Easy Money the Hard Way
part 1
or
Watoosi is What You Get

TaleSpin and its characters are property of Disney. All other characters are mine and cannot be used without permission.

Cape Suzette
Higher for Hire
March 1937
Thursday Afternoon

Rebecca Cunningham, owner of Higher for Hire air cargo service, sat at her desk. Chin propped on her hand, she stared at the open ledger in discouragement.

Higher for Hire had been open for two-and-a-half months, and this was the first time that it had been in the black. Four dollars and twenty-eight cents in the black to be exact. It had been a long, hard, tedious, taxing struggle to climb out of the hole that its former owner, her pilot, had dug. In fact, it had been more of a struggle than she had anticipated. Not only was the air cargo racket a tight market, her small, foundling business had to compete against established conglomerates like Khan Industries. Actually, under the circumstances, Higher for Hire was doing marvelously.

However, merely being out of debt wasn't enough for this petite brown bearess. She wanted a bulging bank account; she wanted freedom from scrimping and saving and contriving. Surely she, an intelligent businesswoman with an MBA, could think of a way to make money faster.

What would they do in business school? she asked herself, mentally putting a few zeroes behind the number at the bottom of the column.

This called for some serious action.

Rebecca opened the bottom desk drawer and drew out her purse. She would go window shopping. Shopping had always helped to clear her mind, it cheered her up, and perhaps she'd pick up an idea to make a large profit in the process.

Higher for Hire
Later That Evening

Rebecca was once again stationed at her desk. The discouragement that had been on her face earlier that day had been replaced by determination. The desktop was littered with maps, travel guides, fashion magazines, and a couple of encyclopedia volumes. While she perused these resources, Molly, her six-year-old daughter, sat on her lap and played with a large white feather.

Both the brown bearess and the yellow cub looked up when two male bears - Higher for Hire's flight crew - stepped from the twilight into the office and strolled over to the desk.

Baloo, a big grey bear, said jovially, "Another mission successfully completed by Cape Suzette's best team, Becky. Delivered forty crates of them plastic thingies that go on the end of your shoelaces to the Heart an' Sole Shoe Factory." The pilot handed a slip of paper to Rebecca and clapped his twelve-year-old navigator on the shoulder. "Whattaya call 'em again, partner?"

"Uh, the little plastic thingies that go on the end of your shoelaces?" Kit, a small brown bear cub, replied with a shrug and a sheepish grin.

"An' we were even on time ta boot. Get it? Shoe factory? Boot?" Baloo guffawed.

Molly giggled while Rebecca and Kit exchanged grimaces at the bad pun. Rebecca, Kit, and Molly followed Baloo into the kitchen where the large pilot proceeded to examine the contents of the refrigerator.

"Lookit what we got today," Molly said. She tugged on the hem of Baloo's yellow button-down shirt and held up the large white plume. "Baloo! Look!"

Baloo smiled down at the little girl, saying gently, "Yeah, I see it, Button-nose. Big feather." He piled sandwich materials, a bag of potato chips, and two bottles of strawberry soda pop on the table before plopping down in a hardback chair. He ripped open the bag of chips and crammed a large handful in his mouth. He reached for the loaf of bread only to have his hand smacked away by his boss. "Ouch!"

"I'll make the sandwiches this time," Rebecca said emphatically. "I'm tired of you complaining that your salary doesn't cover your grocery bill. You need to learn how to ration your food."

"Yeah, yeah, Becky," Baloo growled as the cubs joined him at the table.

Rebecca got a knife from the silverware drawer and sat down at the table. "Acting like money grows on trees. That's part of your problem, Baloo."

"Only part of my problem?" the big bear said, his voice rising. Where does she get off criticizin' my personal life? She don't own me.

Seeing Baloo's face turn a pale shade of purple, the cubs squirmed uncomfortably in their seats.

"Yes, you need to learn money management, " Rebecca replied. Because she was intent on spreading mayonnaise on a slice of bread, she didn't notice him scowl. She piled ham, cheese, and lettuce on the bread, put a second slice of bread on top, put it on a plate, and handed it to Kit. "And speaking of money, that is a feather from the Ring-necked, Fluffy-tailed Watoosian Ostrich. They're worth one hundred fifty dollars apiece."

"The ostriches or the feathers?" Baloo asked, peeved that she had given the first sandwich to Kit. Frowning, he impatiently watched as she made a second sandwich.

"Feathers." Rebecca handed him the sandwich, which he greedily snatched.

Baloo chomped into the sandwich, devouring half of it in one bite, prompting a look of disgust from Rebecca. After swallowing, he passed the back of his hand over his mayo-ringed mouth. "Wowzers. An' you just happened to pick one up?" He popped the tab off two bottles of soda with a practiced flick of his thumb and offered one to Kit. "Didn't know we had any ostriches 'round these parts."

