Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2011 By Scribe1971 (scribe1971@hotmail.com)

Chapter 60 - Planning a Horseshoe?

Things grew more and more hectic with each passing day as the day of our move approached. That fall we seemed to spend every waking moment thinking about and preparing for the big move. As the end of November rolled around and we prepared for a final planning trip west in Early December, I decided that it was time for some quality Dad-Son time with Josh. We decided to pack up our gear and go deer hunting. At first Susan was a bit hesitant to send Josh off on a mission to kill an animal, but I discussed it with her at length and showed her that hunting is about much more than just the kill. Pulling the trigger is just the final step in a long process that brings the hunter closer to nature. I explained to her how hunting is a beneficial sport not only for the human economy, but also for the health and well-being of the animal world as a whole.

In the end she agreed to allow Josh to go and the two of us excitedly prepared for what was sure to be an enjoyable trip even if we were unsuccessful in harvesting any deer.

I picked Josh up from school that Friday evening with the Jeep already loaded with our gear and we headed east. Our destination was a 180 acre plot of land owned by a friend of mine near the town of Belleville, Ontario.

"So we're really camping out in a tent in November?" Josh asked.

"Of course. It'll be fun. Trust me, kiddo."

"What's it like to shoot a deer for real?" Josh asked.

"It's a lot different than shooting a target," I replied. "You don't notice the recoil for starters. Your heart is usually thumping in your chest with anticipation. You'll also feel a rush of adrenaline and you might find your hands shaking a bit."

"How old were you when you shot your first animal?"

"I shot a rabbit and a bunch of ruffed grouse when I was 10 or 11 and I shot my first deer when I was 12. It wasn't long before my Dad died actually."

"I hope we get a nice one," Josh said with a grin. "Too bad we had to leave Brutus at home."

"Unfortunately with deer hunting, Brutus would have been more of a hindrance than a help. Besides, your Mom likes having him around the house."

We drove for more than an hour East before we stopped at one of the highway rest stops to get gas and to dine on Wendy's burgers. "These aren't nearly as good as Webers burgers are but they aren't bad," I observed.

"Nothing is as good as Webers' burgers," Josh agreed.

We still had a little daylight left when we arrived at my friend's land. We opened the gate and drove in. There was snow on the ground, but it wasn't overly deep and the Jeep had no problem making its way through. We arrived at the camp area and unloaded our gear before setting up camp for the night.

I had a tent heater that I placed in the tent along with a lantern. Both would help to keep us warm and comfortable no matter how cool it got outside. I brought our Benelli R1 rifle into the tent as well and carefully made sure that it was unloaded. I placed a loaded magazine next to the rifle just in case we had need of it during the night.

"Things are going to really be different soon aren't they?" Josh asked as we settled in for the night.

"Yes Josh, in many ways they will be, but the most important things will remain the same. Things won't change between us," I said soothingly.

"I know," he replied. "Did you ever imagine two years ago when you moved into the basement apartment that all this would happen?"

"Not a chance!" I replied with a laugh before leaning over and hugging him firmly. "Love you son."

"Love you too dad," he replied and closed his eyes.

We were up bright and early the next morning. Josh normally isn't a morning person, but he was eager to get on with the hunt and woke up at the same time as I did as soon as my wrist watch alarm went off. It was pretty cool inside the tent so I fired up the tent heater and the pair of us quickly skinned out of our sleeping bags and got dressed. Since we were winter camping, safety dictates that you wear nothing more than underwear inside your sleeping bag. People are tempted to bundle up, but doing so could prove fatal. If you're toasty warm, you will sweat and if you sweat, you could end up with hypothermia. It's best to wear as little as possible and be slightly chilly than be toasty warm at first and freezing before long.

Before exiting the tent, we boiled up a pot of water and heated a couple of breakfast IMPs (Individual Meal Packs) and I filled a thermos with hot water and dropped in a couple of tea bags along with some sugar and creamer for later.

By the time we crept out of the sleeping bag, it was still mostly dark outside. "Hold on a bit bud," I whispered to Josh. "Let your eyes adjust to the dark." We were both dressed in day glow orange vests with matching orange hats and gloves.

"How far do we have to go?" he asked.

"The double tree stand is just about 200 yards west of here," I replied. "We'll climb up there and settle in."

"We're only allowed one rifle between us right?"

"That's right. As an apprentice hunter, you share my bag limit and rifle. We'll take turns.... every hour we'll switch between being the shooter and being the spotter."

"Ok," Josh replied. "You be the shooter for the first hour."

"Deal," I replied and gave him a brief hug.

After about ten minutes we were ready to move out. We double checked our gear and made sure that we both had our canteens of water, food to nibble on, our first aid kits, hand warmers and field dressing kits. We walked silently single file down the trail. I soaked a felt strip in doe urine from a small bottle on my pack and tied it to one of my boots. It would help to cover our scent and it might attract a large buck.

It didn't take us long to arrive at the tree stand. The stand was a two-seater and it was approximately twenty feet above the ground. There were steel ladder rungs nailed into the trunk of the tree. I strapped Josh into his safety harness and then helped him to climb up to the stand. He then tossed down a line and I secured the unloaded rifle to it and passed it back up to him. I then strapped into my safety harness and climbed up after him.

When I got settled in, Josh handed me the rifle and I loaded it and cocked the action and then put the rifle on safe. "Ok bud, grab the binoculars and scan the area. See if you can spot anything."

Josh brought his binoculars up to his eyes and carefully scanned the area for a moment. "I can't see much, it's still too dark," he said a moment later.

"That's ok. We'll sit quietly for a few moments and then I'll do some rattling." I had a pair of deer antlers tied together with a length of paracord hanging around my neck. By rattling the antlers together it would make the same sound that a pair of fighting deer would make and it would attract the area's large dominant buck to come and see who was invading his territory.

"Hey Dad look at that," Josh whispered about fifteen minutes later.

I looked where he was pointing and saw a mother fox with a number of young foxes who looked to be just about old enough and big enough to strike out on their own. They walked right past us under the tree without even knowing we were there.

After the visit from the foxes, I did some rattling and I lowered a string with another piece of doe urine soaked felt down from the stand. I had barely finished lowering it when Josh said, "I see some movement to the north. Looks like antlers."

I picked up my own binoculars and looked in the direction in which he was pointing and sure enough I could see a pair of antlers moving slowing but deliberately in our direction. I handed Josh the binoculars and I lifted the rifle into the ready position and released the safety.

"I can feel my heart pounding," he whispered to me.

"Me too kiddo," I replied. "He's too far away now, but he'll be in range in just a couple of minutes. I want to wait for a clear heart-lung shot before I pull the trigger."

"To make in an instant humane kill right?"

"Exactly. If I do it right, he won't even know what hit him."

As the deer closed in to under 300 yards, I hefted the rifle and looked through the scope. I dialed in the range and zoomed the scope to its maximum magnification. My finger was resting gently on the trigger as I awaited the perfect shot. After what seemed like an eternity, the large male deer paused and turned to the side and leaned down as if to check out something on the ground. I carefully adjusted my aim and squeezed the trigger. I barely even felt the recoil and when the rifle settled back into position, I could see that the deer was down. He had fallen right where he stood a moment before.

"Way to go Dad! You got him!" Josh exclaimed and gave me a high five followed by a one armed hug.

"Now the real work begins," I said as I made the rifle safe and handed it to him and began to descend from the tree stand.

Once we were both down from the tree stand, I re-loaded the rifle and we began to make our way towards where the deer had fallen.

"How come you re-loaded the rifle?" Josh asked.

"In case of predators," I replied. "Some bears and coyotes have learned that the sound of a gunshot can mean a free meal. We don't want that meat to go to waste. We owe it to the deer not to waste any of the meat."

