Theo's Origin
An Alternate Storyline
by Indy and Chris Silva

       Editor’s note: This unused storyline was written between parts two and three of the Untold Ranger Tales (even though it’s set after Dale and Gadget’s wedding) in a plotline where Chip didn’t recover from said wedding the same way he did as portrayed in the regular storyline. The first incomplete draft of the storyline was incorporated into this, the unused second draft.
       This was the first story we wrote with the character of Theo (who was called "Jake" and then "Neil" in the course of the story). As you will see, he was quite different in this story, yet some of his characteristics are here. The story served as an inspiration that influenced all of the URT that came after it, and I think for the better.
       The character of Brenda in this storyline, a female chipmunk who interacts a good deal with Chip, was to be Theo's mom at first. She was a momentary "compromise character" that neither of us were happy with, in our battle to see whom Chip would end up with--at that point we were debating whether it would be Lahwhinie or Foxglove. Theo was at first a mere plot device in this larger scenario, and as you've guessed we ended up dropping Brenda from the official storyline.
       This alternate storyline is also interesting for its inclusion of a marriage proposal from Chip to Foxglove—thus it was probably the genesis of the real escalation of the Lahwhinie/Foxglove wars Chris and I had before we settled on a solution we could both accept.
       A word of warning to Chip fans—he really takes an emotional beating in this one. He’s depressed, now that he knows Gadget is beyond his reach. Foxy’s trying to help, but Chip hasn’t been able to shake his old feelings yet. Ne’er fear—things do turn out okay, but in a rather unusual way. Where the storyline begins, Monty and the guys have taken him up to Lake Flacid to get away from the girls and the pressures of Ranger Headquarters for a while. Zipper has the normal speaking voice we established for him in the URT in this scenario.

       Monty surveyed the vista before them. Lake Flacid was set in the mountains, a mix of rocky hillsides and pristine waters that drew the tourists in the spring and fall. He, Chip and Dale were on the lakeshore, looking about, from the rear side of the cabin they’d rented. It was an old but clean cabin, in the traditional log style.
       “This reminds me of the time I rowed across Lake Superior,” Monty said, walking out on the pier behind the cabin. “Had a batch o’ mosquitoes on me tail that day, which helped to move things along.”
       “Hey, let’s go over to that island in the middle of the lake and explore!” Dale said.
       Chip only nodded and continued staring off into space. Monty kept the talk going. “Sounds good ta me, mate. Haven’t had a good adventure in two days!”
       Monty leaned in to Chip and whispered, “Betcha that’s where you’ve got all the booby traps laid up, right?” Chip blinked. “Huh? What traps, Monty? This is just vacation time, remember? Don’t start with the maneuvers stuff again!”
       “Monty, this isn’t war games!” Dale said.
       They entered a longboat tied up at the pier and Monty aimed for the island, snickering. “Yeah, right. Vacation...” Monty winked at them both and Zipper sighed. Once they reach the island, the boys pulled out the lunch containers and had a good meal. After breaking camp, they started exploring the wooded isle.
       Chip sighed and remained lost in his thoughts, causing Dale to playfully punch his shoulder. “C’mon, Chip! This’ll be fun, just like in Tom Sawyer! We can pretend like the island’s full of bloodthirsty cannibals!”
       “You go on, Dale,” Chip said. “My imagination isn’t up to it right now.”
       Dale puts his hands on his hips. “Chip, you can’t just sit there like a bump on a log! You need to have some fun!” Dale tried to pull Chip up and get him involved but Chip resisted. “Please, Dale! Just go on and enjoy yourself. I’d like to be alone for a little while.”
       Dale looked at the morose figure again and decided to leave him be. He switched to his Robin Hood outfit and went off in search of Monty and Zipper, who he knew were doubtless lying in wait for him. As far as Zipper was concerned, they could have been spending their time better. He and Monty were crouched in some sawtooth grass, awaiting their victim. “And this is supposed to be fun, Monty?”
       “O’ course, Zipper mate!” Monty said, never taking his eyes off the path in front f them. Zipper crossed his arms. “Well, I can think of a lot more fun things. There’s more frogs out here than I’ve ever seen!”
       Chip sat on the beach and when he was sure the others were gone he reached into his left inner jacket pocket and removed his treasured picture of Gadget, staring at it. After a few moments he reached into his right inner jacket pocket and removed the picture of Foxglove and every few moments he would shuffle them.
       Monty was still debating the finer points of maneuvers with Zipper. “Well, how are ya gonna learn how to surprise yer enemies if ya don’t practice surprisin’ yer enemies?”
       “What enemies? Dale’s our friend.”
       Monty groaned. “Well, fer the sake o’ practice he’s our pretend enemy.”
       Dale was down on all-fours. He used his sense of smell to try to detect any sign of the ten thousand savages that he knew were right around the corner. “Okay, men. Get ready....” Dale waved to the mighty “army” with him and advanced slowly.
       Zipper stopped arguing. “Did you hear something?”
       Monty crouched lower. “It’s strange. Usually ya can spot Dale comin’ a thousand miles away, what with all the noise he makes.” Monty listened carefully but couldn’t hear a thing. “Nope, didn’t hear nothin’, Zipper.”
       “I swore I heard something. But I don’t see anything...” Zipper flew up and scouted around but saw nothing and returned quickly. “If he’s out there, he’s being very sneaky.”
       Monty couldn’t figure that one. “Sneaky? Dale? Well, I don’t know if I’d use that word to describe the lad. Maybe he’s gone back to the beach fer more o’ the food. Besides, no one gets the drop on old Monterey Jack when it comes to sneakin’ in the jungle.”

       Chip got up and walked in a stupor to the island’s small beach. He plunked down in the middle of the sand and continued to look at the pictures. “Maybe I should just quit. It would be easier that way. I could live on my own again—I’ve done it before. I’m no use to anyone the way I am. Maybe I should just...”
       “Give me a hand?”

       Dale leaped from his concealment and jumped on Monty’s back. “Take no prisoners! In the name of King Richard the Lion Heart I command you to surrender!”
       “Your eminence!” Zipper exclaimed. “Tis the wily outlaw!”
       “I know! I know! Get ‘im off me!” Monty said.
       Dale had taken up a stick and was mock-whipping Monty with it. “Once again Robin Hood strikes a blow against Prince John! Long Live King Richard!” Zipper began to laugh. “Sorry, I’m just the lackey here. You’ll have to handle him yourself!”
       “Do you yield, sheriff?” Dale challenged.
       “Okay, okay!” Monty said. “Ya got to me fair and square, Robin!” Dale got off and Monty wiped his brow, weary of the pretending. “Ya know, I’m impressed, Dale. Ya got the drop on ol’ Monty.”

       “Hey, hello over there? The sand bar’s too steep for me here. Give me a hand!”
       Chip was startled to hear a feminine voice and turned quickly. The chipmunk had been so self-conscious that he hadn’t even noticed the girl. She too was a chipmunk, a little younger than he was. She’d swam over from the lakeshore and by her appearance she did quite a bit of swimming. She had on a modest one-piece outfit and her dark swimsuit was paired with brown eyes and light brown hair. She held her hand out to Chip for him to help her onto shore.
       Chip hesitantly took her hand and helped her up. “Are you all right, miss? We’re a long way from shore here.”
       “At last!” the girl said, grateful to be standing on land again. “It’s nice to catch a breather. Oh, I’m all right. It’s just that this was my third time around and I’m kind of tired. By the way, my name’s Brenda. Brenda Baxter. What’s yours?”
       Chip quickly stuffed the pictures he’d been looking at in his pocket. “I’m Chip Maplewood.” Brenda shook his hand. “It’s nice to see someone over here on a weekday. I come up here to train in the springtime. Oh, I’m on the national swimming team. You know, the Global Games?”
       This was real news. “You’re in the Global Games?!?”
       “Yeah,” she said, taking a seat in the sand. “I’m one of the best distance swimmers in my classification. I also swim the 4 by 100 inch relay in the team category. When the Games aren’t going, I like to do a triathlon or two. Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just talking. Are you up here to train, too?”
       “I’m here on vacation with some friends. We’re getting away from work for a little while,” Chip said. Brenda chuckled a little. “Ironic, isn’t it? Most animals and people come here to get away from their problems. I come here to concentrate on mine. So what is it you do?”
       Chip thought about lying for a moment, but it wasn’t in his nature. “I’m leader of the Rescue Rangers and I’m here with some of my teammates.” Brenda did a double take. “Rescue Rangers? The group out of New York? I’ve heard of you!”
       “Yeah, that’s us.”
       Brenda hadn’t imagined she’d meet a celebrity today, much less on an isolated island in the middle of Lake Flacid. “I think I remember reading about you stopping a human that was stealing a bunch of the world’s monuments or something. Boy, you must lead an exciting life!”
       “We do. That’s why we need to get away from New York now and then,” Chip said, trying to keep his answers short.
       “Guess I can’t blame you for that. Say, would you like to swim a lap with me? I promise I’ll go slow.”
       Chip suddenly became very nervous. He had enough females to think about already, and a third would just make it worse. “Sorry, but I’ve got to meet up with some friends deeper in the island. I gotta go...see ya later!”
       Without further ceremony, Chip jumped up and dashed into the foliage. Brenda was left alone and wondering why this chipmunk had acted so strangely. “Huh. Maybe it’s overwork. I’ll have to look into this one.” Brenda jumped back in the water and began a fourth lap around the lake.
       Dale heard something coming through the undergrowth and waved for his newly-recruited troops to lay low. “Little Monty, I think the enemy’s closing upon us. We must prepare to take them forthwith!”
       “Right, Robin,” Monty said. “We’ll show this fellow a thing or three.”
       Dale looked to his other side. “Ready, Friar Zipper?”
       Zipper saluted. “Ready, Robin! The merrie men are all in position!”
       Chip came walking through the woods, Brenda still on his mind. Why another girl? Why now? Robin Dale signaled again. “The Prince’s man doesn’t suspect a trap. On my signal...”
       Monty and Zipper crouched, ready to spring out.
       “Maybe I should just marry Foxy and get it over with,” Chip said, talking to himself. “Then I wouldn’t have all this hanging over me...” Chip walked right up to his hidden adversaries, unaware.
       “Now! For Richard and England!” Dale shouted. Monty and Zipper jumped out, shouting as well, and soon the three of them had Chip surrounded.
       “We got ‘im! We got ‘im!” Monty said.
       “Surrender, varlet!” Dale said. “Or do ye wish to clash swords with the noble Robin of Locksley?”
       Chip was utterly stunned for a moment, watching as Dale stood there dressed as Robin Hood, holding a branch like a sword with Monty and Zipper close behind him. After a few moments he decided to bow to the absurd, grateful for the distraction, and joined in the fun. “I will never surrender! Long live Prince John!”