"Mommy bought it at a store." Molly held the soft feather to her cheek. "Isn't it pretty?"

Baloo choked on his Strawberry Fizzie. "You - cough - wasted a hundred fifty smackers - cough - on an overgrown - cough - pigeon feather?"

"It's not a waste," Rebecca countered, placing a plate containing a sandwich and a few potato chips in front of her daughter. "It's an investment. Did you know, Baloo, that all over the world there are thousands of untapped, future consumers just waiting to consume thousands of commodities that no one has ever thought of selling?"

"Is she speakin' English?" Baloo asked Kit.

"To put it in simple terms for the simpleminded, Higher for Hire is going to invest in unusual resources to make a profit."

"Oh, ya mean crazy get-rich-quick schemes," Baloo murmured derisively, wolfing down the remainder of the sandwich.

Perturbed, Rebecca shot her pilot her patented 'don't-push-me' look. "My latest idea involves going to Watoosi and collecting feathers just like these."

"An' how are you gonna get there?" Baloo asked, not liking where this conversation was headed. He took a long swig of his soda. "Watoosi's more'n just a hop, skip, an' a jump away."

"You're flying me there," Rebecca said simply, taking a small bite of her sandwich.

Baloo choked on his Strawberry Fizzie again. "Oh, no!" he spluttered as Molly jerked his arm in the air and Kit thumped him vigorously on the back. "Do you know who lives in Watoosi? Watoosian nomads, that's who."

"So?"

His eyes watering from his choking fit, Baloo said, "So, Watoosian nomads are the meanest guys in the world."

"Meaner than Karnage?" Kit asked quietly, thinking of the pirate captain that he had escaped from only a few months previously.

Baloo shot Kit a concerned look across the table. The boy still hadn't filled him in on the horrors that he had endured at the hands of Don Karnage and his band of air pirates, but he knew that it must have been dreadful. Kit had had nightmare after nightmare, waking up screaming and drenched with sweat. Thinking that he'd like to get his hands around a certain pirate's neck, Baloo gave Kit a reassuring smile. "Okay, so the nomads are a close second to ol' Karny. They'd break your arms an' legs just for the fun of it. Then, they really go to work on ya."

Rebecca believed Baloo was being melodramatic again. "As long as we stay away from them, we should be okay. Watoosi is a big country."

"Not big enough," Baloo murmured, recalling what fellow pilots had told him about the nomads, not to mention his own run-in with the desert dwellers. "I haven't told ya the best part, Rebecca. Them fluffy-necked-whatchamacallits are these nomads' pets."

"I'm sure if we talk to them reasonably and rationally, businesswoman to nomad, they'd see things our way and give us a few feathers."

"Ha! I'd like ta see ya try. They don't even speak English. The only language they understand is bows an' arrows, an' I ain't gonna be no shish-kebab for a few fuss an' feathers."

"You're flying me there tomorrow, and that's my final word!" Rebecca said, jabbing her forefinger at his chest with every syllable.

"Tomorrow?" Baloo shot Kit an anguished look; since the next day was a school day, it meant that Kit would not be there to share in the misery. Lucky kid. "But...but...the nomads!"

"It's my plane! Remember, Baloo, I am your boss." With an angry toss of her head, she re-wrapped the leftover ham, cheese, and lettuce in their respecting packaging.

While she was putting the food back in the refrigerator, Baloo muttered to Kit out of the corner of his mouth, "Like she ever lets me forget it."

The Sea Duck
Friday Morning

The early morning sunlight glinted off the orange-trimmed yellow Conwing L-16 as it sliced through the pale pink clouds on its way towards Watoosi.

The barely-awake bear piloting the seaplane was feeling mutinous, and it wasn't because he hadn't had his morning cup of coffee. He was inwardly seething, not only because this excursion seemed pointless, but because his boss wouldn't heed his warnings about the nomads.

Rebecca was becoming more difficult as each day passed. Baloo had never met a more domineering, argumentative, stubborn, irritating female in his life. And yet, during quiet moments, he felt strangely drawn to her; but there hadn't been many quiet moments. Since he'd been under Rebecca's thumb, his life had been a whirlwind of work, work, work, which was seriously cutting into his nap time.

Baloo yawned, then glowered fiercely at the rising sun ahead of them. If it hadn't have been for Kit and the Sea Duck, he would have quit Higher for Hire long ago.

The attitude of the bearess sitting in the co-pilot's seat couldn't have been more different. Rebecca, who had traded her usual attire for a khaki shirt, shorts, and a pith helmet, was wide awake and raring to go. Her sparkling brown eyes diligently studied the map that she held in her hands.

