My Flock

Chapter 22

I'm not sure if I used the air my colon was storing or the little I managed to force into my lungs to tell Timmy and Carl to stay where they were, but I even found enough oxygen to propel myself across the ditch.

"It's okay girl, I rode her out here so, so we could go for a ride, you and I!" I told Diablo. She glanced at me with her huge eyes, but returned her glare to our Hogs. Where's Johnny, they seem to understand the little shit? I wondered. "Let me park her, the bike, and change clothes, and we'll go for a nice long ride!" I tried. "Maybe after I drink a beer," I added before I realized it. She gave me a quick glance, then turned and seemed to study the pasture fence for a second or so.

"He promises, he does!" Johnny's alto voice rang from behind me. Before I could turn he stepped between us, and Diablo lowered her big head and pushed it against his thin chest, pushing the lad against my stomach. She let out a long, almost human sigh as Johnny kissed her just below her big eyes.

The big mare let out a snort and at first seemed to glare down when Erbert's high pitched bark interrupted them, but pushed against us again.

"Come, we must go and get your saddle!" Pepe added. She enjoyed him stroking her big neck for a second, pushed Johnny even more tightly against me, turned her eyes to give me a glance, and pulled away. She fired the bikes a dirty look before she raced away, hopping back over the pasture fence like it was a stair-step. Johnny's bug-eyed rat was right next to her, jumping up and down and yelping like the two were old friends.

"Thanks boys," I whispered. Without thinking I kissed the top of Johnny's head and got a wonderfully happy giggle as a reward, along with a hug from Pepe.

"May I ride with you, Pop?" the lanky teen asked. Diablo's angry neigh just gave me time to nod before he rushed way.

"Dad! DAD!" Carl hooted. Before I could react he slammed into Johnny and my snuggle. "It's SO awesome!" he proclaimed. "I got to go look inside the ambulance and everything, and Mister Harper promised as soon as he gets well he's gonna bring his police car back, and teach me how to play his siren! He did, he did! I get to use the red lights and everything!"

That poor, dumb Bastard! If he ONLY knew what he's getting himself into! I silently moaned. "That's wonderful, son," I managed to grunt. "Go get your helmet, let's go home," I told him as I glanced around and saw the ambulance, cop cars, even most of the horses and kids were gone or leaving. And down a quick case of beer, or two, I muttered under my breath.

Both Carl and Timmy dove off the bikes even before Tim or I had time to kill our engines, each of them took off sprinting toward their houses.

"Only an empty stomach would make them run that fast," Tim chuckled. "I wonder if I still get fed," he moaned before shuffling stoop shouldered toward his new home.

"What's with Carl?" Dad asked before I had time to close the front door. "His feet didn't stop moving when he hugged me, and took off upstairs like his pants were on fire!"

"He didn't even touch his after school snack!" Mary exclaimed. I started to answer, but had a good idea of where he wanted to go in such a hurry, and just grinned a response.

Dad, his buzz-cut bandits and I'm sure the movers had done an excellent job of coordinating the move, everything seemed in place. Deciding not to look over the many new pieces of furniture scattered in with our old furnishings, afraid my wallet would have a heart attack, I rushed into the kitchen. Well, it is roomy, I just hope I have enough money left to put anything in it, I thought as I grabbed a beer out of the new, restaurant size refrigerator. Let's not go there, not after this day, I decided as I tried to remember the way to my new bedroom.

Even my clothes and personal belongings were exactly as they had been in my old bedroom, as if they picked up the entire room and transported it intact. Yes, I think they did a great job, I decided when my oldest, most well worn jeans were exactly where I expected them to be.

Pepe was on one of the couches with his back to me, sitting much more upright, his stiff posture made had to be much less than comfortable, when I entered our new family room. He jerked his head around, then jumped up and snapped to attention like a West Point honor cadet when he heard me. I had to do a double take at his more than skin tight Levis and equally form-fitting sleeveless tee-shirt, they looked more like shrink wrap than cloth.

"Colonel Gramps made me come inside, and told me to wait here, Sir," he told the far wall. "Your horse is saddled and waiting for you sir, and I have my afternoon report sir, I mean Pop."

How on earth can they wear those things? What the hell, I enjoy looking at them! I thought as he fought to push two fingers into his jeans pocket and pulled out several scraps of paper.

"Thank you, but please relax! I'm Pop, remember?" only made his facial muscles react. I glanced a the little forms, and set them on the coffee table. "Give me a second, I'm going to get a fresh beer, would you like something to drink?"

He sprang across the room like a Gazelle, his long legs closing the distance into the kitchen in a couple of strides as an answer. An instant later he reappeared with a very full pair of saddlebags. "Colonel Gramps said this is for you, Sir," he announced. "And, I, I asked Gramps if a few of my boys may swim in your pool after they ride, was that proper?" He took a deep breath and flashed his beautiful eyes at me. "May I, may I ride next to you, please Sir?" he begged, his already little boy voice an octave or two higher than normal.

"I would be honored," I answered. His wide eyes and troubled expression told me that didn't work. "I would be honored to go riding with you, thank you for asking, for inviting me!" earned me a wide silver grin and happy face I had missed all week. When I reached out for the saddle bag I ended up with an armload of bony shoulder instead. "Let's go riding," I said as I pulled him next to me, cupped his ribcage in my hand and guided him toward the door.

