Erratum: The statement in the last chapter that Texas has no natural lakes is only partially correct. There is in fact a natural lake (Caddo Lake) that straddles the Texas-Louisiana border with about half of the lake in each state. Whether that constitutes a "Texas" lake is a matter of opinion.
"Why don't you go tell your brothers to get their hands washed? By that time Hildy should have the food ready. Do you think you can hold out that long?" I asked.
"Yeah," he giggled, and took off for the stairs.
"The towheaded boy, you say he is just being fostered by you?" Julie asked. "He is a little doll."
"Yes, it's a sad story. His parents abandoned him at our front gate while we were gone one day. There is a court hearing coming up in a few weeks to determine if the parental right should be terminated. If that happens, his status with us is uncertain. I know what the boys want, but that's not always what the court decides."
"Dinner will be ready in about five minutes," Hildy said, approaching the living room where we were seated.
"Thanks, Hildy. Do you need any help?" I asked.
She shook her head and went back to the kitchen. I indicated to Max and Julie where they could freshen up if they so desired and went to do the same. By the time I returned, the seven boys were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Joel was holding Ricky and talking to Julie. I asked them all to follow me into the formal dining room where Hildy had set out most of the meal. The boys took their seats leaving two seats vacant on either side of my chair at the head of the table for our guests. Hildy and Manfred entered through the butler's pantry each carrying two large steaming bowls. Two filled with buttered noodles and the other two filled with the stroganoff. Joel helped Ricky fill his and his own plates. Hildy made sure the other boys got their plates filled.
Over our very pleasant meal I steered the conversation around to the real estate broker that I thought was the best one that I had talked to in Las Vegas. When I mentioned his name, Max smiled. "He was the one who helped us find our house when we moved from LA. Really nice guy. He's as honest as anyone you'll find in that profession," Max said with a smile. "We really liked him, didn't we Julie?"
"Oh yes, and he's good looking, too."
"He is that," Max said. "I think you'll like the job he'll do for you, if you decide to buy some property out there."
"Thanks, I'll have to think it over and do some more research before I do anything. I may have to fly to Vegas and take a look for myself one of these days," I said, and then took the conversation in a different direction.
We began talking about other college classmates and where they were now. Max was more familiar with the comings and goings of our former classmates than I was. He was involved with the alumni association. I had always ignored the association's pleas for money and after five or so years, they had stopped trying to solicit funds from me. Although I had received an excellent education while on campus, I felt no strong attachment to the university. They provided a service for which they were paid extremely well. I could never understand the slavish devotion - even fanaticism - some graduates and some non-graduates have for their universities.
"Okay, guys, it's homework time," I said when the meal was over and they had helped Hildy clear the table.
"I don't have any," TJ said. "I did mine at school."
"That's great," I said. "Joel, will you check TJ's work?"
"Sure, dad, but after that I need some time alone to work on my stuff. I didn't get a chance earlier when John was here working on our project."
"I'll keep Peter and the munchkin here occupied so you can get your work done," I said, picking up a smiling Ricky and carrying him into the living room. Peter followed, partially hiding himself behind me. I sat down in the large wingback chair with Ricky on my lap. He was immediately joined by Peter. It was a tight squeeze, but I managed to get each of them situated on a leg.
"You've got a lap full," Julie said.
"Yeah, when the other boys are busy with their homework, these two feel left out. Once in a while Peter will have some to do, but Ricky only goes to pre-school."
"I really admire you for taking in all these boys," Julie said. "I can't see many people doing what you have done for them."
At that moment, Hildy arrived with a tray of cups, a sugar bowl and a creamer. She was followed by Manfred carrying the coffee pot. "It's decaf," Hildy announced.
"May I help?" Julie asked.
"Of course, I'll pour and you can serve. Manfred always spills coffee when he pours."
"I do not," Manfred said with feigned indignation.
Julie placed my coffee on the end table next to the chair. When Hildy had all the coffee cups filled, she looked at my full lap. "I see you might have a problem there," she said. "Come here, Ricky. You can sit on my lap so Uncle Crane can drink his coffee."
"Okay," Ricky said, reaching his arms out to be picked up. After Hildy got him settled on her lap he looked up at her and asked, "When's my mommy coming home?"
"Your mom and dad will be here tomorrow. Maybe they'll be here when you come home from school," Hildy answered. "Do you miss them?"
"I miss Buppy."
That brought a chuckle from Hildy and I had to explain to our guests who Buppy was and that he was in a kennel while they were in Hawaii.
