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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.
"What happened?" I asked, barely suppressing a giggle. I noticed that Gilda was doing the same.
"At first she was all huffy, when I got there," Hildy said. "She told me there was no way she was going to turn over Luke's clothes and other belonging until she heard from his caseworker. She told me to get out of her house. Now that was a mistake. Ms. Romans is short, maybe 5' 2" and about 200 pounds. I'm about a foot taller than she is and a whole lot meaner. I walked toward her with my hands on my hips and tried to look as threatening as I could. I don't think she was expecting that. I got within a few inches of her and staring down at her before she began to see my point of view. I saw her swallow hard and take a couple of steps back before she decided to let me have Luke's stuff. I told you I would have her helping me load it into my car, and I was right."
"Did you see the other foster children in the house?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact, I didn't," Hildy answered. "Now that I think about it, it does seem a little strange. I guess I just figured they were either in their rooms or outdoors playing. Although, the other foster boys were not in their room when we got Luke's things from there."
"We'll worry about them later. Our first concern at the moment is Luke," I said. "Did you get Luke's things straightened away in his room?"
"No," Hildy said. "I put them in the spare room, but I thought he would want to put them where he wanted. I'm sure that Manny will help him. I would think they should be back soon. That is, if Manny didn't buy out the store. He hasn't been this excited in a long time."
"Sis, do you want to go with me to the store?" Gilda asked. "I need to get some things for the outing on Sunday."
"Sure, I need a few things as well," Hildy said. "Let's run by our house so I can pick up my list. You men can watch the kids while we're gone."
"I think Donald and I can manage," I said.
About an hour and a half later, Manfred and a visibly excited Luke arrived. "Did you buy everything in sight?" I asked.
"Not quite," Manfred said. "The car was pretty full when we got home. It's going to take some time to get all of Luke's things put away and him settled in."
"Did you have a good time?" I asked Luke.
"Oh, yeah," he answered. "We went to this ice cream place. It was really different. It was called Marble something."
"Marble Slab," Manfred clarified.
"Yeah, and they scooped your ice cream and put it on the table and then mixed in anything you wanted. I had chocolate and brownie bits and chocolate chip cookies in mine. It was great."
"I had a small vanilla cone," Manfred added.
"That's great, Luke," I said.
"And Mr. Manfred let me drive the cart all the way over here."
"He did a good job, too," Manfred said. "He didn't go off the path once."
"Luke, why don't you go upstairs? I think there are a couple of boys playing on the Xbox," I said. "Maybe they will show you how to play. Tell them I said for them to show you."
"Okay," he said, and rapidly went up the stairs.
"He's such a neat kid," Manfred said, wistfully.
"I know that I'm talking to a brick wall, here," I said. "But my advice is, don't get too attached to him. In the long run, he'll probably be placed in another foster home."
"You're right," Manfred said. "That doesn't mean I can't enjoy him for at least a little while."
Donald, at that moment, came down the stairs.
"What have you been up to?" I asked.
"I was attending a tea party with Ginny and my daughter in her room," he answered.
"Ah, brushing up on your social skills, I see," Manfred snickered.
"I guess," Donald said. "It was a chance to have some quality time with my daughter. That's something I don't seem to have a lot of time for, regrettably."
"I need some help bringing in the groceries," Gilda said, as she came in the back door.
The three of us responded and had the bags of groceries all brought into the house in no time. "Can we help you put things away?" I asked.
"No," Gilda said firmly. "I have my system and it'll be easier if I do it myself."
At supper, TJ and Luke seemed to have bonded, not that Chris and the twins were left out, it just appeared that it was because Luke and TJ were nearer the same age. I was glad to see that Luke was comfortable with all the other kids as well.
"Can I drive the cart?" Luke asked, as they were getting ready to leave for home.
"You can sit on my lap and steer," Manfred said, putting his arm around Luke's shoulder. "We have to get all your new clothes put away in your new room."
"Did you get all my stuff from the other place?" he asked.
"Yes, we did, honey," Hildy said.
"Even my teddy?"
"Yes, even your teddy."
