|With A Little Help From My Friends
Author: Arashi'sBanjo PM
POTA TV Series. Urko mysteriously coerces one of his lieutenants to participate in his favorite pastime. Meanwhile, Virdon, Galen and Burke just happen to be in the neighborhood…Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Mystery - Chapters: 2 - Words: 61,230 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 1 - Published: 11-30-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7598332
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: Planet of the Apes is owned by 20th Century Fox, Pierre Boulle and anyone else who owns the rights.
Author's notes: This story was written purely for entertainment purposes only, and should not in any way be taken too seriously! The only profit I hope to gain is the reader's enjoyment. Any misspellings, grammatical errors and plot clichés are clearly the fault of this author and her beta readers.
Warning: Mild species epithets! (Apes insulting humans with slurs.)
Arashi the Banjo Cat.
With A Little Help From My Friends
One pleasant, early autumn afternoon, two patrol gorillas leisurely trotted their black mounts down a peaceful country road.
"I can't believe Xuke will be starting high school this year!" The first gorilla said to the other one. "In four years he'll be attending the Military Academy!" He whistled in disbelief. "Where has the time gone?"
"I know what you mean," the other gorilla answered. "It seems like only yesterday when I held my newborn daughter for the first time! Now she's engaged to be married next spring!"
The first patrol ape reined his horse to a sudden stop. "Listen! I hear a horse coming!"
The second ape halted his horse, and then motioned the first ape to follow him. Both gorillas rode off the road and waited-anxious to see the identity of the fast approaching rider. The simian pair squinted from the glare of the bright afternoon sun. As the mounted rider rapidly passed by, the apes stared in astonishment.
"It's that human again!" cried the second ape.
"After him!" yelled the first ape.
The gorillas spurred their horses into action and the chase was on!
The rider, a brown-haired teenaged boy, saw he was being pursued. He urged his brown steed to run faster. The horse obeyed, pounding the dirt in a sudden burst of speed. The gorillas pressed their mounts as well, but the distance between them and the human quickly widened. The boy was too far gone to try to catch, and the gorillas reined their horses back to a trot and gave up the pursuit.
"Blast! He got away again!" the second ape exclaimed.
"Don't worry! We'll catch him!" the first ape said assuredly. "Urko's camp is right up the road, so that human won't get too far!"
Once the boy realized he had left his pursers remotely behind, he slowed up his mount, cautiously approaching Urko's camp in a trot. The teenager jogged the horse past scattered groups of gorillas involved in various tasks. All activity in the camp ceased immediately, with every simian eye on the human as he rode by. When the boy saluted, a few apes chuckled in response, while most of them scowled in annoyance.
"How about that?" one gorilla loudly chortled. "Perdix actually taught his hairless-monkey how to salute!" His fellow gorillas within earshot laughed, then merrily added their own crude remarks.
The boy spotted an imposing white tent in the middle of the camp, the goal of his destination. He dismounted; straightening his black tunic, double-checking to ensure the bright red embroidered ape's head was centered perfectly on his chest. He pulled a cumbersome burlap tote from the saddle and slung it over his shoulder. One of the two guards outside of the large tent briefly disappeared inside, but seconds later, reappeared. He approached the young human and took his horse by the reins.
"Go on in," he told the boy. "Urko's waiting for you. I'll see to your horse."
"Thank…you, sir," the boy nodded, then snapped at attention and saluted the guard. The guard frowned irritably, waving the boy away.
The lad stepped inside and felt a foreboding atmosphere within. Urko, the Chief of Security, sat hunched over his crowded table, busily sifting through a pile of scrolls, while his sergeant stood mutely by.
After the boy saluted, the gorilla commander acknowledged the kid by motioning him to come closer.
"Well, if it isn't Perdix's hairless delivery monkey!" he said disdainfully at the teenager.
The boy drew from his bag, a paper-wrapped, oblong item. Bowing timidly, he presented it to Urko.
Urko impatiently opened the package and held the steaming loaf of bread up to the sergeant, allowing him a whiff. "Ah, Vinson," he drawled, "have you ever smelled bread this heavenly? Pay the boy, Vinson." He broke off a piece of bread and handed it to his sergeant, then tore himself off a slice.
Vinson greedily devoured the bread, then reached into one of his pockets and dropped a couple of coins in the boy's palm.
After he finished savoring the tasty morsel, the Security Chief's left hand grabbed an ink pen and quickly wrote on a blank sheet of paper. He rolled the paper and placed it in an empty cylinder. "Here, boy. Take this order back to your master's wife."
"Y-yes, sir." The teenager saluted once more then turned to leave. He almost reached the tent's entrance when Urko's shout stopped him cold.
"Hey!" he snapped. "I didn't dismiss you yet! Come back here."
The kid turned, his feet caught in fear's frozen grip.
"Damn it, boy, come here!" Urko growled impatiently. "I'm not going to hurt you! I just want to talk to you for a minute! You act as if I'm going to shoot you!"
"If you don't get your mongrel-butt over here," Vinson sternly warned the boy, "he will shoot you!"
"I don't need your assistance to handle the boy, Vinson!" Urko hollered irritably.
"Yes, sir," came the sergeant's meek reply.
The boy bounded over to the ape commander's side, and lowered his head in submission.
Urko eyed the boy suspiciously. "Perdix taught you how to ride, didn't he?"
"Y-yes, s-sir," the boy nodded, keeping his eyes to the ground.
Urko yanked the youngster's chin upward with rough fingers. Peering into a pair of scared brown eyes, he barked, "Look at me when I talk to you!"
"Y-yes, s-sir!" the boy trembled as fear rippled through his stomach.
Reaching over his desk, the simian commandant snatched a particular scroll and slapped it in the youngster's palm. "Here! Take this message back to your master. I want you to deliver it to him personally, because it's very important he receives it. You understand, boy?"
The youth's head vigorously nodded. "Y-yes, sir," he stammered. "I-I'll make s-sure he-he gets it, s-sir! I'll…I'll put it-it in his hand…myself, sir!"
"Good. That is all. You're dismissed."
"Y-yes sir." The boy securely tucked the scroll into his gunnysack, saluted Urko one last time, then hurriedly left the tent.
The guard, attending the youth's horse, handed the reins over to the boy, whom respectfully saluted him in return.
"There you are!" called a voice, accompanied by heavy hoof beats.
The boy looked up and spotted his two mounted pursers trotting towards him.
"Well, boy, looks like you've done it again!" The first ape said unhappily. "You've managed to outrun us once more! We couldn't have caught you, even if we had a ten foot pole with a noose on the end!" His aggravated tone turned into one of mutual respect. "Perdix was right about the spotted horse," he told his mounted comrade. "He's perfect for this task!"
"That's because no ape in his right mind would ride such a damned ugly nag in the first place!" one of Urko's soldiers cut in tauntingly. "Look at him! His mane and tail are ratty, he's scrawny-looking, and he looks like he's wearing an ink-stained blanket on his butt!" He wildly gestured at the boy and horse. "Yeah, tell Perdix they're perfect for each other!" His comment stirred a howl of laughter from his fellow troopers.
"He may be one damned ugly nag," the second rider agreed with a laugh, "but he runs like the wind! And that's what's important to Perdix! You both did real good, boy…for a couple of butt-ugly pack mules!" he smirked delightfully. "Perdix and his wife will be so pleased, they might even give you two lumps of sugar! What do you think about that, boy?"
As the youth stared at the ground in crestfallen silence, his horse stirred up the dirt with an eager fore hoof. Prodding his rider with his nose, he whinnied loudly as if to say, 'Hurry up and get on! Time's a-wasting! Let's go!'
All the apes chuckled hilariously.
"You'd better get going, boy!" the second rider wryly dismissed the lad. "Your horse is in a big hurry to get back! If he leaves without you, he just might get your share of the reward!"
"Yes, sir," the boy mumbled with a half-hearted saluted. He climbed aboard his unique colored mount, and the pair cantered back through the camp. The sight of the open road excited the horse, causing him to nervously stamp his hooves and toss his head. The boy calmed the animal, then lightly nudged him into a full gallop. The speckled russet horse needed no urging. He ran-not because he had to, but because he wanted to! He ran like a whirlwind. He was a whirlwind!
Alan Virdon, Galen, and Pete Burke stood on the sandy road overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as it was known during the astronauts' time. Virdon led the way, followed by Galen, with Burke bringing up the rear.
Burke inhaled the cool afternoon breeze, while enjoying the feel of the wind rustling through his dark hair. He took a quick glance around, then noted uneasily, "Hey, Alan, this place looks very familiar. Do you have any idea of where we are?"
"Yeah, we're near Sandy Point," Virdon replied, gazing melancholically at the ocean's horizon.
Burke's dark eyes smoldered. "You brought us back here to Dragoon country?" he cried. "Are you crazy? Why?"
"I thought it would be nice to visit Fauna and Sestus again," Virdon said attempting to calm Pete's temper. "We haven't seen them in three years. Besides, we had to come this way to keep Urko and his men confused. He's keeping track of our movements through a series of sightings and reports. He's trying to predict where we're going so he can catch us!" He looked at Galen. "According to your third cousin, George, Urko believes we've headed east, so we'll go west. Hopefully, we've bought us enough time to keep a few days ahead of him, before he realizes he's on another wild goose chase."
Galen smirked at the thought of Urko chasing wild geese. Another reassuring notion quickly replaced it. "I'm sure things are quieter here, now the Dragoons are gone," he commented.
"I don't know," Virdon said doubtfully. "Just because Zon is in prison doesn't mean the end of the Dragoons. This whole thing could start right up again, if the circumstance is right. We've seen this sort of
thing happen again and again back in our time."
"Maybe not," Galen answered confidently. "Zon's followers turned against him when they learned the truth of how Lucian died."
"Yeah, but what if another ape dies and the humans get blamed again?" Burke asked worriedly. "What's to stop another ape from picking up Zon's torch and carrying on?"
Galen sighed. "I suppose we'll have to help Perdix capture that ape, too. I hope he's still the police chief here. He's one of the few decent gorillas we've met since Kava, Zako and Joppa."
"Yeah, he was decent enough," Burke stated dryly. "But I really have no desire to see him again! I didn't care too much for his hospitality!"
"Me neither!" Virdon agreed. "Come on. Let's try to find Sestus and Fauna's place. I'm sure they'll let us stay a couple of days, in exchange for a few chores to pay for our room and board." He switched his backpack from one shoulder to the other, then continued to lead the way to Sestus and Fauna's home.
Lieutenant Perdix sat behind his desk, staring disappointedly at his visiting commander. "But sir," he complained. "This is the third time you've denied my request! All I am asking for are five additional police officers!"
Urko smiled civilly. "I understand your concerns, Perdix, but you have to understand my position as well. I've reviewed your logbooks-again-as well as Prefect Mikko's reports from the past year, and I still haven't found any legitimate grounds to grant the additional personnel you keep requesting. If this were Central City, I could understand your need for more gorillas." He gestured at the neatly stacked reports and the log books on Perdix's desk. "As I see it, most of your reported cases are internal human and ape problems; thefts, disorderly conduct, and so forth. Your garrison doesn't seem to have a problem dealing with them, so why the need for additional gorillas?"
Perdix rankled at Urko's indifference. "That's not why I keep requesting additional gorillas! I need more police to deal with the Dragoons!"
"The Dragoons?" Urko asked unconcerned. "I thought you stopped them, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did!" Perdix uttered in vexation. "But I could've used some extra hands to help me catch them! Besides, I had to put half of my force on suspension for six months because they were Dragoons! I'm worried there's another overzealous ape out there, who's just itching for an opportunity to pick up and carry on where Zon left off! I don't want to get caught shorthanded again; especially if I have to deal with another group of vigilante yahoos who feel they need to take the law into their own hands!"
Urko shrugged. "Well, you haven't had any major trouble since, have you? Human or ape?"
"No," Perdix answered sullenly. "We haven't had anymore trouble since the Dragoons. Not yet, anyway." He made one more appeal to gain Urko's support. "But sir, what about those three wanted fugitives that are running around loose out there? What if they suddenly show up here?"
The Chief of Security cackled. "You can't be serious, Perdix! You, who single handedly captured the Dragoons, can't handle three wanted fugitives?"
Apparently, you can't handle them either, Perdix silently fumed, or you would have caught them yourself by now!
"All right, Perdix," Urko said in concession, aiming to appease his irked lieutenant. "I'll give your request some further consideration, but I highly doubt that I'll change my mind on the matter."
"Thank you, sir," the garrison commander replied half-heartedly. "About your message, you also wanted to see me about the boy?"
"Yes," Urko nodded. "That was the main reason why I'm here."
Perdix braced himself for another intense disagreement. "I know you're not at all happy about the boy, but Zaius and the High Council did give me permission to use him as my courier."
"But only on a trial basis, Perdix," Urko gladly reminded him.
"Yes, which, by the way, ties into my request for additional officers. Since my request keeps being denied, I've had no choice but to adapt and improvise. With Drexel reassigned to other duties, I thought Nicky could handle the courier job as well as any ape." Perdix continued proudly. "And, I am happy to report, not only has the boy worked out better than I expected, but it is one less position to fill, and one less gorilla to pay!" He picked up a piece of paper and handed it to Urko. "I received this letter from Zaius, stating how pleased he is on the job I've done with Nicky. He wants to send an envoy here sometime soon to observe the boy for himself."
Urko sourly glanced at the letter, then tossed it back on Perdix's desk. "Yes, maybe Zaius can see the advantage of using a hairless-monkey as a courier, but I'm still not entirely convinced!" He gazed hard at his lieutenant and firmly asked, "Can you honesty say you fully trust this human, Perdix?"
Perdix returned the intense unyielding stare. "Yes, Urko, I do trust him! Nicky is very loyal and obedient. He has proven himself a worthy asset to the garrison, and to my wife's bakery. Are you trying to get his riding privileges revoked, sir? Is that why you're here?"
Urko shook his head. "No, Perdix, I'm not trying to revoke the boy's riding privileges! If I had the power, believe me, I would! But unfortunately, that issue is a done deal. The Council voted, and there's nothing I can do about it anyhow." A hopeful grin slowly curled upon Urko's lips. "Unless… the boy disobeyed you, then he can be publicly executed for insubordination!" He snickered as he savored the thought of being the one who pulled the trigger! He allowed himself a few more seconds to relish the idea, then returned the conversation on the real purpose of his dropping by. "Actually, the reason why I'm here is because I have a proposition for you, Perdix. I want to race my best horse, Tusan, against your spotted horse."
Total surprise filled Perdix's face. "Sir? Did I just hear you right? You want to race your horse against my horse?"
"Yes, that's right. A horse race, between your horse and mine."
"What?" Perdix replied amusingly. "Are you serious, sir? Is this a joke?"
Urko stared back with unblinking steely eyes. "No, it's not a joke. I am serious! I'm challenging your horse to a race against my horse!"
"I don't understand, sir. Why would you want to challenge me to a race?" Perdix inquired curiously. "I'm not a prefect! I don't even own any racehorses!" He peered at Urko as if he had lost his mind! "Quando's not a racehorse, he's just a courier horse!"
Urko chuckled jovially. "Your horse may only be a courier horse, but he's still fast. He has to be if he's delivering messages, mail, and the occasional baked goods for your wife. Come on, Perdix, I'm just proposing a friendly little contest! It's the end of racing season, and our race wouldn't be an official race, like if I were racing one of the prefects. Besides, I have a reason for this race."
Perdix raised an eyebrow. "Which is?"
"You remember that race I had in Venton against Barlow three years ago, don't you?"
"I didn't see it, but I heard about it. Why?"
Urko leaned casually back in his chair in front of Perdix's desk. "Well, after I saw how good a rider that criminal Virdon was, I thought maybe we should start using human jockeys instead. Since injuries and death are a risky part of racing, I think that human jockeys will save the lives of my apes."
Perdix leaned forward on his elbows and propped his chin on his interlocking hands. "Go on."
"Kagen-my best rider-took a nasty spill off of Tusan and lost the race against your district prefect, Mikko, last month," said Urko. "Thank goodness, it was only a few bruises and a broken leg, but it would be an unfortunate and tragic situation, if one of my gorillas ended up seriously injured or killed during a race. But if a human was injured or killed, it wouldn't be a big loss. We'll just get another one to replace him! I've already discussed this with Zaius and the Council, and they've agreed that we can use human jockeys on a trail basis. We can start training them for next season."
Perdix settled back in his chair. "So actually this race, since it's not an official race, is nothing more than an experiment to see if human jockeys would be practical?"
"Yes," the ape commander-in-chief eagerly replied. "And since this is still a race, though not officially a race, I'm willing to wager five hundred notes. And, as a gesture of my generosity, I'm even willing to grant you the additional gorillas you've been requesting, that is-if you win."
Perdix eyed Urko mistrustfully. "And if I lose?"
"If you lose, your winery belongs to me," Urko simply said.
The garrison commander's mouth dropped. "My winery? No! Out of the question!" he cried. "That winery has been in my family for three generations! My grandfather founded that winery!" Perdix shot from his chair. "I'm sorry, sir, but I object! This isn't a race!" he exclaimed in appall. "This is a sham-and I want no part of this! It's not fair to run my horse, and the boy, in a race where they're clearly outmatched!"
Urko slowly and precariously rose from his seat. Leaning forward on Perdix's desk, he declared forbiddingly, "I'm not requesting you to race me against me, Perdix; I'm ordering you to race against me!"
Perdix meekly lowered his eyes. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. Forgive me for my outburst. It was rash and inexcusable, sir."
"And since you called this race a sham," the ape commander intoned, "you're lucky I haven't had you thrown in the brig for insubordination! If you refuse, Perdix, I'll have you demoted, or, have you transferred to Dorvado! The choice is yours, Lieutenant!"
Perdix's head sharply raised. "What? For refusing to race against you in an unofficial race?" he uttered incredulously. "But, sir-!" he started to protest, then stopped. Any further dispute would result in immediate disciplinary action. All the ape lieutenant could do was stare at his feet in suppressed anger. This isn't a friendly little contest, he thought disgustedly, this is a racketeering operation! "I might as well just give you my winery, sir!" he grumbled weakly. "Your horse is going to win, anyway!"
"I've already lost three races, so…maybe," Urko shrugged again, "…maybe not." His demeanor turned upbeat. "Aw, come on, Perdix! Don't have such a negative attitude! I'm the one who should be worried! You already have a human jockey, so you have the advantage! We'll race in two weeks. That should give you enough time to prepare your human and horse for the race. I should have a human jockey trained and ready by then."
Perdix regarded his commander with cold, fixed eyes. "All right, Urko!" he said sharply. "Fine, we'll race!"
"Excellent! I'm pleased that you so graciously accepted my invitation, Perdix!" Urko cooed with greasy delight. "It'll be a great pleasure, and I'm really looking forward to this! I'll contact you later with all the details." As he swaggered out of the office, a smug grin curved upon his muzzle. Yes, the Chief of Security was certainly going to enjoy this day at the races-immensely!
The peaceful country road had separated from the ocean, and wound its way around the base of a small hillside. Galen, Virdon and Burke had stopped for a brief rest, hiding in a thicket just off the side of the road.
