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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 26 February 2007 - 9:33pm.

Jeremy cranked the throttle of the little four-wheeler. The rear wheels spun as he came into the ranch yard. Two of the free-range chickens pecking their way across the gravel road squawked and ran, their wings flapping furiously. He kept the throttle wide open and didn't slow down until the last second then he pulled back on the throttle and slammed on the brakes. The rear wheels locked up sending the four-wheeler into a skid. Jeremy turned into the skid and brought the machine to a stop just inches from his dad's pickup. Pulling the kill switch, he jumped off and ran up the front steps of the ranch house. He was in the door before the engine died.

"Dad! Dad! I found some! I found some!" he yelled as the screen door slammed behind him.

His mom called from the large kitchen. "Jeremy David, were you chasing my chickens again? I could hear them squawking all the way in here."

"Sorry Mom, I really didn't mean to this time. They were just crossing the road at the wrong time. Where's dad, I need him!"

"I think he is out at the ponds taking some measurements. I need you--"

Before she could finish Jeremy was out the back door and racing towards the large greenhouse buildings behind the house. "Dad! Dad!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. His dog Blue jumped up from the shady spot under the tree and ran with him. They ran along the side of the south building. Jeremy looked intently through the clear plastic walls trying to spot his dad inside. Reaching the end without finding him, they ran around to the door of the north building. Jeremy grabbed the handle and started to open it. Blue stuck his nose in the crack trying to squeeze in. Jeremy pushed him back with his leg and slammed the door.

"You know you're not allowed in here boy! Go on, get out of here!" He pulled the door open just a crack, slipped through and pulled it shut before Blue could get in. "Dad are you in here?" he yelled as he shut the door.

"Over here Jee!" his dad called from the little lab area that was setup in the corner of the building. Most of Jeremy's family called him Jee thanks to his little sister Madison. When she was just learning to talk she could only say the first and last sounds of his name. The result was Jee and the name had stuck. Even though Madison was now seven and very capable of saying his full name the family still used his nickname, except when he was in trouble, then it was Jeremy David!

"Dad, I found them! I found them!" Jeremy ran over to his Dad who was wearing a white lab coat and standing over a stainless steel table.

"Found what?" his dad looked up at him.

"Dinosaur bones! I found dinosaur bones on our property! I knew there had to be some out there!"

"Good for you son." Jeremy's dad replied absent-mindedly and never looked up from what he was doing.

"Dad! I'm serious! It's not just an old stick this time! It's a whole skull. I'm not sure what kind it is, maybe a Troodon or an--"

"Old cow's head." his Dad finished for him and looked up at him with a smile.

"No dad, not this time. It's right in the cliff. You've got to come see it. Come on." Jeremy was now standing at the end of the table pleading with his Dad. His dad looked up at him again and smiled.

"Okay son, help me finish weighing the rest of these little buggars and I'll go with you. Where did you find it?"

"You know where the road crosses the dry creek bed?" Jeremy didn't wait for an answer; "I went up the creek bed from there, all the way to where the creek comes off the cliff. Then I worked my way along the cliff. We've got to hurry Dad, it's the coolest thing!"

His Dad smiled again. "If it really is a dinosaur, he's been there for a bazillion years. He's not going anywhere in the next half hour. Now get suited up. I need you to pull samples from the other end of the pond."

"Dad the bones!" Jeremy whined.

"The sooner we get done, the sooner we get out to the bones."

"I knew you'd say that." Jeremy walked over to the white lab coats hanging from a hook on the wall and pulled one on. He sat down on the little bench and pulled some light blue "booties" on over his dust covered sneakers then he pulled on rubber gloves.

"Buckets are in the sink," his Dad said. "I've got the samples from this end. I just need the three from the other end. You know where to take them?"

Jeremy nodded, grabbed three buckets from the sink and headed for the opposite end of the building. Each building was nearly as long as a football field and about half as wide. The walls and the ceiling were all made of clear plastic, just like a greenhouse. In fact, they were greenhouses but Jeremy's family didn't grow tomatoes or flowers, they grew shrimp. At least they tried to grow shrimp.

Jeremy's dad used to work for a big company that made computers. The family lived in a normal house in a normal neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona. Then one day his Dad came home and announced that he was taking early retirement. A few months later everything was packed in a moving truck and they were driving north to find the perfect location for the Free For All Ranch. For as long as Jeremy could remember, his Dad’s bed-time stories had been about the Free For All Ranch, a make-believe place where the family always had great adventures. Now the Dad was determined to turn make believe into reality.

