Zak was walking briskly through the halls. Mr. Malcolm had asked him to stay behind after his English Literature class and he was hurrying to meet the guys for lunch. He stopped at his locker to switch out his books for his next class.
He was in such a rush he kept screwing up his combination. Finally, he made himself stop and took a deep breath. He went back to the lock and finally popped the sucker open. He switched out his books and was just about to reach for the locker door, when it was slammed in front of him.
Zak jumped and looked to his side and there stood TJ Oliver.
"TJ, Jesus!!" Zak exclaimed. "You scared the hell out of me."
TJ just grinned menacingly at Zak.
"What do you want?" Zak asked.
"I heard Mr. Jones gave you my horse."
"No, TJ, Mr. Jones gave me my horse." Zak looked TJ right in the eyes. "If you hadn't been such a shit to Onyx then you'd still have him. But you were and you don't--he's mine now."
"What's that supposed to mean? Mr. Jones had a legal bill of sale and he transferred everything to me."
"Face it, squirt, you're not man enough for a horse like that; sooner or later, you're going to be begging me to take him back."
Zak laughed, "Keep dreaming, TJ, that will never happen."
TJ stepped forward and placed his arms hands on either side of Zak's head effectively pinning Zak to the lockers.
"TJ, I suggest you back up… NOW!!"
"Or what, little man?" TJ leered. "Tonto's not here to help you."
"TJ, I know about you and Dusty. If you keep harassing me, then I'll let Dusty tell the world about what went down between you two."
TJ went slightly pale. "If you do that, your boyfriend is just as exposed as I am."
Zak nodded. "True, but since Dusty is already out and with me, it wouldn't be as bad for him as for someone as deeply hidden in the closet as yourself."
TJ turned red, anger flashing in his eyes. He slammed his hand into the locker right next to Zak's head. TJ put his hand on Zak's chest and drew back his other arm.
Zak squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the pain and unconsciousness he knew was coming.
Zak felt the pressure of TJ's hand suddenly leave his chest. He opened his eyes to see Mattie standing between him and TJ.
"Back off, TJ," Mattie instructed.
"Not gonna happen," TJ said as he aimed a wild punch at Mattie.
Zak knew this would not end well. Mattie grabbed TJ's arm and twisted it around behind TJ's back. He yanked it up until TJ yelped in pain.
Mattie pushed TJ's body into the bank of lockers. He moved his mouth close to TJ's ear and whispered, "If you ever even try to lay a hand on any of my friends again, it will be the last move you make. Understand?"
TJ slowly nodded his head.
As Mattie was about to release TJ, Mr. McAdams, the Boy's Dean, came around the corner.
"What's going on here?" he asked gruffly.
"We're just having a little discussion," Mattie answered.
"Mr. Alvarez, this is only your second day here--please tell me you are not going to be a problem for me."
Zak stepped up. "Mr. McAdams, Mattie was just trying to help me. TJ and I were having a discussion of a personal nature and things got a little overheated. Mattie just stepped in to keep things from getting out of control."
Mr. McAdams looked suspiciously at the three boys. "Mr. Oliver, is this true?" Mattie and Zak both looked at TJ. Zak had already warned Mattie and Spin that Mr. McAdams had a reputation for protecting the jocks and spinning things so that their victims would often end up being punished.
"Ahh, yes, sir," TJ nodded. "It's just like he said--no harm no foul."
Mr. McAdams did not look entirely convinced, but he couldn't very well put himself in the position of having to discipline the school's star quarterback. "Very well," he said. "You boys need to get to your next classes."
TJ scurried off, while Mattie helped Zak pick up the books he had dropped when TJ had slammed his locker door.
"Mattie, what are you doing here, anyways?"
"When you didn't show up for lunch, I decided to see if something was holding you up."
Zak grinned at his friend. "I'm glad you did. Things were about to get ugly."
"What is that asshole's problem, anyways?"
"He still wants Onyx back and I think he has a thing for Dusty."
