I was surprised Saturday morning when Eric's car drove up to the front of the house and Eric was sitting in the passenger seat. Bran was driving. Although I knew that he was old enough to drive and have his license, I still thought of him as the frightened youngster I first saw while Joel was in the hospital in Houston.
"How's he doing?" I asked Eric when he got out of the car.
"Actually, he's a pretty good driver. That doesn't keep me from trying to push my foot through the floorboard while he's driving, though," he laughed. "I don't let him drive on the freeways around the city yet. I think he needs a little more experience before he tries them out."
"I'm glad that I have a couple of years before Joel is old enough to get his learner's permit. I'm not ready for that part of fatherhood. I'll probably need Dr. Sam to give me some strong tranquilizers when Joel starts driving."
"Have you recovered from your birthday party?" Eric asked.
"I'm trying to forget that I have birthdays, thank you."
I hadn't noticed when they drove up, but Alan, Eric's dad, was in the back seat of the car. He had made remarkable progress in his bout with depression since Ricky had been coming to their house twice a week. The boy would simply not let Alan be depressed. He would always climb onto Alan's lap and start talking to him and cuddling up to him. The magic of a small child's love worked wonders and Alan was nearly back to normal. In fact, he felt well enough to want to go back to Houston. He hadn't been to his house since shortly after Ethel had died. He hadn't decided whether he was going to stay there, but he wanted to see if it were possible for him to live there again.
I had agreed to keep JR while Eric and Bran drove Alan back to Houston. Ethel's sister was going to meet them at the house. She had been looking after it in Alan's absence.
Eric retrieved JR's bag from the car. "Dad, I'll just be a minute. Do you want to come in or do you want to stay here in the car?"
"I'll stay here," Alan replied.
Walking toward the house, Eric asked, "What's this I hear about you buying a bunch of land?"
"Where did you hear that?"
"Oh, I have my sources. Is it true?"
"It's true that a company I control has purchased some investment property."
"What do you plan to do with it?"
"It's an investment. The price was right and I think there will be a good return when it's sold." Although our relationship was growing closer, I didn't feel it was necessary to reveal all the details of my business just yet. In fact, I had gone through with the purchase of the second ranch adjoining the first purchase and was negotiating to buy additional land near the intersection of I-10 and 1604. Only Carlos, Gerald and my real estate agent were aware of that part of my business.
"By the way," I began in an effort to change the subject, "when do you plan to be back here from Houston?"
"I plan to leave around one-thirty, two o'clock. That should put us back here around four-thirty or five."
"Good, if the weather holds, I'll throw something on the grill and you guys can stay for supper."
Eric said goodbye to JR with the usual admonitions to behave himself and stay out of trouble.
All six boys followed Eric and Bran outside to see them off. As Bran was getting into the front passenger seat he turned and announced to the boys, "Dad's going to let me drive once we get past Seguin. I get to drive all the way to Columbus."
Eric just rolled his eyes and looked to the heavens. I had to suppress a chuckle as I watched them drive away.
As the day progressed, it got hot. I was glad that I had the company that had installed the inflatable dome over the pool come earlier in the week to remove it to storage. Around two o'clock the boys' other invited guests, Roger and Bryan Davis, arrived for a swim. Roger was walking much better than the last time I saw him. His spinal operation appeared to have been a tremendous success. Larry and Lenny said that he still used a cane at school most of the time.
Since Bryan had driven Roger and him to the house, I asked him, "How's your mother? We haven't seen her for a while."
"She's doing great. She got a promotion at work. She's the office manager now," Bryan said. "She had to work today, some kind of rush special project. I have to pick her up at five. Don't let me forget. Please! She'd kill me."
The eight boys and I swam and played in the pool for almost an hour before I got out and sat in one of the lounge chairs to watch them. It wasn't long before TJ climbed out and came over and sat on my lap. I could tell he wanted something from the way he looked down as he came over to me.
"What's up little one?"
"Well, can I get something to drink?"