       The Norman chipmunk grabbed a branch and began dueling with Dale. Dale was elated. Chip was finally acting something like his old self! “Ah, Sir Chip of Gisbourne! So, you would fight? Then if you’ve the hang of it, let’s take it to another level enow!”
       Dale pressed the attack.
       While Chip had never had the same amount of fencing experience Dale had, he could still handle himself. Monty and Zipper sat back and watched the two duel like old pros. Monty smiled at a memory. “Ah, reminds me of the old days when I an’ the other nippers would fight ta see who’d get to punch it out with the local kangaroo rats.”
       “Were they good brawlers?” Zipper asked.
       “No, but they were great kickboxers,” Monty said.
       Dale was really into it now. “Verily, you fight well, Sir Guy! Methinks you must have a strong heart to fight with such vigor!”
       “As have you, Sir Robin. May we call this duel a draw?” Chip asked.
       Dale whiffed his “sword” in a sign of respect. “Yea, and mayhap you will continue with me and my band a little space. We would see what adventures yon verdant forest holds for us!”
       Chip gave a small laugh. “That sounds good, Sir Robin. Lead on.”
       Monty and Zipper glanced at each other in surprise. Had Chip actually just asked Dale to take the lead? Dale did so, and Monty and Zipper follow along with Chip. Soon they reach the other end of the island, and Dale signaled for them to stop. “Hold, men! I think there may be a spy ahead. I see something in yonder waters.”
       “I see it too, mate,” Monty said. “We’d best be careful. No tellin’ what kind ‘o sea creatures be lurkin’ around here!”
       Chip studied the movement in the water. “In my expert opinion, she’s a professional swimmer, a participant in the Global Games who swims in the 4 by 100 inch relays and her name is Brenda. But that’s just my opinion.”
       The sea creature spotted them and rose from the waters, this side of the island graced by a shallow sandbar. “Hi, Chip!” Brenda said, waving as she walked up.
       “The sea creature knows Chip’s name!” Zipper said.
       “Oy, no wonder the lad’s in a better mood!” Monty added.
       Dale giggled. “Leave it to ol’ Chip to find a pretty girl out here!”
       Chip absorbed the ribbing and shook hands with his new friend as she approached. “Hello Brenda. Guys, meet Brenda Baxter. Brenda, meet Dale Oakmont, Monterey Jack and Zipper.”
       Brenda shook their hands in kind. “Hi! Nice to meet you all! Wow, the Rescue Rangers right here.” Dale was impressed as wow. “Hi! Was Chip serious? Are you a Global Games athlete?”
       “I sure am,” Brenda said, proud. “I hope to compete for at least one gold this year. Hey Chip, now that the gang’s all together why don’t we all go for a nice swim? You all look like you could use it.”
       Monty grinned. This was a lass after his own heart. “Well, as a wise man once said...Last one in is a rotten ostrich egg!” Monty leaped into the water as Dale carefully put his Robin Hood outfit aside, under which he had his swim trunks.
       “Cowabunga!” Dale shouted, plunging in.
       “Here I come!” Zipper said, flying and plopping in too.
       Brenda raced for the shoreline and jumped into the water, bobbing up after a few moments. “C’mon, Chip! It’ll be fun!” Chip went back to the boat for his swim trunks. After he took off his jacket he noticed the pictures of Foxy and Gadget. He put them back in the pocket and changed out of sight of the others, quickly returning to the group.
       Brenda was playing water tag with the others, enjoying having some company in the water as well as a diversion. “About time! Join the party!” Chip leaped in and began splashing around with the others. Brenda tagged Dale and then he went after Chip. “Let’s see you avoid the chipmunk torpedo!”
       Dale swam hard, chasing Chip around. Chip didn’t feel the enthusiasm to battle Dale and soon Dale had tagged him.
       “Chip, are you feeling all right, buddy?” Dale asked.
       “I guess I’m just not feeling like having fun today,” Chip admitted.
       Chip began heading in for shore and when the others saw him they followed. Monty walked over, a unique sight in his Aussie shirt and trunks. “What’s wrong, Chipper?”
       “I’d hoped this vacation would have taken my mind off of Foxy and Gadget for a while, but it’s useless,” Chip said, sitting down. “I’ve got a one-track mind and I might as well get used to it.”
       Brenda had walked up with Monty. “Foxy? Gadget? I’ve heard one of those names.” Monty took Brenda off to one side. “They’re the two other members of the Rangers, the girls. Chipper was plannin’ on making Gadget his girl when she chose Dale instead. It really sent Chip for a loop. Foxglove—Foxy for short—showed up jus’ before that and helped Chip through the tough parts. But the lad’s all muddled up now and he doesn’t seem ta have the spark he usedta. I’m right worried about him.”
       “That’s so sad!” Brenda said, suddenly sympathetic.
       Dale sat down by his pal. “Chip, I know this has all been hard on you. I wish it hadn’t been. But you’re still Chip Maplewood and you’re still a great guy no matter what.”
       Chip did appreciate his friend’s attention and let him know it. “I know, and I’m grateful for your concern. This is just something that will take time for me to deal with.”
       “Well, I just want you to know I’m here for you. We all are. If you need time on your own, we understand.”
       Chip nodded. “Thanks.”
       Chip started walking away in the direction of the boat.
       “Chip, I...” Dale started.
       “Let ‘im be, mate,” Monty said. “I expect he needs some time alone.”

       The others got in the boat with him and Brenda waved goodbye. After a hearty supper, Chip went out on his own to the moonlit dock. So Chip, how does it feel being the one everyone pities? Dale was acting assertive and supportive and you were the one apathetic and unmotivated. Chip pulled out his Sureluck Jones book but didn’t feel like reading even though the moonlight was strong enough for it. He let the book drop to the dock and walked to the end of it. Without Foxglove to read to, it doesn’t even feel right.
       “How could I have been so wrong...”

       Dale watched Chip through the window of the cabin. He couldn’t help but feel for his friend. “Monty, are you sure there’s nothing we can do for him?
       “What could we do? All his hurtin’ is on the inside,” Monty said.
       Dale turned, protesting. “Yeah, but I know how it feels! I wanna help him! Chip’s done some thoughtless things in the past, but he doesn’t deserve this. No one does. We’ve got to help him feel better!”
       Monty scratched his chin, thinking. “Well, the old Chip weren’t much for accepting anyone’s help. We could try talkin’ to him.” Dale gestured with his arms. “But what do you say to get through that thick skull of his? I tried right after the wedding and so did Gadget. He won’t listen unless he wants to listen.”
       “It goes without saying that he won’t listen to me,” Zipper said.
       “Poor bloke,” Monty said. “I guess we’ll just have to let him ride out the tide himself. But at least he knows we’re here if he needs us.”

       Chip continued pacing, looking up at the stars. How many times has Dale sat alone, lost in depression or self-pity because of the things I’ve done to him. And with no one to turn to for support or encouragement or sympathy. Chip lost himself in self-punishment for several more hours. In fact, he fell asleep on the dock. None of the others dared disturb him and when the dawn came he was still out there when he was suddenly splashed with water.
       “Hey, sleepy head! The light has dawned!” Brenda said, the watery culprit.
       “Hey!!!” Chip shouted, spluttering. “What the...oh, it’s you. Good morning, Brenda.” Brenda laughed kindly, bobbing up and down in the water. “Hi, Chip! I’m out for my morning session. Care to join me?”
       “Maybe later, after breakfast. Would you care to join us?”
       Brenda emerged from the water, now in a black competition-like outfit that looked like sharkskin. “Okay, I haven’t had my morning meal yet.” Monty was in the kitchen making cheese flapjacks and Dale and Zipper were talking when Chip and Brenda entered.
       Dale smiled and pointed. “Hey, look who’s here! Hi, Brenda!”
       “‘Ello, Brenda, luv!” Monty said, waving his spatula. “Would you and Chipper like some breakfast?” Brenda didn’t need to be asked twice. “Hello, everyone! I don’t know about Chip here, but I’ve already done two laps and could eat a lumberjack’s breakfast!”
       Monty gave her a big smile. “Luv, you came to the right place.”
       Brenda sat down and soon was the center of attention. She told a couple of stories about the training tables for the Global Games and how they had all their meals prepared down to the calorie. “Zowie!” Dale said. “With all the cheese that Monty uses in his meals you’d never be able to swim the length of a bathtub!”
       “Well, it’s part of the price you pay to compete,” Brenda said, finishing a flapjack. “But I’m used to it. Say, once we’re done here maybe Chip will be good enough to swim a couple of laps with me. I need someone to pace off of.”
       Chip still felt down but realized a swim might help him clear his head. Or if not, it might at least take his mind off his troubles for a little while. Monty cleaned off his plate. “Yeah, go on with ‘er, Chipper mate. You’re the athlete ‘o this bunch!”
       “Just make sure to clear the way when she comes through!” Dale said. “I bet she could go ‘round the lake a hundred times without getting tired!”
       Chip stood up. “Sure, I’d like that, Brenda.”
       Chip left the room to change and Brenda turned to the others. “Chip still seems down in the dumps.” Dale frowned. “Yeah, I know. Maybe you can talk to him. None of us can, really. I think he might be willing to open up to you.”
       Monty agreed. “We’d be ever so grateful if you’d try. The bloke needs to talk things out with somebody.”
       “But he doesn’t know me,” Brenda said.
       “That’s just the point!” Dale countered. “He knows all of us too well and can’t say anything to us without creating more problems. You’re a stranger, so he won’t mind talking with you so much.”
       Brenda thought about it. “Well, I’ll try to talk to him.”
       Dale wanted to hug her in thanks but remembered he was married munk. If it got back to Gadget, even if it was innocent, he worried that she might not understand. “Thank you. It means more to us than you’ll know.”
       Chip entered the room. All talking ceased and all eyes turned to him and gazed at the newcomer, incredulous. Chip was wearing one of Dale’s shirts! “Dale, I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed one of your Hawaiian shirts?” Chip said.
       Dale couldn’t believe it—Chip in a flower shirt? “Uh, Chip. That’s fine. Go have some fun!” Zipper was so stunned his wings stopped beating for a moment and he nearly fell to the floor. Monty was almost speechless. “Yeah, have some fun, mate...”
       Brenda didn’t know why the others were having such a reaction, but she’d said she’d try. “Okay, Chip. Let’s find out what you know about swimming!”
       Chip smiled faintly. “Okay, sounds good. See ya’ later guys.”
       After Chip’s departure Dale went to the room he shared with Chip and stopped in shock as he looked into the room. There on his bed was Chip’s bomber jacket, neatly folded. Resting on top of it was Chip’s fedora.
       “Oboy, this ain’t good.” Dale picked up the clothes and took them back into the main room. Monty had just finished cleaning up in the kitchen. “What’cha doin’ with Chip’s clothes, mate?”
       “Monty...Chip left them. I think he left them for me,” Dale said.