"My momma gave him to me," he sniffled.
We all said goodbye to the Strassers and went back into the house.
Mid-morning on Saturday, Manfred and Luke arrived. "He wanted to come play with TJ," Manfred said. Luke was carrying an obviously new backpack.
"He and the other boys are out back playing with their dogs," I said. "Luke, why don't you go see if they'll let you join them? I'm sure they will."
Manfred, Donald and I followed him out through the patio door. "Did you get all of his things put away?" Donald asked.
"As much as Hildy would let us," he said. "Most of the stuff she insisted on running through the washer. A lot of his clothes that she picked up from the foster home were in pretty bad shape. She'll be able to repair most of them, but some are destined for the rag bin."
"I thought that CPS was supposed to see that they were properly supplied with clothes," Donald said.
"They are," I volunteered. "Somehow I think there is something going on that I hope Jack is able to document. I can hardly wait to get his reports on those two people."
"It looks as if Luke has found himself a dog," Manfred said, pointing to where the boys were playing. Luke was on his back on the ground with a dog on top of him licking his face.
"Yeah, that's TJ's dog, Bandit," I said. "He's a very loving dog. Manfred, remember what I told you yesterday and don't go getting him a dog of his own."
"I hear you," Manfred said. "Hildy keeps telling me the same thing, but it's hard not wanting the boy to have the things that others have."
"You and Hildy need to sit down and have a serious discussion before you make any decisions about wanting to keep Luke. How would it affect Jeannie and Ginny? I don't know what your finances are, but could you afford to have another family member? I don't want an answer. Those and many other things you need to consider," I said.
"I know," he said, staring off into space. He was silent for a minute or two before continuing, "It's just that it's hard not loving him and wanting to keep him."
"I know the feeling," I said. "It happened to me when I found Joel and it really hit me when the other boys arrived. The heart does funny things to us."
"I guess it was a little different for me," Donald said. "I always loved both William and Lenore from the time they were born. It was just natural that I adopt them when my sister died. I didn't have the angst of them not being blood relatives."
"Dad," Peter said as he approached the three of us. "Can me and William go swimming? It's getting hot."
"I think that's a great idea," I said. "Go put your swimsuits on. I'll meet you in the pool."
"Somehow I knew this would come up," Manfred said. "That's why we brought Luke's backpack. It contains both of our swimsuits."
I whistled to get the other boys' attentions and told them the pool was open for swimming. It didn't take long before the dogs were back in their run and there was a mad scramble for the house for them to get changed. Manfred retrieved Luke's backpack and gave Luke his swimsuit and then got out one for himself. Luke followed TJ, Peter and William to their room to change while the adults headed for the bedrooms to do our changing.
It wasn't long after we had gotten into the pool that the three girls joined us. Evidently Gilda had telephoned Hildy to let her know that a swimming party was in progress.
The rest of Saturday the kids spent swimming, playing tennis, romping with the dogs, playing video games and eating. As evening approached and the sun was going down, everybody migrated back inside. Soon after, Hildy and Manfred took their two girls and Luke and went home, but not before Luke again asked if he could drive the golf cart. Manfred agreed to let him sit on his lap and steer. No one complained when it was time to get ready for bed. The activities of the day had worn them out. After Lenore and the boys were all in bed, Donald and I invited Gilda to join us in a glass of wine. She had been busy all day getting things ready for tomorrow's get together at the ranch. She accepted and we had a very pleasant conversation with her, before we all started yawning and headed off to bed.
Sunday morning, we let the kids sleep in. It was almost half past eight when they began to straggle down for breakfast. Just as the last of the breakfast dishes were rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher, the phone rang.
I answered, "Hello."
"Hi, dad," Joel said on the other end of the line.
"Son, how are things in Houston?"
"It's great. Jeremy and I spent most of the day, yesterday, on campus. He was showing me where everything was so I wouldn't get too lost," he said.
"Are you ready for classes to begin?" I asked.
"Yes, I went to an orientation assembly on Friday," he said. "Tomorrow I meet with my advisor to make sure that I'm signed up for all the right classes. They don't begin until Wednesday, so I'll be spending Tuesday getting all my textbooks bought. The real reason I called was that I hear you have added another boy to the families."
