur Jr. said. Theo stepped forward. “Well, I’m a man of action and adventure, so let’s go for it! We’re burnin’ daylight and there’s jalapeño peppers with my name on them in Hondo!”
       “That’s the spirit, little guy!” Wilbur Jr. said. “Albatross Air, at your service!” Roger and Jennifer arrived shortly after Wilbur Jr.’s unique entrance. They piled on, while Chip and Theo sat in the back row. Chip strapped himself in securely. “Make sure that seatbelt’s on tight, son. It could be a bumpy ride.” Lahwhinie looked the options over and decided to sit next to Chip on his left. Chip leaned right and made sure that Theo was wearing his seatbelt properly, then checked Lahwhinie.
       Theo gave his dad an expression that said “lighten up.” “Don’t worry, dad! By the look of these belts, they were made to survive crashes worse that his last one.”
       “Yeah, don’t worry, dad,” Lahwhinie teased. “I’m wearing my seatbelt too. Say, when was the last time you were on vacation with your folks, Chip? Aside from the Chip/Noel thing.”
       “All too long,” Roger said. “I’m glad to see that Chip’s improved when it comes to looking out for others’ safety. He sure didn’t look out for his own when he was young. I remember the time he decided to be an acrobat and walked a tightrope he’d fashioned between two trees. His mother nearly passed out when she saw him up there.” Theo grinned mischeviously at his father. “I didn’t know you could do that, dad!Can you teach me how?” Before Chip could respond, Wilbur Junior chimed in. “This is Albatross Air flight 009 taking off from New York nonstop to Texas. Please stow all breakables beneath your seat and HANG ON ‘CAUSE IT’S ACE TIME!”

       Wilbur got up a head of steam, and flapped and flapped. At last, he got off the ground and they were soaring in the clouds. Soon, he picked up on the RangerPlane and followed it. Chip leaned back in his seat. **Saved by the takeoff. Now as long as they don’t remember the human cannonball part...**
       Lahwhinie wasn’t about to let this opportunity go to waste, though. “So, since we’ve got lots of time on our hands, can you two tell us any other childhood adventures of Chip the Wonder Chipmunk?” Theo took up the call. “Yeah, tell us all about dad when he was a kid!” Jennifer looked back at them. “Oh, we don’t have enough time for all the stories. But my favorite is when he decided to be a human cannonball...or rather a chipmunk one.”
       **Oh, no.**
       Chip sank into his seat and Roger looked back at him, amused. “Now son, it wasn’t so bad. Well, at least once the smell died down a week later.”
       “All of it started when we took Chip to see the circus,” Jennifer explained. “He was seven at the time, and all he could talk about for days after was that circus. He pretended he was a lion tamer, a clown and everything else. That’s also when he did the tightrope walking. Then it seemed like he’d gone back to his normal quiet self.”
       Chip crossed his arms. “Well, it would’ve worked if the propellent charge had burned properly.” Lahwhinie peeped over at Chip. “You pretended to be a clown? I didn’t think you had a funny bone in you. Or were you, ‘Chip, the intense, brooding, introspective clown’?”
       Roger remembered what Chip had said about embarrassing him, so he spared his son any further trouble by switching stories in midstream. “And don’t forget the day he decided to be a detective. That’s a story to tell. Chip ended up saving a life that day.”
       “Really? How?” Lahwhinie and Theo asked.
       Roger settled back into the telling of it. “Chip loved to read, even from an early age. He didn’t want those books with pictures. No, he wanted the ones with lots of words. And then when he was twelve he read the Sureluck Jones stories for the first time. He was enthralled with them, and would go around with an English accent, quoting from the stories. But what we didn’t know was, he had studied them closely to figure out how to be a detective.
       “One day, we were all shopping and the store we were in was robbed by some animals in masks. They made us all lie down on the floor, and they took a little girl hostage. There was nothing we could do until they’d left, and when the police arrived no one could give a description of the crooks. Well, save one boy that is.”
       Jennifer took over the narrative. “Chip walked right up to the squirrel in charge and said, ‘I know right where you’ll find them.’ Well, that police sergeant didn’t believe him at first, but then Chip said he’d seen three things that told him the crooks were from the carnival that was in the park. The masks they wore were prizes from the shooting gallery, and Chip had also seen they’d had fresh mud on their shoes and it hadn’t rained before that morning.”
       Then Roger spoke up again. “When the sergeant asked him what the third thing was, Chip said, ‘I noticed that the things they took were strange. Besides the money, they took netting and rope and several long pieces of leather. I couldn’t think of any reason they’d take those things unless it was to use them at the carnival.’ The sergeant scratched his head, and off he went to the carnival. We were just in time, because the manager had pulled up stakes. It turned out that several of his employees had stolen his moneybox and some of his animals. It looked like there was no way to find the girl or the money.”
       Theo was enthralled. “Then what?”
       “That was when Chip began to search the carnival grounds,” Jennifer said. “The manager showed us where the employees had been, and Chip found a newspaper clipping that showed a valuable shipment of gold bullion was coming into the city that day. The gold was to be shown at a charity benefit for wayward youths, where it would be donated to the children. The article also mentioned that the city zoo was going to have a petting zoo set up for the kids. Chip to his credit put it all together in less than a minute. The crooks had taken the girl and the animals so they wouldn’t look out of place at the benefit. They were going to rob the bullion!”
       Roger smiled up at his son. “We all got there just as things were winding up. A group of what appeared to be zookeepers were cleaning up around the bullion display, but Chip pointed them out to the officer as the crooks. ‘See? They didn’t change their shoes. The mud’s still on them!’ The sergeant went toward them, and the crooks panicked. They had stowed the girl in a tent next to the animals and now one of them held her as they threatened to kill her unless we let them escape.
       “No one noticed Chip move out of view and get behind them. He released the animals and they bolted right toward the criminals. In the melee, they dropped the girl and Chip grabbed her up and got her out of there. The crooks were soon in custody, and Chip was given a special citation by the police for his thinking and actions. And it was on that day that he said, ‘someday, I’m going to be a real detective’.”

       Theo was amazed. “Wow!! Sounds like you were a top-flight crime buster from the start!” Roger turned to face Theo. “Well, it did go to his head for a while, but it wasn't until several years later that he really followed through on what he’d said.” Lahwhinie for her part was impressed as well. “Well, I guess that would make an impression on a young guy. By that age I learned fifty different ways to kill a man with a soup spoon.” Jennifer smiled at Lahwhinie’s comment. “Tell me Lahwhinie, what do you think of our son now that you’ve gotten to know him some?”
       “He’s not the dumb lug that I thought he was the first time I met him,” Lahwhinie said. Roger laughed, and Jennifer stifled her own as well as she could. “He can come across pretty bluntly, but he’s got a heart,” Roger said. “There were times when out of the blue he’d do the nicest things. I remember one Christmas when our neighbors the Harrises lost their home to a fire.
       “I can’t think of a more terrible time for that to happen than around the holidays. Well, the neighborhood pitched in to help them resettle. Later that day, Chip came in with a satisfied look on his face. I asked him what was up, and he’d given all his new toys to the Harris children. He said they meant more to them than him, and I’ll never forget that pleased look on his face. Would you believe he was eight at the time? I must’ve told that story for a straight year after that.”
       Lahwhinie looked over at Chip again, who was blushing. “I gotta admit, I’ve not met many guys like him. He’s different.”
       “Chip’s always been that way,” Jennifer said. “I think a lot of it had to do with the way he grew up. He spent more time around older people than kids his own age. He was either at the library, working on his latest obsession, or learning something new. He can be forward at times, but inside he’s one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I know. And I’m not saying that because I’m his mother. He’s shown it time and again.”

       Now Chip was really blushing. “Mom, why don’t you tell Lahwhinie about all the trouble you and dad got in when you were young?” Jennifer smirked, addressing Lahwhinie. “See? That’s his way of trying to get out of the spotlight. He never did know how to take compliments or affection.” Roger decided to give his son a breather. “Uh Lahwhinie, why don’t you tell us about yourself?” Lahwhinie frowned. “There’s nothing in my life before the Rangers that’s fit to share with decent people.”
       “Has your life been that hard? Well then, we’ll only talk of the present. What are your plans now? Do you think you’ll stay on with my son and the Rangers?” Roger asked. Lahwhinie nodded. “Yeah, till I get my head on straight and decide what I want to do and be. But it was really neat when Theo and I beat those crooks at the museum and my mom is going to have a baby in a few months. I want to be there for that. Theo and Chip have been a big help in teaching me to re...they’re both a big help.”
       “I’m so glad to hear that,” Jennifer said. “If I remember right, you’re from Hawaii. I’d love to know more about it. Why don’t you come over one day soon with Chip and Theo and I’ll fix you all dinner? Maybe you could give me a few native recipes and I could give you some of mine.” Lahwhinie shot Chip a look before she answered. “Dinner with Chip’s folks, that would be neat. I have some great recipes from back home. I miss Hawaii, but things were getting a little too hot for me to stick around.” Chip began to shift around in his seat. “Well, it may be a while before we can get over. We have to figure out what Foxy and Noel will be doing first.”
       “Why so nervous, son?” Roger asked. “Did you think we wouldn’t like your friend? Lahwhinie, we’ll be glad to have you over. And I for one think you’re a very nice young lady.”
       “Thanks, Mr. Maplewood. I appreciate that. It’s a notion that I’ve only been experiencing lately,” Lahwhinie said.
       “You’re not the Lahwhinie you were then,” Theo interjected. Jennifer could see that Lahwhinie was Theo’s favorite. “Well, it’s a relief to us both that Chip has someone like you around to keep him in line. Now tell me, is the hula as fun as it looks?”
       Lahwhinie and Jennifer went on to talk about everything under the sun for the rest of the trip. Chip didn’t know what to make of this—he had been nervous that Lahwhinie and his parents wouldn’t mix, but now he was nervous because they seemed to be mixing too well. He didn’t like the spotlight, true, but somehow this was different. He hadn’t expected it, and now Lahwhinie was going to be coming over to his parents’ house. **One thing’s for sure, Lahwhinie’s full of surprises.**

       The Rangers were still a ways off, but in Hondo preparations for the ceremony were going at full tilt. Once the word had spread, locals started showing up and congratulating the bride and groom in typical friendly Texas fashion. One very rich-looking mouse even offered Foxy and Noel the use of his 10-room guesthouse as a honeymoon cottage, but after giving it some thought they declined. Still, both of them appreciated how this little community had taken to them.
       “Yessir, Noel! You’ll never meet a more friendly bunch o’ folks than a group o’ Texans, be they human, bat, chipmunk or squirrel!” Bedivere said. “Now, do you understand what yo’re gonna be doin’ in the ceremony?”
       Noel nervously shook his head. “No, no one’s explained exactly what’s going to happen…” Bedivere took him under his wing. “Well, it’s really close to what you city slickers’re used to. The vows an’ all are pretty much the same, ‘cept for a couple of traditional things we’ve taken from the natives. When Foxy comes in, she’ll be wearing the flowers of the laurel in a ring ‘round her head signifying purity. She’ll also have laurel leaves sewn into a cape that symbolizes her love for you, since you braved much to get them. You’ll have a food item—usually a kernel or two of corn—to symbolize that you’ll provide for her. It’s also customary that you have a weapon of some kind to show that you’ll keep her safe as well. After the regular vows, you take her to the place where you two’ll spend the night and say, ‘This is our house. Keep it clean.’ I know it’s old-fashioned, but it’s tradition ‘round these parts.”
       “Okay, that sound reasonable,” Noel said. “Where is it going to take place and what do I wear?”
       “The ceremony takes place outside. It’s very informal, and normally we’ll light a few fires to give it a nice look. The preacher’s already been contacted and knows where to come. You’re fine wearing what you have on, but if you want to get dressier that’s fine too. You’ll have guests too besides yore friends an’ family—people ‘round here are very social and a wedding’s a public occasion. With the Fairmont Four here, it promises to be a real nice night!”
       **Guess I can forget that small wedding.** “Thanks for everything, Bedivere,” Noel said. “I appreciate that fact that you’re all willing to accept an outsider into the family and with open arms...wings. I’ll be as much a bat as a chipmunk can possibly be for her.” Bedivere patted him on the back. “Now don’t you worry a bit ‘bout that, Noel. Main thing is, she’s happy. She shines like a new silver belt buckle every time she looks at you or your name’s mentioned.”
       “She’s just such an incredible woman, I can’t believe she chose me. Were you ever married, Bedivere?” Noel asked. Bedivere leaned against the wall of the bunkhouse where they stood. “No, laddy. I’ve been a lone wolf all mah life, an’ glad ta be that way. I like to get up when I want, and go where I please. I know there’s some that have to have a female by them to feel whole, but I wasn’t never that way. But you should feel fortunate, Chip...er, Noel. Still havin' to get used ta that. Foxy's a rare beauty, and talented like few I’ve seen. She’s got a good future ahead of her.”
       Noel couldn't blame Bedivere for the slip of the tongue, but felt his nervous tension rising. “I can’t wait for the others to get here. You don’t think we’re rushing the wedding do you?” Bedivere escorted Noel out of the bunkhouse they were in, and found there were plenty-more well-wishers to greet. “Not at all, boy! Why wait if you both know it’s the real thang? Besides, you’ve both made sure o’ yore feelin’s. I can’t think o’ two people that could be more right for each other.” Noel shook some hands, then turned back to Bedivere. “True, it’s not every day you give up your identity to be with the woman you love.”

       Noel and Bedivere spoke to the guests, who were as polite as neighbors could be. Meanwhile, Foxy was in a section of the barn that had been separated out for her. Her cape and headpiece had been stitched together and laid on the table next to her. Foxy looked at herself in the mirror attached to the table and couldn’t believe she was looking at a person who was getting married in a few hours. Her mother saw her staring at herself, and knew what it meant.
       “It’s beginning to feel real, isn’t it? I was just like you when I married Galahad,” Daisy said. Foxy turned to face her mother. “I hope so. I hope it’s real. I want to look my best for my cutie! This is going to be wonderful! When I was alone, I dreamed that my wedding would have all my friends and family—the family I thought I didn’t have. Now I have it all, with Noel, my family, my friends.”
       “I’m pleased for you, daughter, and I know that Noel loves you and will treat you well,” Daisy said. “But what about your singing? You know you’ve already had two offers at contracts.” Foxy turned back around to the mirror. “I don’t know what the future holds yet. It’s been so rushed since Noel got here that we haven’t even had a chance to sit down and talk about the future. It depends on what he wants. He’s a hero at heart and he’d never be happy just following me around on tour and I don’t know if I’d be happy being a singer when I could be out there saving the world with the Rescue Rangers.”
       Daisy helped Foxy to check the fit of the robe and flowers. “Whatever you decide, dear, don’t rush it. The decisions you make now will shape the rest of your life. Perhaps you can find a balance between singing and the Rangers. Now, how do you feel about Chip coming? Are you ready to face him?”
       Foxy cradled her head in her wings. “It’s going to be really strange seeing them together, but I know that they’re now two different people and one had to give me up so the other could be happy. They both love me and I love them. I just feel sorry for Chip, because he’s had so much heartache recently and now he’s lost two loves!” Daisy comforted Foxy as she cried. “Love is never easy, daughter. But be as good a friend to him as you can. I know that you and Noel have not spoken much of children, but do you plan to adopt some?”
       Foxy recovered herself. “Well, Noel has shared custody of Theo. I have a feeling he’s at heart Chip’s son, so I don’t expect him to call me mom. But maybe one day, when we’re ready, we’ll adopt.” Daisy looked in the mirror at her daughter and could see herself at that age. “I suspect you’ll want some little ones like Little Foxy. She’s taken to you so, and you to her. Are you happy here, Foxglove? We would love to have both you and Noel stay with us, but I suspect you’re going to go live with the Rangers.”
       “We’ll just have to see. I would like to stay here longer. We’ve all been apart so long, I’m afraid of leaving you all now!” Foxy said. Daisy hugged her daughter tightly. “Even if this is it, I’m so happy that you’re still alive and turned out to be such a good person. I love you, daughter!” Foxy burst into tears and clung to her mother. “I love you, mom!”
       “I know, my dear. Now, dry those tears. It wouldn’t do for Noel to see your facial fur wet from crying. Besides, I’ll be doing enough of that for both of us!” Daisy said, drying some tears of her own.

       The sun was close to setting by the time the RangerPlane landed. Monty and the Erskines got out, then Monty took extra care to help Sean debark safely. They all looked back toward the northeast as Wilbur Junior prepared to land. Chip watched with growing concern as the ground began coming up to meet them, and he put a comforting arm on Theo’s shoulder.
       “Don’t worry, son. We’ll be fine,” Chip said. Theo gripped his father’s hand as he saw the ground coming up rather fast. “Uh, don’t worry about me, dad. I’m not the least bit worried that we’ll all die horribly mangled in a violent crash.”
       “Your father’s right, Theo,” Roger said. “Just have some faith in our pilot.” Lahwhinie reached across Chip and put a reassuring hand on Theo’s hand. “Besides, as someone once said, ‘Who wants to live forever’?” Chip frowned. “Lahwhinie, please, that’s not helping.”
       “Hey, just trying to keep things in perspective,” Lahwhinie replied.
       As the moment of impact grew near, Theo clung to his dad for safety. At the very last moment, Lahwhinie reached out and held on to Chip in a vise-like hug. Wilbur touched down and his feet skidded on the muddy area he’d chosen. His landing gear went out from under him and his body became a living tobaggan.
       “Ev-er-ey-one puh-lease re-main sea-ted un-til the bir-rd has co-ome to a com-plete st-op...” Wilbur Jr. said. The combination of the mud and rocks were enough to halt the albatross’ progress and the passengers were only slightly shaken up. Lahwhinie looked up at Chip, blushing furiously, and removed her arms from around him. “Hey, any port in a storm…”
       Chip rubbed his neck where she’d had that iron grip of hers on him. Then Chip freed his leg from Theo’s equally powerful vise. “Don’t worry, I understand. I think you and Theo run a photo finish for who’s got the strongest grip. That’s the ranch house over there in front of us, and that looks like Bedivere Fairmont and Noel out in front. Hey Noel! Noel!”
       Chip waved to get Noel’s attention, as if the sight of an Albatross carrying their bags and walking with them wasn’t enough of an attention-getter. Noel waved back and come over, still wearing the vest and chaps from his earlier adventure. “Howdy! Well, if it isn’t the whole Maplewood clan!” Noel gave his brother a hug. “It’s great to see you all again! Thanks for coming here on no notice.”
       Sean shook his grandson’s hand. “Good to see you again, Noel. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
       “Thanks for coming, granddad,” Noel said. “It wouldn’t have been the same without you being here. I wasn’t sure you’d be willing to come all the way down for this.” Sean drew himself up obstinately. “Stuff and nonsense! I’ve had longer trips to buy a decent conductor’s baton. Now, you must be the father...”
       “Close, pardner! Ah’m Bedivere Fairmont, Foxy’s uncle! Grand to meet ya,” the prairie bat said, shaking Sean’s hand.
       “Sean Maplewood. Say, do you know of a fiddler around here called Trusty Gallop?” Sean asked. Bedivere looked surprised. “Why, I should say I do! How do you know ol’ Trusty?” Sean started walking toward the festivities with Bedivere at his side. “Met him in my early days traveling the country. I’ll tell you about it and how we made enough money in one day to live out the depression.”
       Bedivere was all ears. “Ah’m lookin’ forward to it! Get on over here, the rest o’ you!” Monty stepped up immediately. “Monterey Jack Erskine at yer service, mate!” Monty and Bedivere shook paw to wing and tested each other’s strength. Then they both laughed and whopped each on the back.
       “I always know a trooper when I see one!” Monty said.
       “Right back at ya!” Bedivere said. “If ya have time, we’ll do some wild prairie dog riding!” Monty was already at home. “I’d be roight gleeful to do it, but first let’s get the lad and lass hitched. Meet me wife, Eva.” Eva walked up gracefully and extended her hand. “A pleasure, mister Bedivere. Such a chivalric name.” Bedivere kissed her hand, and then Daisy and Galahad came out. The next ten minutes was a constant stream of introductions. The last ones were Chip, Theo and Lahwhinie.
       “My goodness. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Noel was standing in front of us,” Galahad said. “Hello again, Theo! Nice to see you back here!” Theo shook his wing. “Thanks for having us back, sir. It’s great to be in the Lone Star State again. Wow, we’re going to be family, the Maplewoods and the Fairmonts!”
       “It’s wonderful to see all of you again,” Daisy said, smiling. “I see we have two more twins here as well. My, but you’re both beautiful.” Dale was only too glad to do the introductions. “Howdy! I’m Dale Oakmont and this is my wife, Gadget.” Gadget stepped up, giving her smile. “Golly, we’ve heard so much about you and Galahad. It’s great to meet you both.”
       “Likewise. Ah, so this must be your sister,” Daisy said. Lahwhinie stood up next to Gadget. “Yeah, I’m her formerly evil twin, but I’m doing much better now.” Chip thought she could’ve made a better impression. “Daisy, meet Lahwhinie. She and Gadget are Monty and Eva’s girls.”
       “Lahwhinie. What a pretty name!” Daisy said. “But come, the party’s about to start...”