       Monty stared at the clothes, then at Dale. “Crikey! What’s he up to? Has he gone plumb loony? First he wears your shirt, then leaves you his jacket and hat. It don’t make good sense!”
       “That’s not too strange, Monty, ‘cause right now Chip isn’t making good sense. It’s like he’s wanting to become me for some reason. Maybe he just wants to quit being the old Chip and he’s try acting more normal. Whatever, I guess we’ll have to humor him...”
       Dale slipped on the jacket and put the hat on. He went back to the room to look at his reflection in a mirror. Monty entered and looked at Dale, “Sorry, mate. It just don’t look right on ya.”
       Brenda waded down into the water and motioned Chip to follow her. “All right, let’s start with some arm circles. Get out waist-deep and cycle your arms through the motions.”
       Chip wasn’t in an arm-circling mood. “I don’t know, the water looks kinda cold.”
       Brenda walked back up. “Well, the cold only lasts a few seconds once you’re in. Now come on. You don’t want me to have to spend my entire day alone do you?”
       “Well, I guess not.” Chip hesitantly stepped into the water and Brenda grabbed his hands and pulled him in before he could protest. They were both immersed then bobbed up a moment later.
       “See! It’s not so bad, is it?” Brenda asked.
       “It’sssss....ffffffreeezing!” Chip said.
       “Well, get to moving and you won’t feel it as much. Now watch me...” Brenda worked her arms in a circling motion, cupping her hands. “Now you try it and I’ll watch your form.”
       Chip began and Brenda watched his form, making a couple of corrections. Then she led him out into the deeper water. “Okay, now the secret to good swimming is in the kick. Don’t waste time by kicking hard or making big kicks. You want short, fluid motion. Now let’s see you do that.”
       Chip obeyed his new swim coach and soon was gliding through the water.
       “Good, good!” Brenda said. “Now we’ll have to wait a little while for breakfast to digest before trying a lap or two. Let’s start walking down the way and we can swim back.”
       Chip was agreeable and they skirted the shoreline. As Chip walked he just stared off into space and Brenda caught him at it. “Chip, what’s wrong? You look like a guy that just lost his best friend.”
       “I wish it were that easy. I’ve lost myself.”
       Brenda tilted her head, curious. “What do you mean?”
       Chip ambled his way up the walking trail they were following. There was none of the purpose in his step that used to be there. He didn’t look at Brenda, but just kept staring. “It’’s hard to explain. For a long time I knew who I was and my world was peaceful. Then I found that the girl I thought was going to be my wife didn’t love me and married my best friend instead. I’d done my best over the years to keep them apart and I didn’t even realize how vindictive I’d become! Then we fought over her and the truth came out. Since that day, everything that I felt anchored to in my life has been shaken. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
       Brenda didn’t know what to say to that, but Chip spared her. “And I didn’t even know who my friends were—well it’s not the way that sounds. I knew them, but at the same time I knew nothing about them. In the last few months I’ve discovered that my oldest and dearest friend in the whole world is an excellent artist. I’ve known Dale as long as I can remember; my earliest memory is of the two of us playing together. But in all these years I never knew he had that ability. All these years he’s been afraid to show me his talent for fear that I’d ridicule him.”
       Chip sat down on a nearby log, Brenda standing nearby. “I made my best friend afraid of me and I’ve also discovered recently that Gadget has a wonderful sense of humor. I’ve seen her laughing and smiling all the time, even more than she used to. I’ve been holding back their happiness for so long...I’m scum.”
       Brenda took a step closer. “Chip, do you think that you’re still making them unhappy?”
       “No, I give them and everything they do a wide berth. Who knows the harm I’d do if I got in their way again?”
       Brenda knew the signs of self-punishment and guilt when she saw them. She’d never forget how her brother...but at least she could try with Chip. “Then your friends must really be holding a grudge and putting you down, then.”
       “Nothing of the sort. They’ve been forgiving and supportive in this whole thing.”
       “Well, if they’ve forgiven you then maybe you should think about forgiving yourself. You’re not perfect you know.”
       Chip wasn’t ready to listen to that. “Don’t you get it! It doesn’t matter what’s happening now. All that matters is that it happened at all! All those wasted years, making my best friend’s life a living hell. They could have been together from the start without me in the way. They both put aside their feelings for each other because they didn’t want me.”
       Brenda had heard enough. “Chip, let me ask you a blunt question. How many lives have you saved or made better during your time with the Rangers?”
       Chip shrugged. “I dunno, hundreds maybe?”
       “And when you acted on their behalf, was it worth it?”
       “Sure, we saved the world a couple of times now that I think of it. Yeah, I guess it was worth it.”
       Brenda shook her head. “You saved the world a couple of times. Chip, frankly you don’t make a good picture of a tyrant. You’ve dedicated your life to helping others, you’re self-sacrificing. I expect if you think about it you’ve saved your friends’ lives a couple of times. So what is it that makes you an ogre, as you put it?”
       “Simple. I didn’t do those things for anyone else. I did them all for me.”
       “Did you? If you did it all for you, you really have wasted your life. The Rescue Rangers are well thought of, true, but they’ve never received any big accolades. You’ve been at this for years now—what’s your big reward that keeps you doing it?”
       Chip stood up and started walking. “Well...I don’t know...I just...well, someone’s gotta do it.” Brenda mirrored him. “What’s the reward in that? The same thing could be said for someone who takes out the trash. What is it that you get out of it that makes you want to get up each morning and do it again?”
       “To prove to everyone that I’m smarter and cleverer than they are.”
       Brenda stopped as they reached the far side of the lake. “If you feel you have to prove it, then you’re the one that needs convincing. Why do you feel you need to be smarter and cleverer? Was there a time when you weren’t?
       Chip hadn’t really thought about it. “Yeah, Dale and I were like two peas in a pod growing up. We were both...yes.”
       Dale examined his reflection in the mirror with a mix of pride and sadness. “You’re right, Monty. It’s just not right.” Dale began removing the jacket and unnoticed by Dale a photo fell out of an inner pocket and landed at Monty’s feet.
       Monty picked up the photo and turned it around. “Hunh, didn’t know he kept that.”
       “What’s that, Monty?” Dale asked.
       “Guess ol’ Chipper’s sentimental,” Monty said, handing over the picture. “He’s still got that picture o’ Gadget she gave ‘im all that time ago.”
       Dale couldn’t believe it staring at the picture in his paws. “Gadget?!?! HE’S CARRYING A PICTURE OF MY WIFE?” The offended munk wanted to tear it up, but Monty halted him. “Now calm yerself, lad. I’m sure Chip don’t mean no harm by it.”
       “That little sore loser just can’t let go! No wonder he wanted to wear one of my shirts! He’s jealous of me!”
       Monty got an angry look on his face. “Just listen to yerself. Yer startin’ to sound like the ol’ Chip did. He’s hurtin’ and you know it.”
       Dale began pacing around the room. “Look, you don’t know how much he put me through! I had to go through years of this before you ever showed up. Now I can finally put all that behind me and he pulls something like this! Maybe he didn’t learn his lesson that day after all...”
       Monty got hold of his arm. “Chip learned his lesson all right. He hasn’t been the same since that night. And now that we’re here away from everythin’ he’s bloomin’ falling apart. The lad’s lost his spark.”
       Dale was about to make another biting remark, but decided to let it rest. “All right. I’ll try to patient for his sake. But I still want to know about this picture and I intend to find out.”
       “Okay, mate. That’s right. Just cool off.”
       Dale paced more and put the picture away. “Monty, what are we going to do with Chip? If he doesn’t adjust to what’s happened, are we really going to be able to live with him? Is he going to be able to live with us?”
       “Can’t rightly say. What you need to do is sit down and talk with him. He hasn’t been saying much about what happened between you and Gadget. He was okay with it when you two were just in love, but yer gettin’ married ta Gadget really hit him hard. Ya gotta remember, Dale, yer livin’ what he only could dream of.”
       “Yeah, I suppose so,” Dale said. “I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything. Gadget’s made my life complete and more. I guess I should feel bad for Chip, but our rivalry’s so engrained and it’s hard to let that go. And what’s more, I don’t think Chip wants to let go. In the end, that may be all he has left.”
       Brenda found Chip was one tough nut to crack. At least he’d talk about his problems some, but it was like pulling teeth. They’d reached the end of the lake and she waded in. “Okay, let’s go Chip! The swim will do you good!”
       Chip obediently entered the water with her and followed along. Brenda slowed down from her regular pace and kept by him. Chip’s mind was on everything at first, but after a few minutes, he found the rhythmic cycle of the swimming allowed him to quit thinking and act on instinct. Soon, there was only the water and his destination. Before he realized it, Chip found that he was at the dock in front of the cabin
       “Hey, you did pretty good!” Brenda said. “You’re not tired, are you?”
       Chip checked his breathing and found it was normal. “No, I’m fine. How about another lap? I need to get my mind off my troubles. Brenda, have you ever been in love?”
       Brenda stopped short at that. Was that a come-on? “Uh, yes. Once. Why do you ask?” Chip started swimming again, slowly. “I’m just curious. I’m not hitting on you or anything. What happened? How did you deal with it not working out?”
       “Yes, I’ve been in love. Two years ago, I swam at my first Global Games and there I met a swimmer from Norway named Yann Covan. I can still remember the first time I met him—his English was poor and he needed someone to help him order lunch.”
       Chip kept going. “I know from painful experience that it doesn’t take much to fall in love. What happened then?” Brenda smiled with the memory. “I came up on him trying to order a “nutty bar.” Poor Yann—he wanted a broiled walnut, and he got a candy bar instead! It took a good bit of guesswork, but we finally got the cook to understand. From that day, Yann spent many hours each day with me. He was a very down to earth chipmunk, but very kind. We had a great week together, and then...the last day came. We had to part, and Yann kissed me! It was wonderful, but it made the goodbye all the harder. Yann didn’t make the games last year, and now he’s no longer on the Nordic team.”
       Chip stopped. “That’s so sad. And you haven’t heard from him at all since then?”
       Brenda stopped as well. “Only once. He wrote me to say he was sorry that things hadn’t worked out, and not to pine after him. He’d already gotten another girlfriend, but he said he’d never forget me. “
       Brenda’s face showed how glum she was. “It hurt for a long time, but the hurt did end. After that, I was able to remember the good things about him and now I consider those times good. You’ll see that it’s the same way for you after a time.”
       “It’s been over six months, Brenda. It wasn’t so bad at first. But then my…she married my best friend. It’s been pretty bad since then. My girlfriend, Foxglove, she’s wonderful and beautiful, but whenever I see her now all that comes to my mind is that she’s not Gadget.”
       Brenda swam closer to him. “But don’t you see? When Gadget married, it was like the same thing happening all over again. It would’ve been like Yann and I meeting and having to part again. You got a second hit to the gut, Chip.”
