i came to travel
 

December 14, 1956

"Saddle up, boys, and come along, too.
You know Arizona is waiting for you."

I was in a great mood. I'm a morning person by nature, always up before dawn to take care of the handful of hens here at Crabapple Farm, but, on that particular morning, my thoughts were far from home. That is, until my sister bumped into me in the hallway—literally bumped into me. Talk about clumsy.

"Oomf," Trixie groaned. But she quickly recovered from the collision and exclaimed breathlessly, "Don't tell me it's good flying weather!"

There had been a storm brewing the evening before, and it had seemed to me, to all of the Bob-Whites, probably, that the storm would turn into an all-out blizzard and cause a change in our travel plans. Instead of answering my anxious sibling, I simply changed the tune I was singing.

"The skies are clear; the day is bright,
Gotta cross the desert before tonight,
Gotta follow the sun where the wind blows free,
Where the rattlesnake curls around the Joshua tree—"

"Never mind," Trixie interrupted. "There's no sense in singing western songs while we're still here in Westchester County. I don't dare look out of the window. Just answer me yes or no: Is it good flying weather?"

I made a fist out of my right hand and tapped her lightly on the jaw. "Strike the teepees, squaw. We hit the trail for the airport in half an hour." I grinned at her retreating form as she made a mad dash back into her room and shut her door. Still humming to myself, I continued down the stairs to my favorite room in the house: the kitchen.

"Blueberry pancakes for breakfast," Moms announced. She had her pink apron tied around her waist over her blue striped housedress. I knew she had been half-praying the storm would keep us at home, but Moms has always been a great sport. If she was disappointed at all that the weather had turned around, she hid it now. She grinned cheerfully at me as she moved more of the cakes from the griddle to the serving platter. "It's the nearest I could get to authentic flapjacks."

I sat down and immediately heaped my plate high with as many of the round cakes as I could. Then I studied the other items on the table, trying to decide between the jam, brown sugar, and maple syrup for my topping. "May as well go for all three!" I slid most of my stack back to the side and spread jam on the bottom pancake. I added the next pancake on top of that, sprinkled it with brown sugar, and then repeated the pattern to the top, alternating the two toppings between each cake. Then I reached for the maple syrup and poured as much as I could conceivably get away with over the whole stack.

Brian shook his head and groaned. "I'm glad I'm not going into dentistry."

Trixie came down, then, dragging her suitcase behind her. My brother gallantly slid a plate piled high with fresh pancakes toward her. "Eat up, Trix."

"But I'm too excited to eat a thing," she wailed.

Brian snorted in disbelief. "That'll be the day."

Too excited to eat? There is no such thing. If she wasn't going to fill up on the delicious breakfast, I'd be more than happy to help her out. I made as if to grab some of the pancakes off her plate. "Hey, if she doesn't want them, I have room for more."

Trixie swatted my hand away before I could even get close. "I'll force them down," she announced cheerfully. "It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make to keep them safe from you."

Bobby appeared, then, in full cowboy regalia, complete with his two toy six-guns. Whooboy. Trouble must be brewing. "I've 'cided to go, too." My little brother's voice was serious and solemn, and his blue eyes were wide with hope. "I haf to go."

Dad set his newspaper aside and lifted Bobby into his chair. "No, sir-ree. You haf to stay with us. Your mother and I would die of loneliness if all of our children left us."

"Don't care!" Bobby yelled stormily.

"Think about poor Santa Claus," Trixie said quickly. "If you go with us, there won't be anybody here to hang stockings on Christmas Eve, and then what would he do?"

I smiled gratefully at my sister. She might complain about Bobby-sitting, but she really has a knack with him and she always seemed to know what to say to smooth his ruffled feathers.

Sure enough, Bobby immediately brightened. "I'll hang up all the stockings!" He started counting them out on his chubby fingers. "One, two, three, four ...."

The room became quiet as everyone was busy either eating, reading the newspaper—Dad had picked it up again after Bobby had moved to his own chair for his own plate of pancakes—or just deep in thought. Even Moms had finally stopped cooking and joined us after refilling Dad's coffee mug.