"Cause it wouldn't be right to kill it if we weren't going to eat it right?"

"That's right kiddo. Remember hunting isn't all about the kill. The kill is one small part of it. It's being together out in the woods and experiencing nature like we did with the foxes. Pulling the trigger is really a tiny part of the whole experience." I reminded him.

We arrived at the site of the kill a few minutes later. Luckily no predators had tried to make off with our deer. I immediately tagged the deer with one of my license tags and then took a moment to examine the animal up close. It was a really nice 10-point deer that would probably yield a large amount of meat. I could see that my shot placement was precise and that the magnificent animal had probably been dead before it even hit the ground. We took turns taking pictures of each of us posing with the animal before we got down to work field dressing it.

"Joshy it's important to remember that human beings are not separate from nature. We are part of nature. Through our brains and our technology we are pretty much the apex predators on the planet. There isn't another animal in the world that we can't take down, but we have to be responsible. We should kill only what we intend to eat and never kill for the sake of killing."

"Guns pretty much put us at the top of the food chain, eh?" Josh chuckled.

"Pretty much. That and our intelligence." With that I drew my hunting knife, positioned the downed deer and began the work of field dressing my kill.

"This is kind of yucky until you get used to it," I told Josh as I began to carefully cut into the deer's belly taking great care not to pierce any of the internal organs. "The smell is the worst."

"No kidding!" Josh exclaimed. "Couldn't the butcher do this for us?"

"No, it's very important to field dress the carcass and begin to cool the meat as soon as possible to get the best flavor."

The two of us wore full arm length gloves as we carefully gutted the animal and cleaned out the body cavity. As expected, most of the blood was in the chest cavity where the bullet had penetrated right through the deer's body.

"It's amazing how powerful these little things are," Josh said thoughtfully as he held up a .308 Winchester rifle cartridge and loaded it into the rifle magazine replacing the one that I had fired at the deer.

"They can do a whole lot of damage," I said.

Once we finished dressing the deer; we placed it on a tarp and attached a deer drag harness to its antlers. We used the harness to drag the carcass back to the tree stand at the trail, I left Josh with the deer and the rifle and made my way back to camp where I climbed into the Jeep and drove it down the trail to where Josh was waiting. The two of us hefted the heavy carcass into the back of the Jeep and then we drove into town to drop it off with the local butcher who would properly age and process it for us. From there we grabbed a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs at the local diner before heading back to camp.

"I don't know about you kiddo, but I could use a nap," I said with a yawn.

"Me too," Josh agreed.

"Tell you what, let's sleep for a couple of hours and then get up and have something to eat and then get ready for an evening hunt. Let's see if we can get you a deer now too."

"Ok!" Josh exclaimed as we both began to take off our hunting gear and undress.

"Dad it's kind of cold," Josh said after he climbed into his bag. "Can we share this time?"

"I think that'll be ok kiddo. At night it would be kind of dangerous because of the danger of overheating, but we'll be ok for a nap," I said as I unzipped my bag and let him climb in and snuggle up.

"That's better," Josh said with a smile as he yawned contentedly and closed his eyes.

I heard Josh's breathing slow into a familiar pattern as he quickly fell asleep. It took me a bit longer to fall asleep as I lay there thinking about life in general. We had experienced a good hunt that morning, but the best part was just being there and sharing the experience with Josh. He was growing up so fast and it was a marvel to behold. The life that we shared and the life that we were about to embark upon with the rest of our family was something that I treasured and that I wouldn't trade for the whole world. I watched Josh sleep tucked in against my side and I could feel the love and pride that I felt for him swell within me. I knew how blessed I was to be a part of his life and to witness him growing from the most extraordinary boy into what I knew would be the most incredible man. A man who was destined to achieve greatness on a scale that was beyond my comprehension. It was with those happy thoughts in my mind that I finally drifted off to sleep.

"Dad wake up," I heard Josh say a little while later. I opened my eyes and it was still quite light outside. Josh was sitting next to me gently shaking my shoulder. "I made us some late lunch," he said and handed me a camp plate with what appeared to be a good sized helping of Mountain House Chili Macaroni piled on it.

"Thanks kiddo," I said as I sat up and accepted the plate. "Ready to go out and get a deer?"

"For sure," he grinned. "I woke up a little while ago and went and did some scouting.... I found an area near the second tree stand that was all torn up like some deer had been fighting there."

"That's excellent Joshy," I replied enthusiastically. "If we sneak in there and do some rattling and spread around some buck urine, we'll attract the dominant deer for sure. He'll come running ready for a fight."

"Let's do it!" Josh said excitedly as I finished my meal and got dressed. The both of us donned our orange vests and grabbed our packs and we headed out onto the trail.

The second stand was a little further away than the first and when we arrived, I saw right away that Josh was right. The ground and the snow covering it was all torn up and disturbed. There had been a significant fight between a couple of dominant deer in that area and it had happened within the very recent past. I spread around some buck urine from a bottle in my pack and the two of us climbed into the stand. Josh held the rifle while I glassed the area with the binoculars. Occasionally, I'd stop and rattle the antlers and make a few grunt calls with a deer call that I had on a lanyard around my neck.

We'd been in the stand for nearly an hour when Josh elbowed me in the side. "Look!" he said urgently.

I looked down in amazement as a very rotund black bear bumbled his way along the trail and stopped at the foot of our tree. He was obviously well fed and fattened up for winter and he had no idea that we were even there. Josh carefully dug out his cell phone and began to film the bear as he wandered around the tree. Much to our surprise, he found his way to the ladder leading to the stand and slowly began to climb up. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a nervous looking Josh take the safety off the rifle.

"It's ok kiddo," I whispered. "Let's see what he does."

Still completely unaware that we were even there, the bear kept climbing the ladder slowly and deliberately. I knew I'd have to do something before he reached the top. I thought about tossing an apple at him and then I decided to speak to him instead. With Josh's camera rolling I looked at the bear and loudly said "Hey? What are you doing up here?"

The bear froze instantly on the ladder and looked up for the first time. He saw Josh and I, cocked his head to one side and then, as quickly as he could manage, he began to climb back down the ladder. When he hit the ground, he took off running as fast as his legs could carry him. Josh and I looked at each other in amazement.

"Holy cow! I thought he was going to get us," Josh exclaimed.

"I think he was just curious," I replied. He was obviously very well fed."

"I got the whole thing on my phone. I've got to send that to Sean and Jake. They'll have a bird!" Josh laughed.

Less than 5 minutes later Josh's phone chirped. Josh didn't even have to put him on speaker but I could clearly hear Sean's excited voice as he said, "Whoa, you guys. I told you those things will try to get you!"

"I thought he was trying to get us too but Dad says he was just curious. He was moving much faster when he was trying to get away than he was when he was climbing up here though!" Josh replied.

"You're lucky he wasn't hungry," Jake said, as he chuckled.

Josh took a moment to tell his friends about the deer that I'd shot earlier that day and about the setup the we were presently in hoping for a chance for Josh to shoot one too.

After a few more minutes of light banter, Josh hung up and we resumed our efforts to attract a large buck. It was getting close to sunset and legal shoot time ends thirty minutes after sunset so we were beginning to think about packing it in when we heard an animal approaching through the heavy bush to the north.

"Get ready Josh, I think there's one coming in on us now." I warned.

Josh carefully clicked the safety off and lifted the rifle into a ready position. I gave the antlers a good long rattle and sure enough we heard an angry grunting sound from the direction of the deer's approach.

"He's going to be a big one Joshy," I whispered and scanned with my binoculars.

