Zak looked at the mare lying in the stall. "You're not serious?" he asked Dusty. "She's not having a baby right now?"
Dusty looked at Zak and grinned. "Oh, yes she is. Look, see all that fluid. She's in labor. This foal is coming now."
"What do we do?"
"Well, if everything goes right, we shouldn't have to do much of anything. Horses have foals in the wild all the time. She'll only need us if the foal is breech or if he's not coming out. Why don't you run back to the office. In the closet there are some very long plastic gloves; they sort of look like trash bags with fingers. Bring me a couple sets."
"Ok. Be right back."
Zak ran off on his mission.
Dusty smiled. He was excited that Zak would get to witness this. It was a miracle every time a new foal was born. He had seen it several times, the most important to him being Phoenix's birth. That was also the hardest for him because he had lost the first horse he had loved.
He stood outside the stall and watched the mare. She did not seem to be in distress, just going through contractions and probably a little uncomfortable.
Zak came back and handed the gloves to Dusty. Dusty pulled on a pair of the gloves that went all the way up to his shoulders. He handed a pair to Zak.
Zak's eyes bugged out. "I'm not putting those on."
Dusty laughed, "You might have to. I should be able to handle things at that end. For now, just put them in your pocket, just in case."
Zak just shook his head, but did as Dusty asked. He was not sure he wanted to see this. He wasn't sure why Dusty was so excited. He took a second to look at Dusty and laughed.
"What's so funny?"
"You never changed back to your jeans. You look kinda funny standing there in your t-shirt, boardies and flip flops with those gloves on."
Dusty just rolled his eyes. "Well, if you want to stay and help Beauty, I'll go change. But, I think that baby is coming now."
"No, that's ok; you stay right where you are."
"I thought so. I want you to go kneel by her head. Just stroke her and talk to her. Be careful and watch out for her legs. She may thrash trying to get the baby out and you don't want to get kicked."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to be at the other end, making sure that foal is ok."
Both boys entered the stall. Zak knelt at Beauty's head. He began talking to her in a low voice and stroking her neck. Dusty went to her backside and saw that the foal was coming.
"Zak, come here and watch this," Dusty said excitedly.
"No, that's ok. I'm good."
Dusty looked at him. "Get over here."
Reluctantly, Zak walked over to where Dusty stood behind the mare. He saw what looked like a white sac protruding from between the mare's legs. With each grunt from Beauty the sac would move and lots of liquid would splash out around it. Zak was extremely grossed out and riveted at the same time. He had never seen anything being born before. But he had never wanted to either.
Beauty grunted loudly and thrashed about, but the sac did not move any further.
Dusty looked concerned. "It's not coming and she's getting distressed."
"What can we do?"
"You just stand here, put on the gloves in case I need help. Watch her closely; on her next contraction I'm going to take hold of the foal's legs and try to pull him out a little bit; once the head and shoulders clear the rest usually slides right out."
"What legs? I don't see any legs. I just see that bubble."
"The foal is in that 'bubble'. The legs are right there coming out of her." Dusty pointed at the sac and Zak could just make out two tiny legs tearing through it.
Zak pulled on the gloves as instructed. He was not looking forward to having to get in the middle of this, but he would help Dusty if he needed it.
Dusty kneeled behind Beauty and lightly placed his hand on her rump. He petted her and spoke to her, encouraging her, "Come on, girl. You've got this. One good push and you're a mama."
Beauty began to thrash and grunt again. Dusty knew she was having a contraction. He gently took hold of the foal's leg and applied the slightest pressure to try to assist the mare. "I see the head," he told Zak. He kept pulling and with a gush of fluid the small body slid out of the mare.
Dusty sat there looking at the newborn foal. He turned to Zak. "What do you think of that?"
"I honestly don't know whether to cry or vomit," Zak said. "It was amazing, beautiful and revolting all at the same time. But she's beautiful."
"She?" Dusty looked at the foal again. "Beauty, you were supposed to have a boy. I lost the bet."
"Yeah, Joe and I had a bet on the sex of the foal. I was positive it was a boy. Damn, now I have to muck out extra stalls for a week."
"Joe is Mr. Jones' other hand. He's usually here most days, but he was off this weekend. I think he and his wife were going to visit her sister or something. You'll meet him next time you're out. He's a nice guy. Kind of like Mr. Jones--he loves the horses, but doesn't do much riding."
