Copyright 2005-2008 Ted Louis

Joel Book I and II are available in paperback as Joel - Escape from Abuse and Joel and Family. To purchase a copy, follow the link to my website below or go to your favorite online bookstore.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This story is copyright by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.

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Make a difference in a foster child's life, become a CASA volunteer (Court Appointed Special Advocate). To locate your local organization or for more information, visit the National CASA website at

In response to several requests, here are the attendees at the picnic.

Crane Johnson
Joel Johnson
Chris Johnson
Larry Johnson
Lenny Johnson
TJ Johnson
Hildy Strasser
Manfred Strasser

John Godinier

Eric Levin
JR Levin
Bran LeBeau

Dirk Soznowski
Marie Salazar
Ricky Salazar
Jamie Follet

Jack Hogan
Carolyn Hogan
Jack Hogan Jr.
Timmy Hogan
Sara Hogan

Barth Meyer
Cary Meyer

Tracy Smith
Rosie Smith

Clark Newsom
Barbara Pilmer

Joel IV

Chapter 23

Much of the talk at the adults' table centered around the shootings and the excitement that followed. The youngsters seemed to be oblivious of what had happened, or at least it appeared that it hadn't made a lasting impression on them. Food was the uppermost on their minds.

Later as I went back to the food table to get another glass of iced tea, Joel followed me. "Dad, I was so scared," he said, burying his face in my chest. "I thought you were going to get killed when I heard all those gunshots." I could feel his sobbing as I wrapped my arms around him.

My body was shielding his from the others as I held him. "Let's take a walk," I said. Turning him away from the gathering, we walked with my arm around him to the other side of the house before either of us spoke again. "Son, to be honest, I was scared, too. I was scared that I wouldn't see you and your brothers grow up to be the fine young men I know you will be. My life would be empty if anything bad happened to you or your brothers. But, nothing happened to us, we're going to be together for a long, long time."

I smiled down at my oldest son before leaning down and kissing his forehead. I held him for a few more minutes, then I took the handkerchief from my pocket and handed it to him. He wiped his eyes and blew his nose before he smiled up at me. "Thanks, dad," he said.

"Let's go join the others before they begin to wonder what happened to us," I said to him. Turning back to the way we came and with my arm still around his shoulders, we began walking around the corner of the house. I was only a little surprised that Barbara Pilmer was standing there as we rounded the corner.

Hildy and Rosie were passing out the desserts as I went to get the refill of iced tea that I had started for a few minutes before. After all the food the boys had eaten, I didn't see how it was possible for them to have room for the huge pieces of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting topped with vanilla ice cream. I decided to pass on the dessert, although it was not without a great deal of will power.

After we made the kids rest for a reasonable amount of time, they went for another ride. Cary took a longer ride with his dad this time before getting tired. He was not too happy about having to give up his ride, but his face lit up again when Peanut resumed its place in his lap. TJ consented to let Sara ride his horse for a little while. He didn't have long to wait. She decided she didn't like riding after all. Instead she went to help her mother. Jack just shook his head and went back to riding with the boys. TJ galloped off to find his brothers.

I attempted to help clean up the mess left after the 27 of us ate, but was shooed away by Hildy. Manfred received the same treatment. We went and sat under a shade tree in lawn chairs and watched the boys come and go as they rode and raced around the pasture. Ricky joined us shortly after Cary finished his ride.

Cary had maneuvered his wheelchair under the tree where Manfred and I were sitting. Ricky walked up in front of Cary. "Hi," he said and began petting Peanut on Cary's lap. "Dog."

"Peanut," Cary said slowly.

"No, dog," Ricky responded.

"The dog's name is Peanut," I told Ricky.

"Dog," persisted Ricky.

"Dog, it is," I smiled, and turned to Manfred who was trying to suppress a laugh.

Ricky soon tired of the dog and came to where I was sitting and held out his arms to be lifted onto my lap. He made himself comfortable and it wasn't long before he was fast asleep.

"Here, let me take him," Marie said, as the women joined us under the tree.

"He's fine, Marie. I don't mind holding him at all," I said. "He's such a little angel."

"I don't know about the angel part," Marie said smiling. "Sometimes I think he's a little devil."

The adults talked for a while before I looked over at Cary. His head was leaning over to one side, sound asleep, still hugging Peanut in his arms, who was also asleep.

The boys had ridden for about an hour when we saw a herd of horses racing toward the fence, barely stopping before they reached it.

