He was near the end of his journey as Jason watched the sun slowly disappear behind the horizon. The western sky evolved from a pale blue to a variegated saffron, crimson, pink-purple, and finally to a deep indigo. The lights on the gateposts flickered on as Jason turned his G.M.C. pickup into the driveway and pulled in front of the ranch house. The large wooden front door of the big ranch house opened.
Cody stepped outside beaming from ear to ear just as Jason exited his truck and ran to greet him. "Welcome home, Jason. I've missed you so much."
Jason smiled and scooped Cody up into a hug. "I've sure missed you too, Cody. It's good to be back."
After giving Jason a big tight hug, Cody smiled and looked into Jason's eyes. "I told you that you were supposed to be here, didn't I?"
"You sure did, and I knew you were right. Cody knows all!"
Cody giggled and hugged Jason again. "Can I help you carry stuff in?"
"That would be great, thanks."
Jason went to the back of the truck, lowered the tailgate and pulled out a small black overnighter and a matching large suitcase. He also pulled out a blue nylon gym bag and a red nylon daypack. He put the daypack over Cody's shoulders and handed him the gym bag.
"If you take these, I'll get the two suitcases. That's a good load for the first trip. We can get the rest after we put these in the house."
Cody grinned, nodded and led the way, carrying his load into the ranch house and into Jason and Daniel's bedroom.
Jason and Cody put Jason's bags down and returned to the truck for the rest of Jason's things. When they put the remainder of Jason's things in his room, Jason noticed how quiet it was in the house. "Cody, where is everybody?"
"They're in the barn. Gisele, one of the mares is going to have a baby tonight. I was waiting for you go to get here before I went out. Want to go see?"
"Sure, I've never seen anything like that before."
Cody smiled, took Jason's hand, and led him to the barn. All of the guys were gathered in front of a stall. As soon as they saw Jason they all gave him warm hugs and welcomed him home. Daniel and Jason embraced lovingly, holding each other tight and kissed passionately. Neither wanted to let go of the other.
Gisele neighed and snorted, interrupting them.
Henry leaned over to Erik, who was watching the buckskin colored quarter horse mare intently with eyes wide open. "If you watch her carefully you can tell when she's about to give birth. You'll know it when it happens."
Erik looked up at Henry. "Has she given birth before?"
"She had a colt three years ago. I think she's just about ready. Watch her."
Gisele raised her head, looked back and whinnied. As she did, she pushed and the birth sack came out followed by the front hooves and head. Soon the rest of the buckskin foal slowly slid out of its mother.
Henry tapped Erik's shoulder. "Come on, let's help the foal out."
Henry and Erik opened the gate and went into the stall. Henry showed Erik how to tear open the birthing sack and free the colt. He instructed Erik on wiping the foal down with towels as the mare recovered from the birth. Erik was a natural at it as he carefully wiped the foal down.
Brandon smiled at Uncle Rick. "I think we may have a future veterinarian here."
Uncle Rick nodded in agreement. "I bet you're right and he'd be a really good one too."
Erik stayed with the foal while Henry looked after the mare who was exhausted from giving birth. After resting for a while the mare stood, looked at the foal and instincts took over from there. The mare began cleaning the foal with her tongue and everything went as nature planned. Erik smiled at Henry and they agreed their job was complete.
The group walked back to the ranch house and talked about the big event that just occurred.
Brandon spoke up. "Anyone want some dessert?"
Cody's eyes brightened up.
"I mean besides Cody."
Cody gave Brandon a surprised look. "Hey, I want some too, Brandon."
"Alright, it's apple pie and ice cream for everyone."
Cody ran into the kitchen to retrieve plates and forks while Brandon followed him in and sliced the warm apple pie while Erik took the ice cream out of the freezer and dished it on top of each slice. The melting ice cream began to mix with the warm apple slices in the pie, making a delicious sight for the three. Brandon, Cody, and Erik took the desserts out to everyone in the living room to enjoy.
Jason and Daniel sat together on the loveseat eating their mouth-watering apple pie a la mode while Cody and Erik sat together talking about the excitement in the stable.
Uncle Rick smiled as he heard Erik telling Cody how exciting it was to watch the foal being born. "Well, Erik, what do you think? Do you want to go to veterinary school?"
Erik beamed. "Maybe, Uncle Rick. That was exciting. Do we have any other pregnant mares?"
Uncle Rick chuckled. "We don't right now but who knows, maybe in the spring one or two may be on their way."
"Oh cool! May I help with them too?"
"I think Henry will be happy to have you help and I would be willing to bet he would give you a few pointers before then."