       The three bats led the guests to a clearing out behind the stables where three bonfires were already burning. The country sounds of the Fairmont Four filled the air, playing traditional tunes. There was already a crowd of people, and when the newcomers joined in they were welcomed warmly.
       Bedivere was the master of ceremonies. “Y’all jest mingle, and the ceremony’ll start shortly. Hey Hubert, start up a dancin’ tune!” Hubert, the lead mouse of the band, nodded and started up Deep in the Heart of Texas. Instantly, people were picking partners and dancing with many a Texas yelp of enjoyment added in.
       Lahwhinie slid into the shadows as she watched the other revelers, but Theo spied her. “Come on, Aunt Lahwhinie, don’t be a wall flower! Join in the fun!” Theo grabbed her hand and dragged her out among the other dancers before she could protest. Lahwhinie just stood there. “Uh well, I don't dance anything but the hula, Theo. I haven't danced this way with anyone since...well, only once.”
       Theo took her left hand in his and placed his right hand on her right hip. “Oh, if I can learn this, anyone can. Just look down and watch my feet, and move yours to keep them from being stepped on.” Lahwhinie looked down. “I guess it doesn’t matter. It won’t be the first time I’ve ever made a complete fool of myself.” Theo was actually surprised when she let him lead. “Now, just watch my feet and counter what I do.” It took Lahwhinie a bit to get the rhythm, and Gadget in particular watched her in sympathy as she rememebered her first lessons with Dale. However, Lahwhinie seemed to have a natural gift for dancing and she caught on pretty quickly.

       Soon she was looking up instead of looking down and the crowd’s attention drifted. Chip had been watching them all this time, and marvelled at his son’s persuasive abilities. He’d stayed on the side, and when Dale and Gadget took a breather they came over to him. Dale elbowed Chip lightly. “What’re you doing just standing around, Chip? Your son’s got the second best-looking dance partner, better grab a beautiful lady and start dancing before they’re all taken!”
       Chip hadn’t wanted to break in on Theo of course, and he wouldn’t dare embarrass Lahwhinie in this public setting. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I just don’t like dancing all that much...” Several girls had already given Chip looks, which had served to make him nervous. Then one tapped him on the shoulder from behind and Chip found himself looking up at a familiar red-headed squirrel.
       “C’mon, Chipper! I didn’t get a dance from you at the prom. Now you can make up for it!” Tammy said. Chip was relieved it was her. “Okay, Tammy. Hang on!” Chip started up, and he and Tammy hit the rhythm of the song. Chip’s many dance lessons came back to him, and soon he was deftly leading Tammy through the crowd. Despite what he’d said to Dale, he found himself having a good time.
       “You know, every time I dance I can remember Miss Mueller saying ‘form and timing, Chip’. But now I’m finally old enough to enjoy it. How about you?” Chip asked. Tammy’s eyes danced with pleasure. “This is awesome! A real Texas two-step in Texas! Chip, you’re a really great dancer you know. You should do it more often.”
       Chip’s attention was momentarily caught by Lahwhinie and Theo. She’d looked his way, and Chip had to force himself back to the moment. “Uh, right. Well, dancing’s okay I suppose. It’s just been something that reminded me of some hard times. I’ve decided not to live in the past anymore.”
       “I know, I should too,” Tammy said. “But I have to admit that sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if you had liked me.” Chip grinned up at her. “Well, if you’d been ten years older, or vice versa with me, I admit it might have been different. You’ve got a great guy in Rob now. He seems to really have a head on his shoulders.” Tammy nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, he’s wonderful and he has such a nice family! Thank you again for humoring me, Chip, and putting up with all that silliness when I dragged you and Foxy to meet him that first time.”
       “Oh, that’s okay. I know you were just excited and all. There’s no feeling like when you realize you’ve fallen for someone. Even though we weren’t meant for each other, I’ve always felt fortunate that I could count you as a friend.” Tammy gave him a polite hug. “Same here, Chip. Some girl’s going to be very happy when you fall for her.”
       **I hope so.**

       The song ended, but immediately the band took up again with Cool Water. The dancers slowed, and Chip and Tammy decided to sit this one out. Chip was surprised when of all people Lahwhinie came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Chip. Let’s cut a rug!”
       Before he could think, she’d taken his hand and led him out into the crowd. Theo grinned, and began dancing with Tammy. Chip led her in the slow dance, and wondered just how much of her impetus had come from his son. “I see you’ve found something else you’re good at.”
       Lahwhinie smiled a little. “I’m full of surprises, remember?” Chip was a mixture of nerves and caution. “I knew that when I first met you in Hawaii. I must admit, most of that’s faded from my memory. The girl that I met there was someone else. Certainly not the one I’m dancing with.” Lahwhinie smiled again. “Lucky for you guys. But seriously, a lot of that is starting to fade from my memory as well. I’m starting to feel like I’m no longer the person I was then.”
       Chip looked into her eyes, and the music began to change to what he’d heard in his dream. He smiled contentedly, and when the band switched to a faster melody he kept dancing slow. Strangely, Lahwhinie didn’t say a word. “I never thought you’d forgive me, Chip.”
       “And I never thought I’d have a reason to. I’m glad we were both wrong,” Chip said. Theo watched his father and Lahwhinie with satisfaction. They were off in their own little world, and Tammy’d noticed it too.
       “Theo, are they...” Tammy asked. Theo gave her a hopeful look. “It could happen, but don’t lead either of them on about it. Aunt Lahwhinie’s just getting to the point where she can understand what love is. Dad’s really nervous out there, too.” Tammy looked back at Theo with a level of apprecativeness. “Okay, Theo. You’re pretty cute, you know? Too bad you’re not ten years older or who knows?”
       “My turn will come, when it’s time. But I must admit, you’re pretty to look at,” Theo said. Tammy waved an imaginary fan in front of her face. “Why, you flatter me sir!” Theo bowed. “I do my best, miss Tammy.”
       The music ended, and Galahad got everyone’s attention. “If everyone would split up into two crowds and leave a corridor between them we’ll be ready to go! Chip, Dale and Theo, Noel wants to see you for a minute. Gadget and Lahwhinie, Foxy wonders if you two would serve as matron and maid of honor.
        “Sure!” Gadget said.
        “We’d love to,” Lahwhinie added. The twins went off with Galahad, while Chip and Theo went to the bunkhouse where a nervous Noel was pacing the old hardwood floor.
        “Guys, I have to make a decision,” Noel started. “I need one of you to be my best man, and frankly I know of only one way to go.” Noel whispered to Chip, and Chip smiled and whispered to Dale. “Works for me!” Dale said. Chip nodded and got Theo's attention. “C’mon Theo, let’s get back to the crowd. Noel, you’ll do great.”
       **Wish I was as confident as he was,** Noel thought. “Waitaminit, I am him!” Noel wrung his hands and paced some more. “Why don’t they come and get me? I’m ready to go. Breathe, Noel, breathe!”

       Foxy was having to remember to breathe herself as the nuptial hour approached. Gadget and Lahwhinie tried to calm her down, but Foxy was anything but. “I know I love him and I know he loves me and I know we’ll be happy but why can’t I stop my wings from shaking?”
       “Wedding jitters,” Gadget said. “It’s very common. I had enough nervous energy at my wedding to build a Saturn rocket!” Lahwhinie looked at the flowers and leaf cape Foxy had just put on. “Sort of reminds me of Hawaiian wedding ceremonies. Of course, we won’t be doing the hula or eating poi at this one.”
       Foxglove adjusted her veil for the thirtieth time. “I wish this was over!”

       “Better get a move on, Noel! Everything’s a-ready!” Bedivere said. The elder bat handed Noel a bow and a quiver full of arrows for his weapon and when he reached the wedding site Daisy handed him two kernels of maize. “You’re going to be a wonderful son-in-law, Noel,” Daisy said as she hugged him. Noel felt a little silly, but smiled nervously. “Thanks, Daisy. I couldn’t have better in-laws than you and Galahad—and Bedivere, of course.”
       Noel took up his position, and Chip came up next to him in front. Then Theo also joined them. “Great thinking, dad!” Theo said. “Since you and Chip are one person, it makes sense to have a second best man.” Then Dale walked over as well. “And they always say the best things come in threes!” Noel smiled over at his son. “I thought it seemed appropriate. Now if only they’d get this thing going.”
       “Don’t worry, Noel. It only seems to be taking an excruciating eternity,” Chip said. Noel gave Chip a snide look, then grinned. “I’m glad you’re here for this. How are you and Lahwhinie doing?”
       “She asked to dance with me a little while back,” Chip said. “I think she likes me, and I know I like her. We’ll just have to take it one day at a time.” Noel nodded, grateful for any diversion. “She’s certainly changed a lot since she flirted with us in Hawaii. I hope it works out, Chip.”

       The Fairmont Four signaled the beginning of the wedding, and everyone quit talking and paid attention. The pastor, a relatively young bat in traditional black broadcloth, came out and took his place at the portable altar. Noel was shaking in a combination of nervousness and excitement. From the darkness, Lahwhinie came first holding a bouquet of roses. Chip couldn’t take his eyes off her, and she smiled and blushed slightly as she finished her walk and took up her position. Then Gadget came with a similar bouquet and smiled at both Chip and Noel—Chip was relieved in a way that she didn’t produce a similar reaction from him as her sister. Then the band upped the volume, and everyone looked back.
       Foxy appeared from the shadows, and looked like an Indian princess. She had on a full-length white dress with exquisite native beadwork, crocheting and frills. She was wearing her emerald necklace, which constrasted beautifully. The white laurel flowers and veil combined with the laurel leaf cape completed the picture. Galahad took her arm at the head of the long aisle formed between the two groups of people, and they began the march toward the altar. Noel couldn’t believe she was coming to marry him—it was better than any dream. Foxy wanted to hurry when she saw Noel, but kept her discipline and stayed in step to the wedding march.
       The pastor nodded to them both as Foxy took Noel’s hand and the music ended. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to join this man and woman in holy matrimony, instituted by the Creator from the earliest days. Foxglove, Noel, are you both prepared for a life together?”
       They both agreed, and the pastor continued. “Do you, Noel Theophane Maplewood, take Foxglove to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and hold, to love and cherish, and keep only to her as long as you both live?” Theo beamed at this little surprise. Earlier in the day, the pastor had asked Noel for his full name and he realized he didn’t have one. “Well, since I can choose any I’ll take my son’s name,” Noel had said. Now he smiled back at Theo and winked, then faced the pastor again. “I do.”
       The pastor nodded and turned to Foxglove. “Do you, Foxglove Victoria Fairmont, take Noel to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, to love and cherish, and keep only to him as long as you both live?” Foxy jumped into Noel’s arms. “I DO!” And with that she smooched him then and there. The crowd giggled in kind, and the pastor waited until the moment had passed.
       “The rings, please?” the pastor asked. Chip brought out the band of gold, which Noel took and snapped into place around the emerald, making a fine presentation. Foxglove took a similar-looking band she had entrusted to Gadget, and placed it on Chip’s finger.
       “Now, by the power invested in me as a pastor in the county of Medina in the great state of Texas, I declare you husband and wife!” the pastor said. Foxy jumped back into Noel’s arms. The pastor smiled, and left center stage to them. “I guess they knew what came next.” The band started up again, and the crowd whooped and hollered and surrounded the newlyweds.

       “Alright dad! Yer finally hitched!” Theo shouted. Dale hugged his wife as she came over. “Chip’s finally happy! Well, one of them anyway.” Lahwhinie watched silently, ashamed of her envious feelings. That more than anything prompted her to come up after the first well-wishers had said their piece. “Congratulations you two.” Foxy was one big ball of joy as she hugged the Hawaiian mouse. “Oh, thank you! I’m so glad you could come, Lahwhinie!” Foxy hugged her again, a bundle of nervous excitement.
       Lahwhinie managed a smile. “Hey, wouldn’t miss it. Things were getting a little too hot for me in New York.” The others looked at her suspciously. “I’m joking!” Chip came up and shook Noel’s hand and then held on as he took hold of Foxy’s. “I couldn’t think of two friends I’d rather be around than you two. Will you consider coming back to headquarters?”
       “I don’t know, Chip,” Noel said. “But I think that maybe it would be best to stay here for a while. We need some time apart from headquarters for me to work on my new identity. Crime-fighting’s in my blood, so I don’t know if I’d ever be able to walk away from it.” Foxy put a wing around her new husband. “I feel much the same way, but we’ll have to sit down and talk about the future...our future! Together forever!” She leaped into Noel’s arms and kissed him again.

       Chip hid the wave of envy that came over him, and kept up his smile. “All right, but the invitation’s open if you want it.” Friends and family congratulated them both for the next several minutes, then Sean Maplewood joined the boys in the band.
       “Noel, it’s a Maplewood family tradition to have one of the family play at the wedding. If you and Foxglove will take your places, I’d like to play an old western favorite,” Sean said. Sean took the fiddle he’d borrowed from an obliging band member and began to play Blue Shadows. Noel and Foxglove began to dance to the slow, wistful tune and Foxy placed her head on Noel’s shoulder.
       “I couldn’t have asked for a better wedding, Noel. I love you so much,” Foxy said, putting her head on his shoulder. Noel felt as complete as she did. “You’re my reason for being, Foxy, my beautiful wife. I couldn’t have asked for a better wedding either.” Foxy only knew that she was dancing with her love. “I wish this night would just last forever…”
       The crowd began to softly sing the song Sean was playing, which came across as a beautiful serenade. Everyone watched and smiled as the happy couple danced their wedding dance alone. They all clapped as Sean finished up, and then the party was on again with the Fairmont Four providing the dance music. Galahad led Daisy out, and they enjoyed the first dance they’d had in a long time. Monty and Eva were dancing now as well, and slowed down now and then to admire the new couple. Roger and Jennifer were dancers from way back, and western dancing was a pleasure for them both. When Noel and Foxy took a rest, they came on over.
       Jennifer hugged her son and new daughter-in-law. “It was a lovely ceremony. Noel, you’ve chosen well.” Noel admired the girl next to him. “Thanks, mom. I’ve thought about this day for so long. It’s hard to believe it’s finally here. I’m married now, with a wife, son and a future full of possiblities.”
       “And your wife’s got a father and mother-in-law who are pleased to welcome her into the family,” Roger said. “Foxglove, we both think of you as our own now.” Foxy leaped into Roger’s arms. “Daddy! I knew in my heart that there was a place for me there, even before I married your son.” Roger laughed, and the other Maplewoods laughed with him—including Foxy of course.
       Roger put her down gently. “Say, we’ve heard so much about your singing. Would you favor us with a song or two?” Foxy was flattered to be asked. “Certainly, I came up with a song for our extra special day, I hope you like it, Noel.”
       “How could I not, my siren of beauty? You’re singing it,” Noel said. Foxglove took up her position with her band. “Now, just like we rehearsed it...” The band began playing a pretty, slow country melody and Foxy began to sing at her cue.

       Life has ways of surprising...
       Just when you think it’s all done
       Just when you think you’ll ne-ver love
       Life goes and gives you a husband and son…

       Love means
       A day in the park
       Love means
       A kiss in the dark

       But it also means
       The good and the bad…
       Some days are happy
       And some days are sad

       Love means
       A child to love
       Love means
       The moon up above

       And when problems come
       And when we need strength
       We’ll last them all out
       No matter the length…

       Love means
       Sharing and caring
       Love means
       Giving and living

       But mostly it means
       That I love you so
       And for better or worse

       Noel hugged her like he’d never let her go. “Neither will I, my love. Music, crimefighting, parenthood, we’ll tackle them all.” The crowd cheered and clapped, and even moreso when Noel kissed Foxy. The band started up again, but the two lovers were oblivious to it.


Chapter 13 - The Moment of Truth/Life At the Ranch/Trouble Brewing

       Chip and Lahwhinie were dancing again, and Chip had Foxy’s words going through his head. He knew she was right, and even while he was enjoying himself immensely, Chip knew that for he and Lahwhinie this was only a chance at a beginning.
       “Having fun?” Chip asked.
       Lahwhinie nodded. “Sure am. It’s nice to see new places and meet new people and not have to use them or hurt them. People who don’t know me, and are just nice to me.” Chip listened to the fine melody of the band. “I think Texas has a lock on nice. I’ve never been anywhere where people just show up like this. It’s great. I notice your dancing’s nearly flawless now. You’re a really quick study.”
       Lahwhinie looked in his eyes again. “Well, I could always dance, it was one of the things they taught me as a kid...but moving on to other topics, when are you going to meet a nice girl and settle down, Chip?” Chip was so surprised at the question coming from her that he lost his step for a moment and had to recover. He was visibly nervous when he spoke again.
       “Uh, well...I...well...you see, it’s nothing I’d been planning on. I uh...have thought about it, though, what with Noel and all,” Chip said. Lahwhinie’s voice was calm and matter-of-fact as always. “You’re a handsome guy, Chip. There should be girls all over you wherever you go. But I guess I understand, you’ve had a heaping helping of pain recently, what with losing Gadget and now Foxglove. You’re not looking to get burned a third time.”
       Chip was on the spot. Should he say something and risk upsetting her, or say nothing and risk losing her? Chip felt like he was sweating, and those wheels in his brain kicked into overdrive. “Well, there are a lot of girls that go after me for my looks or because I’m a Ranger. But to tell you the truth, I’m not a ladies’ man even though I might seem that way. My parents have already told you I’ve not been out with that many girls, and until Gadget came along I’d resolved to forget girls entirely. Once I got over that, I realized that I’d been cheating myself and I needed to start giving of myself and find someone who I could give to and would give back.”
       “And you showed everyone that you are a giving guy. You let Foxglove and Noel be together and you’ve made Theo feel like a flesh and blood son. I can see it in your eyes, Chip. You’ll never be satisfied being alone. There’s a girl out there somewhere for you. Don’t end up alone like I will,” Lahwhinie said.
       Theo heard what she said as well as Chip, and knew it had to upset him. He watched as Chip began to look around for a place he could speak to her away from the others. Why did Lahwhinie say that to him? Theo found he was upset too, and decided that even though he wouldn't normally spy on what was about to be a private conversation, he was going to follow them and see what happened.

