Chapter Twenty-Four

Gadget woke up to a lake full of stars.

They weren't the first stars she'd seen that evening, to be sure--but these didn't dance away now in front of her pleasantly dizzy eyes. No, as she raised her head from her well-earned sleep, it seemed rather that a sort of celestial popcorn had silently exploded around their boat. Stars flung across the sky, stars shining in the depths of the dark waters... Gadget snuggled back against Devin's chest, feeling safe as he automatically wrapped his arms back around her, listening to his still-sleeping breath, and watching a smile twitch the corners of his mouth. Timmy and Tina probably think we fell in by now, she sighed happily, and that's not far from the truth!

The boat was littered with the debris of their picnic--marmalade jars scraped clean (licked clean, Gadget admitted), huge loaves of Timothy's bread reduced to crumbs--hardly a scrap of food had escaped Devin and Gadget's well-worked-up appetite. Exhausted and full of good food, it was no wonder they'd collapsed into a furry happy tangle of arms and legs. It was a wonder that night had crept up on them so suddenly...

A cool breeze swept over the boat, rustling Devin's whiskers. He woke to find Gadget's head tucked comfortably under his, her headfur glowing softly in the starlight. How do you wake a sleeping angel? he thought, but he needn't have worried. She turned to look up at him, eyes full of love and hope. "Hello, sweetheart," he said.

"Sounds good to me," her eyes sparkled. "Gadget, Gadge, Hackwrench, sweetheart,"

"--anything but 'Miss,' " they finished in unison, and broke up in laughter.

"But speaking of 'miss,' how did I miss the last--" he looked up at the sky, "--five hours or so? I had something I wanted to show you--"

Gadget just wriggled her nose and gave him the look.

"--something else I wanted to show you," he corrected himself, shaking a pawpad at her in mock warning.

"This time it's about the boat, right?" She began to look around at the winch and pulley system, the oddly slanted mast (maybe it was a mast, but there was no sail)... "Give me a second. Maybe I can figure this out on my own."

While Gadget was taking a good hard look at the machinery, Devin marveled again at the way she had--more literally than anyone else he knew--of switching gears. Though he knew this ability sometimes irritated her, it was one of the things he loved about her. She always gave herself totally to the moment. Right now, all of her attention was focused on the puzzle he'd given her--what the heck was this tub designed for?

"Okay," she finally nodded, her look of determination softening once more into another that said she had it partway worked out. "We're out here to catch something, aren't we?"

I already did, Devin almost said, and she's a keeper. But he just grinned and nodded as he reached for his paddle and Gadget picked up her own. "Exactly, Gadge. We're going to catch something big."

* * *

The last visit Devin had made to Thorn Valley had fallen during a frenzy of activity on the lake, as winter was coming on hard and the lake was about to freeze over. Experience had taught the Rats that importing food to Thorn Valley during the winter was a dangerous and backbreaking task, so local reserves were key.

The need for strong and well-trained paws was so great that even Roger had been dragged from his post, away from the repairs and outfitting he'd grown used to. He and the other rats in their fishing boat--one of a dozen or more sweeping the lake with their nets--were hauling in a load of slippery, flippery fish destined for Timothy's kind care.

That's when the pike decided he'd like a taste of the catch.

A mean old mossy mother of a fish, he was no fool. He knew these strange rats didn't scare away easily, and a few painful spear thrusts had cured him of making direct attacks on the boats. Still, a net full of fish proved to be too much temptation, and he ripped into it with his long serrated jaws, like a youngster with both paws in a cookie jar. It looked like an easy meal, but the net caught in his great teeth and the pike thrashed frantically to get free.

Poor Roger and his friends were tossed mercilessly against the side of the fishing boat, which tipped so quickly that the mast slammed into the water and snapped like a toothpick. The rigging lines of the ship snarled up like the string of a cheap yo-yo, with one loop catching Roger's footpaw and nearly dragging him to his death beneath the frothing water churned up by the maddened pike.

Roger surely would have been killed--but by the grace of God, Devin was in one of the boats that swarmed in to rescue the wrecked sailors. He dove under the overturned boat, slashing at the rigging with a scalpel, coming up for air a few times. The pike wriggled loose and dove deep in the lake, a few missing teeth the only reward for all its trouble. Devin and a few others hauled Roger up and squeezed the extra water out of him. With a pair of pliers, some fishing line, and a random collection of instruments from his medical bag, Devin almost had to reattach Roger's unfortunate footpaw.

