Dusty turned off the truck and got out. He went around back to lower the gate. He looked at his Great Dane, Herc, and shook his head at him. "I don't know why I have to open this for you to get out; you manage to get in there on your own." The dog trotted across the truck bed and leapt to the ground. He ran around to the side of the house. Dusty walked after him and as he rounded the corner he saw the dog relieving himself on his favorite tree in the corner of the backyard.
When Herc finished, he came bounding back to Dusty's side. Dusty led him back around to the front door and into the house. He walked into the kitchen. There was a note from his mom on the refrigerator.
I'm probably going to spend the night at Jackie's. Make sure you check on your grandmother in the morning before you leave for work. There is some baked chicken and pasta salad for you in the fridge.
See you tomorrow night.
He went over and filled Herc's bowl with food and refreshed his water as well. Then he went to the fridge and took out the chicken and salad. He decided that rather than heating up the chicken he would dice it and add it to the salad. He went about preparing his dinner as Herc devoured his. As he cut up the chicken, he would occasionally toss a piece to Herc. The dog would catch the chicken on the fly, even if he appeared to only be paying attention to his food bowl.
Dusty sang quietly to himself while he prepared his dinner. He kept thinking of Zak and those thoughts brought a smile to his face. He could see himself easily falling in love with Zak. In Dusty's eyes, Zak was beautiful. He had a smooth complexion, deep blue eyes that he could fall into and wavy blonde hair that was down past his ears. He was small, but Dusty was attracted to boys who were smaller in stature; he wondered if it was because he felt a need to protect those who needed it. Zak was so smart and when he let his guard down, he was so funny. He knew he and Zak would have a lot of fun this summer. While he hoped that things between them would move towards romance, he was being honest when he told Zak they needed to take things slowly. He knew that Zak still had not come to embrace his sexuality and he didn't want to push him into anything he was not ready for.
Dusty sat down to eat his dinner, Herc resting at his feet. When he finished, he placed his dishes in the dishwasher. It looked full, so he loaded it with soap and turned it on. He slapped his thigh and looked at his dog. "C'mon, Herc. Let's go to bed." The big dog jumped up and bounded up the stairs. Dusty shook his head as he watched the dog hit the hard wood floors on the second floor and slide halfway down the hall to Dusty's room. No matter how old he got, the dog just could never remember that the floors were slippery.
Herc sat outside of Dusty's bedroom door waiting for him. Dusty opened the door and the big dog almost knocked him over charging into the room. Herc sat down and rested his chin on the bed. Dusty went over and sat on the bed and looked at Herc's pleading eyes. "No, you're not getting on the bed." He reached over and ruffled Herc's ears. "You are sleeping on the floor." The dog sighed and went over to the corner of the room and lay down.
Dusty chuckled to himself. He reached down and pulled off his boots and socks. The ripe smell of feet being trapped in leather all day assaulted his nostrils. "Oh, man!! That's bad." He stood up and slipped his jeans off and pulled his wife beater over his head. In just his jockeys, he walked into his bathroom. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and started running some water. He removed his jockeys and took the band that held his ponytail out of his hair. He adjusted the water temperature and let the water fill the tub. He liked a quick shower in the mornings, but enjoyed a long relaxing bath after working all day.
When the tub was full, he slipped into it. He loved to get the water as hot as he could stand it and this time it was almost scalding. He took a moment to soap up a wash cloth and scrub his offensive feet. When he was satisfied that the scent of his bare feet would not gas the house, he leaned back and closed his eyes. The hot water felt so good and started relaxing his tired muscles. He would normally use this time to meditate, clearing his mind and trying to center himself. But, after the events of today, he found clearing his mind to be a bit of a chore. When he tried, his mind simply filled with thoughts of Zak. He was starting to realize that he had it bad for the younger boy. He hoped that Zak felt the same way. He had been in too many one-sided relationships and he was tired of it. He felt a connection with Zak that he had never felt before. He knew from the moment he saw him in Mr. Jones' office that he was unlike any boy he had ever met.
As his mind turned to the kisses they had shared, Dusty felt a stirring in his groin. Within moments, his dick was painfully hard. He reached down and grabbed it, slowly moving the foreskin over the head. He sat there slowly jacking off, images of Zak filling his mind. It didn't take long for his orgasm to build. He was getting desperate for release, and then he came. He came stronger than he had in ages. He felt seven strong spurts release; the first went over his head and decorated the shower wall; the next two hit him in the forehead and chin; the last ones painted his chest. He laid there as his breathing slowed down. If jacking off to thoughts of Zak could do this to him, what would actually making love to him be like? He knew that it would be some time till he found out. He and Zak had agreed to take it slow and Dusty wanted Zak to set the pace since he was so inexperienced. He took the washcloth and wiped his face and chest.
