Later as I was seeing that all the boys were tucked into bed, I sat down on Chris' bed. I hadn't had the chance to talk to him about the birthday party he attended earlier in the day. "Did Joel get you to the party on time?"
"Yeah," he said. "Renata only lives a couple of streets over from where Rickie lives."
"Did you have fun?"
"Uh huh," Chris said, nodding his head, smiling and blushing a little. "There were only ten kids there. We played some games and ate birthday cake and had punch. Renata has a little poodle. It's all white, but I didn't like it."
"It kept pulling on my shoestrings and untying my shoes. It had this really high pitched bark. It barked constantly until Mrs. Luciani put it in their laundry room. I'm glad we don't have any poodles."
"It was probably a very expensive dog," I said. "Poodles can cost a lot of money if they are registered."
"I don't care. I like our dogs."
"Did you thank Mrs. Luciani when Joel came to pick you up?"
"Yes," Chris said. "I don't think anybody else did, though. She gave me a hug when I left. ... So did Renata."
"I'm glad you had a good time," I said, before saying goodnight to the twins as well.
"Thanks for taking Chris to the party," I told Joel, when I got to his room.
"I got there early to pick him up, so I had some time to talk to Joe, Renata's brother. He's a great guy. He'd like to get involved with sports, but he injured his back and has to wear a brace most of the time," Joel said.
"Oh, how did he injure it?"
"He was skiing last year and took a fall," Joel said. "That was before they moved here. He may have to have surgery on it in the future."
"Skiing can be a lot of fun, but it can also be dangerous," I said. "Remember our ski trip to Colorado a few years ago? Maybe we can do that again sometime."
When I got back downstairs, Donald and Kelly were deep in conversation so I poured myself a glass of wine and joined them.
"Kelly has decided to accept our invitation to go horseback riding in the morning. He's never ridden, so we'll have Bert saddle up the gentlest one for him," Donald said.
"Good," I said. "I think you'll enjoy it. We always take a picnic lunch with us. I hope you brought a pair of jeans with you."
"Yes, sir, I did. I hope they don't get dirty. I was planning on wearing them on the plane back to New Orleans," Kelly replied.
"That's what washing machines are for," I said. "With all the people in this house, there is a load in the machine almost all the time. Your jeans can be laundered and ready for you first thing Monday morning."
"That reminds me," Kelly said. "I need to check on my plane reservation."
"That's been taken care of," Donald said. "The corporate jet has to stop in New Orleans to let off one of the VP's, so you can tag along. The jet is on its way to DC. One of our lobbyists has to go cajole our representatives on some new legislation that is being proposed that we think would be harmful, not only to my business, but a good share of the economy to boot."
"I can't get used to this, being treated like royalty," Kelly said. "Living in foster homes all my life was sure different than this."
"From now on," Donald said, "I'll try to make your life easier. I expect for you to work up to your potential. My dad always expected me to do my best and I expect you to do the same."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to screw up. I'd be a fool to waste this opportunity."
"Now, when you get back to New Orleans, I want you to quit your jobs and concentrate on your studies. You will be receiving an allowance that will allow you to pay your rent and take care of all the other things you need. I also want you to keep me informed of any problems that arise. Before you leave, I'll give you a list of my people in New Orleans that you can contact in case you can't reach me in an emergency."
"I guess the day I was assigned to drive Mr. Johnson and your family around is about the luckiest day of my life," Kelly said, clearly trying hard to hold back his tears.
"It was very fortunate for me as well," Donald said. "If you hadn't been the driver, I would never have known that I had a long lost relative. On another matter, the research on you said that the car you are driving is, shall we say, a junker. Because of the neighborhood where you live is what it is, I don't think a brand new car would be a good idea. I think a three or four year-old one would be best for the moment. The sales manager of one of my used car locations will be in contact with you next week when you get home. The car will be a company car that is yours to drive as long as you are in New Orleans. To make it all legal, you will be officially on the company payroll. All expenses will be picked up by the company, including gas."
"I don't know what to say," Kelly said, the tears were now streaming down his cheeks. "Thank you doesn't seem to be enough."
Kelly headed to the guest bedroom for the night. Donald and I sat there and talked for a while before we headed for our room.
