For the next couple of weeks our lives were very quiet. I went to the charity three days a week and picked up the three musketeers after their cross country practice on my way home. They had one last meet the week after Thanksgiving. That would save a second trip to pick them up from school. The boys were all looking forward to Joel coming home for Thanksgiving and kept asking when that was. The day before Thanksgiving, the Schlathers decided to sell their ranch and they accepted the offer that I had made through Carlos. The property would close the week between Christmas and New Year, after the survey was completed and clear title to the land was established.
The farm boys were ecstatic when I set up a tele-conference with them to relate the news. They were already making plans as to how they thought the land should be used. They had also come up with a list of equipment that would be needed to do what they wanted to do and another individual that would be needed to handle the added workload. I asked that they fax or email me the list of equipment. Ian said he might know someone who would be willing to help out. It was actually a man and wife. Ian assumed that the house on the Schlather land would be available for them to use. I asked him to get in touch with them and have them come out some Sunday while we were there riding and we could meet. I asked if he knew the condition of the house and if it needed any upgrading. He assured me he would get with Collin to find out. I hung up on a very happy group of farmers.
That day was the most exciting that we experienced with the land purchase and Joel arriving home. It was nearly seven when a beep sounded indicating that the gate had been opened. The boys were out through the back door to the garage almost before the beep had quit. When I got to the garage where Joel had parked his car, the boys were all over him and all talking at once. He gave them all a hug and started to reach into the back of the car to get the clothes he had brought home to last for four days. The twins beat him to it and had the bags dragged out of the back seat.
I waited until the commotion died down before I approached the swarm of boys.
"Hi, dad," Joel said, reaching out to give me a long hug, which I returned.
"Welcome home, son. As you can tell, we missed you.
"I did, too," he said, releasing his hug. "It's good to be home, even if it's only four days."
"Let's get you settled because Gilda has been holding supper until you got here. I thought those six were going to start gnawing on the woodwork."
"Come on, guys," Joel said to his brothers. "Let's dump this stuff in my bedroom and get washed up for supper."
That was met with enthusiastic approval from the six of them. The thought of food was always a great motivator for them.
Gilda greeted Joel with a hug and said, "You're getting as skinny as a rail. You need some good home cooking."
"I miss your good cooking when I go back to school, but I have to diet for a couple weeks to get rid of the weight I put on from eating it."
Gilda laughed, "Go sit down at the table. These three," pointing at the three musketeers, "can help me bring in the food."
"You better hope it makes it to the table," I said. "They may just eat it on the way."
"Welcome home, Joel," Donald said, giving him a hug. "How's school?"
"Great," Joel answered, sitting down at the table. "I really like my classes and I'm getting used to finding my way around campus."
At that moment the food arrived and talking ceased for a while as everybody filled their plates and began eating. As usual, Gilda had pulled out all the stops fixing Joel's favorite foods. The other boys and Lenore didn't seem to mind as they made the food on their plates disappear in record time. Second helpings made their way onto their plates and disappeared just as fast.
"What's for dessert?" TJ asked, looking up from his now empty plate.
Gilda just laughed as Donald and I shook our heads. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned shortly with a platter of chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting. It was a good thing there were enough for the boys to each have two cupcakes. Donald and I passed. Cary and Kelly did not.
"I see you're not using your wheelchair," Joel said to Kelly.
"No, I've been using a cane most of the time. I still resort to the chair if I start getting tired, but I try not to use it too much," Kelly answered. "I want to be strong enough to go back to school for the second semester. That's fast approaching. Only a couple months away."
"Don't I know it," Joel said. "Semester finals will be here before I'm ready."
"I hope you'll be ready," I said.
"Don't worry, dad, it was just a figure of speech. I'll be ready for anything the professors throw at me."
"Good," I said. "I expect that you and Jimmy will cut down on your social activities as finals approach."
"Yeah, Jimmy wants to be prepared for his as well," Joel said. "We'll probably limit it to phone calls and maybe one evening on the weekend."