"I think Sestus and Fauna's place is a little further than we remembered," Burke said tiredly. "Are you sure we're near Sandy Point?"
"We have to be," Virdon insisted, as he swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. "I remember the road cutting around this hillside, then ending up back by the ocean. And that's where Sandy Poi-"
The three friends were on their feet in an instant.
"Did you hear that?" Burke whispered.
"Yes, it sounded just like a goat, or a sheep," Galen answered in a hushed voice.
"More precisely, a lamb," Virdon said, as the three of them glanced about.
"There it is again," said Galen. "There must be sheep farm close by."
"Either that, or Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep," Burke noted lightly.
"Who's Little Bo-?" Galen started to ask. Before he could finish the question, Virdon and Burke ambled off in the direction of the bleating. Shrugging, Galen followed his friends.
Sure enough, just as Virdon had indicated, the fugitive trio saw a motherless lamb wandering nearby.
"It looks like it's only a few weeks old," whispered Virdon. "Let's see if we can try to catch it before a coyote gets to it first." He knelt on the ground and removed his backpack. Reaching inside, he pulled out a coiled rope and formed a loop on the end. Stooping, the blond man slowly stalked the lamb. He held out the noose, ready to catch the animal at the right moment. "Here, little fellow," purred Virdon, coaxing it to come to him. The lamb staggered around in a circle, calling for its mother, but no attempt to run. "Easy boy," whispered Virdon, as he inched closer. With a quick fling, the lariat snared the lamb by its neck. "Got him!" cried Virdon. The lamb fiercely shook its head and pulled in vain to free itself. Its frenzied kicking and bleating intensified as Virdon picked it up. "Easy now, easy!" He began caressing the frightened animal to calm it down.
"Now that we have him, what are we going to do with him?" asked Burke.
"Her," said Virdon.
"Her?" chorused Galen and Burke.
"Yes, he's a her."
Galen's horrified stare bounced between Virdon and Burke. "You're not going to kill her and eat her, are you?" he asked with revulsion. He had unpleasantly witnessed his two friends trap, cook and eat small game before.
"No, Galen!" snapped Virdon. He took offense that Galen thought he and Burke would do such a thing! "We're going to find out where she came from and take her back! It's the right thing to do!"
"And the only thing to do, Galen," Burke added, "because Alan and I don't really care for lamb chop-"
"What are you doing with that lamb? You put her down right now!"
A shepherd boy, no more than a decade and a half old, with black, shoulder-length hair, stood before the trio, in a crouched position. He gripped his staff as a weapon, ready for a fight! When the boy realized Galen was an ape, he instantly tossed aside his rod and dropped to the ground at the chimp's feet. "I'm so sorry, sir!" he whimpered. "Please, don't kill me, sir! Take the lamb, she's yours, but please, don't kill me!" the boy begged pitifully. "I'm sorry I offended you, sir! Please, take the lamb! She's yours!"
Galen knelt down and took the lad by his shoulders. "Calm down, now! Take it easy!" he said soothingly. He helped the boy to his feet. "I'm not going to kill you! Come on, standup!"
"Are you going to have your slaves kill me?" the shepherd asked fearfully.
"Heavens, no!" Galen exclaimed. "They're not my slaves! They're my friends, and they aren't going to kill you either!"
The young sheepherder gazed timidly up at Galen. "You're not? But you wanted the lamb and I tried to stop you! You deserve to kill me! A human is always killed for being disrespectful to an ape!"
"We're not going to kill you!" the ape reassured him. "And we certainly don't want your lamb! My friends and I found her lost here in the bushes. We're just trying to get her safely home."
"We didn't want the coyotes or the mountain lions to get her," added Virdon, handing the lamb's tether to the boy.
"You don't want the lamb for meat?" the shepherd asked in confusion.
Burke grimaced as he held up his hands. "Thanks, but no thanks! None of us really care for mutton!"
The shepherd boy picked up his staff and bowed deeply. "Thank you, sirs! Thank you, thank you!" he repeated graciously. "Thank you for sparing my life, and the lamb, too! Won't you come and have dinner with us? I want Papa, Mama, and my sisters to meet the ones who granted me mercy! Won't you honor our humble home with your presence? Please?" He gazed at the three friends expectantly. "My name is Lowell."
Galen held out his paw with a smile. "Pleased to meet you, Lowell. I'm Phoebus, and these are my friends, Alar and Pargo. We would be glad to have dinner at your house."
Virdon shook Lowell's hand. "It'll be a pleasure to meet your father, Lowell," he said amiably. "What's your father's name, son?"
"His name is Ricco, sir," the boy simply replied.
A stunned look covered Galen's face. He wobbled on his feet, and the two men rushed to steady him.
"Are you all right, sir?" Lowell asked concerned. "Is something wrong?"
"Oh, no," Galen stammered weakly, still supported by the astronauts. "It-it's just that-that I was surprised to hear that your father is Ricco! I-I've heard so much about him! I've been told his sheep produce the finest wool ever made! It will be an honor to finally meet him!"
"Thank you, sir. I'll take you to him now. This way, sirs." Lowell gently tugged on the rope, and the lamb followed him out of the thicket and up the hillside.
Once Lowell was out of earshot, Virdon softly asked, "Galen, what's wrong?"
"You're as green as grass!" Burke whispered uneasily.
"I am!" Galen exhaled noisily. "Do you remember me telling you about Ricco?"
Burke's face suddenly paled. "Wasn't he the one who almost became the Dragoons' next victim?"
Galen nodded. "Yes! Oh, Alan! Pete! You just don't know how close Ricco and his family came to being the Dragoons' next victims!"
"Thank God you were at that meeting that night!" Virdon said ominously.
Galen closed his eyes, attempting to erase the unpleasant memory from his mind. "Please, don't remind me!"
Lowell turned and called worriedly, "Are you sure you're all right, Phoebus, sir?"
"Oh, yes, Lowell, I'm all right." Galen became his cheerful self again. "I just had to catch my breath, that's all. But I'm fine now, thank you."
"Good, good!" The youth said happily. "Do you like black-eyed peas and potatoes, with biscuits, sirs? That's what Mama and my sisters are cooking for dinner."
Galen instantly perked up at the prospect of a good vegetarian meal. "That sounds delightful!" he said keenly. "My friends and I can't wait!"
"Yes," Virdon agreed. "We're mighty hungry, and potatoes, black-eyed peas and biscuits sound really delicious!"
"What are we waiting for? Let's go!" urged Burke as he grabbed his backpack. "Lead the way, young shepherd!"
A wide smile spread on Lowell's face as he merrily led his lamb and his three new friends home.
Virdon, Burke and Galen trudged up the steep hill's side, struggling to keep up with the nimble shepherd boy. When they finally reached the top, the three friends were highly relieved to encounter a dense forest on level ground.
"How much further is your house, Lowell?" Virdon asked wearily.
"Not much, sir," Lowell replied pleasantly. "It's just through the woods."
Virdon estimated the trek through the trees to be an additional three to five miles. Since the thick forest provided protective cover, it made the hike a little less hazardous.
Burke pointed at the wide band of soft glowing light that parted the trees ahead. "I think that's our light at the end of the tunnel!"
The sound of bleating sheep caused Lowell to stop abruptly and scoop the lamb up in his arms. With a toss of his head, he gestured at the modest farm nestled within a picturesque meadow, spread out before them. "There it is, sirs. My home," he told them. He gazed expectantly at Galen. "With your permission, sir, may I return the lamb to her ewe first? Then I'll take you to meet my family."
Galen kindly nodded. "Of course you may, my young friend. We'll just follow along."
Lowell glanced uneasily between the two men and the chimpanzee. "Forgive me, sirs, but I think it's best for you to wait for me here. If Old Brogan sees you, he might attack you!"
Galen, Burke and Virdon exchanged curious looks.
"Who's Old Brogan?" asked Burke.
"He's the herd's alpha ram," Lowell replied. "Old Brogan has always been protective of the ewes. Now that rutting season is upon us, he's really aggressive! Three days ago, Papa was filling the feeding troughs when Old Brogan suddenly charged! Luckily, Papa saw him coming and he was able to fend him off with his rod." The youth smiled assuredly. "Don't worry, sirs. I can handle Old Brogan! If he tries to attack me, I'll strike him across his nose with this!" Lowell tightened his grip on his shepherd's staff to emphasize his point.
"I'll come along, just in case," Virdon offered. "It's all right, Lowell. I've had some experience with sheep before," he continued, before Lowell had a chance to reply. "We had some sheep on our farm when I was about your age, so I know how to handle those ornery rams."
"Well…" Lowell threw Virdon a hesitant look, then glanced about the field. "All right, sir." With his staff, he pointed at one particularly large ram grazing alone at the far side of the meadow. "That's him. That's Old Brogan." He handed Virdon his herding stick. "Be careful, sir. Old Brogan is very strong, and very unpredictable. It depends on what kind of mood he's in. Some days, he'll leave us alone. Other days, he's watching us, as if he feels we're some sort of threat to the herd."
"Talk about biting the hand that feeds you," Burke noted lightly.
"Oh, yes, he's done that before, too," Lowell replied solemnly.
"No," Burke said with a smile. "What I meant was, after all you've done for him and the flock; caring for and protecting them, that's how he repays you-by attacking you! 'Biting the hand that feeds you' is an old saying where I come from."
"Biting the hand that feeds you," Lowell recited thoughtfully. "Yeah, that's Old Brogan, all right! I'll have to remember to tell Papa about that." Tightening his hold on the already squirming lamb, the shepherd boy motioned the blond astronaut to follow him. Galen and Burke watched in wonderment as Lowell picked his way through the grazing identical-looking sheep to find the right ewe. Virdon followed behind, guarding Lowell's back, in case the cantankerous ram decided to charge. After reuniting the lamb with her mother, Lowell and Virdon hastily returned for Galen and Burke. Old Brogan, meanwhile, still busily browsed on the other side of the grassland; either ignoring, or unaware of the activity taking place.
"Lowell!" called a voice behind them.
Lowell and his three friends whirled in time to see a middle-aged lanky man carrying a shepherd's staff emerge from the forest.
"Papa!" Lowell excitedly trotted up to meet his father. "Papa, we've found her! We found the lamb and returned her to her mother."
"That's good, son. I'm glad to hear that." The man studied the fugitive trio with intense brown eyes. "Lowell, who are these people? You've brought strangers here!" he said suspiciously. "And one of them is an ape!"
"They're not strangers, Papa. They're my friends," Lowell replied. "They helped me find the lamb and bring her home. This is Phoebus, Alar and Pargo."
"You must be Ricco," Galen said pleasantly, extending his paw. "It's a pleasure to meet you! How do you do?" And Galen sincerely was pleased to meet the man whom almost met his demise by the Dragoons' hand!
The seasoned sheepherder instantly recoiled at the chimpanzee's hand, then slowly and tentatively accepted the ape's greeting. "I'm-I'm fine, thank you, sir." Just as quickly, he released Galen's hand, and protectively pulled Lowell to his side. Who are you? Where do you come from? Why are you here? And what are your intentions? These, and a dozen more unpleasant questions rambled in his mind…
Sensing the man's fearful presumptions, Galen gently spoke, "We are strangers, but we mean you no harm. My friends and I are travelers. We happened to be resting by the road, when we saw your lamb running around loose. We didn't want her to get killed and eaten by some predator."
"Then…you're not going to kill us and take our lamb?" Ricco asked cautiously.
"No, of course not," Virdon added warmly. "Lowell thought the same thing, but believe me, stealing your lamb is the furthest thing from our minds. We don't have any reason to steal your lamb. As you can see, Phoebus doesn't eat meat. And Pargo and I don't really like lamb."
"They're telling the truth, Papa!" Lowell insisted. "They helped me find the lamb, and I wanted to thank them by inviting them home for dinner."
Ricco's face turned pallid in dismay. "You've invited them home for dinner?" he sputtered in a panic.
"Yes, Papa." Lowell cast his father a concerned look. "Is something wrong, sir?"
"No, son." Ricco smiled fondly, despite his forlorn mood. "No, son, it's only right to repay your friends for their kindness, but sadly, we're just poor shepherds. Your friends might not appreciate our-our meager offering." He raked a nervous hand through his shaggy black hair, worrying about this predicament Lowell had unintentionally brought upon them. Turing to the fugitives, he implored, "Please, sirs, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid our food sources here are very limited and not at all like the rich food you're accustomed to in the big cities. I hope you don't take offense at our humble meal, but biscuits, black-eyed peas, and potatoes are all we have to offer you."
Galen placed a reassuring palm on Ricco's shoulder. "Why, we're not offended at all, my good man! Not at all! It's been awhile since we've had a good home-cooked meal, and we're looking forward to this!"
"And we really appreciate the offer, too. Thanks, Ricco, Lowell," Virdon chimed in, as Burke echoed his sentiments.
Ricco's farm consisted of a crude four-room cabin, with a barn which appeared to be constructed from wood scraps and logs. As Ricco introduced his family to the runaway trio, Lowell busily sat three more place settings at the table. Meanwhile, Ricco's wife Emmylou, and teen daughters Meredith and Patrina, remained fearfully huddled by the fireplace.
Emmylou reluctantly separated herself from Meredith and Patrina. Sweeping an inviting hand at the table, she nervously stuttered, "Please, sit-sit down. As-as soon as the biscuits are done, dinner will be ready."
"It smells delicious, ma'am," Virdon noted hungrily.
"Thank you," Emmylou quietly replied as she turned her attention to the huge bubbling pots on the glowing hearth. She began ladling steaming vegetables on wooden plates. Meredith took the filled plates and served their unusual guests, while Patrina retrieved the hot biscuits and sat them in the center of the table. Galen, Virdon and Burke waited for their hosts to serve themselves before they began eating.
"You remind me so much of Lucian, Phoebus," Lowell told Galen. "He was a friend who used to come around every two weeks to visit us. He was always helping us with the sheep-" the boy's head bowed and his voice broke off sorrowfully, "but not anymore."
"I know," Galen said, placing a sympathetic hand on Lowell's arm. "We heard what happened to Lucian, and we're very sorry, Lowell." His expression turned distasteful. "It's disgusting how many innocent humans ended up hurt or dead, and all because of a vicious lie!" he said bitterly. "It almost makes me ashamed to be an ape!"
"Well, let's not forget," Virdon reminded Galen, "Lucian's daughter, Fauna, suffered, too."
Ricco nodded in sad accordance. "We're just glad Perdix was able to catch those really responsible for Lucian's death, and for stopping those terrible Dragoons," he said contentedly. "He promised the Dragoons would be punished for what they've done."
Emmylou added joyfully, "When Perdix came and told us the news, we were so grateful we insisted he stay for dinner."
"I hope he accepted!" Burke said as he eagerly reached for another biscuit. "If he didn't, he doesn't know what he's missing! This is good! Especially the biscuits!"
"Thank you," Emmylou smiled coyly. "I'm glad everyone's enjoying it."
"Perdix didn't have time to join us for dinner," Ricco stated, "but he did accept a slice of Emmylou's apple cake." He winked playfully at Emmylou, whose cheeks instantly resembled a pair of the red fruit. He suddenly rose and sauntered by the window. Pulling aside the old faded cloth that served as a curtain, the shepherd quickly peeked outside. "You will stay the night, won't you?" he asked hopefully. "It'll be dark soon and it's not safe to be outside after dark. There are wild animals that prowl the night, looking for prey. They've been known to attack both humans and apes." He gestured at the sitting room area. "You can sleep here, inside, where it's safe. We can make some pallets with pillows and blankets, so you can sleep by the fireplace in case it gets chilly."
"That's very kind of you, Ricco," Virdon gladly accepted the offer. "Thank you very much."
"It's my turn to take the first watch, so Phoebus can have my bed tonight, Papa," Lowell quickly suggested.
"First watch?" the fugitive trio chorused suspiciously. "First watch for what?" An image of the Dragoons racing toward the farm, with torches alit, suddenly filled their minds!
"The flock," said Lowell. "Papa, my sisters and I take turns watching the flock during the night. As Papa said, there's wild animals that hunt at night. So far, we've been very lucky. We've only lost three sheep this year to coyotes and mountain lions."
"Maybe I should come with you," said Virdon worriedly. "Especially if there's bears and wolves out there."
"You can come along if you like, but you don't have to, Alar," said Lowell. "I'll only be guarding the sheep for a couple of hours, then Papa and my sisters will come and take over for the rest of the night." The lad smiled assuredly to ease Virdon's concerns. "It's all right, Alar, I'll be fine. This is how we guard the sheep at night,"
"We appreciate your concern, Alar," Ricco added with a hint of umbrage, "but don't worry about Lowell! I would never put my children in any danger! They always come for me at the first sign of trouble."
"I'm sorry," Virdon apologized awkwardly. "I didn't mean to be disrespectful. It's just that I, too, have a son. I guess I'm just being a concerned parent."
"No need to apologize, I understand." Ricco cupped a welcomed hand on Virdon's shoulder. "In the near future, hopefully it won't be so difficult to guard the sheep at night. My brother's sheep dog had puppies last year, and he's giving us two of them, so it'll be easier to guard the flock both day and night. And the dogs can help herd the flock between the spring and winter grazing grounds."
Virdon's face quickly brightened at this unexpected announcement. "That's wonderful, Ricco! When are you getting the dogs?"
"Next month," Ricco answered. "Palo should have them fully trained by them."
Burke nudged Lowell teasingly. "Just make sure your uncle gives you some dogs that can handle Old Brogan!"
"If these dogs are like their sire, Vargas, they'll be able to handle anything!" laughed Lowell. "Uncle Palo's flock has an alpha ram that's bigger and meaner than Old Brogan!"
As Patrina and Meredith cleaned up after dinner, Emmylou began lighting candled sconces, an indication that evening had arrived.
"In the morning, the girls and I will have breakfast ready for you," she said.
"Thank you very much," Galen gladly said. His brow then furrowed in trepidation. "You're not by any chance serving lamb, are you?"
"Lamb? Oh, no, sir, never! Turkey, rabbit and squirrel, yes, when we can catch them. But lamb? No," Emmylou truthfully answered. She smiled soothingly at Galen. "It's all right, sir. We're having dried fruit fritters and porridge for breakfast tomorrow." Her guarantee of a meatless morning meal satisfied the chimpanzee; but her next statement completely stunned the three friends. "We really don't eat lamb anyway, because we can't afford it."
"What?" asked Burke curiously. "You can't afford to eat lamb? How's that, when you have a whole flock of mutton out there?"
"You see, wool is our livelihood," Ricco explained. "Shearing season is only once a year and we need every available animal to produce as much wool as possible. Wool is very valuable to us, and we use it to barter for food, clothes and supplies. That's why we can't afford to sacrifice even one animal for meat." Ricco stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Besides, I'm a coward when it comes to slaughtering livestock. I just can't do it!" he admitted. "Even when I'm forced to put down an old or sick animal, I have to gather all my strength just to go through with it!" He paused, gazing at his guests with melancholy eyes. "You must think I'm crazy, feeling this way about a flock of sheep!"
