Copyright 2005-2010 Ted Louis

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

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Joel V

Chapter 25

"Oh!" I sat there in stunned silence unable to form a coherent reply. It felt as if someone had hit me in the gut.

"It's not certain that Judge Bono will grant his request," Peggy said, after a few moment of silence.

"But, I thought the family was living on the edge as it was. Wasn't there a family member who was ill and needed constant attention?"

"Yes, the daughter suffers from Muscular Dystrophy. Taking care of her with both of the parents working does put a strain on the family's resources. The home study that was completed on the family was marginal. Having said that, the law in Texas says that preference for placing a child in foster care should always be given to a relative, if a suitable one is available."

"If Peter is taken away from this family, it would be devastating. I don't know what TJ would do. He and Peter have become very attached. For that matter, the whole family has. We love the little guy. What do you think the odds are that Judge Bono will give the uncle custody?"

"The judge does have some latitude, but she would need good reasons not to accept Mr. Wright's petition. I would say the odds are better than even that she will grant it."

"You said the home study was marginal. Could I see it?"

"I'm sorry, that information is confidential. It includes a lot of financial and personal information."

"Have you told Peter about this?"

"No," Peggy said. "I think it's best to wait to see what happens at the hearing on the 12th. Even if the judge orders him to his uncle, it would be a few days before the order could be carried out."

"Thanks for letting me know. It's not the kind of news I wanted to hear. I will be in contact with Peter's attorney first thing to see what his take on this is.

Peggy stood up and we walked out of the library. TJ and Peter were playing with their dogs on the patio. She noticed them and went to say goodbye to Peter.

"This is my dog. His name is Duke," Peter said proudly, holding his pet up for her approval.

"That's a very nice dog," she said, patting Duke on the head. "You take care of Duke and I'll see you soon."

As soon as Peggy had driven off, I picked up the phone and called Darcie. When she came on the line I said, "Darcie, do you have any contacts in the New Braunfels office of CPS?"

"Yes, I have a couple of friends who work there. Why?"

"Peggy Callahan just informed me that Peter's uncle wants custody of him. She told me that the home study on the family was marginal, but she said I couldn't see it because of confidentiality. Could you use your contacts to get me a copy of it?"

"I don't know. Those things are fairly tightly held. I might be able to do a little horse trading. One of their caseworkers wants the foundation's assistance in assisting the adoption of one of her cases. It's not one of the most worthy cases for our assistance, but if we had unlimited funds it would be one that we would approve. Let me see what I can do. When do you need the home study?"

"The hearing is on the 12th which is a couple of weeks away. The sooner I can get it the more ammunition I would have to keep custody of Peter. It would also give Jack a place to start digging deeper into the family. His first look at them was only cursory. Look, if the resources of the foundation would be strained by assisting the caseworker's request, I'll have a trust I've set up reimburse it for the associated expenses. That's contingent on getting the home study, of course."

"I'll call Maggie as soon as we hang up. If she's in the office, I might have an answer for you later today. So, you've decided to try and keep Peter. I thought you were only going to foster him."

"Yeah, well, the best laid plans, et cetera, et cetera. The little guy has wormed his way into all of the family's hearts. We would be very unhappy if he had to go."

As soon as I hung up with Darcie, I immediately called Jack. I told him what was going on and that I wanted a comprehensive investigation done on the Wrights as soon as possible. No expense was to be spared. He said he would assign four of his best agents on it and should have some preliminary information by the first. He said the home study would be helpful and save time, but his investigators could probably come up with the same information with the exception of the family interviews.

I made one more call to Hal Brisbane to inform him of the situation. His reaction was the same as mine was. He said he would immediately contact CPS and request a copy of the home study. As Peter's attorney, he was entitled to see it.

With no one else I could think of that might be of help, I went to tell Hildy.

"They can't do that! That would be a travesty. For the first time in that boy's life, he feels safe from abuse. To take him away now could cause him emotional harm. We can't let them do that," Hildy said. "What are you going to do?"

I told her what I had set in motion, but didn't think we would know anything until after the first of the year.

"Oh, by the way, Marie called while you were on the other line. They're going to stop by tomorrow to drop off the boys' Christmas presents. I hope you don't mind, but I invited them to stay for supper."