"Anybody for coffee?" Gilda asked. She had joined us after making sure her kitchen was spotless.
Donald and I said we would, and I went to help bring in a tray with cups and saucers while she brought the coffee.
After we had settled down with our coffee, Joel asked, "Could we have our Thanksgiving tomorrow evening instead of at noon?"
"Why do you ask?" I said.
"Well, I kinda promised Jimmy that I would go with him to the homeless shelter and volunteer to serve dinner to the people in the shelter and any of the homeless that come in off the streets for a free meal."
"What a great idea," I said. "Do they need more volunteers?"
"I'm sure they do," Joel answered. "I'll call Jimmy and find out. It's his church that's providing part of the help."
"We could help, too," Chris said.
Joel went to call Jimmy. When he returned, he said, "They always need help. He said all the volunteers had to be fourteen years old, or older."
"We're fourteen," Larry announced, "so we can help."
"Guys, it probably won't be a glamorous job," I said. "You will probably be clearing tables and picking up trash."
"We don't care," Lenny said. "I'd rather do that than stand in one place all the time dishing up food."
"You've got a point," I said. "What time do we need to be there?"
"They want the volunteers to be there at 10:30," Joel answered. "Do you know where it is?"
"Yes, I helped out several years ago before you guys came along."
"Well since you young ones can't go," Donald said, "I guess we will have to find something for us to do. That goes for you as well, Kelly. Cary, it's up to you whether you want to help out at the homeless shelter or help out with these four." He pointed at the three youngest boys and to Lenore on his lap.
"I think I'll help out here," Cary said.
"I'm going to pick up Jimmy at ten and I'll meet you at the shelter, is that okay?"
"That sounds like a plan," I said.
Thanksgiving morning, Gilda fixed a big breakfast for us before we left. Joel left about twenty minutes before we did since he had to pick up Jimmy. I'm not sure that was entirely necessary, because his parents were also volunteers. The three musketeers were all excited about helping out. I was very proud of them.
It was after two in the afternoon when all the people had been served and the long tables cleared. The cleanup crew was busy washing the pots and pans. We were thanked for our volunteering and told we could leave. Joel and Jimmy were part of the cleanup crew, so they still had some work to do. I told them goodbye and herded the three volunteers to the car.
"I'm tired," Larry said, as they settled into the back seat.
"Me, too," Chris echoed.
"Yeah, but it was kinda fun," Lenny added.
"Some of the people didn't smell too good," Chris said. "It smelled like they hadn't taken a shower in a long time."
"How can people live like that?" Lenny asked.
"There are a number of reasons for that, son. One is they could be mentally ill. They could have lost their home because of losing their job or some other reason. Being unemployed for a long time, a person could lose everything they own. Some of them, for whatever reason, will not accept the help of charities or government. There are probably a lot more reasons. Each one would have their individual story to tell."
"I wouldn't want to live like that," Larry said.
"Thankfully, you never will have to," I said.
"Some of the people went through the food line a couple of times," Larry said. "They must really have been hungry."
"It's probably the most food they have had in a long time," I said. "Some even have to search through garbage outside of restaurants to find something to eat."
"That's terrible," Chris exclaimed.
"I never realized when we took cans of food to school for the food drive that it was for people like we saw. Now, I wish we had given more," Lenny said.
"We are all very fortunate," I said. "You will never have to go to bed hungry like many of those people do."
It was quiet all the rest of the way home.
"How did it go?" Donald asked.
"Tiring," I said, sitting down beside him on the couch. "But, I think the boys learned a valuable lesson. I doubt that they had ever come across any homeless people before. I don't think they will forget the experience. How did your day go?"
"The boys spent a lot of time in the music room with Kelly. He played the drums in their quartet. They're not ready to go on tour, yet, but they had fun. After a while when they got bored, I read a story to them and Lenore. TJ said that you used to do that a lot."