Dusty lay in the tub until the water became too cool for him to relax any longer. He stood up and grabbed a towel from the rack and started to dry himself off. He went over to the sink and grabbed a brush and started running it through his hair. Sometimes having hair this long was a pain, but he was so used to it now. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. He ran a hand over his chest, his fingers stopping at the small two-inch scar near his navel. Someday he would have to explain that to Zak. It was a souvenir from a time in his life he was not so proud of.
He walked naked into his bedroom and went to his dresser. He pulled out a clean pair of jockeys and pulled them on. He grabbed his sweatpants off the chair next to the dresser and pulled them on too. He rummaged around his t-shirt drawer and finally decided on an oversized Mickey Mouse t-shirt he had gotten at Walt Disney World a few years ago. After spending the day in snug jeans and boots, Dusty loved nothing more than to lounge around the house in the baggiest clothes he could find. It just made him feel so comfortable.
When he was finished dressing he went to the door, as he walked out of the room, he turned to Herc and said. "Stay off the bed, you knucklehead." He closed the door and walked down to his grandmother's room. His grandmother would only be with them a few more weeks. She lived in Nevada and came to visit several times a year, but missed her home too much to stay with them permanently even though Dusty's Mother had invited her to on many occasions.
He knocked lightly on the door.
He opened the door and entered the room. Even though she was only here a few weeks a year, his grandmother had made the room her own. It was so cozy. He had loved visiting with her here for as long as he could remember.
His grandmother was standing at her dresser. On the dresser were an electric kettle and a tray with the makings she kept close for her teas. She was pouring the hot water into two mugs. She turned and smiled at him. "Ah, Sweet One, you got your friend home all right?"
"Yes, Gram." He smiled widely at the thought of Zak.
Gram's eyes twinkled as she saw the smile light up her grandson's face. "You like this boy?"
"Yes, he's very nice and I think he will be a great friend and co-worker."
"And maybe more?"
"Gram!!" Dusty became flustered and blushed.
"Don't 'Gram' me." She laughed. "I can see the way you light up just thinking about the Little One."
"There may be something more there, but we are going to take our time finding out. He's still getting used to the idea that he is gay and I don't think he has ever had a boyfriend or a relationship."
"My Sweet One, you have such a big heart and a noble spirit. If this boy does not see that in you then he does not deserve you." She turned back to the mugs and finished preparing their tea. She offered Dusty his mug. "Here, you drink this and you will get a good night's sleep and be well rested for the morning."
Dusty accepted the mug and sipped the tea. He grimaced slightly, his Gram always tended to go overboard on the honey. He didn't mind the tea, but he was not fond of it being so sweet. With Gram, tea was one of their rituals, so he sat down on the bed as she took her usual seat in her old rocker. They both quietly drank their tea. Gram continued to question him about Zak. He told her all about their day together and the way the animals reacted to Zak.
Gram nodded. "I knew the Little One had a strong aura to him. His abilities are a match for yours. Together you two could accomplish a lot."
"I think we will, Gram. But for now, it's going to be as friends and co-workers."
Gram just smiled at Dusty.
Dusty drained his mug and let out a big yawn. "Man, I must be more tired than I thought." He stood up, placed his mug on the dresser and walked over to where his grandmother sat. He bent down and kissed her cheek. "I guess I better hit the hay, Gram. It will be another busy day tomorrow." He turned to leave. "Good night," he said as he walked out of the room.
"Good night, my Sweet One. Pleasant dreams."
Dusty walked back to his room and stopped in the doorway. Herc was splayed out on his bed snoring away.
"Herc!" he yelled. "I told you to stay off the bed, you big goof."
The sleepy dog raised his head and looked at Dusty. Dusty just shook his head. It was such as pain to have this moose sleeping on his bed; it left no room for him. "Ok, if you are going to stay here, you need to move over." Herc slid down to the foot of the bed. Dusty pulled back the covers and slid into the bed. He reached over and turned off the light. As soon as the light was out he felt Herc stretch out and lay his head on Dusty's calves. "Oh, great," he thought. "I'm not going to be able to feel anything below my knees in the morning.