"How did you hear about that?"
"I got an email from Lenny last night."
"Luke is staying with Hildy and Manfred, at least temporarily," I said.
"Lenny wasn't too explicit about Luke's living arrangements. Why isn't he staying with our family?"
I went on to explain how we found Luke and why we were not fostering him instead of Hildy and Manfred.
"I'm anxious to meet him, but I probably won't be home for several weeks," Joel said. "A lot will depend on how much homework I'll have. Also, there's a concert coming up in a couple of weeks that we plan to go to."
"How's Jimmy?" I asked.
"He's busy working at his job most of the time. His classes begin on Wednesday, also. Well, I had better get going. I'm meeting Jimmy and a couple of his friends. We're going to Herman Park. There's some sort of art exhibit going on there. Goodbye, dad, tell everyone that I miss them. I miss you the most."
"Goodbye, son, I love you," I said. "We all miss you, too. Study hard and don't hesitate to call if you need anything."
"I will. I love you, too," he said, and hung up.
I had a lump in my throat when I hung up the phone. It really hit me again that Joel was not going to be around. Up until then, it had not sunk in on an emotional level that he was no longer that scared little boy I had found at the ballpark. He was now on his own and I was not really emotionally ready for it.
By ten o'clock we were all getting things packed into the van to take to the ranch. It looked as if Gilda had prepared enough food for an army and she had only fixed part of it. Hildy, Carolyn and Rosie were also involved in preparing parts of the picnic. It was a tight fit getting everybody into the van with all the food, but with Joel's seat vacant, Gilda was able to sit in his place.
We were the first to arrive at the ranch. Rosie and Jessica were busy spreading table cloths on the picnic tables as Charlie and Jason unloaded one from their truck. Ian and Lionel did the same from their truck. Gilda went to offer her help after stepping down from the van.
"Where's Tracy?" I asked, as I approached.
"He got a call from one of his clients that his German Shepherd was hit by a car and he thought a leg was broken," Rosie said. "He should be back anytime now. He went to the office shortly after eight. He called a few minutes ago and said he was on his way out the door."
Once Charlie and Jason had their table unloaded, Jason took off to help Bert finish saddling the horses. There were several already saddled and waiting to be ridden next to the fence, but not for long. A herd of boys descended on the saddled horses and they were soon headed for the back pasture. As each additional horse emerged, saddled from the stable, it was immediately claimed by a boy, who then joined the others in the back pasture.
"I'll go get the quarter horses ready," Charlie said. He got in his truck and headed out to the road and toward his house.
Hildy and Manfred arrived with their family, followed closely by Jack and Carolyn Hogan and their three kids. It took a while to get everyone introduced. I was surprised at how much Jack Jr. had grown and filled out in the muscle department. I could see how he could be a first class wrestler. The four girls, including Sara Hogan, Jack and Carolyn's daughter, had surrounded Rosie and Jessica and were earnestly talking to them. A few moments later the four of them took off for the house. The lure of two babies had them in their spell. Jessica followed them into the house.
I overheard Luke whisper to Manfred, "I've never ridden a horse before. Heck, I've never even been on a ranch before."
"Well now, let's see what we can do about remedying that," Manfred said. "Donald, could I borrow your daughter's small horse so Luke can take a ride?"
"Of course," Donald replied. "It doesn't look like Lenore will be using it anytime soon."
As they walked toward the fence where the two remaining horses were tethered, Charlie arrived with the saddled quarter horses.
"Wow!" Jack Jr. exclaimed. "Can I ride one of those?"
"Sure," Charlie said. "Have you ridden before?"
"It's been a couple of years," he said.
"Then I had better ride with you until you get comfortable," Charlie said. "These horses can be a little spirited at times. Let's keep them down to a trot at first."
Donald mounted one of the quarter horses and took off for the back of the pasture to check on the boys.
