The thought of breakfast had a remarkably brightening effect on the boys as they rushed into the house to wash their hands. Hildy again had outdone herself preparing breakfast. She had fruit, scrambled eggs, sausage, home fried potatoes, cinnamon sweet rolls with caramel topping, milk and of course orange juice. I don't know how she had time to prepare all of it but the boys didn't care. They just enjoyed it.
When they finished and had taken their plates to the sink, Joel went to Hildy and wrapped his arms around her waist and said, "Thanks, Hildy, we love you. I'm glad that you're here. You're like a grandma to us. Merry Christmas!"
"Thank you, Joel. I would be proud to have all five of you as my grandsons. Now scoot! Get dressed, your dad wants to take you bike riding," she said wiping her eyes with the tail of her new apron.
It had never dawned on me that the boys had never ridden a bike before. Chris, it turned out, was the only one who knew how to ride. The only reason that he did was one of the kids in his old neighborhood let him learn to ride on his bike. He never had a bike of his own. TJ would be no problem since his bike was equipped with training wheels, the other boys would have to be taught the basics.
TJ got on his bike and started riding around the patio before I could get a helmet on him. I did snag him on his first time around and got the helmet adjusted to his head.
"There is something I want to tell all of you and it is very important. I want you to wear your helmets anytime that you ride your bikes. This is a hard and fast rule. If you don't wear it there will be no riding your bike for a week. Is everybody clear on that?" I asked and getting nods of affirmation I continued.
"Joel and Chris I want you to help me with Larry and Lenny. I want you to get on either side of Larry and hold him up while he learns to balance on his bike while I do the same with Lenny. Watch what I do and then try it with Larry."
For the next forty-five minutes, we worked with Larry and Lenny in an attempt to get them comfortable balancing on the bikes as we slowly pushed them around the patio. I was really surprised that they were able to get the hang of it as quickly as they did. It seemed as soon as one of them learned something the other one knew how to do it immediately after.
I took a break before I started working with Joel. Being the big brother he had not complained that the others were getting to learn how to ride while all he got to do was help steady them as they learned. When I did start working with him he knew all the right things to do to make his learning process go quickly. In less than a half-hour he was riding his bike on his own, He was still a little unsteady but had made remarkable progress. All of the boys were now able to ride on their own, but were not ready to get out on the road.
After lunch, I took the boys around to the front of the house and we rode down the lane to the gate and back so that they could gain confidence in their abilities. Before the afternoon was over (taking time out for a snack) they were all able to control their bikes fairly well. TJ was a regular speed demon with his training wheels. He had no fear of falling over and after a while, he didn't realize that he was riding without the training wheels touching the ground.
By supper time the boys were thoroughly worn out and were ready to put the bikes away. I showed them where they could put them in the third garage bay. I told them that I expected the bikes to be put away after they finished riding them each day.
While we were riding bikes, Hildy had fixed one of her fabulous meals. Tonight it centered on a baked ham and all of the trimmings. Pumpkin pie and whipped cream ended our Christmas feast.
Hildy rushed to clear what was left of the food from the table as the boys cleared the dishes. She told us that she had to get to her church to take part in the caroling that they were going to do in Old Square in New Braunfels. It seems that the city closes down the square to traffic and a couple of churches and two choral groups put on a concert there starting at eight o'clock and her church was to perform first. The boys were all excited and asked if we could go and watch Hildy sing. How could I refuse?
We bundled up because it was forecast to get down into the thirties. It took us a while to find a parking place close to where the concert was to be, but we finally found one about four blocks from the square.
"Okay, guys, listen up. Remember where the van is parked. This street is South Academy and the street up there at the corner is San Antonio Street. If for any reason that you get separated from the rest of your brothers you are to find your way back here. That is only in case of emergency. I want all of you to stay close to each other so that you won't get lost. Now pay attention to the way we go to see Hildy sing," I told them.
As we walked down San Antonio Street toward the square, TJ was so excited that I could hardly control him. The street was all decked out with Christmas decorations which I had not thought to bring the boys to see. This being a father thing is going to take a lot more thought than I realized. I certainly have a lot to learn. We arrived early enough that we got a relatively good spot to watch the concert.