He started to admonish the dog, but sleep overtook him.
Zak woke seconds before his alarm was to set to go off. He smacked the off button before the buzzer could screech at him and switched on the radio. He yawned and stretched his arms over his head. He had slept great and was really energized for the day.
He looked back at the clock on his nightstand. He had about 30 minutes before Dusty was supposed to pick him up. He ran into his bathroom and started the shower. He hopped in and quickly washed up. He turned off the shower and stepped out to dry himself off. As he stood in front of the mirror brushing his hair, he wondered what his mom would think if he let it grow long like Dusty's. It was already longer than it had been in a while, but given that Dusty's hair was pin-straight and his had lots of waves to it, it probably wouldn't look as good. His mom probably wouldn't be thrilled by it either. But he'd let it grow and see how it turned out.
He walked back into his bedroom. He pulled a pair of briefs out of his dresser drawer and put them on. He grabbed another old pair of blue jeans and threw them on the bed. He rummaged through his dresser looking for a suitable t-shirt. In the bottom of the drawer he found an old blue sleeveless t-shirt. It was a little small for him, but he thought that it would show off more for Dusty. He laughed at himself. He didn't spend this much time deciding what to wear for school and here he was putting all this thought into what to wear to a ranch.
As he was about to start dressing, the weather report came on the radio. It was supposed to be unseasonably warm today. He thought about it for a second. Maybe he could convince Dusty to take him back to the lake for a swim. Planning ahead he stripped off his briefs and went to his dresser and grabbed one of his speedos. He pulled the bathing suit on and then got dressed. He pulled on his new boots, loving the fact that they had come from Dusty. He grabbed his cowboy hat that he had left hanging on the back of his door. He ran into the bathroom to take a look in the mirror. He didn't even recognize himself. But something was missing. It took him a second to figure it out and then he ran back into his bedroom. He went to his closet and started flipping through clothes to find what he was looking for.
Then he found it. An old denim jacket that one of his mother's friends had given him a couple years ago. He had worn it once or twice, but never thought that it was his 'style'. He pulled it on. It fit him perfectly. He ran back to the bathroom and the mirror: it was the perfect touch. Now he looked like a ranch hand.
He grabbed his old backpack and threw two of the tubes of sunscreen that Dusty had bought into it. He ran into the bathroom and grabbed a couple of old towels and put them in the backpack as well; just in case, he told himself. He threw the backpack over his shoulder and left the room.
He ran down the stairs and into the kitchen. His mom was sitting at the kitchen table. She did a double take when she saw him.
"Wow," she said. "Hello, Cowboy."
Zak blushed and giggled. "Mom. Do I look stupid?"
"Honey, you look great. You just surprised me. I've never seen you look so laid-back."
"Well, got to try new stuff every now and then," Zak replied with a smile.
Kate was floored. The changes in Zak in just 24 hours were amazing. If spending one day on the ranch had this effect on him, she could only imagine what a whole summer would do. Though she wondered how much was the influence of the ranch and how much was Dusty's influence. Zak had spoken non-stop about both all through dinner. She had no doubt that her son had a major crush on the older boy. From what she had seen of Dusty, he seemed like a very nice boy, but given Zak's shyness and cautious nature, she only hoped that he did not get hurt.
Zak opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of juice. "Dusty will be here any minute, I'm going to go out and wait for him."
Kate stood up and grabbed a paper bag off the table. She handed the bag to Zak. "Here, I made some muffins for you to bring with you this morning."
"Thanks, Mom." Zak kissed his mom on the cheek and went into the front hallway and out the door.
Zak sat down on the front step to wait for Dusty.
A few minutes later Dusty's truck came to a stop in front of the house. Zak stood up and ran over to the truck. As he climbed into the passenger seat he grinned at Dusty. "Good morning!!"
"Good morning to you. For someone who's not an early riser, you're awfully chipper this morning."
"I had a great night's sleep and I feel awesome this morning. Must have been spending the day outside that made me sleep so good."
"Probably. I know when I started working there, I was usually falling asleep at the dinner table. Between the hard work and the fresh air you get done in. Add in the sun during the summer and you can really get drained. One of the things you have to watch out for in the summer months is dehydration. Do you have a water bottle?"
"I have a little canteen."