Oh great, what now? I groaned a we stepped outside and I saw Carl a few feet from the door, staring at the three horses waiting next to the pasture gate staring back at him - He was wearing uniform tightly stretched denim, displaying his firm little bubble butt. A cut off muscle shirt advertising his cute arms and shoulders, along with his thin midriff body and regulation wide western belt, but his face and liver lipped frown told me we had a problem, again.

"Who's riding MY horse?" Carl barked. "Ah, is, well, is someone else riding Cocoa, ah I sorta liked riding her," he whined, I guess to Pepe. "She sorta like me, I thought, but, , ,"

"No, she likes you only. We saddled her for you!" Pepe announced. Carls' face brightened like he had been recharged as he looked up at us. "I'm allowed to ride with Pop, will you ride with us? Please?" Pepe added.

"You, you mean she, you," Carl hooted. He turned and slammed against the older youngster, giving him what struck me somewhere between a hug and a bullet ricocheting off of hardened steel before he started toward the gate. "I gotta, well I gotta go, , , talk to my brothers!" he exclaimed as he bolted down the yard, I would have sworn the thread holding his jeans together were elastic the way they formed to him.

"You didn't forget your trunks, the tan ones!" I quipped before I realized I had. At first I cursed myself for saying it as he shuddered, tripped over his feet and almost crashed and burned in the yard, but after a few long stumbling steps he seemed to recover, and blasted off toward the pasture gate like he had kicked in his afterburner.

"An, inside joke," I told Pepe as we started down the hill. Oopss! I groaned when I saw his lost face. "A joke between Carl and I, I'll explain later."

Diablo impressed me as we started our ride. Every few steps she would shuffle her feet and squirm side to side like a kid with a mass of built up energy she was dying to release, but trotted next to Pepe's horse. We rode for five minutes or so until I started to feel sorry for her.

"I know of a horse that needs her afternoon run, if you fall behind we'll catch up in a few minutes, okay?" I told my teenage riding companion. Although she couldn't see the youngster his nod seemed to be all she needed and she blasted into a full gallop like we were fired from a cannon.

After about ten minutes of what had to be Mach four, that seemed like ten hours of holding a death grip on her saddle, she finally began to slow down, and didn't argue when I steered her back toward the distant small figure I was sure was Pepe and his horse.

Although I enjoyed the scene, I wondered what was going on a couple of minutes later when Pepe trotted his horse to join us. He was riding somewhat English style, holding his round little bubble butt off the saddle, but the tension in his face worried me.

"She is a very fast horse," he said when we met. He very carefully lowered himself back onto the saddle and added, "May I ride her, someday?"

"Of course! She is a little, frisky, but as soon as you think you are ready." I answered. "Is something wrong, are you okay?" the parent side of me asked.

"Yes sir I am well!" he tried to smile, a poor attempt. He paused for a second, and I guess my worried expression told him he wasn't off the hook. "I was given an, an injection this morning and I'm a little, tender, sir," he blushed.

What the hell is he doing on a horse? Why isn't he relaxing in a pair of nice, soft gym shorts, or boxers instead of those girdle tight jeans? I asked myself. His wonderfully young face, clearly hoping for attention, maybe better put affection answered for me.

"Doctor Roberts and Doctor Adams told me they you were getting hormone shots, do you want to go home?"

The shocked look on his face as his olive complection turned ashen told me that was NOT the best of answers. "They said it was to help you grow, is that right?" "I think Doctor Roberts wants to turn you into a football goalie!" I tried to smile.

His bright silver smile, and the color returning to his face told me I had pulled it off, the happy giggle in his voice as he agreed was more than enough reward, enough to push my desire to seek out and deal with the Bastards that had mutilated him.

"I was, injured, before I came here and so I must, , ,"

"Must get back to being a skinny teenager, and growing into a man!" I cut him off. "A shot in the butt or two, ouch, but what the hell!"

I thought the little guy was going to bail off his horse into my lap as his spaghetti thin, flexible body leaned over to an even tighter hug me. Somewhat thankfully my cell phone interrupted us before I pulled him off his horse into my lap. Yeah, go away, not now! I groaned at the caller ID showing Adam, but I pushed 'Talk'.

"Where are you, out scouting for future targets for Carl?" he quipped. Before I could answer he added, "Did you get those saddle bags I sent over there? A HORSE warming gift, I hope you have put them to good use!"

"Yeah, thanks!" I answered. I couldn't resist reaching behind Pepe's saddle and grabbing a cold beer out of them. "Actually, I'm in the middle of a meeting with, my First Boy," earned a wide smile from my young riding companion.

"I was going to call him next, I need to talk to him, well both of you. I called your house and Sam said you went riding, where can we meet?"

I'm completely lost, somewhere in the middle of your pasture land. I just hope Diablo or Pepe know the way home! I thought."

Doctor Owens would like to speak to us, , ," I began to ask.

"Doctor Pop!" Adam barked into my earpiece.

"Where can we meet him?" Made the youngster's face tighten.

He scanned the land around us for a second or so before answering, "We are nearby Rattlesnake Ridge, may we meet him there?"

Rattlesnake Ridge! Got a plan B? I silently groaned. Maybe the swimming pool in one of our fenced yards, or my den? Let's break in my new office!

"Sounds good, see you there in about five minutes," Adam replied before I could say anything.