Henry nodded in agreement. " I was an assistant veterinary technician when I was in high school, Erik. I'll be happy to tell you what I know about veterinary medicine if you're interested."
"Thank you, I'd like that a lot."
After everyone finished their pie and ice cream Uncle Rick, Brandon, and Henry wished the boys goodnight, telling them not to stay up too late and went to their rooms for the night. Cody and Erik cuddled together on the overstuffed couch as Jason and Daniel cuddled together on the matching loveseat.
Daniel gazed into Jason's eyes. "Are you glad to be back?"
Jason nodded. "More than you know. I really love the ranch, Cody, Erik, Uncle Rick, Brandon, Henry, and especially you."
Daniel kissed Jason's lips tenderly. "I missed you too. I was hoping there would be some way for you to come back."
"Me too. This place made me realize how good things can be and how bad they were back in the city and my old job. Things kept getting worse too. I would wake up at night, reach over to a cold bed and realize you weren't next to me. I'm so happy now that I'm back."
Erik smiled at Jason. "We're glad to have you back, Jason. My brother was like a lost puppy while you were gone."
Daniel blushed a sexy shade of red.
Jason grinned. "That makes two of us, Erik. I'm happy things worked out as they did and made me want to get here as soon as I could."
Cody raised his head from Erik's shoulder. "Jason, when is Travis coming?"
"He'll be here on Sunday, Cody. He's excited about coming back too."
Cody smiled. "Good. He's supposed to be here too."
Daniel grinned. "Cody knows all!"
Cody beamed and nodded in agreement.
It wasn't long before the four boys began drifting to sleep. Daniel woke after a time and roused the other three. "It's time to go to bed, guys. We don't want to sleep out here all night."
The four boys padded their way to their bedrooms and turned in for the night.
At daybreak two warm bodies enveloped Jason as he slept on the soft bedding hay in the barn. The buckskin mare lay in back of Jason, stretching her leg over his shoulder securely while Jason held on to the newborn foal beside him. He felt safe between the two magnificent animals and drifted back into deep sleep. The foal stirred and nudged Jason in an effort to wake him. "Go back to sleep, little horsey. It's not time yet."
The foal giggled and nudged Jason once more. "No, please let's keep sleeping. I'll feed you oats later." The foal giggled once more, arousing Jason from sleep. Jason opened his eyes to see Cody with a big grin and his two big brown eyes looking into Jason's. He felt Daniel snuggled against his back with his arm around him. He smiled and giggled.
"Cody, I was dreaming you were the foal and Daniel was the mare."
Cody laughed. "No, we're not horses. We don't smell like horses do we?"
Jason snickered. "No, you guys smell like boys. What are you doing in here? I thought you'd be cuddling with Erik."
"Erik got up early and went out so I came in here to sleep with you guys."
"He went out? Where did he go?"
Cody shrugged. "I was sleeping and he didn't tell me."
"Maybe we should get up and look for him to be sure he's alright. Daniel, time to wake up."
Daniel stirred, opened his eyes, smiled at Jason and noticed Cody snuggled up with them. "Who let that varmint in here?"
Cody gave Daniel a mock annoyed look. "I'm not a varmint. I'm Cody and I came in here after Erik left our bedroom."
"I don't know, Cody. You look like a varmint to me." Daniel sniffed the air. " Smells like a varmint to me too."
Cody sniffed his armpits. "Hey, I don't smell like a varmint."
"Are you sure? I think you may be a varmint and you know what we do to varmints. We tickle them."
"Nooooooooooo, please don't tickle me. I'm a lovable varmint."
Jason laughed and pulled the two boys closer. "Yes you are, Cody. You're a lovable varmint. Maybe we should go look for Erik and make sure he is alright."
The boys got out of bed, put on their jeans and went out looking for Erik. After looking inside the house, the backyard, and in the greenhouse they peeked into the stables, where they found him attentively watching the new mother and her foal.
Daniel put his arm around his brother's shoulder. "Hey little brother, how are you doing?"
"I'm good. Daniel, aren't they great? I never knew horses could be so cool. He's walking around and exploring the stall this morning and getting milk from his mom."
"Have you named him yet?"
"I've thought of a couple names but shouldn't Uncle Rick be the one to name him?"
Cody shook his head. "You're supposed to name him and I know what his name will be."
Erik smiled at Cody. "Is that right? What is his name?"
"If I told you then I'd be naming him. You're supposed to do that."
Jason leaned over to Cody. "Why don't you tell me and when he does name him, we'll let him know if he got right."