"We'll stop by Wal-Mart or one of the other stores at some point and get you a water bottle. Actually, if we go to the Tack shop we can get you one that you can attach to the saddle horn. It probably wouldn't hurt to get you some saddle bags as well. It's a lot easier to use those than a backpack. You can keep your sunscreen and other supplies in them. I also keep my carrot and sugar stash in there. Never know when you might need a bride." They laughed.
Dusty started up the truck and pulled into the street. "Hey, what smells so good?"
"Oh, my mom made us some muffins."
"Your mother got herself out of bed early enough to bake muffins?!?!"
"Yes, she's so used to getting up early during the week, that she refuses to let herself sleep in on the weekends. Sunday is the only day she always has off, so she uses it to get all her household chores done. So baking must have been on the list today."
"I think we might have been switched at birth."
"Cuz your mom is an early riser like me and my mom won't even get out of bed before the clock strikes noon on the weekends."
Zak laughed. "Maybe we were switched. But since we're more than a year apart in age someone really screwed up."
They both laughed as they drove down the road. They continued their banter as Dusty drove them to the ranch. When they pulled up to the barn, Mr. Jones was waiting for them. He was a little surprised when they exited the truck looking like twins, in their jeans, denim jackets and boots. Actually, given their coloring they looked more like film negatives of each other. Mr. Jones was very happy that the boys had clicked so quickly. He was so proud of the changes in Dusty in the 5 years he had been coming out to the ranch. He had gone from a troublesome brat to a compassionate young man. He knew from his friend Jim that Zak's problems were different from Dusty's. But they stemmed from the same issue. Where Dusty dealt with his father's death with anger, Zak dealt with his by withdrawing from the world. He was glad to see that Dusty was working his magic on Zak.
"Good morning, boys," he said as he approached the truck.
Before the boys could answer a familiar figure came tearing out of the barn running towards them. Ember barked and ran for the boys, she stopped short before she got to them and just stared.
"Hey, Emmy," said Dusty. "What's wrong?"
The dog just sat there and whined.
Mr. Jones laughed. "I think she's confused. She's used to seeing you, Dusty, and then yesterday she got herself attached to Zak and now she doesn't know which of you to run to first."
All three laughed. Zak walked over the Retriever and knelt down and ruffled her ears. "Silly, Ember. You can hang out with both of us."
Dusty went over and petted the dog as well. Soon Ember was running around the two boys barking.
Mr. Jones just shook his head at the sight. These two were going to be a delight to have around.
"So, Dusty, what's on the agenda today?" asked Mr. Jones.
"Well, I'm going to start by walking Zak through the morning feedings and introduce him to the wonderful world of mucking out stalls."
Dusty and Mr. Jones laughed while Zak groaned.
"Then," Dusty continued, "I thought I'd give him some more time in the ring and if we have time this afternoon, maybe take another trail ride."
"Sounds good. Zak, how did you do with your riding lesson yesterday?"
Zak's face lit up. "It was great. I rode Blaze and she was awesome."
Dusty nodded. "He's one of the fastest learners I've ever had, Mr. Jones. A couple of hours in the saddle and he was begging me to let him canter. And he got old Blaze going almost as fast as she used to."
"Well, that's good to hear. Now, you boys will be on your own today. I'm off to church for services and then I have to stay for a few meetings. I probably won't be back until later this evening. Zak, if you or Dusty need anything he knows how to contact me."
"Ok, Mr. Jones."
"Oh, and Dusty, can you check in on Beauty every couple of hours or so. I think she's still got a few days before the foal comes, but I still want to keep an eye on her. If anything happens, make sure you let me know."
"Sure, no problem."
"Ok, boys, I'll leave you to it then." Mr. Jones walked off towards the main house.
Dusty turned to Zak and grinned. "Are you ready?"
Zak wrinkled his nose. "As ready as I'm gonna be."
Dusty laughed. "Let's go through and do the feedings first. Then we can grab a bite and after that we'll do the stalls."
"Sounds like a plan."
Dusty explained to Zak that the lists in the feed rooms they had used for the evening feedings also listed the morning feedings. Dusty sent Zak to work in the furthest barn while he started in barn 2. Splitting up they were able to finish the two barns quickly. They met up in the main barn.
"Hey, Dusty." Zak was a little concerned. "Some of the stalls I was leaving feed in were empty."
