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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.

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Chapter 8

The boys went back to riding after we all had eaten our lunches. The babies were put down for their naps and Lenore climbed onto her dad's lap and rested her head on his chest. Tracy, Rosie, Charlie, Jessica, Donald and I sat around talking while Ian and Lionel rode with the boys as did Bert and Jason.

About an hour later I noticed some dark clouds on the western horizon which looked as if they were moving this way. As I was watching them, I saw lightning in the clouds. I decided it was time to have the boys bring their horses to the stable and get them brushed down before the rain arrived. I got up and went to the bell that was normally used to call everyone to lunch and began ringing it. It wasn't long before a stampede of horses could be seen coming over the hill from the back of the pasture.

"What's up, dad?" Lenny asked, as he was the first to arrive, but only by a nose.

"It looks like there's rain coming this way, so go take care of your horses," I said. "We need to get home before it starts."

"Can we have our snack on the way home?" Chris asked.

"Yeah," Larry chimed in.

"I guess so, as long as you don't get crumbs all over the van."

"Okay!" Chris exclaimed, and headed to the stable, followed by the rest of the boys.

Bert and Jason went to help the younger boys unsaddle their horses and brush them.

As we were loading up the van, I was reminded by the boys about the promised treats, so I retrieved them from one of the coolers and distributed a rice crispy square to each of them. It was unlikely they would mess up the van with crumbs, but they might get sticky fingerprints around their seats.

We were barely home and in the house when the rain began in earnest. It was accompanied by lightning and loud claps of thunder. It lasted for a little over an hour before it began to slacken off. It wasn't long after that that it completely stopped raining and the sun came out.

"Dad, I'm gonna go check on Bandit," TJ said, heading for the patio door. "The thunder might have scared him."

"Okay," I said to the closed door behind him. I wanted to tell him to make sure his shoes were not muddy before he came back in.

Soon, Peter and William decided that they needed to check on Sam. It wasn't long before all the boys had gone to check on their dogs. Lenore was in the kitchen "helping" Gilda put frosting on some brownies she had baked while we were gone. I don't know if Lenore was that much help, but she was having fun. When the job was done, she grabbed her daddy's hand with her sticky one and pulled him to the kitchen to show him what she had done.

"That's great, sweetie," Donald said. "Did you thank Gilda for letting you help her?"

She shook her head and turned to Gilda, "Thank you, it was fun."

"You're very welcome, honey. I had fun, too," Gilda said. "How about we wash our sticky hands?"

"Good idea," Donald said, looking at the hand Lenore had taken earlier.

Later, I went outside to check on the boys. What I saw made me shake my head. The boys were wrestling with the dogs on the wet ground. There were more than shoes getting muddy. It was too late to stop the fun, so I just stood there and watched.

"It looks as if they are having fun," Donald said, coming up behind me.

"Yeah," I said. "Would you go get a bunch of towels out of the linen closet? I think we are going to need a bunch."

"It sure does," he said. "I'll be right back." He came back a few minutes later carrying a stack of towels. Gilda was right behind him.

"I was going to say that supper would be ready in about twenty minutes, but it looks like I'll need to hold off," she said. "It'll keep." She turned around and headed back inside.

I walked to where they were playing with the dogs and whistled to get their attention. Once they had settled down, I told them, "Take your dogs over there by the water hose and you can get them cleaned up. Once that's done, you can strip down to your underwear and I'll hose you down. Donald has towels so you can dry off, and then wrap them around yourselves before you go inside. Gilda is holding supper, so go take your showers as soon as you get the mud washed off."

Soon the dogs had been cleaned and put back into the dog run.

"Oh, boy, that water's cold," Larry said, as he was being hosed down.

"Leave your shoes and clothes on the patio before you go in the house," I told him as he made a dash for the house wrapping the towel around him.

It took a while before the six boys were clean enough to enter the house.

"Gilda, would it hurt to put these shoes in the washing machine?" I asked. I was carrying the dirty clothes. Donald had an arm load of six pairs of soaking-wet, dirty sneakers.

"I think that would be okay," she responded. "They might make a lot of noise in the dryer, so it'd probably be best if we let them air dry. Follow me to the laundry room and I'll get the clothes started as soon as the boys are out of their showers. I'll do the shoes later."

It didn't take long for the boys to take their showers when food was in the offing.

The phone rang just as the dishes were all rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher. I answered it while Donald was pouring us both a glass of wine.

"Hi, dad," Joel said, after I had answered it.

"Hi, son, I thought you might have called last evening to tell us all about your golf game," I said.