       The music ended and Chip led Lahwhinie out of the dancing area. He knew it was now or never. She might get mad or upset and leave the Rangers entirely, but at least he’d had this short time of happiness. It took all his control to rein in his emotions until he could get her away from the others, behind one of the huge bonfires, and talk to her alone. Even as he did, his eyes began to moisten.
       Chip took her hands in his. “I care about you so much, I think I’ll bust if I don’t tell you. And I do care about you, more than anyone. You don’t have to say anything, but I can’t hide my heart from you any longer. You’re right, I don’t want to be alone...and I don’t want you to be alone either. I’ve grown to respect and...love you so, that—I’m sorry. If you’re mad with me, I understand. Just don’t leave us on my account, but I had to tell you.”
       Lahwhinie stared blankly at him for a few moments, then she looked mad and turned and started walking away. Chip’s ember of hope was fading fast. He knew he’d never get another chance like this at happiness. “I don’t want you to be unhappy. You can stay at headquarters and be with your parents. I’ll be going.” Chip turned slowly away and walked toward the darkness. Lahwhinie stopped. “I should have known this would happen. It always happens. I thought you were different, Chip. I really did.” Theo’s heart sank as he watched. It had been going so well! Why was Chip just walking away? **C’mon, dad! Fight for her!**
       Chip stopped at Lahwhinie’s words and turned, his words full of emotion. “Do you think I told you those things to take advantage of you? I told you what was in my heart.You can tell Monty to take over the Rangers!” Chip turned again toward the shadows and started marching off.
       Lahwhinie pointed at him. “Don’t you dare play selfless hero for me, Chip! I’ve seen it all—all the acts, the lies. You guys are all the same! Why couldn’t you just be my friend?” Chip stopped again. Now his own ire was up, and walked back toward her. “I am your friend! And I always will be. Why would you think I’d lie to you? Do you think that just because I’m a guy I can’t tell the truth? Get it through your head—I do love you and I’m not a liar and if I knew how to prove it I would!”
       Lahwhinie stared at him. “I don’t know how you can prove it. People can easily deceive. What was wrong with they way we felt before? I liked what we had!” Chip dared to step a little cloer. “So did I, Lahwhinie! But the way you were talking, you were going to shut me out without even a chance to tell you I care! It hurt me, and I had to say something even if it ended up making you mad like it has now! I’m not asking you to instantly become Juliet to my Romeo. I know you’re not comfortable with romance, and to be frank neither am I. All I want to know is, will you give me a chance?”

       Lahwhinie crossed her arms and fumed, while Chip turned aside and muttered, “boy, this was easier at the gazebo…” Lahwhinie nodded in agreement. “Well, that was just a dre...” Lahwhinie’s eyes and mouth opened wide as she turned quickly to stare at Chip in utter disbelief. Her face flushed, and she brought her hands to her cheeks as she had before. “No! That didn’t happen!”
       Chip saw the shock in her eyes, and immediately he knew. “Just like Dale and Gadget...and me and Foxglove...then...it was you in that pearl-colored dress. You did dance with me and we did have that conversation!” Lahwhinie’s face blushed to her temples. She gasped and took off in a run. “Excuse me!” Chip started to race after her, but she was already out of sight. “Lahwhinie, wait! Don’t go! I meant what I told you then! If you don’t love me, I’ll let it go!”
       Lahwhinie just kept running until she was far from everyone. She took comfort in the darkness that surrounded her. “This isn’t happening. People do not have other people’s dreams! What is going on? Why did he have to say he loved me? We got along so well and he had to go and ruin it!”
       “He said it because he meant it, dear.”
       Daisy had seen her running and unlike land-locked creatures she was easily able to keep up with the fleet-footed mouse. Now she landed next to the panicked mouse and Lahwhinie crossed her arms in frustration. “I forgot you bats could fly and have good hearing. How do you know he meant it? He got dumped by my sister and now he’s got the hots for me because I look like her! He fell for her in less than a second, so it’s the looks he goes for! He wouldn’t want the real me!” Lahwhinie’s voice broke then with emotion. “No one would…”
       Daisy cautiously approached her. “Honey, you’re afraid. I can hear it from here.You’re a very nice girl—why wouldn’t he want you?” Lahwhinie’s answer was full of haughtiness. “Of course he wants me! What man doesn’t want me? That way, anyway.”
       “Now listen to yourself. You’re not being fair to him or to you. I can tell he loves you by the way he treats you. You apparently didn’t notice but he was very nervous when he was dancing with you. To me, that’s the sign of a person who’s so concerned about the other’s feelings that he’s bottling them up inside,” Daisy said, leading Lahwhinie over to a nearby rock. “I’ve known Chip Maplewood long enough to know he’s not the kind of person who goes after looks. He’s very kind and considerate, and you’re throwing away a very good young munk because you’re scared to admit you care about him.”
       Lahwhinie dried her eyes. “Yeah, he’s my friend but anything more than that’s asking for trouble. Guys are trouble. Sure, he’s acting differently than most guys but he’s still a guy.” Daisy took her hand. “Honey, putting your trust in a man can lead to trouble, but if you never trust anyone, you’ll end up in more trouble yet. I couldn’t imagine life now without my Galahad—he’s my strength and I’m his. And look at Dale and Noel. Gadget and Foxglove certainly don’t think they’re trouble.”
       “But I’m trouble,” Lahwhinie said, her head hanging down. “I’ve seen too much, done too much...to ever be like them. I can’t be what he needs...or what Theo needs.” Daisy smiled at her. “From what I’ve seen, you already are and you just don’t realize it. Theo adores you, and I’ve never seen a young boy with that kind of boldness like he showed with you today.”
       Daisy hugged her gently. “And Chip’s loving you doesn’t mean you’ll quit being friends. If anything, you’ll be better ones because he trusts you and believes in you. Honey, don’t be afraid of loving him.” Lahwhinie looked her with geniune fear in her eyes. “I don’t know what to do.” Lahwhinie got up and began walking slowly back to the party.

       Chip had gone through distress, embarrassment and depression in less than a minute after Lahwhinie had left. He took off his fedora and let it drag in the Texas dust, feeling lost and confused. He’d hoped that maybe she’d understand but it just didn’t seem it was going to be. When the initial sorrow ran its course, something else came to him. The dream. The dream had been real.
       Chip walked through the darkness to the RangerPlane where his mapcase was. He’d been working on a poem to express his thoughts about Lahwhinie, but had gotten nowhere with it. Now he took out some paper along with a pencil. The western moonlight played tricks with the strange shadows seeming to creep across the prairie. He stopped near the top of a small hill and laid down, letting his eyes adjust to the lower light as he started to write.

       Lahwhinie had made her way back toward the gathering, but she continued to stay under the cover of darkness. She looked to see if Chip was there, but the others were all just gathered around and talking—doubtlessly about her and how she’d embarrassed everyone. She headed for the RangerPlane but didn’t feel like meeting up with anyone who might happen by that way so she changed her direction toward the adjoining prairie. Walking around a small hill, she stopped on the far side of it and plopped down and gazed at the stars in the vast Texas sky.
       Chip had written fast and furiously, and now looked back at the words on the page. It was all that was in him, and he decided to read it out loud. He held the words up to the moonlight and cleared his throat. When he did, a nearby pair of ears perked up.

       When you came into my life
       Everything seemed so right
       Then it all fell apart
       One terrible night

       I said I loved you
       But you didn’t want to hear
       Those words from me
       And I think it was fear

       Fear of what might happen
       To you and to me
       I wish I could tell you
       That’s not how it would be

       I just want to hold you
       And call you my own
       Every time I’m near you
       I feel like we’re alone

       And there’s no one else
       In the world but you
       If only you knew that’s what I meant
       When I said, ‘I love you.’

       I feel I need you
       And you need me
       I don’t even know why
       But it’s plain to see

       That we’re both in need
       And if you were here
       I’d tell you what I’m thinking
       ‘Lahwhinie, I want you near

       To me always, and you’ll never
       Have to be afraid again.
       I’ll fight the world to keep you safe
       And I think you know I’d win.’

       I just want to hold you
       And tell you something true
       If only you knew that’s what I meant
       When I said, ‘I love you.’

       Lahwhinie was surprised, but she quickly hid the fact. Men had given her many things over the years, but never had she heard anything like that. She didn’t know what to do at first, but eventually she stood and walked up the small hill, stopping right behind him. Chip was looking out at the sky like she had, and hadn’t recognized her presence.
       “Chip, I’m sorry for running off,” Lahwhinie began.
       Chip jerked up in surprise, and stood looking at her. Chip’s voice was level and tinged with the pain of regret when he spoke. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I was selfish, and I wasn’t thinking. If I’d known you wanted to just stay friends, I could’ve lived with that. But when you started mentioning other girls to me, I panicked. I’m sorry I embarrassed you, and made a fool of myself.”
       Lahwhinie took a step closer. “Isn’t that what guys madly in love do?” Chip shrugged. “It could’ve been worse, you know. I could have done something really stupid like asking you to marry me. I could say that I made the whole thing up, but I’d be lying.”
       Lahwhinie felt very strange. She’d never been in this situation before where she actually liked the guy that she was spending time with and the fact that she knew that he liked her. Then it hit her—she’d never felt this way before about any guy. Maybe she did care for him. She remembered the dream very vividly now, and it embarrassed her how she had acted during it. But if that was how she really felt, then maybe there was a slim chance that there could be more than friendship between them.
       “I didn’t say I didn’t l...like you, Chip. I really…really do care about you,” she said. Chip looked aside at the star-filled sky. “I appreciate you’re trying to be nice, but you don’t need to let me down easy.Your happiness means everything to me, so just say the word and I’ll leave you in peace.”
       Lahwhinie marched over to him and jerked him around. “For crying out loud, Chip! Stop with the hero bit! Do I have to spell it out for you? I’m saying that maybe, just maybe there can be something...between us.” The move had been so sudden that Chip didn’t dare move, his eyes now locked on hers. Lahwhinie tried to will herself to take her hand off Chip’s arm, but it was no use. Chip gently removed it for her.
       “Well, that’s better than no chance at all. I wish I had the words, but I used them up with the poem. I wish you could’ve heard it,” Chip said. Lahwhinie thumbed toward the opposite side of the hill. “I heard it all, every rhyme. I was right over there, feeling as bummed out as you. Nice poem. I hope Noel and Foxy weren’t upset by our little drama.” Chip had wondered if she’d heard it, but now that he knew she had his concern shifted like hers. “I think they were mainly concerned about me. They both knew I’ve been hurt before and didn’t handle it well. They’re off on their own now.”
       “Well, everyone will hopefully feel better now that we patched things up,” Lahwhinie said. She took his hands in hers, her eyes still looking at him. Her voice gradually became softer. “Now, are you sure…are you really sure that you feel that way about me? It’s not because I look like Gadget, it’s not pity, it’s not helping the fallen woman, but it’s because for some unearthly reason you find me attractive as a person?”
       Chip looked at her and that contended smile came back. “I’m happy just when you’re near me now. I can’t explain it, but I don’t think I need to.” He reached up and brushed her face gently with his hand. “I care about you more than I can put into words.” Lahwhinie was so moved by it all it took a bit for her to regain her voice. “Well, okay, maybe you do feel that for the right reason. Come on, we should work the crowd so they know we’ve patched things up.”

       “All right, then,” Chip said, taking her hand in his. Chip and Lahwhinie returned to the throng at the party, and everyone was glad to see that they came together. Noel and Foxy had been off on their own walking, and now they’d come back. Foxy came up to them. “Is everything all right now? I’m glad you didn’t kill him, Lahwhinie. I don’t think he’s refundable.”
       Lahwhinie shook her head. “We just had a talk about stuff. Everything’s fine.”
       “Good. Well, the party’s about over. Uncle Bedivere’s about to see the guests off. Would you and Chip like to join us in one last dance?” Foxy asked. Lahwhinie smiled again and looked at Chip. “Well, I guess I owe it to loverboy here. They always say to leave them wanting more.” Chip blushed deeply, and Noel came and patted him on the back. “It’s okay, Chip. I know exactly how you feel—well, not totally exactly. I guess you and I are becoming different people now.” Chip smiled appreciatively. “Yep, well it was inevitable. Sorry I made a scene.”
       “We understand, Chip,” Foxy said. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just glad you two are speaking to each other again.”
       The Fairmont Four started up, and soon both couples were dancing to the Tennessee Waltz. Chip was hesistant, and Lahwhinie almost had to push him into dancing with her. “Look, I promise from here on out I’ll ask permission before I do something utterly foolish,” Chip said. Lahwhinie gave him a mock look of disappointment. “What? And ruin the spontenaity of life? But you’re right, foolishness doesn’t suit you, Chip.”
       “No, I suppose it doesn’t. Oh uh, about that dream...I understand why you ran off. It must’ve scared you to realize that was me you told those things to and almost kissed. I won’t take advantage of that.”
       “Good. My guard was down there, and you won’t catch me trying to kiss you like that for a long time...maybe,” Lahwhinie said. Chip grinned at her and began to explain the dreams he and Dale had dreamed while they went on with the dance. Noel and Foxy were both very relieved to see they’d made up.
       “I was so concerned for him,” Foxy said. “I’m glad they still have a chance. Both of them deserve a shot at being as happy as we are.” Noel had been watching them too. “I don’t think anyone can match our happiness right now, Foxy. But they can try.” Noel kissed Foxy,.and she hugged him in pure joy.
       “Oh Noel, promise me it’ll be this way always!” Foxy said. Noel stopped dancing and got down on one knee before her. “Darling wife, I promise you with all my heart and soul that I’ll do everything in my power to make us happy, always.”
       “I know you will, dearest. Now, we’ve still got part of the ceremony to go. They’ve fixed up the old corral house for us. C’mon,” Foxy said, leading him off.
       “More?!” Noel said, incredulous.
       Foxy giggled and led her husband off to the corral. The prairie dogs stomped their feet as they approached the now-cozy corral house. Foxy pointed at the door. “You have to say the rest of the thing about our house, remember?” Noel smiled in relief. “Sorry, I forgot.” Noel straightened up and talked like he owned the world. “This is our house, keep it clean.” Foxy saluted and giggled some more. “Yessir, mister boss munk! Now get busy and carry me over the threshhold!”
       “Right away, Mrs. Maplewood!” Noel swept her off her feet and carried her forward. Foxy sighed, “Oh, you’re useful to have around. I think I’ll have to keep you!” Noel chuckled and kissed her again.

       When the dawn shone again, a rooster’s far-off crowing wrested Noel from his sleep. The wedding seemed like it was an eternity ago, but he knew it was just last night. The married chipmunk opened his eyes to look at his new wife laying next to him, but she wasn’t there. Noel had almost shaken off the grip of slumber to rise and find out what had happened, when Foxy tapped him on the opposite shoulder. She was already dressed and had a hot cup of coffee for him.
       “Good morning, cutie,” Foxy said sweetly. “You were so peaceful-looking lying there, I didn’t have the heart to wake you. I’ve been up since dawn, because they've been getting me up around that time. Would you like some breakfast?”
       Noel sat up. “Sure, Mrs. Maplewood...I just love the way that sounds.” Noel put his arms around his wife and kissed her, then took a sip of his coffee. “Let’s greet the morning of the first day of the rest of our lives together.” Foxy went just outside the corral house and brought in two trays of food. “Those ranch hands did this for us. Aren’t they the best? Here, darling...”
       Foxy set Noel’s tray down in front of him and then she sat down by him with hers. “Noel. I’ve come to decision. We need a butler!” Noel’s eyes shined with fun. “A butler?! Can you make do with a Rhett Butler, my dear?” Foxy smirked at the question. “Ah shall try, Rhett darlin’. But you should know that Miss Sca’let is used to livin’ in a high-falutin’ manner. After all, we are livin’ in this pretty little mansion.”
       Noel surveyed the corral house. “Well, this mansion won’t do us for long. We’ll need a private island or something of that nature soon.” Foxy was enjoying the game, but knew there was some truth in what Noel had said. “Noel, how do you feel about my singing?”
       “You have an angelic, magical voice,” Noel said.
       Foxy half-grinned at him. “You know what I mean! How do you feel about me continuing to make records and all?” Noel settled back into his breakfast. “The Rangers are in good hands with Chip, so I can devote my life to you and Theo. I’ll do what’s best for the two of you. If singing is what you want, then that’s the course our lives will take.” Foxy looked down. “Cutie, I’m just not sure yet. I don’t want to do anything to be away from either you or Theo. I’m afraid that I’ll get into concert deals and tours and all. It might be fun for a little while, but I don’t want to alienate either of you.”
       “I can adjust. I could learn the business, and maybe one day I could be your manager or something like that. Theo’s the big question mark. He wants to be a Ranger, pure and simple. It’s his one and only goal in life and I doubt that he’d ever be happy doing anything else.” Foxy looked over at her husband. “I know, dear, and I don’t want to pull him away from that, either. Maybe I should talk to him.” Noel finished up. “That’s a good idea. We may have to accept that he’ll be Chip’s son rather than ours at heart.”
       “I’ve felt it, Noel, but if Chip never marries I’ll be the only mother he has. I can’t let him down, and he’s such a nice boy,” Foxy said. Noel smiled with approval. “He’s a son any father could be proud of and we have to do what’s best for him too. Chip is his hero, not me. So, I’ll be happy just being his friend.”
       Foxy put away her tray and hugged his neck tightly. “And you’ll be the best friend he could ever have, dear. Now, we’d better get going! Uncle Bedivere said something about an exhibition he and Monty were going to put on.”
       “Wouldn’t want to miss that,” Noel said. “Monty and Bedivere are two of a kind.”

       As Noel and Foxy prepared to meet the day, Lahwhinie was just awakening. The barn had several private rooms built into it for the Fairmonts and for guests, and Lahwhinie was in one of these. She stretched and dressed, not entirely sure if what had happened last night was real at all. In fact, she began to take some comfort in the idea that it might not be real when she opened the door and her foot bumped into something.
       Lahwhinie picked up the flowers and smelled them and sighed. Her life had suddenly gotten very complicated. Did she really want the hassle of a relationship with a guy she actually liked? “Well, I think I owe it to me and him to give it a chance.” As she was about to take the flowers with her, a note fell out of them. Lahwhinie picked it up and read...

       I know we didn’t get off
       To the best start last night
       And the last thing I wanted
       Was any kind of fight

       So if you can
       And if you will
       We’ll start fresh today
       As a new dollar bill

       There a saying that’s true
       And upon it I’ll call…
       Every day is fresh
       With no mistakes at all

       Your Little Napoleon

       Lahwhinie felt numb all over. Chip had spoken to her last night in a way she never thought anyone could, much less to her. That had been the first time any man had ever done that and this was now the second poem he’d written to her. Still holding the flowers, she made her way to where the others were, the smell of breakfast calling her.
       “Chip, I don’t know what on earth you see in me.”

       Out at the corral, Monty and Bedivere were making enough of a racket for ten mice and bats their size. Foxy and Noel came out, and found Monty riding on top of a wild prairie dog. “YA-HOO! This is how I rode ‘em when I was a wee nipper down at Alice Springs! ‘Course, they were wombats not prairie dogs!”
       “YEE-HAAAW! Ride ‘em, Monty, but leave some wild in ‘em for me!” Bedivere shouted. Theo waved to him. “Ride ‘em, cowmouse! That’s incredible, Uncle Monty!” Noel and Foxy were off to one side, watching. “Uh oh, I’ll bet Theo will ask them later to teach him how to ride,” Noel said. The whooping and hollering was also bringing Gadget, Dale, and the rest of the Fairmonts and Maplewoods.
       “Hang tight on him, Monty! Don’t let him throw you!” Chip said.
       “Golly, he needs a better saddle to hang on with,” Gadget said. “Maybe I could invent something to help wild prairie dog riders.” Eva watched her husband flail about. “I have no doubt you could, Gadget, but I think the menfolk enjoy being tossed around.” Monty jumped off the prairie dog, and Bedivere flew down and took his place. “Buck all ya want, y’ornery critter! You’ll not toss Bedivere Fairmont t’day! YEE-HAW!”
       “Just be careful, uncle!” Foxy shouted. Theo walked over to Noel. “Dad, do you think they’d teach me how to ride?” Theo asked. Noel was pleased to hear Theo call him dad. “Son, I think that’s a man’s job out there. You’re close to being ready, but not quite. However, I suspect they’ve got some less wild ones around here that they could teach you on.”
       “Great! I’ll need to learn everything! You never know what you’ll need in the Rangers,” Theo said. Bedivere was an old hand at riding, and the tricky prairie dog couldn’t shake him. Finally, the creature gave in, and Bedivere rode him around the corral and waved to the others.
       “That’s how we tame a prairie dog heah in Texas!” Bedivere said. “If y’all want ta really see something, come on with me and I’ll show what a bombardier beetle can do!” The group followed Uncle Bedivere, but Theo had stayed behind once he’d seen a look that Foxy gave him. Now, the youngster leaned up against the corral fence.