"No, not really," Virdon readily agreed. "It's no different than having the same feelings for a dog or a cat, or even a cow."
Ricco and Emmylou helped the astronauts and Lowell bed down by the fireplace. Galen had made himself at home in Lowell's bed, while Virdon decided to join the shepherd boy on his watch under the cool, star-filled ebony skies. After the chores were finished, and the candles snuffed out, the humble four-roomed cabin had finally settled down for the night.
The early fall morning had brought two mounted strangers, a young male ape and a juvenile human female, to the village of Thalassa. As the odd pair leisurely trotted down the main dirt throughway, they found themselves the center of every bystander's attention. The girl, atop a bay molly mule, was clearly on edge, while her simian master seemed unconcerned over the growing interest the two were garnering.
The ape reined his palomino to a stop in front of the local hotel. He dismounted and motioned the girl to do the same. Looking over the inn's exterior, he cheerfully told the girl, "We'll get us a room here first, then we'll check in with the prefect."
"May I lay down for a bit when we get the room, Gentza?" the girl asked miserably. "I don't feel so good."
"Are you still having cramps, dear?" Gentza asked concerned.
The human winced and exhaled nosily. "Yes, sir. But at least they not as bad as they were this morning."
Gentza placed a sympathetic hand on the girl's shoulder. "Well, that's good to hear. I'll get you some more gingerroot, and then you can lie down for awhile."
"Thank you, sir," the girl replied gratefully.
The ape fetched a small glass vial from his saddlebag. He tapped out two beige tablets in the girl's palm, then retrieved her canteen from the mule. "Here, Aunni, take these," he instructed her.
"Thank you, sir." Aunni quickly swallowed the gingerroot pills with a huge swig of water. Her face grimaced from the burning bitter taste. She downed another two gulps, then dried her lips and chin on the back of her hand.
Gentza patted the girl affectionately. "Come, Aunni. Let's go get us a room."
As the simian and the teenager sauntered to the inn's entrance, an uneasy feeling rose within them. A mixed group of apes stood uncomfortably close by, wearing foul expressions. Gentza cordially greeted the apes, while keeping a protective arm around Aunni. The apes reciprocated with silent, hostile stares. Aunni's anxious brown eyes glanced up at Gentza, who reassured her with a kind look.
"Come along, my dear." Gentza quickly escorted the girl over the hotel's threshold.
Inside, the ape and the lass quickly glanced around the small reception area. A long counter paralleled a sidewall, while four wooden chairs and a table decorated the room. Gentza had Aunni wait in one of the chairs while he spoke to the innkeeper.
"May I help you?" the female gorilla behind the counter pleasantly asked.
"Ah, yes. Good morning, ma'am. I wish to rent a room for three days," Gentza requested. "How much are your daily and weekly rates?"
"It's twenty notes a night, a hundred and forty a week; to be paid in advance." The proprietor said firmly, as she opened her guest registry logbook.
"Yes, of course, I understand." Gentza leaned against the counter, nodding agreeably. His right hand popped out from under his black cloak. "My name is Gentza," he introduced himself. "How do you do?"
"Telli," the owner said, shaking Gentza's paw. "Pleased to meet you. You're lucky you came when you did. I only have two rooms left. Everyone's in town for the big race. Are you here for the race?"
"No, ma'am," Gentza smiled wistfully. "I'm afraid not. This trip is strictly business. We're on special assignment from the High Council."
The ape-lady's head bobbed in surprise. "The High Council? Really? You've come all the way from Central City? If not for the race, then what brings you here to Thalassa?"
"As I was saying, we're on official business from the High Council," Gentza explained. "We're conducting a census on the human population. The girl and I are traveling through the various districts, and we'll need a place to stay while we're here."
"A human census?" scorned Telli. "Why does the High Council need a census to tell them how many humans there are? Don't they know the planet's just crawling with them?" She looked past Gentza and plainly acknowledged Aunni with a loathsome frown. "Speaking of which, I'm sorry, sir, but the girl can't stay here. Humans are not allowed."
"It's all right, ma'am," Gentza reassured the proprietor. "The girl is completely domesticated. She's well mannered, quiet, housebroken, and outhouse trained. I'll take full responsibility for her, and I'll pay for any damages, she might incur." He continued speaking before Telli had a chance to protest. "Since the Council is sponsoring this excursion, Councilor Zaius has authorized all lodging expenses to be covered as well. The Council is willing to offer you ninety notes for the three-day stay. That's ten a day more than what you're charging."
"In that case, I accept your offer," Telli eagerly replied with a smile. "Room nine is available, but-" the smile quickly vanished, "just for you, and only you! The human will have to stay at the village livery. Humans are not allowed here."
"The village livery?" Gentza recoiled at the suggestion.
"Yes, the village livery is the only place in Thalassa where humans who accompany their masters are allowed to stay," Telli told him.
Gentza's fur bristled. "Aunni is not staying in a foul, filthy stable!" he cried indignantly. "She is not a horse!" He began drumming his fingers on the counter impatiently. "My dear Telli, let me explain something to you. As I have already told you, we are on official business for the High Council; who's willing to compensate you for your time and trouble! Furthermore, the Council confirms the importance of my companion on this task! Which means…" he asserted strongly, "wherever I go-she goes!"
Telli angrily slapped the registry log closed. "My dear Gentza, I don't care if you're on official business for the High Council!" she snapped brashly. "I don't care about your census, or how important you think your human is! And I do not care if you are Councilor Zaius, himself! I am going to tell you again; for the third and last time, we do not allow humans here! Period! Do you understand? If you wish to stay here, fine! You stay here-alone! Otherwise, you and your 'companion' have ten seconds to leave the premises, or I call the police!"
In response to the innkeeper's outburst, a gorilla-one of the apes from the group Gentza and Aunni encountered earlier-quickly barged into the check-in area, his rifle drawn and ready. "Is there a problem here, Telli?" he asked worriedly.
"No, Drexel," Telli breathed, recovering her composure. She gave the trooper an appreciative glance. "There's no problem. These two…were just leaving!"
Gentza sighed, and then stepped away from the counter. "All right, we'll leave! Come, Aunni," he motioned the girl to his side. "Is there any place around here that does allow humans?" he hopefully inquired.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is!" Telli replied willingly. "If you're looking for a place that welcomes humans, I highly recommend Sandy Point. It's right on the beach. You can't miss it! You can stay there free, as long as you like! I hear Sandy Point has some of the nicest caves in the world to stay at, wouldn't you agree, Drexel?"
"Yes, they are nice…if you're a bat!" he and Telli chuckled merrily.
"Thank you for the suggestion," Gentza said flatly, "you've been very helpful." He smiled drolly, then gladly informed Telli, "Zaius and the High Council will be pleased to know their valuable funding wasn't wasted on this…establishment!" He stressed the word in a foul tone. "I'm sure Sandy Point has better accommodations than this place! Good day to you, ma'am, sir!" He turned to the girl. "Come, Aunni."
Then the odd twosome quickly departed.
Outside the hotel, Gentza made a quick visual sweep of the immediate area. Thankfully, the walkway was now empty of their unfriendly welcoming party.
"I swear that ape has the heart of a statue!" Gentza fumed. "A heart of nothing but cold, hard stone! It wouldn't have killed her to let us stay three days! Just three lousy days! I guess our pleasant company wasn't worth enduring thirty extra notes!"
Aunni leaned against the hitching post wearing a long face. "And I was looking forward to a nice hot bath," she said disappointedly. "Washing up in a bowl of cold water every day…it's just not the same as a hot bath." She hung her head over and whimpered, "Now it's that time of the month again, and I really feel icky!"
Gentza's nostrils twitched uncomfortably. "I know, dear. I need a bath myself. We'll ask the prefect if he knows someplace we can stay." He mused thoughtfully. "Maybe we should've done that in the first place. But we've never had this much trouble before, finding us a place to stay!" He placed a benevolent hand on the girl's shoulder. "How do you feel, Aunni? Are you feeling any better?"
"Yes, sir," Aunni nodded, more at ease. "I feel much better. My stomach still hurts a little, but I'll be all right."
Gentza smiled, then patted the girl again. Down the street, he spotted the flying pennant that indicated the prefect's residence. "Come, Aunni," he said, as he mounted his horse. "Let's go see the prefect."
As the ape and the girl rode away, the diverse ape group poured out of hiding, and regrouped in front of the hotel. Drexel and Telli promptly joined them.
A female juvenile gorilla cut her way through the group and sidled up next to Telli. "See there, Mother?" she cried, pointing at the departing Gentza and Aunni. "I told you I saw a human riding a mule!"
Six angry primate voices pierced the air. "Yeah, we all did!"
Telli's eyes squinted, but not from the glare of the overhead sun. "That's the same two who were just in here causing trouble!" she growled. "Damn that Perdix! See what he's started? Watch the front desk, Rhawna! And tell Jacqueline I'll be back as soon as I can!"
"Where are you going, Mother?" Rhawna asked.
"To see Perdix! Again!" Telli whirled angrily and stomped back inside the hotel.
Mikko, the District Prefect of Thalassa, sat composing his monthly report for the High Council, while Perdix leaned idly on the corner of his desk. The graying chimpanzee paused in his writing and said excitedly, "I can't believe Councilor Zaius is actually coming to Thalassa for the big race, Perdix! We've never had anyone of such importance come here before, and I want Zaius' stay to be perfect!"
"Yes, sir," Perdix dully replied, then quietly complained, "Personally, I'll be glad when this race is over and done with!"
Mary, Mikko's receptionist, opened the door and quickly closed it behind her. With a strange look on her face, she announced, "Prefect Mikko, there's a doctor here from Central City to see you, sir. He says you're expecting him."
Mikko suddenly remembered his appointment. "Ah, yes, the veterinarian." He noticed Mary's odd expression, but said nothing. "Send him in, Mary."
"Yes, sir." Mary opened the door and invited the visitor inside. "Come in, sir. The prefect will see you now."
The peculiar expression worn previously by the secretary, now adorned the faces of the district prefect and the local garrison commander.
"Yes?" Mikko eyed the newcomer suspiciously.
"I believe you're expecting us. I'm Dr. Gentza, Specialist in Human Veterinarian Medicine," the towering gorilla introduced himself. He gestured at the young human female by his side. "And this is Aunni. We're the ones conducting the human population census for the High Council." He removed his ebony cloak, revealing a mauve tunic with a green caduceus embossed in the collar. The teen, who wore a thick brown poncho, followed suite.
At fist, all Perdix and Mikko could do was stare at this odd couple standing before them. Then Mikko abruptly exploded in hilarious laughter, breaking the silence, while Perdix continued gaping in bewilderment.
"You're Dr. Gentza?" Mikko chuckled in disbelief. "You?"
Gentza sighed annoyingly. Obviously, he had been through this tiresome routine before. "Yes, I'm Dr. Gentza. You find that amusing, Prefect?" he asked in a seriously quiet voice.
"Well, no offense, Doctor, but I must admit that I do!" Mikko said pointedly. "I'd never in a million years expect a gorilla to be a doctor!"
"Well, that's understandable," Gentza replied tediously. "Like everyone else on the planet, I see you have reservations." He retrieved a rolled parchment from his tunic pocket, and thrust it in front of the prefect. "Here's a copy of my credentials, as well as a letter of intentions from Zaius himself; for your review, of course."
"All right, I get your point. I'm sorry, Doc," the prefect apologized between giggles. He fingered the scroll, attempting to quell his snickering. "Forgive me for my rude behavior. It's just that it's quite a surprise meeting a gor-"
"Apology accepted," Gentza firmly and impatiently overrode him. "Now that you've recovered from the initial shock that someone of my species is actually capable of becoming a medical practitioner, let's move on, shall we? I've got a lot of ground to cover, and I want to get my surveys completed as soon as possible."
"Yes, of course," Mikko replied, exchanging surprised looks with Perdix. Both were taken aback by the vet's blunt manner. "Perdix will be glad to show you where all the humans are, in this area."
Perdix crossed his arms and frowned obliquely in return.
"Perdix?" Gentza stared at the ebony ape curiously. "So you're the one Urko challenged to a horse race! This race is causing quite a stir, I hear!" He extended his hand to the garrison commander. "Good luck, my friend! You're really going to need it! Urko's horse almost never loses!"
Perdix amiably shook Gentza's hand. "Thanks! I'll take all the luck I can get!"
The veterinarian returned his attention on Mikko. "Sir, since humans aren't allowed at the hotel, is there any place around here where Aunni and I might stay? Just for a few days while we conduct the census? And no," he added adamantly, "Aunni is not staying at the livery! She is not a horse! She may be human, but she's still a person!"
Mikko eyed the scroll still in his fingers. The scroll had piqued his interest, but he did not want to appear too eager to see what it had to say. He laid the rolled paper aside nonchalantly. "If the big race wasn't going on, I would've allowed you and the girl to stay in my guest hut. But that's reserved for a VIP coming to see the race. I'm afraid you'll have to stay at the hotel, while the girl stays at the livery. I'm sorry, Doctor, but there's no other option."
"It's all right, Prefect, we'll manage," Gentza replied in acquiesce. "We've stayed with some nice families before, so I'm sure we'll find someone who's willing to take us in for a few days."
Perdix slid off Mikko's desk and rose to his feet. "You're welcomed to stay in my guesthouse, Doc," he said invitingly. "It only has one bed, but I'll bring a futon in for the girl. It's not the hotel, but we'll try to make your stay as comfortable as possible."
"Thank you, sir," Gentza replied gratefully. "That's very kind of you. I'll make sure you're well compensated for accommodating us; especially on such short notice." He and the girl put their capes back on. "Whenever you're ready, Perdix, we'll be waiting outside. Come, Aunni." Perdix nodded as the unusual twosome left the office.
"Well, I'll be damned! A gorilla doctor!" Mikko snickered as he mused aloud. "A gorilla doctor who caters to humans! What do you think about that, Perdix?" He eagerly waited to hear what the police chief had to say about his out of the ordinary fellow gorilla.
Perdix crossed his arms across his chest and sat back down on the edge of Mikko's desk. "I don't know what to think, Prefect!" he blurted in astonishment. "I'm just as surprised as you are!"
"A gorilla doctor who caters to humans!" Mikko repeated incredulously. "Unbelievable!"
"Yeah," Perdix concurred, "he's a strange one, all right! As long as he conducts his business in a suitable manner, that's all I'm concerned about." He ambled towards the door. "I'd better get my guests home. I'm sure they'll want to freshen up and rest awhile. See you later, Prefect Mikko."
Mikko waved in return. Once he was alone, he quickly unfurled Gentza's documents and began reading.
Outside the prefect's home, Gentza and Aunni did not have long to wait for their host.
"Hey!" Perdix barked at the girl as she mounted her mule. "What do you think you're doing? You get down from there right now! You know you're not supposed to be riding!"
Gentza peered around his horse and countered, "You stay right where you are!"
"Why is she riding that mule?" Perdix demanded. "You know the law! It's against the law for humans to be riding horses and mules!"
"The law only forbids humans to ride horses, Perdix!" Gentza haughtily replied. "The law says nothing about humans riding mules, donkeys, oxen or cows! I know, because I've read the laws! Even if she were riding a horse, what's the problem? I'm her guardian," he emphasized, stabbing an index finger at his chest, "and she's riding under my complete supervision!"
Perdix eyed Gentza suspiciously. "Are you sure about this, Doc?"
"Yes, I'm sure!" Gentza insisted adamantly. "If you don't believe me, read the law yourself! And Councilor Zaius is fully aware of the situation! If you wish to confirm this with him-"
"Oh, trust me, I intend to, the first chance I get!" Perdix promised. "All right, let's move out."
Before the two gorillas could mount up, Telli the hotel innkeeper swiftly rode up on horseback. She pulled the animal to a sudden stop. "Lieutenant Perdix, arrest those two!" she cried, pointing an angry finger at Aunni and Gentza. "The human for riding a mule, and him for letting her!"
"It's all right, Telli," said Perdix. "I'm aware of the problem and I've already handled it."
"That's what scares me!" the she-ape retorted. "Every time you handle a problem, it just gets worse! First, you arrest apes who don't deserve to be arrested, then humans are allowed to ride horses! What's next? Human prefects?"
Perdix growled inwardly. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Telli, but I'm only doing my job!" he told her in a barely controlled voice. "It's my sworn duty to ensure that the law is upheld; by both humans and apes! You know that! How many times do I have to tell you?"
"And how many times do I have to tell you, the world is going to hell in a hand basket because of the law, Perdix!" Telli snarled through clenched fangs. "Can't you see that, or are you too blind to even care? Obviously you don't, the way you mollycoddle these filthy animals! Soon, there will be nothing left, Perdix! Nothing left but a planet of humans!" She poked her index finger at the police ape. "And you helped cause this! I don't know how you can sleep at night!" The she-gorilla roughly jerked her horse around and rode off, leaving a cloud of dust behind.
"I sleep fine, thank you!" Perdix tersely remarked as Telli rode off.
Gentza and Aunni snickered, as a slight smile showed on Perdix's muzzle.
"I see she has a major problem with humans," the ape doctor observed. "She was very cordial when I wanted to rent a room. But when she saw I had Aunni with me, she became as friendly as a tiger scorpion."
"Well, it's not just humans, Doc," Perdix said tiredly. "She has a grudge against me, too. As far as I'm concerned, it's time for her to get over it and move on!" He mounted his horse. "We'll drop by the bakery first. I have to let my wife know you'll be staying in the guesthouse for a few days."
"If your wife doesn't want us to stay, that's all right," said Gentza. "We'll find someplace, I'm sure. We always do."
"As long as she knows we're having company, she won't mind," Perdix assured him. "I'll take you inside so you can meet her." His mouth bowed into an astute smile. "Do either of you like zucchini bread? There's a special down at the bakery today. Two loaves for half a note."
Perdix and Gentza chatted as they rode to the police chief's home, while Aunni followed silently behind, nibbling a slice of chocolate zucchini bread.
"What did you say you were doing?" asked Perdix. "Conducting surveys?"
"Yes, on the human population," Gentza explained. "I'm examining each human; then recording that person's name, age, gender, and where he or she resides in my logbooks. The purpose of the census is to give the Council an idea of how many humans there are and where they are located. The Council sent eight of us out to survey different parts of the region. Dureaux and I were assigned the western section. We rode together as far as Numai, then we separated. He went east toward the mountains, and I went west toward the sea. The Council gave us six months to record as many humans as possible, then return to Central City and report our findings."
"I'm sure you'll need to add Nicky to your census," said Perdix. "With all that boy's been through, he seems to be in good health, but he does have speaking problems. Maybe you can help him with that."
"I'll see what I can do for him."
"Thanks." Perdix gazed curiously at Gentza, then asked, "How long have you been a doctor?"
"Actually, I'm a veterinarian," Gentza replied. "I've been a vet for about three years now. Humans are my specialty."
A peculiar look registered on Perdix's face. "What ever made you want to become a vet?" he wanted to know. "Especially one that caters to humans?"