"I was going to, but Jeremy's girlfriend came over and fixed supper for us and stayed to play a game," he said. "I think it's called Pictionary or something like that. It was sort of fun. She's really nice. She and Jeremy are always kidding each other. It's funny to watch them. It was late when we quit playing."

"Tell us about how your golf outing went. I've put the speaker on so Donald can hear about it as well."

"That's a great course. Lots of trees and water and sand. I played pretty good for it being the first time on the course. I'm looking forward to playing it again."

"What did you think of Joe Good?" Donald asked.

"He's a crazy man," Joel laughed. "I rode in the cart with him and he kept me in stitches the whole round. He was always cracking jokes. I liked him. He wants me to play with them again. I told him I'd see how much I needed to study, but I tentatively told him I'd play in two weeks."

"Who were the other two guys you played with," Donald asked.

"Phillip Roush and Keith Cavanaugh," Joel answered.

"I know both of them slightly," Donald said. "I've had business dealing with both of them from time to time."

"They're both nice guys and pretty good golfers," Joel said.

"What did you shoot?" I asked.

"I was five over par," Joel answered. "I should have been four over, but I missed a short putt on eighteen."

"How did the others do?" Donald asked.

"Joe and Keith were both eight over. Phillip was ten over," Joel said. "He had one bad hole where he had a triple bogie. He put his drive in the water."

"I guess you had a good time," I said.

"Yeah, I did."

"How'd your classes go this week?" I asked.

"So far everything is going great. More homework, but that was expected. I spent most of today reading and working on some calculus problems," he said. "I'm going to do some more reading and then go to bed. I have a nine o'clock tomorrow."

"Study hard," I said. "I love you."

"I love you too, dad. Tell my brothers and Lenore that I miss them. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, son."

We sat quietly for several minutes, sipping our wine.

"You really miss him, don't you?" Donald said.

"Terribly," I said. "I don't think anything prepares you for when someone you love leaves home."

"I don't have to face that for William for a long time," Donald sighed. "Oh, I nearly forgot to ask you something. I saw a poster announcing an act called the Blue Man Group and I thought of Chris' wanting more drums when we took the boys to the symphony. I'm told that their whole act is built around drums or percussive instruments of some kind. I thought maybe the older boys might enjoy going to one of the performances."

"When will they be in town?" I asked.

"I don't remember the exact date, but it's a month or so from now."

"I'll mention the group to the three musketeers and see if they have heard of them and see what their reaction is," I said. "How about the younger boys and Lenore?"

"Definitely not for Lenore," he said. "The intern in my office said they appeal to the teenage and older crowd."

"You know that means we have to find something for the others."

"I'll check to see what else is coming to town that they might enjoy," Donald said. "We should probably include Luke, Jeannie and Ginny in the planning."

"What are we having for snacks?" TJ asked later, as he came into the room.

"Are you hungry again?" I asked, pulling him onto my lap and tickling him.

"Yes," he giggled.

"Let's go see what Gilda has for you starving kids."

The others must have superhuman hearing when it comes to food, because they all immediately descended on the kitchen. Gilda was ready for them and had dished out the brownies and was in the process of adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of them.

"I helped," Lenore said.

"And you did a good job," Donald praised her.

"It's a school night, guys," I told them as they finished their snacks. "Brush your teeth and get ready for bed. It's getting late. I'll be up to check on you after while."

"Lenore, honey," Gilda said, "let's go get your bath taken and I'll read you some more of that story. Okay?"

"Yeah, I like that story about the princess," Lenore said.

Later, Donald and I went to make the rounds of the bedrooms. Peter and William were already asleep when we got to their room.

"All that activity today must have really worn them out," I said. I gave TJ a hug and a kiss and went to see about the three musketeers. Donald followed suit.

The twins and Chris were all sitting up in their beds talking when we arrived at their room.

"In the morning, don't forget to take those papers saying you guys had your physicals," I told them.

"We won't," Larry said.

"Have you guys ever heard of the Blue Man Group?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah!" Chris said excitedly. "They're really neat. They're all blue. It looks like they have a blue mask on that covers their whole head and they play drums and all kinds of things."

"How do you know about them?" I asked.

"I saw a YouTube video of them," Chris said. "One of my friends at school told me about them and where to look on the computer. You want to see?"

"Not right now," I said. "Donald said they were going to come to town in a month or so and I was wondering if you would like to go."

"Yes!" was the emphatic answer from all three of them.

"So you two have seen the video as well?" I asked the twins.

"Sure, we watched it with Chris," Lenny answered, as if that were a dumb question.

