Runner was up from bed, and against Devin's strict orders was stumping slowly and carefully around on his splinted leg with a makeshift crutch. He didn't have much to pack--just a few odds and ends, mostly odds. A bit of crystal he'd stumbled on in the darkness of the caverns where his parents and Gadget's friends had died--for a tree-dweller he had an odd fascination with things found in deep hidden places, especially stones. He hefted a marble that looked like a map of the world if you squinted at it just right--it went into his little pack as well. Approaching footsteps startled him from his illicit labors--he hightailed it back toward the bed as fast as he could with the crutch, but only made it halfway before Devin swung the door open. "Debbin, you care me haffa deff!!" Runner chided him.
"What are you doing?" growled Devin. He swept into the room and lifted Runner off his feet, depositing him on the lower bunk of the bed. He shook a finger at the young squirrel, who cowered with his ears back. "You'll end up crippling yourself for life that way! Gadget didn't drag you out of a hole in the earth just to have you--" Devin paused and thought for a while. "Jeez, I sound just like my father. Sorry to yell at you, Runner, Seeing you get up and walk around like that just scared me."
Runner relaxed and waved a dismissive paw. "Thag's ogay."
Devin frowned. "Huh?"
They both turned to look as Gadget came in. "Hi, guys. Hey, good to see you awake and kicking, Runner. Not trying to stand up yet, are you?"
Devin coughed. "He hasn't set foot out of bed once yet. Right, sport?"
It was Runner's turn to growl. "Ny mame id Rugger, not spork."
"Spork. Isn't that one of those spoons with the little spikes on the end?"
"Quit it, you two," Gadget ordered. "So, ready to head out?"
Runner nodded furiously and almost rocketed off the bed, but remembered he was pretending to be a good patient. "Gaddit, we gone to leabe? Aww right! Ged out ob this nassy, hor'ble darg place."
Gadget's whiskers drooped. She winced and shook her head in sudden sorrow.
"Aww--" This time Runner couldn't help himself. He levered himself up on his crutch, twitching with concern. He hobbled to her, putting his paws to her tear-streaked face. "Sorry, Gaddit, dibn't mean id! I know you libbed here, you'n your frens. I sorry, dibn't mean 'a say id--"
"No, Runner, it's okay. It's not my home any more. I have to find a new one." She put an arm around Runner and walked him back to the bunkbed. She guided him down and sat beside him and Devin. "I wanted to talk with you about that. We have to decide where you go from here, too."
Runner kicked his good leg shyly, thinking for a while. "Go wherebber you go. You sabe my life...I helb you, grow up n' be a Reggue Ringer." He looked at her with pleading in his eyes.
"What's a reggue, and how do you ring it?" murmured Devin under his breath, but Runner's wounded scowl brought him around. "I'm sorry, Runner. I think you'll make a great Rescue Ranger. Of course we'll need to get you into a good Junior Auxiliary troop first--"
"I starded awready inna Juber Oxysilly," Runner burbled with excitement. "I jus nebber finish my las too years! Got badge fer swimmig, argery--"
"Argery?" Devin and Gadget asked in unison.
"Yeah, shooding with bode and awwows. Had all sortsa badges om ny unicorn. No, not unicorn--ufinorm. Can'd say id." Runner thwacked himself on his good leg in frustration.
"I know what you're talking about, Runner," soothed Gadget. "Your uniform. I had one when I was in the Junior Oxysilly--" Runner snorted as Gadget put a paw to her mouth. "Now you've got me doing it. Say, hold on a second." Gadget got to her feet and dashed out of the room.
Gadget stepped out into the early-evening light just outside the treehouse and surveyed the supplies and rubber-banded stacks of papers she'd salvaged from the wrecked hideout, all leaning against the railing. So often she'd sat out on the landing with the other Rangers, just shooting the breeze and relaxing. She smiled as she remembered the time Monty had come back from Russia with one of those little airline bottles of vodka and Dale had nearly stumbled off the edge. Now, in this light, the landing was just a place to pile her stuff before she left forever. She sighed and set aside a bundle of case files to get at the box of Dale's mementos. She found what she was looking for, and dashed back inside.
"What do you have there?" Devin asked as Gadget came back into the room with a garment bag.
"Yeah, whas inna bag?"
She began zipping it open. "Well, since we are going to Thorn Valley, and Thornies expect civilized animals to wear clothes, I thought this might be a welcome addition to your wardrobe, Runner." She pulled out a rugged blue shirt and matching slacks. The shirt's sleeves were almost totally covered in small embroidered patches--one sported the globe-and-mouse-ears logo of Rescue Aid, and another read "J.A. Troop 12, Anaheim". The patch stitched on the right pocket flap read 'Dale'. "I'm sure he would have wanted a J.A. member like you to have it. He was about your age then--it looks like it could be a good fit," Gadget encouraged the young squirrel.
Artwork by Keith Elder
His arm trembled as he reached out, but he pulled it back. "N-no," he shook his head firmly, though he was held transfixed by the uniform. "Woodn' be right."
Gadget turned the uniform over in her paws, baffled. "Whyever not? I mean, it might be a little spooky wearing a hand-me-down from someone...who..." Gadget started to choke up at the thought of Dale, but Runner smiled and shook his head.
"Thas nod idt. Alla these baggages--babbage--" Runner gritted his teeth good-naturedly, thinking hard. "--baadges. I only urnd dese--" he explained, reverently drawing an imaginary box around a dense section of patches on one sleeve of the uniform. "Couldn' wear dis ufinorm, Dale wazza one oo did the werk--" Runner gave the shirt a reluctant pat.