I managed to grunt an answer, hoping they named locales out here based on folklore, and not by their residents, but allowed Diablo to follow behind Pepe's mount, feeling a little guilty as I enjoyed the youngster's tight little biscuit butt and thin legs, displayed so perfectly as he held himself a few inches off his saddle.

"We received this earlier this afternoon," Adam began. I was so busy scanning the ground below my steed, looking for any of the residents of the ridge we were on that might be slithering about I barely noticed he was offering out an envelope to my young friend.

"It's good news, son." made me look up. Pepe was staring wide eyed at the envelope, his face told me was afraid to accept it. "Congratulations, you have been accepted to UTSAHSC." (University of Texas at San Antonio Health Science Center) Adam continued. I was still trying to snap what he was talking about when he added, "Medical School! June second you are going to start summer classes, as a first year medical student!"

His statement seemed to catch Pepe as off guard as it did me. He recovered before I did, and hooted, "Yeah, Yeah! For real! Yea, yea, totally awesome!" He blushed and whined, "Thank you sir, that is wonderful news."

"I think Totally Awesome says it better! Congratulations Son!" I exclaimed. "I am so proud of you!"

He flashed a blinding grin that I was sure was going to split his earlobes, leaned over toward me, then jumped out of his saddle and slammed against Diablo and hugged my leg. "Yes, oh yes, yea!" he caterwauled into my calf.

Adam jumped off of Zeus and wrapped his arms around the lad, earning an all but body-slam hug. I hopped off of Diablo and cupped his thin neck, and an instant later the completely exhilarated youngster had us in a three way hug. I enjoyed my half of his cuddle, and his joy for what seemed like several minutes, even Diablo and Zeus joining in, before reality hit.

Am I really standing on top of 'Rattlesnake Ridge', on the ground, not on the safety of my mount, wearing worn, washing machine thinned jeans and sneakers? I asked myself. I risk a glance around, and thankfully didn't see any long thin critters ready to bite me, but decided it definitely was time to go before our hosts began to appear.

"Everyone is very proud of you Pepe," Adam said. "Next week Doctor Roberts or I need to take you to get registered, but you are accepted, you are in!"

"But, can't Pop take me? He's my Director now, my Pop!" Pepe countered. He pulled away from Adam and wrapped his long arms around me.

I did another quick scan of the dirt and pasture grass around us looking for any serpents that might be coming to give us a welcome bite, or Pepe a congratulatory one.

"Let's go celebrate! I bet Gramps has some cold Ginger ale in the fridge!" I didn't wait for a response and hoisted the thin lad onto his horse's saddle. Sorry snake-ies, no snack today! I tittered as we trotted our mounts toward my new home.

My stomach tightened into a knot as we topped a small hill and Sonhos Dourados' campus came into our view, complete with a fairly thick column of smoke rising from my new house. Adam must have been concerned too, and we both prodded our mounts into a gallop before we exchanged glances. As we approached the pasture gate, and the dozen or so saddled horses milling around by it I felt a little relieved, the pillar didn't appear to be coming from the house, more behind it in the back yard, or the pool area. A grass fire? Or, maybe Dad just lit off the pit, wet wood or something? I tried to reassure myself as Adam and I jogged up the hill. I heard Pepe utter a somewhat painful groan, but when I looked back he was trotting a little stiff-legged behind us, trying to keep up.

"What the, , ," I mumbled as we rushed through the gate into my new yard. I was right, Dad had lit our barbeque pit, recently moved from our old house, but had six more pits lined up next to our's, all puffing smoke like an old time steam driven railroad train engine. A half dozen picnic tables were also new additions to my yard, along with four homemade ice cream makers churning away between the barbeque pits and the tables.

A dark haired youngster, probably about thirteen-years-old, barefoot, shirtless and wearing a bib style chef's apron flashed us a happy grin. I couldn't help but gasp when he turned away from us to check one of the ice cream makers and saw that he was wearing only his apron and very scant, skin tight Speedos.

"I ordered the pits moved from the cottages here, until the new pool is operational," Dad informed us as he stepped outside. "A pool party is more fun with some good barbeque, and vise-versa."

Another apron clad youngster came out of the house, and Pepe appeared, carrying my saddlebag, at the same time.

"Are your helpers doing well Colonel?" Pepe asked.

"They are doing great!" Dad proclaimed as the boy that came out of the house joined us. Dad wrapped his arm around the youngster's slender, bare shoulder and pulled him against his side before adding, "They are doing so well they are taking turns swimming and working!"

The little guy leaned against the older man and beamed a cute, boyish smile that was almost as captivating as Carl or Johnny's. "Excuse me Colonel, Mary wants to know if you have a, a," he began, but blushed red and glanced back toward the house. "I forgot, but do you have one?" he whimpered.

"Of course I do Rickie!" Dad chuckled. "Tell her it's in the, the what-ch-ma-call-it drawer." The smile Dad beamed made his well weathered, leathery face look twenty-years younger as he squeezed the lad's shoulder. "Oh, I ordered new picnic tables for the cottages, I ordered all of these moved up here so we will have enough here to entertain, the other ones will be delivered in the morning. Cindy approved them, she was sure you could find room for them in the budget son." He turned and ushered his young assistant inside without waiting for a reply.

"Well, I'm glad to see you have hit the ground running Mister Director. I like that, a firm, take charge management style!" Adam tittered.

