"Hey, where did you get this scar?" Zak asked as his fingers traced the small scar on Dusty's stomach.
Dusty's hand stopped stroking Zak's back. Zak looked up into Dusty's eyes. He had a faraway look. Zak was suddenly scared that he had overstepped. He pushed himself up into a seated position. "Dusty, I'm sorry, I was just curious. If you don't want to talk about it you don't have to."
Dusty pulled Zak back to him so that Zak was snuggled up against his side. "It's alright, Zak. You can ask me anything. Like I said this scar is a souvenir from a time in my life I'm not very proud of. It's a reminder for me. It's not easy to talk about, but I want to you to know. I'm just afraid that once you hear about my past, you won't think this, whatever this is, is worth pursuing."
Zak was shocked. He had never seen Dusty be anything but confident and self-assured. What could be so bad that he would think that Zak wouldn't want a relationship with him? Zak straightened himself up and turned to look into Dusty's eyes. The pain, confusion and doubt he saw there broke his heart. He leaned forward and kissed Dusty on the cheek, and then he moved up and kissed his forehead. Finally, he kissed Dusty on the lips. Not a kiss of passion or desire, but a kiss of love.
Zak pulled back and put his hands on Dusty's face and looked him in the eyes again. "Dusty, you listen to me. When I first saw you I started to fall for you. You were and are the most beautiful person I have ever seen." He stroked Dusty's cheek. "Your handsome face." He moved to trace along Dusty's brow. "Your beautiful eyes." He moved a finger along Dusty's lips. "Your incredible smile." He ran his fingers through Dusty's hair. "And the long hair is a definite plus too." He moved his hands along Dusty's chest stopping again at the scar. "And the hot body doesn't hurt." Dusty grinned at Zak. "But none of this would matter if you weren't the most compassionate, loving, amazing person. When I first saw you, I thought you were the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I was wrong; you are the most beautiful person I have ever MET, inside and out. You have made me feel so good these past two days, better than I have felt in so long. You've given me confidence, you've listened to me, you've talked to me, and you've helped me. You've made me feel loved and wanted. I'm not talking about the physical or romantic. You made me feel like you wanted to spend time with me, you've been my friend and I hope we are on our way to being more, but you will always be my friend. NOTHING you can tell me will ever change that."
A single tear ran down Dusty's cheek. He leaned forward and took Zak's face in his hands. He kissed him. "Thank you, Zak. I feel like you are the one piece that I've been missing and I couldn't bear to lose your friendship."
Zak placed his hand on the hand that Dusty was using to caress Zak's cheek. "You won't, you're stuck with me for the duration."
Dusty smiled at Zak. "Ok, but before I tell you about the scar, I need to tell you about my dad." He leaned back against the tree and pulled Zak to him. Zak nestled himself in the crook of Dusty's arm. "My dad was my hero. He was so much fun. It was just him, me and Mom. He would take me to baseball games, carnivals, whatever he thought I might enjoy. He spent so much time with me. I was never one of those kids that were made to feel like a burden; I knew I was loved and I loved him so much in return."
"My parents loved to garden. It was something they had always done. They would spend every Saturday morning working out behind our house. There was a store called The Gardening Center. If one or both of my parents were turned loose in there, they were lost for hours. They'd find new plants, new flowers, new planters and statues to put in the garden. It was their 'thing' to do together."
"I was seven. It was a gorgeous sunny spring Saturday. My mom was, of course, in the garden. My dad had run to The Gardening Center to pick up some new rose bushes as a surprise for my mom. I was in the family room watching cartoons. I was not as big a fan of the whole gardening thing as they were."
"The doorbell rang. I knew my mom wouldn't hear it, so I went to answer it. I figured it was my dad, because he was always forgetting his door keys."
