The Natural Way

Author:  Orrymain
Category:  Slash, Drama, Romance, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - February 5 - November 24, 2018
Spoilers:  None
Size:  103kb
Written:  June 28-30, July 1-4, 2017
Summary:  The Jackson-O'Neills have choices to make about their horse family, Zeus, Athena, and Ares.  Meanwhile, David gets a surprise and loved ones who have passed on are remembered.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) Sometimes, Jack and Daniel speak almost telepathically.  Their “silent” words to each other are indicated by asterisks instead of quotes, such as **Jack, we can't.**
2) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
3) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my other fic(s):  “Zeus”
4) Thanks to Debi C for making a suggestion that led to this fic.  She actually put if forth back in October 2010.  Well, better late than never!

The Natural Way
by Orrymain

Seventeen-year-old Brianna and eleven-year-old Little Danny walked into their older father's office where Jack was lying on the sofa as he chatted on the phone with good friend, Dale Rancolini.  Seeing their father on the phone, the children immediately turned to walk out of the study.

“Hold on a sec, Dale,” Jack said into the phone.  “Kids, what's up?”

“Dad, are we having a family meeting tonight?” Brianna questioned.

“It wasn't on the docket.  Why?”

“Can we have one?” Little Danny asked.  “We have something we need to talk about with the family.”

“0700,” Jack stated with the caveat, “Ask Daddy if we're good to go at that hour, or have him make a counteroffer.”

“It's not a negotiation, Dad,” Brianna chuckled.

“Go,” the father ordered lightly, his hand shooing away the brood of two.  “Sorry about that.  What was I saying?  Oh, yeah, I got it.  It's all in the fingers.”

====

At seven o'clock that evening, the family gathered in the recreation room.  They spread out to sit comfortably, some on the sofa, a few on the storage ottomans, and a couple sitting on the floor pillows.  The large television screen was lowered and the DVD player on and waiting for the 'play' button to be depressed.

The only family members missing were newlywed Jennifer and college student Jeff, who was in his final semester at the University of Cincinnati.

Bijou, Katie, Mittens, and Calico were all seated amongst the children, while Ptolemy, the majestic hyacinth macaw, flew from her open cage door to sit on Daniel's shoulder.

As he stood in front of his family, Jack began, “Okay, kids, it's family meeting time.  Daddy and I don't have anything we need to discuss this evening, so we'll open the floor for any general issues or matters that you guys want to talk about.  Anyone?”  When no one said anything, he continued, “Bri, Little Danny, it looks like you're the main show.  Take it away.”

The general went to the sofa and sat next to his husband, shaking his head when Ptolemy instantly jumped over to his shoulder.

“She loves you, Babe.”

“Yeah, I'm so loveable.”

After the snickers died down, Brianna and Little Danny took over the meeting, beginning by going to the first picture on the DVD, one that brought smiles to the family.

Little Danny began by saying, “Last year, our zoo increased by three when we adopted Zeus, a beautiful white stallion, his mate, Athena, an awesome mix of a Tennessee walker and a quarter horse, and their foal, Ares.  As everyone knows, our horses are staying with Aunt Sara's father, Mike, on his ranch.  When we adopted the horses, Dad and Daddy gave us assignments and as the months have passed, we've followed through on caring for the horses as best we could since we're not exactly that close to them.”

“The assignment I was given,” Brianna began, “was to learn about how Ares should be weaned from Athena.  At the time of adoption, Ares was five-months old.  We decided early on to wait a few months, even though a lot of horse owners start weaning between four and six months of age.  To be honest, that didn't feel right to me.  I went to Little Danny for his opinion and, if you guys remember, in one of our meetings, we decided to wait for Ares to get older.  Well, he's older.”

Little Danny went to the next picture, which was a solo shot of the healthy colt, and said, “We have a decision to make about how to wean Ares.”

“Why do you look so serious, Son?” Jack inquired, thinking both of the presenters were being overly dramatic.

“Because we don't think it's right to separate a mother and her son,” Little Danny answered.

“Why would we do that?” asked six-year-old JD.

Brianna explained, “The accepted way is to literally pluck the foal away from its mother.  They are totally separated and don't see each other again, ever.”

“I don't like that,” Aislinn said as she sat up straighter and frowned.  “It's like when Mommy died or the Svensons.  One moment Mommy's here and the next she's gone.  It's not right.”

Jonny pulled Aislinn in for a protective hug, comforting her as they both remembered their birth mother who was killed tragically in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver.

“Studies have shown that both the mare and the foal become anxious, sometimes for days, after being abruptly separated,” Little Danny reported.

Brianna pressed the remote, forwarding the pictures several times to demonstrate her words as she elaborated, “Sometimes they take the foal to a stall and then just take the mother away, and they never see each other again.”

“That sounds mean to me,” Jonny commented.

“And it doesn't really work.  The foals get very upset because they've just been with their mom and then they're suddenly placed in a new environment,” the middle Munchkin stated.

“You know, from the human side, I can feel that.  It's like going to a foster home after being in the county home, or vice versa.  It can be a shock and then you rebel,” the young adult confided from her own experience.

“They do have another way, something more progressive, where if you have a lot of horses, you put the foals together and over a period of days, their mothers are removed until it's just the foals,” Little Danny told the group while also showing examples in pictures on the screen.

“I don't think I like that, either,” Ricky replied.

“But there is the natural way, and more horse owners are starting to use it, especially people like us who don't own more than a few horses,” the maturing tomboy advised.

“And what's that, Bri?” Daniel queried curiously.

“There's actually a couple of ways.  One involves separating the horses, but allowing them to see each other and rub noses and stuff,” Brianna stated as she again advanced the pictures to show off her verbiage.

“But then there really is the natural way, letting the mom call it quits when her milk has dried up and she, well, she just gets tired of her foal wanting to suck on her all the time.”  Little Danny continued, “Or we can help it along by buying helpers that prevent the foal from sucking on its mother.”

“But they aren't separated?” Jenny asked.

“No, there's no separation.”

“Are those our choices?” David questioned.

“There is one more, the method I mentioned a minute ago,” Brianna responded.  “It's considered to be a more progressive method.  It's a gradual process of separating the mare and foal in larger increments over time, but always keeping them in the sight of the other *and* allowing them to touch noses when they are apart.  The theory here is that the mare's milk can dry up slowly, which is actually safer for her.”

“How long does this separation last?” Jack queried.

“Maybe six, seven, or eight weeks,” Brianna responded.  “But after that, the horses are reunited completely.”

“But,” Little Danny sighed, “it's still important when using this method to make sure the horses don't get together more than the nose touch and a lot of times, they do this by installing electric fences.”

“And electrocute them?” Jenny gasped.

“Honey, it's the same concept as people who use shock collars on their dogs,” Jack spoke quietly.

“I don't like that,” the redhead replied in ire while reaching out and gently pulling Katie onto her lap.  “It's cruel.”

“So, what are you recommending?” Daniel asked.

“Well, the traditional method is too harsh in our opinion,” Little Danny put forth.  “It's not just the sudden and forced separation, but there are after effects that show it's a traumatic event.  Sometimes, the foal or even the mom become more aggressive.  The stress from being pulled apart from each other is harmful in both social and behavioral ways.  We're totally against separating Ares from Athena like this.”

“I think we can all concur with that,” the archaeologist replied.

“And we don't have enough horses to do the more gradual methods.  Those work best when horses have friend horses, and our three have only Angela's Shetlands that are at Mike's.  Mike has just one horse for himself, a gelding so that's not the right mix; we'd need other mares who could act like nannies; and it really wouldn't work to take them to Mister Granger's stables or anything because our horses don't know those horses and we'd be imposing on Mister Granger for quite a while,” Brianna commented.

“That's a good point, so that lets out that idea,” Jack agreed.

“... which brings us to the natural way,” the child prodigy spoke.

“What do we do with that option, Little Danny?” Aislinn questioned.

“Nothing.  The absolute truly natural way is to let the mare decide when to stop feeding their foal.  There is a chance the mare won't do that and then maybe you do have to try something else, but after a year of being sucked on, the dams often stop it themselves.”

“The dams?” Ricky asked.

“The mothers,” Chenoa explained.

Ricky nodded his head, but silently thought, ~Then why didn't he just say the mothers?~

Little Danny asserted, “No matter what we decide, we need to make sure both Athena and Ares are healthy and grazing properly.  It's going to take some time.”

“So, I ask again, what are you recommending?” Daniel queried.

“The natural way, the truly natural way,” Brianna answered.

“Dad, Daddy, we think that separating the horses abruptly is cruel and traumatic for both of them, and while we believe that the gradual method is better, we don't have other horses, so we can't really do that.  We could do the progressive method, but shouldn't the horses be allowed to live their lives the way they want?” Little Danny asked.  “I mean, we aren't breeding them or exhibiting them. We just want them to be happy, healthy, and safe.”

“Okay, what do we do?” Daniel inquired.

“Well,” Little Danny said a bit hesitantly.

“Out with it,” Jack encouraged.

“When we adopted the horses, you said it was really important not to bother Mike,” Little Danny reminded.

“Yes,” Jack affirmed in a leading tone.

“We have to be there,” Brianna announced.  “Once we determine that Athena is wanting to be, uh, undisturbed, we need to monitor her behavior and that of Ares. We need the vet to make sure they're both healthy and we need to ensure they are getting the right nutrients and not experiencing any stress.”

“And if Athena acts like she doesn't mind Ares continuing to feed on her, then we have to decide if that's okay or if we want to buy one of the helper products.”

“What type of product?” David asked.

The Munchkin responded, “One place makes a halter and a strap.  They go on the dam and when the foal tries to nurse these prongs, uh, they're soft and flexible, and when the foal nurses, it creates discomfort for both of them.  The prongs touch the mother in the flank and they also bump the foal's nose.”

“Let me ask this,” Daniel began.  “How do we know when Athena's had enough?”

“She'll tell us,” Little Danny answered with a smile.  “She'll pin her ears back, stomp her hind foot, ring her tail, and she might even give Ares a nip in his six.”

“She'll try to hurt him?” Jenny asked.

“No, never,” Little Danny negated.

“Back up to where we have to be there,” Jack instructed.  “More words.”

“Some of us need to be there to watch the horses, make sure they grazing right, and be there, you know, with them, so they aren't afraid,” Little Danny put forward.

“What we're suggesting are shifts, maybe two weeks each, to stay at Mike's and take care of our horses,” Brianna stated.  “David?”

The sixteen-year-old boy remarked, “As everyone knows, I'm the liaison for the horses with Mike.  Bri and Little Danny gave me a quick overview a few days ago about what we might be facing and I called Mike to ask him how he'd feel to have a house load of brood for a couple of months.  He's cool with it and says he'd enjoy the company, but, he also told me something else and that began a whole new round of discussion between Bri, Little Danny, Noa, and me.”

“And?” Jack prodded.

“Mike caught a couple of horses on his ranch.  They'd gotten out from one of his neighbor's property.”

“And?” Daniel prompted.

“One was a stallion and he had his eyes on Athena.”

“Hey, she's married to Zeus,” JD whined.

