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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
As usual, all the kids wanted to stay up to see the ball drop in New York at midnight their time New Year's Eve. Peter, William and Lenore made it to around ten-thirty before sleep overtook them. Between the two of us, we carried them up to their room and tucked them into bed. I had to make two trips to get both of my youngest sons to their room. TJ was able to make it up to the bedroom without being carried. The three musketeers made it until they saw the TV broadcast from New York usher in the New Year. That satisfied them, so I ushered them up the stairs to their room and got them settled in bed. I think they were all asleep before I left their bedroom.
Back downstairs in the living room, Donald had poured us each a glass of Champagne. "Joel," I said, "if you would like a small glass of Champagne, it's okay by me."
"Thanks, dad, but Hildy got some ginger ale. I think I'll have that instead," he said.
"Wise choice," I said. "Alcohol can be very addictive."
"I know. My old dad had a real problem. I don't want to be like him."
Joel sat with Donald and me until it was midnight Canyon Lake time. We celebrated the New Year by a toast for health and happiness in the coming year and touched our glasses. Joel gave us both a hug and headed upstairs.
Donald and I sat there in silence, sipping our Champagne. Donald was the first to speak. "Crane, this past year being here with you has been the happiest time that I can remember. I am so happy that we met."
"I feel the same way," I said. "It is so comforting to have someone to share my life with. A toast to many more." We raised our glasses and drained them of the Champagne before turning out the lights and heading for bed.
New Year's Day turned out to be one of those strange weather days we sometimes get in South Texas. The temperature was forecast to climb into the 80s with clear skies and bright sunshine. Of course the boys insisted on going to the ranch to ride the horses. I made the call to the Smiths to let them know that we were coming. Gilda packed a lunch and a snack for us and we loaded the coolers into the van and took off for the ranch.
When we got to the ranch, Tracy was washing his car. He stopped and greeted us. I could see that Bert had saddled several horses and had them tied to the fence. Just then a tall, skinny young man who looked to be in his late teens, led another saddled horse to the fence and tied its reins to the fence alongside the other ones.
"Who's the new helper?" I asked Tracy.
"Ask Charlie," Tracy said, pointing to the quarter horse that was approaching.
"Crane," Charlie said, jumping down from his horse, "good to see you."
"It's good to see you, too. Tracy said to ask you who the new helper is," I said.
"That's my little brother, Jason," Charlie said. "He was supposed to come several months ago, but when pop fell off the ladder and broke his pelvis, Jason stayed home to help out until pop was back on his feet."
"I remember you saying he was coming, but I guess I had forgotten. He may be your younger brother, but he certainly is not your little brother. He must be four or five inches taller than you," I said.
"Yeah, he's six foot three and I'm just five ten. He got all the height and I got the good looks," Charlie laughed. Turning toward the fence he yelled, "Jason, come here! I want you to meet the owner."
Jason came loping toward us after vaulting the fence. As he approached, I could see he had an unruly mop of reddish-blond hair that seemed to have a mind of its own. He must not have weighed over 175 pounds.
"Jason, this is Crane Johnson, he's the owner of these three farms," Charlie said.
"It's very nice to meet you, sir," Jason said, extending his hand and shaking mine.
"It's nice to meet you as well, Jason. I hope you enjoy staying here with your brother," I said.
"Oh, I will, sir. Thank you."
"This is my friend, Donald Baker. I would introduce you to the boys, but I see they have already headed for the horses."
"Mr. Baker, it's nice to meet you, sir," Jason said, shaking Donald's hand.
"Jason, you will probably be seeing a lot of us," Donald said. "This is my daughter, Lenore. She's a little shy around new people."
"Is it okay if I go ride with the other guys?" Jason asked Charlie.
"Sure, just don't teach them any bad habits," Charlie said, punching his brother on the arm.
"Moi?" Jason laughed and took off for the field.
"He's a good kid," Charlie said. "He just needed to get away from home for a while."
"I'm sure he will be a big help around here once planting time comes around," I said.