I walked down to where Manfred and Luke were making friends with Lenore's horse. When I got there, I reached into my pocket, took out a plastic bag that contained sugar cubes and handed a cube to Luke. "Here, Luke, hold this in the palm of your hand and give it to her." He did as I said and giggled as the sugar cube was licked off his palm. "That lets her know that you're a friend. Why don't we help you up onto her saddle and then Manfred and I will walk on each side of her."
Luke's eyes got big as he settled into the saddle. After we had adjusted the stirrups, he grabbed hold of the saddle horn for dear life. I took the reins, gently pried his hands from the saddle horn and showed him how to hold them loosely in his hands. With some gentle urging, his horse started off in a slow walk. If the smile on Luke's face got any wider, I was afraid his face would split in two. We walked with him for several minutes before showing him how to use the reins to tell his mount which way to turn and to stop.
I indicated to Manfred that we should go back to the fence. When we got there, I said, "Take my horse and go for a ride with Luke. I'll get a lead rope from the stables so you can be in control." I started for the stables and saw that Tracy had arrived. I waved to him and continued into the stables. I found a lead rope, returned to Luke's horse, attached it to the bridle and handed the rope to Manfred, who was already mounted on my horse. "Have a good ride, Luke."
I watched as the two of them rode off at a slow walk and then went to talk to Tracy. "How's business?" I asked as I shook his hand.
"Booming," he said. "I can't complain, it's taken off like nothing I had expected. I can't thank you enough for the start you gave me. I'll always be in your debt."
"Nonsense," I said, "if you hadn't been a good vet, nothing I could have done would have made your business a success."
Donald rode up as we were talking. "Timmy, someone said you haven't had a ride yet," Donald said.
"I don't know if I want to ride," Timmy said. "I haven't been on a horse before."
"Well, how about you climbing up here behind me and we'll correct that situation," Donald said. "Crane, can you give him a lift up?"
"Sure," I said, grabbing his waist and lifting him up behind Donald.
"Hang on tight," Donald said. He turned the horse and started off at a slow trot.
Since all of the horses were now in use, I went back to talk to Tracy and, also, to see if I could be any help with setting up the picnic. I was gently, but firmly told that my help was not necessary, indicating, without actually saying, that I would just be in their way. I took the hint and Tracy and I stepped over to where Jack was standing at the fence watching his youngest son ride off with Donald.
"How was the German Shepherd that Rosie said took you to the office on Sunday?" I asked.
"Gene Foster, the dog's owner is a good client of ours. I've taken care of his dogs since I first opened the clinic. The dog's leg was broken, but at least it wasn't a compound fracture. It took a while to get the x-rays to know what needed to be done. After that it was a fairly simple procedure to set it and splint it. I waited around for the anesthetic to wear off to make sure everything was all right. He should be back to normal in a few weeks. Julius Alexander Cannon the third, aka Alex, is a champion show dog. He has a pedigree a mile long and even competed in the Westminster Dog Show a year or so ago. Gene doesn't show him anymore. Now, his job is being a stud. I can only imagine what his stud fees are. He's a beautiful dog," Tracy said.
"When's the next time we need to have our dogs seen?" I asked.
"I'll check my records, but as I recall it should be fairly soon."
"We have one sad dog," I said. "Sam, Joel's dog, keeps looking around for his master. There are plenty of boys to play with and they can distract him for a while, but I notice once in a while that he will look all around as if he's searching for Joel. I feel certain that Joel misses Sam as well, but there was no way he could go with Joel.
"Jack, have you found out anything about the two I spoke to you about?"
"Not yet," Jack answered. "I've placed one of our new agents, John Levy, in charge of the investigation. Now, before you say anything, I had good reason to put him on it. He was in foster care for five years and has a vested interest in finding out all the information he can. He has no love lost for that organization. His experiences in foster care have colored his opinion of it. If I know him, he is probably spending his weekend digging up any information he can on them."
"I'm anxious to hear what he's learned," I said.
As we were talking, I was watching as all the food was set out on the two sets of wooden planks that were being supported by saw horses. I was beginning to wonder if they would be able to stand up to all the food being placed on them. When everything seemed to meet with the women's approval, Rosie went over to a bell that was hanging from the live oak tree and began ringing it.