I let out a long groan, then resisted the urge to kill Pepe when I turned and discovered the he, and the much needed iced saddlebag were no longer standing next to me. Well, maybe kill him later, I decided as I looked around and saw him scraping his spray-on Levis down his long thin legs, and the twin orbs of his tight little bubble butt, packaged so perfectly in his Speedos, staring back at me as he bent over. I guess every job has its perks! I snickered when I noticed four more youngsters peeling their jeans off nearby.

It didn't take long to fill the pool and the yard as boys drifted in a few at the time. As soon as two of Dad's uniquely uniformed assistants set out huge platters of chips, and some bowls of dip, boys appeared from every direction, some in what seemed to be uniform Speedos and sandals or flip-flops, some still wearing their riding jeans. Do I have the authority to make Speedos required underwear? I asked myself as they stripped out of their Levis and dove in the pool.

Well, looks like a party! I smiled as I stepped back onto the patio after changing into my trunks. Cindy and her husband had joined the group and were swimming with Adam, and what had to be more than a couple dozen kids now in the pool. Several more were attacking the chip bowl and staring bugeyed at the ice cream machines, including the twins and Ronnie. A quick head count fired a parent alarm, my 'kid count' was a Carl and a Mike short. Another scan confirmed that Adam's carrot topped youngster was also missing, as was Cindy's Junior.

My panic subsided a little when I noticed Ginger mulling around with the other horses across the fence, but only a little. I was debating if I should go looking for them, and where to start, when the four of them stepped out of the house, clad only in Speedos.

As soon as they saw me, I guess they read my worried expression, all of their faces tightened, I could almost see the word 'Guilt' appear on their foreheads, They exchanged glances before Johnny and Carl a little timidly started toward me while the other two pointedly ignored me and started toward the pool.

"I was, well I was talking on my phone." Carl whimpered, holding his cell phone out like it was evidence. His and Johnny's guilty expression and clearly forced grins, Carl's lower lip, pushing against his facebow and quivering slightly made me wonder what they were up to.

"That's fine son." I answered. "I, I was just wondering where you were." Johnny's nervous grin heightened my curiosity, or concern.

"Well, I was talking to Tex, Dad." Carl whimpered. From his tone and expression I wondered why he was explaining his way out of the simple phone call, if anything was going on.

"JUNIOR! Take off your, , ," a screeching voice interrupted me before I could reply. I jerked my head toward the pool just in time to see two skinny bodies dive into the water, and hear Cindy groan, "headgear."

I chuckled, until I looked back toward where the frightened youngsters I had been talking to an instant before, only Carl's cell phone, sitting on a table, was still next to me. Whatever Junior has wrong with his brain, it's contagious! I decided when I heard another splash, and saw Carl and Johnny in the pool, headgear and all.

Whatever little plot they were hatching seemed to continue to jell behind the scenes as everyone swam and enjoyed themselves. Johnny and Carl, then Junior and held quiet conversations with Adam in one corner of the pool. Soon little Ronnie joined his dad and Junior for still another huddle, then shot Carl and Johnny an 'okay' sign.

I was about to corner Adam and ask what was going on when Mary, Dad and some of his herd of little apron clad helpers began carrying trays of food out onto the patio, and the rest of the Speedo/Apron cooking staff started emptying the pits, piling mountains of different meats on huge trays. The pool instantly emptied as if someone had sounded an evacuation bell or something, but to my surprise all the boys formed into a tight group next to the table area instead of attacking the food.

I was still trying to figure out what was going on when Pepe stepped out of the crowd and turned to face everyone. He gave the group, then me a couple of very nervous looks and moved his lips, but nothing came out of his mouth.

"You need to join him," Adam whispered into my ear. Pepe's face relaxed ever so slightly as I walked toward him and a hush fell over the patio.

"Please, , , please bow, , ," Pepe whimpered. He flashed me a pleading glance, then pushed his bony shoulder against mine and blushed. He scanned a well thumbed scrap of paper in his palm then stuffed it into the waistband of his Speedos. "Please, , ," he tried, but instead of continuing gave me another frightened look and cleared his throat. Without thinking I wrapped my arm around his thin back, cupped his upper arm and pulled him against my side.

"Please bow your heads. " he began in a stronger, but slightly quivering voice. He swallowed so hard I could have sworn I heard it echo off the distant mountains before continuing,

"Curvaram por favor suas cabeçças.

" Arquearon por favor sus cabezas."

"We wish to give thanks to you God, for all this food we get to eat. Well, and for you sending all of us to Sonhos Dourados Rancho so that we can eat it.

"Nóós desejamos dar a agradecimentos a vocêê o deus, porque a todo este alimento que nóós começçamos comer. Bem, e para vocêê que emite todos nóós a Sonhos dourados Rancho de modo que nóós possamos o comer.

"Deseamos dar las gracias a usted el dios, porque a todo este alimento que conseguimos comer. Bien, y para usted que envíía todos nosotros a Sonhos dourados Rancho de modo que poder comerlo." I had no idea what he was saying, but his blush and stiff posture told me was scared, scared stiff., but he managed to continue.

"Thank you too for sending us a new pop, and for giving us a grandfather, we have never had a grandfather before. . ." he swallowed again.

"Obrigado demasiado emitindo nos um PNF novo, e para dar-nos um avôô, nóós temos tido nunca um antes. . .

"Gracias tambiéén por enviarnos un nuevo estallido, y para darnos un abuelo, nunca hemos tenido uno antes. . .

