Castle Roland

Riding Lessons

by Andrew Todd


Chapter 9

Posted: N/A

Dusty dragged Zak into the office, where Mr. Jones was sitting at the desk doing paper work.

"Hey, guys," Mr. Jones said. "Zak, did Dusty bring you to show you…"

"Shhh," Dusty laughed. "I haven't told him yet."

Mr. Jones grinned. "Oh, ok. So what can I help you boys with?"

"Well, Zak has a name for the filly."

"Well, good, we can't keep calling her 'Hey, You'. What is it, Zak?"

Zak had lost all his excitement. What if Mr. Jones didn't like the name or thought it was stupid. He had thought a lot about it, but maybe he should consider other choices. Dusty reached over and took his hand and squeezed it gently. "Gem, sir."

"Hey, I like that. It kind of fits her since she is an unusual breed."

"Unusual? Isn't she a Friesian like Onyx?" Zak asked.

"No, she's only half Friesian because of Onyx, but Beauty is a Saddlebred. That combination is a relatively new breed called a Georgian Grande. The folks that started the breed did so to create a heavier type Saddlebred horse like the kind that were once used in the cavalries. She'll be the first of the breed in the area."

"Cool. I didn't realize she was that special."

"Yes, so she is indeed a 'Gem'." Mr. Jones and the boys laughed.

"Ok, well, I'm going to show Zak the you-know-what and then we are going to the tack shop in Lancaster. Is there anything you need?" Dusty asked.

"No, not that I can think of," Mr. Jones answered. "But you guys pick up whatever you might need for the summer and put it on the ranch account."

"Sure, Mr. Jones. Thanks," Dusty said as he dragged Zak back into the barn. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Mr. Jones laughed as Dusty hustled Zak out of the room.

Dusty ran through the barn with Zak chasing after him.

"Where are we going?" Zak called after Dusty.

"It's a surprise," Dusty yelled back over his shoulder.

Zak had never seen Dusty so excited; it must be a hell of a surprise he thought. As they were running out the back door of the barn, they almost collided with a tall man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He was slender and had a shaved head. He grinned at the boys.

"Dusty, where are you going? I thought you were done for the day?"

Dusty laughed. "Oh, hey, Joe. I'm showing Zak the new addition." He looked at Zak and then at Joe. "Oh, that's right, you guys haven't met. Zak this is Joe Rollins, he's the other hand here. Joe, this is Zak Myers, my partner in crime for the summer."

Joe offered his hand to Zak and Zak shook it.

"Nice to meet you, Joe."

"And you, Zak; Dusty's been talking about you all day." Zak and Dusty both blushed. "So you're the guy who seems to have tamed the black beast?"

"You mean Onyx?" Zak asked.

"That's the one."

"I like him, and he seems to like me."

"Well, that's more than anyone else around here can say. I'm sure you've been warned, but please be careful around that horse."

Zak felt the tips of his ears start to turn red and burn. He wanted to say something about everyone picking on Onyx, but decided they were entitled to their opinion until he was able to change their minds. "Yes, sir, I will," was all he said.

"Well, Joe, we gotta get going," Dusty said as he led Zak out of the barn. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Ok, see you then, Dusty. Have a good night, guys."

"You, too, Joe," Zak called after him as Dusty pulled him to Barn 3.

Outside the doorway to the barn, Zak stopped. "Dusty, where are we going? Why are you so excited?"

"Just come with me, and you'll see," Dusty grinned.

Dusty stopped him when they were in the first hallway of the barn. "Close your eyes," he instructed.

Zak did as he was told and Dusty took him by the hand and led him further into the barn. Zak heard all the sounds of the horses moving around their stalls. Then it was very quiet. He thought they must be in an empty area of the barn. He jumped when he heard a loud snort right in front of him.

"Open your eyes," Dusty whispered to him.

Staring at him from the stall in front of him was a huge horse, not quite as big as Onyx, but bigger than any of the other horses. The horse was a silvery grey. He had a long and flowing mane and tail that were just a bit darker then his coat. The horse was well muscled with a thick rounded neck. The horse seemed to be very skittish. It would watch them with nervous eyes and then pace around the stall.

"Isn't he beautiful?" Dusty whispered excitedly.

Zak was a little scared of the horse, but he had to agree with Dusty's assessment, the horse was beautiful. "Yes, he sure is. Whose is he?" he asked.

"Mr. Jones bought him a few weeks ago and he arrived this morning," Dusty answered. "He's an Andalusian. That's a Spanish breed. They excel at dressage and eventing. Just like Friesians. His name is Ash. And you know what the best part is?"


"Mr. Jones says I get to train him."