       Chip struck the water. “But I have no right to feel that way! She was never in love with me and never even gave the false signals. It was all in my imagination.”
       “Chip, that doesn’t matter. You felt that way, and that’s the point. You can’t just turn those feelings off at will, and I couldn’t think of anything to tough as watching someone you had feelings for marrying someone else. I’m not trying to justify your feelings, but you have them and it hurts. You need to accept that, imagination or not.”
       Chip began swimming again, leaving off any reply. Brenda watched him attack the water and couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. “Well, at least now he’s got something to take his frustration out on.” Brenda slid into the water and got to swimming as well.

       Dale was tired of thinking about Chip so he went outside to the dock just in time to see Chip and Brenda starting their second lap. “Well, he’s found a distraction anyway.”
       Dale sat down on the dock and decided to wait until Chip returned. Monty’s right. Chip and I haven’t had it out verbally about this whole thing since it happened.
       Dale picked up a pebble and plopped it in the water. “Maybe it’ll help. Nothing else has, and maybe he’d be able to put all this behind him too if we did.”
       Brenda and Chip stopped at the island and let the sun dry them. “Chip, have you ever considered doing anything besides being a Rescue Ranger?” Brenda asked.
       Chip did a double take. “It’s my heart and soul...I...can’t do anything else.”
       Brenda removed the swim cap she’d worn and let her hair fall around her shoulders. “Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re a pretty good swimmer. You could become an athlete and be successful at it.”
       “But it would never make me happy,” Chip said. “As a Ranger I know that I’ve done something to make the world a better place. I’ve stopped a villain or saved a life. There’s nothing else to compare to what I do.”
       Brenda knew she had him. “But I thought you were only concerned with yourself. You said you only did all that for yourself. Are what about Dale?”
       “Maybe so...I don’t know. As for Dale, it’s difficult to talk to your best friend when you’re still in love with his wife.” Brenda took on an assertive tone. “Chip, the worst thing you can do is to stop talking to them. If you do, you’ll dig a canyon between yourself and them so wide you won’t be able to get back across!”
       “Yeah, I guess. Well, it can only get worse if I stay here. I’ll go talk to them...see ya later.”
       Unknown to Chip, his conversation with Brenda had been observed. Now a stealthy figure was following him as he made his way back to the cabin. The unknown person stopped short of the building, but within good sight and hearing range.
       Chip walked in as the others sat around the kitchen table. “Hi, everyone,” he said sitting at the table without saying another word. Dale had stopped eating his snack the moment Chip came in. Now he put down his fork and picked up Chip’s jacket that he’d kept with him.
       “Chip, what’s with you?” Dale asked. “And why’d you leave your jacket behind?”
       Chip fidgeted. “Uh...I wanted to try a different look for a change.”
       Dale knew that wouldn’t hold water. “You haven’t ever wanted to wear one of my shirts before!”
       “People change.”
       Dale couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Oh yeah? Well, why are you still hanging on to this?” Dale snatched the picture of Gadget from Chip’s inner jacket pocket and held it up.
       Chip gasped. “’s just a picture!”
       Dale put his other hand to it. “Oh, excuse me then! Well, you won’t mind if it rip it to shreds!” Chip desperately lunged for the picture. “No! Please!”
       “Dale, don’t do it lad,” Monty warned.
       Dale backed up, the picture still in his hand. “You still haven’t given up, have you? You still want her don’t you? You wore my shirt because you’re jealous of me, admit it!”
       “I’m not jealous!” Chip retorted. “I’m’re just insecure because you think someone will try to steal her from you!”
       Dale pointed at Chip. “Looks like I’ve got good reason, doesn’t it? What were you going to do, bide your time and wait until you had me at an advantage?” Chip couldn’t believe he’d said that. “Is that what you think, that I’ve just been waiting for a chance to take her away from you?”
       “You said it, not me! I can see the resentment in your eyes. You think if I hadn’t been around, she’d have been yours. Well, maybe she would have. But things didn’t work out that way.”
       Monty slammed his fist on the table. “Enough with you two! Gadget’s me little girl and I’ll not have the two o’ you fightin’ over her like two hungry dogs over a piece o’ meat!”
       Dale backed off. “Look, I didn’t mean it that way, Monty. But I still want to know why you’ve still got this picture, Chip!” Chip put his hands on the table and stared at Dale. “Why do you think? She gave it to me! I’m not going to lay down and pretend I don’t know Gadget exists just because you married her! If you feel so bad about it, then why don’t you prove it?”
       Chip stuck his head out toward Dale, a defiant look in his face.
       “By golly, I’ll show you!” Dale raised his fist to bonk Chip.
       Now Monty was incredulous. “Whatta you think ye’re doing? He h’aint done anything ta merit you hitting ‘im!”
       “Stay out of this!” Chip said. “I want to see him prove he’s jealous!”
       “You’ve had this com....”
       Dale stopped in midstream, as he started to bring down his fist on Chip’s head. Chip had his eyes shut, and was tensed and waiting for the bonk. Then Dale thought on what Monty said and he relaxed. “ want me to hit you.”
       Chip’s eyes popped open, and it was the look of a munk that had lost his last dollar. Dale was shocked. “You wanted me to get mad at you, so I’d hurt you for your hurting me. Why?”
       Chip darted out of the room and ran outside, Dale running after him. At first, Dale didn’t see where he’d gone but he heard the sound of crying and found Chip under the dock. “Why don’t you just hit me and be done with it? I can’t stand this!”
       “I’m pretty steamed at you right now. But that’s no reason to start hitting you. What’s gotten into you, Chip?” Dale asked.
       “You’re better than I am.”
       “What?!?” Dale exclaimed. “What are you talking about. Better than you in what way?”
       Chip came out, and started down the dock then stopped. “In every way! You never lose your temper, you always treat people good. I couldn’t even provoke you into bonking me, when I’d have hit you so many times in the past it wouldn’t have been funny!”
       He stared Dale down. “You’re better than me, period. And you should be the leader, not me.” Chip walked off toward the end of the pier. Dale was left dizzy. “But I’ve bonked you on the head a couple of times, it’s no big...LEADER?!?!?! Are you cuh-razy?!?!”
       Dale ran up to Chip and stood in his way. “If you’re making me leader then you have to follow my orders and I order you to go into the cabin and put your hat and jacket back on and be leader again!”
       Chip ignored him and kept walking. Dale put his hands on his hips. “Chip, you are at times an arrogant, selfish, petty, vain, vindictive, proud dummy. But you’re also brave, courageous, cunning, unselfish and smart. We’ve learned to accept you for all of those abilities. I know it was no piece of cake for you to endure me and my shortcomings.”
       “I could have been better,” Chip said, not turning around. “I should have been encouraging you and helping you to improve yourself instead of just getting mad and bonking you all the time. Some days I wish I’d never stood up to Beefy. All it ever got me was trouble.”
       “And then we’d have both turned out like me,” Dale said. “Chip, if you hadn’t stood up to that bully when you were little then Klordane and Nimnul would’ve robbed the gold reserve, Fat Cat would rule the animal world without opposition, Bubbles would still be exploiting the Cola Cult, Winifred would have become a true witch and Foxglove would have helped her because there was no one to make her see that she could have had a better life...all of this because you stood up to a bully.”
       Dale walked over to his friend, who was sitting on the edge of the dock, and stood behind him. “Chip, it takes a rare person to bear the mantle of leadership. The very strengths that make a good leader often make them a load to deal with outside of work. You’ve just got to accept that, so you can start changing for the better.”
       Chip got up and brushed past Dale, headed back toward the cabin. “I’ve got to have time....time alone to think. Tell Monty I’ll be back for supper.” Chip had a new thought and turned off in the opposite direction he’d come from Brenda, going down a walking trail.
       Dale watched him go. “Chip, you made the whole world a better place by standing up to that bully.”
       As Chip walked off, the still-unobserved figure followed him. Chip made his way along the isolated path, and was just glad at first to be alone. The silence of the wooded area was soothing, and Chip found it a nice relief. Then he felt that he wasn’t alone. He turned around, expecting to see Dale or Monty. Nothing. He took another few steps, and clearly heard a twig break. Chip jumped for cover instinctively and then looked around again. Still nothing.
       Chip was about to chalk it up to nerves when he noticed a movement twenty feet to the right of him. The chipmunk crawled up slowly through the underbrush and then pounced on his would-be assailant.
       “Hey, get off! I wasn’t doing nothing!”
       The protest came from a young male chipmunk, about ten or eleven years old. Chip backed off, letting him up.Kid, what are you doing out here following me?” The boy brushed himself off. “I wasn’t following, okay? I was just bored! I needed something to do, and you were the only thing moving around here.”
       Chip took a good look at the boy now and noticed that he was very thin and on the small side. He helped the boy up. “It’s dangerous out here in the woods, boy. There are predators and numerous other dangers...and didn’t your parents ever tell you not to talk to strangers?”
       “I know who you are,” the boy said, annoyed. “You’re Chip Maplewood of the Rescue Rangers. Where’s your hat and jacket? They look a lot better than that dumb old shirt.”
       Chip did a double take. “You know who I am?”
       “Duh! Every kid who can read knows who the Rangers are! I’m sorta...the.... president of my area fan club. That’s why I was following you. You happy now?”
       Fan club? “Well, okay,” Chip said, putting him down and extending his hand to the boy.It’s nice to meet you...say, what’s your name?”
       The boy chipmunk folded his arms and shook his head. “Uh, uh. I’ve finally got some freedom and the minute I tell you my name I’m back on my way to home! No way I’m telling you that!” Chip evaluated the words. “Sounds like you’re running away. You haven’t, have you? And I need to call you something other than “kid.” Just make up something.”
       “Let’s call it an adventure. And you can call me Jake.”
       Chip shrugged. “Okay, Jake, it’s nice to meet you. So, why have you chosen now to start your adventure?” Jake stared back at him. “Why not? Looked like a nice day for it. Why don’t you introduce me to your friends and maybe I’ll tell you a little more.”
       “Aren’t your parents...uh, fellow adventurers going to notice your absence and send out a search party?” Chip asked, trying to humor him. Jake smirked. “Nice try, Ranger. But I wasn’t born yesterday even if I am little! Look, I’ve been sick a long time and this is the first time I’ve been able to get out and enjoy life. So let me enjoy it! Take me to your friends.”
       “Well, okay Jake,” Chip said, noncommittal. “But when they show up looking for you, you’re going back to base camp.” Jake snorted. “Base prison’s more like it. Did you really beat that Rat Capone guy, like the papers said?”
       Chip, despite everything, liked talking about a case. “Yeah, a couple of times. He’s just a big bully. Been beating them since I was your age.” Jake harrumphed. “Then what were you cryin’ about? I didn’t think you’d ever wimp out!”