"Ian and I are counting on him to help out. That is, if we can get him off a horse. There is nothing that boy likes more than to ride. When I told him about all the horses we had around here he was ready to pack his things and come that day. He even had his bus ticket. He was upset when pop had his accident and he wasn't able to get here when planned," Charlie said.
"Can I go play with Carrie Louise?" Lenore said, tugging on Donald's sleeve.
"Let's go check with Rosie to see if she's not napping," Donald said, leading his daughter by the hand toward the house.
"Oh by the way, Crane," Tracy said. "Rosie's helper quit this week. She only needed him two or three days a week and he said he needed a full time job."
"Does she know of anyone else who might want to help?" I asked.
"Crane," Charlie cut in, "Jason could help out. He needs some way of earning some spending money."
"Do you think he would be interested?"
"I think he would do it for free, if he got to ride the horses all the time," Charlie laughed. "When he was originally scheduled to come, that was the plan."
"I'll ask him when the kids come in for lunch," I said. "Knowing my bunch, that shouldn't be too long."
Donald came back shaking his head. "Lenore keeps asking if she can have a baby sister. I don't know how many times I have explained to her that to have a baby sister, there would have to be a mother."
"I don't think that is going to happen anytime soon," I said.
"There are times when Elizabeth Jane wakes up crying in the middle of the night, I would gladly give her to you," Charlie said. "But then there are the times when she smiles up at me when I'm holding her that I wouldn't take all the money in the world for her."
"I think I'm going to go check on the boys," I said. I headed for the fence where there were still two horses tied up.
"I'll join you," Donald said.
From the laughing and shouting that was coming from over the hill at the back of the pasture, it was clear that they were having fun. We stopped our horses at the top of the low hill and watched as two boys at a time on their horses, lined up and raced about a hundred yards being cheered on by the rest of them. TJ, Peter and William only raced against each other. Their horses were smaller and slower than the other boys' horses. We were just in time to see Jason and Bert line up to begin their contest. Jason was riding a quarter horse and Bert was riding one of the Arabian-mix horses. This was going to be interesting.
Joel was the starter and when he dropped a white handkerchief, the race was on. Jason got off to a fast start as was expected of his quarter horse. I was surprised when they didn't stop at the mark where the other boys had when they raced. Instead, they began a circuit of the back part of the pasture. I hadn't noticed before, but the boys had placed four rocks roughly a foot in diameter about a hundred yards apart to make a circuit that Jason and Bert were racing around. Bert's horse caught up with Jason's after the last turn and they were neck and neck as they came to the finish line. Bert was declared the winner by a nose. This, of course, brought a good natured complaint from Jason demanding another chance.
"Is it time for lunch yet?" TJ asked when he stopped next to us.
I looked at my watch and asked, "What does your stomach say?"
"It says I'm hungry," TJ giggled.
"Okay, I guess it's time for lunch," I said. "Go round up the other guys."
Donald and I turned our mounts back toward the house and were nearly run over by the herd of boys racing for the fence.
"Hey, dad, can Jason eat with us?" Joel asked.
"Sure, you know Gilda always packs enough food to feed an army. Everyone can join us," I said.
Rosie must have seen the coolers being retrieved from the van and came out of the house carrying a large pan of baked beans. Jessica was close behind with an equally large bowl of potato salad. Tracy brought up the rear bearing paper plates and plastic utensils.
After we were all suitably stuffed from the meal, I caught Jason's attention and motioned for him to come to me.
"Is something wrong, sir?" he asked.
"No, not at all," I said. "I was wondering if you would like to help Rosie take care of the horses two or three days a week? Of course you'd be paid."
"Yes, sir, I'd like that. I'd like that very much."
I told him what the pay would be and for him to work out a schedule with Rosie. He went away smiling.
The boys went back to their horses after they had packed up what was left of the food and cleaned up the litter and put it in a large garbage bag.
"Tracy, you got a minute?" I asked.
"Sure, what's up?"