"That's ok, some of the horses spend the night in the different paddocks or out in the fields and we'll bring them in after we clean the stalls. Most of the ones who spent the night in their stalls will get turned out before we clean their stalls. Once we start on lessons and trail rides, we'll keep a list of which horses we are going to need that day, that way we keep them close at hand. Depending on how intensive the lessons are most of the horses can be used for two or three lessons a day. But, we try to use them for only one trail ride a day. In desperate circumstances they can do two, but no more."
"I've got most of these guys in this barn done, but I left your friend for you." Dusty smirked at Zak.
Zak turned and ran to other end of the barn. "Onyx!! How could I forget you, buddy?" As he got to the stall Onyx stretched his neck over the stall door. Zak reached up and scratched the big horse's cheek. "How are you this morning, Big Guy? Did you miss me?"
Zak opened the stall door and went in to check the water bucket. "Pretty close to empty, good thing I'm here," he chuckled. Zak grabbed the bucket and walked out of the stall; he turned to shut the stall door but in his excitement didn't notice the latch didn't catch.
Dusty came around the corner to see Onyx walking out of the open stall door. He stopped and tried to get Zak's attention. The last time Onyx got out of his stall, it had taken three of them several hours to get him back in. He was fast and slippery for such a big horse. If he could get Zak's attention then maybe he could distract him long enough for Dusty to slip a halter on him.
"Pssst. Pssst." Dusty could not get Zak's attention. Zak was just standing at the sink filling the bucket.
Dusty watched as Zak leaned over to turn off the tap, grabbed the bucket and turned around. It was too late now, Onyx was going to bolt and that would take care of this day. Dusty's jaw dropped as he watched the scene unfold.
Zak grabbed the bucket and turned back towards the stall, he stopped when he saw Onyx standing in the hallway right behind him. "Hey!! How did you get out?" he asked the big horse. He put the bucket down on the floor and walked over to the horse. "You're supposed to stay in there until I get your water and your breakfast. You know, Dusty calls Herc a goof, but I think you're one too." He reached up to pat Onyx's neck and grabbed hold of a piece of his mane. "Come on; let's get back in that stall, before I get in trouble." Holding just a small bit of Onyx's mane, Zak led the big horse back to the stall. Once Onyx was in the stall, he closed and bolted the door and went back to get the water bucket.
Dusty came running up. "If I hadn't seen it I wouldn't have believed it."
"Hey, Dusty; I'm sorry, I must have not fastened the latch right and he got out. At least he's a good guy and stayed right with me."
Dusty just stood there momentarily speechless. "A good guy?!?!" He laughed. "The last time that 'good guy' got out it took me, Mr. Jones and Joe half the day to get him corralled. What did you do to that horse?!?!"
Zak was confused. "What do you mean? I didn't do anything to him."
"Well, this is not the same horse that's been here for the last couple years."
"Well, maybe he's like me."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I needed you to believe in me and maybe he needs me to believe in him." Zak's eyes glistened as he verbalized this realization.
Dusty couldn't answer; he walked up to Zak and wrapped his arms around him and gave him a huge hug. "That may just be the case," he whispered in Zak's ear. He kissed Zak on the cheek. "Why don't you finish up here and I'll meet you in the office?"
"Ok. I'll be there in just a few minutes."
Zak went about finishing getting Onyx's feed together and bringing it to the stall. He stood next to the horse, just resting his head on Onyx's side while he ate. It was strange to him, the feeling this animal brought out in him. He loved playing with Ember and Herc. He had enjoyed his rides on Phoenix and Blaze and being around the other horses, but Onyx brought out a strange feeling in him. He felt like he had to protect him, that he saw something in the horse that no one else saw. How strange that he had been bullied for so long because of his size and here he was feeling like a protector to the biggest animal on the ranch.
He gave Onyx a final hug and left the stall, carefully locking the stall door behind him. He walked to the office where Dusty was waiting for him.
They quietly enjoyed the muffins that Zak's mother had made for them. Dusty watched Zak quietly eating. "Zak, is something bothering you?"
Zak shook his head. "No, I'm just thinking about stuff."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Nothing, really. I love being here, but every so often I feel myself a little overwhelmed by everything."
"Is the work too much?"
"No, I guess I was just thinking about Onyx and trying to figure out why I feel so connected to him."
"That's probably something you'll never be able to answer. Just like you wouldn't be able to put your finger on the 'why' you love someone. You just do. You can rattle off someone's good points or their best features, but at the end of the day, that's why you 'like' them. Love is whole different animal. If love was quantifiable and controllable, people wouldn't keep falling in love with the wrong person. In Onyx's case, it's like he's the bad boy and Mr. Jones and I are the parents who are telling you to stay away, but you can't resist the pull. No one is right or wrong. No one says the 'bad boy' doesn't turn out good in the end."