This was the day that she...er, Higher for Hire would be rolling in the dough. It was going to be so pitifully easy to get rich by collecting these feathers that she wondered why everyone else wasn't doing it. She chalked it up to her superior business know-how and innovativeness. Needless to say, Rebecca was feeling very pleased with herself. She just wished that Baloo would stop harping about the nomads.

Flitting his tired eyes over the instruments, Baloo said with feigned ignorance, "I dunno if I can find Watoosi, Becky. Haven't been there for years an' years."

"Oh, I'll tell you the coordinates." Rebecca drew out the sextant and compass. With a frown of concentration, she began to scribble numbers on the edge of the map.

Baloo watched her out of the corner of his eye. He smirked. There was no way that she would know how to read that complicated map. It had taken him several months to master the art of navigation, and flying was as natural as breathing to him. Trying not to smile too broadly, he said casually, "Navigating's a hard thing to do. If ya can't understand where we are or where Watoosi is, that's okay, Becky. I'll just turn the Duck around, an' we'll go home. No point in gettin' lost." For good measure, he threw in one of Rebecca's favorite complaints, "An' we don't wanna waste gas."

"At our present tack and air speed, we should be at Watoosi in," she checked her watch, "about seven hours. But since the wind is blowing from the southwest at fifteen knots, you should come to course one-two-seven."

Incredulous, Baloo exclaimed, "How'd ya know that, Becky?"

"Kit taught me." She smirked, twirling the sextant between her fingers.

Feeling betrayed, Baloo grumbled under his breath as he turned the Sea Duck four degrees to starboard, "Remind me ta thank that kid when we get home. How dare he teach her navigatin' behind my back?"

"Listen to this, Baloo!" Rebecca said excitedly.

"Do I hafta?" he mumbled grumpily, tired of Rebecca's showing off.

"Did you know that there's a lake in Watoosi?"

"Yeah. So?"

"I thought there wasn't any water in deserts."

Baloo, feeling that it was his turn to teach her a thing or three, said smugly, "Shows ya that ya can't go by everythin' the books say. Ya know, Becky, it won't be easy to find them nomads. They move all over."

"I know what the word 'nomad' means, thank you," Rebecca said dryly. "But I don't think they'll be that hard to find."

"Why not?"

"The way I see it, the ostriches are the nomads' pets. Both the ostriches and nomads need water to survive. All we have to do is land at Rickie Lake. There's a river that runs into it." She squinted and held the map closer to read the river's name. "The Ramalama River. Surely the nomads live somewhere along the lake or river."

"Unless they got a well drilled in the Highindri Desert. That bein' the case, we get ta take a nice stroll through miles of sand, snakes, an' sagebrush just to get some stupid feathers." He tapped his fingers on the control yoke, saying sarcastically, "Oh, yeah, Becky, sounds like my idea of a fun ol' time."

"Oh, stop your complaining and concentrate on your flying," she snapped.

Baloo sighed in exasperation. She had that nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-from-the-completion-of-my-crazy-plan look in her eyes. He hated that look. "I'm tellin' ya, Becky. Them nomads are real dangerous."

"You won't care about the danger after we're rich."

Putting his hands behind his head, Baloo leaned back in his seat and steered with his feet. "This is the most feather-brained idea in the world."

"What about that treasure hunt that you went on last week, buster?" Rebecca said, crossing her arms across her chest.

"Hey, that treasure was real!"

Fanning herself with the feather, Rebecca laughed. "It was real all right. A real disappointment. Lost City of Diamonds? Ha! Let me tell you something, Baloo." She waved the feather in front of his face until he angrily swatted it away. "These feathers are a million times more real than your stupid treasure hunt that fizzled out. We just need to get a few thousand."

"A few thousand?" Baloo's feet hit the floor with a 'thump' as he sat up in astonishment. "How are we gonna get a thousand feathers back to the Duck with those nomads lurkin' around, Miz Know-It-All?"

Pretending that she hadn't heard him, Rebecca started to build castles in the air. She scribbled numbers on the back of the map as fast as she could. "One thousand times one hundred fifty dollars equals...but if we get two thousand, we'd have...ooo!"

Baloo returned to scowling out the window, thinking, Them ostriches ain't the only bird brains.

Watoosi
Seven Hours Later

"There it is, Becky. Watoosi. It ain't your typical vacation spot," Baloo said as the Sea Duck circled over the patch of shimmering blue in a desolate desert wasteland.

Rebecca pressed her nose to the starboard window.