“The point is that got us thinking,” David continued.  “Look, our horses are for pleasure and we know you don't want more foals, so we think we should have both Zeus and Ares gelded.”

“What does that mean?” Ricky inquired.

“It means he can't sire a foal,” Chenoa answered.

“Huh?”

“No more babies,” Aislinn clarified for the Spitfire.

“Oh.  Why didn't she say so?”

“She did,” Aislinn sighed.

“Noa,” Little Danny urged.

The young horsewoman stood next to her presenting siblings and remarked, “There's a debate about horse overpopulation, but the fact is that gelding keeps horses calmer and makes them less aggressive.  It prevents breeding and can effect their appearance.”

“Okay, kids, it sounds like you've done your research.  What about Pam?  Have you spoken with her?” Jack asked about the family vet.

“We did,” Chenoa answered.  “A lot of this is our choice and what we want for our horses.  They're pleasure horses so we don't need to worry about presenting them in a show or studding them.  Pam said she'd be happy to go to Mike's with her horse expert ...”

“You guys remember Valencia,” Brianna interjected.  “She works with Pam on the larger animals.”

“She did the initial health checkup with Pam, right?” Daniel recalled.

“Yes, and she gave them their shots at the beginning,” the tomboy added.

Chenoa, who turned twelve last October, continued, “They'll go to Mike's and help us evaluate where the horses are, in accordance to our wishes.”

“Okay, it sounds like our wishes are to allow the weaning to happen naturally.  We're in no rush, but what I'm hearing is that we're not there enough to monitor how Athena is feeling about feeding Ares.  Would that be correct?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Little Danny confirmed.

“And I'm hearing that you think we should have both of our males gelded.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Chenoa affirmed.

“How does that work?” Jack questioned, “the weaning and gelding time?”

“We're not totally sure on the timing yet,” Little Danny replied.  “Pam said she'd help us figure that out after she examined the horses again with Valencia.”

“Specifics.  What is it we need to do now?” Jack asked.

“First, we need to set up a time so we can go to Mike's and have Pam and Valencia there.  If we go ahead with the weaning and try to force it a little, the best time is early spring or late fall,” Little Danny stated.

“From what Mike told David the other day and what Noa observed when she and Angela were at Mike's a couple of weeks ago, it's probable Athena is actually ready to give Ares his eating independence.  We can help that along a little, if we want, with casual separation, but maybe we should see if Ares gets the hint on his own,” Brianna put forth.

“Let's take a vote,” Jack suggested.  “All those in favor of humans butting out and seeing if the horses can handle this on their own, raise their hands.”  With a smile, he announced, “It's unanimous.”

“Horses have done it their own way for hundreds of years,” Chenoa opined.  “Athena and Ares know what to do.”

“But we do need to watch and observe them, Dad, and if you two agree, we need to set up a schedule where we take shifts at Mike's,” Brianna reminded.

The parents took a brief moment to exchange a glance and then Daniel replied, “We can do that.”

“Noa, on the assumption we need to have family there for two months, set up a schedule.  Keep in mind, there's no shuttling back and forth so ask your siblings about their schedules and do your best,” Jack instructed.

Daniel added, “If you have problems, come to us and we'll settle any conflicts.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“I appreciate all the research and all the interest,” Daniel told the brood.  “Keep in mind that if we go forward with the, uh, horse observations, we'll all have to sacrifice some things.  When Noa asks you about your schedules, be honest, but everyone is probably going to have to give up something, so be selective about what is the most important to you.  Dad and I will be tiebreakers and you can probably guess where our sentiments will lie.”

“With Zeus, Athena, and Ares,” Chenoa put forth.

“You got that right,” Jack responded with a smile and a supportive point at the young dove.  “Anything else?”

“Anyone?” Daniel called out.  “Okay, ice cream!”

“Yes!” Jonny exclaimed.  “Like Dad says, it never gets old.”

With laughter, the brood headed for the hospitality room to gather up their ice cream treats.

====

“The signs are definitely there,” Valencia Rind, DVM, told the Jackson-O'Neills that Thursday afternoon.  “My feeling is that if you left Athena to her own devices, she'll wean Ares herself.”

“Should we buy one of those halters to help the process?” David inquired.

“I don't think so.  They are sometimes necessary, but ... see, right now.  Athena just ringed her tail.”

“Is that like a dog wagging its tail?” JD inquired.

“In ways, yes, but when dogs wag their tails, it can mean a lot of things.  Humans tend to believe it means their dogs are happy, but it can also mean they are afraid, a warning for you not to approach them, or any number of things.  A tail wag is a communication, whether it's a dog or a horse.  Right now, Athena is telling Ares that she doesn't want him to feed on her.  Look, Ares has gotten the message.  What needs to be done is to lead Ares to food, to a grazing area or a bucket of oats.  That's how he'll learn.”

Valencia gave Pam a look, after which the family vet suggested the children go with her into the corral for another look at the horses.

“Okay, Valencia, what is it you want to talk to us about?” Jack asked.

“You're very observant, Jack,” the woman replied.

“It's a military thing.”

“There are two things I wanted to ask you about without your children around.  You mentioned on the phone that you want to castrate the males.”

“Is there a problem with that?” Daniel asked.

“No, not at all.  I only wanted to mention that I have a wonderful video that shows the procedure in advance.  Your family has always been very hands on with your animals, so I mentioned this to Pam and she agreed it would be a good preparation.  However, the video is very graphic, but if your children intend to watch the procedure ...”

“They can do that?” Daniel questioned.

“Oh, yes.  The procedure would probably take place,” Valencia looked around and pointed to an open area, “there.  We would give the horses anesthetic.  Once they're lying down, we perform the castration.  It doesn't take that long and the kids can watch every step, but they would need to prepared.  There is a lot of blood involved, so if they're screamish or sensitive to that, then it's probably not a good idea.”

“Can we see the video?” the archaeologist inquired.

“Of course,” the vet agreed.  “I'll send you a link to it.”

“We'd appreciate that,” Daniel responded.

“You said two things,” Jack prompted.

“Yes, uh, Zeus and Athena are wonderful horses.  They're very close in age, but by your request to make Zeus a gelding, you obviously don't intend for them to breed again.”

“We aren't looking to build a horse farm,” Jack affirmed.

“This isn't a requirement.  These horses are very healthy and should easily live another twenty years, if not more, barring some unforeseen illness or injury.  Also, as you've witnessed, Ares is a very happy foal.  You've got a natural horse family here, and it works.  However, there could be a time when Ares is left alone.”

“Whoa!  What you're saying is we need to think Noah's ark, two-by-two, the buddy system,” Jack surmised.

“I wouldn't quite put it that way, but in a way, yes.  Again, I realize these are rescue horses and this isn't your ranch, but there are a lot of foals and young geldings out there who could use a home.  Maybe you could find one to be a pal to Ares and who could also take some comfort from Athena.”

“We'll think about it.”

“Daniel!”

“We'll think about it,” Daniel repeated as he walked away to join the brood in the corral.

Smiling, Valencia followed.

Jack let out a groan and groused, ~Why, why, *why* do we always end up with more animals than the local zoo?~

The general sighed and began to walk to the corral gate.

“Because they need homes and love, Dad, and you and Daddy have lots of love to give.  What's one more horse, Dad?”

The general froze.  He looked all around, jerking his body in every direction as he searched for the boy responsible for the remark.  He focused in on his family and saw they were totally engaged with the horses.

“Okay, I'm losing my mind.”

“No, you're not.  Talk to Mr. Granger.  Gotta go.  I love you, Dad.”

Jack's breathing was heavier and he remained still as he replied softly, “I love you, too, Sport.”

====

“Hey, Babe,” Daniel called out that evening after finding his lover on the Aerie.  “I thought we should talk about ...”

“Buy the horse.”

“What?”

“The horse, Daniel, the horse.  Call Granger.  I'd bet money there's a horse in need of a home.  First thing in the morning, call him.”

“Jack, are you okay?  I didn't think you'd want another horse.  I mean, uh, Valencia said it wasn't necessary.”

“Charlie told me to buy the horse from Granger.”

“Charlie?”

“If you want to call a shrink, I won't argue.”

“Okay, just ... back up a bit.  What are you talking about?”

“I heard his voice, at Mike's, this afternoon,” Jack confided.  “It was crystal clear. He told me to buy the horse.”

“Okay then, we'll buy the horse.”

“Do you think I'm crazy?”

“Jack, why would I think that?”

“I just told you that our dead son told me to buy a horse.”

“Well, we both know by now that there is a higher power.  We've felt it and we've seen it in many ways.  Charlie saved our boys when they were little, remember?  Is there any doubt in your mind that he was there, watching over them when they were lost?”

“No, he was there.”

“They heard his voice, too, Jack.  I remember Jonny and Little Danny not knowing what to do.  The signs Charlie was giving them weren't getting through or there was some interference because of the weather, so Charlie told them where to go to be safe.  Babe, wherever 'there' is, Charlie is, and if for some reason, he wants us to save another horse, we'll save another horse.  I mean, what's one more horse?”

Jack's head turned in a flash as he stared at his husband.

“What?”

“That's what he said, Danny; Charlie asked me what's one more horse.”

Daniel looked at his watch and noted, “You know, it's not that late.  I'm going to call Mister Granger now.”  He leaned forward and kissed his husband.  “We're very lucky, Jack.  For two men who have always been so questioning about life, we've been blessed.  I'm not fighting that power that's out there anymore.  I have all the proof I need that there's a force up there, watching over us, and I'm not talking about the Asgard.”  He kissed Jack again and declared, “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Angel.”

====

The family set about their plans to allow Ares to be weaned naturally.  Athena was cooperating totally on her own, without any manmade items needing to help the situation along.

Jack and Daniel agreed to a rotation chart wherein three members of the brood stayed at Mike's ranch for anywhere from a few days to a full week at a time.  There were a few gaps on the schedule, such as Easter weekend, times when Mike volunteered to watch the horses so the Jackson-O'Neills could have the entire family home.

In addition, Sara and Mark Wilson and their girls planned to spend a week with Mike, so they agreed to do the monitoring since they'd be at the ranch anyway.  The other slight adjustment was Jennifer and her new husband, Peter, took a slot on the schedule with JD going with them.  Jennifer really wanted the time with her littlest brother and this was a great opportunity.  On yet another rotation of a few days, Jennifer was scheduled to go with David and Chenoa, allowing the Mouseketeers to spend time together as well.

====
Rotation One
====

“Noa, what are we doing?” Jenny asked the young dove.

“We're setting up the creep feeder.”

“Creep feeder?  That sounds creepy,” Lulu mused.

“Is this for Athena?” the Spitfire asked.

“No, it's for Ares.  What we have to do is start supplementing Ares' diet of Athena's milk.  It will help him grow and get a higher weaning weight.”

“That's good?” Lulu queried.

“That's good,” the curly-haired blonde affirmed.  “Valencia says it will make the weaning less stressful for both Athena and Ares. Here's a good spot for it.”

“Um, Noa, there's nothing here but ... grass,” Jenny pointed out.

“We have to build a creep pen for the creep feeder.”

“I still say this is creepy,” Lulu sighed, not quite understanding what they were doing.

“Girls, you ready?” Mike called out.