       “What’s the problem, Foxgl...I mean, mom?” Theo asked. Foxy giggled and hugged Theo. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, dear. We need to talk about us as a family.”
       Theo sat down on the railing. “Well, okay. You’re wondering if I’m okay with you and dad going on the road and you singing. I think it’s great, and I think you should pursue your career. But my destiny is to be a Ranger. I don’t want to live a life where I can’t feel secure about where I am—I had enough of that at the orphanage. I love you both, but please don’t ask me to give up my dream.”
       Foxy smiled. “I was an orphan too in a way, once. I know what it feels like to have no solid roots. If we do decide to stay with the Rangers, how would you feel about Noel and I?”
       “That’d be fine. I’m used to both of you, and Chip seems fine with everything—well, right now he’s off in la-la land—but I’d like to have you both around. I haven’t had a mom around since mine died in the fire. I’ve learned to survive on my own, but I guess I could get used to having a mom around,” Theo said.
       Foxy knew he was uncomfortable about it, which made her that way too. “You don’t have to call me that if you’re uncomfortable. Really, we’ve only known each other for a little while.” Theo stood up. “Well, I’ll see if it grows on me. The main thing is, you and dad are happy. Jake Stone’s used to being a lone eagle, but I’m glad you’re here.”
       Theo hugged her and Foxy squeezed him tightly. “Thanks, my little hero. If nothing else, I’d like us always to be the best of friends.” Theo smiled up at her. “On that count, I don’t think we’ll have any problem at all. You are going to spoil me, aren’t you?” Foxy giggled and hugged him again. “Of course, sweetie. Who wouldn’t want to spoil a cute little guy like you?”
       “Yep, we’ll get along just fine.”

       Chip had gone down with the others to the beetle pen, and was now watching Uncle Bedivere “milk” a bombardier beetle. He had a specially-made container to keep the beetle’s chemical mix from reaching the air, and he placed a rubber piece of tubing over the lip of the bottle and the other end on a tube-like appendage on the rear of the beetle. Then the wily bat scratched the beetle’s belly and a sizable portion of a clear liquid came out, filling the jar. Bedivere pinched the rubber tubing and removed it from the beetle, then in a lightning-fast move he capped the bottle as he pulled the tubing away. A tiny flame went up for a moment, but almost all the liquid was intact.
       “This heah stuff is what the locals call nature’s nitro,” Bedivere said. “The chemical brew in these bugs’ll burn instantly in air. Noel’s familiar with its effects if you ingest it—which you can do if you soak something like peppers in the jar, but it leaves you woozy for a while. Plus every time you burp you get fire out your mouth.”
       “That’s crazy! Why would someone eat that stuff?” Chip asked.
       “The natives use it in their warrior trials. We use it in our marriage trials, and that burping side effect is quite useful. Right, Noel?” Bedivere asked. Noel patted his tummy. “In a manner of speaking, but I’d just prefer to think my way out of danger.”
       Sean eyed the peculiar insects. “Well, burping or not these beetles certainly are fascinating. What do you do with them besides milk them?” Bedivere was now in his element and it showed. “Oh, they’re a delicacy to many an insectivore. Of course, since they shoot fire it’s a tough meal sometimes but people buy ‘em up all the same. We make a mighty fine livin’ off of breeding these heah beetles.”

       Chip was interested, but now he found his attention wavering. He’d thought Lahwhinie would have come by now. Did he make another mistake with the note and flowers? She was so hard to read at times, but he thought he should give a peace offering. Chip looked around for a minute more and then let his concentration come back to the lecture.
       “...but these critters in a group’re dangerous! We haveta wear special asbestos chaps to herd ‘em,” Bedievere said. Theo had been all-atttention. “This is neat! How do you subdue a bettle? I may need to know this one day.”
       “Very carefully, young’un. A rope ain’t much use with one o’ these beauties since they’ll burn right through it. See that there tube on his hind end? That beetle can point it over himself, under him, an’ almost any angle! What ya haveta do is approach it from the front and use one o’ these.” Bedivere brought out a shield—actually the cut-off bottom of an aluminum soda can—and held it in front of him.
       Bedivere approached the beetle in question. “We don’t let any new hand get away without using these. If you’re experienced like me, you can get away with no shield but even I get scalded sometimes. That there mixture burns at ‘round 212 degrees and it hurts like anythang! One of ‘em got me on the back one time, an’ I was lucky that another hand had a bucket o’ water handy. My fur grew back in a few weeks.”
       Theo had been about to ask for a shield himself but now backed off. “Uh okay, maybe that’s one thing I should leave to the pros.” Noel was right in there with Theo on that one. “See, wisdom can prevent some painful situations.” Chip rubbed his son’s head. “Good thinking, Theo. Those bugs look a lot better from this side of the fence. Is that why you’re using aluminum siding to keep them in?”
       “You got it, pardner,” Bedievere said. “I lost three herds to a wood fence, a plastic fence and a rock fence.They’re persistent little things.”
       “How do they taste?” Theo asked.
       Bedivere worked his way carefully out of the beetle’s range of fire. “Well, since you’re not an insectivore you probably wouldn’t like ‘em. But if you get one on a rotisserie an’ marinade it jest right, it’s the daintiest treat you’ll ever eat! Jest thinkin’ about it’s enough to set my mouth t’waterin’. But we’d better move on. Big Jack’s going to have breakfast ready fer us by now out by the bunkhouse. I smell those fajitas already!”
       “Fajitas for breakfast?! Man, most kids can only dream about the life I live!” Theo said.

       The entourage headed back by the corral and up toward the bunkhouse. Big Jack was a huge mouse that looked like he should have been at a lumbercamp—and indeed he had been eariler in his life. Now he was content to be the “cookie” for the ranch. As they topped out on the hill where the breakfast tables had been set up, the smell of cooked vegetables and bread dough permeated the air. And there, with her mouth and hands full of one fajita and another on her plate, sat Lahwhinie.
       “It’s about time you guys showed up,” Lahwhinie said through the impediment, then swallowed. “This stuff is great. Maybe I should try making a Hawaiian fajita. So, how are the happy couple this first day of wedded bliss?”
       Foxy was glad someone had asked. “Oh, we’re just wonderful! And we’ve still got all these nice people here to share the day with. Dig in, everyone!” Big Jack had over a dozen of the fajitas prepared, and they went as fast as he could make them. The compliments were many and often, and the big mouse smiled like someone who hasn’t heard a compliment in a long, long time.
       Roger and Jennifer had sat next to Noel and they had a conversation going. “So you think you’ll stay on here for a few weeks before making any big decisions?” Roger asked.
       “Yes,” Noel said. “I need some time to establish my own identity. And we’ll discuss our possible future with the Rangers. Theo will stay with Chip and we’ll see what happens then.” Foxy finished off one fajita and motioned to Big Jack for another. “I’ve had a couple of concert offers already, but I think I’ll pass on them for now. If they want me badly enough, they can meet me on my terms.” Lahwhinie had a thought. “Maybe you two could become a duet. Chip here seems pretty musical, so I bet Noel is too.” Noel hadn’t considered that before. “Well, it’s a possibility anyway. Do you think they’d take a duet, Foxy?”
       “Well, if they want me, then they’d better take it,” Foxy said. Noel was stand-offish on the idea. “I’ll have to think about it. I can play the guitar okay or the piano, but I’ve never sung in front of people before.”
       “It’s like anything else you do, Noel,” Sean said. “You have to experience it first. Your tenor would go fine with her mid-range. Just remember to keep your voice soft or you’ll overpower her.”
       Foxy smiled at her husband. “We could call ourselves, ‘Maplefair’!”
       “Or FairWood. That’s a good suggestion you had, Lahwhinie. Thanks,” Noel said. Lahwhinie nodded and tilted her head. “Hey, that’s what I’m here for.” Then Lahwhinie leaned against Chip and her voice became flirtacious. “So, enjoying your breakfast, Chirp?”
       The people around them giggled at Lahwhinie’s teasing, and Chip gave her a smug look. “I sure am. So, did you like the little surprise I left for you this morning?” Lahwhinie smiled smugly in return, bringing up the flowers from where she'd placed them next to her. “Yes, I wouldn’t have expected something like that from the likes of you.”
       “Well, to quote an intelligent person I’ve come to admire, ‘I’m full of surprises’,” Chip said. Lahwhinie smiled as well. “So, what other western adventures are we going to have while we’re here, Chip?” The table was all rosy now as everyone was enjoying this back-and-forth. Chip thought about her question for a minute. “Well, we haven’t seen much of the territory yet. I was thinking we’d...”

       A squirrel from a neighboring ranch ran into the ranchyard at breakneck speed and skidded to a halt next to Bedivere. The elder bat stood up. “Sakes alive, Billy Ray! What in tarnation’s up with you?”
       “Oh, it’s a crisis Bedivere! A real crisis!” the squirrel said. Chip and Noel both leaped to their feet in an instant. “A case!” Noel instantly had an apologetic look on his face. “Uh, sorry, Chip,” Noel said. “Force of habit.” Billy Ray had the floor again. “You know the Steadman place?”
       “Son, everyone knows Pete Steadman in this section of the country!” Bedivere said. “Get it out, pardner!” Billy Ray caught his breath. “Well, his wife Sweet Melissa Sikes has done been kidnapped!” Noel had to bite his lip to keep from shouting, “Rescue Rangers Away!” He looked over at his brother. “Chip, this is your show.” Chip shook his head. “Noel, as long as you’re around you’re a Ranger. Okay, Billy Ray, lead on!”

       The whole lot followed Billy Ray over to the Bar S Ranch, the finest in all Medina County. Noel caught up with Bedivere. “Hey, isn’t this the person that offered Foxy and I the use of his guest house?”
       “The one and the same, boy. Once we get up the road a piece, you’ll see the finest house you’ve ever laid eyes on!” Bedivere said. As they cleared the short walk up the main road, everyone remarked at the edifice in front of them. It was a sprawling mansion, made in the antebellum style and complete with large columns and a veranda all around.
       “Wow, that place must have forty rooms in it at least!” Foxy exclaimed. Bedivere chuckled at the notion. “It's a good place to hang your hat. C’mon, let’s see what we can find out!”
       The inside of the Steadman place was as luxurious as the outside and perhaps more. Rare antique furniture was everywhere, and the hardwood floor was pure teak. A big chandelier accented the entrance as they came inside and eyes looked in every direction.
       “Too-ra-loo!” Monty said. “If I had this kind o’ dough, I’d have me a cheese stash that’d never run out!” Eva caught his arm. “Then ve had best stay as we are. You are about to be in training, you know.”
       A dignified butler named Jonathon met them, and showed them to the sitting room where Pete Steadman was. Steadman had come into Medina county a poor country mouse. Now, he was a millionaire many times over and liked by everyone. A portrait of his wife was behind him on the wall, and he was staring at it wistfully until he saw he had guests.
       “Come on in, folks,” Pete said. “Bedivere, good to have you over heah. Who would’ve done such a thing to mah Sweet Melissa? They didn’t even leave a ransom note or so much as a callin’ card.” Chip stepped up. “We’re the Rescue Rangers, could you please tell us what happened?” Pete came to attention. “Seems ah’ve heard of you. Oh yes, from Bedivere. Well, yesterday was shopping day for Sweet Melissa, so she’d flown into Austin to pick up a few things and I’d gone to oversee some maintenance on mah back forty. Ah’m big into oil, you know.
       “Well, we were out there all day, and when I came back Sweet Melissa’d come in with a new fur and a diamond pin. She always did have good taste. I asked her fer the receipt so’s I could register it with the others, but she got upset for some reason and said she lost it. Seemed right peculiar, but I let it pass. Then I had to go into mah study to balance the books. When ah came out, she was nowhere t’be found, and I haven’t seen her since. None of the vehicles’re missing and none of the hands could find her footprints anywheres! I’d be mighty grateful fer any help.”
       **First things first.** “Sir, may we see her room?” Chip asked. Theo was right in there with Chip. “There might be a clue to what happened. Do you have any idea why she was acting in so uncharacteristic a way?”
       “Not a one, young feller. Sweet Melissa usually enjoys her shopping days the most, but as ah think back she did seem a mite upset even before I talked with ‘er. Y’all can go see her room if you think it’ll help. Jonathon, show ‘em upstairs,” Pete said.
       “At once, sir. Follow me, please,” the English butler replied.

       The Ranger family members stayed outside as the Rangers took a look at Sweet Melissa’s room. The ladies were all amazed at the sheer opulence of the room, as it had everything a girl could think of wanting, plus it was roomy. Everything was designer-made and gold-inlayed, showing an expensive and selective taste. The fur was at her makeup table, as was the pin.
       Chip called everyone together. “Okay everyone, let’s look the room over carefully for any clues whatsoever.”
       “Right-o, Chip!” Dale said, saluting. “We’ll sniff out the wife-rustlers!” The Rangers went through everything—every drawer, every closet, every trunk. If Sweet Melissa had been hiding anything, she’d done a good job of it. Lahwhinie had been admiring the makeup case, and on an impulse she picked up the fur—genuine bear-tail—and slipped it on. She rubbed it and enjoyed the feel of the material. Then a puzzling thought came to her, and she checked something. There was no doubt of it.
       “I don’t believe it! This is a fake!” Lahwhinie said. She handed it to Chip. “See this stitching? Very inferior quality and they’re not evenly spaced. Bear tail, my tail! This is cat hair!” Chip looked at the fur in his hands. “Cat hair? But why would someone with all the money she has buy a worthless fur?” Lahwhinie grabbed up the diamond, and gave it a scrupulous look-over. “Guess what? This is fake too. Someone’s lying here. She’s using the money for something else or...”
       “Or the guy’s broke,” Theo concluded.
       “Exactly,” Lahwhinie said.
       Jonathon took the fur and put it aside. “Mister Steadman is hardly ‘broke’, as you put it. I cannot fathom why madame would purchase these imitations.” Chip let his mind work over the problem. “I think you’re right, Lahwhinie. Someone’s lying, and it looks like it’s Sweet Melissa.”
       “Unless she’s giving the money to someone else and getting these phonies to hide the fact,” Dale said. Noel ran the problem through his head as well. “Who could she be in debt to? She’s wealthy herself.”
       “Blackmail,” Lahwhinie said.
       Chip turned his attention to the butler. “Jonathan, how well do you know Sweet Melissa and her background?” Jonathon had resented Lahwhinie’s conclusion. “The madame, paying blackmail? Surely not! Why, the only time she leaves the mansion is to go on shopping tour. She is a devoted wife and a caring person. I take offense at her name being besmirched in this taudry manner. But we must consider all alternatives. Very well.
       “Mister Steadman met madame in Paris where she was on holiday with her sister. Madame came from a poor family, but by all accounts an honest one. The master and madame were married soon after and have been happily so for some twenty-seven years. I have served them loyally for fifteen of those years, and I have never known them not to be content in one another’s company. I simply cannot fathom madame’s reason for this charade on her part.”
       Lahwhinie began examining the other furs and jewelry, looking for fakes, while Noel approached Jonathon. “Has this been the first time she’s acted this way?” Noel asked. Jonathon gave it some thought. “If you mean has she been upset before, I can only recall one other occassion. It was about two months ago, and I remember that particularly because it was the madame’s birthday. Madame seemed particularly upset that night, and when she called me, she made a very strange request. She asked me to get rid of the fur jacket she had bought for herself on tour that day. When I asked what I should do with it, she said something to the effect of, ‘I don’t care what you do with it, just get rid of it.’ So, I took it to my quarters, intending to keep it safe in case madame wanted it back.”
       Lahwhinie walked back over to Chip to report. “All the furs are real, but some of these diamonds have been replaced in their settings with fakes.” Chip let that information set in. “If you don’t mind, we’d like to take a look at that fur that you’ve been looking after.” Jonathon left and soon returned with a foxhair jacket. Lahwhinie took it, rubbed the fur and blew on it. “Rabbit fur, dyed to look like fox.”
       “Lahvhinie, where did you become such an expert on furs and diamonds?” Eva asked. Lahwhinie put the fake down. “Guys used to give me stuff like this in the old days and I had to know quality to make sure they weren’t giving me anything less than the very best.”
       Chip had to admit, Lahwhinie was a big asset on this case. “Thanks, Lahwhinie. That gives us something to go on, at least.” Theo was totally confused. “Okay, dads, I’m drawing a complete blank. How do we find out who she’s been in contact with?”
       “Let’s check the receipts that she did give to her husband,” Chip suggested. “I’m sure Sweet Melissa only shops at a few stores in Austin. We’ll fly there, and check with them ourselves.” Jonathon spoke up again. “I would like to accompany you, if I might. I have been with madame on shopping tour occassionally and the managers know me. Perhaps I can aid you in your investigation.”
       Eva suddenly held her hand to her head. “I must return to the ranch. I am not as active now as I was before the baby.” Jonathon led her to a chair. “I am sure the master would prefer you remain here as his guest. I shall call the other manservants, and see they attend to your every need. We have several guest rooms, if you would care to rest for a time.”
       “Thank you, Jonathan, dahling. I would most appreciate that,” Eva said. Jonathon showed the Rangers and the others into the accounting room, and called for assistance. Three well-dressed manservants appeared quickly. “Inform Mister Steadman that this lady will be remaining here and that the Rescue Rangers wish him to come to the accounting room at once. Chauncey, see to her wishes.”
       The servants obeyed with alacrity, and Monty was relieved that her wife was being so well cared-for. Pete entered the room and the Rangers told him their conclusions. “Fake furs and jewelry? Ah don’t understand that from Sweet Melissa. I give her more’n enough spending money to buy whatever her little heart wants. Ah couldn’t imagine why she would be paying blackmail t’anyone. Now, what do y’all need t’see?”
       “We’ll need to see the receipts from her last few months’ purchases,” Chip said.
       Pete went to the filing cabinet. “All right, they’re in heah. Ah believe in strict organization, y’know. You’ll find them in dated order.” The files were indeed orderly. It soon became clear that Sweet Melissa only shopped at two stores for furs—one called Pesham’s, and the other Radford’s. Pete informed them that those were the two finest stores for furs in Austin.
       Chip pursed his lips, thinking. “One thing puzzles me, though. Why would two top-flight stores have fake furs around? And how do they fit in with the fake diamonds?”
       “Well, her bad mood would make me believe that she knew about the fakes,” Noel said. “I think the switch was made after the purchase. She was worried that her husband would know, so that’s why she didn’t show him the receipt for the newest coat—there was none. She might’ve given the money to someone instead.”
       Chip nodded, considering it. “That’s certainly a working theory, but let’s keep our minds open for now. You know as well as I do it’s a mistake to theorize before we have all the facts. We need to talk to the managers of those stores, and see what turns up.”
       “Then what are we waiting for?” Theo said. “Rescue Rangers, away!” Noel caught Theo's arm before he could run downstairs. “Now hold on there, sport. Austin might be the right place to go and it might not be. Never run off before thinking things through.”
       “What else needs thinking about, Noel?” Theo asked. “We know that these two stores are likely involved. Let's go get 'em!” Chip finished Noel’s thought. “But you're forgetting something, son. What about Sweet Melissa? How does her disappearance fit in with this, and why hasn't there been a single ransom demand?”
       “Good point, Chip,” Sean said. “Store employees aren't exactly known for kidnapping their patrons. There must be a missing piece to this puzzle. Maybe several.” Chip approached Mr. Steadman. “Does Sweet Melissa have any enemies? Anyone that she's mentioned, past or present?” Pete thought on the matter. “Ah don't rightly think so, Chip. She won't talk much about her earlier days, because she said she got into trouble once. I couldn't imagine how that would affect her now.”
       Chip was determined to ask. “Just what was this trouble? Maybe it's not important, but maybe it is.“ Steadman shook his head. “Ah promised not to ask her about it, and even once we find her I won't betray that promise. Do you really think something that happened a long time ago could be worth badgering her over?”
       “Well, we've got to consider everything,” Noel said. “There's something else. Only a couple of Sweet Melissa's furs and jewels were fakes. If one of the stores has been swindling her, why wouldn’t they all be fakes?”
       “To lessen suspicion, most likely,” Lahwhinie said. Chip knew that was a possibility. “Probably, but we still don't know if it's the people in those stores who are involved.” While the Rangers discussed matters, the sheriff and his men arrived and began questioning Mr. Steadman and the servants. The two chipmunk detectives decided to have a looksee at the other financial records and when Jonathon came back from his interview they approached him.
       “Jonathon, do have any idea who might be behind this?” Chip asked. Jonathon was beside himself, at least as much as it was possible for an English butler to be. “None, sir. The madame was beloved by us all and I could not fathom anyone wishing her harm!” Noel walked over in front of him. “Still, someone did and frankly all the fingers point to you.”
       Jonathon appeared shocked but at the same time nervous. “Me? You are accusing me? Sir, I will have you know...”
       “We saw Mr. Steadman's will. You and Sweet Melissa are his only beneficiaries. It's the oldest story in the book, Jonathon, but it adds up,” Noel said. Jonathon took on a look of offense. “Now see here, my good man...” Mr. Steadman approached Jonathon from behind. “Jonathon, is there something you're not telling us? If there is, you'd better fess up.”
       Jonathon faced his master and his sense of duty finally told on him. “Very well, sir. I did it.” Pete was flabberghasted. “You? You kidnapped my Sweet Melissa? But why, Jonathon? We think the world of ya!” Jonathon was instantly apologetic. “It wasn't what you think, sir. She is quite safe, and even admitting this I am betraying a trust that I had sworn I would not. I am also putting you into terrible danger.”