"How about your brothers? Do you think they'd like to go?" Donald asked.

The three looked at each other for a moment, almost as if they were communicating mentally, and then Larry said, "That's kinda hard to answer. TJ might, but Peter and William probably wouldn't like it."

"Goodnight, guys," I said, giving them each a hug.

"Well, I'll see about reserving tickets," Donald said. "What do you think about TJ?"

"I think I'll check out that video Chris mentioned and then decide. I guess a lot would depend on what we can find for the others to do at the same time. Want to watch the video with me?"

"Sure, why not?"

After watching the video, I was almost convinced that TJ would not enjoy it, but I thought I'd let him watch the video and then we would decide, although I would have the final vote.

Monday morning as the kids were getting ready for school, I realized that Manfred and I had not decided whether he would bring his three here or I would stop by their house and pick them up. I was about to phone him when the back door opened and he arrived with Luke and the girls. I guess that answered my question.

"Bye, daddy," Lenore said, reaching up for Donald to pick her up.

"You have a good day at school and learn lots," he said, giving her a kiss and carrying her to the van.

Needless to say it was a noisy trip to school. I was almost relieved when I dropped them off, but I was pleased that they were excited about school.

After parking the van in the garage, I walked into the house. Hildy and Manfred were sitting at the breakfast table with Gilda drinking coffee. I poured myself a cup and sat down with them.

"Good morning, Hildy," I said. "Did you get a chance to talk to Christina Schwartz yesterday at church?"

"Yes, I did," she answered. "She asked a lot of questions. I think she's interested. According to her, it would fit in with her class schedule and your need for her to look after the kids."

"How can I get in touch with her?"

"I asked her to call after her classes are over today. She will try to call around two when she gets home from San Marcos. I think you will like her."

"If she's not busy, what do you think about asking her to have supper with us this evening?" I asked. "That way she would have an idea of the commute she would face."

"Good idea," Hildy said, and I could see Gilda nodding her approval.

"Great," I said. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have some phone calls to make."

I was on my way to my office when the phone rang. I answered it and was surprised when the caller identified himself as Julian Kraft, the general manager of the investment group which owned the apartment complex we had inspected earlier.

"Mr. Kraft," I said, "has your investment group come to a decision on my offer?"

"Yes, we have and were wondering if there was some wiggle-room in your offer."

"I'm sorry, but the answer to that is no."

"That's what I told the others, but they still wanted for me to ask," Julian said. "I'm sorry, too. In that case, they have instructed me to decline your offer."

"Should your group change their minds, the offer is still on the table, but I must advise you that I reserve the right to withdraw the offer or reduce it at any time."

"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," Julian said. "I, for one, was in favor of accepting your offer. I will let you know if there is any change. Goodbye."

"Goodbye," I said and hung up.

I had planned on calling our PI about making contact with the Captain Melvin Wilson that Carolyn's brother had let her know about, but decided to try my luck at making contact. I found the phone number for the Fort Bragg information office and dialed the number. I spent the next twenty minutes being shunted from one person to another until I finally was able to talk to someone, a Major Kantor, who was willing to acknowledge that a Captain Wilson was stationed there. That was only after I told her it was important in the matter of the adoption of his nephew. She promised that a message would be relayed to Captain Wilson, along with my telephone number, should he wish to contact me.

I placed a call to Paul Coulter at the ASEC office. "Good morning, Paul," I said after identifying myself.

"I'm glad you called," Paul said. "Darcie and I have been talking about this new charter we have taken on of providing prostheses for wounded veterans."

"Funny you should mention that," I said. "That is exactly what I was meaning to talk to you about."

"That's good, because this is turning out to be a bigger job than I had anticipated it to be. When it was just for youngsters in foster care, we only had a few requests," he said.

"What are we looking at now?" I asked.

"I've got on my desk twenty-three requests for help."

"WOW! Why are there so many and why isn't the military or Veterans Administration doing something about it?"

"I've asked the same questions," Paul said. "The military sees that the patients are healed and then, from what I've gathered, they are turned over to the VA. And that is where the process appears to break down. It can take months for an amputee to even get an appointment with the VA for an evaluation. Then it can be more months to begin the fitting process. One of the files I have tells of a soldier who has waited at least 18 months and still hasn't received a prosthesis."

"That is unconscionable," I emphatically stated. "I hope you have moved that soldier to the top of the list."

"I have," he said. "This is becoming a full time job taking care of veteran amputees. I don't have any time to work with the kids I took on this job for. I would really like to get back to helping them."