"That's great. It's the night before Christmas and we haven't seen them for a while. I miss Ricky and so do the boys. I wonder how Peter will react to Ricky."

As I was tucking Peter into bed, he looked me in the eyes and asked, "Is Santa Claus really gonna come? TJ said he was."

"Of course, Santa is going to come. He always comes for all the good children," I replied.

"He never came to my house before," he said, the tears starting to form in his eyes. "I tried to be good."

"I can promise you that Santa is coming this year because you have been a very good boy. Now dry your eyes and get some sleep. I love you, my little one."

That gave me an idea. After seeing that all the boys were settled in bed, I went to my library and made a call to Dr. Greene. "Sam, this is Crane. I'm glad I caught you at home. I was afraid you might be on your way to Houston to visit the kids."

"No, it's the year they go to the in-laws. We won't be going to visit until the weekend. I haven't talked to you in a while. I hope everything is all right."

"Yes, we're all fine. I have a favor to ask, that is if you still have that Santa suit you use when your grandkids are there."

"Yes, I still have it. The darn thing keeps shrinking more every year," he laughed.

"Well, you know I took in Peter, the boy you examined. He's never had a Christmas or had a visit from Santa."

"Crane, I see where you're going. When do you want me to be there? Carol can come as Mrs. Claus."

"Fantastic! If you could get here around 7:30, we should be finished with supper. Ricky and his parents will be here as well. I have a bunch of presents that I had picked up for Santa to give so you'll have something to fill the bag with. I would invite you to supper, but it might be difficult to be Santa later. But since you and Carol are going to be at home, why don't you come over on Christmas day. I know Hildy will have fixed enough to feed an army."

The first thing out of Peter's mouth when I woke him in the morning was, "When's Santa gonna be here?"

"He'll be here before you go to bed tonight. Go wash your hands. I'm sure that Hildy has breakfast ready."

When I arrived in the breakfast room, Peter was telling Hildy that Santa was going to come tonight. Hildy looked at me and I mouthed, "Sam." She smiled and nodded her head.

Overnight the number of presents under the tree had grown considerably. Evidently Hildy and Manfred had been shopping.

The weather had turned out very warm for a December day. The temperature was supposed to get into the 70's. In order for us to get out of Hildy's way while she prepared not only for this evenings meal, but also for her to begin preparations for tomorrow, I decided to take the boys to ride their horses. I thought maybe it would calm Peter down just a bit. All he could talk about was Santa coming. A second reason for going to the farm was to deliver the presents for the Smith's baby.

Charlie and his fiancée, Jessica, were riding a couple of the quarter horses through the gate connecting the two properties as we arrived. Two more horses were tethered to their saddle horns. "We thought we would ride with you," Charlie said, as they approached.

"That's great. As soon as we deliver these presents for Carrie, we'll be ready to ride," I said.

Walking into the house, it was evident that Rosie had been baking because the house smelled wonderful. She thanked us profusely for the presents. She had placed Carrie into what looked a lot like a backpack with holes for her legs and arms. Not being familiar with baby equipment, I looked a bit puzzled.

"It's a baby carrier. It's much easier than pushing a carriage and I can take her with me when I go riding. She loves to go riding," Rosie said, noticing my puzzlement. "She's going to be a cowgirl when she grows up, I think."

We headed for the stables where Bert and Tracy were busy saddling the horses. It looked like all twelve of the horses were going to be ridden today. We greeted them and each of the boys went to the horse that they considered theirs. Peter approached Lady and began petting her nose and telling her that Santa was going to come tonight.

"It looks like he loves that horse," Jessica said.

"Yes," I said, quietly. The thought of him not having the opportunity to ride Lady much longer brought a lump to my throat.

I was surprised when Tracy strapped the baby carrier to his chest. I had assumed that it would fit on his back like a backpack. He easily mounted one of the quarter horses and settled into the saddle as easily as if he didn't have the extra load of Carrie. Joel, Bert, the twins and Chris took off at a gallop for the back of the pasture. TJ and Peter followed at a fast trot. The rest of us walked our horses and talked.