"Where did you get that bell?" I asked Tracy.
"Lionel found it over at the old Winton farm," he said. "It was sitting in the corner of the barn over there. It was covered in years of dust and cobwebs. He took it back to their house and cleaned it all up. He brought it over here a couple of days ago. Since our place seems to be the gathering place when you all are here, he thought it could best suit its purpose to call everybody to lunch."
It did appear to have served its purpose from the sounds of a herd of horses galloping toward the fence. I think that some of the boys had jumped off their horses even before they came to a complete halt.
"Wash your hands," Hildy sternly told them. She pointed to a large tub of soapy water and a running garden hose. A couple rolls of paper towels were positioned so their hands could be dried, at least that was the intent. I was sure that there were still hands dripping water as they picked up plastic plates and began dishing up as much food as would fit on their plates.
"Luke," TJ said. "Come over here. I saved a place for you."
A smiling Luke slipped into a place beside TJ at one of the picnic tables. By the looks of all the food he had on his plate, he was going to fit right in with the other boys. It got quiet as the boys ate the mounds of food on their plates. It didn't take long before there were boys going back for a second round. That didn't stop them from visiting the desserts after they finished their second plate full. The girls didn't do too bad a job in the eating department. However, I didn't see any of them going back for seconds.
The adults ate at a more leisurely pace. I did sneak back for another piece of cornbread that Rosie had made. It was some of the best that I had ever tasted, especially when I slathered it with real butter.
After all the plastic dinnerware was stashed in a large garbage bag, the boys started back for the horses.
"Hold it guys," I said. "If there is anyone who has not had a chance to ride, you get first choice of a horse. Also, it would probably be better if you riders didn't ride too fast and race your mounts. All that food you ate needs some time to settle. I don't want to see you washing vomit off your horses and saddles. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," came the response.
Later in the day, a second meal of leftovers was consumed before we began cleaning up the area. We didn't want to leave a mess for someone to have to clean up after we had gone.
When it was time to start for home, everyone who wanted to ride had ridden a horse at least once. Also, there were no accidents that required the horses and saddles to be washed.
"Thanks for inviting us," Carolyn Hogan said, giving me a hug. "We should get together more often."
"For how long have we been saying that?" I laughed. "I'm just glad that we were at last able to do it."
"I'll have John Levy give you a call, probably on Tuesday to give you a report," Jack said.
"Thanks, I'm anxious to learn what he is able to find out."
What little food was left over was packed and loaded into the van. Just before we were about to say our goodbyes to everybody, Luke came up to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. "Thank you, Mr. Crane. I had so much fun. Can I come back again?"
"Of course, you can come back," I said, giving him a squeeze. "We come here often."
It didn't take long to unload the van when we got home with all hands pitching in. "Go feed your dogs and then it's into the showers with all of you. You smell like a bunch of sweaty horses. You might as well put on your pajamas. It won't be long before it's bedtime. Tomorrow I want you to try on your school uniforms to see if we need to make a trip to San Antonio for new ones."
"Glass of wine?" Donald asked.
"Yes, but I'm going to take my own advice and take a quick shower. I may not have ridden as much as the boys, but I still have an aroma of 'eau de horse' about me."
"I'll keep an eye out on the kids and then do the same," Donald said. "I'll have a glass of wine waiting for you."
"What's for our snack?" Larry asked. I had just come out of the bedroom.
"You can't be hungry," I said. "You only ate about an hour ago. I saw that Gilda bought some grapes yesterday. You can have some of them."
Later when Donald and I were making the rounds to tuck the boys into bed, TJ asked, "Is Luke going to get to stay? He likes it here."
"Son, I can't answer that question," I said. "I'm sure he will be staying with Hildy and Manfred at least for a while, but I can't promise that it will be forever."
"Okay," he said. "I want him to stay."
"We do too," Peter and William said together.
Later, after having finished seeing everybody tucked in for the night, Donald and I sat on the couch having a second glass of wine. "I think I will call Antonio Ricci tomorrow to see what kind of strategy we need to follow."