CJ drove his jeep through the wooded mountain pass. It was Friday night, three weeks since the night of his birthday party. He and Danny were finally taking advantage of the weekend away that Zak and Mattie had given them.
They were supposed to have gone the weekend after the party, but the sale of the ranch, the moving and the departure of their parents had taken so much time, that they decided to put it off a few weeks until things had settled down.
CJ, Danny and Mattie had moved into the ranch house temporarily, until their new house was built and ready.
Danny was in charge of the construction of the new house and he was meeting with the architects and builders almost daily. The boys had all gotten together to review the plans for the combined ranches and had made some suggestions and some changes to CJ’s original ideas.
They had decided to leave the old ranch house where it was and instead build the new ‘private’ barn next to the new house. They also were building a guest house and some other facilities, effectively making a small private enclave for the ‘family’. Danny and the architect had worked very closely on designing the private compound within the ranch. At first, the architects and builders were a little suspicious of the amount of money that was involved in this project. When they had CJ checked out, they realized that he had the resources to run this project many times over. CJ knew that his father had actually low-balled things when he announced to his friends the value of his inheritance. In reality, CJ’s share was significantly more than the amount his father had revealed and Mattie’s would be even more, especially given that it was still safely invested and growing. Only CJ and Danny knew the true value of the trusts--the boys were impressed enough with the number that Mr. Alvarez had given out at CJ’s birthday.
The main house had seven bedrooms, most with private bathrooms and sitting rooms. It seemed like a lot of bedrooms, but two had already been claimed by CJ and Danny and Mattie and Spin on a permanent basis and two more by Zak and Dusty, and Dylan, whenever they stayed at the ranch, leaving three guest rooms. All of the bedrooms were housed on the second and third floors of the house. Half of the first floor was taken up by a huge open kitchen and family room, the other half was made up of an office and a formal dining room. The house was modern and tasteful, something that appealed to the men and boys who would inhabit it.
They still planned to build several additional barns on the ranch as well as all new building for the rescue.
The plans were pretty well set and groundbreaking was due to start Monday. That was the reason that Mattie and Zak insisted that Danny and CJ get away this weekend as the next few months would be too busy for much relaxation and together time.
CJ had had several long discussions and arguments with his father before his parents relocated to Spain. The main point of the discussions was security. CJ caved in to his father’s wishes as far as upgrading the security on the ranch.
Mr. Alvarez’s security team swarmed the ranch like hungry locusts. They upgraded the fencing and gates, added security codes to all gates and buildings, changed the lighting of the whole complex and made suggestions for the locations and structure of all the new buildings that were planned. They also reviewed the blueprints for the buildings in the private compound. The whole new family area would be surrounded by a benign-looking stone wall that hid many surprises for anyone foolish enough to try to breach it.
While he was willing to work with his father on the general security issues, CJ and Mr. Alvarez continued to butt heads on the issue of personal security and body guards. CJ wanted the ranch to keep its friendly, open feeling that made it a favorite place for many local kids and families. He knew that moderate security features in this day and age were a great selling point to parents, but he did not want armed guards and sharpshooters covering his property.
Finally, after several days of back-and-forth negotiation, CJ agreed to meet with his father’s head of security and try to come up with a solution that they could all live with.
CJ was willing to have someone be in charge of security at the ranch, but he wanted someone who would not scare the kids and parents and who would fit into things. His idea was to hire someone as the ranch manager and have that person also function as head of security. Mr. Alvarez and Doug Marshall, his head of security, were also concerned with Mattie being exposed at school. None of them felt that Mattie was in danger from an attempt on his life; they all felt it was more likely that he would be the target of a kidnapping or extortion, since CJ’s money and Mattie’s trust were the main lure for criminals.
Finally, Doug found a solution. An old army buddy of his had recently retired after his wife had passed away. He was trained in all manner of hand-to-hand combat as well as being a master with firearms. He was a perfect candidate to take on the security at the ranch, but there were two factors that made him appeal to CJ even more. The first was that he had grown up on a ranch in New Mexico and was very comfortable with horses. The second was that he had a sixteen-year-old son, who was also extremely proficient in several martial arts as well as with knives and firearms.
CJ had Doug set up a meeting with his old friend. If things worked as CJ hoped, he would have someone to watch over the ranch and Mattie.
One afternoon, CJ and Danny had all the boys rounded up to meet the potential new manager. Since the boys had all been working in different areas of the ranch, they all appeared in their usual riding clothes.
Zak, Spin and Dylan were all dressed in their breeches, yard boots, half chaps and pullover sweatshirts.