"Are you speaking from experience?"
"Let's just say that I believe everyone deserves a second chance and people, and horses, can change. It just takes that someone or something special to motivate them."
Zak smiled at Dusty, knowing there was more to that story, but not wanting to pry too far. Dusty would fill him in in his own time.
Dusty picked up the paper bag and tipped it over; a few crumbs fell onto the desk. "Well, that takes care of those. Tell your mom, she can make us muffins any time she wants."
Zak laughed. "Be careful what you wish for or she'll be doing it every weekend."
"Nothing wrong with that," Dusty answered. He rose from his chair. "Ok, let's start with Onyx's stall; I can show you the basics of cleaning the stalls and then you can work on this barn and I'll take the other two. I can usually finish them faster."
They walked back to Onyx's stall. Dusty directed Zak into the stall. "Each stall has a 'back door' that leads to a small paddock area. All three stalls on this side connect to the same paddock. We leave Onyx on this side to himself because he does not play well with others."
Zak shot him a dirty look. "Hey, be nice."
Dusty just rolled his eyes and laughed at Zak taking on the role of the big horse's protector. "Ok, so what you want to do is just open that back door and he will usually head right out to the paddock; if he is stubborn then you can just lead him out. Though most of the horses look forward to getting outside, so they are usually really easy to get out, it's getting them back in that can sometimes be a chore. There is another list inside the feed room that will list who should stay in during the day and who can stay out. Sometimes, we'll move them to one of the larger fields. Mr. Jones will usually update the list if we need to make any changes or as to what field he wants to use."
Zak went over to the back door of the stall and opened it. Onyx came over to him and put his head down. Zak reached up and scratched Onyx's cheek. "You can go out and run around now, so I can clean up your stall, alright?" The big horse looked at Zak and then walked calmly out into the paddock. Zak closed and bolted the door behind him.
Zak went back to the hallway and found Dusty standing there with a shovel, a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow. Dusty spent the next half hour showing Zak how to clean out the stall, place the waste in the wheelbarrow and set fresh shavings on the stall floor. He also took Zak out behind the barn where they dumped the waste from the wheelbarrow. Zak wrinkled his nose when they came upon the huge pile of waste. "Oh, my God!! What do you do with all this shit?"
Dusty laughed. "A lot of it Mr. Jones uses in his gardens or he sells it to folks around town who do gardening. It's natural fertilizer without all the chemicals and such. People who like to grow organically love it. They just back up a pickup truck and we load them up."
Zak looked at Dusty very seriously. "What do you mean 'we'?"
Dusty grinned. "I mean that every few days, 'we', that's you and me, are going to have to shovel this stuff into someone's truck. Well, actually we have a small tractor with a lift that we use to do it."
"Do we get gas masks?" Zak asked wrinkling his nose.
"No, you'll get used to it. The more time you spend here the more this will smell like roses."
Dusty continued to laugh at Zak. "Ok, you go in and work on the stalls in the main barn and I'll start over at the last barn and we'll try to meet in the middle. I want to check in on Beauty too. Maybe if she holds out till next week, you can see her foal being born."
"That would be cool."
The boys headed off in separate directions to finish their morning chores. It took Zak about an hour to finish up in the main barn, in the same time Dusty was able to finish up the other two barns. As Zak walked out of the main barn, here was Dusty coming around the corner having just dumped his last load of manure. "I'm all set in here," Zak yelled to Dusty. "Do you need any help?"
Dusty replied, "No, I'm all set in here. I just need to put the wheelbarrow back. Why don't you go get Blaze and start getting her groomed and tacked up so you can get in some practice in the ring?"
Zak lit up. "Ok," he said over his shoulder as he ran to Blaze's stall. "Hey, Girl," he greeted her. "Ready to give me another lesson?" The little horse whinnied in response. Zak grabbed her halter and opened the stall door. He walked up to Blaze and petted her while placing the halter on her. He led her out of the stall and out to the grooming area.