Chapter 14 - The Danger Explained/The Austin City Caper


       Pete Steadman looked at his butler strangely. “Me? What danger's in this for me?”
       “Blackmail? Death threats?” Chip asked.
       Jonathon nodded. “That is partially the case. However, there is much more to it. Even now, I would not risk the madame's life by taking you to her unless I was assured the authorities were here to keepsake her life. If you will come with me, she can explain it and exonerate me as well.”

       Monty stayed behind with Eva for the moment, but the others followed Jonathon. They walked along a seldom-used stony path from the rear of the house that led to rather large cave-like structure that had been sealed with a door. “The wine cellar,” Pete said. “I figgered it was the ruins of an older house and just added on to what was there. But couldn't they have seen you and grabbed her while we've been waiting?”
       “I greatly doubt that, sir. You see, there is something that even you do not know about the wine cellar,” Johnathon said, leading the way. The smell of dust and years was everywhere. Shelves made to house wine bottles were full of their intended cargo, and the butler walked past these to the rear wall. “I was in here one day doing inventory, when I inadvertantly tripped and fell against the wall...”
       Jonathon stepped over to a particular stone at shoulder level and pushed hard, which flipped over and with a choonk a secret lock gave way. From behind the sliding wall came a dainty-looking Texas mouse in her fifties, wearing fine clothes and a veiled hat. Pete brightened at once. “Sweet Melissa! You're all right!”
       “Oh, Petey!” she said. The Steadmans hugged each other for a minute or so, then Sweet Melissa began to explain what happened. She motioned them into the secret room where she sat down. “It was about six months ago. We were in Radford’s and I saw this dainty little stoal I so wanted! You know my taste for furs, Petey. Well, when Jonathon bought it and brought it back he called me over. He showed me that the stitching was inferior and then when I blew on it I knew it wasn't real chinchilla! It was not the same fur I had seen on the rack. I thought perhaps they had made a mistake, and they exchanged it for another fur that was good, or so we thought. Everything seemed to be okay, until this last time.”
       Sweet Melissa took a handkerchief out of her pocketbook and dried her eyes as she looked up at her husband. “It was Chester Bascomb. I know I never told you about him, but he and I were an item for a few crazy months. He'd kept my letters to him, and he knew that if you ever saw them it would bring disgrace on you! He told us that if we ever told you about our discovery, he'd have you killed and that if we ever tried to double cross him he'd have us killed and you.”
       “The varmint! Honey, you should've told me,” Pete said. Sweet Melissa nodded, crying again. “I know, Petey, but I didn't want to bring any shame to as good a man as you.”
       While Pete comforted his wife, Jonathon took over the talking. “There is more, sir. I decided to give Radford's the benefit of the doubt that first time, but when we discovered the exchanged fur was also a fake I took no chances and checked the rings we'd bought from them in the past. Most of them were fakes. On subsequent visits I never allowed the articles to leave my hands, and as they raised no protest I thought at first all was well. However, as madame said, this last excursion brought out Bascomb himself. Not only did he threaten us, but last night I received a call. It was one of Bascomb's men, and he said that his boss had put out a contract on Sweet Melissa. He said that he didn't like the idea of killing, so he warned me to safeguard her. I did so, sir, and here she is.”
       Foxy was confused. “But what were you going to do in the long run? You couldn't hope to keep her hidden here forever.” Jonathon looked down at his charge. “Alas, this was an act of desperation. I knew we could not keep the charade up much longer without taking the steps I have now.”
       The sheriff called his men off. “We'll keep a watch on Mrs. Steadman until the criminals are taken care of. We'll need to call this in.” Chip had a sudden thought. “No, wait! If you send in the law, they're certain to be ready for that and they'll be long gone. I'm Chip Maplewood, and this is my team the Rescue Rangers. Our job is to stop criminals like this Bascomb fellow. Let us go in, and catch him with the evidence!”
       The Sheriff thought it over. “I've heard of you and your team. If you really think you can get in there and stop them, then I'll give you that chance. However, you can't go in there without legal backing.”
       Five minutes later, the sheriff of Travis county was on the phone and appraised of the situation. The Rescue Rangers and their families raised their right hands as the Sheriff spoke to them. “Do you solemnly swear to uphold the laws of Travis county?”
       “I do,” everyone said.
       “They do, Sheriff Bridges. Okay, thanks for your cooperation,” the sheriff said, hanging up the phone. “You are now officially deputized and can act in Austin to arrest Bascomb and any others in there. The sheriff's going to discreetly surround the block with the cooperation of city police once you're in there so they won't escape. If you get in over your heads, have a lookout ready to signal them and they'll come in.”
       Chip nodded his appreciation. “All right, then. Noel, this is going to take some careful planning.” Noel was right in with Chip’s train of thought. “Yeah, we can't tip them off too soon before we have evidence of what they're doing.” Lahwhinie stepped forward, her lips forming a cunning smile. “What you'll need are distractions, and when I shop I'm the queen of distraction.”

       Quickly, plans were formed and the Rangers sans Eva gathered at the main house with the Maplewoods, Uncle Bedivere, Pete, and Jonathon. Chip knew he had as good a team as he could ask for on this case. “We’ll go back to the ranch and grab the RangerPlane and RangerWing. I hope Wilbur Jr.’s nearby.” Pete knew this time he could help. “Please, take my plane. You’ll find it out back.” Gadget looked around at the large assemblage. “Golly, do you think we’ll all fit in it?” Pete looked to his butler. “Jonathon, see to them.”
       Jonathon bowed to his master. “Thank you for understanding, sir. I hope to bring you back a good report.” Jonathon led them out back, and the reactions were somewhere between awe and admiration. Standing there before them was a rodent-sized large lear jet. Gadget eyes opened wide. “Goooolly! I’ve never seen a plane that beautiful! Well, at least not Ranger size.” Lahwhinie walked up to the plane like she owned it. “Well, there are certain advantages to being obscenely rich.”
       “I call shotgun!” Dale shouted, running inside. Theo was next, right with Jonathon. “Since it’s not our plane, can I try flying it?” Jonathon took on an amused look. “I am afraid not, young man. However, you may come up to the cabin and observe me.” Chip couldn’t believe their good fortune. “I’ll say it’s an advantage. Well, we’re not here to admire the scenery. Let’s go, everyone!”
       “Chip, wait!” Foxy said. “Should Theo really be allowed to go? I mean, there could be danger.” Chip halted his climb up the gangway and looked back. “Don't worry, Foxy, I don't plan to let him go in with us. Jonathon, will a car be meeting us?”
       “Of course, sir. It will be waiting at the airport by the time we arrive in Austin,” Jonathon said. Chip had figured on that. “We'll let him ride along, but he'll stay in the car while we get this done.”

       The Rangers et al climbed aboard, and there was space enough for them all and then some. The interior made it seem like an airborne limo. Phones, televisions, plush seating—the works. Sean took a seat and pushed a button that tilted it up into a recliner. “I say, I think I could become accostumed to this.”
       Monty inspected the cockpit along with Dale, Gadget and Theo. It was a maze of buttons and digital readouts. “A flyin’ butler. You’re a man of all seasons, mate! Say, how’d ya like to work fer us Rangers?” Jonathon checked the onboard scope to be sure the air lanes were clear above them. “The master pays me handsomely for my services and I am content where I am. Find seats everyone, and strap yourselves in. The amenities of the plane are at your disposal. We will arrive in Austin within the half-hour.”
       “Golly, I bet I could make some modifications to the plane and get us there even faster!” Gadget said, heading for a seat. Jonathon started the jet, and they taxied onto the private landing strip. Within moments, they were speeding down the runway and with a roar from the engines shot into the air. Foxy clung to Noel at the sudden burst of acceleration. “Wow, maybe I should get us one of these, dear. This is flying in style!” Noel was starting to like this setting as well. “Well, if your singing takes us far enough, maybe we could get one of these.”
       Lahwhinie pulled her legs under herself on her seat, fully living in the moment. “This is pure style. If I’d shopped around long enough, I could’ve found a guy who would’ve given me one of these.” Then she leaned over and whispered in Chip’s ear. “But he’d never have been able to say those things you said to me.” While Chip blushed, Foxy checked out the gadgets. “One of the recording companies already offered me one of these for going on tour. I had no idea they were such fun, though!”

       The next thirty minutes were spent by Theo and Gadget taking turns asking Jonathon questions about the jet. Lahwhinie took a short nap, and Chip spent most of his time watching her. Noel and Foxy cuddled up, and only moved when the jet set down at another private landing strip.
       “Welcome to Austin, everyone,” Jonathon announced over the speakers. “I have informed Mr. Steadman’s people of our arrival, and the car will be waiting for us.” Lahwhinie woke up and stretched. “Ah, I haven’t traveled by car in quite a while. A rare luxury for people our size.”
       “A car? I don’t suppose it’s a limousine or something?” Chip asked. Jonathon brought the plane to a stop. “Don’t be silly. Of course it is.” Theo ran to a nearby window and sure enough, a stretch limo—rodent size again—was waiting on the side of the runway for them.
       Lahwhinie stood up, taking her time. “Luxury, the only way to travel.” Chip could tell she was enjoying herself, so he offered her his arm. “A limo that size must have cost a fortune.” Lahwhinie took it and they headed for the exit. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve traveled in such luxury. Maybe we ought to work for this bunch.”
       Jonathon walked with them. “I believe this one cost a month’s production from the wells. Now if everyone will come with me, we will proceed to the limo.” Jonathon opened the outer door, and a portable stairway was there to meet them. The uniformed limo driver got out and tipped his hat as he opened the doors for all of them to get in. Again, every convenience was provided—including snack trays, which Dale, Monty and Theo sampled to their delight.
       “Brie ‘86, aged just roight!” Monty said. “Gotta say one thing, this case certainly has it perks. Maybe we should all hire on with this fella after we nail these blokes’ hides.” Chip didn’t let himself get too comfortable. There was a case to solve. “Something tells me that he wouldn’t have a need for his own private investigators that much.”

       From the front, someone got out and joined the Rangers and their entourage in the rear. The mouse was middle-aged and looked to be no-nonsense as he showed them a badge. “I’m Lieutenant Gillette, Austin city force. The sheriff’s explained the situation and why you’re here, and we’ve pledged our cooperation. Now, which of you is in charge?”
       “That would be me,” Chip said. “I’m Chip Maplewood and we are at your disposal, sir.” Chip extended his hand to Gillette and the lieutenant shook it. “Very good. I’ve heard of you Rangers before, mostly anecdotal information. You seem to have a good track record. Now, this will require delicate handling. Do you have an operating plan in place?” Chip nodded. “We’re going to case the store in two groups at the same time. Foxy here’s going to play the part of a wealthy singing star—which won’t be much of a stretch. She’ll go to one entrance.” Foxy’s eyes shone with excitement. “Oh, this is going to be fun! But I won’t be going in all alone will I? I’d be too nervous.”
       Chip pointed to Noel. “You’ll have your doting husband Noel here with you, as well as your entourage.” Foxy blinked. “My entourage?”
       Sean sat up. “Your personal assistant.”
       “Your scheduling coordinator,” Jennifer said.
       “And your manager,” Roger added.
       Foxy was shaking with excitement now. “Wow, I feel like a major singing star already! So is this my limo now?” Gillette handed Chip a map of the store and Chip pointed to the south streetside entrance. “Well, at least here it is. Make the biggest show of yourself, and play into the role like you’re used to going to such places. Don’t be impressed, no matter how elegant the place is. You’ll need to work it so one of you at least gets a chance to snoop around, so be prepared to keep the manager and the others occupied. Especially try to get a look at their own records and see if you can find a copy of the receipt for that fur.”
       “Okay, Chip. We’ll get it done somehow,” Foxy said. Zipper flew up to Chip. “What about me?” Chip looked up from studying the map of the store. “Oh, sorry Zipper. Say, you’ve been quiet for a while.” Zipper buzzed nervously. “I’m the strong silent type—plus I don’t relish making myself seen too much in a state that’s the number one bat capital of the US.”
       “Okay, Zipper. You’re the distraction for Foxy and the others. Wait until they’ve been in there a few minutes and then buzz the place. It’ll make their job easier,” Chip said. Zipper saluted. “Right-o, Chip!”
       Gadget caught Chip’s attention next. “So what are the rest of us going to do in Radford’s?” Chip looked her way. “You and Lahwhinie will be twin actresses that just signed their first major movie contract, and you’re out on the town celebrating.” Lahwhinie grimaced at the thought and rolled her eyes. “Oh, joy. Mary Kate and Ashley grew up.”
       “But Chip, I don’t know anything about acting,” Gadget said.
       “You don’t have to! Just look important and demand to see everything expensive in the store. Dale and I will be your boyfriends,” Chip said. Dale was all smiles at this idea. “Oh, boy! I’m dating a cool-looking actress!” Gadget winked at Dale, and smiled. “Don’t let it go to your head, superspy.”
       “And don’t let go to yours either, Chip,” Lahwhinie said. “I might act a little more…affectionate than I’m used to, but it’s just for the sake of the scam.” Chip understood. This was Lahwhinie’s element. “I won’t Lahwhinie. Theo, I’m afraid you’ll have to sit this one out.” Theo had suspected it was coming, but that wouldn't stop him from lodging a protest. “Aw, dad! I could help you, I know I could! I could be a child actor in the same film as they are!”
       “I don’t think so, son…” Chip said.
       “A really spoiled one?” Theo added.
       “No thanks, Theo.”
       “A snobby brat? I could be your distraction...”
       Chip knew Theo wanted in, but with the danger they could be facing it would be unwise. “It’s a tempting offer, but we’ll have to pass. You stay here in the limo with Jonathon and the limo driver, and we’ll be back as soon as we can. Besides, we need someone to signal the law in case we’re in danger.” Theo shrugged and settled down. “Oh, well. At least it’s a cool car.”
       “Hey, what about ol’ Bedivere?” the elder bat asked. Chip was just coming to him. “You’re the girls’ agent, in charge of purchases. Jonathon, we’ll need you to keep clear also since they know you.”
       “Very well, sir. I shall remain inside. Randolph will see to getting you in and out of the car,” Jonathon said. Monty tapped Chip on the shoulder. “Uh, Chipper? What about yours truly?”
       “You use those commando skills of yours and get up to Bascomb's office. Find whatever you can on him, including hopefully those incriminating letters. We'll keep the salespeople busy, so all you should have to deal with is Bascomb,” Chip said. Gadget took her father's hand. “Be careful, dad.”
       Monty smirked. “Don’t worry, pally! Monterey Jack never left a place where he didn’t leave his mark!” Gillette held up a hand. “Whoa, there. That's illegal search and seizure without a search warrant. Fortunately for your plan, I've procured some.” The lieutenant handed a warrant over to Monty, and another to Roger. “Just don't take any chances in there. Get what you're after and get out.”
       “Good. Okay, let’s do it,” Chip said. “Get in there and get out with the evidence. If they catch us at it, we’ll arrest them. If you run into trouble, remember there’s police around.” Foxy hugged Noel tightly. “Okay Chip, but I’ve got my entourage to protect me!”
       “And you’ve got me to protect you,” Lahwhinie said.

       Chip grinned, and the limo sped on into Austin. The rodent stores were underground, beneath the humans’ mercantile district. As the limo entered the south streetside parking garage, the driver took a sharp right and entered a nicely-lit and immaculately-kept parking area on the more diminutive level.
       “This is the parking area for Radford's, sir,” Jonathon said. “Let me relay Mr. Steadman’s thanks for performing this duty for him. I am certain that you will find him grateful.” As the limo pulled up next to a set of four huge glass doors with “Radford’s” elegantly etched into them, the driver exited the limo and opened the door for Foxglove.
       “Radford’s, ma’am.”
       Fortunately, Foxy had worn her singing outfit so she really did look the part. She put on the best Texas accent she could—she’d picked up a little just being out here—and began to play her role. “Oh, isn’t this just the prettiest lil’ ol’ place? Noel dahlin’, we simply must visit this part of the world more often!” Randolph let Noel and the others out, then quickly closed the door as the manager came up, wringing his hands expectantly.
       “Welcome to Radford’s. My name is Cyril, and I would be more than happy to care for your needs today,” Cyril said in a syrupy voice. Foxy pinched his cheek. “Well aren’t you the sweetest thang?” Noel held back a laugh as he pinch Cyril’s other cheeck. “Yeah, isn’t he sweet? He does have a way about him, dear. Cyril, my wife is Foxy Fairmont the famous recording star. She is about to start on a national tour, and needs an appropriate wardrobe.”
       Sean walked up to Foxy, holding a small notepad he’d borrowed from Gillette. “Miss Fairmont, don’t forget we have that appointment in New York next week at Macy’s.” Foxy turned to him, pleased as punch. “Don’t worry, Sean dear. Oh, you do keep up with my schedulin’ so well!”
       “And we must be at the recording studio by this evening,” Jennifer added.
       “Thank you, Jennifer dear,” Foxy said. “Mister Cyril, I would like to spend all day with you, but my schedule will only permit an hour or two.” Cyril was completely taken in. “Yes, Miss Fairmont! You do us an honor by coming here. Please, come inside...”