From the air, Watoosi, a country located in central Afrikka, was forbidding. Up close, it was even worse. As Rebecca had mentioned, Rickie Lake - more like a shallow pond than a lake - was situated near the western border of the country. It was surrounded by vast stretches of the Highindri Desert. This desert around the lake was peppered with craggy granite monoliths, which had stood the test of time and erosion. No one lived in Watoosi except for the nomads, and they were fiercely territorial over this desolate bit of sand and rock.

The Sea Duck splashed down for a landing in the lake and taxied towards the northeastern shore where the Ramalama River fed into the lake. Through the open window, Baloo could feel the hot, dry wind. Flecks of wind-driven sand abraded his skin and eyes. The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly and heat radiated from the lake. "Man, what a scorcher!"

Flipping the Sea Duck's overhead switches, Baloo anxiously scanned the rugged rocks that ringed the lake. Nomads could be hiding behind any of them.

Before the propellers came to a complete stop, Rebecca opened the door and jumped from the plane. She immediately let out an ear-piercing shriek and leaped back into the cockpit.

"Sand too hot?"

"Big...big...lizard!" Rebecca gasped out with a repulsed shudder. "I almost stepped on it!"

Baloo hid a smile. "Too bad, so sad. I betcha there's tons of creepy crawlies all over Watoosi just waitin' ta crawl up your legs or jump in your hair, Becky. Guess we better head on home."

"No!" At the thought of losing all that money, Rebecca steeled her nerves and yanked him out the pilot's seat to the cargo hold. "Get the raft, Baloo."

"I will, I will! Just stop bein' so doggone bossy."

"I'm not bossy," she said in her most infuriating tone. "I'm just always right."

Baloo snorted, rummaging through the cluttered cargo hold for the inflatable raft. "If she ain't bossy, I'm a pig."

She happened to catch this quiet aside and couldn't help remarking, "Well, the way you eat, Baloo..."

"Now don't start that again, Rebecca." He pulled the ripcord that made the raft inflate. The large raft pinned him to the fuselage's wall.

"Where are the oars?"

"Closet, I think," replied Baloo's muffled voice.

She opened the storage closet and had to jump to the side to avoid the avalanche of junk that spilled out. "What do I keep telling you about a clean plane?"

Baloo recited his boss's favorite adage: "A clean plane is an efficient plane. But ya never know when some of this stuff will come in handy."

Disgusted, Rebecca nudged a greasy, black banana peel with her toe. "When we get back home, I expect you to give the Sea Duck a thorough cleaning."

"If we get back." With some difficulty, Baloo managed to get the raft out the back hatch and into the lake.

She dug the oars out from beneath the pile of stuff, saying cheerfully, "Now all we have to do is paddle up the river until we find the nomad camp."

"Whatever floats your boat." Comprehending what she had said, he spun around. "Wait a dive-bombin' second! Did you say 'we'?"

"Yes."

Baloo took the paddles from her and tossed them into the raft angrily. "No way am I bustin' my tail feathers to get some ostrich feathers. I did my part of the bargain - I got ya here. You can go on this wild goose chase yourself."

"It's not a wild goose chase. Besides, they're ostriches, not geese."

"Feathers are feathers."

"Not the very rare..."

Baloo wearily chanted along with her. "Ring-necked, Fluffy-tailed Watoosian Ostrich feathers. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you've told me a million times."

"Come on, Baloo." Rebecca carefully stepped into the raft and picked up an oar. "We haven't got all day."

He climbed into the raft reluctantly; his bulk made the raft sag. He sat down beside her and took the other oar in hand. "Aw, man, how do I keep gettin' in all this hot water?"

Thirty Minutes Later

It was quiet. Too quiet. Terribly quiet. Awfully quiet.

The eerie silence was broken only by the steady sloshing of the oars in the river, the wind whistling through the rugged rock pillars, and an occasional bird screech.

They had been paddling upstream for what felt like a hundred years. Baloo thought that they were getting nowhere fast. He kept his eyes peeled for a sign of the nomads, but all he saw were three vultures circling above them. That was not a good omen.

Rowing rhythmically, the pilot wiped his sweaty brow with his sweaty arm. It was excruciatingly hot! There were no trees to give respite from the scorching sun. To quench his thirst, he scooped up a handful of warm water and slurped it down. It tasted like burnt sand, but at least it was wet. He gulped down a few more handfuls and splashed some on his face.

Because it seemed sacrilegious to speak aloud in the cathedral-like hush, he whispered, "Can't we rest a spell, Becky?"

"Rest?" Rebecca echoed, looking over at him in surprise. Her voice reverberated like a thunderclap in the uncanny silence. "We can't rest now."

"Shh! Nomads!" he whispered urgently, looking over his shoulder nervously.