Dusty quietly watched Zak from the barn door. He grinned as he saw how meticulously Zak was doing everything. Zak carefully used the currycomb to bring up the loose and shed hairs and then took the stiff brush to brush her down. Dusty watched Zak take the hoof pick and raise each of Blaze's hoofs and gently pick out the dirt and manure that would collect in them. Zak then took the hair brush from the grooming kit and brushed out Blaze's mane and tail. He kept brushing them until they shined. Dusty was enjoying watching Zak work so carefully, it showed that he was really enjoying what he was doing and that he had paid attention to all Dusty's instructions yesterday.
Dusty stayed quiet wanting Zak to be confident enough to do this himself, while still being there to step in if the need arose. He watched Zak place the saddle blanket on Blaze's back and then hoist the saddle. He wasn't sure if Zak was going to be able to manage the saddle, but he did. Zak then tightened the cinch and made the T-tie that Dusty had shown him. Finally, Zak went to Blaze's head and unhooked one of the crossties from her halter. He unbuckled the halter and removed it from her nose then re-buckled it loosely around her neck; this gave him some control while putting the bridle on. Zak spoke quietly to Blaze while he put the reins over her neck and pulled the bridle up over her head. He took the bit in one hand and moved it against her teeth. She was being stubborn today, which was unusual for her. Dusty was getting ready to step in, when Zak slipped his finger into the gap between her lower teeth and Blaze opened her mouth. As Zak finished putting the bridle on, Dusty came out of the shadow of the barn door clapping his hands.
Zak turned in surprise. "I didn't know you were there."
Dusty walked around Blaze checking Zak's handiwork. "I've been watching you from the doorway. You did a great job. I thought I was going to have to help you with the bridle, but you remembered the trick I showed you."
Zak nodded. "Yeah, I was starting to get frustrated that she was giving me an attitude and then I remembered what you had told me about putting my finger there to get her to open her mouth. It worked and I didn't get bit."
Dusty pulled on the cinch. "Everything looks really good." He loosened the knot on the cinch. "You just want to get this a little tighter. On her this should wrap around a second time. When you do the T-tie, if there is this much of a tail left that will tell you that you can run it through again. But other than that it looks like you are ready to go, cowboy."
Zak grinned. He unbuckled the halter and hung it up next to the crosstie. He pulled the reins over Blaze's head and led her towards the indoor arena.
When they got in there, he realized it was getting a little warm. He stripped off his denim jacket. From behind he heard Dusty make a wolf whistle. He blushed and turned to Dusty. "Can you hold my jacket please?"
Dusty took the jacket and walked over to the rail and hopped up on the top bar. He just watched Zak lead Blaze around. The sleeveless t-shirt he was wearing was obviously too small for him. It clung to his torso like a second skin accentuating Zak's slim body and tight musculature. He knew that Zak was a swimmer, but he was surprised that he was built so nicely.
Zak turned to Blaze and double-checked to make sure the girth was tight enough. He put the reins over her head and then mounted up as Dusty had shown him the day before. He turned to Dusty. "Anything special you want me to do?"
"Just start her off at a walk to get her warmed up. Then I just want you to ride around the arena. You can do some circles, some figure 8s, whatever you want to do; I just want you to get comfortable."
For the next hour, Zak rode around the arena. He moved Blaze in and out of different gates and ran her in different patterns. Dusty would occasionally give him tips or suggest a different way of doing something. After cantering around the arena several times, Zak rode over to the rail Dusty was sitting on. "Ok, what do you want me to try now?" he asked.
Dusty thought for a minute. "Let me get something set up and you can work on turning. You're relying too much on the reins." Zak frowned at him. "Zak, it's not an unusual first-timer mistake. There are some people who've ridden for years that are still too hard on the reins. The horses will appreciate you more if you develop 'soft hands'."
Dusty jumped down from his perch and hung Zak's jacket over the middle rail. He ran over to one corner of the arena and rolled out a barrel. He placed the barrel in the middle of the arena and upended it. He then ran back and got a second barrel that he similarly placed at the other end of the arena. He went back and placed a third barrel between the first two make a triangle. He then walked back to where Zak waited with Blaze. "Why don't you hop down for a second and I'll show you what I want you to do."
Zak quickly dismounted. Dusty went over to Blaze and adjusted the stirrups on the saddle to accommodate his longer legs. He mounted up and said to Zak, "This is a barrel race pattern. I want you to do a complete circle around each barrel and then ride back here. I'm going to do it at a walk, trot and canter. Watch my hands. You want to be gentle on her mouth, use your outside leg." Zak had a puzzled look on his face. "Use the opposite leg from which way you want to turn. If you want to go left, apply pressure with your right leg and vice versa. The horse is responding by moving away from the pressure, just like you kick or apply pressure to get her to go faster, she's not responding to the pressure, she's responding to the release of pressure. Here, watch."