“Ready!” Chenoa shouted.

All three girls were attired in working farm attire, wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and sneakers.  Being the family's acknowledged horsewoman, Chenoa was the leader and knew exactly what needed to be done.

“Noa, what are we doing?”

“Building a creep pen.  We've seen Athena spend a lot of time right here, and that's important.  We'll build the pen, and it's going to be narrow so only Ares can fit inside, and we'll keep the entrance smaller so neither Athena or Zeus can enter to eat the food.”

“That matters?” Jenny questioned.

“Yes, because we need to make sure Ares is getting all his nutrients.”

Soon, Mike was assisting the trio in setting up the pen.  He was amazed at Jenny's strength and her insistence on doing her part of the job all by herself.  Chenoa and Lulu were content to do their best but with some aid from Mike.

“Gee whiz,” Lulu expressed.  “Maybe some of the boys should have been first.  This is hard.”

“It's all in the technique, Lulu,” Mike claimed.  “I'll give you a couple of tips.”

Lulu watched how Mike drove the metal stakes into the ground, though she still thought her brothers should be doing this job.

“Give it a shot,” Mike urged.

“Hey, I did it.”

“It's all in how you use your body weight.”

The rails were successfully going in, one at a time.  Wanting to save some time, Jenny grabbed hold of five rails and grunted as she carried, pulled, and dragged them from Mike's truck bed to the pen area.  All of a sudden, the weight of the rails took their toll on the Spitfire.

“Noooooaaaaahelllllp!”

“Jenny!” a chorus of shouted voices exclaimed, only they quickly turned into laughter.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Jenny whined as she sat up and looked at the rails that were strewn all around her.

“One at a time,” Mike reminded as he ensured the ten-year-old was unharmed.

When the pen was done, the workers placed the creep feeder inside and filled it with specialized food designed for foals in the process of being weaned.

“Okay, now we have to wait and see what happens when the horses come over here.”

“I'll let them out of the barn,” Mike said.  “Call me if you need me.”

“Thank you, Mike,” Jenny spoke on behalf of the sisters.

====
Rotation Two
====

“Hi, Mister Granger,” Jonny greeted on what was the fifth and last day of the current rotation that consisted of the Munchkin, Ricky, and JD.

Adolph Granger was actually Mark Wilson's employer.  Mark, of course, was the husband of Jack's ex-wife, Sara.  Granger owned a large stable and for years allowed Chenoa and Angela, the Wilson's oldest daughter, to ride his horses most anytime they wanted.  Though he could have sent his ranch hands, he liked the Jackson-O'Neills and felt like he wanted to personally be there to observe the integration of the three-year-old colt with those already at Mike's ranch.  He did bring three of his stable workers to help out in case of problems with the integration.

“Good morning, Jonny.”  Granger looked over and smiled.  “Ricky, JD.”

As Mike approached, Jonny introduced, “Mike, this is Mister Granger.”

“We haven't met, but I've heard a lot about you,” Mike responded.

“I hope the kids haven't said anything too true,” the man jested.

“The kids haven't said a thing, but my daughter has.”

“Your daughter?”

Ricky chuckled, “Mike's daughter is Aunt Sara.”

“Sara?  Mark's wife?”

“She's the one.”

“I didn't make the connection,” Granger admitted.  “She's a wonderful woman, and her husband is one of my company's best assets.”

“That's good to know,” Mike replied.

“Do you all have a preference for how we continue?” Granger asked.

“Noa thinks we should let Apollo out and ...”

“Apollo?” Granger asked.

“Yeah, that's what we're going to call him,” Jonny explained, “because our other horses are Zeus, Athena, and Ares.  You said the horse doesn't have a name, right?  I mean, we don't like changing names of animals if they already have one.”

“He's a straggler found by one of my hands when he was a foal.  We searched for an owner, but never found one.  We've had him for well over a year now, but never got around to giving him a name.”

“Some of us call him Socks, Mister Granger,” one of the hands volunteered.

“Okay, we'll talk about it.  Socks is a fun name, too,” the Munchkin opined.

“I didn't intend to interrupt you, Jonny.  You were saying.”

“Oh, yeah, Noa says we should let Apollo, er, Socks, run around on his own for a while and get used to the scents of our horses, and Mike's horse, too.  Then we can bring out our horses and let them get to know each other.”

“Can your ranch hands stay a while?” JD asked.  “Just in case.”

“Of course, JD,” Granger replied.  “In a small herd, horses usually get along just fine after a bit of prancing, sniffing, and posturing, but sometimes, there are issues.  Cowboy, there haven't been any issues with this horse, correct?”

A longtime stable employee, Cowboy responded, “Not a one, Mister Granger.  Socks has palled around with most of our horses.  He's nary let out a nay in objection.”

“Noa said to watch really closely, but if they get along right away, that we can just keep a close eye on them, but if they don't, then we need to go to Plan  B.”

“What's Plan B?”

“Introduce them slowly,” Jonny advised.  “Ricky, how'd she say to do that?”

“Oh, um, she said we should put Apollo where he can see and smell our horses, and vice versa, for a few days.  We can start bringing them closer together and watch them; listen.  Then we could try letting them get to know each other in the corral.”

“Sounds like a good plan.  I also brought along all of Socks' records.  He's up on all his vaccinations and was given a clean bill of health by our vet just a few weeks ago.  You're welcome to have your vet take a look as well.”

“Valencia's on her way,” Ricky advised.

“Valencia Rind?” Granger asked, seeing affirmative nods.  “I've heard of her.  She has a terrific reputation.”  He looked at Mike and asked, “Do you mind if I stay?”

“No problem.  Why don't we go inside while we wait.”

“Thank you.”  Granger looked at the boys and asked, “Do you want to wait for Ms. Rind to arrive before we release Socks into the field?”

“Noa said we should, but she also said that if you say he's healthy, then we should trust you because you wouldn't lie.”

“Chenoa's correct, but let's wait, purely out of a caution.”

“Mike, can we ride our horses for a little while?  They haven't had their morning exercise yet?”

“I don't know, Jonny.”

“If he can ride your horse, Cowboy can go out with them,” Granger offered.

“Please, Mike,” the three boys requested.

“Okay,” Mike permitted.  “Stay away from the horse trailer with the new horse.”  Mike looked around and continued, “Ride them toward the northeast and make sure you have your phone with you.  Stay together.”  He glanced at his watch and said, “Twenty minutes out, walk them for ten, and twenty minutes back.  Check in when you're walking them.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jonny acknowledged, immediately checking his pocket for the phone Mike gave the boys upon arriving for their rotation since the community phone used by the younger Jackson-O'Neill children was at home.  “I'll ride Zeus, Ricky you're on Athena, and JD, you can ride Pepe.”  He looked up at Mike and asked, “Is that okay?”

“That's why I brought him here,” Mike answered.  Pepe belonged to a fellow rancher.  He was a young pony, used to children riding him.  He was extremely gentle and, in the past, the younger Jackson-O'Neill children had all ridden him, including JD.  “Ask Cowboy to check the equipment for you.”

“How come I never get to ride Zeus?” the youngest child of Jack and Daniel asked in a whiny tone.

“Cause you're too young,” Ricky answered on behalf of Mike and the Munchkin.

“But I can ride him.”

“Not today,” Mike interjected.

“Not today,” JD sighed, realizing that was the ultimate answer to his situation.  ~I'm always too young,~ he pouted.

Several minutes later, Mike and Mister Granger were enjoying coffee and bagels, while the Jackson-O'Neill boys were riding their horses with Cowboy along to deal with any difficulties.  He held the lead for Ares as he followed along.  At less than a year old, he was far too young to be ridden.  He was a growing horse and after consulting with Pam and Valencia, the family made the decision to wait until he was four years of age before they would begin to ride him.

“We should live here all the time,” Ricky called out.  “I love riding the horses.”

“Me, too,” JD added.

“Okay, let's walk them for a while,” Jonny suggested.  As instructed, he pulled out the phone and called Mike.  At the end of ten minutes, he and his brothers mounted their horses, or at least tried.  “JD!”

“Pepe keeps moving.”

“You've ridden Pepe a lot.  You can do it, just like I taught you.”

“Jonny ...”

“You're a Jackson-O'Neill.  Keep trying,” Jonny encouraged, wanting to get off Zeus and help his little brother, but also knowing JD needed to do it himself.  ~It's like survival training.  If he doesn't learn to do it himself, what might happen when I'm not around?~  He sighed, ~It's hard to help someone grow up.~

Amused, Cowboy kept an eye out.  He was ready to jump in if Pepe indicated he was annoyed or upset.  At this point, though, he felt like the pony was being playful with the child.

“Pepe, stop moving,” JD ordered.

The youngster tried to mount the foal again, but when Pepe calmly went to his right, JD actually fell onto the ground.  He sat there, his knees raised and his torso raised as he leaned against his elbows.

“Pepe, this is not funny!” JD chastised.

“Zeus, a little help, okay?” Jonny requested of the white stallion.  “I know Pepe isn't your son, but you're the leader.  Step up.”

Appropriately, Zeus let out a strong nay, receiving a more acquiescent nay in reply from the younger horse.

“Thank you, Zeus,” Jonny spoke quietly, getting a tiny whinny and rear of the horse's head in response.

“Okay, Pepe, please stay put,” JD spoke in a strong tone.  He took a deep breath.  ~I can do this.  Jonny says I can, so I can.~  With great determination, JD put his hands on the horse, patted gently, and then successfully settled onto the saddle.  “Jonny, I did it!”

“You did great, didn't he, Ricky?”

“Awesome, Bro,” Ricky called out.

“Let's ride,” Jonny urged, but waiting for his brothers to go ahead of him, just to be safe.  ~They're my responsibility.  I'm the oldest.~

Cowboy looked over at the Munchkin and gave him an approving nod, one that made Jonny feel good.  Cowboy was a real cowboy in the boy's eyes, so getting that little sign of approval was very special for him.

There was a lot to do during the rotation at Mike's, and Jonny knew his group could handle each of their assignments well.  It wasn't work, not when there were moments like this, out in nature and in tune with the positivity of the universe.

====
Rotation Three
====

It was the second day of the third rotation and Jennifer and Peter, an old married couple of forty-eight days, were taking a walk.  They had their arms around each other's waist while Peter also held the lead so Ares could follow along peacefully.

“This is a great place, Jen.”

“I've always liked it; I just wish Mike had someone to share it with.  He's all alone out here.”

“He has your Aunt Sara and her family, and you and your family.”

“I guess so.”  Jennifer smiled as she viewed the beauty of the morning.  “Wouldn't it be lovely to wake up to this every day?”

“We could buy a place like this, if you want.”

“No.  It's too far away.”

“I wish I had siblings like you.  You guys are so close.”

“We are.  You know, Peter, I know families who argue all the time.  We've argued and had tiffs, but we always talked it out eventually.  I can't imagine a world without them, and my parents.  How lucky were David, Noa, and I to end up with such great parents?”

“I get it.  Now that my parents aren't absentee, I finally know what it's like to be a part of a family.  I didn't say that right, but you know what I mean.”

“I do.”  Jennifer heard a sound and looked over at Ares.  “Does that mean you're hungry?”