"And for choosing such nice ones for us. I mean for telling our directors to, I mean. . ." out of the corner of my eye I could see his upper chest starting to redden.

"E para escolher tais agradááveis para nóós. Eu significo dizendo nossos diretores a, mim significo. . .

"Y para elegir tales agradables para nosotros. Significo para decir a nuestros directores a, yo significo. . ." he gasp instead of continuing.

"And please forgive my poor English it is not my first language. Well please forgive my Spanish, it isn't too. Maybe if you will please help everyone understand me and stuff and I will. . .

"E perdoe por favor meu inglêês que pobre nãão éé minha primeira lííngua. O poçço perdoa-o por favor a meu espanhol isnââ ? demasiado. Talvez se vocêê satisfizer a ajuda todos compreenda-me e material e mim vontade. . .

"Y perdone por favor mi ingléés pobre que no es mi primera lengua. El pozo por favor lo perdona a mi españñol isnââ ? tambiéén. Quizáá si usted satisface ayuda que cada uno me entiende y materia y yo. . ." I'm sure the gentle cuddle I gave his shoulder cut him off.

"Thank you for these blessings, and help us do what you want us to with them. . .

"Obrigado para estes blessings, e ajude-nos fazer o que vocêê nos quer com a ele. . .

"Gracias por estas bendiciones, y ayúúdenos a hacer lo que usted nos desea con a éél." he added, his voice an octave higher than its normal soprano pitch.

"Amen. And thank you God for this opportunity." I injected before I realized it.

Pepe and most of the boys used a finger to make the sign of the cross on their chests and muttered Amen.

All the boys, even Adam's and mine scurried around into two lines, but instead attacking the serving tables glanced nervously at the adults. "The adults are supposed to be served first," Adam whispered in my ear as he nudged me forward.

Pepe pulled out from under me and started toward one of the lines, but I caught his arm and pulled him back. "Please, , ," I began. "I would be honored if you would eat with us, Pepe!" I told him. His mouth dropped open and he turned a little ashen, but didn't resist when Adam cupped his other arm.

"Your English is excellent, but when did you learn to speak Spanish?" Adam asked him as our severs prepared our plates.

"Two weeks ago, sir," the lad blushed. "I am sorry sir, three weeks ago I think. We have Mexican Ranchers here so I decided I must. But I do not speak it well yet."

Two or three weeks? I silently groaned. I've been trying for two or three decades and can speak two or three words!

Although all the boys were surprisingly polite as they waited in line for their food, as soon as they reached their tables they turned back into typical teenagers, many of the ranch boys rivaling my little eating machines as they devoured everything on their plates, and assaulted the now abandoned serving line for second, sometimes thirds. Pepe tried his best to act refined and formal as he ate seated between Adam and I, but that only lasted three or four bites before he too begin inhaling his food like a silver toothed vacuum cleaner.

The poor ice cream makers didn't fare much better, I felt a little sorry for Dad. Each time he opened one of the machines, his face beaming with pride as he proudly displayed his creation, it was emptied before he could set the lid down. When the feeding frenzy finally seemed to subside and I surveyed the carnage of slain paper plates still scattered across all the picnic tables, there seemed to be several less bones left behind than the number of chicken pieces I had seen cooked and served. They didn't, , , No, let's not go there! I tittered. Soon several trash cans appeared, and after what seemed like a tidal-wave of skinny bodies rushed across the patio all evidence that there had ever been a meal served disappeared.

Just as I thought the tide of boy-flesh was about to ebb it changed course toward the benches and chairs full of Levis and shirts. After what seemed like a whirlpool of squirming boy-butt trying to stretch denim over their bony hips and rear ends it turned into a rip-tide rushing out the back gate, a mass of neighs and whinnies from the pasture fence choreographing the scene like the soundtrack of a Hollywood movie.

Well, I can use the rest! I decided, and turned to get a fresh beer and try out one of my loungers on my new patio. That too was short-lived when I saw Carl's cell phone still sitting on one of the tables. I was about to turn back toward the pasture to see if I could call him back before he got too far away when I noticed Johnny talking to his dad near the back gate.

"Johnny?" I began.

Before I could continue the youngster disappeared behind his father. A second or so later I saw a small tuft of red hair peek out from under Adam's arm then disappear. Adam whispered something then all but dragged his son from behind him. I had pretty well forgotten about his and the other boys suspicious conduct until I saw his face, it was so red his freckles were gone, it seemed to be so bright it was tinting the light reflecting off his facebow.

"Carl forgot his phone, would you mind taking it to him?" I managed.

Oh Lord, what are they into THIS time? I asked, I to guess the stars above as I watched the color slowly drain out of his face, even his bright red freckles seemed to melt and flow off his face, or into his agape mouth. After a quick glance up at his dad he sprang across the yard, grabbed the phone and darted out of the yard. I could see hint of his limp as he sprinted toward the pasture gate but it definitely didn't slow him down, I doubt Zeus or Diablo could have kept up with the little guy's short legs.

I should have known you were involved! I groaned as I saw Erbert racing down the hill behind his master, dragging his fanny-pack in his mouth.

"I don't suppose you'd care to tell me what those two are up to?" I asked Adam as I accepted a fresh beer from him. "What our little terror squad is up to?"

"Nope!" he grinned. From his expression I was sure I wouldn't get anything out of him, at least right now, and turned toward the much needed relaxation my lounger was inviting.