"I never was much of a soldier, Perdix," Gentza quietly answered. "Even when I was a child, I had no desire for a military career. I always wanted to go to medical school, but my family rather discouraged me. They said my chances of becoming a doctor were about as good as a chimpanzee or an orangutan becoming a soldier!" The ape doctor's expression turned bitter. "When they told me that-that just infuriated me! Just because I'm a gorilla, ape society expects me to be a soldier! So like a good little gorilla, I joined the army and hated every minute of it!"
"Yeah, I see what you mean," Perdix agreed. "My grandfather never wanted a military career either. When he started his own winery eighty years ago, everyone ridiculed him, too! So what happened? Did you just wake up one morning and decided to become a vet?"
Gentza's black eyes smoldered with wrath. "What happened was, I witnessed a rather horrible incident during my brief military stint, and I had to resign as a result," he replied acidly. "We just completed a successful raid on a chimpanzee, who was illegally procuring human children as pets. He systematically raided villages, killing the adults so he could easily take the children. We were able to shut down his operation, but unfortunately, he and his cohorts managed to escape. We found five children in his house, living in squalor. The house had been abandoned, and the poor things were locked in filthy cages, with no food or water. Three of them were already dead, so we rescued the two survivors. I thought the children were going to be given medical help, then found new homes once they recovered. But Captain Kimetz had other intentions. He just took out his gun and shot one of the children-right there on the spot! I asked him why, and he told me it's only right to put them out of their misery. He said there's not enough time, money, and resources to waste on these pathetic animals!"
Gentza continued angrily, "I told him he didn't have to kill them! I would have gladly looked after them! He just didn't want to be bothered with two innocent human children-that's what it was! Kimetz ordered me to hand over the other child, so he could do what must be done, and I refused to give her to him! Before I could give him a chance to charge me with insubordination, I announced my resignation-effective immediately! I happily surrendered my rifle, my bandolier and my horse. Everyone thought I was insane to throw away such a prestigious career over a human child! It really wasn't much of a career to begin with!" The gorilla's incensed face transformed to a calm, satisfied guise. "I walked home seventeen long miles carrying Aunni in my arms that day, Perdix." He sighed, then sadly added, "I only wished I could've saved that other child."
"That's too bad about those kids," Perdix simply said.
"Yes, but at least I was able to save Aunni and give her a chance. She's been with me for so long, she's like a daughter to me." Gentza grinned affectionately back at Aunni, whom shyly smiled in return. "To get back to my story," he continued, "after I nursed Aunni back to health, I knew I'd found my calling. If our humans aren't strong, healthy and happy, who would do our labor?"
Gentza went on, recalling how he had spoken to many doctors, expressing his desire to train as a veterinarian. Unfortunately, as his family predicted, all of those doctors politely "advised" he was not "suitable" for a career as a medical practitioner. Dr. Sanjay, a physician on staff at the Central City Medical Center, had been the only one willing to give the ardent ape a chance. Dr. Leander, the hospital's Chief of Staff at first opposed Sanjay's gracious acceptance of Gentza as his protégé. However, Sanjay saw merit in what Gentza had to offer. After some heavy persuasion, Leander finally relented and allowed Sanjay to take Gentza under his wing. Sanjay sponsored Gentza through four years of veterinarian school, then mentored the gorilla as he cared for all the sick and injured human orderlies at the hospital. When Gentza treated a family servant for chickenpox, his family and friends realized he was not as crazy as they thought he was! Soon, other apes within Central City were requesting his services.
Gentza finally concluded his story, "As the old saying goes, the rest is history."
Perdix stared at him pensively. You're either a foolhardy fanatic, or an insane screwball, Doc…but I sure wished you could have been here three years ago! We really could have used your help with Nicky…
The next morning, Gentza and Aunni returned to Thalassa to replenish their provisions. As they rode to the local mercantile, for the second time, the gorilla and the girl passed through an assembly of unfriendly onlookers.
Aunni timidly glanced around. "Gentza?"
"I know, dear!" Gentza abruptly replied. "Just ignore them!" He glared back at the spectators, then said in a loud, clear voice, "If these folks can afford to stand idly about, it's obvious they have too much time on their hands!"
Taking the hint, the apes disbanded, then resumed their affairs.
Outside the mercantile, Gentza told Aunni, "You'd better wait here with Minka and Hedy, dear. I have a feeling this place shares Telli's anti-human sentiments." He placed a sympathetic hand on the adolescent's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Aunni, but it's the best way to avoid trouble."
"It's all right, sir, I understand," Aunni quietly replied. "It's not your fault they hate humans."
A kind smile spread on the ape's muzzle. He cupped a compassionate palm on the teen's head. "I'll be back as quick as I can," he promised, then entered the mercantile.
Inside, Gentza wasted no time procuring his needed items. His priority was to complete his task and leave Thalassa as quickly as possible. When he exited the building, a dozen agitated apes-all hurling angry words and obscenities-quickly surrounded him. Gentza's surprised gaze passed from one ape to the next, wondering why and how he suddenly became a target for their hostilities. After he recognized a few of the harassing apes, his confusion turned into discernment. The vet's good-natured demeanor instantly hardened when he found himself face to face with the ape allegedly responsible for this uproar…Telli!
"Gentza! Gentza!" the gorilla heard Aunni call his name. In her rush to seek his shelter, she nearly caused him to spill the sack of goods he carried.
"Aunni, what's wrong?" Gentza set the bag down and cradled the sobbing girl in his bosom.
Before Aunni had a chance to reply, Telli piped up, "You want to know what's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong! I was on my way to the mercantile, minding my own business, when this barbaric excuse for a human suddenly started cursing at me and calling me names! And she did it out of spite-just because I wouldn't rent a room to you yesterday!"
Gentza went rigid with anger. Staring the innkeeper fully in her face, he told her in a firm, restrained voice, "I find that very hard to believe, madam!" His head swiveled towards Drexel. The police ape had come moments earlier to investigate the brewing fracas. "Sir, Aunni would never do such a thing!"
"There's a dozen witnesses who say otherwise!" Drexel declared. "They saw your human behaving seriously disrespectful toward this lady!"
"And they're wrong, sir!" Gentza steadfastly stated. "Totally wrong!"
"Are you insinuating that all these people are lying?" Drexel asked dangerously.
"Yes!" shouted the veterinarian. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, then quickly retracted his reply. "No," he said calmly. "I'm just saying they're gravely mistaken!" he continued, protesting. "I tell you, Aunni would never be disrespectful to anyone-especially an ape!"
"I wasn't, Gentza!" blubbered Aunni. "They said I was, but I wasn't! All I said was 'Good morning', to Ms. Telli! She's the one who started yelling and calling me names! I was only being polite, Gentza, just like you told me to!"
"I know, dear, I know." Gentza soothingly hugged the weeping girl. "I believe you."
"Of course you believe her!" Telli sneered sarcastically. "Only a lousy human-lover would believe a human over an ape!"
"Yes, madam! I do happen to be rather fond of humans!" Gentza returned caustically. "Is there a law against that?"
"Lucky for you, there isn't!" a young chimpanzee named Dorian cautioned.
Gentza threw the antagonizing ape a fierce look. "And what's that supposed to mean, as if I had to ask!"
Dorian returned the gorilla's intense stare. "What that means is, we don't like or want humans around here! And we especially don't like or want human-loving apes around here either! So I highly suggest you take your human and move on-while you still can!"
Gentza released Aunni and swaggered up to the brazen primate. Standing almost toe to toe, he boldly crossed his arms and countered, "If fraternizing with humans isn't exactly a crime, why are you so eager for us to move on?"
"Because we already have enough human trouble as it is," the chimp spat, "and we don't need or want anymore! It's bad enough we have to put up with Perdix's pet hairless-monkey, but we certainly don't have to tolerate any nonsense from the likes of you-and your little hairless bush baby!"
The insulting remark Dorian directed at Aunni caused Gentza's emotional cauldron to boil apoplectically. "Well, I'm sorry if our presence has caused a lot of grief," he growled in a scarcely controlled voice, "but my companion and I didn't come here to start trouble! We are here on official business from the High Council, so I'm afraid you're just going to have to tolerate us for at least a few more days! Then, we will be moving on! And believe me, it will be a pleasure to leave this vile, filthy rat hole! So in the meantime, I highly suggest that you mind your own business, and leave us alone!" He spun furiously upon the spectators. "All of you!"
"All right, that's it!" Drexel pointed his rifle at Gentza. "You're under arrest!"
"For what?" uttered Gentza.
"For your vulgar behavior!" snapped Drexel. "And for leaving a dangerous human alone-unsupervised and unrestrained!"
"Dangerous!" exclaimed Gentza in indignation. "Aunni's not dangerous! She wouldn't hurt anyone or anything!"
"No, but she was insolent to Telli!" Drexel angrily replied keeping his rifle securely trained on Gentza. His free hand reached forcibly for Aunni's wrist. "Come on, let's go! Both of you! Now!"
"Ow!" Aunni yelped, struggling against Drexel's burly grip. "You're hurting me!"
Instantly, Gentza's outrage exploded! With a quick sweep of his forearm, he knocked aside Drexel's weapon, causing him to release Aunni. The vet's thumb and forefinger lunged against Drexel's throat. Using his arm as a battering ram, he forcefully shoved the police ape into the mercantile wall. "Don't you ever touch my Aunni like that-ever again!" he warned acidly. "If anyone hurts that child, I swear I will personally rip out his or her heart, and shove it down his or her throat!"
"All right, break it up!" someone yelled.
All eyes reeled and saw Perdix cutting through the mob astride his black horse. He descended from his mount, and the throng hastily cleared a path for him. "What's going on here?" he inquired sternly as he took as quick look at the gathered faces. Instantly recognizing Gentza and Aunni, he commented suspiciously, "Well, you two look familiar!" Hooking his thumbs on his holster belt, he said, "All right, let's have it! What happened?"
Telli gestured accusingly at Gentza, who still had his hand wrapped around the panting Drexel's neck. "He assaulted Drexel, Perdix!" she shrilled. "He assaulted Drexel, because Drexel was about to arrest him for letting his human run wild and out of control! And he was rude to Dorian, too!" Various voices inside the horde resonated with agreement.
Gentza silently fumed as he withdrew his fingers from Drexel's gullet. The simian trooper staggered about, wheezing and coughing to catch his breath. Meanwhile, Aunni burrowed her body back in Gentza's shielding embrace.
Perdix regarded Telli with a cold stare. His expression darkened when he spotted Drexel braced against the mercantile building. "What are you still doing here? You were supposed to be patrolling the southern quadrant half an hour ago!"
The police ape embarrassingly averted his eyes. "Yes, sir," he croaked timorously, as he rubbed the back of his aching head.
"Well, don't just stand there! Get at it, soldier," Perdix barked, "before I have you thrown in the brig for disobeying orders!"
"Yes, sir!" Drexel snapped off a quick clumsy salute, then hurriedly picked up his rifle and waded through a sea of apes to reach his horse. He urgently rode out of the village, anxious to get away from this awkward circumstance he had been found in.
"You leave him alone!" Telli growled threateningly. "He's only doing his job, and a fine one at that! Unlike some apes around here, he deserves a promotion for cleaning up the riffraff in this town! This big baboon, here, is the one who belongs in jail-not Drexel!" A wave of like-minded sentiments rippled through the throng.
"I am the law here, madam, and I will decide who belongs in jail!" Perdix harshly replied. "When I get to the bottom of this, rest assured, the ones who are in the wrong will be punished!" Telli's remarks, coupled with the sight of the lingering apes, further exasperated the police chief. "I said, break it up!" he shouted at the crowd. "Anyone I see standing around will be arrested for loitering! Now move on! All of you!" As the onlookers quickly scurried to obey, Perdix shifted his attention back on the offenders. "All right, Telli," he conceded jadedly, "if you wish to file a complaint, go down to the garrison. Sergeant Ewald will be glad to take your statement."
"Thank you, Perdix. I'll do that right now." The innkeeper flashed Gentza and Aunni one last rancorous look. As she turned to leave, Perdix's voice stopped her.
"I hope you have three years of free time, and, or five hundred notes on hand," he noted dryly.
Telli's brow rose in puzzlement. "Five hundred notes?"
"I thought I'd warn you beforehand of the penalty for filing a false police report," Perdix answered matter-of-factly. "Just in case, I find out your statement has more holes in it than a sieve."
Telli spun sharply and scornfully harrumphed at Perdix, Aunni and Gentza. Instead of heading in the direction of the garrison, the female gorilla clutched her shopping basket and marched snootily into the mercantile.
"What about you, Doc?" asked Perdix. "You wish to file harassment charges?"
"No, sir!" Gentza quickly replied, shaking his head. "We don't want to stay here any longer than we have to! Besides, I think Telli and her cohorts got the message, and they won't be giving us anymore trouble." He extended a grateful hand. "Thank you, Perdix."
"Yes, thank you, Perdix, sir," Aunni echoed.
Instead of accepting Gentza's hand, Perdix gestured in the direction of the garrison. "All right, Doc, let's go," he sternly ordered. "You too, little girl."
"You're arresting us?" cried Gentza in disbelief. "But I thought you didn't believe Telli!"
"I don't," Perdix replied pointedly. "But I'm still taking you in for questioning. I want to know why you hand your hand wrapped around Drexel's throat."
"Well, I can explain that-" Gentza started to say.
"Good," Perdix interposed. "You can tell me all about it down at the command center."
"But, sir, I have my surveys to do!" Gentza protested.
"Your surveys can wait," Perdix dourly overrode him. "Those humans aren't going anywhere, anytime soon. Now mount up and come along quietly-both of you!"
With a barely audible, "All right," Gentza picked up his sack of supplies. "Do as he says, Aunni," he resignedly told the girl. Without further incident, the odd couple boarded their mounts and followed Perdix to the garrison.
After long minutes of questions and paperwork (as well as a hefty fine for assaulting a police officer), Perdix finally allowed Gentza and Aunni to proceed on their way. Leaving the village of Thalassa had not come soon enough for the simian veterinarian and his young human companion.
The unusual twosome trotted down the main road for several minutes before Gentza motioned Aunni off to the side. He pulled the crudely drawn map Perdix had provided him from his cloak pocket and began studying it. Tracing an area with his long, fuzzy forefinger, he told Aunni, "According to Perdix, there's a shepherd named Ricco who lives in an isolated valley about eight miles from here. We'll have to travel up this hillside and through the woods to get to his farm. Since it's quite a trek to reach him, Perdix suggests we visit him first. Then we'll go talk to the rest of the humans." Gentza folded up the map and returned it within his cape. With a wide grin, he asked brightly, "Are you ready to ride, my dear?"
"I've been ready, sir!" Aunni eagerly replied.
"Good, so am I!" the gorilla gladly nodded. "All right, Aunni," he said, spurring Minka forward with his heels. "Let's go find Ricco!"
After a fulfilling breakfast of honey-flavored porridge and dried fruit fritters, the astronauts found themselves herding a flock of twenty-five sheep to the winter grazing lands. Originally, the men and the chimpanzee had planned to leave right after breakfast, when terrible pain suddenly paralyzed Ricco's back. Even though Lowell insisted he could handle the drive alone, Virdon and Burke decided to stay long enough to assist the boy. When the flock had been securely transferred to their alternate feeding grounds, and Ricco had recovered, the unusual trio would bid their new friends adieu.
Back at the homestead, Galen was honing his domestic skills. The chimp had cheerfully volunteered to fetch some water from the well, and gather firewood. After finishing the latter, he ambled over to the garden to help Ricco's teen daughters, Meredith and Patrina, harvest vegetables for the day's afternoon and evening meals. Inside, a knock at the door interrupted Emmylou's washing the breakfast dishes. The woman gasped startlingly at the gorilla, whose intimidating form filled the threshold.
"Good morning, ma'am. My name is Gentza," the ape pleasantly greeted the woman. "Is this the house of Ricco?"
"Y-yes, sir," Emmylou nervously answered, "this is Ricco's house. I-I'm Emmylou, his wife."
"May we come in?" asked Gentza.
Emmylou reluctantly stepped aside, allowing Gentza to enter the home. "Yes, sir, please come in." When a young human female strolled through the door after him, Emmylou's eyes widened in surprise. She expected the "we" Gentza referred to, as himself and another gorilla!
"This is my assistance and companion, Aunni," Gentza introduced the girl. After the two humans exchanged greetings, Gentza got right to the point. "I need to speak to your husband. Actually, I need to speak with your entire family. Don't worry, ma'am, you're not in any kind of trouble! I'm only conducting a census on the human population for the High Council. The Council needs to know how many humans there are on the planet, that's all. Are you and Ricco the only ones who live here?"
"No, sir," said Emmylou timidly. "My son and my two daughters live here, too. My daughters are working in the garden with a friend of ours named Phoebus. My son and two more friends are herding the flock to the winter-feeding grounds. And Ricco's been lying down all morning, sir." Her pleading eyes suddenly sought his. "Please, sir, he doesn't mean to be lazy or insolent! It's just that his back's been bothering him again. It's an old injury that hurts him once in a while. Please, sir! If you just let him rest, he'll go back to work as soon as he feels better! I promise!"
Gentza laid a reassuring hand on the shepherd wife's shoulder. "It's all right, ma'am! I'm not going to punish him!" he said sympathetically. "If he's a little under the weather, I'll do what I can to help him."
"You-you will? How, sir?" Emmylou asked, dreading to hear the answer. She recalled the last time an ape helped a human-courtesy of a bullet to the back of the head!
"I'm a doctor, ma'am," Gentza said kindly as he set his compact physician's bag on the table. He removed his black cloak and draped it over one of the chair's backrest. Then Aunni placed her brown poncho on top.
Emmylou gazed curiously at this peculiar couple, and their just as peculiar apparel. She could not help but stare at the green caduceus, which adorned the ape's lavender tunic, and the handcrafted plum-colored shirt and trousers the teenager wore. What really took Emmylou aback was the simian's polite benevolent behavior; something which was virtually nonexistent within ape-human relations.
"Where's Ricco, so I can take a look at him?" Gentza cut the woman off before she could utter the usual clichéd comments and questions. He would gladly answer her inquiries later. Right now, he had work to do.
"He's in bed, sir," said Emmylou. "I'll tell him you're here." She disappeared briefly into the bedroom, then seconds later, poked her head outside. "It's all right, Doctor. Come on in."
Inside the darkened room, Gentza and Aunni slowly approached the moaning fetal-shaped silhouette, lying on the bed.
Emmylou pulled aside the woolen cloth that shaded the window, then sat on the bed beside her husband. "Ricco, are you all right?" she asked as she softly touched his hand. "How are you feeling?"
"Not so good. My back still hurts," he groaned. "It pains me when I try to move." The shepherd's eyes gradually opened, then fearfully enlarged at the sight of the odd twosome lingering by his bed.
Emmylou's comforting hand flew to Ricco's cheek. "It's all right." She introduced their unusual guests. "This is Dr. Gentza and his assistant Aunni."
"He's a doctor?" Ricco peered in disbelief at Emmylou.
"He must be. He wears the symbol of a doctor," Emmylou replied trustingly. Her blue eyes twinkled with a soothing look that everything was going to be all right.
"Your wife said you weren't feeling well," the veterinarian spoke quietly to calm the scared human. "I'm a human doctor, and I'd like to help you-if I may?"