After a loud nay was heard, Jennifer and Peter headed back.

“I was looking at the record books, and Ares has been eating well.  We might want to check with the vets; he might be eating a little too much.”

“Okay, I'll let Dad and Daddy know.”

“What time do you want to exercise Zeus and Athena?”

“Peter, would you mind?  We're not riding them this afternoon, so ...”

“JD time?”

“Yes,” Jennifer replied with a sweet smile.

“Go for it, Jen,” Peter responded, kissing his wife and giving her a tender squeeze as they walked on with Ares taking it all in.

====
Rotation Five
====

Following a week-long stay by the Wilson family, a new set of Jackson-O'Neill kids began their rotation with a specific goal in mind, settling the name of their new horse.  Before learning that some of Granger's hands were calling the horse Socks, the family decided on the mythological name of Apollo.  However, as Jonny told Granger, they didn't believe in changing an animal's name just for their own jollies.  Since the colt's arrival, a lot of debate took place at home.  Finally, the task was given to this rotation to determine whether or not the colt preferred to be called Socks or Apollo.

After lunchtime, Brianna, Aislinn, and Little Danny headed for the corral where the colt was walking around and enjoying the day.

“Little Danny, you stay here by the fence and I'll go over on the other side,” Brianna instructed.  “Ash, why don't you lead the colt around the corral for a few minutes.  We want to make sure he's calm and relaxed.”

“Okay.”

“Bri, we don't want to call out the names close together.  We'll confuse him.  This is suppose to be his choice.”

“I agree.  I'll signal you and you can go first.  We'll be patient and give him time to react.”

Aislinn walked up the colt and tenderly ran her hand along the colt's face.  She smiled and giggled lovingly.

“Let's go for a walk,” the youngest Munchkin urged the palomino colt.  “You know, we love you already.  You're part of our family now, so it's important to us that you have a name you love.  I won't lie to you.  We had our hearts set on calling you Apollo.  It's a Greek name for a mythological character.  Apollo was the god of music.  He was a healer, ruled over the sun and light, and poetry, and he was based in truth and prophecy.  He was the son of Zeus.  Those are the good things.  You know what, though.  Socks is a fun name.  We could have a lot of fun. Dad loves to tease and I think he'd get a big kick out of calling you Socks.”  She paused and walked casually alongside the horse.  “You don't have to go along with being called Apollo.  It's okay to march to your own drummer, or your own hoofs,” the girl chuckled.  “My brother Ricky does that.  He doesn't care about wearing matching clothes.  He wears what he likes, and my dad and daddy let him.  The clothes are clean and orderly, so why should he limit himself by wearing what society says he has to?”

The colt whinnied, causing Aislinn to chuckle as she continued to walk the horse in the circular corral.

“So, in a minute, Little Danny and Bri are going to give you the choice, and no matter what, we love you.  It's okay to be Socks and it's okay to be Apollo.  I'm kinda hoping you want to be Apollo, but if you want to be Socks, you be Socks.  We'll love you just the same and we'll honor your wishes and never look back.”

“Ash, let's give it a try,” Brianna suggested.

Aislinn slowed the walk until she and the colt were still.  She ran her hands along the colt's side and smiled.  She again ran her hand down the face of the horse.

“Remember, be yourself because we love you, no matter what name you choose.”  Moving away, Aislinn took a breath, and called out, “Okay, he's ready.”

Sitting on the fence across from the colt, Little Danny calmly called out, “Socks?  Hey, Socks!”

The kids waited for two full minutes before Brianna called out, “Apollo?  Hey, Apollo!”

The palomino colt whinnied as he shook his head.

“It's okay.  Be yourself.  We love you by any name.  Choose the name you love,” Aislinn encouraged as she stood by the gate that was to the left of the horse and a few feet behind him.  “Go again,” she called out to her siblings.

“Hey, Socks.  Come on over, Socks,” Little Danny encouraged in a calm but welcoming tone.

After two minutes, Brianna called out the same words, only with the name of Apollo instead of Socks.

“Be yourself,” Aislinn encouraged quietly.

The colt whinnied again and took a few steps forward.  He looked back at Aislinn, who was smiling supportively.

“It's your choice.  We love you for you and not your name.”

The colt stared at the beautiful young girl and then looked ahead.  The reality was he couldn't see straight ahead.  The visual range of a horse, even with large eyes, had a field of vision that excluded seeing directly in front of them or behind them. They had a broad range of sight on their sides, however.  Because of where they  were positioned, this meant the horse could actually see all three of the children.

“Socks!” Little Danny called out one more time.

“Apollo!” Brianna exclaimed in a matching tone to her brother.

The colt turned his head towards Aislinn one more time.  He could sense goodness in the girl and he trusted her.  Making an upbeat noise, the horse trotted over to Brianna.

“Hey, you want to be Apollo?”

The horse looked over at Aislinn and then back at Brianna and appeared to nod, making a happy whinny sound in the process.

“Okay, guys, he wants to be Apollo.”

“Cool,” Little Danny expressed as he hopped down from the fence and jogged over to the other side.

Aislinn also ran over calmly to the horse and began to pat him.

“Apollo, I'm happy you're Apollo, but I'd be happy if you were Socks, too, cause you're a great horse and I love you.”

Apollo let out with another happy sounding whinny as he swished his tail.

====
Rotation Ten
====

Weeks passed as the weaning of Ares from Athena happened in a naturally occurring way.  It didn't take as long as expected, either.  During the last rotation, Ares was seen taking a final feeding of milk, but after that, Ares kept his eating to the creep feeder.  Not once after that had he attempted to feed from his dam.

The primary mission, therefore, of the current rotation was to monitor the health of mother and son.  Chenoa and Lulu were on their third of a scheduled four-day visit at Mike's as they headed for the corral to check on Athena.

Mike crossed paths with the Curly Tops as he led Zeus to the barn to take his temperature.  At the very least, all of the horses had temperature checks done every week, but none of the children were allowed to take Zeus's temperature.  Stallions could be more difficult to handle so Mike always did the health check on him.  Because of the health risks to mares once weaning was completed, Athena's temperature was being checked more often than normal.

“Okay, I've got her,” Lulu told her sister.  “You're such a beautiful mare, Athena.”

Once she had the digital thermometer in her right hand, Chenoa reached out and patted the horse on her neck and then calmly ran her hand all the way along the horse's side.  Then she carefully reached for her tail and moved it to her left.

“This will only take a minute, Athena,” Chenoa spoke softly as she took the thermometer and inserted it into the horse, twisting slightly.

Athena was used to this strange happening and endured the process well, though she took a step to the side a couple of times.

“All done,” Chenoa said quietly as she removed the device in the same fashion as she'd inserted it.  She quickly looked at the reading and frowned.  “Oh no.”

“What?”

“Well, let me finish this first,” Chenoa stated, taking the digital reader to the case and wiping it with an alcohol rub to clean it thoroughly.  She then wrote down the results of the reading.  “She has a temperature.”

“How much?”

“Her normal reading is an even one-hundred.  She's rarely higher than that, but her temp this morning is one-hundred-one-point-seven degrees.”

Chenoa walked over and looked under Athena to check her mammary gland.  Her eyes widened as her concern grew.  She reached out and touched the udder.

“We have to call Daddy and Valencia right away.  Stay with her, okay?”

“Okay, Noa.”

Chenoa ran as fast as she could to the ranch house and went straight for the phone.

“Hello.”

“Daddy, Athena's sick,” Chenoa reported anxiously.

“Take a deep breath and tell me,” Daniel requested.

The girl told her father about the temperature and then told him, “And when I touched her udder, it was really warm and tender, and Athena moved like she didn't want me to touch it.  She's never done that, Daddy.  Will you call Valencia, please?”

“I'll do it right away.  Noa, it'll be okay.”

“Okay, I'm going back outside to stay with her.”

“Does Mike know?”

“Um, I don't know where  he is.”

“Sweetie, stay calm, find Mike, and tell him I'm calling the vets, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.  Hurry, okay?”

“I love you, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, too, Daddy.”

Mike's ranch, purchased in 2010, was located near North Cheyenne Creek and bordered on the Pike National Forest.  Depending upon traffic, it was a solid ninety-minute drive from Colorado Springs.  Considering that it would take time to get to Pam and/or Valencia, it was going to be a long wait for the Curly Tops.

As they waited, Chenoa and Lulu stayed by Athena's side, refusing to walk away from the mare for even a second.  Mike could only watch.  Then there was a noise coming from the sky.  The sound in the distance became clearer after a few seconds and Chenoa remembered hearing it from her childhood.

“Lulu, let's take Athena to the barn.”

“Why?”

“Dad and Daddy are coming.”

“How do you know?”

“It's a helicopter.  We don't want Athena to be frightened.”

As the girls began to leisurely take Athena away, Mike hurried forward, smiling when he saw the children headed for him with the horse at a leisurely gait.

“Your parents called.”

“That's them on the helicopter, huh?” Chenoa called out, seeing Mike's nod.

A few minutes later, the copter landed.  It was a military vehicle, an updated model from the one used back in 2010 when Jonny and Little Danny got lost in the woods.  On board were Jack, Daniel, and Valencia.

“Dad!  Daddy!”

“Hey, Princess,” Jack called out, giving his daughter a big hug.  “You did good.”

“Lulu's with Athena and Mike in the barn.”

Daniel helped Valencia with her medical equipment and then all went hurriedly to the barn.  The group stood together, watching anxiously as Valencia surveyed the mare.  She could easily see the swollen udder and as she maneuvered, she observed Athena being a bit hesitant to move, though she did move more freely than might be expected.

Next, Valencia hooked up her portable ultrasound unit and reviewed images of the mammary gland.  After that, she took some cultures to review back in her office.

“Okay, not too bad.  I know you're in a little bit of pain, but don't worry, Athena, you're going to be just fine,” Valencia assured.  “Noa, did you happen to check Athena yesterday?”

“Yes, Ma'am.  We took her temperature at the same time.  We always take it at the same time, and I've checked her udder every day.”

“And it wasn't like this yesterday?”

“No, Ma'am,” Chenoa responded, shaking her head for emphasis.

“That's good.  We caught this early on.”

“Caught what?” Jack asked.

“Mastitis.  That's a bacterial infection of the mammary gland, Jack, and it's not that uncommon at the end of the weaning process.  I take it Ares is completely weaned?”

“He hasn't taken Athena's milk in four days,” Chenoa answered.  “We have all the records in the house.”

“I'd like to see them, please.”

“I'll get them,” Lulu volunteered as she took off in a sprint to retrieve the mare's records as noted by the brood over the past couple of months.

“Since we've discovered this early, we should be able to get it under control quickly.  If there aren't any complications, Athena will make a full recovery.”

“So, what exactly are we dealing with?” Daniel inquired.

“Athena has two udders, as I'm sure you know.  It's her left udder that is swollen, and my exam indicates that it's the back half of the left udder that has become infected.  There's a slight increase in the first half as well, but I need to give her a more extensive exam to know for sure.  She's not in a lot of pain.  It seems more like a brief irritation for her.  Have you been exercising her, Noa?”

“All the time,” the blonde answered.