"I opened the door and there on the other side of the screen door were two policemen. They asked for my mom. I left them standing there and went out to the backyard to yell for my mom. I told her about the police and she figured they were there to collect for some charity or something. I remember following her back into the house. She was covered with soil, sweaty, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. There was a leaf caught in her hair back near where it was tied. It's funny the things I can remember from that day. But, I can't remember what the police said. I just remember them coming in and talking to my mom and her collapsing into a chair and sobbing. I went to her and she grabbed me in the tightest hug. I actually couldn't breathe. It was scary; I didn't know why she was so upset. I was actually mad at the cops because they were making her so upset. Finally, I went into the kitchen and called my mom's best friend, Jackie. It was the only phone number I knew besides my own. I told her the police were at the house and they were making my mom cry. She dropped everything and came right over."
"When Jackie got there, my mom was distraught. The cops explained everything to her and then they left. Jackie suggested I go up to my room and play so she could help my mom."
"What I found out later was there had been a robbery attempt at The Gardening Center. Apparently, some guy looking to score money for drugs. He had a gun. There was a little boy, probably about my age, maybe a little younger. The kid was crying and screaming. He was scared. The thief got angry and frustrated with the kid and apparently moved to hit him with his gun. My dad stepped forward to stop him from hitting the kid. The guy turned the gun on my dad and shot him. He ran out of the store and just left my dad lying there. By the time the paramedics came it was too late for him."
As he tried to continue, Dusty began to sob uncontrollably. Zak stroked his back and just held him. Tears were falling from Zak's eyes as well. Zak reached up and wiped a tear from Dusty's eye. "Shh, it's ok. You don't have to go on if it's too hard. I understand."
Dusty wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and shook his head. "No, I want you to know this. No secrets."
"Alright." Zak looked at him. "But, just take a minute and breathe."
Dusty leaned back and closed his eyes. He took several deep breaths. He leaned forward so his and Zak's foreheads were touching. "Thank you," he said, trying to keep his emotions under control. Zak just reached up and rubbed his shoulders. After a few minutes, Dusty sat back under the tree and pulled Zak back into his former position resting against Dusty.
He continued, "I don't remember much about the days after that. I remember my mom finally telling me my dad was gone. I remember my Gram and Grampa coming. I remember bits and pieces of the service and everyone being so sad. But mostly, I just remember that all of the sudden, my dad, my hero was not there anymore."
"The first few months were really hard. I was so angry. I lashed out at everyone--my mom, my teachers, kids that had been my friends. I couldn't control this rage that filled me. My mom tried to send me to a therapist and I basically told him to fuck off. I was lost."
"I continued to get worse. I started hanging out with the worst bullies the school had. These were my 'friends'. We picked on smaller kids. We broke peoples' windows. We were just rotten. I don't know why I kept doing these things; it wasn't making me feel any better. I was just trying to make everyone feel as bad as me."
"Over the next couple of years, I was in and out of serious trouble. I spent a couple nights in juvenile lock-up. I was arrested multiple times. My mom was just getting more and more frustrated. My Gram came and tried to straighten me out--we had always been close. My Grampa had passed soon after my dad. I missed him, too, but not like I missed my dad. Gram talked to me, yelled at me, everything she could think of and it did no good. She told me that no matter how bad I tried to be she would never stop loving me, but at that moment she didn't like me very much. It didn't matter to me. A part of me had died when my dad died, the part that loved and was happy. All that was left was the shell filled with anger and rage."
"I started doing drugs to deaden the pain. I didn't get into anything really hardcore, but by the time I was eleven I was smoking pot pretty much every day. I would steal pills and sneak drinks. I was stoned or drunk most of the time."
"Finally, everything came to a head one day after school. I had been buying pot from an older kid at the high school. His name was Jack. I owed him money. I was supposed to bring it over to the high school, but I was too baked to remember it. I remembered when Jack and his goon Vinnie showed up to meet me after school. I didn't have the money. So, Jack and Vinnie decided to make an 'example' of me. Vinnie held me while Jack worked me over. He blackened my eye, cracked a rib and kicked me so hard in the nuts I puked on him. That just made him angrier. I didn't see the knife. I was too out of it at this point. I just remember a searing pain in my stomach and then Vinnie let me go and I fell to the ground. My eye was almost swollen shut. My ribs were crying out. I couldn't catch my breath. I reached down to try to feel around my stomach where the pain was incredible. I felt something sticky and when I pulled back my hand I saw the blood. I must have passed out at this point, because the next thing I remember was waking up in a bed in the hospital."