They got as far as Cedar City, Utah and then turned west. As they drove the countryside got browner and bleaker and Jeremy's Dad got happier and happier. When they finally arrived at the "ranch" all they found was an old house trailer and a few broken down out buildings. The nearest town was thirty miles away and it boasted one and a half working gas stations.

What the ranch lacked in common comforts, it more than made up for in "natural resources" as Jeremy's Dad called them. The ranch had two natural resources, wind and hot water. Three hundred and sixty days of the year (Jeremy had counted) the wind blew. To most of the family the wind was an annoyance, to Jeremy's Dad it was an opportunity for adventure. One of the first things they built was a windmill to help generate electricity. In addition to the wind, the ranch boasted seventeen natural springs where crystal clear water bubbled up from an underground aquifer. Fifteen of the springs were hot. Three were too hot to even touch.

"Our own little Yellowstone!" Jeremy's Dad had exclaimed to the girls.

"Except it’s ugly, there’s no Old Faithful, and there are no buffalo!" Jeremy's older sister Elena complained. At thirteen she was three years older than Jeremy. She hadn’t been very excited to leave her friends, harp lessons, or clogging team in Mesa.

"Maybe not, but with those springs our home will always be warm and it won't cost a dime!" Dad replied.

"You’re going to heat our home with spring water?" Jeremy's Mom asked incredulously.

"Absolutely, and we're going to build the house out of straw so none of the heat escapes."

“Straw?” mom said doubtfully.

“It’s an excellent insulator,” dad assured her.

"But what about the big bad wolf?” Elena asked with a smile.

That was nearly two years ago. The ranch was now complete. Its walls were made of bales of straw stacked on top of each other and held tightly in place with large stakes. Both sides of the wall were covered with stucco and unless someone mentioned it, you would never know the walls were made of straw. As dad promised, it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. To help keep it warm in the winter the three hottest springs were capped off and the water was piped throughout the house.

The day they moved into the ranch house, dad suggested they burn the old house trailer and the outbuildings. Not surprisingly, mom had serious reservations about the idea. Jeremy and his dad prevailed and his mom supported them with two dozen hot dogs and roasting sticks. By the time they fed Sheriff Brown, his two deputies and the volunteer fire fighters the hot dogs were gone. Sheriff Brown was very nice. He encouraged Jeremy's dad to keep his fires smaller in the future.

Jeremy was now nearly to the end of the building. He was walking on an elevated walkway that went right down the center of the building. Most of the building, except the lab area, was filled with a large pond about five feet deep. The elevated walkway stretched across the pond from end to end like a long bridge. Every twenty yards or so crosswalks went side to side across the pond. Jeremy reached the end and turned left on the final crosswalk. When he reached the far corner of the pond, he got down on his knees and used a net to scoop up several of the little shrimp into one of the buckets. He turned, walked to the other corner of the pond and repeated the process making sure to put the shrimp in a different bucket. He took his final sample near the center of the pond and then ran as fast as he dared back down the walkway to his dad.

"Here they are!" he gasped as he set the buckets on the floor next to his dad.

"Thanks. Would you mind entering the data for me?" his dad replied.

"Sure." Jeremy said and twisted the laptop his Dad had been using around so that he could get to the keyboard. Dad continued weighing each individual shrimp and calling out the weights for Jeremy who entered them in the computer. In about fifteen minutes they were done.

Dad shifted the laptop back to where he could see the screen and entered a few keystrokes. "Let's see how we measure up, shall we?" A graph came up on the screen and Jeremy's Dad frowned.

"Well? How are they doing?" Jeremy asked.

"Not good enough." Dad grunted. "See this line?" he pointed to a curve on the graph that started low and gradually rose as it moved to the right. Jeremy nodded.

"That’s the growth rate of the average farmed shrimp. See this line?" he pointed to a line that started in the same place but didn't rise as quickly as the first line. "This line is our shrimp. They’re not growing as fast as they should. I can't figure out why. Maybe the water still isn’t right." He started mumbling to himself obviously bent on solving the problem now. He opened one of the cupboards and began to take stuff out.

"Dad." Jeremy interrupted. His Dad turned to look at him. "The bones, remember?" Jeremy asked hopefully.

Jeremy's Dad smiled. "Right, sorry, I get so distracted. The shrimp can wait. Let's go look at your bones."

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