Little Dream, Big Dreams
By Indy and Chris Silva

Authors' note--This story continues the plotline started in parts one through three. Reading those three is not absolutely necessary to understanding this installment, but it helps. This installment introduces another permanent original character and has more focus on Chip, Foxglove and Lahwhinie.

Chapter 1 - The Search Begins

      The room was dark and had the smell of history about it. Few ventured here, and fewer still with a purpose. At one time, it had seen thousands—yes, hundreds of thousands had entered through the double-doors leading into a bustling multitude of voices with people pushing and not knowing exactly where they were. The voices were almost discernible, yet not quite. However, the light still penetrated here and there—a turn-of-the-century poster, an old railway schedule tacked on a thick support beam. And then the light come in like a flood as the door opened on the old Ellis Island immigrant check-in, and a chipmunk and bat were silhouetted in the contrast. An old guinea pig led the way in, and turned on a period incandescent bulb.
      “Oh dear, how will we ever find what we're looking for?” Foxy asked. The guinea pig, who went by the name of Artemis Jones, shuffled forward towards a mixture of books and papers lining the near wall to their left. “Child, you don't need to give a hog's shudder about that! I've been workin' here since I was a newsie, sellin' papers outside the old island's entrance. I was the first sight of 'merica for most of those fer-ners. I know this place like I built it!”
      “That knowledge will certainly be put to the test, sir,” Chip said, beginning to look around the old place with a practiced eye. Foxy was looking about as well, but her mind was clouded with doubt. “I just hope there's a lead, or else this will be a short quest.”
      Artemis adjusted his spectacles and squinted at Foxy. “So you think her an-sisters might have come over here at Ellis Island, do ya? We-al, the registers are still here, with five-year indexes fer ev'ry year startin' from 1892. If'n your bat friend's folks are in there, you kin try a species cross-reference in th' back o' them--though some of the books may'nt be accurate. It was all done by hand back then, not this newfangled push-button tripe! But go ahead an' look, an' take yer time kiddos. I don't close 'er up till dusk.”

      Chip divided up the records, and together the two of them began pouring over a near-century of history, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. He blew the dust off of another, and looked at the collective index books for the registries. “These index books are laid out by species and nationality separately. That's going to be a big help, Foxy! If you find a likely candidate in one list, we can cross-check it with the other one to make sure it's a bat from England.”
      Foxy said a silent prayer as she dug into the first book, hoping agains hope that she'd find her roots. For the next few hours they combed the ancient records.  Foxy's hope had almost run out when she saw it—a name and a species that seemed right. “Chip, I think I found one!” Chip put a bookmark where he was and walked over to her. “Really? Let's see...”
      Indeed, the records showed a bat family from Britain arriving in the year 1898. Chip looked up the reference in the indicated volume. “Hmm...James MacLaeran—resident of Dublin, Ireland. Wife: Susanna. Children: Timothy and Violet. Well, it's a possibility. Put a bookmark in that one and we'll see if any others turn up.”
      Foxy dug into the records with renewed vigor, with the glory of one success driving her. The searching continued, revealing six more possible candidates. Three of them turned out to be the wrong type of bat upon double-checking, which left only three possibilities—a family from Bristol in 1902, a family from Wales in 1936, and a family from Nottingham in 1951.
      “I think these are the most likely candidates, Foxy, given the habitat of your species in England,” Chip noted. “Now, we need a way to narrow the list more if we can...” Foxy looked at the names he’d written down. “How do we do that, Chip?” Before he could answer, Artemis walked back inside. “How's it going young'uns? Ye've been here a long time!”
      Chip had a thought, and voiced it as a question to the old guinea pig. “Pretty good.  Say Artemis, have you ever seen a bat that looks like Foxy?” Artemis rubbed his spectacles with a greasy handkerchief and had Foxglove step into the light. “We-al, that there pinkish color ain't perzactly what you'd call everyday. Give me a moment, now—give me a moment.” Artemis worked his gums and began shuffling across the floor. “Come to think of it, I do 'member a bat with that kind 'er color. I can't 'member quite when, but I do 'collect she did somethin' fer me.”
      Artemis shuffled across the floor some more, trying to think while Foxy enfolded her wings together in desperate hope. “Please! Try to remember!” Chip put his hands on Foxy's shoulders to try to calm her down. “Let him think, Foxy,” Chip whispered, “Pressuring him won't help.”
      Artemis stopped pacing suddenly and looked back at Foxy. “Hold on, child! Hold on! These old gears up here ain't as well oiled as they used t'be. Wait a minute. I think I do 'member. Gal, if I'm right you might be about to be as happy as a calf in clover! Come along with me...” Chip and Foxy followed close behind him as the old fellow jawed along. “Now I don't guarantee thet what I'm thinkin's right, but if I am...”

      Artemis grabbed a large key ring and selected an old skeleton key. His aged hand shook as he walked up to an old iron door in the back of the room they had been conducting the search in and unlocked it. The dust everywhere showed the ancientness of the small room inside. “It's right fort'nate for you two that I happened ter be the one on duty today!” Artemis said. “My grandson's taken over the job most days now, but he don't even know 'bout this. This is the old vault, where they kept pic-chers and stuff. Now let me think a moment...”
      Artemis reached up and pulled down an old album. “Y'see, back during the turn o' the cent'ry, I was just a wee nib of a thang. I sold papes, I shined shoes, whatever would get me the cost of livin'. We-al, it was when I was a newsie sellin' papes that I was here and one day a riot broke out...”
      “A riot? What for?” Chip asked.
      Artemis chuckled as the memories began coming back. “You could guess a million times and not guess it, young'un! It was over this bloomin' vaudeville show comin' inter town. Back then, vaudeville was as big er bigger than yer movin' pic-cher show stars. An' comin inter town was this here international star and see-leb-rit-tee, the glorrrrious Veronica Hammond! She were the best singer an' dancer of a mouse that ever two eyes did see, and she was a-comin over from that England ter join up in 'merica with her family. So here she comes, big as day! The men, they all wants ter meet her and get her signature. The women, they all want her out of there because of the menfolk. And then it happened—pushin' and shovin', and a riot broke out right there in front of this 'ere room!”
      Chip had no idea what this anecdote about a mouse had to do with a bat, but he wisely kept quiet. Foxy on the other hand couldn’t hold her patience. “Please, go on!  What about bats?” Artemis stroked his chin whiskers. “We-al, it were right about then that miss Hammond, she looked like she was gonna be in a fit er danger. The crowd took on a mind er its own, and even though I was jus' a nib, I couldn't see a pretty thing like that in her brand-new dress getting hassled.
      “So's I ran up, and swung my shoeshine box—I did double duty back then—I swung it to keep the blaggards away. But wouldn't ya know it, right then one of them dock-tough types gives me a fiver right in the kisser! They'd likely stomped me down, too, but miss Hammond wouldn't have nary a sight er that. She lets go with that voice er hers, singing about a ‘poor wand’ring one’ and they all jus stopped right then an' there. And they applauded her like she'd been on stage!”
      **What on earth are you babbling about?!** Foxy thought.
      Chip knew they’d have to be patient, so he calmly prodded Artemis again. “Please, sir, continue. You were getting to the bats…” Artemis scratched his head. “Bats…bats...oh yes! We-al, miss Hammond she smiles at me and asks if I'd like somethin' in return for my ‘gallan-tree’. I says ‘yes ma’am. I'd like fer ter have a pic-cher with you.’ So she trots right inside, an' comes out with this official photographer-type. They set up fer ter take the pic-cher, then she tells 'em wait. She goes an' gets this here fam'ly that she'd been travelin' with. She said some-ner-other like she wanted ter have a 'membrance o' them, since they'd been so nice an' all. So the photographer, he takes the pic-cher of me, miss Hammond and that family.”
      With that, Artemis flipped through the album. “An' there it is!” The picture—in black and white of course—showed a young guinea pig, a female mouse in a very nice white linen dress, and the family he'd mentioned. It was three bats—a father, mother and son dressed in English country clothes and looking very proper. Foxglove pointed to the face of the mother. “Well, they look to be the right type of bat. But they could be anybody.”

      Chip had another thought. “Wait. Artemis, are you sure that this happened right at the turn of the century? Not say, around the first world war?” Artmis nodded emphatically. “Right sure, young'un. I kin even 'member the per-foom miss Hammond wore that day. Smelled like lilacs, it did.” That was what Chip wanted to hear. “Thanks! That's the clue we needed. Can we borrow this picture?”
      Artemis handed over the album. “Be careful with it, now. It's a one of er kind.” Chip handled it gently. “No problem. We'll only need it for a few minutes.” Chip led Foxy back to the books, and pulled out the registry for 1902. Sure enough, the family from Bristol was there.
      “Lancelot Fairmont, wife Lucy, son Gawain,” Chip read off, “Home, Bristol, England. Destination...unstated.” Foxy’s ears drooped at that last word. “I guess this is a dead end.  How can we trace them? This was almost a hundred years ago!” Chip gave it more thought, then looked at the album they’d borrowed next to the book. “Let's check something first...”
      Chip opened his mapcase and extracted a sheathed exacto blade that he used as a pocket knife. “Artemis, isn't it true that with a lot of old pictures they used to write the names of the people on the back?
      Artemis looked reflexively over at the pictures in the album. “We-all, yes it was done a lot. Names meant more back then it seems. Hey now, be careful!” Chip held up his activities and faced Artemis. “I promise I won't damage the picture. I'm just going to break the bond with the old glue and peek, okay?”
      “Go 'head, then. But I'm watchin' ya!” Artemis said. Expertly, Chip separated the photo from the album page. The old glue was dried and once one corner was free it came away easily. Chip flipped it over and gave out a note of triumph. “Aha! The Fairmonts did sign it!”
      “And Miss Hammond, too!” Artemis said, admiringly. “Oh, she had a purty signa-cher!” Chip flipped the picture back over, and studied the bat family a moment. Then he looked up and saw the railway calendar on the old post in the middle of the room. “Artemis, did they used to sell train tickets here?”
      “Surely, young'un!” Artemis said. “They'd get a buck outta them ya-hoos any way they could. Why, I 'member...”
      “And the bat family, had they already been inside?” Chip asked pointedly. Artemis stopped and thought about it. “We-al, I 'collect so. They didn't go back in as I 'member, 'cause they left when Miss Hammond left and 'twas right after the fight...” Chip fished in his mapcase and brought out a magnifying glass. He started perusing the picture very closely, drawing Foxy’s attention. “Are you looking for the train's destination?” A word suddenly reached her lips, though she didn't know why.
      Chip didn’t pay attention to that word, as he was already obsessed in his own line of thought. “Foxy, I always said you'd make a good detective. And if by chance one of them was holding...” Chip stopped at something and looked, pulling the lens further away. “Yes! In the boy's left hand. The ticket! And now if I can just make out the lettering...”
      The ticket's printing was small and slightly blurred from the movement of the boy's hand, but with the lens' aid Chip was slowly able to decipher it. “He's got his thumb over the first letter, but the rest is o...n...d...o. And then Texas.” Artemis took a peek through the magnifying glass as well. “Sounds like Hondo t'me, boy. That was the on the line of the old Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. More'n likely they were goin' ter homestead.”

      Something deep within her memories was stirred but she couldn't hold onto it, though she tried to desperately. “It's not much to go on.” Chip put up the magnifying glass. “It's more than I thought we'd get, Foxy. A good detective has to go on instincts. And right now, I'd say that this is our best bet.” Foxy walked away from the two gentlemen and then turned, spreading out her wings in emphasis as she spoke. “I'm sorry, Chip, I'm pessimistic. Gadget's family seemed to appear out of thin air, and what are the odds that both of us could have such happy endings? I'll be lucky if we can just find my last name.”
      Chip hugged her, giving her support. “Foxy, I'm going to tell you what my mentor told me. You have to have dogged determination, and you can never give up. Now I don't know about you, but I've got a lead in Hondo. Are you with me?” Foxy looked back at the picture, then hugged Chip back. “Yes!  A small lead is better than none.”
      “That's the spirit. Now, let's get back to the RangerWing,” Chip said, as he handled the picture gingerly, giving it back to Artemis to return to the album. “If that family turns out to be Foxglove's, can she come back and see it again?”
      “Anytime she likes,” Artemis said. “Family's important after all.” Foxy hugged Artemis enthusiastically. “Thank you, Artemis. You've been such a big help.”
      “Oh, nuthin' ter it. You two watch yerselves, an' come back 'round sometime!” Artemis said, taking up the album. He put it and the books away for them, then shut and locked the double doors as Chip and Foxy rounded the corner. All this time, the trio had been watched by a pair of very attentive eyes. As the Ranger duo had exited the building, a quick figure had run ahead of them and climbed up on the RangerWing. When Chip and Foxy got there, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
      “Foxy, even if this doesn't pan out I'd do it all over again for you,” Chip said. Foxy hugged Chip yet again, then kissed his cheek. “Chip, you’re a better friend than I ever deserved. Thank you, for everything.”


Chapter 2 - A Stowaway, a Fun Day and a Hawaiian Quandary


      The RangerWing took off, and Chip headed the plane toward the southwest. Since the jet stream went the opposite way, it was about as fast to fly lower without it. They arrived in Texas late that night, and set down by a farm. A nearby haystack afforded them both a nice place to rest, and Chip and Foxy nestled in the hay near each other and looked up at the star-filled night.
      “I'm going to need to stretch my wings after a flight like that. Will you be okay, cutie?” Foxy asked.
      “Sure, Foxy,” Chip replied, removing his fedora. “Just think, you could have a relative pretty close who's seeing those same stars.” Foxy looked up into the sky. “Maybe, but it's still too early to tell.” Foxy flew into the air to give her wings a workout, and hopefully grab a light snack.
      Chip watched Foxy fly high above, her form barely visible in the night sky. If there was one thing Chip Maplewood didn't understand it was pessimism. He'd gotten down on himself before, true, but when it came to solving a case or a point of duty he always assumed it could be done. They'd been fortunate that Artemis had kept that picture and——something made a noise in the RangerWing, breaking Chip's train of thought. The wily chipmunk crept up to the plane, wondering if some unseen animal was rifling through the food supplies Monty had packed them. Chip slowly raised his head to where he could see what was inside.
      Chip spotted a young boy chipmunk, with his hand on some food. “Hey! What are you doing?!” Chip demanded. The boy immediately dropped the food and tried to jump out, but Chip’s quick reflexes allowed him to catch the pilferer by the collar. The boy yelled in a mixture of surprise and fear, “Aaaahh! Uh, hi Mr. Maplewood, sir! I bet you're wondering what I'm doing hiding in the RangerWing...”
      Chip wasn’t too surprised the boy knew his name. After all, he was a public figure. “The thought had crossed my mind. What did you think...waitaminit, I’ve seen you before. You were at the church for Gadget and Dale's wedding, weren’t you? The boy who got our autographs.”
      “Yeah, that’s me. Now I guess you want to know why I came along,” the boy said. Chip nodded with emphasis, and the youngster’s face suddenly took on a look of hero-worship. “You're a world-famous crime fighter, who wouldn’t want to be on the job with you? I know all about you and your stuff. The Wing is so cool!  Much better than the RangerPlane.”

      Chip knew that the Rangers' name had gotten around, but "world famous" was a new term. “Well, it's obvious you're pretty familiar with us. But what are you doing here? Did Fat Cat put you up to this?” The boy looked shocked by the accusation. “Fat Cat? That weenie? No way! I saw a chance to go with my hero on an adventure!”
      **My hero?** Chip looked the boy over closely, and could see that he was genuinely looking like someone in the presence of a celebrity. “Okay, let's say I believe you for the moment. What's your name?”
      “I'm Jake, Jake Stone,” the boy replied, extending his hand to Chip. Chip shook it, while looking him in the eyes. “Hello, Jake. But you shouldn't have run away from home to come with us. Your parents are going to be worried.” Jake looked uncomfortable for a few moments, but covered it. “Trust me, they're not going to worry. So, what adventure are we working on here?”
      Chip got a knowing smile on his face. “We are not working on anything. Jake, I realize you think this is some sort of game, but I can't be responsible for you. If something happened, I'd be held accountable! Will you at least tell me where I can contact your family so I can tell them you're all right?”
      “No, you can't contact them,” Jake said brusquely. “I'm along for the ride, unless you want to fly me back to New York…” Jake slapped his hand over his mouth the moment he said it, and Chip put his hands on his hips. “So, you stowed away before we left, did you? Well, we can't take you back right now but tomorrow we'll have to.”
      Jake took hold of Chip’s arm, his voice begging. “No! Please, let me help! How else can I grow up to be a great hero like you, Chip?” Chip had never had much patience for kids. His own childhood had been nothing to write home about, and kids in general were something he tended to avoid. Now he was faced with one in particular, and his pleading was very sincere.
      “Well...I suppose you can stay on for now. Hopefully, that will just be a day or so and we'll have this case cleared up,” Chip said. Wingbeats overhead attracted both chipmunks' attention. “Hi, Chip! Who's your friend?”
      “Jake Stone, so he tells me. He's been a passenger with us since we left,” Chip said. Foxy landed and shook the boy’s hand. “Hello, Jake! Why did you want to come with us?” Jake looked at Foxy and smiled. “Hi, are you Chip's girlfriend? I wanted to go on an adventure with Chip of the Rescue Rangers. I'm going to be his sidekick, learning the ropes of crime fighting from a master. I'll be Robin to his Batman!”
      Foxy giggled, while Chip rolled his eyes in reaction to the whole thing. “Well, hello Robin! Let's say I'm a good friend of Chip's and he's helping me. Would you like to help me too?” Jake immediately saw a ray of hope. “Sure! A damsel in distress is what we heroes live for!”
      “Now, Foxglove...” Chip cautioned.
      “Oh, c'mon Chip! What can it hurt?” Foxy asked. “Besides, I heard you say yourself that we wouldn't likely be here but another day or so.”
      “Yeah Chip, what can it hurt?” Jake echoed. “She's talking sense to me. Didn't you ever want to have an adventure when you were a kid? Didn't you ever want to be by your hero's side and help him do his thing?” Chip rubbed his chin and looked back at Jake’s hopeful face. “Well, I suppose so…all right, you're along for the ride.”
      Jake jumped for joy, hugging Foxglove and shaking Chip’s hand. “Thanks! Don't worry, you won't regret it. The...Jake Stone will never fail you, Chip.” Chip caught the near-stumble, but decided to let it go for now. It was late, and they all needed rest. “Come on, Jake. We've got a long day tomorrow, but I still want to call your parents.”
      “You can’t, they’re…out of town,” Jake said. “I was staying at home on my own, and they won’t be back anytime soon.” Chip grabbed the food bag from the Wing and gave Jake the snack he was after. Jake began munching as he sat down on a nearby rock and Chip looked the boy over. Jake was about normal size for the eleven years he’d grown. He was shoulder-height to Chip, and his face looked similar to Chip’s—indeed his eyes showed every bit as much active thought as his hero’s. He was wearing an old Yankees’ cap, and a blue-colored polo shirt under a half-zippered faded denim jacket with the sleeves rolled up just above the elbows. There was some kind of insignia in the middle of the shirt which the jacket partially covered, then Chip grinned when he realized it was a handmade Rescue Ranger logo.
      Chip motioned for Jake to come to him, and Jake was immediately there. “Now Jake, if you're going to be one of the team, you have to follow orders. When Foxy or I tell you to do something, you have to do it. All right?” Jake stood at attention and saluted. “Yes sir, and ma'am. Private Jake Stone at your command!” Foxy put her wings together and looked at him in admiration. “Oh, now I feel so much safer! I've got two strong chipmunks to guard me!”
      **Just what the kid needs, an ego boost.** Chip wasn't at all happy about this, and the boy's enthusiasm didn't make things easier—not to mention Foxy's. Foxy gave Chip a goodnight kiss, and whispered, “Good night, Chip. Thanks for doing this for me.” Chip shrugged, and motioned toward Jake. “No problem, Foxy. I wasn't counting on the boy, but hopefully he won't cause too much trouble. Besides, it was either give in or talk to a stone wall.”
      “I'm sure he won't be a problem,” Foxy said, still whispering. “You'll just have to put up with his hero-worship for a little while. Good night.” Chip sighed lightly, “Yeah, I guess. Good night, Foxy.”

      Chip gave her a quick kiss, then settled down into the hay and pulled his fedora down again. It wasn’t two minutes before he felt something jostle him on the other side. He cracked an eyelid, and the boy was right by him, looking. “Chip, what are you sleeping for?” Jake asked. “There’s plenty of time left in the night. What are we doing out here in the middle of nowhere, anyway? What did you mean when you asked if I worked for Fat Cat? How does Zipper like his new voice? How do you feel about Gadget marrying Dale?Everyone else in the group wants to get married, when are you? What was your most interesting case? Who’s your most dangerous enemy?”
      Chip dearly wished he hadn't cracked that eyelid. “Jake, I can understand that you're curious and all, but we really do have to get some rest. We're getting up early and we'll likely be on the go all day. I'll do my best to satisfy your questions then.” Jake paused and thought it over for a moment. “Okay...when are we getting up? What's the plan for tomrrow? Did we run out of power or are we supposed to be here? Are we going to fight any villains? Why didn't you bring any of the other Rangers? Are you two on vacation?”
      Chip restrained his first impulse, and could hear Foxy snickering some on the other side of the haystack. The boy remained right where he was, attentive. Chip pushed his fedora up and came up into a seated position. “Okay. A few questions, then you go to bed. To answer you, we're here to find Foxglove's family. She got separated from them a long time ago in a manner that she doesn't recall, and we're following a lead that might provide us with her answers. Dale and Gadget are on their honeymoon, and the other Rangers are holding down the fort until we get back. Satisfied?”
      “Well, I guess it'll have to do…till tomorrow,” Jake said. “Good night, Chip. Good night, Foxglove. You're not going to run off in the morning and leave me behind before I wake up, are you? Promise?” Chip yawned and saluted. “Rangers' honor.” Foxy was still giggling over it all. “Good night, Jake. Good niiiight, Chip!” Chip watched as Jake walked away. “Good night!”
      Chip settled down once again, and pulled his fedora down. In another five minutes, he could feel a jostling again. He was about to order the boy back, when he saw that he was already asleep and laying next to him. Chip looked down on the now-peaceful face, and sighed. **I guess if I could've met Sureluck Jones at his age, I'd have been the same way.** Chip pulled some hay off the pile and covered the boy. A small smile fell across Chip’s face, and then all was silence.

      The summers in the nation's capitol were notorious for their heat. This one was no exception, and most of the tourists were inside one of the many famous buildings that provided exhibits on everything from the Declaration of Independence to John Glenn's space capsule. In among the humans were at least two smaller tourists, enjoying their first full day of sightseeing. Currently, they had just entered the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and had found a nice vantagepoint where they could view everything in the main hall free of human interference.
      “Wow, this is so cool!” Dale said, trying to look everywhere at once. “You know, your rocket ship should be in here. We were the first rodents in space!” Gadget was looking around in awe as well. “Well, maybe once humans figure us out it will be. Golly, there's nothing so fascinating as aviation history. Look Dale, the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis! Gosh, it would've been so thrilling to have been there and seen it happen!”
      Well, you'll have to build a time machine so we can go back and see them in action!” Dale said. For some reason that escaped her, that thought made Gadget shudder. “Maybe, someday. Right now I'm just glad to get to see the planes. Not to mention I've got my brand-new husband along to see them with me...” Gadget kissed Dale, and for a few moments they both lost themselves in each other's presence
      **Wow, what a life.** Dale blushed at being kissed in public and decided to change the topic. “I wonder how the rest of the gang are doing? It's been a long time since I spent the night away from home.” Gadget nodded, and looked aside. She’d also been thinking along those lines. “Me too, Dale. We're both so used to being Rescue Rangers now, that anything else seems foreign. I hope Chip's going to be able to help Foxy out. She sure does need a family.”
      “If they don't find hers, we'll do our best to make up the difference,” Dale said. Gadget’s thoughts stretched out toward Chip and Foxy. “I just hope that's enough. At least with all of us, we knew our parents—well, at least the parents we grew up with. She's never had a family life at all. But I'm worried about Chip. I don't know if he's ready for anything serious like she wants.”
      “Well, Chip's full of surprises. Maybe having someone else in his life will help,” Dale said. Gadget and Dale started walking again, admiring the planes from all the different eras. Then they toured the section on the history of space exploration, and stood before one of the displays of an astronaut's outfit. Gadget had modified her xenon camera to use a less blinding bulb, and now she posed for a picture in front of the display. Dale aimed the camera. “Say aged dairy products!” Gadget giggled, which was the effect Dale was after anyway. He clicked the picture, and then had Gadget move to where she was in front of Charles Lindbergh's flight suit and took another. Gadget turned to admire the artifact and saw her reflection in the plexiglass, reminding her of yet another person.
      “Dale, do you think Lahwhinie's going to be able to adjust? I mean, can she become okay given the kind of lifestyle she's led?” Gadget asked. Dale returned Gadget’s camera to her. “Gadget, I like to think that no one’s beyond hope. When we rescued her, she talked about you and her like the girls in that movie, Parent Trap.” Gadget blinked, and thought back to Lahwhinie's comments at the time. “You're right, Dale. Maybe she was trying to tell us that with the right motivation, she could pull herself together. Either that or she's a rabid Hayley Mills fan.”
      “That's the point, Gadget,” Dale said. “She would’ve had to watch Parent Trap to make the connection. If she’s utterly evil and heartless, why would she watch a movie like that?” Gadget couldn’t come up with a pat answer to that one. “Golly, I don't know. I guess we just don't know enough about her yet.”
      “Don't you think she can change?” Dale asked. Gadget began looking at the next exhibit. “Well, nothing's impossible. After all, if I can get married to the greatest guy around, it doesn't seem ludicrous that Lahwhinie could reform. C'mon, let's go to the cafeteria and get some lunch.”
      “Yeah! Museum food!” Dale said.

      As Gadget and Dale went off arm in arm, Gadget's thoughts were still on her twin sister. In a treehouse several hundred miles away, another couple was having similar thoughts. Monty hadn't gone to check his cheese traps this morning, instead staying around the house and talking with Eva over a long breakfast. Lahwhinie had risen later, which seemed to be her preference, and had gone into the main room after eating quickly. Monty and Eva's conversation had immediately turned to their daughter.
      “What'll we do about her, Eva? She looks like Gadget, but she sure don't act like 'er. Gadget I could reach, but so far she's avoided me,” Monty said. Eva’s voice was reassuring. “Monty dahling, they look alike but have been raised as differently as could be imagined. She is what Gadget may have become if she had never known love. Now we have much damage to repair in our child, but I know deep down she can still be reached. They hurt her, but they did not destroy her.”
      “It's roight tough, lass,” Monty said. “If you'd seen how she did us all in over there in Hawaii the first time, ya wouldn't think she'd even have come with us. But you must be on to something, 'cause she's here and she hasn't asked ta go anywhere. So, where do we start?”
      “We have done what's most important, just being there for her,” Eva said. “When she gets up in the morning she knows her mother and father will say good morning, and we're there when she goes to sleep at night. She has grown up unwilling to trust or rely on anyone, but only because they used her and never stayed with her. She is afraid to trust, so we must show her that we will be there for her no matter what she has done, or will do.”
      Monty knew Eva was right, but dealing with this headstrong girl was going to be a challenge. “Aye, 'spose you're right. She ain't had much of a chance. Well, ol' Monterey Jack's gonna give 'er one.”

      Monty walked into the main room to find Lahwhinie at the sofa. “How's it goin' today?”
      “Same as always,” Lahwhinie said, nonchalant. “What do you people do for fun around here? I'm bored.” Monty sat down next to her. “Well, you're not exactly catching us at our best, lass. What with Gadget an’ Dale in Washington, and Chip and Foxglove off who-knows-where, the bulk o’ the Rangers are out an’ about. Still, if ya need a mite o’ adventure we kin go out an' raid me favorite cheese traps or check out ta see what's the latest in crime down at the police station.”
      Lahwhinie didn’t show any enthusiasm for that. “Even your fun sounds like work. What does my dear sister do for fun?”
      “Gadget? Mainly spends her time in her workshop, workin' on her inventions. Well, that is til' Dale came along. He joins her in there a lot, but he was startin' to get her ta go out some, rollerskatin' and the like,” Monty said. Lahwhinie frowned.  She didn't know a torque wrench from a spanner. Lahwhinie sighed and tried a different approach. “Well, what do families do together?”
      Monty scratched behind his ear. “Well, they...”
      “How about a nice day in a park?” Eva suggested, coming out of the kitchen, holding a picnic basket under her arm. “I remember in Hungary, one of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is PaPa taking us to the park there. We vould go out for the whole day, just the family. It vas a time to play, and talk and forget our cares.”
      “Won't we look goofy?” Lahwhinie asked. “We're a bit old for playing in the park.” Monty helped Lahwhinie up. “Aw, you're never too old ta have fun Lahwhinie! Besides, you're the outdoor type like yer father. C'mon, luv.” Lahwhinie felt stupid, but consented. “Okay, I said I'd give the family thing a try. Let's go.”

      Monty and Eva traded looks, and they led the way with Lahwhinie trailing behind. The Hawaiian mouse didn't seem to care either way, but Monty noted with some satisfaction that her step picked up once they were outside. They found a nice place by the fountain, and set up shop there. There were a good many animals out in the park already, and several games in progress. A coed group of squirrels and mice were playing volleyball, and the guys had already noticed Lahwhinie.
      Monty saw one of them wave to his daughter. “Why not go over and join in, lass? Looks like a grand toime.” Lahwhinie didn’t budge. “I’m not going over there, because I know what will happen if I do. The guys will all forget their girlfriends and start flirting with me. The girls will all get jealous, and the guys will start fighting...I've seen it happen a hundred times before. I want this to be a pleasant time.”
      Monty actually found this refreshing—maybe she wasn't so different from Gadget after all. He put his huge arm around Lahwhinie. “Lass, ya can't go through loife expecting yer looks ta ruin any chance at happiness ya got. If ya don't really feel like playing, that's all right. But if ya do, just tell the lads if they ask that ya just came ta play and aren't interested in any more than that.”
      **Then they just think I'm playing hard to get.** “I've never been one for sports anyway, maybe later,” Lahwhinie said. She began taking a good look around the park. “You know what the best thing about New York is? No active volcanos. Back home you've always got the thought that you could be incinerated suddenly in an eruption. I hated that.”
      Eva thought the remark strange, but then she did have a point. “Well, there is something to be said for that. How are you at judo, honey?” Lahwhinie wrinkled her nose at the idea. “Martial arts?! Getting all sweaty, getting my hair messed up and even breaking a nail?! When I was with R.O.D.E.N.T.S. they taught me some, but I haven't trained since I was, like twelve.”
      Eva laughed softly. “Oh, I see. It could be useful for you, you know. Training helps to focus the mind and being able to defend yourself is always a good thing. For example...” Eva went down in a crouch and swept Monty's legs from under him. Before he could even react, she'd pounced like a tiger and had Monty's arm locked above his head in a submission hold. Then she looked up and grinned slyly at her daughter. “See, dahling?”
      Lahwhinie hadn’t expected that from her mother, but it all looked like too much effort. “Oh, I don't need martial arts to crush a man, all I have to do is smile seductively, bat my lashes and he's showering me with gifts and pledging his eternal love. It's pathetic really.” Eva let Monty go, who was more than grateful the demonstration was over. “But if that's all you do, then you never find out about the real person inside, you or the man. You might act the part of the flirtacious girl, but I have seen there is more inside you than that. Why don't you stop pretending and give yourself a chance?”

      Lahwhinie raided the picnic basket, hoping this line of talk would end soon. “Gadget’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, and I'm...not. The damage is done. How could I ever live up to even the lowest standards that any of you have? I've seduced men, manipulated people for my own gain. I've lied, betrayed, stole, hurt people, nearly killed my own father and sister.” Lahwhinie got up and began walking away, but Monty stood up and caught up with her.
      “Lass, we're not askin' ya t'be Gadget,” Monty said. “I know you've had it tough, and you've done a lot 'o things you're not proud of. But the fact that ya kin admit it to us means you're ready to give us a shot. I don't care what you've been or who you've been with or what anyone says about you. You're my girl and I forgive ya, 'cause I love ya.” Lahwhinie looked up at him, with tears in her eyes. “I never wanted to be like this...”
      Monty took her in her arms. “Hush now, lass. We all make mistakes. But you're being given a new chance. Yer mom an' I aren't gonna hold anything of what's happened against ya.” Eva came close to the two of them. “That's right, dahling. We vant you to have a new start with us.” Lahwhinie dried her eyes. “Even though I'm the black sheep of the family and not like little miss perfect, Gadget?”
      “Uh, hate to tell ya this but yer a black sheep among black sheep,” Monty said. “We Erskines always manage ta get into scrapes, no matter where we land.”
      “And your mother can tell you a few stories of her own,” Eva added. “Ve are not perfect either, dahling. No one is perfect, including Gadget. All we ask is that you give yourself the chance. I know that if you do, you can let your true self out without fear.”

      The next three days with Lahwhinie gave Monty more cause for hope. She seemed to liven up some and actually started pitching in when he and Eva were doing something. Still, Monty wasn't under any illusions—he could often see a far-off look in his daughter's eyes and knew she was thinking about leaving. After they ate, Lahwhinie turned in early and the others follow suit soon after. It was just after one in the morning when Monty's stomach woke him for a late-night cheese raid. Quietly he crept out of his room and was almost to the kitchen when he stopped
      “Light's on in Gadget's room. Wonder why Lahwhinie's up this toime o' night…” Monty said.
      Monty turned back, and then Eva came out of his room. “Vhat is it, Monty? Is something wrong?” Monty touched her arm and whispered, “Sorry, I didn't mean ta wake ya. Just gettin' a late night snake. It looks like Lahwhinie can't sleep.”
      “Oh, the poor dear,” Eva whispered back. “I wondered if she was getting a good night's rest. Still, we should not disturb her. Perhaps you should just check on her though the keyhole to make sure she is okay.”
      “Now that's yer spy trainin' talking,” Monty protested. “We'll let her be. If we spy on her, she'll think we don't trust her.” Eva looked toward the light coming from Lahwhinie’s room. “Some things die hard. Very well, then. We knock on her door together and check on her.”
      “Well, okay, luv.” Monty knocked on the door
      “Honey, are you okay?” Eva asked. There was a brief sound of shuffling inside, and then Lahwhinie came to the door. “Sure, I just couldn't sleep. It happens sometimes when I'm in a strange place.” Monty felt something was wrong, but didn’t want to make rash accusations. “I was just makin' a late night snack, wanna join us?”
      “No thanks, I'm sure I'll settle down soon. Thanks for checking on me though,” Lahwhinie said, giving them both a quick kiss and then headed back into the room. Monty had put his hand on the door to close it, when Eva stopped him and nodded purposefully. As Lahwhinie retreated into the room, Monty followed Eva's eyes and looked at her. From behind, he could clearly see the bright gleam of a necklace sticking out from the collar of her nightgown. Monty closed the door and he and Eva went to the kitchen.
      “I vundered what all the noise was when we knocked. She has taken Gadget's jeweled necklace,” Eva said. Monty had seen it too. “I'm sure she ain't stealin' it, though. She's just tryin' it on fer looks.” Eva's eyes were downcast. “I was afraid of this. The R.O.D.E.N.T.S.’ training can be hard to break once it is engrained. But just maybe you are right. I hope so, Monty.”
      Monty put a hand on Eva's shoulder. “We gotta give her the benefit, lass.” Eva nodded slowly. “I must admit, I would have given much for such a chance myself. Very well, we will not speak of it or allow her to know we realize anything. But if Gadget returns and finds it gone...”
      “It'll be there, I just know it. She's got a heart o' gold, it just needs polishin' ta make it shine,” Monty said. Eva grasped his hands. “Now I know vhy I fell for you all those years ago in Kenya.” Monty smiled. “Well, it was either fall for me or get squashed by elephants, luv.”
      Eva chuckled, and ate some cheese. “I think I did get the better part of that deal. Monty, do you find that you miss your life the way it was now that Lahwhinie and I have come?” Monty sat down with her. “Eva luv, I'm happier than I ever thought possible. I felt old, tired and lonely, and now I got my wife and me two daughters. I'm walkin' on air! I'm glad yer back, and glad fer the chance ta turn Lahwhinie around.”
      Eva was relieved, for more reasons than one. “I just ask because I know that vhen I met you, you were such a globe-trotter. Now you are pinned down, and a mouse vith responsibilities. You don't find yourself missing the call of the wind?”
      “No, Eva. I've spent most o' me loife on the road, so it's nice to have a place ta call home—and a home ain't a home if it's not filled with the people you love,” Monty said. Eva snuggled up to him. “I think you are right, dear. Even with all the turmoil that has come, I am glad to be here and have some stability at last in my life.”
      “We just have ta convince Lahwhinie that that's what a real home is like,” Monty said. Eva got up and grinned at her husband. “Maybe we vill, just by being here for her. Come Monty, it is getting late—and you will need to leave some cheese for tomorrow night's raid.” Monty grinned back at her, and admiring how she could still read him so easily. “Sounds good to me, luv.”
      Eva and Monty returned to their room, while nearby Lahwhinie still had not gone to sleep. She'd been relieved when her parents hadn't found out about the necklace. She'd been admiring herself with them on in the mirror when the knock came. Now she held the ornate necklace up again, allowing the light to catch the gleam of the many facets of the diamonds. It was a lovely thing to look at, and Lahwhinie stared at it for a long while. Then as if in response to an sudden thought she put the necklace away for safe-keeping and turned out the light.

Chapter 3 - Hondo, A Chance Meeting, and Zipper's Dream Finds Hope


      With the dawning, Chip had just relived the dream about his first football victory when Jake kicked in his sleep, waking Chip up. “Wha...what is it, Jake? Trouble?” Jake looked up apologetically. “Uh, no, just a bad dream. Nothing to worry about, Chip,” Jake said. He changed the subject quickly. “So, what adventures begin today?” Chip stood up and stretched, and noticed that Foxglove was already up and taking in a morning flight. “Well, if we’re about where I think we are, we’ll reach Hondo in another hour or so. From there, we’ll start asking if there’s any Fairmonts in the area. That could be the most time-consuming part, since we don’t even know if there are any around and in such a big area they may not be well-known.”
      “Say, when do we eat?” Jake asked. “I’m starved.”
      “Right now, cutie!” Foxy said, bringing over the rations. They divvied up one of the packs that Monty had prepared, and soon were ready to begin the day. Chip cleaned up the area around them, fastidious as always. “With three of us, I’d say that the food will last us about two more days. We may have to see about getting more soon. Well, anyone ready to go to Hondo?”
      Jake leaped to his feet in an instant. “Sure! Adventure awaits!”
      Chip couldn’t believe how much the boy reminded him of himself at that age—eager, idealistic, reckless. Jake was seated and strapped in before Chip could get settled. Foxy smiled at Chip, and looked toward the boy. Chip knew what she meant all too well, and made a mock grimace that didn’t hold as he started up the Wing. “Rescue Rangers, away!”
      Jake was trembling with excitement and his face beamed with anticipation. “This is so amazing! I’m on a case with the Rescue Rangers!” Chip looked back at Jake in the rear seat once they were in the air. “Remember Jake, this is just until we have to head back...” Foxy tapped Chip on the shoulder, breaking up his talk. “Oh, Chip! Let him enjoy the moment. Besides, it’s not every day you get to have one of your fans with you.”
      “Yeah, I’m your biggest fan. You’re my hero!” Theo said. “I want to be just like you. I want to be a Rescue Ranger.”
      **We’ll see how long that lasts once reality sinks in,** Chip thought, turning his attention back to flying the Wing. Chip’s calculations had been pretty accurate. It took just over an hour before they reached Hondo. The town was in the middle of cattle country—or more properly what was traditionally cattle country. The progress of the 20th century had taken its toll, and while Hondo still had its ranches it was a far cry from the economic power it had been in the century before. Chip took the Wing low over the town, looking for anyone likely to ask. The only problem was, there was no one to be seen.
      “The town looks deserted,” Foxy said. “What do you think it means?” Jake’s already high-octane imagination was already chewing on the problem. “Plague maybe? Like in The Andromeda Strain.” Chip considered it, then turned an eye to Jake. “Let’s see how you are at deductive reasoning, Jake. Do you see any sign that the people who live here were driven away?”
      Jake looked carefully. “Well, there’s nothing to indicate that anyone left in a hurry, and I guess in a plague, bodies would be all over the place…”
      “All right, so that means the people probably left on their own,” Chip said. “Now we have to figure out what would motivate them all to go somewhere. What’s this area of the country known for?” Jake thought a moment. “John Wayne?”
      “That’s the movie, Jake. Look beyond the city. What do you see out there?” Chip asked. Jake took a good look. “Sand...clay…and some buildings, ranches and farms?”
      “Okay, getting warm,” Chip said. “Now, what kind of activity involving ranches or farms could draw all the people from a town to go to it?” Jake giggled and shouted, “Maybe someone’s poisoned the waterhole!” Chip could see that Jake’s knowledge had come mainly from popular sources. “Well, let me put it another way. What kind of event would involve people that lived on ranches and farms? Or what would they gather together to see?”
      “A wedding or a square dance, maybe,” Jake thought out loud. Chip nodded again. “Okay, something social. How about something that involves cowboys?”
      “A rodeo?” Jake asked.
      Chip patted the boy on the back. “Jake, I think that’s just what would draw all the people. And if we’re lucky, we might find all the local animals nearby too.” Foxy got Chip’s attention at that moment. “Chip, check out two’o clock low on the horizon!”