"Sure, I think it's about time for everyone to take a break," I told him. Lifting him up and then standing up, I went over to the side of the pool and announced that it was time for refreshments. It didn't take long for the pool to clear. I handed out towels to everyone and then we all trooped into the house.
After the snacks were consumed, I suggested that everyone had enough sun for the day. I noticed that several of their faces were showing a little pink. They changed out of their swimming suits and went upstairs to entertain themselves. They were noisy at times, but it was a happy noise, mostly laughter or cheering.
At 4:30, I reminded Bryan that it might be a good idea to think about going to pick up their mom. He and Joel were in the middle of a furious car chase in one of the video games and he was reluctant to leave it. However, my distracting him caused his car to have a wreck and let Joel's car cross the finish line as the winner.
"Hey, no fair, I demand a rematch," Bryan said, lightly punching Joel's arm, which was raised in victory.
"Yes, fair," Joel said, hardly suppressing a giggle. "You can have your rematch the next time you come."
"It's a deal," Bryan grinned, reaching out to shake Joel's hand.
The twins and Roger headed for the elevator to ride down. Roger was still having some problems with stairs, so the elevator was easier.
Walking back to the house after we had said goodbye to Bryan and Roger, Joel asked me, "Dad, are we going horseback riding tomorrow?"
"Yes, we are. We'll have an early lunch and then be there by one o'clock. That will give us a couple of hours to ride before we have to be back here when Bran and Eric arrive."
Over the past several weeks we had been able to ride the horses at least once a week. I was a little bit surprised that the boys maintained their interest in riding. They were actually getting to be fairly competent riders. Even TJ was able to control his mount. Rick and I had agreed that we wouldn't let the boys ride full out or race, but did allow them to ride the horses at a quick trot. Eric and his two boys had joined us on several occasions. JR was a bit reluctant to get on a horse his first time, but after he did get on that first time it was hard to get him off. He had been begging his dad since that time to get him his own horse. Eric so far had refused to even consider his plea.
Although Eric and Bran had ridden with us in the past, neither of them were as enthusiastic about being on a horse as JR was.
Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day. Rick had our horses saddled and ready for us when we got there. He always started our sessions out with a few riding hints and a caution to ride carefully. Since the boys were becoming fairly adept at riding, Rick let us ride anywhere on his ranch except where the mares and foals were pastured.
I was ready to get off my horse at the end of our two hour ride. I knew that I would be feeling the ride for the next several days. The boys hadn't complained of being stiff and sore after their rides after about the second or third time. I didn't want to admit that age had something to do with it.
Eric and Bran arrived shortly after we got home. Eric said that his father had adjusted very well to being back in his own house. His aunt would be looking in on his dad a couple of times a week to make sure that everything was going well.
I lit the charcoal in the grill and then went into the kitchen to begin preparing the side dishes. I had just begun fixing the garlic bread when Hildy and Manfred came back from their Sunday outing. Hildy immediately pushed me out of her kitchen and took over the preparations. I took the foil wrapped potatoes and garlic bread and went to check on the grill. It was not ready for the steaks, but it would do fine for the potatoes.
Shortly after six the potatoes appeared to be ready and so it seemed were the boys. I put the potatoes on the warming rack along with the garlic bread and added some mesquite wood in the firebox. When it reached a point where the wood was no longer flaming, I laid out the rib eye steaks on the grill. Even though the grill was large, it could hold only 8 of the 11 steaks. It looked like we would have to eat in shifts.
By the time the first batch of steaks were turned over, they had shrunk enough that I was able to fit the last three on the grill as well. Eric and Manfred liked their steaks on the rare side, that would leave only one to remain on the grill after the other were served. That would be mine.
Everyone lined up with plate in hand to get their steak and potato. Hildy directed traffic as the boys rushed into the house to fill their plates with the side dishes that she had prepared.
"What's for dessert?" Joel asked as he finished cleaning up his plate.
"Good heavens, son. How could you possibly fit dessert in that stomach after everything that you have eaten?"
"Hildy said I got a hollow leg," he said, smiling at Hildy.