"You're really a doctor, sir?" Ricco gasped. "But, you're…a-a-!"
"A gorilla. Yes, I know, but right now my species is unimportant," Gentza patiently replied. "What is important is that I'm a doctor and I'm here to help you. If you don't wish for me to treat you, that's quite all right. I understand. But you still have to answer my questions for the human population survey I'm conducting."
Ricco's longing to be free of his crippling pain, easily overrode his fear of Gentza. "All right," he quickly agreed. "If you can help me, sir, I'll be very grateful to you."
"Very well then," the ebony ape acknowledged with a nod. "Would you please boil me some water, and bring me a couple of clean towels?" he asked Emmylou. "Thank you, ma'am." Turning to Aunni, he said, "Bring me one of those chairs from the kitchen table, would you, dear?"
"Yes, sir," chorused the two females, as they hurried to comply with Gentza's requests.
Galen was about to pull another ear of corn off its stalk when he suddenly stiffened! Hoof beats! Gorillas! he thought in alarm.
Patrina and Meredith, noticing the chimp's panicked look, wandered over.
"Are you all right, sir?" asked Patrina.
"Listen!" Galen held up his palm. He pivoted slowly, his ears searched the air like a rotary antenna searching for signals. "I hear horses! Sounds like two of them!"
The sisters traded questioning glances.
"We don't hear anything, sir," said Meredith.
"Of course you wouldn't," Galen smiled. "That's because you're human. Apes have sharper hearing than humans."
"Maybe it was Perdix and Ewald you heard," Patrina suggested. "They always come once a week when they're making their rounds."
"Perdix and Ewald already came this week, don't you remember?" Meredith reminded her. "They came the day before yesterday, so it can't be them." She thought for a moment. "Unless they have important news to tell us. Maybe we'd better go see if it is them."
"Yes, that's a good idea," Galen quickly agreed. "I'll wait for you here. There's no sense in all of us going if we don't have to. If it is Perdix and Ewald, come back for me, and we'll go to the fields and get Lowell, Pargo and Alar."
The teens disappeared into through the towering maize wall, only to reappear moments later.
"It can't be Perdix and Ewald, Phoebus," Meredith stated, "because one of the horses is a mule, sir!"
Galen's brow rose. "A mule?"
"Yes, sir. A mule!" Meredith repeated.
Following the girls from the garden, Galen spotted the horse and mule tethered outside the cabin. The mule began arousing his curiosity. Since a gorilla would never ride a mule, perhaps these visitors were chimpanzees... Hmm, it could be Sestus, he thought. Lowell did say that Lucian used to come for visits. Perhaps out of guilt, Sestus decided to take up and carry on with his brother's activities.
Patrina's brown eyes narrowed. "I wonder who they could be?" She and Meredith gazed inquisitively at the mysterious equine pair. "We don't know of any apes who own mules, sir."
"I thought it might have been Lucian's brother, Sestus," Galen mused. "If it's not Sestus, Perdix or anyone you know-it could be trouble!" Galen's head wagged between the sisters and the cabin. "Go find Alar and Pargo, and tell them to come back here right away! Tell them about the horse and the mule!" he instructed the girls. "Then stay with Lowell and the sheep. Pargo, Alar and I will go to the house to see who these visitors are. If they're friendly, we'll come for you. If nobody returns by noon, get help! Find Perdix, if you can! Now, go!"
As the young shepherdesses dashed for help, Galen crept through the garden to the ramshackled barn. Snatching up one of the shepherd's staffs, he stealthily inched his way to the side of the cabin. Cautiously peeping through the bottom corner of the window, Galen gasped in horror! At the table sat the still form of Emmylou; and standing over the woman-with his hands tightly around her neck-was the biggest, meanest-looking gorilla Galen had ever seen! A human female stood nearby, which he estimated to be no older than a juvenile. From her concerned look, apparently the brute was forcing her to watch this appalling incident! Emmylou and Ricco were in danger, and Galen had to act quickly; he had no time to wait for Virdon and Burke! Gripping the shepherd's staff, Galen sprinted around to the front door. The chimpanzee valiantly charged into the dwelling, surprising the simian intruder.
"Get away from her, you filthy gorilla!" growled Galen at the menacing ape. With a hefty swing, he whacked the end of his staff against the back of the ebony primate's head.
"What the-?" The bewildered gorilla jumped in a half-twist, just in time to receive the full force of Galen's attack. He yelped in pain as he dropped to his knees.
As Galen was about to deliver another blow, Emmylou sprung to her feet with raised palms. "Phoebus, no!" she cried. "Stop! Don't hurt him! It's all right! He's a friend!" She nodded reassuringly at Galen, then hurried into the kitchen area to obtain some cold wet cloths.
A baffled look crossed Galen's face as the girl dropped by the fallen ape's side.
"Gentza! Gentza!" she shrieked. Circling her arms protectively around him, the girl glared balefully at Galen. Stroking the gorilla's head, she asked in a panic, "Gentza! Are you all right? Did he hurt you? If he did, I'll-!"
"I'm a little dazed, but I'll be all right, Aunni," Gentza said weakly, cradling his head in his hands.
Emmylou knelt beside the trounced-up gorilla. "Are you sure you're all right, sir?" she asked worriedly, as she gently applied a cool rag to his injury.
"Yes, ma'am, I'm fine." Gentza closed his eyes, gladly allowing the chilly sensation to numb his aching head. "Would you please bring me a drink of water?" he asked with a small smile. "Thank you." After requesting Aunni to bring him an aspirin from his bag, he glanced annoyingly up at Galen. "So you're Phoebus! From the way Emmylou talked about you, I assumed you were human-not some overzealous, vigilante ape!"
"Yes, I'm Phoebus!" Galen affirmed indignantly, still clutching his rod. "And from the way you had your hands wrapped around her throat, I assumed you were some overzealous, human-hating intruder, trying to strangle her!" he loudly retorted. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"I'm Dr. Gentza, Specialist in Human Veterinarian Medicine," the ape introduced himself through clenched teeth. "And this is Aunni. We were sent by the High Council on special assignment to conduct a census on the human population."
"Doctor?" Galen suddenly noticed the gorilla's mauve tunic with the bold green caduceus. For the first time since meeting the astronauts, the chimpanzee was clearly at a loss for words. All he could do was stare in dumbfounded silence.
At that moment, two sweaty, dust-covered astronauts, armed with shepherd's staffs, barged through the front door. Both were clearly exhausted from their cross-country run, but the two men stood firm, ready for a fight!
"Phoebus!" Virdon was gasping for breath. "We came…as soon as we…could! Are you…all right? How's…Emmylou and Ricco?"
Burke spotted the crumpled Gentza on the floor. "Hey…congratulations…Phoebus!" he wheezed, grinning approvingly. "You…clobbered yourself…a gorilla! And you managed…to take him down…all by yourself! We didn't know…you had it in you! How did you do it? With…the Vulcan neck pinch?"
Galen shook his head tiredly. "No, with this." He leaned the sheepherder's tool against the wall, and said indecisively, "There seems to be a big misunderstanding here!"
"What sort of misunderstanding?" Virdon stared puzzlingly at Galen. "What's going on, Phoebus?"
Placing a hand on his hip, Galen threw Emmylou, Gentza and Aunni an accounting look. "That's what I'd like to know!"
"Phoebus thought Dr. Gentza was trying to kill me," Emmylou explained, as she and Aunni helped the vet to his feet. As he plopped weakly at the table, she passed him a wooden mug full of water. The woman hurried into the kitchen and brought Gentza another damp, cool rag.
The two spacemen looked at each other. "Doctor?" they spoke together.
"Yes, doctor," Gentza replied, rubbing his sore head with the fresh cold cloth. "I'm Dr. Gentza, Specialist in Human Veterinarian Medicine. And this is Aunni, my assistant and traveling companion. We're conducting a human population census on behalf of the High Council. I was examining this woman's neck for abnormal swelling and skin blemishes, when this ape hit me from behind. Apparently, he thought I was trying to strangle her."
"And for that I deeply apologize," Galen said remorsefully.
"Apology accepted," Gentza replied, as he brought the mug to his muzzle and flushed the aspirin down with a long drink.
"Doctor?" Virdon uttered again.
"You're a doctor?" Burke added with a doubtful chuckle. "You're putting us on, right?"
Gentza gazed at his skeptics with complete composure. "Yes, I'm a doctor," he patiently said, repeating his explanation for the umpteenth time. "Actually, I'm a veterinarian for humans. It's a long story, and I'll explain later."
"What's going on out here? I thought I heard shouting, as if someone were having an argument. Is everything all right?" A slightly stooped Ricco called from the bedroom doorway.
"Ricco, you're awake!" Emmylou bounded over to tend to her husband. "Everything's fine," she quietly told him, not wanting to alarm him of the previous uproar. "We were all just having a good laugh, that's all! Nothing to worry about! How are you feeling?"
"Better," he mildly replied. "A lot better." Although the pain still slightly lingered, the shepherd showed signs of improvement. "My back still hurts, but not as much as it did before. Those hot towels you put on my back really helped, sir. Thank you, Doctor."
"You're quite welcome. Take the rest of the powder I've given you, then go back to sleep," Gentza instructed Ricco, whom acknowledged with a nod. "I'll check on you later before I leave."
"I'm sorry if we woke you," Emmylou gently told Ricco. "We'll be as quiet as we can so you can rest." She benignly herded Ricco back to bed, then softly closed the door behind her as she exited the bedroom.
"Are you okay now, Gentza?" asked Aunni concerned. "Does your head still hurt?"
Gentza finished drinking his water. "A little, but I'll be fine." The simian doctor smiled affectionately, easing his young ward's worries. "Aunni, I'm a gorilla, remember? Gorillas are strong, tough and very resilient; that's why we recover so quickly!" He returned his empty mug to Emmylou and said, "Thank you for the water, ma'am. I still need to log your children for my human population survey. Would you go find them and tell them I need to see them, please? Aunni, go with her. There's something I need to discuss with Phoebus, Alar and Pargo, and it's important I speak with them alone." When Aunni raised a questioning eyebrow, he quickly reminded her, "Patient-doctor privileges, dear." Due to the medical customs of confidentiality, Gentza would often exclude the girl from his sessions; and this incident was one of those times.
"Oh, yes, of course," Aunni remembered. "I understand, sir."
Emmylou picked up Galen's shepherd staff and handed it to Aunni, then armed herself with Virdon's staff. "Come on, Aunni," she said herding the teen out the door. "Let's go find my children."
When the two females had left, Galen gestured at the closed bedroom door. "What about Ricco?"
"Don't worry about him, he won't hear a thing," Gentza assured him, as he rose from the table. "I've given him a mild sedative powder to help him sleep. I'll check on him later." With an air of authority, he roped his stethoscope around his neck. "Now that I have you here alone, we can get started. As you already know, I'm Dr. Gentza, and I'm conducting a census on the human population, on behalf of the High Council. All you need to do is to submit to a quick examination, and to fully and truthfully answer all my questions. This won't take long. All I need is about fifteen minutes of your time. I promise you, it won't hurt, and it'll be over before you know it." Giving Burke a quick nod, he gestured at the table. "All right, Pargo. If you'll please remove your shirt and have a seat at the table, I'll start with you first."
"Sorry, Doc!" Burke shook his head. "I think I'll pass on my yearly check-up." He held up his hands as if to ward off the simian vet. "No offense, Doc, but I have major issues when it comes to medical practitioners. I don't like being poked, prodded and scrutinized, if you get my drift. So, if you don't mind, I'd rather keep my privates private!"
"No, I don't mind at all," Gentza replied with a smile. "Now please remove your shirt and have a seat at the table."
A short, humorless laugh emitted from Burke. "I don't think you heard me, Doc!" he said pithily. "I just waived all my rights to receive medical benefits!"
"Yes, I heard you," Gentza said patiently. "Even though you're certainly entitled to relinquish such privileges, you still have to answer my questions." He swept an inviting paw at the table, then calmly repeated, "Now please remove your shirt and have a seat at the table."
"Can you believe this guy?" Burke uttered as he raked an aggravated hand through his hair. "Look, Doc, I'll say this as plainly and as simply as I possibly can!" Standing rigidly akimbo, the astronaut's dark eyes blazed defiantly. "I am not taking a physical! Capeesh?"
Virdon quickly intervened. "Uh, Pargo, I don't think we have much choice in the matter," he said calmly. "After all, the doc is only obeying orders. Just do as he asks and let's get this over with! Besides, he seems like a nice enough ape. He's just like old Doc Adams on Gunsmoke, but-a lot hairier."
"I don't care if he's Dr. Doolittle himself!" Burke snapped. "That gorilla's not touching me!"
A loud harrumph sounded from Galen. "Pargo!" he spoke firmly. "As your acting commanding officer, I highly suggest you do as the doctor tells you!"
Burke's face flushed red with anger. "And as your acting groveling ass kisser, I highly suggest-!"
"Pargo!" Virdon had had enough of Burke's insolence! "Will you please excuse us for a minute, Doc?" he politely requested, smiling respectfully at Gentza. "Ah, Pargo," he waved a "come here" gesture at Burke. "Phoebus and I would like to have a word with you! In private! Now!"
Burke muttered an expletive as he joined the huddle.
"All right, Peter Burke! That's it! I've had it!" Virdon whispered furiously. "If you're so damned eager to wear a neck tie made of rope, fine! You wear it on your own time! But while you're still a member of this outfit, under my command, I will not allow you to endanger our lives with your reckless, idiotic behavior! Now shut up and do as you're told! That's an order, Major!"
"Well, begging your pardon for acting like a childish ass, Colonel Hogan," Burke retorted, "but if we let Dr. Franken Ape, there, give us our booster shots, we will be in great danger!"
"And how's that?" cried Virdon, "What harm could it do to give him fifteen minutes of our time?"
"A great deal of harm!" Burke replied sharply. He groaned in frustration. Was Virdon that blind not to see the perilous situation he was about to lead them into? "How are you going to explain that nice bullet hole you're sporting on your chassis? Or have you even thought about that? And when the good doctor sees that matching surgery scar, you know that's going to raise a lot of red flags!"
"Well, what else can we do?" Virdon asked resignedly. "If we refuse to comply, that's going to raise a lot of red flags, too!" He pointed an accusing finger at Burke. "If you hadn't acted like a childish ass in the first place, we might have been able to bluff our way through this!"
Gentza chortled amusingly. "And since I've already seen plenty of 'raised red flags'," he cut in, "your bluffing wouldn't have succeeded anyway!" The vet gazed in amazement at the blond human. "I'd say you're very lucky that bullet didn't sever a vital nerve, and leave you paralyzed, Virdon!"
A shocked look washed over Virdon's face when the gorilla spoke his name. "Virdon?" he asked in a clumsy attempt to recover his innocent façade. "I'm sorry, Doc, but you're greatly mistaken! My name is Alar, not Virdon!"
Gentza held up an entreating hand. "Please, you don't have to pretend with me anymore! I know who you are, Virdon. You're the three fugitives wanted by Urko and Zaius. You're Alan Virdon." Turning to Burke and Galen, he said, "You're Peter Burke, and you're obviously Galen."
"And what makes you think we're the three wanted fugitives?" Galen asked in mock naivety.
"Well, first of all, ape masters don't usually travel on foot-side by side-with their human servants," Gentza cleverly replied. "Secondly, the three of you match the descriptions of the wanted fugitives, and third, you two," he indicated Burke and Virdon, "display numerous unusual characteristics that clearly distinguish you from the general human population." He paused, then added matter-of-factly, "And I also just heard Virdon call Burke by his real name."
The runaway trio traded despondent glances; further denial was futile. They had been caught and the gig was up!
"Wow!" Burke quietly joked. "This guy is good!"
"All right, Doc, now that you know who really are, what's next?" Virdon asked jadedly. "After you've tagged us, do you intend to bag and drag us back to Central City?"
"And why is the High Council demanding this census in the first place?" Galen wanted to know. "Since when did Urko and Zaius become interested in human demographics?"
Burke snorted. "I don't think Urko and Zaius really care about human demographics as a whole, Galen," he scornfully said. "They're only interested as long as it pertains to Burke and Virdon, right, Doc?"
"If you don't mind my asking," Virdon inquired curiously, "why would Zaius and Urko send a gorilla to do a human head count? Why not a chimp or an orangutan? No offense, Doc, but you're not exactly an ape I'd feel at ease around!"
"Exactly!" Gentza wholeheartedly agreed. "Well, you're right. The Council did send eight of us out, and seven of us happen to be chimpanzees. And since I'm a gorilla, who also happens to be a humble vet, and not some menacing militaristic brute, the Council felt I was an obvious choice for this task. And considering experiences between our species, that's totally understandable. Which is why I insisted on having Aunni travel with me. With Aunni present, my patients tend to relax and become more cooperative."
"See there, Doc?" quipped Burke. "If you hadn't sent Aunni off with Emmylou, I wouldn't have acted like a childish ass!"
"Yes, that's true," laughed Gentza, "but Aunni knows nothing of your true identities, and I'd like to keep it that way! And besides, I wasn't about to miss this chance of a lifetime; to poke, prod and scrutinize two such fascinating human specimens!" He chuckled as he waved a blithe paw, dismissing the panicked reactions of the two spacemen. "Relax, fellows, I'm joking! Don't worry, I won't lay a finger on you, or log you in my books. Truthfully, I don't intend to even acknowledge you at all! All I know is the Council ordered this census taken to find out how many humans there are, where they're located, their names and gender, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." He broodingly fingered his stethoscope, then reluctantly admitted, "Off the record, I think you're right, Burke. I'm sure Urko and Zaius are only using this census as a means to try to locate you, or at least gather information about you. But I will warn you…remember those seven other census takers I mentioned earlier? If you do happen to encounter them, be very careful! They appear to be personable, compassionate apes; but unlike me, they would love nothing more than to reap the rewards of turning in three notorious enemies of the state! Pierre and Cathan are covering the eastern territories, while Armando and Keontay are traveling through the north. Nokie and Lann are down south, and Dureaux and I were assigned to cover the western regions."
"Thanks for the warning, Doc," Virdon said simply.
Gentza sternly replied, "You can thank me by not getting yourselves permanently caught!" His demeanor became genial again. "I'd really love to continue having these friendly visits together; that is-if I'm lucky enough to encounter the three of you in the future."
"Well…that's…very nice of you! Thanks, Doc!" Virdon stammered, clearly at a loss for words. "It would be nice to visit with you, too, in the future!" Plainly, the kindness of this unusual gorilla touched him.
Burke, on the other hand, was not so generous. "So tell us, Doc, why are you helping us?" he asked cynically. "What's in it for you? Besides a date with a firing squad-if you get caught!"
"I'm helping you, because humans cared enough to save my life three times," Gentza revealed, "and the lives of my ancestors!"
A curious murmur reverberated from the renegade trio. "Your ancestors?" they echoed in surprised.
"Yes, my ancestors," Gentza repeated. "About a hundred years ago, a human named Phineas saved his owner, Debiathis, and his family, from perishing in the Cascata Blizzard of 2988."