Mattie barked out a laugh. "Are you serious?"
Zak nodded. He explained about Dusty and TJ's history and TJ's past with Onyx as well.
"Oh, man," said Mattie. "I knew he was a dick, but he might just be 'King of the Dicks'."
"Probably," answered Zak. "C'mon, let's get to the cafeteria--I'm starving."
Dusty spent the morning in class. He had always taken night classes in the past, but since afternoons and evenings were now his only time to spend with Zak and their friends, he had changed his schedule so that he attended classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
He went to class from nine to noon; this allowed him to go to the ranch and do morning feedings and clean out stalls and then head right to school.
Most of his classwork was done on the computer, so he was able to work at his own pace. He usually finished pretty quickly and then spent the rest of the time talking with other students and teachers.
As soon as noon struck, he was out of there. He quickly drove home to pick up Herc and then headed to Zak's house to see if CJ was ready to head to the ranch, and to pick up Loki.
As he came down Zak's street he saw the same F-150 that he had seen the day before. This time it was parked across the street from Zak's house. He tried to get the license plate, but as soon as the driver saw Dusty's truck coming, he drove off.
Now, Dusty was becoming concerned. He would have to make sure he mentioned the truck to Zak this afternoon and maybe call Kate to see if she had seen it. He knew it was probably nothing, but something about the truck was bothering him.
Dusty went over to the back fence and whistled for Loki. When Loki didn't come running over he went through the gate and checked the puppy's house. Nothing.
Dusty went back around to the front door and went into the house. As he entered the living room he burst out laughing at the sight of Loki lying across CJ's lap.
"Loki, you're just as dopey as your brother," Dusty laughed. "You're not a lap dog."
CJ shook his head. "I've been trying to explain that to him for the better part of the morning."
"Are you ready to head out to the ranch?" Dusty asked.
"Yup; just might take a minute or two to get the feeling back in my legs," CJ answered as Loki jumped down and ran over to Dusty.
CJ gingerly got up from the couch and followed Dusty out to the truck.
Once they were on their way, CJ spoke, "I thanked Zak and I want to thank you too, Dusty."
"For taking such good care of my little brother."
"You don't have to thank us for that. Mattie has become my best friend and he fits in so well with us. He and Spin are hysterical together. I mean, Zak and I are opposites in looks and build, but personality-wise we mesh. Mattie and Spin are like yin and yang--I'll never understand them."
"But, Mattie said it was you and Zak who got him and Spin together."
Dusty laughed, "No, it was Zak and I who kept them from killing each other." Dusty went on to explain about the 'trap' he and Zak set to get Mattie and Spin to acknowledge their feelings for one another.
"I guess I can relate to the 'opposites attract' thing," CJ said wistfully. "The only thing Danny and I had in common was our love of horses. Even our riding styles and disciplines were different. But we loved each other so fiercely--that's what surprised me most about him not coming back. We were in love; if we had had a fight or he had told me there was someone else, I could deal with that, but just disappearing from my life, it's been torture."
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," Dusty offered. "But now you're back and Mattie is thrilled. I've never seen him as excited as when he told us that you were coming home."
CJ grinned. "He's something else. He's the peacekeeper in our family, even though he is the youngest. I get the feeling he's like that for you guys, too."
"Oh, yeah. Never starts a fight, but always ends it."
"That's my little brother," CJ laughed.
"So, CJ, what are your plans now that you are out of school? Mattie mentioned that you were looking to buy a farm or a ranch."
"That's my plan, but I'm not in a huge hurry," CJ answered. "I don't have to worry about working immediately because of my trust. I don't want to stagnate, but I don't want to go and buy the first ranch I see."
"Are you looking to train, breed, and board or just teach?"
"Yes, yes, yes and yes," CJ replied. "I'd like to have a breeding operation, especially if we can locate some of my grandfather's lines. I think I'm a decent trainer, but Mattie tells me you are very good yourself. I think offering boarding and lessons makes you immediately part of the community and of course, I'd love a big piece of land with lots of trails."