      Chip maneuvered the Wing in that direction, and it was easy to see the reflections of the sun off the metal of the many vehicles. As they got closer they made out corrals, a fairly large stadium that was filled to capacity, and humans on horseback doing all sorts of events. “Yep, it’s a rodeo all right! Nice piece of deduction, Jake,” Chip said.
      Jake beamed at Chip’s compliment, “I’m just gettin’ started.” Chip circled the area, but there was no sign of an animal equivalent rodeo—at first, that is. They’d just gone around the third time when a group of bats flew up from behind. They seemed to know where they were going, so Chip followed and found the other rodeo on the far side of a rolling hill which separated it from the humans’ rodeo. The activities were largely the same, but now the "cowboys" were mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and bats for the most part. They were riding prairie dogs—the horses of the rodent world—and the "cows" were a combination of horned toads and a type of beetle that Chip didn’t immediately recognize.
      Foxy looked over the festivities with excitement and wonder. “Wow, this is great! With all these animals together, someone’s bound to know if there’s a Fairmont around.” Jake looked awed to be at a real rodeo. “Wow, this is much better than New York!”
      Chip landed the Wing, and since they didn’t have any official backing, they purchased tickets. Once inside, Jake ran ahead and found them good seats near the action. “Hurry, or we’ll miss something!” Foxy giggled as she saw Chip’s reaction. “I bet you were twelve times worse as a kid, weren’t you?”
      “I plead the fifth, Foxy,” Chip said, winking.
      Chip and Foxy joined Jake and just in time. The wild prairie dog riding contest was about to start—the equivalent of the humans’ bucking broncho contest. An announcement came over the P.A. system—“Now riding, Hubert Washburn from the Crooked Mile Ranch, on Haymaker!" A gate opened, and out came a squirrel in western duds trying to stay on top of five pounds of pure ornery critter.
      “You’d have to be cuh-razy to do that!” Jake shouted, pointing at the spectacle. Chip winced in sympathy as Hubert lost his balance and fell off. “I think a lot of them are. Let’s not forget why we’re here, though. We can enjoy this a little, but we need to find someone who knows a Fairmont.”
      “Fairmont, didja say?”
      Chip, Foxy and Jake turned around to see the source of the voice. It belonged to an old mouse, who looked like he’d been up and down the trail more than a few times. He wore a beat-up leather vest over a red-and black flannel shirt and sported a red neckerchief. His cowboy hat was black, and was faded from much use. “Howdy, the name’s Buck Mason. What has ya lookin’ for a Fairmont?”
      Jake lowered his voice to sound tough. “Just business. Personal business.” Buck studied the young munk a moment, then returned his gaze to the others. “First, I’d be knowin’ your business. We’re a pretty tight outfit around here, and we tend to ride for the brand.”
      Foxy stood up and came over to Buck. “I’m looking for my family. I think I may be a Fairmont.” Buck eyed her with a look that was deceptively passive. “You might be at that. What about you, munk? You helpin’ this lady out?” Chip came over to join Foxy. “Yes, we’re Rescue Rangers.” Buck’s face showed that he did know the name. “All right, I’ll take you at your word on it. Just so happens there is a bat named Fairmont at the rodeo today. Do you want to talk it over with him?”
      “Oh, yes! Yes, please!” Foxy said. Buck pointed behind them toward the rodeo arena. “Well then, you’d better turn around missie, because he’s up next!”

      The P.A. announcer boomed, "Now riding, Bedivere Fairmont from the Double D Ranch, riding Bedlam!" The group turned just in time to see the gate open. On top of a crazed-looking prairie dog was a bat who let out a yell that could be heard over the entire rodeo grounds. He had greyed with the years, but his whole manner spoke of someone who lived life to its fullest. Bedivere had on western duds, and he waved his cowboy hat in one wing while holding the reins in the other and whooping it up for all he was worth.
      “Look at that guy go!” Jake said, his eyes wide in wonder.
      **Oh, great. That would be the one.** Chip watched as the tough bat hung on. “Well, at least we know who we’re after. I hope that prairie dog doesn’t hurt him too much.” Jake in his enthusiasm leaned far over the rail. Chip saw it and started to reach for him. “Jake, don’t get too close. You don’t want to fall in there!”
      Too late. Jake lost his balance and fell into the rodeo ring. Chip and Foxy jumped up as one. “JAKE!” Chip began working his way over the railing. “Hang on, Jake! I’ll get you out of there!” The crowd gasped as Jake struggled to get up from the fall on the hard-packed dirt floor of the arena.
      Bedivere had seen Jake just as his ride had finished and now he jumped off and flew for the boy. Chip tried to make his way down, but before he could get there Bedivere scooped him up. The wild prairie dog gave chase, but the rodeo clowns distracted him. A few of the other riders brought out a tame mount for Bedivere to ride back on, and he set Jake on it with him as they took a victory lap of the arena. While the crowd whistled and applauded, Chip climbed back up and immediately went with Foxy to the chutes where Bedivere had ridden back to.
      Foxy ran up and hugged Jake as Bedivere let him off. “Oh, Jake! Are you okay, sweetie?” Jake rubbed his arm where he’d fallen on it. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve been chased by cats scarier than that. Thanks, Mr. Bedivere.” Bedivere dusted himself off and came up to them, speaking in a strong Texas accent. “He’s as fine as a Sunday afternoon picnic! Howdy, ah’m Bedivere Fairmont. I saw you ’bout ta jump in there with me. That would’a been mighty dangerous, cowpoke. Best to leave those rescues to an experienced bat.”
      Bedivere looked down at Jake. “And what’s yore name, son? You shore did have a hankering ta get into the act!” Jake was immediately captivated by this bat's mannerisms and accent. “I’m Jake, I’m a Rescue Ranger in training! Yeah, I live for adventure and excitement.”
      “Rescue Ranger, is it?” Bedivere said, his interest up. “Well now, ah’ve heard o’ that bunch! Liked what I heard. Seems like y’all handled a purty mean philly a while back what was makin’ pies using regular birds she caught with some sort o’ weird con-trap-shun.” Chip was checking out Jake’s arm, but he looked up and nodded. “Yep, that was us. She was using an electromagnet to draw in birds to her pie factory, and we sort of ‘fowled’ up her works for her.” Bedivere slapped Chip on the back, knocking Chip down, and cackled, “Fowled up, that’s a good one pardner! So what brings y’all out this heah way besides seein’ what a Texas prairie bat can do atop a mean prairie dog?”
      Foxy looked at the old bat, and her eyes brightened when she realized he was the same species of bat that she was. “I’m looking for my family. I think I might be a Fairmont.” Up to then, Bedivere hadn’t really looked at Foxglove. Now that he did, a wave of something came over him. “Well, I’ll be horn-swoggled! You know you look jes’ about like my ma did when she was a young’un? What happened to you that ya don’t know who your family is?”
      “I don’t know, sir. I’ve been alone my entire life,” Foxy said. “I have no memory of ever having a family. The only thing we have to go on is that I’m a very rare type of bat. We checked immigration records in New York and we came across the Fairmont name. I know it’s not much to go on, but it’s still a chance.”
      Bedivere put a wing around Foxy, gentleman-like. “Well ma’am, I can tell ya right-out that I didn’t have any young’uns. But my brother Galahad did! It’s been quite a spell since ah’ve seen him, but the last I knowed he was living in Austin. They have a mighty huge colony down that way, and that’s where he an’ his wife Daisy settled down.”
      Foxy concentrated on the names Galahad and Daisy to see if they rang familiar but sadly they didn’t. “Do they have any children now?” Bedivere starting leading his mount to the stables, and the Rangers and Jake followed. “I know that they had ’least one, but maybe more. I disremember exactly, but I do think the one was a girl, come ta think of it. Ah’ve been at the ranch for most ’o my life, an’ Galahad he wanted to stay with Ma an’ Pa. So ah’m out of touch, ya might say. But if yer Galahad’s gal, I’ll go to the ends o’ the earth with you ta find out!”

      Cool!” Jake said, all ready for action. “What are we waiting here for? Austin’s the place we should be!” Chip held out a cautionary hand. “Now wait a minute, Jake. We’re not sure that this is the right course to take. We...” Bedivere slapped Chip on the back again. “That lad o’ yourn’s got the right idea, son! Now’s the time fer action, not perambulating around about whether it’s right or wrong! Sides, I hain’t seen Galahad in a coyote’s age!”
      Bedivere gave Foxy his wing, and they starting walking off while Jake ran over and helped Chip up. Chip watched the Texas bat as he began talking mile-a-minute to Foxy. “That bat reminds me of Monty. If he is Foxy’s uncle, I hope the rest of the family’s more civilized.” Jake suddenly remembered that he told Chip he’d follow orders and helped dust him off. “Sorry, Chip. I got too excited back there in the arena. You’re the boss.”
      Chip started off, with Jake in tow. “That’s all right, Jake. I guess this Bedivere does have a point—even if he does make it the hard way—but if this doesn’t bear out, then we can always come back and search some more.” Chip rubbed his bruised posterior as the two chipmunks caught up with Foxy and Bedivere at the Wing.
      Bedivere was making over their mode of transporation. “Pardner, this is quite a chariot y’all have! Why, I can remember when there wasn’t much more out here than dust an’ tumbleweeds!” Foxy took Chip’s arm nervously. “How long would it take to get to Austin from here?” Chip watched as Bedivere and Jake got in the Wing. “It’s a big state, Foxy. I’d say no sooner than two hours. What’s wrong?”
      “I may be about to meet my mom and dad for the first time,” Foxy said pointedly. “Or it could just be a wild goose chase.” Chip gave Foxy a hug to reassure her. “I sure hope you do meet them, Foxy. It’ll make all this worthwhile.” Bedivere called from the Wing, “Well said, Ranger. Now let’s get this wagon a-rolling! YEE-HAW!”

      With that fanfare, Chip and Foxy entered the RangerWing. They were about to take off when Buck ran up. “Hey, Bedivere! You won’t want ta run out without this, you old coot!” Buck handed over a blue ribbon for Bedivere’s riding effort and Bedivere gave it to Foxglove. “Blue ribbons’re a sight I never get tired of! Thanks, Buck! Okay, let’s give ’er the gun!”
      Chip took off, hoping that Bedivere wouldn’t be that talkative all the way to Austin. Foxy dashed any such hopes when she eagerly said, “Bedivere, please tell me all about Galahad and Daisy!” Bedivere tipped his ten-gallon hat to her. “Why, shore ma’am! I’ll be tickled ta tell ya all I can!” Bedivere explained that the young bat in the picture they’d seen would have been Gawain Fairmont, his father. Gawain’s parents, Lancelot and Lily, had decided to go west to build a home in the open spaces that they couldn’t find at home in England. They’d gone to Hondo, and had settled there for a while.
      “Then when Galahad an’ I were old enough, my pappy Gallopin’ Gawain said he’d had enough of ranch life on the Double D and wanted a more classy roost. So he decided to check out the bright lights of Austin. I liked it fine right heah, so I stayed on and took over the spread. Galahad, he went with ’em and I’ve only heard from him a few times since Ma and Pa died. Last I knew, he was still living at that theah bridge where he met Daisy,” Galahad said.
      It just can’t be them,” Foxy said, dejected. “How could I have ended up in New York?” Bedivere admitted, it was a long shot. “I couldn’t rightly say missy, but it’s been a good long while since ah’ve heard from them last. Could be they decided ta move on. I’d reckon the bats ’round the bridge’ll know either way.”
      Foxy took Bedivere’s wing, an apologetic look in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It just seems like too much to ask that I’d be able to find them after so many years.” Chip looked back over his shoulder. “Don’t give up hope, Foxy! We’ve gotten this far, and up to this point it looks promising. We’ve got to take it the full course before we know either way.”

      Headquarters had seen little of its smallest member lately. Zipper had kept up his checkups with Doctor Batorious, and now the doctor felt that the fly only needed to come in bi-monthly. Zipper was glad of this, because despite his appreciation for the bat doctor he was instinctively scared of him. Now, Zipper’s thoughts were much happier as he was buzzing his way towards Honey’s hive. She’d promised to meet him just outside for a morning flight, and sure enough she was punctual.
      “I am pleased you could come this morning, Zipper,” Honey said, holding out her hand to him. Zipper smiled and kissed her hand. “Good morning, your highness. What would you like to see today, Honey? The world awaits us.” Honey always found his upbeat attitude refreshing. “Come, let’s fly around the park and we will talk.”
      They started off, and Zipper could see that Honey’s mind was preoccupied. “Is something troubling you, Honey?” Honey flew down to a larger rock and Zipper followed. She put her hands in her lap and looked over to her friend in a manner that gave him room for pause. “Zipper, I have been giving serious thought to our relationship. It occurs to me that if I ever do leave the hive, I must have a worthy replacement trained in my stead. So, I am considering doing just that with my younger sister.”
      Zipper stopped short at this revelation. “Younger sister? You never mentioned her before. Do you think she could handle the job?” Zipper asked. Honey’s look was noncommittal. “Valeria is of royal blood, but she was not trained to be queen with the same rigor that I was. Oh, she received the basics but everyone knew that I was to be queen since I was the older sister. Valeria has grown up knowing that she could have been queen, but would never likely get the chance.” Zipper considered the matter. “Would she take the throne if you offered it?”
      “She probably would, which could be disastrous in her current state," Honeey said with concern. “I have reason to think she has resented my success and if she is not properly encouraged she could take it out on my subjects. In any case, I am not going to turn the kingdom over to her until I know she would rule well,” Honey said.
      Knowing Honey's personality, Zipper could see the nature of the problem. “Is there anything I could do?” Honey looked at him speculatively. “Actually, I was wondering if you would talk to her. As an outsider, she might be more willing to speak with you than with me or Aliwicious. He trained her and he is her friend as well as mine, but I think that your...unique gifts could make you the better choice.”
      “I’m sure she knows you’re considering abdicating, right?” Zipper asked. Honey looked more than a bit uncomfortable. “The whole hive knows that there has been talk of it. I am sure that Aliwicious has told her some of what I have shared with him.” Zipper knew then the situation was volatile and would need a delicate touch. “I’ll talk to her, Honey. Is there anything I should know about her before hand?”
      “I wish I knew her well enough to advise you, but we have been kept apart most of our lives. We do talk some, but mostly those talks are cordial. I think she does have a temper, though. I have seen her nearly lose control in the throne room on occasion,” Honey said. “She is younger than I am, so perhaps that speaks more to the maturity factor. From what Aliwicious has told me, Valeria feels neglected which is only natural in our society.”
      Zipper sensed Honey’s doubts and knew this hope might be in vain. “Do you think that Aliwicious can mold her into a queen?” Honey shifted her weight. “Frankly, yes. If she will listen to reason and allow he and I to instruct her, I think that she could take my place. Zipper, if she proves worthy then I think I would be willing to try some time away from the hive with you. If that works out, and Valeria can rule adequately in my stead...”

      Zipper’s heart almost stopped beating. “Really?!” 
      Honey smiled at him. “As I said, I have given it much thought. I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, because neither of us has spent a good deal of time with the other yet. I think such a trial period would let us know for sure if it’s right. You know I have a way of being, well, demanding.”
      “I know, and you have your people to think of,” Zipper said. “How long do you think it might take before you could tell if she’d be okay?” Honey knew there was only one answer for that. “It depends on Valeria. If she’s cooperative, then it may not take long at all. If she needs additional training or is unwilling, then it could take longer or I might have to search outside the hive for a suitable replacement.”
      “As much as it pains me to say this, your hive must come first. I don’t want to come between you and the well-being of your people,” Zipper said. Honey took his hand and they flew up to a tree branch. “I know you don not, Zipper, and that is one thing that makes this a lot easier. If I thought you were in this solely for your own benefit, I would never consider it. You have always put my concerns before your own and that kind of gallantry is rare these days. So do you think you would be willing to talk to Valeria this afternoon?”
      Zipper nodded eagerly. “I would do anything for you.” Honey allowed Zipper to lead her back to the hive. Once there, she entered halfway and then turned back. “Be here around two-thirty. I will see that Aliwicious has her prepared to meet you.”
      “I will be here and I’ll do my best, Honey,” Zipper said. Honey waved goodbye. “I know you will. Thank you, Zipper.” Zipper waved back. “You’re welcome, my love.” Honey smiled in kind at his words and slowly disappeared into the hive.

      Zipper appeared at the door of the hive at the appointed time, and was escorted to Valeria’s room. He was quite surprised to find that it was furnished more like one of the Ranger’s rooms than the sister of a queen’s. The bed, table and chairs were nice but plain. Upon one of those chairs sat a young female bee. She was in her late teens, with her blonde hair coiffed similar to Honey’s. However she had little jewelry, and her blue dress was not of the fine silks that the queen wore but of linen.
      “She’s all yours, Zipper,” Aliwicious said. “Be patient with her, please.” Zipper didn’t like the idea of doing this alone. “Aren’t you going to stay?” Aliwicious shook his head, speaking in his spiffy British accent. “I will be nearby. My presence would prevent her from being candid, because she would feel she had to mince words for my sake. You are an outsider, and she will be more open with you. I know, because I have asked her in private. She may be blunt with you, but she is young so her feelings are still sensitive.”
      After Aliwicious had departed, Zipper approached her and bowed. “Greetings, Princess Valeria. I’ve been asked by Queen Honey to speak to you.” Valeria had a nice-sounding voice, but at the moment it was filled with mistrust. “You’re the one that Honey likes so much?”
      Zipper smiled. “Very much, indeed.” Valeria flew over to him. “Well, you’re not very big. Though you do have a nice coloring, I suppose.” Zipper bowed, taking any compliment as progress. “Thank you, your highness. I know my size may seem to be a handicap, but it has allowed me greater speed and maneuverability in my work, which is very important.  And I like my green coloring as well.”
      Valeria shut the door. “Now I wish you to speak frankly. Do you think my sister is going to leave?” Zipper liked her straightforwardness, as he shared it. “I don’t know. She’s very fearful of life outside of the hive and she’s worried about the fate of the hive if she leaves.”
      “As well she might!” Valeria said with emphasis. “Did she tell you that no queen has abdicated her throne in the last century? It’s seen by the nobility as being in very bad taste, and I suspect she knows the peerage will turn their backs on her if she steps down.” Zipper expected no less, of course. “But that’s them, how would you feel if she abdicated?”
      “If she left, then I would be queen by default. Sisters to a queen are given some rudimentary training in case the queen dies unexpectedly or cannot carry out their duties for some reason. No one really expects the sister to have a chance—especially not at my age. How would I feel? Like I’d been given the chance I was denied by birth, that’s how.”
      Zipper noticed that Valeria's speech wasn't as refined as her sisters, likely due to that lack of training. He couldn’t blame her for feeling like she’d gotten the short end of the stick. Still, it was the way of her people. “I can understand that you might feel that way, but how would you feel about your sister leaving, rather than your queen leaving?”
      “I don’t think you understand,” Valeria said, sitting on a plush-covered thimble. “I have no sister. Honey is queen, and my queen as well. The rules of heraldry demand that the queen's sister have only formal relations to the queen ‘so as to prevent strife in the hive.’ Honey is my sister in name only. You probably know her better than I do.”
      Zipper was surprised how well Valeria kept her obvious pain under control. “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you feel you could lead the hive? Would you be willing to die to save it?” Valeria crossed her arms as Zipper had seen Honey do many times, as if what she had to tell him only heightened her frustration. “You might as well ask me if I were ready to fight a firefly! I have no true preparation for leading, and I’ve never led anything—not even my own life! As for dying to save the hive, that is the duty of every member of it, including the queen’s.”
      “Actually, you have more objectivity and understanding of the role of Queen than your sister did when I first met her. That’s good. Would you be willing to try if Honey, Aliwicious and I helped you?” Zipper asked. Valeria looked at him suspiciously. “And what is your benefit out of this? Are you proposing to prepare me, just so you may gain Honey and then leave me to cope—whether I can or not?”
      Zipper sat down on a chair beside her. “No, I'm not that selfish. Honey has made it very clear that she would not leave unless she was sure the new queen could do the job. If you can do it, then she and I have a chance for a life of happiness together and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that in the worst way. However, the safety of the hive is more important than the happiness of two people.”

      Valeria paced for a minute, then sat back down. She sighed and began to open up. “I suppose you’re telling the truth. When Aliwicious told me that Honey was considering leaving, I laughed at first supposing it to be a joke. Well, it is a joke—a joke on me. I have the same royal blood she does, yet I was denied the throne and relegated to this simplistic lifestyle because she was born first!”
      Valeria stood up to control herself, as she’d been taught to. “Yes, I resent that. Aliwicious has tried to placate me by educating me beyond the limits of his duties, so in fact I am more familiar with the queenly role than would seem proper. Perhaps that is why I desire it so, and resent her as I do. Tell me then, what would you do if absolute power was thrust upon you? Do you think you could rule well, knowing that your every whim was law and everyone around you had to do as you said?”
      Zipper shook his head. “I don’t think I have the wisdom to do that. Only you know your own heart, but since you're even thinking about the question of worthiness, it shows that you're wise beyond your years.” Valeria found she’d underestimated this fly’s abilities. “Are you just saying that, or are you trying to be nice to me?”
      “I’m trying to be honest. Most people would leap at the chance to be an absolute ruler, never pondering for a moment if they could handle the awesome responsibility. You’re concerned, that speaks well of you,” Zipper said. Valeria nodded. “All right, I accept that. So if I go along with this and am proven worthy, would Honey automatically step down or would there be some kind of transition period?” Zipper stood up and came over in front of her. “From what I understand, there would be a transition period. How long, I don’t know. It would depend on your performance.”
      “And if I don’t measure up?” Valeria asked.
      “Then Honey remains queen and she and I go our separate ways most likely,” Zipper said. Valeria eyed Zipper curiously. “And you would be willing to risk that much on me, a person whose potential you can’t even be sure of?”
      Zipper knew it was a gamble, but already he could tell that Valeria was much more capable than he’d first believed. “Yes. True, I don’t know your potential, but my time in the Rescue Rangers has shown me time and again that people don’t show their full potential untill they’re put to the test. You’ve never had a chance to shine, so now’s your chance to show the hive what you can truly be.”
      Again she paced, and then looked over at him suddenly. “Would I have to deal with Honey in this training?” Zipper noticed that she was calling her sister by her first name now, and took that as a sign of trust. “Sure, she’ll be your mentor during this process. How can she teach you if she’s not dealing with you? What might help this is if you two got to know each other, being sisters and all. Start thinking of yourselves as family, rather than royalty.”
      Valeria turned on Zipper sharply. “She doesn’t care about me! How could she? The law forbids it, so why would I want to get to know her?”
      “Has she ever told you she didn’t care? From my time with her, I’ve found her to be a warm, caring and loving woman. It’s this law that’s kept you two apart. Maybe it’s time the law was changed,” Zipper said. Valeria turned her back, not seeming to want to hear his words. “Would she be willing to come here herself? Would she apologize?”
      “Apologize for what?” Zipper asked.
      Valeria turned around slowly, and for the first time tears were evident. “For not having the courage to say what you just did!” Zipper didn’t know what to do, but he instinctively did what the Rangers always did in times like this. He gently hugged her. “I’ll talk to her.” Valeria was not used to such things. Aliwicious had shown her kindness as a parent would, but this fly barely knew her. She clutched him, and let some more tears go. “Okay...”

      Aliwicious felt uncomfortable standing beside Queen Honey, both at the door listening to the conversation inside. He felt bad enough about eavesdropping, but he was very disturbed by Queen Honey’s tears as she listened to the bitterness that her sister had harbored towards her. Alwicious gently nudged her toward the door. Honey looked alarmed by the idea of going in there.
      Aliwicious gave her a pleading look, then gently brushed her tears away. “Go to your sister, please majesty.” Honey shook her head. “I can’t!” Aliwicious continued to stare at her, and Honey knew he wasn’t going to let her say no. She sighed and turned toward the door and knocked gently. “Valeria, may I come in?”
      In all the time Valeria had known her, Honey had never come to her quarters to visit. This was all new and strange, and Valeria felt that perhaps they were all doing something unlawful. Despite that, she knew that she wanted to take the chance. “You may enter, my queen.” Valeria courtsied and looked down as her sister entered.
      Honey entered hesitantly, unable to look her sister in the eyes. “Please, Valeria, enough of this royal deference. We are sisters, not enemies.” Valeria tried to keep her voice even, but it was impossible to keep all the emotion out. “You know the law as well as I, your majesty. If you feel so, then why did you not come before now? Why did you not have the courage that this small one has, to speak against the law and call me your sister long ago?”
      “Because I was a selfish, vain, insensitive fool who couldn’t see the pain she was causing her sister,” Honey said, totally shocking Valeria that she’d say that. Honey saw the shock and continued. “I’m sorry Valeria, for not treating you like my sister.”
      Despite her own mistrust, Valeria was stunned that Honey would say such a thing. This was without precedent. “ are truly considering giving up the throne to me?” Honey worked up her courage and took hold of Valeria’s shoulders. “Only if your shoulders can bear the mantle of rulership—then yes, the crown would be yours.”
      With some effort, Valeria forced herself to look at Honey. Sadness was written on her face, but espeicially in her eyes. Valeria saw the tears, and she had never seen her...her sister cry before. “ do not hate me?” Honey moved closer and hugged her sister. “How could I hate my little sister? From this day forward I proclaim that it shall no longer be lawful to separate members of the royal family, for we are family first.”
      Valeria felt as if she’d been released from a life-long prison. Her emotions overcame her, and she cried in her sisters arms. “I had wished for a day like this, but I never dared hope...” Honey looked down at her sister’s face. “Valeria, do you want to be queen?”
      “I have dreamt of it for many years. The dream grew old and tattered, but it is still there,” Valeria admitted. Honey broke into a smile. “Then we will begin tomorrow.” Honey gave her sister a good look-over. “The first order of business is getting you a new wardrobe.”
      Valeria looked back at Honey, more startled then ever. “Really?”
      “Of course, you must look regal. But as I’ve learned, there is more to being a queen than just being beautiful. Do not let it go to your head, because it could all be taken away suddenly, like it was from me by that awful human,” Honey said. “I was alone and afraid, I did not know what to do. It was only with the efforts of the Rescue Rangers that my hive was restored to me.”
      “Yes, I remember,” Valeria said. “I was left alone in the hive. For some reason the human’s machine did not affect me, just as it did not affect you. I was totally alone in here, and scared as you were. When the swarm returned, I realized how much a part of my own life they are. So perhaps I could take power and not abuse them...if you all will help me.”
      Honey hugged her sister again. “That’s what family is for.”
      Zipper looked on with approval as the two sisters got to know each other. At the end of the afternoon, he left but only after Valeria gained his promise to return and tell her stories of the outside world. He readily agreed, and kissing Honey goodbye he left for home. Zipper may have been small, but he felt bigger than a mountain inside as he wended his way back to headquarters.


Chapter 4 - A Daring Rescue, A Dream Rekindled and Dreams That Must Part

It was the height of the afternoon heat in Austin when the passengers in the RangerWing caught sight of the city’s gleaming steel and glass monoliths. The Congress Avenue bridge had long been a favorite roosting place for the local chiroptids, and that was where the Rangers were heading now. Suddenly, Bedivere pointed to the west of them. “Look, here they come!”
      The sight was awe-inspiring. A giant flock of bats was flying near the bridge to their right and heading under it. Humans had gathered all around to see this great sight, and were making noises of pleased wonderment. Chip had to admit, it was a great spectacle. Jake was beginning to wonder why all the fun stuff wasn’t in New York. “Cool, more bats! There’s gotta be someone who knows something there.”
      All right, I’ll take us in close,” Chip said. “Maybe you and Bedivere should do the talking for us, Foxy.” Foxy suddenly felt a wave of anxiety as she neared the swarm of bats. She’d always lived a solitary life, and seeing thousands of bats all together like this was terrifying. Bedivere saw her fear and instantly moved to put her at ease. “Don’t worry, darlin’. Stick close to me and we’ll learn what we need ta know.”
      Chip brought them all under the structure, where many thousands of bats had congregated. They were spooked a little at the RangerWing coming so close, but then Chip backed off a bit and everything was okay. Foxy and Bedivere took flight, not knowing exactly who to ask first. Bedivere chose an older bat at roost who seemed to have some guise of authority.
      “Howdy there, pardner! The name’s Bedivere Fairmont, prairie bat extraordinare. Me and this lil’ filly’s looking fer mah brother, Galahad Fairmont. Have ya heard of him? He either is or was living heah!” The old bat was hanging on one of the bridge’s underrailings. He was grayed, and even upside-down had a wizened appearance. His voice was softened with age, but clear. “When did they arrive here?”
      Ah’m not real sure, but I know they was both heah twenty years ago,” Bedivere said.
      “Then they would be on the south side, nearest the street,” the old bat replied, pointing the way. “We take up residence according to when we first settle, so they would have the prime territory.” Bedivere shook his wing. “Thanks, pardner!” They returned to the Wing with the news, and Bedivere gestured them onward. “To the south side of the bridge, son!”
      Chip followed Bedivere and Foxy closely, and when they arrived it was obvious that this was as the elder had put it, the "prime territory". It was sheltered better than the rest of the bridge, and there were many older couples here. A particularly social bat flew up to Bedivere and Foxy.
      “Hi, my name’s Warren. You’re new around here, aren’t you?” he asked. Foxy again felt nervous, but managed to answer. “Uh, yes we are. We’re looking for some people.” Warren was immediately interested, and not just in Foxy’s appearance. “Oh, really? We’re a pretty tight group on the south side. Who are you looking for? Maybe I’ve heard of them.”
      Bedivere moved to a protective position in front of Foxy. “We’re looking for mah brother, Galahad Fairmont and his wife Daisy. This cute filly here thinks they might be her ma and pa.” Warren thought hard as he flapped, then he motioned them forward. “I don’t recognize the names, but if anyone would it’s old Tauzin. He’s been here ages.”
      Warren led them all the way under the bridge into a small, dark enclave. Since they were bats, Foxy and Bedivere had no problem with the sudden light change. Warren approached a large bat, who was sleeping soundly. “Tauzin?”
      The sounds of snoring ceased, and two big wings stretched to reveal a bat with a rather comical but likeable face. Tauzin had a commanding voice. “Warren, I told you a thousand times not to wake me during the day! You know us old veterans have to have our beauty sleep!” Warren saluted apologetically. “Pardon sir, but this is important.”
      Warren came back over and whispered to Foxy and Bedivere aside, “Tauzin here used to live above an army barracks so now he thinks he’s a general.”
      Tauzin gained his feet and inspected the troops. “Oh, new recruits in the area eh? Front and center! Now, state your business.” Foxy felt a little intimidated by Tauzin, but she had to know. “Pardon our intrusion, sir, but we’re looking for Galahad and Daisy Fairmont.” Tauzin folded his wings and began to pace deliberatively. “Galahad...ah yes, a fine lieutenant he was. Never shirked on duty. Too bad about him.”
      Foxy gasped as she suspected the worst. “What happened to him?!” Bedivere spoke up, sharing her concern. “He’s my brother, I gotta know what’s become of him and his family.” Tauzin came a little closer into the light, so that the regret on his face showed. “I never thought it would happen to him, but he and his girl were captured by the enemy. Those humans always were interested in Galahad for some reason or other...kept trying to capture him year after year...the leather wing squadron freed him more than once when they netted him, but finally five years back they got him and Daisy for good. No telling if they’re still alive, I’m afraid.”
      Bedivere put a comforting wing on Foxy’s shoulder. “Well general, any idea where the enemy’s holding them prisoner?” Tauzin sighed in hard resolve. “That’s easy enough, soldier. They would’ve taken them to...the barn.”
      “The barn? What barn is that, sir?” Foxy asked.
      Warren shook at the very mention of this place and Bedivere took note of it, addressing Tauzin directly. “Just point us in the right direction, gen’ral. There ain’t a barn made that can stop Bedivere Fairmont!”
      “This one’d be a challenge,” Tauzin said. “The barn’s where the human researchers take the bats they capture, and do who-knows-what with them. Interrogation most likely. We’ve seen some escape from there, but not many. The ones that have were too scared to tell us much.” Foxy didn’t care about danger. “Who can show us the way?” Tauzin turned to Warren. “You escaped from the barn, didn’t you?”
      Warren went white with fear. “Pl..please, sir! I don’t want to go there!”
      “All right, corporal. Post-traumatic stress is nothing to be ashamed of,” Tauzin said, patting his lieutenant on the back. “Happens to the best of us who’ve been in combat. I will accompany you both, and show you where the building is. But once I’ve shown you, you’re both on your own. I may know tactics, but I also know when the situation’s a no-go. I’d advise heavy caution.”
      Foxy rushed up to Tauzin and hugged him. “Thank you, sir. We’re in your debt.”
      “She’s right, we’re much obliged to ya, pardner,” Bedivere added.
      Tauzin gently pushed Foxy away. “Watch it there, soldier. Remember, always discipline even under the toughest of circumstances. Keep your head, and you’ll keep your freedom! All right, let’s get it over with...” Tauzin preceded them due to his size. His wingspan covered the crevise they were in entirely as he stretched and then flew. Foxy and Bedivere were momentarily in close pursuit, and Jake pointed as they emerged. “Bats ahoy, captain!”
      Chip saw Foxy’s concerned look as she and Bedivere came back over to the RangerWing. “Did you find them, Foxy?” Foxy flew up beside Chip. “Yes and no. They were captured by humans a couple of years ago and taken to a place called...the barn!” Chip angled the Wing away from the bridge and followed the bat parade. “All right, lead and way and we’ll follow! I hope they’re okay!”
      **I hope so too,** Foxy thought, the fear of the unknown rising in her.
      **I’m actually going on a heroic rescue with Chip of the Rescue Rangers!** Jake thought, living in the moment. Bedivere looked over at Foxy as they flew. **Galahad, you an’ Daisy better still be alive and kickin’. If this is your girl, I don’t want ta have ta see her in tears if she gets there to find her ma and pa dead.**

      The bat formation flew single-file, and before long they were nearing the dreaded building in question. It was indeed a barn, though it was not on a farm. Nor was it the hay-filled, rustic kind of structure. In fact, the only thing this edifice had in common with its country cousins was that it was red. The barn was in fact a scientific facility of the first order, dedicated to bat research. The big red building was part of a campus-like collection of buildings near the southern edge of town. Humans in lab coats were going in and out of the large, open doors. The "hayloft" door of the barn was open as well.
      Tauzin pulled up at the edge of the campus. “Well, this is as far as I go! Good luck!” Foxy waved goodbye to him. “Thank you! When we rescue my mom and dad we’ll visit you again!”
      “Thank you, sir. You’ve a credit to the service,” Chip said. Jake shook his head as the huge bat flew away. **Loser. Sure, run away when the important work has to be done.** Chip looked the campus over closely. “All right, let’s land far enough away not to be obvious.” Chip guided the Wing down, and settled it in a bunch of shrubbery along one of the campus’ sidewalks. Chip hopped out, and Jake was about to follow when Chip forbade him.
      “Jake it’s too dangerous,” Chip said. Jake looked like the world had come to an end. “But...but, Chip, you need my help!” Chip looked into his anguished eyes, but didn’t budge. “Jake, you agreed to follow orders. There’s no telling what we’re about to get into, and I don’t want you getting hurt. So you keep a safe distance, okay?”
      Jake rolled his eyes and nodded. “Okay, Chip, I’ll follow your orders to the letter.” Chip patted him on the head, and then joined Foxy and Bedivere as they headed for the barn. Chip pointed toward the top of the barn. “I saw that the hayloft looks like it isn’t used for anything but storage. We should be able to go in that door and get a good idea of what’s what.”
      “This place should be built to keep bats from breaking out, but hopefully not made to keep them from breaking in,” Foxy said. Bedivere came up beside her. “Don’t worry none, darlin’! If my brother’s in there, nothing will stop a Fairmont from rescuing his own! All the same, missy, keep your peepers peeled. We’re gonna stick out like a whiteface bull in the middle of a bunch o’ longhorns!”

      Chip didn’t pretend to know what Bedivere was talking about, but they were at the barn now anyway. There were no humans outside at the moment, so Chip used his climbing skills and skirted up the side of the wooden frame. Foxy and Bedivere were waiting for him at the open door to the hayloft when he got there. The hayloft was a mixture of old cages, equipment and dust. They could see that the floor here only went about a third of the way across, allowing them a look down into the main lab area below.
      Bedivere raised an ear to listen for his brother. “I got mah ears peeled.”
      Below was row after row of cages. The place had an antiseptic feel to it, and everything was clean in the lab section. Humans in white coats were writing on notepads, tending to cages and one was holding a small bat in his hand while removing a bandage. The spectators above watched as the human left the building and when they’d managed to reach the hayloft door opening they saw the human release the bat and it flew away quickly. The trio huddled up back inside.
      “It looks like this these humans study bats, but they also do capture-and-release,” Chip said. “Maybe your parents were just released someplace away from here, Foxy. Or maybe you were.” Foxy frowned at the thought. “But if that’s true, we might never find them!” Bedivere patted her on the back. “Don’t worry, missy. Now that you got ol’ Bedivere worried about his kin, ain’t nothing gonna stop me from finding them! We’ve gotta go down there and make sure, Chip ol’ pard. I wouldn’t rest right, knowing we’d come this far.”
      All right, we’ll...oh no,” Chip gasped, spotting a new presence below.

      Jake may have been a lot of things, but he was never one to stay out of the action. **After all, he didn’t say I couldn’t get a good look. He just said a safe distance.** The stalwart chipmunk had just entered the lab through the main doors. He hid behind some equipment, and began looking about. “Now, if I was a captive pair of bats, where would I be hiding?”
      Chip secured a length of rope he found and then began leading his team down. “I told that boy to stay put! He oughta have better sense than to go down there!” Bedivere hovered right beside him. “Want me to fly down there and lasso that runaway colt? Your son sure has a lot o’ spirit.”
      “No, you’d be spotted immediately. It’s too risky. We’ll just have to take our time and wait a chance to get to him. And then I’ll...” Chip stopped at Bedivere’s last remark. “He’s not my son! He’s...we’ll, he’s along for the ride. It’s a long story.” Foxy started descending toward the floor. “We better hurry, there’s no telling what he or the humans will do.”
      They did hurry, gaining the ground quickly. The bats and chipmunk waited for a couple of minutes until a female scientist strode in and then used the distraction to cover their movements across the open floor. Jake had fortunately stayed put where he was, and Chip inwardly breathed easier. On the outside, he gave the youngster a hard look when he reached him.
      “Do you know what kind of trouble you could have gotten into pulling a stunt like this?” Chip whispered. “If you hadn’t stayed hidden, you’d be in one of those cages or worse!” Jake shrugged nonchalantly. “I wouldn’t have to worry. I know you’d rescue me.” Chip wanted to lecture him further, but he wanted to spend as little time as possible in this place. “We’ll discuss this later. Right now, we’ve got to find out about Foxy’s parents. We need some kind of diversion to get those scientists out of the way so we can search without rousing their suspicion. Ideas?”
      “Set off the fire alarm,” Jake suggested. Chip looked at the alarm switch on the wall, as Jake pointed it out. “That could work, but the switch is out in the open and it would take all of us to do it. We need something that would either let us all search or maybe just one of us could do.”
      Foxy pointed to the bright sky outside through the glass doors. “Why don’t we wait for nightfall?” Chip considered that briefly, then shook his head. “I suspect that they’ll lock the doors at night. Plus, this place is modern so the cages could be patched into an alarm system if they’re tampered with. But even if they aren’t, it’s a lot easier to search all of them now.”
      “There’s a lot easier way to tell if they're here,” Bedivere interrupted. “Don’t forget, pardner, we bats can talk real high where you and humans can’t hear us.” Bedivere began mouthing words at frequencies that were far above Chip’s or any human’s abilities to hear. Jake tapped Foxy’s shoulder. “What’s he saying? What’s he saying?”
      “He’s saying... ‘Hey Galahad, pardner. You and that cute filly of yours here?’.” Foxy replied. Chip had to admit, if this could pinpoint their quarry it would be a lot easier than blind searching. He just hoped it would work. Bedivere kept talking, as Chip looked down at Jake who was eagerly watching the elder bat. Chip could see a lot of himself in him, and he hoped that was a good thing. Jake seemed to have that same drive that had marked his own youth, and the same brashness too. Chip was about to ask Jake a question when Bedivere got his attention and at the same moment Foxy gasped.
      “Well, we’re in luck. He said he and Daisy are here and he’s a little sore it took this long for someone to come looking for them,” Bedivere said, a big smile on his face. Chip had seen the look of utter joy on Foxy’s face and knew something had come up. “They’re alive?! Where? Which cage?”
      “Hold on, I’ll ask,” Bedivere said. If Foxglove had had fingernails she would have been biting them by now. Chip and Jake waited impatiently next to her for the response. Bedivere spoke an unheard reply, then faced the munks. “Okay, west side of the building. Third row from the floor and eighth cage from the left.” Chip allowed his eyes to dart in the indicated direction and counted eight back from the last cage on that side.
      “Okay, I see them,” Chip said. “Now that we know where they are we have two options—we could wait for nightfall like Foxy said and hope that the hayloft door will be left open. That’s assuming Galahad and Daisy are able to make it under their own power. Or we can chance it now, but if we do we’ll still have to give those scientists something to occupy their attention with.”
      Jake looked at the humans still checking the cages. “I’m out of options. Setting off the fire alarm’s usually my magic escape.” Bedivere had another perspective on all this. “But pardner, what do we do about the rest o’ the bats here? Do we just leave them in their cages while we skeedaddle?”
      Chip hadn’t considered the other bats until that moment. He knew what Gadget would’ve said—‘we’re not leaving until all of them are freed.’ But if they did that, it would take a lot longer and could get them all caught. If only...
      “Wait. Maybe we can get the humans to do our job for us....” Chip thought out loud.
      “How?” Foxy asked.
      “Yeah, how?” Jake echoed.
      Chip looked over at Jake. “Jake’s got an idea there with the fire alarm, but they’d quickly figure out it wasn’t real. But if there was a real fire, then they’d likely let the bats go rather than let them get killed.” Bedivere took on a look of alarm. “Well, it’s a bold move t’be sure. But what happens if they turn chicken and run for the hills and don’t let the bats go during a real fire?”
      “But’s is so crazy it just might work,” Jake countered.
      Chip saw Bedivere look back toward his family and knew he’d need convincing. “It won’t be a real fire—we’ll just soak some of those old rags over there behind their equipment cabinets with water and then set them off so they’ll smoke up the place. Then with them distracted we can set off the fire alarm, or it may go off anyway. Even if they don’t let the bats go, the confusion should be enough to let us get a good many out.”
      Bedivere thought it over a little more, than nodded his agreement. “Okay son, we’ll give your way a go. I’ll warn all the bats about what we’re doing, so they can raise a ruckus that’ll encourage the humans to let ‘em loose.” Foxy had been looking up toward that cage as well. “Please be careful, Chip. We’re so close, I can’t risk losing them—assuming they are who we think they are.” Chip hugged her gently. “Believe me, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think it was safe. We’re just providing ourselves a smoke screen.”

      The next several minutes were spent in hurried preparation. A stray water bottle supplied the water for the rags, while Foxy and Jake stowed the rags in an old metal mop bucket to keep the fire from spreading. A long time back, Chip’s grandfather Sean Maplewood had given him a flintrock-lighter that he’d used as a boy. Chip pulled the prized possession from his jacket and produced sparks that caught an edge of one of the rags on fire. He let gravity take the rest of the rag into the bucket with the flame. In a few moments, black smoke began pouring out.
      Do you smell something, George?” one of the female scientists asked. George sniffed for a moment. “Only my aftershave, Diana. Serves me right for wanting to be an Aqua Velva man.” An older scientist who appeared to be in charge suddenly pointed in the direction of the hidden bucket. “No, look! Smoke coming from behind the centrifuge!” As the scientists all moved toward the source of the smoke, the miniature invasion squad set off the fire alarm.
      “Come on, you stupid humans, run for it…” Jake muttered under his breath. Bedivere heard him of course. “Don’t worry, son. Just give ’em a little while and they’ll stampede.” The smoke thickened quickly, and humans and bats and chipmunks alike began to cough. Diana opened the outer door. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
      “But we can’t leave the bats!” George argued. “Some of them are very rare specimens!” The head scientist indicated they should get out. “We...can’t stay in here...much longer! Let’s get…over to zoology and get…get some help so we can move them! Maybe the fire department…will be here by the time we get…get back!” The three scientists ran out of the building and Bedivere took to the air. “Let’s get these dogies movin’!”