A moment later a large 12-point buck emerged from the thick brush less than 100 yards from the tree. He was snorting and grunting and all worked up preparing to do battle with whatever deer was invading his territory. I watched closely as Josh tracked him through the scope and as the big deer turned broadside, I was about to tell Josh to take the shot when he fired. The bullet struck the large animal right behind his front legs and passed through his heart and lungs before exiting the other side. The deer reared up briefly and then crashed to the ground as if struck by lightning.

"Good shot Josh!" I shouted and offered him a high-five. The grin on his face was priceless.

"I got him!" he shouted excitedly. The two of us climbed down from the stand and carefully approached the downed deer. After making sure that he was dead, we repeated the morning ritual of tagging, photographing and then field dressing our kill. Josh impressed me when he got right into it and took primary responsibility for caring for his own kill. The deer was a beautiful specimen and I planned on having the head mounted for him. I also went back to the tree and retrieved the spent casing from the rifle in order to have it added to the deer mount. Since it was Josh's first kill, it was special.

As we'd done that morning, we drove the carcass to the butcher shop in town and then headed to a local restaurant for our evening meal. We still had a couple of days left in our hunt and still had a pair of doe tags that we could fill. In the end, the weather turned pretty rough the next day and we ended up breaking camp and checking into a motel in town where we spent the final day and night of our trip just hanging around together watching movies and eating chicken wings. Whatever we did didn't really matter, what mattered most to both of us was that we were together. Pretty soon we'd be part of a larger full time family and the opportunities for just the two of us to be alone together would be reduced so we wanted to make the most of every opportunity. We had so much to do to complete the preparations for the move and we relished this final weekend of peace before the move west. The following week was going to take up most of our time, planning our trip west and the set-up for the offices.

On the planning trip, we had twelve people coming from Toronto and four from Burnaby. Once again, we had Kathy from up the street look after Brutus for the two days. All the kids had to be included - the twins, Timmy, et al. I called WestJet and they told us they would add another flight and do what they could to fill a return flight, so it became a semi-charter WestJet 737 as opposed to a private jet. It was another early morning for all of us as we took off from Lester B. Pearson at seven in the morning.

The plane was full, but unfortunately, we weren't assigned seats near each other. Darren and Susan managed to get seats together at the back of the plane. Josh and the twins were together in three seats across the aisle from Kevin, Andy, and me, and James and Anne were two rows in front of Kevin and I near the middle of the plane. Grant, Ethel, and Mom were up at the front of the plane.

On his way back from the washroom, James had a big grin on his face and told me quietly to check out the action at the back of the plane. I decided to go to the washroom and on the way back, I saw what James was talking about. Darren and Susan were holding hands. Well at least Darren's thinking had taken them that far.

Before I sat down in my aisle seat, I asked Kevin if he'd mind switching seats with Josh for a while. Once Josh and I were seated, I looked at him and asked quietly, "Can you keep a secret? It's important because it's really going to affect all of us."

"Sounds serious Dad, I won't tell a soul." He replied seriously.

"Well son, Darren is sweet on your Mom." I said quietly.

Right away Josh's face went from serious to a grin and finally a giggle. He put his hand over his mouth to muffle what had become a laugh.

I was pretty sure he'd be happy about the development, but I didn't think he'd find it so humorous. "What's so funny?" I asked.

"Mark and I are going to get a another daddy!" He exclaimed.

"Hey keep it down son," I said with a grin. "Nothing's carved in stone.... let's just give them their space. Give them a chance to be happy together before you and Mark start teasing them. Mum's the word."

"It just hit me," Josh said quietly, "You and Bryan are our Dads, and now we're going to have a Daddy Darren. How lucky can Mark and I get.... three dads. Better yet, Darren is such an upright guy and he's always been there for us. It'll be so great for Mom.... she couldn't ask for anyone better. We already love him just as much as Mom. I promise I won't say a word."

"Well Joshy, he was once our Dad's partner, so he's always been a part of our family. I have so many things to be thankful for when it comes to Darren." I said quietly.

"Me too," Josh said sighing, "the night you passed out from that skull thing, the bank robbery, he even came all the way to Ottawa for our medal ceremony, that attack by Bob, looking after Mark and Bryan's father when he died.... he's always been there for us and yet, he didn't have to be. Yeah, I'd be proud to have him as another dad, but he will never take your place."

I smiled and said the only words I could feel. "You're the one that makes all of us so proud Josh. Suppose your Mom wants to move in with Darren?" I asked.

"Oh no way! Mom's gotta live with us. Darren can move in with us. Right?"

"Well maybe, but they might not be married. How would you feel about that?" Andy finally joined in the conversation.

Josh looked at us with his head tilted to the side as if we had a screw loose. Very quietly he said, "Andeeee.... that's silly. Dad and Bryan aren't married either."

"But you and Shelly?" I questioned.

"Dad, that's different and you know it. You're starting to sound more old fashioned than Grandma. Shelly and me still have our honour to protect while we still can. You and Bryan have been around the block a few times and have no choice, and both Mom and Darren are old and both of them have been married before and they aren't going to be trying anything new for the first time. Besides, if he loves Mom and Mom's OK with it, I love him and I'm OK with it too."

"You amaze me Josh. I'm so proud of you son, but don't tell your Mom that she's old.... she might get a bit upset."

"I'll bet she would," Andy said laughing as the seat belt sign came on and Josh and Kevin had to return to their own seats.

As we entered the arrivals area, we spotted Bryan, Mark, the Masons, and the Burtons. Right away, there were hugs and a few kisses all around.

While Bryan had us all together, he announced that he'd booked a series of six suites at the Airport hotel together with a stretched limo that would be used to usher everyone around.

The Burtons had their own car so they volunteered to take Darren and Susan with them. Bryan had his Explorer for Mark, Michael and me, so that left enough room in the limo for Josh to be with Shelly and the Masons, the Browns, James, Anne, their three kids, Mom and Andy.

As Bryan led the drive to the office building, he smiled when I asked, "I thought you were working mornings at Keystroke Sync."

"I was, but they found a replacement for me, so I'm just there three mornings a week until we get him broke in. He's pretty talented." Then with a smile, he asked, "Tom, did I see a certain familiarity going on between Susan and Darren?"

I laughed. "You don't miss a thing do you? Yes, you probably did. Darren told me how he felt about Susan on our last trip, but I didn't want to say anything in case it didn't work out. I think they're taking baby steps right now. They were holding hands on the plane here and I broke the news to Josh. He's kinda thrilled that he may get another Daddy."

"Me too?" Mark asked from the back seat.

"Of course you too Marky," I replied. "You're Josh's brother... but listen, please don't tease them about anything. Let's just give them their space and watch how things develop between them. I think they make a great couple."

"That they do Tom," Bryan added. "I couldn't be happier for them.... especially Susan.... Darren is a wonderful man."

Michael laughed. "What a beautiful family! I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

As we pulled up to the front of the office building, I said, "Michael, the fun has just begun. We're going to have a great future together. Bryan, we can do a big favour for them today.... keeping Josh and the kids busy while all the folks have a look at the ranch."

"Got it covered Tom." Bryan smiled as we left the Explorer, "No problem, they're all going in the limo."

As we approached the entrance, Harold Stemming greeted us. "Tom, Bryan, it's good to see you again."

"Good to be here again," I replied as I shook his hand. "I have the whole crew here to go over the plans."

"Good," he replied, "We have a lot to cover today. I have the architect's interior designers coming here in thirty minutes for each of the departments and there's my subcontractors here for the ceiling and carpeting, so you'll have those choices to make. Also, the Telus consultant is coming later to go over any requirements as far as telephone system is concerned. I've set up a big table for us to look over the plans in the restaurant area, but first, I think everyone would like a quick tour of the place."

"Howard, you've been a busy man." I said.

