Adam McFadden stood just outside the classroom door surrounded by mothers, holding tightly to Ford's hand.

"Are you excited?" Adam asked him.

"Will she be nice?" Ford asked. "Why can't I go with Evan?"

"Evan's in first grade, but you are in kindergarten. You'll see him at lunch."

"Who's gonna come get me?"

"You'll take the big bus with all the boys. Evan will walk you over. " He looked at Ford and lifted him up into his arms, hugging him close. "You are gonna have a great day. You'll like it."

Ford burrowed into Adam's shoulder and then looking around said softly, "Everyone else has a mom."

"Yeah, I know, bud." He kissed his brother, fighting tears. The door opened and Adam reluctantly set Ford down and walked him inside.

***7***

"I thought you weren't gonna show! Dude, what took you so long? You just missed Carolyn Jones and her friends!" Hoops said as Adam walked into the coffee shop.

"It was Ford's first day of kindergarten." Adam said sitting next to his friend. "He was so brave! You should've seen him. He walked right in and told the teacher, 'I'm Ford McFadden, and I'm gonna learn to read.' It was really cute. I was real proud." He looked at Hoops' blank expression. "Well, I guess you had to see it."

"Oh, well, that's good. Anyway, you missed it! She looked hot! Too bad she's leaving for school. You'd be the only bachelor around."

"When ya leaving?" Adam asked.

"Tomorrow! Shake this tiny little town off and not even look back. I can't wait!"

"Yeah." Adam said absently.

"Geez, I'm stupid. Sorry man. You really not going?"

"How could I go?" Adam said angrily thinking that Hoops was really just a kid. He sighed and said, "Don't worry about it man. I hope you do really well. Have a great time for the both of us."

"Yeah, I'll call you and keep you in the loop. I'll party for the both of us, huh? Long as the old man doesn't find out. I can't believe you aren't going. You really are giving up that scholarship?"

"Yep. I called 'em yesterday. I am a rancher now." Hoops studied him thoughtfully.

"That really sucks, Adam."

Adam shrugged his shoulders. "I gotta do what I gotta do."

"I guess, but geez."

The silence between them was awkward. Adam didn't know what to say. He felt a million years older than Hoops. He was jealous and angry, but also felt like Hoops was a stupid kid focused on all the wrong things.

"Don't party too much. Make sure you learn something too. You've got a great opportunity."

"You sound like my Mom." Hoops said.

"Well, . . ." But didn't finish the sentence as he realized he was just about to say, "You'll understand when you are older."

"I gotta get back. Marlene was watching Guthrie for me. If I don't see you before you go, good luck man. Have a blast." He held out his hand to Hoops.

"I thought we were gonna bum around town. Maybe even head over to Sonora to check out the girls."

"I got work I gotta do. Brian's still got school, so I'm kind of short-handed."

"Maybe some other time then. I'll be back for Thanksgiving." Hoops said.

"Yeah, maybe some other time." Adam said knowing that it was a lie.

***7***

Adam was surprised to find Brian home when he got there.

"What are you doing? You can't be cutting class the first day!" Adam said angry.

"I'm not cutting." Brian said.

"It is hardly noon. School get shorter since I graduated?" Adam asked.

"It did for me. Look, I worked it out with the school. I got five classes but got switched into that early morning class. That way I'll be done by 11:45 a.m. every day. You need me here." Brian said.

"Five classes? You took yourself out of the college prep track? Brian!" Adam shook his head at his brother.

"You and I both know, I'm not going to college any more than you are." Brian studied Adam. "Look, you can't run this place alone and we can't afford to have hired hands all the time. So, thanks for looking out for me, Dad but it's already done."

"One of us is going to college." Adam said with a sigh. "If it ain't you and me, it had better be some of the little ones." Brian nodded. "And don't call me Dad." Adam said with a grin.

"Hey, if the boot fits buddy . . ." Brian punched his shoulder.

"Ju! Ju!" Guthrie said. "Hungry!"

"Alright, pal. Hold your horses. Brian and me will fix you some lunch and then you get to watch us do some work, okay buddy?"

Guthrie clapped his hands together laughing. "Stay with Ju!"

"We got to teach him, my name." Adam said looking at Guthrie as he carried him inside. "Adam! Say, Adam, Guthrie. ADAM!" He exaggerated each sound.

"Dam! Dam! Dam!" Guthrie said.

"Oh, Mom would have loved that!" Brian said laughing.

"Let's hope he doesn't shout my name out in the middle of church."

***7***

Daniel looked around the house trying to find Adam. The house was filled with people again. This time, they had come over to help the boys pack up their parents bedroom. It was something they all dreaded, but had finally decided was necessary. They'd finally moved back to their bedrooms, but slept three to a room with Brian sleeping downstairs. It seemed ridiculous to be so squashed together, when there was a whole extra bedroom. Earlier that day, before anyone had come over, they had all gone in and each picked out one thing they wanted to keep. Daniel had taken one of his father's shirts. It was his favorite and still smelled like him. He had put it under his pillow and it comforted him to think of it there. After everyone had chosen something he had turned to Adam and asked, "What about Guthrie?"

