Zak awoke before anyone else in the bunkhouse. He looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand. It was only 5:25, but he was awake and would not be falling back asleep. He quietly extracted himself from Dusty’s grip and rolled out of bed.
He felt his way over to his duffle bag and took out some clothes and his toiletry bag and crept into the bathroom.
He quietly closed the bathroom door and then turned on the light. He didn’t want to turn on the shower and take the chance of waking up Dusty, so he just ran some water in the sink and splashed it on his face. He brushed his teeth--for some reason smooth teeth and the bracing taste of toothpaste always woke him up.
Zak quickly got dressed. He put on his breeches, yard boots and half chaps. He pulled a light blue Aeropostale t-shirt over his head and tucked it in.
He turned off the bathroom light and crept back into the bedroom. He was glad that Dusty was still asleep. He knew that he got up early most mornings and a chance to sleep in was a luxury.
Zak grabbed his helmet and gloves out of his bag and quietly left the bedroom.
He heard no sounds coming from either of the other bedrooms. When he entered the common room, he saw Dylan curled up in a ball on the couch. He was shivering in his sleep. Zak noticed that he had kicked off all the blankets. He quietly walked over the couch and picked up the blankets and gently laid them on Dylan, trying his best not to wake his new friend.
He gazed down at his sleeping friend. Without his Harry Potter glasses, Dylan looked even younger than his fourteen-and-a-half years. His medium-length brown hair was a tousled mess.
Zak turned to leave the room.
Zak turned and looked back to Dylan--he was still asleep.
“No...” Dylan said a second time. He was talking in his sleep. “I said no. Don’t touch me.” Dylan was becoming more agitated. Whatever he was dreaming was not good.
Zak walked over to Dylan and gently placed a hand on Dylan’s shoulder.
“Dylan...” Zak whispered as he gently shook Dylan’s shoulder.
Dylan’s eyes shot open. “NO!!” he cried. “I said ‘DON’T TOUCH ME!’” Dylan lashed out, pushing Zak away.
“Dylan, it’s me, Zak,” Zak tried to comfort his obviously upset friend. “You’re having a nightmare.”
Dylan’s eyes focused on Zak. Tears came to his eyes. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Zak.”
Zak sat on the couch and rubbed Dylan’s shoulder. “It’s ok. I was just running out to the barn. You were talking in your sleep. Whatever you were dreaming was not good; what was it?”
Dylan’s eyes flashed fearfully. “Uhh, I don’t remember,” he said.
Zak did not believe him, but he was not going to push the issue right now.
“Look, why don’t you try to go back to sleep,” Zak said gently. “I’m going to go out to the barn; Nick is usually out there early and I want to catch up with him. The others probably won’t be up for an hour or so. You look like you could use the sleep.”
Dylan nodded and closed his eyes. He was asleep in minutes and Zak watched over him for a bit to make sure the nightmare did not return.
When he thought that Dylan was out and not being disturbed by the nightmares, he got up and quietly walked out of the bunkhouse.
As he approached the main barn, he saw the lights were on. As he expected, Nick was already at work. Zak knew from talking to Nick that he had problems sleeping. Nick suffered from nightmares quite often and as a result slept very little until he was absolutely exhausted. He was always up and in the barn doing chores before five.
Zak walked into the barn. He walked from stall to stall greeting the horses. Most he had seen the last time they were there, but there were several new ones. He knew that many of them had been in dreadfully abusive situations and they craved the attention they got from people.
It was surprising to Zak that in spite of the fact that people had subjected them to abuse and misery, they still sought out the touch and companionship of people.
Zak stopped in front of a stall that held a beautiful gray mare that obviously had some Arabian in her. The sign on her stall read ‘Shimmer’. The mare stuck her head over the door of the stall and Zak reached out to pet her.
“I see it didn’t take you long to meet our newest resident,” Nick laughed as he came around the corner pushing a wheelbarrow full of muck.
Zak laughed, “I’ve just been walking around saying hi to the ones I remember and meeting some of the new ones.” He nodded his head towards the gray mare. “She’s gorgeous. Arabian?”
“Arabian cross,” Nick confirmed. “She’s too big to be straight Arabian. Not sure what she was crossed with. She just came in about a week and a half ago. She was dropped off at the local animal shelter. The people that owned her could no longer afford her.”
“Well, at least they had the sense to bring her somewhere she could be cared for and not just abandon her to starve to death.”
Nick nodded. “She was lucky. They called us right away to get her. She’s in really good shape. You should see her jump. She’s amazing.”
Zak got a faraway look in his eyes. “No, no, no,” he shook his head. “Dusty will kill me if I fall in love with another one. I know CJ is planning to build a new barn for ‘our’ horses, but I don’t think I’m allowed to fill it all by myself.”