"My mom was sitting by my bed. Apparently, I had been out of it for almost a day. I had been found by a teacher who called 911. They operated on me. The knife nicked my intestine and I had lost a lot of blood. I guess they had told my mom I had a 50/50 chance. I spent about a week in the hospital. The police wanted to know what had happened. I told them I was mugged and didn't know who did it."
Zak sat up. "You didn't tell them who did that to you? Why? They could have killed you?"
"I was scared. Jack almost killed me just because I owed him money. What would he do to me if I ratted him out? Plus, the cops already thought it had something to do with drugs. When they ran blood tests at the hospital they found the drugs in my system, but since I was underage and the victim they couldn't do anything about it. Luckily, I wasn't holding when I got jumped."
"Didn't you think that they might do it to someone else if you didn't turn them in?"
"Honestly, no. Zak, I didn't care. I was only thinking of me and surviving. This should have been a warning to me, but I was too far gone. My mom saw that and she had finally had enough. She was talking to a friend about me. I found out later she was thinking about a 'Scared Straight' program or even military school. But this friend knew Mr. Jones and asked him about me working at the ranch after school and on weekends."
When my mom told me, I flipped. I didn't want to work on some dirty farm. I didn't want to be around animals or anything like that. I just wanted to be left alone. My mom gave me no choice, I was going."
"The first few months, I think Mr. Jones regretted taking me on. I was still too angry and being forced into this was just making it worse. Then Mr. Jones bought the mustang mare, Phoenix's mama. She was angry too. We were two peas in a pod. She lashed out at everyone. Always making a ruckus in her stall. No one wanted to deal with her, just like me. One day I was cleaning stalls in the area of the barn where she was; she was making her usual noise, kicking the stall door and generally making a nuisance of herself. I went over to her and started talking to her, telling her she was going to hurt herself if she didn't stop. She stopped and looked at me and a bolt went through me. She craned her neck over the stall door and I started to pet her and kept talking to her. I was basically telling her all the stuff that people had spent the last few years telling me. I immediately felt this connection with her. Mr. Jones came around to see what all the noise was about and found me just standing there stroking her and talking to her. I think he was just as shocked at that sight as we both were when we saw you with Onyx yesterday."
"Something in my connection with the mare started to melt the cold exterior I had spent four years building around myself. Mr. Jones put me in charge of taking care of her, since she seemed to be as attached to me as I was to her. I started learning how to ride and spending more and more time out here. As the mare got closer to giving birth, I was getting so excited. Mr. Jones had told me that after she gave birth and the foal was weaned, he would have someone help me train her and she would be 'my' horse."
Dusty started to tear up again. "You know how that ended up. The mare died giving birth to Phoenix and he became mine. I have shared the same connection with him since the day he was born. He has always been mine. I may not own him, right now, but there is no question in anyone's mind who he belongs to."
"So once I started to connect to things here, things became better all over. My mom and my Gram both noticed the changes in me. I was more open, I loved and laughed again. I felt like my old self. It's like for four years there was another person in my body. It wasn't me. My mom was so happy with all the changes that I made in my life and my change in attitude that for my twelfth birthday she gave me Herc. It was like he was my lifeline at home and Phoenix is my lifeline here. Anytime I start to feel the anger build or take over again I just spend time with one of them and the love and happiness come back in."
Zak sat there in silence still snuggled up against Dusty. Dusty was scared about his silence; maybe knowing about his past was too much for Zak. Maybe finding out all the terrible things he had done would end them before they began. As if sensing Dusty's trepidation, Zak wrapped his arms around Dusty's torso and hugged him. Zak pushed himself up and took Dusty's face in his hands once more. Dusty looked up into Zak's eyes; tears were flowing from them. Zak leaned forward and kissed Dusty. "I'm sorry," he stammered.