"Gentlemen, once you have official ownership in about two weeks, it's only going to leave about eight weeks to get all the work completed before the New Year. The other thing is the ranch.... I think you're going to want a hanger building for your Cessna."

"Your right Howard, but don't mention anything about the ranch during this meeting. We don't want the kids to know anything about it until we move in." I warned.

"Gotcha," Howard replied as everyone exited the limo and surrounded us in a mass. Once we had them organized into their respective families, we introduced them to Howard.

While everyone of the family was astounded by the atrium as we made our way up the stone stepped pathway through the vegetation to second floor at the back of the building, Harold mentioned that he had a horticulturist lined up to examine the state of the plants and trees and soil conditions. As we walked the concourse along the second floor, we pointed out to the family how we wanted to divide the open office spaces with conference rooms at the mid-point and place the offices for the department heads at each end of the open space.

The planning meeting would have been chaos if it wasn't for the team from the architect's office at the office building to look over the preliminary plans of the building layout. After introductions all around - I'm sure I wouldn't remember all the names - one of the team took his plans of the Daycare Centre with Anne to work out those details. Another took Susan and Mom up to their areas. Another for James and Debbie's area, and lastly another designer took Trevor and Howard up to their areas. Finally, the architect himself sat down with Bryan, the kids, Harold, Andy, Darren, and me to go over the plans of our areas.

Andy and Darren were totally satisfied with their areas near the main entrance.

He had really maximized the two areas of programmers and testers, using one side as programming and at the other end beyond the conference rooms as testing and additional programmers.

The kids were amazingly quiet and attentive - even the younger twins, they didn't seem bored at all, as each of them took in the details of the triangular three-person work stations that were going to be used throughout the building. When the architect had completed his short presentation, Bryan and I smiled - it was just what we had envisioned.

"Dad," Josh said loud enough for everyone to hear, "I know you're happy with all the triangular work stations and it'll work with the programmers, but it wouldn't work that great for us guys doing the testing."

"I agree," Mark added.

"What would be wrong with it as a testing station?" I asked.

"Well, suppose Shelly has a problem with something or she wants to show us something she's working on, all of us have to walk around a triangle somewhere and crowd around her station. It would be awkward because we all have different ideas about different things. Would it be possible for the testing group to have a sort of u-shaped thing, with all of the eight stations gathered within it, so maybe all we have to do is glance over at someone's station?"

"Right on Josh," Mark added, "but better yet, we should have two monitors each, mounted one above the other, so we could switch our problem into the upper monitor for everyone to look at at the same time, on the upper monitors."

Josh turned his head and stared at Mark with a big grin, then to me and bounced his eyebrows twice.

"Is that possible, electronically.... uh, computer wise?" the architect asked.

"Definitely," Bryan and I said together.

"COOL!" Eddie and the twins exclaimed together.

"Great idea Mark!" Michael all but shouted.

"I'm going to love working here," Kevin said.

Just then, Trevor and Howard came in. "Sorry to interrupt gentlemen," Trevor said, "we have a small change that we want to make to the conference rooms, but we're going to let your designer here discuss them with you while the rest of us go have a look at the apartments."

"We should be back in an hour or so," Howard said with a wink before he left. The wink told us they were going to see the ranch.

Then each of the designers came back into the area.

"Mark, I think that's a great idea. We could talk amongst ourselves without disturbing any of the other programmers!" Shelly exclaimed. "Then I wouldn't even have to turn my chair around.... I'd just have to look up at the other screen and we wouldn't be shouting across the big open room to tell each other about the problem."

"Gentlemen?" the architect questioned looking at Bryan and me.

"It's a go, let's see where we'll put it and what size it should be." Bryan said.

The architect pulled out a pad of sketching paper. "OK, an eight-station horseshoe."

"Just a minute," I said, "Jake and Sean may be here in the summer, that's ten, so make it a twelve-station horseshoe. That way we'll have a couple of spares."

While Bryan, the kids and I examined the floor plan of where to put it, the architect sat in his chair and sketched a floor plan and perspective. What he came up with in just a few minutes was amazing. The only exception that we had with it, was that he DID have it as a horseshoe, when really all we needed was a half circle. The kids were beaming.

"OK, we've got the horseshoe nailed down. What's this about the conference rooms?" the architect asked looking at his designer.

"Mr. Burton and Mr. Mason are in charge of Technical Training and Technical Support respectively," the designer began. "Together they, actually we, thought it would be a good idea if we joined their conference rooms and enlarged the area by about ten percent or so and turn that area into a combined multi-purpose audio-visual learning centre and conference room. They said it would be used mostly by their departments, but would be available for anyone's use."

"They're right Tom," Bryan commented, "we need a state of the art training centre."

"I knew Trevor and Howard would be an asset for us. Go for it gentlemen.... make it state of the art." I confirmed.

As the architect and his group of designers left to finalize their layouts, Harold came over to us with a heavy book of carpet samples. "Ok Tom, Bryan, kids, it's time to look at carpeting. I've only brought this one manufacturer's samples because they are top of the line for this type of building. It'll last seven to ten years, although some wear areas may be need patching after five or seven years."

"Gosh, they aren't very thick are they?" Shelly commented as she looked over my shoulder.

"No Shelly, they aren't." Harold replied. "You must remember that you're going to be sitting in a computer chair on wheels and they will be times when carts will be going over it to deliver furniture, computers and such. This very low level loop pile is what you need to allow the casters to roll and still have the sound-deadening qualities that carpet gives. Otherwise, we'd be able to use linoleum which actually wouldn't be more serviceable than this carpeting in the wear areas."

Once we agreed on the colour of the carpeting, Harold brought out three samples of ceiling tiles together with a brochure of lighting fixtures. Because of the openness of the areas involved, we went with the light and diffuser combination at Harold's recommendation.

With those choices completed, we sent the kids up the elevator to see the third floor space they'd be occupying. Just before the telephone rep showed up, Harold opened his briefcase and showed Bryan and I some brochures of metal buildings that we could use as a hangar at the ranch.

We ended up choosing a barn style with sliding doors versus a Quonset. It seemed to be a closer match to the other buildings on the property. John Etax had spoken to the neighbour and confirmed that his lease on the land allowed for such contingencies and that using up that strip of land for a runway and hangar would be no problem for him. He already had more grazing space than he needed. He said that he'd keep the livestock away from that area until they got used to the idea and the noise of an airplane around. From an aerial photo that Harold had taken from his Cessna, he illustrated where he'd suggest the runway, hangar, and air sock be placed. The only question was whether we wanted the runway paved or not.

"Who knows," Bryan said with a distant look in his eyes, "we know our boys are going to go far and maybe sometime in our less than distant future, Mark might want to fly our family jet from here when we hit it really big."

I smiled at the thought. "I know Bryan.... and I love the thought, but right now, we have four pilots and one airplane."

"Four pilots!" Harold exclaimed.

"Yes indeed!" Bryan exclaimed. "Mark, Josh and Michael have already soloed and I'm sure that Kevin won't be far behind."

"You're also included on that list Bryan." I added. "Harold, I'm a licensed instructor now."

Bryan's smile expressed his feelings. "OK, we won't pave it for now, but we have to have lights on it for night landings."

"That goes without saying," I agreed.

When the telephone rep came he quickly went over all the options and systems that were available. We showed him the layout of the offices and what we intended for work stations and he agreed that wouldn't be a problem getting each computer connected to the Internet. Once we made our choices, we had a quick look at the electrical room from which everything would be fed.

There was an astounding four-foot crawl space with walkways between each floor to conceal conduits, ducts, and recessed lights. It was definitely designed for the electronic age as it stood right now and any probable future needs that may come along.

Bryan called Mark on his cell and told him to gather the kiddie clan together and meet us down at the main entrance.