Nick laughed, “Well, you can try her later. She’s really something.”
Zak followed Nick as he pushed the wheelbarrow out of the barn and over to a large pile of manure. Nick dumped his load on the pile and the two boys walked back to the barn.
“So, how are you doing?” Zak asked.
Nick grimaced. “Ok; it’s just so hard with Noah being so far away.”
Zak nodded. “Are you still talking to him every day?”
“Oh, yeah; we Skype or text all the time, but it’s just not the same after he was here all summer. We’re hoping we can get him over here for a weekend next month, but he’s so busy in school, that it’s hard to find the time.”
Zak put his arm on Nick’s shoulder. “It sucks, but if you guys can survive the next few years, you’ll come out great.”
“I know, but it’s so hard sometimes,” Nick said. “You guys are together all the time. For Noah and me it’s not the same. Sometimes I think it would have been so much easier if I had fallen for someone in my own school.”
“But, you didn’t. Plus, you wouldn’t trade Noah for something that was ‘easier’, would you?”
Nick grinned. “I wouldn’t trade him in for anything,” he declared.
Zak laughed, “According to Spin, certain parts of Noah are irreplaceable.”
Nick blusher deeply and coughed. “Ahh, that’s true.” He grimaced. “Spin sure has a big mouth, doesn’t he?”
Zak nodded. “That’s for sure. He made sure we all got the specifics on Noah.”
“I’ll have to thank him for that.”
“Don’t be too hard on him; I don’t think he can help it. Occasionally, he shows these sparks of maturity and calm, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, he’s just the walking, talking car wreck that we’ve all come to love.” Zak looked at his watch. “Hey, it’s only six; the others won’t be stirring for a while. Can we sneak in a quick ride?”
Nick grinned. “Sure. I suppose you want to try Shim?”
“Of course.” Zak grinned back.
Twenty minutes later, Zak and Nick were galloping across the hills that surrounded the ranch. Zak was riding the gray mare, Shimmer, while Nick was aboard his quarter horse, Red.
The boys raced across the fields.
After a while they slowed the horses to a walk and plodded along the trails.
“So, what’s the plan for today?” Nick asked. “Are you guys going over to the Johnsons’ to look at the ponies?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” Zak answered. “I think we should split up. There’s something up with Dylan.” He then told Nick about Dylan’s nightmare and how quiet and shy the new boy was. “When we first met him, he told us he didn’t ride--until his cousin, my friend Denise, pushed him. I figured he was just shy, or was a beginner. Nope; he’s really good, at least on par with Spin if not up to Mattie’s class. When he’s at the ranch and around the horses, he’s a different person. At school he almost tries to melt into the background. Something’s up. He’s such a good guy; I really want to help him.”
“Well, the first step is helping him to get a horse, which is where you come in.”
Nick smiled. “I did what you asked; I have a list of good horses for him to try today. Actually, you’re riding the top one on the list.”
Zak laughed. “I’m not sure; I may keep her for myself,” he joked. “Seriously, I think she’d be great for him. I know his old horse was an Arabian and he loves Apollo.”
“Well, we’ll let him try a couple so that he knows he has options,” Nick said.
“What I’m thinking is you me and Dylan stay here and we send Danny, Mattie and Spin to the Johnsons’,” Zak declared.
“What about CJ & Dusty?”
“I know CJ wants to spend some time with your dad to see how things operate and what we need to do to get the new rescue off the ground. Since Dusty’s going to be in charge of the rescue, I think he should stay and meet with your dad and CJ.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Nick said. “We should head on back; everyone should be getting up about now.”
They rode back to the barn and groomed the horses and put them up. They went to the main house where everyone was waiting for them.
“There you are.” Dusty grinned at Zak. “When you were gone, I figured you and Nick were up to no good.”
Zak gave Dusty an exaggerated frown. “Nick was just introducing me to some of the new horses and we went for a ride over the ridge.”
Dusty saw that look in Zak’s eyes. “No,” he said sternly.
Zak sat next to Dusty and leaned into him; he batted his eyes at his boyfriend. “What do ya mean, no?”
Everyone laughed at Zak’s antics.
“You know what I mean, Zak,” Dusty tried to be stern. “No more horses, not right now.”
Zak pouted. “Fine.” He turned to Dylan. “Hey, Dyl, have we got a horse for you.
Dylan just shook his head as he continued laughing. He thought Zak was joking; everyone else at the table knew just how serious Zak was.