My own thoughts drifted, naturally, to the dark-haired girl that I tried to pretend was just a friend. A friend of Trixie's and Honey's, I amended. Just a friend of my sister's. Never mind that my stomach churned nervously every time I was in the same room as her, and I was sure I'd stuck my foot in my mouth repeatedly whenever we talked. Sometimes I couldn't tell if she was laughing at me or really offended by my numerous faux-pas.

Truth be told, I was only just starting to admit to myself that I had a crush on the stunningly beautiful Diana Lynch. Yes, I was really looking forward to this trip to Arizona, and I was especially keen to spend more time with her at her recently-found uncle's dude ranch—the uncle being the one recently found; the dude ranch had never been lost as far as I knew. See? Even my thoughts are all jumbled when I think about her. I really have to get a grip. She's just a girl.

I mentally cleared my thoughts as I swiped another forkful of pancake, jam, and brown sugar into the syrup that had pooled on my plate. Food was something worth getting excited about. Girls? I'd like to think not, but my brain and my body couldn't seem to help getting excited about a certain violet-eyed female.

Think about something else. That was easy. I'd spent the last couple of days looking up whatever information I could find about Arizona, memorizing all sorts of facts about the plant and animal life in the desert state. I was bringing Dad's camera along with me—he hardly ever used it anyway, and I used it so often it was practically mine. I was hoping to get beautiful nature pictures of said Arizona flora and fauna. And if I just happened to snap a few photos of a certain beautiful dark-haired beauty along with those other pictures, I'd have some especially nice mementos of this spontaneous vacation.

I was distracted once again from my musings by my sister muttering, "I don't think I want to go after all."

Before I could respond and ask what her change of mood was all about, the blast of an automobile horn could be heard. "That must be Tom. Guess the roads are okay, now."

Brian sighed in relief. "The snowplow must've gone through a few minutes ago, but our driveway is still a mess. Wish we had time to help you shovel it, Dad."

"Speak for yourself," I mumbled. Chores were the last thing I wanted to do.

Dad might not have heard me, though. "Forget about it and winter!" he exclaimed jovially as he clapped Brian on the shoulder. Then he turned to me. "Have a great time, kids. No chores to do, except for you, young lady." This time he addressed Trixie. "Just a little bit of homework each day as you promised. Right?"

"Right, Dad." Trixie frowned, but her little bit of a bad mood passed quickly. "And fun the rest of the time!"

I whooped. "No chores! No snow to shovel! No tutoring!" I grinned as I added the last part. For once I was glad my grades weren't quite as good as my older brother's. "Just sunshine and fun for me. I can't wait."

I gave a quick man-hug to Dad and a longer, tighter hug and kiss on the cheek for Moms—I knew she needed the longer goodbye; at least, that was my excuse—and then grabbed my suitcase and headed out to the car before anyone—namely, Dad—changed his mind about us helping him shovel the driveway.

"Ready to go?" Jim asked from the front seat of the Wheeler's station wagon.

I nodded. I was definitely ready to go.

Brian and Trixie followed me out to the car, and Trixie abandoned her suitcase on the ground and immediately got in the car and sat next to Jim—no surprise there. Jim had that lopsided grin on his face, looking infatuated and completely silly. I'd enjoy teasing him about that later, but I wasn't about to say anything then and there in front of my parents, who were standing and waving from the porch. Besides, I started to wonder if I got that same goofy look whenever Di was around.

Trixie did offer a half-hearted apologetic glance to Honey, who was sitting alone in the back, but it was Brian who frowned at the seating arrangement.

I shook my head, trying to hide my grin. Trust Brian to go into overprotective brother mode. This was Jim—there was no concern from me. I trusted him just like a brother, although I kind of wish Trixie thought of him more like a brother than, well, you know. "There's plenty of room in the back seat, brother-mine." I grabbed his suitcase from him, ushering Brian towards the back of the car. I planned to let him slide into the seat first, placing myself on the outside of our little trio. My hope was that Di would then squeeze in next to me.

"I'm suspicious of your chivalry, but thanks." Brian watched me carefully as I placed the three additional suitcases in the back along with Jim's and Honey's.