"I was wondering if the house is feeling a little cramped these days."
"Yes, a little," he said. "It's not bad right now, but when Carrie Louise gets to be a little older, she'll need her own room. With only two bedrooms, that's going to be a problem."
"That's what I was thinking," I said. "Maybe we ought to think about adding another bedroom or two."
"That would be great," Tracy said. "If it's alright with you, I'll talk to Ian. He was in the home construction business. Maybe he knows someone who could come up with some plans."
"Good idea," I said. "Where is he today?"
"Charlie said Ian was going to visit his parents up in Kerrville yesterday. He should be back later this afternoon," Tracy said.
"Before we make any serious plans for adding on to the house, we should have the place thoroughly inspected. I don't think we would want to add on to a house that might not last as long as the addition," I said. "I'll contact a structural engineer that I know of to come check it out. He's also a licensed electrician and can check out the wiring to make sure it's safe."
"We haven't had any problems since we moved in," Tracy said. "It's probably a good idea to have things checked out. From the age of the house, there's the possibility of lead-based paint around the windows and doors."
"You're right," I said. "I hadn't thought about that. I'll call Willard tomorrow and set something up and let you and Rosie know when to expect him to be here."
The boys spent the rest of the afternoon riding their horses. Lenore spent a happy afternoon with Carrie Louise and Elizabeth Jane. She even took a nap at the same time the babies did. The adults alternated between riding to check on the boys and visiting under the shade of the large oak tree.
Ian arrived just in time to join us for the boys' afternoon snack. As soon as they had eaten their snacks, they went back to riding. Between Tracy and me, we explained to him of the tentative plans for expanding the house.
"Crane," Ian said, "adding on to that house is probably not going to be such a good idea."
"Why not?" I asked.
"It would probably cost you as much to bring it up to current building codes and to add on the new bedrooms as it would to tear it down and build a new one. Without a thorough inspection, there is a good possibility that the wiring is knob and tube, maybe there is asbestos in the plaster and if the inspection turns up vermiculite as part of the insulation in there as well. I could almost guarantee that the window sills and other woodwork will have lead-based paint, if not on the surface, at least under the top layers," Ian said. "I can't say for sure when this house was built, but my guess is that it was late 20s or early 30s. That would make it a good candidate for all of those problems. As long as nothing is disturbed, there is minimal risk in living there."
"I think I need to get Willard out here as soon as possible," I said.
"Where would we live if the house needed to be torn down," Rosie asked concerned.
"We have plenty of room," Jessica volunteered. "We live in each other's pockets as it is now, so it wouldn't be all that different."
"I have room, also. The two bedrooms upstairs in my place are currently vacant. And ..." he paused for effect, "I don't ever plan on filling them with my kids."
That brought a laugh from the gathered adults.
"Maybe you shouldn't be so sure," I said. "I didn't plan it either, but now I have six and share two of Donald's."
"I'm not planning to match your family," Ian said.
A little while later, we rounded up the boys. After they had taken care of their horses, we headed for home. "Okay, guys," I said, when I parked the van in the garage, "go take care of your dogs. They'll think you've deserted them. Then you need to get out of those clothes. You smell like a sweaty horse."
"Can we go swimming?" Peter asked, after they had played with their dogs for a while.
"Sure, but be sure that you put those clothes in the laundry baskets," I said. I hadn't thought about the water temperature in the pool, so I went to check. It was going to be a little cool, but not so much that it would cause hypothermia.
By the time Donald and I had played in the pool with the boys for about an hour, I figured they would soon want supper. The day was saved by Gilda's appearance. That could only mean she was going to feed us. She motioned to me and indicated that supper would be ready in about twenty minutes. I got the boys' attention and sent them to their rooms to shower. Donald and I did the same.
"Where's Lenore?" I asked Donald.
"She went to see Jeannie and Ginny. I need to go get her."
After supper, I asked the boys if they had any homework that they needed to do since it was back to school in the morning. They looked at me as if I were crazy.