After breakfast, Zak explained his plans for the day. He asked Danny, Mattie and Spin if they would mind heading over to the Johnsons’ ranch to look at the two horses for Max. He explained that he wanted Dylan to stay here with him, so they could try some of the horses and hopefully, Dylan would find one he liked. The three readily agreed, but wanted Nick to go with them since he not only knew the way to the Johnsons’, but he knew them and could help with introductions.
Zak agreed that it made sense for Nick to go with Danny, Mattie and Spin. He hoped that being busy would take his mind off missing Noah. Nick had already shown him the horses he had in mind for Dylan, so he knew where to start, but he was also open to letting Dylan just look around and see if he connected with any of them.
CJ and Dusty were going to spend the day with Jeff. He felt that they had the proper facilities they would need to start a rescue, but he was more concerned with the legal aspects. He had a meeting set up with his lawyer and accountant to show CJ and Dusty the paperwork that would need to be filed and maintained so they could operate as a not-for-profit organization and therefore solicit donations to help the rescue operations.
After breakfast, everyone went their separate ways.
Danny, Mattie, Nick and Spin took off in the Super Cab towing the horse trailer behind them. They all knew the seriousness of their mission, as Zak had promised to kick all their asses if they did not get Maxie the best pony available.
CJ and Dusty left with Jeff and Jen to drive into Lancaster to meet with the ranch’s lawyer and accountant.
Zak and Dylan went back to the bunkhouse. As silly as it sounded in light of how he planned to spend the day, Zak really wanted to take a long hot shower. He couldn’t stand running around for a day without having taken one. Since he and Dylan had the whole day ahead of them, he went to take his shower, while Dylan changed into his riding clothes.
Zak enjoyed his shower and when the water started getting too cold, he turned it off and stepped out to dry himself.
He went into the bedroom he was sharing with Dusty and dug around for a fresh set of clothes. He quickly got dressed in his riding clothes.
He carried his boots and chaps into the common area where Dylan was waiting for him.
He sat in one of the easy chairs and began to pull on his boots and half chaps.
He looked over at Dylan.
“Hey, Dylan, you can tell me it’s none of my business, but what was that all about this morning?”
“What was what about?”
“Your nightmare. You were scared shitless and you said you didn’t know what it was about but I had the feeling you did.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“No, I’m just saying that if you want to talk we are all here for you,” Zak said softly. “We may joke around and beat on each other, but we have each other’s backs and you are one of us, so we have your back too.”
“I know, Zak,” Dylan answered. “Can you just give me some time on this? There is something, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet.”
“Ok, I respect that; I just wanted you to know that we are here--I am here for you.”
“I appreciate that more than you can imagine.” Dylan smiled at Zak. “Denise was right.”
“When she brought me over to your table on the first day of school, she told me she was going to introduce me to ‘some great guys’ and she did.”
Zak just grinned back at Dylan. “C’mon, let’s go find a horse for you,” he said as he got up from his chair.
“I thought we were just going to ride some today.”
“We are, but since we have so many to choose from and you need a new horse, we are going to do a little ‘test driving’.”
Dylan laughed at Zak’s silliness. He was so happy to have met all the guys from the Triple J, but Zak was quickly becoming his favorite. They were a lot alike and he loved the way Zak looked after all the other boys. He wasn’t the oldest, but it was obvious, even to Dylan, who had only been around for a week, that Zak was the glue that held everyone together.
Dylan followed Zak out of the bunkhouse and over to the main barn.
Zak went straight to Shimmer’s stall.
The mare remembered her new friend and craned her neck over the stall door to receive Zak’s pets and scratches.
“Hey, pretty girl, you remember me?” Zak cooed to the gray mare. “This is my friend, Dylan.”
Dylan looked at the beautiful Arabian. “Why do I get the feeling that if I choose this horse, I’m going to be competing with you for riding time?” he laughed.
Zak put on his ‘hurt’ face. “Aw, c’mon, you’re starting to sound like Dusty,” he whined. “Before I came to the ranch in May, I hadn’t even been close to a horse since I was about five and went on a pony ride. I can’t help it; there is something magical about them. I end up falling in love with most of them. Onyx is a special case--he has been ‘mine’ since the first day; but other than him, I seem to always get drawn to the Arabians. I think it’s Dusty’s fault.”
Dylan rolled his eyes. “How is it Dusty’s fault?”
“He doesn’t like Arabians; he thinks they are all skittish and spooky,” Zak stated. “But, I have yet to meet one that was. I learned English on a little Arabian mare we have at the ranch and when I rode Apollo for the first time when we came here, I fell in love with him. I think if I get serious about competing, I’ll do most of my competing on Apollo.”
“What about Onyx?”