"Where?" she whispered back. Her eyes followed his, but she saw nothing.

"They're here somewheres. I can sense it."

Rebecca fixed her shrewd, skeptical gaze on him. "You're probably just sensing your own laziness, Baloo. Well, you're not getting out of rowing that easily. Onward! Onward!"

An Hour Later

On they rowed for what seemed like another hundred years. The great granite rocks gradually thinned out, then disappeared altogether, leaving flat, sandy saltbush-strewn plains. Scraggly shrubs as well as a few tufts of grass hugged the river. The increase in flora brought an increase in fauna. Here, there were more lizards, snakes, birds, and mosquitoes.

Despite the heat, despite her aching shoulders, despite the fact that her clothes were plastered to her with sweat, Rebecca was thrilled to her fingertips. This is what she thought the air cargo business was going to be like - exciting and adventurous. Never in her life did she think that she'd actually be paddling up a river, through an exotic, untamed land, in search of a treasure. It was a wonderful change from the run-of-the-mill business proceedings.

There was one damper on her happiness - Baloo's constant complaints. She had the urge to strangle him every time a sullen remark escaped his lips. But, by the same token, she was glad that he was there. He was pulling his own weight, and, considering how much he weighed, that was saying quite a lot. Rebecca, who was beginning to think that they made a good team, grudgingly admitted to herself that she would never had made it this far without him. She also knew that he wouldn't let any harm come to her, no matter what happened. Still, she wished that he'd stop looking over his shoulder every two seconds. It was making her nervous.

Baloo, hot, tired, and hungry, growled grumpily, "There's gotta be an easier way to make a few thousand shaboozies."

Rebecca, who was just as hot, tired, and hungry as her pilot, replied philosophically, "Look at it this way, Baloo. It's an adventure. You like adventures."

"This ain't an adventure." He slapped at a mosquito that was buzzing in his ear with one of his raw, blistered hands, then peeked over his shoulder to see if any nomads were listening in on their conversation. "It's torture!"

"It's an adventure to me!" Rebecca exclaimed, a hint of pathetic desperation in her voice. She turned her head so that he couldn't see the tears of frustration that pricked her eyes. Loath as she was to admit it, Baloo was right. This was torture. She, little fool that she was, had been fooling herself into thinking that this was a fun adventure.

Yesterday, her scheme had seemed so simple. She had planned on zipping in, grabbing the feathers, and zipping back out. She thought that she would have been back in Cape Suzette by now, counting her money. Instead, she was here, still rowing up the Ramalama River, miserable, grimy, and covered with a million mosquito bites. She wanted to be home, soaking in a bubble bath.

However, she could never let Baloo know that she was becoming discouraged, and she definitely couldn't let him know that he had been right about anything. To calm herself, she concentrated on rowing, but the tremor in her words betrayed her. "Just because you're a pilot, you think that you're entitled to more adventures than everyone else. Well, you aren't! So there!"

Hearing the catch in her voice, Baloo looked over at her sharply. This was the Rebecca that he rarely saw - the vulnerability under her tough businesswoman exterior. Waves of protectiveness and remorse surged over him. His sulky expression faded. He murmured contritely, "Now, Becky, I didn't mean..." His ears perked up at a new sound that broke the silence. "What's that?"

Rebecca forgot her tears at the alarm in Baloo's voice. She sniffled, "What's what?"

"Listen!"

It was a low, rumbling, sucking sound, almost as if someone had pulled the plug on a very large bathtub. And it was getting louder by the second.

"Stop rowin' so fast, Becky!" Baloo cried as the raft picked up speed.

"I'm not rowing any faster. You must be rowing faster."

Baloo showed her his oar's blade; it was out of the water. "But I ain't even rowin'."

The raft sped upstream as if a gigantic invisible hand was pushing it along.

"What is it, Baloo?" Rebecca asked, dreadful feelings of foreboding washing over her. She securely gripped the side of the raft. Her womanly intuition was telling her that they needed to pull over to shore.

"Dunno. Can't see a thing." Baloo shielded his eyes against the glaring sun to see further ahead, but all he saw was a bend in the river.

They came flying around the bend in the river to see...

"Whirlpool!" they cried in unison.

"That wasn't on the map!" Rebecca exclaimed.

"Would you like to tell it that?" Baloo started paddling in the opposite direction, back towards the lake.

Rebecca did likewise. "Row! Row!"

"I'm rowin'! I'm rowin'!" Baloo snatched the oar from Rebecca. But no matter how fast or furiously he paddled, the whirlpool was sucking the raft into its frothing, churning abyss. "Hang on!"