The boys loved the music and sang along to the carols that they knew. They were awestruck when Hildy sang a solo part to "Oh Holy Night," I was just as surprised that Hildy had such a pure voice. It seemed strange that such a beautiful sound was coming from this large woman that I had known for some nine years. I had never heard her so much as hum a tune around the house.
The concert lasted until nearly ten o'clock and by that time I had a bunch of sleepy boys on my hands. TJ could hardly keep his eyes open. I ended up carrying him the last couple of blocks to the van. Joel took over when we got to the van and saw to it that TJ was securely buckled in his seat before we took off for home. We hadn't gotten very far before I noticed in the rearview mirror that TJ was sound asleep. It had been a long and exciting day for all of us.
I decided not to go into the office on Monday. Most of the staff were off on holiday so nothing much would be happening anyway. Besides I wanted to enjoy the boys' company and watch them play with the new stash of toys that were still covering the family room floor. We also needed to deliver the presents that they each had picked out for a friend.
A still sleepy TJ wandered into the kitchen while I was having my second cup of coffee. When he saw Hildy fixing breakfast for them he ran up and threw his arms around her. "Hildy, you were wonderful," he said looking up at her.
"Thank you, little one," she said giving him a squeeze. "Now go get your hands and face washed and by that time breakfast will be ready. And get your brothers up while you're at it."
At around ten I received a call from the private detective agency I had hired to look into Fullwell's background.
"Mr. Johnson, this is Collin Cupp with Independent Investigators. I have the preliminary report on Gerald Fullwell that you asked for. We still have a couple of leads to run down but for the most part our investigation is essentially complete. Would you like me to fax it to you now or first give you a summary over the phone," he asked.
"Give me the summary and then fax what you have so far to me."
"Very well, this is what we have so far. He left high school suddenly and without notice in the middle of his junior year. No one could give a definitive reason for it but it was rumored that he was found with a seven-year-old boy in what was known at the time as a 'compromising position'.
"He next shows up as a seminary student studying to be a Catholic priest. Again he left before finishing his training without explanation. The seminary would not provide any information about the reasons for his leaving but a fellow seminarian suggested that Fullwell was not living up to the order's precepts of 'piety, purity and prayer'. This time it seems that the object of his ardor was a twelve-year-old girl.
"Then there is a two-year gap that we can find no record of him although one of the leads we are following suggests that he spent that time in Canada. We should have some information on that in the next week.
"He suddenly appears as a preacher in a small-town Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma. He leaves just as suddenly less than two years later under a cloud of suspicion that he diverted the funds for the overseas outreach effort into his own pockets. The congregation became suspicious when his lifestyle far outstripped the meager salary that he was receiving from the church. There was also some indication that he was far too friendly toward some members of the Cub Scout troop that he was Scout Master of.
"We have never been able to determine where or if he received any theological training other than the brief stint in the Catholic seminary. The credentials that he used to obtain the pastor's job in Oklahoma are bogus. The schools and references that he used to get the job do not check out. In fact, the references do not exist and the school he claims to have attended has never heard of him. The church just accepted his credentials without actually checking them for accuracy. I guess that this is common in small congregations who don't have the resources to do a thorough background check.
"Although he has never been convicted of any offense, other than a couple of traffic violations, he has been detained by police on various morals charges. One was in Pryor, Oklahoma where he was picked up in a public restroom and charged with indecent exposure. It seems that he exposed himself to two eight-year-old boys. The Justice of the Peace dismissed the charge on the condition that Fullwell leave town and never return according to a police officer involved in the arrest. A second arrest occurred in Little Rock where he was accused of masturbating in front of an eleven-year-old girl. This charge was also dropped because the girl's parents would not allow her to be put through the ordeal of testifying. One of the police officers was reported to have threatened Fullwell if he ever came back to Little Rock.
"He next shows up in Topeka, Kansas parading with the homophobic Fred Phelps and his band of idiots. I guess this is where he got his ideas for hating gays even though he has at times displayed homosexual tendencies. He stayed with this group of lunatics for about eight months before coming to Comal County and his present job with Shepherd of the Lake Baptist Church. Again the church accepted his resume as genuine without checking it out.