"Dad, can we have something to drink?" Chris said loudly over the sound of the horses hooves.

"And maybe some more cake?" Jack Jr. asked, as he rode up.

"Why did I think they might want some more?" Hildy asked rhetorically. "Come on, there is some lemonade and some iced tea to drink. And," she paused for effect, "there is even some more cake, but I'm afraid the ice cream is all gone."

The noise of the boys on horseback arriving had awakened both Cary and Ricky. Cary steered his wheelchair after the stampeding boys. Ricky wiggled down off my lap and ran as fast as his little peg leg would carry him until he caught up with Joel and John. They were lagging behind the others, talking to each other.

"Hi, munchkin," Joel said, looking down when Ricky grabbed hold of his pant leg. "Do you want some cake?"

"Uh huh," Ricky said nodding his head up and down. Holding his arms up to be picked up, Joel obliged.

Another hour of riding after the boys had their snacks and it was getting time to start packing up. Joel led his brothers, John, Dirk and their horses into the stable area where he and Tracy removed the saddles while the others began brushing down the mounts. Jack led the other group of eight horses to the watering trough. When the rented horses had their thirst slaked, he led them back to the fence where he tied all their reins to the fence. When all of our horses had been groomed, Jack borrowed the grooming tools to groom the eight other ones. He, Barth and Jack Jr. removed the saddles and then began the task of grooming.

It wasn't long before Rick Hanson and his oldest son drove up. I walked up to greet them. "Hello, Crane, how did the horseback riding go?" Rick asked.

"The guys thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Thanks for letting us rent your horses."

"No problem," Rick said. "I see you've even brushed them down. I really didn't expect that. I just assumed we would have to do it before we loaded up."

"It's good practice for everyone to learn to do it when they finish riding. They need to respect the horses that give them so much pleasure. Do you need any help loading the horses?" I asked.

"I wouldn't mind having someone help load the saddles. My old back isn't what it used to be," Rick said, holding onto his back and giving a fake limp.

"You're just getting old," I said, stepping out of the way of Rick's playful swipe at me.

With help from some of the men, the saddles were quickly loaded into the horse trailers, followed by Rick and his son leading the horses into the trailers. I could see why he didn't want help with that task, as some of the horses shied when they attempted to load them. It took a little persuasion to get all eight horses loaded.

Rick and the horse trailers took off for his ranch. As I was waving goodbye to them, Eric came up beside me. "I'm going to hate you in the morning," he said, with a serious look on his face.

"Why? What did I do?" I asked, startled that he would say something like that.

"My butt and legs are going to be so sore I won't be able to walk. I haven't ridden a horse for such a long time since I was JR's age, and even then I don't think I rode as long as I did today," he said, rubbing his behind.

I laughed at him. "You're not a true Texan unless you can sit in the saddle all day," I added with an exaggerated Texas drawl.

"It was fun, but I'll pay for it for the next couple of days. JR and Bran seemed to enjoy it more this time than they did before. Well, we better be getting back home. I think I'll start up the hot tub and sit in it for a hour or so. Maybe the jets will help massage away some of the soreness. Thanks for inviting us," Eric said, before putting his arms around me an giving me a chaste kiss.

"Any time," I said, looking around to see if anyone had seen us. I didn't see anyone looking our way.

Manfred and Hildy were loading the remains of the picnic into the back of the pick-up truck, while Tracy and Jack were taking the boards and saw horses back to the barn. Carolyn and Rosie were putting what little was left of the food into plastic containers and taking it into the house. There was probably enough leftover food for a couple of meals for the Smiths.

Cary rolled up with his dad. "Thank you, Mr. Johnson," Cary slurred. "I had lots of fun."

"You're very welcome, Cary. You'll have to come back again sometime," I said.

Soon everybody had driven off except for Hildy and Manfred and our security guards. I turned to Clark and Barbara. "I want to thank you two for your brave actions today in protecting me, my family and my friends. You were very efficient and should be commended. I intend to let Mr. Bianca know how pleased I am with your work. If you ever need anything, please let me know. I owe you my life."

"It was our pleasure, Mr. Johnson," Clark said. "This is what we train for, but rarely have the need to use our training as we did today."

"I've been meaning to ask you something. Where did you get that rifle you shot that guy with?" I asked. "I know you weren't carrying it with you when you were riding around on the ATV."