“Jack, Daniel, once I've confirmed my diagnosis and reviewed the test results, what I'll probably recommend is that we place Athena on a broad spectrum antibiotic.  It seems she still has milk; it hasn't dried up yet.”  Valencia paused as she continued to observe the mare.  “Her teats will have to be hand milked frequently in order to reduce the swelling.  We may have to give her anti-inflammatory drugs, too, but I'm not sure about that yet.  Sometimes hot packs will do the trick.  She'll also need a steady dose of exercise.  That's not an option.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Chenoa asked.

“She is a very healthy mare, Noa,” Valencia responded.  “Because of your diligence, we've caught this before it's done much damage.  If we stay on top on of this and make sure Athena gets the care she needs, she should be okay.”

“How long?” Jack queried.

“Actually, if you follow my instructions, she could be as good as new within a week.”

“Dad, Daddy, we need reinforcements,” Chenoa stated.

“Here they are,” Lulu interjected when she ran back into the barn.

“Thank you, Lulu,” Valencia responded as she took hold of the folder she'd been handed.  “Well, you keep very good records.  I'm impressed.  Yes, yes, very good.”  She looked up and said, “I'd like to examine Ares while I'm here and make sure there aren't any abnormalities with him.”

“Sure.”

Valencia smiled at the Curly Tops and praised, “Great job, girls.  I'll let you know what to do and how to do it later today.”  She chuckled.  “Uh, you might let that pilot out of the copter.  We're going to be here for awhile.”

====

The Jackson-O'Neills were having a great Friday.  The entire family, sans Jeff, was at Mike's ranch.  They were celebrating two major achievements.  First, Athena was completely healed from her bout with mastitis with no further issues.  Though the final rotation was scheduled to be just Brianna and Lulu, Mike graciously allowed the entire brood to stay at his ranch as they all wanted to participate in Athena's recovery.  Only Jennifer didn't stay all the time, though she drove to the ranch and back every other day.  Jeff, of course, was still involved with his architectural studies in Ohio.

Zeus and Ares were also examined thoroughly and as usual, were strong and healthy.  Ares was happily eating his grains and oats and was totally weaned, making him a weanling.

The second cause for celebration was that on this Friday, the twentieth of April, David turned seventeen.  His party was western style, of course, and included a big barbecue.  Several members of the extended Jackson-O'Neill family were present, including the newlywed Hammonds, the Wilsons, and a few of his friends from the neighborhood like Calvin Miller as well as some college chums, including Andrea Francis who shared his interest in lithology.

There were some notable absences.  Sam Shanahan and family were in Europe while daughter Susie underwent an operation that could allow her to hear for the first time in her life, and Janet had to work at Stargate Command while husband Teal'c was on Chulak for Jaffa business.

The partying began at noon and was expected to go into the evening for family members.  Jack and Daniel once again spared no expense when it came to honoring the birth of one of their children.  Wanting to provide some extra fun, they brought in a mechanical bull.

Against his lover's advice, Jack took a turn on the mighty bull.  Surviving one ride on the bull, the general became overly confident and requested the mechanical object be run at a more aggressive pace.  He whooped and hollered in full cowboy fashion until he went sliding off the back of the bull and landed on his six.  Though the area was padded, he landed in an awkward position that was not only embarrassing, but painful.  Even so, he stood and took a big bow to the laughing partygoers.

Though most of the party was spent mingling and eating some awesome barbecued food, the guests also enjoyed playing horseshoes and participating in a game of western TV trivia.  The brood also surprised their brother with a skit where they dressed up as different types of rocks and told the history of the world through the eyes of the rocks.

The horses received plenty of attention as well.  Zeus, Athena, Mike's horse, and Pepe, all were ridden off and on during the day.  The four Shetland Ponies had fun being reunited again for a visit, and young Ares was the center of attention.  Apollo received his fair share of the love as well.

When nighttime fell and the party was ebbing, a bit of a surprise occurred.  With country music playing, Sara and Mark began to dance and then Jack and Daniel joined in.  Jonny and Aislinn began to do a playful jig together, too, and then the birthday boy asked Andrea to dance.  Eyes were focused on them at first, but then everyone returned to their own activities.

Ricky and Jenny danced, too, as did Mike with Angela and Jennifer with husband, Peter.  Even George and Sophia Hammond took a turn on the dance floor.  In fact, they took it over and turned the moderate waltz into a square dance.  All the guests participated in the fun.  It turned out to be one of the best moments of the entire day as Hammond took a turn as square dance caller.

Naturally, there were lots of presents, but for David, the best gift arrived at seven in the evening when Jeff showed up.

“Jeff!” David exclaimed.  “Wow, Bro!”

The brothers hugged and then all the family hellos and hugs followed.

“Son, how was the drive out?” Jack inquired jovially as father and son shook hands and entered into a hug.

“Nostalgic; loved it.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Jeff covertly slipped something into his older father's hand and then headed for the large buffet offerings of barbecue foods.  David quickly went to his older brother's side, eager to spend some time with him.  Although Jeff could only stay for a day-and-a-half before returning to Cincinnati, he was present for the event and that was all that mattered to David, who also took great pride in the sweater Chenoa handmade for him and the song Aislinn wrote and sang during the party in his honor.

At the end of the night, most of the guests were gone, and the others were on their way out.  The cleanup began with the brood working hard to get Mike's place back in shape.  Andrea also remained.  She'd come with one of David's other college friends, but stayed when Jack offered her a ride home with the family.

“Thanks, Mike, for letting the kids camp out with you,” Jack expressed when the group finally headed for their cars.

“Having the kids here has been great.  They've kept me on my toes.”

“So, you're okay with another round of rotations, if we move forward with the castrations,” Daniel remarked.

“You haven't asked, but personally, I think it's a good idea, unless you want more foals.”

“I think we're good with that, now that we have Apollo, too,” Jack responded.

“Apparently, late fall is the best time.”

“We can talk more about it when you you're ready,” Mike suggested.

The children were putting the last of the party items in the SUV when David noticed an unusual vehicle.

“Man, look at that,” the birthday honoree opined.  “Wow.  Hey, Dad, look at this.”

“That's a funny looking car,” JD observed.

“It's a jeep, a Wrangler Laredo.”  David circled the burgundy vehicle and noted, “Look at the headlights.  They're rectangular and not circular.  This ... Dad, hey, this is an '87, like MacGyver.”

“Love MacGyver, but his jeep was ugly,” Aislinn put forth.

“It wasn't ugly, Princess, it was gray, distressed gray,” Jack corrected.

“The color was depressed?” Ricky questioned.

As several laughs were heard, Jack explained, “No, Ricky, the jeep was gray, but then they banged it up a little, to give it that adventurous daredevil look that would match Mac's character.”

“Oh,” Ricky responded with a shrug.  ~I still don't get it.~

“I think it's awesome,” Andrea interjected.  “My brother's a jeep nut.  He's rebuilt a few of the oldies, in fact.”

“The '87 was the top of the line of its era: carpet, A/C, cool chrome, stereo, hard top; it's awesome.

“Whose is it?” Brianna questioned.

Everyone looked around, but there was no one in the area except for Mike, the Jackson-O'Neills, and Andrea.

“Heads up!” Jack called out.

When David turned around, the general tossed a set of keys at the young man.

“Happy birthday, David,” Daniel called out.

“You're kidding me?  It's mine?  The MacGyver jeep?”

The brood was jubilant and now that they knew it belonged to family, they started to examine it more closely.

David went to his parents and hugged them while saying, “You didn't have to do this.”

“We know,” Daniel replied.  “You're going to school David, working part-time at J-O, and chauffeuring the brood around a lot.  You deserve this.”

“Wow, just wow!”

“Son,” Jack spoke quietly, turning his son away from all the hoopla going on.  “Why don't you take Andrea home ... in the jeep?”

David grinned and replied, “Thanks, Dad.”

“What do you think, Danny?”

“Uh, curfew can be extended tonight by an hour,” Daniel stated.

“Um, Daddy, is that an hour *after* we get back into town?” David asked with a hopeful expression.

“Yes.”

“Alright!” David exclaimed.

Laughing and grinning, David headed for his new vehicle and helped Andrea into the passenger seat before he took his spot behind the wheel.

“Best birthday ever,” David opined as he started up the vehicle.

“No hot-rodding!” Jack reminded loudly.  When David was gone, the general grinned.  “That went well.”

“Agreed,” a happy Daniel concurred.

====

The next evening, the family held one of their nightly meetings.  A variety of topics were discussed, including the chore assignments for the next week, Aislinn's request for a little more privacy at night and in the morning when changing clothes, Ricky's complaint about Mrs. Blaney, a newer member of the homeschooling co-op that the Jackson-O'Neills still participated in, who apparently objected to his clothing choices, and Brianna's latest opportunity to work with dolphins as part of a study for longtime mentors, Doctors Katalski and Majovavich, who were stationed in the Bahamas.

As the meeting adjourned and the kids began to swiftly move toward other parts of the house, Jack called out, “Wait one.  We need to see Jeff, Bri, David, Lulu, and ...”  There was a pause.  Jack looked around and then sighed.  “Wait for it.”

“For what?” Ricky asked.

“Hey, Dad, you wanted to see me?” Jennifer asked having entered the house, surprising her siblings.

“... Jen,” Jack completed with a smile.  “The rest of you are clear to go.”

“Do we have to go?” Jonny asked.

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look and a shrug and then both answered, “No.”

As such, some of the younger children stuck around, though they understood they weren't to interfere with the discussion.

“Here's the deal,” Jack began as he faced the older members of the brood.  “Most of you have your driver's licenses; most of you now have vehicles: cars, a truck, a jeep; most of you are able to drive wherever you want.  You're married, you live away from home, you're going to school; you have jobs; you have friends.  You're growing up; have lives away from home.  All of that is normal, but Daddy and I want to take a minute to remind you of the dangers that exist when you're out there on the road.”

Daniel continued, “There was another incident that made the news this morning about road rage.  You know, that term used to apply to drivers without any patience at all, crazy people, but these days, it takes very little to set off someone else.  We're not with you anymore when you're driving and we have to trust you and rely on you to behave appropriately, even when you want to scream because you're late.”

“We *especially* want to remind you of these dangers when you have your brothers and sisters in the car with you.  You're not alone so the decisions you make as drivers have a direct impact on this entire family.”

“Question,” Daniel put forth.  “What do you think is the number one event that anger other people when driving?”

“Traffic jams,” Jennifer replied.

“Getting the finger,” Jeff put forth.

“Another car cutting us off,” David offered.

“Texting while driving,” Lulu stated.

“Women doing their nails and putting on their makeup while driving,” Brianna replied.  “So dumb.”

“Those are all good and valid comments, but I heard one of Denver's police captains say recently that the number one annoyance, the one thing that really upset drivers, was being honked at.”

“Oh, yeah, that really bugs me,” Jennifer admitted.  “I'm sitting at a light and if I don't go forward within a second of it turning green, the car behind me is honking.  He's right.  It's annoying.”

The discussion continued for several minutes with everyone contributing some of the frustrations of being a driver on the roadways, especially the honking habit.

“Okay, so, if you do end up in the middle of a road rage battle, there are a few very important things you can do to avoid making things worse,” Daniel noted.