"Dad," Chris said, "the teachers never give homework over a long vacation."
"Okay, just checking."
Even though everyone was in bed at the regular hour, they were difficult to get up in time for breakfast. The ability to sleep late over the long Christmas vacation was a hard habit to break. I did get them to school on time.
When I returned to the house, I retrieved my address book out of my desk and looked up Willard Mason's phone number. I dialed the number and the phone was answered by a pleasant sounding female voice. "Mason and Watson Engineering, how may I help you?"
"This is Crane Johnson. I would like to speak with Mr. Mason, please."
"May I ask what this is in regard to?"
"Yes, it's concerning a job that I would like to engage him for," I said.
"Just a moment, I'll see if he's free," she said.
I wanted to say that it's your business to know whether he's free, but I didn't.
"Crane, is it really you?" Willard said, coming on the line. "I haven't heard from you in what, two, three years?"
"Yes, it is. Sorry about the long time since we've been in touch, but things have been a little hectic," I said.
"The last I heard was that you sold your consulting business and started some sort of charity. I know that you didn't just call to talk over old times, so what's on your mind?"
"You're right. I need your professional services," I said. "I own a ranch that has a small, two-bedroom house on it and I need to expand it. The house is sixty plus years old and probably has a number of problems. What I want to hire you for is to tell me whether it is structurally sound enough to make it suitable for the addition or whether I should have it torn down and build a new one in its place. I need a thorough home inspection. I have a family living in the house and I want to make sure that it is safe for them to continue living there."
"I'm pretty well tied up for the next several weeks, but I have a young engineer that's really sharp. He's finishing up a job tomorrow and could probably do something for you. Give me the address of the property," Willard said. "Although Brandon is a young engineer, he is extremely competent - and I must say - very picky. I think he'll do a good job for you. His name is Brandon Gross. I'll have him call you first thing tomorrow."
I gave him the address and then we brought each other up on our lives. He was recently divorced from his wife of seven years. Thankfully they didn't have any children. I told him about my six boys.
"How the Hell did you wind up with six boys? I didn't even know you were married."
"I'm still not married," I said. I gave him the short version of how I came to adopt the boys. The long version would have to wait for another time.
"We need to get together sometime soon. It's been too long," Willard said.
"Give me a call when you're available and we'll invite you out here for a meal," I said.
I spent the rest of the morning putting together as many of the tax records that were available in preparation for filing as soon as I received the rest of them by the end of the month. I stopped for lunch and made a call to Donald.
When I got through his secretary, I asked, "One of your dealerships sells pickup trucks, doesn't it?"
"Yes, in fact two of them do. Why do you ask?" he responded.
"I was noticing that none of the three farm properties has one of the bigger ones. I think it would make things a lot easier if they had one to carry things. That little one that Rosie uses is not big enough to carry much," I said. "I was thinking along the lines of a Ford 150 or a Dodge Ram. It really doesn't have to be a new one, just one that will get the job done."
"Let me check to see what the inventory is on the lots," Donald said. "I'll make a couple calls to the managers and get back to you. Are you going to be at home the rest of the afternoon?"
"Yes, I have a few phone calls to make, but I'll be here until I have to go pick up the kids from school."
We ended the call and I made calls to Gerald and to Carlos. I wished them a Happy New Year and then went over some business. I had just hung up the phone when it rang. I expected it to be Donald. It wasn't.
"Crane, this is Fenton. I have some not so good news."
"I don't like the sounds of that," I said. "What's going on?"
"Well, you know how careful the planning for this development was. All the permits were obtained. The zoning changes were all approved by the zoning commission and okayed by the city council. Water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, phone service - all utilities were arranged through the various service providers. Now ..." he paused.
"Now what?" I asked.
"I got a visit from the head of the zoning commission a little while ago. He said that there were some 'discrepancies' in some of the permits and he intimated that the work would have to stop," Fenton said. "I got the distinct impression that he would 'overlook the discrepancies' if we made certain contributions to his upcoming political campaign. He never said that in so many words, but he did keep mentioning that he was going to seek an elective office. What do you want to do about this?"