"While I am getting out of all my chores for the next two weeks, you have the unenviable task of tutoring our young sibling in all things mathematical." I cocked my thumb in the direction of the front seat. "It's the least I could do."

Before either Brian or Trixie could retort, Honey's voice came over the back of the seat. "Sorry we're not in the fancy new car, but this one has more room for us and the luggage."

"Doesn't matter to me if we travel on tricycles, so long as we get there," Brian replied good-naturedly, his worries over Trixie sitting next to Jim apparently gone. I started to wonder if he was attracted to Honey. It wouldn't surprise me—she's a very pretty girl and as sweet as her nickname. I might have feelings for her myself if it weren't for Di. But, no, Brian definitely didn't get goofy around Honey. He treated her more like a second kid sister.

Honey was mentioning something else about the station wagon as I climbed in. Of course, none of us cared that we weren't being transported in the Wheelers' luxury sedan, and as far as station wagons went, this one was pretty luxurious all the same. The cherry red Ford Ranch Wagon with its shiny, chrome trim was only a year or two older than the Wheelers' "new" sedan, and years newer than the Belden wagon.

When we arrived at the Lynch estate, I craned my neck to peer up at Di's windows. I wasn't sure why exactly—it wasn't like she'd be watching for my—our—arrival from her room. It wasn't long before she joined us in the vehicle. Unfortunately, she didn't sit next to me. I'd momentarily forgotten that her father was accompanying us. Mr. Lynch sat up front with Tom, while Jim moved to the backseat. All six of us couldn't fit back there, so Honey climbed out to make more room for her brother, and then she, Trixie, and Di all piled into the back with the luggage, using the suitcases as seats. It looked pretty cramped back there now, but they didn't seem to mind.

 

I crossed the tarmac with my friends and host and climbed the steps to board the plane. The whole event seemed chimerical. I'd never been in an airplane before, but I wasn't about to admit how nervous it made me feel. Trixie would tease me relentlessly, and Brian wouldn't be much better about it, even though he'd be more subtle, most likely. And Di! I definitely didn't want to look a fool in front of Di. She had flown before to visit relatives in California.

I glanced down at my ticket and followed the stewardess as she directed me to my seat. Jim and Mr. Lynch sat next to each other and Brian and I were right behind them.

On the other side of the aisle from Jim, Honey was switching places with Trixie so that my sister could get the window seat. "You go ahead, Trixie. I've flown before, but I'm sure you'll want to look out."

"Not me." Di shuddered slightly. "I'll be just fine in the aisle seat."

I wished that I could come up with a good excuse to switch seats with Brian so I could sit in the aisle seat, too. Then I'd practically be sitting next to Di. I should've thought of that when we were sitting down.

"Once we're airborne, you won't have to stay put," the stewardess was telling us, making me wonder if she'd read my mind. But, no, she was telling all the passengers the same thing. "We had several cancellations yesterday due to the storm, so there should be plenty of empty seats."

I watched as the other passengers settled in to their seats. There were a few seasoned businessmen wearing suits and carrying briefcases—probably flying home after a week of meetings—smoking cigarettes and sipping at clear or amber colored alcoholic beverages; a family heading out for vacation with two children around Bobby's age or younger; a couple who looked very much in love stealing quick kisses every chance they could; and an older couple, probably retired, looking almost as lovesick as the couple I had dubbed, "the honeymooners".

It seemed to take forever before the plane door finally closed and the "NO SMOKING" and "FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT" signs lit up. The plane started moving, taxiing to the runway, while our stewardess stood at the front of the plane and explained what to do in the case of an emergency. Thinking about that made me even more nervous. I started imagining the aircraft spinning out of control and plummeting back to earth, plopping into the ocean—only, wait, we weren't flying over water. When we crashed—if we crashedit would be on solid ground. Even less chance for survival. Somewhere in the back of my mind, while I was crawling through the burnt wreckage of our Douglas Commercial aircraft, I heard the word "meal" spoken. My eyes riveted back to the front of the plane, where the airline hostess had already moved on to the next topic. I'd missed whatever she had recited about the in-flight dining experience.