"That's true. That was before Peter joined our family," I said. "I'm not sure why I stopped doing that, probably because they got involve in a lot of other activities."
Gilda came into the room and asked me, "Did they eat a lot while they volunteered?"
"No, after the big breakfast you fixed for us, I only let them have a piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream and a small piece of turkey. I'm sure they would be ready to eat at any time. That snack did not fill their bottomless pits."
"I'll have everything ready to serve as soon as Joel returns," she said, turned and headed back to her kitchen.
It was about an hour later when Joel arrived. Just in time to save the three musketeers from starvation.
While we were eating, I asked Joel, "Did you offer to give that young man who lives down the road a ride home?"
"Yeah, I forgot to tell you. I offered, but he was going to his girlfriend's house for Thanksgiving. I guess her parents were picking them up. He said something about her living in Kingwood."
"Good, I hope you made it a standing offer, anytime you plan to come home."
"I did," he said, taking another bite of ham."
"Did Jeremy come back to San Antonio for the holiday?" I asked.
"Yeah, he and Beth Ann came. Her family was going on a cruise to the Bahamas so she didn't have any place to go," Joel said. "I think they are going back to Houston tomorrow. I don't know if it is going to happen, but I think Beth Ann will move in with Jeremy. Would you mind?"
"No, they are two adults," I said. "Would it bother you?"
"Heck no, she's a good cook," he said. "We eat well when she's there."
I guess that settled that.
Friday, Joel and the boys were outside most of the day. Joel's dog Sam was all over him, jumping up and down and going in circles. I couldn't tell who was the happiest, Sam or Joel. The wind was too cool for them to go swimming, but they did play tennis. Joel and Chris played doubles against Larry and Lenny. It didn't seem to matter who won. It was good to have everybody at home.
"Can we go riding tomorrow instead of Sunday?" Joel asked. "I need to get back early on Sunday. Our study group is meeting in the afternoon."
"That's no problem," I said. "I'll call Rosie and tell her of our change in routine. And, our farmers will probably want to meet with me. I know the boys won't care about changing days. They'd go riding every day if they could."
I made the call and told Rosie of our plans. She asked me to hold and Ian came on the line. "I talked to my friends about helping out around here and they were all excited. I'll see if they can come by tomorrow while you're here instead of on Sunday," Ian said.
"That'll be fine. What are their names?" I asked.
"Barbara and Jim Fowler," he answered. "She's a substitute math teacher for the high schools in the county. Jim has been working as a farm machinery salesman, but is a farmer at heart. I've known them both for probably ten years."
"I'm looking forward to meeting them tomorrow, if they can come."
Saturday morning the boys were ready to go riding almost before they had finished breakfast. I convinced them to wait a while, but they finally convinced me to head to the ranch an hour early. I was somewhat surprised to find that Bert had already started saddling some of the horses before we arrived.
"I figured you guys might be early," Bert said, as he led another saddled horse out of the stables.
"They would have been here at dawn if I would have let them," I said. "Thanks for getting them ready early."
"Joel, it's good to see you again."
"Thanks, I miss getting to ride every weekend," Joel replied. "I'm looking forward to summer so I can."
Shortly there were enough horses saddled for the boys to take off for the back of the pasture. Jason climbed onto a horse and followed them. I went to the house to talk with Rosie. Lenore was already there playing on the floor with Carrie Louise.
"Come in, Crane," Rosie said. "Tracy got called out to one of his customers on some sort of emergency. He should be back in a while. The farmers are itching to talk to you about their plans. They have been scheming and plotting ever since you called them."
"That's what I like, enthusiasm," I chuckled. "Did Ian say what time the Fowlers were going to get here?"
"I think Ian said around eleven," Rosie answered.
"Good, I'll have time for a ride before they get here," I said. "Donald, do you want to go saddle up?"
"If Rosie is fine with babysitting Lenore for a while," he said.
"She's no problem, in fact, she's a good babysitter for Carrie," Rosie said. "You two should adopt a baby."