“Eyes front.”

“Huh?” Lulu asked.

“Keep your eyes to the front,” Jack explained.  “Do *not* engage a threat by looking at the person expressing their rage.  Keep your eyes to the front.  Don't move.  I don't care what they do or say, you need your focus to the front, or away from the person who is losing control.”

“Also, don't get out of the car ... ever,” Daniel instructed.  “Getting out of the car is engaging the other person.  Stay in your vehicle, and if you can back up, turn around, or somehow get away from the upset driver, do it, but don't get out of the car.”

“Do *not* approach the other driver's window.  That means you don't drive up to them.  These days you don't know who might have a weapon.  It only takes a second, kids, to alter lives forever.  Believe me, I know,” Jack spoke strongly.

“Look, you're either legal adults or approaching that age.  At any rate, you're legal drivers or will be soon, and all Dad and I are asking is that you remember the big picture: your lives, the lives of your siblings; the lives of your husbands and wives, and even the families of the ones who can't control themselves.  Be smart out there.  You don't need to be right.  You don't need to win the argument.”

“You need to live,” Jack interjected.  “You can come home and whine about the idiot who cut you off or honked their horn or gave you the finger because you held them up for ten seconds.  You *need* to *live* to tell the story.  It's not worth it, kids.  That's what Daddy and I are saying.”

“Thanks for the reminder, Dad,” Jeff stated, getting up and giving his older father a hug.  “Daddy,” he said as he embraced Daniel as well.

“I don't even have my license yet,” Lulu noted.

“But it's coming, Princess, and that's why we wanted you here for this.  Think about it now when you're a passenger in a car.  Observe and prepare yourself.”

“I will.  I promise,” Lulu vowed as she also exchanged hugs with her folks.

A few minutes later, Jennifer excused herself to walk home.

“Uh, Jen, I'll walk with you,” Daniel offered, glancing back at his lover.

**Good luck.**

**Thanks.**

As father and daughter hit the grass of the backyard, Jennifer smiled and asked, “Okay, Daddy, which one of my sisters has you and Dad in a conundrum?  

Daniel chuckled, “But we're confident there's an answer.  It's just uncharted territory for two men raising daughters.”

“Point taken.  How can I help?”

“Ash requested more privacy tonight.”

“Oh.”  Jennifer smiled and explained, “She's growing up, Daddy.  I needed the same thing, except ...”

“Let me guess.  You were in more of a mother mode.”

“I had to protect David and Noa and when you adopted us, even though you worked really hard to let me be a teenager, I still knew I was responsible for them.  I acted out in other ways, and the kids were young.  I think, too, I had my privacy because my room was away from the rest of the kids.  I didn't need to say anything.”

“Okay, so what do we do?”

“I don't think you have much to do at all,” Jennifer responded.  “See, Ash shares a room with Jenny.  They're best friends, but they're also very different.  Ash ... Daddy, she's the beauty queen.  Everyone loves her and Dad is probably going to go ballistic thinking she's going to date every boy in the city.”

“You don't think so?”

“No, I don't.  She's a lot more grounded than that.  Anyway, maybe you could make sure Ash has the bathroom to herself for a while.  She's changing, you know.”

“Yeah, it's all that stuff we guys don't know much about, even with you, Bri, Lulu, Noa ...”

“Daddy, every girl is different.  You know why I didn't ask for space.  I already had it.  Bri's very independent.  She learned a lot on her own, on the street, the foster street, I guess.  My hunch is that Lulu talks about these things with her therapist and, um ... sometimes, she comes to her big sister.”

“She does?” Daniel asked the smiling woman as they reached the gate that separated the residences.

“She does, but it's never been that big of a deal for her because she and Noa are incredibly close.  They are the very essence of sisterly bonding.  They don't have secrets and they don't do much at all without talking about it with the other.  It's kind of like the Munchkins have their own connection, and the Spitfires, too.  Lulu and Noa have that.  They help each other through everything, but you and Dad know all of this.”

“I guess we, uh, we don't want to let any of the brood down.”

“Are you kidding me?  Daddy, you and Dad bend over backwards to do whatever you think we need.  We all know that.”  Jennifer leaned inward and gave her father a kiss on the cheek.  “You're the best parents in the universe.  We all feel that way.  Do you know what an incredible thing it is for Ash to feel so free and confident that she could say in a family meeting that she wanted some privacy?  And no one teased or said anything bad, did they?”

“No, no, not even the boys.”

“Of course not, because we're family and you've raised us to be strong, confident, caring people.  Ash trusts her family.  She said what she needed, knowing her wishes would be respected, so don't second guess it or make more out of it than needs to be.  A little space in the bathroom is probably all she needs, and I doubt that lasts long.  My hunch is the girls will figure that out on their own, so just watch for the next day or two and see if it happens naturally, like with the horses,” she laughed.

“And if not then we should say something to the girls.”

“Right, but I'll bet you a fresh, homemade apple pie that you won't need to say a word.”

“No bet,” Daniel chuckled.  He opened the gate and said, “Thank you, Jen.”

As she entered her backyard, the newlywed replied, “You're welcome.  By the way, how's Dad's six?”

“Sore.”

With laughter and nods, the two made sure the gate was secured and then returned to their homes.

====

“Sara said not to worry,” Jack told his husband later that night.

“Jen said the same thing.”  Daniel looked at his watch and asked, “I think we should speak with Mrs. Blaney.”

“You betcha we are.”

====

The next morning, Jack phoned Mrs. Blaney and asked if he and Daniel could drop by and speak with her for a few minutes.  She agreed, so the couple headed for their neighbor's home on the way home from running a few errands.  They were welcomed inside and sat down in the woman's living room.

Janice Blaney was a forty-five-year-old single parent.  She'd given birth to her son, Marlon, ten years ago.  Her house was neat and clean, but not pristine.  She was sharply dressed, ready to take on the world, even on a casual Sunday afternoon.

“Mrs. Blaney,” Daniel began.

“Janice.”

Daniel nodded and continued, “Janice, Ricky says you have an objection to the way he dresses sometimes when he's here for the co-op lessons.”

“He's a handsome young man; intelligent, too.  He's very nice and polite, but I can't understand why he shows up in outfits that don't match.”

“Our son follows his own drummer when it comes to clothing,” the archaeologist put forth.

“He needs guidance.”

“With due respect, Ma'am,” Jack began.

“Janice.”

Like Daniel, Jack nodded and continued, “Ricky has a lot of likes.  He loves colors, characters, patterns, designs, and sometimes when he's getting dressed, he can't decide whether he wants to wear brown or blue, so he wears both.  It's not a big deal.”

“He should dress like other children.  I'm not saying what his style should be, but wearing different colored socks or wearing shorts with one cartoon character on them and a shirt with another is just not right.”

“By whose definition?” Daniel asked.  “Mrs. Blaney ...”

“Janice.”

“Janice, Ricky isn't doing anything wrong by wearing ... mismatched clothing.  He's a boy; he's exploring.  There's nothing wrong with that.”

“It's gaudy.”

“Ma...Janice,” Jack spoke.  “Is it your intention to continue to ... comment on our son's attire during co-op classes at your home?”

“I'd like to help him.”

“Thank you, Ma'am,” Jack spoke, standing up as did Daniel.

The couple said goodbye and headed for Jack's truck that was parked on the street.

“I'm a little surprised,” Daniel remarked as he settled inside the truck.

“Yeah, she's a little closed-minded.”

“Oh, not that.”

“What?”

“You stayed calm,” Daniel mused lightly.

“Danny, Ricky isn't coming back here.”

“Absolutely not,” the archaeologist agreed.  “He's not dressing inappropriately; he's just ... making his own fashion choices,” he chuckled.

“He's creative, independent, and doesn't see anything wrong with being a nonconformist.”

“And we agree we him.”

“You got that right,” Jack said as he pulled out from the curb.  “It's not like he's not wearing clothes or is even wearing anything offensive.”

“I don't want to stifle his choices, Jack.”

“So we're agreed?  Ricky doesn't have to attend the co-op sessions at Mrs. Blaney's.”

“Janice's,” Daniel teased.  “Agreed.”

Their decision made, Jack and Daniel went on with their day.

====

Six months later, in late October, Jack and Daniel gathered their children together.  Jeff was home now, a college graduate engaged to longtime love, Chely Tillison.  She was also in attendance, having been invited by Jeff's parents.  Jennifer was also with the family as they relaxed in the recreation room.  Also present were the Wilsons, including their children, Angela and Madeline.  Daniel was seated with Bijou on his lap, while several other members of the zoo were scattered among their humans.

“Okay, kids, listen up,” Jack stated as he walked in with a surprise visitor.

“Hi, Valencia,” Chenoa and several of the kids called out.

“As everyone knows, we've made a family decision to castrate Zeus, Ares, and Apollo, and we've agreed this is a good time to do it.  Ares is completely weaned and in the months since that was accomplished, there haven't been any health or behavioral issues for any of our horses.”

“Dad and I have spoken with Valencia and come up with a timeline we think will work for us as a family.  We've spoken with Mike and he's agreed to helping us do what we need to during the gelding process.”

Jack pressed the button that lowered the family's large television screen from its perch overhead as he nodded to Valencia to explain her presence.

“I'm here tonight at Jack's and Daniel's request to show a video to whomever wants to watch it.  It's a graphic video that will show you a horse being castrated. The reason I'd like you to see it is so you know what to expect when your horses undergo the procedure.  Let me repeat, that it's graphic, but if, as some of you have said to me earlier this year, that you wanted to be there during the procedure, then I'd advise you to watch this video.”

“Kids, no one is required the watch the video.  In fact, if you start watching it and feel uncomfy, you have permission to quietly get up and leave without interrupting the video for those watching.”

“It's okay,” Daniel interjected.  “A lot of adults don't like watching these kinds of videos.  There's no shame to not watching.  We all have different levels of sensitivities when it comes to ... well, uh ...”

“... blood, gore, guts ... needles,” Jack offered, intentionally being overly dramatic in a quest to ensure the kids made good choices for themselves.

“Watching the video will prepare you, if you want to be present during the castrations,” Valencia put forth.  “I agree with your parents.  We're all able to observe different realities like this.  However, if this video bothers you, it's probably a good idea if you didn't watch the procedures at the ranch.  We need everything to be calm and peaceful ... for the horses.”

“Okay, does anyone want to leave now?” Daniel inquired from his seat as he continued to gently caress the beagle.

While the children looked around at one another, none of them spoke up in objection or left the room.

“Remember, it's okay to leave during the video if you get upset, okay?” Daniel asked, getting a mix of verbal acknowledgements and nods.

“The video is short, only about ten minutes.  The vet who made it will give you an introduction to what is about to happen and then will explain things as they happen.”  Valencia looked at the general.  “Jack.”

“Here we go,” Jack said as he pressed the 'play' button on the DVD.

Jack took a seat up front where he could observe the children.  Both he and Daniel previously viewed the video so they could concentrate on being spectators, of their brood as they watched.  There were some cringes, frowns, and here and there one or more of the kids put their hands over the faces, slowing lowering their hands as they refocused on the video, but none of them responded inappropriately, cried, or ran out.