"Do you have any suggestions?"

"I've thought of a couple things. One is to set up a separate charity to provide the service," he said. "A second one is to keep it in house and assign or hire someone to be solely responsible for it."

"If we keep it in house, is there someone in the office who you think would like the job?"

"No, I've asked the others in the office and they would prefer to work with our kids in foster care."

"Do you have someone else in mind?"

"Yes, I do. One of the first vets that I worked with to get his prosthesis," Paul said. "I get to know these veterans during the process of getting a new leg or arm. He was very interested in what we had to do so that he could get his new leg. He even asked if he could help."

"Okay, here's what I want you to do. Go talk to Darcie and explain it to her the way you have to me. Tell her it's her decision as to which suggestion makes sense. She has full authority to hire this person, it that's what she thinks is best. If she chooses the separate charity, then Donald and I will have to get involved with setting it up and funding it."

"Thanks, Crane," Paul said. "I really feel for these vets, but I'd much rather help children."

"Good, have Darcie call me if she has any questions."

I looked at my watch and saw that it was time for lunch, so I headed out to the kitchen.

"I wondered if you were going to stop for lunch," Gilda said.

"I was beginning to feel a little peckish."

"I haven't heard anyone say peckish since my late husband's father died. He was from, as he used to say, the old country. Where did you pick it up?"

"We spent a lot of time with ex-pats when my dad worked overseas," I said. "I guess that's where I picked it up. I don't know why I used it today."

After lunch, I went back to my office and studied some stocks that I was thinking of buying and dumping some others. I was still at it when Christina Schwartz called shortly after two.

"Thank you for calling," I said. "I understand from Hildy that you might be interested in the job I have in mind."

"Yes, sir," she said. "I would like to find out more about it, if you have the time."

"To be honest, I have to leave shortly to go pick up the kids from school," I told her. "If you're available, we would like for you to come and eat supper with us tonight. That way you would get a good idea of what we need you for. Do you think you could make it tonight?"

"Yes," she said. "If you'll give me the directions on how to get there and what time I should arrive."

"Great," I said. "Why don't you try to be here around five? That will give us time to talk and for you to meet the kids." I went on to give her directions to the house. "We'll see you around five, then."

As everybody was loading into the van at the school, Chris said, "Dad, we have to stay late tomorrow after school."

"Are you guys in trouble?" I asked.

"No," he said indignantly. "We're starting cross country and we have to have a meeting and then do some short runs."

"Yeah," Lenny added. "We have to bring our running stuff."

"How long are you going to be? What time do I need to pick you up?"

"The coach said he would let us go at five," Larry said.

"Okay." I'm not looking forward to three round trips to school a day when they have practice, but I guess I should get used to it, at least until I fill in for Donald's departing VP.

"Crane," Gilda said, as I walked in the back door. "Christina called. She apologized saying she can't make it tonight. One of her step-brothers got hurt and her mother had to go to the hospital with him and her step-father is working the night-shift. She had to babysit. She said she would be able to come tomorrow night, if that was all right."

"Of course," I said. "I'll call her and let her know. Thanks." I made the call to let her know we would expect her tomorrow night.

"Luke, get your stuff together," Manfred said. "We need to get home or Hildy will think we ran off somewhere. Now where did the girls go? They were here a minute ago."

"I think they went up to Lenore's room," Gilda said.

"Manfred, if it would be better, I could drop them off at your place before bringing our bunch on home," I said.

"No, this is just fine," he said. "Why change things when we switch turns driving them to school."

"Yeah, it's going to be up to you to do the driving when I start filling in for Donald's VP," I said.

"Do you guys have any homework to do?" I asked after supper. They all acknowledged that they did have, so I sent them to their rooms to do it.

Later after the homework had been checked and the boys and Lenore had been tucked in for the night, Donald and I were enjoying a glass of wine with Gilda. The phone rang and I reached over to pick it up since I was the closest to it.

"Hello," I said.

"Is this the residence of Crane Johnson?" the caller asked.

"Yes, it is," I said. "May I ask who is calling?"

"I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself first thing. My name is Mel Wilson."

"Captain Wilson, it's good of you to return my call. I must say it was not easy getting through to anyone who was willing to even acknowledge there was such a person as Captain Wilson.

"Yes," he laughed. "The Army can be difficult to get through all the bureaucracy, sometimes impossible. The message I received was something about a nephew and adoption. Did I get the right message?"

"Yes, I'm looking for a Mel Wilson who had a sister named Karen Fredrick," I said. "I'm hoping that I have the right Mel Wilson.

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