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Consummation

by Roy Neal Grissom

 

Night had fallen in the park and the Rescue Rangers, who had just wrapped up a tough case, were preparing for a well earned leisurely supper. The chipmunks, Gadget, and Zipper had agreed among themselves to set to work at once in the kitchen before Monterey Jack could protest, so that they could have something besides cheese. It was while they were all busy preparing dishes and shouting among themselves in the kitchen (so as not to have to argue with Monty) that Foxglove, who had just awakened from a long day's sleep, stumbled yawning into the room and accidentally bumped into Dale. The two started, eyed each other with alarm, and hastily exited, each by a different way.

What's that, you say? Dale and Foxglove alienated from one another? A fight perhaps? Oh, how harsh is reality to destroy such a beautiful relationship!

But you are wrong, Dear Reader. This was not a spat. Far from it. For you see, Dale and Foxglove were in fact engaged to be married.

They had met during the Winifred case in the June of two years previously. Foxglove fell madly in love with Dale the instant she first detected him on her radar. Over the next few days she tried desperately to please her mistress Winifred while simultaneously trying to protect Dale and the other Rangers. It was an impossible task and ended with her switching allegiance altogether, putting her in extreme danger. But everything turned out all right; she herself had helped save the day and make Winifred's capture by the police possible. After that she hung around the Rangers' tree in the park for a few days hoping to elicit Dale's affection. He seemed not to mind having her around as long as she didn't try to get romantic, at which point he always parted company from her instantly. Then before the week was out, the same week they had met, the Rangers received word of an urgent case in England. She had hoped to be asked to come along, but Dale instead seemed to eagerly look forward to a long vacation from her proffered affections. This had hurt her so deeply that she left before the Rangers took off for their mission. As the months passed and she heard nothing from them she decided that they must still regard her as a criminal, and this feeling became stronger and stronger until she became very depressed. She had never really had a good self-image, which is why she had accepted Winifred's "friendship" so readily in the first place. But as the year turned and spring began to show itself she began to toy more and more with the idea of looking them up at their headquarters. The more she put it off, though, the more nervous and anxious about it she became. But when June arrived once more her desperate need for friendship and Dale's affection finally drove her to fly to their headquarters to see if they would forgive and accept her, though of course the Rangers had done that when she had helped rescue them the year before. But at any rate she was indeed welcomed and after the previously related adventure became a member of the household, if not a Rescue Ranger proper.

The months passed. Summer turned to fall, and fall to winter. Foxy was of course accustomed to a deep hibernation during this time, but Gadget's homemade electronic heating system, plus the availability of food all year long (thanks to Monterey Jack) enabled her to remain conscious and at least semi-active throughout the cold midnight of the year. Then in late March as life slowly began to return to the world, her own activity level gradually increased. But at the same time she felt "spring fever" as she never had before. She was not only friends with the man of her dreams but even lived in the same abode with him and saw him every day. While this had been enough at first, the lack of progress in the relationship began to frustrate her to a painful degree. For his own part, Dale had grown from embarrassment at first to a deep friendship with her during their adventure of the previous year (in which he thought he might never see her again) and this developed during the succeeding months into love, though he always remained a little more reluctant at sharing his feelings than she did. During this time Foxy had recourse to Gadget's sage advice on many occasions, but Gadget's advice to her was of no help in getting Dale to pop the long-awaited question. Still though, Gadget always assured her that Dale did indeed love her and she need only be patient. Meanwhile Chip, Zipper, and Monterey were doing their best to talk Dale into being confident enough to make the proposal. In other words, each was in love with the other, but each lacked the self-confidence to initiate the process, which by custom was the responsibility of the male.

By early April Foxglove had decided that she would break custom to get something going, even though she still feared that Dale would not want to accept, at least right then. But Dale had also made up his mind to break his silence and get the suspense over with. And so on one warm early spring day, after the other Rangers had given what assurances they could to each of them to bolster their confidence, they conspired to absent themselves at suppertime so as to lessen the intimidation factor for their friends. Finding themselves alone across a table of acorns and moths (prepared specially by Monty to elicit romance and lower inhibitions), Dale cleared his throat and began.

"Foxglove," he began, "I . . . I have something I'd like to talk to you about."

Foxy fairly squealed in delight. "Yes?!!" she responded.

For some time Dale maintained silence, pulling at his collar and sweating noticeably. Foxy didn't have a collar to pull, but she was just as nervous and drew even with him in the perspiration count. "Well," he finally said, "it's just that . . . what I mean to say is . . . I'm hungry. Aren't you?"

His companion's mouth fell open at this stunning letdown, though she suspected that that wasn't really what was on his mind. Finally she recovered just sufficiently to say, "Dale, I'm really not that hungry right now." In truth she was hungry, but simply couldn't feel it at this moment of emotional life-or-death.

Dale saw the heartbroken look on her face and the tears beginning to form, but he couldn't shake the feeling of nervousness at being perhaps not ready for such a step, of being far too immature to assume such a responsibility. Finally he said, "Look Foxy, I'm sorry to put both of us through this, but I just . . . I just think maybe if we ate a good meal we'd both feel better. I know I would."

She took heart at this and showed a weak smile. "Oh, all right, Dale. But please . . . when we're done, just speak what's on your mind. Okay?"

"Uh . . . I'll try, Foxy, really I will," he answered and then, feeling better and a little more hopeful, they both enjoyed a delicious meal. Acorns were primal food to a chipmunk, and Chip and Dale didn't really eat them that often now that they had such a chef in Monty, even if he did tend to over-do the cheese thing a bit. And as for Foxy, there was no food in existence as tasty as luna moth, which she usually caught on the wing when she had it at all. Somehow Monterey Jack had procured one and prepared it like a Thanksgiving meal, marinate and all (plus a cheese baste). They did indeed feel much better after eating and Foxglove again looked at Dale with anxious anticipation. But when she saw that he was again sweating and tugging at his collar she thought maybe she could help him get started.

"Was there something you wanted to ask me, Cutie?" she asked in a gentle coaxing tone that concealed her anxiety.

Well . . . yeah, now that you mention it," Dale responded much to Foxy's relief. "You know, Foxy, we've known each other for the better part of a year now, and we really met and got acquainted even before that. And well, you've been kinda hangin' around me a lot, and . . . " His voice trailed off and Foxy began to ride the rollercoaster once more.

"Yes, Darling?" she primed the pump again.

"Well . . . maybe I should just forget about it," he said suddenly in a low and despairing voice. This was enough to send Foxglove almost over the edge.

"C'mon Dale, just say what's in your heart!" she cried, "don't be scared! You can trust me!" By now she was really beginning to wonder if he ever intended to propose at all, and she wished all the more that it had been up to her to ask him, so that she would be the one stammering and afraid to get a word out. But finally after several minutes of uncomfortable silence and looking down at the floor Dale made up his mind that it was now or never.

"Okay," he said in a tone that indicated anything was better than this awful suspense. Then bringing himself to look into her face (which he did with difficulty and only for a moment) he finally said, "Foxglove, do you think maybe you'd mind very much if you kinda sorta maybe just married me a little bit?" This was spoken in a tone descending in both pitch and volume until only Foxy's ears could have heard the ending of it. By this time he was sure he had made a mistake in thinking her affection for him went that far, but before he could say, "Oh well, never mind; just forget about it," he could not speak for having a mouth full of fur. In fact, he seemed to be wearing an almost skin-tight "Batmunk" outfit. And in the meantime his ears were aching from an extremely high-pitched and excited voice saying "Oh, YES Dale! YES!! YES!!! OF COURSE I'll marry you! And thank you so much for asking! I didn't think anyone ever would," she added in a more subdued tone.

"Foxy, I can't breathe," she heard through the skin of a tightly wrapped wing.

"Oh! Sorry, Dale! I didn't mean to cut off your air like that! I guess I'm just a little excited!"

The other Rangers may have made themselves scarce, but only to their respective rooms, from whence they had been peaking and listening at intervals, in quite the same anxious state as the two protagonists. But when they heard Foxglove's happy squeal of fulfillment they knew the deed had been done, and they ran (or flew, in Zipper's case) to the dining room trying to act as nonchalantly as possible so they could congratulate their friends when the latter two finally got the nerve to announce the big "news."

"Hi, guys," Gadget began, "You two eaten already? Golly!" Chip admired her acting job here, as she had been perhaps the greatest proponent of the match.

"Uh . . . yeah, we've just had a good supper," Dale began a little shyly.

"Guys, Dale and I are going to be married!" Foxglove blurted out ecstatically, thinking now that the decision had been made there was no need whatsoever in keeping it a secret. Besides, it was the happiest day of her life . . . so far.

"Well, congratulations, mates!" Monty responded warmly, rushing up to envelop them both in the rough but wholehearted hug of the Australian bushmouse, "always thought you two should tie the knot! Like two peas in a pod, you are!" Zipper buzzed them his congratulations. Chip also offered his warmest wishes, though a little self-consciously, both because he had often treated his best friend a little impatiently, and because that left him sort of alone, what with his oldest friend leaving him behind for his life-mate and the mouse of his own dreams seemingly an unreachable goal. But he was really happy for them both nonetheless.

The two happy newlyweds-to-be decided to have the ceremony the following month; they agreed that the eighteenth was a propitious date. So preparations began, and that brings us to the situation at the beginning of our story. For you see, it was not at all the usual thing for "engagees" to live in the same home. Usually the couple would stay apart and not see one another again until the actual wedding. This was in order to increase their anticipation as well as for moral reasons. So it was decided that rather than have Foxglove leave her recently-acquired home they would instead approximate a separation by having the chipmunk and bat see as little of each other as possible and not to speak with each other. The two principals were quite in agreement with the whole idea, as they both respected tradition and their own weaknesses. And so it was that on that mid-April evening when they bumped into each other at supper Dale and Foxglove both retreated as quickly as possible and without speaking.

Of course it was a bit hard on them, but they knew that it was only for a short time. There was that one time when Dale came into headquarters to find Foxglove and Chip locked in what appeared to be a very passionate embrace. Dale forgot about protocol that time as he charged the couple, but when Chip saw him he explained, "Don't worry Dale, it's not what you think. She just asked me if she could pretend I was you." Foxy had been oblivious of Dale's presence until she heard Chip speak, at which point she looked up with longing and a few tears in her eyes and nodded to him earnestly. Dale felt ashamed of himself. "Do you suppose," he asked his old friend, "you would mind very much if I pretended that you were her?" It only took Chip a second to think it over and reply, "Not at all. Go right ahead!" Foxy smiled as well, and so did Chip as he became the conduit through which the couple longingly embraced one another.

Then there was the matter of the new room. This was the work of all the other four, but mostly it was Gadget's brains and Monterey's braun. This room was being hewn and carved into the same bough as the others. Chip's room (and Dale's up until now) was the first one came to, just out of the living room and to the left. Next was Gadget's room (for the past year shared with Foxglove, though usually not at the same time) and then her workshop. On the right were the two "little mouse's rooms" and then the room shared by Monty and Zipper. Dale and Foxy's new room was being carved just beyond Gadget's workshop, on the left side of the bough. Under Gadget's direction the room gradually took shape, and then furniture (including a pole suspended from the roof so Foxy would have the option of sleeping in a more natural and comfortable position) and a door were added. And finally Gadget personally wired the room for electricity, as she had previously done for the entire headquarters.