       “Huh? What...what are you talking about?” Chip asked.
       “Yeah, I was watchin’ you. I saw you from the time you left that girl. The guys’ll never believe that Chip Maplewood could cry like that. ‘Course I guess you could still be bummed up over Gadget. I read about when Dale married her and the rumors that you might leave then. We always thought you’d be the one to marry her.”
       Chip gritted his teeth. Thanks for reminding me. “Well, it wasn’t an easy thing to deal with. Boy, you have been doing a lot of reading on us.”
       “A lot?” Jake said. “I’ve got an entire scrapbook on you guys! I probably know more about you than you do about yourself. I bet Monty’s cooking cheese toast for supper.”
       Chip wasn’t comfortable with that thought. “He probably is at that. Uh, what have people been saying about me and Gadget, before she married Dale?” Jake started to walk back toward the cabin. “Oh, just the usual rumors. I’ll say one thing though. Gadget’s the coolest-looking girl I’ve ever seen. I’d have found a way to keep her. I know it’s kinda silly but when I saw she was marrying Dale I wanted to go there and fight him for her myself. So did a lot of the other guys who had a crush on her. Wish she’d been here—a always wanted to meet her.”
       Chip sighed sadly. “Yep, she’s a remarkable woman. But why don’t you think that Dale’s good enough for her? She feels he is.”
       Jake gave a sarcastic laugh. “That’s not the point, Ranger! Every guy in the group wishes he could say she’d kissed him. Like I said, it’s kinda silly but even I feel that way. You don’t know how lucky you were! At least you had a shot and you actually got to live with her. There’s about ten thousand of us who’d have loved just to have had that shot!”
       Chip could feel himself starting to blush. “I get your point, Jake. Some matches are meant to be. Dale and Gadget’s was. What do people say about me and Foxglove?”
       “Hey, she’s proved herself so far. Some say that you only turned to her out of a need for comfort at the time. Some say you lucked out, because Gadget would never have been the way Foxy is. So are you in love with her?”
       “Yes...uh, well...yes, I guess,” Chip said.
       “You gonna marry her?”
       Chip turned to look at him. “You’re sure up front, aren’t you? I don’t know. If you know so much about us, what do you think? Should I marry her?” Jake laughed sarcastically. “Hey, I’m just a nine-year-old kid! I don’t know anything ‘bout that. I know she’s pretty cool and Joey says when he went to New York on his vacation he went to the park and met her for a minute and said she was real nice and had a silky kinda voice.”
       Chip smiled fondly at his memories of Foxy. “She has a magical voice.”
       “Sounds like you wanna marry her to me.”
       “I’d...look, can we talk about something else?” Chip asked.
       Jake shrugged. “Sure. We’re back at the cabin anyhow. Smells like cheese toast, all right.” Chip didn’t like this one bit. “Jake, your folks are probably really worried about you right now.”
       “Don’t concern yourself. They worry too much, anyway.”
       Chip opened the door to the cabin and he and Jake headed in. After quick introductions, Monty laid out an extra plate for supper. The young chipmunk had been right about the dinner selection. During supper, he proceeded to fascinate Monty and Dale, as he had Chip, with the tales of the Ranger fan clubs. Jake asked several questions of Zipper, who the boy said was “a complete mystery” to the fans. After the meal was over, the guys retired to the living room. Chip pulled Zipper aside before they entered with Jake, Dale and Monty.
       “Zip, I need you to find out where this boy’s parents are if you can,” Chip said. “Ask around and report back as soon as you can.”
       “No problem, Chip.” Zipper buzzed off—well, in a good way.
       Chip walked into the room, where Jake was already taking center stage. The boy knew just what to say. “Hey, I’ve heard that you can tell the best stories around, Mr. Monterey!” That was music to Monty’s ears. “ Jus’ call me Monty, lad! And yer right, I tell the best stories around anywhere!”
       “Well, tell me one! What’s your favorite story to tell?”
       Monty grinned. “Well...all of ‘em. But let me think...well, name a topic and I’m sure I can tell you a story about it, lad.” Jake was all curious. “Okay. Tell me your best ‘saved someone’s life’ story.”
       “Well, it all started on me first trip ta Switzerland,” Monty began, “I’d heard how great the cheese and mountain climbing were there, so...” Monty proceeded into a two-hour-long recounting of how he had saved a mountain-climbing mouse who had gotten lost in the Swiss Alps and had nearly died of overexposure. Monty described it all in his usual picturesque glory, and Jake hung on every word.
       When he ended, Jake was all enthused.Man, I would’ve loved to be there! You tell it so good it’s like I was there in that ice cave with you!” The young chipmunk leaned back in his chair, satisfied. “When we found out you were Gadget’s dad, it was the biggest shock of the year for us! You really know how to keep a secret, Monty. I bet now that things have calmed down, Gadget’s glad you did what you did. Do you have any more secrets hanging around like that?”
       Monty frowned. “Lad, I’d rather not talk about things like that. It hurt a lot to do what I did, and when ye’re older you’ll know how much it can hurt ta keep secrets.” Jake looked away. “I think I already know. So Chip, have you thought more about Foxglove? My friend said he asked her about you and she just giggled the whole time.”
       Chip smiled. “Sounds like her. Foxy’s great.”
       Dale chimed in. “Hey, I think you really miss her!”
       “Yeah, Chip!” Jake said. “You know she’d marry you if you asked her...why don’t you ask her?” Chip felt a rush of anxiety. He’d given a great deal of thought to proposing to Foxglove, but now wasn’t the time to decide. This kid was certainly getting bold and nosey. “Jake, you’re too young to understand what it means for a person to give their heart to someone.”
       To Chip’s surprise, Jake gave him an agonized look, leaped from his seat and rushed out the door. The Rangers just looked at each other in stunned amazement for a few moments then followed him out the door. Jake ran to the end of the pier and for a moment Chip thought he was going to leap into the water. Instead he just sat on the end of the wooden structure and looked off into the distance.
       Chip gestured for the others to stay back and he slowly approached the boy, eventually sitting next to him. “Jake, are you all right? What the heck was that all about?” Chip noticed that Jake was crying. The boy looked over at him.Chip, I know what if feels like to be given someone’s heart, better than you’ll ever know.”
       The statement baffled Chip. “What do you mean?”
       Jake raised his shirt to reveal a long vertical scar on his chest. “All I know about this heart is that it belonged to a kid named Ed and that he was ten years old when he died.”
       Chip had been expecting something, but nothing like this. He knew the boy was hurting inside, and he’d have to say something. “That’s why you mentioned being free. You haven’t been able to get out much, have you?”
       “I’m nine, but I’ve spent over eight of those years cooped up around the house, too weak and sick to play with the other children,” Jake said. The boy looked down at the water rippling around the pier posts. “I couldn’t ever do anything. I hated being that way; my parents were always protecting me from this or that. I never got to do anything fun! Well, with a bad heart they were always worried that I’d just keel over and die if I got too much excitement. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a kid and worry all the time that you could just suddenly die without warning?”
       Chip realized that there were those with worse problems than his. “I had a bout with scarlet fever when I was younger than you are now. Dale can tell you how close I came to death, and I remember for several months my folks wouldn’t let me out of their sight. But no, I couldn’t imagine that kind of thing being all the time. But you have a new heart now. Aren’t you happy?”
       “I’d be happy if Ed hadn’t had to die for me to have it,” Jake said, wiping a few tears off. “When I was little I once heard the doctor tell my parents that I wouldn’t live to nine years old if I didn’t get a new heart. I had kinda accepted the fact I wasn’t ever going to get to grow up. I was jealous of the other kids—they could run around and have fun and do whatever they wanted. They could grow up, fall in love, have families and do all sorts of cool stuff. But I was going to be stuck in bed and die before I was ten.”
       Jake stood up. “I hated everybody! I even hated mom and dad, because they had me. It was their fault. Then I get a new heart, so now I can have a full life after all. Now I can do all that stuff that everyone else could do. Now I’m scared. Now I have a future...and Ed doesn’t.”
       He looked to Chip as he would to a wise sage. “What would he have been if he had lived? What things would he have done, and what would he have been like? It’s so strange having a part of someone else’s body inside me. Now I feel I have to do something really big and special to make his memory special.”
       Chip stood up by Jake on the dock. “Jake, you shouldn’t feel that way. You didn’t kill Ed. You just accepted a special gift from him. He was willing to give you his heart so you could be the way you were always meant to be. Believe me, I know what it means to be jealous of others and have guilt about it. It’s not worth it to give up your life to be something you think someone else would have wanted. Ed would want you to be happy.”
       “What do you have to feel jealous or guilty about?” Jake asked. “You’re super cool, good looking, an awesome detective with the neatest job in the world. You get to be around Gadget every day and Foxglove’s in love with you. What more do you want?”
       Chip could feel Dale staring into his back. Still, the boy was right. He should be happy for himself. “I wish it was that way, Jake, but I made a lot of stupid mistakes growing up. I was bullied when I was a kid and then one day I stood up to that bully. I realized back then if I insisted on getting my own way enough, I usually would. You wouldn’t think it to look at us, but I bullied Dale for years and years until Gadget helped him to break the cycle. I was so used to thinking of him as an incompetent dummy, I never stopped to think that he might not be. That was my first mistake.”
       “I guess you were the real dummy. So why did you two stay friends then, if you hated his guts?”
       Chip sighed and grimaced, “Dale and I have been friends since as long as I can remember. He was willing to put up with my temper, so I’m willing to put my jealousy aside. I’ve never told anyone this, but the worst thing I’m afraid of is being alone. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I think it had a lot to do with how I treated everyone, including Gadget.”
       Jake listened in rapt attention as Chip continued. “I fell in love with her on sight, which as you know isn’t hard to do. I just naturally assumed she’d fall in love with me too but I never bothered to get to know her or find out what who she really was inside. If I had, I would’ve known she didn’t have those feelings for me long ago. But as long as I kept things the way they were I felt secure, even though it was all a lie. I kept Gadget and Dale apart because I felt as long as I had a shot at her I wouldn’t be alone.”
       “But you’re not alone,” Jake protested. “You’ve got all the Rangers and you’ve got Foxglove. Like I said, I bet she’d marry you in an instant. What’s stopping you? Are you afraid she’ll reject you too?”
       “I hate to admit it, but I’d grown so used to the idea of Gadget being there for me that when she chose Dale I resented her for it,” Chip said. “I felt like she’d betrayed my sense of security. I don’t know that I can trust another girl now. Foxy might be willing to marry me, but what then? What if she gets tired of me and leaves? What if I can’t feel happy with her? She’d be heartbroken.”
       Jake thought for a minute, then answered. “What if you spend the rest of your life making excuses ‘cause you’re afraid to take the chance?”
       “I don’t know, Jake. I feel like I am who I am because I used people. I don’t even really know myself! Can I be trusted with someone else’s love like that?”