Around and around, faster and faster, the raft whipped around the periphery of the maelstrom at a dizzying speed until the two bears couldn't tell left from right, up from down.

Baloo, who was turning a pale shade of green, gasped out, "Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!" with every revolution. "How do ya stop this crazy thing?"

Amidst the blur that was the spinning scenery, Rebecca spied a particularly large saltbush growing on the shore, near the whirlpool. Its branches extended over the river. She made several attempts to stand up so she could reach the bush, but to no avail. The centrifugal force kept pushing her back down. It was all she could do to stay in the raft.

Then, with much exertion, she struggled to her knees and prepared to grab onto the bush. She would have to time this just right. As the raft drew near the bush, she lunged for it. Miraculously, her fingertips snagged a branch. With an "Eep!" she was yanked out of the raft. She dangled on the branch, legs kicking, like a fish on a hook.

"Becky, wait for me!" Baloo tossed the oars aside. One of them happened to hit Rebecca square on the back.

"Ouch! Watch where you're throwing that!"

"Sorry." He seized onto her ankles and hung on for dear life.

And not a moment too soon. The raft was sucked into the center of the whirlpool, never to be seen again. Both bears watched the terrifying scene over their shoulders. If not for the saltbush's extensive root system, they would have plunged into the swirling vortex of terror along with the raft.

"Hurry, Baloo!" Rebecca cried, her hands slipping down to the end of the slender branch. She felt like her legs were coming out at the hip sockets. "This is no time to hang around."

Baloo swung himself on shore where he belly-flopped on the ground, exhausted.

Arms shaking and heart pounding, Rebecca used the branch to pull herself onto the sandy shore. The wild-eyed bearess, whose legs felt like jelly, sank to her knees beside the pilot, relieved. She had a strange urge to hug the big bear. Instead, she put a gentle paw on his back and asked, "Are you okay, Baloo?"

"I'm too tired to check." With a grunt, Baloo rolled over on his back, exposing his sand-encrusted stomach. "I'm gonna take about forty winks right here."

Rebecca sat beside him, knees drawn up to her chest as she attempted to regain her composure. She took in their position. The whirlpool was located at a fork in the river. She was unsure of which branch of the river to follow - the one heading due east or the one heading southeast.

Then, she got her answer.

Through the waves of shimmering heat, Rebecca saw what looked like the peaks of tents in the distance off to the south. Her weariness and discouragement dissolved faster than ice cream would under the Watoosian sun. A big smile lit up her face. "I see the nomad camp! See, I told you they'd be living along the river somewhere." Childlike, she excitedly pointed to the tents. "Look, Baloo!"

"Great. Say hi to them from me." He made a pillow out of a rock and closed his eyes.

Rebecca sprang to her feet. "This is no time to sleep. There's a fortune out there just waiting to be plucked." She energetically marched off.

Baloo made a slight effort to follow her - he raised his head, then let it fall back to the ground. "Oh, let her go." Instead, he grabbed a prickly pear from a bush beside him and began peeling it.

A few minutes and a few prickly pears later, he heard her faint, far-off shriek. "Ba-LOO! Heeeeellppp!"

"Aw, why can't I have a normal boss like everyone else? One that don't get in trouble every ten seconds." Grumbling, he stuck the peeled prickly pear in his mouth, got to his feet, and followed the sound of her screams.

"Help! Help! Help!"

Baloo stopped at a clump of grass, peering around. From the sound of it, she should have been right there. "I can hear ya, Becky, but I don't see ya."

"Down here, you ninny!"

The big bear parted the grass, took a step, and almost slid into a large pit dug into the sand. A dirty, disheveled Rebecca was standing at the bottom, about ten feet down. Snapping sand crabs, their claws clickitty-clacking like castanets, were rapidly scuttling out to meet her.

"Help," she whimpered.

"Hang on, Beckers. Ol' Baloo'll get you outta this in a jiffy." Baloo immediately flopped down on his stomach and reached for her outstretched hand, but she was too far down.

"Hurry, Baloo!" Rebecca shouted, kicking at sand crabs that were nipping at her toes. "Leave me alone, you crustaceans! Where's a big pot of boiling water when I need it?"

The pilot scrambled to his feet and looked around frantically. Nothing in sight was long enough to reach his boss. Getting a sudden idea, he sped away, bellowing, "Don't go away. I'll be right back!"

A few moments later, Baloo returned with an oar. He lowered it into the pit.

"'Don't go away?'" Rebecca said waspishly as she grabbed onto the blade end of the oar. She began to climb hand over hand. "How could I have gone anywhere, buster?"

"Hey, lady," Baloo panted; he had a stitch in his side from sprinting all that way. "Don't get all crabby on me."