Dusty stood up and walked over to Zak. They stood together watching mother and daughter bond. Beauty eventually stood up and they all watched the filly as she struggled several times to stand. Eventually, she made it up and took her first uneasy steps.
Dusty took Zak's hand and led him out of the stall. He closed the stall door and they stood there watching the horses. Zak was standing in front of Dusty leaning back into him and Dusty had his arms wrapped around Zak, his chin resting on Zak's shoulder.
"How can you not love this?" Dusty whispered into Zak's ear. "It's so awesome."
"It is pretty neat. It's just the first time I've seen anything like this."
"Dusty!! Zak!! You guys in here?"
The boys jumped apart as they heard Mr. Jones call for them.
"We're in here with Beauty, Mr. Jones," Dusty called.
Mr. Jones appeared a few seconds later. "There you boys are. How's she doing?"
"Come see for yourself," Dusty gestured towards the stall.
Mr. Jones walked over and peered into the stall. He smiled as he watched the mother and daughter. "Any problems, Dusty?"
"No. She had a little problem with the foal coming out but I was able to give her a little help and then everything went easily."
"Good. So, Zak, how did you do?"
"Ok, I think. It's the first time I've ever seen anything like this. I told Dusty I wasn't sure if I should cry or vomit."
Mr. Jones roared with laughter. "I don't think you are the first person to have that problem in the same situation."
Mr. Jones looked back into the stall. "So, Dusty, you lost the bet?" he laughed.
Dusty rolled his eyes. "Yup, now I've gotta muck extra stalls all week."
"So what do we name her, boys?"
"What?" asked Zak. "I thought Beauty belonged to a boarder."
"She does," answered Mr. Jones. "But, the filly is the ranch's. I made a deal with Beauty's owner. Last year Beauty had a colt with Onyx and her owner got a good price selling it. The deal was that this year's foal would belong to the ranch."
Zak's eyes got wide. "So, she's Onyx's baby?"
Dusty laughed at the way Zak reacted to that knowledge. "Yes, she is. But hopefully she's got her mama's disposition."
Zak turned to Dusty and slapped his arm. "Stop picking on Onyx, you big bully."
Mr. Jones joined Dusty in laughing at Zak.
"So what will it be boys?"
Zak looked at him seriously. "Really, we get to name her?"
"Sure; you were here to see her safely into the world, so you two should get to name her."
"Can we think about it some, since she's Onyx's baby? I want it to be perfect."
Dusty rolled his eyes behind Zak's back and Mr. Jones laughed.
"Sure Zak, you guys think on it. But, you've got to come up with something soon," Mr. Jones answered. "But right now it's getting kind of late. Probably time you guys headed home."
Dusty looked at his watch. "Oh, shit!! It's almost 8:00. C'mon, Zak, go grab our stuff from the office and I'll meet you at the truck."
Zak took off yelling over his shoulder, "Ok, meet you there."
Mr. Jones walked up to Dusty. "How's he doing?"
"Great. He's already ridden three different horses, including Phoenix."
"He rode Phoenix by himself?"
"Yes, Phoenix didn't give him any trouble. He's really taken to the horses and riding."
"And to you?"
Dusty blushed. "Umm…"
"Dusty, you know I trust you. Zak's a good kid, but so are you. If you guys connect, that's your business, but it's fine with me."
"I don't know what's happening," Dusty answered seriously. "I really like him and I think he really likes me. But, we want to be friends before we go too far with anything else."
"That's a very mature decision for both of you. Just take your time. It looks like you're already fast friends."
"Yes, sir, I think we are," Dusty smiled.
Mr. Jones smiled back. "Well, why don't you get moving and get our boy home, ok?"
"Ok, sir, thank you."
"No, Dusty, thank you. Zak really needed a friend."
Dusty blushed again and ran out of the barn to meet Zak.
As Dusty came out of the barn, he saw Zak sitting on the ground leaning on one of the truck's tires. He was petting and wrestling with Ember. Ember saw Dusty and ran up to greet her 'other' boy.
Dusty knelt down to scratch her behind her floppy ears. "Hey, Emmy, I'll see you tomorrow." He looked at Zak. "You better call your mom so she doesn't think anything happened to you."
"I already called her while I was waiting for you. I told her there was an emergency, but it was all good. She was getting nervous."
"Good, well, let's get going."