"No. While Barbara kept the two thugs engaged, I was able to slip over to our vehicle and retrieve the rifle. I got off a good shot and put a bullet through the arm of the guy on the driver's side of the car. That took the fight out of him. Barbara was able to wound the other guy in the leg with her pistol. His was only a flesh wound, but it put an end to his actions."

"I hope the sheriff doesn't give you any trouble about the shooting," I said.

"No, there shouldn't be any problem there. We both have a license to carry a gun and we were performing our job as auxiliary San Antonio police officers. They may grumble a little, but it will blow over quickly," Barbara volunteered.

"Thanks, again," I said, shaking their hands. "I assume you will be following us back to our place. We have to make a side trip to drop my son's friend home."

"Fine, we'll be right behind you," Clark said, as they headed over to their car.

Manfred was informing Tracy that he would be back tomorrow to haul away the grill. The boys were milling around the van as I walked up. "Come on, guys, let's take John home and then we'll head on home."

It was a tired and quiet bunch of boys as we started on our way home. Joel got out with John when we arrived at his house and walked with him to the door. I tried to engage the other boys in conversation to give Joel and John some privacy. It worked, they were concentrating on me and didn't see Joel and John exchange a hug and a quick kiss. I saw it out of the corner of my eye as I was turned back toward the boys.

"Okay, guys," I said, when we arrived home. "The first thing on the agenda is for everyone of you to hit the showers. You all smell like a sweaty horse."

"But, dad, we're hungry," Lenny whined.

"Showers first, supper second." That put a stop to the whining as they all ran toward the bedrooms and the showers. I waved to Clark and Barbara as they circled their car around and headed back down the drive and exited the property. I made a mental note to call Andy Bianca on Monday and commend their work to him, which I did.

By Wednesday things has settled back into a more or less normal routine. Then I got a call from Jack. "Crane, I just received a call from a friend who works in the Bexar County jail. He said they found John Forsyth dead in his cell this morning. It seems that Forsyth hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to the bars on the window of his cell."

"Good heavens," I said. "Why on earth would he do something stupid like that?"

"My guess is that he couldn't stand the thoughts of his reputation being ruined. The man was certainly full of himself," Jack said. With a laugh he continued, "Maybe he didn't want to spend time being Bubba's bitch."

"What does this mean, now? I assume the case is over," I said.

"Well, the case against Forsyth is certainly over. The case against Eloise Manson is still open, although she had a plea agreement with the prosecutor. She was supposed to testify against Forsyth in exchange for a reduced sentence," Jack said. "It's now up to the prosecutor whether the deal is still active."

By the end of the week the situation with Eloise Manson had been resolved in her favor. She appeared in court and pleaded guilty to all charges against her. The plea agreement the prosecutor had worked out with her was approved by the judge after he asked me if I approved. I said I did. She received 60 days in the county jail and two years of supervised probation.

Jorge Chavez and Juan Ballesteros, the two men involved in the shooting at the ranch were arraigned and were being held in lieu of half a million dollars bail each. They were both recuperating in the same hospital where Barry Manson was being held. Jorge, I learned later, had to have his left arm amputated just above the elbow as a result of Clark's rifle shot that ended the fire fight at the ranch.

The next few weeks were quiet. No more attempts on the lives of the family. Nothing suspicious, no strangers seen lurking around. Work on the house continued and, according to Harold, it was about ten days ahead of schedule, thanks to the good weather conditions. Thanksgiving came and went and the boys were getting excited about Christmas.

I did receive some good news the week before Christmas. Bill Phillips pleaded guilty to killing his son, Jason, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If he had gone through a trial, he could have received the death penalty. Although the self-inflicted gunshot to the head left him without the use of his left arm, it was determined that he had been competent to stand trial.

The week before Christmas, Frank Paulis, Manfred's late son's partner, called to wish everybody a Merry Christmas. I had answered the phone and before I gave the phone to Hildy, I asked him if he had any plans for the Christmas holidays. When he said he was going to spend them a home by himself. His family had disowned him when they found out he was gay and all of his friends were going to be with their families. I told him we would be very pleased if he would come spend the holidays with us. He said he didn't want to be a bother and other excuses that people make when they really want to do something, but think they might be imposing. Finally he consented and said he would be driving down from Chicago, since it would be too late to reserve a flight. I handed the phone to Hildy and told him to work out the details with her.