The stewardess finished her spiel and disappeared from sight, and that's when I realized the plane had come to a stop. We all sat there, the plane unmoving, and I started to wonder why. No one else seemed concerned. I attempted to ask Di what might be happening, but before I had a chance to even lean over Brian and interrupt whatever conversation the girls were having, the engines roared to life and the plane started to move very quickly. I reclined back in my seat and braced myself but, to my surprise, the takeoff was smooth and, before I even realized it, we were up in the air and on our way to Tucson, Arizona.

I stared out the window at the receding ground, my fear abating with every foot higher we climbed. I was completely fascinated by the sensation. It wasn't long before the airplane pulled up through the clouds and then above them. It was surreal.

Soon the craft leveled out and the seat belt and smoking lights went out. I was really starting to enjoy the whole flying experience, but then a nasty odor permeated my senses. I groaned as I glanced around; at least five passengers had pulled out cigarettes and lit up within seconds of the "NO SMOKING" light blinking off. I was used to my father smoking a pipe, but that scent was fragrant and comforting. This smoke wasn't. It was pungent, acrid, almost choking. Next to me, Brian reached up and fiddled with the knob for the air vent. "Good idea," I commented, realizing I could adjust my own to get better airflow as well.

"Hello," the stewardess greeted us. She looked to be around Regan's age, with brown hair pulled up under her hat. Her blue eyes sparkled merrily. "My name's Barbara, but my friends call me Babs. Now, let me see if I can remember all your names from the passenger list." She gave us a genuinely friendly smile as she recalled our names. "You must be Mr. Lynch and Jim."

"And you," she put a slender hand on Honey's shoulder, "must be Beatrix, and your seat mate is Madeleine?"

I snorted softly. Trixie hated the use of her formal name. I half-expected her to turn red and lose her temper over it, but that probably only happened when one of our brothers or I used the dreaded moniker.

"Actually, I'm Beatrix—Trixie," Trixie corrected calmly.

"And I'm Madeleine, but please call me Honey." Honey smiled politely at the stewardess.

"Trixie it is, and Honey." Babs grinned good-naturedly. "That's what happens when you switch seats on me. But now that we're at our cruising altitude, feel free to move around where you like."

"You look divine in that trim navy-blue uniform." Di spoke enviously, clearly admiring the young lady. "When I'm old enough, I'm going to try to get a job as an airline hostess. Well, if I can get over my fear of heights and flying."

I chuckled lightly. Di would make a great airline hostess, don't get me wrong, but she is right that her fears might get in her way. I leaned my head closer to the aisle, shamelessly eavesdropping on the girls.

Babs smiled back at Di. "I understand your worries. I was a little bit scared of flying at first, too, but I think the skies are safer than trains or automobiles. And being a stewardess is a great profession, if you're up to the challenges. It's certainly been both enjoyable and educational getting to travel so often and visiting new places." Her smile encompassed the other two girls in their group. "All stewardesses, of course, have to be high-school graduates."

"That lets me out," Di said dolefully. "Trixie and I don't think we'll ever get through junior high."

"My brother, Mart," Trixie told the stewardess, "says my brain is so ossified that it rightly belongs in Arizona's famous Petrified Forest. Mart's the blond boy across the aisle with the funny-looking haircut. The one with wavy black hair is Brian, our older brother."

"Your brother is so smart. What does oss-ossified mean?" Di asked.

Trixie shrugged her shoulders. "I think he means my head is as hard as a rock."

I must've had the biggest, goofiest grin on my face, but Di's words kept echoing in my head. She thinks I'm smart. I listened even more carefully in case my name came up again.

Meanwhile, the stewardess, Babs, smiled at Brian and me. "It's nice to meet all of you."

"Nice to meet you," Brian mumbled.

I followed with a succinct, "Likewise."

Babs turned toward the girls again. "And I didn't verify your name yet, young lady. You must be Diana?" When Di nodded, the stewardess continued. "So is Tucson your final destination or just a stop on your journey?"

"We're going to spend the holidays at my uncle's dude ranch in Tucson," Di confirmed.