"I declare," Hildy said. "I don't know where he puts it all. If you think you can fit in some dessert, there is some chocolate ice cream in the freezer. I'll get it. Who else wants some?"
To no one's surprise, seven hands went up. The adults at the table just groaned.
Monday morning Joel and I saw the other boys off to school and then got into the BMW and headed for Dr. Greene's office. If everything went all right, this would be the last time that Joel would need to take his medicine. We were only in the office long enough for Sam to draw a blood sample and to receive the last doses of the medicine.
"Joel, your blood work for the last four months has been normal," Dr. Greene said. "I expect that this one will be normal also. If it is, I don't want to see you until November when we'll do another blood test. You're a lucky young man in more ways than one. I hope you know that."
"I do, Dr. Sam," Joel said. "And my brothers do, too."
We said goodbye to Sam and headed to the foundation office. I wanted to check on a few things before I took Joel back home to do the school work his teachers had sent home with him on Friday.
I greeted Carol and told Joel he could play on the computer in the conference room. Carol handed me my phone messages and told me Darcie wanted to talk to me. I dropped the messages and briefcase on my desk and then went to Darcie's office.
"Good morning, Darcie. Carol said that you wanted to see me."
"Good morning. Yes, I did want to talk to you. I have some good news. I'm pregnant."
I stood there for a moment with my mouth open before what she said began to sink in. "That's wonderful. When did you find out? When are you due?"
"You know I went to the doctor Friday afternoon. That's when I found out for sure. I was pretty sure before that. My due date is the second week in October."
"Congratulations, how's Mel taking the news?"
"He's over the moon. He's already talking about buying a bigger house with a bigger yard. The one we have now has hardly any yard. He liked that when he was a bachelor, not much upkeep. Now he's sure that it'll be a boy and wants a place to play ball with him. I don't know what he'll do if it's a girl."
"I'm sure that he'll love the baby, no matter whether it's a boy or a girl. You ought to take a look at the place just down the road from Eric. It's a great house. I was in it once when I was active in the Friends of Canyon Lake. I heard the Billings have bought a condo in Florida so they can be close to their daughter and grandkids."
"That's a great idea. Mel loves it out there, but there has really been no reason to move from where we are. I'll give Mel a call. Thanks."
I was walking back to my office when Joel called to me from the conference room. "Dad, can you come here and help me?"
"Sure, son, what's up?"
"My program keeps bombing and I can't figure out why. Will you look at it?"
"Of course, now what's your program supposed to do?"
He explained the problem that the teacher had given them to program the solution to. When I understood the problem, I spread the printout of his BASIC code on the table and had him go through it line by line and explain to me his logic. It wasn't long before I saw where he had made his error, but I wanted him to find it. He had a conditional branch that didn't branch to the right place in his code. I suggested that he "dry lab" an input and trace it through the code. I deliberately suggested a value for the input that would take the path that was in error.
"Oh, that was dumb," Joel said with disgust, when he discovered where his error was and quickly corrected it.
"Son, the simplest errors are sometimes the hardest ones to find. You'll find that to be true, if you decide to go into programming as a vocation. Never be afraid to ask someone to be a second pair of eyes. Sometimes you see what you want to see and not what is actually there. That's where another person looking at it can usually help.
"I've got a few phone calls to make and then it will be time to get you home. Hildy will probably have lunch ready when we get there. Ricky should be there, too."
About 45 minutes later I had finished the business that I needed to take care of and went to collect Joel and go home. As we passed Darcie's office I stopped and again offered my congratulations.
"Why did you congratulate Darcie, dad?" Joel asked as we were getting into the car.
"I guess it's no secret, Darcie and Mel are going to have a baby. JR is going to have a cousin."
"Wow! Does he know? He didn't say anything about it yesterday at the house."
"I don't think they have had a chance to tell Eric and JR yet. They didn't leave our house until late last evening. I'm sure that Darcie has told Eric by this time."
We had barely walked into the kitchen when a three year-old raced across the floor and leapt into Joel's arms.