       “Just jump right back in and learn by the seat of your pants...okay, bad example. Just go out and do stuff, but don’t be a jerk this time. I don’t know, I’m just a kid!” Jake said.
       Chip smiled at the boy’s comment. “I think you know more than you let on. Okay, I tell you what. I’ll go back to being leader of the Rangers and try to not be a jerk if you’ll go back to being whatever your real name is and try not to feel guilty about having a new lease on life. Okay?”
       “You wouldn’t be so quick to accept that bargain if you had my name,” Jake said.
       Chip was curious now. “Why? What is your name?”
       Jake sighed. “Theophane Othneil Valclav. Please, please, please, just call me Jake, okay?” Chip raised his eyebrows at that one. “Well, it’s a unique name all right. How about I call you Theo?”
       “Well okay, but if anyone asks, it’s short for Theodore.”
       “Hmm...well then, how about Neil?”
       The boy nodded. “Okay. Neil it is.”
       Chip shook his hand. “Okay, Neil, it’s a deal. But before we get up, there’s one thing I want to tell you that I remember my grandfather telling me long ago. I asked him once about the best gift he’d ever gotten, and he told me, ‘Chip, the best gift anyone can give is to be willing to lay down their life for someone else. There’s nothing that shows how much someone loves someone else than that.’ So just keep that in mind when you think about Ed.”
       Neil got up. “Okay, I’ll show you the way back to my cabin. You really mean that that I can visit you guys at Ranger HQ?” Chip smiled and winked at Neil. “Sure! You’re the president of your local fan club, after all. We should keep good relations with our fans.”
       “Deal. Mom and dad are probably going to be pretty steamed that I ran away. I hope you can cool them off.”
       Chip could imagine. “Well, I think we can help explain things. After all, it’s not like you were in any real danger.” Neil gave Chip a forced smile and started off. “Yep, never in any real danger.”
       As they were preparing to leave, Chip returned to the cabin and changed back into his hat and jacket. Neil nodded in approval. “Cool, now you look like the real Chip Maplewood again.”
       “I wish I could say I feel totally like him, but I’ll get there,” Chip said, straightening his fedora. “You know, I’m glad I stumbled on you, Neil. You’re just what the doctor ordered.”
       Neil smiled proudly at Chip’s compliment. “Just a little Rangerphile doin’ my duty.”
       Chip smiled at that and patted him on the back. The group escorted Neil to the far side of the lake where the boy led them to a rodent-sized cabin next to a tree sporting a bee hive. “Hey, there’s no one here!” Neil said. “They must have gone looking for me. Boy, am I gonna get it...”
       Monty looked about outside. “Maybe we outta go out an’ find them. No telling where they could be lookin’ for ya.” Neil agreed. “That’s probably a good idea. If you meet up with them first you might be able to calm them down before they get back here to me.”
       “Guess one of us should stay here to explain in case they come back first. I’ll stay, lads,” Monty offered.
       Chip motioned for the others to follow. “Sounds good, Monty. We’ll do a circuit of the campground. Parents looking for a lost child shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
       Chip turned to Dale. “How about you check the footpath and I’ll try the lakeshore.”
       “Sounds good to me, Chip,” Dale said, saluting.
       A thunderclap sounded in the distance, and Chip counted the time between the next lightning flash and its answering boom. “Okay, we’ve still got some time. Search for at least a half hour then come back. Or sooner if those clouds on the horizon break open.”
       Chip walked along the lakeshore, his attention divided between the looming storm and the search for Neil’s parents. He’d asked everyone he’d encountered if they had seen two worried parents, but so far no luck. Zipper had checked back at the Rangers’ cabin and caught up with the parents. He quickly explained what had happened and now the parents were on their way back, much more relieved.
       “Oh, I am so glad little Theophane is okay!” the boy’s father said, complete with a heavy Slavic accent. “Oh, I am Osbert Vaclav, and this is my wife Katrina.” Zipper blinked at Osbert’s exclamation. “Theophane?”
       “Yes, that is his name,” Katrina said, sporting a similar accent. “Has he been making up names again?”
       Zipper chuckled but stopped when he saw Katrina wasn’t laughing. “You could say that. Chip, Dale and Monty have taken him to your cabin.”
       “He is not here?” Osbert asked. “Then we must hurry!”
       “Why? He’s okay,” Zipper said.
       Katrina and Osbert began running around the lake, not taking the time to offer an explanation. A short time later Chip saw two panicked chipmunks running in his direction, a fly in a red sweater doing his best to keep up with them. As they ran toward him, Chip ran beside them, matching their pace.
       “You must be the boy’s parents,” Chip said. “I’m Chip Maplewood of the Rescue Rangers.”
       Katrina ran for the cabin. “No time for that now! We must get to little Theophane before it is too late!” Osbert addressed Chip. “Did he appear sluggish to you when you saw him? Did he have a fever?”
       “No, he seemed fine,” Chip said, starting to wonder at their haste. “He’s only worried that you’re going to be really angry with him for running off on his own.” Osbert picked up the pace, which wasn’t easy on his stout frame as he was already laboring. “Then maybe we will be in time! I told you, Katrina, we should have taught him how to treat himself and give him a supply!”
       “He is only a boy, Osbert,” Katrina said. “He cannot be trusted with such a critical thing!”
       “What are you talking about?” Chip asked.
       The foursome rounded a corner and came within sight of the cabin. Osbert gasped for breath. “I...I will tell you as we treat him. Can’t..stop...” Osbert and Katrina rushed in to find Monty looking the boy over. “The lad’s developed a touch ‘o fever, but seems fine otherwise.”
       Katrina hurried to a locked box and fumbled with the lock. She opened it and brought out a clean hypodermic syringe and a small bottle containing a colorless liquid. Osbert found the pressure point on Theophane’s arm.
       “Hurry, bubska. Hurry!” Osbert said.
       Katrina extracted a measure of liquid into the syringe and injected it into the boy’s arm. Then she looked up at Monty. “When did the fever start?
       “Not long. ‘Bout ten minutes, I guess,” Monty said.
       Osbert breathed a sigh of relief. “We were in time.”
       Moments later the sky opened in a torrential downpour. Chip went to the window. “Wow, I hope Dale made it to shelter. He’s gonna be soaked.” Katrina hugged her child. “Oh, Theophane! Why did you worry us so?”
       Theophane’s hands began to shake and the boys look concerned. Osbert calmed them. “It’s okay. It is a natural reaction. He is through the worst of it. But should your friend not have been back by now?’
       Chip looked at the pouring rain with growing concern. “Yeah, maybe he headed back to our cabin. Monty, we better check on him. You head to the cabin and I’ll take the footpath.”
       “Right-o, mate! Don’t worry, Chip. We’ll find ‘im.”
       Chip headed out into the rain with Monty and Zipper soon joining him in the downpour. Monty pulled up the collar on his jacket and ran for their cabin. “It’s raining heavier than a monsoon out ‘ere, Zipper mate! I hope Dale’s found a nice dry spot!”
       “I bet he’s doing better than us!” Zipper shouted.
       Zipper and Monty disappeared around the trees, skirting the lake. Chip started off at a fast pace. Some deep inner part of him urged him to move quickly. “Dale? Where are you? Dale!”
       Chip ran along the footpath, looking everywhere and straining to hear anything.
       He turned onto a straightaway and could see that Dale was nowhere in sight for the better part of a mile. Chip was about to backtrack when he thought he heard a voice and his attention was centered on a large indentation in the mud ahead. The sudden rain had washed the roots out from under a large oak tree and it had fallen.
       Then Chip remembered how close the road was to the cliff face—he picked up his pace and started looking over the side. He saw nothing at first and worry spread in him. The voice sounded again, not fifty feet ahead.
       “Dale! I’m coming, Dale!”
       The road had collapsed in what looked like a sink hole. Chip couldn’t see Dale at first, then noticed a large boulder that had been moved by the fast-falling rain and a telltale spot of red out at the end of it. Dale waved. “Chip! Boy am I glad to see you! What’s the word for when something happens all the time in a story that’s expected?”
       “A cliché, Dale. Hang on, I’ll get you out of this!”
       Dale hung on for dear life. “That would be great! Like I was saying, it’s like in the movies. There’s always that time when the hero’s doubting himself and then something happens to a friend of his and has to do the rescue bit. So this would be the perfect time to overcome your doubt and rescue me!”
       Chip pulled out the line of cord attached to a safety pin that he always kept with him. Chip secured the pin to a nearby tree, banging the point in with a rock like a piton. Quickly, Chip rappelled down the cliff just to the right of the boulder. Soon he was in position.
       Okay, Dale,” Chip said, “I’m going to swing over and when I’m near you, reach out and grab on! And don’t look down!”
       Dale looked down, then slapped a hand over his eyes. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have looked down!”
       The rocks shifted slightly and Dale began commentating. “Now it’s a race against time as the rock begins to give way and Chip’s trying to save me! Will our hero be dashed into pieces on the jagged rocks below? Will Chip be able to rescue me in time? Tune in tomorrow for our next exciting adventure…”
       At the back of Chip’s mind he was once again beginning to wonder if Dale really was insane. Chip shook off the idea and another one came which he instantly tried to ignore. He knew he’d never act on it, but he was glad Dale couldn’t read his thoughts at that moment. Chip accelerated his efforts and got down even with Dale’s current position, swinging out to him.
       “Reach!” Chip shouted. “C’mon, that rock could go any moment!”
       Dale rolled his eyes. “Of course the rock could go at any moment. It always does in this kinda situation.”
       As Chip reached for Dale, it was as if time stood still. Chip could imagine what would happen if he failed. Dale would be smashed by the rock at the bottom of the cliff. Chip could honestly say he’d tried his best to save him. Gadget would be devastated and would likely turn to him for comfort. He could see her, crying in his arms as they stood by his grave. Chip’s hand stretched further toward Dale, and Dale’s moved toward his.
       She could be his, and no one would ever suspect. No. He’d know. Chip Maplewood might not be perfect, but I’m no killer.
       As their hands melded, the boulder gave way. Dale hung on to Chip’s hand. “Hey, good catch Chip! Chip, I’m beginning to think that this is serious.”
       Dale fixed his gaze on Chip’s, their hands interlocked. “Chip, if I die...look after Gadget for me...”
       Chip strained with the effort of holding Dale. He knew he couldn’t hold him for long, but if he could manage until Dale was secure…
       “ die, Dale...I die with you!”
       Dale worked to get a better grip. “You’re right, Chip! I’m not gonna make Gadget a widow and you’re not gonna break Foxy’s heart!” Chip moved the rope to where Dale could grab it with his other hand. Dale snagged it and together they climbed up to the top.
       The big rock gave way and the collection of debris thundered to the bottom of the tall hill. They looked down, watching as the dust settled, trying to catch their breath. The two of them fell on their backs, exhausted and dirty.