I really wanted to get up and sit closer to the girls, but the stewardess was standing next to their seats. I couldn't really change places without asking both her and Brian to move out of my way, and that seemed a bit rude. Still, I inclined my head in the girls' direction and continued to listen in on their conversation.

"We're going to get material for our English themes, too," Honey announced. "Mexican Customs is my topic and Trixie's is Navaho Indians."

Di chuckled. "Mine is Arizona in general, about which I know nothing. Can you give us any helpful hints?"

I was about to suggest that she should probably try to narrow down her topic, but the stewardess was already answering her and I didn't want to interrupt.

"Well," Babs began, "did you know that the name comes from an Indian word, alehzon, meaning 'small spring'? And Tucson is also from an Indian word, but I can't recall what the word means."

"No," Trixie admitted. "I didn't discover that when I studied up on Arizona for a theme I had to write last year. I thought that Arizona came from the Aztec word arizuma, meaning 'rich in silver'."

"I thought so, too, when I first started flying this route, but if you meet any Indians on your trip, they'll definitely tell you it's from a word from their tribe." The stewardess smiled kindly. "I'm not sure which is right, but I'm guessing the natives know best. If you meet any Indians out there, you should ask them about it."

"Oh, do you think we will?" Honey asked, a tremor of excitement in her voice.

"I'm not sure, especially if you stay within Tucson. But if you're going to be staying on a ranch, outside the town limits, there's a whole tribe of Indians still living on a reservation. I've never gone outside of the city limits myself, though." Babs lowered her voice to a whisper. "To be truthful, I'm kind of scared of Indians. I know they don't go around scalping people anymore, and the few I've met have been really nice, but—" She shuddered slightly. "I guess I've watched one too many Westerns on the television."

I had to agree with her—she's watched too many Westerns. Of course Indians didn't go around scalping people and there was no reason to be scared of them. Meeting some real live Indians would be pretty fantastic, in my opinion. I wasn't as taken with the Western shows and books as some of my classmates, but I did enjoy them.

I preferred science-fiction over Westerns. I thought about the Cosmo McNaught book in my luggage and realized the desert would make the perfect place for an alien spacecraft to land. I contemplated camping out in the desert and watching the stars, waiting for the one that would get brighter and closer and suddenly I'd be staring up at an unidentified flying object.

Then I shook my head. Aliens were fiction and there wasn't much chance of meeting any, but Indians were real. It would be neat to learn how they lived on the reservations. I'd done some reading on it, of course, in the last couple of days, but I still didn't know very many details.

Trixie looked as if she had been daydreaming, too. Finally—and proving once again my almost-twin was on a similar wavelength—she said, "It sure would be neat to meet some real Indians. I just know I could get loads of information for my theme."

"I'm sure you will." Babs glanced at the slim watch on her wrist. "My goodness, it's time I return to my galley and fix luncheon. I'll be back later."

Luncheon! There had been that mention of a meal on the flight. Was it that time already? No matter, I could eat any time, any place.

Di watched her hurry up the aisle. "Do you really think there will be Indians out at the ranch?"

Now that the stewardess had left, I nudged Brian so we could switch seats, but he didn't want to move. He frowned as I stepped over him and took the empty aisle seat behind us instead. "I hope so! Do you think your uncle knows any? Maybe he even has some working for him."

Di shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, I don't know. I suppose so. I guess we'll find out when we get there."

"I can't wait!" Trixie exclaimed. "I just wish I knew more about dude ranches. I know I'm going to act like a real greenhorn. Do you know anything about them, Di?"

Di shook her head. "Not me."

I opened my mouth, prepared to spout off what little knowledge on the subject I had gleaned, but it was Honey who spoke up first. "Well," she said, frowning with concentration, "for one thing, you don't spend all your time riding horseback. There are all sorts of other amusements—tennis, golf, swimming, badminton, skeet shooting—"

"Movies and radios for rainy days?" Di asked.

I chuckled under my breath. "Rainy days are almost unheard of in Tucson, Di. Tucson gets thirty-eight hundred hours of sunshine a year." I did a quick calculation in my head. "Which means an average of almost ten and a half hours a day."