Gilda was in the kitchen, talking to herself as usual, when I walked in to pour my first cup of coffee. "Good morning, Gilda," I said.
"Good morning to you," she said. "Anything special you want for breakfast?"
"Not for me, but the boys sure like your blueberry pancakes, if we have any blueberries," I said.
"Hildy found some good ones when we went shopping earlier in the week. They were on sale, so she picked up three, maybe four, pints. I don't remember exactly how many. They're in the fridge in the utility room," she said, and headed in that direction. I could hear her talking to herself as she returned. "Bacon would be good with pancakes and that maple syrup. Oh, I love that syrup. Maybe I should fix some scrambled eggs, too."
She was clearly not speaking to me, so I took my coffee and went into the family room to read the Sunday paper. Donald soon joined me. "How's the hip this morning?" I asked when I saw him grimace as he sat down.
"It's better, but it can't heal quickly enough for me. I need to go back to the doctor on Wednesday. All he can do is see if the wounds are healing properly. There's not anything he can do about the bone bruise. That will just take time," he said. "I still think I'll stay off the horses today. Riding could aggravate it."
"Probably a good idea," I said. "You can keep your daughter company while she plays with the Smith's baby and maybe the Wood's baby as well."
"If both of them are there, she'll be in heaven," Donald said. "She asked the other day if we could get a baby."
I laughed, "What did you tell her?"
"She's a little young to explain the 'birds and the bees'. I just told her that there needed to be a mommy to have a baby. I had to suppress a chuckle when she said, 'Maybe we can get one of those, too'."
"Yeah, I don't see adding a baby to the mix anytime soon," I said. "On another matter, I spoke to Fenton earlier in the week. I told him to reserve two adjacent lots on the third hole of the Nicklaus course."
"If I remember correctly, that was the hole that impressed Joel when we were out there," Donald said.
"Yes, that's the one. I've been thinking about what to do with them. I could combine the lots and build one really big house, or, build a good-sized house on each one. What do you think?"
"What are other property owners on that hole doing?" he asked. "A lot would depend on whether a single super-sized would look out of place. Also there is the architecture committee to be concerned with. We have given them the responsibility of approving all building plans."
"You're right. I'll give Fenton another call this week." Just then the sound of boys rushing down the stairs halted any further conversation. We both looked up and saw that all seven of the boys were there. Lenore had spent the night with Jeannie and Ginny.
"William, did you wash your hands?" Donald asked his son.
"Sure, dad, see," he responded, holding out his hands to show his dad.
My looks at my sons asked the same question and I received affirmative nods from all of them. "Okay, guys, go help set the table so Gilda won't have to."
"Morning, Kelly," Donald said as Kelly entered the family room. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thanks. That bed is so much softer than mine in the apartment in New Orleans. Something sure smells good," he said, looking toward the kitchen.
"Gilda will have breakfast on the table shortly," I said. "I hope you like blueberry pancakes."
"I don't know. I've never had any before."
"Well, you are in for a treat. Gilda makes the best ones I've ever tasted. If you're looking for grits, you'll be disappointed. No one in the house is a fan of them."
"That's okay," Kelly said. "I've had enough of them to last a lifetime. One foster home I was in, that's all we had every morning for as long as I was there. Plain grits with just a little butter on them gets old very quickly, but it was eat them or go hungry."
We had just finished off a mountain of blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon and orange juice when the phone rang. It was Hildy informing us that they were taking the girls with them to the nine o'clock church service and wanted to know if any of us wanted to go along. I asked and only Kelly showed any interest until I told him it was a Baptist church. I learned later that his church preference was Lutheran.
After breakfast, Gilda busied herself with packing our picnic lunch. We never told her what we wanted, but we were never disappointed with whatever she or Hildy had fixed for us. When the church goers returned, Hildy informed us that they were going to visit friends and then attend a church supper and that we were on our own for the evening. Lenore would probably have liked to go with them until Donald reminded her that Carrie Louise would be at the ranch. It was a tight squeeze to get everyone into the van along with all the picnic supplies, but we made it.
Kelly was surprised when we got to the ranch. "This is nice. It would be great to live here. It's so peaceful."
"We like it," I said. "Come with me, I'll introduce you to Bert. He'll get you lined up with your horse."