Dusty kissed at the little horse and applied a small amount of pressure with his calves. He walked Blaze around the barrels keeping his arms level and his tension on the reins minimal. After he walked it, he repeated the pattern at a trot and a canter. Finally, he yelled to Zak, "Want to see how it's really done?"
Dusty kicked the little horse and she took off. The boy and horse took the barrels so fast Zak was impressed. He knew Dusty was a great rider, but he had no idea anyone could be so coordinated and agile on a horse. Dusty finished the pattern and headed straight to where Zak stood, reining in Blaze inches from him. "Whoa, girl."
Dusty hopped down and handed the reins to Zak. "I had forgotten how much fun that was."
"That was great." Zak grinned.
"You should see it when they go really fast."
"Faster than that?"
"Oh, yeah. She's still pretty fast, but she's lost some off her top speed and she'd go faster with someone lighter. She'd probably fly with you, but for today I want you to take it at a walk a couple times, then a trot; if you feel comfortable you can try it at a canter. I want to you concentrate more on your hands and leg cues than the speed."
Zak climbed back into the saddle and spent another half hour running the pattern. He was starting to see the difference in Blaze's sensitivity to the leg cues. He changed up the pattern a couple times so that he could be sure that he was the one directing her and she was not just going through the motions on memory. Feeling confident, Zak did one final run at a canter and then reined up right where Dusty was standing.
He jumped down from Blaze and ran over and hugged Dusty.
Dusty looked at him. "What's that for?"
Zak looked up at him and smiled. "To thank you for being patient with me and helping me. This is so fun."
Dusty hugged him back. "Well, you're making this easy. You're helping me cuz you are paying attention and listening to everything. If some of my students paid half as much attention as you, they'd be show-ready a lot sooner."
They stood there in each other's arms for a few moments. Dusty looked into Zak's deep blue eyes and couldn't help himself. He leaned down and kissed Zak. Zak responded by melting into Dusty's arms. They stood there and tongue wrestled for a few minutes and then pulled apart.
"Wow," said Dusty. "For someone without a lot of experience, you're pretty good at that."
Zak looked at him smiling. "What can I say, I have a good teacher." Dusty blushed. "What next, Teach?" Zak asked.
"Well, it's about time for lunch. Are you ok taking care of Blaze? There's a little convenience store about 10 minutes down the road that has a little deli counter. I can go get us some subs while you put Blaze up."
"Sure, I should be ok." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and handed it to Dusty. "Why don't you put your number in there just in case I need to call you with a question? You might as well put your home phone in there too."
Dusty took the phone and entered his numbers. He gave Zak his phone to do the same thing.
"Ok, I'll run to the store and be right back. It should be thirty minutes, tops," Dusty said as he ran out of the arena.
Zak led Blaze out of the arena and spent the next half hour removing her tack and hosing her down. He put her back in her stall and ran to the nearest feed room to get some carrots they kept in the small refrigerator they had in there. He laughed as the little horse took the carrots from him. He gave her a last pat and walked out to the front of the barn to wait for Dusty.
Seeing no sign of Dusty, he decided to walk around the barn and check on Onyx. When he came to the small paddock where Onyx was grazing, the big horse saw him and trotted over to greet him. Zak climbed up to the top rung of the fence. He sat on the fence with his legs dangling over. Onyx came over so his body was between Zak's legs. Zak reached out and placed his hands on either side of Onyx's head. He leaned down and kissed the big horse on the nose. "How're you doing, Big Guy?" Onyx moved forwards so his head came to rest on Zak's thigh. Zak laughed and petted and scratched under his mane. He looked at the horse's sleek back level with him and thought how easy it would be to just slip a leg over Onyx's back. Who would know? Onyx trusted him, maybe even loved him as much as he was starting to love the horse. It would be so awesome to ride the big horse. Dusty wouldn't know.
He leaned forward and placed his feet on the second plank of the fence. He balanced himself with all his weight on the hand he left on the top plank. His other hand rested lightly on Onyx's back. He was now just one move from riding 'his' horse. He leaned a little more forward placing a small bit of weight on Onyx's back. He took a deep breath and steadied himself.
"Don't even think about it."