Trixie shuddered. "Don't mention figures to me. It reminds me that I have to do some math after lunch. Why don't you take your know-it-all brain back to your own seat?"

I leaned forward into the aisle. "Ah, I wish I were an academician, alas, there are still vast amounts of facts and figures to assimilate, but thank you, dear sister, for validating that I am intelligent."

My sister ignored me and turned back to her two friends. "Ugh. Brothers! At least I have one less to tease me on this trip!"

"I wouldn't care how much he teased me," Di whispered, but not low enough for me not to overhear. "If only I had an older brother. You're lucky to have two of them."

I tried not to frown. I had gotten my hopes up at the first half of Di's statement, but now I knew she only thought of me in a brotherly way.

"That's what you think," Trixie replied to Di with a sniff. "Anyway, let's get back to dude ranches. What did you do when you visited them, Honey?"

"It was fun all of the time, but I think what I enjoyed the most were the rides. Sometimes we'd start out early in the morning and have a picnic lunch or a barbecue."

I leaned back in my seat, somewhat dejected, barely listening to the girls' chatter. I suppose if she only thought of me like a brother, at least we could be good friends. I'd like that. No I wouldn't—I'd like a lot more.

"That must have been fun." Di's voice was full of excitement, drawing my attention back to her. "I just love to go on picnics."

"Desert picnics will be different than our B.W.G. picnics, fair Diana." I imagined the two of us enjoying a lovely luncheon under the desert sun, shaded by an umbrella, natch. "Imagine coyotes lurking around, and maybe rattlesnakes slithering under the blanket for some shade." I meant to impress her with my knowledge of the desert wildlife, but, of course, my foot had once again invaded my mouth.

Honey frowned at me over the back of her seat, mouthing a word that looked an awful lot like 'idiot' as the vision of beauty in the aisle seat just in front of me shuddered. "That sounds terrifying!" Di exclaimed. "Maybe I don't like picnics after all."

"Don't worry, Di," Honey quickly added. "As long as you're not alone, there's nothing to worry about. After all, we have copperheads and catamounts in the preserve at home and we still go on picnics, don't we?"

Di seemed reassured, and I took the small opening, smiling at her in what I hoped was a charming way. "I'd be happy to offer you my protection from any wild animals we might encounter."

Trixie snorted. "That'll be the day. Chances are you'll find one of those horrid, hairy tarantula spiders that seem to leap out at you and—"

I cut her off before she could elaborate on what I would do with such a fine arachnid specimen, sure she'd say something libelous. "My dear sibling, I feel it necessary to give you a brief lecture on the Arizona desert fauna. The tarantula appears to leap simply because the poor thing is so nearsighted it cannot stalk its prey. Actually, the beautiful creature is a boon to mankind because it exists solely on crop-destroying insects."

"Well, you can have him," Honey retorted, winking at me. "I imagine they make wonderful pets." She went on to talk to the girls, pretending to ignore me. "Just to warn you, the dear boys will probably lasso and tame another bloodcurdling desert horror, the giant centipede. The only one I ever saw ran away immediately on all of his hundred legs, but he didn't move any faster than I did. At least, I don't think he did. Considering that I screamed as I ran for my life back to the safety of our camper trailer, I can't be sure."

"I'm never going on a desert picnic," Di moaned. "That's final."

It was my turn to frown at Honey. Girls! I'll never understand them. First she berated me for frightening Diana, and then she turns around and does the same. Honey shrugged her shoulders and gave me a sympathetic smile. "It just came out," she mouthed.

I gallantly tried to save Honey's—and my—skin. "Since the bite of the centipede can be very painful, I have no intention of attempting to rope and throw one of that species. However, I must assure you timid ladies that he will not attack unless cornered and forced to defend himself. They aren't very quick on their centuplicate limbs, as Honey so kindly pointed out. If I do hunt one out, it will be with my camera."

"Oh, that's great that you brought your camera." Di smiled, and I felt as though she had forgiven me for bringing up any fearful animals. "If I ever shoot anything in my life, I intend to shoot it with a camera. Maybe you can teach me how to take pictures, too?"