       At the next block, the limo turned around and again Randolph repeated his ritual, this time at the north underground entrance. Gadget was about to step out of the vehicle when Lahwhinie motioned her to wait, whispering into her ear. “You’re a rich actress now. Wait for your boyfriend to help you out. Like this...”
       Chip came around to her side of the car, and Lahwhinie held out her hand daintily. Chip took it, and Lahwhinie made every effort to show how used she was to this behavior. Gadget did the same as well as she could, Dale helping her out. Bedivere followed, spouting stuff about movies. Once they’d been escorted in, Monty appeared at the street opening of the parking deck and began plotting his entrance.
       “Golly, what a pretty store!” Gadget said.
       Radford’s was a relatively new outlet in the area, and the design work showed it. They catered to the younger set, and Gadget and Lahwhinie seemed to be just about ideal. Cyril and several sales reps came over once they’d entered. Lahwhinine signaled her sister that she’d do the talking, and talk she did. “Chirp, you and your buddy...oh, what’s-his-face...” she said, snapping her fingers.
       “Yes, you and Dole go sit over there. We’re gonna shop till this store drops!” Lahwhinie said with relish. Cyril poured on the charm. “The store is at your disposal, ladies.You are twins, are you not?” Lahwhinie gave out a laugh. “Well, I see they hire help with brains here! Yeah, we’re the Mahala twins. You’ll be seeing us everywhere soon enough—we’ve just penned this big contract for a flick in H-town. So, you got anything decent in here? It better not be under a thousand!”
       “Oh no, miss,” Cyril said, kowtowing already. “We only deal in the finest fashions. We import directly from the designers in Paris and London!” Lahwhinie felt right at home. “Well, that’s more like it. Sis and I take a size 2. Oh, and don’t ask her about machinery. She’s supposed to be this super-intelligent mechanic in the show and she’s gone so overboard she’s still wearing her costume.”
       “Hey, I like my coveralls!” Gadget protested.
       “So do grease monkeys, sis,” Lahwhinie said. “Chop chop, now! We need a complete wardrobe for our personal appearances.” Lahwhinie didn’t have to pretend to be unimpressed with the opulence around her. She’d had many a rich boyfriend send her to a place like this to buy a dress for later that evening. She handled ten-thousand-dollar dresses like they were yesterday’s wash, and none of the employees had the least suspicion.
       Chip watched her work with admiration as he leaned over in his seat and whispered to Dale. “She’s sure enjoying this. Can’t say as I mind it myself. I’d sure never go into a place like this otherwise.” Dale leaned his way. “You got that right. My whole comic book collection wouldn’t have bought one of these dresses!”
       Lahwhinie went through the stock like a general reviewing the troops. She made two piles and handed one to Gadget, talking low. “Now, you put one on, and come out and let your boyfriend look you over. He’ll either say he likes it or he doesn’t—and I’ll make sure he says he doesn’t—and then you try on something else.”
       “Lahwhinie, these dresses are priceless,” Gadget whispered. “What if we get in trouble?” Lahwhinie smiled mischeviously. “Don’t worry about it. Trouble’s my middle name, among many others. Besides, I bet you’ve never gotten to play dress-up. This is the cream of the crop, honey.” Lahwhinie snapped around haughtily, her voice suddenly back at its full register. “You got any jewelry in this place? We need to see how these’ll look with the dresses.”
       The attendants ran off, but the manager stayed nearby as Lahwhinie and Gadget went over to their boyfriends. Lahwhinie took one of the dresses off the top, and ran it over Chip’s head in a flirting manner, then leaned in like she was going to kiss him. “We’ll keep coming out in different stuff, and you’ve both got to say you don’t like it. Just keep us going back for more, and make sure Dale knows.”
       “All right,” Chip said. “Those dresses are extraordinary.” Lahwhinie grinned. “Wait’ll you see me in them, loverboy...”

       On the other side of the huge store, Foxy had a lineup of attendants helping her with everything from furs to gold bracelets. Roger was enjoying playing into the role of an agent. “Now miss Foxy, I done told you we’ve gotta be at the rehearsal soon! Y’all kin look at the pretty baubels later on!”
       “You know very well they won’t play a note without me!” Foxy said, trying to sound egotistical. “I’m having me a good time. Now, I’d like to see all your fur stoals!” The floor manager for the area clapped his hands together quickly. “At once, madam. The stoals!”
       Foxy tried to act unimpressed, but she was having the time of her life being doted over like this. **Maybe being a real singing celebrity won’t be so bad after all.** She made sure to give no impression of buying anything, although she was sorely tempted several times. One look at the price tags was enough to dissaude her, though. Jennifer and the rest of the entourage had been pretty free to look about, and had already spotted the main office.
       “All we need is that distraction, and one of us can slip back there,” Jennifer said. Sean pointed to the far wall. “I think our distraction’s about set. Here he comes!” Zipper had done like Monty and exited the limo before it pulled up to the door to avoid detection. Now, he flew out from one of the air ducts and buzzed around noisily. The manager went into hysterics. “Oh, no! A nasty fly! Chaseitout, chaseitout! We’ll be ruined!”
       Zipper stayed out the store employees’ range and made himself as much a nuisance as he could. **Guess I’m not helping to improve insect-mammal relations, but then again no self-respecting insect would come into a snobby place like this.** While the employees were distracted with Zipper, Roger and Jennifer slipped into the main office unseen while Sean kept a lookout. The information was computerized, but fortunately one of the employees had just been working on the computer and the system was open.
       “Accounts receivable, accounts payable. Ah, billing. Say Jennifer, maybe we should offer to join up with our son’s team. We’re not retirement fodder yet,” Roger said. Jennifer began cross-checking for any signs of illegal or shady suppliers. “And this brings back so many memories of the RASCALS. Isn’t it wonderful to feel the excitement of the hunt again? There it is—the full month’s listing. Now, search for Sweet Melissa...”

       Back at the limo, Theo was getting bored. Jonathon had gone off to get some coffee and he had the whole rear of the car to himself. A tapping came at the chauffer's window, and a few moments later the car's phone rang and Theo picked up. “Randolph here, sir. A young lady wishes to utilize your phone. May I send her back to you?” Theo liked getting treated like a big shot. “Sure, Randolph. No problem.”
Theo walked over to the door, rolled the window down, and his mouth dropped. It was Rhonda Means, a young chipmunk actress that Theo’d had a crush on for ages. She was wearing a gorgeous dress, and looked even more beautiful than he’d remembered.
       “Excuse me young man, but my driver is delayed and I need to make a phone call right away. Could I use yours?” Rhonda asked sweetly.
       “Uh huh...” Theo opened the door, and Rhonda sat down right next to him. “Oh, thank you! I just had a feeling there’d be someone in here that would help me.” She smiled at him, and Theo thought he’d drown in pure pleasure. She picked up the phone and dialed a number as she looked at him. “Might you be a fan, sweetie?”
       “I’ve seen every movie you’ve made, including A Brush With Danger ten times!” Theo managed. Rhonda finished her call quickly. “Well, thank you! For a fan, I’ll have to give you an extra-special reward...” Rhonda opened the portfolio she was carrying and pulled out a publicity photo. She started to write a message on it. “Now, who do I make this out to?”
       “Theo...Theo Maplewood...”
       “Theo—Maplewood. There you go, sweetie,” Rhonda said, handing it over. “And I appreciate you watching my movies. You’re just as cute as they come.” Rhonda kissed him on the cheek, and then left the limo. Theo smiled dreamily, holding his photo and waving to Rhonda as she walked away. “They’re never gonna believe this...until I show ‘em the evidence!”

       Inside Radford’s, Chip and Dale had thoughts along the same lines, particularly Dale. Gadget rarely wore dresses, but in the last five minutes he’d seen her in evening gowns, party dresses, ball gowns, and enough jewelry to last a lifetime. Now she came out in a sparkling blue designer evening dress that matched her eyes, wearing diamond earrings and a diamond choker. Dale couldn’t help but be reminded of the femme fatale in Dirk Sauve’s movie, The Spy Who Slugged Me.
       “Wow, Gadget! That’s incredib...uh, I mean it’s presentable,” Dale said, his change of tone coming as Chip elbowed him for the sixth time. “But you know, I think it would look better in red.” Gadget walked over to him and winked, then whispered, “So do I, superspy. Do you think Monty’s going to make his move soon?”
       “I hope not...uh, I’m sure he’s working on it,” Dale said.
       “Oh, Chiiip....”
       Chip turned, and Lahwhinie came out in a gorgeous gleaming silk gown that he noted closely matched the pearlish color of the one in his dream. Then he realized that she’d chosen it for that very reason. She was also wearing diamond earrings, but she had on a ruby necklace that made a sharp constrast to the dress and matching ruby bracelets. Lahwhinie walked up to him and turned around. “What do you think, Chap?”
       “It’s uh...very...very nice. I think that the ruby color is good, but emerald might do better. What do you think, Dale?” Chip asked. Dale was still gawking at Gadget as she walked back to the dressing room and smiled at him over her shoulder. “I think I’d like to have a lot more comic books!” Chip smiled and chuckled at the confused attendants. “He deals in rare collectibles.”

       Monty had found infiltrating the building a challenge. Unlike Zipper, he couldn’t use an alternate route. So, calling on his training and skills, he managed to time it so the doorman wouldn’t see him and slipped in. Working in the shadows and crawling on his belly, Monty moved toward the center of the huge store. He spied the others soon enough, with Lahwhinie bossing every attendant in the store.
       **Shame ta haveta spoil their fun, but then we dinna come have just ta let the girls try on dresses.** Monty was about to motion to Chip when a wing tapped him from behind. It was Bedivere, and he pointed to a side door which they both crawled toward, indian style. It was the elevator and stairwell entrance, and before going up the two tough guys had a rap session.
       “I've already been up there, and it's empty right now. Let's slap spurs and find whatever we can,” Bedivere said. Monty nodded and peeked out of the stairwell area to see that Chip was looking his way. He signaled that he and Bedivere were going upstairs, and Chip nodded back. When Lahwhinie came out again—this time in a pink chiffon party dress—Chip motioned to her and she came over.
       “Monty’s going in now. Just keep it up, you’re both doing fine,” Chip whispered. Lahwhinie ran her finger down Chip’s nose. “Good thing I gave us both a pile of dresses. Let me know when he’s clear and I’ll get us out of here.”

       Jennifer was more adept at using computers than her husband, and soon she found what she was after. “Here’s a full list of what Sweet Melissa’s bought in the past six months. No mention of either of the fake items, but I cross-referenced and found listings of three suppliers from Thailand. I bet that’s what we’re after.”
       “Good job, honey,” Roger said. “Glab one of those disks and make us a copy and let’s go.” Roger and Jennifer came out quickly, and signaled to Zipper who flew out of the duct from whence he’d come. Noel whispered to Foxy and she stamped her foot. “I have never seen an establishment run in this stampedy manner! Come, Noel. I’m sure that Pesham’s would never allow a common fly in their premises!”
       “But madam, wait!” Cyril pleaded. “It was an accident, I assure you!” Foxy fixed an icy stare on him. “Sir, at the prices you demand one cannot afford to have ‘accidents’. Good day!” Foxy walked out with her nose in the air and a pile of merchandise left behind as well as serveral distraught salespeople. Once they were clear, Foxy rushed up to Roger. “What’d you find?”
       “The golden fleece. Hopefully, group two’s having the same success,” Roger said.

       Monty and Bedivere had another obstacle to overcome once he reached Bascomb's office. Papers were strewn everywhere, and everything was organized in filing cabinets in some manner of sequence that Monty didn’t immediately recognize. “Guess we’ll haveta do trial-an’-error. Hope the lasses have lots o’ dresses left...”
       That part was not a problem, as Lahwhinie had instructed Chip to ask for several previous dresses with different jewelry. The guys didn’t mind, but Chip was concerned that Monty hadn’t come back yet. Still, it had only been a few minutes.
       “How much longer?” Dale asked under his breath. Chip responded the same way.“As long as it takes, I...oh, marvelous dear, marvelous! But I can’t decide if I like the green silk with the white diamonds or the white silk with the emeralds better.” Then he whispered to Dale again, “Just keep not making decisions until Monty signals.”
       “It’d better be soon. My decider’s about pooped and...great, Gadget! But the blue diamond earrings surrounded by the cute little white ones looked better with that dress,” Dale turned back to Chip, sotto voce. “Chip, do guys do this in real life?”
       “I guess so. Seems kinda fun, but if you were buying this stuff for real maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe everyone ought to do this and let their girlfriends dress up for them without buying anything,” Chip whispered.
       “I betcha only rich folks get away with it, like Ornery Goldtoe in Goldtoe,” Dale replied.

       After going through nearly every drawer, Monty finally found the files he was after. “Shambach...Shelley...ah, Steadman. Now, if only...yes, that’s it! The illegal merchandise sales. But the letters ain't here.” Bedivere pulled him toward the door. “That's enough dirt to stick to him. Let's git before a posse comes!” Monty nodded, then noticed on the receipts that the same clerk had sold both the fakes, and made a note of the name. The wily Aussie and the Texas prairie bat crawled out and signaled to Chip.
       “That’s our cue, Dale,” Chip said. Chip signaled to Lahwhinie as she came out yet again, and suddenly her demeanor changed. “You...you don’t like anything I picked at all, do you?” Chip picked up on it and played along. “Now baby, it’s not that. It’s just...”
       “How dare you call me that?” Lahwhinie said loudly. “That’s what you called Francesca! You never did get over her, did you? Did you!?” Lahwhinie was playing it for all it was worth, and Chip actually didn’t fully know if she was upset or not. “It’s nothing like that at all, Peaches! Francesca and I weren’t really dating!”
       “Oh, sure! I bet everyone in here believes that,” Lahwhinie said, crossing her arms. “You’ve probably dated every girl in this city by now! Come on, sis. I’ve had enough of mister big-shot!” Lahwhinie and Gadget returned to their dressing-rooms and emerged in their regular clothes.
       “Sis, I’m sure he didn’t mean...” Gadget began before Lahwhinie cut her off. “Oh, of course he did! Now come on or I’ll make you buy your own car to get home!” Out they went, Lahwhinie seeming to trail a column of smoke. They all got out with Monty and Bedivere, getting in the limo where Gillette met them up the street a few minutes later.

       Monty filled them all in. “...an’ it’s Ernest Blackridge we’re after. He’s the bloke runnin’ the show for this Chester Bascomb.” Roger and Jennifer gave Gillette the disk. “And you’ll find their complete shipping records there, enough to send them away for years.” Gillette pounded his fist. “Good work! Hopefully, we can get the info off the computers ourselves, but the information itself is valuable. Okay, this is it! Let’s get Bascomb and that clerk. By the way, good work in there. My officers say you got out undetected.”
       “Hey, those people were putty in my hands,” Lahwhinie said. “You have to know how to handle ‘em is all.” Chip smiled over at her. “You sure did that. They were quaking in their boots the whole time.” Lahwhinie grinned back. “Now you see why I gave up that racket. It has its moments, but it’s lonely at the top.”
       “Too bad you gals couldn’t keep the dresses,” Dale said. “They sure were pretty on you, Gadget!” Gadget smiled and shrugged. “Well, it was kinda fun but I like to wear simple things, and I just can’t see myself taking apart an engine in the dress that Princess Veronica of Alsace-Lorraine wore.” Lahwhinie’s eyes shone at the memory. “Ah, the feel of silk and jewels…” Gillette picked up his walkie-talkie. “Okay, I’m telling them to find Blackridge and Bascomb and bring them out along with the receipts and records.” Gillette got to work, while the Rangers leaned back and let the police handle things for once.
       Chip looked over at his son. “You missed a command performance in there, Theo. Everyone did a great...Theo?” Theo hadn’t said a word the whole time. He’d just stared at the picture in his hands, and sighed. “She kissed me...”
       “Who? Who kissed you?” Chip asked. Theo held up the picture “Her!” Chip recognized Rhonda Means at once, and then read the inscription on the photo. “It says, ‘To my savior and biggest fan, Theo Maplewood. Love and kisses, Rhonda’.” Dale was impressed. “Wow, you met Rhonda Means?! She was in that great horror flick, The Attack of the Killer Rutabegas! Where’d you meet her?”
       “Right here in this car!” Theo said. “She comes up, asks to call someone and then gives me this picture and kisses me when she’s done! She sat right here...” Theo patted the seat next to him. Lahwhinie gave him an amused look. “Looks like you’re growing up pretty quick, chum. Guess the girls are starting to notice you.” Theo didn’t know if that was a good thing. “I hope not. Girls scare me. But Rhonda...I was too amazed to be scared!”

       In a few minutes several animal police came out, dragging one of Radford’s employees out with them. The limo emptied, and the suspect was surrounded. Gillette read him his rights. “Well, Mr. Blackridge I presume. You’ve been a naughty boy, haven’t you?” Blackridge was quaking, and perspiring heavily. “Please, anything but jail! I was the one who called Jonathon, I'll cooperate! I’ll tell you where he’s hidden!”
       Gillette’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “What? Then you mean...”
       “You’d better tell us everything, Blackridge!” Chip said. “How you’ve been substituting fake jewelry for the real stuff, as well as fake furs! Now talk! Where’s your boss?” Blackridge was desperate. “Look, he told me I’d never get caught! He said, ‘these rich folks never pay any attention’. I believed him, and he cut me in for half! He’s upstairs in the secret room, packing a bag!”
       “Embezzlement, theft and kidnapping. Jonathon, you’ve done...say, where is he?” Chip asked. Theo pointed across the street. “He went to get a cup of coffee but never came back, dad. I assumed he was going to go help you.” Randolph spoke up. “He told me he was going to check up on the lot of you. Perhaps he did, or perhaps he had an idea of his own.”
       Noel followed him. “You mean he might be after Bascomb himself, alone?”

       “Well, don’t just stand there. Let’s go see!” Lahwhinie said. The police and Rangers went in as one. Gillette went up to the manager, already overwrought at the presence of police in his store. “The store owner and one of your fellow employees has been engaged in gross violations of the law. What’s the fastest way upstairs?”
       Cyril started to lead them, and Chip caught a blur out of his peripheral vision, “It’s Bascomb! Get him!” Jonathon had indeed been after Bascomb, and now he’d flushed the criminal out. He ran wildly through the store, a batch of papers in his hand. He turned over several displays, attracting the attention of the other officers in the store. His pursuers stayed close behind, but the store was huge and there was no way to corner him. As they went through leather goods, Bascomb turned over a big stand of men’s custom-made leather items.
       “You’ll never take me! Never!” Bascomb shouted.
       Chip jumped the display, but one item caught his eye and he snatched it up and kept going. Bascomb had gained some ground, but before he could make it to an exit Lahwhinie cut in front of him. “Give it up, thief. I know twelve ways to incapacitate you without even breaking a sweat.” Bascomb produced a six-gun and pointed it at her. “Funny thing—I never would’ve gotten this beauty except for my connections in the racket. They’re rare, but very deadly. Now step aside toots, or you’ll discover a thirteenth way to incapacitate someone. Permanently!”
       “Don’t you do it, ya crumb! That’s me daughter there!” Monty said, the rest of the group with him. Gillette had his own gun out. “Do you honestly think a murder charge would help you? You have no choice, Bascomb. Put down the gun or I’ll fire.”
       Bascomb turned an eye back toward Lahwhinie. “This is all your meddling! You’ve ruined three years of hard work, toots. The scam was perfect, with all them rich broads coming in here. They never suspected! And then Steadman’s precious, overspoiled wife and his meddling butler walk in and figure it out. Now I s’pose you got Blackridge. I shoulda known he’d rat on me.
       “He’s a weak-kneed spineless fool—but my game’s not over. Not by a long shot! I’ve got a swiss bank account with more money than you underpaid patrolmen and vigilantes will ever see in your lifetimes combined! Miss Nusiance here will be my insurance that I see it, and if I’m feeling generous maybe I’ll let her live after. Now put down your guns!”