"Insults now? Let me tell you something, Baloo..." At that moment, Rebecca's attention was arrested by a glimpse of white out of the corner of her eye. The largest ostrich feather she had ever seen was wedged in a crevice in the side of the pit, tantalizingly close yet so far away. Because she couldn't reach it, she began to swing on the oar to get closer.

"Rebecca!" Baloo gasped. The pendulum motion of the oar was dragging him into the pit. The sandy ledge that he was lying on started to disintegrate from beneath him. "What're ya doin'?"

"I have to get that feather!"

"You would." Baloo gritted his teeth, dug his knees into the sand, and tightened his hold on the oar as it swung to and fro, fro and to in ever widening arcs.

Just at that moment, a sand crab skittered out of the pit. It stopped a few inches from Baloo's face. Its curious, beady eyes studied the bear. Baloo stared back at it, murmuring, "Shoo! Scat, crab!"

Then it swiftly reached out and snapped onto the pilot's nose with its sharp, vice-like claw, prompting a pained, "Yeowch!" from the big bear. Keeping hold of the oar, Baloo shook his head furiously, but that crab would not let go. With a fierce yank, Baloo pulled the oar and Rebecca out of the pit.

Triumphantly, Rebecca held up the feather. "That's one!"

In a nasal voice, Baloo exclaimed, "Are you bananas, lady? You coulda got us both killed, and all because of a stupid feather!" He plucked the sand crab from his throbbing nose and tossed it back into the pit.

"But I didn't." Rebecca tucked the feather in her waistband before looking down into the deep hole. "What was that, anyway?"

"A nomad welcome mat. They want ta thank ya for droppin' in by givin' ya a bite while ya wait - literally. Oh, my achin' nose." That offending organ had swollen to twice its original size.

"This is no time to nurse your wounds. We're almost there." She started off again at a brisk pace, heading towards the tents.

Baloo, ruefully rubbing his sore nose, trudged behind, scowling.

As they walked, Rebecca talked about what she wanted to do with the money. "If we get enough feathers, I could buy another plane, hire another pilot. Just think of all the money we could make with two..."

Suddenly, Baloo clamped a paw over her mouth, dropped to his knees, and pulled her behind a clump of tall grass. He answered the silent question in her eyes with a whispered, "Nomads!"

Baloo removed his hand from her mouth. He carefully parted the rustling grass, praying that they hadn't been seen by the nomads; otherwise, they were solid goners.

About one hundred feet upstream, several women were washing laundry in the river. They jabbered and chattered to each other in Watoosian, a language unintelligible to the two Uslandian bears. Nearby, half a dozen children splashed in the river, shouting and laughing in their play.

None of them gave any indication that they had seen Baloo and Rebecca.

The nomads were of goat descent with light grey, short-cropped fur. The women and girls wore multicolored wraparound sarongs with bright turbans encircling their heads. The boys were clad in loose cotton trousers and capes; the nubs of their small horns poked out from their turbans.

Just opposite them, about two hundred feet from the river, were the sun-bleached tents of the nomad encampment. There was something else on the opposite bank that made Rebecca want to jump for joy.

A large herd of ostriches was gathered by the water's edge - male ostriches with their distinctive black and white feathers as well as their brown female counterparts. Many of the large flightless birds strutted around on their long strong legs, eating insects, grass, and saltbush leaves. Others lay on the ground, long necks tucked close to their body, legs folded underneath them, napping. Every now and again, one would dip its long neck into the river for a drink. The air was pierced with their peculiar, almost owlish call - a low 'whoo-whoo-whoo.' Their fluffy feathers lay thick on the ground, white as fresh-fallen Thembrian snow.

"There's the ostriches!" Rebecca whispered excitedly. Visions of dollar signs danced in her head.

"An' there's the nomads," Baloo reminded her, pointing to the camp.

At that moment, two nomad men - one armed with a spear, the other with a bow - stepped to the river's edge. From the way that they scanned the horizon, it was obvious that they were on guard duty.

"How do we get across the river without them seeing us?" Rebecca mused.

"Uh, we don't?" Baloo cringed when one of the guards looked right at their clump of grass.

Rebecca snapped her fingers, whispering, "I know!" She reached into Baloo's shirt pocket and pulled out a granola bar. She unwrapped it.

"Hey, I was savin' that for later."

"Once I get those feathers, I'll buy you a hundred granola bars." Crawling on her hands and knees to the edge of the river, concealed from the nomads by the tall grass, she whistled softly to the ostriches and waved the granola bar. "Come here, little ostriches. Pretty ostriches with pretty feathers. I've got something yummy for you," she cooed softly.