"Bite your tongue, lady," I laughed. "Seven, sometimes eight, kids in the house are plenty." I waved, opened the door and started for the stables where I found my horse saddled and waiting for me.
"I hope Kelly will be well enough soon to come riding with us," Donald said, as we mounted our horses.
"Has he said when that might be?"
"He thinks in a week or two," Donald said. "It all depends on his progress in walking. I'll have him ask his physical therapist. I know he wants to come with us."
We rode for a while. Watched the kids (that included Bert and Jason) racing and having fun. When I looked at my watch later, I saw that it was getting close to eleven, so I headed back to the stable area. Charlie was there and volunteered to take care of my horse. It didn't take him long. He knew his way around the care of a horse.
I had just finished washing my hands from the outside hose when an older Chevy drove in the drive. It was followed by Ian and Lionel arriving on horseback.
"I thought that was your car coming down the road," Ian said in greeting the couple. "Come and meet the boss." He led them to where I was standing, wiping my hands dry on a towel that Rosie always left hanging on a peg near the hose. "Crane, these are my friends, Jim and Barbara Fowler. Jim, Barbara, this is Crane Johnson, the owner of the farm."
Barbara and Jim were exact opposite, physically. Barbara was a bit overweight, while Jim was skinny. We took seats on one of the picnic tables and we got to know the Fowlers. They were anxious to get back into farming. Both of them had grown up on farms up near Tyler, Texas. He had a degree from A&M in Agronomy, but the last farm he had worked on was sold to a developer for a new subdivision, and he had been unable to find another farming position that would provide sufficient income for them to live. Barbara was three years younger than Jim. They had met his senior year at A&M and were married when she graduated. She was an on-call substitute, math teacher, but was looking for a full time position.
"If you're interested, the math and physics teacher at the Academy is going on maternity leave at the end of the first semester and I hear through the grapevine that she is not planning to return to teaching after the baby is born. Can you teach physics as well as math?" I asked.
"Yes, I'm certified in both areas for grades 7 through 14. Who would I contact to see if the position has been filled?" Barbara asked.
"I know for a fact that it has not been filled, since I'm on the School Board." I wrote the name of the headmaster and his phone number on the back of my business card and handed it to her. "The position won't be open until the end of the semester, but it wouldn't hurt to get in line before the position is posted."
"Thanks, I'll contact him first thing on Monday. May I tell him you told me about the position?"
"Of course," I said.
I saw Jim looking longingly toward the stables and couldn't help but ask if he wanted to go riding.
"Yes, I love to ride," Jim said. "It's been a while."
"Barbara?" I asked.
"No, thanks, I think I'll go meet Rosie."
"Maybe Charlie will saddle up a quarter-horse for you, Jim. The ones we have are really gentle, but they can take off like a rocket," I said. "I forgot to mention that one of the perks of the job is horseback riding."
Ian and Lionel took Jim and went to go find Charlie. He had been out fixing some fencing on one of the farms all morning. But he had returned early enough to take care of my horse. He had probably gone to the back of the pasture to engage in the races that were usually in progress anytime the boys were riding.
They didn't find Charlie, but they did find the tack. It wasn't long before a smiling Jim came through the gate between the properties and headed the quarter horse he was riding through the gate to the back pasture.
I knew it wouldn't be long before the boys would be on their way back to the house. Their stomachs must have had a built-in clock that told them it was time to eat. I went to the van and began carrying the coolers to the picnic tables. Donald saw what I was doing and he helped with the last load of food. I think Gilda had packed extra, expecting the Fowlers to eat with us.
Rosie evidently saw what Donald and I were doing and emerged from the house carrying glasses, napkins and eating utensils. She was followed by Barbara who was carrying pitchers of lemonade. "I made some tea if anybody would rather have it than lemonade," Rosie said, turning back to reenter the house.
"It looks as if you have brought enough to feed an army," Barbara said.
"Well, we have a good start on our own army when everybody sits down to eat," I laughed.