Zak held Max in his arms; Max was also dressed in his junior version of Zak’s outfit. Dusty, Mattie and CJ were all dressed in jeans, western boots and t-shirts and jackets. Danny having just come from a final meeting with the architect was dressed in chinos and a polo shirt--he also wore a lightweight jacket since fall was definitely in the air.
The gathered crew watched as an H2 pulled in to the driveway. The driver stepped out; he was about 6’3” and very muscular. His graying hair was buzzed short. He wore jeans and a t-shirt as well as a denim jacket.
The passenger door opened and all eyes were locked on the young man who stepped out. Spin let out a low whistle, which earned him slaps on the back of the head by Mattie and Dusty.
The young man who stepped out the H2 was about 6’1”; he was muscular without looking like a bodybuilder. He had medium-length, light-brown hair with blond streaks and a healthy tanned complexion. When he removed the Ray Ban sunglasses he wore, his bright blue eyes shined in the afternoon sun. The boy was dressed in jeans, western boots, t-shirt and a denim jacket. He reached back into the SUV and pulled out a black-felt cowboy hat which he fixed on his head.
“Yes!” Mattie whispered to Dusty. “One more for our team.”
“Something tells me he doesn’t play for ‘our’ team,” Spin mumbled.
CJ walked up to the older man. “Sir, I’m CJ Alvarez--welcome to the Triple J Ranch,” he said as he offered his hand.
“Sergeant Major Ernest Evans, US Army, retired,” the man answered as he shook CJ’s hand. “Please call me Sarge.” He gestured to the younger man. “This is my son, Adam; we just call him Ace.”
CJ offered his hand to Ace and was impressed by the young man’s firm grip and the way he met CJ’s eyes.
“Nice to meet you, Ace.”
“You too, sir.”
“Please; I know it’s a sign of respect that your parents have taught you, but please, we’re all on a first-name basis here. I’m only a few years older than you, so call me CJ.”
Ace looked at his father who nodded to him.
“Thank you, CJ,” he said.
CJ motioned to the rest of his crew. “And this is my partner, Danny James. My brother, Mattie. Danny’s brother, Zak Myers and Dusty Crandall. Spin O’Brien and Dylan Summers. Oh, and this little one is Max.” Each of the boys stepped forward and shook hands with Sarge and Ace as they were introduced.
“This is quite a spread you have here, CJ,” Sarge said when the introductions were complete.
“Thanks. We’re actually combining two ranches into one. Where we are is going to be open for boarding, training, lessons and trail rides and next door we are starting a rescue program to take in abused and abandoned horses.”
Ace perked up when he heard this. “Really? That’s great. I used to volunteer at one in California when dad was posted there.”
“Well, Dusty’s going to be in charge of the rescue,” CJ said. “And I’m sure he’d appreciate your knowledge and input.”
Dusty nodded in agreement.
“Sarge, I thought you, Dusty and I could have a little powwow, while the boys showed Ace around the ranch. As I said, Dusty will be running the rescue so he’ll be here just about all the time and will be part of the management team here.”
“Sounds fine,” Sarge said, and looked over at Ace. “Ok, with you, son?”
Ace nodded. “Yes, sir.” He was already taking in the size of the ranch and the boys that had greeted him. He was thinking he would like this place.
“Fine,” Danny said stepping forward. “Zak, why don’t you and the guys get started showing Ace around and I’ll go change and catch up.”
“Sure,” Zak replied. “C’mon, Ace, we’ll let them talk business, while we have some fun.”
The younger boys led Ace off towards the main barn, while Danny went to the ranch house to change and CJ and Dusty led Sarge to the office.
Once all three were settled in the office, CJ spoke. “Sarge, Doug Marshall speaks very highly of you.”
Sarge grinned. “Marsh and I go back a ways. We were together in Kuwait during Desert Storm. He got out as soon as it was over and went private, I stayed in for my twenty. I was just getting ready to retire when we found out my wife had ovarian cancer. She passed about a year ago. It’s been hard on Ace and I think the change of scenery would be good for both of us.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife,” CJ said.
“Thank you, CJ. She was the main parent for Ace growing up--I was deployed a great deal of the time. To say it’s been a little tough adjusting to being a hands-on parent would be putting it mildly. But, Ace is a great kid and I can already see in his eyes that he’d like it here.”
“Well, Sarge, given your background and the recommendation from Doug, I’m already to have you start right away, but there is one small matter we need to address.”
“I’m not sure what Doug told you about me and about my brother and our friends. When I introduced Danny as my partner, I meant that in every sense of the word. He is my friend, business partner and lover. Dusty and Zak are boyfriends as are Mattie and Spin.”