Dusty went and unlocked the truck and he and Zak both climbed up and in. He started the truck up and they headed out.
Zak could barely contain his excitement. "So what should we name the filly?"
"I don't know. You're so excited now, why don't you come up with something?"
Zak thought on it for a few moments. "Ok, I'll have something by the time you pick me up tomorrow."
"Are you sure you still want to go? It's going to be an awfully late night tonight."
"Sure; I usually get my homework done in my last period study hall. I was tutoring a lot at the library so I had to make sure I had all my own work done already. But since I am doing this job, most of my tutoring is being done by others for the remainder of the year."
"Well, if you're sure, then I'll pick you up at school at about 2:15. Check with your mom; if she doesn't want you to go or if anything comes up, just give me a call. I'll be at the ranch all day."
"Don't you ever have to go to school?"
Dusty laughed. "Yes, but I'm on mostly work study. I take my 'regular' classes at night. Most of them are on computer, so you work at your own pace. I actually just have to go in on Tuesday night and finish my math and history finals and I am done with 'real' school for the year."
They were pulling up to Zak's house. Zak turned to Dusty and grinned. "Well, this is my stop." He grabbed Dusty's hand and brought it to his lips. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you," Dusty answered.
Zak grabbed his backpack and the damp towels and hopped out of the truck. He slammed the truck door and ran to the house. When he reached the front door he turned around and blew Dusty a kiss. Dusty just laughed and shook his head. He watched Zak enter the house and then drove off to his house.
Zak walked up to his locker to put his books away. He grimaced as he lifted the books to the top shelf. He closed his locker and rubbed his sore side. Most of the kids had already left for the day. He was just moving a little slowly. He knew he had to get out to meet Dusty, so he grabbed his backpack and headed for the front doors.
When he came out the doors, he saw Dusty sitting in his truck waiting. Dusty saw him and waved. Zak made his way to the truck and opened the door.
"Hey, Bud," Dusty said as Zak struggled to get into the truck. "Look down."
Zak looked over to the door and saw a small step was attached to the door. It slid out when the door was opened. He looked at Dusty. "Where did that come from?"
Dusty grinned at Zak. "I stopped at the auto parts store on the way to work this morning and Joe helped me put it on at lunch. I figured if you were going to ride with me all the time, we needed to make it easier for you to get up here."
Zak stepped up on the metal step and hoisted himself into the truck. "Perfect," he said. "Thanks."
"What else could I do for my new best bud?" Dusty said as he reached over and took Zak in his arm. He gave Zak a small side hug and Zak flinched. "Hey, what's wrong? Did I hurt you?"
"No, I think I just pulled a muscle in gym," Zak answered. But Dusty saw the pain in his eyes.
"Zak, what happened, really?"
"I told you I think I pulled a muscle," Zak answered curtly.
"Let me see," ordered Dusty.
"Dusty, it's no big deal," Zak answered as he slid back to his side of the truck.
"Then let me see," Dusty insisted as he reached for Zak's t-shirt.
"Please, Dusty." Zak looked up, his eyes watering.
But Dusty was becoming more concerned as Zak became more upset. He reached over and lifted Zak's shirt up. He gasped as he saw the large bruise on Zak's back. "Zak, who did that to you?"
"No one, I just tripped."
"Zak, that didn't come from a fall and you didn't pull a muscle. Who did that to you?"
Zak had tears in his eyes as he turned to look out the passenger door window. "It's ok, Dusty, I'm just a klutz."
Dusty reached over and placed his hand on Zak's shoulder. "Zak, I've been with you the last two days. I've seen you swim with power and grace. I've seen you ride around the ring and on the trails with balance. You are not a klutz." Through gritted teeth he asked again, "Who did this to you?"
Zak turned to Dusty. Then he looked out the truck windshield. "Dusty, I don't want to talk about it."
Dusty just sighed. Then he saw Zak's eyes suddenly widen when he saw an older boy walking towards the truck. Dusty looked at the older boy and a bolt of recognition went through him. "TJ Oliver? He did this to you?"
Zak looked at Dusty, panic in his eyes. "Please Dusty, you'll just make it worse."
Dusty opened his door and turned to Zak, "No, I'm going to end this."
He jumped out of the truck before Zak could stop him and slammed the door. He marched over to the boy who was now leaning against a tree.
"TJ!!" Dusty shouted.