“Questions?” the vet asked after the video ended.

There were queries, and for the next several minutes, Valencia answered the questions, explaining things so that the children all understood what they'd seen and what would be expected of them if they joined in during the rotations at Mike's ranch.

The woman concluded by reminding the parents, “The horses will need close attention for two to three weeks, and during this time, the area needs to be properly cleaned on a daily basis.  I have complete faith in your children, but I do believe you should have one of the older kids there all the time to be in charge of this.”

“Understood,” Jack replied.

Once the vet left, the parents offered up ice cream and allowed everyone to simply visit with one another.  It gave them a chance to speak with Sara and Mark and inquire what they wanted their involvement to be, if any.

====

Over breakfast the next morning, the brood let their parents know that all of them wanted to be part of the rotations at Mike's and everyone wanted to be present during the surgery.

“If I were sick, I'd want my family there,” Ricky opined.

“Me, too.  Besides, we have a responsibility to keep them safe,” Chenoa stated strongly.

“We're all in,” Jonny concluded.  “We had a brood meeting this morning, and we'll help each other while helping our horses.”

“Okay.  Valencia has given Dad and I a detailed list of what we need and how we need to tend to the horses.  We'll make the rotation schedule based on that.”

“When do we start?” Lulu queried.

“Probably on Monday,” Jack answered.

The brood was excited.  They were also pleased that Chely and the Wilsons also wanted to be part of the event.

====

On Monday, the entire Jackson-O'Neill family, including Jennifer and Chely, arrived at Mike's ranch.  Angela and Madeline Wilson were already there, the two having spent the weekend with their grandfather.  They would be going home with the clan.

“Okay, kids, class is in session.”

The comment was followed by a lot of giggles from the speaker as well as the audience.  The speaker was Chenoa.  She was the family's true horse expert and she mimicked her older father as she got the group's attention as she would be teaching longeing to those who didn't know how to exercise a horse in that way.

“Longeing is a really good way to exercise horses without going for a ride or when the horse needs exercise but can't go for a ride.  I think we've all seen this in TV shows and movies.  It's where someone stands in the middle of the round pen, like where we are now, and using a longe line and sometimes a whip, moves the horse around the pen.  The way I learned it is to start with the horse walking, then going to a trot, and then to a canter.”

“What's a canter?” JD asked.

“It's like running, but it's done in a controlled three-beat gait.  It's slower than a gallop, though, where the horse is running full out.”

“Noa, why the whip?” David questioned.

“Oh, you don't whip the horse.  It's just a guide.  The horse can follow your instructions from how you hold the whip and when you're training the horse, you can use the end to keep him or her from walking over to you or not staying near the edge of the pen, or wherever you are.  When the horse is fully trained, you can be anywhere and the horse will know what you want from them.”

As Chenoa was continuing to talk, Jonny and Ricky began to goof off a bit, with Ricky pretending to be a naying horse while Jonny was its exercise taskmaster.

“Hey,” Jack called out, a frown on his face.  “Do you two want to be here or not?”

“Sorry, Dad,” a repentant Jonny spoke.

“Me, too,” came Ricky's apologetic voice.

“Noa needs us to understand how to exercise our horses.  If they don't get a proper amount of exercise after the operation, there could be severe consequences for the horses.  Think very hard about your choices, boys.  Do you want to go home or do you want to be a part of making sure the horses get well?  What's your choice?”

Neither child enjoyed being rebuked, especially in front of everyone; yet, both knew they'd been wrong to joke around during the lesson.

“I want to be here and help,” Jonny said.

“Me, too,” Ricky stated.

“You, too, what?” Jack questioned sternly.

Ricky gulped and elaborated, “I want to be here to help Zeus, Ares, and Apollo be healthy.”

“Alright, act like it.”  Jack glared at the boys and then asked, “Isn't there something else you should do?”

Both boys stood silent for a minute, but then Jonny nodded, looked over at his sister, and spoke, “Noa, I'm sorry I was goofing off.  I was just having fun, but I was wrong.  I don't know how to do what you're teaching us, so I should have been paying attention.”

Quickly, the Spitfire added, “Me, ttt...”  He looked over at his dad and gulped.  “I'm sorry I was playing instead of listening, Noa.”

Chenoa waited for a cue from her dad before replying, “It's okay, but the horses need us.”

“We know,” Jonny acknowledged contritely on behalf of Ricky and himself.

“Go ahead, Princess,” Jack encouraged.

“Okay, maybe it would be easier if I showed you,” Chenoa stated.  “Mike?” she called out, looking beyond where her family was all eyes on in her direction.

Mike made a clucking sound as he walked Athena to the round pen.

“Thank you, Mike,” Chenoa said as she took the horse's lead and patted her lightly for a minute.  “We're going to exercise for a few minutes, okay, Athena?”  The girl smiled as she affixed the longe line to the lead.  “You know where to go.”

After Chenoa made a small clucking sound, Athena voluntarily walked over to the edge of the pen.

“Everyone watch.  I'm going to start with Athena walking around the pen and then going into a trot and finally to a canter.  Watch the gates to the pen.  Those are the transition points.  Athena is used to changing her pace at those points.”

The children were amazed at how easily Athena transitioned to the various paces. She actually stopped on cue, too, the cue being the word, “Whoa.”  Not only that, but she responded to hand signals and the sound of the clucking.  The child instructor explained that she knew Mike exercised their horses in this manner all the time.  While the family all knew how to ride and some basics, only a few of them ever wondered about the training the horses received at Mike's or how he exercised them.

“Mike,” Chenoa called out again.

“In a jiffy,” the rancher responded as he headed for the barn.

“Okay, um, Angela, Lulu, Jeff, and Little Danny, I need you to be leaders.  You all know how to do this already.”

“You do?” Jonny asked his brother.

Little Danny simply shrugged as he walked over to Chenoa.

Angela was equal to Chenoa in the horse department.  The two often rode together at Mister Granger's stables and they'd learned how to train their Shetlands together.  Lulu, simply by being Noa's best sister friend, learned all about horses by listening to her and spending time with her at Mike's and sometimes at Mister Granger's stables.

The Jackson-O'Neill brood were quite apt when it came to handling the Shetlands, but with two exceptions, none of them ever really considered the training or exercising aspects.  The first exception was Jeff, who took it upon himself to make sure his sister had all the help she needed to tend to the ponies.  She took her responsibility extremely seriously and was very independent when it came to their care, but when not away at college, Jeff was always there to help her.

The other exception was Little Danny whose love for animals extended well beyond those of the average kid.  He'd observed Chenoa for years and eventually learned from her, all quietly and without fanfare.  Thus, Jonny's surprise at having his Munchkin brother called out to be a leader.

Mike appeared with four additional sets of longe lines and whips, and the group then separated into smaller ones as they actually learned how to exercise the horses from the team leaders.

At the end of the day, Jack and Daniel announced that the primary focus for the next few days was mastering the longeing process.

====

On Friday, Valencia went to the ranch to give the horses a final health check.  While she was there, Daniel arrived with several members of the brood.  After the greetings, they sat around Mike's dining room table and chatted.

“I've done a final exam and the horses are in awesome shape.  Most importantly, all of them have both testicles descended into the scrotum which will help things to go smoothly and without any complications.  I've doublechecked the records for each of the horses and noted they all have had the required shots:  Western Equine Encephalomyelitis, Eastern Equine Encephalomyelitis, Influenza, Rhinopneumonitis, and Tetanus Toxoid.  In preparation for the procedure, I gave Ares and Apollo booster shots the last time I was here.  Both are a little on the border in terms of age since we can't be a hundred percent positive of their birth dates.”

“Those are scary names,” Ricky opined about the words he didn't even understand.

“I agree, Ricky, but you don't need to worry about it.  They're just crazy long names for vaccines and such.  Uh, what I'd like to do is make sure you all know how to take the horses' pulses.  Have you done that before?”

“I have,” Chenoa responded.

“We know how to take their temperatures,” David reminded.

“You all did very well with that when Ares was weaned,” Valencia acknowledged.  “This is simpler and I'd like it to be done everyday at the same time.  You can do when taking their temperatures.”  She looked at Daniel and stated, “There are two ways to take their pulses, at the jaw or the bottom of the foot.  I think because of their ages, the kids, that is, we should stick with the jaw method.”

“Okay,” Daniel acknowledged.

For the next half hour, Valencia schooled Daniel and the children into how to take the pulse rate.  She showed them how to place their index and middle fingers at the jaw and wait several seconds as the horse settled.  Then she began to time the process as she counted how many beats she felt in a fifteen-second time span.

“We times that by four to get the minute rate,” Valencia explained.  “Remember, you want your horse to be calm and settled.  If he or she is excited in any way, you need to wait.  Right now, we have seven horses in close proximity.  You know them.  Watch and observe.  If they are excited because they're all together or for some other reason, wait, or take them somewhere else.  Your daddy assigned you to a horse already, so go to that horse with your timer and take the pulse, *after* you've determined if your horse is calm or not.”

Using their four horses, Mike's horse, and the Angela Wilson's two Shetlands, the children practiced as instructed.

Jenny sighed and then whispered, “It's okay, Dunkin'.  We'll go outside.”

The Spitfire smiled as she passed her father and the vet and led the pony outside.  Valencia walked to the barn entrance and watched from the doorway.  She smiled as she realized Jenny was waiting for the pony to acclimate to his location and lose any excitement that had built up from being with the other horses.  She nodded her approval when she saw Jenny finally take the pulse.

“Tell me what you came up with.”

The responses to the vet varied, causing the children to grimace and wonder if they'd taken the pulses incorrectly.

“No frowns, kids.  You all did great and,” pausing to look at her tablet, Valencia nodded, “you're all correct.  What I was checking were the normal pulse rates for each of the horses, although I don't know yours, Mike.”

“Thirty-eight,” Mike advised.

“Great!  Jonny, you were right on,” Valencia praised.  “You all were.”

“Me, too?” Jenny asked.

“Jenny, you did exactly the right thing.  You could tell Dunkin' was excited, so you removed him from the barn *and* you waited for him to calm down.  Angela's parents gave me the rundown on their Shetlands and you were within one degree of the normal pulse rate, and that is perfectly acceptable, especially considering how excited he was while in the barn.”

After a bit more chatter on pulse taking, the group went outside and looked around.

“As long as the weather permits, it's much easier to perform the surgery outside, but not in strong sunlight.”

“Valencia, how about under that tree,” Mike suggested.  “It's pretty clean and grassy and the sunlight is filtered by the branches, especially in the mornings.  It's not until mid-afternoon that the direct sun beams through.”

“Let's take a look.”  After examining the area, Valencia nodded and said, “Yes.  Maybe you could do a solid raking here to make sure the grass is as clean and smooth as possible.”

“We'll handle that,” Daniel responded.

“Is Pam coming?” a hopeful Chenoa asked.

“Yes.  She told me this morning that there is no way she would miss being here with all of you during this event.  She's already cleared her schedule.”  Valencia saw all the smiles and knew that Pam's familiar presence would be comforting to all of them.  “What we'll do is one horse at a time, here by the tree.  Now we could do more than one at a time.  We'd ...”

“No,” came a chorus of objections.