"Hi, yourself," Joel said before giving Ricky a hug and putting him down. "Have you been a good boy?"
"Yes," Ricky replied.
I had to laugh. "Yes" was Ricky's favorite word. I guess it was a lot better than "No."
I spent most of the afternoon taking care of my finances and on the phone talking to Lance Robins, my real estate agent. He was making a bundle from the commissions that he received on my purchases, so he was always eager to talk to me. I also answered a few question from Joel on his school work. As I wrapped up all the business I planned to take care of today, Hildy knocked on my study door.
"Crane, there's a man at the gate. He says that a Rick Hansen said you might be interested in a proposal he has. Shall I let him in?"
"Let me check the gate camera," I said, following her to the kitchen where the monitor was. What I saw was a man who looked to be 55 or 60 in a beat-up old Ford pickup. "He looks harmless enough." I punched the gate opener and spoke into the microphone, "Drive on up to the house."
The truck didn't sound any better than it looked as it drove up to the front steps. The man stepped out of the truck and walked with a noticeable limp up the steps to where I was standing. "Thank you for seeing me. I'm Pete Pedersen."
I shook his hand that showed signs of hard work. It was heavily calloused and leathery to the touch. "Crane Johnson. Please come in. Would you like a cup of coffee? We have a pot on."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson, that would be very welcome."
I poured us each a mug of coffee and motioned for him to sit down at the kitchen table. I offered him milk and sugar, but he declined both.
"Now, what is this proposal you have that Rick thinks I might be interested in?"
"Mr. Johnson, I own 120 acres west of 281, a couple of miles north of 46. I raise a few cattle and horses on it. I've done it for the past 35 years. Now, the doctors tell me I'm going to be wheelchair bound within six months. I don't have any children left to help me and the place is not big enough to support my hiring someone to take care of it. I guess that's the long way round to get to the point. Mr. Hansen said that you might be interested in buying the place to put your own horses on."
"That's an interesting proposition. I would want to look over the land first, but I might be interested in it. Would it be possible to look at it tomorrow morning?"
"Certainly, that would be convenient. How about 9?" Mr. Pedersen asked.
He gave me directions to his place before he left.
It wasn't long before it was time for the other boys to get home from school. Joel and I released the dogs and headed down to the road to meet the school van. As the boys exited the van, they waved goodbye to their friends and then received an enthusiastic greeting from their pets.
TJ rushed up to me, a paper clutched tightly in his had. "Dad, look! I got a gold star on my spelling test. I didn't miss any."
"That's great," I said, picking him up and giving him a tight squeeze. "Be sure to show Hildy."
"Okay," and off he ran with Bandit at his heels.
Joel walked with me back to the house. "Dad, we've got final tests starting Wednesday. Will you help me study?"
"Absolutely, do you have your books to start reviewing tonight?"
"Yeah, I brought everything home Friday. The only classes I worry about are algebra and history. All the rest are easy. Well, maybe my computer class could be tough. It depends on how difficult a program Miss Peters gives us to code."
"You'll do fine, I know it."
That night after supper, we studied history. I went through the review questions at the end of each chapter in his text. He didn't have any difficulty giving an answer that sounded good to me. It had been a while since I had studied American history, but I thought I remembered enough to say whether his answers were reasonable. He stumbled over a couple of dates. I had to look them up, because I had a terrible memory for dates.
After getting the boys off to school Tuesday morning and having a second cup of coffee, I gathered up my briefcase and took off to meet Mr. Pedersen. I almost thought I had taken a wrong turn. The asphalt road I turned off on was barely wide enough for two cars to meet. He had said to take this road for approximately a mile. He didn't say that it came to a dead end. I was about to turn around and go back when I saw his name on the roadside mail box.
I drove through a grove of Mountain Cedar* and came upon a well maintained small house set in an immaculately manicured lawn. There was a large metal building set back from the house by about 100 yards. I could see several horses in the area outside that building. As I parked the car, Mr. Pedersen opened the front door of the house and came over to greet me.