While we were waiting for them, Harold handed me his ballpark budget figures for the office building ceilings, floors, the restaurant, well itemized for each component, and his fees to date. He still had to work on the figures for the ranch. We agreed that no money would exchange hands until we had complete ownership of the building. Then we would start to advance Harold his fees for work completed, less a 15% holdback, which would be paid when the work for the flooring, ceiling, and restaurant was completed. The same would be true for any work that was completed at the ranch.

Once we had the kids corralled, we went out into the sunny, but cold outdoors and walked over to the maintenance building. Harold had negotiated with the Owner to pay for the supply of the insulation, clips, and drywall necessary to insulate the shed. Harold said that his crew would install it. Although not insulated yet, it was warmer than the outside temperature even with the thermostat set for 5 degree Celsius.

As we made our way back to the front of the building, the limo was just pulling up to the curb.

Susan and Darren were the first ones out.

"Well how were the apartments Mom?" Josh asked.

The apartments are beautiful Josh.... everyone's going to be quite happy there!" Susan exclaimed putting some emphasis on the word 'apartments'. I was starting to realize how difficult it was for everyone to keep this little secret from Josh. "I know that Dianne and Andy are very happy with theirs."

James and Anne stood there with big smiles. As Anne held Timmy, she managed a 'thumbs up' and James simply said, "Well done fellas!"

"I'm glad you found those apartments," Ethel said, "very spacious and homey."

"I love the view!" Grant said with a wink.

"I'm glad you were able to find them too," Trevor said smiling, "We already have an offer on our place in Burnaby!"

"I'm glad they have three bedrooms," Debbie said. "I'm surprised they're all so large."

"I'm really happy that they're to your liking," I said smiling with some relief. Up until that moment, I had it in the back of my mind that not everyone would like living on a ranch, away from all the city amenities and I so wanted all of us to be together.

I could see the relief on Bryan's face as well as he spoke with hands raised. "Well we're finished here then. I'm not sure about all of you, but I'M HUNGRY!"

"My exact thought," Howard said, "and because I'm one of the families hosting your visit here, we're going to eat at a special place to celebrate. Pardon me while I make the reservation. Let's see... how many are we?" He asked as he counted heads. "WOW!" he exclaimed, "26 counting little Timmy!"

While Howard was on his cell phone, Angela said, "It's a beautiful hotel. We went there for Howard's office party last Christmas and then we went on our own for New Years celebration. I guarantee the food and the service."

"OK Bryan," Howard announced, "you're going to have to follow the limo... he'll follow me. Harold.... with that big black Suburban, you'd better follow the bosses."

Bryan nodded as Susan said, "Michael, would you and Mark go with your folks.... Darren and I want to ride with Tom and Bryan."

"Sure Susan, no problem," he answered as he and Mark went trotting to the Burton car.

Bryan and I smiled knowingly across the top of the Explorer as we opened the doors.

Once the doors were closed, Susan said, "OK boys, we haven't got time to beat around the bush. Darren and I, we... uh, want to...."

"Get involved?" I asked before Susan could complete her sentence.

"Fellas," Darren said, "I'm sure you both know how I feel about Susan."

"Of course we do," Bryan said, "and we couldn't be happier for both of you."

"That's very reassuring Bryan," Susan said apprehensively, "but how do you think that Josh and Mark would feel about it?"

I started laughing. "Susan, please don't worry about them," I said still giggling. "I had to tell Josh of the possibility on the plane while we were coming here. He and Mark are thrilled to pieces.... they're going to have three dads. Darren, they love and respect you just as much as Bryan and me."

"They said that!" Darren exclaimed.

"Josh said it and Mark agreed," I replied.

"Whew! That's a relief," Susan said. "We, uh.... we've been invited to spend the night with the Burtons tonight."

"Hey that's good, we'll take Michael and Josh home with us. Mark will be happy about that." Bryan said.

"Thank you Bryan." Susan said. "Maybe it's too soon to tell, but how would you boys feel about Darren and I moving in together at the ranch house next to the main house? Josh would be with you guys of course, but it might be a little better for everyone if we all had our own space to call home."

Bryan and I glanced at each other smiling. I turned in my seat. "Darren, Susan, we'd honestly be happy as punch. I'm sure Josh will be fine with it. He still needs his mom around and the fact that you'll be right next door will be a comfort to him."

"OK. While I have the chance, could we talk about the furniture? Tom, you mentioned that the owner wanted to sell it off."

"Yes she does," I replied. "Make up a list and we'll contact John Etax, the realtor to forward it to her."

"For sure, we have to keep the dining room table and the fourteen chairs. It matches the built-in china cabinet." Susan said.

"The china cabinet's built in? Fourteen chairs?" I asked. "We only saw ten chairs when we were there."

"You didn't see the other four that were being used in the bedrooms then," Susan said. "Oh and there's also four leaves in the tall cabinet at the end of the china cabinet to add to the centre and the ends pull out. I'll bet that table could sit thirty people fully extended."

"The other thing you have to get is the pool table in the basement." Darren said.

"BASEMENT!" Bryan exclaimed. "What basement? What pool table?"

Susan and Darren started laughing. "Yes fellas, there is a basement with a walk-out beside the stone barbeque." Darren explained. "John didn't show us that on the last trip. Susan opened a door that she thought was a kitchen linen closet and it turned out to be the stair to the basement. There's a small kitchenette, bar thing, a sauna and a bathroom just inside the sliding door and another fully outfitted bedroom down there just like the two master bedrooms on the first and second floors."

"Yes and there's another bedroom suite like upstairs and two other small bedroom and a small bathroom off the games room," Susan added, "It would make a perfect guest room."

"I think that's a great arrangement and we better keep the king-sized beds too." I said laughing.

"Thanks boys, I really appreciate it." Susan said. "The other thing I wanted to talk about is the other houses. The Masons, the Browns, and James and Anne are thrilled with each of the three-bedroom houses and each have picked their own without any argument. Andy and your Mom love the two-bedroom house. Then we got the surprise of our lives when we went to the one-bedroom house. It's occupied!"

"Oh really?" I questioned. "Do we have squatters on the property?"

"Not squatters Tom." Darren said. "They're employees of the owner. According to them, they've been working for the owners of the property for ten years."

"Boys, Irene and Hamish Dougherty are a charming couple in their early fifties." Susan added. "They invited us in for tea, but of course we couldn't with our short stay there. The inside and outside of their house is absolutely immaculate. Irene has been the housekeeper and full time cook for the owner since the owner's husband died and of course she's been keeping the inside of the other houses cleaned since all the family children moved out. Hamish, he's been in charge of looking after the grounds and as you saw from the trees and shrubs, he knows his stuff. It was Anne that suggested that we had to keep them on if they were willing because all of us would be at work every day. James, Trevor, and Grant agreed that it would be a boon to them if they didn't have to come home and start cutting grass and such."

"You know they're right boys." Darren said.

"Oh I know they're right," Bryan said. "Mark and I DO do the housework, but we don't enjoy it when we could be doing other stuff."

"Do you think they could look after the main house as well?" I asked.

"Tom, if I had my way, they'd have dinner on the table for me when I get home from work, but Irene did say that if we tidied up after ourselves, she'd be willing to give it a go." Susan said.

"That's six houses a week, plus her own, that she has to dust, vacuum, and wash floors," Bryan said. "That could make a very full weeks work without thinking about laundry, dishes, and other things. Fair enough, Hamish could do the windows and other outdoor things, and a big plus, Brutus and Daisy could be outdoors with him all day. They'd love that."

"Let's not forget Freddie. Susan, hire them!" I exclaimed. "It'll be good to know that there's someone there besides security when the kids get home from school. I don't know what their present wage scale is, but start them at 5% more to start. If it works out, we'll increase it to whatever in three months. Does that sound fair?"