And so the days of April wore on as they all kept busy (well, all but the happy couple, that is). Being exempt from the work only made the two more impatient, as they had too much time on their hands. Chip eventually assigned Dale the duty of going down to the police station each day to listen for cases, but the Rangers really weren't accepting any until this more important business was taken care of. Eveyone was feeling quite satisfied about how the work was progressing, and indeed it seemed to be proceeding without a hitch. But looks can be deceiving, and that was so in this case. For you see, Gadget had made a decision that was quite harmless in itself, but which was to lead to terrifying consequences. She carefully composed a press release and sent Monty with copies to the offices of the various newspapers that made up the local small mammal press.

Soon the animal population of the city and its environs was buzzing with the news. The Rescue Rangers had become well-known heroes in the past few years, even if many of their cases involved helping completely unknowing and unappreciative humans. And the publication of the event, along with the time and place of the ceremony, meant that the whole thing was being thrown open to the animal public. And why not? Why shouldn't a grateful community be given an opportunity to show its appreciation and share in its benefactors' joy? Gadget's idea was completely reasonable except for one very obvious problem. Not everyone looked upon the Rangers as benefactors or wished them well.

* * *

"How DARE they!" Fat Cat thundered to his trembling minions from his "throne" in the statue atop the Happy Tom cat food factory. "How DARE those miserable rodents find happiness in wedded bliss when they have frustrated my own attempts at personal fulfillment so many times?" It wasn't really intended as a real question, but of course you couldn't tell Mepps that.

"Gee, boss," he said in that singular voice of his which so often made his master yearn for the solitude and security of a padded cell, "that's not fair. No one put your wedding in the papers!"

"I've never HAD a wedding, you cerebrectomy survivor!" he snarled. "My happiness lies in possessing the very best of everything! The best food! The best clothes! The best jewelry! Everything that I am ENTITLED to!" He sprung from his seat. "And EACH and EVERY TIME I am foiled by those vermin!"

Each of the henchmen cringed as his tirade reached ever higher levels of decibels. Each knew from bitter experience that their boss was apt to transfer his wrath from the Rangers to someone nearer at hand. And in fact sure enough, the newspaper he had been reading was now elevated and ready to come down upon the head of poor Mepps. But suddenly he stopped and his anger seemed to disappear.

"Well, they're not going to get away with it!" he said with determination, "since they were so foolish as to publicize the event and invite everyone, I think that should apply to us as much as to anyone else! In fact, more than to anyone else!" His eyes narrowed and his voice became lower. "After all, we've been 'friends' a long time! A very long time!"

It was all perfectly true (except for the "friends" part). Chip and Dale had interfered with him and his master Clordane in the Klutchcoin Ruby caper, and the Rescue Rangers had been formed during that case. Even now Clordane languished in prison. That Fat Cat could understand; he was after all only a human. But that this same group of four rodents and a fly (he had never bothered to learn their names) could continue to foil him, master criminal that he was, in caper after caper was absolutely unthinkable. Yet while they had not foiled his every caper (though at times it seemed to him that they did), they always seemed to stop him in his most grandiose plans, the schemes he most had his heart set on. And now he had come, almost by accident, upon the perfect plan to make an end of all of them. "Boys," he said to his still cringing cronies, "get your best tuxes out of mothballs! We're going to a wedding!"

"But gee, boss, I don't even have a tux." This time Mole beat Mepps to it.

Fat Cat stared at him only a moment. "My boy," he said, "right now even you can't exhaust my patience with your trademark brand of stupidity. I am too happy at the thought of being rid of those 'Rescue Rodents' once and for all!"

"But how are we going to mob them at the wedding if there's gonna be so many people?" Snout asked. "Besides, you know the security's gonna be pretty tight."

"Oh, but we're not going to go about it that way at all," Fat Cat cooed, "we're simply going to abduct the bride and use her to bring the rest of them to us!"

"Not that girl mouse again, boss!" Wart put in unenthusiastically, "she may be small, but she's pretty tough!"

"That's just it, my boy!" purred the overweight tabby, "as a matter of fact, it's not the mouse. Those miserable rodents were actually so unthoughtful as to provide the papers with a photograph. Look!" And he held his copy of the Fur and Feather Journal and Picayune open to the society page.

"Boss, I can't quite make it out," was Mole's predictable (and entirely reasonable) reaction.

"As a matter of fact, neither could I," said Fat Cat, "you know the quality of most newspaper photographs in this town. But I, unlike some people here, can read. And it just so happens that the blushing bride is a disgusting little parasite-infested bat! Which reminds me, it is very difficult for a cat to catch one of the little rascals, but I hear they are delectable! This is going to be quite an experience."

* * *

Meanwhile the Rangers continued busily with their preparations until at last the day preceding the night of the wedding arrived. Not just Dale and Foxglove, but all the Rangers were full of nervous excitement. Well, for Chip and Gadget there was a measure of sadness mixed in, especially for Chip. This was his oldest and dearest friend, even if he sometimes did not treat him as if that were the case. Even though the happy couple would not be moving out, this milestone in Dale's life was bittersweet for him. There was a knot in his throat that simply would not go away, however happy he told himself he should be feeling. Seeing this, Gadget (who was also emotionally affected) told him he need not accompany her, Monty, and Zipper to the appointed place to make final preparations. He appreciated that. It might have been better to busy himself, but he did not think he could handle that particular job very well. So he stayed behind to keep the couple company and to try to lose himself in some daytime TV.

The site chosen for the ceremony was near the park pond, underneath a beautiful weeping willow. The two mice and the fly made their way unnoticed by the humans on their Monday morning jogs and upon reaching their destination began the last task to be completed before the wedding. Holding a special fly-size saw that Gadget had made especially for him, Zipper flew amongst the foliage and began cutting off long streamers of willow leaves and a few dead twigs. The leaves Monty and Gadget carefully trimmed and sewed into a small canopy sufficient to form a cover above the principals as well as a curtain on each of the four sides that would be lowered immediately after the ceremony to give the newly married couple a moment of solitude. Gadget carefully studied the various twigs Zipper had sawn down and selecting the four she deemed strongest carefully notched them so they could be used as the props for the corners. When this task had been completed they carefully laid their little project at the base of the willow (there was really no danger of anyone bothering it) and made their way back to headquarters. But what they failed to take notice of was a familiar-looking lizard in a battered hat who had been watching them with interest. After watching them depart he smiled in a most unpleasant fashion and left in another direction.

The three carpenters returned to headquarters to find Chip still watching television. He was most definitely not himself, as he appeared to be engrossed in a talk show on the subject of "men who hate women and the women who love them," so his mind was obviously a thousand miles away--still thinking about "losing" his old friend. Gadget was debating the advisability of going to him, as she could imagine how he felt and was a little bittersweet herself. But fortunately Monty and Zipper joined him on the couch, patting him on the back and advising him to "buck up" and be happy. At least that's what Monty said. This solved Gadget's dilemma, leaving her free to go wash up. But before she could get to her destination Dale emerged from his old room and approached her quietly.

"Gadget, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Dale. In fact, I think you just did," she said.

"Well," Dale continued, "it's about the wedding. Do you think it would be all right to bring my cassette player along for a little music? You know, maybe liven things up just a little?"

Up until this Gadget had been sympathetic. "Just how 'live' do you mean, Dale?" she asked, "you're not thinking of playing Iron Goose at your wedding are you? Besides, you know how that heavy metal music hurts Foxy's delicate ears!"

"Course not, Gadget!" said Dale, "I know better than to do that! What I was thinking of," he lowered his voice, "was bringing my Mac McAnally tape and . . . "

"Dale, absolutely NOT!" Gadget said with an air of finality, "you are NOT going to play 'Minimum Love' and embarrass poor Foxy into the ground!"

"But Gadget!" Dale responded defensively, "he's a philosopher!"

"So was Heidegger!" she said with authority.

"Yeah . . . well, I bet his albums aren't that great!" Dale said under his breath as Gadget moved on to a well-deserved bath. But while she was taking it Gadget thought it would be very nice to have some more appropriate music at the wedding that everyone could enjoy.

As the sun set that evening Foxglove, who had slept very little that day, emerged from Gadget's room trembling and nervous. She forced herself with great difficulty to attend to her toilet, bathing as best she could in her state of mind, and then joining the others in the kitchen. Gadget motioned the men out of the room and then served herself and Foxglove from the dinner (or breakfast in Foxy's case) Monty had prepared. The bride's difficulty in concentrating on the meal is easy to understand, but Gadget was almost as nervous.

"Foxy?" she said quietly.

"Yes, Gadget?"

"I just wanted to tell you that you've been a terrific roommate and I'll miss you."

"Gadget, that's so sweet of you," Foxy said after getting a small bite down past the lump in her throat, "you've been very kind to share your room with me. You're the first roommate I've ever had."

"You were mine, too," Gadget sniffled, thinking of the year she had lived all alone after her father died. Then after a few moments of misty-eyed silence she said, "Well, we may as well get going before the boys beat us to it." Foxglove nodded her agreement, and they arose and went on their way.

The girls decided to walk to the appointed place and leave the various means of mechanized transport for the boys. These worthies emerged from Monty's room after hearing the fading conversation of the girls and then took their turn in the kitchen. Once again the two roommates had difficulty paying attention to the meal while Monty and Zipper ate like old pros--whch, in fact, they were. But Chip and Dale, being boys, were not able to speak their fondness for each other, and so were much more emotional wrecks than Gadget and Foxy had been. Finally, when he saw how miserable the chipmunks were, Monty said to Zipper, "well, I s'pose it's time to get the groom and the best man to the weddin' before Dale chickens out and changes his mind!" And he winked at Zipper, who returned it with a smile. Then he grasped both Chipmunks by the collars of their rented tuxedoes and roused them from their reverie. "Everything ready?" he asked.

Dale reached into his pocket and retrieved the ring (on a string to fit around Foxy's neck, as her fingers were winged) and the signed wedding contract, and simply nodded. "Aren't you forgettin' somethin', Mate?" Monty prompted him. For a while both Chip and Dale stared at Monty wondering what he could possibly mean. Then Dale exclaimed "Ohmigosh!" and headed back to his old room for the veil, along with a wreath of foxglove, his love's namesake, which had been his own idea as an appropriate adornment for his bride. After these had been retrieved Monty said, "well, let's head on out to the ol' Ranger Plane. We'll take it slow enough that the girls will be ready for us." And with this the male Rangers headed slowly to the hangar in which their trusty vehicle was kept, with Chip and Dale lagging somewhat behind. But at last all boarded, and Monty flew them all to the appointed place, landing not far from the willow.

When all had alighted they first firmly planted the canopy in the ground and then began their search for the girls, who should have been some distance away waiting for them. They did not really have a rendezvous point picked, as it never occurred to them that they would not be able to find them. The incoming crowd should have been congregating around them, but they were in fact surrounding the boys and the little structure. This was puzzling but not a matter of alarm.

Suddenly they heard a flapping of wings and Dale began to pick up heart. But what landed beside them was not Foxglove but some sort of bird.

"Hi, guys!" the stranger said to them, which puzzled them all the more.

"Hello, mate!" Monty replied warmly, extending his hand as Zipper also buzzed a greeting. Chip and Dale weren't unfriendly, but their tense nerves interfered with their hospitality.

"Don't you guys recognize me?" their unknown guest asked them in surprise, "you know me, don't you, Mr. Chip, sir?"

Chip was taken aback at being addressed in this manner and stared at the precocious fellow for awhile before a spark of recognition appeared in his eyes and he asked in wonder, "wait a minute! You couldn't be . . . ? No, it's not possible that you're . . . "

"It's me, Midge!" the swallow exclaimed before he embraced his hero, "I read the story of Dale's wedding in one of the papers on the West Coast and I just had to come and be a part of it!"