"Sounds like a big plan. Hopefully you can find something around here, because I know it means a lot to Mattie to have you back."
"I'll definitely stay as close as possible. Mattie means the world to me. Dusty, can I ask you something?"
"Tell me about Spin. What do you think of him and Mattie together?"
"Spin's a good kid. He's got way too much energy sometimes and his mouth often writes checks that his ass can't cash, but he's a good friend and very loyal," Dusty answered. "Why? Are you worried about the two of them together?"
"Worried, probably isn't the right word. They're so young and Spin just seems so immature and flighty--not that that's a bad thing, but Mattie is so grounded."
"I think that's why they work together. Like I said, they are yin and yang. One time we were on a long road trip to get Spin's new horse. We stopped for lunch and Spin was so excited and hyper I thought we would have to kill him. Mattie dragged him off to the restroom and when they came back Spin was quiet and sedate for the rest of the trip. I have a suspicion of what went on in there, but Mattie didn't lose his patience like Zak and I would have, he dealt with Spin. They help each other."
"I'm glad then; I just don't want Mattie to get hurt."
"I can't guarantee they're lifers like me and Zak, but I think given a shot they could be."
CJ grinned at Dusty. "So you think you and Zak are in it for the long haul?"
"Oh, yeah. I can't imagine my life without him."
"You one lucky guy. Zak is very special. If he was a few years older or I was a few years younger, you'd have some competition. He reminds me so much of Danny."
"Well, I know Zak likes the thought of having a 'big brother'.
"Thanks. I'm so glad Mattie has you guys."
"And we're glad we have him." Dusty smiled. "So what are your plans for this afternoon?"
"I don't know," CJ answered. "I just wanted to get out; do you have anything that needs to get done?"
"Not really. I did the stalls and feeding first thing this morning before my classes. I know that the guys are bringing out some friends this afternoon for a trail ride, so we can go out with them. And I think we have Maxie today."
Dusty laughed. "Yeah; Joe, who used to work at the ranch, started his own business with his brother-in-law, so to help him out Zak and I volunteered to babysit his three-year-old son a few days a week."
"Really; isn't that a lot of work?"
"He's a really cute kid and he loves hanging out with us and the horses. He really loves Zak. We're actually going out to the ranch where we got Apollo, Whisper and Revanche to look at a pony for him this weekend."
"Mattie told me about your visit to the rescue; I'd love to do something like that."
"It's an awesome place. You should come out with us this weekend. There are only three bedrooms in the bunkhouse, but I don't know if Noah will be there this weekend or not. If he is then you can always use the couch."
"Sounds great. I'd love to see it and find out what goes into doing that work."
They were just pulling up to the main barn when they saw Mr. Jones coming out.
When Dusty stopped the truck, Herc leapt out of the bed. CJ opened his door and let Loki down and the two dogs took off for parts unknown.
Dusty came around to CJ's side of the truck and they walked over to where Mr. Jones was waiting.
"Hey, Dusty," Mr. Jones said.
"Hey, Mr. Jones," Dusty answered. "This is Mattie's brother, CJ. CJ Alvarez, this is Mr. Martin Jones, the owner of the Triple J."
"Nice to meet you, CJ," Mr. Jones said as he offered CJ his hand.
"You, too, Mr. Jones," CJ replied as he shook Mr. Jones' hand. "Thank you so much for taking care of my little brother."
"Mattie's a great kid. He's a hard worker and he's great with the horses. I enjoy having him around." Mr. Jones grinned. "Now, CJ, Mattie told me that you were looking for a ranch property in the area."
"Yes, sir," CJ nodded. "I get my inheritance next week and I want to find a nice little ranch so I can start my own operation."
"Well, why don't you come into the office? I have a few ideas for you."
"You coming Dusty?" Mr. Jones asked.
"No, you guys go ahead and talk business. I'm going to take Phoenix out on the trail; it's been a while since it's been just the two of us."
Dusty walked off towards Barn 2, while Mr. Jones led CJ to his office.