       Chip looked over at his old friend. “I swear, Dale. If you don’t stop getting me into crazy situations like this I’ll…I’ll…”
       Chip stopped. What would he do? Then something paradoxically strange happened. Chip laughed. He laughed like he was the only one in the world who knew what laughing was about. As Dale pulled up Chip’s rope and unfastened the safety pin, Chip laughed the more.
       “I don’t..ha! ha!” Chip said. “I don’t understand it! Why..hee! I feeling this way? I can’t..ha!..I can’t stop!”
       Dale walked back over. “Sorta the way Scrooge felt at the end of the story?”
       “I don’t...I don’t know why, but I feel like laughing!”
       Chip giggled, getting to his feet, and once they were on their way back Dale put a brotherly arm around Chip’s neck. “Chip, I know why you’re laughing! You finally realized you’re not the selfish clod that you had convinced yourself you were!”
       Dale paused, then looked Chip in the eyes. “I know what you were thinking while you were trying to save me. If you had let me die, you could’ve had Gadget all to yourself. But you put my well being first. And now with that said I need to fain...”
       Dale promptly fainted from the shock and excitement of his near-death experience.
       Chip knelt down and checked Dale’s vital signs. He was okay, but then Dale’s words struck home. He’d known. And yet Dale had trusted him to save him. Chip sat back in the grass and breathed in deeply, and it was as if it was his life’s first breath. As he looked and took in the admittedly-scenic view, the words of advice that he’d passed along to Theophane came to him again.
       Chip smiled, stuck his hands in his jacket pockets, and as sudden as the rain had come it had stopped. As he watched, a rainbow formed in the sky in front of him and Chip looked at it in pleased wonder. He felt as if his whole life was ahead of him and no obstacle would hold him back. And he knew that no matter what his feelings were for Gadget and Foxy, he was Chip Maplewood. And Chip Maplewood was a hero.
       “Thanks, Grandpa. You were right.”
       Once Dale awakened, Chip helped him up and they walked back to the Vaclavs’ cabin. Dale noticed Chip was being unusually considerate. Maybe he really has changed. When they got to the cabin, only Monty and Zipper were there.
       Chip looked around. “What happened? Did Neil have a relapse or something?”
       “Nothin’ like that, lad,” Monty said. “His folks were just so upset over everythin’ that happened they just headed out. They said they needed to take him to the hospital just to make sure nothin’ was wrong. He said he felt fine, but you know how parents are.”
       Dale chuckled. “Yeah, they faint if you cut your finger, or bruise your leg, or crack your head, or break your arm...”
       Chip retorted, “You’ll be the same way when you and Gadget have...uh...”
       “Have what?” Dale asked.
       Chip rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, I just meant kids, that’s all. Well, adopted ones anyway.” Dale hadn’t even thought about kids. Would Gadget even want kids? Would he? As Dale thought about Gadget, he remembered the picture of her Chip had. “Uh, Chip? About that picture...I was bein’ jealous. You’ve had that picture a long time and I had no right to yammer at you about it.”
       Chip took out his beloved picture of Gadget and looked at it fondly. In his imagination he placed Dale in the picture next to Gadget and then in front of them he placed Children. Gadget was Dale’s wife. The time had finally come to accept it. Chip sighed, then smiled.
       “Dale, do you carry a picture of Gadget on you?” Chip asked.
       Dale shook his head. “Well, no...haven’t thought about getting one. Why?”
       Chip handed the picture to Dale. “This is a great one. Keep it handy.”
       Dale held the picture in his hand. He couldn’t believe Chip was willing to give it to him. For several years Dale had coveted that picture, knowing that he wouldn’t ever get close to Gadget. Now he was her husband and Chip was on the outside. Dale reached out his hand to Chip. “Thank you, Chip. I appreciate this.”
       Chip took his hand and when Dale shook it, he turned Chip’s hand over and put the picture back in Chip’s hand. “The picture means more to you than it ever will to me. You’ve earned the right to keep it, because now I know your heart’s in the right place. I’m sure Gadget would say the same thing.”
       “Dale, I don’t know what to say, except thanks.”
       “You don’t have to say anything,” Dale said. “I know you’ve suffered a lot these past few months, but if you only knew how good it was to hear you laugh again. I’ve missed you, Chip. I was scared I’d driven you away, but now I think you might be better than you ever were. I’m glad for you.”
       Chip smiled back. “Thanks, Dale. It’s good to be back. So, what are we gonna tell the ladies when we get back? I’d kinda like to keep my falling apart as secret as possible.”
       Dale smiled at him. “What falling apart?”
       Chip nodded. “Thanks, Dale.”
       Monty patted Chip’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, mate. Me lips are sealed.”
       “Mine as well,” Zipper added.
       With that, Monty turned his thoughts elsewhere. “Seems like you’re back to your old self, Chipper mate. You know ol’ Zipper an’ I are in yer corner too. But what happened out there? What made you turn around like this?”
       Chip turned to his oldest friend. “You want to handle the story, Dale? You were more involved than I was.”
       Dale was only too glad to, and took a deep breath . “Well, first I was searchin’ along the path for Neil’s parents, see, an’ then the rains came on me sudden-like so I decided to take shelter under a tree and wait for the rain to quiet down some before headin’ back but then the ground gave out under me and the tree fell right over the cliff and I ran along its base all I could till I had to jump, and then I reached a boulder that was loosened by the rains too and I held on and started yellin’ for all I was worth—and boy was it ever exciting!—then Chip showed up, flashed out his cord and swung down to get me and grabbed my hand just in time and then the boulder went crashing down the cliffside and then Chip held me suspended in the air while I got a good grip and we managed to get back up, and by that time I was totally exhausted from it all and fell over.”
       Dale mimicked his falling over at the end, then stood up. “Did I leave anything out, Chip?”
       “Nope, that about covers it,” Chip said. “Dale was right, it was exciting. I was able to put my feelings, doubts and self-pity aside to rescue him. That’s what turned me around. I saw that I can still do the right thing.”
       Monty slapped him on the back. “‘Long as you can do that, mate, you’re every bit a Rescue Ranger and I’ll be glad ta follow ya.”
       Zipper saluted his approval.

       Two weeks later, Dale heard a knock at the door. He bounced up before anyone else volunteered and turned the knob. “Hey, guys! We’ve got guests!”
       The other Rangers stood up as one and found that the Vaclavs had arrived for their visit. Osbert was practically having to hold Neil down, he was so excited. Katrina was in a much better mood this time and actually waved to Chip as he approached them at the door.
       “Neil!” Chip said, shaking his hand. “We’re so glad you could make it! Come on in!” Osbert led the way. “He has talked of nothing but all of you since we had to leave so abruptly at Lake Flacid. Pardon our hasty exit that day, my friend Chip, but there was good reason.”
       “No need to apologize. You were obviously very worried about your son’s health.”
       Katrina joined her husband in the conversation. “Oh, more than you know. We would have come sooner, but we wanted to be sure that little Theophane was rested for the journey.” Dale as usual was the universal ambassador of friendliness. “Well, come on in and make yourself at home! Have a seat, take yer shoes off, sit a spell!”
       Monty headed for the kitchen. “Well, looks like I better whip up a snack fer our guests...hope you folks like cheese.” Katrina followed him “Ah, I will join you in the kitchen. I will show you the Bavarian method for preparing cheese.”
       “That’d be dandy!” Monty said, letting her lead the way. “One can never have too many ways of preparing cheese.”
       Neil struggled out of his father’s grasp and rushed up to Gadget. “Woooooooowwwwww! Gadget...” Gadget smiled and knelt down beside him. “Hi, there! I’ve heard you’re a big fan of ours!”
       The boy was feeling lightheaded and looking at her he found himself having trouble forming words. He just started nodding. Gadget looked slightly concerned at Neil’s reaction. “Are you okay? Is there something I could do for you?”
       Neil gave into an impulse and quickly kissed her on the cheek, then took a step back as the shock at what he’d done set in. “I’m sorry, ma’am!”
       To his surprise, Gadget wasn’t mad or shocked. She smiled the more, laughed a little, and gave him a friendly kiss on the cheek in return. Neil had to sit down—this was all too much for him. He desperately wished he could have had a picture of that. His friends would never believe that he had been kissed by Gadget!
       “Sorry about that, Mrs. Oakmont. I...don’t know what came over me,” Neil said, blushing beet red. Gadget was kind about it. “That’s okay, Neil. I know you were just being friendly, and so was I. And I’m glad you like the Rangers.”
       Osbert had been about to talk to his son, but he could see no harm was done. “And I am glad he has chosen such role models. I have heard many good things about your group. You have helped to save many lives, and now I must thank you all again and tell you that you did more for my son than you knew. Your efforts saved my son’s life as well.”
       “Really, how?” Dale asked, intrigued.
       “Theophane, go see if your mother needs help in the kitchen.”
       The Rangers showed Osbert over to the couch as Neil left the room and Osbert explained. “Theophane has told me that he showed you his scar from his heart transplant operation. My son nearly...nearly died waiting for a donor. He was not expected to live even this long, but you see how strong his will is. The operation was three months ago and we decided to bring him to the lake for his first vacation in years.”
       Osbert took a deep breath, controlling his emotions. “He could not run and play as the other boys did, and I know he cried many a night over his burden.”
       “Golly, that’s so sad,” Gadget said. “To be so young and not be able to enjoy your childhood.”
       “My son’s body was limited, but not his mind. He is a very bright boy, and is always drawing pictures and writing little stories,” Osbert replied, pulling out a scrapbook to show them. “When he heard about your group, he immediately focused all his energies on you. He saves all the various newspaper stories that even mention your exploits. There are many pictures of each of you in his room, and he has let me read a couple of his stories so I am familiar with each of you.”
       Osbert’s voice lowered, and took on an air of gratitude. “You all have been an inspiration to him, and I know that without that he would not be alive today. So when we took him to the lake he was exploring the world on his own for the first time. But as a transplant patient he has a necessity that must be observed. Theophane must have an injection to control his body’s immune system or it will reject his new heart. That was why we were so desperately worried about him that day. If we had not found him within the hour, he would have died.”
       The father reached over and patted Chip’s shoulder. “So in essence, you have saved him twice.” Chip was too stunned to respond to that revelation immediately. When he could he managed, “I’m glad we were there to help.”
       Osbert reached out and took his hand. “You are a true hero, Chip, as are all of you. I will always be grateful to the Rescue Rangers for your service. Thank you all.” Dale smiled with pride at his friend and leader. “Well, Chip really outdid himself on that trip!”
       Chip was humbled, a rare experience for him. “You’re welcome, sir. That’s what we’re all about.” Dale saluted Chip snappily. “Helping others first, no matter what the personal cost!”