"You mean I made the news on the West Coast?" Dale asked, becoming less tense as time passed and he realized what a happy occasion for him it really was, "Wowsers! I must be a national hero!" Chip was so glad to hear Dale coming out of his nervousness that he did not even bonk him for his conceit.

"You're all heroes to the birds out there, and everywhere else, too!" Midge told them enthusiastically.

Zipper squeaked what must have been a question at Midge and Monterey translated. "Me little pally says you must 'ave the endurance of an albatross to 'ave flown this far!"

"Aw, it wasn't too hard a trip for a swallow!" Midge answered, though he blushed with pride.

"You've grown so much I didn't recognize you!" Chip finally was able to get a word in edgewise. "It was only spring of last year, wasn't it? Oh well! Time passes, doesn't it?" And he lapsed once more into a meditative silence.

As the Rangers were engaged in becoming reacquainted with their old friend they once again heard the sound of flapping wings. This time they were sure it was Foxglove, and sure enough she landed right before them. Dale immediately prepared to place the veil and wreath on his bride's head, but suddenly withdrew his paws when he discovered, much to his consternation, that "she" was a he!

"Hi," the newcomer said, giving no indication that he had noticed Dale's gaffe, "name's Otis. I hear that one of you is going to marry a bat."

"Oh YEAH?! Well what's it to you, stranger?" Dale demanded, sure that this mysterious interloper was either a suitor from Foxy's past or else some long lost family member intending to forbid the union. The other Rangers and Midge were taken aback and embarrassed at this shocking lack of civility and were attempting to calm Dale down when the new stranger continued.

"Gee, I didn't mean to be nosy or anything. It's just that . . . well, none of us is familiar with the young lady, and what with her being an orphan with no family and all, I thought I might just sort of represent the Chiropteran order at the ceremony, that's all."

"Oh," said Dale, feeling like a heel, "sorry, Friend. I guess I'm just jealous."

"I take it you are the groom," Otis said, "she must really be something."

"She is!" Dale said with a faraway look on his face. "Just how come you to know so much about her?"

"Are you kidding? It's in all the papers!" their new friend exclaimed. "Of course anyone who is lucky enough to marry a Rescue Ranger is going to be the object of rampant scrutiny and speculation." Here Dale swelled with pride. This guy sure was up on his facts!

"Anyway," Otis continued, "I read this story in Better Caves and Attics--that's kind of a women's publication, so don't let it get around--and this mystery lady is the envy of all female batdom, I can tell you that! Of course, there are other things out there like in Weekly Belfry News that I wouldn't give a bit of consideration to. I mean, how likely is it that she's really the lost princess Anastasia? Where is this vision of loveliness, anyway?"

"We don't know," Chip said, "and it's really getting late and we're beginning to worry."

"Aw, don't trouble your head about it, Chipper me lad!" Monty said with confidence, "these things never 'appen on time! And you'd better synchronize your internal clock to women's time, boyo!" he added, elbowing Dale in the ribs, "an' this 'ere's about as good a time as any!" This relieved a lot of tension and Dale was glad to have something to laugh at.

"Well, we'll be happy to have you as a guest," Chip told Otis, "but I'm best man, so I don't really know what role we can assign you."

"Well . . . " Otis mused, the tip of his wing on his chin, "some animals have the custom of having the four posts of the canopy held by guests rather than just stuck in the ground. Were you having such a thing in mind?"

"That's a GREAT idea!" Dale exclaimed, snapping a finger, "what to you think, Chip?"

Chip thought just a short time before agreeing that that just fit the bill. And so right then and there it was decided that Chip, Monty, Otis, and Midge would do the honors, which delighted the swallow as well. And Monty was very careful to introduce Zipper to Otis and let him know that he was not only a full member of the Rangers, but a particular friend of the bride as well. This was a bit uncomfortable for predator and prey, but considering the occasion Otis wisely decided to adhere to protocol.

By this time a great crowd had gathered around the Rangers and their two interlocutors, and they interrupted their conversation to greet the people in the crowd which in addition to unknown admirers also included such old friends as Mrs. Squirrel and her two daughters, Tammy and Bink. Chip wasn't so sure he wanted to engage in a lenghthy conversation with Tammy right at this moment, for the young squirrel still had a crush on him, and in addition to the wedding very definitely flooding her mind with new dreams of a similar celebration for her and Chip, she had grown quite a bit since their first meeting, so that she was now in the full throes of adolescence--and no bad looker, to boot.

Finally an aged chipmunk approached and the crowd made way for him. He smiled as he looked on the Rangers and said, "Hello, boys! You ready?"

Chip and Dale each grasped a hand and shook it warmly. "Hi, Uncle Phinehas!" Chip said, "I can't tell you how glad I am to have you to come and perform the ceremony!"

"Yeah, long time no see, Phinehas!" Dale added, "you should really come out and visit more often!"

"I know, Dale!" he answered, "but you've got to understand that an old 'munk isn't the climber that a young one is! Now, if you fellows would build your headquarters underground . . . "

Just then the crowd heard the sound of a motor and propellers above them, and they all instinctively moved aside so that the Ranger Wing could land, with Gadget at the controls. The Rangers and their friends very glad to see her, with the possible exception of Tammy. But what really surprised those who knew here was that she was wearing a DRESS!!!

"Hi, guys!" It was her usual greeting and quite fitting for the occasion, they all thought. She was introduced to Phinehas and Otis, was overjoyed to find Midge there, and made it a special point to speak to the Tammy and her family. After she had made the rounds, so to speak, Zipper said something in his high, squeaky voice to which Gadget replied, "Where was I? Well, I realized after Foxy and I got here that I'd forgotten the cassette player and music I had picked out--and no, Dale, it's not that one--and so I went back for it. Then as soon as I got it I realized that Dale's wedding is a special enough occasion to wear something special, so I changed clothes. And as for the Ranger Wing, I needed to save time getting back here and besides, I thought Dale and Foxy could have it after the service and the rest of us would fly back in the Ranger Plane . . . if you know what I mean!" She winked at Dale, who appreciated her thoughtfulness. Then she asked something that made them all feel uncomfortable. "Er . . . where is Foxy?"

Dale immediately snapped out of his reverie and began to panic. "Isn't she with you?" he asked in a voice full of anxiety.

"No. I thought she'd be with you guys. Hmmm," she added, "maybe she's still down by the pond where I left her," and she turned her steps that way, the crowd following her. It took her no time to return to the exact spot, but Foxglove was not there. That was bad enough. But even worse was what was there.

On the very edge of the pond was a flurry of footprints that could not be clearly made out, as though some sort of struggle had taken place. And on the dry ground just beyond the mud lay a very fancy envelope. Dale snatched it up at once and found "The Rescue Rangers" written on the front in calligraphy and an old-fashioned seal on the back holding it shut. He tore the envelope open to find a very expensive looking card that had "On Your Wedding" written in glitter on the front, but the inside of the card had no printed message, being one of those on which the sender writes his own thoughts. It was this that brought him to the pinnacle of despair, for on it in the same beautiful manuscript as appeared on the envelope were the words "You know the place" and a pawprint in ink. There was no doubt whatsoever about what it meant, and Dale let the card drop out of his hands and after remaining immobile for what seemed like a very long time fainted dead away.

* * *

It seemed like a nightmare. Here it was supposed to be the happiest night of her life, and yet Foxglove found herself once again a prisoner in a cage. She felt overcome by both depression and fatalism. It seemed that every time her troubles seemed to be finally behind her something like this happened. And this brought back the feelings of guilt for her association with Winifred. She was surely being punished for something.

What had really taken the fight out of her was the way it had happened. She and Gadget had been waiting near the edge of the pond for the gentlemen to join them when Gadget suddenly froze and then indicated that she had forgotten something. She told Foxglove she would be back in no time and for her to wait right there. Foxy had no objections to that and was glad to await whatever surprises her friends had in store for her. But no sooner had Gadget scampered out of sight than a lizard approached Foxglove and handed her a sheet of paper, saying it had been given him to pass on to her. He would give no further explanation or description of who it was from, and this troubled her a little. But nevertheless she unfolded the paper and with the aid of the park lights read:

 

My dear child: I can scarcely hope that the agony of a lifetime is to be ended and

the fondest wish of my heart granted at this late date, but I have a hope that you may be the one most dear to me whose presence I have been so long denied. I beg your indulgence for what must seem to you a lifetime of cruel neglect, but please know that since that long ago night I have had no peace nor respite from the pain of losing you. Once again I beg your indulgence as most probably you are not my daughter, but I have

searched for so long that even in my declining years I dare not give up as long as one sliver of hope remains that my beloved baby has survived alone in this hostile world. Please accompany the bearer of this note that I may have a look at you, and if I am wrong, as is probably the case, I will ask your pardon. But if Providence should be so pleased as to bring my long quest at long and dear last to a successful conclusion, I shall ask no pardon, for though my separation from you was through no wish of my own yet I cannot hope for nor do I deserve forgiveness for leaving you to face life's dangers all alone. I will ask only the favor of one glance at your face before my time on earth is up and I go on to face the reward my unwilling neglect of you has earned me. In compassion for my shame please come as quickly as possible, and alone. After this small favor I shall ask no more of you, and surely more I do not deserve. Thank you.

 

For just a moment Foxglove simply stood and blinked after reading this missive, written in the scrawl a bat might produce with its wing but in a language so flowery that it took her a while to understand it. But soon enough the key elements broke through to her understanding, and they shocked her so much that she felt her legs grow weak. The lizard however was not overly endowed with patience and after only a short time said "this way, please," and made a gesture with his forepaw. Foxglove felt more emotion coursing through her than she had ever felt before, and it wasn't entirely pleasant. It could be the answer to her greatest wish, and yet there was a terrible dread of something--perhaps of being rejected again, or perhaps of not liking what she would find. But the tension was unbearable, so she nodded and followed the green fellow to the other side of a tree some distance from the pond, and in the opposite direction of the ceremony. What happened when she got there happened too quickly for her to understand completely, even with her hearing and echolocation skills. No sooner had she arrived at the spot her guide had indicated than a number of animals--there must have been three of them--popped a burlap bag down on top of her and after securing her took her to this unknown place and put her in this cage.

First she attempted to ascertain the identity of her captors. She already knew about the lizard, and now she could make out a large rat, a cat, and some other animal she could not identify. Then she lifted her head to get the bearings of just what sort of place she was in, using both eyesight and echolocation to best effect. The walls of the room were rounded, though not perfectly spherical, and were made of some sort of dark, hard plastic. They formed two domes, under the larger and longer of which her cage sat on a low table. The place was not brightly lit, but there was some illumination from an electrical light here and there, and some more light (apparently also electrical) filtering in from the smaller and rounder of the two domes, which was down a hall from where she found herself. But just across the floor from her on a raised dais of some kind reclined another animal--another cat, but very obese. This fact along with the conversation among them very soon let her know into whose paws she had fallen.

"We got her, Fat Cat!" the other cat said, "we got the bat that was going to marry a Rescue Ranger!"

"So you have, Mepps!" Fat Cat observed, absolutely delighted, "did you remember to drop off my little greeting?"

"Sure did, boss!" Snout said, "but do you think you gave them enough to go on?"

"Of that there is no doubt, dear boy!" Fat Cat replied, "we have crossed paths often enough to know each other quite well! Speaking of which," he continued, getting up and walking towards Foxglove's cage, "let us get to know our new guest. First time at the Fat Cat Hilton for you, isn't it, my dear?"

Foxglove's first reaction was one of terror, as she knew this was the Rangers' arch nemesis. But she swallowed her fear, gripped the wire bars of her cage, and concentrated on being angry instead. It didn't take long for her fear to be swallowed up, though it remained just beneath the surface.