I think I actually swooned. I would be more than happy to teach Di all about using my camera. "Most certainly. If I do not return to the East with a picture of the Gila monster, I shall consider that I have wasted my vacation."

As soon as the word 'monster' was out of my mouth, I realized I'd made another mistake. Di's face fell as she uttered faintly, "The Gila monster?"

"A very poisonous but most sluggish lizard," I quickly explained, emphasizing the word sluggish to assuage her fears. But the wealth of knowledge in my mind could not be contained, and I couldn't help adding more. "A direct descendant of dinosaurs that once roamed the Gila Valley. In fact, I understand that he closely resembles—"

Trixie leaned over the seatback and stuck her tongue out at me. "Be careful who you say he resembles, twin brother. Don't forget we supposedly look alike."

"Perish the thought, oh paranoid one. I was going to say he resembles the loathsome flesh-eating allosaur but also his larger, vegetarian cousin, the diplodocus."

Honey turned around and stuck her tongue out at me playfully. "If you have to use all those big words, why don't you think up some pleasant ones? I don't want to hear any more about dinosaurs. Please! I don't even like harmless lizards, though I once saw a chuckwalla that looked kind of cute—from a distance."

Honey really was like a second sister to both Brian and myself, so of course I treated her just as I would Trixie—I teased her. "I shall tame one for you along with the horned toad, which is another friendly little lizard. Each of you females may expect to find a pet in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morn."

"Of, fine!" Trixie's voice dripped with sarcasm. "I'm going to fill your stocking with prickly-pear cacti just for fun."

"Why, thank you." I grinned widely, not the least bit sarcastic in my response. "All contributions greatly received. Could I, perhaps, induce you to present me with a super specimen of the giant saguaro cactus? One that is fifty feet high and weighs not less than ten tons?"

"Let's pay no attention to him," Trixie said in a loud whisper, "and maybe he'll go away. Besides, we're not going to hang up our stockings or give each other presents until we go home. This year we Beldens are going to celebrate Christmas at New Year's."

"Really?" Di and Honey asked in one voice. Then Di continued. "I'm afraid you'll have to celebrate Christmas at Tucson, too. At least, I hope you will. There's going to be a gala party on Christmas Eve at the ranch, and my uncle will be awfully disappointed if we don't give and receive some presents there on Christmas Day."

"A gala party sounds spectacular, Di." I was already looking forward to the feast that would accompany such an event.

"It does," Honey agreed. "And Di's right. You should participate in the festivities. Maybe you Beldens can buy one another little presents in town if you didn't bring any to exchange."

"You don't need to buy me anything," I replied. "I insist upon a huge saguaro, so you can get my gift for free, if you can dig down the two feet to get to the bottom of the tap root. Its blossom is the state flower of Arizona—" I added this tidbit in hopes to supply Di with some information for her English composition. "—And Indians harvest the fruit in the spring to make jams and jellies. You females might well emulate them and thus produce a succulent Indian dish on one of our forthcoming desert picnics."

"He's insane," Trixie hissed. "In his imagination, he has been roaming the desert for days and days, alone and on foot, having previously killed and eaten his horse. Crazed with thirst, he will pounce upon the first barrel cactus he sees, cut off the top, and drink the liquid he squeezes from the pulp."

"You paint a magnificent portrait, dear sibling," I admitted, "but I am merely a cactomaniac, for the simple reason that I promised my English teacher that I would write an erudite article on that extremely fascinating subject."

Just then the stewardess returned with a rolling cart. Our discussion came to a quick halt. The girls turned around and dropped their tray tables, and Barbara placed a plate down in front of each of them.

I peered over the seat at their dishes and rubbed my hands together. I was eager to dig in to the food and eat. "Roast turkey with stuffing and candied sweet potatoes, as I sniff and die!"

I dropped my own tray table when the stewardess got to my seat, and Di turned and smiled at me. I smiled back at her, once again hopeful that her feelings toward me were not of the brotherly variety. But even if they were, she was a good friend, and I didn't want to jeopardize that. I couldn't wait to land in Arizona and was already plotting out how to pair up with her for the upcoming dude ranch activities.


The End - for now. ;)