When Zak and Mattie finally got to the lunch room, they saw Spin holding court at their table with Dylan, Carmen and Denise.
"Hey guys, what took you so long?" Carmen asked as the two latecomers took their seats.
Zak quickly gave a condensed version of their run-in with TJ and Mr. McAdams.
Spin turned red and started sputtering. "Someone needs to teach that asshole a lesson. I'm still steamed about what he did to you and Dusty last summer."
"What did he do?" Carmen asked.
Zak shot Spin a look that could kill. "He wants Onyx back, cuz now he thinks he can handle him. He was pissed cuz Mr. Jones wouldn't sell him back to his mother and now he's really pissed cuz Mr. Jones gave him to me."
"Well, he is an asshole, so just watch out for him," Denise said. "I don't want to see any harm come to that cute face of yours."
Zak blushed several shades of red. "Ok, let's change the subject. Are we all still on for this afternoon?"
Denise shook her head. "Carmen and I have field hockey practice. Actually it's just an informational meeting, but we can't be on the team if we don't go."
"Well, that sucks, but we can make it another day," Zak responded. "How about you Dylan?"
Dylan looked up in shock. He thought they had just asked him to be polite since Carmen and Denise wanted to go. "Umm, sure, I'll go, but I don't have a ride."
"No problem. Just meet us in the parking lot after the final bell; we'll go grab Max and then head to the ranch. Between me, Dusty and CJ we can make sure you get a ride home."
Dylan smiled for the first time since he met the boys. "Sure, that sounds good."
From that point the conversation veered into tales of summer at the ranch.
After school, Mattie and Zak were waiting in the parking lot for Spin and Dylan. Spin, as usual, had gotten himself into trouble. This time with Coach Phillips. So he was still running laps when Mattie and Zak came out of the locker room.
Both boys watched as Dylan came out of the school.
Mattie looked at Zak. "He's our next project, isn't he?"
Zak grinned and nodded. "He's a good-looking kid and he seems really nice, but he's worse than I used to be when it comes to shy. I think some time at the ranch could be good for him."
"Do you think he bats for the team?"
"I don't know, my gaydar sucks," Zak laughed. "But I don't think it matters. If he is then we'll find him a nice boy; if he's not then we'll find him a nice girl. My main focus right now is to pull him out of his shell."
"Well, if an afternoon with this crew doesn't start that process, you're really going to have your work cut out for you."
Zak nodded as he watched Dylan slowly make his way over to where Mattie and Zak waited next to Zak's SUV. Dylan was a little taller than Spin--probably about 5'10" or so. He had light brown hair with blond highlights which was rather shaggy. He appeared to be in shape, but he wore baggy clothes, so you really couldn't tell. What Zak found the cutest about him was the wire-rimmed glasses that he wore. They made him think of 'Harry Potter'.
"Hey, Dylan," Zak called as Dylan got closer.
"Hey, guys." Dylan smiled shyly as he got to Zak's car.
"Hey, Dyl," Mattie said. "We're just waiting for Spin. His mouth got him hot water again." He looked up to see a red-headed blur speeding towards them. "Well, speak of the devil."
Spin ran up to the group, panting. "Let's get the hell out of here, before that damn coach makes me run more laps."
The other three boys laughed as they climbed into the SUV. Mattie told Dylan to sit in the front with Zak, while he climbed in the back with Spin.
Zak drove the few blocks to Max's daycare center. He parked in the lot and told the others he'd be right back.
Zak went to the door that Joe had told him to use. He opened the door to a scene of mass chaos. At least thirty kids under the age of four were scrambling around the room. Zak just stood in the doorway until he heard a familiar little voice.
"ZAKY!!!" Max came tearing out of nowhere to grab Zak around the knees.
Zak bent down and picked up Max. "Maxie!! You ready to go?"
"Yes, yes, yes," the little boy nodded his head. "I ready go bye-bye."
Just then an older woman came up to the two.
"Can I help you, young man?" she asked suspiciously.