The boys and I had gone through our usual logistical nightmare of buying presents for everyone. With Manfred's help, it took fewer trips to get all the presents purchased. As usual, Joel was totally prepared with a list of the things he wanted to buy for his brothers and the stores where he thought he could buy them. I wish some of that organizational skill would rub off on TJ. I took him on the buying trip by himself because I knew we would have to visit nearly every store in the mall and he still might not find the presents he wanted to buy for his brothers. As it turned out, it was not as bad as I feared, but it still took about twice as long for him as it did the other boys. I didn't mind too much. It gave me a chance to spend some time alone with him. TJ insisted on buying a present for Bandit. When we got home and the other boys saw the present, they had to go back to the pet store to get a present for their dog.

Joel's dog, Sam, had learned that the house was not his personal toilet, which made us all happier. He was growing bigger and had become a lot less shy of other people, but it was plain to see that Joel was the only one he truly trusted. He never barked or snapped at the other boys or the adults, he would just tuck his tail between his legs and crawl into a corner. When Joel was around, Sam's tail wagged so hard he sometimes fell over. He was not the most coordinated dog in the world.

Frank drove in two days before Christmas. When he arrived, he was surprised at the security that was still in place and our temporary housing. He asked what was going on. I told him to get settled in and I would explain everything to him. Hildy greeted him warmly with a hug. Manfred's greeting was also warm, but he settled for a handshake.

After Frank was settled in and he had heard the story of the house fire and the reason for the security guards, he asked if he could walk through the partially completed new house. Of course the boys had to go along. They were forbidden to go into the construction area without an adult. As we walked through the house, I pointed out the various rooms and the amenities that were planned for it. He seemed to be quite impressed, especially with the views of the lake from almost every room.

On the way back to our temporary quarters, Frank asked me if I could help him carry some things in from his car. The trunk of his Lincoln Town Car was full of beautifully wrapped Christmas presents. The name tags on them indicated they were for the boys.

"Frank, you really shouldn't have done this," I said. "We didn't invite you so you would bring presents. We invited you because you are part of our extended family. Horst was very special to us and because you were his partner, you are special, too."

"Thank you, Crane," Frank said. "Horst often spoke of how grateful he was for the support you gave him when he needed it the most. I miss him so much. My being here has evoked both happy and sad memories, but I'm glad I came. The ache of his death is still there. It's getting easier, but I doubt that it will ever go away completely. I still miss him desperately."

"Some day you'll find someone new to love. That person will never be able to take Horst's place, but love is not finite. You'll be able to love the new person and still love Horst. I'm sure that Horst wouldn't want you to mourn his death forever."

"I know," Frank said, a tear glistening in his eye. "I don't think I'm ready, yet."

We placed the presents under the eight-foot Christmas tree in the living room. If we put any more presents under it, we wouldn't be able to get into the room.

The afternoon of the night before Christmas, Manfred asked if we would like to go to church with them. He said Hildy was going to sing a solo as part of the Christmas program the church was putting on. I thought that was a good idea. When I told the boys, they thought it was a good idea, also.

The program was to begin at eight, but Manfred said if we didn't get there by 7:30, we wouldn't get a place to sit. I got the boys bundled up in their winter coats. The weather had turned cold and the weather forecasters had predicted a possibility of snow in parts of the hill country. The boys were hoping for snow. They hadn't seen any since our trip to Colorado. I did not share their hopes.

Even getting to the church early, it was hard to find eight places in a pew so that we all could sit together. One couple was kind enough to move to allow us to all sit in one pew. The organist played some Christmas carols while we were waiting for the program to begin.

The organ music stopped when Pastor Rollins stepped up to the pulpit. He welcomed everyone and spoke briefly about the meaning of Christmas before leading the assembled parishioners in a prayer. The program began with acting out of the manger scene with Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. The chorus was singing quietly in the background. Hildy was in the middle of the front row of the chorus. A voice off stage was reading the relevant passages from the Bible. As the Bible reading finished, the lights dimmed on the manger scene with the exception of a small spot light on the cradle.

The light came up in the choir loft, the organist began playing and the choir began singing hymns. TJ leaned over to me and said in a stage whisper, "When's Hildy gonna sing?"

Manfred had heard TJ's question and answered for me, "One more song and then Hildy will sing."

It always astounded me when I heard Hildy sing that this large woman in her sixties could sound so amazing. Her voice had none of the thin reedy quality of many amateur women singers. Her voice was strong. It filled the church as she sang. The boys sat there enthralled as did the rest of the congregation. Her solo of "Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful" brought tears to the eyes of many in the congregation. It was nearly ten as we left the church.

"That's the first time I've heard Hildy sing," Frank said, as we climbed into the van. "I can't believe she has such a beautiful voice."