"Looking at his lifestyle with the fancy new car and expensive clothes, it is not realistic that these are being paid for out of his salary of around $12,000. It would take an audit of the church's finances to determine whether there is any hanky panky going on. I would not be surprised to find that he has been dipping into the kitty," Collin finished.
"Wow, this guy has been around," I said. "It doesn't sound like he has stuck around anyplace very long. I guess it is hard to hit a moving target."
"Do you want me to fax the preliminary report to you or do you want to wait for the final one?" he asked. "It is about thirty pages long."
"Yes, fax it to me now if you can. I want to see the whole report. I would like to share some of this information with some of his churchgoers."
The report turned out to be 29 pages and much more graphic than what Collin described over the phone concerning the various sexual escapades of Fullwell. It did make interesting reading and guaranteed that should I want to get rid of the man I would not have any trouble.
After lunch, I asked the boys if they wanted to deliver to their friends the presents they had purchased. Of course, they were excited and quickly put on their coats and grabbed the presents and were waiting for me when I came out of my bedroom.
I decided that we would stop at Joel's friend John first. It was the farthest away from our house but I wanted to visit with Bruce and Pauline about Fullwell.
Driving into the Gordinier's driveway I saw that the entire family was in the front yard. Bruce and John were playing with a Frisbee while Pauline and the girls were starting to remove some of the Christmas decorations. As we approached the house, John recognized the van and came running to meet us.
Joel grabbed his present and was out of the van's door before anyone else had time to remove their seatbelts. He ran up to John and presented him with the gift. I don't think I had seen a happier look on Joel's face since I met him. John was a little startled and didn't quite know what to say. He just stood there looking a Joel with a smile on his face.
Joel was the first to speak. "Dad said we could give a present to a friend so I got one for you."
"Thanks, but I didn't get you anything," John said with the smile draining from his face.
"That's okay, I got more presents than I have ever had in my entire life," Joel bubbled.
The boys wandered off to be by themselves while the rest of us disembarked and paid our respects to Bruce and Pauline.
"I'm sorry that we didn't call before coming but I didn't want you to feel obligated to get a present for Joel. He wanted to give a friend a present because he had never been able to before," I told them.
"Thank you, Crane. I know that John appreciates it," Bruce said. "You haven't met our daughters, have you? Come here girls, I want you to meet Mr. Johnson. Crane, these are our girls. This is Rachel our oldest, she is 10. Then Linda is our middle one, she is 8. And the baby of the family Cassie has just turned 7."
"It is very nice to meet you, young ladies," I said to them. "These are my boys. Closest to me is TJ, then Lenny, Chris and finally Larry. Oh and that is Joel over there with your brother."
Larry and Lenny looked like they had swallowed their tongues when I introduced then to the girls. I had never seen them as quiet as they were. TJ and Chris walked over to the Frisbee which was lying on the ground, picked it up and started tossing it. Rachel went over and joined them in their play.
I noticed that Linda and Cassie were very attractive girls and I think that the twins did too. I don't think that they had ever looked on girls as anything but pests to be avoided.
"You want to see the Christmas presents we got," Linda asked to the twins.
Two heads nodded in unison, then looked up at me with a bewildered look on their faces. I shook my head in approval trying very hard to keep the grin I was feeling inside off my face. "You go ahead I want to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Gordinier."
Off the four of them went. The boys looked like lambs being led off to slaughter. When they were far enough away I had to let out the snicker that I had been so desperately suppressing. The Gordiniers joined in my mirth.
"I did want to talk to you. That is the other reason that we came by today. I got the preliminary report from the detective agency I hired to look into Fullwell's background and I think that you will find it very interesting. I have made a copy of it for you to read. It is nearly 30 pages long and reveals the rather sleazy past of the 'Reverend Fullwell'. What may be of more interest to you is the suspicion that he quite possibly is pilfering the church's funds. According to what they were able to discover, there is no way he could support his lifestyle on the salary that your parish pays him and there is no other source of income that they have been able to discover."
Bruce took the stack of papers that I handed him and said, "Several members of the church beside Pauline and I have also been wondering how he can drive a fancy new car and dress in expensively tailored clothes. We have been discussing the possibility of having an audit done of the church's books."
