Since Sophie had asked so directly, he replied truthfully, "The fact is, darling, I'm not too good at this horse-riding business. I'm afraid of turning our romantic tour into an adventure tour instead."
Li Du's worry was unfounded; the tamed horses were especially well-behaved. All one needed to do was to ensure their balance on the horse and it would trot along according to orders.
This national park was one of the world's largest and most beautiful petrified forest sites. The petrified wood here was from the end of the Triassic period, with 225 million years of historyeven more ancient than dinosaur fossils.
Before entering the park, the security officer wanted to check their bags.
An irritated Li Du asked, "Is this not an invasion of privacy?"
"Sorry sir," the security officer said, "it's a regulation. We've gotta stop people from bringing rocks in, and also from bringing rocks out."
Li Du was well aware of this regulation. Crustal movement coupled with the crystallization of magma-silica had resulted in this park becoming a favorite location amongst gemstone collectors and rock gatherers. In addition to ordinary weathered granite, other rocks that could be found include various fossils, agate, and chalcedony.
Besides, there was also a very precious gem here: the fire opal!
Because of this national park, another popular profession had emerged in Arizona: gem hunters, who specialized in hunting gems to sell.
As their bags were checked, they saw that other people's bags contained magnifying glasses, small hammers, and gloves.
Li Du asked, "They're bringing these tools in. Isn't it obvious they're going in to collect rocks?"
The security officer was about to speak but the people heard his remark. A young man wearing sunglasses answered, "We're gem hunters, you idiot. We've got permits."
The manner in which the young man addressed him was very condescending. Li Du was angered but as Sophie was around, he didn't want to appear too brash. He knew that Sophie did not like such behavior in men.
While he did not react, Sophie instead exploded in anger. She said to them, "Was there no one to teach you any manners growing up? If I were your teacher or parents, I would feel so ashamed!"
This was the second time Li Du had seen Sophie so furious. The first time was when he and Mr. Martin were deliberating whether or not Ah Ow was a wolf.
At that moment, Sophie acted just like how she had then: as a lioness defending her cub.
The gem hunter had called Li Du "idiot" simply because of Sophie. She was not simply pretty and elegant; she was blessed with a goddess-like appearance. Seeing Sophie by his side, these gem hunters were naturally jealous of Li Du.
Seeing that Sophie was standing up for Li Du, they became even more jealous and despised him even more now.
Many Americans defined those with Chinese appearanceslike that of Li Du'sas
softies and inferior. This was, in fact, a prevalent racial discrimination, a very prejudiced impression many had.
Hence, the gem hunter who had spoken previously flashed his middle finger at Li Du. "Sorry bud, I was wrong. I shouldn't have called you an idiot. I should have called you a softiehaha!"
The people around him also burst out laughing. One of the guys told Sophie, "Babe, come over here. Watcha doin' with this softie? Is he rich? I'm loaded too, y'know."
Li Du had heard about the gem hunting profession, but he did not know much about it.
Sophie was about to retaliate when he stopped her. "Don't. Watch me."
He asked the security officer, "How does one become a gem hunter?"
The security officer said, "Have you got the mining work permit? If you do, just get it registered. Otherwise, pay 500 dollars to get one."
Li Du nodded. "Okay, I got it."
As he left with Sophie, the few gem hunters thought he was avoiding a confrontation with them, and so became even more arrogant. They hollered after him:
"Hey, babe, you sure you wanna be with this softie?"
"Money can't buy happiness. Come to me, I'll make you happy!"
"Hey buddy, don't leave. Bring your gal here. We're super familiar with the park, we can bring you around for some fun."
Li Du went to the park's visitor center, called the "Painted Desert Visitor Centre." He said, "I would like to register to be a gem hunter. I'll just pay."
A sales staff said, "Register, then pay 500 dollars each. You can choose a zone size of one square hectare."
The strict registration was necessary in order to protect the park. This was to prevent anyone from using the park indiscriminately. If there was any damage, the parties involved would be held accountable.
Li Du paid up and the staff turned a monitor toward him so he could select an area from the map. For that day, he would be able to remove the stones from that piece of land.
He asked, "May I know, those guys from just now, which piece of land did they pick?"
"Sorry," the staff member said, "if it's already been chosen, then you can't take that."
"Oh, I know. I just want to choose the one next to theirs."
Saying that, he passed 100 dollars to the staff member. "Here's your tip."
Unspoken rules exist in every country and every trade. The Americans have brought the unspoken rule of collecting money under the table out in the openreceiving tips.
The employee nodded with a smile. He then looked into the records to provide him with the coordinates, before adding that a security officer would be bringing them there.
With the invoice and the tickets in hand, Li Du returned to the entrance. Seeing them, the security officer got onto a motorcycle and said, "Follow me."
The two of them followed on horseback. The embarrassing moment had arrived. Sophie's horseriding skills were much better than his; she looked valiant and elegant while riding the Quarter Horse.
Li Du was a mess. He wished he could just lie on the horse's back; the Quarter Horse was almost bumping him off.
Crispy Noodles and Ah Ow were in his arms while Ah Meow was with Sophie.
When the two horses started cantering, Ah Meow, who was a natural at this, got his balance in no time. He then sat on the horse's back, enjoying the ride.
Crispy Noodles and Ah Ow were in trouble. Crispy Noodles fell into a panic, so he slipped and fell off. Fortunately, he had reacted fast and grabbed hold of the bridle rein. But he ended up looking as though he were being hanged.
Li Du halted the horse immediately. Once it stopped, Ah Ow jumped down and preferred following behind the horse than trying to climb upon it again.
Sophie gripped the horse's belly with her knees and directed it to turn back. Smiling, she said, "Poor kid. Do you want to sit behind Sister Sophie?"
Li Du smiled wryly. "Practice makes perfect, I think I'm getting the hang of it."
"I'm not asking you. I'm asking Crispy Noodles, that poor kid."
Crispy Noodles, who was wound up in the rein, had his tongue hanging out and looked like a hanged corpse.
He had been scared silly, so he ran over to Sophie upon seeing her.
Sophie could not fit three of the furkids in front of her so she passed Li Du the ocelot.
Ah Meow squatted in front of the saddle with a disgruntled look: Meow, why am I always the one at the losing end?
Li Du patted Ah Meow's head. "Come on, Ah Meow. Don't be like that *sshole Crispy Noodles who's such a loser. Come, let's go!"
The horseback jolted as Ah Meow went, "Meow, meowmeeoow!"
The last cry was a howl. His bottom was being jolted into pieces!