We spent the better part of the next hour talking about anything and everything. Much of it centered around the disgrace the current president had brought to the office with his sexual escapades in the oval office. We all agreed that if we had done the same thing on our jobs, we would have been summarily fired and possibly faced criminal charges.
It wasn't long before the boys began to come downstairs with their homework. I told them to put it on the breakfast room table and we would check it before they went to bed.
"Can we have some more of that pudding for our snack?" Chris asked.
"That was mousse," Hildy said. "I'm sure I can find some more for your snack."
"Whatever it was, it was good," he replied.
"Max, Julie, would you like some mousse?" Hildy asked.
They both shook their heads as did Manfred and I. At the mention of a snack, however, Peter and Ricky scrambled off our laps and headed for the breakfast room.
"What happened to that poor boy's leg?" Julie asked.
"His mother said he was born with a partially formed lower leg. I understand that it caused him a great deal of difficulty and pain, so it was surgically removed. When Marie - his mother - began working here, he used crutches to get around or crawled. The little rascal could really get around on those crutches. If you put him down without his crutches, he was almost as fast crawling on his hands and knees. The boys fell in love with him from the very start as did Hildy and I. Joel is his favorite and he is the first one Ricky goes to when he arrives. All of the boys think of him almost as another brother."
"You have an amazing household," Max said. "We started looking at adopting, but never followed through. I don't think we would want as many as you have."
"I didn't plan it this way either," I said. "It just sort of happened, but I wouldn't change a thing. My sons are the biggest part of my life, without them I don't know what I would do."
"Well, I think Julie and I need to start for home. Tomorrow is our last day in town and we have to go visit some friends of Julie. Then it's back to Vegas the day after. If you do come to our neck of the woods, you'll have to stop by. We have plenty of room in our house for you to stay, well maybe not if you bring all the boys," Max laughed. "We only have four bedrooms."
"It was great seeing you again, Max, after all these years. And Julie, it was nice meeting you. If I do decide to visit Las Vegas, I'll certainly give you a call. The least we could do is to go out to eat at one of those fabulous restaurants I keep hearing about." I walked them to the door and saw them into their car.
"All right, guys," I said, walking back into the kitchen, "let's get your homework checked and then it'll be time to hit the showers and bed." I spent the next half hour checking over the homework assignments. Not surprisingly, there were few errors that I could find in their work. That pleased me to know that they were taking their learning seriously.
Ricky, looking like an angel that he wasn't, was fast asleep when I got around to Joel's room to tuck him in. "He was really tired for some reason," Joel said. "He could hardly stay awake long enough for me to give him his bath. I think he was asleep before I got him into his pajamas."
Returning to the kitchen to see if there was any coffee left, I saw Hildy in the process of cleaning up the kitchen from our meal and getting ready for tomorrow's breakfast. "You know," I said to her, "I wasn't sure that the boys would like the stroganoff, but from the looks of their plates when the meal was over I saw that there was nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, I know," she said. "They eat almost anything that I cook. The only things I've found that they won't eat are Brussels sprouts."
"They are not high on my list of favorite vegetables either. I'll eat them, but I won't enjoy them." I poured the last cup of coffee from the pot and went into the study to retrieve the book I had been trying to finish for the past few days. There were only two chapters left, and I planned to finish both of them before I took to my bed.
After the boys were off to school, I called Bea with the list of appraisers that I had promised her. She said she would call one of them and let me know what the appraisal turned out to be. When I asked her if it were possible for Hildy and Manfred to take a look at the property, she readily agreed and told me who to contact to get a key to the front door. I thanked her and said I would let her know what they thought about the property. When we ended the call, I told Hildy what I had found out. She said she would get the key and they would inspect the house tomorrow.
That afternoon, Ricky greeted Joel with his usual enthusiasm and a wet slobbery kiss on the cheek. I was a little surprised that he was still here as I had thought that Dirk and Marie would have been here to pick him up by this time. I gave Hildy a questioning look.
"Marie called from the airport just as I got back from picking Ricky up from pre-school. She said their plane was delayed coming out of Denver. They sat on the ground in the plane for over an hour before they took off. They should be here in an hour or so."
The boys had finished their snacks and were upstairs playing when I heard a car drive up in front of the house. I was confident that it had to be Dirk and Marie, otherwise they would have had to buzz to have the gate opened. Also security would have stopped them. I opened the front door to greet them.
"Where's Ricky?" were the first words out of Marie's mouth.
"He's upstairs playing," I said. "How was your vacation?"