"I know who you are!" she said finally, "you're Fat Cat! Why have you done this? I . . . I was about to be married," she added in a more subdued tone, more to herself than to her captor.

"Patience! Patience!" he chided her, which frightened and angered her even more.

"But WHY?" she demanded, "I've never done anything to you!"

"Oh, but I'm afraid you have," he told her, "you were about to bring happiness to a member of the interfering team of rodents which has made my life miserable! And that is something I simply will not permit!"

"Well I bet they'll figure out what's happened and come to rescue me!" she said defiantly, "from what I've heard, they've managed to foil you every time up till now!"

"Well, not quite every time, but every time they've stuck their noses into my business," Fat Cat said, his voice increasing with anger, "and I know they'll come to rescue you. In fact, I'm counting on it!"

It was then that Foxglove realized just what was going on. It was a trap and she was the bait. For a while she became dizzy and had to sit down on the floor of the cage. It was bad enough her being captured and far worse still that her friends were about to find themselves in danger. But the worst part of all was that it would be her fault; they would be captured while trying to rescue her. The thought was unbearable.

Her fearless and defiant facade melting away, Foxglove looked at Fat Cat with tears forming in her eyes. "You're going to hurt them, aren't you?" she asked.

For a while Fat Cat stared at her in disbelief. Then after a few minutes of silence and scratching his head he said, "hurt them? Hurt them? Madam, I assure you I intend to do much more than hurt them! I'm going to KILL them, in the slowest and most painful manner I can think of! That is what they have earned by their continual interference. And as for you," he continued, "as you have personally done me no wrong, I see no reason in prolonging your death more than is necessary. I intend to eat you, but your end will be quick. Nothing personal, you understand," he added, "just a matter of gourmet cuisine."

The effect of all this on Foxglove was absolutely mind numbing. She sat upon the floor of her cage and just stared at nothing in particular. This couldn't be happening. But somehow it must be. It was rather her prospects of happiness that had been the illusion. They always had been. She felt unreal, as though in a dream. She sat staring in this fashion for such a length of time that Fat Cat left her and turned his attention to instructing his minions concerning the capture of the Rangers. Then a realization came to her, slogging its way through her despair to make its way to her consciousness. She had to escape. It was imperative! Otherwise her friends would meet their deaths by trying to rescue her. Somehow she had to reach them before they fell into the trap.

The first effect of this realization was to snap her from her catatonic state and send her into a frenzy of searching the cage for a weakness of some sort. Unlike the last one it was not mesh but wire, which seemed in her favor. However the bars were far too close together for her to squeeze between them; the cage must have been constructed to hold finches or some other kind of small bird. After climbing all over the inside she then carefully examined where the wires met the floor of the cage. There was no escape there as the two seemed to be fused (actually the floor slid in and out by means of an indentation in the metal lip that surrounded the bottom, but there was no way for her to know that). Finally in frustration she turned her attention back to the door and began shaking it as quietly as she could. But Fat Cat had wound a piece of wire very tightly about the door and the adjoining bar so that she with her wings was powerless to undo it. Finally in desperation she began shaking the door more and more violently until the noise attracted the attention of her captors.

"Well, well; what have we here?" Fat Cat said as he and his cronies approached her once again, a hideous grin spread across his face. "Aren't we happy to be so comfy awaiting the impending reunion with our loved ones?"

Foxglove realized that if she couldn't break out, perhaps she could bluff her way out. "Mr. Fat Cat, you'd better not eat me," she warned.

"And why is that, Madam?" he asked in an amused tone.

"If you eat me you'll go crazy and die!" she said, all the time thinking *I can't believe I'm doing this!*

"You look perfectly healthy to me!" Fat Cat responded, still amused.

"But it's true! It's been in all the papers," she added.

"My dear, the only thing in the papers germane to your situation is the background they all gave of you. That's how I knew how to appeal to your daughterly instincts," he said with satisfaction, not seeming to care a whit about the cruelty of his trick. Then picking up a finely woven net he said to his men, "now let's get ready to welcome the final visit of our old 'friends!'"

Foxglove didn't know quite what to make of this person. He was evil, like Winifred, and his cronies seemed to be terrified of him, but so far she had not heard him raise his voice. He spoke in a soft purr, but one that hinted at the cruelty underneath and made her shudder. He hadn't harmed her so far, but that was because he needed her as bait. Strangely, she believed him when he said that it was nothing personal and he saw no need to prolong her own death at his hands. As opposed to someone who felt the need to be cruel at every opportunity, he seemed to be totally indifferent, refraining from "unpleasantness" when it was not necessary, but prepared to engage in any form of torture if he thought it would suit his purpose. He was by all appearances a refined, cultured, and intelligent person--but one wholly without a conscience. This thought terrified Foxglove more than she had ever been before, and she had certainly had more than her share of moments of terror in her short life. Suddenly Winifred didn't seem so bad.

Finally she snapped out of her reverie and continued her ploy, though she now thoroughly realized the danger of the game she was playing. There was no telling what Fat Cat would do to her if she got him really angry. But if she could not trick him into releasing her, perhaps she could stall him long enough to give the Rangers time to get there before the trap was set. That way they would avoid being captured and perhaps could rescue her as well. But at any rate they would not have to die because of her.

"You'd better take my advice," she said with the greatest sincerity, "if you eat me you'll die within forty-eight hours! You know how much faster bat rabies works than any other kind."

"Really?" Mepps asked, beginning to become concerned, "why is that, Boss?"

"'Cause it's magic!" Foxglove answered him before Fat Cat could respond.

"Gee, Fat Cat," Mepps said, "maybe we'd better do what she says!"

"Oh, shut up, Mepps!" Fat Cat growled at him. Then he turned to Foxglove again. "I know what you're doing," he told her in a voice that made his displeasure quite clear, "and it won't work. I am going to eat you. Please don't bring something even more unpleasant upon yourself."

This frightened Foxy even more and made her resort to even more desperate measures. "Then after you die you'll come back and be my slave and have to do everything I say," she said. "Don't you ever watch the late show?" Meanwhile, within herself she was giving the great-granddaddy of all winces.

"After I've eaten you? Now you are getting pathetic! I would not have expected such illogical thinking, even from a woman with the poor judgment to want to marry one of those rodents," he said patronizingly.

She put on her best Christmas-orphan expression. "I'll make you be good," she warned.

"Oh, please!"

"I'll make you be sweet."

"ENOUGH!" he roared, "my patience with you is over! You will neither save your own life nor distract me from attending to your friends! Now since your job as the bait in this trap has already been completed, I advise you to be quiet! After all, I don't really need you any more!"

Foxglove knew what he was saying, and she was appropriately terrified. But she was something else as well. The knowledge that her situation seemed hopeless and that her short life, so full of torment and misery at the hands of bullies like this one, when she had herself been so mild and inoffensive, filled her with rage at the injustice of it all. If she were going to die anyway, there was no need to spend her final moments groveling. Filled with anger and fear fused into one red-hot emotion, she fixed her captor with a look that could have split stone and spat out what was to her the ultimate insult:

"You're mean!"

For a moment Fat Cat's face held the frozen expression of anger that had accompanied his last threat, but then his countenance brightened and he began to laugh. "What a triumph of understatement!" he said when he was able, "Madam, you do have an admirable sense of humor!" This sent Foxglove to the floor of her cage in depression at the impotence of her anger and Fat Cat then turned to his next order of business.

"Okay, men! Let's get this net set up for our next guests! Now Mole," he said, turning to that worthy, "you're the most incompetent man I've got and ordinarily I wouldn't entrust such an important job to you, but I need the others to help me set the trap. So I want you to stay here and guard the young lady. Do you understand?"

"Uh . . . yeah, boss, I think so," Mole answered him, after taking a moment to mentally digest it all.

"Good! Now all you have to do is stay here and do nothing. The cage itself is escape proof, but I simply can't afford to take any chances. So just do nothing. That's really the only thing you're good at," he added with a ring of contempt in his voice. "If she tries to speak with you, don't listen. If she asks you a question, don't answer. And to insure that you obey me," the feline said with a very sinister and unpleasant tone, "I'm going to employ the good old carrot and stick! If you do not obey me, if you do not do exactly as I say, then I may very well lose my last chance to destroy the Rescue Rangers! And that would make me very angry! Do you want to make me angry, Mole?"

"Uh, I don't think so, Fat Cat," he answered.

"Well see that you don't!" Fat Cat exclaimed, after smacking himself in the forehead at Mole's thickness, "because if you do, I will KILL you! Capiche?!!" And he stroked the poor beast's head in mock affection.

Mole did not answer, as he was busy trying to figure out what capiche meant.

"And as for the carrot, do you know what I will give you if you DO do exactly as I say?"

That one Mole got. His childlike countenance lit up with delight and he smiled a broad smile, the threat of a second ago already forgotten. "A CANDY BAR . . . ?" he asked, his eyes becoming visible as he began to clap his forepaws in anticipation.

"That's right, Mole! A CANDY BAR! So, do you think you can just stay here and guard the prisoner? Without doing anything else? Hmmmmmm?"

"Aye-aye, Fat Cat!" Mole replied with a look of steel.

"Good! Now come on, you three, before those rodents join our little party prematurely!" In fact, Foxglove had succeeded in occupying Fat Cat's attention for only a minute or so, but he knew the mettle of his foes and that every second counted. So, net in paw, he led the way from the body of the cat statue, in which his headquarters was located, through the neck and into the head, where he would prepare his snare. Before he followed the others, Mepps paused briefly and turned to Mole.

"Hey Mole," he asked sneeringly, "why did the corruption spread throughout the world?"

"I don't know, Mepps," Mole answered honestly, scratching his head in confusion, "why did the corruption spread throughout the world?" Foxy sighed forlornly, as she could guess what was coming.

Giving the bat a smirking look he turned again to Mole. "To get to the other hemisphere!!!" he crowed triumphantly. Then he followed the others, leaving a very despondent and fatalistic Foxglove alone with her soft-headed guard, who was still scratching his head and saying, "I don't get it."

Foxglove peered resignedly through the bars of her cage at the poor fellow. "So you're a mole, huh?" she asked finally.

"I'm sorry, but no questions!" he answered with surprising resolution.

"Oh yeah, that's right," she said, her skin crawling beneath her fur as she recalled the terrible threats she had just heard.

"I don't want to miss getting my CANDY BAR!" he said, smiling again in ecstasy.

Foxy's first reaction was to shake her head at the poor fellow. But then something struck her. "He's mean to you, isn't he?" she asked.

"Well, yeah," Mole replied slowly, his promise not to answer any questions knocked out of his head by the thoughts of his reward.

"Meaner than he is to the others?" she continued.

"Of course not!" he replied with satisfaction, "he's Fat Cat. He's mean to everybody."

"I kind of got that idea," she said. She sighed and then asked another question, one that struck even Mole as unusual. "Has anyone ever been nice to you?"

It took a while for Mole to think of an answer. "My mom and dad, a long time ago," he said.

A strange, bitter warmth came over Foxglove at that point, and she wished she had never started the conversation. But after a few dry sniffles a thought came to her. *If this really is the end,* she thought, *and if I'm never going to have a family* (she sniffled here) *or children of my own, then maybe I can leave something behind.* Grasping the bars of her cage in her wingtips and staring earnestly at her companion she asked, "Mole, will you promise to do something for me?"

"Oh gee, I can't," he said regretfully, "I promised the boss not to let you go. Besides," and his visage filled again with that wistful look of expectation, "I don't want to lose my candy bar!" That thought had long since driven out all remembrance of Fat Cat's terrible threats.