"If I were you, I would do it quickly and without Fullwell knowing. He has been known to skip town not to be seen again," I said.
We chatted a few more minutes before TJ walked over to me and pulled on my sleeve. When I bent down to him he whispered in my ear, "Can we go to Joey's now?"
I gave him a hug and said, "Sure, go get Joel and the twins and we'll go see Joey."
The twins came out of the house having a very animated conversation with their two new friends. TJ was holding on to Joel's hand and pulling him toward the van.
Our next stop was at Craig's house. He and his family were not at home so we went on to Billy's apartment. Our stop there was brief. Billy it seemed had come down with the flu. I certainly did not want that to get started in our house. Then on to Joey's place. TJ was about to jerk the seatbelts out of their anchors by the time we got there. He was so excited about being able to give someone a present for the very first time that he could barely contain himself.
Joey was riding what appeared to be a new bicycle on their front drive as we drove up. Harold was sitting on the front steps watching with pride as his son raced around the circle drive. Joey looked up at the van, not recognizing who these strange people were until TJ jumped out the sliding side door. Then he rode his bike a quickly as he could to greet TJ. As the boys greeted each other, I went to visit with Harold.
"TJ wanted to give Joey a present," I explained the reason for our visit to Harold. "He has never had the chance to do anything like this before. He was so excited."
"That is so nice of him. I'm sure that Joey appreciates the thought. He had the same thought and has a small gift for TJ also," Harold said smiling toward the boys.
"Oh, by the way, we should be able to start the construction on your upstairs right after the New Year. It will be on either Monday or Tuesday. I'll let you know. The only thing that could hold us up is if the materials don't arrive on time. In order to minimize the mess, we will complete as much of the upstairs as possible before we break into the first floor to build the staircase. I'm having it custom made in a shop in Wisconsin so it is going to take some time before it will be ready. If things go as planned that should be sometime in the middle of March."
"That sounds great. I just wish it could be done quicker, but I understand that things take time. Even in my business, doubling the number of people on a project does not translate into getting it done in half the time. Most of my clients do not understand that. They just want it done yesterday," I said laughing.
About twenty minutes later I gathered the boys into the van and we started toward our last stop after saying our goodbyes.
Darcie was at Eric's when we got there. I had not planned to stay long because it was getting on in the afternoon. Chris gave the gift to JR and then all the boys started playing with the mountain of toys that JR had gotten for his Christmas. Darcie, Eric and I sat drinking coffee while the boys enjoyed themselves. It was amazing the way all six of the boys interacted as if they were one big family. If only they could be I mused to myself.
Soon it was time for us to be getting back home. We bade them farewell and loaded into the van for the last leg of our journey, the home stretch. We were just about to turn into our drive when Joel hollered, "Dad, stop!"
"What's the matter, son?" I asked as I slammed on the brakes bringing the van to and abrupt halt.
"There's a dog in the ditch. He looks like he's been hit by a car. We gotta help him!"
Before I could get the van turned off, Joel was out the door and running back to where he had seen the dog.
"Be careful, Joel! He might bite you if he's been hurt. Watch yourself!"
Joel slowed down and slowly approached the dog who was whimpering almost as if it was crying. Joel knelt down close to the dog and slowly held out his hand and started to caress the head. I walked up slowly behind Joel and saw the dog clearly for the first time. He had definitely been struck by something. His hind leg was twisted at an unnatural angle. He was also very undernourished. You could see his ribs through the short scruffy fur on his sides. When I tried to pet him he growled at me but only whimpered softly when Joel did the same.
"We gotta help him, dad," Joel said looking at me with tears running down his cheeks, "He's hurt bad. We gotta!"
"Okay, you stay here with him and I'll go get the box Hildy's TV came in and some blankets to make him a comfortable bed and then we'll take him to the emergency vet clinic. Keep an eye out for cars and I'll be back as soon as I can."
I ran back to the van and drove the other boys back to the house. I explained what we were going to do to Hildy and the boys before I grabbed the blankets and box. The box looked like it was too big so I also picked up a box cutter from my toolbox in the garage. I didn't want to leave Joel by himself down there by the road too long so I didn't take time to cut down the box.