"Well Tom, on the surface it does," Darren said. "However all they're getting right now is the use of the house including utilities plus $200 each a month."

"That's outrageous!" I almost shouted.

"That's what I thought," Susan agreed. "That's starvation wages. I want to start them at a thousand a month each and if they work out, bump it up to $1500 after three months."

"Susan, phone them and tell them as soon as we have title to the property, we want them on the payroll at $1000 each." Bryan said. "AND those wages are in addition to the utilities and the house, and do not include any supplies or equipment needs which we'll pay for separately."

"I agree Susan," I said as Bryan came to a stop in the hotel parking lot, "and let them know too.... they can have that house rent-free as long as they stay employed with us and if they need additional help to just tell us."

"I knew I could count on you guys," Susan said as we got out of the Explorer.

Howard and Angela Burton weren't kidding when they said it was a nice hotel. It was located in the middle of downtown and reminded me of the hotel I stayed at in New York, and especially Carl Drabinski when the four-course meal was served. The soup, salad, and a main course of steak and lobster left most of us in awe.

As I looked around the table at all the happy faces, I knew this was just going to be a precursor for things to come at Christmas. With Bryan on my left and Mark and Michael beside him; Josh on my right with Shelly beside him, I felt an overwhelming love around the table. These families were definitely a group of the finest people I'd ever known and trusted.

Once we finished our dessert and our coffee cups were being refilled, Howard rose quietly from his seat, bent over between Bryan and I, and asked quietly if he could speak privately with us.

As we followed Howard to the lobby of the hotel, our curiosity was truly peaked.

Once seated, Howard began, "Boys, that ranch is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in Alberta. Now I know that this venture of yours is going to become an overwhelming success.... have no doubt about that. There's something that Angela and I would like to request though.... we'd like to sell our house in the east end and build a new one on your ranch so we can be closer to both of you and the other families. We know it would be good for Michael as well."

Bryan was immediately ecstatic trying to contain his laughter with his thumbs up. I was equally thrilled.

"Howard, get it designed the way you want it, so long as you match the style of the rest of the houses, get us a price for the construction, we'll pay for it, and we'll get it built as soon as possible." I answered.

"Oh no, no, no," Howard replied. "I'll pay for it from the sale of our present home. You're paying me and everyone in the family for our work plus the profit sharing, so it's the least I can do as a contribution toward this enterprise. I want to be able to pay my way.... always have.... always will."

"Fair enough," Bryan replied, "but that leaves you out on a limb if we decide to sell the property someday. Tom, we're going to have to draw up an agreement between all the senior family members that everyone owns an equal share in the ranch separate from the business. Death, disagreements, divorce.... all those things are going to have to be addressed."

"Bryan, I think you're right although I can't imagine divorce ever happening with these families," I said, "and I realize that every contingency should be covered. Also, I think from what Susan told us about Irene and Hamish, that after all the effort they've put into the property, they should be included. Andy's going to be a busy fella getting all these agreements in place. How about if we make it something like a will from us to all the members of all the families, full of all the necessary 'ifs' and 'buts'?"

"Boys, pre-nuptial agreements where the parties sign, seems to be all the rage today," Howard said, "but I think in this case that the decision for you to have an extended will would leave the control of the property in your capable hands and I think that's important. You're not the type of guys that are going to treat anyone unjustly."

"Howard, there's one other very important thing I have to mention," Bryan began. "It has to do with the kids and security. We've enrolled all the kids except Michael in a private school that are going to pick them up at the ranch and bring them home. We're concerned that once it's noticed that we're as well off as we are that we may become a target for the unsavory element of society, so we're having a high tech security system installed at the ranch together with a security patrol primarily because we'll be at work when the kids get home from school. Not living at the ranch, you won't have that security, but more important, neither will Michael especially if he's attending a public school."

"Damn, I never thought of that," Howard said. "You're right Bryan. Michael's going to have his neck stuck out a mile until we move out to the ranch."

"Howard, if it's all right with you and Angela, until you get your new house built, he could move in with us at the ranch and attend the private school with the rest of the kids," I suggested. "In fact, after you sell your house and have to move out, you could stay with us in the main house until yours is built. There's a great big main bedroom in the basement."

"You'd do that for us?" Howard asked. Both Bryan and I smiled and nodded our heads. "Gentlemen, I can't thank you enough," he said as we shook his hand. "We'd better get back now that that's settled."

"Howard, one more thing," I said as we made our way back to the dining room, "thanks a million for not spilling the beans to Josh about the ranch."

"Not a problem Tom. All of us are looking forward to seeing the look on his face when he sees it for the first time. Actually, we're quite excited that maybe for once we're going to be one up on him. We're really thrilled to be able to surprise him."

As we sat back down, Josh said quietly, "Dad, we have to come to a place like this for Christmas dinner with everyone. It feels so special to have everyone together."

I grinned and quietly said, "I have reservations for Christmas already made and we'll definitely be all together, it's just that everyone won't know until December. So let's keep it a secret."

Josh's eye brightened. I'd made him happy. "My lips are sealed O Devious Dad."

Just then Howard Burton stood up. "Well my friends, dare I say, new members of our new family....." Immediately all of us started to cheer and applaud after that introduction.

"You got that right," Josh shouted over the din.

Once we quieted down, Howard continued. "Yes I do have it right Josh. After having a serious talk with Tom and Bryan, we.... DO have it right. Although I'm not the mayor or anyone important in the political field, I'd like to thank you for choosing to come to Calgary with this new venture. As I watched all of you at the planning sessions and such today, I've come to realize how truly cohesive each family is with all the other families and it made me realize that we're all after the same thing..... happiness at no other person's expense. No doubt that we'll have some glitches along the way business-wise, but I know because we're such a close knit group of families, we'll be able to overcome all our difficulties with a minimum of distress. I feel that over the fullness of time, the city of Calgary is going to appreciate what we have to offer to its economy. I hope this little dinner after such a successful day has inspired you as much as it has Angela and me. Welcome to Calgary everyone!"

"Here! Here!" I shouted as I stood up. "If anyone ever has any doubts in the future, remember Howard's words. Although Josh and I have always considered Calgary our second home because of our love for Bryan and Mark, this is going to be a new adventure for the rest of you relocating your homes, getting used to working day-by-day together.... Debbie, Trevor, Shelly, Eddie.... you're going to have to get used to a colder climate, but I know these small changes will be easy to adapt to because we have a focus on our venture and as Howard said, our mutual happiness."

As I sat down, Grant stood up to his full commanding six foot two height. "As most of you know, I've had a tough year readjusting to life again. However, the easiest adjustment I've had to make is learning to enjoy the caring and consideration that all of you have offered my family and me. I know that readjusting again to all of you and this venture is giving my family and me a higher level of confidence and trust in our fellow man. Howard, on behalf of us strange folks from Toronto and Burnaby, thank you for your welcome to Calgary.... I know that all of us are going to love living here."

"ALL RIGHT YOU GUYS," Anne exclaimed as she stood up, "enough of the speeches. Aside from Bryan, Mark and the Burtons, the rest of us have to catch an early flight back to where we came from and we have to START PACKIN'. Howard... Angela... thank you for this wonderful dinner, but I think it's time we all adjourned this business dinner for a restful evening at the hotel and a short sleep before we get up very early again in the morning."

"I'll second that," Susan said as she stood up. "All those in favour?" All hands at the table went up. "Motioned passed! This meeting is adjourned."

I grabbed Bryan's hand as we stood up and I looked deeply into his eyes. "We're the luckiest two guys in the whole world."

There was a foray of excitement about the bill as each of the men folk offered to pay for it.