"You sure this is a good idea? I've never been on a horse before. The closest I've come is the wooden horses on a carousel. And they don't buck."
"Don't worry. Bert will be riding with you," I said. As we reached the stables, Bert was leading two horses out into the corral. "Bert, I'd like you to meet Kelly Baker. Kelly, this is Bert Cooper. He is indispensable around here."
"It's good to meet you Kelly. Crane said this is your first time on a horse."
"Yeah, I'm a little nervous," Kelly said. "Well, to be honest, I'm a lot nervous."
"You'll love the mare I've picked out for you. She's as gentle as a lamb," Bert said. "I'll show you everything you need to know and do. Come with me and I'll show you."
By this time the boys had arrived and were climbing onto their horses and racing off for the back pasture. Even Peter and William were galloping their horses after the older boys. I looked back and saw Donald sitting in a lawn chair and Lenore holding on to one of Carrie Louise's hands while she toddled around the yard. Rosie was standing there watching the two girls. I went to get my horse and follow the boys. We had been riding for a few minutes when Bert and Kelly rode slowly up to where I was watching the boys. Kelly looked almost petrified. He was gripping the saddle horn so tightly, it's a wonder it didn't pop off in his hands. Bert was holding the reins for Kelly's horse and giving him words of encouragement. They slowly walked their horses around the pasture.
The next time they came around, Kelly was holding his own horse's reins, while Bert rode close by his side. Kelly still did not appear to be comfortable on his mount, but he wasn't as stiff as he had been earlier.
"I don't think I'll ever be a cowboy," Kelly said, as he rode up beside me and halted.
"You're doing fine for your first time," I said. "If you were around here all the time, you'd soon be riding like the boys." I pointed to the seven having a ball with their horses.
"Crane, sorry I missed you earlier," Tracy said, as he rode up to us. "I had to go help deliver a calf at our neighbors down the road. It was a breach."
"No problem," I said. "I didn't speak to Rosie before I took Kelly to the stables. By the way, this is Kelly Baker. Kelly, this is Tracy Smith. He's a vet. He takes care of all the animals around here." They exchanged greetings. "Where's Charlie today?"
"He and Jessica went to Austin early this morning. A guy Charlie used to work with was getting married this afternoon and asked him to be one of the groomsmen. I'll bet Charlie is hating it. If there is anything that he hates to do it's to get dressed up and wear a tie. He asked me to do his chores if he doesn't get home in time."
I talked with Tracy for a few minutes before heading back to the stables. When I announced my intentions, Kelly decided that he would accompany me. "I think I've had enough riding for the day," he said. "My bottom is beginning to get sore."
"You've done well for your first time," I told him. "If you want, you can help me get the food out of the van. I'm sure the boys will be ready to eat anytime soon."
"I can do that," he said.
We washed our hands at the outside faucet and went to the van. By the time we had placed the coolers on the picnic tables, as if by magic, the thundering herd raced up to the fence and tied their horses to it. There was no way they could have seen us unloading the food, but yet they somehow sensed it.
"Wash your hands!" I said, pointing to the faucet. That caused a midcourse correction in their path and away from the food.
"Man, Gilda sure packed a lot of food," Kelly said, as he was helping me unpack it. "I don't know how we'll ever eat it all."
I laughed, "Wait and see. We'll be lucky if there is a scrap left when we're finished." As it turned out, I was right.
Carrie Louise was pretty good at walking as long as there was something to hang onto. She made her way to where Kelly was sitting and raised her arm as if wanting him to pick her up - which he did. "You're a pretty little lady," Kelly said, setting her down on his lap.
"Chip," she said, reaching for the potato chips on Kelly's plate.
Kelly looked at Rosie and got a nod of approval and raised one finger indicating just one, before he retrieved a chip from his plate and gave it to Carrie Louise. She looked up at him and smiled. "You are a charmer. I'll bet you'll have all the boys wrapped around your finger when you get older," he said. When he wouldn't give her another chip, she wiggled off his lap and went searching for her daddy. She probably thought he would be an easy mark.
After lunch, the boys went with Bert for another ride. Kelly decided that he had enough riding for the day and stayed to talk with the other adults. Carrie Louise had been put down for her nap.
"Crane," Tracy began, "it's time for the horses' shoes and hooves to be checked again. I've got the farrier scheduled for Wednesday."