      “Rawhide!” Jake said, on the run. Chipmunks and bats joined together to being opening the cages in the smoke-filled room. Working at a team, each took a row and began pushing release mechanisms. The cages flew open and grateful bats flew out. Foxy had taken the third row and once she’d opened all of her cages she flew back to one in particular.
      Foxy came to the cage and saw two bats of her type with a couple of babies clinging desperately to their fur. “We’re in your debt, miss!” Galahad said. “Here take the boy. We’ve got all we can carry! Meet us outside!” Galahad and Daisy picked up a young girl bat Foxy hadn’t seen at first and quickly bolted past her. She stood in stunned silence for a few moments and looked at the frightened baby bat in her wings.
      “Don’t worry little brother…I hope,” Foxy said, helping him onto her back and quickly flying for the exit. Chip and Bedivere had finished their tasks and when they saw Foxy flying they took off as well. Jake had waited in safety this time, and joined them at the door. The panicked procession made for the shrubbery and were soon out of view. From their concealment, Chip could see the humans returning and one of them shrieking as he pointed skyward and saw the bats flying around. **I guess this just wasn’t his day.** Then a sobbing noise caught his attention, and Chip turned to see Foxy and two other bats each holding a crying toddler.
      Foxy approached the Fairmonts and handed the baby back to them. Galahad looked quite similar to Foxglove, except that his color was more of a reddish-brown than her lighter shade. He comforted the boy, and then Galahad's face showed his gratitude. “Thanks, miss. The bunch of you really saved our bacon! Now where is that old goat of a bat brother of mine? He’s got some explaining to do.” Foxy was surprised to hear a British accent out here, but the thought left her as Daisy hugged Foxglove in sheer happiness. “We and our children thank you.” Foxy was so overcome with emotion that all she could do was stare at them and cry uncontrollably.
      Daisy was a native Texas brown bat, and had the drawl that almost everyone out here did. She noticed Foxy’s strange behavior and looked at her curiously. “Are you okay, miss?” Foxy hugged Daisy tighter and cried harder. Foxy could only nod her head. Galahad turned and noticed the bat still hugging his wife. Then he gasped and felt even more astonished than he already had at the unexpected rescue. This bat had the same ears and general size as Daisy, but her face was like his and her coloring was unique. Almost like she was…

      He was so amazed by the possiblity that he could hardly dare utter the word. “F...Foxglove?” Daisy’s eyes opened wide and looked at the bat with amazement. “Foxglove?!”
      “Foxy!” one of the children shouted. Foxglove could only nod her head again and cry. She sobbed so hard her entire body shook and quickly Daisy joined her in tears and then Galahad joined in as well. Chip and Jake looked on with happiness, and then Bedivere joined them. “Land sakes, Galahad! You know who else was in theah? Ol’ Yancy! You know, that ol’ scalawag that beat me outta my finest herd o’ bugs...say, what gives?”
      “Mommy, daddy...” Foxy whispered over and over, contentedly.
      Chip pointed to the tearful trio. “I guess we’ve learned if Foxglove’s their daughter or not.” Bedivere slapped his knee with a wing. “Well, as I life an’ breathe! Here I’ve been goin’ around with my own niece and didn’t even know it!” Bedivere launched in and joined the hug fest.
      “Yeah, it’s great,” Jake said, noncommitally. “Uh, I better check on the RangerWing..” Jake rushed off suddenly. Chip ran after Jake, and caught him before he could vanish. Jake was scared, and it showed in his face. Chip knelt down on one knee. “Jake, I want you to promise me that you won’t do something like that again.”
      “Like what, Chip, sir?” Jake asked.
      “You know what I mean. You went in that barn without thinking, and nearly cost me a year off my life! When I think of...” Chip stopped when Jake hung his head and his tears were welling up. Chip took a deep breath and softened his tone. “Jake, I just mean that I’m concerned about you and I don’t want anything bad happening to you. I know you wanted to show you’re a Ranger, but that’s not the way to do it.”
      “Yes, sir,” Jake said meekly, trying desperately not to cry in front of Chip.
      Chip tilted Jake’s head up, and he let his smile return. “But you came up with a good suggestion once you were in there. That shows you’ve got a quick mind. Now, just remember to use it more often, you big lug!” Chip mussed the fur on top of Jake’s head, and Jake brightened up and hugged Chip. “I’ll never let you down again, Chip!” Chip patted him hard on the back, and found the hug strangely more satisfying than most he’d had in his life. “I know you’ll try, Jake, but you’re young yet and you’ll make mistakes. Just keep in mind that you don’t know everything yet and ask questions, even if you think you know the answer. I’ll do my best to be patient with you.”
      **Too bad it has to end,** Jake thought.

      Foxy bounded over and tackled Chip in a bear hug. “Chip, we really found them! We really did! I don’t know how you did it, but you did! You must be the best detective in history!” Foxy kissed him with joy, her eyes dancing with glee. Chip was feeling too good to resist her emotion, and kissed her back. “Chip Maplewood always keeps his promises.”
      Bedivere strode up with the other Fairmonts, holding a newfound nephew in his wings. “Galahad, I done told ya I didn’t know ta come lookin’ fer ya!” Galahad was still peeved with Bedivere. “Well, if you’d get off that ranch of yours once in a blue moon like you said you were going to, you’d have known!”
      “All right, brother dear! You don’t haveta lay the spurs into me no more. I’m just glad you and Daisy an’ all the tykes are safe--and of course that Foxy heah’s back in the family,” Bedivere said, giving his nephew to Foxy and putting a wing around Chip. “I’m takin’ the whole kit’n caboodle back with me to Hondo! Galahad agrees it’s too dangerous for his lot, so soon’s they’ve gone to the bridge and said their good-byes you and the boy are welcome ta come back with us for a family reunion and hoe-down!”
      Jake was all for that idea. “Whoa! Can we, Chip? Please?” Chip eyed Jake with a dose of humor. “Yeah, I reckon we can.” Bedivere looked back over at Galahad and Daisy. “One thing don’t make sense to me here. If’n the two of you were caught just five years ago, how did you and Foxglove get sparated twenty some years ago?”

      Daisy looked to Galahad, and he spoke up. “Well, I didn’t even know the reason they were after us until we were finally caught. Our type of bat is very rare to hear them tell it, plus we’re not native to this country. Father often spoke of our old home in Bristol, and unlike my brother I stayed around him and developed his accent and mannerisms. Our being British made us a prime target for the scientists. They thought they were doing us a favor, keeping us safe from harm. I’d like to see how they’d like that brand of safety.”
      “Is that why they were after you all that time ago?” Chip asked.
      “Exactly,” Galahad said. “They wanted to start a breeding program, and that’s why we have young Arthur, and our two older children--Violet and...Foxglove.” Daisy came over to Foxy when she saw her reaction. “We thought you were dead, dear. We didn’t know what had happened to you! You see, they had captured us that time twenty years ago but the bats helped us and we managed to get free. But when they captured me, you fell from my back and before I could get to through the net and falling. They had taken us away and I never knew what happened to you! I cried for weeks on end for my little girl. When we decided to finally have more children, I asked that the first girl be named for you.”
      Daisy stopped to hug her eldest daughter. “What happened to you, Foxglove? How did you survive on your own?” Foxy shook her head as she replied. “I...I don’t know, mama. I remember fluttering around for what seemed forever, and then I fell..I remember...I remember feeling scared, but warm. It was so long ago!”
      Bedivere put a protective wing around his niece. “Well, all that matters is that ya got here in one piece.” Galahad hugged Foxy, then they all prepared to go. “Come on. We’ll go tell Tauzin and the others farewell and then we can put this all behind us.”

      Chip, Jake, Foxy and Daisy flew in the Wing with the kids while Bedivere and Galahad flew alongside. Once back at the bridge, they found a reunion on already as many of the freed bats had ended up there. The screeching grew wild as the RangerWing neared. Tauzin himself flew up alongside them. “Chip lad, if I had a medal I’d pin it on you! These soldiers tell me you stormed the barn and let out all the prisoners of war! Bully job, bully!”
      Chip saluted, and smiled at the many words of thanks from everyone. “It was team effort, general, but thanks!” Tauzin shouted in surprise as another bat flew up to him. “Galahad, my favorite lieutenant! It’s great to see you again, boy!”
      “It’s good to be free again, General. Thanks for leading them to us,” Galahad said. “General, I’m resigning my commission and retiring. We’re going along with Bedivere to Hondo.” Tauzin looked modest at Galahad’s words of thanks. “Tut, tut! Only my duty, boy. And as for retiring you’ve earned a rest. But come, come! There’s many of your old friends here!”
      For the next several minutes, Galahad, Daisy and Bedivere visited with the bats. Foxy had stayed with the kids, and was now holding her namesake. She could see herself at that age—small and vulnerable—and now she felt that the circle was complete. She held little Foxy close and cried. Then the Fairmonts returned with Tauzin and another bat around Foxy’s age.
      “Foxglove, I think we’ve learned what happened to you,” Galahad said. “This bat’s name is Vince, and he was a youngster like you when you were here. In fact, he says he remembers playing with you a few times.” Foxy looked at him, but couldn’t remember him at all. That whole time of her life was completely blank. “Hello, Vince. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember anyone or anything from that time.”
      Vince smiled kindly. He was a brown bat around Foxy's age, and his voice was natural and friendly. “That’s okay. I tried to help you, but there wasn’t anything I could do, Foxglove. I was the only one who saw it all.” Vince flew closer and began recounting what happened. “When you fell from your mom, I saw it because I’d been coming over to see if you wanted to play that day. In all the confusion, with everyone flying to either get away or help your folks, no one else noticed you. I flew down after you, but you had too big a lead on me. You fought hard to stay out of the water, but eventually you gave out. I didn’t know what to do, but then something strange happened...”
      Vince’s eyes showed a clear memory that he was replaying in his mind. “This human reached out his hand and scooped you up. I think he’d been attracted to the bridge by the action up above, but whatever it was he saw you and picked you up. I flew at him, and he said, ’It’s okay. She’ll be all right.’ I flew a while, watching, and then the human got into a car nearby, put you in a box with some cloth in it and took you with him. That’s the last I ever saw of you.”
      “I was raised by humans?” Foxy asked. “Why can’t I remember any of that? And how in the world did I end up in New York City?” Vince shrugged, “I dunno. The guy seemed nice though, what little I saw of him. He must’ve taken you there or something and let you go when you were big enough.”
      “It was probably the trauma, dear,” Daisy said. “You lost us, and I’m sure being with humans must have been terrifying.” Foxy dearly wished she could remember, but it was all lost to her. “I’m sure it was. But now I’m complete.” Bedivere was never a bat for patience. “Enough dawdling! We got a hoedown to get goin’!”
      “Yee-haw!” Jake shouted, pumping his fist in the air. Bedivere slapped him on the back. “Spoken like a true Texas native!”

      The Fairmonts entered the Wing, and they all headed west. It was a cozy bunch in there, and either Galahad or Bedivere would fly some to let the others stretch. It was very late when they reached Hondo, and even later when they bedded down at the Double D. Ironically, they chose the hayloft of the old ranch barn to settle in.
      “It’s a bit late fer tonight,” Bedivere said. “But tomorrow we’ll kick up our heels and have a ripsnortin’ Texas hoedown so y'all better rest!” Galahad saw to the comfort of his wife and youngsters, and then came back to Chip and Foxy who were talking. “Chip, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done. If you hadn’t helped my girl here, Daisy, the kids and I would still be in that cage. We’re forever in your debt.”
      “Well, it was the least I could do for Foxy,” Chip said. “She’s been my strength during some very difficult times in my life recently.” Galahad smirked at the two of them. “I noticed you two traded looks a lot on the way back. Are you close?” Chip squirmed. “Well...yes…no…we’re not sure. We’re not sure where we stand anymore.”
      Foxy decided to get Chip off the hook. “, it’s strange saying that…dad, we both came through tough times and helped each other. But Chip and I agreed that we needed time to think about our feelings, and I think he’s right. And now I need time to get to know you and mom and my brothers and sisters. Oh, daddy!” Foxy hugged Galahad hard.
      “My brave little girl...I’m so glad my little girl’s home...” Galahad whispered, hugging her. Chip couldn’t help but remember the almost identical words when Monty had encountered Lahwhinie, knowing she was his daughter.
      “Home and family, what more could you ask for?” Chip said.
      Chip turned and saw Jake was looking at the scene with a look that resembled hunger. “You must be starving. We haven’t eaten since breakfast. I’m sure there’s still some food in the Wing. C’mon, Jake. It’ll be a celebration of your first adventure.”
      **And my last.**

      Jake wasn’t all that hungry, but he followed Chip anyway. When they reached the Wing, Jake looked up into the sky and breathed in the cold Texas air. “Chip, could I come and see you some? You know, when we get back?”
      “Sure, Jake. We don’t mind visitors,” Chip said. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to lose touch with my biggest fan.” The boy took a sandwich and started eating. Chip took one too, and they sat together both wondering what the future would be. Finally, Jake piped up again. “Chip, can I tell you something?”
      “What’s on your mind, Jake? Probably worred about your parents. I hope they’ll understand what happened,” Chip said. Jake ducked his head and his voice got quiet. “Chip, I lied to you. I don’t have any real parents. I’m an orphan.” Chip blinked in surprise, but it did explain a lot. “An orphan? Where do you live?”
      “The Morningside Orphanage sometimes, foster homes other times. Nowhere for too long,” Jake said, his voice growing shallow. He paused, and then spoke on. “ name’s not Jake Stone. That’s just what I like to be called. My real name’s Theo, short for...Theophane.” Chip couldn’t think of what to say to the boy. It was obvious that this was the best time he’d ever had, and now he was faced with being an orphan again. “I’m sorry, Theo.”
      “Sorry? If it wasn’t for you, I’d have given up on life long ago!” Theo said, his emotions taking over. “I haven’t had anyone who really wanted me, and I guess being an orphan’s made it real easy for people to shove me off to the side. But you and the Rangers are the greatest! You guys are a team and a family. Ever since I learned about you I wanted that, so that’s why I made you my hero. I wanted to have...what you had,” Theo said as looked off at the stars, not daring to look Chip in the face.
      Chip knew Theo was talking out of desperation, and yet he really couldn’t blame him. “Yeah, the Rangers are a great bunch. But nothing works like that, you know. I’m not perfect, and I’ve made lots of mistakes in my time. I know you must think that any family’s better than none, but we’re just people like everyone else. We have our good days and our bad ones, too. I think that you just have to appreciate the good ones when they come along.”
      That wasn’t the answer Theo had hoped to hear, but he covered his disappointment. “I guess that after the hoedown it’s back to New York?” Chip nodded, “Nothing else to hold us here. Foxy’s going to stay, at least a while. Dale and Gadget will be getting back from their honeymoon in a couple of weeks.” Chip looked over at Theo, and managed a smile as he spoke. “You know, Theo, you’ve got most of your life ahead of you. You'll get opportunities, but you just have be willing to make the most of them when they come. We just don’t see the most important times and things for us like we should. Sometimes it takes a good poke in the ribs to wake us up. You can look on this time like that.”
      “But you’ve never been alone. You don’t know what it’s like! I’m afraid of being alone,” Theo said. That struck Chip down to the core. If there was one thing he could understand, it was that. Chip reached out, and put an arm around the boy. “I haven’t been alone the way you’ve been, but I have been in other ways. I know you wouldn’t think it because of my reputation, but for the exception of Foxy no girl's really accepted me for what I am.”
      Jake looked up at him, curious, and Chip continued. “I tried to tell myself that I was a big shot, and I deserved happiness because of it. But I found out that happiness requires a lot more than just expecting it of others. You have to give it to get it.” Chip rubbed the top of Theo’s head, and his words trailed off again. Theo sighed and replied, “Yeah, maybe I’ll be happy...someday. Goodnight, Chip.” Theo took a blanket out of the storage compartment and wrapped it around himself.
      “Good night, Theo,” Chip said.

      Chip let his thoughts stray, thinking of all the things that had happened to him in the past few months. Mainly he thought about Foxglove. She had her family, and she seemed happy. Should he just let her go? Could he really offer her anything? Part of him wavered, but another remembered her kindness and gentle ways and how she always understood. **Maybe.**
      “I guess we’d better get to...”
      Theo was asleep. He’d nestled himself next to Chip, and his little face was peaceful. Chip wondered how many days that face had looked that way, and figured it was all too few. The leader of the Rescue Rangers picked up Theo and carried him to the barn, where its shelter provided them both a good night.

      The next morning, the peace was broken early by the sound of a triangle announcing breakfast. On the ranch, it was custom to eat early before the day’s business began but in this case it was to get as early a jump on the day’s festivities. Already, the word was going around about a hoe-down at the Double D and by the time the sun peeked to look in on the doings the great spectacle known as the southwestern breakfast was spread out on a large table. Bats from all over the area were already beginning to show—there weren’t many secrets in this area of the country.
      “Dig in, folks!” Bedivere shouted, welcoming everyone. “There’s plenty more where that came from! Eat yer fill, an’ then we’ll set up fer the hoe-down! Yee-haw!” The breakfast was a Tex-Mex deluxe—fajitas with garden fresh vegetables in them and a mixture of berries and fruits for those with sweeter tastes. Theo shook Chip awake, and spoke the only word on his mind at that moment. “Food!”
      Chip drowsily spoke up, “Dale, it’s too early to open presents yet...” Theo gave up on trying to roust him. “Well, you keep sleeping. I’m gonna eat!” Theo ran out of the barn and headed for the tables. After a long minute, Chip stretched and realized he wasn’t home, and it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas. He put his fedora on and went outside to find an ever-growing group of bats gathering for the day. Bedivere shoved a fajita in his hand. “Here ya go, pardner! Take a chomp on that, and you’ll be rearin’ ta go all the live long day!”
      Chip took a bite and in moments his mouth was on fire. “AAAAAHHH!! What’s in this?!” Bedivere ate one himself, enjoying the hot spices. “Why, that’s my special-grown triple-hot jalapeños in theah! Guaranteed ta put a spark in your day!” Theo walked up, eating one of them. “Chip, have you tried the fajitas? They’re great!”
      Chip nodded, but quickly found his way to a tall glass of water. “Boy, these peppers are hot!” Bedivere gave him a sly look. “Hot?! Son, those’re the ones I just serve polite company! The hot peppers I save fer mah Texas Volcano chili! That’s for lunch, of course.” While Chip began thinking about alternate lunch plans, Foxy came over from talking with her parents and hugged Theo, then Chip. “How are my two heroes this morning?”
      I feel great!” Theo said, finishing off his fajita. “I’m ready for a new adventure!” Chip took another bite of his fajita, and another gulp of water. “Just...fine, Foxy. How are you doing?” Foxy spun around in a pirouette. “I don’t think I could ever be happier than I am now! You’ve filled the emptiness in me.”

      Chip could see she really was happy, and it was such a contrast to when he’d first met her. Still, he knew they had unfinished business. Chip took Foxy aside. “I know we’ve sort of talked about this, but now that you’ve got your family here you’ll need time to get adjusted to them. How long do you think you’ll need before you can return and we can get married?”
      I don’t know,” Foxy said, looking back at her parents. “The healing’s just begun. I need to be with them, and I need for them to be a part of me. I just can’t say, on either the time…or the marriage.”
      Chip held her close. “I understand. Your folks seem like great people, and I’d stay if I could. But you and I both know I’m a Ranger first. I told you I’d never leave you unless I was sure it was with someone who would care about you. You’ve got lots of people here who do, so that eases my mind. But I won’t pretend, Foxy. I’ll miss you.” Chip smiled at her, and brushed away a tear from her face. “I’ll miss that funny little laugh of yours. I’ll miss the way that you’re always around, the sound of your voice, the way you look at me, even how embarrassed you got when you messed up and told me you’d been spying on me that day when I was at the fountain.”
      “Well, you did look so cute in your swim trunks,” Foxy said, half-smiling. Chip laughed, and it came naturally. “I guess so, Foxy. Well, no matter when you come back you’ll be welcome. I hope by then that things will have calmed down back to normal at home and maybe...maybe we can still have something special.”
      Foxy hugged him again. “I’d like that more than anything, Chip. But you and I both know we’re not ready for anything like that. I’m more grateful to you than I can say, but…well…”
      “You’re not sure anymore?” Chip said.
      Foxy nodded. “I think I fell in love with a guy that needed me, but I didn’t really know him. He’s a wonderful person and I love him, but I don’t know if…if I want to marry him. Oh, Chip! Please don’t be mad with me!” Chip took her hands. “I’m not, Foxy. I’m a little hurt, but I understand. You’re not saying no to me forever, are you?”
      “No, Chip,” Foxy said emphatically, “I’m just saying I need freedom to know what I want to be. And as much as I’m scared of the idea, I sorta like the idea of singing. I want to try it,” Foxy said. Chip smiled at that confession. “Well, I’m the one who encouraged you. You’re near one of the music capitals of the world, you know. If you want to go for it, then go for it.”
      Foxy smiled up at Chip. “You really think I could?”
      “You can do whatever you believe you can, Foxy. If it doesn’t work out, then you know you have a chipmunk in New York who’ll welcome you no matter what happens,” Chip said. Foxy hugged him tightly. “Thank you, Chip. You’re such a darling person. Chip, I can’t hold you to waiting for me and once I’ve been here a while I might meet someone myself. If you want to see someone else, it’s okay.” Chip nodded, seeing in her eyes she was talking about someone in particular. “Well, they’d have to be mighty special, but okay. You’re still tops with me, though.”
      Foxy hugged him again in gratitude. “What’s going to happen to Theo when you get back?” Chip knew she was changing the topic deliberately, but this was a topic he wasn’t sure about himself. “I haven’t decided yet, but I think I will soon. I’d better let the guys at home know what’s up. Foxy, you’re a great girl and if we’re meant to be I know it’ll happen. But I want you to be happy first, so go and chase your dream. You will write to me, won’t you?”
      “Every chance I get! Chip, I’ll miss you so much,” Foxy said, beginning to cry. Chip pulled her to him. “And I’ll miss you. Don’t you worry, Foxy. If you need to talk to me, I’m only a phone call away.” Chip hugged Foxy once more and then asked Bedivere if there was a phone on the ranch. “Sure, Chip. Over at the bunkhouse,” Bedivere replied.
      Chip walked over and rang headquarters. “Hello, Monty? Chip. Yeah, I’m coming back. Yes, I found her family and she’s staying with them for now. Oh thanks, but it was just a lot of legwork. Listen Monty, I need a favor...”

      Ten minutes later, Chip came out of the bunkhouse and the hoedown was just starting up. Theo spent a great deal of time at the food and just enjoyed watching the others having a good time—after all, he was a little too young to enjoy dances yet. Chip was another story. Foxy had caught up with him and took him over to the set-up wooden floor and the lively country band played fast and strong. It was a fun sight, watching western-clad bats square dance and reel together. Wings clapped, voices sang out and the music went on and on. Bedivere took center stage for a time and showed the young people who to do a proper "buck and wing", kicking and flapping up a storm as the band played faster and faster. Then, all too soon, it was over. Chip began making the rounds, saying good-bye to everyone. When he got to the Fairmonts, Galahad shook his hand firmly and then Daisy hugged him like she’d never let him go.
      “I don’t know how we can ever repay you, Chip,” Daisy said. “What can equal what you have given us?” Chip appeared modest. “You don’t owe me anything, ma'am. I’m just glad Foxy’s happy now, and can start to put the pieces of her life together.” Daisy smiled and looked over at Theo, standing next to Chip. “Just remember, you and Theo always have a place here, in our homes...and in our hearts.”
      “Thank you, Daisy,” Chip said.
      “Thanks, ma’am,” Theo echoed.
      And then there was Foxy. How could he say good-bye to her? It didn’t seem real that she wasn’t going back, but he knew it had to be this way for now. Chip stepped over to her. “I know it’s not going to be easy at first, for either of us. But we’ve both got lives to lead right now and that takes precedence...”
      “I know, time will tell if we’re right,” Foxy said. “I love you so much, Chip. And I hope that the next time we meet, we’ll both know our own hearts.”
      Theo looked around and made a mental snapshot of Hondo and his new friends. He hated that it all had to end, but at least he’d always have this one great adventure. He had gone on a mission with Chip of the Rescue Rangers and no one could ever take that from him. For the first time in his life he felt like he’d accomplished something—he had helped bring a family together. He smiled at the thought, and realized there was something new inside him—a new hope that, one day, when he was an adult, he could make his life mean something.
      Chip took Foxy in his arms when they reached the RangerWing. “I’d like to promise you all over again I’d marry you, but you and I both know that it’s better to make a wise promise from the start than to have to keep another rash one. So I promise you instead that if we both find after a time that we want marriage, that I’ll do everything to make your life as good as it can be.”
      “That’s all I could ever ask for, cutie,” Foxy said. “We’ve been so close all these months, that I’m afraid to leave you. But we both have to know whether it was just fear of our being alone or desperation that made us cling so tightly to each other or whether it was true love. Plus we both need to be free to grow and chase our dreams. We’ve both found things missing within ourselves, Chip. You've got a new understanding of yourself and I have my family.”
      Chip looked into her eyes. “I think it was some of all of the things you mentioned, but once the first two elements are fully purged we’ll see if the third stands strong on its own. For now, take the time to learn who your family is and what your place is with them. Find out who you are, and what you want from life. And be the best singer Texas has ever heard!” Foxy smiled at Chip again, and then to her surprise he took her in his arms and gave her a kiss that made her fur stand on end. “I just wanted to make sure you don’t forget about me.”
      Foxy reeled with the pleased surprise of the moment. “For...forget you? I think that I’ll have a problem remembering my name for the rest of the day after that!” Chip gently took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. “It’s Foxglove Fairmont.” Foxy leaned her head on his chest, whispering. “I’ll never forget that again. Not as long as I live. Thank you, Chip.”

      Bedivere laughed at Foxy’s remark about Chip’s kiss, as did some of the other bats around them. Chip and Foxy turned around in surprise to find they were surrounded by all the bats who’d come to the hoedown. The old rancher slapped Chip firmly on the back. “You must have an ancestor from Texas in your blood, pardner! No other way ta explain a kiss like that!”
      Theo smirked at Chip’s blushing. “Yeah, Uncle Bedivere’s right. That’s the kinda kissing you only see in the movies.” Galahad moved in to save Chip any further embarrassment. “Well, I’m just glad that my daughter has such a good friend...and possibly more. Good-bye, Chip Maplewood. You’re always welcome with us, and I’ll never forget what you did for me and my family—and particularly my girl here.”
      “You’re welcome, sir,” Chip said, shaking his wing. “It’s been an honor and a privilege being with your daughter. She’s a ray of sunshine in the lives of everyone she meets.” Foxy blushed, and her father noticed as did her mother. Daisy gave Chip a gentle hug farewell. “Especially yours, by her reaction. I admit it’s strange thinking of a chipmunk being in the family someday, but you’ve certainly proven yourself worthy. If you do marry Foxglove, would you be willing to come back here and live with us?”
      Chip felt a little awkward being put on the spot. “I don’t know. My life and my work are all in New York. I couldn’t honestly answer that question right now, and Foxy’s got her own life to live right now too. But for Foxy, anything is possible.”
      “Good enough, Chip,” Daisy said. “You’ve got a lot to think about, as does my Foxglove.” Foxy put a wing around her mother’s shoulders. “We both agreed to wait three months to let our lives sort themselves out, mom. That’ll give me time to find out if I’m a good enough singer, and by then Chip will know what he wants in life.”
      “That’s a wise thing,” Galahad said. “Three months it is. Chip, I hope that everything goes well for you and that your work allows you to have the life you want.” Theo ran up and hugged Foxy. “I’m gonna miss you, Foxglove. This has all been so cool! A real adventure and everyone’s been so nice to me.” Foxy knelt down, her tears evident. “Robin, you’ve got to promise me to look after Batman. There’s no telling what trouble he could get into without Batgirl there to help him.”
      “Don’t worry. I’ll keep him out of trouble till you get back.” Theo tried to put on a bold face, but a few tears appeared. Foxy understood them all too well, and hugged him again. “Thanks, boy wonder...” Foxy stood up, and she could sense the moment had come. She tried to control herself, but it was too much. Foxy grabbed Chip in her wings and cried. “We’ll always have Austin...”
      “And we’ll always have the park and fountain,” Chip added.
      “That seems an eternity ago. Chip, if things don’t work out at home you can come here even if you’re not sure about me,” Foxy offered. “If I can’t have you as a husband, I at least want you as a friend. Okay?” Chip tilted her head up and kissed her lightly. “You can bet on that, Foxy. Friends forever.” Foxy hugged him again, reassured. “Now you’d better go before I lose my nerve. Here...” Foxy handed Chip a letter. “Read that when you get back. I thought I was just there to help you, but I think you’ve helped me more. I’ll always be grateful.”
      Theo grabbed Chip by the sleeve and began pulling him toward the RangerWing. “Come on, Chip, or you’ll lose your nerve.”
      Chip tucked the letter away as Galahad put a wing around Foxy to comfort her. Chip turned around and followed Theo to the Wing. He started it up, and then looked back at the girl he’d spent an eternity with the last few months. A tip of his fedora, a nod of his head and the plane was off and rising. Foxy flew up with it, and for a few moments she and Chip looked to each other. Then she nodded, and Chip set the engines to send the plane forward. Foxy did not follow, but watched the RangerWing slowly disappear into the large Texas sky. When it at last was gone, she blinked and spoke in a barely audible voice.
      “What a guy...”


Chapter 5 - A Little Dream That Could


      Chip and Theo traveled for the rest of the daylight hours, and ended up sleeping in the security of an arboretum near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Early the next morning, Chip got up first and watched the ducks waddle down to a reflecting pool near where they’d landed. The whole scene was idyllic, and Chip decided very uncharacteristically to do something on a whim. Chip woke Theo, who rubbed his eyes drowsily.
      “Say Theo, instead of going back right away how’d you like to spend a day in the outdoors?” Theo leaped to his feet in excitement. “That’d be great, Chip. Where are we going?” Chip smiled like someone who had a secret worth keeping. “Let’s keep it a surprise for now. It’s a great place, from what I’ve heard. Hop in, and we’ll just have fun today—just the two of us!”
      Theo was overjoyed. “Thanks, Chip! Wait’ll I tell the others, hanging out with Chip Maplewood! They’re gonna be green with envy.” Chip tried his best to contain his smile as they left the protected sanctuary. Chip pointed the Wing toward the northeast and in two more hours they could see a range of mountains on the horizon surrounded by haze. As they drew nearer, Chip brought them in closer. The scene was one of green forests and rock and water forming one of the more tranquil exhibitions in nature
      “There they are Theo, the Hazy Mountains. Some of my relatives live in or near this area, but I’ve never come to visit them. Maybe we’ll run into them today, who knows?” Chip said. Theo was floored by the natural beauty of the place. “Wowwwwwww! This is so much better than New York. I was afraid I’d never once get out of there and see any of the world.”
      “Well, you’ve seen a lot already with Texas. Now let’s pick us a spot and we’ll get out and enjoy the day,” Chip suggested.
      Chip maneuvered the Wing into the higher altitude areas of the mountains, glad for a slower pace than what they'd been going through for the past few days. Theo was looking everywhere at once, beholding with wonder the tree-covered peaks around him and the dizzying heights from the vistas to the forest floor below. Once they’d had their fill of looking, Chip piloted them into the forest. It was cool there, giving the impression of late fall instead of the middle of summer. Below them, the sound of a large mountain stream beckoned. Huge boulders as big or bigger than cars stood in and around the river like giant sentinels. Chip landed the Wing by one of these, and now the roaring sound of the stream was a constant background feature to everything.
      Theo rushed up to the water’s edge and watched the fish swimming. “I’ve seen more of nature in the last couple days than I have all the rest of my life combined.” The water, the cool air—it was all invigorating and just what Chip needed. He joined Theo by the water. “And now it’s time to see something fast you are. Tag, you’re it!” Chip tapped Theo on the head and took off over the rocks. Theo was after him at once. “Ha! I can track you down easily, Mr. Detective. You can run but you can’t hide!”
      “Catch me if you can!” Chip shouted behind him. Chip ran all-out under and over rocks, on fallen tree stumps and jumped from rock to rock in places. Theo was right on his tail though, and catching up to him. Another five minutes, and Chip had had enough. He stopped, breathing hard and Theo tackled him. “You’re getting old, Chip. Time for the next generation of Rescue Rangers—namely, me!”
      Chip took on a mischevious smile. “Oh yeah? I bet you can’t beat the old pro in the fine art of rock-skipping!” Theo’s look was smug as he picked up a few choice pebbles. “Well, since you’re a world-famous hero, I suppose I shouldn’t beat you too badly, just for your image and all…”
      Chip went to the water’s edge and gathered up a handful of water-smoothed rocks. “Best total, two out of three.” Theo joined him, eyeing the surface of the water. “Jake Stone's a dead-eye shot with anything.” Theo zipped a stone across the water and got six skips out of his first stone.
      Chip nodded slightly. “Not bad, not bad…” Chip took a stone between his thumb and forefinger, and spun it out into the water. He got six, tying Theo for the first round. “I remember when I used to do stuff like this with Dale as a kid. We used to have so much fun and didn’t care about anything but having a good time. Seems like an eternity ago now.”
      Theo got seven skips out of the next stone. “That must've been fun, having a real childhood. It sounds loads better than the lousy life I got.” Chip followed up Theo’s toss with another six, giving Theo a slight advantage. “I guess I took a lot of things for granted. I’ve always had the idea that things would just naturally go my way, and in a lot of ways they have. But I’m just beginning to learn to appreciate it all. And now, there’s the future to think about. Funny you should mention a next generation of Rangers—I hadn’t even thought about the Rangers continuing past us.”
      “If you break up the Rangers, then there’s nothing for me down the road,” Theo said, keeping his eyes on the water. Chip grew silent for a minute, then sat down by the water. “I hope the Rangers do last, Theo. They’re my friends and more—they’re my family just as much as my parents. I’d give my life for any of them, and I know they’d do the same. I think we’re all too valuable to each other for the Rangers to break up, unless there was just a very good reason for it.”
      Theo took a seat beside him. “There’s only one thing I want in life, it’s to become a Rescue Ranger. Please, don’t take that shot away from me.” Chip looked over at the boy. “Why do you want that so much, Theo? There’s lots of things in life you could do.” Theo looked up at him soberly. “You already answered your own question.”
      Chip looked down at that face, and realized that Theo was not only realistic but mature for his age. **And why not? Considering the start in life he’s had. Still, he could be idealizing it.** “Theo, it’s not all fun and games, you know. We do get cases, but sometimes weeks or even months go by without anything big happening. We all have to do our share to keep things going, and that means work. There are times where it’s just plain boring, and all we do is sit around and share an evening together.”
      “And how would that be worse than what I have now?” Theo asked pointedly, skipping another stone and getting eight skips out of it. Chip opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. Theo had that desperate look on his face again, and Chip knew what it was for. Chip skipped his third stone and got ten skips, leaving Theo the winner by one. “You’re pretty good, sport. Pretty good at that.”
      Theo skipped another stone, getting a full dozen skips on it. “I’m pretty handy with stuff like this. I’m hungry, is it lunchtime yet?” Chip stood up. “I guess it is now. Come on, and we’ll set up on one of the rocks.”

      Chip watched as the boy ran ahead. He would normally have been annoyed at losing, but he didn’t find it so now. That in itself was a new thing, because he could remember when winning took first place in his life. Chip looked down at the stone in his hand, and let it drop. In a few minutes the two chipmunks were eating al fresco on a huge rock in the middle of the stream. It was a change of pace for them both, and the cool air and water increased both of their appetites.
      “Wouldn’t it be great to have a house right here and come out and feel this cool air every morning?” Chip thought out loud. Theo ate a fajita he’d saved from yesterday’s cookout. “Yeah, it’s a real change from waking up to the stench of the Hudson river every morning.”
      “No cares, no worries. Just living,” Chip said, sitting back on an outcropping . Chip looked over at Theo, who was ravenously devouring a cheese sandwich. He picked up a pebble on the rock they were on and plunked it in the stream, letting his eyes defocus. “Theo, do you ever wonder if we have a destiny? I mean, do you think that life's just a bunch of random things put together or is there a design to it all?”
      Theo stopped eating for a few moments. “I don’t know, but no one’s going to make me accept this destiny that they dumped on me.” Chip saw the frustration on the boy’s face, and knew the feelings behind it well. “I’ve always felt that I was destined to do something big. Ever since my earliest days, I’ve pushed myself to excel and to be the best. When I became leader of the Rangers, I figured I’d made it.”
      Chip stood up, breathing in the water-cooled air. “But in my rush to meet my destiny, I think I lost sight of the fact that it’s not what you are but who you are that matters. I thought that when I became leader that everything would fall into place for me. I felt I deserved it, but it’s only now I’m figuring out that my destiny wasn’t to lead, but to be a leader. I’m just beginning to figure out what kind of person that takes.”

      Chip folded his arms and looked out at the waters and Theo turned toward him, totally unfazed by Chip's words. “Well, whatever you are, you’re still my hero. I’ve been training for years to become a Rescue Ranger. I’ve been reading detective books, learning how to fight and stuff like that. I was hoping to be a little older before I met you, actually.” Chip didn’t say anything at first. He just sat back down and continued eating. Theo waited for him to say something, but minutes passed and Chip didn’t answer. So Theo grabbed a snack and began munching.
      “If you were a Rescue Ranger, what would be your main objective?” Chip asked suddenly. Theo rubbed his chin and thought. “For my life to mean something.” Chip shook his head. “No, I mean what would be your chief goal as a Ranger?”
      “I want to be a hero, I want to be somebody,” Theo said, matter-of-factly.
      “You’re already somebody, and a hero doesn’t go out to prove he’s one. A hero’s someone who does what he does without expecting the credit. So again, what would be your chief goal?” Chip asked. Theo didn’t know what Chip was after with this line of questioning. “Like I said, I want to be somebody. Chip, I could drop dead tomorrow and there isn’t anyone in the entire world who'd care! I don’t even exist! The Rangers, you rise above the emptiness and unhappiness and make the world a better place. I want to do that, I want to make the world a better place.”
      “That’s the answer I was looking for,” Chip said. “But Theo, you can’t measure your own self-worth by what other people think of you. Believe me, I’ve tried that one and it’s miserable. Even if you get the applause, it’s for the wrong reason. I’m glad you want to make the world a better place, but do it for the world and not so the world will stand up and cheer the name Theo. That kind of glory never lasts.”
      Theo threw another pebble into the water. “Maybe it doesn’t, but who cares? Nothing lasts.” Chip took hold of Theo’s hand in a "tough-guy" handshake and looked him the eye. “Theo, there is something that lasts. I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s something inside each of us. We may not all have the same beginnings or the same breaks in life, but we all have that something inside of us. And that means we have to be true to ourselves, and do what we know is right because someday we’ll be called on it. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but I still believe in standing up for what’s good in life.”
      “I know what you’re talking about, Chip. I’ve seen a lot of other kids go bad and it would be so easy to follow them, but I wanted more out of life than that,” Theo said. Chip stood up again. “You could’ve given in, but you didn’t. It takes guts to go against the crowd, Theo. That already makes you somebody.” Theo stood up with him, but shook his head. “I’m a speck of dust in a tornado.”

      Chip stood up again and stretched. “So, do you think what the Rangers do is important?” Theo shrugged. “If you didn’t stop the bad guys, who would?” Chip swept his arm toward the open spaces. “We’re not the only ones out there, Theo. And I’d say that maybe a fourth of our cases involve stopping bad guys. Mostly, we’re called on to help ordinary animals who couldn’t get help otherwise.”
      “But big or small, you make a difference,” Theo countered. Chip looked down at Theo. “Theo, have you ever come across anyone in trouble and helped them?” Theo nodded, but with a reserved look on his face. “I’ve tried, but that usually ended up with me getting beaten up.”
      “But the point is you did try,” Chip said, patting him on the back. “Most people wouldn’t even do that much. The Rangers don’t always succeed, but we try. You may not be have a title like Rescue Ranger, but if you’re willing to stand up to the bad that’s out there then you're a hero.” Theo gave him a hard look. “Chip, in my world you ether succeed or fail. Trying isn’t worth anything.”

      Chip wanted to say more, but now wasn’t the time. Not yet. He re-packed their lunch equipment and the chipmunks headed back for the RangerWing. They spent a nice afternoon at the top of the highest mountain in the park, and then flew down to a verdant cove where the native animals gathered to eat and congregrate. Chip and Theo looked out over a vast expanse that stretched nearly all the way around them, with the mountains jutting out in front of them and rising several thousand feet into the sky. The sun was close to setting, and cast a golden texture on the scene.
      “Did you enjoy today, Theo?” Chip asked, hoping their talk hadn’t upset him. Theo was far from upset. “Chip, this has been the greatest day of my entire life. I hate that I have to go back to that place.” Chip watched as the sun come nearer to the mountains. “Things change, Theo. Your chance will come. You just have to be ready for it.”
      “Yeah, maybe.”
      Chip knew Theo’s mind was closed on the topic, so he turned back to watch the sky turn an ever-darker shade of pink and red. That made him think of Foxglove, and Chip turned to ask Theo what he thought of her but the young chipmunk was asleep. It had been a long and adventureous day and the little guy was plain tuckered out. Chip watched him for a few minutes and then remembered the letter. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket and tore it open

      Dear Chip,

I know you’ll probably read this before you get home. You know how I feel about you, so I won’t go through telling you how much I love you even though I do. I just want you to remember that no matter what you decide, I’ll always be grateful to you for taking a scared young bat and helping her to find her life again. I enjoyed every minute of our time together, and I think you must be the nicest person I’ll ever meet.

I’m going to ask my parents about me taking voice lessons. When I sang for you, I didn’t know I could sing like that. Maybe once I’ve proved myself I can sing for whole crowds of people, and who knows? Maybe I’ll become a world-famous singer. Foxy Fairmont and the Leatherwings ;-)

Chip, about the boy...I don’t know what your feelings are toward him, but he really adores you. I think he’s a very lonely soul who needs someone to care about him. This could be your opportunity to not be alone anymore, and it would be the same for him. Think about it, darling.

      All my love,

      Foxglove Fairmont

      Chip folded the letter up slowly and looked back at Theo. Foxy had seen it as well, and Chip wasn’t surprised at how well she was able to advise him. Chip pulled a blanket from the back, and put it on Theo. The youngster curled up with a smile on his face. Chip took off his fedora and watched as the sun disappeared behind the mountains
      “Yeah, maybe.”