"We had a great time," Dirk said. "She fretted all the time about Ricky. She was afraid he would be homesick for us. I tried to tell her he would be too busy to miss us. That didn't go over too well."
"Come on in. Let's go get your boy. He's been an angel all the time you were gone. He asked about you a couple of times, but accepted the fact that you would be coming back. The boys did try to keep him occupied."
"I can't see my son being an angel," Marie chuckled. "So he didn't miss us?"
"Hildy asked him that last night and his reply was, 'I miss Buppy'."
"That, I can believe. He loves that ugly little dog," Marie said.
Ricky was on his stomach playing with the Hot Wheels set as we approached. Marie knelt down beside him and tousled his hair. Ricky turned to see who was messing with his hair. When he saw who it was, he literally levitated into his mother's arms. "Can we go get Buppy?" he asked when Marie had quit hugging and kissing him. That caused Dirk and I to nearly collapse in laughter.
"Yes, you little stinker, we can go get Winston. I think you missed him more than you missed me," Marie said. "Let's get your things rounded up so we can go get your 'Buppy'."
"Yeah," Ricky said.
"Do you have a hug for me?" Dirk asked.
"Uh huh," Ricky said, jumping into Dirk's outstretched arms.
"I love you my little one," Dirk said. "I missed you while we were gone."
"I think these are all of his things," Hildy said, coming into the room with his suitcase and a small bag. "Everything is clean except what he wore to pre-school today and what he has on. The dirty clothes are in this bag."
"Thanks," Marie said, "but you didn't need to do that. I'll be doing all our laundry tomorrow."
Hildy just shrugged and went to Dirk and took Ricky from his arms. "Ich werde dich vermissen mein Kleiner," she said, kissing his cheek. In return she received one of his wet kisses and a giggle.
We all gathered around to say goodbye to Ricky. We were going to miss him and his infectious good humor. I don't believe he was aware that he had a disability, because it sure didn't slow him down any. As they were closing the car door, we heard Ricky ask, "Can we get Buppy now?"
It seemed rather quiet the next morning without Ricky. I think we were all surprised how quickly he had become part of the family in the week he had spent with us. Connie arrived as I was leaving the house with the boys to take them to school. Now that school had started, we missed having her girls visit and use our pool.
I spent most of the morning after I returned from taking the boys to school on the phone with Carlos and Gerald. I was trying to determine the best strategy for the property on FM 46 that the developer was interested in. The option that would make me the most money in the long term would be to retain the land and sell off the plots. That option took the longest for me to realize the income and was the one with the greatest risk involved. If the development failed or went bankrupt, I could actually lose money. After discussing the pros and cons over a couple of hours, we all decided that to sell the land outright to the developer made the most sense. It still gave me a decent return on my investment. Now all we needed to do was to negotiate the price with the developer. I left that in the capable hands of Carlos with help from Gerald.
As the boys piled out of the van when we returned from school that afternoon, Joel stopped me before I went into the house.
"Dad, can you take me to Austin a week from Saturday?" Joel asked.
"I guess, what's in Austin?"
"I need to go there to take another test. You know the credit by exam program? Like that test that John and I took in the summer."
"Are you sure you're ready?"
"I think so. Mr. Hickman, the history teacher, has been giving me some sample tests to take. I did really good on them and I've covered all the material that's on the exam."
"This is the world history test, right?"
"What time do you have to be there? And where?"
"The test begins at nine. Here's all the information and a permission slip that you need to sign and mail," he said, handing me several sheets of paper.
"You'll have to miss your music lesson, but I guess that will be okay. Go change your clothes. If you don't hurry, your brothers will have eaten all the snacks."
While the boys ate their snacks, I had a cup of coffee and watched them. I decided I needed to cut down on my calorie intake. At 33 I didn't want to start getting a middle age spread.
"Dad," Lenny said, "we're gonna play tennis after school tomorrow."
"Yeah," Larry added, "can you come watch us?"
"Are you playing another team?"
"Uh huh, we're playing guys from Smithson Valley Middle School," Chris volunteered.
"So all three of you are playing? That's great, where are you playing?"
"At our school," Larry said.
"Of course we'll be there. We wouldn't miss it. Are your tennis clothes clean?"
"We brought 'em home with us. Hildy said she'd wash 'em for us." Chris said.
Hildy had overheard the conversation. "I want to watch you boys, too."
"It looks like you'll have your own cheering section," I said.