Charlie began telling all about his plans for what he was going to plant and when. It all went over my head, but I nodded my head at the appropriate times. "I'm sorry," Jessica said, when he paused, "Charlie could go on all day about what he plans to do, if you let him."

"I don't mind. It shows that he really likes what he's doing," I said.

"You can say that again," Charlie said, leaning over and giving his fiancée a kiss on the cheek.

"I think he meant the farming, Charlie," Jessica said. That caused us all to laugh at his embarrassment.

"Yeah, that too," he said when our laughter subsided.

"Tracy, when can you hang out your shingle?" I asked.

"I should have all the paperwork in hand by the middle of January. In the meantime, I need to get the building ready. There's a lot of equipment that I need to have before I can open for business. I'll also need to hire a receptionist or a vet tech, or maybe both. A lot depends on how busy I get. I've been thinking about that building. It's larger than I actually need for my practice, so I thought I might convert part of that large room in the back to kennels where we could house people's pet while they were on vacation or away on business."

"I think the latter is a good idea. If you want my advice, hire a tech who can double as a receptionist. As business picks up, and I know it will, you can hire a full time receptionist/office manager. You'll need someone to take care of all the billings and other paperwork."

"Rosie is going to take care of the paperwork to start out. She can do that from home. But, you're right, the tech is the best idea," Tracy said, before spurring his horse into a fast trot. I could hear Carrie giggle as they took off.

"See," Rosie said. "She loves to ride with us. It's great just before nap time. She falls right to sleep after a ride."

The Soznowski family arrived shortly before five. We met them on the front steps. As soon as Ricky saw Joel he ran and threw himself into Joel's arms.

"Hi, munchkin," Joel said, "did you miss me?"

"Yeah, I didn't see you for a long, long time," was his reply.

"I missed you, too," Joel said, putting Ricky down. "You haven't met Peter. He's new."

Peter stood there looking Ricky up and down before saying, "How come you only got one foot?"

"I don't know," Ricky replied. "How come your hair is white? I never seen somebody with white hair." With their differences pointed out, Ricky walked up to him and gave a startled Peter a hug. That was all it took and the two of them headed into the house. TJ followed, looking a little jealous.

"It looks like they've each found a new friend," Dirk said, emerging from the car carrying a pile of presents.

"Where are the boys?" I asked Hildy.

"Peter wanted to show Ricky his dog. As they went out the door, Ricky was telling Peter all about 'Buppy'," Hildy chuckled.

Marie began talking to Hildy and I took Dirk into the family room and offered him a glass of red wine from a bottle I had opened a few minutes before they arrived to let it breathe. "It's a 1995 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stag's Leap District. The man at the wine store recommended it highly. I hope he knew what he was talking about," I said, pouring us each a glass.

"Mmm, this is really good," Dirk said, after taking his first sip. "I'm not a wine expert, but this I like."

"I agree," I said, just as Manfred entered the room. I offered and he accepted a glass, also.

"I think I'd better check on the boys," I said, as I finished my glass of wine.

"Good idea," Dirk said. "There's no telling what the little scamp of ours is up to. I swear, I don't know what we would do if he had both legs. He runs from the time he gets up in the morning until we tuck him in bed at night. I pity the teacher who has him next year in kindergarten. His pre-school teacher says he's a handful and then some, now."

"He's definitely all boy," Manfred volunteered. "Reminds me a lot of Horst when he was a boy."

I could see the hurt in Manfred's eyes as he remembered his late son. It soon vanished and we all walked outside where the boys were playing. When Peter saw me he ran over to where I was standing with Duke at his heels. Ricky came with them.

"Look, dad, Duke can fetch," he said, throwing a stick which Duke dutifully fetched and returned it to his master's feet.

"That's great. Did he just learn that tonight?"

"Uh huh, he's really smart."

"Did you give him a treat?"

"No, I didn't have none."

"Let Ricky play with Duke and you come with me. I'll show you where the doggie treats are so you can get one for Duke when he learns a new trick." I took Peter's hand and led him to the garage where the dog food was kept. On a shelf that he could just reach was a bag of treats. I handed the bag to him and told him to take one. He immediately grabbed one and took off to give it to Duke.