Roger and Devin vowed they'd hunt the ravenous lake monster down and see if he was edible--of course, after suffering Arthur the Engineer's attempts at cuisine, Roger's taste buds were probably ruined anyway. Arthur pitched in—his culinary disasters still hurt his pride, so he was glad when odd projects came his way—and they began to cobble together the strangest-looking boat that fur-kind had ever laid eyes on.

An unkind observer might have called the boat ugly, though it was just the sort of quirky contraption that Gadget loved to put together. It rode low in the water, unless by some miracle it attained a great speed (as Gadget had wondered at, it had no motor). Its mast was set at an unbalanced angle. With no keel to speak of, and its saucer-like design, it had an unpleasant tendency to spin, depending on who was the strongest rower--and it was a wide enough that two rowers were an absolute must.

The boat looked, in short, like a mistake.

This, then, was the boat Devin had taken Gadget out in. And he had only told his petite, blonde, slightly pregnant companion that their outing would be "fun." So far that had turned out to be an understatement... If Gadget had known the history of their bizarre little watercraft, it would've ruined the surprise for Devin, who was about to introduce her to Thorn Valley's second-most breathtaking sport.

It was the least he could do, as she'd introduced him to the first-most.

* * *

They paddled the boat close to a pile of mossy rocks, near the shore farthest from Roger's pier. Gadget eyed a rock jutting out over the water. "So, should we tie up the boat here?"

"Probably not a good idea, Gadge. We're not staying long." And we might end up smashing the boat to splinters, he thought. From a large canvas bag at the back of the boat, he began to shake out a net. It was basket-like in shape, with strong light hoops of wood holding it open, tapering down to a narrow end. With Gadget's help, he attached it to the metal cable threaded along the 'mast', then they dropped it into the water. Gadget and Devin both kept hold of a line each, the strong thin ropes running under opposite sides of the boat.

"Okay. These are for making turns with, aren't they?" Devin nodded. He tied his line to a sliding bar-like contraption connected to the steering machinery. Gadget watched carefully and did the same. "There's our navigation," she noted, going through a mental checklist, "but where's our power source?"

Devin grinned and pointed down. "He’s sleeping in a big hollow right underneath these rocks."

"So we wake him up and scare him into the net, right? It'd probably help if we used the reverse periscope. This button turns a light on?"

"You’ve read the owner's manual, haven't you?" It seemed to Devin that Gadget knew the boat better than he did himself.

"No," Gadget winked, "I just know a little bit about night-time maneuvers." Devin raised an eyebrow. "Shh! Don't say anything. You can take that any way you want."

Linking arms behind each other's back, sharing the periscope with an eye apiece, heads together, this is what they saw when the light went on:

Glittering deep in the sheltered spot beneath the rocks were a pair of eyes. Cold, unblinking eyes. Fortunately for the intrepid hunters, the pike had chosen a long but narrow retreat for his home, and it was an easy matter to tease the net into place just outside the opening.

"He is asleep, right?" Gadget was no coward, but even closed in their stillness, those toothy jaws in the long snout looked very dangerous.

"He’s a deep sleeper. On a scale of one to 10, he's a 10." Devin nudged Gadget's tail with his own. "Scale—fish—get it?"

"Oh, that's awful, Dev," Gadget chuckled, and thought for a moment. "He won't win any beauty contests. With fins like those, who needs enemies?"

Devin groaned this time, to Gadget's satisfaction. "Hey, wait," Devin noticed, his anticipation building. "He's starting to move around. Pretty soon he'll wake up and come investigate."

Gadget jumped in surprise, yanking her head away from the eyepiece of the periscope as the pike suddenly surged into action and flashed towards the boat. As the boat began to rock violently, Devin pulled back too, guiding Gadget down to her seat and helping her buckle the complicated harness. "Shoulda warned you more," he fretted.

"I'm okay. What now?" The boat bumped and bucked as the water churned. Devin jumped into his seat, buckling belts and slapping down straps of his own. Gadget leaned over to double-check, tightening things here and there for him.

"Now," Devin yelled over the crashing water, "he'll realize his snout is stuck and he'll try swimming straight to get away!"

"Oh, man," Gadget whistled, "and I guess we go along for the ride!"