Friday afternoon, Hildy and I arrived at the school just before school let out. Peter, TJ and Joel put their books in the van and then we walked around behind the school buildings to the athletics compound. The two tennis courts were located at one end of the soccer field and were enclosed by a high, chain-link fence. There was a set of four row bleachers on each side of the courts. The boys were on the near court warming up when we took our seats. Some ten minutes later the matches were announced. Larry and Lenny would be playing doubles on the near court. Chris would play a singles match after the other singles match on the far court was finished. Along with the match announcements, it was noted that "No-Ad" scoring would be used to speed up play. Only a service linesman was used. The players were expected to call all other lines.
I was surprised and very pleased with the way the twins played together. They got off to a slow start losing their first service game. After the other team won their own service game, the twins found their game and won the next six games to win the set 6-2. I was amazed at the coordination between the twins. They did seem to have a sense of what their brother was going to do and where he was going to play. It was great watching them play. Since they were only playing a one set match, they won the match as well.
"Well done," I told the twins. "You had me worried when you lost your first service, but you really came back with a vengeance. Shall we go watch Chris, now? The match ahead of him should be finished shortly."
We walked around to the other side of the courts and took seats on the bleachers there. The match in progress was tied at 6-6 and going into a tiebreaker as we sat down. The boys playing were very well matched, but the boy from Smithson Valley won the tiebreaker. The twins went up to their teammate to congratulate him on a game well played before rejoining us on the bleachers.
"I'm surprised Jimmy lost," Larry said. "He's the number one player on our team. That other guy must have been really good to beat him. Chris is almost as good. He can beat him once in a while."
Chris' game started as we were talking. It was apparent that the boy he was playing was no match for him. Chris got off to a 5-0 start before his opponent held his own serve. Chris won the set 6-1. We all congratulated him as we walked back toward the school. That was all the matches scheduled, two doubles and two singles matches. Each school had won a singles and a doubles match.
"Grab your books and let's head for home," I told them.
"You boys deserve a special treat," Hildy said. "How about a chocolate brownie topped with a scoop of ice cream and maybe some chocolate syrup on top of that?"
"Yes!" was the unanimous response from all six boys. Chris, Larry and Lenny took off running for the lockers to get their books while the rest of us headed for the van. I just groaned at the thought of all those calories.
Our trio of tennis champions were all excited about winning their matches. On the way home, I think they verbally relived each and every point they played in their matches. I wondered if their enthusiasm would be sustained over the long term.
After the boys were all settled into bed that night, Hildy and Manfred joined me in the living room. "Crane, we went to look at the Meyer house after lunch," Hildy said.
"What did you think of it?"
"It's pretty much as I remember it. I'd probably make a few changes to it if we lived there, but overall we liked it."
"The landscaping needs a complete overhaul," Manfred said. "That's no problem; I think I know someone who can do that."
"Yeah, it would keep you out of trouble and out of my hair," Hildy retorted. "Has Mrs. Meyer come up with an asking price for the house?"
"No, I gave her a list of appraisers and she is going to have one do an appraisal. I don't know how soon she can get that scheduled, but I think it wouldn't be over a week, two at the most. Are you interested in making an offer?"
"We like the house," Manfred said, "and if the price is right, we'd like to make an offer."
Hildy nodded in agreement. "I'd still be near my boys, if we bought it."
Saturday morning as usual Mrs. Shultz came to give the boys their music lessons. In the afternoon we went shoe shopping. It seemed as though they outgrew their shoes as soon as we left the store.
When we arrived at the ranch on Sunday to ride horses, Charlie and Tracy were helping Bert saddle the horses. Charlie had ridden the quarter horse stallion and brought along one of the mares. Both horses were in excellent shape from the looks of their coat. After all the greetings were said and the boys and Bert took off on the horses, Charlie spoke up.
"Mr. Johnson, I'd like to take you over to the other place and show you all the new equipment. The last of it was delivered on Wednesday. I am so going to love farming with that stuff. I also want to show you what we've done with the house."
"Sounds like a good idea. I think Bert can handle the boys for a while," I said. I mounted the horse that I regularly rode while Charlie and Tracy mounted the two quarter horses.
I expected us to ride out to the road and then over to the old Katz place, but instead we headed directly for the fence dividing the two properties. As we approached, I saw there was a gate that I had never seen before that looked relatively new.
"I hope you don't mind. I installed this gate so it would be easier to get from one place to the other," Charlie said.
"Not at all, it makes a lot of sense. You have pretty much full responsibility for this place. Just let Gerald know if something you plan is going to cost a lot of money. He controls the purse strings," I said.