Gadget grinned. "You're an honest Auxie, aren't you? Well, tell you what. I'll just do some really careful work on the stitching and take the other patches off. We can pack them away and use them when we need to. Would you wear it if I did that?"
Runner nodded furiously, gathering up the uniform and testing the length of the sleeves against his arms. "Plees do jus' one ting, Gaddit--"
"Sure. My needle's at your command."
"Don' teag off dis one--" he continued, as he ran his paw over Dale's name.
Out on the landing, Gadget and Devin surveyed the sad pile of half-shredded papers and the few pieces of tools and equipment worth saving from the wreckage. Wind picked at the edges of the notes, rustling them like fall leaves.
"I know you expected a whole bunch of people to help you with this," Devin apologized. "Movers, real investigators, maybe someone from Grief Counseling. I'm sorry you only have me to help."
Gadget shook her head good-naturedly. "Devin, you've been worth ten times your weight in gold. I can't count the times that we Rescue Rangers could have used someone with your medical know-how. Besides, you're no slouch. I couldn't have done this much in a week by myself. And you've got a sort of--" Gadget searched for the word. "--a sort of decency about you that I could get really used to having around."
Devin grinned at her. "Well, seeing as we're the only available team to send to Thorn Valley, you'll get the chance." He put on a more somber, thoughtful look. "Have you given any thought to our cover story? We need a reason to be there. We can't just announce to the whole Valley that we're investigators from the Rescue Aid Society. Anyone who knows anything about those damned pills, or whoever used them, would clam up or just disappear."
Gadget grimaced. He had a point. "So what's our excuse for dropping in? If we say we're tourists, they'll smell a rat--"
"--and a mouse," Devin tacked on, not missing a beat. "Actually, you'd be surprised. Thorn Valley gets a fair amount of tourism--that whole 'animal Amish' thing, back to the earth and all. City mice eat that up. But tourists wouldn't be in the Institute's hospital as much as we need to be." Devin dug a thick book out of his medical bag and dropped it in Gadget's weary paws. "Personally, I keep in shape with this."
"What, like I didn't have enough to do? A little light reading?" Gadget hefted the book a few times and nearly gave out. "I won't have time for--"
"Oh yes you will," chuckled Devin. "Check the publisher."
Gadget flipped the book spine-up and saw the distinctive black-and-silver logo, recognizing it instantly (though not without a gasp of surprise). It was Thorn Valley's variation on the caduceus, the ancient symbol of medicine, with a broadsword replacing the staff, and trailers of a flowering thornbush in place of the twining serpents. The book was a study guide.
"Huh? 'Fifty Ways to Ace the TMAT?' What's a T-whatever, anyway?"
"Thorn Medical Admissions Test," explained Devin, grinning broadly. "Every animal-run vet college and teaching hospital requires it. And you should take it, almost as soon as we land in Thorn Valley."
"Me? Apply for admission...so you think--" Gadget puzzled it out, sitting down against the railing and leafing through the study guide. "You think I could pretend to be a medical student there?"
Devin rolled his eyes and growled in mock consternation. "Who said anything about pretending?" Gadget's eyes went wide at this--this outrageous suggestion, this unthinkable sudden change in her life he was talking about. She opened her mouth, intending to tell him how silly he sounded...but Devin sat beside her and took the book from her paws, gently yet firmly. "Gadget, do you know how strong you are?"
She had no answer for that. Is there ever one?
"What did you do for Runner? When you got him onto solid ground, what did you do?" Devin's was the voice of a teacher now, a guide. It threw her mind into high gear--where it usually stayed when her life wasn't a mess.
"I stabilized his neck, made sure he was breathing all right, checked his ribs and shone a flashlight in his eyes--"
"Why?" asked Devin, knowing the answer well.
"Making sure the pupils reacted to the light. They did. One sign there wasn't any major brain damage."
Devin smiled at her sure reply, but kept up the professional questioning. "What was your diagnosis? And what did you do about it?"
"Fractured left tibia, contusions and scrapes to left arm, possible concussion with the impact point just above the left eye. I set the leg, cleaned the scrapes, and put a cool compress on his head. About all I could do with limited supplies."
Devin sat back, crossed his arms, and clicked his tongue at her. "That's all any doctor could have done. You'll fit right in at Thorn Valley Institute, and you won't have to pretend you've got medical potential."
Gadget tried not to let it show too much, but her heart leapt joyfully inside her. Hell, it nearly leapt outside her, and wouldn't that have been a medical challenge? The Rangers had always treated her with respect and kindness, but between being busy and living so close together, a lot went unsaid. Devin's words had made her feel more alive again. "That is quite possibly the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long time," she breathed.
Devin waved the compliment off politely. "Just telling it like it is. If you do this, better get ready for lots of questions and long days re-learning things you obviously know. You'll just have a second job you can't tell anyone about--"
Gadget cocked a paw at him . "Gotcha. Med student by day, Rescue Aid Society spy--"
"--investigator--" corrected Devin.
"--by night. But--you really think I could make it as a doctor?"
Devin nodded decisively. "Top-notch. You'll be teaching me in a few months, mark my words." Much later, Gadget would think back on that casual compliment, and have a good laugh at the way things turned out. For now, she didn't exactly feel like laughing, but Devin's pep talk had steeled her to her course of action.
"Want to make that a bet?" Gadget poked a paw impishly at Devin.
"Sure. I'll bet you dinner at The Falls--best Chinese food in the Valley. Okay, the only Chinese, but it's killer. Deal?"
"Deal," she said, and they shook on it.
Change was coming on swift wings to bear her away from this old life and carry her into a new place with its own set of hopes and fears--closer to answers, but also to the heart of danger.
Button images by Keith Elder