      The night went by quietly, but the morning was a different story. The RangerWing had set down right next to a deer trail and a thundering herd of them passed right by the sleeping chipmunks, rousing them out of their sleep.
      “Stampede!!” Theo shouted, forgetting they weren’t in Texas anymore. Chip and Theo got out and caught up with one of the fleeing deer. “What’re you all running for!?” Chip asked.
     “What do you think we’d run from? Bear!” the deer shouted, taking off. The deer was out of shouting distance in seconds, and Chip could see a large black bear chasing the herd. The two chipmunks ran for the Wing, and Chip’s fingers flew over its controls as they lifted off quickly—just in time for the bear to see them. Chip thought fast and brought the RangerWing just above the ground height the bear could reach to and started distracting him.
      “Hey, why don’t you go raid a picnic basket?” Chip taunted. The bear stopped clawing at them and sat, out of breath. “I beg your pardon, but I am famished. If I do not eat soon I shall surely perish.” Then Chip took a good look at the bear—he was gaunt and did seem hungry. “All right, we’ll help you if you don’t chase the deer while we’re gone. We’ll be back here in five minutes.”
      “If you could assist me, I would be most appreciative,” the bear replied.
      Chip and Theo took off in the RangerWing, and flew to a nearby mountainside. Activating the hover switch, Chip tapped Theo on the shoulder and had him follow to the back of the RangerWing. “Open that small compartment on your left, Theo. There’s a pair of locking jaws in it. I’m going to set the harpoon gun.” Theo got the jaws, then jumped to the harpoon gun. “Harpoon gun? What’re we hunting, Moby Dick?”
      “Nope, breakfast for a bear. Look!” Chip said, pointing. Below them was a patch of berry bushes, full of ripe fruit. “We’re going to snag one of those bushes and give our hungry friend enough energy to get him on his feet. Got those jaws yet?”
      Theo prepared the jaws per Chip’s instructions. “Harrr! The jaws of the harpoon be ready, cap’n!” Chip aimed the harpoon gun, and then looked to see his eager "first mate" “All right, you can fire it while I aim. Just squeeze it gently, like you would a lemon.” Theo had never squeezed a lemon, but he gave it his best shot. “Fire in the hole!”
      The projectile shot out, and seized the trunk of a big berry bush. Chip had both him and Theo get seated and buckled up, then he took the Wing off of hover and came down parallel to the bush. “Okay, hang on!” Theo tightly gripped the seat and gritted his teeth “Aye, aye, cap’n! Shiver me timbers!” Chip went slowly, letting the rope tighten. The motors strained some, and then the bush’s roots gave way and the prize was theirs.
      “Victory is ours!” Theo said, waving an imaginary cutlass. “Away with the booty!” Chip maneuvered the Wing back to the cove. The bear was still waiting for them and his ravenous eyes lit up at the many berries. “A cornucopia of thanks, my small woodland friends! Your efforts have satiated my hunger. I, Burtom the bear, will always be in your debt to you and your son.”
      Chip started to correct him, but then thought better of it. Burtom released the jaws on the bush and Chip reeled in the line. “You’re welcome, Burtom. The Rescue Rangers are always glad to lend a hand.” Burtom raised a paw to them in farewell. “Ah, I have heard of you. Perhaps one day I’ll visit you in New York and again convey my appreciation for your heroic efforts.”
      “Drop by anytime, but you might want to do it at night. Humans have a way of panicking when they see a bear wandering around,” Chip said. Chip and Theo waved good-bye, and as Burtom returned the wave and began stuffing himself, the RangerWing rose above the forest and again continued its trek northeast.

      Chip looked over at Theo, still basking in the glory of the moment. “Sometimes Rescue Ranger work is just like that—just the ordinary task of helping out. It’s not glamour and glory, but it’s worth doing.” Theo wasn’t put off for a second. “But we’re heroes! We saved those deer from the hungry bear that was going to eat them!”
      Chip put the Wing on hover again, and turned toward Theo. “Theo, that bear was just trying to survive. He didn’t want to kill, but he was too weak to go up the hill to the berries and eat. He couldn’t have caught those deer if he’d wanted to, and believe me he wanted to. We helped out another animal in need, and at the same time helped some more.”
      “Well, I guess so. It’s not so much fun being a real hero—no parades and medals and stuff like that. It’s just a quick ‘thanks for the help’ and that’s it,” Theo said, crossing his arms. Chip grinned and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You may not even get the thanks, Theo, but that’s not why you do what’s right. You do it because it’s right. If you do it expecting thanks or pats on the back and big awards you’ve wasted your time. You may get those things, but a hundred medals don’t mean anything compared to having saved one life.”
      Theo looked up with a “yeah, right” attitude. “It still doesn’t sound like much fun. Were you dissappointed at first when you found out that being a hero didn’t have that stuff?” Chip started them going again. “You bet. I had even bigger aspirations than you did. I was going to be the ‘golden boy’, and everyone would be singing my praises. But it didn’t turn out that way, and for a long time it annoyed me. I got so ticked off once that I made Gadget and Dale cry, and that got to me. The little bird we were helping at the time saved my fedora at some risk to itself and that got to me more. I didn’t admit it, but I started to realize that day that being a hero was simply having the guts to do what needed to be done. It may not always be fun, but there’s no feeling in the world like knowing you’ve helped someone who you know can’t pay you back. That’s when you’re a hero.”
      “Okay, then I’ll be ready for that when I become a Rescue Ranger,” Theo said, not with much enthusiasm.

      Chip again held back from saying more. He didn’t want to give the boy too much reason to hope yet, or cloud his own judgment. Three hours later, the skyline of New York was in sight. Theo rather reluctantly guided Chip to the Morningside Orphanage, which had divisions that catered to human and animal children. Chip set down in a small courtyard, where a kindly-looking older female squirrel came walking up.
      “Theophane! Oh, we were so concerned about you!” the squirrel said. Theo thumbed back toward Chip. “Don’t worry, I was in safe hands. I was helping the leader of the Rescue Rangers on an important mission.” The orphanage kids who had been playing in the courtyard all came up, gawking at Chip. Then one of them spoke in a frenzied voice to Theo, “Theo, he looks just like your pictures you got! You were really with him all this time?”
      Theo beamed with pride. “Sure was. We were on official business.” The kids all oohed at that. Chip spoke to a few of them, and then the lady squirrel spoke up, gently. “I’m the director of the orphanage, Madilyn Algood. Thank you so much for taking such good care of Theophane and for taking time to visit with the children. Would you be so kind as to come inside, sir? I have a few things I need to discuss with you...”
      Madilyn indicated that Theo should wait outside, and then Chip joined her as they went into the orphanage. Theo watched Chip walk away and whispered, “Goodbye, Chip. I’ll see you in about ten years...” Chip looked back and saw the sorrow in his eyes. He couldn’t blame the boy for that, but still business came first. Chip joined Madilyn in step as they went into the orphanage. It was a modest place, but clean. Madilyn showed Chip where Theo stayed, and then they went into an office where Madilyn shut the door.

      “Thank you for your tolerance, with my looking after Theo,” Chip started in. “I was on Ranger business in Texas when I discovered him stowed away on my plane. Did you get Monty’s message?” Madilyn put on some horn-rimmed spectacles and sat behind a desk opposite Chip, taking on an imposing look. “Your friend Monterey has been here more than once in your abscence. He’d expected you yesterday, and we were both troubled when you did not return. Was there a problem?”
      Chip shifted some in his chair. “No, but I decided to take a scenic route home and give Theo a glimpse of the Hazy mountains before bringing him back to New York.” Chip felt somewhat restless under Madilyn’s gaze, like he had as a schoolboy whenever Miss Spelling suspected he had done something mischevious. The director adjusted her glasses but gave no inkling of favor or disfavor. “You wanted some time alone with Theophane, that’s understandable. You should know that your friends the Rescue Rangers, save for Dale and Gadget Oakmont, have all been here and I interviewed them at length as character witnesses for you. I also spoke to the latter two on the phone. They were all most complimentary of you, Mr. Maplewood.”
      “They’re great friends. Have you made any kind of decision?” Chip asked.
      Madilyn leaned forward. “Frankly, that depends on you. First, your companions made it clear that there are no children currently living with you and your friends. Are you prepared to provided a structured environment for him, and make sure he’s not neglected? Before you answer, you should know that Monterey and Eva Erskine both said they would be willing to speak for themselves and their daughters and son-in-law, as they had already spoken with Dale and Gadget in Washington about this before I did and gained their approval. So Mr. Maplewood, are you ready to accept the responsibility of being a father, knowing the kind of lifestyle you lead?”
      Chip thought for a short time. He knew it was a decision that would affect the rest of his life, but it was also one that he’d already made. “Yes, I’m ready. I’ll raise Theo in a structured environment. He’ll not have only me to look after him, because we Rangers are like family. He’ll grow up with a lot of people who care about him and he’ll get the home, love and guidance that he so desperately needs. I’ll make the time for him and will do my best to be there for him and to be the father he deserves.”
      Madilyn studied him for a few moments through those spectacles, then relaxed her features. “Very well. Mr. Maplewood, before we go too much further I want you to be clear as to Theophane’s record and his needs. I’m sure you have already noticed his enthusiasm. He’s a bright young boy, and one of the smartest I’ve had the privilege of supervising. He does have a tendency to get into mischief at times, but so far has committed no greater sacrilege than rigging a bucketful of sand to fall on Father O’Malley’s head—and of course the ‘vacation’ he took at your expense. Given the proper guidance, I believe he can go far. Come, I wish to show you something else...”

      Madilyn took Chip back to Theo’s room, and opened up a trunk with his name on it. Chip had to smile some, as it was an homage to the Rescue Rangers and particularly to him—newspaper clippings with their pictures were pasted all over the inside lid, while scrapbooks held nearly every story ever written on them. Theo had made many drawings of the Rangers, and Chip noted a lot had Theo in them. What was more obvious was that those drawings were several years old.
      “Theophane lost his family in a fire,” Madilyn began. “His mother and father died instantly. Theophane came here when he was only four, and he has been here ever since. He had been a closet fan of the Rangers for quite some time but three years ago he began to speak about the Rescue Rangers and started making drawings of your group in class. It became an obsession with him, and he even renamed himself after a character that he said was a Ranger.
      “For most of his life, he’s had only one thing on his mind and that’s being a Rescue Ranger. I think that once he met you, the dream part of it was probably realized. I’ve never seen him as upbeat as when he got out of the plane with you—normally he’s a rather headstrong boy and doesn’t smile a lot. What I’m trying to say is, don’t take him unless you’re positively sure you want him at all costs. If you took him with you and then decided it wasn’t right it would break his heart and shatter his dreams.”
      Chip had known all that already, of course. “I don’t see Theo as just a fatherless child, I see him as a kindred spirit—a spirit in danger of getting lost if he isn’t guided right. He's just like I was at his age, but I had someone strong to guide me. I want to be that for Theo. I know all too well the pain of shattered dreams and I’ll respect his dreams. He’s shown remarkable initiative and quick thinking in the little time I’ve had him. He’s not just a wannabe, he really has potential to be a Ranger if he wants it.”
      The leader of the Rangers looked down again at all those pictures and clippings dedicated to one goal. “But even if he doesn’t, I’ll respect his dreams and wishes and love him and support him no matter where life takes him.”

      Half an hour later, Madilyn went out to the courtyard and called Theo over. “Theophane, in your absence a party has expressed the desire to adopt you. I’ve approved it, and you will no longer be living here with us.” Theo’s mouth dropped open in total surprise. “Wow! This day’s turned out good after all! Where are they? Who are they? Do I look okay?” Madilyn smiled broadly, and turned back toward the door to the orphanage. Chip was coming out with Theo’s trunk and his other things.
      “You look just fine, Theo Maplewood,” Chip said, knowing that name was the best gift he could ever give Theo. Theo’s mouth moved, but no words would form. Chip stopped and put down Theo’s things so he could hug him and rub his head. “Come on, son. It’s almost dinner time, and Monty should be making cheese turnovers by now. Say goodbye to your friends and then we’ll head home.”
      The kids all shouted for joy, and jumped up and down around Theo and Chip. They also knew it was Theo’s dream, and there was nothing like sharing in a dream come true. Theo got a hearty goodbye from all his friends and promised to visit them from time to time—and of course they made Chip promise to bring the other Rangers as well. Then Theo turned around and faced Chip just as he finished putting Theo’s things in the Wing. His tears were flowing as he ran and jumped and Chip caught him in his arms. The kids all screamed with the greatness of the moment.
      “Thank,” Theo said.
      “You’re welcome, son,” Chip replied.



Chapter 6 - The New Maplewood on the Block, First Tremblers of Trouble

Theo was too overcome to say anything more, so Chip and he strapped themselves into the Wing and headed for Central Park. “Well, I guess this means I better call my mom and dad and tell them that they have a grandson. They’ll be a little surprised at first, but don’t worry, they’ll love having you in the family.”
      Theo just sat there dumbfounded at first. To just have met Chip Maplewood had been wonderful. To have been on an adventure with him, superb. To have spent a full day just being with him, unreal. And he was something he’d never even planned for—hoped for, secretly dreamed for, but never planned for! He had a home, a family, a father, and he was a Ranger now too.
      “I...I don’t ever want to fall asleep. I’m afraid I’ll wake up at the orphanage! Is this real?” Theo asked. Chip looked over at Theo with a satisfied smile. “Yep, it’s real. But remember, it’s not going to be all an adventure for you. You’re still young, and you’ll have to go to school, brush your teeth, do what you’re told. But you’ll have all the Rangers to teach you and guide you, and don’t feel that you have to be a Ranger. As you grow older, you may become disenchanted by this life and want to be something else. Follow your dreams, Theo, even non-Ranger ones.”
      Theo stayed quiet for a little while longer then spoke up. “, can I ask you a question?” Chip liked the sound of ‘dad’, and it showed. “Sure, son. What’s on your mind?”
      “Is Gadget really as gorgeous as she is in those pictures?” Theo asked, smiling. Chip chuckled, “She’s even more beautiful in person.” Theo grinned at that. “Wooooow! Too bad she doesn’t have a sister.” Chip grinned back at him. “Actually, she does have a sister. An identical twin to be exact named Lahwhinie.”
      “REALLY? I’ve never heard about that!” Theo exclaimed. “Hey, she must be the one I saw at the wedding! I thought she was a Gadget double made up for security or something. Where is she—real far away, right?” Theo asked. Chip hadn’t thought much about Lahwhinie in the past few days, but now his thoughts returned to her. “She lives at HQ now. You’ll get to meet her shortly. You two will have a lot in com...I think you two will get along well.” Theo’s eyes bulged at the thought “Two girls that’re that pretty, and I’m going to live where they do? In-cred-a-ble. So what’re you going to do now? Foxglove’s nice, are you gonna marry her or maybe keep looking? What about Gadget’s sister?”
      Chip put out the stop sign with his hand. “Whoa there! I don’t know what the future holds. Yes, I love Foxglove a great deal, but I still don’t know if we’re that right for each other. As for Lahwhinie, there’s still some bad blood between us, what with her having tried to kill us in the past. There’s hope that she may change, but it’s way too early to tell with her. I just don’t know.”
      Theo wondered why they’d let anyone who tried to kill the Rangers stay with them, even if she was that pretty. But the time for questions was over now, because they were nearing Ranger Headquarters. Theo had managed to come to the tree a few times, but had never had the courage to go up and say hello. Now he was landing in the RangerWing, and was not only going to get to see headquarters but stay there too! It was almost too much for him. Chip helped him with his trunk, and together they came inside.
      Monty, Eva, Lahwhinie and Zipper got up when they came in “Welcome home, Chip me lad! An’ a big welcome ta you, Theo. It’s grand havin’ ya here!” Monty offered his big hand and Theo shook it. Theo was so stunned he could hardly speak. “Thank you, Mr. Erskine! I've read about you for years! I can't really believe this is all real!”
      “None o’ that formal stuff, mate. Ya can call me Monty or Uncle Monty if ya wanna,” Monty said. Zipper flew up and shook his hand as well. “And you can call me Uncle Zipper.” Theo was already feeling at home. “Sure, Uncle Zipper! That’s great…hey, you can talk! I didn’t know that!” Zipper explained the operation, and then Theo saw a regal looking bee staying back behind the others. He wasn’t aware of any bees in the Rangers.
      Zipper noticed his glance. “Theo, I’d like you to meet Queen Honey Regina the Third, a dear, dear friend of mine.” Honey cautiously approached the excited mammal and hesitantly extended her hand to him. “Greetings and welcome, young Theo. May your time here be full of wonder and happiness.”
      **Queen Honey?** Theo had seen enough movies to know what was expected. He bowed deeply before her and kissed her hand. “Thank you, your majesty. I am honored and touched by your words. Are you two going to get married?” Zipper coughed, caught off-guard by the question. “Uh...well, maybe.”
      “Perhaps, in the future,” Honey said. “You are certainly a forward young man, not that that is a bad thing.” Chip headed for the hallway. “If you guys wanna get acquainted, I’ll go call my mom and dad and they’ll probably want to come over right away.” Chip picked up the phone and he found his hands were shaking so much he had trouble dialing the number. “Hi, mom! Could you and dad come over to HQ right away? Don’t worry, it’s not something bad. In fact, I think you’ll both be overjoyed. No, it’s not that. Only time will tell, but it’s something almost as good.”

      Eva knelt down and gave Theo a quick hug and a kind smile. “Hello here, Theo. I am Eva, Monty’s wife and mother of Gadget and Lahwhinie. I can see vhy Chip vanted to have you come here—you are such a handsome young lad.”
      “Wow! Thanks...uh...” Theo said, not sure how to address her. Eva chuckled, “You may call me Eva, or if you vish I can be Aunt Eva. Whichever you prefer.” Then Lahwhinie came forward, and Theo’s heart felt like it had gone straight to his throat. He knew that she would look like Gadget, but she was so beautiful! On her part, Lahwhinie was nonchalant about the whole thing.
      “Hello, Theo. Welcome to the group,” Lahwhinie said.
      “Thanks,” Theo said, almost sighing it. Theo remembered what Chip had said about Lahwhinie and how they were trying to change her, he decided to try something. “Can I call you Aunt Lahwhinie?” Lahwhinie blinked at the question, and hadn’t even thought of that. “Uh...well, I guess so.”
      Theo hugged her. “Thanks, Aunt Lahwhinie. Wow, it’s great having a family!” Lahwhinie didn’t know what to make of this, though the boy’s affection was genuine. She let him finish the hug, and then patted him on the head. “ problem....” Chip came back from the hall, with a strange grin on his face. “Well, I told them and they’re coming over right away. I think from the way mom was talking in the background, you’re about to meet two grandparents that are going to shower you with attention.”
      “I’ll get ta work right off on supper an’ plan fer two more,” Monty said. “I think it’s gonna take a while ta get everyone used ta this!” Monty headed off for the kitchen, and Chip picked up Theo’s stuff. “Come on, Theo. Let me show you our room and get your gear stored.”
      “Oh, cool! Say, thanks for the welcome everyone. I know you didn't expect Chip to come back with more than a few good stories, but I’m real glad to be here!” Theo said, hugging Eva and Lahwhinie once more, and then ran to the kitchen. “Thanks for the welcome, Uncle Monty!”
      “No problem, lad! Get settled, an’ I’ll show ya how ta cook a right bonzer cheese souffle!” Theo now had the energy of ten chipmunks, and the realization that he was settling in had him bouncing next to Chip. “Where am I staying? Is there enough room? Do you have a bed ready, or do we need to break out one of the sleeping bags?”
      Chip couldn’t blame him, really. “It’s not the Ritz, but I think you’ll like it. I hope you don’t mind bunk beds. I’ll give you dibs on upper or lower bunk.” Theo was all over the room at once, trying to soak it all in. “Did Dale sleep in here with you before...well, you know...”
      “Yeah, he slept in the top bunk until he married Gadget. It’s okay Theo, the marriage isn’t a taboo subject to talk about,” Chip said. “They’re two very close, very good friends.” Theo was glad to know he hadn’t messed up on day one as a son. “Oh, okay. Well, I think I’ll take the top bunk. I’ve slept on bunk beds before and never liked the bottom one.” Theo shimmied up the ladder to the top bunk and tested it out. “Hey, nice!Better than most I’ve had—say, what...” Theo had fluffed the pillow and found something under it. “A Kablammo Man volume one! Neat!”
      “Oh, I guess Dale forgot one. I hope you don’t mind sharing a room. When Gadget gets back I’ll talk to her about making a room for you,” Chip said, putting Theo’s gear away. Theo was still admiring the comic. “I don’t think he’d forget this—it’s one of the most valuable comics ever made! More likely he was keeping it safe.” Theo respectfully put the comic aside, then he remembered what Chip had said about a room. “Well, if it’s all the same to you I’d rather stay here.”
      “Really? I thought you’d jump at the chance at a private room,” Chip said. Theo shifted on the bunk and hung his legs down, his face taking on a somewhat sad tone and his voice deepened and got quieter at the same time. “I hope you don’t laugh or anything, but I’m sorta...scared of being alone. Ever since I was little, I had these nightmares where I was in the orphanage where everyone had vanished. I guess it was my way of thinking that I’d never...never have a family.”
      Chip smiled. “I’ll let you in on a secret, I’m afraid of being alone too. I don’t mind the company at all. Those nightmares won’t last long here, Theo. You’re going to have so much family soon that they’ll drive you crazy.” Theo was in total disbelief that Chip was like him in that respect. “You? You’re scared? But you’re...”
      “I’m just like every other person,” Chip said. “I have fears and weaknesses too. Don’t be afraid of yours, Theo. Learn to face them and let us help you deal with them, together.” In all the years he’d secretly worshipped Chip Maplewood, he’d never imagined that this chipmunk could be scared of anything. To learn otherwise was a major news item. Theo took it in stride though, and came down from the ladder. “I guess you and I both have things to deal with, right dad?”
      “That’s very true…son. Together, there’s no stopping us,” Chip said softly. Theo gave Chip a hug, and then they went out into the main room. Roger and Jennifer had just arrived, and their faces lit up when they saw who was with Chip. Jennifer pointed at Theo. “Chip, they wouldn’t tell us. Is this the surprise?”

      Chip and Theo faced the Maplewoods and Chip put his hands on Theo’s shoulders while Monty and Eva had taken up position behind the Maplewoods in case they fainted. “Mom, dad, meet your new grandson, Theophane. Theo, meet your new grandparents, Roger and Jennifer Maplewood.”
      Roger and Jennifer reacted in different strains of surprise. Roger’s was to ask questions. “Grandson? Chip, do you mean you’ve adopted this boy? Chip, did...” Jennifer ran up and hugged Theo. “Oh Chip, he’s adorable! I’m very glad to meet you, Theo.” Theo was overwhelmed. “Wow, grandparents even! It’s nice to meet you too, grandma.”
      “Just don’t call me granny,” Jennifer said, then she winked at him. Chip returned his attention to his father. “In answer to your question, Dad, the answer's yes. The paperwork is signed and processed. Theo’s legally my son.” Roger studied his son’s face, and knew that he’d thought it through. “Okay, son. We knew you were on the verge of a big step of some kind, but we were just thinking more in the line of a wife and then a son. Leave it to my boy to do things in reverse!”
      Roger came over and shook Theo’s hand. “Theo, I’m very pleased to welcome you into the family. I know you’ll carry the Maplewood name with honor.” Theo looked Roger in the eyes. “Don’t worry, sir. I won’t take this opportunity for granted, I promise you all that.” Roger looked the boy over, and a smile started to develop. “No, I don’t think you will. But you do realize your new grandmother’s going to want to spoil you silly.”
      “If that’s one of the burdens of being a family member, I think I’ll survive,” Theo said, liking that idea. Monty emerged from the kitchen. “Set yerselves down, mates! Dinner is served!” The conversation at the table was all about Chip and Theo of course. Chip filled them all in on how he and Theo met, and started to explain how his mission had gone.
      “Did not Monty tell you, Chip?” Eva asked. “Foxglove called yesterday and told us how you had so brilliantly traced her family. You both deserve a big vote of thanks for making her so happy.” Chip waved off the thanks. “Well, it’s what we do and I’m glad she’s so happy. I bet she’s concerned about us. I’d better call her after supper.” Monty in particular had enjoyed hearing the tale again. “Figuring ta look at that railway ticket—that was a roight classic thought on your part, Chip. And happening on Foxy’s uncle at that there rodeo was mighty good timin’. Bet you had a bonzer time there, right lad?”
      “I had a blast!” Theo said. “That was my first time away from boring ol’New York city.” Eva wondered at Theo describing the city that way. “Boring? But you must have not been exposed to all the city can offer, Theo. Vhy, there is the baseball games, the museums, the theaters, Broadvay...we vill have to see that you get to see all of New York from now on.”
      “That sounds great, Aunt Eva. Wow, this is all so overwhelming! I’m real grateful to all of you for making this a lot easier on me than it could've been.” Monty spoke up first, as was natural for him. “Aw, we’ve been needing a kid er two around here ta liven things up a bit. ‘Sides, now I’ve got someone who ain’t heard any o’ me stories!”
      “Or any of mine, for that matter...” Roger added.
      “I don’t mind at all,” Theo said. “I love a good story and I have a few of my own too.” Jennifer saw the satisfied grins on Monty and Roger’s faces and knew what that meant. “I think we’re about to begin a long night of long-winded stories. But before that Chip, I just want you to know that we’re both proud of you for taking this responsibility. We’ll do everything we can to help you, and we expect to see Theo over at our house sometime soon for a sleep-over!”

      Jennifer was right, of course. Once Chip had called Foxy and let her know everything was okay, Monty and Roger regaled the group with story after story. Theo sat on the floor in front of them, transfixed. Lahwhinie paid some attention as well, since she hadn’t heard many of Monty’s stories and she found herself interested in where her father had been to. Several hours rolled by like this, and then Jennifer politely poked Roger. “Hon, I think these people need some rest.”
      Jennifer went over and hugged Theo once more. “A grandson, just like that! I couldn’t have gotten a nicer present this year.” Theo beamed with her compliment and he hugged her tightly. “Thanks for everything. This is the happiest day of my life!”
      “You’re made our lives happier too, Theo,” Roger said. “It’s good to know that there’s another generation of Maplewoods to carry on the line.” Roger shook Monty’s hand as he got up, and then shook Theo’s as well. Theo snatched him in a hug, and Roger laughed softly and hugged him back. Then Roger offered his arm and escorted Jennifer to the door where Chip was waiting.
      “Chip, I think you couldn’t have made a better choice,” Jennifer said. Chip rubbed Theo’s head, and looked at him with paternal favor. “You’re right. I think we were destined to meet and to be a family.” Theo for his part was getting more used to having such attention. “Chip’s always been my hero and role model from a distance, now he’s gonna be all that and my dad too!”
      “Well, you’ll have more than just me for a role model,” Chip said. “There’s things you can learn from all the Rangers.” Roger patted his son’s back. “Well said, son. Thanks for the supper, and if you need any parenting advice you know where to find us.”
      “If you two are free on Saturday, stop by for dinner,” Jennifer added.
      “We’ll see. There’s always something going on around here, so it’s hard to make a commitment that far ahead. But if we’re free, you can bet we’ll be there,” Chip said. Jennifer hugged her two boys goodbye. “Okay. Theo, do you have any favorite foods?” Theo shook his head. “No, ma’am. Anything's fine with me.”
      “Well, I’ll make some of Chip’s favorites and see if anything catches your fancy,” Jennifer said. Jennifer hugged her son goodbye once more and waved to Theo as she and Roger headed out. Theo waved back. “Your folks are pretty cool, dad. I’m looking forward to seeing their house!” Chip closed the door and headed back with Theo to the main room. “I’ll have to show you my old room there. It’s practically the same as it was when I was a kid.”
      “Okay, so now what, dad? What’s the procedure for night time here?” Theo asked. Chip led Theo to the sofa in the main room. “We tend to get up pretty early, so we’re close to bed time now. Do you need anything or are you pretty squared away?”
      “I’ve got my toothbrush and my jammies. I’m ready for anything,” Theo replied. Monty and Eva smiled at the youngster’s remark. It was nice having a kid around again. “Well, I think I’m about ready ta turn in meself,” Monty said. “Whatta you think, Eva?”
      “True, it has been a long day,” Eva said. “Good night, Theo. Perhaps in the morning your father vill take you to the police station with him.” Theo gasped at the very idea. “Dad, can we, please?!” Chip looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “ long as you stay right with me and do what I tell you.”
      “Anything! I promise I’ll stick to you like glue!” Theo said. The group all chuckled at Theo’s enthusiasm, including Lahwhinie. Theo went around the room, hugging them good night and once he’d been to the bathroom joined Chip in their room. Theo bounded up the ladder and got in bed.

      “If you need anything, let me know,” Chip said. Theo looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “, I can’t think of anything else you could give me. **Well, a mom would be nice, I’ll have to look into that.** Chip changed into his bedclothes and got in the lower bunk, preparing to turn out the light. “Good night, Theo.”
      Theo had a sudden rush of nervousness. “Goodnight, dad. But could you...leave the lights on? This being a new place and all for me, you know. I’m not a little kid, I’m not really afraid of the dark...” Chip fished around in the drawer by his bed and came up with a small blue nightlight on an extension cord. “Dale still uses this when he’s been through one of his movie monster marathons. He doesn’t like to admit it scares him, but he usually keeps a mallet handy too. Maybe Gadget can break him from that.”
      Chip plugged in the nightlight and handed it up to Theo, who clipped it onto a nail that Dale had put there for that purpose. Chip turned off the lamp, turned over, and the room took on a soft bluish glow. Then Chip heard a thump next to him and turned back over to see Theo looking at him. “What is it, Theo?”
      “I’m just amazed at the way my life's turned out,” Theo said. “You probably don’t even remember this, but now you’ve saved my life twice. You saved my life so that one day you could be my dad.” Chip sat up in bed, confusion written on his face. “I don’t remember meeting you before Hondo, and how did I save your life?”
      Theo began rummaging through his things, then sat on the edge of Chip’s bed and showed him an old, tattered rodent newspaper clipping with a photograph. “When that building collapsed, my mom and dad and I were trapped inside. You and the Rangers arrived and helped everyone get out. You found me and carried me out of that death trap, Chip. I knew from then on that I had a special destiny and that it would somehow involve you.”
      Chip took the clipping and stared at the accompanying photograph. It was him, holding a young chipmunk in his arms as he bolted out of an old warehouse. “I remember now—it was near the end of our first year together. We’d just finished up a case with Fat Cat and we were on our way home in the RangerPlane when Gadget spotted the fire. As I recall, some human had set fire to the place for the insurance. We went down, and the flames were building fast. Then we heard cries for help and went in...”
      Chip stopped, not certain if he should tell Theo all of it. “Anyway, I managed to free you from some fallen timbers and get you out. I’m sorry we were too late to save your real parents, Theo.”
      “No need to apologize. It wasn’t your fault and if you guys hadn’t shown up, a lot more people would have died, me included,” Theo said, hugging Chip at the thought. “Now you see why you’re my hero.”
      “I just did what needed doing—what we both needed. Good night, son,” Chip said. Theo hugged him again, and returned to his bunk. Chip closed his eyes, and could hear Theo’s slight breathing above. It was still amazing, but it was true. They’d been brought together, and if he could have a son then a wife wouldn’t seem to be such a big hurdle.

      Chip sighed and settled in, but couldn’t get comfortable. He got up and went to his jacket where he removed two pictures from the inner pocket—one of Gadget and the other of Foxy. He still felt guilty about keeping Gadget's picture, even though he knew it was all right with Dale. Chip looked at Gadget’s face and sighed wistfully, about to tear it up. Instead, he took a pen from his nightstand and drew a flower in Gadget’s hair then walked over and stuck it quickly in his jacket pocket. He looked at Foxy's picture for a while and put it away as well.
      “Dad, you still up?”
      Chip forgot he wasn’t dealing with a heavy sleeper like Dale anymore. “You can call me Chip if you want to. Sorry, I was just restless.”
      “Well, I just like being able to call you dad. I can’t sleep either. Tell me a story. Tell me about how the Rangers first met,” Theo said. Chip’s mind started to go back in time, and he realized he hadn’t thought much on those early days in quite a while. Still, the memories were there.
      “Well, to begin with it was just Dale and me. We both liked horsing around, but I wanted to be a detective and Dale mainly tagged along. Plato was my mentor at police headquarters—he was the best police dog the force ever had! His ‘crime bite’ was the stuff of legend. Well anyway, Plato’s human, Detective Drake, got framed for stealing the Clutchcoin Ruby and Plato had Dale and I investigate it while he and Drake were held prisoner in jail.”
      “How did you meet Monty, Zipper and Gadget?” Theo asked.
      Chip began to explain how Fat Cat had framed Plato, and then had taken the ruby from his master—the evil Aldrin Klordane. Then Chip told how they tracked the ruby down and met up with Monty in the course of it and then recounted their first trip to the big airplane where Gadget had lived. “I’ll still never forget the first time I saw her. She flipped up those goggles and the most incredible pair of eyes looked at me. It was one of those things that only happens once or twice in a lifetime.”
      “Well, I’m lucky in that I’ve got a few more years before I have to start worrying about girls and their strange powers over men,” Theo said frankly. Chip gave out a chuckle. “Well, despite what you’ve heard it does work the other way too. Just ask Tammy sometime, and she can tell you from a girl’s perspective. The first time I met her, she nearly smothered me with her affection. She’s a good friend now, though.”
      Theo could just imagine that. “You must have to fight off lots of girls in this line of work.”
      “Not so much as you’d think. There have been a few times, of course. It used to give me an ego trip, but I eventually learned my lesson,” Chip said.
      “Well, there are still some great girls to choose from, Lahwhinie and Foxglove for a start,” Theo said. Chip knew where Theo was going with it, but he knew better. “Well, Foxy anyway. I don’t know about Lahwhinie. She’s pretty on the outside, but she did some pretty rotten things to us all in Hawaii. I can still remember how she pretended to be Gadget and fooled me and the other guys.”
      “Well, she’s here now, so you gotta give her a chance. I know how she feels and it’ll take her a while to get used to having a family,” Theo said. Chip sighed, “I’ll try, but frankly it’s not going to be easy, Theo. Whenever I look at her, I can’t help but think of Gadget. And her trying to kill me doesn’t make it any easier. On top of it all, when she pretended to be Gadget she even kissed me. I felt so embarrassed when I realized it hadn’t been Gadget.”
      “Maybe when you get to know her she won’t be pretending the next time,” Theo countered. Chip didn’t want to think about it anymore, so he put the pictures down and turned over. “Good night, Theo.” Theo realized he had said too much. “Sorry, dad. Good night.”
      “Don’t worry about it. Get some rest, and we’ll head out for the police station bright and early.”
      Theo at first was too excited to sleep, but eventually, he managed to nod off. Chip stayed up thinking for a long while. Theo was being optimistic, but then that was the privilege of the young. Chip turned over the events that had happened with Lahwhinie in his mind. He was surprised in a way that she hadn’t bolted from here already, and that she actually seemed to want to stay at least for now. Still, there was a part of Chip that wouldn’t let down his guard despite that dream he'd had. **I’ll have to keep an eye on her, and her looks have nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.** Chip let the thought fade, and at last sleep overtook him.

             Chip was awakened the next morning by the sound of a loud thump and he was shaken awake by Theo standing beside his bed. “Come on, dad! Breakfast and the police station are waiting!” Chip cracked his lids open groggily. “Dale, I don’t care if it is Saturday. I’m not getting up early to watch cartoons...” Chip flopped back over wth a snort.
      Theo grabbed Chip’s left arm and began pulling him out of bed. “We’re gonna be late! Up and at ’em, Dad! Evil’s probably afoot somewhere and we need to be there to stop it!” Theo’s insistence got Chip up, and suddenly he realized that he wasn’t ten years old and that wasn’t Dale who had been cajoling him to get up.
      “Oh, Theo it’s you. Say, what time is it? Did I oversleep?” Chip asked.
      “No, it’s seven in the morning. You said we’d have to get up early to go to the police station and look for crimes, so we’re up early. When’s breakfast?” Theo asked, rapid-fire. Chip put on his fedora and jacket, and headed for the door. “Right now, if I’m any judge. Monty’s always up at dawn, and he’s usually got his latest cheese masterpiece piping hot.” Theo was already dressed and strode out boldly next to Chip. “So, the day dawns on Maplewood and Maplewood as they prepare for a busy day of crime-fighting, heading to the kitchen to fortifiy themselves with a hearty breakfast.”
      Chip could see being around Theo was going to be an adventure in itself. They headed into the kitchen, and Chip stopped short. Monty was nowhere to be found, and Lahwhinie was in there instead! **Lahwhinie, cooking?** “Oh uh, good morning.”
      Lahwhinie looked up casually. “Oh, hi. I was up early and Monty was showing me some of his cooking tricks so I decided to show him some of mine. I was getting tired of just cheese, cheese, and cheese. When I went off with Shaka Baka to that other tribe the women there showed me how to cook just about everything Hawaiian under the sun.”
      Lahwhinie brought them over a big plate of muffins. “They’re banana muffins, an island specialty. Don’t get too used to this, though. I’m just doing it to have something different.” Theo immediately devoured one of the muffins and his eyes showed how much he liked it. “Wow, thanks Aunt Lahwhinie! These’re great!” Chip had been afraid to taste them, knowing how Gadget’s cooking was. But Theo had dived right in, and now Chip tasted one and found it was very good. “Thanks Lahwhinie, this is very considerate of you.”
      Theo grabbed another muffin. “Dad and I are going to the police station in a little while to look for crimes, wanna go with us?” Lahwhinie sat down and started eating a muffin herself. “Well, I guess. I was beginning to feel useless around here anyway. If you really like them, I’ll make you some Maui mango bread for dinner.”
      Lahwhinie altered her attention from Theo to Chip. “So what do you do at the police station, Chirp?” Chip raised an eyebrow and smiled. “We watch over the city and find crimes that speak of hidden menaces that others would never suspect.” Lahwhinie let her eyelids go down halfway. “You’re such a card. But don’t you have any underground connections, or people with contacts to the criminal minds you’ve been dealing with?”
      “Not really. The work we do is mostly intuitive. We’re more reactive in our methods,” Chip said. Lahwhinie finished her muffin and stood up. “Well, maybe I will come along then. After all, it won’t hurt you to have someone along who’s had experience on the other side of the tracks. And then maybe later you can show me the city—I’m sure you know all the best places.”
      Chip cringed at the idea of traveling to the city with her, vividly remembering the time the two of them and Foxy had gone there, and now he didn’t have Foxy as a buffer. Lahwhinie picked up on Chip’s expression and found that it actually hurt her a little. She thought about it, and realized she’d brought it on herself so she backed off a little before she spoke. “Don’t worry, Chip. I’ll behave myself this time. As long as you do.”
      Chip relaxed a little, but only a little. “Well, I guess we could. But duty comes first, right Theo?” Theo gave Chip a thumbs-up. “Yeah, death before dishonor!” Lahwhinie disappeared into Gadget’s room, and came out with her purse and wearing flats in addition to her normal garb. “You don’t think we’ll really get into anything rough do you? I just did my nails last night.”
      “No, I’m not expecting too much to happen,” Chip said, feeling like rolling his eyes. Theo on the other hand was all revved up. “But you never know, Aunt Lahwhinie!” Lahwhinie rummaged in her purse. “Guess I can leave my spare lipstick behind, then. I just hope it doesn’t rain—this hair's impossible to deal with in a downpour.” Lahwhinie went to the door and waited for Chip to open it. He did so, gesturing grandly. **Might as well play along with her. Maybe it’ll help her behave.**
      “Milady, your carriage awaits,” Chip said. Theo rushed out the door. “Can I fly the RangerWing?” Chip shook his head, and was about to walk out the door when Lahwhinie cleared her throat. “Well, Chip? Aren’t you going to offer me your arm?” Chip was surprised that Lahwhinie wanted such attention, after her strongly expressed feelings about men. Chip offered her his arm and led her to the Wing. He saw Theo sitting in the pilot’s seat, gripping the wheel.
      “Theo, learning to fly will have to wait till you’re a little older. You can ride shotgun if Lahwhinie doesn’t object,” Chip said. Lahwhinie on her part had also been surprised. She’d expected Chip to have flown off the handle by now because of her playing with him, but he hadn’t. Chip helped her up, and she took a seat in back.
      “Go ahead and ride shotgun, Theo. I’m just along for the ride,” Lahwhinie said. Theo eagerly strapped himself into the Wing. “I suppose I’m not allowed to play with any of the controls?” Chip got into the pilot’s seat and made his standard preflight check. “Not until you know what each of them does, and you’re big enough to handle the Wing on your own. I’m sure Gadget won’t mind training you when the time comes.” Theo looked over the Wing with a sense of ownership. “Whoa, this is so cool. I'll fly this baby one day!”

      The RangerWing took off, and landed on the top of police headquarters a minute later. Lahwhinie again waited for Chip to help her out. “So did my good little sister build this plane and the catapults I see on the roof?”
      “Yeah, we’d really be hurting without her inventing,” Chip said.
      “And what will you do if she and Dale decided to move out eventually? It could happen, you know,” Lahwhinie said pointedly. Chip shuddered at the idea. “I honestly have no idea what we’d do. She has a skill that we’d unlikely be able to replace. Her mom's pretty talented too, though.” Lahwhinie followed Chip and Theo into the pipe leading to the Rangers’ vantage point. “That strikes me as lack of foresight on your part, Chip. If the Rangers depend on Gadget and she leaves where does that leave you?”
      “We’d have to redefine the very nature of the Rangers and our activities. We’d have to scale back quite a bit,” Chip admitted. Lahwhinie filed the information away, following Chip through the pipe. “Sounds like you wouldn’t be all that useful, then. But if you knew this, then why didn’t you do something about it long ago? I’m sure if you went to her, she’d have been glad to train you or one of the others.”
      “I disagree that we’d be useless,” Chip replied. “If anything, it'd be like going into the consulting detective field. Just like Sureluck Jones, rather than the mercenary/vigilante style of crime fighting that we do now. As for your other question, Gadget could teach me a little about machines, but she has a gift that only a handful of people on the entire plant could match.”
      As they were about to emerge from the pipe, Lahwhinie looked him in the face. “So what you’re saying is you could get along without the Rangers.” Chip hesitated, but nodded. “I could survive without them, but I’d never want to.”
      “Besides, he’ll always have me by his side,” Theo interjected.
      Lahwhinie’s and Chip’s eyes locked for a few long seconds, then Theo brought them out of it with a series of questions. “What’s going on, dad? What’s that? Look at that! Wow, at work with the Rescue Rangers!” Chip couldn’t help enjoying the youngster’s enthusiam, as Theo pointed at every sign of movement and asked question after question. Chip did his best to answer, and then Muldoon came in which drew Chip’s attention. “Hey, Spinelli! What all did you say was taken from the evidence room? We’re still cleaning up in there from Tuesday.”
      Sargeant Spinelli sat at his desk, eating a large sandwich. He looked at the official report and wiped off some olive slices that had fallen from his lunch onto the paper. “Uh, nothing much. Probably just some kids doing it on a dare. Let’s see—some light bulbs, power cables, and a couple of machines. Like I said,
nothing big. You guys should’ve had it cleaned up after three days, though.”
      “Still it’s sort of strange Sarge,” Muldoon said. “Why would someone break in there in the middle of the night and just steal junk?” Lahwhinie crossed her arms. “Because they’re idiots? There’s much more valuable stuff to steal in this town.”
      “Well, most criminals aren’t that intelligent when it comes to stealing,” Chip said. “But he’s right—you don’t just break into an evidence room in a police station to steal what you could out of any hardware store. They must've been looking for something.”
      Let’s investigate!” Theo said, so enthusiastic he was nearly shaking with anticipation. Chip thought about it, and the more he did the more he didn’t like it. He helped Lahwhinie down to the floor of police headquarters while Theo followed closely. The trio dodged feet and furniture and were soon at the evidence room.