Joel was still sitting with the injured dog when I returned. The dog's whimpering was much less frequent and barely audible now. Joel's ministrations seemed to have lessened the dog's fear if not the hurt that he had suffered. I now took the time to cut the box down to a convenient size to put the dog in. After I had arranged the blankets in the bottom of the box I reached toward the dog to pick him up. He snapped at me and wouldn't let me touch him yet he still allowed Joel to pet him. It was as if there was a bond between two beings who had suffered abuse from their 'masters'.
"Try to slip your hands under his body and then lift him into the box, son. Be careful, it may cause him some pain and he might try to bite you. Do it very slowly and see how he reacts. If he does I might have to put a blanket over his head and then try to lift him up."
Joel whispered encouraging words to the dog as he started to slip one hand under his upper body and when there was no reaction slipped the other hand under the dog's injured hindquarter. The dog's whimpering became much louder but he allowed Joel to pick him up and place him in the box.
"Good boy, good boy," Joel kept repeating to him. "You're going to be okay. I'm gonna take care of you."
I helped Joel put the box in the back seat of the BMW I decided to take instead of the van we had been using earlier. Joel climbed in beside the box and buckled his seat belt.
The nearest emergency animal clinic was in San Antonio so it was going to take us at least a half an hour to get there. The only reason that I even knew there were such things as and ER for animals was we did a project for a large banking company on the north side of the city and there was one just down the street from where we did the work.
Thank goodness the place was not crowded when we got there. Joel insisted that he carry the box into the clinic. The vet was able to see us just ten minutes after we arrived. He took one look at the dog and shook his head. I'm sure that the obviously broken hind leg, malnourished body and the scruffy look of his coat did not look good to the vet.
After examining the dog for a couple of minutes he said, "Son, the dog is probably not going to live. I think it would be best if we put him to sleep to put him out of his pain."
"What does that mean?" Joel asked.
"It means that we give him a shot and he won't wake up. All his pain will be gone," the vet answered.
"No, dad! Please, you can't let them kill him. Please?" he begged.
I looked at the vet, "Is there any way that you can save him?"
"There is probably less than a 50% chance that he would survive what we need to do to fix his leg. He will need surgery to set the bone in his leg. It appears to be broken in at least two places. It is going to be an expensive proposition and he is not a valuable animal."
"I don't care what the costs will be if there is anything that you need to do, do it. It is important for my son. Please do what you have to do to save 'our' dog."
"Very well, it should take about an hour to fix his leg and he will be out for probably another half hour. You can wait in the lobby if you like."
"Thanks, dad, we can't let him die. He needs someone to take care of him. Can we keep him? Please?" Joel asked.
"Let's let the doctor do his work and then we will see what happens, okay?" I responded.
Joel sat on the couch in the lobby leaning up against me, seeming to need to be in contact with me. He didn't say anything but I did notice a few tears run down his cheeks every so often. It was the longest fifty minutes before the vet emerged from the surgery.
"Mr. Johnson, Joel, the dog came through the surgery as well as could be expected. The leg should be fine if he survives his other injuries. He has been badly beaten and may have internal injuries. We will just have to wait and see. He is too weak for any more surgery. The x-rays that we took do show that two of his ribs are cracked. We have diagnosed a case of heartworms in him but giving him medicine to eliminate the infestation would probably kill him in his current condition. We will have to wait until he has gained weight before we start treatment. The mange on his skin we can treat now and we have already started that."
"You mean that he wasn't hit by a car?" I asked.
"No, the injuries he sustained are consistent with being beaten by some type of rod, possibly a stick or bat. Something like that."
"Can I go see him, please?" Joel asked in a small voice.
"He is still sleeping from the anesthetic, son," the doctor said. Seeing the need in Joel's eyes the doctor relented, "Just for a few minutes. He needs his rest to recover."
We followed the doctor back to a kennel area where the dog was. He was in a wire cage with an IV suspended from the top with the tube running to his front paw. As the cage was opened, the doctor said, "You can pet him if you want but don't disturb the IV. He will need to remain here over night at the least. Depending on his condition tomorrow he may be able to go home if you think you can care for him."
"I'll take care of him. I'll take care of him real good," Joel said. "Can't I dad?"
"Yes, Joel, I think you could," I said getting a smile from Joel.