"I know," I said, "I felt the same way the first time I heard her sing. She is an amazing woman in more ways than one."

"Can we open our presents when we get home?" TJ asked.

"Not until tomorrow morning," I told him.

"Can't we open just one?" Lenny chimed in.

"Sorry, guys, but you'll have to wait. It'll be time to hit the sack when we get home. It's already way past your bedtime."

"What time can we get up in the morning?" Larry asked.

"We'll get up at the regular time and have breakfast and then you can open your presents. Okay?"

"Okay," came the grudging reply from the back of the van.

Frank had to cover his chuckle with a cough.

"Come on, dad, it's time to get up," the pajama clad TJ said, jumping on my bed the next morning.

I opened my eyes to see my youngest with his face a mere inches in front of my face. I kissed his nose and rolled him off me only to see all four of his brothers, also still in their pajamas, standing just inside my bedroom door. "Give me a couple of minutes in the bathroom. Go wash your hands and then see if Hildy has started breakfast."

As I entered the kitchen, I saw both Hildy and Manfred working on breakfast. He was frying the sausages and Hildy was mixing up a large bowl of pancakes. I could also smell something sweet baking in the oven. I assumed the smell was a batch of cinnamon rolls. The boys were sitting around the kitchen table looking as if they were starving. I got the plates, glasses and silverware out of the cupboards and put them on the table, telling the boys to finish setting the table.

I poured glasses of milk and orange juice. By that time the first batch of pancakes were ready, but only one for each boy. I think those disappeared before Hildy made it back to the griddle. Thankfully Manfred had the sausages ready and they filled the void while more pancakes were being prepared. Two more rounds of pancakes and the boys were looking less famished. The cinnamon rolls came out of the oven shortly before the last pancake was eaten. The icing hadn't had a chance to run off the top of the rolls before the boys were eating them. TJ had about as much icing on his face and fingers as he got in his mouth. Another round of washing hands and faces before it was time to open the presents.

Frank walked into the kitchen just as the last of the dishes were being placed in the dishwasher. "Am I too late for a cup of coffee?" he asked.

"No," Hildy said. "If you would like some pancakes, I can mix up another batch. The boys left one cinnamon roll."

"Coffee and a roll is fine," Frank answered. "I'm not a big breakfast eater."

Opening the presents was reminiscent of a school of feeding piranhas. The boys may have wished for a snowfall outside, but with the paper wrappings flying it looked like one was happening inside the house. Even Joel got into the enthusiasm of his brothers. Usually he was very careful as he opened his presents, wanting to make them last as long as possible. That was probably as a result of not getting more than one present in his previous family.

When all the presents were opened and the thank you hugs given, Hildy opened a large plastic garbage bag and told the boys to help her clean up the mounds of wrapping paper and ribbon.

"Can I go get Bandit and give him his present?" TJ asked me.

"I don't see why not. Put on some shoes and a coat. It's cold out there this morning," I told his back, as he ran down the hall, followed by the other boys.

Each of the dogs got his own chew toy. Sam carried his around in his mouth and tried to hide from the crowd of people in the room. He settled for climbing onto Joel's lap.

It wasn't long before the wonderful aromas of our Christmas dinner were emanating from the kitchen. Hildy had outdone her self. The meal was fantastic. When it came time to eat, I went outside and called the two security guards and invited them in to eat with us. I figured we were safe enough on Christmas day. They were grateful to get in out of the cold. Although they patrolled the property in a four-wheel drive vehicle, it wasn't exactly comfortable or as warm as being inside.

Frank left to drive back to Chicago the day after Christmas. There was a big snowstorm forecast to hit the Midwest in a few days and he wanted to get home before it struck. He called when he arrived to let us know that he had beaten the storm, but only by about an hour. He said it was snowing so hard that he could barely see the building across the street from his condo.

On New Year's eve, the boys wanted to stay up to see in the new year. As usual they were all asleep, sprawled on the floor or on the couch well before midnight. Manfred helped me carry the four younger boys to their bedroom and tuck them in bed. Joel made it to bed on his own, although I don't think he was totally awake.

I kept the security guards around until the middle of January. There had been no more incidents or hints of any trouble brewing. In a way it was difficult to go back to being without them around. They took care of so many things that I had to do before and now I had to do them again. Taking the boys to meet their school van in the morning and being there when they came home in the afternoon was but one of the things I had to do again.

It was good to get back to normal.

To be continued

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