"I wasn't going to ask you to do that," she said, "I was only going to . . . . Mole, when I'm gone and you've long since gotten your candy bar, some day down the road, maybe a long time from now, will you consider leaving Fat Cat and his gang? And . . . and never letting anyone be mean to you again?"

"But . . . But my candy bar . . . !" he said again. Foxglove caught herself thinking that Fat Cat's attitude toward this particular minion of his was perfectly understandable. But she dismissed the thought at once.

"No, Mole," she explained, "Fat Cat's going to eat me. You'll have your candy bar. But one day a long time from now . . . I don't know, maybe even tomorrow or the day after . . . you'll get away from him so he can't mistreat you any more? Please? Just promise me you'll think about it. Okay? Just promise me!" And her tone was so urgent that even Mole's brain took note of it. It had been a long time since he had been the focus of such concern. Especially from someone with problems enough of her own.

"I . . . I promise," he finally said in a low voice, "I'll think about it."

"And . . . and when you do . . . when you think about it . . . will you do me just one more favor? Will you remember me? Please?" She asked earnestly.

"Gosh. Sure I'll remember you!" he said in a comforting voice.

"Thank you . . . my son!" she said, the last two words in a whisper. It was ironic. He was obviously older than she, yet ever so much more childlike in his thinking. Perhaps this one soul, free at some point in the future, perhaps of no interest or consequence to anyone else, would be her lone gift to the world. It didn't seem like much, but it was satisfactory. With this Foxglove sat down on the floor of her cage with a certain contentment, now resolved bravely to meet her fate.

Oddly enough, as Mole resumed his stoic guard stance he also smiled with contentment, though he just wasn't sure from whence it came.

* * *

When Dale came to, he found himself lying face up on the couch with the other Rangers, Tammy, and Midge gathered around him with worried expressions.

"Wh-what happened?" he asked in an unsteady voice.

"You don't remember?" Chip asked him.

Dale knew that he was feeling terrible about something, but he just couldn't remember what it was. But when he saw Midge he recalled the reason for his being there and soon recollection returned in full, and with it all the emotions connected with it.

"Foxy!" Dale shouted, "Fat Cat's got her! We've got to rescue her, Chip, we've just got to!"

"I know, Dale, I know! Now don't you worry. Fat Cat's only using her as bait to get the rest of us, so she's probably not been harmed."

"Probably?" Dale shouted again, sitting up on the couch, "Fat Cat captured Foxy on our wedding night and you say she's probably not been harmed?!"

"Now take it easy, Pally!" Monterey Jack interjected, trying his best to calm Dale down, though he himself was just as concerned, "shoutin's not gonna get her back, but ol' Monterey Jack knows what will!" And he put a look of steel on his face and rolled up his sleeves. "A visit from the Rescue Rangers and pullin' 'im inside-out'll have our girl back and put an end to that gang's antics once and for all!"

"He's right, Dale," Gadget added, "just get your head back on and we'll go rescue her right now!"

Part of Dale wanted to rebel at any counsel to be calm in this situation, but of course he realized that his friends were right. "Okay," he said at last, "what are we waiting for?"

"Just for you to rejoin us," Chip told him, "we were worried about you, too," and here he embraced his friend very warmly. "Besides, it hasn't been that long. I brought you back in the Ranger Plane and the others returned in the 'Wing. Maybe we should have just gone ahead and let Tammy and Midge look after you," he added.

"WHAT? Without ME?!!" Dale demanded furiously as he bounded onto his feet.

"Take it easy, Dale," Gadget said, " of course you can come with the rest of us. But do you think you can handle your emotions until after we rescue her? Losing your head is perfectly understandable, but we can't really afford it. So . . . are you going to be okay?" she asked earnestly, putting an arm around him in concern.

"I'm not gonna be 'okay' until Foxy's rescued, but until then I think I can be a Rescue Ranger!" he answered with a conviction that he didn't really have. He only knew that whatever happened, he had to be there with her.

"You sure you don't want us to come with you?" Midge inquired, "It might pay to have a little extra help along."

"I'll tell you exactly what I told Otis when he offered to round up all the bats," Chip answered, "we really appreciate the thought but there's no need. We know exactly where she is, and if we have uninvited guests along it could jeopardize Foxglove. But thanks, Midge." And Midge smiled to indicate he understood the situation. Chip then had one more request to make, and not a pleasant one. Taking Tammy aside, he whispered instructions to have a bed prepared and the first aid ready in the event it was needed. She nodded earnestly, and Chip knew the home base was in good hands.

"Well, are we ready?" Dale asked impatiently.

"We're ready," Chip said. Then he turned to Gadget and asked, "so which plane are we going in?"

"The Ranger Wing is faster and more maneuverable in flight," she said, "but none of our fighting is going to be done in the air, and we won't be pursued that way. Let's take the Ranger Plane. It has more accessories for landing in different places."

"Too right!" Monty exclaimed, "now let's get goin' and put this mission to bed!" The last was spoken in a low, earnest voice that indicated that however much he enjoyed danger, it was a different matter when an innocent was thrust into that situation, especially one who had become a member of the family.

In no time the Rangers made their way to the hangar and boarded the Ranger Plane, Gadget making a point to bring her plunger harpoon along. Few words were spoken this time. Even Zipper did not feel like giving his trademark bugle call. With grim faces they took their seats and buckled in, and Gadget turned on the iginition. Then they were airborne.

It was a warm May night just past the full moon, and a night they otherwise would have enjoyed. But a single thought coursed through their minds this night, and that was to save their friend. Again no words were spoken, except for occasional words of encouragement for Dale from Monty and Zipper, who sat beside him and patted him on the shoulder. In this manner, and with the Ranger Plane going full speed, they arrived soon enough at their destination, the statue atop the Happy Tom cat food factory.

The decision to use the Ranger Plane had been a good one, for now they could forego landing in what might have been plain sight in favor of perching just beneath the surface of the roof, thanks to the two plungers it used for landing gear. With stealthy springs (except for Zipper, for whom such tactics were unnecessary) the Rangers were on the roof itself, Gadget leading the way with her weapon at the ready, and Monty close behind with his sleeves rolled up. Of course Dale had made a move to jump out first and sprint into the entrance on his own, but the Rangers prevailed upon him to follow in tandem with Chip. Physical courage alone with no thought would literally be the death of them all.

They slowly made their way to the entrance to Fat Cat's headquarters, located at the base of the head of the cat statue. They stopped just outside the small opening and looked at one another in silence. They knew there was probably a trap inside waiting for them, but they did not want to give themselves away by speaking. After this fleeting exchange of glances they entered to meet their fate.

Once inside the statue's head they found it very dark indeed. There was some faint illumination filtering in through the narrow neck from the body, but even to rodent eyes it proved of very little use in seeing their surroundings. They knew of course that it was toward these lights that they must go; it was the place where the kingpin of feline crime held court, and they had been there before. But the darkness and silence of the place, combined with the perilous situation in which they knew their innocent friend to be, gave them all an especially somber feeling. It seemed that this time their arch nemesis intended to settle matters once and for all.

Despite the small amount of information provided by two of their senses, a third told them loudly and clearly of the danger they were in. "Guys," Gadget whispered, "I can smell them! They're in here!" As soon as she had said this a familiar voice rang out from the direction of the faint light: "Guys, get out of here! It's a trap!" At which point Dale, heedless of the consequences, ran straight toward the source of the sound, followed close behind by the other Rangers. "Foxy! We're comin'!" he shouted, but was immediately interrupted when he ran into something that impeded further progress. It was not a solid object, but rather soft and somewhat elastic. The other Rangers, only a split second behind, also felt it tighten around them as they tried to force their way through it, until they all found themselves enmeshed in a net that restricted even Zipper's movements. And almost as suddenly as they had felt the net tighten around them they felt themselves lifted off the floor and suspended horizontally as wicked laughter assaulted their ears. "Well boys, what did I tell you?" the familiar voice cooed in triumph, "the simpler the plan, the greater its chances of success!" Then the Rangers found themselves being carried into the body of the cat.

* * *

When Fat Cat had left his prisoner with Mole he was worried that even her brief delay might have achieved its purpose. So when he and his men entered the cat's head they set about their work at once. There were just a couple of electrical lights here, and Wart, good climber that he was, reached them and smashed them with a small mallet. To Fat Cat's thinking they served no real purpose anyway, and their light at this time was an obstruction to his plans. If the humans thought they were so important, they could fix them later. The "teeth" of the statue were not solid, and Fat Cat had procured some duct tape to apply to them for their entire length, but in his haste he had left it in the other room. Fortunately for him, the statue had an overbite that kept the moonlight out at this time of night (an underbite would have been more of a problem). He still could not be sure that the Rangers were not perched somewhere observing the goings on at that moment, but as there was no hint of their presence so far he finished setting the snare. This was indeed a simple trap. Each of the four took a corner of the net and pulled it taut before the entrance to the room in which Foxglove was being held. The fineness of the weave and the dimness of the light filtering through obscured from view both the trap and the trappers.

Now if the Rescue Rangers had taken off immediately upon finding Fat Cat's clue Foxy's stalling would have indeed paid off, but Dale's faint had bought the kitty capo just the time he needed. As it was, it was only fifteen or twenty minutes later that he saw the silhouettes of his visitors against the moonlight as they entered the statue through the small hole at the base of the head. He knew all he had to do was to allow them to follow the faint light to the passageway between the two rooms, at which point a quick outward and upward movement by the four of them would hold even that pesky fly helpless. But he also knew that his plan had one big potential problem: his most incompetent flunky was by design occupied elsewhere, but his second most incompetent flunky (Mepps) was necessary to hold one of the corners of the net. But at least Mepps was usually just smart enough to do exactly as he was told, though he possessed no potential for creative thought. Besides, those "Rescue Rodents" would not leave without making every attempt to free their friend. It was a weakness to be counted upon among good guys! All the same, Gadget's whisper at having caught their odor caused him much concern. Fortunately for him, though, the foolish bat had reacted to the sound by crying out a warning that they should save themselves and forget about her, which of course sent them running at top speed in her direction and hitting the net with such force that they in effect trapped themselves, with a minimum of effort by the hoodlums. It was at this point that Fat Cat issued his cry of victory and the hearts of the Rangers and of Foxy fell. It seemed that they were doomed after all.

Even though she had resigned herself to the worst Foxglove winced throughout her being when she saw her friends in the net, held tightly and triumphantly in the paw of their enemy. She shuddered at the thought that she might have to witness the terrible fate that she had heard awaited them. But even in these circumstances her heart skipped a beat when she heard Dale's voice.

"Foxy!" he called, "are you all right? Has he hurt you?"

"No Dale, I'm fine! So far," she added, "are all of you all right?"

"We're fine, Foxy!" Gadget called back, "and don't you worry! We've been in this predicament before and we've always gotten out! We'll rescue you yet!"

"Too right!" Monterey Jack joined in, "that tubby tabby hasn't seen the day he can outsmart the Rescue Rangers!"

"I don't think so," Fat Cat responded confidently, "though I give you an 'A' for effort in trying to cheer up the young bride. You see," he continued, "I have always made one mistake when dealing with you vermin. I have always put you aside for later while attending to more urgent matters. But this time you are the urgent matter. As a matter of fact, your friend there can tell you that I almost made another dreadful mistake. I was about to let my feelings about you rodents get to me and influence my method of disposing of you. But much as I'd like to exercise my creativity in designing appropriately inhumane deaths for you all, I have built my empire on one single, simple principal: never let emotions interfere with purely business decisions. So," he said, holding the helpless Rangers even with his malicious gaze, "I have decided that the only way to get rid of you once and for all is to kill you all myself, RIGHT NOW!"