"Good, I'm glad that someone is keeping track of the schedule. I'd forgotten the last time we had that done. With as many horses that we have, he will probably need all day. As I recall, he wants to be paid in cash. I'll bring some cash by your office tomorrow or Tuesday. Do you have any idea how much it will be?" He told me his best guess. "Wow! He makes a pretty good living charging that much."
"It's supply and demand," Tracy said. "There are not too many good ones around anymore. I had to schedule him two weeks ago."
"It's all part of owning horses," I said. "Rosie, how's Bert doing in college?"
"He doesn't say a lot, but I know his grades are good. More importantly, I think he has met a girl. He spends a lot of time on the phone talking to her. He hasn't told us her name," she said.
"Crane, have you met the Crenshaws?" Tracy asked.
"I don't believe so. The name doesn't ring a bell. Why?"
"They're the old couple who own the property on the other side of the road. The other day I helped him round up a couple of calves that had gotten out of the pasture. I was on my way home from work when I had to stop, as the calves were in the middle of the road. Between the two of us, we were able to herd the escapees back into his pasture. He thanked me and we got to talking. He told me he was 77 and they were thinking of selling the place and moving to Florida where their daughter and her family lives. I know if Charlie were here he would be making a pitch for you to buy the place."
"What's the acreage?" I asked.
"They own a section1. About 80% of it is farmable. The rest is forest. That's according to Mr. Crenshaw."
"How much do they want for the place?"
"I never asked and I'm not all that certain that Mr. Crenshaw was serious. It wouldn't hurt to ask, if you're at all interested. I'd hate to see it turned into a sprawling housing subdivision if they do sell it."
"Could Charlie handle farming both places by himself?" I asked.
"He'd probably need some help," Tracy said. "Planting and harvesting time would be the biggest crunch time. There are always young guys whose families have sold off their farms, who would be interested in being on a farm. Guys like Charlie who have farming in their blood."
"I'll have someone look into it," I said. "Please don't mention it to Charlie. I wouldn't want for him to get his hopes up because nothing may come of it."
"Sure thing, but I think he already has his hopes up," Tracy said.
The guys rode their horses for about another hour before I called them in and told them it was time to go. There were a few frowns, but they reluctantly rode their mounts to the stable. With Bert and Tracy's help the saddles were removed and stored in the tack room. Brushes were distributed and the horses were brushed down. Peter and William received help from Tracy and Bert. After the horses were taken care of, we loaded the van and headed for home.
"Okay, guys, it's the showers or the pool. Which will it be?" I asked, as we exited the van. I knew full well that it was a foolish question. They were half undressed as they ran up to their rooms to don their swimsuits.
"What are we going to fix for supper? Hildy said we were on our own tonight," Donald said.
"Surely there is something in the refrigerator that we can fix," I said. "Having said that, I think we'd better check." We did just that, but didn't find anything that we were enthusiastic about fixing.
"What would you say if I went down to that new HEB and picked up some chicken breasts?" Donald asked. "I could pick up some potato salad or slaw and maybe some of the baked beans from the deli. If you start the grill, it should be ready by the time I get back. I'll take Lenore with me. She is developing the shopping gene."
"Sounds like a winner. I'm sure the boys won't mind not going somewhere to eat. It would mean they would have to get out of the pool," I laughed.
As it turned out, the boys loved it. They had two picnics in one day. And since Hildy wasn't there, I didn't insist that they wear a shirt to sit at the picnic table to eat. When the meal was finished and everything cleaned up and put away, it was time to begin the homework. Tomorrow was another school day.
Joel approached me later that evening. "Dad, I have a CBE test next Saturday. Is it all right if I take the car to Austin?"
"I guess. Does Jimmy have a test, too?"
"Not this time. He has his last one next month."
"You haven't seen much of each other recently. Is there anything wrong?" I asked.
"No, we talk on the phone a lot. He's working every weekend, trying to save the money he'll need when he starts at U of H. He doesn't want to work his freshman year. When he's not working, he's studying."