"Yes, ma'am," Zak answered politely. "I'm Zachary Myers. Max's father was supposed to add me to the list of people authorized to pick up Max. I'll be picking him up a few days a week."
"Ah, so you're Zak?" The woman grinned. "Max has been waiting for you all day. I'm Mrs. Baker. I don't want to seem too formal and I can see that Max knows you, but can I just see an ID from you?"
"Sure," Zak answered as he took out his wallet and gave Mrs. Baker his driver's license.
"Zak, I'm just going to make a photocopy of this for Max's file--that way there won't be any questions when you come to pick him up."
Zak nodded, while Mrs. Baker went to make the copies. She returned a few minutes later and handed Zak back his license.
"Max, can you show Zak where your cubby is?" Mrs. Baker asked.
Max nodded. "Yes, c'mon, Zaky."
Zak put Max down and the little boy took his hand and led Zak into another room. There were rows of small cubbies for each of the children. Max showed Zak which was his and Zak grabbed the jacket and backpack that were in it.
"Ok, let's go," Zak said.
"YAY!!" Max yelled as he ran for the door.
Zak scooped up Max and carried him out to the SUV. He opened the back passenger door and handed him to Mattie.
"HI, Mattie!! Hi, 'Pin!!" Max greeted the boys as Mattie buckled him into the booster seat that was between him and Spin.
"Hey, Maxie," Spin answered. "Did you have fun in school?"
"Yes, but I was waiting ALL DAY for you to come get me."
The three boys laughed.
Zak got into the driver's seat and turned to Max. "Maxie, this is Dylan--he's our new friend."
"Hi, Dyl'n," Max said shyly.
"Hey, Max," Dylan answered.
"We gonna ride Oxy?" Max asked Zak.
"Well, we're going on a trail ride, but I don't think I'm gonna take Onyx today. There's a new horse I want to take. I think you can ride with Mattie and Ash."
Maxie frowned slightly. "Ok."
Mattie reached over and tickled the three-year-old. "Whatsamatter, you don't wanna ride with me and Ash? You're gonna hurt my feelings."
The little boy laughed and then turned to Mattie with his finger waving in the older boy's face. "No ticklin'," Max said very seriously. "Or I gonna ride with 'Pin."
"You tell him, Maxie," Spin laughed.
Mattie pouted at Max. "I thought you were my buddy, Maxie."
Maxie grabbed Mattie's hand. "I your buddy, Mattie… just no ticklin' me."
Mattie grinned. "Ok, no tickling."
In the front seat, Zak noticed that shy Dylan was watching the antics in the backseat. "So, Dyl, how long have you been riding?"
"Ah, I started when I was about five and rode until I gave it up about a year ago."
"Do you ride western or English?"
"I competed in hunter/jumper and equitation," Dylan answered. "I can ride western, but I'm better at English."
"Oh, great," said Mattie. "Now me and Dusty are outnumbered."
Zak laughed. "Don't listen to him, Dylan. Spin and I both ride western some, since my boyfriend is a cowboy, as well as being an Indian." He chuckled at his own joke. "I kinda have to, but we both prefer to ride English and we are going to start competing this fall. Well, I'm going to start; Spin's been competing all along, but this will be his first time competing on his new horse."
"How long have you been riding, Zak?" Dylan asked.
Mattie and Spin both snickered in the back seat.
"What's so funny?" a confused Dylan asked.
"Those two have been riding most of their lives, I've only been riding since May," Zak answered.
"You've only been riding since May?!"
"That's right, Dylan," Spin laughed. "But you should see him. His learning curve was insane. Plus in that time frame he's somehow managed to acquire three horses."
Zak giggled. "Well, actually, one; Onyx, he's a Friesian, is mine. Apollo, an Arabian, who we adopted from a rescue ranch is mine and my boyfriend, Dusty's. And then yesterday, CJ, Mattie's brother, showed up with a new Arabian mare, Silent Angel, and she kinda adopted me. But she actually belongs to CJ's boyfriend."