"Mr. Johnson, welcome to my home. I'm glad that you were able to find it. It's a little off the beaten path. Please come in. I have a pot of coffee in the kitchen."
The inside of the house was spotless. I was surprised that a widower was so tidy. I didn't see much of the house, but I surmised that it only had two bedrooms. After we had our cups of coffee and agreed to call each other by our first names, we set out to see the rest of the property. Our first stop was the metal building I had seen as I drove in. It had a total of ten horse stalls. Only eight of them looked as if they were in use. When I asked, he confirmed that all he had left were the eight horses. In the last unoccupied stall was an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) which he backed out and told me to hop on the back. I wished that I had worn a pair of jeans, but I did as he asked.
As we drove around, he pointed out the various aspects of the property including the spring that he said had never run dry. The spring was the start of a small stream that he said ended up flowing into the Guadalupe. In one pasture were six longhorn cattle. He said that the bull was very aggressive, so we didn't go into that area. The tour of the 120 acres took a little over an hour. I was a bit surprised at how level the land was. It wasn't flat, but it wasn't the steep hills that dominate much of the area. There were about 40 acres that were wooded with Live Oaks, Spanish Oaks and Mountain Cedar.
When we got back to the house and he had poured me another cup of coffee, he told me the price he wanted for the land, house and out buildings. I thought that the price was reasonable and asked him how much to include the livestock in the deal. He thought a minute and gave me a new number. I indicated that I was interested and would like 48 hours to think it over and asked him not to offer the property to anyone else until then. He agreed and we shook hands.
I thought about Pete's offer all the way into the office. It was nearly noon by the time I got there. The more I thought about it the more the idea of having a place to keep horses for the boys appealed to me. It would certainly be less of a drive than it was to Rick's place. I had one concern, who could I get to care for the horses and longhorns?
After lunch, I began to make phone calls to friends and acquaintances to see if they knew of anyone who might be interested in managing the place if I bought it. I didn?t tell them why I was seeking such a person. I had nearly given up when I called one of the consultants at the old ACC, the consulting company that I used to own. Ronnie said he knew of a young man, a friend of his family, that might be the type of person I was looking for. He was a farm boy from West Texas who had dropped out of Texas A&M due to money reasons, where he had been studying veterinary medicine. He was now working at a low paying job and was just married to his high school sweetheart. Ronnie said that I should at least talk to the guy. He gave me Tracy Smith?s phone number and address. As it turned out, he lived in the apartment complex that CBJ Properties owned.
I called the number Ronnie gave me. It was answered by a young sounding female voice with a distinctive West Texas accent. She said that Tracy was not there, but if I would call back after six o'clock he would be home from work. I told her I would call between seven and eight and gave her my name.
It was almost 7:30 when I had time to make the call to Tracy. I had closed my study door to keep the conversation private. The last thing I wanted was for the boys to find out before the deal was finalized. When I explained to Tracy what I had in mind, he sounded excited. I offered to provide he and his wife free rent and electricity for maintaining the house and for seeing that the horses were cared for and fed. They would also be responsible for seeing that the stalls were maintained.
He said that he needed to talk to his wife, but he thought that she would be agreeable. It seemed that her family had owned horses as did his. She was visiting a friend in the apartment complex, so he would have to wait until she returned. I told him to call me in the morning to let me know. I gave him my cell phone number to call.
It was just after nine the following morning when Tracy called. He said they would like to look the place over before they made their decision. That was a reasonable request, so I agreed to meet them at their apartment at one o'clock. It seemed that Tracy had the day off after working both Saturday and Sunday.
Since I was going to the apartment complex anyway, I decided to drop in on Chuck and Phillip, the apartment managers. I called them and we agreed to meet at 12:30.
Although they had kept me informed as to the progress in the clean-up and renovation of the complex, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived for our meeting. The exterior fence had been completed, the landscaping was nearly complete and from the looks of it so was the repainting of the buildings.