      The door was open, offering them an opportunity. The room was full of trinkets criminals like—weapons, jewelry, drugs, and plenty of them. Lahwhinie was admiring her reflection in some gold jewelry as Chip began looking around the room. “I suppose you’d frown on my ‘borrowing’ some of this stuff,” Lahwhinie said.
      “It’s not exactly Ranger policy,” Chip replied, giving the room a close scrutiny. “If you were breaking in here, wouldn’t you have taken at least some of the valuables?” Lahwhinie looked over at Chip and nodded. “Of course. What self-respecting connoiseur of the finer things wouldn’t?” Theo was right next to Chip, trying his best to emulate his newfound father. “Why would that junk they took be more valuable than gold and jewels?”
      Something was bothering Chip. It was at the back of his mind, like a mini-alarm going off. He studied the room carefully, then studied it again. Something...something wasn’t right. But what? “The gold’s here, the jewels are here. There’s even stacks of money that weren’t touched. What would they take that was so…oh, no.”


Chapter 7 - Trouble Begins to Brew, Peaches and Nails, A Minor Eruption, and A Desperate Choice

“What?” Theo asked, not liking how Chip had said that. Chip began to check the items on the floor frantically, climbing over objects just to make sure. “It’s not here! I knew that something was wrong, and it’s what’s not here! But it couldn’t be him—he’s still in the looney bin!”
      Theo was growing more alarmed at Chip’s reaction. “Dad, what’s missing and who’s in the looney bin?” Chip sat down and invited Theo to do the same, which he did. “Our old enemy, Professor Nimnul. The police impounded his inventions, including the gigantico gun and the modemizer. The gun’s still here, locked in that case in back. But the modemizer’s gone, and whoever’s got it could cause a world of trouble—provided they know how to use it. They’re also in a lot of danger.”
      Lahwhinie had been admiring her reflection, but this last comment got her attention. “Why’s that?”
      “Because the modemizer’s very unstable,” Chip said. “It allows you to send yourself through phone lines to anyplace that has a phone, but it has at least one big side effect if it gets on the fritz. It can switch two people’s bodies—in fact it happened to us. Zipper got Nimnul’s body and vice versa. I got Monty’s body and Gadget got Dale’s. It was by far the weirdest case we’ve ever been involved in. Now someone’s got that thing, and probably has no idea of the pandora’s box they could open!”
      Theo tried to imagine what Chip had just told him and couldn’t. It was just too way-out. “How do we track them down, Chip?” Chip stood up again, and tooked doubtfully at the crime scene. “If the police had left the place pristine, we might could get an idea or two from the physical evidence. It’s been at least thirty-six hours, and it looks like a lot of stuff’s been moved and the police have been tracking in and out of here. We’ll see if there’s any indication outside, but if there isn’t then the list of suspects is pretty long.”
      Chip began thinking of that list, and didn’t like the idea of it at all. “Nimnul’s had dealings with lots of people who know about his technology. It could be Ratso Ratskiwatski, one of his suppliers, or it could even be someone we’ve never heard of that he’s had dealings with.”
      “The game’s afoot!” Theo said, jumping up. Lahwhinie rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother! Here we go.” At that moment, Kirby strolled by the evidence room. “Hey, who left this door open?” The diminuitive detectives scooted out just as Kirby shut the door. “We don’t need anything else stolen out of there...”
      Once outside, Chip began a minute examination of the ground around the station. However, the ground was hard as it hadn’t rained for a few weeks. There were no tracks that he could see. “Looks like time or skill’s on their side. They didn’t leave any signs of their escape.”
      “How can we catch them then if they didn’t leave a trail?” Theo asked.
      “Wait until they use it or we hear of some crime that sounds like it was done using it,” Lahwhinie said. Chip nodded, “Exactly. I don’t like the idea us not having any leads to follow, though. And if that machine goes wild again, there’s no telling what damage it could do!” Theo couldn’t believe how fortunate he’d been—adopted by Chip Maplewood and now a challenging case. “Then we probably won’t have to wait long. Uh, it would probably be a good idea to disconnect the phones at HQ if it is one of your enemies…”
      Chip considered that briefly, then dismissed it. “Well, we don’t know that for sure but we should probably take some precautions. I doubt any of them would fit in the tree if they used the public number. Our private phone’s unlisted, though—only our families know that number, and Foxy of course. There’s also the possibility that whoever took it doesn’t know what it can do and might have just taken it because it looked interesting—though odds are against it.”
      “Well, if something goes wrong, I’m counting on you, Chip,” Lahwhinie said. Chip turned and looked at her in mild surprise. “You are? But I thought you didn’t like counting on other people.” Lahwhinie quickly tried to cover for herself. “Well, I didn’t mean it like, what do we do now?
      “I’m tempted to come back after-hours and make a more thorough search. I wish Gadget and Dale were back—she might could rig us something to detect who did this. But whoever did it seems to have planned everything very well, and there may just not be any way to trace them. You’re right about one thing, Lahwhinie—it would be good if we had some underworld contacts. We might could get an idea of who’s done this.”
      Chip smacked himself on the forehead. “I just realized, the theft was the same day as Dale and Gadget’s wedding! That’s why no one bothered us, they wanted us distracted!” Lahwhinie had to admit, that’s what it sounded like. “Then it was someone who not only likely knew about Nimnul, but knew the Rangers as well. Unless it’s all coincidence.”
      “I don’t believe in coincidence,” Theo said, trying to sound bold about it.

      Chip led them back into the building and from there to the roof. Once there, they flew back to headquarters in the Wing. Monty, Eva and Zipper had returned from a morning tour of the city—and the local cheese traps. Chip quickly filled them in on what had happened. “We’ll make a search of our regular enemies’ haunts and see if anything’s up. Maybe I should contact Gadget and, there's no reason to interfere with their honeymoon. We’ll probably be able to find out who’s behind this and track them down before they get back anyhow.”
      Eva had listened to Chip’s narrative with interest, particularly the part about the modemizer. “But vhy would someone want to use such a thing, if it is as you say unstable? Surely whoever this is would not take the chance of using it if they would put themselves in danger.”
      “The problem is, the ones who stole it probably have no idea how dangerous it really is,” Chip said. Monty didn’t like the situation at all. “Crikey, maybe we should put out a general alert on this one, pally. Think we oughta get word to our own rogues’ gallery?” Chip had been considering it, and still was. “I don’t know. If we told them about the modemizer and they didn’t know about it, they might find out who has it and steal it from them. If they do have it, they’ll likely thing that we’re bluffing and it could prompt them to use it anyway.”
      Theo was seated, in the same thinking position as Chip. “It sounds like a no-win situation, dad. It’s also possible that they don’t how it works, even if they do know what it is.” Monty perked up some at that idea. “Or the bloomin’ thing may not even be workin’ now. After all, it’s been lying around fer quite a while unattended.”
      “And Nimnul, Gadget and Eva here are probably the only people on the planet smart enough to repair it,” Chip said. Zipper as always was realistic. “I think we have to assume it’s working and whoever has it knows how to use it. But if that’s true, then it could be really hard to catch them—after all, they can just dial their escape.”
      “But Gadget’s repair was done on the fly...sorry for the unintended pun, Zipper,” Chip said. “There’s no telling how long that paperclip Gadget used to repair it will hold out before the machine goes haywire again. We were lucky that we were able to switch back without any lasting side effects, but there’s no guarentee that the outcome won’t be worse with another catastrophic failure.”
      Lahwhinie couldn’t follow Chip’s logic. “What’s the problem? If your enemies meet a horrible fate at their own hands, I call that a good day.” Monty had to admit, Lahwhinie’s point made some sense. “I’ll be first ta admit I have no love fer Nimnul, Fat Cat and their loike but I don’t wish ’em dead either. And that clinking contraption can do some things that just might be worse than death.”
      “Yeah. Suppose you were in mid-transport and that machine shut down?” Zipper speculated. Everyone looked to Chip, who was already thinking again. “We’ll investigate, and put out some feelers. This machine’s so dangerous, we don’t want anyone finding out about it unless we have to tell them. We’ll check out Nimnul’s headquarters, the cat food factory, and any other place we think the modemizer might be now. But we also have to face the idea that this may have been done by a foreign criminal, in which case the modemizer could be to Timbuktu by now.”
      Monty’s eyes suddenly glazed over at the mention of that place. “Ah, Timbuktu. That reminds me of the time...” Theo interrupted, more interested in the case. “But they took more than that gizmo, so what would the rest of it be for?” Eva had been considering the same question. “Vell, you mentioned power cabling. Perhaps the machine needs to be powered or charged, or was in need of additional repair. I think you are right, Chip. Whoever has done this, it seems reasonable that if they planned such a robbery that they vill be planning how to use this device.”
      “But the device had no external power source,” Chip countered. “As far as I could tell, it was powered by the phonelines themselves.” Eva gave that additional thought. “Then perhaps this person may be trying to use it in a way that the professor did not foresee.”
      “Now that’s a scary thought,” Theo said. “Looks like I got here just in time.” Chip couldn’t hide a smile for the boy’s confident enthusiasm. “Well, let’s leave speculation for later. Right now, we’ll just concentrate on trying to find the modemizer. We’ve still got the afternoon, so we can get a start on it. Monty, Eva, how about you check the around the wharf area? Maybe your friends down there have heard something.”
      “We should also keep our ears open for any robberies of electronic stuff,” Theo added. Monty saluted and Eva took his arm. “Right-o, Chippah!” Chip watched them go, then turned to the others. “The rest of us will go to Nimnul’s lab and see if anything’s up there. We can meet up at the Happy Tom factory and check out Fat Cat’s casino discreetly.”
      Theo was all for that. “All right! Action city, here I come!” Chip caught him by the collar before he could race out to the RangerWing. “Not so fast, young man. Let’s go call mom and dad. You’ll stay with them until we get back.” Theo pouted and slumped his shoulders. “Aw, man!”
      “Theo, this is dangerous work. I know you’re a munk of action, but now I’m responsible for your safety. You still have much to learn before you can go missions with us. That time will come, but you’ve got to be patient.”
      Theo grumbled, “Yeah, like when I’m ready for medicare…” Lahwhinie knelt down to Theo’s height. “Hey, he’s just looking out for you. If you’re good, I’ll make you some more banana muffins.”
      Chip hugged Theo. “Son, just wait a few more years. You have so much to learn and a lot of training to do. You’re the future of the Rangers.”
      “But how am I supposed to learn anything if you don’t ever take me with you?” Theo asked.
      “Son, there are times for teaching, and this isn’t one of them. You told me you’d do as you’re told, so now I’m asking you to listen. Will you do that?” Chip asked. Theo let out a long breath in frustration. “O-kay, but I don’t like it. Can we do something together soon once this is over?”
      “Of course, I wouldn’t be a good father if I didn’t,” Chip said, rubbing the top of Theo’s head.

      Chip, Lahwhinie, Zipper and Theo climbed in the RangerWing. Roger and Jennifer were more than glad to see Theo again so soon, and as they took off again, Chip felt better about it once he knew Theo was safe. **Being a parent takes more planning than I’d realized.**
      Lahwhinie saw that Chip was fazed out, and spoke to break his trance. “Something on your mind, Chip?” Chip snapped out of it and concentrated on his flying once more. “I guess I’m not used to being a parent yet. I felt bad about having to leave Theo behind. He’s a bright boy, but he’s so eager.”
      “You’ve got a lot to think about,” Lawhinie said. Chip nodded. He did have a lot to think about, and the modemizer was taking up most of that thought. As they neared Nimnul’s geodesic dome, Chip wondered if perhaps Nimnul himself had bribed someone to do the theft and smuggled the machine into his cell somehow. **No, that’d be too cuh-razy to pull off, even for Nimnul.** They landed, and found no difficulty in getting inside. The lab appeared untouched, save for the damage the now-motionless giant mechanical spider had done.
      “Ah, this place is like a second home to the Rescue Rangers,” Zipper said, looking around. Chip gave out a laugh. “Yeah, Nimnul’s house of horrors. I half expect him to jump out and say he’s going to ‘squash the vermin’.” Lahwhinie dusted off a convenient spot and sat down. “So, what're we looking for here?”
      “I’m not really sure,” Chip said. “I was more curious than anything else. I hoped that perhaps whoever had taken the modemizer might have come here to steal spare parts or something. Let’s take a few minutes and see if anything looks out of the ordinary.”
      Zipper hovered in front of Chip. “I’ll fly around as see how it looks, but everything here always looks out of the ordinary.” Chip had to admit, he was right. Lahwhinie just wandered around and fiddled around with the various things. “Doesn’t this get boring?”
      Chip spoke from the other side of the room, “Not when it’s your whole life to stop crackpots like Nimnul from destroying the planet.” Chip and Zipper continued searching while Lahwhinie looked around and wondered if a fashion boutique along the same design as this place might do well. She walked over to a workbench and noticed a large collection of papers. With nothing better to do, she began flipping through them.
      “There's some papers here with drawings of something or other,” Lahwhinie said. Chip stuck his head up from his own search. “Any of it look like something important?”
      “I'm not sure. Maybe you should give them a once-over,” Lahwhinie said. Chip had a look at the papers Lahwhinie showed him, and among them was the original plans for the modemizer. Chip had Lahwhinie help him to fold the paper into a manageable square and then he picked it up. “This might come in handy if we need to figure that machine out. Plus I’d rather that no one else had access to these plans.”
      “That’s a good idea,” Lahwhinie said. “In fact, when you think about it, all these plans here and even this whole place is dangerous. We should just torch it all. That way no one could use any of this stuff for evil.”
      “But the stuff itself isn’t evil, just the person who built it,” Zipper countered.
      “He’s right,” Chip said. “There could be things here to be used to help others. Plus, we’d be no better than Nimnul if we trashed his place.”
      **Idiots.** “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Lahwhinie said, following them out.

      They left the lab, Chip toting the paper and securing it in the Wing’s cargo compartment in the rear. The Happy Tom Cat Food Factory was an icon to manufacturing, and an unmistakable landmark in the city. Chip landed the Wing near it, but there was no sign of Monty and Eva yet. “It didn’t take us very long, and it’ll take them a while to get here on foot. What say we take a peek at the casino?”
      Lahwhinie showed particular interest in that idea. “That sounds like a good one. I’d like to see what the action’s like in this town.” Chip held up a warning finger. “Now hold on. We can’t just waltz in there! Everyone knows what I look like, plus you look exactly like Gadget save for the makeup. We’ll both need to disguise ourselves...”
      Chip went to the cargo compartment of the RangerWing and brought out two boxes marked disguises giving one to Lahwhinie. “With what’s in here, you can be anything from a queen to a bag lady.” Lahwhinie opened the box and began perusing the possibilities. “Don’t worry, sweets. I wouldn’t want to give my sister a bad name.”
      Chip quickly checked his box, then addressed Zipper. “Zip, you’d better stay here to tell Monty and Eva where we are. Plus if it gets rough, we might need backup.” Zipper saluted. “No problem, Chip. I’m here to back you up.”
      Lahwhinie quickly put together a disguise and put slipped it on over her regular clothes and put on some extra makeup. She had deliberately kept her back to Chip to get his reaction. When she turned to Chip she smiled seductively, wearing a rhinestone-covered purple dress and heels, plus a redheaded wig to hide her hair. “How do I look, dahling?”
      Chip had been steeling himself all day for something like this, but when it came he was surprised to find that it wasn’t so much of a problem as he’d thought. He might have misread Gadget, but Lahwhinie was something else entirely. “You look like trouble, which is what I’m about to look like.” Chip went behind a bush and come out wearing a red pull-over sweater and a black bowler hat. He’d manufactured a nasty-looking scar under his right eye. Lahwhinie gave him an amused stare. “You kinda look like a pirate!”
      “It reminds me of some cartoon I’ve seen sometime, but I can’t place it...” Zipper mused. Chip checked his disguise in a small handheld mirror. “Well, nevermind that. Come on Lahwhinie, and for heaven’s sake don’t press it in there! The casino crowd’s a rough bunch.” Lahwhinie came over and took his arm. “Don’t worry about me, Cheep. I’ll have every man in the place wrapped around my little finger.” Chip grimaced at the thought. “That’s what I mean.”

      In their disguises, Chip and Lahwhinie walked straight into the building. The regular crowd of riff-raff was at the door but didn’t give Chip a second glance—Lahwhinie was another story altogether. “Hey, I haven’t seen either of youse here before,” the bouncer said. “Sure wish I’d seen you though, peaches...” Lahwhinie slid up to the seedy-looking bouncer and batted her eyes at him. “Play your cards right and perhaps we’ll get to know each other better.” She walked past him, leaving him floored. “Toodles.”
      “Toodles!” Chip echoed, waving back.
      They walked through an empty room and got in the elevator. Three floors up, the doors opened on a roomful of activity. The casino was largely as Chip had remembered it—the roulette wheels, the slot machines, and table after table of tough looking birds, mice, squirrels and cats. Chip spotted Mepps, Wart and Mole right off, but no Fat Cat.
      Chip kept his eyes on the room as he whispered to Lahwhinie. “Okay, I’ll go see if Fat Cat’s guys know anything. You go to one of the roulette tables and...Lahwhinie?” Chip turned, but she’d already left his side. Lahwhinie was the center of attention at one of the large round tables, laughing and talking with a group of rowdies and a couple of other girls. Chip sighed, “And I guess you’ll talk with that bunch over there.”
      Chip went over to Mepps and put on a "tough" voice. “Say, where’s the big guy? Ain’t he s’posed ta run this here place?” Mepps wouldn’t have recognized Chip if he’d walked up to him in his regular clothes. “Wellll, he’s kinda busy right now...he’s doing something...”
      “Any action in it?” Chip pressed. “He’s been laying low fer quite a while and some of the boys are looking for a good haul.” Mepps looked around the room for someone to bail him out, but finally he answered. “I’m not supposed to talk about the super secret project he’s working on, so I can’t tell you he’s working on a super secret project...”
      Chip smiled internally, but kept his expression emotionless. “Riiight. Mum’s the word. So when will the super secret project you’re not supposed to talk about take place?” Mepps scratched his head. “I dunno, the boss never tells us anything important.”
      Chip was about to go grill Wart and Mole, when suddenly voices were raised from the direction of the table Lahwhinie had been at. Chip headed back that way, trying not to appear he was hurrying. One of the girls at the table had taken exception to Lahwhinie’s overtures to her boyfriend and had stood up, shouting at her. “Get your stinking hands off my boyfriend, you painted hussy!”
      The guys in crowd were immediately up for this. “All right! Cat fight...uh, mouse fight!” Lahwhinie gave her a smug smile. “Painted? What bottle did you get that platinum blonde mane from, sunshine? Besides, Sidney here doesn’t seem to mind, do you Siddy?”
      Sidney for his part didn’t like where things were going. “Don’t push her, Peaches. Blair’s poison in a fight.” Chip didn’t like where this was going either. He came over and stood near ‘Peaches’ and grabbed her arm. “Uh, Peaches? Don’t you think Sid’s right? C’mon, and I’ll take you home.”
      Lahwhinie ignored Chip and looked at Blair with contempt. “Fight her, Siddy? I wouldn’t waste my time. If she’s the best you could do, maybe I should look for a different guy.” Blair boiled over and punched Lahwhinie in the face. “Don’t provoke a cobra that’s ready to strike, Peaches.”
      Lahwhinie pushed Chip away. “Stay out of this, Nails! Now it’s personal!” Chip was amazed to see Lahwhinie take a fighting stance and she delivered a kick that sent Blair reeling. When the jilted female got up, her eyes were pure venom. “You’re playing with death, girl.”
      The males in the crowd were cheering the two girls on in their fight, but the crowd hushed when they saw Blair draw a jack knife. Lahwhinie saw the flash of the knife and for some reason it froze her in her tracks. At that moment, Chip didn’t care how Lahwhinie had treated him in the past and his natural instincts took over. He ran forward to protect her. “Lahwhinie, look out!”
      As Chip reached for Lahwhinie, Blair leaped with the knife in her hand. Chip pushed her aside, but he couldn’t avoid the attacker and she stabbed him in the right shoulder. Lahwhinie reacted with rage and punched Blair so hard she knocked her out. The guys in the crowd were surprised at first, then turned angry eyes toward Chip and Lahwhinie.

      Chip knew they were in real trouble, and decided to take a risk. “Rumble!. The crowd was already energized and Chip’s shout moved one of the guys to break a chair over his neighbor’s head. In moments an all-out fight was on. Despite the knife in his shoulder, Chip was able to help Lahwhinie fight a path through the crowd and get to the elevator. The doors shut on them just as a big group was about to pounce. Chip slumped some, and Lahwhinie balled up her fists.
      “She was going to stab me! And just over a guy!” Lahwhinie shouted. Lahwhinie thought about pressing the button to return up to the top when she looked at Chip and realized how injured he was. “I can’t believe you did something that incredibly stupid, Chip!” Chip leaned up against the rear wall of the elevator, gritting his teeth. “Had froze when she came at you and I...thought she was going to kill you.”
      Lahwhinie was caught between anger and embarrassment. “I don’t know what to say, Chip, but I guess I should thank you.” Outside, Zipper arrived moments later, with Monty and Eva close behind. Chip and Lahwhinie had no problem getting out as the bouncer had been called upstairs to deal with the fight. Monty helped Lahwhinie keep Chip up. “Crikey! We gotta get you to a doctor, lad. Someone’s made a pin cushion out o’ ya!”
      Chip winced hard at the pain. “Dr. Batorious...he’d be the closest.” Lahwhinie grabbed a clean handkerchief and pressed it around Chip’s wound to help stop the bleeding. “Don’t worry, Chip. We’ll get you out of here in one piece.” Chip nodded, and noticed he was starting to lose some blood. “Don’t…don’t let Theo know yet. Don’t want him to worry.”
      Eva showed Lahwhinie where to apply pressure to keep Chip’s bleeding to a minimum. She did so, but now her temper was quelled and she was starting to panic. “Don’t worry, Chip. We’ll get you out of here in one piece!”
      “C’mon, mate! I’ll get ya there lickety split!” Monty said. While Lahwhinie applied pressure, Monty picked Chip up and ran with him to the RangerWing. Lahwhinie and Eva held him steady in the back seat while Monty piloted the plane and made for the clinic as fast as he could. Chip was still losing blood and that combined with the onset of shock made him delirious.
      Chip looked up the mouse girl above him. “ that you...where’s Dale...” Lahwhinie kept the pressure on. “I’m not Gadget, I’m her evil twin. Gadget and Dale are on their honeymoon, Chip. In Washinton, DC, remember?” Eva relieved Lahwhinie, and Lahwhinie knelt down next to Chip on the floor of the back seat. Eva tried to keep her voice level to reassure him. “Chip, it is okay! Ve are taking you to the doctor!”
      Hang in there, pal. Remember Foxy and Theo!” Zipper said. Chip quit moving around, but his senses were mixed up. He looked over at Lahwhinie. “Not...not Gadget?’re the one that kissed me.” Lahwhinie blushed slightly. “Yes, Chip, that was me. But focus, you moron! Stay with us and don’t pass out. I’d hate to have to explain to your son why you died.”
      Chip was close to passing out now. “Gadget never...never kissed me like that. Never could figure out...thought you were Gadget...thought you were Gadget...the was you.” Then Chip’s face formed a question. “Son? We have a son?”
      “No Chip, you have a son!” Lahwhinie said, trying not to shout. “His name’s Theo, don’t you remember?!” Chip tried to concentrate but it was hard. “Theo...Texas...adopted, yes. Don’t let...him know until...okay.”
      Lahwhinie touched his face and tried to calm him. “Okay, Chip. We’ll keep our traps shut till you pull through. Now rest, you dummy, before you hurt yourself more than you already are!” Chip looked up at Lahwhinie and he could see the fear in her face. “Don’t blame...yourself. My protect you.”

      At that moment, the Wing landed and Monty armed Chip up again, making sure to give Eva room to keep pressure on him. He ran into the clinic, where the head nurse Louise jumped up in alarm and ran into the back. “Doctor Batorious, we’ve got an emergency case! It’s Chip Maplewood! He’s been stabbed!”
      The doctor had been checking on a young bat with a minor throat infection, but ran out and guided Monty to his operating room. The others were inside now and followed.
      “Thank goodness you left the knife in, or he would have lost even more blood,” the doctor said. “Quick, we will need a transfusion. Fortunately, he’s got an ample supply of his own blood on hand from his donations. Louise, you know where the blood bank is. Also check the waiting room for any qualified donors.”
      “Yes, doctor,” Louise said, running out. The doc found Chip looking at him through barely-awake eyes. “You were very fortunate, Chip. That knife missed your aorta by mere millimeters. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here now.” At this point Chip could only offer a thumbs-up. Lahwhinie looked to the doctor, the fear evident in her voice. “Doc, he is gonna make it, isn’t he?”
      “He should. Again, he is fortunate because unlike my colleagues I insisted on starting and maintaining a blood bank. If you had gone anywhere else, you would have had to find a donor and time is precious now,” Doctor Batorious said.
      Louise checked the blood blank—actually, it was a rodent-sized refrigerator designed by Gadget herself—and returned quickly. “Doctor, we have five units of O-Positive blood in stores. Four are from Chip, and one from an independent donor.” Doctor Batorious rubbed his chin. “That should be enough to keep him going, but we’ll need a donor standing by. Could one of you Rangers call Chip’s parents? One of them should have his blood type.”
      “Right-o, doc. I’ll call ‘em right away!” Monty said, heading for the phone at the secretary’s desk. Roger Maplewood answered the phone, and Monty quickly explained what happened. “Right, I understand,” Roger said. “I’m O-Positive, Monty. I’ll be right down.”
      Roger put his hand on the speaking end of the receiver and looked back toward the expectant faces of Jennifer and Theo. “Chip’s been in an accident. He’s okay, but they need me to go to the clinic where he is just in case he needs a transfusion.” Theo panicked and Jennifer had to physically hold him back from trying to snatch the phone from Roger’s hand.
      “I wanna go to him! I wanna see him!” Theo shouted. Roger hung up the phone, knelt down and put his hands on Theo’s shoulders. “Theo, we’ve spoken to Chip about this before. We knew that this kind of thing could happen in his line of work, but we agreed to support him no matter what.”
      “But what if he doesn’t recover? What if he dies?!” Theo said, his voice shaking. Jennifer joined her husband, and looked Theo in the face. “Like Roger said, dear, we’re going to support Chip and now that support extends to you. Chip’s going to be okay this time, but if in the future he isn’t you’ll be welcome in this house. Theo, in the short time we’ve known you it’s brought us a lot of joy to have you with us. It’s like having Chip back again as a little boy, and we’d treat you like our own. You don’t have to be afraid, honey. We’ll make sure you’re well looked after.”
      Theo didn’t have any words, but just cried. Jennifer hugged him tightly, comforting him like a mother. Roger stayed with them for a minute, then got up and headed for the door. “Theo, I’m counting on you to protect your grandmother until I get back. Okay, soldier?” Theo could only nod. “Good boy,” Roger said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

      Only once Roger was outside did he let his face show his concern. On foot, it took him twenty minutes to follow Monty’s directions and reach the clinic. When he entered the waiting room, the faces in there reflected his own concern, but were mixed with hope.
      “How is he?” Roger asked. Monty walked up and patted his shoulder. “The doc says he’ll pull through fine, but he’s gotta stay overnight.” Roger looked at the others and saw where the guilt lay. “How did this happen? Chip’s normally so careful on missions.”
      “The jerk went and jumped in front of me. He took a knife from a crazy lady who wanted to plant it in me,” Lahwhinie said flatly, her head in her hands. Roger sat down next to her. “Now that sounds like my boy. He must think a lot of you to have risked himself like that for you.” Lahwhinie looked up, anger in her eyes. “He’d have done it for anyone and you know it.”
      “Maybe he would, maybe he would. But you don’t think you’re worth his sacrifice,” Roger said. Lahwhinie stood up. “He the one who’s got the problems now, not me!” She took a few steps away and crossed her arms. Roger stood up as well and was about to pursue the matter further, but at that moment Doctor Batorious emerged from the back and all attention turned toward him.
      “How’s my boy, doctor?” Roger asked. The doc straightened his horn-rimmed glasses. “Mr. Maplewood, I presume? I have good news. You son lost a good deal of blood, but the transfusions were sufficient to stabilize him. I’ve treated his wound and it’s not life-threatening. However, it was in his right shoulder so he’ll not have use of that arm for about a week or so. He’s still sleeping off the anesthesia, but you’re welcome to come visit for a few minutes.”
      The small procession followed the doctor, and gathered around the sleeping chipmunk. Chip was in a rodent-sized hospital bed, where Louise was checking his blood pressure. “He’s holding steady, doctor,” Louise said. “He came through it well, as well as could be expected. He’s a strong young munk.”
      “That he is,” Roger said, patting his head. “He’s a Maplewood. Chip, your mother and son are very worried about you. We’ll all be glad when you’re back on your feet.” Doctor Batorious motioned his nurse over. “Let’s give these people a few minutes, Louise.” They left, and the doctor nodded to Lahwhinie who had chosen to remain at the entrance to the room.
      Zipper watched him from the side of the bed. “Chip, we’ll all be glad to get you back to headquarters. After all, there’s always plenty of mysteries to solve.” Eva took his right hand and patted it. “Oh, you vere such a brave boy. Thank you for saving my girl’s life.” Lahwhinie couldn’t even look in Chip’s direction. “Yeah thanks…I guess.” Monty approached Eva from behind and put his hands on her shoulders. “Chip mate, ya did a right great thing takin’ that knife fer Lahwhinie. I’ll be lookin’ forward ta hearin’ ya tell the tale—fer a change.”
      Nothing more could be said, so they left Chip and returned to the waiting room. Doctor Batorious approached them once again. “I’m going to set up a cot next to him, and check on him throughout the night. I don’t anticipate any complications, but I’m not taking any chances. He should be able to come home tomorrow, but make sure to limit his activity—nothing stressful until the wound’s healed. He’ll also be weak for a couple of days so don’t take your eyes off of him.”
      “Don’t worry, doctor. We’ll make sure he gets the rest and recovery time he should have,” Roger said. “And thank you for saving my son.” Roger offered his hand and Doctor Batorious shook it gladly. “The least I could do, sir. Your son’s done a lot for all of us.”

      A few hours later, back at the Maplewoods’ home, Jennifer and Theo were in Chip’s old room. Theo was fascinated, but at the same time it reminded him all the more of his father’s condition. Jennifer had gotten him to get ready for bed, but now Theo didn’t want to budge. “Why can’t I see him? I want to be there for him!”
      “Honey, I know that you want to be there more than anything because that’s what I want too. But Roger will make sure he’s okay, and you know Chip’s friends are there for him too. I promise to let you know whatever Roger tells me,” Jennifer said. Theo grimaced, not liking the situation. “But if it’s real bad you probably won’t tell me. That’s what happened the last time. I don’t want to be kept in the dark!”
      Jennifer went to the desk bureau next to his bed and got a piece of string. She tied one end around his wrist, and the other end around hers. “Theo, I give you my word that I’ll always be honest with you. The string is the symbol for that. I gave my word to your father just this way when he was about your age, and I’ve yet to break the bond between us and I won’t break it with you either.”
      “You promise, you promise?” Theo asked expectantly. Jennifer smiled and hugged him. “I promise.” Theo got under the sheets, and Jennifer kissed him good night. “Don’t worry, dear. It’ll look much better in the morning.” Theo looked up at her, not at all sure of that. “I sure hope so. Goodnight, Grandma.”
      Theo lay back in bed and waited for her to turn the lights off. He shuddered as the room went pitch dark. Theo didn’t close his eyes for one moment, thinking only of Chip and what Roger would say when he came back. It seemed to take an eternity, but just over thirty minutes later he heard the sound of the outside door opening and closing. Theo carefully got out of bed and went to the bedroom door, pushing his ear against it.
      Roger took off his overcoat and sat down. “Well, Chip was very fortunate and he’s going to make it.” Jennifer hugged Roger, glad for that kind of news. “That’s a relief. What happened?”
      “He received a knife wound to the shoulder while protecting Lahwhinie. Evidently they were in with a rough crowd and Lahwhinie said or did the wrong thing to the wrong person. He pushed Lahwhinie aside and before he could dodge a woman stabbed him. He’ll be without the use of his arm for a week or so, but nothing serious. The surgery went quickly, and his friends will look after him.”
      Theo covered his mouth to hide the sound of his gasp. He misunderstood Roger’s last words, and thought it meant Chip was back home already. “Stabbed! Don’t worry, dad, Theo’s here. I’ll be right beside soon as I can get home.” In the living room, Jennifer went on talking. “I’m so relieved he’s going to be okay, Roger. I’d better go tell Theo. I promised him I’d tell him once you got here.”
      Theo rushed back to bed and dove under the covers, where he always went when the lights were out. Jennifer opened the door and turned on a small lamp next to the bed and awakened Theo. “Honey, Roger’s come back. He says Chip’s going to be okay, but there is more.”
      “Please, what? How is he?” Theo asked.
      “Chip was wounded by a knife in his shoulder. It’s not serious, but he will not have the use of his arm for a week or so. He’s recovering now, and you’ll get to see him tomorrow morning. I’ll take you over to headquarters myself in the morning once I’ve called them and made sure it’s okay,” Jennifer said.
      Theo again misunderstood, but hugged Jennifer and sighed in relief. “Thanks, Grandma. I knew I could trust you.” Jennifer hugged him back as Roger entered the doorway. “You always can, dear. If you need anything during the night, don’t hesitate to knock on our door. Good night, Theo.” Roger smiled over at him. “Don’t worry, Theo. Chip’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
      “Thanks, grandpa. It is okay if I call you that, isn’t it?” Theo asked.
      “Sure, Theo. Grandpa’s fine,” Roger said. Roger and Jennifer both hugged Theo goodnight and left the room.

      Theo settled in and began a different kind of waiting game now. It was another hour before the light coming through the bottom of the door went out, and only then did Theo stir. After the lights had gone out, Theo climbed out of bed and changed into his regular clothes. He knew how to get back to HQ from the Maplewoods’ home by observing the territory they’d crosed. He was about to open the door when he realized he should leave a note for his grandparents. Theo quickly found a piece of paper and pencil and hurriedly composed a note.

      Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

I just couldn’t wait til morning. Chip means more to me than anything, and I’ve got to see him now. I’m sorry for running off and not telling you. I’ll have one of the Rangers call you once I get there. Don’t worry—Jake Stone’s never failed a mission yet.

      Theo Maplewood


Chapter 8 - Jake Stone on a Mission, Lahwhinie and Father, Round Up the Usual Suspects, The Tremors Die Down

      Theo quietly made his way out to the Maplewoods’ door and let himself out. He found that it was an almost pitch-black night and his voice was hushed because of it as he spoke. “Jake Stone knew that he had to reach the secret base, no matter what. Enemies could be lurking anywhere in the blackness, so Jake kept low and stayed in the shadows.”
      Theo’s fear of the dark was overpowered by his concern for his father. He continued on through the dangers of the unknown toward his goal, sneaking along under cover and crawling on his belly at times. When he had to get in the open, he ran quickly for all he was worth. His memory served him well, and he soon reached the edge of Central Park. An owl hooted above somewhere, and a telephone pole light accented the area.
      “An enemy lookout and searchlight...Jake Stone wisely kept out of the light and slowly worked his way toward his objective,” Theo muttered, staying within the powerful character he’d created that gave him strength and confidence. Then Theo spied it--**the allied safe house hidden in enemy territory, where the allies who have rescued my father are now waiting with him.** Theo stealthly climbed the tree, careful not to draw enemy attention. “Jake Stone, super-soldier, does it again! Now to make contact with my father and aid the allies in whatever cause they may have.”
      Jake cracked the door open, and slipped inside. No one appeared to be up, so he decided to go straight to Chip’s room. He walked in as quiet as he could and looked at the lower bunk—but Chip wasn’t there! Panic seized his heart, and he was about to cry out when a hand covered his mouth from behind.
      “It’s me,” Lahwhinie whispered. She’d crept up behind him in her nightgown. “What are you doing here? You should be at the Maplewoods’.”
      Jake was surprised to see the femme fatale who had caused his father’s predicament standing there. “Where’s dad? Why isn’t he here?”
      “Come on...” Lahwhinie said, quickly taking him outside on the veranda where they wouldn’t disturb the others. “He’s not here, Theo. He’s downtown at the clinic for observation. Why did you think he was here?” Theo looked at her in confusion. “Well, from what grandma and grandpa said, it sounded like he was here. He’s gonna be okay, isn’t he?”
      Lahwhinie crossed her arms. “Yeah, that crazy idiot’s going to be all right.” Theo’s fear instant shifted to anger. “Hey, don’t talk about him like that, he saved your life!” Lahwhinie became defensive. “I didn’t ask him to! He butted in on a perfectly good fight. Now I owe the little Napoleon.”
      Theo narrowed his eyes and squinched his face. “He’s a hero! He doesn’t do stuff like that so that people owe him!” Lahwhinie threw up her hands. “Look, all I know is I owe him one and I don’t want to feel I owe anyone anything! I haven’t since...well, since.” Theo calmed down, but only slightly. “Well, dad’s not like that, you’ll see.”
      “You’re young yet,” Lahwhinie said patronizingly. “You don’t know how tough life can be.”
      “Well, what do you know? Yeah, you grew up alone, but at least you were in Hawaii!” Tears started running down Theo’s cheeks as he talked. “You got to get your mom and dad back. Well, I never will! Chip and his folks are all I have! You may not care about him, but he’s the world to me!”
      Lahwhinie started to say something, but the boy’s tears made her look away. “Yeah, we all get it tough somehow. But I didn’t grow up alone—I wished I had, but I didn’t.” Lahwhinie looked back at Theo again, “At least you’re getting to start over young.”
      Lahwhinie hadn’t meant for it to happen, but somehow she was able to talk with this boy. His recounting had dredged up memories in her that had purposefully laid dormant, and now the bitterness and the pain were welling up in her. “I guess...I guess we both had it tough. Come on inside, and I’ll put you to bed.”

      Theo had had enough of being alone and in the dark for one night. “Uh, no. I think I’ll just wait for dad to come home on the sofa. I don’t think I can sleep until I see him again.” Lahwhinie and Theo went back inside, and Theo immediately took up residence on the sofa. Lahwhinie went back to her room, and returned a few minutes later with a blanket and pillow. “You might as well be comfortable waiting.”
      Theo calmed down a little, embarrassed by his outburst. “Thanks, Aunt Lahwhinie. I’m sorry about those things I said to you.” Lahwhinie sat next to him. “Don’t be. Sorry’s for sissies. I’d...better call your grandparents and let them know where you are.” Lahwhinie went to the phone in the hall and found that the Maplewoods had still been asleep and unaware of Theo’s leaving. They both thanked Lahwhinie for calling them and said they’d be over to visit in the morning. Lahwhinie hung up the phone and returned.
      “You lucked out, sport. They didn’t wake up, so they’re only a little ticked off that you ran away on them. They’re probably afraid Chip won’t let ’em watch you anymore,” Lahwhinie said, sitting back down next to him. Theo hadn’t meant for all this to happen, but now he figured he’d just have to clean up the mess and go on. “I guess it takes a while getting used to having a family when you’re used to doing your own thing.”
      Lahwhinie could understand that sentiment. “Huh, tell me about it. Imagine finding out you have a twin sister who’s perfect and a goody-two-shoes to boot. They can’t help but compare me to her, and you know who’s going to end up on the low end of that totem pole every time.” Theo realized that this was the first opportunity he’d had to talk with Lahwhinie alone. “I’ve heard things about you, but you’re such a nice person to me that I had a hard time believing what they said. I know you didn’t mean to get dad hurt.”
      Lahwhinie actually blinked and stared at him for saying that. “Well, they’re right about me. Yeah, I had a power trip and I saw them all as a means to get myself crowned queen. I even used my sister, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me if I had known she was my sister. What do you think of that?”
      “But would you do it again now? Now that you know them all?” Theo asked. Lahwhinie wanted to say yes, but that wasn’t the thought that came out her mouth. “I don’t know...I just don’t know anymore.” Theo stared at her, incredulous. “How can you not be sure? You’ve got it all— a mom, dad, sister and you’re old enough to go on missions with the Rescue Rangers. What more do you want out of life?!”
      Theo looked up at her expectantly, and for the first time there was a measure of softening behind those eyes of hers. “I want—you need anything before I go?” Theo felt embarrassed, but asked anyway. “Could you leave the lights on? I don’t like being the dark.” Lahwhinie got up, and was halfway to her room when she stopped and turned back around. “I’ve gotta be crazy for doing this. I’m slipping.”
      Lahwhinie sat back down at the sofa, and took half of the blanket with her well-practiced grimace and put an arm around Theo. She looked straight ahead as she began talking. “Did I ever tell you about Hawaii?” Theo leaned against her, grateful for the company. “No, Aunt Lahwhinie, you didn’t.”
      “It’s the only place in America where you can go and see a royal palace. King Kamehameha ruled Hawaii long before it became a state. The water’s always warm and turns green in the shallows. The trade winds are better than a blow dryer for your hair, and you can actually eat fresh-grown pineapples there instead of the canned mush the humans eat over here.”
      Comforted by Lahwhinie’s presense and her gentle words, Theo began drifting to sleep. Lahwhinie sighed, remembering her old home. “...and there’s always something happening in paradise...” Lahwhinie looked down to see that Theo was sleeping, his head in her lap. “Yes, there’s always something paradise.” She pulled the blanket over them both and soon mouse and chipmunk were both at peace.

      Chip’s dreams had been disjointed all through the night. He relived the terrible scene that had landed him in the clinic several times, followed by portions of his other dream. It was all askew though, and when he woke up it seemed like he’d been asleep for an eternity. His eyes and nose immediately told him he was not at headquarters. He tried to move, but his right arm was stiff and refused to oblige him. The movement attracted the attention of his nightlong companion.
      “So Mr. Maplewood, I see you’ve regained consciousness,” Doctor Batorious said. “How do you feel?” Chip moved his left arm as much as the opposite shoulder would allow, which wasn’t much. “Like someone used me for a pin cushion, but I feel okay.”
      “No doubt, no doubt. Well, you were quite fortunate,” the doc said, checking his records. “No major organs involved. You did require some blood and stitches, but other than that you came through fine. The nurse will see to it that your arm is put in a sling before you leave. We’ll check you over now, and if you pass muster you will be free to go. However, you must rest that arm. It should not be used for at least seven days.”
      Chip sat up and groaned in pain. “How long till I’m back to normal?” The doctor had Louise come in with them. “You’re young and vigorous—a month at the most, three weeks if you don’t overdo things.” Chip sat back. “It’ll be a month in that case.”
      I figured as much,” Doctor Batorious said, frowning. “You’re as bad a patient as I am. Nurse, let’s give him the once-over!” Louise came in and they did a battery of tests on Chip. He passed them all—more out of his desire to leave than anything—and Louise secured his arm in a sling. They helped him up, and Chip felt woozy and tried to steady himself with his injured arm and winced.
      “Let that be a lesson to you,” the doctor said. “You can’t use that arm for anything, and I mean anything for a week! If you have an itch on that side, hire someone to scratch it. You must keep the arm immobilized to give your shoulder time to heal.” Chip had only one thought on his mind. “Could someone call HQ and have them come and pick me up?”