Sarge nodded. “My younger brother, Adam, was gay. In the late eighties, well before you boys’ time, it was not something that we even considered or spoke about. I had been in the military about a year when Adam graduated high school and headed to college. He hadn’t told me about being gay, and quite honestly the thought never even occurred to me. He was very popular in school, well-liked, had several girlfriends. Apparently, when he went away to school, he started to get in touch with his true feelings. He went a little wild and, I guess, enjoyed one too many hook-ups. He sent me a few letters explaining his feelings and how he was finally comfortable with himself. I didn’t understand but he was my brother and I loved him. I was on my way home on leave during his junior year. He was supposed to be coming home to visit. The night before he was to fly home, he went to a local bar. I guess he either flirted with the wrong person or the guy thought Adam was coming onto him. This guy followed Adam out of the bar and into an alley. He beat the hell out of Adam, and not happy leaving him beaten into unconsciousness, he stabbed him three times as well. Adam was dead before the paramedics got there. The guy didn’t even make it back to his house before the cops got him. He got sent up for manslaughter, but the prosecutor would not label it a hate crime, so the guy would have been released after less than ten years.”
“Would have been?” Dusty asked.
“Yes,” smirked Sarge. “There is some karma out there, boys. About two years into his stretch the guy was gang-raped in the showers and left for dead. He wasn’t and when he came out of his coma he was stupid enough to finger his attackers. The next time they made sure he was dead.”
Both CJ and Dusty were absorbed in the story Sarge was relating.
“So, no. I don’t have a problem with any of you boys being gay. Marsh told me you are all good kids and that’s all I care about. As long as you treat me fairly and Ace likes it here, I’ll be a happy man. Ace is all I have; I named him after my baby brother and I would have been just as proud of him if he had been like Adam in every way.”
“Well, Sarge,” said CJ. “I’ve only been a part of this motley crew for just over a month and I have never met a more accepting group of kids. My brother, Mattie, came here and these boys took him in and made him family, no questions asked.”
Dusty nodded. “It’s worked out that Mattie, Spin, Zak and I are all gay and have sorted ourselves into couples, but Zak and Mattie pulled Dylan in not knowing, or really caring, if he was gay or straight. They just wanted to make a new friend and pull him out of his shell.”
“I think this is just the environment that will work for me and for Ace,” Sarge said.
“And from what I’ve seen so far, I think you and Ace will fit in just fine here,” CJ responded.
Zak was leading the tour through the barns. Each boy took turns introducing their horses to Ace, who was impressed with the facilities and the boys.
They stopped at Dodger’s stall so Dylan could show off his pal.
“Dodger’s actually the first resident of the rescue,” Zak announced.
“Looks like he’s doing really good,” said Ace as he stroked the Arabian’s neck.
“That’s all Dylan,” praised Mattie. “He’s worked with him every day to get him back to his old self.”
“Looks like you’ve done a really great job, Dylan.”
Dylan smiled, enjoying the attention. “Thanks, Ace.”
“So, Ace,” Zak asked. “I assume from your dress that you are more a western rider?”
Ace grinned. “Yep; when I first started my mom had dreams of making me a hunter/jumper, but Dad’s from rodeo country and I wanted to be just like him, so I was barrel racing and pole bending in elementary school. Now, I mostly just trail ride. When my mom got sick, riding was my escape. I’d just saddle up and take off into the mountains. Sometimes when she was in the hospital for long hauls, I would just stay out and camp under the stars. I’d look up and try to bargain with God, telling all the things I’d do if he didn’t take my mom.”
Mattie reached over and put his hand on Ace’s shoulder. “We’re all sorry to hear about your mom, Ace. I just found out that my dad has cancer; he and my mom have moved back to Spain for him to get treatment.”
“I’m sorry, to hear that, Matt. I hope things turn out better for you than they did for me and my dad.”
“So, how did you get a name like ‘Ace’?” asked the ever tactful Spin.
“Well, ‘Spin’,” grinned Ace, to everyone’s laughter. “My name is Adam, for my uncle, Adam Christian Evans, so my initials spell ‘Ace’. My best friend figured that out on the first day of first grade and I’ve been ‘Ace’ ever since.”
“Do you have your own horse?” Dylan asked.
“Yes, I have a quarter horse named ‘Bullet’. I’ve got him for my thirteenth birthday. He’s a big guy and loves to run. He can still run the barrels if the mood strikes.”
“Where is he now?” queried Zak.