"The Cascata Blizzard?" asked Burke.
"Yes, I remember reading about that in history class," Galen explained. "The Cascata Blizzard was a five day snowstorm that came on November 22, 2988. It trapped and killed hundreds of people in the Cascata region."
"And if it hadn't been for Phineas, Debiathis and his family would have died, too!" Gentza reverently added. "Debiathis was my great-great grandfather. He was so grateful that he granted Phineas his freedom. Since Phineas had nowhere else to go, he decided to stay and work for Debiathis-in exchange for a few privileges not normally granted to humans. When I was a child, Phineas' great-granddaughter saved me from a house fire. His great-grandson saved me from a mountain lion that terrorized our village. When I was sixteen, two human carpenters named Renfro and Norwood saved me from a group of drunken humans who were trying to assault me!" Casting a benevolent look at Burke, he told the dark-haired astronaut, "And that's why I'm risking a date with a firing squad to help you."
An abashed look covered Burke's face. "Look, I'm sorry for doubting you, Doc," he apologized, "but I like to test the waters before I jump in for a swim. It's nothing personal, it's just that before I can trust someone, I want to get to know them, and make sure they're on the level first."
"Yes, of course," Gentza nodded empathetically. "I understand. It's all right; I don't blame you for being suspicious."
Burke rubbed his chin contemplatively. "You know, Doc, I got to thinking…" he said slowly. "It's been a good thousand years since I've had my last physical. And since you're here, I might as well, take advantage of your one-time offer for a quick check-up." He shot the gorilla a warning look. "As long as you don't ask me to drop my drawers!" He removed his shirt and sat at the table.
"Sure, I'd be happy to!" Gentza said delightfully. He, in turn, felt privileged to have this one-time chance to medically inspect both men.
After giving Burke a clean bill of health, Gentza examined Virdon. His scrutinizing gaze lingered over the healed bullet hole on Virdon's torso. Judging from the position and angle of the entry wound, and its corresponding surgical scar, Gentza was astounded the human had narrowly escaped serious injury, and/or death! As he reported the same good news to Virdon, Galen suddenly scurried by the window.
"I hear voices!" The chimpanzee abruptly held up a hand motioning for silence. Taking a quick peek out the window, he announced, "Emmylou and Aunni are coming with Lowell, Meredith and Patrina!"
"Good," said Gentza, as he pulled a small black book and stylus from his medical bag. "Now I can finally get the children logged."
As the vet completed his surveys on the children, Galen tended to Minka and Hedy, with water from the well and a couple of carrots. Meanwhile, Virdon and Burke returned to the winter-feeding grounds to continue the vigil on the sheep. Emmylou finished cleaning up from breakfast, and started preparing lunch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ricco sitting at the table.
"Ricco, when did you get up?" she asked. "I didn't hear you come in! How are you feeling?"
The shepherd yawned. "Tired, but at least my back's much better. It doesn't hurt anymore when I move it."
"That's good. You look like you feel better," Emmylou said as she retrieved a bowl of chopped vegetables and headed towards the hearth.
"Dr. Gentza said it was lum-bay-go," Ricco slowly pronounced his ailment's name. "He showed me some things I can do for my back if it ever starts troubling me again."
Emmylou frenziedly stirred the pot. "If Dr. Faxon had helped you when this first happened, your back wouldn't be troubling you at all!" she spat bitterly. "I told him he didn't have to touch you! All he'd have to do was just come and look at you! Then tell me what to do and I'd take care of you! I begged and pleaded with him, but he refused to even listen to me!" An exasperated sigh hissed from her lips. "He said he's a doctor, not a vet and he doesn't treat animals!"
"I know," Ricco said dismayingly. "I told Dr. Gentza about that. He became very angry and he told me he was going to speak to Dr. Faxon about this." His voice suddenly trebled with panic. "I begged him not to! It might cause trouble again! There's still apes here who hate humans, and they hate apes who like humans even more!" His solemn eyes dropped to the table. "If he were to end up like Lucian," he softly noted, "I would be responsible!" He wagged his head, searching anxiously about the cabin. "Where are Dr. Gentza and Aunni, anyway? And where's Phoebus, Alar and Pargo?"
"Dr. Gentza and Aunni are examining Lowell in his room," his wife answered, as she waited for the cauldron to bubble. "He finished examining the girls, so they've started the washing. Phoebus is outside, looking after their horse and mule. And Alar and Pargo went back to the fields to guard the sheep."
"Good, they're still here," Ricco said happily. "I'm glad they didn't leave while I was sleeping. I wanted to thank them for all their help." He gazed hopefully at Emmylou. "Is that apple cake I smell baking?"
"Yes, that's for our friends this afternoon." Emmylou straightened and wiped her hands on her apron. "I wanted to show them how much we appreciate all they've done for us, by serving the finest meal I could possibly make." She frowned melancholically. "They'll be leaving today and we might not see them again for a while." She shivered startlingly, as her husband's arms unexpectedly snaked around her from behind, squeezing her in a tight embrace.
"Yes," Ricco somberly answered. "It's strange…we've only known them for a short time, but it feels like we've known them for years. It's going to be hard to see them go." He nuzzled her check and cooed in her ear, "And I want you to know how much I appreciate you cooking this wonderful meal for them! I love you, Emmylou!"
Emmylou closed her eyes and nestled against Ricco. "And I love you, too, Ricco." As the two stole a quick kiss, Lowell emerged from his room, with Gentza and Aunni right behind.
"Papa!" he cried. "You're awake! Are you all right?"
Ricco loosened his hold on Emmylou and smiled fondly at this son. "Yes, Lowell, I'm fine. Dr. Gentza cured my lum-bay-go. He showed me how to make the pain go away if it does come back." Nodding gratefully at the gorilla, he said, "Thank you again for helping me, Doctor."
"That's what I'm here for," Gentza cheerfully replied, as he briefly examined the sheepherder to ensure he was going to be all right.
"Now that you're feeling better, would you set the table for me?" Emmylou beamed coyly at Ricco. As Ricco merrily retrieved the wooden tableware, she turned to Lowell and asked, "Would you please go call Phoebus and your sisters? Then go to the fields and bring back Alar and Pargo. When everyone's here, it'll be time to eat."
"What about the sheep, sir?" Aunni asked Ricco. "Doesn't someone have to watch them at all times?"
"They'll be fine by themselves for a little while," Ricco replied confidently. "As soon as I'm finished eating, I'll return to the fields. As long as Old Brogan's out there, I don't think anything will happen."
"You'd better take it easy for a couple of days," Gentza advised him. "From what I've heard about Old Brogan, I'm sure the flock's in good hands!" He eagerly inhaled the rich aroma drifting from the fireplace. "Is that apples I smell baking?"
"Yes, sir," Emmylou gaily replied. "It's apple cake. I made vegetable gumbo and corn biscuits, with fried green tomatoes. I hope you'll find it to your liking, Doctor."
"If it taste as good as it smells I'm sure it'll definitely be to my liking!" the vet assured her. "It's nice of you to cook for us, but you really didn't have to go through all this trouble, ma'am."
"It's no trouble at all, Doctor," Emmylou responded with a smile. "I wanted to do this. It's our way of showing how much we appreciate our friends."
"Especially you, Doctor. We really wished you and Aunni could stay here," Ricco wistfully added. "The humans need a doctor like you, sir. Someone who really cares about us…someone we can go to for help when we're sick or hurt."
"Yes," Gentza nodded readily. "There's a lot of places out there I hated leaving. I wished there were more vets and doctors that cared about humans, because humans certainly need and deserve good quality medical care! After all, you are the ones doing all the labor!" A perturbed growl purred in his throat. "It's disgusting that animals like horses and dogs-and even chickens-can get better medical care than a human!"
"It's a shame other apes aren't following in your footsteps, Doctor," Ricco noted sadly. "In order to be a human doctor," he said slowly and thoughtfully, "you have to like humans." His imploring eyes searched Gentza's face. "Why is that, Doctor? Why do most apes hate humans? As far as I know, my family and I have never done anything to hurt an ape! We've always tried to be friendly and helpful!"
Gentza sighed dejectedly. "I don't know, Ricco. I wished I had an answer for you, but I don't. Speaking for myself, I've never had any kind of animosity towards humans. I wished things were better between our species, but unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon. I'm really sorry!"
"You shouldn't be, sir. It's not your fault things are the way they are." An encouraging notion suddenly came to Ricco's mind. "With apes like you and Phoebus, and even Perdix in the world, maybe things will get better soon!" he spoke optimistically.
"I certainly hope so," Gentza replied cheerfully, but inwardly he had his doubts…and they were gigantic doubts.
Later, a happy, yet melancholy air hung over the afternoon meal. At Ricco and Emmylou's request, Gentza gladly recounted how and why he became a human veterinarian. As Galen, Virdon and Burke listened intriguingly, they savored every mouthful of vegetable gumbo, corn biscuits and fried green tomatoes, followed by Emmylou's crowning glory…her much talked-about apple cake. Somehow, they felt it would be the last moment of peace they would enjoy in a long time. And Gentza was faring no better. In his role as a census taker/veterinarian, the gorilla had come to know and respect the humans he and Aunni encountered on their travels. Goodbyes were hard enough for him, but this particular farewell would be especially difficult. He had finally met Virdon and Burke! Gentza wished he had more time to spend with the infamous astronauts. He had so many questions for them. It angered him that in their foolish hysteria, the High Council would kill these two innocent men, whom were willing to share their wealth of knowledge for the betterment of both apes and humans!
Virdon halfheartedly rose from the table. "It's time for us to be moving on," he announced. He extended his hand to Ricco. "Thanks again for letting us stay the night, Ricco. We've really enjoyed your hospitality."
"And we really enjoyed having you, Alar," Ricco replied earnestly. He turned to shake hands with Galen and Burke. "And thank you all for your help with the sheep, especially when I was hurt."
Galen cupped a friendly hand on Emmylou's shoulder. "And thank you for serving us all those wonderful meals."
Emmylou smiled shyly. "You're very welcome, sir. I was glad to do it."
Galen offered his paw to Gentza. "Goodbye, Doctor. I hope we meet again soon. I will say you're the most interesting ape I've ever had the pleasure of meeting!"
"Likewise!" Gentza agreed, shaking the fugitive ape's hand. "We'll still be in the area for awhile, so perhaps we will meet again soon!"
"Goodbye, little one," Galen said, running a kindly palm across Aunni's head, then joined Virdon and Burke in one final send-off.
"Goodbye, sir," Aunni softly answered. She and Gentza, along with Ricco and his family, sadly watched as the chimpanzee and his two human friends crossed the golden meadow, waved goodbye one last time, then vanished into the woods.
Then it was Gentza and Aunni's turn to bid their hosts adieu.
When they mounted up, Gentza slowly raised a departing hand. "Goodbye, my friends," he softly uttered. "Take care of yourselves. Come, Aunni." He u-turned Minka and nudged her into a trot through the field. The girl woefully waved as she urged Hedy forward, following behind.
"Goodbye, Doctor! Goodbye, Aunni!" Ricco and his family called as the odd twosome faded into the heavy grove. "Thanks for everything!"
As the early evening sun rode low in the western sky Virdon, Galen and Burke continued their trek on the main road. The three friends had plodded along the dusty thoroughfare for what seemed like forever, when Virdon suddenly stopped. Shielding his eyes from the sun's glare, he pointed to a quant little farmhouse about half a mile up the road. "Isn't that Sestus and Fauna's place?
"Yes, I think it is!" Galen quickly replied.
"Come on!" urged Virdon, as he broke out into a brisk jog.
"Finally," muttered Burke, bringing up the rear.
The three fugitives stopped short of entering Sestus' property. All three glanced around cautiously before heading towards the door.
A horse's whinny welcomed them and the three friends caught sight of their equine greeter. Virdon made his way to the corral for a closer look. A brown horse stood at the fence, eagerly offering its head to the astronaut. After Virdon rubbed its forehead and one side of its neck, the horse turned around so Virdon could reach the other side. "Would you look at that?" he said in surprise. "It's an Appaloosa!"
"A what?" chorused Galen and Burke.
"This horse is an Appaloosa!" he told them. "See, look at his rump! He's brown, except for his white rump, which is covered with spots! I didn't know different breeds of horses were still around!"
A sudden rifle click froze the fugitives like a trio of statues. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" a voice demanded harshly. "If you're planning to steal that horse, don't even think about it!"
"No, sir, we weren't going to steal him! We were just admiring-" Virdon started to say, as he faced a graying middle-aged chimpanzee, poking a shotgun at his chest. His face broke into a huge grin. "Sestus!"
The ape quickly lowered his rifle, when he recognized the intruders. "Alar! And Phoebus and Pargo!" he cried, as he warmly shook hands with the three friends. "Good to see you again! What brings you three back here? Are you here for the big race?"
The two humans and the chimpanzee exchanged curious glances with Sestus.
"No, actually we just happened to come back in this direction on our travels, and we thought we'd drop by for a little visit," explained Virdon. "Is there a big race going on? Funny, Ricco never mentioned anything about a race."
"Ricco?" asked Sestus. "Ricco, the human shepherd?"
"Yeah, him," replied Burke. "We just came form his place. He and his family never said anything about a race going on."
"Well. Ricco and his family do live rather isolated lives," Sestus explained. "They only come to Thalassa four times a year to sell wool, or pick up supplies, so it's not surprising they wouldn't tell you about the big race." The chimpanzee grew excited. "But I am surprised you didn't hear about this on your travels! This race is big news! Urko has challenged Perdix to a horse race!"
"Urko challenged Perdix to a horse race?" Virdon repeated.
"Urko!" Burke uttered in alarm. "Urko is here?"
"Yes, his camp is about five miles east from the village of Thalassa." Sestus eyed him curiously. "Is something wrong, Pargo? You seemed a bit uptight when you heard Urko was here."
"No-no, Sestus, it's just that-well-" Burke stammered, trying to recover his casual manner, "it's-it's quite a surprise to hear that Urko would challenge-ah-an ape like Perdix?-did you say?-to a horse race-since Urko always challenges the prefects to races! Isn't that right?" He glanced obliquely at Virdon. His friend returned a quick rebuking look, for almost arousing Sestus' curiosity.
"Yes, that's true. It is odd that Urko would challenge Perdix to a race," Sestus replied, oblivious of the humans' suspicious behavior. "But what's even stranger is Urko wants to use human jockeys! Imagine that! Human jockeys! That's why this race is big news!" He added proudly, "And it's happening right here, in Thalassa!"
"Why would Urko want to use human jockeys?" asked Galen. "Humans can't ride horses!"
"No, but Nicky can."
"Nicky?" asked Burke. "Who's Nicky?"
"He's Perdix's courier." Sestus waltzed over to the Appaloosa gelding and rubbed under his chin. "And this is Quando, the horse he rides to deliver messages. He's the horse that'll be racing Urko's horse. Perdix's wife runs a bakery, and sometimes Nicky and Quando deliver bread and cookies, and baked goods for her."
Galen gaped in shock at Sestus. "A human is actually allowed to ride a horse? I don't believe it!"
"Oh, yes, it's true," Sestus quickly replied. "Perdix received special permission from the Council to let him use Nicky as his courier. He also had Nicky come and help out around the farm while I was-" Sestus abruptly stared down at the ground. "Well, anyway, the boy's been a big help to Fauna and I. Fauna still has problems, but she's getting better. I think she's starting to get used to Nicky." He patted the horse's neck. "Yes, he's not much to look at, but he's a fast little devil!"
Virdon rubbed the horse on his velvety nose. "Yeah, he's quite unique." The blond astronaut alertly glimpsed about. "Speaking of Perdix, is he here, too?"
"No, Perdix isn't here, but Nicky is," Sestus replied. "He's really a nice boy, you'll like him." He herded the trio towards the house. "Come, enough talk! Fauna's inside and I know she'll be glad to see you again!"
Inside, the runaway trio felt more relaxed than they did the first time they came here.
"Fauna! Come here! We have visitors!" Sestus swept a hand towards the parlor. "Sit down," he said invitingly. "Please make yourselves at home."
Fauna, Sestus' blind niece wandered into the parlor. "What is it, Uncle Sestus?"
"Fauna, we have visitors! You'll never believe who's here!" cried Sestus.
"Hello, Fauna," called Burke.
"Pargo, is that you?" She slowly drifted over and tentatively stretched out her hands for him. Burke gently grabbed the girl chimp's paws. "Pargo, it's nice to hear your voice again," she said carefully. "Are Phoebus and Alar with you?"
"Yes, Fauna, we're over here," Virdon said.
"How have you been Fauna?" asked Galen. He and Virdon cautiously approach Fauna, so not to startle her.
"Fine, I'm fine." After greeting Galen and Virdon with a quick polite handshake, Fauna sat down in her wooden rocking chair. "Are you here for the race?" she asked in what seemed to be a strained cordial tone.
"No, Fauna, we didn't know anything about the race," Virdon replied pleasantly. "Your uncle was the one who told us about it. I don't know if we'll be able to stay for the race, but we'll think about it. When's the race, anyway?"
"It's ten days from today," Sestus answered. "Like I said before, it's big news. Fauna, where's Nicky? Our friends want to meet him."
"He's outside chopping wood," she said impassively. The three friends sensed a degree of aloofness in the girl-ape.
Sestus shuffled to the front door and called Nicky's name. A brown-haired teenaged boy suddenly emerged from the back pantry.
"You…need me…sir?" Nicky asked.
"We have guests, Nicky, and they want to meet you. This is Nicky. He's the one who'll be riding Perdix's horse," Sestus introduced the boy. "He really belongs to Perdix and his wife, Ruth." He gestured at Virdon, Burke and Galen. "Nicky, these are some friends of ours, Phoebus, Alar and Pargo."
"Hello, Nicky," Galen extended his hand in friendship.
Nicky shook the ape's paw. "Hello," he said shyly. Then he permitted Burke and Virdon to follow suit.
When Virdon shook Nicky's hand, he noticed the boy wore a metal band with etched glyphs tightly secured to his right wrist. "What's this?" he asked, examining the wristband.
"Perdix had a special identification band made for Nicky," Sestus replied. "It has his name and that he belongs to Perdix. It also says he's been granted permission to ride a horse."
"At least he doesn't have to wear a collar," Burke noted dryly.
"How did Nicky ever become a courier for Perdix?" asked Galen.
"Ah, well, Phoebus, that had to do with that little incident we were involved with about three years ago," Sestus answered quietly. He took Nicky by his shoulders and gently herded him towards the back door. "Nicky, would you finish chopping the wood? Run along now. That's a good boy."
When Nicky was gone, Sestus said, "Three years ago, Nicky and his family were attacked by the Dragoons. He was the only survivor." The chimpanzee embarrassingly explained that the boy was barely alive when Perdix found him. Since Nicky was a potential witness, Perdix hid him in his house, where his wife and daughters cared for him. If Nicky survived, hopefully he could help Perdix identify the Dragoons. When Nicky recovered, Perdix had an inspiration to use the young human as his courier. When he proposed the idea to the Council, surprisingly, the Council agreed!