"WAIT!" Chip had been silent, but now his voice rang out loud and clear. "Fat Cat, I have a deal to offer you."

"A deal?" Fat Cat asked in a tone of disbelief, "you, my friend, are in no position to offer a deal to anyone!"

"Just hear me out!" Chip said, "I think you will find it quite satisfactory!"

"Now you have me interested, rodent! What is this 'deal?'"

Chip drew a deep breath. "I'm the one you really want," he said. "I'm the leader of the Rescue Rangers. The whole thing was my idea. I'm the one who's always had to be the hot shot crime fighter. So my deal is this. Let the others go. All of them. They'll disband the Rescue Rangers and never bother you again. And in return . . ." and here he swallowed audibly, "you get me. My life in exchange for theirs. Deal?"

Naturally when Chip said this there was a gasp from the other Rangers, followed by protests from each of them. "NO, pally!" Monty exclaimed. "Chip! What are you saying?" Dale asked in horror. Zipper buzzed in disbelief. Meanwhile Gadget turned to him with eyes full of tears and said, "CHIP! You can't mean that! We won't be able to go on without you! We . . . I won't be able to go on without you! Don't do this! Please!!!"

"Sorry, gang, but I'm the leader and I make the decisions!" he told them, "including this final one. Well, Fat Cat? What do you say?"

"Now that is an interesting proposition!" Fat Cat said, obviously taunting him, "let me think about it. Now let's see! Hmmmmmmm . . . NO!!!" And he bared the claws on his free forepaw to make an end of them.

"WAIT!" This time it was Dale's voice.

"Oh, now what?" Fat Cat asked in a tone that indicated his sense of humor was dissipating rapidly.

"Fat Cat, at least let her go!" Dale said pointing to Foxglove, still in her cage. "We're the ones you want, and she's never done anything to you!"

"NO Dale!" she said, "knowing you is the only thing that has made my life worthwhile, and I won't live without you!"

"Now wait a minute! That is a reasonable request! Mole," he said to Foxglove's guard, still standing at his position, "this time you have done well. I'll have to make it a point to steal a candy bar for you at the soonest opportunity. Now will you be so good as to unwrap the wire from around the cage door?"

This statement filled Mole with satisfaction and joy, and he set about obeying his master at once. Unfortunately, the wire frustrated all his attempts to undo it.

"Wart," Fat Cat said, his good feelings toward Mole of but a second ago melting away in his impatience. Wart obeyed, elbowing Mole rudely aside and accomplishing the assigned task. This done, Fat Cat approached the cage, opened the door, and inserted his free paw. Foxglove naturally reacted by scurrying here and there, trying to stay out of his reach. But he stopped trying to grab her after just a moment and asked, "and just what are you trying to accomplish?" Upon hearing this she ceased her efforts to avoid his grasp, considering that they were ultimately futile. He apparently was going to offer her her freedom, though she knew her life would have no meaning without Dale. Maybe she could persuade him to let her die with her friends.

Fat Cat easily grasped Foxglove now and held her just opposite the Rangers, who were still held tightly in the net in his other paw. "So here we are, reunited at last," he sneered coldly, prompting Dale to remind him, "remember, Fat Cat! You've got us, so let her go!" Foxy would have gladly argued with Dale on this, had she not been too frightened to speak. But Fat Cat, having all of them at his mercy, made his intentions known quite plainly.

"Now here's how it goes!" he said, "you Rangers are all cat food, so get any other ideas out of your heads! You have all made my life miserable, you are all going to be punished, and I'm not leaving a single one of you behind to interfere with me ever again! And as for you, my dear," he turned to Foxglove with his evil grin, "it is true that you have done me no harm, and I see no reason for punishing you. However, I am determined to add bat to my long list of exotic culinary experiences, so you too are going nowhere. And as I consider it unwise to attempt to inflict the slow tortures on you rodents that you deserve, I can do this much: I can see to it that the last sight your eyes will ever see is your friend being devoured before you!" And without delay he opened his mouth and made ready to pop Foxglove inside, while the Rangers all gasped in horror and Dale cried out, "you monster!" It was all out of their paws now. Or so it seemed.

Now while Foxy's reasoning powers had been essentially given the coup de grace by the situation in which she found herself, her sense of survival immediately clicked on and assumed control. Her next act was performed instinctively, with no planning whatsoever. She simply opened her mouth, revealing a set of very large teeth for an animal her size (as their job was to pulverize flying insects while she was flight, in the shortest amount of time possible) and brought her jaws together around the paw that held her, giving Fat Cat a chomp that made the ones he had received from Tammy and Bink seem like pin pricks in comparison. And so in one single instant of time several things happened.

First Fat Cat cried out in pain and dropped Foxglove, who immediately took flight. He then looked at the nasty bite on his left forepaw and saw that it was bleeding. His right forepaw dropped the net onto the floor, enabling the Rangers to wriggle free and head for cover, Gadget still holding her plunger harpoon at the ready. The four henchmen began running about furiously trying to recapture them, but once free they were not to be apprehended. For a while they led their pursuers in a hectic and futile chase, each Ranger going in a different direction and being pursued by a different stooge. The quality of the pursuit may well be imagined, as the Rangers led them in dizying circles, resulting on one occasion in the collision of Mepps and Mole (in other words, it was about their usual quality of work). But soon they all noticed that Fat Cat himself was not participating in the chase. Instead he was sitting motionless upon the floor and gazing at his forepaw in absolute terror. This seemed so strange that his four henchmen stopped what they were doing and approached their master.

"Uh . . . Boss, are you all right?" Mepps asked in that annoying, almost nauseating whine of his. Still Fat Cat sat silent and motionless as the Rangers and Foxy took advantage of the diversion to run (or fly, in two cases) through the neck to the head of the cat statue, pausing there momentarily to listen to what was going on, though well to either side of the passage in case pursuit was resumed. They need not have worried, though, as there was still no response of any kind from Fat Cat. Finally they dared to peer carefully through the passageway to see Wart passing a forepaw before his boss' unblinking eyes. But finally the silence was broken.

"I've just been bitten by a BAT!!!" Fat Cat cried in horror, "WHAT'S GOING TO BECOME OF ME??!!!"

"You want I should get a Band-Aid, Boss?" Snout asked.

"A BAND-AID?" he screamed, "A BAND-AID?! You idiot, you don't treat BAT BITE with a BAND-AID!!! Quick! Get me to that seedy vet with the revoked license that I keep on the payroll before I GO CRAZY AND START BITING ALL OF YOU!!!"

"Y--yes, Boss!" they all answered in fear. Then they helped him to his feet and began to walk him to the passage into the cat's head, in which the exit was located.

"HURRY, YOU IDIOTS!" the terrified tabby shouted, "WE DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS! YOU KNOW HOW MUCH FASTER BAT SPIT WORKS THAN ANY OTHER KIND! IT'S BEEN IN ALL THE PAPERS!" And his thoroughly frightened flunkies immediately picked him up--as best they could, that is--and bore them on their shoulders, running as fast as they could under those adverse conditions. They didn't even notice the Rangers as they rushed right past them into the next chamber, and stopped only of necessity when they couldn't all fit through the hole to the outside while in a phalanx. But Fat Cat's cries were so intense that they dropped him rudely on the floor and kicked him out before joining him on the factory roof, whence they would travel the rest of their journey, Fat Cat screaming in panic all the way. After witnessing this spectacle Dale turned to the very mild and gentle-looking girl at his side.

"GOSH! What did you do to him, Foxy?"

"I--I guess I bit him," she answered, looking at him a bit sheepishly.

"Is that all you did to him?" Dale was beginning to feel a bit frightened of her.

"Well," she answered slowly as she wrapped her wings around Dale to reassure him, "I did spread a little propaganda before you guys arrived. I suppose I overdid it," she added penitently. But Zipper flew up to her and caressed her cheek gratefully, at which Monterey declared, "me little pally's right! You spread just the right amount!" And the burly Australian opened his arms for an embrace that included all of them.

* * *

When they exited the statue the Rangers found the Ranger Plane still perched on the side of the building by means of its plunger landing gear. They all piled into it, with Dale and Foxglove sitting together in the back seat with Monterey, and at Gadget's touch the engine roared to life. The plungers were retracted and they began their flight back to their home, as the sky began to lighten with the approaching dawn. They had been up all night and had rested very little the night and day before, but their adrenaline had kept them going through the whole ordeal. Now it was returning to its normal level and their exhaustion was beginning to hit them all at once. They were also feeling very hungry, especially Foxglove, who required more food than the others to meet the requirements of her metabolism. So upon entering headquarters, much as they would have liked to go to bed, they simply had to eat. Monty insisted that he was quite capable of preparing breakfast, but they all knew better. Fortunately, when they saw the shape their friends were in, Tammy and Midge set about preparing a meal at once. They had been anticipating a far greater emergency and were only too glad to perform such a mundane task. It was only upon tasting their food that they all realized how famished they really were, especially poor Foxy, who had to have several plates of delicious mealworms and lots of water. While she was thus busily engaged the others looked upon her with pure admiration.

"Fellow Rangers, I give you the hero to whom we owe our lives--Foxglove!" Chip exclaimed, holding a thimble of water aloft.

"To Foxglove!" the others concurred enthusiastically, completing the toast.

This was almost too much for the poor girl, who felt terribly self-conscious. "To me?" she asked, completely non-plussed, "but I didn't plan it that way! I just panicked!"

"Aw, come on, Foxy!" Gadget said, "don't be so hard on yourself! However it came about, we'd all be cat chow now if it hadn't been for you! And that's the second time you've saved our skins! Why, Winifred would have zapped the daylights out of us if you hadn't stopped her!"

"I--I was scared that time, too," Foxy said, deep in thought.

"That's what a hero is," Chip said, "just someone who in spite of his own fear risks himself to try to save others."

"Too right!" Monterey Jack put in with enthusiasm, "that's all it takes, and that's what you've got in spades! And so far you have a perfect success record!" Zipper heartily squeaked his agreement.

"So Foxy," Dale asked her, "how's it feel to be the hero who just saved the day?"

Despite her problem with low self-esteem and her inbred sense of modesty Foxy felt a rush of healthy pride in her accomplishments. Looking up and spreading her wings to their full length she asked, "how do I feel? How do I feel? I feel like . . . like . . . THE GREEN HORNET!!!" And then she laughed, inviting the others to join her. But after a while she became thoughtful again. "There was one person I failed to rescue," she observed sadly.

"Who could that have been, Foxy?" Gadget asked.

Foxglove remained quiet for a moment. Then she said, "that poor mole. I had a talk with him he didn't seem like the others. They were mean to him. We should have brought him with us." The reaction to this statement was silent disbelief.

"But Foxy, he's no good!" Dale said finally. "He's been a member of Fat Cat's gang from the beginning! They're not holding him against his will, you know."

"I have to agree with Dale on this one," Chip said, "you're very sweet to feel that way, but I'm afraid it's for nothing. He'll never change."

"But Chip, I changed!" she said, a little disappointed at the others' reaction, "I worked for someone just as mean without actually meaning any harm, and I got treated the same way. All I needed was for someone to show me things didn't have to be that way."

"Well, I don't think Mole is as innocent as you were, but I see your point. Still, I'm afraid I'll have to stick by my original opinion: he'll never change," Chip concluded authoritatively.

"I don't know, Chip," Gadget said, "it may not be the most likely thing, but you really have to have more faith in people."