       The officers obeyed, and Bascomb began to close on Lahwhinie, the gun pointed at her. Foxy’s eyes were wide with fear. “No, don’t take her! Please!” Gillette fixed his eyes on Bascomb’s gun. “You’ll never get to the airport, Bascomb. The entire force has been alerted!”
       “Nice try cop, but they won’t get a chance at me anymore than you will. It’s been fun!” Bascomb said.
       As the crime boss was about to grab his hostage, a hissing noise went through the air and a tendril of leather wound around Bascomb’s neck from behind. Chip pulled with all his might and the crook went down hard and the gun fell from his hand. Chip raced over and pinned him. “No one threatens my girl like that!” Chip reached back to punch the daylights out of him, but then he saw Theo watching with the others. He unwound the whip, took the papers from him and jerked him up by the collar. “Take him away officers.”
       “Way to go, dad!” Theo said, running up to Lahwhinie and hugging her. Sean looked on with pride. “Just like I taught him with my whip. Nice work, boy.” Monty slapped Chip on the back. “Good going, Chipper! Ya caught the bloke an’ saved me girl too!” Chip looked down at the whip. “A genuine David Morgan, just like Henry Harrison’s. I always wanted one of these. Well, at least I got to use one once. Here, you’d better take this.” Chip handed the whip over to Cyril who was profuse in his thanks. Then Lahwhinie came and patted him on the back.
       “Thanks, Chip.You’ve got some moves there with that whip,” she said. Chip blushed some and grinned. “Well, all in a day’s work. Uh, about me calling you ‘my girl’...you understand it was in the heat of battle and all...” Lahwhinie gave him a gentle hug. “It’s okay, loverboy. At least it got me bailed out of a tough spot. But I’m still not kissing you.”
       Lahwhinie grinned up at him and Chip laughed softly. “Okay, everyone. The job’s not finished. Let’s get back to Hondo and give Mr. Steadman his airplane back and these letters to the authorities!” Before heading for the airport, Randolph drove to the police station where Lieutenant Gillette was outside. The limo windows rolled down to look on a satisfied face.
       “You Rangers are all right,” Gillette said. “I'll see that Sweet Melissa gets those letters back once the trial's over. With the evidence you guys got on him, that shouldn't take long. I’ll be getting the official credit on this bust, but I know where my bread’s buttered. If you need law enforcement help anytime, you know where to reach me.”
       Chip shook his hand through the window. “Thanks, Gillette. It was nice working with you.” As the car pulled away, the talk was rampant. Roger felt like he was as young as his son again. “Well Chip, we finally got to see what it is you do for a living first-hand. I’ve got to say I’m tempted to do it myself.”
       “And me,” Jennifer said.
       “And me!” Theo added.
       “It was certainly thrilling,” Sean said. “Like the ending to the 1812 Overture with the real cannons. I was surprised that you were still good with a whip, though. I remember teaching you on mine years ago, but I wasn’t around that often.” Chip hesitated. “Well...actually I was aiming for his gun hand, but what I got worked as well.” Gadget focused her attention on Jonathon. “Weren’t you scared going up there alone after Bascomb?”
       “It was my duty, ma’am,” Jonathon said. “I had to restore peace to my master’s home or die trying.” Dale got a smile on his face. “Yep, Bascomb really blew it. His evil plans were foiled and in this case it’s great to say…”
       “THE BUTLER DID IT!” everyone said.

       The car was filled with laughter on the way to the airport, and the ride to Hondo seemed to take no time at all. Pete Steadman, Sweet Melissa and Eva were waiting. “Great work, Rangers. I heard from Lieutenant Gillette how you captured Bascomb. Poor, deluded man.” Pete said, shaking Chip’s hand. “I understand you caught Bascomb yourself. I’m sorry I don’t know each of your names. I guess today’s been too busy for introductions.”
       Over the next hour, Eva, Pete and Sweet Melissa listened as the Rangers introduced themselves and told the story of what had happened in Austin. Sweet Melissa hugged Chip tightly. “Oh, you dear person! Petey, we owe them a great deal.”
       “Yes, indeed. Name your reward, Rangers, and it’s yours,” Steadman said. Chip looked at the others, and while the idea of a big reward was tempting he knew their thoughts. “Sir, we didn’t do this to earn a reward. We did it because it needed doing. Still, if you feel obligated we have had a long day.”
       “Of course! I’ll see to your every need,” Pete said. Sweet Melissa took Chip’s arm. “Yes, you must let us have you over for dinner tonight at least!” Chip took off his hat. “Ma’am, it’d be a pleasure.”

       The Steadman place was abuzz as the group all got cleaned up and rejoined their hosts for afternoon tea. Sean spent a couple of hours with Mr. Steadman talking about favorite composers and pieces of music. Mrs. Steadman was weary from her ordeal, but she was a talker and seemed to gain strength from being able to talk to so many nice ladies. Dinner was served in the main dining room at a table big enough to seat them all and more.
       Only Lahwhinie had seen a table this elegant, but she’d not been able to enjoy it at the time. Now she did, along with everyone else—they dined on only the best of foods, through eight sumptuous courses prepared by the some of best chefs in the country. When it was over, the talking resumed well into the night. Pete had taken an interest in Foxy’s singing career. “Foxglove, your uncle here tells me you’re ready to begin touring. I’d like to back you—as least until you’re able to support yourself.”
       “Thank you, Mr. Steadman,” Foxy said, “but for the moment my husband and I aren’t sure of the future yet. We’ll need to discuss your generous offer before we decide.” Pete stood up and went over to her. “Here’s my card. Once you’ve made a decision, let me know. It’s the least I can do.” Foxy took it gratefully. “Thank you so much, sir. And if you ever need the Rangers’ help again, just give us a call.”
       “That ah will certainly do. Chip, your team’s a rare one indeed. You’ve shown know-how and leadership skills like few I’ve seen. How would you like to come work for me as vice-president of Steadman Oil? I need an honest munk like you at my side,” Pete said. The Rangers all looked to Chip, but he already knew his mind. “I’m honored and flattered by your offer, sir, but the Rescue Rangers is my true calling. I could never be happy otherwise.”
       “Ah figured so, but had to ask. Just the same, someday all y’all will receive a token of my appreciation. Perhaps more than one,” Pete said.
       “Thank you, sir,” Chip replied.
       Mrs. Steadman was in heavy conversation with Lahwhinie about fashion and jewelry. They’d been talking on and off for the last hour, and Sweet Melissa was amazed at how she’d spotted the fake stoal. “I noticed it, but not at first. My dear, you should be a fashion consultant. You have such a way about you!” Lahwhinie knew better than that. “Well, I used to live the high life before I joined my family in the Rescue Rangers. It’s been a tough adjustment, going from luxury to economy.”
       “Well, there’s something to be said for having good friends, though. Pete and I are still simple people, even though we enjoy the benefits of money. But all the money in the world can’t buy you a minute’s true happiness. My Petey is worth everything to me,” Sweet Melissa said.
       “As you are to me, precious,” Pete replied.
       “Thank you, honey bunch. But Lahwhinie, there are friends of mine in New York in the fashion district. If you would like to interview with them as a designer or a consultant I could get you in,” Sweet Melissa said. Lahwhinie looked over at the leader of the Rangers. “I have to agree with Chip. My talents are perhaps better put to use with the Rangers.”
       Foxy raised a wing. “Hey, what about Tammy’s mom? She’s a whiz with fashion!” Chip nodded at the idea. “That’s right. Ma’am, would you grant her that interview if we could talk her into it? I know Donna would be perfect for a job like that.”
       “Surely, dear,” Sweet Melissa said. “Just let me know. You can call the number on Pete’s card. We’re unlisted, you know.” Pete handed Chip another card. “Thanks ma’am. Well, we’ve certainly enjoyed your hospitality, Mr. and Mrs. Steadman. We’re glad you’re both back together tonight.” Everyone toasted the host and hostess, and they raised their glasses in kind. “Thank you, Chip,” Pete said. “And our thanks to you all.”

Chapter 15 - A Few Loose Ends

       It was hard for everyone to tear themselves away from such nice people, but finally the Rangers and their families made it out the door and Jonathon rode them back to the Double D. The excitement of the day had them all tuckered out. However, there was one final item for them to deal with. Gadget was the first to realize it, and she gasped as she did. “Chip, whatever happened to Tammy? She didn’t come with us!” Chip’s eyes widened with realization. “Ohmigosh, we just cut cables and ran this morning! I hope she’s not mad with us.”
       “Hi, Chipper! Hey, everyone!” Tammy bounded up, with the ranch hands next to her. “Wow I had this awesome-like day! Where’d you guys go, anyway? I looked all around and you were gone. Mr. and Mrs. Fairmont invited me to go with them to Hondo, and Virgil here took me prairie-dog riding, and we all went to this cool restaurant to eat and they had the neatest band and I danced for hours with so many nice guys I can’t even remember all their names! And then you know what? They had this trick-roping cowboy squirrel and he did all sorts of neat things with this lariat and showed me how to rope and all! We just got back, and I figured you’d all be tired of waiting. So, what kind of a day did you guys have? Sorry you had to miss out on the excitement, though.”
       Theo stepped into the fray. “Well, we solved a mystery, captured a crime boss and rescued a damsel in distress. All in a day’s work for us Rescue Rangers.” Tammy looked at him skeptically. “And I suppose you also met a famous celebrity or two along the way too, huh?”
       “Of course not, I only met one,” Theo said, holding up the autographed photo. Tammy’s eyes bulged as she read the inscription. “RHONDA MEANS!? Then...it was all true?”
       “Are you calling my great-grandson a liar?” Sean asked.
       “Well nossir, but you’re got to admit that it sounds pretty far-fetched. Solving a mystery, capturing a crime boss and rescuing a lady all in one day? Where’d this all happen? C’mon, fill me in!” Tammy said.
       Galahad and Daisy came out from the bunkhouse at that moment, and once they were caught up to the point Tammy was, the Rangers spent the next several minutes telling them all the rest. Tammy was wide-eyed with wonder at the tale, paying particular attention to the suggestion Chip had made to Mrs. Steadman about her mother. “An interview in the fashion district? It’s been mom’s dream to make dresses for some big designing firm! Oh Chip, thank you for thinking of her!”
       Tammy hugged his neck, and kissed his cheek. Chip was only too modest. “No problem, Tammy. But thank Foxy too. It was her idea.” Tammy hugged Foxy also and thanked her profusely. Foxy was gracious about it all. “Do you think she’ll take the job?”
       “She’d drop everything for the chance! Oh, she’s just got to! She’d be the best dress designer in New York! Wow, that will certainly impress dad,” Tammy said, then clammed up and made herself scarce.

       After a little more talk, the large contingent split up for the night after agreeing that they’d head home tomorrow. Noel and Foxy retired for the night and went out on the small porch of the ranch house where the moonlight found them in a rocking chair—or rather Noel was in the rocking chair and Foxy was in his lap.
       “Well, my dear, how did you like your first day of marriage?” Noel asked. Foxy was one tired little bat. “Can you believe today, Noel? I got to be a rich celebrity without even being one yet! Kind of a nice run-through. It was so much fun—well, that mean guy having a gun wasn’t fun—but now that I know we all came through it okay it was one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had. Thanks for sharing it with me.”
       “That was just the first of many, many exciting days we’ll have together, Foxglove,” Noel said. Foxy nuzzled his cheek. “I know, darling. And you were great today. I was glad to see that you and Chip can function together as a team.” Noel had to admit, he’d been surprised too. “It was strange, that’s for sure. I knew I didn’t have to second guess him, so I could trust him and didn’t have to worry the whole time.”
       “He liked having you around, too,” Foxy said. “I could tell he did. I was concerned that you and I wouldn’t fit in with the team now, but I think maybe we’re a better fit than before. Now, we’ve just got to decide about my career. Honey, should I take Mr. Steadman up on his offer? It would be nice not having to worry about a slow start, and if I don’t make it we could always go back to the Rangers full-time.”
       Noel looked into her eyes. “Foxy, this is a decision you have to make. I’ll support you 100% either way.”
       “But I want us both to be happy! I can’t go off and sing if I know you’d rather be with the Rangers. Can you be happy just with me?” Foxy asked. Noel gave her a long, loving kiss. “Yes!” Foxy smiled and giggled. “Wow. I think I could write a dozen or so songs from that one!”
       “Foxy, you’re my inspiration,” Noel said.
       “Well, we’ll see what happens. I know it could a long shot, darling, but I want to try,” Foxy said. Noel helped Foxy up and got up himself. “Then we’ll give it a try. Would we work down here or would we try it back in New York?”
       “I’d love to be in New York, but I don’t know of any big recording studios there. Let’s go talk with Mr. Steadman once the others have left tomorrow. I bet he could advise us on the best way to go,” Foxy said. Noel wrapped his arms around her. “That we will do, my beautiful desert flower. Then the music world will bow before you.” Foxy smirked at Noel’s playfulness. “I love it when you talk like that. Tell me Noel, how’d I get so fortunate to get a guy like you?”
       “Considering all the things that had happened to you, you were due for happiness,” Noel said. It sounded good to her. “Well, I’m not complaining. I don’t care if we’re rich or famous, honey. I just care about you.”

       She kissed him, and then the two newlyweds were content to just sit back in the chair and rock the night away in each other’s arms. Chip saw them from the top of the hill, and waved back when Noel waved at him. It had been a good day overall, and one of their better cases. Tammy was with him, and had waved as well.
       “Oh, they look so happy! I hope I get to be that content someday,” Tammy said. Chip led her off out of Foxy and Noel’s view. “I’m sure you will, Tammy. You’re not the flighty child you once were.” Tammy took a seat at one of the picnic benches. “I really like Rob, Chip. He’s such a nice and considerate guy. I hope that maybe someday...well, guess I’d better be getting in. Good night, Chipper.”
       Chip knew she wanted to say more, so he decided to give her the opening. “Uh, Tammy, before you go, was I hearing things or did you mention that your dad would be impressed about you mom working for the design company?” Tammy looked uncomfortable and Chip was about to tell her it was okay, when she walked back up to him.
       “I know I’ve almost never mentioned dad, but he’s almost never home. It’s not that he’s a bad father or anything, but when he went into particle physics I don’t think he ever realized he’d be one of the most in-demand people to help diagnose and solve problems at nuclear plants,” Tammy said. Chip blinked and tried to absorb this. “Pardon me for being so surprised, but I guess that we all kinda thought that he was dead. No one ever mentioned him so we just assumed...”
       Tammy’s face took on a somber lein, and her eyelids went halfway down. “I know. I don’t really know him at all, Chipper. He’s a wonderful person to hear it from my mom, but I’ve only seen him a few times in my life. He sends money home regularly to us so we don’t have any problems, but he’s like a doctor or something—married to his work. That’s why I want to be sure that doesn’t happen to me. I don’t hate him or anything—I just wish he’d been around to see my first step or my first date.”
       Chip gently hugged Tammy. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up a painful topic.” Tammy held onto him. “Chipper...I know I’ve never said anything, but that day you helped me with Rob in the park made me realize something. I was so happy you took time for me. I don’t have a crush on you or anything anymore—but—I love you like the father I wished I’d had.” Chip smiled at her. He already had a son, so there was room in his heart for a daughter as well. “I’d be proud to consider you my daughter,” Chip whispered, hugging her again.
       “Thank you, Chipper,” Tammy whispered back. “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for you.”

       She hugged him again and walked toward her quarters. Chip had never exactly considered Tammy as a daughter before, but as he thought about it he realized that she’d treated him as a father a lot of times—asking advice, wanting him to see her accomplishments and she was always pleased when he complimented her. Chip decided that he’d ask Rob if he and Tammy would like to join the Rangers once they’d finished school. They’d both make a fine addition to the team when they were ready. Chip turned around and another figure walked out of the shadows.
       Chip wasn’t surprised to see Lahwhinie, and figured she’d be around to talk. “Well, you finally got to see me and my deductive skills in action. What do you think?”
       “Not too shabby. I have to admit, I’m sorta impressed. We did a good deed today. We saved someone’s life, maybe two or three,” Lahwhinie said. Chip invited her over to sit by him on the picnic bench. “You impressed me too, what with your knowledge of furs and jewelry. I admit, I’d have missed that. You did a great job at the department store buying us time, too.”
       “Manipulation is one of my gifts,” Lahwhinie said, sitting down. “I’m just amazed that you found a way I can actually use that gift for good.”
       “Well, it’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. I was sort of surprised that you didn’t even consider Mrs. Steadman’s fashion offer. Wouldn’t you like doing something like that?” Chip asked. Lahwhinie wrinkled her nose. “I’d hate it. Nine to five office job. Pressure, deadlines, bosses. I prefer the chaos of Ranger life.”
       Chip was surprised at how comfortable he was around her now. “You do seem to perform well under pressure. I just wish I’d caught up with Bascomb a little quicker and spared you that harrowing moment. I don’t mind telling you that I thought about what would happen if I’d messed up, and I wouldn’t have liked the prospect.”
       “Join the club,” Lahwhinie said. “Being dead isn’t high on my list of priorities. But hey, nothing did happen, so don’t worry about it. I won’t.” Chip was glad she’d taken it all well, and felt that sense of camaraderie returning. “I won’t either, but remember what happened so next time you can avoid it. I’m eager to begin training now, so that I can be more of an asset in that kind of situation.” Chip smiled and winked as he added, “Besides, you may not be there every time to protect me.”
       Lahwhinie took his hand. “Watch my back and I’ll watch yours, loverboy.” Chip’s voice went to a more genial tone. “Oh, I’ll be watching. And speaking of that, that pearly dress was a nice touch. It was really close to the one you wore in the dream. You looked very beautiful in it.”
       “I have a feeling you’d say I looked beautiful if I was wearing rags, and you’d be right of course. But thanks for the compliment,” Lahwhinie said. Chip took her other hand in his. “You’re probably right, but at least you know I meant it. You aren’t dissappointed that I didn’t consider that vice president’s job, are you? I know you’re used to living well, and while we Rangers aren’t poor we’ve never had a lot.”
       Lahwhinie shrugged slightly. “You guys weren’t content to let me live in disillusionment. I see now that there isn’t the happiness in decadent wealth that I thought there was.” Chip smiled at her, looking into her blue eyes. “I guess there’s hope for you yet, Peaches. One thing I’ve learned is that once you find your happiness, then the things that you thought would make you happy generally come your way. I’m happy now, just talking to you.”

       Lahwhinie had to admit, she was too—but not to him. “Lucky for me, you’re an easy guy to amuse. So, how’s Theo dealing with having a mom again?” Chip let her hands go, knowing that she’d indirectly asked for space then. “I think he’s okay with it. He told me he’d had a talk with Foxy, and they’re friends. She seems okay with Theo staying at headquarters with us. I know that he and you have formed a unique bond. He’s a very uncommon boy.”
       Lahwhinie was surprised for a moment at the implication of what Chip had said. Theo had mentioned something once, but did he really, really mean it? “Well, he’s a really special kid. Who wouldn’t want him for a son?”
       “A lot of people, evidently. He’d been at the orphanage for years and no one had tried to adopt him. I think he pretty much adopted you the first day he saw you,” Chip said. Lahwhinie remembered how he’d welcomed her. “Well, we know our own. He attached himself to you right off the bat as well. He just had special needs, that’s why he was so tough to place.”
       **Like Rescue Ranger special.** “I guess he was always meant to come live with us. It’s strange though—a few months ago I couldn’t imagine being a father. Now I couldn’t imagine not being one. Theo’s so eager, and he pleased me from the start. In a way, I guess I’m a father to two people now. I take it you heard what Tammy said.”
       “Outcasts and misfits seem to find a home with the Rangers,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s a nice thing you did for her, Chip. There aren’t many guys like you.” Chip took her hands again. “Well, maybe it’s the outcasts and misfits that are really the normal people. Good night, Lahwhinie.”
       Lahwhinie got up, squeezing his hands as she let them go. “Goodnight, Chirp. Sweet dreams.” As Lahwhinie turned to go, she reached up and tipped his hat forward, over his eyes. Chip knew she was playing and his voice showed it. “Hey, no messing with the hat! It’s one of a kind.”
       “Well, not quite,” Lahwhinie reminded him. “Theo’s got its twin. When he wears it, he looks almost as handsome as his dad.” Chip smiled, and pulled his fedora down back the right way. He fought to impulse to go and hug her, but he knew she should instigate something like that. **She’s great. The day she finds out I’m more ticklish than Dale is, I’ve had it.** “And you wonder what it is I see in you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
       “Goodnight, Chirp. See you tomorrow,” she said, giving him a final smile before leaving. Chip went to his quarters, and couldn’t remember when he’d felt better. He was actually looking forward to tomorrow now, and the tomorrows to come. **Theo’s amazing, but she’s got a photo finish with him. Strange she never saw the connection between them like I did though.**

       Theo came in, yawning, and Chip felt like yawning himself. “Son, think you’ll be able to handle boring old Ranger duty after all the day’s excitement?” Theo thought it over. “Well, I think I could endure the meager level of adventure and excitement. So, did you say good night to Aunt Lahwhinie?”
       Chip smiled knowingly at him. “Yep.”
       “Dad, I’m sorry if I’ve been trying too hard to get you two together. I admit that’s selfish of me,” Theo said. Chip waived off Theo’s concerns. “Huh, you aren’t the only one. Someday I’ll tell you about the others, but you didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, maybe you both woke us up to the truth in front of our faces. She’s got a long way to go, but I’m already more happy than I’ve ever been.”
       “That’s good,” Theo said, settling in. “I was worried you’d be upset with me. Do you think we’d be a good family?”
       “I know that you and Lahwhinie get along good, and you and I do. Lahwhinie and I are starting to explore the possibilities, but I can’t make you any guarantees. I know I love her, but I think she’s just uncertain about everything right now. I’m doing my best not to invade her comfort zone,” Chip said, going over to a small wooden desk and pulling out some paper and a pencil. Theo watched him, a question forming in his mind. “But how do you know you’re in love? What does it feel like? How do you know you just don’t like her a whole lot?”
       Chip began to write. “Well, it’s hard to explain. I like Gadget and I think I always did even when I thought I loved her. I’d just never really had anyone to compare her to in the way she treated me. I thought that was love, but that’s just the way she is. But love’s not just in a smile or golden hair or china-blue eyes or a cute pink nose. It’s something on the inside of you that tells you ‘this person is special and I want to be with them.’ It’s like something that draws you to them, and makes you happy just to be around them or enjoying things you’d be bored with alone. It’s also about wanting to do things for them, and make them happy.”
       “Is that how you feel about Foxglove?” Theo asked.
       “Well, yes and no,” Chip said, continuing to write. “There’s one thing about love—there’s no limits to it. You can love lots of people and not lose love for others. The love between a guy and a girl is special, but it’s different every time. I love Foxy in ways that would never occur to me with Lahwhinie, and I love Lahwhinie for reasons that would never apply to Foxglove. I’m sad about losing Foxy, but I’m also happy that I have Lahwhinie around. Right now, I’d rather concentrate on the happiness and let Noel and Foxy be happy too.”
       Theo thought it was all rather too complicated. “Boy, I hope I don’t have such a strange time when I’m dating.”
       “Your time’s coming. Before you know it, you’ll be asking someone like Bink to go the movies,” Chip said. Theo held up a stopping hand. “Well, don’t play matchmaker just yet, dad. Since you and Noel both love girls of different species, would that mean you wouldn’t mind if I went out with other types of girls?” Chip started on another page. “Well, as long as they were nice girls. What’s inside is what matters to me. But we can’t all marry outside the species or we’d go extinct.”
       “That’s what I’ll tell my kids,” Theo said, a joke in his voice. Chip shook his head and rolled his eyes, and they both settled down for the night. “Good night, Theo. You’re a great son. Have I ever told you that?”
       “Yes, but don’t let that stop you from saying it again. Good night, dad,” Theo said.