"They are up to something, but, hey, my Timmy isnt involved!" Tim tittered. His face went from one of a proud parent to what I'm sure mine looked like as we studied Adam's smirk for a second. "Ah, I think you are being paged," he told me.

Shit! I groaned as I followed his gaze to the pasture gate, and the very angry burnt brown mare butting her head against it. I gave my wonderfully inviting lounger a longing look, and groaned, "Let me go change clothes."

Our ride was enjoyable. Tim and Adam had changed and thankfully refilled my saddlebag with beer and ice when I rejoined them. Diablo and Zeus even cooperated, after a brief race they seemed content to walk around the property at a leisurely pace.

When we rode back toward the pasture gate a little before sunset I was impressed to see what looked like all or at least most of the boys' horses, unsaddled and grazing near the fence. I didn't pay much attention when Ginger, then Zoe and her colt trotted over to 'greet' us and Adam asked, I hope rhetorically, where their saddles were.

"I think I know what my little stinkers are up to," Adam chuckled as we dismounted.

Before I could answer two thin Hispanic young teens, wearing only sandals and Speedos, raced down the hill and out the gate.

"May we, , , groom your, , , horses?" one of them asked. I'm not sure what captured my heart more, his beautiful pre-adolescent face and body, his wonderfully warm smile, or his broken English and cracking voice, but he stole my heart instantly.

"Thank you son, but I can take care of her, don't you want to go play?" It didn't take me long to figure out I had screwed up as the happy look melted off of both of their faces.

"Please Colonel it is an honor to groom YOUR horse!" the other youngster whined. "We drew cards to see who got to do it and we won, Sir!" "Sirs!" he added toward Tim and Adam. Smooth move, Exlax! I silently congratulated myself.

"Please leave Zeus saddled, I have to ride him home." Adam injected, somewhat thankfully as it gave me a second to think.

"Thank you boys. But, only if you call me Pop! I'm not a Colonel!" I smiled. I was instantly rewarded with a pair of bright faces and grins so wide they seemed to push the youngsters' ears toward the back of their heads. "What are your, , ," I started to asked, but realized I was talking to a pair of horse rumps, they boys were already leading them away to the outbuilding, chatting with the animals like they were old friends.

"Maybe some of that will rub off on Timmy!" Tim snickered. "Maybe even your twins and ..."

"NO way!" he and I tittered in unison.

"I told you something is awry!" Adam snickered under his breath as we stepped into the back yard.

Most of our boys along with a few ranch kids were playing in the pool, but Mark and Bobby were standing next to the patio door like sentries. As soon as they saw us Mark opened the door just enough for Bobby to stick his head inside and say something. An instant later they were back at their guard positions flashing us cagey grins.

We had taken a couple of steps across the yard when the door opened again. Bobby accepted a large tray from inside as Mark moved a few feet away from the door. Ronnie appeared carrying another tray with three beer cans on it and he and Ronnie fell in behind Bobby, and the three of them all but marched to us.

"Hi Dad! Hi Pop, and Mister Young!" Mark bubbled, flashing a wide smile that made all of us squint. Bobby and Ronnie set our beers, along with three fairly large bowls of fresh peanuts on tables next to three of the patio loungers like well trained waiters as Mark continued, "We thought you might want a snack, sirs!"

Napkins even? I asked myself. How much trouble are they in? They disappeared inside before any of us could react.

"I told you," Adam quipped. I'm sure all three of us felt the multiple eyeballs locked on the back of our heads from the pool.

"I'm a little surprised they didn't provide a foot-servant to shell our nuts for us!" I teased as we sat down. I felt my mouth drop open an instant later when Carl and Johnny jumped out of the pool.

They rushed over to a nearby chair, quickly installed their facebows and headgear straps, and glanced back at the boys in the pool before slowly approaching us, their faces taut with apprehension.

"Whatever is going on, I think we are about to find out," Adam mumbled.

"Whatever it is, at least my Timmy isn't involved." Tim tittered. "I hope," he groaned. That hope was short-lived, Timmy appeared from behind us and lined up next to Carl and Johnny as they approached.

"Hi Dad!" the three of them sang, like members of a well rehearsed boys' choir.

"Um, we was, well sorta wondering, , ,"

"Were wondering!" Timmy whispered, more hissed.

"Sort of!" Carl growled. Johnny's freckles disappeared into his red face for a couple of seconds as he shifted his feet.

"Um," the little carrot top whimpered, his face begging for relief. Adam and I glanced at each other, but from his face Adam was going to let the little guy squirm.

"Ah, well, we was, , , were wondering, well," he stammered. "Everyone's gonna sleep at Pepe's cottage can we? Please?" he blurted.

"All the ranchers are gonna, can we please?" Carl chimed in.

"We did it at Doctor Pop's house when we were here before Dad, it's cool and stuff!" Timmy injected.

As if asking if he could too Erbert hopped up on Adam's lounger and looked around bug-eyed at the three of us.

I had noticed Pepe come into the yard out of the corner of my eye but didn't pay any attention until an eerie hush fell over the yard. When I glanced around Pepe was frozen in mid-step staring at the twins, all three of their faces ghost white. After what seemed like an eternity my flushed faced first boy shuffled toward us, his long legs hesitantly taking three or four-inch steps. The instant our three little ambassadors saw him their faces melted into complete despair.