This did not change the general consensus on the subject, and Foxy felt badly that the others did not seem to trust her judgment in this matter. Still, she realized that the Rescue Rangers had much more experience with Fat Cat's gang than she, and that experience did not encourage an optimistic view of any of its members. So she decided to drop the subject.

When they had all satisfied their hunger their exhaustion once again made itself known. Then they retired for a belated sleep that proved to be so deep and intense that when they finally awoke in the evening they felt more tired than ever. But they managed to get up, though Foxy had been through more stress than any of them and was later by another hour. Tammy and Midge had remained during the day and had another meal prepared for them when they eventually made their way to the dinner table.

After this meal most of the Rangers, now unable to go back to sleep, decided to spend some rare entertainment time with the television set. But Dale, the one most fond of this activity, instead went outside to spend some time with the girl he had come so near losing. For a while they merely cuddled and looked at the stars, which was quite enough. But finally Dale worked up the courage to say something that was on his mind.

"Foxy?" he asked in a subdued voice.

"Yes, Darling?" she answered in a voice that showed her affection for the Chipmunk.

"Foxy, you were almost . . . I almost lost you," he said earnestly, sniffling and tearing at the thought, "and it was all because of me. Fat Cat would never have captured you if you hadn't picked me to fall in love with. And . . . and I can't bear to think of it. I can't bear to think of you being in danger, of maybe it happening again some day, and all because of me. And it might not be Fat Cat next time; we have lots of enemies," he continued matter-of-factly. "Maybe . . . what if one day down the road we're not so lucky? What if . . . ?" and he broke down sobbing at this point, distressing Foxglove a great deal. But after a while he got his voice back and resumed. "And it would all be my fault! I couldn't live with that on my conscience! I couldn't! Maybe . . . maybe we should call the whole thing off and just be friends. Assuming that wouldn't be as dangerous for you," he added.

Foxy's mouth hung open in horror at what he was saying and she began to cry as well. "Dale, you're not rejecting me, are you? Please! I've been so happy since you asked me to marry you! And since I first met you my heart's been in my throat at the very idea that you might like me. Please don't do this to me because of what some villain tried to do to us! Please! I couldn't live here anymore! I couldn't bear to see you and hear your voice and know that we'd never be anything but just friends, not now! I know you deserve someone better than me, but . . . but if you've brought me this far along just to break my heart at the last minute, then I'll hunt Fat Cat down and feed myself to him! That's what I'll do! Because if I have to go back to the life I had before I met you then I might as well be dead!" And she spoke with such intensity that it sounded as if she really meant it.

"Whoa, Foxy!" Dale said, "I'm not rejecting you! I do want to marry you! I really do! And what do you mean, I deserve someone better than you? Shucks, I was just the clown of the bunch until you came along to believe in me. You're the first person to ever do that, really. And you're sweet, and you're beautiful . . . . I only suggested that 'cause I love you so much that I couldn't bear to be the cause of any misfortune to you. But if that's the way you really feel . . . if you really do like me that much . . . then I say, let's go for it! And whatever danger either of us finds himself in, we'll have each other and face it together!"

With this Foxy's tears ceased and her face fairly glowed. Feeling too full of emotion to say anything, she grabbed Dale and gave him a hug such as she never had before. Dale was only too happy to return it, seeing as how Foxy and he had separated themselves during the weeks of the engagement. After the hugging they merely sat silently in the joy of each other's company. That is, until Dale thought of something else.

"Foxy?"

"Yes, Dale?"

"Is Fat Cat going to be all right?"

This question caught her a little off guard and it was a while before she could respond. But when she got over the shock she thought seriously for a while and said, "well, Dale, my honest opinion is that he may get by with his sins for a while, but one day if he doesn't change his ways he's going to pay for them big time. That's the way things usually work out," she concluded.

"Uh, that's not what I meant, Foxy. I meant," and she could see he was nervous, "I meant is something going to happen to him because you bit him?"

Once again it took a while for the full import of his question to sink in, but when it did she answered him, "Dale! I've lived here with you for almost a solid year now, and surely you don't think I have that horrible disease, do you?" It was obvious to Dale that she was hurt. "After all," she added, "who would I have caught it from? From you?!!"

Dale was feeling both uncomfortable and sheepish, and was pulling on his collar. "Well," he said, "I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that I've been reading in the papers about . . . "

"In the PAPERS??!!!" she asked, her voice full of righteous indignation. Dale was now cowering with his face covered, as though he expected her to punch him in the nose. But after a while as nothing happened he got the courage to look and saw Foxy sitting there with an expression on her face not of hurt, but of mischief. This made him more nervous than ever.

"C'mere!" she commanded, with that smile on her face.

"Wh-what are you gonna do?" Dale asked, his voice trembling a little.

"THIS!" And grabbing Dale firmly with both wings she held him close and--how to phrase this in a family-friendly story?--gave him such an injection that if bat spit really did work faster than any other kind, he would have very soon been out of his misery. The minute she did it, though, she felt ashamed of herself. She knew better than to act that way with a man to whom she was not yet married! Underneath her fur she was one huge blush. When she got the courage to look at Dale again, it was she who felt uncomfortable. He was smiling!

Foxy averted her eyes to the ground. "I'm sorry, Dale. I shouldn't have done that. I guess I just lost control." She finally worked up the courage to look at Dale again and saw that now he had the mischievious expression.

"That was fun! Let's do it again!" he added sinisterly.

"Dale, NO! I really shouldn't have done that!" she said, a little afraid of the strength of her own feelings. "How about after we're married? Okay? Is it still on?" she asked with a voice full of hope.

"Is it still on?!" he responded, much to her relief, "hot d--!"

"Daaaaaaale??!!!"

"Oops! Sorry, Foxy! I mean, that is a certitude!"

This decision reached, they once again cuddled and quietly enjoyed the stars and the lightning bugs.

Meanwhile, while this soap opera was taking place outside, the possible beginning of another was taking place inside with the others. Chip was sitting on the couch watching the late show with the other Rangers after Tammy and Midge had retired for the night. After a while a snoring sound was heard coming from one end, and Chip and Gadget looked to see the big mouse and fly in dreamland. Seeing that these two were no longer active participants in any conversations, Gadget looked earnestly at Chip. "You really would have done it," she said.

"Huh? What did you say?" And Chip stirred himself from the verge of joining the other men in sweet forgetfulness.

"You would have died to have saved the rest of us. You would have let him kill you," she said, looking at him with admiration, "I know you would have. What I don't understand is how you could be so willing."

"Aw, c'mon, Gadget! You would have done the same. You know you would." And Gadget didn't dispute this, as she knew she also would have died willingly to save her friends.

She looked at the sleepy chipmunk sitting beside her. She knew how he felt about her, about how both chipmunks had felt about her until Foxglove came along. She reciprocated with a deep familial love for all the Rangers, but honestly could not return the romantic feelings of the chipmunks. Or so she thought at first. Still, between having to choose between them and watching them fight over her, she elected the best strategy was to act oblivious. She also knew that Dale's self-image was far lower than the handsome and seemingly over-confident Chip. But then Foxglove entered Dale's life and that was one problem taken care of. But there was still Chip to consider, and a change seemed to slowly come over him after Dale entered on his romance. Chip treated him with far more respect than he used to, for one thing. Maybe it was because he was no longer a rival. Maybe it was because his over-confidence had been merely a mask for self-doubt all along. Maybe it was because he had watched as Dale slowly but steadily changed from a clumsy goof-up to a very good and borderline-serious detective now that he had someone who believed in him, which was perhaps all he had needed all along. Maybe he was blaming himself now for Dale's previous blunders. Maybe he was rebuking himself for not believing in his best friend and for casting him into the clown role which Dale then proceeded to act out consistently (Gadget certainly rebuked herself for this occasionally). Whatever the reason for this change in attitude, Gadget had watched it develop with interest. She had also detected the note of sadness that had entered Chip's voice and expression of late, perhaps because of regret for his past treatment of Dale, or perhaps because he felt that now he was losing him. Gadget thought all these things over. She really did want both chipmunks to be happy. Now as she looked at Chip as he stared bleary-eyed at the TV screen she felt her own feelings for him stirring: admiration of his good looks, for his courage and selflessness, pity for his loneliness. Finally she spoke.

"Chip, whatever you may have done or however you may have acted in the past, you are a true hero. Never doubt it for a moment. If any of us ever did, you settled the question once and for all when you offered yourself to Fat Cat if he'd let the rest of us go . . . if he'd spare Dale and Foxy to have a life together. That's real friendship, Chip! Dale is lucky to have had you for a friend. We all are. Chip? Do you hear me?"

Her answer was a third snore added to Monty's and Zipper's. She smiled as she looked at Chip now sleeping so peacefully.

And then there were four.

* * *

The next day Dale and Foxglove announced their intention to go on with the wedding, which they decided to hold on a Monday night just three weeks from the original date. The others were overjoyed and launched once more into the preparations. Tammy and Midge also were able to leave the Rangers' headquarters, though of course Midge had no intention of returning to the west coast until he had seen his friend and his fair lady safely hitched. Just how to get the news out presented a problem, as they certainly did not want to advertise the event to Fat Cat again. But Gadget decided that the risk had to be taken or else the general animal community would be deprived of the opportunity to witness the event. At least now they would take full precautions. Besides, it would probably be awhile before Fat Cat would be willing to take on Foxglove again after the snow job she had given him. Those shots were painful! But as they did not wish to take any chances they acquired the help of Tom, their robotic cat friend, who was only too glad to serve as a sort of guard for the duration.

Dale and Foxglove did not go to the trouble of remaining secluded from each other this time; after what they had just been through it seemed unnecessary and kind of silly. They now spent most of their time sitting quietly together just cuddling and enjoying each other's company, though they were still careful of their behavior. Now it was Chip who made the rounds to the papers while Gadget worked on an idea she had come up with to make things more convenient for the newlyweds. It was decided to have the ceremony this time under their own oak tree, where there would be little chance of being rudely interrupted. Gadget had had the presence of mind to gather up the wedding contract, ring, and veil on that terrible night and to bring them back to headquarters, where she stashed them in her workshop to prevent Dale from being tormented by the sight of them while his fiancee was in peril. Thus everything was ready except for the canopy, which by tradition had to be made of willow leaves, and the wreath Dale had made for Foxy from her namesake. These of course had long since turned brown. But the remedy was for Dale to go out on the morning preceding the ceremony to gather a new wreath from the ornamental Digitalis that had been planted here and there while Gadget, Monty, and Zipper--accompanied by Tom--returned to the ill-fated place where the crime had been commited to gather the willow foliage. Meanwhile Chip stood guard on the limb outside headquarters while within Foxglove was sleeping much better than she had the last time. Chip was glad to see Dale arriving with the material for his wreath and breathed a big sigh of relief when the others appeared carrying the foliage for the wedding canopy, which he joined them in constructing. All that was left now was for Gadget to put the finishing touches on her little mechanical device and to help Dale weave his treasure into a wreath for Foxy's head. This done, they all retired for a quick siesta before the big event.

As the sun faded that evening the crowd had already begun to gather beneath Ranger Headquarters. Otis and a few other animals were holding the willow canopy steady awaiting the wedding participants, who had already gathered a short distance away to form the procession. Phinehas once again stood at the ready, peering through his glasses in the direction from which they would be coming. It was only after night had fallen completely and the crowd had grown much larger than that of three weeks ago that word was shouted that the wedding party was approaching. All present grew silent and turned their faces to see the sight.