Chuck met me at the door of the manager's office and said that Phillip would be with us shortly. He was handling a minor problem in one of the units. As we talked, he brought me up-to-date on the progress of painting the insides of the units. Four of the buildings had been completed and another one should be finished by Friday.
Phillip arrived and went directly to wash his hands. When he returned, he said, "Darn kid, he tried to flush his teddy bear down the toilet and it flooded the bathroom. His mom was beating on him when I got there. I had to grab the woman and pull her away or she might really have hurt the kid. He was only about three. I told her that was not the way to properly discipline a child. I think we are going to have to watch that family. I won't tolerate anyone abusing a child."
"Absolutely," I said. "Don't hesitate to get CPS involved if you think there is any type of abuse. We don't want to wait until some child is seriously hurt."
Chuck expressed some concern about the security patrols. There were times when no security personnel were on duty. Although I had hired enough off-duty police officers to cover the complex around the clock, sometimes they were delayed by paperwork or having to testify in court. Most of the time they didn't get someone to cover for them. Chuck suggested that we look into a security company. It might be a little more expensive, but we would be assured of full coverage. I told them to research it and give me a report.
As one o'clock approached, I excused myself and headed to the Smith's apartment. They were waiting outside the apartment when I got there. Both looked like they were in their early 20s. I introduced myself and found out that Tracy's wife's name was Rosie. Tracy was about 6 feet tall and had a muscular build. Rosie was a couple of inches shorter than he. She had the build of an athlete. I found out later she was a stand-out basketball player and a track star in her home town and was still into jogging. His accent was not as pronounced as hers was, but it was still noticeable. I suggested that we all ride in my car.
Pete was waiting for us as we drove onto the property and invited us in for a cup of coffee. I had told him we would be coming to look over the place. Rosie was thrilled with the house. Even as small as it was the house was a lot bigger than their two room apartment in the city.
After they had seen the house, I took them out to see the horse barn.
"Oh, what a beautiful mare," Rosie said. "I had a Paint Horse like her when I was growing up. She approached the mare and began to stroke its long nose and neck. "Is she saddle broke?"
"Yes, but she hasn't been ridden in a couple of months," Pete replied. "She's a gentle one, though."
"May I ride her?" Rosie asked.
"If you'd like. The saddles are down at the end of the barn in the tack room. Help yourself. You do know how to saddle a horse, don't you?"
Rosie gave him a scowl. "I've been riding on my own since I was five and saddling my own horse since I was twelve. I think I can manage." She started leading the mare toward the tack room.
"Her name is Lady," Pete called after her.
Tracy and I got on the ATV and I took him to see the Longhorns.
"That bull is huge," Tracy said. "What a magnificent animal. I always wished that dad had raised longhorns."
"What do you think so far? Are you interested?" I asked.
"I am and I think that Rosie is also. She loves horses and would probably end up being the one responsible for taking care of them. I have a question. Would I still be able to keep my other job? We would still need some money coming in to take care of other things."
"Certainly," I said. "If Rosie wants to look after the horses, see that they are seen by a vet on a regular basis and a farrier monthly, I'll pay an additional thousand dollars a month. That's in addition to the account I'll set up for feed and supplies that I expect you to maintain to keep the animals in good condition."
"That's very generous, Mr. Johnson. I'm sure that Rosie and I will do a good job for you."
Riding back to the horse barn, I saw Rosie riding the Paint at a full gallop around the pasture. I could tell she was an excellent rider.
After putting the ATV away, I approached Pete and told him that I had decided to accept his offer. I would have my accountant and lawyer contact him and work out the details. I knew my real estate agent would be upset because he wouldn't be earning a commission on this transaction since it was a private sale.
I took the Smiths back to their apartment after receiving their assurances that they wanted to take the position that I was offering. I could tell that Rosie was really excited about moving to the country, but most of all to be able to ride horses anytime she liked.
On the way home I wondered how I was going to be able to keep this a secret from the boys until the sale was complete.
*Note: Mountain Cedar is actually a Juniper - Juniperus ashei (also called Juniperus sabinoides or Juniperus mexicana).