With that, the boat gave a tremendous jerk, down and forward, throwing a spray of water around the boat in a massive ring. Gadget's headfur trailed back over her seat, Devin's heart leaping for joy as he saw a combination of shock and pleasant thrill of speed cross his beloved's face. As for himself, his stethoscope was clicking at his neck like a pair of castanets, the fur of his face just as sleeked-back from the rush of the wind as Gadget's was. The boat hopped and skimmed, sometimes skewing to one side or the other as the confused and struggling pike made near-90-degree turns. Gadget howled with laughter until she was hoarse, Devin sputtering as more water kicked up on his side of the boat and gave him a little wake-up splash. To hear that honest, happy laugh from her means the world to me, he thought dizzily, the stars spinning overhead like pinpoints of light from a mirror ball in a discotheque.

The ride calmed down considerably. Gadget sighed regretfully, the way she might have when a roller-coaster car pulled back into the station.

"We tired him out, sweetheart. What a ride, huh?" Devin propped his footpaws up on the steering wheel, which they'd hardly had a chance to use.

"Dang..." Gadget reflected. "Well, the boat makes a lot more sense now. You do this often?"

Devin shook his head and began to wriggle out of his harness. Though he knew it was for good cause, he didn't like seeing Gadget so restrained, so he began to help her out too, the boat gliding along much more slowly now. He imagined the pike swimming in a wide, forlorn circle below, and felt a touch of pity. "The pike can't do this every day. It'd kill him after a while. "

"That was great, Devin, but if it's so hard on him," she put a paw on his arm, "isn't it a little cruel to use him this way?" Her sympathy for the great creature was unquestionable, as her eyes went soft and she hung on Devin's answer.

He took her in his arms and patted her back, running his paws through her headfur more freely than he had dared the day before. "Maybe just a little cruel. But he doesn't come anywhere near the fishing boats any more."

"Because he's afraid he'll get pressed into towing service again," chuckled Gadget. "We've had our fun, Devin. Let's turn him loose."

Devin nodded, reluctantly giving her fur one last gentle stroke for now and turning to the steering wheel. "We’ll point him in the right direction first."

It took both of them to turn the wheel, as the pike resisted being 'told' which way to go. He gave in soon enough, and they had the boat pointed toward the jumble of rocks the fish knew as home. When they were a few boat lengths from the small, barren island, Devin kicked a lever to one side of the periscope. The winch at the base of the 'mast' reeled out a length of cable, and the steering lines went slack as well. There was a moment of silence, then a disturbance under the boat as the pike flipped free of the suddenly loose net.

Gadget leapt to the periscope again and swung it around in time to see the weary old monster drag himself into his underwater cave. "It'll take him a while to recharge his batteries," she said, shaking her head in amusement and sympathy. Huge jets of silt shot out of the cave, swirling in the light of the periscope as the pike went deeper in, obscuring Gadget's view.

Above, Devin noticed Gadget's frown and suddenly felt uneasy. "What's up? Well, in this case, what's down?"

"Looks like our grumpy boat-motor friend is doing some spring cleaning."

"He wants to get as far away from us as he can," Devin offered. "Probably just throwing mud around and hoping we can't see him."

"Maybe," Gadget said uncertainly as she watched the cloudy water start to clear.

Artwork by Keith Elder

She suddenly let out a shriek of real terror, as free from mirth as the ones she'd let out during their wild ride had been full of it. She flung herself back from the eyepiece and sought Devin's solid presence, pointing at the periscope but unable to get any words out. "Devin, oh, Devin--it's--it's horrible, Devin!"

Cupping a paw to her face and feeling the sudden tears of fright there, he calmed her down as best he could and went to take a look.

Looming in the range finder of the periscope was a loose, floppy object in the settling layer of muck the pike had stirred up. Once upon a time, its fur had been a light brown; now it was matted with black lake-mud. Its lab coat had frightened Gadget's the most--mostly because it had once looked something like Devin's. Now it was tattered, and flapped slowly about the body like a shroud.

Devin jumped back from the periscope as if stung, pale and shaky. He sat down and wrapped Gadget up again, and she clutched at his fur. "Devin, are you okay? Just breathe, please, you'll pass out!" Devin nodded. He hadn't realized how long it'd been since he had taken a breath. He sucked in two good lungfuls of air, then held her shoulders gently but firmly.

"I know who that is, Gadget. And we've got to go wake a bunch of people up."

She nodded, brushing her tears away and going into survival mode again. Devin felt her muscles bunch up and harden under her fur, and heard steel in her voice. "Yes," she said. "Right now."

Button images by Keith Elder