First came Tom and his friend Butch the bulldog, who were making sure that there would be no mishaps. Then came the males, Chip, Monty, Zipper and Midge, escorting Dale. Behind them Gadget and Tammy and her family accompanied Foxglove, whose face was veiled and head crowned by a wreath of the flower whose name she bore, and for all she knew could have come from the very plant that had broken her fall so long ago. The crowd closed in behind the little procession and the guests of honor took their places to hold the willow canopy aloft. These were Chip, Monty, Midge, and Otis, who was as happy as anyone that the Rangers had escaped Fat Cat and were now safely celebrating the happy occasion.

Dale now came underneath the canopy to the greeting of all present and took his place beside Phinehas. Foxglove then joined him, to another greeting from the crowd, and after he approached her she circled him (actually she had thought about doing it in a hover, but unfortunately the structure was too small to allow for her wingspread). Dale lifted her veil to reveal her face to a gasp of admiration from the crowd. It was now too late to be nervous, so she had decided simply to be happy about the situation, and her joy showed in her features. And while she wore no clothing, her silky fur served the needs of both modesty and provocativeness. All doubts Dale might have had about his maturity or the rightness of what he was doing were gone in that one instant. With the greatest happiness he took the ring from his tuxedo pocket, still on its string, and hung it around Foxglove's neck and stood back to admire her.

He was not the only one. Chip turned to see Otis with his mouth gaping and his tongue hanging out. It was the first time he had seen the bride. "Where in Sam Hill . . . ?" he started to ask before remembering that this one was now taken. Then he turned a sly look to Dale.

"You dawg!" he said enviously.

"I know!" Dale answered him proudly under his breath.

Chip reached into the pocket of his tuxedo with his free hand and retrieved the wedding contract, which he handed to Dale. Dale gave it to Phinehas who read it aloud and then passed it on to Foxy. There remained but one duty left to perform.

Foxglove lifted her eyes and cast a furtive glance at the elderly chipmunk. "You'd better make this good and legal, Mr. Phinehas!" she said bashfully, at which there was sympathetic laughter from the crowd.

The wedding ceremony of the animals is a simple affair, but when it is done right it is awe- inspiring. Phinehas cleared his throat and began to recite the Bereishit Bara'. Whenever he arrived at the refrain of "vayehi `erev, vayehi voqer" all present recited it, after which he repeated it. And so it went, with Day Five addressed to Foxglove and Day Six to Dale, until he arrived at the final refrain. The crowd recited this and proceeded immediately with "Vayekhullu," Phinehas repeating the whole thing after them. And it was over. For a while Dale and Foxglove simply remained still and stared at each other, as if they could not believe they had really taken this tremendous step. Its solemnity and enormity overwhelmed them. But then they heard Phinehas' voice cry out, "give 'er a smack for me, Son!" and the couple stirred from their reverie and gave each other a smack that was long and serious enough to have been done on behalf of everyone there. At this the silence was broken as shouts of congratulations filled the air, along with grains of rice, nuts, and small packages of candy. They had done it!

At this point Gadget pushed the button on Dale's cassette player and everyone was treated to the appropriate strains of Kay Kyser and his Orchestra playing the classic "Who Wouldn't Love You?" (you were expecting maybe Velvet Underground?). Dale picked Foxy up and carried her from beneath the canopy. As she left its shelter Foxglove pulled off her wreath and veil and tossed it directly at Gadget, who took no notice of it whatsoever. It was caught, though--by Tammy, who immediately cast her eyes upon Chip, giving him goosepimples. The newlyweds took no notice of this embarrassing diplomatic situation, however, and Dale happily carried his bride over to Gadget's little surprise, an electically powered elevator. Zipper flew to the limb before the front door and pushed a button and the elevator began its ascent. Dale did not bother to put his burden down, but continued to hold her until the elevator arrived at its destination. Dale carried his love out of the handy little contraption (which was saving him the trouble of carrying Foxy all the way upstairs from the base of the tree) and into the front door. He proceeded down the hall until he came before their new room. He pushed the door open with his foot and carried his bride over the threshold and shut the door again. And what took place then behind that door was nobody else's business.

* * *

The top bunk was empty now. All the comic books and Hawaiian print shirts and pajamas had been moved to their new home before the wedding. Chip sighed as he lay on his bed and turned all these things over in his mind. Dale had been such a nuisance at times, keeping him awake with his flashlight as he read one of his comics when he should have been sleeping, or else waking him up when he finally stumbled to bed at 4:30 in the morning after a night of his late movies. Chip knew he should be glad of the new arrangement, but it just wasn't the same.

He also wondered if he would get any sleep at all that night. He really should have been exhausted. What a night it had been! After accepting congratulations on behalf of the newlyweds from what seemed like every animal in the city, the Rangers and their closest friends (which was quite a crowd in itself) repaired to headquarters for a party--including Phinehas, thanks to Gadget's elevator. Almost everyone brought something, so there was certainly plenty to eat, though there were perhaps too many cakes as opposed to more healthy and substantial fare.

When Dale and Foxglove joined them there were shouts and applause enough for a game show, and they were kept busy accepting the good wishes of everyone present. Tom and Butch could not fit into the Rangers' headquarters and so had returned to their home earlier, but Gadget conveyed their congratulations for them. In fact, when seemed to have assumed the role of hostess with enthusiasm, rushing here and there to speak to each person at least once and introducing those among their friends who didn't know each other. And she was fairly glowing about the whole situation; Chip recalled that especially. She was happy for her two friends, plain and simple. Chip was glad she felt that way, but he could not stop wondering if this was giving her any ideas about her own future plans. These thoughts, along with those generated by the wedding itself, kept him from being as happy as he should have been.

And at the same time, there was Tammy. She had been made to understand where Chip's heart lay, but she could not be made to give up hope. While Gadget was busy elsewhere she took advantage of the situation to monopolize Chip's time as much as possible, even if it meant leaving Bink unattended to go exploring throughout the place. Out of guilt for how he had reacted to her the first time they met Chip did his best to satisfy her desire to be with him without encouraging her hopes for something more. Besides, with Monterey Jack and Mrs. Squirrel passing out cheese hors d'oevres and slices of cake, Zipper occupied with entertaining Queenie, and Sparky and Buzz talking with Midge, there wasn't much else for him to do. At least she did not openly flirt with him anymore.

There was one most unexpected event that gave him an excuse to interrupt Tammy's charm offensive, however. About an hour after the party erupted full force there was a knock at the door, which when answered proved to be none other than Chirp Sing, the royal nightingale of the emperor of a secluded Asian Shangri-La. Just how he had even heard of the event was beyond anyone, but he insisted on congratulating his "Friend Dale," and when introduced to the bride was overjoyed to inform him that marriage to a bat was sure to bring him good fortune and blessings galore. Foxglove was flattered but also somewhat embarrassed by his deep bow of respect, and blushed noticeably as she returned it. Gadget of course introduced their noble guest to Midge, and Chip gladly joined the conversation. It was always nice to make friends of people who a moment before did not even know one another, and the four of them chatted away for a few minutes before Gadget left them to speak with the forsaken Tammy. However much Chip's heart may have ached for Gadget, that did not prevent him from being genuinely overjoyed at the large number of friends the Rescue Rangers really had, and at this rare moment in time when so many of them were present to celebrate such a happy occasion.

The party had gone on until midnight, but then it began to break up. Chip invited several of the guests who were from out of town to stay the night but they deferred, which was for the best since there really wasn't room for all of them. Chirp Sing informed them that his species was called "nightingale" because that was when they were active, so he went off with Midge, with whom he had struck up an understandable friendship. They would probably spend a day together sightseeing before they returned to their respective homes. Queenie and the Squirrels were the last to leave, and then there were just the six of them. They sat up for another hour resting and thinking things over. Gadget asked the couple where they were going for their honeymoon, but they both said they were quite satisfied to be together right where they were. So it was decided to give them a three-week exemption from Ranger duty and let them settle in to their new living arrangements. Then at one o'clock they all decided to hit the hay and leave the cleanup for morning.

*It must be 2:30 at least by now,* Chip thought as he lay there in his room that now seemed so oversized. *Maybe I'll jazz things up by sleeping in the top bunk for awhile. That should be exciting,* he added, though he wasn't having much success at either convincing himself or at feeling any sleepier.

Chip sighed and put his forepaws underneath his head to see if that was any more relaxing (it wasn't) and turned his thoughts once again to Tammy. *I know just what the poor girl's going through,* he thought, *after all, I'm going through the same thing with Gadget. But this time I'm the one doing it to someone else!* He sighed again. *Maybe if Gadget decides she doesn't want me I should just marry her,* he thought, *after all, she's pretty and sweet, and is growing up. Maybe that is the answer.* But he knew that it wasn't that simple; he was so hung up on Gadget that her rejection would be a devastating blow, and one that would take time to heal--if it ever did. *All the same, I feel responsible for Tammy,* he went on to himself, *and I certainly don't want her to be crushed if Gadget does accept my affection one day, or if I just decide she's not the girl for me. I don't think she is,* he thought, remembering Tammy's forwardness as opposed to Gadget's unobtrusive but irresistible charm. *But all the same, I can't just break poor Tammy's heart. I'll see to it that she finds someone who's right for her. That's what I'll do! Then I'll have another reminder of what I'm missing out on!*

"Oh, shoot!" Chip said aloud as he realized he was now less sleepy and more miserable than ever. At that moment there was a quiet knock at the door.

"Yes?" he said, hoping against hope. The door opened and revealed his visitor. It was Foxglove!

"Oh. Hi, Foxy," he said, a little disappointed. What can I do for you?"

"Hi, Chip," she said, being careful to remain outside the bachelor's room. "I just thought I'd drop by and . . . " Then she sighed. "Oh Chip, it's like this. I know you and Dale have been friends for a long time, and roommates probably almost as long as that. And I know that this must be really difficult for you. So . . . so I just wanted to stop by and make sure you were all right," she said.

Chip looked at her. "Why thank you, Foxy," he said, "that's very kind of you. Yes, I must confess that it is a bit hard on me right now, but I'll get used to it. Don't worry about me."

Foxglove smiled relievedly. "Well, all the same," she said, "I just want you to know that Dale is your friend same as always. And there's no reason why he can't sleep over with you occasionally when I'm out feeding. And remember, Chip, we're right down the hall, so please don't ever be afraid to come and knock if you need anything. Okay?"

Foxy's concern for her husband's friend was so touching that Chip could not help but smile. "Thanks, Foxy," he said, "I'll remember that."

Foxglove smiled and began to close the door and take her leave, when she paused and looked in again. "Chip? Do you want me to talk to Gadget for you?" she asked.

Chip sat up in bed at that. "Foxy," he said, "you are a genuinely good and kind person, did you know that?" At this she looked down and blushed.

"Still," he continued, "much as I appreciate the offer, I'd prefer not to take you up on it right now. But I might want to some day if you don't change your mind."

"Any time, Chip," she said, "just say the word. Oh, and by the way, if you're thinking about giving up, don't. Your case isn't hopeless. Not by a long shot. Believe me."

"Thank you!" Chip said.

"Well, good night!" she said.

"Good night, Foxy. And the same to Dale."

"I'll tell him," she said, and shut the door. Chip heard the eagerness in her retreating footsteps as she made her way back to her husband. Dale was indeed fortunate to have such a good person as his life partner, he thought, and he himself was equally fortunate to have her as a member of his family.

To say that Chip felt better now would be a vast understatement. He dared to hope that maybe Foxglove was right; maybe his own happiness was just around the corner. Buoyed by these thoughts he relaxed, closed his eyes, and was soon at last in a deep and peaceful sleep. So much so that he was unaware a few minutes later when his door again opened just a little, and another pair of eyes looked in on him, and another pair of lips smiled.

END

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