       The following morning, everyone gathered around the breakfast tables where Big Jack served out another mouth-watering Tex-Mex treat—cheese-covered Tacos stuffed with vegetables and guacamole sauce. After several helpings, Bedivere stood up. “Folks, it’s been a treat and a half having y’all down here! I haven’t had such a rollickin’ time since I was Foxy’s age! Just want y’all t’know you’re welcome at the Double D anytime you’re in the neighborhood.”
       Theo snagged another taco. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get used to just going to school again after doing all this Ranger stuff. It’s going to seem even more boring than normal.” Chip finished up the one he was working on. “Whether you realized it or not, you’ve been in school all this time. Learning doesn’t just happen in a school building, you know. So, what have you learned from your time here, Theo?”
       Theo started to answer. “Uh...”
       “To stay away from fire-spitting beetles!” Dale offered.
       “How to use teamwork, the importance of proper bullwhip use...” Theo began.
       “That it’s important to be able to trust the people around you, and if you’re not smart about money it can make you lose perspective,” Gadget said. The youngest Ranger thanked his fellow pupil. “Don’t worry, Aunt Gadget, all this is being filed away in my brain for future use.” Monty piped up. “Don’t fergit it’s unwise ta sit down without a pillow after ridin’ a wild prairie-dog. Yeowch...” Theo took up a fighting stance. “If fire-spitting beetles and prairie dogs ever attack New York, they’ll have to get past me!”
       The group laughed and then Chip turned to Lahwhinie. “What about you, Lahwhinie? What did you learn from the experience?” Lahwhinie took on that smirk of hers. “Oh, I learned about teamwork too. I learned that I do have something to offer to the Rangers and I learned that I have a not-so-secret admirer.” A load of smiles went around the table, and Chip smiled back at her.
       “Whoo—ooo! I think she likes you, Chip!” Dale said. Gadget took hold of Dale’s arm. “Now Dale, it’s not nice to tease. Remember how much you didn’t like it, dear.”
       “Oh, you’re right Gadget. Sorry, Chip. Sorry, Lahwhinie,” Dale said. Chip understood why he’d done it. “That’s okay, Dale. I think I can take a little ribbing, at least in a good cause.” Lahwhinie leaned against him. “Give me time, loverboy, and who knows what the future holds.”

       Chip got uncomfortable and started rubbing the back of his neck, trying to think of a way out of the spotlight. Fortunately, Foxlgove provided it for him. “Oh, I’m going to miss all of you so much! We had such a great time, but Noel and I have set our plans now. We’re going to go over and talk to Mr. Steadman later today and see what he advises us to do. I’ve got a song to sing, and Noel’s going to help me sing it.”
       “You’re gonna visit us, even if you become rich and famous, right?” Theo asked.
       “Sure! We could never stay away from you guys,” Foxy said. “I’m hoping we can make our home base close to New York so we can get there more often. I’ll really miss you, Theo. You’re one of a kind. What am I saying, you’re all one of a kind! I owe all of you so much, I just hope I can repay you all somehow, someday.” Gadget gave her one of her pure smiles. “Golly, you don’t owe us anything. That’s what friends do for friends.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “We’re just glad you’re our friend. I can’t wait to tell everyone that I know the famous Foxy Fairmont personally!” Monty patted her on the back. “You’re a right bonzer lass, you are.You’ll go far, an’ remember Monterey Jack said so!”
       “Well, we’re not famous yet. But give us time, then the world will be our oyster,” Foxy said. Eva had been silent but wanted to make a request of her bat friend. “Promise me you will try to be there vhen I have my little one.” Noel brightened at that idea. “That’s a promise we both intend to keep. It may take us a while to get settled, but we’ll be there and hopefully at Christmas too. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but I couldn’t think of a better person to travel it with.”
       Noel pulled Foxy to him and kissed her, then switched his attention to the mouse inventor. “Oh Gadget, if I could impose on you, could you build me a hang glider?”
       “Sure, Noel! I’ll get to work on it right after breakfast,” Gadget said. Galahad looked around at the august assemblage. “It seems a shame that you have to go. We’ve just gotten to know everyone.”
       “Then you will simply have to pay us a return visit,” Jennifer said. “You’re more than welcome to stay with us when you come. We’ve got plenty of room.” Roger agreed with his wife. “Yes, we insist. We should all get together like this at least once a year.” It was Sean who took up the idea. “How about Christmas, then? I cannot contemplate a better time for families to share time with each other.”
       “Yeah! A real family Christmas party!” Theo sang out. “I haven’t had one of those since...well, in a real long time.” Sean had another thought. “And why not come up to the lodge for a real taste of Christmas? I have plenty of room for everyone, and enough musical instruments to supply half an orchestra.”
       “Oh, that sounds heavenly!” Foxy said. “Christmas music, singing and being with everyone. I almost wish we were already there!” Monty put his arm around Eva. “I think with a new little lad or lass around by that time, me mum and dad would even be in for a visit.”
       “Yeah, that’s right!” Noel said. “We can’t leave Kate and Cheddarhead out. They’re the life of any party.” Theo at last felt the security of family. “Just think, this’ll be the first Christmas that Aunt Eva, Aunt Lahwhinie, Aunt Gadget and Foxglove and Uncle Monty and me will have with our families!”
       “And maybe I can even talk Honey into coming with us,” Zipper said. “I sure have missed her.” Monty answered his pal in a comforting tone. “Don’t fret none, mate. I’m sure she’s countin’ the minutes till your return too.” Dale was all pepped up now. “Wowie-zowie! We’re gonna have the biggest holiday bash of all! Can I invite my mom and dad too? Oh, and maybe my sister and her husband’ll come too!”
       “How does that sound, granddad?” Noel asked. “Are you willing to have the biggest holiday party that any of us have seen?”
       “Oh, and can I please bring Rob and my folks?” Tammy asked. Sean smiled and nodded to everyone. “When I had that huge lodge built twenty years ago, I had intended to use it just for my retirement and to spend the remaining years with dear Elizabeth, rest her soul. But when she died, I become isolated and alone and for a long time preferred it that way. Now, I have more family than I ever imagined possible. You’re all welcome to come, and the more the merrier!”

       Dale gave Tammy a curious look. “Folks? You mean your mom and dad? I thought it was just a slip of the tongue yesterday.” Tammy looked put-upon and her eyes went to Chip for help, which he gave. “Tammy, you don’t have to be embarrassed. After all, your dad’s doing important things. Her dad’s a diagnostic engineer who works to keep the areas around nuclear plants safe for animals. That’s why we haven’t seen him, because he’s always on the go around the world.”
       “Sorry, Tammy. I shouldn’t have asked,” Dale said.
       Sean came over to Tammy, already feeling that she was one of the extended family. “Dear, when I was on tour around the world as an orchestra conductor I got home maybe two weeks out of the year. It was hard on my family, but I loved them just the same. I didn’t know Roger as well as I should have, and when I finally did go part-time I found I’d missed a lot. Still, if your father’s anything like me he cares for you a great deal even though his profession keeps him away. Sometimes we professionals forget the important things, like being around when our children have their big moments. But I suspect if we invite your father, he’ll find a way to be there.”
       “And perhaps being there will remind him just how much he’s missing,” Noel added. Tammy hugged Sean tightly, and then went around the table ending up with Chip. “You’re all so good to me, even the Fairmonts who I’ve just barely met. I barely know Carlton Chesnutt, but I’ve cherished every letter and phone call he’s made. I used to resent him not being home, but now I think I’m old enough to understand why he has to be away. I just wish he was around more—I really missed him around the time of my senior prom. I’d love for him to meet Rob and all of you guys.”
       Dale was beginning to find he was by no means singular when it came to having it tough early on. “And we’d love to meet the guy that helped produce two such wonderful girls.”
       “Too roight!” Monty said. “We’ll see that he comes, lass. We Erskines have connections all around the world!”
       “And vhere they cannot reach, my sister can,” Eva said. “I vill look forward to meeting Carlton at Christmas.” Theo stood up, looking at the assemblage. “I know this sounds clichéd, but this’ll be the greatest Christmas ever!” Tammy smiled and cried a little. “Thank you, all of you.” Chip stood and hugged her gently. “You’re welcome, sweetheart. You know we’d do anything for you, our dear friend.”
       “Thanks...dad,” she whispered, then leaned in close and added, “I think you and Lahwhinie are going to make a great couple.” She smiled at Chip as she went back to her place at the table. Once breakfast was over, everyone went into preparations to leave. Noel walked over and watched as Gadget fixed up his glider.

       “Hi, Noel! I’ll be done with this in a few minutes. Guess it’d been easier if you’d turned into a bat, huh?” Gadget asked. Noel looked the the thing of wood and canvas. “Well, I can dream. Too bad we don’t have that magic lamp around anymore.”
       Gadget finished up her work and stood. “Well, I’ve thought about you not being a bat and how that might get in the way of your relationship. If you really want to become a bat, there is a way you know. Remember the metamorphicizer Professor Nimnul built? I’m sure it could easily be modified with the appropriate DNA to let you be—well...compatible with Foxy if that’s what you wanted.” Noel appeared to be in shock at the very suggestion. “I hadn’t even thought of that! It might be possible. I don’t know what to say...or even think right now. I’d have to talk to Foxy and everyone else.”
       “Take your time, Noel. I found the blueprints for the metamorphicizer stuck on behind the ones for the modemizer, so it’ll be no problem to make one. It may not work, though odds are it should...”
       “Please, don’t tell me the odds,” Noel said. “Please, try though.”
       Gadget had suspected he’d want her to try. “I’m sure with mom’s help we can work something out. Do you really want to be a bat though, after having lived all of your life as a chipmunk?” Noel began pacing, thinking. “I’ll be spending the rest of my life married to one. She’s a creature of the air, and here I am on the earth. I’d give anything to soar through the clouds, forever by her side.”
       “Golly, that’s sweet Noel. I’m sure Foxy would appreciate it. I’ll keep this hush-hush for now, and I’ll let you know if everything goes okay,” Gadget said. Noel hugged Gadget in thanks. “Gadget, you’re a wonderful friend. I don’t know how we would ever have gotten where we are without you.” Gadget smiled back. “Oh, you’d have managed. You and Chip are both sweet guys. I know you’ll be happy with Foxglove. Make sure to contact us as often as you can.”
       “Don’t worry, we’ll never be far away,” Noel said.

       Chip and Theo meanwhile were loading the RangerPlane and Wing with the help of the Fairmonts and the ranch hands. “It doesn’t seem like we brought...this much stuff along before!” Chip said, pushing a bedroll into the Wing. “It never fails—you always manage to bring back more than you came with!”
       Theo peered over the side, looking in the Wing. “I wonder if any other Chip fans are hiding in here.” Foxy put a wing aroung him. “Well, at least you don’t have to worry about my wardrobe or anything. Chip, I just wanted to say I think you’re one of the nicest people around for what you’ve done for Noel and me. I’ll always be grateful to you.”
       Foxy hugged Chip and kissed both his cheeks, while Chip hugged the woman he loved enough to let go. “I’d do anything for you Foxy, even though it means letting you go. The happiness of the two of you make me happy. I know now I couldn’t be what Noel is for you.”
       “The strange thing is, I know it too,” Foxy said. “Maybe you two really are different, Chip. You have the same memories and abilities, but you seem more willing to lead than Noel does. Frankly, I was surprised when he said he’d come with me—I don’t think you’d do that Chip. So I think we both got what we wanted—I got the munk I love and who wants to be with me and you’ve got the Rangers and a girl who I think will never be alone.”
       Chip paused at her saying that, wondering if maybe he and Lahwhinie hadn’t been the only ones privy to that dream at the gazebo. He decided not to press it. “I loved you with my whole heart, just as I love the Rangers with my whole heart. I couldn’t have both, and I was afraid I’d have to choose between you. Then this miracle happened and we all have what we wanted most…almost.”
       Foxy hugged him again. “Be happy, Chip. And if you’d stayed one munk, I’d have stayed there with you. I’ll see you at Christmas, if not before.” Chip knew she would have stayed, but he also knew she’d have paid a price for it. “I know, Foxy. I’ll be looking for you.”
       “Let me know how things work out,” Foxy whispered in his ear. Chip looked into her eyes. “Don’t worry, Foxy, I’ll keep you informed. There will always be a light burning for the two of you at HQ.”
       “Thanks, Chip. You’re one in a million—and I mean one,” Foxy said, turning to Chip’s son. “Theo, you take care of your dad now, okay?” Theo stood at attention. “Don’t worry, he’s not getting out of my sight for a minute!” As they continued talking, the remaining passengers came up. “Better shake yer tails, mates!” Monty said. “We need ta leave soon ta be back before dark!” Monty gave Foxy a hug. “Always knew it’d turn out fine fer ya, lass. That’s a fair dunkum fella ya got there.”
       Foxy gave Monty a big hug. “Thanks for being there to give me advice and holding my wing through my time with the Rangers, Monty.” Monty felt like he was parting with a third daughter. “The place won't be home till you and Noel come back.” Tammy felt better about everything now and it showed in the bounce in her step and the gleam in her eyes. “Oh, I’m going to have so many things to tell mom and Bink and Rob about! I can’t wait to see everyone again!”
       Zipper was right in there with her on that attitude. “Just like I can’t wait to see my Honey! I’ll have to pay her a visit when we get home and see how she and her sister are doing.” Roger took a last good look around. “Jenny, I think we ought to come back down here soon. This is a great spot for a vacation.”
       “I must admit, it’s full of fun. What do you say to that, ‘Uncle’ Bedivere?” Jennifer asked. Bedivere put a friendly wing around her. “I say, YEE-HAW! Come on down—when you like and for how long ya like.” Roger shook his wing. “Thanks, Bedivere. I think we’ll be taking you up on that pretty soon.”
       “Perhaps we all could,” Eva said. “Vell, at least as soon as my first duty is done. I vould enjoy coming back here again too.” Bedivere liked the sound of it. “Maybe we all kin meet twice a year instead o’ one! I’d love to have y’all back.” Chip liked the sound of it too. “We’ll sure think about it, Bedivere. We’ve all had a great time.”

       Soon, the boarding began with the passengers balanced between the two vehicles. Lahwhinie was the last one to get on, and Foxy hugged her goodbye. “Take good care of Chip, now. You don’t find many like him.” Lahwhinie smiled like someone with a secret worth keeping. “Yeah, you might be right.” Zipper flew out of the Plane and gave Foxy a last hug. Foxy smiled at his gesture. “Thank you for coming to my wedding, Zipper. I know being a fly among so many bats must have been terrifying, but you braved all that to be here for us. You’re the world’s greatest, bravest fly!” Zipper took hold of his shirt collar and cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I enjoyed being here—well, as long as I was out of eating range. Noel, treat her good or you’ll hear from me!”
       Noel waved back to him. “Don’t worry, everyone. I know you want to make sure I’ll treat her well. I will, she’s my true love and I will always treat her just that way.”
       “We know you will,” Chip said. “Tell Mr. Steadman hi for us, and if he’s near New York at Christmas time tell him we’d love to have him and Sweet Melissa drop by!”
       “We will. Now go, you guys, or we’ll be here all day and night trying to say goodbye!” Noel said. The two planes started up, and many waves and blown kisses went back and forth. As they rose into the sky, Noel and Foxy Maplewood and the Fairmonts waved goodbye. Slowly they disappeared toward the northeast.

       The happy Texans and the youngsters headed back for the ranch—to find one frantic albatross, now wearing cowboy gear. Wilbur Jr. had all of the frantic energy of his father. “Hey, where’d they all go? I’ve been upstate at this big rodeo! They had cowboys, and cowgirls and bulldogging and bullcatting and all sorts of stuff! Don’t tell me they left already?!”
       “They just did, Wilbur!” Foxy said. “The two planes were enough to hold them all this time.” Wilbur Jr.’s mouth dropped. “Whuh-oh! I was depending on them to guide me back home! You know I’m an ace pilot but I sort of snoozed through navigation!”
       “You’d better get a move on, son!” Galahad said. “Their lead’s getting bigger all the time!” The albatross began fidgeting and running in place. “Oh no! It takes me forever to get off. I don’t suppose you guys have an albatross-sized launcher do you?”
       Bedivere went over to a certain barrel by the barn and came back. “No son, but we’ve got something jest as good! Chomp down on those an’ you’ll be up with ‘em in no time!” Wilbur Jr. took the red peppers from Bedivere and swallowed them down. “Really? Gee thanks, I...whoo-oo-oo--oo!” Fire shot from Wilbur’s mouth and he started flapping around wildly. “I’M ON FIRE! Call the perimedics! Call my mommy!”
       “Don’t worry, son! That’s jest fer the afterburners!” Bedivere shouted.
       Wilbur nodded and rather carelessly ate a few more, “Look out sky, HERE I COME!” With a pepper-pepped takeoff, Wilbur zoomed up into the air. Soon he was no more than a smoke-trailing speck in the sky and headed for home like the Rescue Rangers.

The Hawaiian language and cultural information used came from the award-winning Hawaiian Language Website . The Hawaiian names used came from Internet Island . Wilbur Junior, Cyril, Chester Bascomb, Ernest Blackridge, Pete Steadman, Jonathon, Sweet Melissa, Rhonda Means, Bedivere Fairmont, Galahad Fairmont, Daisy Fairmont, Noel Maplewood, Sean Maplewood, Roger Maplewood, Jennifer Maplewood and Theo Maplewood are original characters developed by Indy and Chris Silva. Henry Higgins is copyright Warner Brothers and is used without permission. Tammy, Rat Capone, Desiree De Lure, Baloo, and the Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.