"Ah, a shake down, how quaint. Here I thought that the city had cleaned up its act. Let me have the guy's name and anything else that you know about him. Email the information to me and copy Donald. We'll discuss it tonight and get back to you. Thanks, Fenton," I said.
I had just gone to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee when Donald called. "I checked with my managers. They have a couple available that would work. One is a Ford 350 Crew Cab Dually and the other is a Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD. I think either one or both would do the job."
"I'm not an expert in pickups," I said. "What do you think?"
"I'm glad that you asked," Donald said. "Both of them are on the way to the farms right now. They will be registered to CBJ Properties. I'll bring the paperwork home with me this evening for you to sign."
"That's probably a good idea to have one each for Charlie and Ian. Let me know what the prices are and I'll have a check made out for them," I said.
"What's this email message about that Fenton sent?" Donald asked, ignoring my statement about the prices of the pickups.
"I'll fill you in on that when you get here," I said. "I think I had better call Charlie and let him know about the trucks."
I made the call to Charlie. "Charlie, I've been thinking about the need for a good sized pickup to use around the farm. What do you think would work best? A Ford 350 Crew Cab Dually or a Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD?"
"Wow! That's a hard decision. I think if I had to choose one, I'd go with the Ford," he said.
"Okay, that will be yours to use. Ian will get the Chevy," I said.
"What?" Charlie exclaimed. "You can't be serious."
"I never say anything I don't mean, Charlie. Both trucks should be delivered within the hour, provided they don't get lost on the way," I said.
"Oh, my God, Crane. I've got to tell Ian," he said. "We were talking after you left yesterday about what we were going to do about hauling everything we'll need to begin the planting. He's gonna flip out when he hears. Thank you so much. I can't wait. Gotta go."
I looked at my watch and decided that it was about time to go get the kids from school. I arrived at the school a little early. I saw Pauline waiting for her kids to be dismissed, so I went over to her car and talk to her for a bit. I asked her about John and the girls. She said they had pretty well adjusted to life without their dad being around. She said that he was completely out of their lives. He never attempted to make contact with them even though he had visitation rights in the divorce decree. Kids started coming out of the building, so I went back to our meeting spot to wait for Peter and William to arrive. Their classes were the first to be dismissed. It wasn't long before the seven boys and two girls had assembled. We piled into the van and headed for home.
We dropped Jeannie and Ginny off at their house before driving to ours. I had just parked the van in the garage when Donald arrived with Lenore. We walked into the house together. By the time we stepped into the kitchen, the boys had all changed out of their school uniforms and into shorts and tee-shirts and were looking longingly at the plate of brownies that Gilda was carrying to the table. Lenore squeezed in between Peter and William at the table. The boys always seemed to make room for her.
"Tell me about this strange email that Fenton sent to me," Donald said.
"It appears as though a corrupt politician in Las Vegas is threatening to shut our development down out there if we don't cough up some money for his political campaign," I said. "The information in the email is what Fenton was able to gather in the short time he had."
Donald gave an evil laugh and said, "I think it's time to take this sucker down. Do you think Jack knows of a good private investigator out there?"
"If he doesn't, I'm sure he can find one through his contacts," I said.
"Good, give him a call," Donald said. "I hate crooked politicians. With a little help of our friends, we were able to get three members of the San Antonio City Council sent to prison on corruption charges."
I dialed Jack's number. Carolyn answered and said that he was on the road taking Jack Jr. back to college and wouldn't be back until the weekend. I asked her to have him give me a call when he returned.
"I'll be talking with him tonight after he checks into his motel," Carolyn said. "I could ask him to call you then if you like."
"Tell him if he has time to call, otherwise this weekend will be fine," I said. "Thanks Carolyn."
"Crane, we need to talk to you." Gilda said, walking in with Hildy and Manfred. Hildy was carrying a bundle.