As I went back into the house I looked in the kitchen to see when supper would be ready. Hildy said it would be about fifteen minutes before she would be ready to serve. I figured that would be just enough time for the boys to put their dogs away for the night and get washed up. We had to finish eating before Santa arrived.

Ricky followed TJ and Peter up the stairs to wash his hands in their bathroom instead of letting Dirk get him cleaned up. "Yes, he has definitely found a new friend," Dirk said. "Crane, you may have a permanent guest every weekend. I can see Ricky wanting to come and play with Peter all the time."

"Well, you know he's welcome any time. We miss having him here like he used to be." We then headed our separate ways to get washed up ourselves.

We finished our dessert of cherry cobbler and ice cream a few minutes before seven. We were just in time to watch the Wizard of Oz on TV. I thought it would occupy their time until Santa arrived. I had given Sam a code to open the gate so that he wouldn't have to buzz to get in and I had let the security guard off for the night to be with his family.

Promptly a 7:30 the door bell rang. "Peter, why don't you and Ricky come with me to see who's at the door?" They looked at me a little funny, but got up from their seats on the floor and took my hands. Ordinarily we only opened one of the French doors to admit guests. This time I had each of them grab a handle and pull after I had unlocked them.

When they saw who was standing there, their eyes got wide and their mouths dropped open. Peter was the first to make a move. He slammed into Santa's stomach and tried to wrap both arms around his waist. "You did come. You did come. TJ said you were gonna. You did come." The tears were now streaming down his cheeks.

Ricky was only a step or two behind Peter. He, too, threw his arms around as much of Santa as he could.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" Santa chanted. "Of course, I came. I come to see all good little boys and girls. Why don't we go sit down on the couch and you can tell Santa what you want for Christmas?" With both boys still clinging tightly to him, Santa made his way into the family room to the couch. Up to this point, the boys had not noticed Mrs. Claus.

"Who's that lady?" Peter asked, after they were seated, each on one of Santa's knees.

"That's Mrs. Claus. She came to help me. I'm very busy delivering toys to all the boys and girls." Both boys greeted her, but their attention quickly switched back to Santa. "I usually only come and leave presents after everybody is asleep, but since I seemed to have missed you in the past, I thought I would come by early to see you."

"I love you, Santa," Peter said.

"Me, too," Ricky echoed.

"Okay, Peter, you go first and tell Santa what you want for Christmas?"

"How did you know my name?" Peter asked.

"I know all little boys' and girls' names. I know TJ and Larry and Lenny and Chris and Joel and, of course, I know Ricky. They're all on a list of names my elves keep for me at the North Pole. Now, tell me what you want me to leave for you."

Peter was still a little awe struck, but with a little prompting, he began listing the things that he, with TJ's help, had compiled. When he was done with his list, Santa turned to Ricky and asked him for his list. Ricky was not as shy as Peter and he began rattling off a long list of presents he wanted. I looked at Marie. She was shaking her head and smiling.

"Thank you," Santa said, giving both boys a squeeze. "I can't promise you that you will get everything that you asked for. I have an awful lot of boys and girls that need presents. Sometimes I have to share the presents with them."

"Lucas can have some of mine," Ricky said.

"Who is this Lucas?"

"He's my friend at pre-school. He said his momma said that you wasn't gonna to come to his house 'cause they don't have a chimney. Why can't you use the door so he can have some presents?"

"He must be a boy that my elves left off my list. I'll find him and use the door to deliver his presents." Santa reached into his pocket and pulled out two Toosie Pops and handed them to the boys. "Since Santa made this special trip to see you early, I brought you each a couple of the presents you asked for. The rest will have to wait until I make my regular visit after you are asleep.

Carol (Mrs. Claus) handed the red bag to Santa. He distributed two gifts to each of the boys, who immediately hopped down off of his lap and began opening the presents. While this was going on, Dirk and I were quizzing Marie about what she knew of this Lucas. We found out that his mother was raising Lucas by herself. He was an only child and the husband had disappeared when Lucas was a year old. She worked at one of the fast food restaurants in New Braunfels. Marie didn't know exactly where Lucas lived, but thought it was in a mobile home park on highway 46.

"Dirk, is there any way you could hurry over to Wal-Mart and buy some presents and maybe some clothes for him? I think they're open until ten tonight."