"I knew it. I don't blame you; why would you want to be with me after everything I've done?" Dusty started to stand up, but Zak laid all his weight on him to keep him down.
Zak put his finger to Dusty's lips and shook his head. "I'm not leaving you. Why would you think that?"
"I thought you were saying you were sorry that we couldn't be together now."
"No, I'm sorry that you had to go through all that," Zak cried. "I never knew my dad; he died when I was barely three. My only memory of him is of my mom holding me at his funeral and seeing him in his casket and thinking he was asleep. And that is less a memory and more a feeling; like I know I was there, but I can never focus on it. I've spent my whole life wondering how things would have been different for me if I had had my dad. Maybe I would have had brothers or sisters. Maybe I would have more courage. Who knows? I don't think I miss my dad, because I never really knew him. I miss the thought of my dad and what might have been. But for you, to have known your dad and had him be such an important part of your life and then to lose him, that's a whole different situation. I can't say I wouldn't have gone off the rails either. You were a kid trying to deal with something no kid should have to. The important part is you came through it and now you are this amazing, compassionate, loving person. I am so lucky to have found you."
Dusty looked up to see the tears in Zak's eyes. He took Zak's hand from his cheek and brought it to his lips and kissed the palm. Then he leaned forward and kissed Zak. "Not as lucky as I am," he said, tears rolling down his face.
They embraced each other and relaxed under their tree. Occasionally one would hug or kiss the other. But each was happy just to feel the closeness of the other. At one point, Dusty went to say something to Zak and realized that Zak had fallen asleep, his head resting on Dusty's chest. As Dusty watched him sleep, he thought about how incredible the last two days had been. He really did feel that Zak was the last part that was missing from his heart. He had the ranch, he had Phoenix and Herc and now he had the boy of his dreams to share it all with. He knew that Zak was more fragile than he let on, but he was also stronger than he thought. He felt a great relief that he had shared his past with Zak. Zak knew all about the past that shamed him and he still cared, he still wanted to be with him.
Dusty looked at his watch and realized they had spent way more time at the lake then he had planned. He gently shook Zak awake. Zak turned to look at him bleary-eyed.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," Dusty laughed. "We need to get going."
Zak yawned. "Ok." Zak stood and stretched. Dusty reached out and tickled his sides while he was stretching. Zak giggled and slapped Dusty's hands away. "Hey!! No tickling!! Got it?" He waved his fist in Dusty's face.
Dusty just smiled at him and stood up. They both started gathering their belongings.
Dusty looked around. "Ok, where are the horses?"
Zak turned and scanned the nearby area. "Oh, great, they probably went home without us."
"Phoenix would not leave me stranded here, he knows better than that," Dusty laughed. He put his thumb and middle finger to his lips and let loose an ear-piercing whistle.
Zak put his hands over his ears. "Hey!! Warn a guy before you do that. I think I may have lost some hearing in my ear."
"Oh, please." Dusty rolled his eyes as they heard the sound of hooves coming at them. They looked up and saw Phoenix and Bob running towards them.
"Go ahead and get everything together and I'll get the hackamores on the horses," Dusty said to Zak.
Zak pulled on his jeans; luckily his speedo had dried, because in all his planning for this afternoon he had forgotten to bring a clean, dry pair of underwear. And he wasn't a huge fan of free balling. He quickly gathered up the towels, their t-shirts, his helmet and Dusty's saddlebags. When he turned around Dusty was standing next to Phoenix, while Bob stood there grazing.
Zak walked over to Dusty. "Are you going to give me a boost?"
Dusty nodded, "Yup." And then he handed Zak Phoenix's reins.
Zak looked at him, puzzled. "Wrong horse, Dusty."
"Nope, you're going to ride Phoenix back."
"Are you sure? Is he going to let me?" Zak asked nervously.
As if to answer the question, Phoenix turned to Zak and lowered his head and bumped Zak's chest. Zak petted his neck and smiled.