“I love my big boy, but he’s an eventing horse and he’s great for dressage. Eventually, I might be good enough to try cross-country with him, but since eventing includes dressage, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that. Danny wants to start training me for it, but I’d rather have him work directly with Onyx and show him.”
“You’d let Danny show Onyx?”
“Sure. He’s my brother and he’s better at the style of riding that Onyx is built for. It’s not like I’m giving my horse to him. He’s already said that he’d like me to compete on Angel. Having Danny ride Onyx gives us the best chance to win some competitions and if we win then more people will want to breed to Onyx and then I get more stud fees.”
“So this is all your part of your plan to become Onyx’s pimp?” Dylan laughed.
Zak couldn’t speak for minute, he was laughing too hard. He just nodded his head until he could finally speak. “When I first got to the ranch and Dusty started to explain to me what ‘stud fees’ were, that’s exactly what I told him Mr. Jones was; but I guess since I own Onyx now I’m his pimp.”
Both boys erupted in another gale of laughter.
“I do understand what you mean, though,” Dylan said when they calmed down. “I was riding since I was six years old until I stopped about a year ago. I forgot how much I missed it. I miss my horse too.”
“Why did you stop?” Zak asked gently.
“Something happened to me and I just couldn’t go to the farm anymore. It broke my heart when my dad said if I wasn’t going to ride anymore then we would have to sell Dodger,” Dylan said with a sad look in his eyes.
“Tell me about Dodger.”
Dylan’s face lit up. “He was the best. I got him when I was eight. Everyone at the farm thought my parents were crazy for buying him for me. He was a tough ride. He was always very gentle with me, but his owner before me had been a girl who was a college student and she was disqualified from several competitions when Dodger refused obstacles.”
“What was his problem?”
“I never thought he had one. The first time I got on him we ran the most difficult practice course they had set up at the farm; we ran it clean and in a time that was a record for someone my age. He just needed a calm rider. The girl who had him before me was one of those girls who thought the crop was her friend. She would just try to smack him around with the crop--she rode angry. Dodger just always fed off my emotions. If I stayed calm and encouraged him with my voice and my hands he would go like the wind and we would win most competitions. The only time I lost was the one time I rode angry. I wasn’t pissed at him, I was mad at my dad for not coming to a competition, but Dodger could sense my anger and he was almost uncontrollable. He refused the second jump and almost threw me at the third. I was finally disqualified. It was all my fault--I knew better than to ride feeling that way; but I learned my lesson and we never lost a competition again.”
“He sounds like a great horse,” Zak said. “Do you know what happened to him?”
Dylan shook his head. “My dad had the people at the farm sell him to another farm. I was so lost then that I never really thought about where he ended up, but I know they made sure he went to a good home. As long as he has a compassionate rider, he’ll do great.”
Zak was dying to ask more about what Dylan had been through, but he wanted to give Dylan the time to decide he could share his secrets with them and they would all protect him.
“So, as I was saying, this is Shimmer. She just came here about two weeks ago according to Nick. I can vouch for the fact that she is a great jumper and awesome on the trails.”
Dylan laughed, “How the hell early were you out here?”
Zak rolled his eyes. “Don’t interrupt, I’m selling,” he said quickly.
Zak led Dylan to another section of the barn. In the stall in front of them was a large brown horse.
“This is Baron,” Zak said gesturing towards the new horse. “He’s a ten-year-old Warmblood gelding. Nick says he’s pretty good at hunter/jumper and amazing on the trails. But I cannot vouch for him first hand...yet.”
At ‘yet’, Dylan let loose with another round of laughter. “Are we here for me to get a horse or for you to try to ride every one at this ranch?”
“I’m hurt. I’m trying to help you do due diligence. Trying all these horses is hard work and I am willing to share that burden and give you the benefit of my wisdom,” Zak tried to sell that with a straight face.
“You are so full of shit,” Dylan continued to laugh at Zak.
Zak knew he was acting the fool, but he was glad to see Dylan’s mood lighten and to see him start to open up.
“What say we get Shimmer and Baron groomed and tacked and give them a whirl?” Zak suggested.
“Sure, why don’t you take Baron, since you haven’t tried him yet, and I’ll go get Shimmer?” Dylan suggested.
Dylan was about to head back to Shimmer’s stall when the phone on the barn wall rang.
Both boys looked at each other.
Zak shrugged his shoulders and went to answer the phone.
“Dream Maker’s Ranch.”
“Nick, is that you?”
“No, sir, I’m afraid Nick and his parents aren’t here right now. My name is Zak, I’m a friend of the Murphys, can I help you?”