"You mean he's never been ridden."

"He's been ridden, but he's only 'green broke'. That means that he's only begun his training. He's still new to it. So I'll be working with him in the ring and on the trails. He's so great."

"What about Phoenix?" Zak was concerned for his mustang friend.

Dusty looked at Zak. "Oh, I could never give up or forget Phoenix. But this is a great opportunity for me. I want to train as my profession and getting to start with a horse like this is awesome. I mean, I trained Phoenix, but he was mine from birth, so as big a brat as he could be, he was no trouble for me to break and train, because it was me. I don't know how he would have reacted to a professional trainer. This will be more like a situation I would be in as a trainer, someone bringing me their horse with little or no training."

"You're still going to help me with Onyx, right?"

"Sure, I promised you I would. We have all summer and we'll have plenty of time to work both horses."

"Ok," Zak said, but he wasn't sure. Dusty seemed awfully focused on Ash.

"So what's Mr. Jones going to do with him?" Zak asked.

"Breed him," Dusty answered. "He's had such success with Onyx and Phoenix that he decided to invest in another stallion of a breed that is not common in the area. That's also why we put him in here by himself. With Onyx in the main barn and Phoenix in Barn 2, this keeps them separate."

Dusty stepped towards the stall to pet Ash. The horse whipped his head around and backed into the stall.

"He doesn't seem too friendly," Zak observed.

Dusty kept watching the stallion. "He's just nervous. New surroundings and all," he answered.


Dusty turned to Zak. "But, it's going to be so great getting to work with a new horse."

"I'll bet it will be." Zak tried to sound excited for Dusty's sake, but he was rather disappointed that Dusty was all excited about working with Ash, yet he was throwing all sorts of roadblocks at Zak when it came to Onyx. To Zak, Onyx was a lot friendlier to him than Ash was being to Dusty. He knew that Dusty knew a lot more about horses than he did, but he couldn't help but be a little nervous around the big grey.

"So, are we ready to go?" Dusty asked.

"Can I just run over and say hi to Onyx?" asked Zak.

"Sure; I'll stay and let Ash get used to me. Why don't I meet you at the truck in about 15 minutes or so?"

"Ok, see you there," Zak responded as he walked out of the barn. He wanted to be excited for Dusty and the chance he was getting with Ash, but something about the new horse bothered him. Maybe he was just feeling the way about Ash that Dusty felt about Onyx. Maybe he needed to be more open and give him a chance; he might just be nervous being in a new home and he might turn out to be just as great as Onyx. For Dusty's sake, he hoped so.

Zak came up on Onyx's stall. Onyx was standing there looking out of his stall as if expecting Zak. He whinnied and snorted when he saw Zak.

"Hi, yourself, Big Guy," Zak said as he opened the stall door and walked in. He walked over to the big black horse and hugged him. "Did you miss me today?"

Onyx placed his head on Zak's shoulder and pulled him to his chest as if to embrace him.

"Aww," said Zak. "I missed you too."

Zak continued to pet and talk to Onyx. Onyx seemed to be quieted by Zak's voice and presence. After a few minutes, Zak looked at his watch.

"Well, beautiful, I have to go and meet Dusty." Zak gave Onyx one last hug and then left the stall. Onyx followed him and hung his head over the stall door. Zak laughed at him. "I'll be back to see you in a few days," he told the big horse as he scratched his cheek one last time.

As Zak walked towards the barn exit he saw Dusty waiting outside the office.

"Ready when you are," Zak told Dusty.

They headed out of the barn and back to Dusty's truck. Dusty noticed Zak sitting back gingerly. "Zak, are you sure that's ok? You've got quite a bruise there."

"Yeah, it'll be ok. I've actually had worse."

Hearing that caused Dusty's anger to flash. He tried to keep from exploding. To know that Zak had been suffering this punishment all school year made him wish he had done something more punishing to TJ. But fighting him or beating him up would only give temporary satisfaction and not save Zak from retribution. No, the way he had handled TJ was the only way that would ensure Zak's safety. But, TJ was only one bully at the school. Granted, he was a ringleader and threatening him would keep Zak safe for now. But hopefully this summer he could help Zak gain some self-confidence so he would be able to take care of himself when he returned to school.

"Hey, Zak," Dusty said. "What time do you need to be home?"

"I don't really have to be home at a specific time. Mondays my mom goes to her PTA meeting right after work and they generally go on forever. Especially this time of year."

"Cool. Why don't you come home with me after we finish shopping? You can have dinner with us and I have something that will probably help your back."

Zak nodded. "Sure, that way I don't have to cook, or in my case, heat up leftovers. But, will it be ok with your mom?"