"So are you guys all… umm…" Dylan cringed.
"Are we all gay?" Zak asked gently.
"Yes." Dylan blushed.
"Yes, we are," Zak answered as Mattie and Spin joined in their agreement. "We're not 'out and about' at school, but most people know, especially around the ranch. Does that bother you?"
Dylan blushed deeper. "No, I think that's why Denise introduced us. I'm gay too, and she's the only one I've told, so I think she wanted to have me meet you guys cuz she knew you were. She told me she was going to introduce me to some 'cool gay guys'. I'm thinking she meant you all. Since you are cool and you are gay."
"Did she also mention that we're all taken?" Spin asked.
"No; I knew that Zak had a boyfriend, because he said so yesterday. And I figured you and Mattie were together, just from the way you acted around each other."
"Damn, Zak," Mattie exclaimed. "This boy's gaydar is way better than yours."
"Umm, what about…"Dylan asked, his eyes moving to Max sitting between Mattie and Spin.
"We don't know about Maxie yet, but we love him anyway," Zak joked.
"No, no, I mean, aren't you worried he might say something to his parents?"
"Not really," answered Zak. "His parents know."
"And they let you watch him anyways?"
"Sure; we worked with Joe all summer--actually Dusty's worked with him for a few years. He knows what kind of people we are and he doesn't judge us because of who we happen to love. He knows we all love Max and we would protect him with our lives," Zak replied.
"Maxie, who's your best friend?" Mattie asked.
Max perked up. "Mattie and 'Pin and Dussy are my friends, but Zaky is my bestest friend," he stated with a huge grin.
Zak asked, "Maxie, who does 'Mommy and Daddy' kisses?"
"Mummy and Daddy and Zaky and Dussy and Mattie and 'Pin."
"Cuz they love each other like Mummys and Daddies," Mattie said proudly.
Dylan was stunned. "Wow, I can't believe this."
"Why?" asked Zak. "Kids aren't born prejudiced or hateful, they learn those things. Maxie has just had great parents who've taught him to love and accept. He's a great kid."
They pulled up in front of the main barn. Everyone spilled out of the SUV, Mattie carrying a squirming Max.
Dusty came around the corner on Phoenix.
He rode up to the group of boys and jumped down from his horse. He ran over and grabbed Zak and laid a kiss on Zak not meant for others' views.
"Hey, Babe. This being apart all day thing is getting old," Dusty panted as he let Zak down.
Zak laughed, "And it's only the second day of school."
Both turned towards their friends. Mattie and Spin just grinned at them, while poor Dylan stood there slack-jawed.
"Dylan," Zak said, trying to get Dylan's attention. "Dylan?"
"Huh." Dylan finally woke up.
Zak laughed. "Dylan, this is my boyfriend, Dusty Crandall. Dusty this is Dylan… Dylan, what's your last name?"
"Ahh, umm, Summers," Dylan stuttered.
Dusty walked over and offered his hand to Dylan. "Nice to meet you, Dylan."
"You, too, Dusty."
Dusty turned back to Zak. "Where are the girls?"
"They had a meeting after school, so they took a rain check."
"Oh, ok. So, are we going on a trail ride?"
"It looked like you just got back from one."
"Well, I took Phoenix out for a long one--it's been a while since it was just the two of us. But, I'm ready to go with you guys, I'll just take a different horse."
Just then, Mr. Jones and CJ came out of the barn.
"Hello, boys," Mr. Jones greeted them. "Looks like you've brought another new addition."
"Hey, Mr. Jones," Zak answered. "This is Dylan Summers, he's Denise's cousin."
Mr. Jones shook Dylan's hand and chuckled. "Well, Dylan, I won't hold that against you."
Mattie spoke up. "And Dylan, this is my brother, CJ."
CJ and Dylan nodded to each other.
"Well, boys, you are just in time to hear the big announcement," Mr. Jones said.
"What announcement?" all the boys asked at once.
"I'm afraid I've sold the ranch."