      Monty stretched at the door to his room. Both he and Eva were early risers, and she soon joined him on the way to the main room. They noticed the back of Lahwhinie’s head sticking up at the couch and walked over. Eva took Monty’s right hand and squeezed it gently as she whispered. “Look, Monty dahling. Our little one does have a heart, as much as she pretends she does not. But how did Theo get here?”
      “He musta come back over here lookin’ fer Chip. I never would've figured it’d be a wee lad like that that’d get a raise out of her,” Monty whispered back. “Maybe him being an orphan and all helped him break through to her.”
      “Only someone who has known the same pain could find common ground with her. Little Theo has been such a blessing to us already,” Eva said. Monty looked at the young chipmunk’s sleeping face. “Aye, you’re right there, Eva. We owe the lad—first Chip, and now our girl. I hope this is the start of something that’ll last, fer Lahwhinie’s sake at least if not the boy’s.”
      From the hall, the phone rang. Monty quickly picked it up, and found it was Doctor Batorious. “Thanks, doc. We’ll be right down.” Monty returned, thankful that the ringing hadn’t awakened them. “Eva, think you kin wake up just Lahwhinie? I’d like ta take her along, and poor Theo needs ta rest before getting into it with Chip again.”
      Eva shook her head. “We shouldn’t chance waking him, dahling. He would be beside himself and terribly agitated. Perhaps we should leave them both.” Monty however was determined. “Given what’s happened an’ all, I think it’s worth the risk. Say, I just realized...the lad must’ve walked all the way over here in the dark. That was a roight big risk for a lad his age.”
      “He cares so much for his father, I am sure it did not matter to him. We must call the Maplewoods and let them know he is safe,” Eva said. Monty looked back at the two sleepers again. “Maybe it would be best if Lahwhinie tagged along. We’re gonna need to talk to her. She and Chip may have some hard feelin’s between them over this. I think maybe I should sit her down and talk to her before she sees Chip again.”
      “I will go call them now. Hopefully they are not avake yet,” Eva said. Eva dialed the number and to her surprise they were entirely aware of what had happened. Eva came back, with a crooked smile on her face. “Vould you believe that our so-called irresponsible daughter called them last night and told them what had happened? The Maplewoods vill be coming over soon to see Chip too. She surprises me, Monty.”
      “Yeah, she’s full o’ surprises. We’d better go get Chip now then, luv,” Monty said, indicating that Eva should take over for her daughter. Eva gently nudged Lahwhinie awake. She stirred and looked up. “Wha...what’s going on?”
      “Easy now, dahling. The doctor called and your father needs you to come along with him to go get Chip. I vill take your place here,” Eva said. Lahwhinie didn’t budge. “Pick someone else.” Eva made her voice a little more stern. “Now, that will do. Go with him.” Eva cradled Theo’s head in her hands while Lahwhinie got up, then sat down. Lahwhinie looked reluctantly at her father, but Monty’s look was insistent. Monty and Lahwhinie quickly changed and hurried out the door to the RangerWing.

      Lahwhinie felt like she was being led off the the Spanish Inquisition. “Why did you want me to come along? He’s only going to be mad at me when he sees me, at first anyway.” Monty powered up the Wing and they were quickly airborne. “Well, I wanted to talk to ya about Chip.” Lahwhinie’s defenses came up again. “Oh, spare me. You’re going to tell me that I should be nicer to him now, more appreciative of his perfect virtue, because he saved my life.”
      “Uh well, that was part of it...but he may be a bit sore at you at first,” Monty said. Lahwhinie turned and gave her father an ugly look. “Let me tell you something, this is what’s going to happen when Chip gets back. First, he’ll do everything he can to make me feel bad for nearly getting him killed, then he’ll switch to making me feel obligated to him for saving my life. He’ll make me as guilty as possible, then he’ll make it clear that I owe him for what he did and then he’ll do what he’s wanted to do all along—he’ll begin making romantic advances on me. He’ll ask for a kiss first, then get more demanding, constantly reminding me that I owe him my life and always asking for a little bit more. That’s what’s going to happen, because men are all the same! All men are scum...except”
      Monty couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So you think that Chip did all that—takin’ you along, asking fer your help and then protecting ya—all that was just a setup so’s he could take advantage of ya?” Lahwhinie didn’t answer for several seconds. “No, but he has the advantage over me now, so he’ll certainly use it.”
      “Lass, he had the advantage on ya the moment you came ta headquarters,” Monty said. “For that matter, he could’ve taken advantage o’ ya anyplace before ya got to that there casino. Hon, Chip’s not like that. I’ve never seen the boy take advantage on a girl. And when it came to Gadget, if she’d loved Chip and not Dale I’d have helped him because in his heart he’s good as gold.”
      Lahwhinie pointed a finger at Monty. “He didn’t force himself on Gadget because she has purity and dignity. She’s something to be cherished and handled with kid gloves. I’m a tramp and he knows it, so why shouldn’t he make a move on me? I’m not anybody that anyone respects or cares about!” Lahwhinie gritted her teeth, and narrowed her eyes. “If he wants a kiss, then fine! I’ll give him a kiss that’ll have smoke coming out of his ears!” She suddenly altered her voice to sound like Gadget and put her hands together in the proverbial hero-thanking position. “Oh, Chip, you were so heroic for saving me. Let me give you a great big kiss. Kissy, kissy!”
      Monty had been easy with her up to now, but now he put the RangerWing on hover and looked at her with a father’s ire. “You do that and I’ll find the nearest woodshed an’ take you behind it. I won’t have ya talkin’ about yerself that way either, Lahwhinie. Yer not garbage, and you’re not cheap. I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, but from here on you’re Lahwhinie Erskine, and I say she’s worth quite a lot. And you’ve got a whole lot ta learn about men, particularly one Chip Maplewood.”
      Lahwhinie just turned away from him and sulked. “Sorry.”
      Monty knew he’d been harsh with her, but perhaps that had been the thing for the moment. Now he softened his voice. “Lass, your mother an’ I want above all that you should respect yerself. It ain’t right throwing yourself around like merchandise and all—no girl was meant fer that. We both love you a great deal and we want ya ta have a good life from here on. But ya can’t go through loife thinkin’ that every guy you meet is a cheat—I’ll grant ya that there are a mighty lot of ‘em. But there’s just as many blokes that are good and decent, and would never think of doing you a bit o’ harm. You’ve gotta trust someone sometime, or you’re gonna end up old and alone.”
      Lahwhinie looked down at the floor, then up at Monty. “In my entire life you’re the only man that’s ever respected me.” Monty started up the RangerWing again and soon they came to their destination, where Monty set the plane down. He put a fatherly hand over Lahwhinie’s hand. “If you know I respect ya, then listen to what I’m saying. Give yerself a chance. I’ve seen evidence from this very morning that you’re not the monster that ya say you are. If Chip or any other bloke so much as touches ya without yer consent, they’ll have ol’ Monterey Jack ta contend with!”
      Lahwhinie gently hugged Monty. “Thanks, dad. Thanks for letting me trust you.” Monty felt like his heart would burst from joy. “And thank you hon, fer giving me that trust. Now let’s get in there and see how Chip’s doing this mornin’.”

      The last thing Theo had remembered was Lahwhinie talking of the ocean breeze and the color of the sea. He’d dreamed about it, imagining himself and his father running and playing on the beach. Lahwhinie was there too, but she didn’t join in too much. He could hear her calling to him, and then Theo realized the voice wasn’t Lahwhinie’s. He cracked his eyes open. Jennifer Maplewood looked down at him. “Good morning, sleepy-head.”
      Theo smiled and closed his eyes. “Good morning, Grandma...Grandma!” Theo eyes popped open and he jerked himself up. “What? How? When did you get here?” Theo started to pull away when he found that his wrist was tied to Jennifer’s by a piece of string.
      “Theo, you can thank Lahwhinie that we weren’t more upset about this than we are,” Jennifer said. “If we'd found that you had gone, and you never got here we’d never have forgiven ourselves. I know you wanted to see your father and that you were afraid for him so there’ll be no talk of punishment...for now.” Theo looked at the floor. “I’m sorry I ran off...yeah, I was so worried I couldn’t stand it. I’m sorry I upset you and granddad.” Theo sighed and held up his wrist with the string. “I promise I’ll do what I’m told and I won’t do anything that stupid again.”
      Jennifer smiled at him. “No, dear. This string is to show you that we’ll keep our word to you, including what I told you last night. Whether you promise or not is your choice, but don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it. Around here, your word is your bond.”
      “I know a person’s word should be their bond, but I don’t want you to think I can’t be trusted. This wasn’t a normal situation,” Theo said. Roger had remained silent up to now, but now he leaned over the couch to join in. “We know it wasn’t, Theo. You’ve been sorely tried, and we took that into account. The fact that you left a note shows you’re trustworthy, but you took an awful risk going out into the night like that. We didn’t realize how great your need was, and that was our fault. You’re young, and you’re going to make mistakes. All we need you to do is tell us that you won’t make this one again, and we’ll believe you.”
      Theo held up his hand to make a solemn vow. “I promise I won’t make this mistake again. I’ll tell you if something is really bothering me and I’ll do what you say afterward.” Roger shook his hand. “Good enough, Theo. I respect your forward thinking there. But there is one thing that puzzles me. Who on earth is Jake Stone?” Theo looked embarrassed. “He’s my secret identity when I need courage.”
      “Oh, Like Dale pretending to be Dirk Suave or Robin Hood,” Roger said.
      “Or Chip pretending to be...oh, but he might not like me telling that,” Jennifer said.
      Theo looked at her curiously. “Sureluck Jones?”
      Jennifer shared a look with Roger. “Well, no. I guess it’s okay. When Chip was about your age he saw Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart. He immediately started to talk like Bogie and even insisted we get him a Bogie hat and trenchcoat. Chip was adorably cute doing Bogart, but he gets embarrassed when we tell about it.” Theo’s eyes sparkled. “Don’t worry, my lips are sealed.” Then Theo began giggling uncontrollably. Roger caught his wife’s attention and did a Bogart impression of his own. “Schweethart, I think our goose is cooked.”
      Theo was a fan of the movie too, so he laughed and said to Roger, “You despise me, don’t you, Reek…”
      “If I gave you any thought, I probably would,” Roger said, in perfect Bogartese. Roger chuckled and patted the boy’s back. “I guess you know where Chip got it from now. Here’s looking at you, kid.” Theo looked at Jennifer and Roger sheepishly. “Does this mean I can still stay over at your place sometimes?”
      “Of course,” Roger said. “You’re always welcome. Besides, you haven’t heard any of your mother’s and my stories. We were quite a team in the old days.” Theo breathed a sigh of relief. “Good, I was worried I wore out my welcome the day after I met you.” Jennifer reassured him. “No, we’re not the kind to hold grudges. If we had, we’d have never gotten together, would we dear?”
      Roger took on an apologetic smile. “Oh, now dear. You know I didn’t mean it.” Theo’s curiosity was up at once. “What happened, did you two have a fight or something?” Jennifer got a crafty smile in her face. “Not a fight really, more like subterfuge. You see, when I was in high school I was in love with Dale’s father Duncan Oakmont and your grandfather was head over heels for Duncan’s future wife Anne Sullivan—or so I thought.”
      Roger coughed and chuckled, and Jennifer resumed. “So one evening we were supposed to double date, but when I got to the malt shop only Roger was there. I later found out that Duncan happened to meet up with Anne along the way and got distracted. Now I wonder who arranged for that?” Roger smiled, took Theo’s hand and led him toward the kitchen. “Theo, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...”

      Monty led the way into the clinic, while Lahwhinie tried to stay out of sight as much as possible. Chip was still in the room he’d been in all night, sitting up on the edge of his bed. When Chip saw them he smiled and looked over at Lahwhinie. “How are you feeling, Lahwhinie? You weren’t hurt in the fight were you?”
      Lahwhinie took on a sarcastic smile. “No, some gung-ho chipmunk pushed me out of the way and took a knife thrust meant for me.” Chip smiled again. “Next time they’ll both have to be more careful. How did Theo take the news? I’ve only been his dad for two days and already I have a brush with death. The poor kid must’ve been terrified.”
      Lahwhinie felt uncomfortable. Chip should be furious with her. Why was he smiling? “Well, he ran off from your folks because he got it into his head somehow that you were back at headquarters last night. I found him and stayed up with him.” Chip was genuinely surprised she’d do that. “You did? Well, thank you Lahwhinie. That was very…kind of you to do that for him. I’m in your debt.” Lahwhinie didn’t know what to make of that, and she caught Monty looking meaningfully at her. “Well, let’s just call it even then. I owed you one anyway.”
      “Fair folks are probably going to be upset at him for running off in the middle of the night. We better get home so I can do some damage control,” Chip said. If Monty’d had a gold star on him, he’d have given it to Chip this morning. “Too roight, lad! You’d better watch it with that busted wing there. Bump that, and you’ll be shrieking like a banshee.”
      Doctor Batorious had been in back checking on other patients, but he come out now and received their thanks over again. He reminded Chip to curb his activity—for what good it would do—and the elderly bat stepped outside with them and waved farewell as the Wing took off. Lahwhinie was uncharacteristically quiet all the way back, and followed Chip and Monty in when they came back to headquarters.
      All heads turned as the leader of the Rangers returned home, and one in particular was ecstatic. “DAD!!” Theo shouted, as he rushed up to Chip and hugged him tightly, prompting a groan of pain from him. Monty pulled Theo off Chip. “Easy, lad. Yer dad’s a bit fragile for a while. Take it easy on him.” Chip began to breathe again. “It’s okay, Theo. They say you only hurt the ones you love.” Chip leaned down carefully and hugged him as best he could.
      Theo looked at his father with worried eyes. “I hope you don’t plan on making a habit of this. I don’t think I could get used to it.” Chip felt bad for the boy, but if he was to be a Ranger he’d have to accept the bad with the good. “I’ll make you a deal. I won’t make a habit of it, if you won’t make a habit of running away from mom and dad. Okay?”
      “Okay, I promise. I’ll do as I’m told,” Theo said.
      Chip rubbed Theo’s head with his good hand. “I know you will. Well dad, you see what lengths I’ll go to to get your attention!” Roger half-smiled at Chip’s joke. “Well, a phone call or visit would be a much easier way to get us to visit you.” Chip nodded in mock realization. “I’ll have to try that next time.”
      Jennifer gently hugged Chip’s left side. “You don’t know how worried you had us all, Chip. I know we hardened ourselves to the dangers of your job, but this was still too close for comfort.” Chip knew it couldn’t have been easy on his mother, and knew now it was far less easier on Theo. “I think I could imagine, if this little guy right here had gone missing. I’m just beginning to realize what you had to put up with from me.”
      “Well, you were quite a handful at times,” Jennifer admitted, “But it showed that you were special, and we’re sure that Theo will turn out to be made from the same mold his dad was.” Theo bounced up at that compliment. “You got that right!” The group had a good laugh out of that, and talk gradually shifted to less stressful things. Then Monty slapped his head. “Crikey! In all the bloomin’ excitement we plumb fergot ta tell Dale and Gadget about this! Guess I’d better call ’em and let ’em know.”
      Chip had forgotten about it too, but he knew this wasn’t the time. “We probably shouldn’t tell Dale and Gadget about my accident just yet. They might worry or change their plans.” Eva walked over to address her husband. “I think Chip is right in this case, dahling. After all, Chip is not seriously hurt and a couple gets but one honeymoon.”
      Monty muddled it over. “Well luv, you and me did get two. But I guess you’re right. If they call in asking about things, you’d better do the talkin’, Chip. They’d be more likely ta go along with you, since you’re the one that got banged up.”
      Chip headed for the sofa and the others followed. “Well Theo, you said you wanted to do something when I got back from the case. I’m back, and I’ll have to stay inside here for at least a week and the doctor said that it would take about a month for my shoulder to heal. We’ll have plenty of time to do stuff now.”
      “All right! You can teach me everything you know!” Theo said. Roger raised a warning finger. “Not everything, Chip. Not until he’s sixteen at least.” Chip chuckled, and nodded in agreement. Roger and Jennifer stayed through lunch, where Zipper finally did join the group after having spent the morning with Honey.

      Once they’d all eaten, the Maplewoods wished their offspring well and left for home. The day passed quickly, and soon the late hours were upon them. Chip was king of the sofa, and Theo was right beside him listening eagerly to his every word. Lahwhinie stayed in the background for a while, watching them. Then she left and joined her parents in the kitchen.
      Chip looked around to make sure Lahwhinie wasn’t within earshot. “Theo, now do you understand why it’s not a good idea to take untrained people on missions?” Theo got a little defensive. “She didn’t mean any real harm by it, dad. She just wasn’t thinking.”
      “But the point is, if you'd been there, something might’ve gone wrong with you as well because you don’t know how to act in situations like that. Neither did she. She just did what she always does—yeah, she didn’t know better,” Chip said. “The first time that Dale and I went there, both of us nearly got killed because we had no idea of what we were doing.”
      Theo knew on one level he was right, but the decision made him feel limited. “But how am I ever gonna learn if all I do is go to grandma and grandpa’s house? I’m willing to train first.” Chip had to admit, Theo was just about the most eager person he’d met. “You'll be trained, if a Ranger's what you really want to be. Still, training takes time and sacrifice. We Rangers didn’t have training when we first joined, you know. We learned the hard way and it was extremely dangerous and nearly fatal many times. I want to save you the pain of the mistakes we made. I have your safety at heart, Theo.”
      Theo shifted restlessly on the sofa. “I know that, dad, and if you and the others’ll train me I’ll wait until you say I’m ready. But please don’t send me away just because it gets tough. This is all I’ve wanted, and I want it now more than ever!” Theo said. Chip could see that he was going to get very little past this boy. “Okay, it’s a deal then. Let’s shake...uh, in a couple of weeks, we’ll shake on it.”
      “Thanks, dad. You know, Lahwhinie's real shaken up about what happened. She doesn’t let it show, but I could tell when she talked to me. She reminds me of a lot of the kids in the orphanage—we act tough, so we don’t have to face our real feelings,” Theo said. Chip remembered the panic in her voice and the fear in her eyes. “Well, she’s had it far rougher than most people have. She wasn’t just an orphan, she was raised to be evil and even though she ran away from those people, much of what she learned stayed with her. We’re trying to undo a lifetime of bad habits and bad thinking in her plus the wall she built around herself so no one could get close to her.”
      Theo stayed quiet for a minute, then spoke again. “Last night, she stayed up with me. I think she wants to change, but she’s afraid.” Chip wouldn’t have ever believed that girl could be afraid when she'd first come to stay with them, but now he knew her a little better. “Believe me, I know how frightening personal change can be. I know she wants to change, but can she change enough is the question—can she really start over or will she be drawn back to the world where we found her?”
      Theo looked at Chip as if to say, “are you kidding?” “If you had someone that cared about you, would you give them up to go back to a place that treated you like dirt? That’s like asking if I wanted to go back to the orphanage.” Chip knew in a way he was right, but there was more to it. “When you’re older you’ll come to see that there are motivations and temptations that make people do irrational things. Sometimes bad patterns are so deeply ingrained in a person they are almost impossible to break. And she was pretty far gone when we first met her. She was totally and utterly ruthless and remorseless for the things she'd done. That she even came here and the time she spent with you last night does give me some hope.”
      Theo didn’t like Chip treating him like an ignorant kid. “Hey, I might be eleven years old, but I know what’s what! She’s no different from the other street kids I’ve met before. She did what she thought she had to do to survive—you don’t know that side of life. I’ve seen it around me almost everyday, and I can tell you things look different. This may be the first time anyone’s given her a chance in a long time, but she’s scared of committing because she’s used to being cheated by life.”
      Chip found he was more glad than ever to have Theo with him. “We plan on giving her the best chance at life that she’s ever likely to get. It’s great that you two are getting along so well. You more than anyone here may have a chance at getting through to her.” Theo sat back on the sofa. “I’ll keep talking to her, but don’t shut her out just because of what’s happened. Call it a rookie mistake.” Chip patted Theo’s leg with his left hand. “Don’t worry, son. After the life she’s had, she deserves a second chance. And a third and a fourth...we’ll give her as many as it takes to bring her around.”

      Monty came back in, with Eva and Lahwhinie trailing behind. Monty sat down, keeping himself between Chip and Lahwhinie. “What’s up, mates? Plotting the next invasion o’ Cuba? I remember leadin’ a band of revolutionaries down there once on a cheese raid...bonzer bunch o’ lads.” Theo was feeling more at ease now, and a part of the group. “Dad and me are just having a father-son talk.” Eva gave Theo her winning smile. “And does your father know what a brave and loyal son he has? One who would brave the terrors of the night to be by his side in his time of need?”
      Chip rubbed Theo’s head. “He’s one of a kind, all right. I’m just glad he’s on our side.” Monty put his hands on his hips and looked at Theo approvingly. “That’s the spirit, mate. He’ll be a roight great hero when his time’s come.” Lahwhinie leaned over and added, “You both could have done a lot worse for a father and a son.” Theo smiled, looking up at Chip. “I got just the one I wanted.”
      “And I got the son I didn’t even know I needed,” Chip said.
      Monty was glad for both of them. “Jus’ like Christmas gifts, and no need fer returns! Well, I’m roight glad things have worked out so well, you two.” Monty averted his eyes slightly, not knowing how his question would affect Chip. “Chip, when you and Lahwhinie were in the casino, did ya get any koind of lead on where that modemizer thing might be? Don’t mean ta dredge it up again, but that was why ya went...”
      Chip had totally let that slip his mind, but now he let his thoughts return to that afternoon. “I spoke to Mepps and he said that Fat Cat was working on a super special secret project, but he didn’t know any details about it.”
      “Sounds likely,” Monty said. “Ya want I should go down there an’ check it out?” Chip considered it. “Well, one of us should keep tabs on him. Of course, it could turn out that the project isn’t what we think at all, but right now Fat Cat’s our prime suspect. I’d rather you didn’t go alone, though. Take Zipper with you, and don’t let them spot you. Just keep an eye on them for now.”
      “Sounds like sound thinkin’ there, Chip. Will do,” Monty said. Chip started to stretch, but remembered his shoulder in time. “Good, that’s a load off my mind. Well, it’s late so I guess these two Maplewoods should turn in. I’m feeling cooped up already, but I guess I’ll make it.”
      “Don’t worry, dad. I’ll make sure you don’t get bored,” Theo said.
      “Vell, just until you start school, young man,” Eva said. “The arrangments must be made soon to put you in a school here in the park.” Theo shot a look at his father. “School?! Dad, do I haveta?” Chip grinned and nodded. “A Ranger’s got to know the basics, son. Quick thinking will save your hide more often than anything else.”
      Chip stood up carefully, making sure not to lose his balance. He said good night to everyone, and Theo followed suit. When they got to their room and Chip closed the door, Theo helped him take off his sling for bed. “I suppose it’ll be good starting over at a new school. New friends, new teachers and stuff like that. So, how does your arm feel, dad?”
      “Stiff, but it’s not too bad,” Chip said, keeping the arm immobile. “I guess you were right, Theo. They were definitely shielding her from me. Still, I noticed that she seemed to warm up to Monty some. She almost never left his side.”
      “She wants to be with her dad as much as I want to be with mine,” Theo said. “She knows that she can trust him and that he’ll protect her.” Chip found that thought ironic. “Protect her? People usually need protection from her.” Chip turned that idea over in his mind as he pulled back the sheets and got in bed. “Well, that’s something anyway. It still amazes me that she’s Gadget’s sister. Inside, they’re nothing alike. I wonder though...if Gadget hadn’t left that airplane of hers in the first place and come with us, would she have turned out like Lahwhinie...”
      Theo thought about that, but shook his head. “No, she still had her mom and dad growing up. A better question would be, what would Lahwhinie have been like if Gadget had been the twin that was taken away and Lahwhinie was raised by the Hackwrenches?”
      “I guess family does make a big difference. I’ve always had mom and dad with me, so I don’t know what’s it like to be without them. I’d hate to think of Gadget having gone through whatever Lahwhinie did,” Chip said. Theo climbed up to his bunk. “I hate the thought that either of them had to go though it.”
      There was no more to say, so Theo turned on his nightlight and Chip turned off the lamp. It was quiet in there for several minutes before Chip spoke again. “I’m glad I was able to make it home for you, Theo.” Theo leaned over and looked down at him. “You really had me scared, dad. Be more careful next time. I don’t want to lose my dad a second time.”
      “I know, son. I know. Good night,” Chip said.
      “Good night, dad,” Theo replied, settling into his bed.
      Chip closed his eyes and thought about the recent past and he suddenly felt a pang of loneliness. If Foxy were here she’d never give him a moment’s peace. She’d be fussing and fretting over him constantly. He really missed that—and her.


Chapter 9 - A Day in the Life of the Double D, Disturbing Dreams

      In a bunkhouse at the Double D ranch, Foxglove Fairmont sat writing a letter by the light of a coal-oil lamp. She was now wearing western duds, and she tipped up her hat to give her a better view of the paper. Foxy stared at it, trying to put her feelings into words. Finally she put pen to paper, speaking the words as she wrote them.

      Dear Cutie,

How are my two favorite heroes doing? How do you guys like being father and son? Is Theo getting along well with the others? Things here at the Double D are good. It’s been a strange adjustment, getting to know an entire family. I just adore my little brothers and sister! They are just a joy to be with.

My own words can’t express all of what’s happened in the last few days. Mom and Dad and Uncle Bedivere have told me the complete Fairmont family history. The little ones are great, especially my namesake. I’ve played with them every day and it’s like I’ve got my childhood back again! And then there’s Uncle Bedivere—he’s such a charmer, and he loves my singing. We did a duet around a real western campfire last night, and he said I ought to go on tour. I don’t really think I want that, but the compliment was nice.

As exciting as all of this has been, I find myself starting to feel a certain emptiness that wasn’t there when I was with you, Chip. I miss the quiet calm that you gave me, and your strength. When I was with you, I had purpose and certainty. Without you, things are fuzzy now. I miss the sound of your voice, the sound of your strong heart beat, the sound of your footsteps. I miss your reading Sureluck Jones to me. I miss our flights together, the two of us soaring through the air. I guess I just miss you.

Dad’s calling us to roost now—we’re going to herd up the beetles and take them to market tomorrow. Uncle Bedivere says the things are an "exotic delicacy", but I just call them trouble. I think I’ll ask mom if I can stay here during the drive.

Good night, Chip. I’ll see you in my dreams, and I hope I’m still in yours. I feel like pulling up stakes and flying to you now, but I’d never forgive myself for that if I did. I still don’t know my family or myself, but don’t be surpised to see a bat at your door in a few weeks. I’ll stick to our agreement, but right now I’m just plain lonely. Give Theo a hug for me. I can’t wait to see you and the others again.

      All My Love,

      Foxglove Fairmont

      Galahad flew over to Foxy as she finished up, and put a wing around her. “Missing him already?” Foxy put down the special pen designed for bats that she was using. “Is it that obvious, daddy?”
      “Oh, I’ve seen that look in your eyes since he left,” Galahad said, putting a comforting wing around her. “I know you love him, angel, but are you sure you want to live away from your own kind?” Foxy now had a grimace on her face. “My only time among other bats has been these last few days. I’m more comfortable away from other bats.”
      “It must have been hard on you, having instincts and not knowing why you had them,” Galahad said with that nice British accent of his. “Not being able to do things the other animals did. I’ve shown you our heritage and ways in the past few days, but perhaps it was meant to be this way for you. Otherwise, you’d never have found Chip.” He could see the determination in his daughter, and wondered just where it would lead her. “If you’re sure, I’ll go back with you when your time here is over. But if you’re not sure, then don’t overlook other possibilities. I’ve heard several of the local fellows asking about you—you’re very beautiful, you know.”
      Foxy hadn’t really thought about dating other bats. “Well, I don’t know. What do you think? Should I get to know the locals? I don’t even think of myself as a bat. I still feel as though I’m an outsider among them.” Galahad guided her to the doorway of the bunkhouse. “You’ll never know if you don’t try, angel. I’m just concerned that you’ve chosen Chip because he’s the only person that’s ever been nice to you. Granted, he seems like a nice boy but there are nice bats in this community. I just think you should give yourself a chance to meet some of them, so that you’ll know if Chip’s what you really want.”
      “That sounds like a wise thing to do, I guess,” Foxy said, not completely convinced. “I’ll try to get to know some of the locals. But how do I meet them? It took me weeks to build up the courage just to speak to Chip!” Galahad pointed toward the area where the beetles were kept. “That’s no problem. The Double D’s not the only ranch doing a roundup tomorrow. All the local ranches are bringing their various herds in to market, and afterwards there’ll be a big shindig with nearly everyone in the area attending. I went to one years back, and Bedivere tells me it’s just as popular as it was then if not moreso.”
      A big party sounded nice to Foxy, so why not? “Well, maybe I could sing again and see what happens. I still need someone to show me what bats do. I don’t know how bats act or live or anything yet. What I really need is for someone to teach me how to be a bat.”
      “I’ll help you all I can. We all will,” Galahad said. Foxy hugged her father and reveled in the fact she could do just that. “Thanks, daddy. Thanks for everything. I’ll make you proud of me. I’ll be the best bat I can be.” Galahad and Foxy flew back to the others, who were already asleep on the underside of a rafter beam stretching across the old bunkhouse. Foxy wasn’t used to sleeping with a group of bats like this, but at least they were family. She took her place next to Galahad, locked her claws into the wood and soon the sound of the others sleeping caused her to calmly drift into slumber.

      “RISE ’N SHINE! It’s roundup time! YEE-HAW!”
      Foxy awoke with a start. Her uncle was already dressed and she could smell the breakfast smells. She looked outside expecting to see the dawn but no warm sun welcomed her. “What? Why are you getting everyone up? It’s the middle of the night.”
      Bedivere walked up to her, in full western regalia. “Can’t start a roundup after sunup, Foxy! We’ve gotta have them critters moving an’ on the trail in a half-hour! Shake the sleep outta your wings, gal. You’re about to see a piece of Texas tradition that you can go and tell yer grandkids about!” Bedivere flew quickly around the room, checking ropes and making sure various pieces of equipment were accounted for.
      Foxy tumbled out of her sleeping position and wobbled on her legs, barely awake. “Okay, okay.” **I wonder if it’s possible to sleepfly?** Foxy worked herself conscious and put on her duds. The chuck wagon was serving out a breakfast of tortillas and fried tarantulas. Bedivere sat down and invited Foxy to sit next to him. “Dig in on it, gal! Get you some of that spider-leg and dip it in the picante sauce! Nothin’ like that to get ya going in the morning!”
      Foxy found that she was beginning to miss Monty’s all-cheese meals. She tried a leg, and strangely it was good. “So, where are we taking these beetles?” Bedivere checked his spurs. “To the base of Lazy Mountain, where 125 years ago they set up the very first beetle ranch in the state! Now it’s a collection point fer all the roundups, and it’s where the big hullaballoo’ll be after, too! Ah plan to win me a blue ribbon at the gooseberry pie-eatin’ contest and the wild prarie dog riding! Get yer fill, gal. We’re burnin’ daylight!”
      “How long does it take to get them there?” Foxy asked.
      “It’s a hop, skip ’n a jump as roundups go—only two hours. You’ll barely have time ta git your saddle warm! Oh, I can remember the great beetle roundups of the old days where we had ta drive those dogies fer two weeks or more jus’ ta reach a good buyer! Yep, it’s almost too easy these days,” Bedivere said, continuing to eat.
      Foxy still wasn’t sold on going. “Well, it won’t be easy for me. This is my first round-up, Uncle Bedivere. Just show me where I’m supposed to be and tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll do my best.”
      Bedivere guided her away from the chuck wagon over to a bat-sized post corral. “You jest stick with me, darlin’. Hodge, bring out Buttercup fer my pretty lil’ neice heah!”
      Hodge was one of the three ranch hands that Bedivere had hired on especially for the roundup. The ranch itself needed little maintenance, and the bats from the other ranches shared work with the Double D, as neighborly Texas prairie bats will do. Roundup time was another story entirely. Hodge led out a saddled prairie dog for Foxglove.
      Foxy looked over her prairie dog mistrustfully. “Uh, I don’t know how to ride. Maybe I better fly instead.” Bedivere cinched up the saddle and checked Buttercup’s bridle. “Oh now honey, there’s nothin’ to it! Buttercup’s as sweet as they come! All right everyone, let’s mount up and get these ornery critters on the move! Can’t let the Rafter Z beat us again this year!”
      Bedivere led up another prairie dog and showed Foxy how to get into the saddle, and after getting off his steed he helped her onto Buttercup. Foxy looked like a fish out of water, but she listened while Bedivere explained how to guide Buttercup using the reins. Foxy trotted the prairie dog around the yard, and found that her steed was in fact good-natured and obeyed her commands. Daisy came up beside her, riding a similarly tame mount. “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll get the hang of it quickly enough. I can still remember my first time, and how Galahad talked me into it. I’m so glad you’re here, Foxglove.”
      “Thanks, mom. Even though I don’t have a clue as to what I’m doing, I’m still having fun,” Foxy said. Bedivere caught everyone’s attention, and with a wave of his ten-gallon hat let up a yell. “Turn ’em loose, boys!”

      In the middle of the ranch yard, a specially-built enclosure held the bombardier beetles. These insects were native to Texas and have the distinction of being the only insect that can shoot fire. Their internal organs hold a mixture of chemicals that mix in a special tube at the rear, which burn when released into the air. All the bats were wearing special chaps on their legs, because these little fireballs could shoot that mixture out in any direction at 10 thousand pulsations per second. Bedivere was explaining all this to Foxy, while keeping her at a safe distance from the herd
      “All right now, head ’em west toward Rainbow Butte. We’ll ride ’em through Crooked Narrows an’ over the Old Hunchback. Then we’ll take the turn at Widow Junction and it’s smooth sailing to Lazy Mountain!” Bedivere said.
      The large insect herd got going, spewing balls of fire here and there. The prairie bats whooped and hollered, moving them along. Foxy kept close to her uncle, who would ride in near the herd at times to keep them pointed in the right direction or to head off strays. By the time they reached Widow Junction—a lone rock balanced precariously on top of a thin rock column—Foxy’s posterior was revealing her amateur status.
      Bedivere rode up next to her, grinning from ear to ear. “Have you ever seen the like, Foxy? Bats struggling against the wilds of nature, forging their own destiny. Ain’t it grand?” Foxy had a few other words in mind for it. “Well, I’ve been shaken around, covered with dust, and come near to having one of these bugs set my hat on fire.” Bedivere laughed and patted his neice on the back. “Glad you’re having such a good time, gal! We’ll be at the meeting point in less than a half hour now!”
      **From now on, I’m staying on my own feet or wings.**

      Foxy discovered that Bedivere had told her right, though. The rest of the ride wasn’t half as bad as the first, and sooner than she’d thought she saw a large collection of bats and insects in the distance. When they got close, Bedivere pranced in on his prairie dog as almost everyone welcomed him with a native Texas yell. Foxy rode in behind him, and watched as the ranch hands guided the bombardier beetles into loading chutes where buyers would pick them up later.
      Foxy rode into the ranch yard, not quite sure what to do next. “Uh, could someone help me get off now?” Immediately four ranch bats were at her side. They took off their hats to her as they helped her down, took Buttercup and tied her up, and escorted her to the extra-long benches where other bats were already eating. One of them, a large brown bat with a deep but kindly voice, spoke up first—his hat in his hands.
      “Ma’am, I’d be very obliged if you’d allow me to bring you some vittles. You must be hungry after that long ride,” the bat said. Foxy was flattered by the attention. “Why thank you. I’d really appreciate that. What’s your name?”
      “Roy Childers, from over on the Triple Crown. If you don’t mind my saying so, ma’am, you’re about the prettiest lady that’s been around these parts!” Foxy blushed and giggled a little. “Thank you, Roy. I’m Foxglove Fairmont. I’ve just arrived from New York.”
      “Just out for a vacation then?” Roy asked. “Well, we’ll do what we can to show you some Texas hospitality!” Roy went off quickly, and Foxy took a seat—as did two other bats right across from her. They were as well-mannered as Roy and went by the names of Ben Tompkins and Vernon J. Beck, both from the Rafter Z ranch. Roy sat down right in between them when he returned. Foxy was relieved to see that there were no strange creatures on the menu—just tacos covered with chili and a piece of pie for dessert, Texas size helpings of course.
      Foxy was having trouble thinking of things to talk to these bats about. She had nothing whatsoever in common with them or they with her. “Do you like working on the ranch?” Roy rubbed the perspiration off his face with his bandana. “Like they say down here, it pays the bills, ma’am. Say, the hoedown’s about to start. Would you like to join in the dance?”
      “I guess so. I’m not a very good dancer though,” Foxy said. Roy turned on the Texas charm. “Oh, a pretty lady like you? I bet you’re a natural-born hoofer!” Bedivere came over and checked on his neice. “We sold the whole herd to a single buyer, some bat from Japan who wants ta breed ’em over there! Well, ‘ar-ee-gat-oh’ I says to him, and his money was as good as anyone’s! Glad to see you’re having such a good time, gal!”
      Before Foxy could get a word in edgewise, everyone was called to the hoedown. A group of old-time fiddlers got to playing and soon everyone was dancing a Texas two-step. Roy showed her how to move her feet. “See, it’s easy! Just move with me and pick ’em up to the beat!”

      Nighttime had long since fallen at Ranger Headquarters, and its inhabitants were all in their beds. In most of the rooms, silence and peace covered the sleepers like a blanket. However, in one room that was far from being the case. In the mind of a young blonde mouse, a battle had begun. She’d fought it often, more often than she’d like to admit. The images she saw were fearful, and she was beginning to breathe hard as perspiration was setting in on her forehead.
      “No...go away...go away...”
      It was just a muttering at first, but the images became sharper, more in focus. The fear—the awful fear rose within her as in her dream she began to feel threatened. The dreamer turned back and forth upon the bed, and the blanket fell to the floor. She was being chased now, and was actually in a running motion
      “Leave me!”
      Monty’s eyes popped open. “Crikey! That sounds like Lahwhinie!” Eva turned on the light next to their bed. “What has happened to our baby?!” Monty and Eva raced out of the room toward Lahwhinie’s room. Zipper woke with a start and headed that way too. In his room, Chip sat bolt upright in bed. “Lahwhinie!” Theo leaped out of bed to the floor. “What’s going on?” Chip also got up and raced for the door. “I don’t know, but come on!”
      Monty opened the door on the run and found Lahwhinie was gesticulating wildly, her arms up protectively in front of her face. Eva came in right after him. “She’s having a bloomin’ nightmare! Should I wake her, Eva?”
      “She is suffering so! I think you must, dahling!” Eva said.
      Monty grabbed one of Lahwhinie’s arms and shook her. “Lahwhinie? Lahwhinie, it’s a nightmare baby! Wake up!” Chip and Theo stood at the door along with Zipper, watching Monty and Lahwhinie. “What’s wrong? We heard a scream,” Chip said.
      “Is she okay?” Theo asked. Eva came to the door. “She is having a nightmare of some kind. Monty is trying to wake her up now.” Monty’s shaking did the trick. Lahwhinie’s eyes opened and she screamed again, causing Eva to run back inside. Theo started to go in as well, but Chip held him back.
      “It…it was after me. It was all big and dark and it wouldn’t let me alone and it tried to kill me!” Monty grabbed Lahwhinie up in his arms and she clinged to him. Monty rubbed her back soothingly. “It’s okay now, honey. I’m here ta protect you.” Lahwhinie was crying, and desperate. “They told me I was stupid...a stupid little reject...and ever since it’s tried to hurt me and…”
      “They were wrong, dahling,” Eva said. “You are not stupid, nor a reject.” Lahwhinie choked out the words between sobs. “They sent me away to them...and they hit me! And now it won’t leave me alone!”
      Monty held her close. “You’re safe now, Lahwhinie. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Lahwhinie continued to cling to Monty, while Chip, Theo and Zipper could hear her sobbing from outside. Eva came out again. “I think the worst is over. Thank you for being concerned, but Monty and I will take it from here.” Eva went back inside, closing the door.
      Zipper turned to the others. “Strange. I would’ve thought it would be us having nightmares about her.” Theo wanted to listen at the door, but a look from Chip prevented him. “I hope she’s okay.” Chip looked to the door and hoped that too. “She’s got a lot of pain and bad memories to work through, but with a family like hers she’s got as good a chance as she could have.” Zipper caught up his nightcap, which had fallen from his head in his haste to see what the problem was. “I’m going back to bed, guys. Let me know if there’s anything else.”
      “Will do, Zipper. Come on, Theo...” Chip said. Chip and Theo returned to their room, and Chip shut the door. His mind was already active, wondering what could be the source of all that fear. “What did you make of it, Theo? It sounded as if she was dreaming about something she’d been through before.”
      “Trauma, something that hurt her real bad when she was a kid,” Theo speculated. “I used to have nightmares like that about the fire...” Chip sat on the side of his bed. “I never thought I’d see the day when that girl would show fear of anything. It must’ve been horrible. You said you’d had nightmares? Does the same thing happen with a lot of the orphaned kids?”
      Theo sat next to him. “Some of them. Mostly those of us who lost parents in violent ways.” Chip looked toward the door, thinking of what he’d just heard. “Ever since I decided to become a Ranger, I wanted to help people that were hurting. When I met her in Hawaii, I’d decided she was nothing better than a venomous snake. But what I heard in there—it sounds like she’s a victim in all this.”
      “Well, Gadget turned out real well. Since she’s Gadget’s twin, she would probably have turned out similar. But someone did something to her that turned her bad and I guess she can’t bury it anymore,” Theo said. Chip stood up, still dealing with the feelings of the past minute. “At least she’s got Monty and Eva. Maybe having them around’s a factor in all this. Maybe inside she knows she can face her fears, now that she has someone to face them with.”
      Theo looked to his father and smiled slightly. “That’s what worked for me, dad.” Chip sat back down and reached his good arm out toward Theo and picked up his son, setting him on his lap “But what should I do now? I’d like to help her if I could, but I don’t even know what to say to her. She’s like a puzzle where you don’t even know what the picture’s supposed to be.”
      “Then do what I do,” Theo said, “Wait for someone else to build the outside edges and then fill in the middle pieces, after having arranged them into piles according to their color and shape.”
      “In other words, back off until Monty and Eva have had time enough to help her out. That’s probably the best thing. I think she’s wary of me right now anyway, and that feeling goes both ways to an extent. I’ll just have to play it by ear,” Chip said. Theo’s face showed his agreement. “Good idea. I think she’ll think you’re just hitting on her.”
      Chip looked at his son with a level of appreciativeness. “You have been around, haven’t you? Well, I’ll try to avoid her for a while. But what do I do if she talks to me, or asks me to do something? I don’t want to seem rude, either. Boy, it’s tough dealing with this.”
      “Dad, you’ve just got to give her space and let her heal and then you’ll see Gadget’s sister emerge,” Theo said. Chip moved and helped Theo off his lap as much as he could. “That’s what concerns me. I’ve already got feelings for Foxy, and I love her. But if she starts to change and becomes like her sister...and then there’s the dream.”
      Theo could see that Chip was going to need help. “Then you’ve got problems, dad. There’s two of them and only one of you. But who knows? Lahwhinie might not like you, ever. I like Foxglove and I like Lahwhinie, and I’d hate to have to choose.”
      “She may not like me,” Chip said. “I’ll have to make sure not to read anything into her words or actions—I’m not going to give her any encouragement if I can help it. But I wonder...” Theo knew where wondering gets a guy. “Cool your jets, Casanova. She’s still got a lot of damage and you could do more harm than good by getting chummy with her too soon.”
      Chip barked a laugh. “Chummy, with Peaches? I think it’s going to take a lot more than what we heard tonight for that to happen. I was just speculating, son, but right now I’m glad to give her the ten-foot-pole distance.”
      “Well, it’s not something you have to decide tonight, dad,” Theo said.
      “Right, not tonight. Tonight, let’s get some rest. Peaches can wait for another day,” Chip said, getting back in bed and careful not to overuse his injured shoulder. Theo took up his position and turned on his nightlight as the lamp went out. Chip look up toward Theo’s bunk. “Good night, son. You’re a good ear to have around. Dale wouldn’t have known what to say—well, the old Dale anyway.”
      Theo smiled some at the compliment. “Goodnight, dad. Sleep well.”
      Chip did sleep, but not before doing quite a lot of thinking. He couldn’t believe that he’d considered having a relationship with Lahwhinie—after all, wasn’t he in love with Foxglove? Maybe it was because she looked like Gadget, but Chip shook off that idea. He’d been able to handle that already. What was it? Whatever it was, slumber overtook his ambition and Chip rested.