Just then, Jessica arrived carrying two large bowls of fruit salad to add to the abundant food on the table. She hadn't more than set the bowls on the table then the thundering herd came over the hill and tied their horses to the fence. They started to the table, but I pointed to the water hose which they quickly went to and wet their hands. They wiped them dry on the towel. I don't think the towel was more than damp after they were all finished. I just shook my head.
Tracy arrived and helped his wife carry a card table and chairs to add to the picnic tables, as all of us couldn't crowd around them. It was still a tight squeeze to get everybody seated.
"Well, Barbara," I said, as we were cleaning up after everybody had eaten and most had gone back to riding, "it looks as if our army did a good job of eating all the food."
"I would never have believed it," she said, shaking her head. "Even my husband packed away a lot of food."
"You'll get used to it after you have been here for a while," I said.
Later as we were getting ready to leave, I told Jim, "We usually do this every Sunday, weather permitting, and you're welcome to join us, if you like."
"Thanks," he said, "we will try to make it a few times before the first of the year. We need to start thinking about our move. Are you sure the place will be ready by the first of the year? They'll be moved out by that time, won't they?"
"Yes, I'm sure they will be all moved out of the house by that time," I said. "I'll have a cleaning crew in to make sure it's in condition for you to get your stuff moved in."
"You don't know how much I'm looking forward to be back on the farm. From what I've seen from the outside of the house, I'm positive we will be happy there. Thanks again for this opportunity," Jim said, looking away and wiping his eyes.
Later as I was climbing into the van and buckling my seatbelt, I asked, "Is everybody buckled in?"
"Yeah!" everybody hollered.
When we got home, Kelly had a message for us. "You got a call from a Mel Wilson and wanted to know if Luke was here. I told him no, that he and the Strassers were visiting friends this afternoon. He wanted to let them know that he would be visiting at Christmas time and for us to let Manfred and Hildy know. He would be unavailable the rest of the week as they were being deployed to someplace in Missouri for a training exercise. I told him I would relay the message."
"That's great," I said. "Luke will love seeing his uncle again. Did he say how long he would be staying?"
"No, but he said he would call again when his plans are more definite."
As we were sitting around after supper, Donald said, "We need to start making plans if we're going to Mexico during the kids' semester break."
"Would it be possible to go during Spring Break instead?" Joel asked.
"Why, son?" I asked.
"There's a three day seminar that's being offered by the college at that time and I sort of wanted to sign up for it. The topic is on how the video graphics in computer games are programmed. It sounded interesting. A guy named Wu is giving the seminar. He's the chief graphics designer for a gaming company in Silicon Valley."
"I think that timing is better, anyway," Donald said. "The renovations to the hotel are taking longer than I had expected and it would be a miracle if they were done by semester break time. Anybody object to Spring Break?"
All heads were shaking in the negative, except for Kelly.
"What's the matter, Kelly?" Donald asked.
"Would I still get to go?"
"Certainly," Donald said, "I'll have you flown down when the time comes. That assumes that you will be back at UCB and still want to go."
"Then I don't have any objection, and yes I'll still want to go. How could I pass up such an opportunity?" he said.
"Joel, what time are you planning on leaving for Houston in the morning?" I asked.
"I thought I'd leave here around ten. My study group is meeting from three to five and that will give me plenty of time to get my stuff put away and meet them at the library. We have a small room reserved for that time." Joel answered.
By ten o'clock Sunday morning, Joel was packed and ready to leave. As he was getting his things stowed in his car, the boys all crowded around to get a hug. Donald and Lenore had followed us into the garage. After the boys had all been hugged, a shy Lenore approached Joel and asked, "Can I get a hug, too?"
"Of course, you can," Joel said and lifted her up and hugged her. "You make sure that your brothers behave themselves while I'm gone."
"Okay," she said and ran back to her daddy's side.
I gave Joel a hug just before he climbed into his car. "Drive carefully," I said. "We love you, son."
"I love you, too," he said and drove away.