I was still trying to figure out what was going on when Adam coughed. When I glanced over it wasn't a cough, but a way to conceal his snicker. I was just beginning to figure out what was going on as Pepe snapped into one of his best West Point style attention stances, I wasn't sure if it was his sandals or his scantily clad butt cheeks slapping together making a clicking noise almost like military boots.

"May I ask you something, sir? Pop?" he began, his voice cracking with each syllable.

"May we be excused Pop? Sir?" Carl moaned, his voice higher than a soprano flute.

May we? I silently snickered. I didn't know my youngest son knew that word. A couple of deep breaths and I felt fairly sure I had enough composure to continue with the game.

"We were speaking with our sons, Pepe, is it important enough to interrupt us?" I asked. Perfectly said! I congratulated myself as my first boy's shoulders seemed to slump to about nipple level, and all four of them exchanged worried glances.

"No sir, well, , ," Pepe groaned. "Well, yes sir, well, perhaps it, um," he stammered. A glance in Adam's direction seemed to deepen his despair. "I was suppose to, I mean I was going to, I mean I should have, well," He swallowed so hard adam's apple disappeared into this chest, then his chin for an instant as he glanced around. "May, may we sleep at my cottage tonight? All of ranchers, I mean the Sonhos Dourados boys? We want to have a sleep-under, if we may sir."

Johnny whispered something in Spanish or Portugese, I couldn't tell which, and Pepe blushed, "A, a sleep-over? Well, whatever, may all of us sleep in my, , ,"

"Okay," I interrupted.

"We only wish to watch a movie together if you allow Pop, sir, and we will promise to be, , ,"

"Yes, you may!" I tried again.

"I promise everyone will awaken on time, and will, , ," he stopped in mid-sentence, his face almost mimicking Carl's classic lost look. "We really get to? I mean we may, sir?" he whined.

I wanted to let my little turkey and his flock-mates stew for a minute or so, but wasn't too sure how much longer I would be able to keep a straight face. "Yes, you guys can too," I chuckled.

No one waited for Adam or Tim's reaction, and the three of us were instantly swarmed with little bodies hugging and kissing us. An instant later a convoy of skinny kids emerged from my patio door lugging arm-loads of blankets, pillows and quilts out the back gate. As if on cue lines of kids emerged from the cottages below us, it looked like a mound of Army Ants converging on the third cottage with their cargo of bedding.

"They need to work on their timing, but I can't question their organizational skills!" Adam chuckled.

Our evening was relaxing, actually, despite a very long day, quieter than I wished. Dad and Mary disappeared into his bedroom to watch TV, or so they claimed, shortly after we told them the boys were gone for the night. Judy came over for a few minutes, but excused herself to work their new house. Tim, Adam and I enjoyed a couple of hours of pleasant conversation and several more beers, but it didn't take me long to figure out something wasn't right; I found myself longing for my sons' happy voices and giggles, even some of their mischief would have been welcome.

After Tim and Adam left I considered going down to the cottage and telling everyone goodnight, but decided they might feel as if I was checking on them, and went inside. I wandered around the house for a few minutes before retiring to my bedroom, and was quickly joined by Binki and Bandit. We were in the middle of a heavy discussion about how much we missed the kids, all of us seemingly trying to console each other, that it was just for tonight, when my cell phone rang.

Okay, I hope nothing's wrong, I groaned when I saw a picture of Carl's bright face where the Caller ID text normally would appear.

"Hi Pop!" he bubbled when I answered. Him calling me Pop instead of Dad worried me. "Look at your phone!"

When I did I had a picture of what I was fairly sure was the den of one of the cottages, now devoid of any furniture. Even through the small display I could pick out what looked like a sea of blankets and quilts covering the floor like wall-to-wall carpet. I chuckled and was about to put the phone back to my ear when the screen changed, and what looked like a million shirtless boys, pushing against each other like someone had bound them together with a huge rubber band, all of them flashing happy smiles appeared.

"Good night Pop, we love you!" rang through my headpiece, the chorus of young voices loud enough to clearly understand even though I didn't have it against my ear.

"I love you guys, every one of you," I managed to answer. "Give everyone a hug for me, okay?"

"Everyone?" Carl whimpered.

"Everyone, I'll pay you back for all of them in the morning, how's that?" I would have given a year's pay to have his phone equipped with a live camera as I listened to his silly giggle.

"I'm gonna keep count, and you gotta give me each one back!" he bubbled.

Not a problem, I'm looking forward to it! I thought a couple of minutes later as I snuggled with my two furry bed-mates and closed my eyes.

What I thought at first was the buzzing beast that resided on my night stand interrupted my slumber. After a little coaxing I managed to pry one eye open ever so sightly, I was fairly sure it was morning from the daylight peeking into my bedroom through my window curtains. Am I losing it? I wondered as realized the monster had somehow mutated, instead of its incessant buzzing it now had learned words.

"Christian, get up, now!" it barked. I really started to worry when a harsh blow to its snooze button failed to silence it. "Stand to, Reveille in thirty minutes!" it barked.

Stand to? Reveille? drifted into my still half asleep consciousness. Has the beast completed its transformation from an alarm clock to my worst nightmare, or am I dreaming, locked up back in that Military Academy Dad sent me to how many decades ago? I asked myself. Dad. What now? I groaned as I realized it was his voice, muffled as it boomed through my bedroom door that was tormenting me. I felt a tinge of teenage rebellion flash back into my old bones, and considered telling the Old Man to screw off, that I was going to sleep in, but the faint aroma of the coffee pot drifting into my nose told me not to.