Burke gave Sestus a sharp look. "If he's working for Perdix, then what's he doing here, chopping wood?" he asked brusquely. "Is Perdix also running a rent-a-slave business?"
Sestus shook his head. "No, it's nothing like that! Perdix let the boy come twice a week to help out Fauna while I was…" He pulled out his wrinkled handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "Since Zon and I were both responsible for Lucian's death, as well as the death of many innocent humans, we were given harsher penalties than the rest of the Dragoons. Zon was given twenty years, but since I'm Fauna's guardian, and the only immediate family she has left, the court was more lenient with me. Instead of prison, I was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Perdix also charged me with filing a false police report, so I had to pay a hefty fine for that, too."
"Which nearly wiped us out!" spat Fauna.
"Fauna, you didn't have to tell them that!" cried Sestus.
"Why not?" whined Fauna. "They're the ones who helped Perdix expose the big Dragoon lie, so they should be entitled to know what's happened since!" She bowed her head to hide her misty eyes. "I'm sorry," she sniffled. "I can't help but still feel angry about what's happened."
Sestus kept his eyes on the floor. "I know, Fauna, and believe me; I'm reminded of that each and every day…especially when I'm around that boy! It's hard, but hopefully, in time, we'll all be able to put this behind us!"
Fauna dried her eyes and said pitifully, "You know, I used to hate and fear Nicky, but now I can't help but feel sorry for him. I only lost my father, but he lost his whole family because of the big Dragoon lie. The poor boy's been through an awful lot, but he's so forgiving!" She turned her head in Virdon's direction. "You were right, Alar," she admitted. "Not all humans are bad, just as all apes aren't good." The she-ape lowered her head again and mumbled, "I'm sorry. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, and I ruined it by bringing this up."
"That's all right, Fauna," Virdon said compassionately. "Look, Fauna, Sestus, you don't have to tell us anymore. I think we know the rest of the story."
Burke gazed at Sestus benignly. "If you've served your time, and you're back home," he rephrased his question in a kinder tone, "why would Perdix still send Nicky here to do chores?"
"Actually, that was all Nicky's idea!" Sestus revealed. "It turns out that Lucian was very acquainted with Nicky and his family, and he wanted to repay Lucian's kindness by helping Fauna out. Perdix didn't want him to at first. He thought the boy might try to avenge his family's death by hurting Fauna, or even killing her! After a lot of thought, he decided the boy wasn't capable of committing such a horrible act!"
"And I told Perdix I certainly didn't want him coming around here either!" Fauna prompted angrily. "But he told me to give Nicky a chance and if he caused any trouble, he would be dealt with immediately!" Her hard face softened. "When Nicky told me about Father, and all the wonderful things he did, I couldn't turn him away! I was surprised to hear that he loved Father as much as I did!" she said poignantly. "I never realized so many humans respected and revered Father!"
"Nicky really was a big help around here while I was…um…away…" Sestus started to say, then had to stop. The guilt once more overwhelmed him. "He's such a nice boy, and a good worker, we sort of missed having him around," he sheepishly admitted. "I asked Perdix if I could keep borrowing him two days a week, to help out with some chores and repairs that needed to be done around the farm. Perdix agreed, as long as he didn't need him for deliveries, or he doesn't get hurt." An amused grin curved on his muzzle. "I tell you that boy really loves using my tools! His father was a carpenter and wood carver, and that's what he was brought up to be." Sestus chuckled, "Every time he comes here, he's always asking if I need him to build anything!"
"You can have him build you a picket fence, then have him paint it white," Burke suggested lightly.
"A pick-it fence?" Sestus asked slowly. "What's that?"
"It's a type of fence that people use to enclose their yards," Burke explained. "If it's built right, it'll spruce up your property. And it's very pleasing on the eyes."
"If you like, we can build you one," Virdon offered, "in exchange for a few days of rest and food."
Sestus contemplated Virdon's idea, then quickly replaced it with his own proposal. "No, I don't think I need a-a pick-it fence, but as long as you're willing to help, you're welcomed to stay as long as you like! And you'll have a chance to enjoy some of Fauna's cooking!"
"You've got yourself a deal, Sestus!" Virdon eagerly shook the chimpanzee's paw to seal the bargain. "We can start anytime. What do you need done?"
"Well, the barn, and parts of the house both need fixing. And the corral could certainly use some repairs," said Sestus. "But that can wait until tomorrow. I'm sure you're all tired from your travels."
Fauna pulled herself out of her chair and ambled to the kitchen to retrieve three more place settings for the table. "We're having tomato and rice soup with wild salad greens for dinner," she said in a friendlier tone of voice. "Would you please call Nicky, Uncle Sestus? Dinner will be ready very soon." As Sestus went to summon Nicky, Fauna gestured at the table and began serving the food. "Please, sit down."
"Since this turned out to be a happy occasion after all, I have just the thing for it!" Sestus said merrily. "I'll be right back!" He disappeared into the pantry and soon returned, carrying a tray with four cups. "Wait until you taste this!" He proudly set the tray down, then joined the others at the table.
Virdon lifted one of the cups and peered into it suspiciously. "What is this, Sestus?"
"It's wine, to celebrate the reunion of friends!" said Sestus. He held up his cup and declared, "Here's to friendship!"
"To friendship!" Burke, Virdon and Galen repeated with cups raised, then gingerly sipped the wine.
"Mmmm," Virdon murmured pleasantly. "Very good!"
Burke was also nicely surprised. "Hey, this is really good!"
"Excellent, indeed!" agreed Galen. "Where did you get this, Sestus?"
"From Perdix. He has a small winery that has been in his family for a long time. It's not a very big winery, but it's well known for producing some of the best wine in the area." Sestus reached for a slice of bread. "Perdix has had a lot of offers to mass produce and distribute his wine for the general public, but he always turns them down. He says the winery is more of a hobby than a living, and he does quite well with it. And his wife, Ruth, made the bread in her bakery."
"This is good bread!" Burke agreed, as he hungrily devoured a second slice.
"I will say, this is the best bread and wine I've had in quite a while!" Galen noted amiably. "My compliments to both of them!"
A sudden pounding at the door sent Sestus scurrying. "Here's your chance to tell Perdix yourself. That's him at the door."
"Good evening, Perdix," Sestus greeted the gorilla lieutenant.
"Sestus," Perdix answered cheerfully.
The three fugitives exchanged nervous glances as Sestus invited the garrison commander inside. "Come in, Perdix. Would you care to join us for dinner?"
Perdix shook his head. "No, thank you, Sestus. Ruth has dinner waiting for me at home, but I will have some water, if you don't mind." He pulled up an extra chair, and sat at the table next to Nicky.
As if on cue, Nicky got up, fetched his guardian a drink, then handed him the cup with a crisp salute.
With a hint of a smile, Perdix kindly chided the kid. "At ease, boy! We're not at the office!"
"Yes, sir," Nicky said, returning to the table.
Sestus introduced his guests. "Perdix, you remember Phoebus, Alar and Pargo. They're back for a visit and will be staying here for a few days."
Perdix regarded the trio with a perplexed expression, then acknowledged them with a friendly nod. "Ah, yes, now I remember the three of you! Three years ago, you helped me capture the Dragoons. I'm glad to see you again! You disappeared before I had a chance to express my gratitude."
"That's all right, Perdix," Virdon said quietly. "We're just glad to be of help."
Galen held up his cup to Perdix. "Our compliments to you on the best wine we've had in some time!"
"Yeah, Perdix," added Burke. "This is great stuff!"
"Thank you." Perdix eyed the bowl of fruit on the table, then helped himself to a strawberry. "It's made from special grapes. My grandfather was the one who started the winery. I'll bring you a bottle as a token of my gratitude for your help."
"Thank you, Perdix! That's very nice of you!" Virdon quickly replied. He wasn't about to turn down this rare gift of appreciation. Especially one willingly offered by a gorilla!
"I wouldn't mind having a loaf of this bread, too," Burke requested. "Your wife's an excellent baker!"
"Thank you," said Perdix proudly. "She really loves baking, and I suggested that she start her own bakery. That was five years ago, and I'm very proud of her success. I would be happy to give you and your friends some bread to go with the wine, Pargo." He focused on Sestus. "Oh, yes, Sestus, I came to tell you that Nicky won't be able to come tomorrow. I have some letters and packages that need to be delivered to the northern outpost." He turned to Nicky, "So come home tonight before it gets dark, boy!"
"Yes, sir," the boy answered with another salute.
The graying chimpanzee smiled benevolently at the lad. "Oh that's quite all right, Perdix. Phoebus, Alar and Pargo are here if we need anything. I think you'll need the boy more than we will. Especially to get him ready for the big race."
"Don't remind me!" the gorilla groaned as he tossed another strawberry in his mouth.
"Sestus told us about the big race," said Galen as he sipped the last of his wine. "You don't sound very happy about it, Perdix."
Perdix shook his head. "I'm not! If I lose this race, and I know I will, Urko will be the proud and gloating owner of my winery! So enjoy the wine while you can."
Virdon inquired, "I take it this was Urko's idea to use human jockeys for this race?"
"Yes, it was all his idea," Perdix replied. "He thinks human jockeys will save the lives of his apes. His jockey, Kagen, got hurt recently. Thank goodness it was just a broken leg and some bruises. I thought Urko was joking when he made this challenge, but apparently, he's very serious about it. So serious, that he's ordered me to race against him. If I refuse to race, he'll either have me demoted, or transferred to Dorvado!"
Fauna cried, "That's terrible, Perdix! Urko forcing you into a race like this! He should be ashamed of himself!"
"Yeah, I know Fauna!" Perdix moaned dejectedly. "But, what else can I do? I don't have a choice but to comply!"
"Dorvado's not a very nice place to be transferred to," Galen grimly commented. "Someone I knew was transferred there." He paused hesitantly, then related, "You know the same thing happened to this friend of mine. He used to own a racehorse farm. And he, too, was coerced into a race by Urko."
"Is that so?" asked Perdix with interest.
"Yes," Galen nodded. "It was Urko who insisted on the race, and it was Urko who demanded the bet on the farm. Well, Urko's horse won, of course, so my friend lost his farm."
"Humph, I know all about Urko when it comes to racing!" Perdix said tartly. "I wished I could help your friend win his farm back."
"That's very kind of you, Perdix, but it's quite all right." Galen swirled his spoon in his soup. "The farm was a bit too much for him to deal with, and he was more than happy to unload it off on Urko." Galen snickered amusingly. "You see, the joke's on him!"
A confused look crossed Perdix's muzzle. "I don't follow you, Phoebus."
"Urko thought he was getting a herd of valuable race horses, when in fact, all he got was a barn full of old plugs, ready to be put out to pasture!" Galen chuckled humorously, and a chain reaction of laughter started around the table. His tone abruptly turned serious. "But unfortunately, Urko had the last word. Since he's Chief of Security, he had the authority to have my friend arrested for fraud. In order to avoid a jail sentence, my friend ended up having to pay a heavy fine."
Perdix snorted derisively. "Urko may be the Chief of Security, but that doesn't give him the right to use these races to swindle apes!" he spat bitterly. "Especially when he publicly claims he doesn't approve or tolerate corruption!"
Everyone was shocked at the garrison commander's outburst-especially the fugitives.
"Perdix," said Virdon. "I'm surprised to hear you talk about Urko this way!"
Perdix glanced down at his water, avoiding the acute peering faces around the table. "Sorry about that!" he mumbled. "I guess I said something I shouldn't have said." His voice turned cynical again. "It's just hard to believe that Urko's horse has only lost three races in three years! No horse can be that lucky!"
"Except maybe Man O' War," Virdon muttered to himself.
"What?" asked Perdix.
"Ah, nothing, Perdix," said Virdon. "Go on, you were saying?"
"I've heard rumors that Urko secretly provides his horse with a few extra 'advantages', and that's why he usually wins…but no one dares to question him about this!" Perdix bluntly revealed. "Then Prefect Mikko told me that a close friend of his, who shall be nameless, discovered these rumors were true! He said his friend spied two of Urko's gorillas setting up traps along the race course." Perdix's face clouded. "When I heard this, it just infuriated me! Urko already has the fastest horse on the planet, so why resort to cheating to win races? And he's the one who's supposed to be setting an example for the rest of us!" The police ape disconcertedly fingered his metal cup. If he's "influencing" these races, Perdix angrily thought, chances are, he's probably involved in other questionable business, too!
"What happens if you win the race, Perdix?" asked Fauna.
Perdix finished his water, but got up to pour himself a refill. "If I win, the purse is five hundred notes, plus the five additional troopers I've been requesting for the past three years. If Urko wins, he gets my winery. Urko made the challenge, but I'm going to demand the conditions for this race! This race will be fair and honest, and I am not going to allow Nicky and Quando to get hurt in this ridiculous farce!"
"But Urko won't agree to it!" Galen argued.
"With a little clever persuasion, he will!" the gorilla declared with a sly gleam in his eyes. "Two can play at this game! He didn't give me a choice, so I'm not giving him one, either! He's dealing with Lieutenant Perdix, commander of the Thalassa garrison, not some gullible little pushover prefect!"
"Wait a minute!" Virdon piped up, snapping his fingers. "You know, with a lot of planning and a little work, it's just possible those two could win! Even if they didn't at least they'd have a chance!"
"No!" snapped Perdix. "I just said this race will be fair and honest! There will be no cheating!"
"Yes, but please, Perdix, sir, just hear me out! Please!" Virdon implored. A clever grin broadened across his face. "It just so happens that we have a few…'advantages' of our own…that can help tip some of the odds in Nicky and Quando's favor. And, in the end, Urko will still be none the wiser! What do you say, Perdix?"
Perdix tipped his head as he pondered over Virdon's offer. "First, tell me how you plan to help Nicky and Quando. If it's fair and honest, and within the law, then I'll agree to it."
"You will, Perdix, you will," Virdon promised.
Perdix grunted sourly as he downed the last of his refill. "Urko told me that I was the one who had the advantage since I already have a human jockey. I couldn't tell if he was trying to cheer me up, or if he was being sarcastic."
Galen tilted his head in puzzlement. "It just doesn't make any sense! Why would Urko challenge you to a race? Doesn't he always race against rich apes or the prefects?"
"Yes, he does." Perdix nodded in perplexity. He pounded his gloved fist into his other palm in frustration. "Urko just wants my winery and he's using this race as a means to get it!" he bitterly declared. "There's more to this, I'm sure! I only wished I knew what it was!"
"Maybe Urko's just plain addicted to racing," Burke suggested. "He's so desperate for a race that he's picked your courier horse to race his horse against!"
"It's possible, but I highly doubt it." Perdix wore a look of grim determination. "Well, then," he nodded resolvedly, as a crafty smile curved on his muzzle. "If Urko so desperately wants a race, then I'll be happy to oblige him! All right! Let's do it!" He smacked his left fist into his right palm. "Let's give him a race!"
After dinner, Virdon went out to the corral to get better acquainted with Quando. The Appaloosa leaned against Virdon's chest and began rubbing his neck against the astronaut.
"Whoa! You stop that right now!" Virdon pushed the horse away. "I don't know if your neck itches, or you're just being affectionate, but you don't know your own strength!"
"I think he likes you, Alan," Burke smirked as he and Galen joined him.
"Well, at least your admirer walks upright on two legs," Virdon jested back.
"You mean Fauna?" Burke returned. "Well, at least I can have a decent conversation with my admirer!" He turned to his simian friend. "Hey, Galen, I didn't know you had a friend who lost a racehorse farm to Urko. Do we know him?"
"No, I made that story up because I wanted to see what Perdix's reaction would be," the chimpanzee replied. "I don't think he's very fond of Urko."
"Apparently not," Virdon noted. "There's quite a few gorillas that aren't very fond of Urko; like Kava, and our new friend, Dr. Gentza." He picked up Quando's left foreleg and traced his index finger inside of his hoof. "Hmm, just as I thought," he mused. "We're going to have to do with Quando exactly what we did with Woda."
"Thin shoes?" asked Galen.
"Exactly." Virdon released Quando's hoof, then wiped his hands on his pants. "And we're going to have to find a saddle that we can scale down to the bare minimum. Nicky's a little guy anyway, but we're going to make Quando feel like he's carrying a feather on his back."
"All right, let's get started!" urged Burke, clasping his hands together. "I can't wait to see Urko's face when Team Perdix crosses the finish line first!"
Urko groaned his displeasure as he slammed the door to Perdix's office. The garrison commander stood smiling behind his desk. He gestured invitingly for Urko to have a seat.
"Ah, yes, Chief Urko!" Perdix greeted him cordially. "I'm so glad you're here, sir!"
"This had better be important, Perdix!" Urko growled, removing his helmet. "I'm too busy an ape to be bothered with trivial affairs!"
"Why, sir! I wouldn't have summoned you here for something trivial!" Perdix declared. "I summoned you here to review the final preparations!"
Urko cautiously angled his head. "Preparations?" he asked slowly. "Preparations for what?"
"For the race, sir," said Perdix.
"You've made all the arrangements?" cried Urko indignantly. "But I always make all the arrangements!"
"But sir, you just said you're a very busy ape!" Perdix reminded him. "And since you are a very busy ape, with this inspection tour and all, I've taken the liberty to make all the arrangements for you." He handed him a piece of parchment. "Here are all the details for the race, in writing-for your final approval, of course. I just need your signature for confirmation on the bottom, sir…that is…only if you're in total agreement with my proposal."
Urko groaned again, snatching up the paper. "You had this put in writing?" he growled disbelievingly.
"Yes, of course, sir," Perdix innocently replied. "Am I not correctly following procedures, sir?" He paused for a moment, then added, "Haven't you always provided the prefects with written agreements, sir?"
"Well…um, no," Urko hesitated. His subordinate's actions had clearly caught him off guard. The Chief of Security grunted in disapproval, then gathered his composure, smiling condescendingly. "Horse racing is a friendly sport played entirely for pleasure, Perdix, not written agreements!"
I thought horseracing was a gambling sport! Perdix seethed silently. If we are racing for pleasure, then why am I being forced to bet the winery?
Urko continued patronizing his lieutenant. "But considering your complete ignorance on the sport of horse racing, I'll admit your intentions were good, Perdix, but…misguided." The gorilla's cordial manner dissipated into total seriousness. "From now on, allow me to make all the arrangements! Is that understood, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. Understood, sir. You're right, sir," Perdix returned with a trace of smarminess. "I am quite ignorant when it comes to horse racing, and I sincerely apologize for overstepping your authority. I didn't mean to offend you, sir."
The smile returned. "Apology accepted. And since this is your first-and I'm sure, your last-venture into the sport of horse racing, I'll gladly humor you…just this one time!" Urko held up the agreement and began to read aloud. "A group of impartial apes will be invited to observe the race to ensure there is no cheating or foul play involved. The racecourse will be out in the open. A racecourse without trees, fences, buildings and other such landmarks will discourage any cheating or foul play. And most important of all, if it is discovered that cheating or foul play was involved, the horse will be automatically disqualified and the wager cancelled! What is this?" he complained resentfully. "A plot? Why all of these conditions, Perdix? You act as if you don't trust me!"