To end the chattering between all of us guys, Mom stepped in. "Howard is going to pay the bill and I AM going to have the receipt. This is a business expense and will become a benefit to the corporation. Bryan, I want the receipts for the hotel and the limousine as well. Gentlemen, these are business expenses and you WILL be reimbursed once we have the corporation books set up. No arguments on that account." Then Mom grabbed the receipt from Howard smiled, turned, and walked towards the entrance followed by Susan, Ethel, Angela, and Debbie - each with their own little giggle. The ladies won that round.

"Well I guess the ladies have put us in our place guys," Bryan said. "I can see we're going to have a hard time impressing them with a nice meal from now on."

Howard laughed. "Ego busters."

"OK Michael, Mark, Josh, you're with us." I announced. "Sorry.... Shelly, Eddie, you're with your folks. Matthew, Richard.... you have to go with your Mom and Dad. Kevin you get to go with your Mom and Dad. We'll see all of you bright and early in the morning at the airport."

Right away there was a number of crest fallen looks among the kids, although they were going to see each other in the morning. Without any embarrassment, Josh and Shelly had to give each other a parting, slightly long kiss right there in the hotel lobby.

"The hotel reservations are made under the Davis-Callahan Corporation." Bryan announced to the parting crowd.

"AND how about me?" Andy exclaimed as he took up the rear.

"Oh, oh," Bryan said as he turned around, "how about an all-expenses-paid night at my house, sleeping on the couch?" Bryan asked with a smile.

Andy started to laugh. "Bryan, I'd be delighted, but I got to get my bag out of the limo.."

"Me too," Josh said.

Once they got back to Bryan and me, Andy started to laugh and giggle as we headed for the Explorer. He exclaimed still laughing, "All this fucking money, and I still have to sleep on a couch."

"Hey Andy, it's not as bad as the bunks at Camp Tonawonka." Bryan said laughing.

"Oh God guys, I'm going to miss Camp Tonawonka. It's meant so much to me over the past few years." Andy said forlornly.

"Andy, it's meant so much to all of us," Mark said seriously. "We all came out of this last summer a lot better than we were at the start of summer. Mostly because of you ooold guys."

"OLD!" Andy yelled.

Right away Mark knew he was in trouble and took off laughing on the run with Andy, Bryan and I shouting after him. "We'll show you who's old!" Andy shouted.

Mark's strong athletic legs were carrying him far in front of us as we reached the parking area full of cars. At first he headed for the Explorer figuring we'd give up, but when Andy threatened him with, "Boy are you going to get it when I catch you," Mark started to dodge and dart between the maze of parked cars.

Josh and Michael stood on top of the curb shouting to Mark, "Left! Right! Straight ahead! Mark right! Duck!"

Instinctively, the three of us had spread out into different aisles of the parked cars to catch Mark between us. I had to watch where I was stepping and the next second I looked up, I couldn't see Mark. I thought he was just in front of me. I continued to run looking side to side until the three of us reached the open area where there were no more cars to hide behind. Andy and Bryan caught up to me and three of us stopped and looked around.

"Where'd that little bugger go?" Bryan muttered as the three of us scanned the parking lot for any movement. Andy ducked down and looked under the cars for any leg movement.

"Too many tires in the way," he said as he stood up again.

Just then we heard Mark's voice. "Hey guys," he shouted, "did ya forget where you parked the car?"

We looked toward the direction of his voice. Together with Michael and Josh, they were leaning nonchalantly with their arms crossed against the rear door of Bryan's Explorer at the other end of the parking lot.

"Let's take the casual approach," I said as we started walking towards the Explorer. "It's noogie time."

"I'm all for that," Andy said laughing and we started laughing and walking casually back to the Explorer.

"Don't unlock the doors yet Bryan." I said, "When I say the word 'but', grab whoever's closest to you and get 'em good."

"Mark, that was a tough run on a full stomach," Andy said laughing as we grew closer.

"I guess I made my point," Mark said laughing.

"How come you're so out of breath Bryan?" Michael asked as we got within three feet of them.

"Watch it guys, they might be up to something," Josh said as we started to reach the door handles on each side of the door.

"Just remember fellas," I said, "paybacks a bitch, BUT-"

Right away without warning, the three of us had a boy each in a headlock administering the hardest noogies we'd ever given them. "Now who's old.... tell us Mark!" Andy said laughing, not giving up his hold on Mark.

"Tom is!" Mark replied between laughs. That made the three of us continue our torture on their heads.

"Now who's old," I said to Michael whose head was screwed into my grip.

"Bryan is!" Michael replied. "He huffs and puffs when he runs."

"WHAT!" Bryan yelled with his grip on Josh's head. "Who did he say huffs and puffs?"

"You do!" Michael answered and the three of us once again rubbed their heads with our knuckles until they started to whine their 'ows' and 'that hurts'.

Finally Bryan asked Josh, "Now Josh, tell us who's the old one."

"SANTA CLAUS! Santa Claus! O God that one hurt...." Josh replied as we released our holds.

"Told you, paybacks a bitch." I said. "It's a good thing you three have hard heads."

"I think you guys asked for it," Bryan laughed as we all climbed into the Explorer.

Once we arrived at Bryan's house and got out of the Explorer, Mark went running up the street. "Where's he going?" Andy asked.

"He's off to the neighbours to get Daisy. We didn't know how long we'd be today, so we played it on the safe side." Bryan explained.

After Bryan gave Andy the dime tour of the house, they returned to the living room just as Mark and Daisy came in the front door. Each of us were immediately bounced on and given a doggy tongue bath and when she reached the last of us, she stopped dead in her tracks, and stared between Josh and I for a moment before going around the house sniffing.

"Hey Daisy, come here girl," Mark called. Right away she came trotting from the hall and stopped in front of Mark with a slight whine cocking her head from side to side. "Sorry girl," Mark said, "No, Brutus isn't here."

Then she went over to Josh and cocked her head from side to side. "No Daisy, Brutus is at home. He's not here. We'll bring him the next time." Finally satisfied, Daisy went over to Mark and lay beside him as he sat on the floor of the living room.

Once we were settled in the living room, Bryan asked, "Who wants a beer?"

Right away six 'yeses' were heard.

"Nooo," Bryan said smiling as he got face to face with Mark, "I was referring to us oooold guys."

"Ahh, I don't know Bryan," I said, "the boys worked hard today at those planning sessions and maybe they deserve the reward."

Andy nodded and winked. While the six of us sat around the living room, Michael asked, "What did Grant mean about having a tough year?"

"I don't know if you noticed, but he didn't have any wine at dinner this afternoon. You have to remember that he's an alcoholic." I said.

"Yeah, he had ginger ale like the rest of us kids," Michael said, "but a little drink of wine would be OK wouldn't it?"

"That's the trick," I said, "an alcoholic cannot consume any alcohol. Not a drop. Once you've been addicted to a substance whether it be food, a drug, alcohol, or nicotine, and have quit the addiction, you can't go back to it in any way. The words, 'OK just a swig of beer or a sip of wine won't hurt', is all it takes to retrigger the mental addiction in an addict's mind."

"Yeah, kinda like Marcus with sugar and his diabetes," Michael said.

"I wonder how Marcus is doing?" Andy asked.

"Actually he's doing good." Mark said. "We got an email from him the other day. He said he was getting tired of testing his glucose levels because they kept coming up between 4.3 and 4.7, which is in the perfect range. He thought he'd give his system a zap, so he had some hot oatmeal with a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar on it and let it melt in."

"Oh God no," Bryan said.

"Well he found out that was a definite no-no." Michael said, "his glucose test popped up to 7.8 a few hours later.... so he realized he wasn't out of the woods and that his diet was working. He told the doctor and the doctor did a series of fasting blood tests on him and decided that he was doing much better. So for now, the doctor's taken him off the metformin pills.... see if he can control everything just with diet."