      It had taken some time, but Lahwhinie had calmed down to a semblance of her normal self. Eva had left once she’d hugged Lahwhinie goodnight, but Monty wasn’t willing to leave her side until he received several reassurances from her that she was okay. “I didn’t mean to upset you, dad,” Lahwhinie said, sitting next to him on her bed. “It’s just something that happens sometimes.”
      “I wish there was something we could do to heal yer past hurts luv,” Monty said. “I hate ta see ya suffering like this.” Lahwhinie sighed resolutely. “There isn’t, at least not right now. grateful you were here, though. I don’t usually have anyone to wake me up when it comes.”
      “Don’t worry, luv.” Monty glanced around to make sure they were alone. “Daddy’s always here to protect ya, darling.” Lahwhinie took his hand. “Thanks, but I’m not a two-year-old. I’ll live, but if I need you I’ll ask—or yell.” Monty smiled at her attempt at humor. “Okay, luv. I wasn’t there to protect ya from the boogieman when you were little and the hurt he did to ya breaks me heart.”
      Monty kissed her good night, and Lahwhinie laid back down as he left. She didn’t turn the light off this time, and sleep was long in coming. The events of the past few days had been hard on her, and the nightmare was just one of the visible signs. Lahwhinie still wasn’t comfortable expressing her feelings, but Monty made it easy, as did Eva.
      “Maybe there’s something to this family thing after all...”


Chapter 10 - New Dreams Start and Old Issues Revisited

      While the activity had been constant at the Rangers’ home, across the park things were relatively calm at the Chesnutt house. Still, there was much happening at the moment because Tammy’s mother Donna had invited Rob Roybrush over to have dinner with them. For Rob Roybrush, household duties were second nature since he’d always been taught to pitch in. The young squirrel did so now, helping the girls with getting the food on the table and talking with Tammy’s mom constantly.
      “Thank you, Rob,” Donna said. “I appreciate the help.” Rob carried over a hot dish. “Thanks for inviting me over, Mrs. Chesnutt. Tammy’s always talking about how good a cook you are, and right now I’m convinced. I hope you don’t mind that Tammy and I were late getting back from our tennis game.”
      “Not at all, she’s not a child anymore. I trust her and more importantly, I trust her with you,” Donna said. Rob helped Donna to her chair like a gentleman, and then did the same for Tammy. Then Bink hopped out of her chair. Of all the Chesnutt girls, she’d changed the most over the past few years. Now she was a very active ten-year-old and wanted to be grown-up like her sister.
      “Hey, what about me?” Bink asked pointedly. Rob smiled down at her. “Oh, pardon me, miss!” Donna and Tammy smiled and looked on as Rob made a big show of pushing Bink up to the table. She looked at him adoringly, and Rob grinned and took his place at the end of the table with Tammy and Bink on each side. Tammy for her part was excited to have him at her own table. Rob said grace for them, and they all began eating a wonderful home-cooked meal.
      Donna opened up the dinner conversation. “So, what are your plans for the future, Rob?” Rob felt right at home already. “Well, you know my dad’s head of one of the bigger construction companies in the area. He and his dad did most of the work on the treehouses around here. I don’t really want to go into that, though. I’m thinking about going into the Rescue Aid Society training program, and getting a local assignment as an expert in information processing. I want to work with the latest technology, and the RAS is still the best place for that.”
      “That’s an interesting career path,” Donna said. “Have you considered working with the Rescue Rangers, like Tammy wants to?” Rob stole a glance at Tammy, who smiled in kind. “I’ve thought about it, and right now my options are still open. If I did work with the RAS, I could always join the Rangers at a later time or help them as a liaison.”
      Donna had liked Rob from the start. He was a boy who knew what he wanted in life, and had the determination to get it. “That would be nice. There aren’t many animals that take an active part in the safety and well being of the general population.”
      “Well, you know what a legend Chip Maplewood is around here. I don’t think I could live up to that, but I’ve got my own star to follow,” Rob said. He hesitated before asking a question he’d had on his mind. “Mrs. Chesnutt, if you don’t mind my asking, do you think that you, Tammy and Bink would be able to come over to our home as well? My parents have met Tammy, but I know they’d enjoy meeting the both of you as well.”
      “Thank you, we’d be delighted,” Donna said. Tammy was very delighted at the idea and her old tendencies took over. “You should see his place, mom! They’ve got this huge house, and their tennis court is great. They’ve even got a swimming pool!”
      Rob looked at Tammy, reminding her, and she clammed up. “I was hoping that Tammy wouldn’t go blurting that out. My parents have done very well, but they’re just down-to-earth people. Shall we say a week from now?”
      Donna liked that Rob didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, and her appreciation showed. “That would be fine, Rob. We’ll be there.” The meal went on, and the conversation grew more relaxed. After supper, they all joined in for a board game and then it was time for Rob to go. Rob hugged Tammy, conscious of her mother’s presence. “Your family’s great, Tammy. I just know yours and mine will get along great. I’m already looking forward to your coming.”
      “Don’t worry, Rob. They’ll all get along great. They’ll see that we both come from good families,” Tammy said. Rob walked to the door with Tammy at his side, then he turned about and addressed Donna. “Thanks again for letting me come, ma’am. My mom’s going to be after you for recipes when you come.”
      “I’ll be glad to share them with her. Tell her that I look forward to meeting her and her husband,” Donna said. Bink caught Rob by the arm. “You’re not forgetting me, are you?”
      “Not a chance!” Rob said, picking Bink up and swinging her around a couple of times. “You keep your sister out of trouble, okay?”
      “Okay, Robbie!” Bink said. Rob and the girls had a good laugh at Bink’s nickname for him and he waved good night as Tammy waved back and blew him a kiss. She shut the door, the stars still in her eyes. “Isn’t he the greatest, mom?”
      “Yes, he’s a very nice young man,” Donna said. “You’ve found a good one there, Tammy. Don’t let him go unless you’re very sure he’s not the right one for you.” Tammy was nearly off into one of her dreamy episodes when her mother’s words caused her to be curious. “Mom, I don’t want this to sound wrong but did you say that because Rob’s a nice person or because his family’s well-off? Sorry, I guess that wasn’t a good question.”
      Donna sat down at the table and Tammy sat next to her. “Tammy, I want you to be happy. I don’t care if you marry a prince or a pauper, but make the right decision.” Tammy breathed a sigh of relief, and hugged her mother. “Thanks, mom. I was hoping I hadn’t mis-read you.” Donna was concerned a little at going to such a nice place, but she put it aside for her girl’s sake. “Well, I’m sure we’ll be able to learn more about Rob by meeting his family and seeing the enviornment he grew up in.”
      “His house is just huge, mom. It was built by Rob’s grandpa, Vernon Roybrush,” Tammy said, thinking about it. “His parents are Sammy and Selina—I think I mentioned that before. Rob’s dad and grandpa are hard-working types and they’ve got all these pictures when you walk in of places where both of them have built houses and other projects and stuff. His folks were really nice to me and I just know you’ll like them!”
      Donna began cleaning up. “I’m sure I will. I’ll have to check to see if I have anything formal enough to wear for a visit and to see if Bink has anything right as well.” Tammy was instantly standing and held up her hands in front of her. “Oh no, mom! They’re casual—they won’t expect you to dress up or anything. Like Rob says, they’re down-to-earth. They like everyone to be straightforward and not put on airs.”
      “Okay,” Donna said, relieved she wouldn’t have to rush through making a dress. Bink for her part was just old enough now to have Tammy’s wistful look in her eyes. “Wow, this is gonna be the coolest! Rob Roybrush is the dude at school!” Tammy gave her sister a knowing look. “Just don’t embarrass me when we’re there, Bink.”
      “Well, does he have a younger brother?” Bink asked. Donna smiled and took her daughter’s hand. “I think you’re a little young to date yet, honey.” Bink stomped her foot. “Aw! I never get to do what I want!” Donna looked up at Tammy and gave her a "remember that" look. “Your day will come, Bink. Just be patient.” Bink gave her a besumed look. “O-kaaaaaay....”

      Morning found Chip Maplewood’s shoulder stiffer than he’d remembered. The night’s rest had allowed the muscles in his arm to tighten and Chip tried to stretch them without causing too much pain. He dressed, regained his sling and went into the kitchen. Monty, Eva and Lahwhinie were already finished and in the main room. A minute later Theo had come in, and they both sat down to breakfast. Chip casually stretched his left arm out fully to reach for the orange juice in the middle of the table. His right shoulder didn’t like the stretching movement and he winced, the jerk of his arm sending his glass onto the floor where it broke.
      Theo got up immediately. “Whoa dad, let me get that for you. You have to rest that arm. Don’t do anything that makes you use any part of it.” Chip looked at the mess with dissatisfaction. “I’ve got it, Theo.” Chip grabbed a dustpan and whisk broom from a cabinet, but then realized he couldn’t sweep and hold the dustpan at the same time. Theo crouched down with him, and took the whisk broom. Chip nodded and held the dustpan while Theo swept up the mess. Then Then got a towel and sopped up the juice.
      “Thanks. Now I’ve got to get a new glass,” Chip said. He went to the cupboard, and reached up for the shelf with the glasses. His right shoulder still wouldn’t allow his left arm to stretch fully, and he could only bring it up a foot past horizontal. Chip snorted and turned to Theo. “Would you ask one of them in there to get me another glass? I can’t raise my arm enough yet.”
      “No problem, dad,” Theo said, bringing Monty back with him. Monty looked Chip over to see that he was okay. “You all right, Chip?”
      “I’m all right. I just tried to do something I shouldn’t have. I need another glass, Monty.” Monty walked up to the cabinet and brought out another glass and filled it for Chip. “You gotta remember what the doctor told you, lad. Rest and lots of it.” Chip rolled his eyes in mock-frustration and took the glass. “Thanks, Monty. Uh, how’s Lahwhinie doing this morning?”
      Monty took on a concerned look. “Well, she’s a bit shaken from those nightmares last night but I think she’s okay.” Chip sat down and drank his orange juice. “That’s good. Did she tell you anything more about why she had them—that is, if I’m not intruding...”
      The Aussie waved off Chip’s concern. “She’s still keepin’ that stuff to herself.” Chip motioned Monty to the table with him. “I think that considering all that’s happened, maybe it’s best I keep my distance from her for now. She doesn’t seem comfortable around me anyway, and I’m nervous anytime I get around her. I didn’t want to take any action without consulting you, though. If you have another idea, I’ll take it into consideration.”
      Monty was relieved that it was Chip saying it, which kept him from having to be the one. “Well, I think you should just do that fer now. Wait and see if she needs yer support. Just be there if she needs help, and that goes fer you to, Theo.” Theo was at attention at once. “Don’t worry, Uncle Monty. I’ll help her all I can!”

      On that note, the phone rang and Monty jumped up to answer it. It was Dale. “Howdy! How’s trix? Anything fun happening while we’re away?” Monty could think of a few things to describe the current situation and fun didn’t come anywhere close. “Er, not so much, mate. How’s it with you and me bonzer princess?”
      “I’m doing fine, dad,” Gadget said on the other line. “How’s Lahwhinie doing?” Monty thought a second on how he should phrase it. “She’s adjustin’, lass. A few bumps here and there...” Monty looked for any out he could find, and Chip was the first one he saw as he and Theo came out of the kitchen. “Listen you two, here’s Chip. He wants ta talk with ya!”
      Chip walked over and took the receiver, covering the speaking end with his hand as Monty whispered to him, “Remember, not a word about the injury or last night. Don’t spoil it fer ’em.” Chip nodded and took his hand off the speaker. “Hey, you two!”
      “So, how is the stalwart leader of the Rangers handling our absence?” Dale asked merrily. Chip played along with him. “We’re managing somehow. Say, what’s your names again? It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard from either of you.”
      Dale’s voice was full of fun. “Well, I’m Dirk Suave and I married Mighty Gadget.” Chip snapped his fingers in recognition. “Oh yeah, the super-spy and the superheorine. I bet you two are just aching to get back into a regular work routine. Speaking of the superheroine, is she around?”
      “I’m here too, Chip. How are you and your son? We can’t wait to meet him!” Gadget said. Chip was glad for a safe topic. “Theo’s a great kid, Gadget. I think he must know the Rangers better than any of us does. He’s been a fan of ours for a long time, and I know he’ll enjoy seeing you both.”
      Theo looked over Chip’s shoulder. “Tell them I said hello and tell them that I can’t wait to meet them!” Chip’s voice mirrored his smile. “He says hello, and like I figured he’s really eager to meet both of you.” Gadget thought for a moment, then spoke again. “Hey, I have an idea, Chip. Why don’t you and Theo come down here to DC for a day? We could have dinner and get to meet him!”
      Chip tried not to panic. He knew the moment she and Dale saw that arm the jig was up. “Uh, maybe we’d better not. After all, we wouldn’t want to impose on you or anything. You’ve probably got plans laid out.”
      “No plans that we couldn’t change for you two,” Gadget said. “Please, Chip. Visit us.” Chip knew he was going have to start playing a few of his cards. “Well, the fact is I can’t come today. You see, Fat Cat’s up to something and we need to check it out. How about you give us a few days to check into this and then I’ll bring him up early next week, okay?”
      Dale chimed in again, concerned. “Uh, are you sure you guys can cover all the bases without us there? We can be there in a few hours if the need calls for it…”
      “No, no! It’s okay,” Chip said, trying to keep his cool. “We’ve got plenty of people to handle this, and I don’t think Fat Cat’s up to anything major at the moment. **Boy, I hope that lasts.** I promise you, if there’s a problem we’ll send for you.” Gadget’s reply was hesitant. “Okay, Chip, if you think you can handle things on your own. Just be careful, and don’t get hurt trying to do it all yourself.”
      **Oh, she would have to say that.** “I’ll try to stay out of trouble. You two have a great day, and thanks for inviting us,” Chip said.
      “You’re welcome, Chip,” Gadget said. Chip turned to Theo. “Your Uncle Dale and Aunt Gadget have asked us to come see them next week. What do you think of that?” Theo felt like running on the ceiling. “That’s great! Can I talk to them, please?” Chip leaned down and whispered. “Just make sure not to mention my injury or anything about Lahwhinie from last night.” Chip handed over the receiver and Theo blurted out. “Hi! I’m Theo.”
      “Hi!” Gadget and Dale said.
      “Zowie, are you really a fan of us Rangers?” Dale asked. Theo puffed up a little. “The biggest fan there is! Wow, I can’t wait to meet you two! Thanks for inviting dad and me down to DC to meet you.”
      “Golly, that’s okay Theo. We’re looking forward to meeting you as well and hearing more about you and how you met Chip,” Gadget said. Theo couldn’t believe he was talking to the Gadget. “It was such a great adventure. It was the greatest experience in my life!”
      “I’ll bet it was!” Dale said. “Have you enjoyed living at Ranger Headquaters since you got there?”
      “Yeah, I’m using your old bunk, Uncle Dale. It’s neat living here! Everyone’s been so nice to me and it’s great having a real home again,” Theo said. Gadget could tell that Theo was one special young fellow. “That’s great, Theo. Has my sister been treating you okay?”
      “She’s been great to me. She even let me call her ‘Aunt’ Lahwhinie,” Theo said. Gadget wondered at that. “Jeepers, that’s not like her. Maybe you found a soft spot in her. Well, it’s been good talking with you. Is Chip still there?” Theo handed the phone to Chip, and Chip said, “What?”
      “Chip, I just wanted to remind you to be patient with Lahwhinie,” Gadget said. “I know she’s probably testing your patience and all, but try to help her.”
      **You don’t know the half of it…thankfully.** “I am behaving myself, Gadget. And I am trying my best to help her. She’s really opened up to Monty, and I think she finally sees herself as his daughter.”
      “That’s wonderful, Chip,” Gadget said, her voice full of her personal warmth. “I just knew she’d come around someday.” Dale interjected at this juncture. “Hey Chip, we’ve gotta go in a minute or so, but thanks for promising to come! Theo sounds like a great boy. Hey, you’re a father! What’s it like, daddy-o?”
      “It’s the greatest feeling in the world, Dale,” Chip said, and meant it. Dale chuckled, “My buddy, a father! I can’t wait to see this. Okay, we’re outta here. Goodbye, Chip!”
     “Bye, Chip! See you soon!” Gadget added.
      “See you next week, hopefully,” Chip said. Theo shouted goodbye as Chip hung up the phone. He looked over at Theo. “I sure hope a week’s long enough to get this arm back in shape, or it’s going to be my hide on the wall.” Theo smiled up at him. “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about Lahwhinie or Foxy anymore!” Chip laughed and followed his son into the main room.

      The week in question passed without anything major for the most part. Chip was still forced to rest, but Monty and Zipper kept tabs on Fat Cat’s activities. Then, the night before Chip was to take Theo up to visit, Monty and Zipper came in the door to Ranger Headquarters. Chip had argued that he should go with them—his arm wasn’t bothering him nearly as much—but Monty had insisted.
      “Anything, Monty?” Chip asked.
      “Nothin’ to write home about, lad. Just the usual nonsense and trouble from Fat Cat and his gang. We didn’t see any indication o’ anything big happening,” Monty said. Zipper lighted by Chip. “Seems that if they have something going, they’re laying low right now.”
      Chip pounded his good hand on the sofa. “I was just certain we’d have heard something by now! When Mepps mentioned that super secret project, I knew it had to be the modemizer! What is that feline felon up to?”
      “I don’t know, Chip,” Zipper said, “But it’s unusual for him to be quiet this long. As much as he likes to plot and plan, he doesn’t normally have this much patience.” Chip was frustrated. He’d wanted the case wrapped up before he left, but now that wasn’t going to happen. Theo and Lahwhinie were doing a puzzle together on a card table, but Theo had spent all the time since Monty had come in looking at Chip worriedly.
      Chip sensed Theo's concern and calmed down. “I’ll depend on you to keep a lookout while Theo and I are gone, Monty. If he makes his move, hopefully you can get in touch with us quickly.” Monty took a seat next to him. “Don’t worry, mate. We’ll keep him in line while you two are away.”
      “Yeah, we’re still not certain it was Fat Cat that stole it,” Zipper said. Eva broke up the conversation as she came in with a glass of warm milk for Chip. “Here, dahling. You vorry like my father used to. Drink it up now, and get some rest. You’ll need extra strength tomorrow to handle the trip.”

      Chip smiled and took the milk. He decided to relax, as he hadn’t slept very well the night before and he was still tired. He returned to the bedroom and drank the glass of milk and was soon able to drift back to sleep. Monty and Eva went off to bed shortly after as well, leaving Lahwhinie and Theo still concentrating on their puzzle—a picture of the Matterhorn.
      “Sure looks cold there,” Lahwhinie said. “I’ve never seen snow.” Theo found that hard to accept. “Never?! Boy, you’re gonna be in for a big surprise come winter. We’ll get tons of the stuff.” Lahwhinie didn’t take her eyes off the puzzle as she continued to talk. “There’s lots of things I haven’t seen. Theo, is Chip avoiding me? He’s barely talked to me all of this last week.”
      Theo had felt the question coming. “Yes, he is. But it’s because he’s afraid that his being around will upset you, so he’s keeping his distance.” Lahwhinie put another piece in place. “Yeah, I thought as much. Well, tell him to quit avoiding me. It’s making me feel as uncomfortable as he looks.”
      “Uh, it would probably be better if you told him that,” Theo said. “I don’t think he’d appreciate the fact that I told you.” Lahwhinie pushed back from the table and looked at Theo. “Is he still holding a grudge on me?” Theo hesitated, but nodded. “He’s still a little upset about what happened in Hawaii.”
      “And I haven’t helped any,” Lahwhinie said, sighing. “Well, maybe getting the big guy out of the house will perk him up. He’s been pacing around the past few days like a lion in a cage.” Theo hoped Lahwhinie was right on that one. “Dad’s a man of action, and he hates being cooped up here and having an unsolved case that’s annoying him too.”
      “Yeah, I noticed that. You probably know him better than I do. What should I do to get along with the little Napoleon?” Lahwhinie asked. Theo smiled at that nickname she’d given Chip. “Stop calling him ‘little Napoleon’ would be a good start. Just be nice to him—say hello and stuff like that. Stop treating him like the enemy.” Lahwhinie grimaced as she returned to the puzzle. “He treats me like I’m a space alien.”
      Theo went back to the puzzle as well. “Well, you are a girl afterall.” Lahwhinie gave Theo a curious look. “What does that have to do with it?” Theo didn’t look up, but kept trying a particular puzzle piece in different places. “Well, you girls are strange and weird and at times really scary.”
      Lahwhinie let out a laugh over that and her voice became more friendly. “So, do you think I’m strange, weird and really scary? Theo looked at her for a moment, then went back to trial-and-error. “Not any more than any other girl, no offense.”
      “I know what you’re talking about, except for me it’s the other way around. Men tend to act strange and weird around me, and sometimes that’s really scary. Just once, I’d like to have someone treat me like I was just a regular person—not a glamour goddess or a flipped-out maniac,” Lahwhinie said. She smiled over at Theo. “You know, you’re just about the only person I’ve been able to talk to like this. Too bad you’re not ten years older.”
      Theo fit the piece he’d been trying and focused his attention on her. “If I was older I’d probably act like the rest of the guys. I’m glad I got to know you now so we could be friends.” Friends. It was a strange word to this mouse who had spent so much of her life in anarchy. She looked down at the boy’s face and knew he was probably right—he would be like the others if he was older.
      “I...haven’t had a friend for over fifteen years now,” Lahwhinie began, “The last one I had was a kind girl who I used to play with all the time. She and I would make up stories about places we wanted to see, but then...” Lahwhinie stopped, not wanting to let her emotions out. Theo reached out and touched her hand that was on the table. “It’s okay, Aunt Lahwhinie. I know what it’s like to lose people you care about.” She knew she couldn’t tell him the truth, but it would have taken too much effort to fabricate a lie for him. Her eyelids came down halfway over her eyes.
      “I didn’t lose her. I lost myself,” Lahwhinie said softly. Theo felt a lot of sympathy for her. “But you did what you did to survive. Now you don’t have to fight to survive anymore. You’re not alone.” Lahwhinie felt that Theo was in some ways a kindred spirit and it helped her to be more open with him. “You’ve been where I have, at least in some degree. You know how hard it is to change. I’m afraid if I risk too much commitment, something will happen and I’ll be out on my own again.”
      “Do you think that your mom and dad and sister would ever just abandon you? They love you and they’d stick by you no matter what,” Theo countered. Lahwhinie settled down into the conversation now. “No one else has cared whether I was alive or dead. I don’t have anything to compare them with.”
      “Well, just sit back and enjoy the ride. They care if you’re getting enough to eat, if you’re feeling well, and they worry if you’re sleeping well. Don’t miss this chance. Ones like this don’t come around very often.” Lahwhinie threw up her hands. “What about you and the and Chip? Do you two care?”
      “Sure, I care about you. You’re my Aunt Lahwhinie and Chip cares, too. He just doesn’t know how to show that he does without you thinking he’s trying to make a pass at you.” Lahwhinie turned that information over in her head. “What do you think he would do if I was polite to him, besides pass out?”
      “I think he’d be suspicious that you were trying to toy with him and hurt his feelings,” Theo said frankly. Lahwhinie’s eyes took on a note of surprise. “You may be young, but you’re not ignorant are you? Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt just to say ‘good morning’ to him. I’m tired of having to playing dodge ’em every day.”
      “Maybe you two should just sit down and talk,” Theo suggested. “It couldn’t hurt.”
      “I dunno. Maybe. I’ll sleep on it,” Lahwhinie said as she got up, and gave Theo a hug. “Thanks. I’ve always wanted a guidance counselor that didn’t charge by the hour.” Theo smiled up at her. “I glad I could help, Aunt Lahwhinie. That’s what family is for. Good night!”
      Lahwhinie waited until Theo had gained the hallway before turning the light out. She still didn’t understand why she felt she could talk to the boy, but in a way she didn’t care. The talking was the main thing. Lahwhinie entered her room, changed for bed and turned matters over in her head on her pillow. Maybe she did want things to change, but what if it blew up in her face? Or worse, what if it ended up like...but no, she wouldn’t think that now. Not with Monty here to protect her. Lahwhinie settled in for the night, but then another thought came to her.

      The late hours seemed to find Monty awake more often than usual these days. He'd slipped out on the pretense of making a cheese raid in the kitchen. This he did, but his ultimate goal was elsewhere. For days now, Lahwhinie taking Gadget's necklace had bothered him, and despite his patience with her he had to know if she'd put it back or not. Monty crept as silently as possible from the main room to the lair, where Gadget normally kept the necklace in Sarah Hackwrench's old jewelry box. He was deliberating whether to confront Lahwhinie about all this when he stopped on the stairs, a flashlight spotlighting him from behind.
      “And vhere are you going?” Eva asked. Monty gasped and started in surprise. “Okay, luv, ya caught me. I'm goin' ta check on that necklace and make sure it's back where it's supposed to be.” Eva gave him a semi-amused look. “Now who is the shpy, eh?” Eva walked up to where she was just beneath him. “I have had similar concerns about her too, dahling. I vould hope that all is well and the necklace is in its rightful place. Still, to go behind her back now after we decided not to before, is that not inconsistent?”
      “I don't feel right about it either, luv,” Monty said, “But I won't get a wink o' sleep until I know all is right or wrong with the world. I wanna believe it's back where it needs ta be, but a part o' me still remembers a bit too clear what she was like in the old days. Anyway, I just gotta make sure. I don't want Gadget comin' home and finding it missing.” Eva knew that last point was a good one. “Yes, we cannot let Gadget be the one to have to confront her if she kept it. It is our duty, you are right. We go.”
      Monty continued up the stairs, feeling lower with each step. He knew he'd feel bad if he did check and or didn't check, so he decided to continue on. They made their way to the lair and the box where the necklace was kept. With a trembling hand Monty reached for the lid, but pulled his hand away at the last moment. “I'm too nervous, luv. You open it.”
      Eva stepped forward. “Oh, leave it to the brave voman to check. Ah, well...” Eva tipped the box open and shined the flashlight inside. Its beam was instantly reflected by the three large diamonds of the necklace. Eva smiled and closed the lid while Monty let out a sigh of relief. “That does me old heart good. She ain't a lost cause,” Monty said. Monty hugged Eva, glad that his Erskine instincts hadn’t failed him. “Yep, looks like we got a shot at getting her on the right side o' life.” Eva looked back at the box as she spoke. “Now we have no more reason to doubt her, at least. Come, let us get back downstairs.”
      Eva and Monty cautiously walked back downstairs, not using the flashlight in case Lahwhinie was up and about as well. The coast was clear, and they headed back for their room. Once their door was shut, the door to the lair opened up again. Lahwhinie had been there, and was very glad she'd returned the necklace when she did. She'd ducked into Dale's gym when she heard them coming, and she'd heard their full conversation. Lahwhinie headed back downstairs, then looked behind her at the stairs and smiled, shaking her head as she continued on back to her room.

Chapter 11 - Mr. Theo Goes to Washington, Sister Talk, Jake Stone Meets His Match, and A New Little Dream

      The next morning, Chip and Theo were up even earlier than normal and were at the breakfast table when Monty was firing up the stove. Theo was very excited—he’d never been to Washington, D.C., and it was all he could talk about. “Is your arm going to be okay enough to fly us there, dad? Do you want me to fly for you?”
      Chip stretched his right arm—it was still stiff, but now he could maneuver it slowly without causing pain to his shoulder. He had put the sling aside. “I’ll manage very well, thank you. Now you be sure to thank Uncle Dale and Aunt Gadget for this—it’s not everyone that would allow a day of their honeymoon to be imposed upon.” Theo drank up his juice. “I know, but I just bet that they really miss Ranger duty and they want to come back.”
      “Well maybe, but don’t press them. A honeymoon only comes around once, and we want them to enjoy it for as long as they can,” Chip said.
      “Okay, I’ll take it easy on them. Wow, I’m so excited!” Theo said, his hands shaking to accentuate the point. Chip found himself enjoying the idea of going more than he’d thought, just because Theo was. The young chipmunk’s enthusiasm was contagious, plus Chip wanted him to be happy now. “They’ll be excited to meet you, too. I’m sort of glad to get out of the house myself. Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own here, Monty?”
      Monty downed a cheese omelette. “Don’t worry, pally. Zip n’ I’ll keep an eye on ol’ Fat Cat for ya. If he starts up anything, we’ll get a message out.” Chip finished his breakfast and stood up from the table. “Okay, Monty. I’ll try to treat this as a mini-vacation and not think about work.” Theo had talked most of the time instead of eating, but when Chip stood he finished his breakfast fast, woofing it down. “Well, I’m ready to go. How about you?”
      Chip chuckled in amusement. “Hold your horses, Theo! We’ll get off in good time. Why don’t you go make sure you’ve got whatever you’d like to take with you?” Theo rushed out of the room and went to check on his stuff, and Chip got a second helping and sat back down to wait on him. As Theo went, he nearly ran over Lahwhinie who’d just gotten up. She came into the kitchen and sat down at the table across from Chip, actually smiling at him.
      That alone was enough to make Chip nervous of course. “Oh uh, good morning Lahwhinie. Do you have a message you’d like me to give your sister?” Lahwhinie started in on breakfast. “Not really. Just tell her I’ll be glad when she gets back.” Chip was all too conscious of Monty’s presense as well, and decided that he’d better keep his distance. He ate his last few bites quickly, and stood up. “I’m going outside to do a final checkup on the Wing before we go...” Lahwhinie followed him with her eyes. “See you two later. Have fun, keep a close eye on Theo.”

      Chip left the room in what seemed almost too much of a hurry. Lahwhinie had seen Chip’s look and knew why he'd turned away so quickly. She finished up and turned to Monty, who had watched Chip go too. “Dad, you were watching his every more. Now you’ve got him more nervous than a pig before a luau.” Monty got self-conscious. “Well, we just thought…”
      “You thought he’d be a problem for me. Well, the problem is he’s avoiding me like the plague and I’m sick of it. I’m going to go talk to him,” Lahwhinie said, getting up. Monty stood up too. “Don’t do anything rash, lass.” Lahwhinie gave him a “who, me?” look as she left the kitchen. Monty started to go out into the main room where he could get a good look, but decided against it. He did intercept Theo though, explaining that Lahwhinie wanted a few minutes with Chip. Theo knew the reason all too well, so he gladly followed Monty back in the kitchen.
      Lahwhinie walked outside where Chip was checking over the Wing. “Chip...may I talk to you for a little while?” Chip’s head was under the bonnet of the Wing, so she didn’t see his reaction. **May? Oh, no. She probably wants to come with us.** Chip turned away from checking the batteries on the Wing and faced her. “Okay, Lahwhinie. What do you want to talk about?”
      “I want to talk about the reason we both keep giving each other the cold shoulder,” she said. Chip tensed up in a nanosecond. He wasn’t sure where this was going to lead. “Oh, I see you noticed that. **Duh**. Okay, I’ve been avoiding you.”
      Lahwhinie sat on one of the lawn chairs and tried to be as open as she could. “I know why. Chip, I’m not going to try to seduce you anymore.” She saw Chip’s incredulous look, but continued. “I want to start over and I’d like us to have a good working relationship. Chip...I’m sorry for kissing you and nearly killing you all in Hawaii. I know I didn’t make a good first impression.”
      Chip was about to reply, but Lahwhinie motioned for him to hold up. “When I first met you, you were just another dumb guy that I could use to further my own ends. But you’ve shown that you’re not an average guy. In fact, you’re the first guy that ever said ‘no’ to me...the only guy that ever said no. Well, you were acting like an average guy in Hawaii, but since I’ve been here you’ve acted different.”
      Chip was totally taken aback by her words, spoken frankly and with sincerity. He couldn’t help but smirk at that "first impression" idea, then Chip began to feel awkward as she mentioned his saying no to her. “I’ve had a lot of changes in my life since Hawaii—I guess you have too. I guess I haven’t been very fair to you, either. I had a preconceived notion about you and I wasn’t really giving you a chance. All right, we’ll start over fresh with no mistakes. Hi, I’m Chip Maplewood.”
      Chip held out his hand and while Lahwhinie thought that Chip’s gesture was silly, it appeared he meant it. Lahwhinie stood up and shook his hand. “Hi, Chip. I’m Lahwhinie Eva Valkerie Raboga Erskine. Hope I didn’t miss anything.” Chip started to relax again, and actually found he could smile some. “Wow, that’s a mouthful. Do you mind help helping me check over the Wing? It won’t take but a minute and then Theo and I can head out.”
      Lahwhinie shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever, but I’m pretty much useless when it comes to mechanical things.” Chip had scrutinized her closely, but she didn’t appear to be up to anything. “Well, the Wing’s very easy to learn. Gadget taught me in a day, so I’m sure you can pick it up just as fast.” Chip turned back to the Wing and checked the battery connections.
      Lahwhinie looked over the Wing the way a kid might admire a complex toy that’s not understood. “It’s hard to believe that she built this from junk. Since she’s not here, I’ll be honest and say that I'm so jealous of Gadget...and of mom. They’re both brilliant and I didn’t get any of that brilliance. They’re geniuses and I’m...Hawaiian. And to add insult to injury, they could get by on their brains and beauty. I’ve just had my looks to get me through life.”
      Chip had been checking the instrument panel, but pivoted to look over at her. “You shouldn’t feel that way! I mean, you’ve got special talents just like they do. You’re a great cook, and that’s something Gadget’s never done well. Maybe if you gave yourself a chance, you’d find out you can do other things well.” Lahwhinie grimaced at the idea of cooking. “Do you really think that I could ever be satisfied if I spent the rest of my life slaving over a stove? Maybe I could get a cooking show on cable tv, the Machiavellian Gourmet.”
      Chip got out of the cockpit, opened the bonnet and checked the oil. “Then don’t do cooking, or better yet take some time and find what it is you do like. Surely you’ve got a dream you want. This is your chance to follow it.” Lahwhinie watched Chip as he worked. “The only dreams I’ve ever had are being queen of the entire world...and destroying you all for ending that dream.”
      Chip bumped the back of his head on the bonnet as he reared up quickly. “Uh, well maybe I should rephrase that. How about a new goal? You’re young and capable from what I’ve seen—why not find something that makes you happy,” **And leaves us alive.**
      Lahwhinie sat back down. “I don’t know what makes me happy. For so long mere survival equaled happiness. Happy was always a short-lived luxury, one that I eventually learned to live without.” Chip finished checking the Wing and cleaned his hands off with a shop rag, then came over to her. “Look, I don’t have the answers. But do you want to be happy?”
      She crossed her arms, and that sarcasm of hers came up again. “Sure, but I don’t see you carrying a magic wand to wave over me.” Chip pretended to look for one in his jacket. “Sorry, all out today. But if you want a new start, the others and I will help you. I’ve learned from personal experience that everyone deserves a second chance. You’re the only person who can decide to let yourself be happy. Nothing or no one else will make you that way.”
      “Yeah, if you say so,” Lahwhinie said, not convincing anyone. “Theo’s probably going nuts waiting for us to finish talking. Take good care of him, Chip. He’s a great kid.”
      “Yeah, he is. I’m glad things have worked out the way they did,” Chip said. From inside, Theo had been watching the proceedings with a good deal of interest. When Chip and Lahwhinie shook hands, he nearly jumped with glee. It was good to see them making peace between each other. Now they were coming inside together and he ran up to them.
      “So when are we going, dad? Huh?” Theo asked, about to burst.
      “We’re on our way, son. Don’t worry, you’ll get there today,” Chip said. Lahwhinie looked down at Theo with curiousity. “Why so eager? Washington’s just another town.” Theo couldn’t believe she’d say something like that. “Are you kidding? All the great monuments and all, plus I’ll get to see Uncle Dale and Aunt Gadget for the first time! I can’t wait!” Lahwhinie watched Theo running all around the room in sheer anticipation, then he bounded out to the RangerWing. “Wish I’d have had that kind of energy when I was his age.”
      “It’s the chipmunk in him,” Chip said. “Didn’t you ever romp around any?” Lahwhinie grew quiet for a moment. “No, I wasn’t allowed. And I never got to play games.” Chip was shocked. No wonder she didn’t know how to get along with others! “You mean not one game? Not even tag?”
      “The only game I was taught was to play with people’s heads,” Lahwhinie said, a certain emptiness in her voice. “Don’t be naive, Chip. I was being indoctrinated into a paramilitary-terroristic organization. They trained us for war!” Lahwhinie turned away from him then, her voice becoming small. “They took my childhood away from me...they took everything from me...what I might have been. I look at Gadget—she’s so happy, she’s so loving, caring and affectionate. I could have been like that, maybe.” She twisted around and looked into his eyes. “Could you imagine me being pure and innocent, like her? What might I have been if I’d grown up with her?”
      Chip had been about to head out the door, but now the emptiness in her voice prevented him. He stood there, not knowing what to do at first. “I don’t know, but it’s time to leave that behind, Lahwhinie. You’ve got friends that care about you now, and a family that loves you. It’s time for you to get back the things you lost so long ago.”
      “What can remove the pain and emptiness? You can’t wash away a lifetime of loneliness and hurt plus the hurt I caused in others over the years. At times like this I wish I'd never been born,” Lahwhinie said, a cross look on her face. Chip looked down, as recent memories came flooding back. “Lahwhinie, I had the same pain and emptiness in me that you do now when I found out that Gadget loved Dale. But I’m not empty anymore. I started to love again—it’s the only thing that can fill the void, the only thing that really matters.”
      Chip wanted to take her hand, to encourage her. He held back, knowing she might misinterpret it. “I’d like you to count me as a friend.” Lahwhinie looked over at him. “Yeah, maybe it works for you. You’ve got Foxglove, who’s just as sweet and gentle and innocent as Gadget. Can’t say that about me, can you? Still, I have my looks to get me what I want until age deprives me of my meal ticket, that is.”
      Lahwhinie saw Chip’s reaction and she stopped, then sighed and looked at the floor. “Thanks, Chip. You…you better get going, or you and Theo are going to be late.” Chip tried to move, but his feet wouldn’t let him. He knew he should go, knew that Theo was waiting for him in the Wing. He tried to speak, but no words would come. Lahwhinie looked up again. “What?”
      “I think...I’d better get going,” Chip said.

      The RangerWing lifted off as the Erskines all came outside and waved goodbye. Chip set the course south, then looked down again. He waved back, and felt a tinge of guilt at leaving Lahwhinie, considering the confessions she’d just made. But no, he’d not let himself fall into that trap again. Chip shook off the feeling, and soon headquarters was a distant memory. But in the back of his mind, he was still thinking about Lahwhinie and the horrific life she’d led. There had to be something to help her, but what? Chip’s thoughts turned that way until his distraction became blatently obvious to Theo.
      “I know how you feel,” Theo said. “I also wish there was something I could do to make her feel better about herself and life in general.” Chip was glad to have someone to discuss this with. “Why does she insist on self-punishment? It’s so frustrating. She’s so concentrated on the negative, that she can’t see the good at all right now.”
      “She probably feels guilty for the way she’s lived. She had to do those things to survive, but for the first time she’s had to face that those things were all bad.” Chip thought back on the look on her face. “Very guilty, by the look of her. I didn’t think I’d ever be saying this, but I don’t think she’s really bad inside. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s just how I read her. Am I mis-reading her?”
      “Dad, do you think she likes being the way she is?” Theo asked. Chip looked away, toward the horizon. “If what just happened is an example, she’d give anything to be something other than what she’s been.” Theo looked there with him. “Well, you can’t change the past. I should know. I tried building a time machine when I was little, but it didn’t work.”
      “But you can live in the present,” Chip said. “If I was still living in the past, I’d have never been able to help Foxy, and I’d never have met you. You just can’t dwell on the mistakes of the past—her dad’s forgiven her, after all. So has her mom, and now me.”
      Theo looked over at him. “Did you tell her that?” Chip returned his glance. “Yes, I told her we’d start over fresh with no mistakes. I didn’t feel like holding that over her head anymore.” Theo realized Chip had misunderstood the question. “But that’s not the same as coming out and saying, ‘I forgive you, Lahwhinie’.”
      Chip was silent for a bit, thinking. “No, I guess it isn’t. It’s hard to let go of it when someone tries to kill you and all your friends. I don’t think I was ready to go that far right then. I’ll do it when we get back.” Theo was glad for that, for Lahwhinie’s sake at least. “Okay, that works for me. Is your arm going to be okay for this trip? I could fly if you want…”
      Chip’s hard face softened into his normal grin. “Nice try, flyboy. You’re still too young, but if you’re good I’ll teach you a thing or two on the way back. Deal?” Theo returned to his natural upbeat nature with that comment. “Deal! So, are we there yet?”