"Well, I was thinking, if it was alright with you fellas, we could let him pick something when he was bigger. Everything will be in the attic. Did you have something else in mind?" Adam's tone was gentle and patient.

"That's a good idea, but I was thinking we could let him have Mama's perfume. Then maybe he could remember what she smelled like."

"That's a really good idea, Danny." Brian said with a hand on his shoulder.

He climbed the stairs and stood on the landing looking into the room. He could see Marlene, and Anna, Rob's wife working at folding his mother's clothes, and putting them in a box. Two other women were stood on the opposite end of the room looking through the dresser drawers.

"You okay, buddy?" Adam asked startling him. He stood to the left of the open doorway, watching.

"Yeah, I guess." He looked up at Adam. "I mean, it feels good and bad, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does." Adam said and even though Daniel was eight, Adam reached over and lifted him up into his arms. They stood together a long time and Daniel rested his head on his brother's shoulder, comforted.

"Were you looking for me?" Adam asked after a while.

"Yeah, Crane said that one of the ewes won't eat, and he's looking kind of skinny. He thought you should come and check.

"Okay." He looked around the room sighing. "Come on. You want to help me bottle feed an ewe?"

***7***

"That's the last of it." Mike said lifting a box up into the attic.

"Wait," Adam said. "I got one more." He disappeared into the room he had shared with Brian and Crane. "Here." He said when he returned, handing Mike a brand new suitcase.

Mike took it and looking at it hesitated.

"Go ahead." Adam said, and Mike nodded and put it into the attic before folding up the ladder and closing the door.

"You boys should come over tonight for dinner. Marlene won't mind." Mike said.

"Nah, we want it to be just us tonight. It was kind of a tough day." Adam said.

"You want some help moving into the room?" He asked.

"No, we aren't doing that today. We'll give it a little time." Adam drew in a deep breath. "Mike, I wanna say how much we appreciate all you've done to help us out. Not just setting things up with social services, but stuff like today. It helps a lot."

"Your mom introduced Marlene and me." He said softly. "Did you know that?" Adam shook his head. "Yeah, I came over for dinner and there was Marlene and your Mom said, 'Well, now Mike. We found you a very nice girl. How about you take her out?' I was so embarrassed! But I did take her out, and knew five minutes in I was gonna marry her. Your mom was really good at people."

"Yeah, she was." Adam agreed.

"You don't have to thank us, Adam. We wish we could do more. I hate to think of you boys all alone out here."

"You got your own kids. 'Sides, there's seven of us. We aren't exactly alone." Adam grinned.

"I guess not."

***7***

The younger boys were all in bed. Brian was bent over at the table trying to finish his geometry work.

"This has to be the stupidest class I've ever taken. Why do I need geometry?"

"Because you want a diploma." Adam said.

"Maybe I should get help from Crane. That kid's good at math!"

"He is. Did you see what he brought home yesterday?" Adam asked.

"No."

Adam crossed the room and lifted two books off the kitchen counter.

"Ranch Management and Basic Accounting?" Brian read. "Some light reading?"

"Yeah." Adam laughed. "I'm thinking we might start saving to send him to college."

"He'd like that." Brian said. "So, what's tomorrow look like?"

"Oh, the usual. You all go to school, and Guthrie and me'll run things 'til you get home. Oh, and we gotta make sure and head over to the school around 4 p.m. Danny's got a soccer game."

"I sure hope we get to sit with all the moms again." Brian said rolling his eyes.

"Finish your homework." Adam said.

"Sure, Dad." Brian grinned.

"Stop calling me Dad." Adam sighed.

***7***

Adam sat surrounded by five of his brothers, crammed on the bleachers in the middle of a group of moms. He watched as his brother, Daniel waved from the soccer field. Brian glanced around.

"This is boring as heck." He complained.

"There's gotta be some pretty girls around here somewhere." Adam said.

"I gotta go potty." Ford said.

"Me too!" Evan agreed.

"Your turn." Adam smiled at Brian.

"I got all the luck! Come on!" He led his brothers down the bleaches and over to the bathrooms.

"'Dam! 'Dam! Me play!" Guthrie said.

"No, Guthrie! It's Danny's turn. I'll play with you later. Crane?" Adam looked at his brother.

"Alright, but you owe me." Crane said lifting Guthrie and heading over to the playground.

"Are you the babysitter?" A woman from the other team asked. "I don't think you should teach him to swear like that."

Adam looked up. "What? Oh! No, he can't say my name: Adam."

"Oh. I've never seen a boy babysitter before. You seem kind of old for the job. I don't think a boy would be a very good sitter." She said.

"Really? You must be from a really small town then."

"There's no reason to be rude! What's your name? I have half mind to talk to your parents!" She shook her finger at him.

Adam turned and looked away, annoyed.

"Why don't you mind your own business." One of Daniel's teammates, Andrew's mother said.

"Oh, I see. You must be the mother."

"So, what if I am?" She crossed her arms in front of her.

"Well, I see where he gets his manners."