"He said that sometimes he sees onion rings and has to say no to them," Mark giggled, "but he will have just one of someone else's. He calls that a forgivable cheat on his diet. Most of all he says he misses fudge, but after what happened with the oatmeal, he said he stuffs himself with celery or carrots and if he's at home he'll have it with some dip and that doesn't change his count."

"How's his weight?" I asked.

"He says he's thin as ever," Mark said with some pride, "but he's still growing and he still runs every morning."

"I love good news Mark," Bryan said, "and if it hadn't been for you three, he'd have been back to being a couch potato."

"The point is boys," Andy said, "with diabetes it's a food type of addiction and as Marcus has shown us, you can sublimate your craving with other foods and common sense. In the case of other drugs and alcohol, there is no substitute to answer the craving."

"Yeah, I know what you mean Andy," Josh said, "but there are people absolutely addicted to eating any kind of food. It's awful to see some of the obese kids at school literally waddling down the halls between classes huffing and puffing, hardly moving at all in Phys-ed.... I guess their parents don't care and over eating is a family thing to do."

"I think you've nailed it on the head for the most part Josh," Bryan said, "but some kids, people too, usually women, suffer from an under active thyroid and that can cause obesity if not treated properly. However, the ones you're referring to are addicted to food of any kind and they, sometimes the parents too, need psychological and medical treatment. Think of all the diseases that these people are running the risk of getting because they're overweight."

I took the last swig of my beer. "Well boys, it's good to know that you have enough good thoughts not to become addicted to anything but kindness for your country. However, I think it's time for us to hit the hay.... five AM is coming early and we have to get to the airport before 6:30."

"Hey Andy," Josh said, "I have a treat for you. You take the spare room and I'll have the couch. It's the least I can do after all you did for us this summer and well.... for me on 9-11."

"Josh, that's not necessary, but I'm too pooped to argue about it. It has been a long day." Andy said.

With that, Mark and Michael picked up the empties, let Daisy out for a final pee, while Bryan went to the closet and got a pillow, sheet, and blanket for the couch. Andy, Josh, and I made our way to the bathroom to circulate and add some moisture to the porcelain throne and brush our teeth. Mark and Michael were waiting at the open door as Josh finished and headed back to the living room. I was the last to leave the bathroom as Bryan went in.

I went to the living room to make sure Josh was tucked in. I knelt on the floor beside him.

"Josh, you came up with a great idea today," I began.

"You didn't mind that I added all that extra cost to the operation?" he asked.

"Of course not son, I replied, "it was a great idea and a lot easier to implement now rather than later. You certainly impressed the rest of us with that horseshoe arrangement, especially the architect. I'm really proud of you."

"Thanks dad," he yawned, "I love you."

"I love you too son," I said as I kissed his forehead, then watched his dreary eyes close.

Bryan and I arrived back at Mark's bedroom doorway at the same time to see Andy sitting on the edge of Mark's bunk.

"I know you were just kidding Mark and all we did was have fun with it." Andy said. "All of you are great boys and you need to remember that we're all really proud of you." Then he gave Mark a hug. "Sleep tight... both of you."

"Love those boys," Andy said quietly to us as he left the room.

Bryan sat on the edge of Mark's bed while I reached up and gave Michael a hug on the top bunk. "You're a special boy," I said, "and I think now you know how much we love you."

"I was talking to your Mom in the lobby of the hotel tonight," Michael said. "She said that I was good for Mark and she'd be proud if some day I'd call her Grandma."

"I told you she was a special lady Michael," I said. "My mom has held our family together for a lot of years and kept us on the straight and narrow without a cross word. What she sees in you is what you are.... an upstanding young man who's going to go far in this life. We all love her to pieces. Goodnight Michael."

"Goodnight Tom," he replied, "and thanks for being you."

Bryan and I switched places. "Mark, in addition to being a fun guy, you're a genius."

"No I'm not," Mark replied. "Well yeah, I liked kidding you about being old, but I'm certainly not that smart."

I smiled. "Mark, you came up with the idea of having the double monitors in the horseshoe. That was a very good idea."

"I got the idea from our trip to the Air Force Base at Cold Lake on 9/11. They have a real smokin' set of computer monitors set up there."

"I'm glad you remembered some good out of that day," I said. "I think we can put the rest of it behind us now. Do you think that Josh has a clue about the ranch yet?"

"Ranch? What ranch?" Mark asked with a big grin.

"Thank you Mark. We all want to surprise him. Oh and by the way fellas," I said as I stood up, "one more secret. Bryan and I had a talk with your Dad Michael.... your Dad and Mom really like the ranch, so before you know it, he'll have his own house built there and you'll be moving there as well." I wanted to hold onto the surprise that Michael would be living with us before they started school in December.

"Wow!" Michael exclaimed quietly. "I can't wait! Love you Tom. Love you Bryan."

"Me too," Mark smiled.

"We love you too boys. Now get some sleep." Bryan said.

"Good night boys," I said quietly as I patted Daisy's head, closed the door, and made my way to Bryan's bedroom.

In spite of our long day, it felt so good for both Bryan and I to enjoy our privacy again.

The next morning I think we were all dragging our asses. While the others made use of the shower, Mark, Daisy, and I went for a quick fifteen-minute run and that got some of the cobwebs dislodged. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and juice until we got to the airport at six AM. Once there, we grabbed a quick breakfast sandwich and another coffee before all the others of our extended family showed up.

It was obvious as soon as we spotted them that Susan and Darren were in love. They were absolutely beaming from an inner glow.

Without a moment's hesitation, Josh ran right over to them and grabbed Darren in a big hug. "What makes my Mom happy, makes me happy and you're the reason Darren. Love you," he said before he hugged Susan, then run off to grab Shelly into a hug and whisper something in her ear. Her reaction and giggle was priceless.

Our flight was the first one to leave and there was a few emotional tears again as we said our goodbyes to the Masons, the Burtons, and Bryan and Mark. This would be the last time we'd have to say goodbye like this because on our next trip, we'd all end up in Calgary together.

The next week, the butcher shop that had processed our deer called to say that our meat was ready for pickup. I'd asked them for a good mix of ground meat, steaks and roasts, and I had them make up a good amount of sausages, pepperoni and even some meat pies. All told, we ended up with over 200 lbs. of meat on our hands from two very large deer. It was more than we could eat before moving so we gave a great deal of it away to friends and family. The biggest single recipient of our deer meat was Jake and Sean's Place.

Jake and Sean's place was a wonderful youth shelter started by Al Burger and his sons. It was something that I wanted to support both with a sizeable donation of deer meat, but also financially. Davis-Callahan Inc. was setup with a charitable arm and it was my intention to make a sizeable financial donation to Jake and Sean's place in the near future.

"What does deer taste like?" Sean asked on the day that Josh and I drove to the shelter to make the delivery.

"It's good. A lot like beef, but with much less fat," Jake replied.

"You've had it before?" Sean asked surprised.

"Sure. My uncle's friends were big hunters and they always brought us all kinds of meat from animals that they shot."

"I've heard that hunting is pretty big in the Italian community," I said.

"Not to my uncle, but his friends went all the time," Jake added.

"I really want to thank you guys for all this meat," Mark Depew, the Executive Director of Al Burger's foundation said after carrying a load of carefully wrapped packages into the freezer. "It's a very generous donation that will go to good use."

"We owe it to the deer that the meat gets used," Josh said. "Besides we couldn't think of a better cause to donate it to."

Leaving Al, Dana, Sean, and Jake again, brought a little anxiety to my gut. They were another important part of our lives that would be further from us than I wanted. However, now it was time to start packing and get ready for our trip west to Calgary.


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