“We want to do our circle,” Lulu explained.

“Your circle?”

The kids looked at one another, uncertain exactly what to say.

“Uh,” Daniel began.  “The brood believes in the synergy of our family.  We hold hands in a circle and sing or just be together.  It's ... a long tradition that we believe in very strongly.”

“So we have to all be together for each horse,” Aislinn told the vet.

“One at a time, it is then,” Valencia replied.  “The procedure only takes about ten minutes, but we have prep and post considerations.  We'll have to anesthetize the horse, which we'll do while they're standing up.”

“Won't they fall?” Jonny questioned with concern.  ~I didn't like that when we watched the video, but it didn't really show the horse falling.~

“Yes, once the anesthetic takes effect, they will lie down on their sides.  I'll have a team with me and we'll be right by the horse, watching and then helping them down safely.  If you remember from the video, we will then tie up one leg for the safety of the horse.  What else do we do?”

“We put a cloth over the horse's eye because it's hard for them to blink,” Ricky put forth, prompting Daniel to smile at how well the Spitfire recalled the action in the video.

“Once the horse is down and protected, we'll do the procedure.  When that's done, it will take about ten minutes for the horse to rouse.  He'll get up on his own, but he will be unsteady and again, the team will be right here to ensure the safety of the horse.”

“So will our circle,” JD stated.

“That will very helpful, JD,” Valencia replied to the boy.  “We'll probably give each horse a good twenty to forty minutes to get grounded and steady on his feet.  Then we'll take him to his stall and let him relax for about a day.  The day after the castration, Pam and I will come back before you turn out the horses.  We plan to apply petroleum jelly to the insides of his hind legs that will protect the inside thigh and gaskin area from scalding.  This will actually make it easier for you do the daily cleaning of the horses' legs.  We'll check the drainage, and kids, there will be drainage.  Let's just call it pus.  Daniel, if they get skittish, adults will need to handle this.  It is *very* important that the horses' legs are properly cleaned every single day.”

“I understand.”

“It must get pretty icky if you're telling Daddy that he'll need to do it if we can't,” Ricky lamented.

“Of all the young children I know, you're all the best equipped to handle this, but, yes, I need your parents to understand how vital this is to the horses' recoveries.”  After a round of nods and looks of comprehension, the vet continued with her thoughts.  “Pam and I will stick around as long as we can on both the day of the surgeries and the day after to help all of you and ensure you know how to clean the hind legs and under the tail.  I've given your parents another video that shows everything I've talked about and more and I've also given them a step-by-step outline of the full procedure, so you can discuss and review everything before we begin.”

“We'll be going over everything at home,” Daniel interjected.

“One more thing.  You are all a very inquisitive group, but I need you to understand that our primary goal will be the horses.  We have to pay very close attention to the horse we're working on, not just during the procedure, but before and after so we know they are responding appropriately.  We certainly don't want them to fall or trip because we aren't watching them while answering a question from one of you, so, please, if we're engaging with the horse, wait until we turn and give you our attention before trying to talk with us.”

“We'll talk about that at home more, too,” Daniel promised.

With the basics covered, Valencia left for the day.  The Jackson-O'Neills stuck around for awhile before heading for the SUV to return to Colorado Springs.

“Daddy, tell me something,” Jennifer requested as she alone walked with her younger father.

“What?”

“Exactly how much do you and Dad pay Pam and Valencia to be at our beck and call during times like this?  I mean, two whole days out of their practices?  I doubt that's normal,” Jennifer pondered.

“It helps that they are excellent vets who care more about the health of animals than their salaries.”

“But?” the newlywed prompted.

“But ... let's just say they are well reimbursed for their time and attention.”

“Come on, Daddy.  I'm not a kid anymore.”

Daniel chuckled and realized the young married woman was correct.

“Well, Pam has one of the highest salaries in the state.  She's well established and highly sought after.”

“Which means?”

“For two days, we're paying her six-hundred dollars plus mileage.  Valencia is still establishing herself in Colorado.  We're paying her four-hundred dollars for the two days.”

“That's about what I thought,” Jennifer chuckled.

“Jen?”

“Yes?”

“You should know that Pam has often refused payment for many of her extra-hour visits, both to her animal hospital and to our home.  She takes calls from the brood and makes time for us, night and day.  She never charges us her emergency hour rates.  In fact, I know that she often reduces her rates or writes them off for families in need.  Her true focus is the happiness and welfare of the animals.  When we have a chance like this to pay her what's she worth, we take it because we're in a position where we can.”

“Message received, Daddy.  Married or not, I still have a lot to learn.”

“We all do, Sweetie.”

====

The castration of the horses took place on November 2 without incident.  The children were mindful of the focus of the vets and remained quiet when it was obvious that the caregivers were being attentive to an unsteady horse or an overly excited one.  Various brood members eventually assisted in returning a newly castrated horse to its stall and then remained with that horse to give him comfort and reassurance in soft, calm, and soothing sounds and touches.

Over the next two-plus weeks, Jack, Daniel, Jennifer, Jeff, Chely, and Brianna worked together with cleaning the hind legs and tail areas of the horses.  They knew they had to be careful not to over wash the areas and to apply just the right amount of pressure.  They also took the horses' temperatures.  The younger children, including the Spitfires, JD, and Madeline, took the horses' pulses while those in the middle (David, the Munchkins, Chenoa, Lulu, and Angela were responsible for exercising the horses, though the others also assisted in that.

Everyone worked together to keep the barn clean and pens in good condition.

Records were kept, marking in detail what was done on a daily basis.  The new geldings were each exercised for fifteen minutes at a time, three times daily for three days.  After that, there were two thirty-minute sessions for a week.  Finally, the horses were exercised for one sixty-minute session until proclaimed healthy.

Valencia was called out whenever the family believed one of the horses were completely healed.  Ares was actually the first one to heal completely, after just fourteen days.  Zeus required eighteen days, with Apollo in between the two at sixteen days.  Most of the time, it went smoothly, but Jonny noticed some difficulty with Zeus on his first day of exercising after being gelded.

“Noa,” the Munchkin had called out.  “Doesn't he look a little stiff?”

Chenoa watched for a minute as Jonny used the longe line to order Zeus to walk around the pen.

“Jonny, don't use the line,” Chenoa had suggested.  “Cowboy mentioned to me the other day that sometimes a horse gets really stiff and that the best thing to do is to hand walk the horse.”

“Huh?” Jonny had questioned.

“Use the voice and body commands,” Chenoa had instructed.  “Do you remember how?”

“The clucking thing?” the boy had inquired.

Jonny followed through, with Chenoa guiding him for a few minutes.  The next day, Zeus walked freely, without any stiffness in his gait.

The only other scare for the family and horses was on day nine of the recovery when Apollo stopped releasing the pus that was collecting in his scrotal area.  Valencia had actually instructed Jack and Angela over the phone on how to proceed via a Skype feed so that the vet could see the affected area.

“Jack, Angela, use a warm compress on the scrotal area, very lightly and gently, but long enough to soften the incision area.  See how crusted it is there.  Yes, that's good.  Keep it there,” Valeniçia had instructed.

Immediately afterward, Angela had met up with David and exercised Apollo right away.  Eventually, the incision area burst open and drainage resumed as needed.

After that, all that remained was to observe the geldings' behavior.  Of particular note was the monitoring of Zeus.  Though all of the horses were used to people and were fairly calm, as a decade-old stallion, there was some concern that Zeus might keep up some of the traditional stallion practices, but nothing unusual was noted.

====

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Jack and Daniel held another family meeting, one intended to wrap up the year of transition for their horses.

“Dad and I are keeping this meeting short, but we wanted to let you all know how proud we are of you and how you responded during the year to the weaning of Ares, to welcoming and helping to acclimate Apollo to the horse family, and to assisting in the recovery of the horses from the castrations.  You didn't let us down; you made us proud.”

“Daddy and I decided we should have a party to celebrate.”  Jack outlined the plans and was surprised when the children were excited, but yet laid back.  “Alright, what's going on?”

“Dad, Daddy, we'd like to have a party for Pam and Valencia instead,” Chenoa spoke on behalf of the brood.

“And for the animals,” Little Danny added.

“And the families who can't afford to get treatment for their pets,” JD concluded.

“Daniel, have I missed something?”

“I have a hunch I know where this is coming from,” the archaeologist replied.  “Anyone want to fess up?”

“We can't rat out Jen,” Jonny stated before he groaned and hit himself on the head.  “I'm too old for that kind of a mistake.”

“It's okay, Son,” Daniel assured.  To his husband, he explained, “Jen and I had a conversation recently about all the work Pam and Valencia do without being paid, or not paid fully.”

“Pam's always been there for us, Dad,” Little Danny stated.

“Can't we show her, and Valencia, how grateful we are?” Lulu asked.

“And do something for other animals and their humans who aren't as fortunate as we are?” Brianna questioned.

“Party time for the animal hospital approved,” Jack replied.

“We want to do more, Dad,” David advised.

“Uh, what are you thinking?” Daniel inquired.

“Well, we have the turkey sanctuary and our horses, and Jack,” Chenoa stated.  “Don't forget Jack,” she mused about the family donkey that was housed at a rescue society where he was receiving excellent care and had lots of donkey friends to play with.

“And we have Mommy's scholarship, too,” Aislinn reminded about the nursing scholarship.

Originally, the award was set up in the name of “Baby Jackson-O'Neill,” but as time passed and after Kayla Armentrout's death, Jack and Daniel had the name changed to honor the woman.  The children, however, did not know the true reason for the scholarship's existence.  One day, their parents would tell them, but right now, all they knew was that the scholarship was there for nursing students.

Suddenly, the youngest Munchkin gasped and set up straighter.  “Mommy loved nature.  We have her pictures of elephants and giraffes and ...”

“Monkeys,” Jonny added.

Little Danny caught on and requested, “Dad, Daddy, can we make a fund for the animals in Mommy's name?”

Any notions Jack and Daniel had of stopping the adventured ended when Kayla was brought up by her children.  How could they possibly deny making such a wonderful devotion to the woman they owed so much to in life?

Jeff leaned forward and offered, “You know that picture of Kayla with the elephants that was taken in Africa?  I can morph that in with one of her with Bij and Katie.  You know, it would symbolize that the foundation helps all animals and all caregivers, big and small.”

Out of the blue, a brainstorming session began and all the parents could do was stand by and watch, their hearts full of the continuing love towards this woman who forever changed their lives.

When Daniel started to exit the room, Jack called out via their special communication link, **Where are you going?**

**Jen started this.  She should be here.**

**Good point.**

**I know,** Daniel replied while smiling.

Throughout the past year, the Jackson-O'Neills focused largely on their horses.  The brood came through once again, proving their dedication and reliability whenever it counted.  Every member of the family helped out and the end result was a positive one, and now the family was working on doing even more good for their world.  The brood knew how lucky they were and they had big hearts.  They truly wanted to make a difference, for humans and animals alike.

Jack and Daniel couldn't be prouder or happier about the life they'd created with their brood plus zoo in Colorado Springs, and though the children were growing, life was bound to get better and better.

~~Finis - Finished - Done - The End - But is it ever Really?~~

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