       Foxglove had been out eating during all this, but had just come in on the last of Osbert’s conversation. “Oh, Chip! You’re so gallant!” Foxy came over and hugged him and Dale laughed at the scene. “That’s what makes a hero.”
       Chip kissed her. “Thanks, Foxy. But I couldn’t do it without the help of my friends.” Gadget for her part was overcome by Osbert’s thankfulness. “Golly, that’s so wonderful! To think that our just being Rangers could make people’s lives fuller. It makes everything we’ve gone through worth it. I wonder just how many Neils are out there in the world.”
       And how many of them would give their right arm to be able to do this. Dale took Gadget in his arms and kissed her. “You make it all worthwhile for me.”
       Monty, Katrina and Neil emerged from the kitchen. “Come ‘n get it, folks!” Monty said. “We’ve got a Bavarian smorgasbord tonight!”
       “My cheddar goulash is the envy of Hamburg!” Katrina added.
       Neil took Chip’s hand, leading him to the table. “This is so unbelievably cool! I’m going to eat dinner with the Rescue Rangers!” Osbert held a chair for his wife. “We must have you all come to our home when you can, so that we can repay your hospitality.”
       Everyone sat down and soon the dinner conversation was going. Neil was first, his curiosity forcing him to be bold. “I always wanted to ask Nimnul bald because he pulled his hair out, being so mad at you guys?”
       The Rangers all laughed wildly at the question. “Well, we’ve certainly given him our share of trouble over the years,” Chip said. Neil nodded. “I’ll say, it’s like the time that he used that thing that made him into other animals. I thought those zoo guys would never get him straightened out!”
       Gadget thought out loud, “Actually, I think the refulgence of his head was caused by an inherited genetic response. But he has lost his self-control a lot around us—particularly around Zipper. Not that he had a lot of self-control in the first place...well, I mean we haven’t known him all his life so he could have been better before we tangled with him. Then again....”
       “Gadget, luv, save it for after supper,” Monty said.
       The fare was excellent, and even Monty had to admit the additions Katrina had made to the meal were very good. They shared several family recipes back and forth and were still talking food when the others went to the couch. Uncharacteristically, it was Gadget who renewed the talking.
       “Neil, I’m curious. How many Ranger fans are there? We hadn’t really heard about us having fans or fan clubs before...”
       Neil was astonished. “Lots and lots! I don’t know how many, but they’re all over the world.” Foxglove gazed at him. “All over the world? You mean there are thousands of kids out there that draw pictures of us and write stories about us?”
       “Not just kids, old people too!” Neil replied.
       Dale blinked at that news. “Old people? You mean that grown-ups like us too?”
       “Even older! And we call ourselves ‘Rangerphiles’! Who doesn’t like the Rangers? Except Fat Cat and Nimnul of course.”
       Chip laughed at that point. “But why us? We’re just a small group that helps others.” Neil shook his head. “You guys daily do things that the rest of us can only dream about and you’re great folks to have to look up too.”
       Monty broke in. “Hey, don’t forget, Chipper, we’ve tangled with some pretty tough blokes from time to time. Not to mention preventin’ catastrophes in almost ev’ry country on the planet!”
       “Yeah, and there’s Gadgetph—” Neil covered, then continued. “Uh, people that really, really like you, Gadget.” Gadget cocked her head in a question. Was he about to say Gadgetphiles? “Well, that’s nice. But why me?”
       “Well, you’re so smart and nice and beautiful. Why not?”
       Gadget blushed at the compliments. “Golly...”
       Neil thumbed at the two chipmunks. “No wonder Chip and Dale both fell in love with you the moment they saw you.”
       Now it was Chip and Dale’s turns to blush. The room got quiet very fast and no one seemed to know what to say. Chip, ever the leader, broke the stalemate. “Yeah, and Gadget made a great choice when she accepted Dale. I didn’t do so bad myself.”
       Chip hugged Foxy and the female bat reveled in it.
       “We all got our cuties!” Foxy said.
       The relief in the room was refreshing and Gadget stood up. “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Since this is the first fan to visit us in the treehouse, let’s get a group picture with him.”
       Gadget ran to her workshop and returned with her camera. Soon, Osbert had the camera ready as the Rangers all gathered around Neil on the couch. Monty leaned over toward Neil, advising. “Uh, Neil? Don’t look right at that flash, mate. That’s Gadget’s xenon camera....”
       Gadget formed a mischievous smile and at the instant Osbert took the picture she again gave Neil a peck on the cheek. Now it was Gadget’s turn to blush. “Well, I didn’t want our biggest fan to have nothing to show for the trip except just a boring old picture.”
       Osbert chuckled. “I think I know what picture’s going to take center spot in Theophane’s room now.”
       “I want that one made into poster size!” Neil said. At Osbert’s request, the Rangers all posed for individual and more group pictures. Then he secured the roll of film. “I have an amateur studio at home, which is why Theophane mentions enlarging the picture. I used to work in photographic services for the International Mouse-O-Graphic in my native country.”
       “Man, I wish I had these pictures developed now!” Neil said. “I’d like your autographs too.”
       Chip put his arm around Neil. “Thanks Neil, for everything. You helped me to see my duty and to be the person I was supposed to be. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this.”
       Chip pulled out a photograph from his jacket pocket, and the Rangers all signed it. “Take good care of that. It’s one of a kind.” Neil stared at the photo, amazed. “Are you sure, Chip? This is your legendary coveted picture of Gadget that you carry with you always. Wow, I’ll treasure it forever!”
       Chip smiled at him. “I know you will, and I could only have given it to someone for whom it would mean that much to. I’m glad it was you.”
       “This is the best day of my entire life! Well...second best, anyway. Thanks everyone.”
       Monty was never one to pass up a compliment. “Aw, only too glad ta make a fan’s day better. Reminds me of the time when I was with a band o’ aborigine ants. They’re a mite bigger than the ones ‘round here ya know. Well, ol’ Monterey Jack had helped them out of a tight scrape so when it came time to say goodbye, they—”
       Katrina took a look at her watch. “Goodbye? Oh Osbert, we must be getting back. We both have tasks at home, and this little one will need to rest after such a big day!”
       All the Rangers breathed a sigh of relief at the story’s interruption.
       “Aw, already?” Dale asked.
       Neil sighed. “Well, I hate to have to go. Maybe I can visit again one day. And maybe when I’m older I can become a Rescue Ranger!”
       Osbert patted his son on the shoulder. “I am sure that if anyone can, you could my son. Now say goodbye to them all and thank them for their generosity.”
       Dale was first, and shook Neil’s hand vigorously. “Great meeting ya, kiddo! Say, are there any Dalephiles out there?”
       “Well, a few. But I gotta tell you, a lot of Rangerphiles aren’t thrilled with you and Gadget being together. They just automatically assumed she’d marry Chip.”
       Dale looked to Gadget, and she shrugged back at him. “Well, you tell them that Dale said they shouldn’t go around making assumptions. I know I’ve kept my light under a bushel so to speak, but now I’m going to do my best to show them all what I’m really capable of.”
       Gadget hugged him. “And you tell them that I’m very happy with the way things are, too. But I still consider Chip a very good friend and I always will.”
       Neil spoke in a “okay then” tone. “I’ll tell, but it’ll be a hard sell.”
       Chip caught the warm look from Gadget and nodded his approval. “And you can tell them that Foxy and I are happy as well.”
       “Verrrry happy,” Foxy added, slipping her wings around Chip. Chip patted the right side of his jacket, knowing that a picture still occupied that place close to his heart. Only this picture was of a certain beautiful bat with an adorable giggle.
       “So, when are you two getting married then?” Neil asked.
       Chip face turned solid red, and Foxy beamed at the prospect. “Well, we’ve discussed it some, but I haven’t exactly actually really asked her...”
       “YESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYES!” Foxy shouted. “But don’t let me pressure you.”
       Then Foxglove felt guilty at trying to force the issue. “You weren’t ready before, but since that trip to the lake you’re a changed chipmunk. You’re cuter and more wonderful than before! And if you were to ask a certain bat a certain question again, you might get a answer more to your liking this time...cutie.”
       Chip was embarrassed, but didn’t find himself angry or anything. “Foxy, I know this isn’t really the time or the place for this but maybe the perfect situation will never come.”
       Chip turned to Foxglove, and she was one ball of excitement. “When I went to the lake, I didn’t even know who I was. I went through a time of soul-searching and met a kid who showed me what being brave is all about. I know who I am now, and I can admit I’m not perfect. I can be blind as a bat when it comes to realizing other people’s offense.”
       Foxy only smiled in return, her eyes shining, and Chip continued. “I can be stubborn and hardheaded. Since I’ve come back, I’ve remembered all that you’ve meant to me. I have many shortcomings, but I’ll try to make for those by being the best leader, the best Ranger, and...the best husband I can, if you’ll have me.”
       The room was quiet as everyone held their breath to hear Foxy’s answer. She was silent for a few moments, her face showing no expression. Then she screamed with joy and leaped into Chip’s arms and kissed him mightily. “Yes! But I’m gonna hold you to your promises of being ‘the best leader, the best Ranger, and....the best husband I can’.”
       “Wow!” Neil said. “Where’s that camera? The guys are never going to believe me otherwise.” Neil’s parents just glanced at each other. “Well, they are certainly an affectionate group of people,” Osbert said.
       Gadget produced her camera and took a picture of the amorous scene. “They will now....”
       “Wowie-zowie! Way to go, you two!” Dale said.
       “Always knew that lad’d come around,” Monty added.
       Foxglove soaked in the congratulations. “Mrs. Maplewood. I like how that sounds.”
       Zipper flew up to the two of them. “Congratulations!”
       Neil ran over to the conversant fly. “Hey, I forgot that you could talk! How’d that happen, anyway?”
       “Medical science can do wonders these days.”
       Neil searched for a pad and pencil. “Oh, I’ve gotta hear about this! How’d it happen? Who did the surgery? When—”
       Osbert tugged on his son’s sleeve. “I think you can leave those questions for another time. Our new friends have a lot of celebrating to do.”
       “And you need to rest soon,” Katrina reminded. “Too much strain is not good for you.”
       Neil didn’t want to give in, but the Rangers’ promise that he could return soon made it easier. After receiving hugs from Foxy and Gadget, as well as shaking hands with Chip, Dale, Monty and Zipper, it was a lot easier. The Rangers all stood at the door, waving goodbye. Chip held Foxglove close, enjoying her presence. All the inner wounds were healing and he was thankful that Foxy wouldn’t find out unless it came from him. For now, he was just glad to be Chip Maplewood, Rescue Ranger

Neil "Theo" Vaclav, Osbert Vaclav, Katrina Valcav, Brenda Baxter and Eva Erskine are original creations of Indy and Chris Silva. Chip, Dale, Monterey Jack, Zipper, Gadget, Foxglove, Lahwhinie, and Queen Honey are copyright Disney and used without permission but with the utmost respect.