“He’s still in California. Dad wanted to get the lay of the land and see if this was a good move for us before we moved him all the way out here,” Ace answered. “From what I see, it would be great--hopefully dad sees it the same way.”
“I think you’d fit in good around here and your dad seems like a really nice guy, so if we need a security guy, we’d much rather have one who understands us and the ranch.” Mattie said.
“That’s my dad. He’s a cowboy at heart. He’ll still ride when he can, but he just enjoys the work and the animals. I think that’s what has attracted him to this opportunity. He can put his security knowledge to use, but get to be a rancher at the same time.”
“There is one question we have to ask you or rather something we have to tell you,” Zak said seriously.
“Well, there’s no delicate way to tell you...”
“We’re all gay,” blurted Spin.
“Thanks, Spin,” Zak said as he smirked at his best friend.
“Hey, it’s not a problem for me,” Ace said. “I’m straight, but my best friend who lives in Texas is gay and I have friends in California that bat for either team--in fact I have a friend or two that bat for both teams.” He grinned. “I assume you two,” he gestured at Mattie and Spin, “are a couple. And Zak is with Dusty.”
“How did you figure that?” Spin asked.
“I’m a good observer. I watch everything and everyone. Your body language; the way you relate to each other.”
“You mean we’re obvious?” Spin stated bluntly.
“No, not at all,” Ace shook his head. “If you hadn’t told me, I never would have assumed that any of you were gay, but once you told me, it made sense and I knew who went with who.” He looked at Dylan. “And I guess this little guy,” he ruffled Max’s hair, “is your boyfriend.”
Max shook his head and wrapped his arms around Zak’s neck. “Nooo, Zaky is my bestest friend. Dyl’n is my friend too,” he said to Ace.
The boys all laughed.
“Well, I don’t know where my brother is,” Zak said. “But why don’t we hit the trail? Who knows how long CJ and Dusty will be with your dad.”
“I’m right here,” Danny announced as he caught up with the boys. “But a trail ride seems like a good idea. I peeked in on CJ and Dusty and they seem to be getting along great with Sarge, but they’ll probably be a while.”
“Well, let’s get saddled up then,” said Zak.
“Who’re you going to put Ace on?” asked Danny.
“I was thinking he could ride Whisper,” Mattie said. “He needs the exercise since CJ isn’t riding that much.”
“Sounds good,” said Danny. “Zak, are you taking Onyx?”
“No. He seemed a little sore when I looked at him earlier. Why don’t I take Jade so that Dyl can take Apollo?”
“But, Apollo’s your horse,” objected Dylan.
Zak smiled at Dylan. “I know, but you do so well with him. Once we get Dodge up and running, then I can have Apollo back, but right now you ride him. If Danny wasn’t going then I would take Angel, but I’m good with Jade--she needs to get out anyways.”
“Ok, if that’s all settled, can we just go?” asked Spin.
“Wanna ride now!” interjected Max.
Everyone laughed and went to get their horses. Zak showed Ace where Whisper was and where to get grooming tools and his tack. Soon the boys were headed down the trail. Danny and Zak had been working with Max so he could ride the trails on his own. They would attach a lead rope to Scout’s bridle and either Zak or Danny would pony Scout and Max alongside their horse.
The toddler loved his little Paint horse and always had fun when riding with the big boys.
Ace, who had always wanted a little brother, offered to pony Max and Scout for a stretch so that Danny and Zak could race Spin and Dylan.
Mattie rode Ash alongside Ace and Max.
“You don’t like to race, Matt?” Ace asked.
“Once in a while, but I don’t have the daredevil streak that my boyfriend does,” Mattie laughed. “It’s kinda funny--the ‘prim and proper’ English riders want to race and the cowboys are here plodding along.”
Ace grinned. “If they ever want a barrel race, then I’ll take any of them on as soon as Bullet gets here.”
“Mattie, gotta pee,” Max announced.
Mattie stopped Ash and hopped down. “Ok, Maxie.” He handed Ash’s reins to Ace. “Can you hold him for a minute?”
“Sure,” Ace answered.
Mattie walked over and picked Maxie up off Scout and carried behind a clump of trees. One of the things Max was most proud of is the way the boys had taught him to ‘whiz’ behind the trees. Mattie had to help him tug down his breeches and Max yanked down his Spider-Man underwear mooning Mattie in the process.
When Max was finished, he pulled up his underwear and waited for Mattie to help him with his breeches.
When they emerged from the trees, Mattie started to put Max back on Scout, but noticed how tired out the little boy was.
“Hey, Maxie, why don’t you ride with me and Ash?” Mattie suggested gently.