"Listen," Adam interrupted. "I appreciate you looking out for our best interests and all, but I'd really like to just watch my brother play, alright?"

The lady gave a "humpf" and crossing her arms, moved away to sit on the other side.

"Thanks." Adam said looking at Andrew's mom.

"She was a peach, wasn't she? Listen, I hope you don't mind, but some of us got together, and wrote down some recipes. I overheard, Crane complaining last week about eating the same thing again. I thought maybe you boys could use some cooking inspiration." She reached into her bag and handed him a notebook filled with recipes. "Lord knows, it is hard to think of something new every night."

"Thanks." He said. "Brian does most of the cooking. I know he'll appreciate it."

"You boys ever need anything, don't forget, you've got plenty of friends in this town." She smiled at him.

Adam nodded and turned back to watch Daniel play.

***7***

"I would've popped her in the jaw." Brian said.

"I know you would have! Imagine my relief that you weren't there!" He laughed and rising from the dinner table said, "Okay, family meeting. Livingroom."

They left behind the dishes, and everyone scrambled to the front room. They sat on the couches and Adam stood next to the fireplace. They had started having the family meetings/business meetings at least once a week. It had started after they had accidently forgot all about Crane's music recital. They held the meetings to figure out everyone's schedule.

"So, we got a letter from children's services today." He announced.

"They aren't gonna take us!" Crane said immediately angry.

"Settle down." Brian said.

"No, they aren't." Adam said. "They agreed to let you stay here, with Marlene checking up on us. They said if there is any trouble - anyone ditches school or gets into fights, then they will reevaluate. So it's really important that you all do what you are supposed to."

"So it's good news then." Daniel said.

"Yep, it is." Adam said sitting down. "Does anyone have anything else?"

"I got a spelling test tomorrow." Evan said. "I need help with some words."

"I'll help you." Crane said. "We'll work on it after dishes, okay?"

"I think you and Brian should move into the room, now." Daniel said.

"I don't know . . ." Adam began.

"You should." Daniel said. "Promise you'll get moved in by the end of the week."

"Why the deadline?" Brian asked.

"If you make a promise, you'll keep it." His little brother said. "You always do."

"Ok." Adam said looking at Brian. "We'll be moved in by Monday." Daniel nodded content.

"Any other business?" Adam asked. They shook their heads. "Alright then. Crane and Evan are on dishes. Daniel you help Brian with evening chores."

"When we're finished, will someone teach me the guitar again?" Daniel asked.

"I can." Brian said. "You are getting pretty good buddy."

"My hands are too small." Daniel said.

"Well, they'll grow. Come on, let's get the chores finished and then later we can all sing."

"Sing!" Guthrie shouted clapping his hands. "Sing!"

Adam lifted him up. "Chores first, little man."

Guthrie wrapped his arms around Adam's neck hugging him with sticky fingers.

"Oh, you are all sticky!" Adam complained.

Soon you will be gone and you'll miss him, sticky fingers and all. He remembered his mother telling him. He sighed.

"Let's get you clean and in your pj's."

***7***

Guthrie lay asleep on the couch surrounded by his brothers who were still singing. He had stayed awake singing in his baby voice as long as he could, but eventually sleep won out. Crane played a soft lullaby on the piano and his brothers joined in - Daniel trying to keep up on the guitar.

Adam sighed contentedly. For a Thursday, it wasn't that bad of a an evening. They were together, everyone was healthy and safe. They still had the songs their parents had taught them, and it comforted him to think that they could still sing together. He glanced around the house. It was a wreck and would never meet his mother's approval, but it was good enough for them. He realized that soon it would be Thanksgiving, which would no doubt bring on a whole new wave of grief and problems. His friends would return home from college, and he would get to hear all about what he missed. He thought again of what might have been, but looking at Guthrie's closed eyes, so peaceful and sweet, he honestly couldn't imagine being anywhere else. If he had gone to college, he would've missed out on Guthrie trying to sing with his brothers, or Ford's first day of school, or Evan's first missing tooth. Sometimes he felt like an old, old man, but generally he felt happy - or at least content. He was needed, and he'd come to love the ranch - little by little. It was theirs. They had kept it going, and he hoped that someday, they would be able to expand it just as his father had always wanted. He couldn't imagine leaving his brothers. They had become his whole world. If he had to put his dreams aside, at least it was so that Guthrie might be able to pursue whatever dreams he wanted. If being a doctor had meant that he would have been able to cure people and help them, then maybe he was a doctor of sorts - he'd been able to help his brothers. He stretched and realized it was time to go and feed the ewe again. Rising he walked to the door.

"I just gotta go take care of Sammy." He said. "You little ones better be in bed when I come back in. Brian, can you go take Guthrie up?" He looked at his brothers and grinned.

"Sure, Dad." Brian said laughing.

"Night, Dad." Daniel said copying him.

"Don't call me Dad!" Adam said with a sigh. He turned to walk out the door, but before he did, he saw his father's hat hanging on the bullhorn where he'd left it so long ago. Reaching out he brought it down, and put the white hat on his own head.

It fit.