One ostrich, who was getting a drink, figuratively perked up its ears. It tilted its head and blinked its long-lashed eyelids a few times as it studied the strangers. After a long moment, it cautiously waded across the river.

Laying as still as a mouse on her stomach, Rebecca silently held out the granola bar. The ostrich, who towered over the bears, bent its long neck. But, instead of going for the granola bar, it pecked at the shiny silver wrapper that lay on the ground beside her.

"Great, ya got one," Baloo whispered. "Now what?"

"Now we hide behind the ostrich, keeping it between us and the nomads, and cross the river." Rebecca tossed the granola bar aside, inciting an annoyed look from Baloo; he could have eaten that. She picked up the shiny wrapper and waved it in front of the ostrich's face. "Let's go visit your friends and their pretty feathers, Mr. Ostrich."

Intrigued by the shininess of the wrapper, the ostrich immediately followed where the wrapper led.

"Aw, this is a dumb...ouch! Easy on the lobe, lady!" Baloo, bent over double, was yanked by his ear beside the ostrich. However, he wasn't entirely concealed; his ample rear end stuck out.

They had to trot to keep up with bird's long strides as they waded across the river. The river was fairly shallow; the water only came up to Rebecca's waist.

On the opposite shore, Rebecca flashed Baloo a triumphant grin. "See. My ideas always work." She greedily eyed the cornucopia of large white plumes and immediately dropped to her knees, mindless of the multitudes of ostriches that flocked around her, curious to see what she was doing.

Crawling on her hands and knees, Rebecca scooped up every feather that she could lay her grubby hands on. When she had gathered an armful, she shoved them into Baloo's hands. "Here! Hold these," she whispered, smiling broadly. A little gleeful giggle escaped her lips.

Baloo concealed himself as best as he could behind a saltbush. Through the thin scrub grass off to his right, he could plainly see the nomad camp. Children ran around the tents, playfully shooting little blunt arrows at each other. A woman with a baby slung on her back tended to a pig roasting on a spit; the aroma of it made Baloo's stomach growl. But the thought of food was driven from his mind when he spied three men sharpening their arrow heads.

The big bear began to sweat profusely, and not just because of the broiling heat. He didn't like the look of those weapons that were slung across the male nomads' backs, and he didn't want to be stretched out like a pig on a spit. Instinctively feeling that there were several someones or somethings watching them, he whispered, "Becky, I don't like this ticklish situation."

She crawled over to him, piled more feathers in his arms, murmuring, "Just a few more," then quickly returned to her task.

An ostrich nipped at Baloo's ear. "Hey, I'm not your dinner, long legs! Let's get outta this place, Rebecca."

"Just a few more," she reiterated firmly, pushing an ostrich's foot aside so that she could get to a feather.

"Rebecca..." Baloo whined.

"Oh, quit your grousing, Baloo."

Baloo sat there, buried under a pile of feathers; he could barely hang onto all of the soft, downy plumes. Then, something horrible happened. The feathers tickling his nose made him want to sneeze. He tried everything to suppress it - holding his breath, clamping his mouth shut, even pinching his nose, but nothing worked. The sneeze would not be denied.

"Ah-ah-ah-ah-CHOO!"

All of the feathers that Baloo had held were blown away by the force of his powerful sneeze. The sound of the sneeze seemed to echo forever. He, scared to death, sat as still as a statue, his frightened eyes riveted to the nomad camp. Rebecca continued to pick up feathers as if nothing unusual had happened.

Silence.

Baloo breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

Then there came a savage whoop that made Baloo's heart leap into his throat.

"Ah!" Baloo yelped as an arrow sliced through the crown of his hat, barely missing his head; he could feel the arrow's shaft against his scalp. The big bear, moving faster than he ever had in his life, scrambled to his feet and bodily snatched up Rebecca, who was still leisurely gathering feathers.

"Hey! What are you doing, Baloo? We don't have enough feathers! Put me down this instant!" Rebecca said irately.

Baloo instantly complied, saying, "Just tryin' ta save our skins, lady! Make like a birdy an' fly!" He noisily splashed across the river, making a beeline for the Sea Duck.

Peeved, Rebecca knelt to pick up a feather that Baloo had made her drop. While she was kneeling, three arrows skimmed unnoticed over her head. When an arrow bounced off her pith helmet with a dull 'twang', Rebecca looked behind her, screaming, "Ah! Nomads!" She, clutching an armful of the precious feathers, soon caught up with Baloo, who was making fast tracks across the desert.

About twenty nomad men, armed with bows and a seemingly endless supply of arrows, mounted their trusty ostriches, and came thundering after them, whooping. A large cloud of dust resembling a sandstorm billowed in their wake.

End of part 1