Monday morning, Donald left with Lenore and Kelly. He was going to drop Kelly off at the airport so he could catch the corporate jet to New Orleans. When I returned from ferrying the others to school, the house cleaners were there. I poured myself a cup of coffee and took it out on the patio so that I would be out of their way. It was such a pleasant morning that it was not much of a sacrifice to be 'forced' out of the house. I had taken my cell phone with me and decided to call Gerald.
"Good morning, Gerald," I said, when I got put through to him.
"Crane, what dirty work do you want me to do for you now?" he chuckled.
"Careful, you can be replaced, you know," I retorted. "Actually, I have an easy one for you. There is a farm situated across the road from my farm properties that may be going up for sale. It's owned by a family by the name of Crenshaw. Don't know the rest of their names. I'd like you to check it out and let me know if they are really ready to sell. Keep my name out of it for the time being. If it is for sale, why don't you and Carlos get together and put together a proposal? If it makes sense, I'll make an offer, but I'll wait for your analysis."
"That shouldn't be too difficult. The property records are all online. I can probably get a good start on the research by the end of the day. I know Carlos is in court all day today, so I'll get with him in the morning and give him what I've put together. I'll make contact with the Crenshaws after I've done the records search."
"Good. Now that wasn't that difficult a request, was it?"
"Nah, this one's easy. I'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said.
"Call me when you have something," I said. "Thanks, Gerald."
"Hi girls," I said to Jeannie and Ginny when I went to pick up the kids from school. "How was school today?"
"Fine," Jeannie said. "Mrs. Krause gave me all my assignments for tomorrow."
For a moment that didn't register. Then it dawned on me, tomorrow was the court date for their adoption. "That's right. You won't be going to school tomorrow. Big day for you. Are you excited?"
"Yes, sir," Ginny said, with a smile that made her face beam.
"I'm so happy for both of you. I'm happy for Hildy and Manfred as well. They love you very much. You know that, don't you?"
"We love them, too," Jeannie said. "We love our momma, too, but she's in heaven and can't take care of us."
TJ, Peter and William ran up to us at that moment and I got a three-kid hug. William pulled a paper out of his backpack and thrust it in my face. "See, I got a hundred."
"That's great," I said. "You'll have to show it to your daddy when we get home."
The boys went to feed and play with their dogs when they finished with their afterschool snack. Donald and I were sitting on the patio watching the boy when he said, "I got a call from Roger Grimm today."
It took me a moment for the name to register. Then it came to me. He was the PI that Donald hired to look into the killing of his VP and wounding him. "What did he have to say?"
"It's an awful mess over there. He has identified the hit man who shot us," he said.
"That's great news. But you don't look that happy," I said. "What's going on?"
"Well, it seems like Benny Brasseaux is well connected with an influential police captain who is on the take from the drug gang. Roger's contact inside the police department told him that there was no way any of the officers working the street would ever arrest Benny. Roger's also identified the person inside the court who tipped off Benny that we were leaving the courthouse. It was the judge's clerk. When the information was passed to the judge, he immediately confronted her and she eventually admitted her involvement. Although it could be construed that she aided and abetted the commission of a crime, it could be hard to prove in a court. The judge did fire her. Roger also identified four corrupt cops in the precinct responsible for that area of New Orleans; a lieutenant, a sergeant and two officers."
"Does he have solid evidence of the corruption? Enough to give to the state attorney general?"
"That's going to take a bit more time, but he's confident that the evidence is out there and that he will be able to get it. All he really has now is the words of his informants," Donald said with a sigh.
"Was he able to find out who actually ordered the shooting?" I asked.
"Not specifically, and he doubts that his suspicions could ever be proven. It was probably a man called 'El Gato'. His real name is rumored to be Juan Alvarez. It seems he is the shadowy figure who runs one of the drug gangs over there. As far as Roger could determine, he has never has so much as a traffic ticket. Nobody is willing to provide information about him. People who blab anything about him have a propensity for ending up in the swamp as food for the alligators."
"What are you going to do?"
"I've told Roger to keep after it until he's gathered all the evidence he thinks he can. We'll make a decision at that time as to how we want to proceed. There are avenues that can be pursued in regard to Benny Brasseaux that I'll hold in reserve," he said in a cold tone of voice that I had never heard from him before.
"Oh," I said, realizing what I thought he meant. "I hope it doesn't come to that."
1 A section of land is equivalent to 640 acres or one square mile.