"Does that answer your question?" Dusty asked grinning at Zak. "I'll be right beside you the whole time, you'll be fine."
Zak handed Dusty his saddlebags and towel, which Dusty threw over Bob's back. He then handed Dusty his t-shirt which Dusty pulled on while Zak did the same with his. Zak also put the helmet back on. Zak threw his towel over Phoenix's back. Dusty reached up and spread the towel over Phoenix's back since he was still damp from his swim.
"Ready?" Dusty asked.
Zak was starting to get excited. "Ready."
Zak bent his leg and Dusty boosted him up onto Phoenix's back. Then Dusty turned and hopped onto Bob's back.
The two boys both kissed at the horses and started down the trail at a leisurely walk. They rode in silence. Occasionally, one would reach over and grab the other's hand. They kept looking at each other and exchanging shy glances and grins.
About halfway home, Dusty looked at Zak and then moved his eyes up the trail, grinning at Zak. Zak nodded and gathered up his reins. Without a word between them both boys kicked their horses into a canter and raced down the trail.
They raced for a little bit and then Dusty called out "Whoa!" Dusty reined Bob to a stop, but Phoenix stopped without any signal from Zak, hearing the command from 'his' boy.
Dusty steered Bob alongside Phoenix. He looked at Zak and grinned. "What are you doing?" Zak asked as Dusty moved quickly from Bob's back to Phoenix's where he pulled himself up tight against Zak.
"Just getting more comfortable." Dusty laughed.
"What about Bob?"
"What about him? He knows these trails better than I do and he'll stay with us because he knows we're going home."
"And why are you here on my horse?"
Dusty gripped Zak's side and wiggled his fingers. "Whose horse?"
Zak squirmed and squealed. "Alright, your horse. And I told you no tickling."
Dusty reached around and unbuckled the helmet that Zak was wearing. He took it off Zak's head. "That's better," he said as he leaned into kiss Zak's neck.
"Mmm," Zak moaned. "What are you going to do with the helmet?"
"This," Dusty answered as he reached over to Bob and clipped the helmet to his saddle bags.
"Hey!" Zak exclaimed. "Be careful; you lean over anymore and we're both going overboard."
"Don't worry," Dusty said as he straightened up. "We're all good. Now where was I?" he asked as he went back to nuzzling on Zak's neck.
Zak leaned back so that every possible inch of his back was touching Dusty. Dusty moved forward and ground his crotch into Zak's ass. Dusty reached his hands under Zak's t-shirt and caressed Zak's chest. He stopped to tweak his nipple and moved his hands to Zak's shoulders where he started to massage the muscles. He leaned down and nibbled on Zak's earlobe. Zak groaned. "Keep your eyes on the trail," Dusty whispered in his ear.
"That's kinda hard to do right now," Zak whispered back, giggling.
Zak reached his hands back and found the bulge in Dusty's swim suit. He gently squeezed. "Oh, God, Zak," Dusty groaned. "Don't do that."
Zak pulled his hand back. "Why?"
Dusty leaned in and whispered in his ear, "Because if you do that, I'll be a sticky mess. I'm too close as it is."
"Oh, ok." Zak reached back and took Dusty's arms in his hands and wrapped all four arms around him.
"Hey, who's steering?" Dusty asked.
"You said he knows his way home, so we're on cruise control," Zak giggled.
"Works for me," Dusty said as he went back to nibbling on Zak's earlobe.
The boys spent the rest of the ride enjoying their closeness. Too soon they were back at the ranch. As they came off the trail, Dusty noticed Mr. Jones' truck was not there.
"I thought Mr. Jones would be back by now."
"He said he wouldn't be back before we left."
"Right, but we were supposed to be out of here between three and four, it's almost five now."
"Really?" asked Zak. "It's that late?"
"Yup. We need to hurry and get these guys cooled down and put up and get everyone fed so I can get you home."
When they reached the barn, Dusty slid down off Phoenix and reached up to help Zak down. He held Zak for an extra moment and bent forward to kiss him.