"Polish your nose Bunny, there might be an inspection," I told Binki before staggering out of bed.

I couldn't help but chuckle when I rounded the corner and saw Pepe sitting at the breakfast bar sipping on a glass of orange juice. When he saw me he scrambled to his feet so fast I was sure he was going to get his long thin legs tangled with each other and fall, but somehow managed to catch his balance and flash me a wide silver smile.

"Sit down son, you don't have to get up every time I come into a room," I told him. I reached out to guide him back to his stool, but ended up with a double armload of skinny kid hugging me.

"Good morning Pop!" he bubbled into my shoulder. I couldn't help but wondering if he had grown overnight as I felt his chin lean on my collarbone, but took a second to enjoy the cuddle of his lanky frame, tightly encased in his tailored tee-shirt. "I have your morning report, Sir, Pop," he announced.

"May I get some coffee first? Want some more juice, or some milk?" I just managed to grab him by around the waist as he started toward the kitchen counter and coffee pot. "I can get my own coffee, enjoy your juice." Mary appeared out of nowhere with coffee for me, a large glass of milk for my first boy before either of could move.

"Want some cereal?" Dad asked. Cereal? What about a couple of eggs, a slice of ham and toast? I thought. Before I could answer he continued, "The boys ate down at their sleep-over, since there's no one to cook for, help yourself." Well, at least I know where I rate! I decided.

I resisted the urge to ask Pepe how his injection site felt as I watched him somehow squirm back onto his stool, but as I and enjoyed watching his skin tight jeans somehow stretch over his derriere I forgot to. "Going riding?" I managed.

"After the ceremony sir! I mean if we may?"

I was reading Pepe's little report forms and beginning to feel the wonderful effects of a much needed caffeine fix a minute when what I was fairly sure was my and Adam's entire flock rushed into the kitchen, all of them wearing their uniform denim tights. A couple of one armed hugs and 'Hi Dads' they flushed out the door like a covey of quail. I tried to ignore Dad's pointed glare, cast my half full coffee cup a longing glance, but followed Mary, Pepe and him out the door.

Okay, whatever! I groaned as we walked toward our new flag pole. Dad's been busy, nice to know I'm in charge, and kept informed! What I was sure was all of the ranchers were lined up in two very military looking groups - a sea of stretched Levis. Adam's and my boys were in their own little formation next to them, everyone facing the pole. Tim, Adam, Cindy and her husband, and a couple of other directors were milling around in front of our boys.

As we joined the other adults something didn't feel, or look right. I risked a few glances around to try to find out what it was as I greeted them, but couldn't put my finger on it. Dad whispered something to Pepe, and the youngster rushed away toward the flag pole.

Pepe snapped to his best West Point attention stance and nodded. An instant later three younger teens marched up to the pole, the boy in the middle carrying what was clearly a folded US flag.

My kid alert went off as I watched. Turkey missing! Turkey missing! flashed panic through my body. Carl, and Johnny missing! sounded into my brain as I did another scan.

"Attention!" Pepe's shrill screech distracted me.


"Atencióón!" he yelled his voice cracking up and down several octaves.

Everyone snapped more rigidly upright and put their right hand over their heart as the youngsters next to Pepe hoisted the flag up the pole, followed by what had to be the most unique recital of the Pledge of Allegiance I had ever heard, in three languages at once. A nod from their first boy and everyone lowered their hand back to their side but remained motionless.

"Hey ya'! Gettie Up!" rang from the side of our formation. My mouth dropped open as I turned and saw Carl, driving the new buggy he had purchased for Dad appear from behind one of the buildings and race toward us. Ginger was galloping next to the wagon, topped with her carrot topped owner, and what had to be the bug-eyed Rat Erbert was perched in the wagon seat next to Carl, clearly supervising the drive.

Before anyone realized it the twins, Bobby, Mike and a couple of other youngsters surrounded Dad and hustled him toward the buggy. Mark, Ronnie and a few more lads seized Mary and escorted her right behind. Carl bounced to the ground and said something to his grandfather before Dad's escorts half ushered, half lifted the old man into the wagons seat, at the same time the other boys all but shoved Mary next to him.

I couldn't hear what the two of them said, but could tell it was a very brief argument, before Mary grasped the reins out of Dad's hands and flicked them to tell their steed to trot away. An almost deafening cheer broke out from the other kids as the Gramps-buggy rode away from us into the pasture.

Okay, whatever! I chuckled when the formation of kids broke and they all raced toward the already saddled herd of steeds waiting for them. I hope Mary knows about Lake Skinny Dip! I snickered as I realized what direction the boys rode away toward.

This is retirement? Just how bad did I screw up? I asked myself when I saw Diablo's big head butting against the pasture gate. Welcome to Walmart, would you like a shopping cart? I practiced as I walked back to my new home to change into my jeans.

The End

Notes from the Author:

This ends My Flock. I intend to continue the saga, after a time to rest and deal with some other matters, I hope by fall.

BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT! (Book is now out of print)

I am pleased to announce the arrival of My Carl: A Journey Home this morning, April 16th, 2004. A bouncing in-print rewrite of My Carl, the youngster weighed in at a healthy 287 pages. It is immediately available in Soft Cover and E-book editions directly from my publisher, , within a few days from Amazon, Walmart, Boarders and other retailers. Yes, it is under my real name, Chris Bower.