Cody whispered into Jason's ear. Jason smiled and nodded. "Good name. I'll write it down when we get back to the house and keep it a secret."
After a few minutes the four boys went back to the house, took their morning showers, ate a delicious, filling breakfast and assembled in the living room with Uncle Rick, Henry, and Brandon for the morning gathering. Just then the telephone rang and Uncle Rick excused himself to answer the call. After a few minutes he returned to the living room.
"Guys, that was Sheriff Waite. He has some important news for us and he'll coming out for a visit in a couple hours. We can do our morning chores and be back in here when he arrives. Jason, why don't we have a little talk before the sheriff arrives."
While the others went about doing chores, Uncle Rick asked Jason to sit down with him in the living room. "Jason, I told you on the phone the other night I would pay the remaining balance of your truck loan if you'd move here to the ranch. Do you have your loan information so I can write a check to the lender?"
"I have it in my room, Uncle Rick. I'll go get it."
In a minute Jason returned with some paper work and handed it to Uncle Rick, who took out his checkbook, and wrote a check to the lender for the remaining balance.
"Jason, I'll mail this off the next time I go to town. I want to give you my thanks once again for coming back here. I know I can speak for everyone here when I say we were sorry to see you leave and are delighted to have you back. Cody, Erik, and Daniel are back to being cheerful once again. Brandon, Henry and I are thankful because you're a joy to be around."
Jason fought to keep tears from flowing. "Uncle Rick, you and the others are my family now. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Thank you for accepting me."
Uncle Rick beamed, stood and gave Jason a warm loving hug. "Thank you for accepting us, Jason."
At ten O'clock Sheriff Waite drove in the driveway and parked in front of the ranch house. Brandon invited him in and announced his arrival to the guys doing chores out back. Soon they all gathered in the living room and greeted the sheriff.
Sheriff Waite said a few pleasantries and then with a serious business-like tone revealed the purpose of his visit.
"An arraignment was held on Thursday up in Milford County. Bishop Foutz has been charged with extortion, racketeering, fraud, bribery, attempted kidnapping, and obtaining money under false pretenses. Additionally, he is being charged for statutory rape, kidnapping, and possession of child pornography. Bishop Foutz pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and is held on $250,000 bail.
"Another arraignment was held yesterday in Milford County. Daniel, Erik, your mother, Rowena Bunch, was charged with extortion, aiding conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses, conspiracy to commit fraud, and conspiracy to commit murder. She also pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and is being held on $200,000 bail."
"What that means is they are restricted to remaining in the state pending their trials. Your mother's trial will commence a week from this coming Monday. Bishop Foutz's trial is set to commence three weeks from this coming Monday. The Attorney General predicts your mother's trial to take less time than the bishop's due to there being fewer charges, however, because the two, along with your father, Robert Bunch, allegedly conspired together, there may be a sharing of testimony and/or depositions.
"The Attorney General is also conducting an investigation into Cederline Institute. If the investigation discovers any interstate crimes, the F.B.I. may get involved."
Uncle Rick looked in surprise at Sheriff Waite. "This thing could get big, couldn't it?"
Sheriff Waite nodded. "Yes, Rick, It could, but it's a bit early to know for sure. As far as the crimes I mentioned, it may be necessary to have Jason, Daniel, Cody, and Erik either give depositions or be put on the stand and questioned under oath. Would you four agree to that?"
All four answered in the affirmative.
"Good. I think I should warn you that certain parts of the trials may become graphic and/or disturbing but it's important that justice be served. Erik and Daniel, do you have any concerns about testifying against Bishop Foutz?"
Daniel answered first. "Sheriff, I'm willing to do anything it takes to put Bishop Foutz in prison for a long time. I'll be glad to give a deposition and testify."
Erik nodded. "I'm with Daniel. I've always thought Bishop Foutz was a horrible man. I'll do my part to see him pay for his crimes."
Sheriff Waite nodded in approval. "And how do you feel about testifying against your mother?"
Daniel took a deep breath. "After what she did, I have no loyalty to her anymore." He looked at the others sitting in the living room. "This is my family now. These people love me and I love them."
Erik looked somberly at both Daniel and Sheriff Waite. "I thought I loved my parents; or at least that was what I was told I was supposed to do. But that night when they came to take Daniel away, I lost every bit of love I had for them. They took my brother away from me and I will never forgive them for that. Thank you for asking the Sheriff up in Milford County to find me and bring me here. This is where I belong, with my brother and my new family. I don't have any guilt about testifying against my mother. Sheriff, do you think the church knows where we are?"