TJ sneered at him. "Well, well, what are you doing here, Tonto?"
"I want to you to keep your hands off of Zak."
TJ looked into the truck and saw Zak sitting there staring at them. "Not that I'm admitting anything, but why would I listen to you?" TJ laughed.
Dusty lunged forward and caught the larger boy off guard. Using all his weight, he put his forearm across TJ's throat and his knee in his crotch, effectively pinning him to the tree. "Because, if you ever touch him again or if any of your football goons touch him, talk to him or bother him in any way, I'll end you."
"What makes you think you could take me, Dusty?" TJ spit out through gritted teeth.
Dusty leaned forward his lips just inches from TJ's ear and whispered, "I don't have to touch you to make your life unbearable, do I?"
Dusty pulled back to see the very panicked look in TJ's eyes. "Am I making myself clear?" he asked.
TJ paled and nodded to Dusty.
Dusty let go and turned to walk back to the truck. "Good, I don't want to have this conversation again."
Dusty got into the truck and started it up. Zak was sitting there with tears in his eyes just staring at Dusty. Dusty put the truck in gear and pulled out of the school parking lot as fast as he could.
They drove in silence until Dusty saw a vacant parking lot. He pulled into the lot and parked the truck in a far corner where no one would notice them. He turned the truck off and turned to Zak. He reached out to Zak and took him in his arms. Zak sobbed, his head resting on Dusty's shoulder.
Dusty rubbed Zak's back. "It's ok," he cooed to Zak.
Zak pulled back and looked at Dusty. "How could you do that? It's only going to make things worse," he cried. "I've spent all year trying to go unnoticed--that makes them only come after me every once in a while. You've put a target on me!!"
Dusty took Zak's face in his hands and looked deep into his eyes. "Zak, he's not going to touch you ever again. I made it clear to him that it would be in his best interest to never bother or let any of his goons ever bother you again."
"How? There are too many of them for you to fight."
"Who said anything about fighting them?" Dusty grinned. "At least physically."
Zak sat back in the seat and looked at Dusty. "What do you mean?"
Dusty looked at Zak very seriously. "Zak, at their heart, bullies are cowards. I know, I used to be one. I will never be able to forgive myself for the pain and humiliation I caused others. But, I'm not going to stand by and let anyone do that to someone I care about. I don't believe in violence, but there are other ways to handle a bully."
Zak was confused. "How?"
"Well, let's just say, I have information that TJ would not want to get out."
Zak's sat back and thought for a minute and suddenly his eyes got very big. He turned to Dusty with a shocked look on his face. "You mean you and TJ??!!??" He wrinkled his nose in disgust.
Dusty laughed. "Yes, but you can't say anything to anyone, or we lose the advantage."
"How could you…"
"Zak, I was young, a little younger than you and he is cute… in a Neanderthal kind of way. It was when he first started riding at the ranch. I was just coming to terms with my sexuality. He was cute, we went on a couple of trail rides together and would end up making out. A couple times we jacked off together and one time we sixty-nined. He might be able to explain away some of it, but the blowjobs would be hard to rationalize to his jughead friends."
Zak just shook his head. "I don't understand. You keep saying we have to go slow and you did these things with TJ?"
Dusty pulled Zak to him and hugged him tight. "It's because I did these things with TJ that I want us to go slow. When we started it was just two guys getting off. But eventually, I started to have feelings for him--probably not love, but I did care for him. He didn't return those feelings. I don't know, or care, if he's gay, bi or straight and confused, but I walked away because being in a one-sided relationship made me feel empty. When I first saw you, I wanted you bad. But, when I got to know you, I realized how special you were to me. I knew right away we would be good friends. I don't want anything to mess that up and I don't want you to get hurt. If we are destined to be together then it will work out that way. If not, I don't want to lose my new friend. Ok?"
Zak looked up at Dusty and smiled. He hugged him tight. "Ok."
They just sat there holding each other for a few minutes. Then Dusty leaned down and kissed Zak's forehead. "So," he asked, "did you come up with a name for the filly?"
Zak grinned and nodded. "Gem."
Dusty thought for a moment and then smiled and nodded. "Gem. I like that. It fits her."
Dusty started up the truck. "You can tell Mr. Jones when we get to the ranch."
"We're going to the ranch?" Zak asked.
"Just for a minute," Dusty answered.
"I have something to show you," Dusty grinned.