“No. Wanna ride with Scout.” Like most toddlers, Max became more stubborn the more tired he was.
Ace knew what Mattie was trying to do.
“Hey, Max, I’m afraid that Whisper and I are going to get lost. Would you mind riding with me to make sure we go the right way?” Ace asked the toddler.
Max looked at Ace and thought a moment. “Ok, I help you, Aish,” he agreed.
Mattie smiled up at Ace and handed him the toddler.
Mattie mounted Ash and took Scout’s lead from Ace. They started back for the ranch, knowing that the other four would eventually meet them there.
It wasn’t more than five minutes before Max was fast asleep against Ace. Ace held the precious cargo tight as they rode through the woods.
“He likes you,” observed Mattie. “Of course, he’s probably the easiest-going kid you’ll ever meet.”
“I love kids,” answered Ace. “I used to be the go-to babysitter on the base. I always wanted a little brother or sister, but since I didn’t have one, the next best thing was to surround myself with all the little kids on the base. I kinda became the surrogate big brother for a lot of them. I knew what they were going through.”
“It’s tough when you’re little and your dad, or even your mom, is deployed for long periods of time. You don’t comprehend the why, the sacrifice, the war or the duty, you just know that one minute your dad’s there and the next minute he’s gone. The only plus when you’re really little is that you really don’t comprehend how much danger he’s in. You never stop believing that he will be back. As you get older and start to understand the realities of war and combat and the missions your dads go on, you realize that it is never a given that they will come back.”
‘Wow. I’ve never really thought of that. I mean, my parents always raised us to respect men in the military, just as we would firefighters or police. And I have always admired anyone who puts others’ well-being over their own; but since I haven’t actually known anyone who was in the military I never really thought of the sacrifice their families have to make.”
“Yeah, it can be rough. You just have to know that they are doing what they think is best and what needs to be done. It was hard on my mom basically being a single parent for months or years at a time, but when my dad was home he made sure that I knew how much he loved me. I guess that’s why my mom’s death was so rough on me. I had some very mixed emotions. I was so close to my mom--she was my rock; but after her death my dad retired and I had him all the time. It took me a while to reconcile my sadness at losing my mom and my happiness at getting my dad back. Eventually, I worked it out.”
The boys rode back in silence. Eventually, the other four boys caught up with them.
By the time the trail-riding crew returned, CJ and Sarge had hammered out an agreement.
Sarge would be hired on as the Barn Manager, answering directly to CJ. He would handle the day-to-day operations of the ranch, but his main job would be to oversee the security of the ranch and the protection of Mattie, CJ and their friends.
To that end, the first move Sarge and CJ made was to put Ace in charge of watching over the high school boys, especially in and around school. He was a junior and would be in many classes with Zak, but since it was a small school he would be in a place to assist any of the boys if needed.
Sarge and Ace headed back to California to make arrangements for moving their belongings and Ace’s horse, Bullet. They were set to return on Sunday afternoon about the same time that CJ and Danny would return from their trip.
While CJ and Danny were away for the weekend, Mattie had invited Spin, Zak, Dusty and Dylan to spend the weekend. With all the new security measures, the house and the ranch were a very secure compound.
The boys planned to spend the whole weekend on the ranch. They had expanded on the idea that Mattie had had on the first day of school and were planning to have an open house at the ranch on Halloween weekend.
Wanting to create a safe haven for kids at Halloween, they were planning to have hayrides, barn tours, and a small carnival like midway and they were going to put on several demonstrations during the course of the day. CJ had been all for the idea, but since he was knee-deep in plans and starting construction, he put Mattie and Zak in charge of the planning of the event. He was hoping this would be the first of many and this would bring in more interest in the Triple J.
The high school boys all arrived Friday after school in Zak’s SUV. They saw CJ and Danny for all of five minutes before they headed off for their weekend away.
Mattie and Zak could barely conceal their excitement over the surprise they had planned. CJ and Danny, knowing what was up, grinned at their brothers as they loaded CJ’s jeep and took off.
A few minutes after CJ and Danny left, Dusty drove up in his pick-up truck.
Zak and Mattie looked over and saw the figure in the passenger seat of the truck; they grinned at each other and looked over at Dylan who was animatedly arguing with Spin about a movie they had both seen.
They watched Dusty and his passenger exit the truck and walk up. Dylan’s back was still to them.
“Dylan,” Zak called. “I think Dusty has something for you.”
Dylan turned around. “Wha--“ he started and then he saw the person standing next to Dusty smiling at him.
Dylan’s face broke out into a huge grin. “Tanner!?!”