"Absolutely, I'd be happy to. Honey, is he about the same size at Ricky?" Dirk asked.

"He's probably one size larger. He's a couple of inches taller than Ricky," Marie said, "How are we going to locate exactly where they live?"

"Leave that to me," I said. "Dirk, give me your cell phone number. As soon as I know the family's location, I'll call you. I hope I can get Sam to help us out."

I motioned for Sam to join us. Carol was keeping Peter and Ricky busy playing on the floor with their new toys. I told him what we were planning and asked if he could help. "As long as I'm all dressed up, I'll be happy to help. What's the last name of the boy?"

"Karnes. I believe it's spelled with a 'K'," Marie said.

"As I recall, I treated a boy by that name for a severe laceration on the leg about a year ago."

"That must be the same one," Marie said. "He has a long scar on his left leg."

"Well, then," Sam said, pulling his PDA from his pocket. "Unless they have moved, I should have the address in here." A few seconds later, he shared the address with Dirk. "I'll meet you there in an hour. Dirk, will that give you enough time?"

"It'll be close. As long as the cops aren't out looking for speeders on 306 or 46, I should make it. Let me have your number. I'll call you when I'm on my way to their place. This is great. Now it really seems like Christmas," Dirk said.

I walked with Dirk to his car and handed him a hundred dollars. "If this doesn't take care of everything, let me know. I'll make up the difference."

"Thanks, but that won't be necessary. That boy is going to have the best Christmas he has ever had. I'm so proud of Ricky for wanting to share his presents and letting us know about this boy," Dirk said, getting into the car.

"Drive safely," I called after him.

It was a few minutes after ten when Dirk returned. "I'm glad Dr. Greene called ahead to let Mrs. Karnes know what was going on. It took me longer that I had anticipated at Wal-Mart. The place was a madhouse. It seemed like everybody had waited until the last minute to do their shopping. Anyway, I was able to buy most of the toys that we had bought for Ricky. There were a few things that were sold out, but Lucas will have more than enough toys. I hope the clothes I bought will fit him. They had a really nice winter jacket. It might be a little big, but I couldn't resist buying it. He can always wear it for a couple of years."

"So, did you go in with Santa?" I asked.

"No, I met him at the entrance to the trailer park and transferred the stuff to his car. I wish I could have seen Lucas when Santa arrived, but didn't think it'd be appropriate. I plan to call Dr. Greene in the morning to hear all the details."

"I plan to do the same," I said.

"Dirk, I think our boy is about ready to fall asleep. We need to get him home and in bed," Marie said.

After hugs all around, Dirk carried the sleepy Ricky to the car and buckled him into the car seat. I was carrying a similarly sleepy Peter in my arms as we waved goodbye to our guests. While I normally insisted that the boys shower and brush their teeth before they go to bed, I relented in Peter's case tonight. I didn't think he could stay awake long enough, so I got him into his pajamas and tucked him in bed.

The tradition when I was growing up was that the stockings we hung on the fireplace were filled with fruit, a candy cane and a small unwrapped toy. I had carried on that tradition since the boys had come to live with me. The stockings were the first things distributed. After that it was sheer chaos. With six boys, opening one present at a time would have taken forever. Each of the boys picked out a spot on the floor and Manfred and I started distributing the wrapped presents. Peter's eyes were open as wide as they could be as the pile of presents in front of him grew.

"Aren't you going to open your presents?" I asked him.

"Can I?"

"Of course, you can. See, TJ's opening his."

It didn't take any more coaxing before he literally tore into the presents in front of him. There were sounds of, "Oh" and "Ah" as he opened each one. Hildy was watching from the sidelines with a plastic garbage bag in hand. As the stack of torn wrapping paper started to accumulate in the room, she began picking it up and filling the bag.

The best gifts that I received were the portrait of the boys on the stairs of the old house, which I thought had been destroyed in the fire, and a new one of the six of them on the stairs of the new house. "How did you get these?" I asked Hildy.

"Fortunately, the photographer who bought out the man who took the original photo was able to find the negative. He also took the new one."

"Bless you. I couldn't think of a better present," I said, giving her a kiss on the cheek.

To be continued.

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