As we approached the house, Jessica Bing, Charlie's fiancée came out of the house to greet us. "Mr. Johnson, it's good to see you again. Charlie said he might bring you by to see what we did to the house. I should say what I did. Charlie's contribution was to stay out of the way. He's better at farming than he is at decorating. Please, come in," she said.
"Charlie and I are alike in one respect, when it comes to decorating, I'm a total klutz."
The house was nicely decorated. A little too feminine for my tastes, but it was all very well coordinated and homey. After viewing the house, Charlie, Tracy and I headed for the barn and the adjoining equipment building. Charlie was beaming as he showed me all the new equipment. I don't think I had ever seen anyone as excited over farm equipment as he was. As the saying goes, 'Whatever floats your boat.'
By the time we had returned to the other place, the boys were ready for something to drink. Joel helped me carry the coolers to the picnic table. The juice boxes were drained, it seemed, in one gulp. It was a good thing that Hildy had packed plenty. The chocolate chip cookies disappeared almost as quickly.
"Where's Rosie?" I asked Tracy.
"She went to see one of her friends before going grocery shopping. She should be back before long, unless those two women got to talking. I think the real reason she went to see Belinda was to show off Carrie. But then she is the most beautiful baby girl in the world."
"Said like a proud poppa," I said.
"I can hardly wait until the semester is over so I can be home all the time. I miss so much by not being here to watch her grow up."
"It won't be that long now," I said. "Have you given any thoughts as to where you want to set up practice?"
"I have scouted a few locations that I think might work. A couple have real possibilities. One's on 281 near where they're building the new Spring Branch Post Office. The other one is on 46 a couple of miles west of that new HEB grocery store. Both have a good traffic pattern, so an office would have good visibility. The biggest problem with both locations is that I'd have to have a building constructed."
"When will you make a decision on the location?"
"I'm leaning towards the 281 location. One reason is that it's not that far from here and with all the development in the area, the office could fill a growing need. I'll probably make a decision by the time I come home again in two weeks."
"Well, I think it's time to join the boys. I can get in a short ride before it's time to head for home," I said. I got on my horse and took off for the back of the property where the boys were riding. We rode for another half hour before I told the boys it was time to start for home.
At the stables, each boy had his own brush and took care of his horse. Even Peter helped to brush down Lady - with Bert's help. TJ was not quite tall enough to reach his horse's back until Bert retrieved a stool for him to stand on. The boys always enjoyed being around Bert, but I wondered just how long he would be satisfied living out here with no friends his own age. I'd have to ask Rosie the next time I saw her. She hadn't returned by the time we were ready to leave.
"Time to hit the showers, guys," I said, as we drove into the garage.
"Can we go swimming instead?" Lenny asked.
"I guess that'd be all right. TJ, you stay with Peter in the shallow end of the pool until I get there."
"Sure, dad," TJ responded. He grabbed Peter's hand and pulled him toward the back stairway.
Joel and I carried the coolers into the utility room before we headed for our own rooms to change. I didn't see Hildy as I walked through the kitchen area. I had seen her car in the garage, but Manfred's was missing and I just assumed that they had gone somewhere together.
We swam for nearly an hour before I told the boys to go shower and get dressed. Supper should be ready by the time they were dressed. I walked back into the house to find that Hildy was still not around and that there was no supper being prepared. I went into the kitchen and noticed a sheet of paper on the kitchen island. It was a note from Hildy that said one of her friends from church had suffered a heart attack and that she and Manfred were going to the hospital to be with the woman's husband. There was also a notation that a Jayden Browning had called and wanted me to return his call. The number was listed, but with no explanation of what his reason was for calling. It looked like we were on our own for supper.
The boys weren't too unhappy when I told them we were going to have to eat out. There was an immediate chorus of, "Pizza!" from all of them. So off we trekked to Little Italy Pizza for supper. They had changed the restaurant since the last time we were there. Now they had an all you can eat pizza buffet, which also included several kinds of salads. By the time the seven of us had gone through the buffet line, there was hardly a slice of pizza left. The staff was hard pressed to keep the buffet stocked with my eating machines making numerous trips to refill their plates.
"That was good," Peter said, on the way home. "I like pizza. I don't like those green things on it."
"You mean green peppers?" I asked.
"I don't know what they are, but they burn my tongue."
The boys were so stuffed when we got home that they just lounged around the house until it was time to go to bed. They didn't even want an evening snack. Now that was a surprise. After they were in bed I called the number Hildy had written on the note.
"May I speak to Jayden Browning? This is Crane Johnson."
"Mr. Johnson, thanks for returning my call. I've been doing some genealogical research and I think we're related."