“Zak, you say? I think maybe Nick mentioned you before. Zak, my name is Sam Carson, I work over at the SPCA; we have a bit of an emergency here. There was a raid on a ranch overnight and several horses were found in horrible conditions. All but one of the horses have had to be destroyed.”
“Unfortunately, their conditions were so bad there was no hope of saving them. But we have one that we are hopeful we can save. But we need to get him to the Rescue as soon as possible. We don’t have the facilities here to help this animal and if we wait too long he may be beyond saving.”
“Mr. Carson, none of the Murphys are here, but my friend Dylan and I are. I’m going to put him on the phone. Can you give him your address and directions to get to you? I’m going to try to get hold of Jeff; if I can’t then Dylan and I will come and get the horse. Ok?”
“I’d appreciate that Zak, but are you sure you can do that?”
“Yes; my friend’s brother left his Jeep here and it has a trailer hitch, so we can hitch up the Murphys’ trailer and get over to you if we have to.”
“Thank you, Zak, we really appreciate this.”
“Well, since my friend’s brother is trying to get a rescue started, we might as well make this guy our first mission. I’m going to put Dylan on to get the directions while I try to call Jeff.”
“Ok. I look forward to meeting you boys soon.”
Zak handed the phone to Dylan who had been listening to Zak’s side of the conversation.
While Dylan spoke to Mr. Carson and took down the directions, Zak tried to call Dusty’s cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. Knowing his boyfriend he figured that Dusty had, as usual, forgotten to charge his phone last night.
Dylan came out of the barn. “Any luck?” he asked.
Zak shook his head. “The love of my life has an issue with charging his phone and I haven’t gotten CJ’s number yet. The only number I have for Jeff is the ranch number. I could try to call Nick, but the Johnsons’ place was a two-hour drive from here, so that won’t help. I guess it’s you and me, bud. Want to help me get our first rescue?”
Dylan nodded. “Yep, let’s go.”
Zak ran to the bunkhouse and grabbed the keys that CJ had left behind in case his Jeep needed to be moved.
Zak backed the Jeep up to the trailer and Dylan expertly hitched the trailer up. Within minutes the two were on their way to the SPCA.
It took them about fifteen minutes to get to the SPCA facility. There was an older man of about fifty waiting outside for them.
The boys hopped out of the Jeep and went over to the man.
“Mr. Carson?” Zak asked.
“Yes, boys, I’m Sam Carson,” he said offering his hand to the boys.
“I’m Zak Myers and this is my friend, Dylan Summers,” Zak said as both boys shook Mr. Carson’s hand.
“I’m happy to meet you boys and I’m so grateful you were willing to help us out.”
“Well, like I said, we’re about to start a rescue at our home ranch, so this is something we all signed up for.”
“Well, I appreciate your willingness to help, but let me prepare you,” Mr. Carson said. “We’ve been watching this farm for a few months. Unfortunately the way laws are written, we have to have so much proof before we can raid a farm. So we’ve been building an airtight case. We finally ran the raid last night. We found four horses in various states of distress. Most were malnourished, some were kept in stalls that were too small and hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. One of the horses had foundered and was lying in over of foot of feces.”
Zak and Dylan each grabbed the other’s hand as Mr. Carson described the deplorable conditions the horses had been found in. Zak knew this would not be easy, but he was willing to suffer some, if it meant saving these animals.
“As I told you on the phone, three of the horses were just in too horrible a state. It was more merciful to euthanize them then to let them suffer any further. But this one gelding seems to be made of stronger stuff. He’s in very bad shape, but he seems to be a fighter. If you guys can get him to the ranch then Jeff and Nick can start working their magic on him.”
“Well, sir, that’s what we’re here for,” Zak said. “So let’s get going.” Mr. Carson grinned at Zak’s eagerness.
“This way boys,” he said as he led the two teens to a makeshift stall that was located behind the main building.
When Zak saw the horse his heart dropped. It was obvious from seeing the gelding’s dished head that he was an Arabian. The horse was emaciated to the point where you could count his ribs. His sides were covered with cuts and bruises that had been allowed to fester. His eyes showed fear at seeing more humans.
Dylan had been looking around the grounds, distracted by the number of abandoned and neglected former pets that filled the facility and the surrounding buildings.
When he finally had a chance to look at the horse he and Zak were here for his heart sank.
“Oh, my god,” he cried in shock. He ran to the horse and began to cry uncontrollably.
Zak grabbed Dylan before he got too close to the horse. Dylan turned and grabbed hold of Zak while he sobbed.
“Dylan, what’s wrong?” Zak asked quietly. “I know it’s bad, but we’re gonna help him.”
Dylan let go of Zak and looked back at the horse. “Zak, it’s Dodger.”