      After another twenty minutes of "are we there yet", the skyline of the nation's capital appeared. Theo was ecstatic, pointing in every direction. They weren't meeting Gadget and Dale until noon, so there was plenty of time for sightseeing. Chip had been here several times, but his son's sense of wonder made it all new again–the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument. After three hours of flying across the city, the Wing set down on the roof of the Washington Monarch Hotel. They were expected, and the concierge escorted them to the lobby, where Gadget and Dale were waiting for them. Dale had a grand smile on his face when he saw the younger Maplewood. “Chip and son! Welcome!”
      Gadget hugged Theo. “Hello, Theo. I’m Gadget. It’s nice to meet you.” Theo was totally in awe of her. “Wow, I’m really meeting Gadget Oakmont! Did you really build a spaceship out of left-over parts?”
      “Golly, you know about my rocketship? Yes, it was made out of some stuff I found in a landfill,” Gadget said. Theo was intrigued that she didn’t know something that he did. “Sure I know. I’m the president of the local Ranger fan club!”
      “Fan club?” Chip asked. “Why haven’t we heard of these fan clubs?” Theo stared at them, wondering where they’d been. “Don’t you guys ever go on the internet? There’s dozens of fan clubs devoted to you guys all over the world! I’m sorta proud, because I’m the president of the one in the city where you guys are.”
      Gadget couldn’t imagine why people would be fans of theirs. “But we’re just one little group that helps people. Why would we have such a big following?” Theo couldn’t believe that she’d asked that. “Why would you think that's strange? There’s not that many folks to look up these days, and most people are looking for good role models or people that they can point to who fight for the things they hold dear. The group members defend all of your reputations fiercely, and believe in what you guys do. They all want to be Rangers, just like I’m going to be.”
      Dale patted Chip on the right shoulder. “You’ll be a great role model, Chip.” Chip winced, feeling the pain even through his jacket. “Thanks, Dale. Maybe we’ll have to look in on these groups. Sounds like something promising.” Gadget saw Chip wince, and a question formed in her eyes. “Are you okay, Chip?” Chip shifted his eyes nervously. “I just got banged up a little is all. It was an accident.” Gadget found herself wondering why she didn’t believe him. “Well, okay, if you think you’re okay...”
      “So, how have things been going without us?” Dale asked. Chip was about to put them off again, when he saw Gadget looking at him, then to his shoulder and back to his eyes. He knew that she khew he was covering something. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t do this anymore, and even though Monty had warned him not to say a word, Chip knew it was time to come clean and do some damage control. “Come walk with me...”

      Chip led the others outside and soon they were walking on the Washington Mall. He explained as delicately as he could what had happened the night he’d been stabbed. “…and then I ended up at the clinic with Doctor Batorious. I’m just now at the stage where I can tolerate some of my normal activities.”
      “That must’ve been rough, Chip,” Dale said. “I’m glad you’re okay, but you should’ve called us! We would’ve come back to help out!” Gadget took Chip’s hand. “Dale’s right. You were short-handed, er... armed.” Chip smiled at the both of them for their good intentions. “We didn’t want to spoil your honeymoon. I’m sure Monty will have a few terse words for me for telling you, but you haven’t heard the whole story yet. The accident plus being with her folks has affected Lahwhinie. She’s really warmed up to Monty, but at the same time I think she’s beginning to face what’s made her the way she is.”
      Chip continued, telling them about the nightmare she’d had, and his and Theo’s speculations on it. Then he told them about the events that had taken place that day. “She actually said she was sorry for what she did to us. I never thought she’d say that, and then she briefly recounted some of her past. I’ve never felt so bad for another person.”
      “Golly, I should be there for her...” Gadget said, self-consciously. Dale for his part was concerned for Chip. “Chip, maybe we should come on home early. You need us to help with Ranger duty and Gadget could keep an eye on Lahwhinie.”
      “Dale, this is your honeymoon!” Chip protested. “You’ll never get another one, you know. I admit we could use you both, but right now Fat Cat hasn’t made any moves. Gadget, I don’t know if she’ll open up to you yet, based on what she told me. And I’m hopeful that I can keep Lahwhinie talking.”
      Dale knew he wouldn’t feel right staying now. “The safety of our friends comes first.”
      “And do you really think we could be happy here, knowing that both you and Lahwhinie need our help?” Gadget added.
      Chip sighed, looking into their faces and knowing the decision was made. “I guess not. I’m sorry about this.” Gadget gave him a friendly hug. “Don’t be, Chip. We knew deep down we’d never be able to keep away from all of you that long. Even if nothing had happened we still would’ve come home early.”
      Theo looked at Chip smugly. “See, dad? I told you they were hungry for some action! Uncle Dale, would you teach me to fence sometime?” Dale smiled down at the gung-ho chipmunk. “Sure, Theo. And I can teach you to paint too! And teach you my superspy techniques.” Theo was warming up to Dale very fast. “Major cool! I can’t wait for that. Aunt Gadget, maybe you could teach me some things too! I guess I’m speaking out of turn, but I’ve always wanted to know how you build all that neat stuff!”
      Gadget had an apologetic look on her face as she replied. “I don’t know if I can teach something like that. It’s just intuitive.” Theo drew up close to her and said softly. “Well, could you at least teach me to fly the RangerWing?” Chip had heard him though. “Theo...”
      “Aw, c’mon dad!” Theo said, spinning around. “I don’t want to feel useless. I’ll even help out with keeping it clean and all—I just want to learn, that’s all.” Gadget tapped his shoulder and gave him a warm smile when he turned back to her. “Flying is something that will have to wait, Theo. We can teach you some of its functions, but you can’t fly it till you’re older.”
      Theo let the air of his sails. “All right, all right. I’ll be patient. I wish you’d invented something that would make me ten years older, Aunt Gadget. You don’t get to do anything when you’re my age.” Dale knew where that kind of thinking came from. “That’s not true, Theo. There’s lotsa fun stuff! You get to play, you can just hang around with your friends and do all kinds of great things that you can’t do when you’re grown up! Enjoy your childhood. It doesn’t last forever.”
      The procession began their trek back to the hotel, and Theo’s thoughts turned elsewhere. “Well, I guess so. But it would be really fun to fly that RangerWing. Dad, are there any kids my age in the park to play with? I don’t remember seeing any.”
      “There’s lots of kids your age, but we don’t socialize much with our neighbors so we don’t see them too often,” Chip said. Theo had already guessed the first part, as no one had come over while he’d been there. “Guess that’s up to me, then. I bet you’ve got some Ranger fans in them and you just don’t know it. You don’t even know one person my age well enough to introduce us?”
      “Well, Bink’s about your age,” Dale said.
      Theo pricked up his ears at this. “Bink? Who’s he?”
      “Bink’s a she,” Gadget said. “She’s the youngest daughter of a good friend of ours. She lives near HQ.” Theo’s interest bit the dust. “A girl? But girls don’t like to play cool games.” Gadget could see this was going to take some effort. “Well, she is adventrous like you are, and she runs her mother and sister ragged with all her energy.”
      **Typical girl—taking up for one of her own.** “Well, I guess I could give it a try. When could we go over there?” Theo asked. Dale liked the idea of seeing the Chesnutts again, particularly the idea of seeing Donna’s cooking. “Well, I’m sure she knows that Chip has a son by now. She’s probably eager to meet you. Monty could invite them over for dinner—and then we’d get to go over there sometime. Donna makes the best apple turnovers on Earth!”
      “That sounds like a good idea, inviting them over that is,” Chip said. “We haven’t had the Chesnutts over in quite some time. But Theo, remember if you want friends then you’ve got to be one. You may have to do some give-and-take.” Theo nodded, but he wasn’t sure about playing with a girl. “Okay, dad. But I draw the line at tea parties!”
      “You won’t have to worry about stuff like that from Bink,” Dale said. “She wants to be a Ranger too. She keeps asking when we’re going to teach her how to fly the Rangerwing.”
      **Hmm...competition. I’ll have to check this one out.** “All right, Uncle Dale. I’ll give her a chance,” Theo said.

      The Rangers returned to the hotel, where the staff was very disappointed that Gadget and Dale were leaving them. They had become a quick favorite with everyone, and especially Christopher the head bellman. While Chip and Theo went to the roof, Gadget and Dale called Monty and told him the news. Christopher helped Gadget and Dale with their bags.
      “I hope you can come back again next year. If you want to come, phone here and ask for me. I know when the rooms will be available at discounted rates. We’d all like to have you back,” Christopher said. Dale put his bags down and saluted. “Thanks, Little John. You’re a credit to your profession.” Gadget shook Christopher’s hand. “Golly, you sure did a great job.”
      Christopher bowed grandly. “My pleasure, Robin and Marion. The merry men will guard Sherwood until you can return. And bring your friends along too—as long as there’s no Normans among the bunch.” Once they’d joined Theo and Chip on the roof, the attendants speedily loaded the Oakmonts’ luggage into place, and cleared them to leave. Gadget looked once more at the DC skyline, then back at Dale. “Well Dale, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time. I’ll always remember this as something special.” Dale gently put his arms around her. “Don’t worry. Stick with me, kid, and I’ll see to it that your life’s filled with adventure and romance.”
      Gadget held up her ring. “You’re stuck with me anyway, Robin. For better or worse. But I know it’s better.” Gadget hugged him, Dale looked over at Theo. “In honor of Theo being our newest Ranger, I graciously defer the shotgun seat to you. Wanna come with us?”
      “Hey, thanks! Is it all right, dad?” Theo asked. Chip looked to Gadget and Dale and they both nodded. “Sure, go ahead. I’ll be right behind you in the RangerWing. It’ll give you a chance to get to know Gadget and Dale better.” Gadget was about to get in, when she remembered Chip’s shoulder. “Chip, you’re hurt. You shouldn’t fly alone.” Chip opened his mouth to protest, but he caught himself. “All right, thanks. We’ll split up, then.”

      “How about I take Theo with me, then?” Dale offered. Chip nodded, and Theo went bounding off with Dale. Gadget insisted on flying the Wing herself, so Chip leaned back and let her do it. In a minute, both vehicles were airborne. Chip was so glad to have his friends back. “Well, I did manage to curb myself, Gadget. It’s something I’m still learning to do, but thanks for giving my arm a rest.”
      “Chip, you really need to start taking better care of yourself. You’re a father now and you need to be around a long time to look after Theo,” Gadget said.
      “I plan to be. Gadget, I don’t want you to hold this against Lahwhinie. I was hoping to get some time to talk with you so I could explain better what’s been happening,” Chip said. “Say, how’d you enjoy things? I know we talked some on the phone, but what all did you do?”
      Gadget smiled as she looked over at him. “It was wonderful, Chip. We went to almost every famous place in town, and every night Christopher had something special lined up for us. Dale didn’t even complain when we went to the Lincoln Center and saw Evita. I think he was just happy being with me. We’re still taking things slow, but I’m so glad I married him. And now I’m glad for you too, Chip. Theo looks like a great boy.”
      Gadget paused a moment, then asked the question she’d had on her mind for some time. “She hasn’t been flirting with you again, has she?” Chip blinked at Gadget’s question, not expecting it. “Lahwhinie? No, in fact she told me she wouldn’t try to flirt with me anymore. I know what you’re thinking, and maybe you’re right. Maybe she is just toying with me, but somehow I don’t think so. If you could’ve heard the fear in her voice when she had that nightmare, and the way she screamed...I think she’s been more of a victim in her life than any of us realized.”
      “I guess only mom could have any understanding of what kind of life Lahwhinie’s had. We'll just need to be patient with her and help her all we can,” Gadget said tentatively. Chip knew Lahwhinie was a sensitive spot for Gadget, and he also knew it ran both ways. “There’s one thing I need to tell you, but don’t let it get back to her. She’s jealous of you—of your abilities, I mean. She has very low self-esteem, and thinks that only her appearance is worth anything. Maybe you can help her to find the talents she does have, and give her a sense of self-worth.”
      “I’ll try, Chip. I guess I still have some resentment against her from what happened before. She’s my sister and I need to start thinking of her as that. She’s family and she needs my help,” Gadget said. Chip was glad that he’d had the talk. It helped his conscience to know that Gadget would try to help Lahwhinie. “Gadget, I’m also going to need your help. Today when Lahwhinie and I talked, she came to me because I’d been avoiding her—I knew Monty wanted me to give her time to recover. I agreed to quit doing that, and then she began explaining how she’d been treated as a child. I felt bad for her, and at one point I wanted to take her hand and comfort her. I didn’t, because I didn’t know if I could do that and stay objective or how she'd react. If you see me slipping or doing something I shouldn’t, let me know.”
      Gadget found she liked this new openness in Chip. **Maybe it’s having Theo around.** “Don’t worry, Chip. I don’t want to see either of you get hurt again.” Chip was glad he could confide in her and ask for her help. “Thanks, Gadget. I’m thankful I’ve got you for a friend.” Gadget checked their direction, then returned to the conversation. “Chip, how are things going with you and Foxy? Do you miss her?”
      Chip was surprised that she asked that. “Yes, I miss her. I’d grown used to the attention she showered me with, and now it’s not there. I love her, but I’m still not sure if I want to marry her—plus it’s not fair to ask anything like that of her until she’s had time to adjust to her own family. She may decide she likes being with bats better.”
      “I don’t know. You don’t just forget your first love,” Gadget said. Chip smiled a little. “No, I guess you don’t. My first love was Agnes Oakmont. I had a crush on her so bad I think I could have jumped to the moon if she’d asked me to. She knew I liked her, and always treated me nice. Still, it couldn’t last and when she got a job writing it led her overseas. I think I must’ve moped for a month after that.”
      “As for Foxy, she fell head over heels in love with you the moment she first saw you,” Gadget said. Neither of them said anything more for a few moments, then Chip felt compelled to speak again. “Yes, I know. It took Foxy a while to get past sheer adoration, and treat me like a person. We both agreed that we needed time away from each other to know our own hearts—especially now that Foxy has her family and possibly a singing career to deal with.”
      Gadget could tell he was torn, and her sympathies went out to him. “I really hope she comes back to you, Chip. I hope it is the real thing. Besides, I’m sure Theo would like a mom to go along with having a dad.” Chip had thought of that part too. “We’ll take it slow, and see what happens. I’d hate to get her into a marriage she’s not sure of, and then only find it out later. Of course, that goes for me as well. I want to make sure she’s the one, and that I’m not just influencing her into this. If I marry, I want it to be with the right person for the right reasons.”
      “Sorry, it just seems like everyone else is settling down suddenly, it’s like you’re the odd man out. How are Zipper and Honey getting along?” Gadget asked, hoping to turn the conversation. Chip’s grin returned. “Like peas and carrots. Apparently, Honey has a younger sister and from what Zipper’s told me she could take over for Honey if she’s trained right. So there’s definitely hope in the water for them. Gadget, I don’t want you to worry about me. Even if Foxy and I decide not to marry, I’ve still got Theo. I’ve come to love him just as I would my own son, and I know I’ll never feel alone again.”
      Gadget had a sudden thought, and she knew it needed placating. “I hate to even suggest this, but are you sure you adopted him for the right reasons? Did you adopt him because he needed the love and guidance that only you could offer him, or just for him to be there so you’re not alone?” Chip couldn’t blame her for asking that, but on that point he was sure. “If ever a person had been made for me to guide and love, it’s Theo. He sought me out, and I knew early on that he was looking for answers that I could help him find. I didn’t do it to avoid being alone, Gadget. I did it because he needed me, and strangely enough I’ve found I need him too.”
      Gadget stopped the RangerWing and looked at him with a surprised smile. “Chip, I never thought I’d hear you talk like that about anyone. That’s so sweet. I hope Theo knows what a great father he’s getting.” Chip smiled back. “I never thought I’d meet anyone like Theo, but I think he knows pretty well, Gadget. He grew up with me as his hero—in fact, I saved his life once when we checked for survivors at the old Burkeman warehouse when it burned down. That’s when he lost his parents and ended up in the orphanage. It spurred his interest in us, and in me in particular.”
      “I remember that fire. Golly, what a terrible way to lose your family! It’s strange the way the things we do affect events that happen in the future,” Gadget said. Chip had to admit, it was a unique set of circumstanes. “Well, they say everything we do has an effect on everyone in some way or another. I’m glad that with Theo, that effect’s a good one for both of us. I just hope we can say the same for your sister.”
      Gadget started the Wing up again. “I just don’t know what kind of relationship we could have, Chip. We’re so different. We had totally different childhoods and we have such different attitudes about life. She’s my sister in blood, but I don’t know if we could be sisters at heart.”
      They sighted Central Park, and Gadget began her descent right behind Dale. Chip let his thoughts return to the Hawaiian mouse. “Maybe you won’t be able to be a sister to her right away. But for now, she needs friends and you’re the best when it comes to that.”
      “Thanks, Chip.”

      When they landed, Gadget and Chip joined back up with Dale and Theo who had formed an alliance already. They were talking about their favorite comic-book heroes as the group went inside. Monty and the others welcomed them, with dinner preparations already underway. “Welcome back, Oakmonts! Right sorry we had ta go and bust up yer fun, though.”
      “It’s okay dad, we were both getting really homesick anyway,” Gadget said, hugging Monty. “We missed you all so much!” Gadget rushed up to her mother and gave her a big hug. Dale followed suit, and Eva put her hands around them both. “Oh, it is good to have you both home again! The headquarters feels full now.”
      “Better go ahead an’ clean up, mates. The Chesnutts’ll be over here in less than an hour,” Monty said. Zipper came out of the kitchen, followed by Lahwhinie. “Hey, newlyweds! Welcome back!”
      Gadget hugged Zipper. “Thanks Zipper. It’s great to be home again with all the people I love.” Lahwhinie looked at her sister uncomfortably, not knowing what to do. “Hi, Gadget. Dale.” Dale hugged his sister-in-law with enthusiasm. “Hi, sis! It’s good to see you again!” Gadget followed suit. “I missed you, Lahwhinie. Have they been treating you well while we were away?”
      “Okay, I guess,” Lahwhinie said, trying to smile, but not quite making it. She went back into the kitchen with Monty. Eva saw Gadget’s concern and took her and Dale aside. “She is still having problems adjusting, dear. But already she is better than she vhas. I am hopeful that she will continue to improve.”
      Gadget looked toward the kitchen. “I just wish I could help her, but she’s so distant to me.” Chip had been looking that way too. “You’re what she wished she could be, that’s the problem.” Eva sat Gadget down. “I think she would talk with you now, Gadget, if she had the opportunity alone with you. Perhaps later tonight we can give you that chance.”
      “Okay, mom. I’ll try,” Gadget said. Dale hugged Gadget to reassure her. “Don’t worry, Gadget. You’re the most loving and caring and giving person I’ve ever known. No one could resist your niceness!”

      In the kitchen, Lahwhinie was showing Monty how to prepare one of her Hawaiian desserts. Monty found the girl had a great aptitude for cooking, but unlike him she didn’t seem to like being labeled a cook. “Thanks fer helpin’ out, lass. It’s roight nice to have someone else with culinary talents around here.”
      “Oh, please. Being a cook would only add insult to injury. I know how to do lots of things, most of them evil,” Lahwhinie said crossly. Monty knew it was mainly her prejudices talking. “Now hold on a mite, there. Being a cook’s nothing ta be ashamed of. It’s an age-old profession respected ’round the world. If ya applied yerself, you could be a professional chef inside ’o two years.”
      “At my grave I don’t want my life to be summed up as, ‘At least she was a good cook’,” Lahwhinie said sullenly. Monty put down the pots he’d got out, and put his hands on Lahwhinie’s shoulders. “Lahwhinie, I know you’ve been through a lot and you’re down right now. Feeling sorry fer yerself’s not gonna help things. You know yer mom an’ I are in yer corner and we’re here ta help. If your cooking skills are any example, you can do anything ya set yerself ta do.”
      Lahwhinie got a mischevious look in her eyes. “I want to rule the world and make everyone my slaves.” Monty laughed. “Now what would ya want with a ruddy planet like this? You’d be responsible fer all the problems that came along, and you’d never get ta take any time off or go anywhere ’cause everyone’d want ta revolt and take ya out. Much better ta find a smaller chunk o’ the world where you can be happy.”
      Lahwhinie went back to preparing dinner. “I guess you’re right. I could be happy by finding some rich idiot I could control and spend his money indulging my every whim.” Monty stirred his cake mix. “And end up locked up in the bottom o’ some yacht again? No lass, that’s no life fer you. You’d be bored inside of a month. You’re an Erskine, you need adventure.” Lahwhinie put down the things she was working with and sat down at the kitchen table in a huff. “I don’t know what I need or want anymore! I hate life. I’d just like to be someone else.”
      Monty’s features softened, and he sat down next to her. “That’s because you’re beginning ta grow up—you’re realizing that the things ya thought you wanted ain’t right. Now you’ve gotta be willing ta take the next step and find out what it is that ya do want to do. You’ve gotta be willing ta trust again, and get yer eyes off yourself.”
      Lahwhinie put her arm on the table and leaned her head on her hand. “Yeah, well maybe. Who’s to say. Let’s see what other lumps life has to throw at me first.” Monty looked back over to the stove. “Speaking o’ lumps, watch those potatoes there...”

      Time passed quickly, and soon the Chesnutts arrived. The ladies all complimented Donna’s outfit, Tammy’s boyfriend and Bink in general. The guys kept to themselves except to welcome them all. Theo kept his eyes on Bink, who did so as well to him when she sat down across from him at the table. Monty called supper, and soon they were all eating and the dinner conversation started—centered around Theo.
      “Theo, you haven’t said much yet,” Donna said. “Are you enjoying life with the Rangers?” Theo liked the spotlight and felt entirely comfortable. “It’s great! It’s sorta like when Gosalyn was adopted by Darkwing Duck’s alter-ego, Drake Mallard. I get to have my hero as my dad. What more could a kid ask for?”
      Eva looked at Theo with amusement. “It is amazing the parallels you children make between the real vorld and fantasy. I suppose it is only natural, but vhere I grew up we had no such diversions.” Donna knew that feeling all too well. “Oh, my children have had plenty along the line of those diversions—especially young Bink.”
      “Aw, mama! I don’t watch that much!” Bink protested.
      “Not if you don’t count the hours you put in on Saturday mornings. I remember all the days you used to go around pretending you were Gosalyn—you even wanted me to buy you a hockey stick like she used!” Donna said. Bink shrugged and went back to eating. “Well, she’s cool. That’s all.”
      Donna looked back over at Theo. “What do you think about it, Theo? Would you have let her have a hockey stick?” Theo thought about that one a moment. “It’s better than letting her have her own superhero persona, like Quiverwing Quack!” Bink trained her attention on Theo at that crack. “Hey, what’s wrong with Quiverwing? She did okay for herself.”
      “Yeah, but she was always getting into trouble by following her dad on missions....uh, but that’s beside the point,” Theo said. Chip laughed at the other end. “I think you just talked yourself into a corner, son!” Theo just frowned and played with his food.
      Dale had chuckled some too, but he felt he understood Theo’s side. “Don’t look down, Theo. Growing up in headquarters is gonna be a lot of fun! The only reason you have to wait is that there’s just so much cool stuff we have to teach you that by the time you’re old enough to go with us, you’ll be able to do everything.” Donna found she liked Theo, which wasn’t unusual at all. “Well Theo, until then you are welcome to come over anytime you want. I know that Bink’s being looking for a friend to play with, and somehow I think you and she would get along very well.”
      Now it was Bink’s turn to frown, mainly in embarrassment. “Mom...yeah, maybe, as long as you can keep up with me.” Theo was never one to turn down a challenge. “You haven’t seen Jake Stone in action yet, Quiverwing.” Bink smiled, maybe Theo would be a neat friend after all...and he was even kinda cute too. “I look forward to it, Jake.”
      Theo hadn’t expected that and now he sunk back into his chair, feeling the others’ eyes on him. Gadget was next to him, and she chuckled lightly at the exchange. “I think you may have just met your match, Theo.” The table got a good laugh in on Theo, and Gadget patted him on the back, letting him know it wasn’t personal.
      Chip was glad that Theo would have a friend his age now, which meant at least a semi-normal life. “Thanks, Donna. I was worried that Theo wouldn’t find it easy to find a friend. Bink’s always welcome over, but make sure to call first in case we’re in the middle of a mission.”
      “No problem, Chip. I’m sure Bink will like that very much,” Donna said.
      “Only if you let us go on the missions with you,” Bink added.

      Dinner finished up in a few more minutes and the two kids finally got some freedom. They got off in one corner and once they were sure the attention was off of them they began talking. Soon, they forgot about everyone else. “Darkwing’s a cool show, but I still liked Talespin better,” Theo said. “They had all those neat episodes about flyers like Rick Sky and Whistlestop Jackson!”
      “I like Darkwing, because a girl got to be a hero. But Talespin did have Dangerwoman,” Bink said. Theo wasn’t so hot on that part. “Yeah, Molly was okay but I liked Kit better. So what do you like to do?” Bink’s eyes lit up. “Everything! I want to have done everything and been everywhere before I’m old.”
      Theo had to admit, he liked her thinking. “I know what you mean. I mean, dad won’t let me fly the RangerWing until I’m like fifteen or so. I’ll be ancient by then!” Bink gave Theo a superior smile. “I already know how to fly. I flew the RangerPlane.” Theo’s eyes got huge. “What?! How’d you pull that off?”
      “That’s my secret,” Bink said coyly. “You’ll just have to wait till you’re ancient to learn how to fly.” The wheels in Theo’s mind were spinning already. If this girl had flown the RangerPlane, then surely Jake Stone could figure out a way, too. “We’ll see about that. You any good at soccer?”
      “I love all sports. The only time I sit still is for sleep and cartoons,” Bink said. Theo was up for the challenge. “All right, you name the game and I’ll show.” Bink giggled, “Curling and Bocci ball! Just kidding.”
      “How about capture the flag? We can use the whole park for that,” Theo suggested. Bink agreed at once. “That sounds like fun. I’ll get together some of my other friends and they can meet you. You’re going to like it here in the park, Theo. Is that short for Theodore?” Theo grimaced, then leaned close and whispered, “I wish. It’s short for Theophane.”
      Bink winced in kind. “At least you have a normal-sounding short version of your name. How do you think I like being called Binky? I’ll call you Theo if you call me Becky. And I can’t even use my middle name, Ethel.”
      Theo thought a moment. “If you’ll call me Jake, I’ll call you Goz.” Bink smiled and extended her hand. “It’s a deal, but that’s just between you and me.” Theo spit in his hand and shook hers. “Okay, Goz—just when we’re alone. Otherwise, I’m Theo and you’re Becky.” Bink grimaced when she took his hand, then wiped it on his sleeve when it was over. “Your word’s good enough for me, Jake.” Theo smiled triumphantly. “All right, Goz.”
      Soon it was time for the Chesnutts to go. Bink asked her mom if Theo could come over the next day and once the arrangements were made on both sides the visitors left. Chip waved goodbye to them, shut the door and turned to his son. “See, Theo? I told you you’d get along with Bink. What were you two talking about all that time?”
      “Cartoons and becoming Rescue Rangers. Dad, she said that she flew the RangerPlane. Why did you let her but not me?” Theo asked pointedly. Chip looked at him blankly for a moment, then remembered and laughed. “Oh, Theo! We didn’t let her fly it! When we first met Tammy and Bink, we ended up babysitting them. She was into everything. Bink got away from us and commandeered the RangerPlane. She ended up popping the balloon on a tree branch, and I had to grab her before she hit the ground.”
      Dale recalled that day all too well. “Yep! That’s why no one should fly until they’re ready. It can be real dangerous.” Theo had a long hard laugh at the notion. **So, that’s her little secret.** “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better sport at the table. I know it was all good-natured ribbing.”
      “Oh, we know you’re young yet,” Gadget said. “We all went through similar phases. But I think that Bink really likes you. She’s gotten more independent as she’s grown, and doesn’t usually take to strangers that well.” Dale gave a sly look over to Chip. “Unlike her older sister who fell madly in love with Chip on first sight.” Chip blushed, as usual. “It was just a teenage crush, Dale, and you know it. And as I recall you didn’t exactly help things by prancing around and saying, ‘Isn’t Chipper wonderful?’.”
      “Don’t forget my, ‘Oh Chipper, so heroic’,” Monty added with zest. Eva got Chip off the hook. “It is nice that Theo has already made a friend. I was worried that if he was just with us all the time, he’d have trouble relating to other children.” Chip for his part was still reminiscing about that first time he’d met the squirrels. “I remember how embarrassed I was, and then I messed up and took it out on poor Tammy. She nearly got herself and Bink killed when she tried to prove herself to me. But I’m glad to know her, still. She’s turned into a good friend, and now she has Rob.”
      Eva’s comment brought Chip back to the present. “Yes, I’m glad that Theo's got a friend too. Besides, he’ll want a girlfriend someday I’m sure.” At the word girlfriend, Theo instantly moved to speak his piece. “Hey, don’t try to start fixing me up already. I’ll admit she’s cute and nice, so she’ll get added to the roster of possible future Mrs. Theo Maplewoods.”
      Gadget smiled at his comment. “You’re already making a list? Who else is on it?”
      “Let’s see, there’s...” Theo began a long list of women the encompased the entire gender, from human to animal, including literary and cartoon characters. “…and you were on that list until you married Dale.”Gadget knelt down and gave him a hug, then kissed his cheek. “I’m flattered you included me, but somehow I don’t think it would’ve worked out.”
      “Yeah, by the time I was eighteen, you’d be ancient,” Theo said flatly. Gadget was caught off-guard, and laughed so hard she had to stand up. The others laughed as well. Gadget looked over at Dale. “You hear that, Dale? We’ve only got a few years until we’re older than dirt.” Dale put his hands up to his face in mock astonishment. “Oh no! My youth and beauty are fading as we speak!” Chip came over and bailed his son out. “Come on, Theo, we’d better get some rest. Your father needs more now that he’s nearing being ancient.”
      The evening had slipped away on them, and the others followed Chip’s suit. Lahwhinie had decided to stay up and watch television, so the others left it to her. Upstairs in the lair, Gadget had already changed into her nightgown. “Dale, I need to go talk to Lahwhinie. I’ll try not to be too long.”
      “Do you want me to go with you?” Dale asked. Gadget took his hand with both of hers. “Not this time, dear. I’m hoping that she’ll confide in me if I approach her alone. You do understand, don’t you?” Dale wondered why she had to ask the question. “Of course.  I’m here if you need me. Uh, just make sure she doesn’t knock you out and impersonate you, okay?”
      Gadget smiled and shook her head. “You do come up with the silliest ideas. But thanks Dale, for understanding.” Gadget was almost at the door, when she looked back. “Say, you know I’d like to have a painting of her. There’s no telling how long she’ll be around with us. Would you do one if I can talk her into it?”
      Dale was delighted at having a request. “Sure thing! The only thing better than painting one of you is painting two of you.” Gadget giggled and blew Dale a kiss. She walked down the flight of stairs to the main room and sure enough, Lahwhinie was still there. She barely acknowledged Gadget’s presence, so Gadget went to the kitchen first and brought back a snack.
      “How’s the movie?” Gadget asked, hoping to break the ice. Lahwhinie leaned back. “It stunk. How’s the honeymoon?” Gadget sat down, doing her best to ignore Lahwhinie’s attitude. “It’s been wonderful, more than I could have dreamed for.” Gadget hesitated a moment, then asked anyway. “Are you doing okay?”
      “As good as could be expected when life pulls the rug out from under your feet,” Lahwhinie said, flipping channels. Gadget knew that part of her sister’s defensiveness was just her own presence, so she tried to put her at ease. “I’ve heard some of what you’ve been through, and it hurts me to know that you’ve suffered so much. But life hasn’t abandonded you, sis. You’re surrounded by people who care about you now, and want you. Lahwhinie, I’d like to be your friend if you’ll let me.”
      Lahwhinie turned off the set and faced her twin. “Gadget, it’s nothing personal...wait, it is personal. When we’re together, you just serve to remind me how low I’ve sunk. When others aren’t comparing me to you, I’m doing it to myself. You’re a measure I can’t live up to.”
      Gadget put her hand on hers. “No one’s asking you to be like me. And I’m not trying to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own. You only need to be yourself, and respect yourself. Please, don’t give yourself to another man like that drug dealer. You deserve someone that will love you for who you are, not what they want you to be.”
      Lahwhinie pulled her hand away. “There’s two types of people in the world, those who control and those who are controlled. I’ve been both and it’s a lot more fun being the controler than the controlled, I can tell you that.” She got a nasty look on her face. “I let that idiot have a little control over me, but he paid a heavy price for crossing me.”
      Gadget decided to take a chance. “Lahwhinie, that’s not control, that’s oppression. All that is is fear, and there’s no love in it. You’ve never really known love, or you wouldn’t talk that way. Love doesn’t control—love shares.”
      “Maybe that’s how it worked out for you. But in the real world, love is just a four letter word,” Lahwhinie said. Gadget crossed her arms. “Like I said, you don’t really know love. You’re thinking of lust, and that’s a whole different thing. Lahwhinie, I locked myself away in an airplane for years because I couldn’t get around boys without them getting fresh and the girls getting jealous. I never thought I’d find anyone who would love me, and not my appearance. But then I met Dale—he’s the kindest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. He can make me laugh when no one else can, and even with my appearance he loves me for what I am inside. And I love him.”
      Lahwhinie almost chuckled at Gadget’s use of the word fresh. “But even without trying, look how much pain your appearance caused your friends. I’ve had the same problems. No one gets close to me because they can never look past my looks.”
      “We can’t help the way we look, but we can help the way we present ourselves,” Gadget said. “You’ve been taught to use your beauty as a weapon, but I’ve used mine to help people. Most people will talk to me because I’m pretty—I use that to help them get to the bottom of their problems. You don’t let people get close to you because you’re pretty. Your problem’s not on the outside, it’s on the inside.”
      Lahwhinie got defensive. “You’re sugar and spice and I’m sulfuric acid. You think it’s so easy to change? What do you know about change?” Gadget’s patience was legendary, but Lahwhinie had managed to get her slightly riled. “I know plenty, and yes I’m nice to everyone—at least as far as they’ll let me be. But I wasn’t always that way. When I was in that airplane I was a recluse—I built a whole battery of deadly traps to keep people away. I was determined not to let anyone into my life anymore, but then Monty came.”
      Gadget smiled, remembered that impromptu meeting long ago. “He’d always been my favorite after dad, and I was so glad to see him! I could have stayed at the plane and I was really tempted to do so when Chip and Dale fawned over me, but I finally came to the decision that being alone wasn’t the answer. I had to fight the temptation to leave them several times—in fact I did leave them once, but I soon realized that this is where I belong. You can find a place where you belong too. Maybe you already have.”
      Lahwhinie wasn’t sold by a long shot. “Even if I don’t have any useful abilities and I end up distracting guys and if I’m deeply bitter about the rotten deal life gave me?” Gadget hugged her. “Even then. But I refuse to believe that you don’t have some useful abilities. You managed to survive on your own, and that takes intelligence in itself. You might distract some boys, but as long as you respect yourself they’ll respect you too. As for life, maybe if you give it and yourself another chance you’ll find the second time’s a whole lot better. I sure did.”
      “I’ll think about it,” Lahwhinie answered.
      “I’ll help you any way I can,” Gadget said. “And Lahwhinie? I want you to know that I forgive you for what you did to me and the Rangers in Hawaii. As far as I’m concerned, it’s forgotten.” Lahwhinie said nothing for a minute, but when she answered there was gratitude in her voice. “Thank you, Gadget. For that I promise I’ll never impersonate you again.”
      Gadget chuckled. “Dale will be relieved to hear that. I think he was concerned you’d try to take my place.” Lahwhinie thought about that, and wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think I could be as mushy or as giggly as you get when you’re around him.”
      “Oh, I dunno. If you found the right guy who really loved you, and you loved him back I bet you could be every bit as ‘lovey-dovey’ with him. True love has a way of getting to you,” Gadget said. Lahwhinie stood up. “I’m going to step out of character here, Gadget. What guy would really want me? I mean, to be willing to spend the rest of his life with me, and me alone? I’m what every guy wants, but I’m not what any guy needs.”
      “Would it surprise you to know that similar thoughts went through my head, too?” Gadget asked. From Lahwhinie’s reaction, she could tell it did. “I didn’t think that anyone would want me just for me—for my appearance, for my intelligence, for the cumulative value of my inventions maybe. But Dale was able to look past that and see that I needed him. As it turned out, he needed me too and in ways I didn’t even realize until I’d told him that I loved him to his face. You just don’t know what another person needs—it can be reassurance, strength, patience, or friendship or all or none of the above. If there’s a person that needs me, there’s bound to be one that needs you too.”
      Lahwhinie headed for the kitchen. “I sure pity the poor slob that needs me.”

      In his room, Chip was still awake and thinking. He was relieved that Gadget and Dale had come back, and moreso that Lahwhinie was still talking. He’d spoken to her briefly at the table and she’d responded. Chip knew that Gadget might be talking with her now, and he could only hope that conversation went well. Chip was amazed by the changes that had taken place in Lahwhinie in the last month. She'd gone from remorseless to ashamed. Part of him wanted to see her humbled, but another felt sorry for her. Everything that she was and her entire self-image had been shattered. He wanted to help her put her life back together and give her the self-confidence he felt she should have. But how to do it?
      Chip got up quietly and pulled out the pictures that he hed in his jacket of Foxy and Gadget. He looked again at how he’d put the flower in Gadget’s hair. Maybe he could...but what about Foxy? Still he had said they should both consider other people to be certain and she’d agreed. But he couldn’t just use that as an excuse what?
      To get back the girl that got away? No, he wasn’t shallow. He could admit to himself that he could consider Lahwhinie almost a friend at this point. But spite and suspicion still prevented him from making that last leap of faith to trust her. Still, when he needed friends to help him rebuild his life, he had friends galore and a family that loved him deeply. Lahwhinie still barely knew her family and had no one she could truly call a friend. How much harder it must be to start over for her than it was for him? Foxy had been there constantly, always keeping him from wallowing in self-pity and despair, but who did Lahwhinie have?
      He looked back to the picture of Gadget. Yes, Gadget would try. She’d try as hard as anyone, and maybe he should just stay on the periphery and hope that Gadget and her parents could do the job. But then the thoughts of her screams came back to him. No, she needed someone who would at least be there to treat her the way she needed to be treated. And as much as he didn’t want to admit it, all indicators pointed to him.
      **But what if I become attracted to her?** he wondered. He knew the answer to that thought already—he was attracted to Lahwhinie, and that could poison his relationship with Foxy. He turned that point over long and hard, but in the end he realized it wasn’t about him anymore. It was about a young girl that needed all the help she could get to turn her life around. As a Ranger, his duty was to help others first, even before love. **I’ll just have to take that chance.** He looked back at his picture of Foxy, and touched the cute smile on her face. He closed his eyes and fondly remembered her extremely cute giggle. He missed her so much.
      Chip went over to the wooden closet where he kept his personal effects. From a high top shelf, he brought down a box made of mahogany. Careful not to wake Theo, he set it on the floor and crossed his legs in front of it then opened the box. Inside were the valuables that Chip had collected in his travels and those presented to him personally as rewards by grateful clients. One of these, he took out—an emerald necklace set in fine gold. He'd been honored when Sir Colby said he could have it as a reward for saving the crown jewels. Now he brought the diadem out and aligned the large gemstone where Foxy's throat would be.
      “With this token of my love, I thee wed..."
      Epilogue       At the following morning’s breakfast, everyone was gathered around the circular table in the kitchen. The Rangers were one unit again. Chip looked at Gadget and Dale eating next to each other and now he could hardly imagine them apart—they were like Jones and Dawson, nuts and berries, Laurel and Hardy. Then he looked over at Lahwhinie, who was already looking at him. He averted his vision, but then looked back and nodded. He made no sign, but went back to eating. Chip was about to open a conversation when Monty beat him to it.       “Uh, mates? Eva and me ’ave got somethin’ important we wanna tell ya.” Monty took her hand and he tried to find words, but failed. It even appeared that there was tears in his eyes. Monty looked over at Eva. “You better tell ’em, luv.”       Eva smiled and shed a few tears of her own. “Dahlings, and my sweet little ones...we wanted you all to know...that...I am going to have a baby.” The room itself seemed to draw a breath. “A baby?!?” Gadget was the first to reply. “Golly and a half! Really, mom?”       “It is so, Gadget. It was quite a surprise to your father when I told him,” Eva said. Monty chuckled, “Surprised? You coulda knocked me over with a truckload of feathers! But it was one of the grandest days o’ me life when she told me. I’m gonna be a dad, again!”       Words of congratulations started coming from the others, but Lahwhinie suddenly got up and left the room. Eva stood up, concerned, and followed her into the main room where Lahwhinie was trying to hide the fact she was crying. Eva rushed up to Lahwhinie and hugged her. “My dahling, what has made you so unhappy? I hoped you would be glad about this! You will have a little brother or sister soon.”
      Lahwhinie forced herself to look up at her. “You decided to have another child because of me, didn’t you? You couldn’t stand that I was a disappointment to you! I’m sorry I let you both down.” Eva hugged her daughter even tighter. “Don’t ever say that you let us down. I let you all down. It was all my fault, never blame yourself! Dahling, this was quite unexpected for me as well as your father. I am past forty now, and I had not even considered the possiblity of becoming pregnant at this age. But life is full of vunderful surprises. I expect you to be a good big sister, vill you do that for me...for us?”
      Lahwhinie cried on her shoulder. “I’ll try, mom. I’ll try.” Eva knew then that she'd made the right choice in returning from the dead that fateful night. She held her daughter in her arms, never tiring of the joy it brought her. “You’ll be a great big vunderful loving sister. I just know it.”
      “Mom, I forgive you…” Lahwhinie whispered. Eva cried and held her girl close. “Thank you, baby. Thank you!” The others had come out of the kitchen and were watching the scene. It was heartening for Monty, and gave Gadget some hope that her sister wanted to change. For Chip, it added another piece to the puzzle, but it was a long way from completion. For now, he and the others were just content to watch and hope. Lahwhinie had found both of her parents now, and one of them was about to undergo a trial of her own.
      “Golly, I’m going to be a big sister!” Gadget said, breaking through the silence. Dale gave Eva a congratulatory hug. “I get to be Uncle Dale to another future Rescue Ranger!” Chip held onto his jacket lapels in approval. “Looks like we’ve got another future Ranger coming! What do you think of that, Theo?”
      “That’s okay, I guess. This doesn’t mean that if it’s a girl I have to marry her do I?” Theo asked.
      Chip chuckled. “Theo, you’re going to have to go through the torturous ritual of dating and breaking up, like the rest of us, until you find the right girl. No easy outs for you, son.” Theo breathed easier. “Thank goodness. I was afraid you’d do some kind of bethrothal mumbo-jumbo like in that Sleeping Beauty thing.”
      “Well, when you do meet the right girl, we could possibly arrange for you to slay a dragon in a big climactic battle!” Dale said, his imagination coming in play. Theo grinned at the idea. “Can I fly the RangerWing to do it?” Gadget knelt down next to him. “I could attach a lance on it or we could replace the plunger launcher...” Theo’s eyes shined with the idea. “Sir Theo, dragon slayer! Has a nice ring to it.”
      “Crikey! I didn’t even call me mum and dad yet!” Monty said. “This’ll be a bit of a surprise for 'em.” Monty went into the hall to try to phone his parents. The others talked about the child soon to come into their lives. As Eva had said, life is full of wonderful surprises—little did any of them know the incredible nature of the surprises that were about to befall them.

Artemis Jones, Madilyn Algood, Jake Stone/Theo Maplewood, Roger and Jennifer Maplewood, Burtom the Bear, Rob Roybrush, Doctor Batorious, Bedivere Fairmont, Galahad and Daisy Fairmont and Eva Raboga are original characters developed by Indy and Chris Silva. Honey, Donna, Tammy, Bink, Lahwhinie and the Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.