Zak kissed him back and then pulled away. "No time for love, Dr. Jones," Zak laughed.
"Damn," Dusty frowned.
They led the horses over to the shower bay and hosed them off.
"What time do you get out of school tomorrow?"
"I usually get out about 2:15 on Mondays, why?"
"Why don't I pick you up at school and I can take you to the tack shop over in Lancaster. We can get you a water bottle and some saddle bags and see if they have anything else we might need."
"Well, I haven't been paid yet, but I could ask my mom for some money."
Dusty grabbed Zak from behind as he was trying to scrape water off Bob's belly. "I didn't ask if you had money, I asked if you wanted to go. I have money. Plus, Mr. Jones will probably want me to put some of the stuff on the ranch account since you will need it for work."
Zak turned around and looked at Dusty. "You don't have to do that, you know?"
"Do what, help my friend? Yes, I do."
"I knew there was something I liked about you," Zak said as he kissed Dusty.
This time it was Dusty's turn to pull back. "Are you all set here?"
Zak nodded. "I just have to finish scraping him and then I can put him up."
"Ok, I'm all set with Phoenix, so I'm going to put him in his stall and then start the feedings. After you put Bob up, why don't you call your mom to let her know we are running late and then you can start feedings in Barn 2."
Dusty led Phoenix away while Zak finished up with Bob.
After he put Bob in his stall and fed him, Zak took out his cell phone and gave his mom a quick call letting her know they were running behind and he should be home within the hour. She said she would have dinner ready when he got home.
He quickly went about doing the feedings in the rest of the barn. Having done this a couple times already, he was able to pick up the pace and get the barn done faster than he expected.
He knew that Onyx was his responsibility so when he finished in Barn 2 he ran over to the main barn. He went into Onyx's stall and Onyx was standing in the paddock looking over the back door of the stall. "Hey, Buddy, did you think I forgot about you?" he asked the big horse as he reached up to scratch his neck. "Why don't you wait there so I can go get your dinner?"
Zack quickly grabbed the water bucket, walked across the hall and filled it. He lugged it back over and hung it in place. He then ran to the feed room and got Onyx's allotment of grain and feed. After dumping that in the feed tray, he went back and grabbed the two flakes of hay for the big horse.
Once he had everything in place, he went back to the paddock door and opened it. Onyx lumbered in and headed over to his feed tray. Zak went over to stand by him for a few minutes. He stroked Onyx's neck and talked to him while he ate.
Realizing he had better finish helping Dusty, he gave the horse one last hug and ran out the stall door. "See ya later, Big Guy," he yelled over his shoulder.
He ran through the main barn and found that Dusty was not there. He must have finished and moved onto Barn 3. He ran over to Barn 3. He checked a couple of stalls and it didn't look like anyone had been fed yet. He wondered where Dusty was. He must have gotten tied up somewhere, he thought. He decided to go ahead and do the feedings in here so they could get going.
Meanwhile, Dusty was in the yard talking on his cell phone. Mr. Jones had called him just as he was finishing in the main barn and he got a better signal in the yard. He spoke briefly to Mr. Jones and was just hanging up when he heard Zak call for him.
"Dusty!!" Zak called. "Come quick!!"
"Where are you?" Dusty answered.
"I'm at Barn 3."
Dusty ran over to the barn.
He saw Zak standing outside with a panicked look on his face.
"Hey, what's up?" Dusty asked.
"Something is wrong with Beauty. She's lying down and she looks like she's in pain."
"What?!?" Dusty exclaimed. He ran into the barn with Zak hot on his heels. When he got to Beauty's stall he saw the horse lying on her side. "Damn!! She's having the foal."
"Do you need to call Mr. Jones?"
"I was talking to Mr. Jones when you called to me. There is a big accident on Highway 12 and traffic is backed up for miles; he's right in the middle of it and won't be back for hours."
"Well, what are we going to do?"
Dusty looked at Zak. "I guess we are about to be midwives."
Zak looked at Dusty wide-eyed. "I don't remember signing up for that."