Perdix smiled awkwardly. "Well, sir, I'm sorry to admit this…but no…I do not," he reluctantly admitted. "Please, sir, try to understand my position. It's just that I know all too well how dangerous racing can be. You see,Nicky is very valuable to me, and I don't want the boy recklessly injured or killed!"
"That mongrel hairless-monkey? Valuable? Ha!" scoffed Urko with a boisterous laugh. "Any human can be taught to deliver messages, Perdix! A pigeon can be taught to deliver messages! I believe that's why they're called courier pigeons!"
"Yes, sir, that's true," Perdix replied frankly. "Pigeons can be trained to deliver messages. But sir, not all humans have the ability to care for my horses, work with tools, and deliver that fresh loaf of bread you ordered from my wife."
"All right, Perdix," Urko conceded, with an amused laugh. "If this human is that important to you, we'll proceed with the race according to your terms. But I'm still demanding the bet, Lieutenant!" Not that it really matters, he gleefully thought, since my horse is going to win anyway! With a haughty smile, he signed Perdix's written agreement, then stuffed his copy in his pocket. "Ah, yes," he purred smugly. "I can just taste that divine wine right now!"
"Well, don't serve your wine before it's won, Chief Urko!" Perdix smoothly bantered, as he held out his gloved paw. "Good luck, and may the best horse win!" The ape lieutenant gazed curiously at his commander. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, who's the lucky human you've chosen to ride against Nicky and Quando?"
Urko shrugged casually. "What does it matter? It's only a human!" he laughed. "Why do you ask? Is it that important for you to know who's riding my horse?"
"Well," Perdix replied, trying to sound apathetic. "I thought since you already know who's riding my horse, it's only fair that you tell me who's riding yours. Unless…" he noted implying, "there's some reason why you don't want to tell me who's riding for you!" A slick smile sprang upon Perdix's face. "A reason named Virdon, perhaps?"
"Virdon!" Urko spoke the blond spaceman's name venomously. "Virdon riding my horse?" He chuckled at his subordinate's outrageous suspicions. "Don't be ridiculous, Perdix! I can't believe you'd actually think such a thing! I'll admit, Virdon is a great rider, but he's still a wanted criminal, and an enemy of the state! I'd have him shot before I'd allow him anywhere near Tusan!"
Maybe so, Perdix thought doubtfully, but knowing how you are, I wouldn't put it past you!
Burke and Galen had spent the earlier part of the day preparing wooden rails for the corral, when Fauna wandered by, carrying a tray with two glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice.
Burke lifted one of the glasses from the tray. "Thank you, Fauna." He took a sip, then pleasantly said, "Ah, this is good!"
"Yes, very good!" Galen agreed. "Very good, indeed! Thank you, Fauna!"
"If you want more, I'll be glad to make more," Fauna droned.
Burke noticed the strained cordiality in Fauna's voice. The girl-chimp had been acting very peculiar with the three friends-him especially-ever since they arrived. Burke had grown tired of her curt behavior with him. If something was amiss, he wanted to find the underlying cause of this once and for all. He set aside his orange juice and pointedly asked, "Fauna, is something wrong?"
Fauna clutched the tray to her breast and tersely replied, "No, why do you ask?"
"Because you act like something's bothering you," Burke answered. "If something's wrong, maybe I can help."
"No!" Fauna snapped. "There's nothing wrong!"
"Fauna, if something's bothering you, it might help to talk about it," Burke coaxed. He had a nagging suspicion, but hesitated to bring it up… "Fauna, are you still angry about me tricking you?" There, he finally said it!
Fauna turned away. "No…"
"Honest answers now," Burke gently demanded. "You can tell me the truth. I can take it."
Fauna spun hotly around. "Yes!" she uttered bitterly. "I guess you could say I'm still a little miffed about that, but what did you expect?"
So that's it! I knew it, Burke thought. "I thought you forgave me for that!" he cried.
"I tried, but I just can't seem to let this go!" she said achingly, on the verge of tears. "Here I thought you were an ape, and you cared about me!" Now the tears flowed. "Then I find out you're human…and…it just…you broke my heart, Pargo!"
Burke, himself, was now on the border of losing his emotions. "Fauna, I'm sorry I lied about being an ape! I really am! I felt terrible about that, and I still do!" How he longed to reach out and comfort the female ape, but his instincts warned him otherwise. "But I didn't lie to you about us! Remember? I told you there was nothing between us, and there never could be!" Burke's vision blurred and his cheeks were suddenly wet. "And I never lied about not caring about you! I do care about you! I care about you as a friend! If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't have saved you from drowning!" his voice quivered passionately. "I never meant to hurt you, Fauna. I don't know what else to say or do to make up for all the heartache I've caused you! I'm sorry, Fauna!" He dried his eyes with his sleeve, then sincerely said, "I still think you're a sweet person, and I'd like to be your friend…if you'll let me!"
Galen, who had been watching and listening to this heartbreaking scene, could take it no more! "Fauna!" he quickly cut in.
"What is it, Phoebus?" Fauna hissed annoyingly.
"Fauna, I'm the one you should be angry with, not Pargo!" Galen blurted to Burke's surprise. He nodded reassuringly in reply to Burke's questioning looks. "It was my idea to trick you, into thinking he was an ape! Not his! It was my face you felt in the cave, that day!" he tearfully confessed, willing to accept the responsibility for the entire hoax. "I'm sorry, too, Fauna! I've never been sorrier in all my life!" He swiped his hairy wrist across his wet face. "Fauna, please try to understand, we didn't want to trick you, but we had no choice! If you knew my friends were human, you would've screamed first and asked questions later!"
"We were only trying to stop the Dragoons, Fauna," Burke kindly explained, "and unfortunately, you just happened to be caught in the middle of our deception! Just like all those humans who were caught in the middle of the big Dragoon lie! Remember?" He finally had the courage to lay a gentle hand on Fauna's shoulder. He expected her to push him away, but surprisingly, she did not.
"Yes, I remember…" Fauna whispered. "But I loved you, Pargo!" she whimpered.
"I know…" Burke stammered. His consoling hand moved from Fauna's shoulder and wrapped around her waist. "But there's no reason why we still can't love each other…as friends…can we? Please?" he pleaded.
Fauna tossed aside her tray. She circled her arms around Burke and buried her face in his torso. Galen tightly embraced both of them, and three years of unresolved grief flowed freely from their eyes.
"Alar should be here!" Burke laughed through his tears. "He's missing a great group hug!"
"Alar's with Perdix," Fauna said unexpectedly.
"Perdix is here?" asked Galen, glancing about the farm. He and Burke were so involved in their work; neither had noticed the Police Chief of Thalassa's arrival.
"Yes, he came by a few minutes ago to see Alar," said Fauna in a friendlier tone of voice. "He brought Alar an old saddle for Nicky to use in the big race."
In the parlor, Perdix handed Virdon an odd-shaped object wrapped in a huge gunnysack. "I found this. I think it's just what you're looking for. It's my old riding saddle from when I was a kid. I never use it anymore and it's still in beautiful shape."
Virdon removed the saddle from the burlap sack and placed it on the table. His eyes glimmered excitedly. "Yes, Perdix, this is perfect!" As he examined the stirrup straps and the cinch, Virdon said admirably, "Sestus told us you saved Nicky's life. I think that's wonderful, Perdix, you and your family taking him in like that! Most apes wouldn't have done such a thing!"
"Yeah, Nicky was in pretty bad shape when I found him. Been stabbed twice in the gut," Perdix said grimly. "I thought if he could help me catch the Dragoons, I was determined to save his life. Unfortunately, he couldn't identify any of them. But he was positive their leader was a gorilla, by his build, and the military boots and gloves he wore. When he told me this, I suspected someone like Macor, or Krono to be the leader. I would have never suspected Zon, my most loyal and trusted officer, to be involved!" A distasteful look covered his face. "What really disappointed me the most was, not only was Zon their leader, but half of my force were Dragoons, too!" Perdix watched Virdon for a few silent moments, then strongly noted, "I had all the Dragoons brought up on charges, Alar! I promised Nicky, and all the humans, that every single Dragoon would face the consequences for taking the law into their own hands!" He dishearteningly shook his head. "If Zon and Sestus had only told the truth about Lucian's death, that it was an accident, they might not have been so severely punished! And I wouldn't have been stuck short-handed for six months! Because of this nonsense, we lost about thirty human servants and laborers!"
"Yeah, one of the humans named Jasko was killed by the Dragoons," Virdon sadly mentioned the victim's name. "Phoebus, Pargo and I knew him."
"Yeah, I knew him, too," Perdix sighed melancholically. "Jasko was a good man. Always friendly. Never bothered anyone. When I made my rounds, he always invited me in for corn fritters and coffee. He certainly didn't deserve his fate! It's too late for him and the other humans, but at least Nicky received some kind of justice out of this tragedy."
"Speaking of Nicky," said Virdon, trying to brighten the mood of the conversation, "I heard you turned him into one heck of a little messenger boy! That was a brilliant idea, Perdix! Where did you ever come up with that?"
Perdix's demeanor suddenly lightened. "Well, I've been trying to get Urko to approve my request for more personnel, but he kept denying it since this area allegedly has a low crime rate. The only major trouble we've ever had here were the Dragoons, and some ape-on-ape, and human-on-human crimes, but he still doesn't feel that I need more police! When I suspended my gorillas that left me shorthanded, so I had no choice but to improvise. I took away the courier and mail duties from my apes, and I wanted to see if Nicky could compensate instead. That way I could reassign my apes to perform duties that are more important. I proposed the idea to the Council and they actually considered it! With Prefect Mikko's help, I convinced the Council to give Nicky a chance, and they agreed by a majority vote." The garrison commander's manner turned dour. "Zaius said that one member voted against me, and quite vehemently, too. I won't say who he is, but I'm sure you know him quite well."
"Urko," Virdon spoke the name dismally.
"Of course," Perdix answered contemptuously, then proudly continued his story. "After Nicky recovered, I taught him how to ride. That boy's a fast learner, and he rides a horse as well as any ape! And Quando's just perfect for him! He's fast, and he stands out because of his spots. That way Nicky won't accidentally be shot, since humans are forbidden to ride horses. That's why I also had that special band put on his wrist. I was only allowed to use Nicky on a trial basis, but since he's proven himself, hopefully, the Council will permit me to use him permanently, or as long as he's able to perform his task. Sometimes, my wife will have him deliver orders from her bakery, too. It's a lot faster on horseback, than trying to make deliveries in a wagon." Perdix leisurely leaned back in his chair. "That boy's come a long way in three years!" he stated in amazement. "He has speaking problems and some minor issues we're trying to work out, but overall, he's a good boy."
"So where did you get Quando from?" Virdon asked with great interest. "I haven't seen a horse like him in a long time!"
"I got Quando as payment on a debt my brother-in-law owed me," Perdix replied. "I'm not really sure where Garth got him from. That horse was so ugly nobody wanted him, so I got stuck with him!" Perdix cocked his head and noted retrospectively, "Well, he's not pretty, but his disposition is excellent, and he runs like the wind, and that's all I care about!"
Virdon smiled, then flipped the saddle on its back, examining the underside. "I wonder if that's the reason why Urko's forcing you into this race?" he mused. "I'm guessing he's using this race as a means to get back at you, because the Council gave Nicky permission to ride a horse."
Perdix shrugged unconcerned. "Well, that's possible, but the Council voted and Nicky can legally ride Quando. Until the Council says otherwise, Urko can just grow up and get over it!" Perdix gazed at the human insightfully. "I really appreciate you and your friends helping me get Nicky and Quando ready for this race, Alar."
Virdon replied by giving Perdix a friendly slap on his back.
As Ricco and his family gathered before the fireplace to unwind for the evening, the front door suddenly flung open and two gorillas invaded the human abode. Gasping in surprise, the whole family sprang to their feet, with the three children scurrying to safety behind their parents.
"Macor!" Ricco uttered. "How nice of you to stop by for a visit, sir," he obsequiously addressed one of the soldiers. "You must be parched after a long ride! May we offer you and your friend a drink of water?" An ugly scowl twisted on the ape's face. "You look angry," the sheepherder stated uneasily. "Is something wrong, sir?"
"Ignorant hairless-monkey!" the trooper snarled in Ricco's face. "I am not Macor! How dare you call me by that second-rate sapper's name! I am Vanka! I serve under Chief Urko himself, Supreme Commander of Central City's security and military forces!"
"Forgive me for my ignorance, sir." Ricco faltered. "It's just that all apes look alike to me. That's why I easily mistook you for Macor." He sought Vanka with apprehensive eyes. "Please, sir! Can you tell us why you're here? Have we done anything wrong? If we have, please tell us what we must do to make it right!"
Vanka, not wanting to waste any more time with humans then he had to, got straight to the point. "I'm on an important mission for Chief Urko. He needs a human jockey to ride his horse in the big race against Perdix's spotted horse in Thalassa next week."
Patrina timidly stepped into view. "There's going to be a horse race with human jockeys? How exciting! When's the race, sir?" she boldly asked. Turning to Ricco, she babbled breathlessly, "Papa, can we go watch the race? Please? The sheep will be all right by themselves for a little while! Old Brogan won't let anything happen to them!"
"Please, Papa! We never get to go to Thalassa to do anything fun!" Meredith complained. "It's always work, work, work!" She turned to her mother for support. "If Papa can't go, maybe the rest of us can go without him! Please, Mama?"
"Girls, you know you can't!" Ricco replied before Emmylou could say anything. "There's too much to do around here! We can't afford to waste time on such-"
"Quiet!" Vanka silenced the shepherd. His gimlet eyes scanned over the family and zeroed in on Lowell. "How old are you, boy?"
"Fourteen, sir," Lowell quietly answered.
"Fourteen." Keeping the lad in his sights, Vanka languidly asked the other gorilla, "He's about the same age as that boy who's riding Perdix's spotted horse, correct?"
"You mean Nicky, sir?" Lowell readily offered the info. "He's older than me, sir. He's fifteen."
"Lowell, be quiet!" Ricco hissed.
"Yes, that's right," Vanka's comrade nodded, totally ignoring Lowell.
"Hmm, this boy is an inch taller than Perdix's human," Vanka mused, stroking his beard, "but that shouldn't be too much of a major factor in the race."
"Does that mean I get to ride, sir?" Lowell asked hopefully.
"Lowell!" Ricco flashed his son a warning look.
"Not yet you don't," Vanka informed him. "Don't worry, boy, there's still hope for you. So far, you and two other humans are the only suitable candidates we've found. We still have many more humans to see before we make our final decision."
A willing smile widened on Lowell's face. "If you don't find anyone else, sir, I'll do it! I'll ride Chief Urko's horse!"
"No!" cried Ricco in alarm. "You can't! Humans can't ride horses! Only Nicky can ride a horse! You'll be shot!"
"No, he won't," Vanka mildly reassured him. "Urko arranged to make an exception, just this once. If he's caught riding after the race," his right hand eagerly fingered the rifle cradled in his left palm, "then he'll be shot!" He grinned smugly when his actions caused the family to produce a collective startled gasp.
"But Papa, what if they do pick me to ride Chief Urko's horse?" Lowell appealed to his father. "Don't you want to come and watch me? I know Mama, Patrina and Meredith want to! Patrina's right! The sheep will be all right by themselves for a little while! Old Brogan can-!"
"No, Lowell!" Ricco cut him off. "You're not riding at all, because I won't allow it!" He returned his anxious eyes upon the two officers. "I'm sorry, sirs, but I can't let him ride! I'm honored that…Chief Urko needs him…" he paused, carefully choosing his words, "but please, sirs, the sheep need him! We need him! If he ended up seriously hurt or killed in this race, I could never forgive myself!"
"I won't get hurt or killed, Papa! I'll be careful, I promise!" The young shepherd clutched Ricco's arm with an entreating hand. "Please, Papa! If you'll let me ride just this once, I promise I'll never ask for anything ever again!"
Vanka threw his fellow gorilla a bored look. From the father's behavior, it was obvious he would find no fitting human jockey here. He'd grown tired of the prattle between the shepherd and his son, and was more than ready to move on. "Come, Devryck," he tugged the other ape's sleeve. "Let's get out of this den of mongrel dogs! The smell alone is enough to kill the poor fleas that are stuck here!" To Ricco's relief, the simian duo left the premises as fast as they had entered it.
"No!" cried Lowell. His opportunity to do the impossible was fading fast, and he wasn't about to let his father just throw it away! In a final attempt to hang on to his chance, he ran to the door, shouting after the departing apes, "Come back! I'm the one you want! Pick me, sirs! Please!" His desperate imploring only fell upon their disregarding ears. When Urko's troopers had crossed the meadow and disappeared into the forest, Lowell angrily slammed the door shut. "It's not fair! It's just not fair!" he wailed. "How can you take this once in a lifetime chance away from me?"
"I'm sorry, Lowell, but I had to! It's for your own good! I won't have my only son crippled, or possibly killed, because of a foolish horse race!" Ricco firmly pronounced, curtailing any further objections from the teenager. "Son, I know you're angry now, but believe me, later on, you'll thank me for this!"
"Thank you? Thank you?" Lowell yelled heatedly. "Why would I ever thank you for what you've just done to me? I swear, I'll never forgive you for this as long as I live!" With resentful tear-filled eyes, he started to stomp angrily to his room, but Ricco snagged him by his arm in mid-step.
"If you're going to be angry with me, fine!" Ricco said resignedly. "I'd rather have you alive and angry, than happy and dead!" When Lowell tried to pull away, he grabbed the young man's other arm and brought him close, staring him square in the face. "If you had listened to me first, instead of putting on this childish tantrum, you'd know my reason for not letting you ride! It's not so much your getting hurt that worries me. I'm sure you could ride as well as Nicky, if given the chance. I don't want you riding because I don't want to risk losing my only son!" Lowell's struggling ceased when he realized he had no choice but to hear his father out. "If Nicky and Quando win this race, do you know what would happen to you? Urko would have you punished with a public execution!" Lowell's eyes widened in shock at this revelation. "You didn't think about that, did you?" Lowell slowly shook his head, and Ricco benevolently continued, "If it'd been Perdix's horse, or even Prefect Mikko's, I might have let you ride! But Urko is not at all like Perdix or Prefect Mikko! He's an ape that I want all of us to have as little to do with as possible!" He released Lowell and whirled upon the rest of the family with a fierce look. "And no, you're still not going to Thalassa to watch this horrible thing! If Urko's horse loses the race, I have no desire for any of you to see his poor jockey swinging from the end of a rope!"
Lowell sheepishly hung his head and dried his eyes on his sleeve. "I'm sorry for getting angry, Papa," he quietly apologized. "I didn't mean what I said…"
"I know, son, I know," Ricco's voice trembled as he drew the lad by his side.
"You're right, Papa," Lowell admitted. "I didn't think about what would've happened if I did lose. It's just that for a moment…I thought I had a chance to do something really big! But I guess this silly race isn't worth losing my life over." As his family's arms cocooned him in a silent, consoling hug, an unpleasant thought suddenly popped into the youth's mind. All he could do to make it go away was to close his eyes, and fervently pray for the unfortunate boy out there, who would become Urko's jockey...
To be continued…