"Erik, it's possible, yes. Your dad may have told your mother he found you and she could have notified someone from the church."
Uncle Rick saw the worried looks on Erik and Daniel's faces. "I'll contact my attorney right away and have her request a protective order against the church."
Sheriff Waite nodded in agreement. "That's a good idea, Rick. With that in place, if any of the church members or Daniel and Erik's mother attempt to come near Erik or Daniel, we'll arrest them. If they show up here give us a call and we'll come right over."
"Thank you, Sheriff." I'll call her right after our visit. It would be a good idea for the boys to have their own attorney looking after their interests as well."
"I think that's a wise move, Rick. You can expect a call from the district attorney in about a week. Do you guys have any questions?"
Daniel was the first to ask a question. "Sheriff, if our mom is found not guilty does that mean Erik and I would have to go back to her?"
"That would be a question to ask your attorney, Daniel. She'll be familiar with the law and be able to give you the best information and give you the best advice but I understand Uncle Rick has full custody of you and has temporary custody of Erik. When you meet with your attorney you guys can discuss this with her.
Just then a call came over the sheriff's radio requesting he return to the station for an urgent matter. He spoke into the microphone.
"This is Waite. I'm at the Hansen ranch and I'll be there in 30 minutes."
The sheriff said his good-byes and left. While everyone went back to finish the daily chores, all the time anxious about the pending trial, Uncle Rick called his attorney, Mallory Tobin. He explained the situation with Daniel, Erik, their mother and the Bishop to Mallory.
Mallory took meticulous notes and asked several questions to better understand what had happened. "Rick, I specialize in civil law and can help with personal matters such as setting up a trust for Daniel and Erik, petitioning for legal guardianship, and adoption if that is the path you three would like to take. However, for the matter of the Cederline Institute, the bishop and the boy's mother, I suggest we get Paul Bullock to represent Daniel and Erik. Paul is an associate in my office who specializes in criminal law and would be familiar with state and federal laws. I've worked with Paul before and he's good. If you like I can see if he's available and we can discuss the matter together. After you talk with Paul, I'll petition the court for temporary restraining orders against Rowena Bunch and the church."
Uncle Rick agreed and in a short time Mallory and Paul were on the line together. Mallory asked Uncle Rick to repeat to Paul what he had disclosed to her. After a reiteration of the story, Paul agreed to work together with Mallory to represent Daniel and Erik. He would interview Sheriff Waite and Sheriff Campbell in Milford County to gather important details of the pending investigations. By the end of the phone call Uncle Rick was impressed with Paul Bullock's knowledge of criminal law and was confident that with Mallory Tobin's knowledge of civil family and estate law, she and Paul Bullock would make a fine legal team to look after Daniel and Erik.
Around eleven o'clock the following Sunday Travis arrived in his truck that loaded with possessions. All six guys in the house were happy to see him and greeted him with warm hugs. While Brandon made lunch, the rest helped Travis carry his things into the house and into Wes' old room. After everything was unloaded Brandon called everyone for lunch. They sat at the table and passed the fried chicken, green salad, potatoes, tomatoes, crisp dill pickles, and warm aromatic bread fresh out of the oven. Cody took a large pitcher of iced tea around and filled everyone's glasses.
After lunch Travis went to his room to put away his things while the others did their afternoon chores. Cody and Erik worked on Cody's gravity generator, oiling the gears and making sure all the bolts were tight, the alternator was working properly and the electrical connections were secure. They made sure the water pump functioned and delivered sufficient water to the greenhouse and orchard.
Daniel and Jason cleaned the chicken coop, washing down the interior and supplying it with fresh wood shavings and pellets.
Uncle Rick and Henry changed the oil in the tractor and added fluid to its differential while Brandon cleaned the kitchen and started preparations for dinner.
At six o'clock Brandon called everyone to dinner. Bowls and plates of food filled the dining room table. Everyone passed around plates of home grown greens, honey-baked ham covered with pineapple slices, cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, and maple peach cobbler. After dinner everyone gathered in the living room and chatted with Travis about his big move back to the ranch.
Travis told the group about his last week at work. "Jason and I had a feeling something was going on. Stromberg was walking around the office with a scowl on his face, ready to jump on any of the employees who made the slightest mistakes. It was pretty tense there."
Jason nodded. "One day after lunch Stromberg found a typo Maria had made on an office memo. It wasn't even an important document and he had a temper tantrum in front of the staff. She ran to the ladies room in tears. I knew things were getting bad and I couldn't stay."
Travis agreed. "I heard that and wondered what the uproar was about. Maria wasn't going to take that abuse. She typed up her notice and quit. I knew it was time for me to do that and I didn't think Jason would want to stick around either. That night we had dinner and talked about leaving the company."
Jason smiled. "I think moving here may be the best career choice I've ever made. I doubt I'll ever want to work in an office again."
Travis nodded. "Me either. I'm glad we did this. We're going to have a great time here."
Travis excused himself to go finish unpacking while Uncle Rick, Henry, and Brandon went to their rooms to relax for the night. Daniel, Jason, Erik and Cody remained in front of the fire snuggling and chatting.
Jason watched Erik and Cody snuggling and giggling. "You two are pretty cozy."
Erik beamed. "We have been since I got here. I love cuddling with my new little brother."
Daniel smiled. "You two look like cute little puppies piled together."
Cody giggled. "This morning you said I was a varmint. Now I'm a puppy."
Daniel and Jason answered in unison. "You're both!"
Cody looked at Erik with a mock sad expression. "See how they treat me, Erik? They abuse me all the time."
Erik bravely protected Cody. Imitating Doctor Zachary Smith from "Lost In Space" he said "Never fear. I'll protect you from these menacing maroons."
The four boys laughed at Erik's spot on imitation and continued to cuddle and talk.
Erik's eyes brightened and he smiled excitedly. "I got it!"
Daniel looked confused at Erik. "What do you have, Erik?"
Erik beamed. "I just thought of the name for the foal."
Cody raised his head off Erik's shoulder, waiting for him to answer. "What is it?"
Erik looked at Cody and pronounced, "The foal's name is Sundown."
Jason glanced at Cody and went to his room to retrieve the paper on which he had written the name Cody had speculated Erik would chose. He unfolded the paper and handed it to Erik. Erik read the name on the paper and gave a surprised look.
Daniel impatiently waited for Erik to read the name on the paper. "Well, what does it say?"
Erik showed the paper to Daniel. "It says 'Sundown'. Cody really did know."
Daniel shook his head in disbelief. "I'll never doubt him again."
Jason agreed. "Now I know how Cody knew Brandon was a wizard. I think there are two wizards in this house and Cody is the other one."
Cody giggled proudly.
In a short time their eyes became droopy and they decided it was time to go to bed. It was going to be a busy week ahead and they needed to be ready for it.
Monday morning began like most mornings on the ranch. After Brandon served a big breakfast everyone gathered in the living room to discuss the day's chores. Erik and Henry would spend the morning cleaning the stables and tending after Gisele and the foal. Brandon and Cody would tend to plants in the greenhouse, planting newly acquired citrus trees. Uncle Rick and Travis would drive into Chaparral to pick up supplies at the hardware and feed stores. Daniel and Jason would drive the tractor and mower to the southern hayfield and cut hay.
Erik and Henry first checked on Gisele and Sundown. They cleaned out the stall and set out new hay for the mare to munch. As she ate the rich alfalfa hay, she nursed Sundown. Henry explained to Erik the importance of making sure the foal has enough area to walk and exercise while still being close to his mother. Once fed the foal walked around the stall exploring his new world. After cleaning out the stall Erik and Henry went on to the next and continued throughout the morning.
Brandon and Cody quickly pulled weeds that started sometime in the last week and planted new seedlings in the beds. While Brandon selected a head of lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach for a dinner salad, Cody picked strawberries, blackberries, honeydew melon, watermelon and grapes for a fruit salad.
Uncle Rick and Travis drove to Chaparral and parked in front of Campbell-Pearson Hardware and Lumber Company. Uncle Rick had a long list of materials to be purchased for the construction of a new storage barn. Some of the hardware including bolts, washers, nuts, screws, nails and fittings could be taken back to the ranch in Uncle Rick's truck. Campbell-Pearson would deliver the larger items including lumber, sheathing, and roofing to the ranch the next day on their flatbed truck.
Daniel and Jason drove the tractor out of the equipment barn and pulled out the mower, hitched it to the tractor, and attached the hydraulic lines to the fittings. Jason sat on the fender as Daniel drove the tractor along the dirt road to the southern hayfield. Jason worked the levers to lower the mower to the correct mowing height as Daniel kept the tractor on a straight course. By sunset they had finished efficiently mowing the entire 40-acre field.
After a quick but satisfying meal, the ranch family retired to bed early, falling into deep sleeps.
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Thank you to my anonymous S.L. friend and to Mark for your much appreciated help with this chapter.
I welcome any respectful comments. If you enjoy this story please send me an email and tell me what you think about the story. Thanks!