"Oh, sure. Let me just give her a quick call to let her know."

Dusty took out his cellphone and speed dialed his mom's work number.

"Hey, Mom."

"Hey, sweetie. What's up?"

"I've got Zak with me. We're heading over to Lancaster to go to the tack shop. Is it ok if I bring him home with me for dinner? His mom has late meetings tonight."

"Sure, that won't be a problem. I hadn't even given much thought to dinner; it's been so hectic here today. Why don't we just plan on doing burgers on the grill?"

"That sounds good to me."

"What time do you think you'll be home?"

"Well, it's about 3:30 now, we should probably be home about 5:00 or so."

"Ok, I should be home right around there too. I'll see you at home."

"See you Mom. I love you."

"Love you, too, sweetie."

Dusty hung up. "We're all set. We'll probably just do hamburgers on the grill."

"That sounds fine," Zak replied.

Eventually, they arrived at the tack shop. Dusty parked in front of the large storefront and they both got out of the truck and walked into the store. Dusty grabbed a cart. He wasn't sure how much stuff they would end up getting, but better to be prepared.

He led Zak over to the equine supplies section of the large store. Zak was a bit overwhelmed. He hadn't realized there was such a market. There were all sorts of tack, both English and Western, different feeds, treats, medical and first aid supplies, grooming supplies and halters and leads.

The first thing Dusty grabbed for Zak was a large water bottle. The bottle came with an insulated liner that would keep the water cool and the liner had both a small tie to attach it to a saddle horn and a carabiner so it could attach to a belt loop or a backpack.

Dusty took Zak over to where the saddlebags were. He had Zak choose one for himself. Zak chose a set of black saddle bags that on one side had a number of smaller compartments so he could store his sunscreen, phone and other essentials. The bag on the other side was just one large undivided bag.

They continued to look through the aisles. Occasionally, one or the other would find something that struck their fancy and throw it in the cart. Mainly, various treats for the horses. Zak found some grooming tools that were made a little smaller; he thought they would fit his hands better than the ones at the ranch. Dusty made him get a full set. Dusty had his own set of grooming tools and felt it would be easier for Zak if he had his own as well.

Dusty also made Zak get a pair of riding gloves and work gloves. He knew from experience that once you started riding all day, the leather of reins would tear up your hands and working at mucking stalls and handling those tools was often easier with a pair of gloves. The gloves were relatively light weight and would not be too hot during the summer.

"Hey, Zak," Dusty spoke up as they walked down another aisle. "Do you want to get a helmet of your own?"

Zak looked at him. "Not really, am I going to need one?"

"Well, it probably wouldn't hurt to have your own. It's a good safety thing on the trails and if you are going to be working Onyx, it would probably be a good idea."

Zak just stood there. He was getting sick of Dusty trying to make him think that Onyx was dangerous. He knew that Dusty had experience with the big horse, but he couldn't accept the fact that he was different with Zak.

Dusty spoke up. "I even have one of my own."

"You do? Why?"

"Well, for safety. When I start working with Ash, I'll have to wear it. I love him, but he's still a bit wild and even the best rider ends up on the ground sometimes."

Zak grinned. "Ok, ok, I'll get one." He spent a few minutes looking over and trying on various helmets. He finally decided on a sky blue one. He liked the color and Dusty said it went great with his blond hair and blue eyes. Zak just blushed and rolled his eyes at that comment.

"Anything else?" Dusty asked.

"Can we get something for Gem?"

"Let's get her a halter. Within a few days, we'll be able to put one on her and start halter breaking her."

They walked over to an area that had a large supply of halters and leads. Zak picked a small purple halter and matching lead rope. "This one," he said handing it to Dusty. "Purple for the Princess." Zak and Dusty laughed. "And it will go good with her black coat."

Dusty put the last items in the cart and they went to check out. They had the clerk bag Zak's items separate so he could take them home with him. Everything else, Dusty would bring to the ranch in the morning. Dusty promised he would not 'give' Gem her halter until Zak was there as well.

They left the store. Dusty put the bags behind the seat in the cab of the truck. They both climbed in and Dusty started them towards home.

They rode in silence just listening to the radio. After about 15 minutes, Zak reached over to find a new station.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Dusty asked.

"Dusty, I'm trying but I can only take so much of this country stuff."

Dusty pouted. "You don't like my music?"

Zak laughed. "I'm sure I'll get used to it, but we need to alternate. You can educate me about this stuff and I'll bring you into the 21st century."

Dusty glared at Zak. "I'll have you know this music is very popular."

"Yes, with people older than our parents."

"That's below the belt. I just have an old soul."

Zak reached over and placed his hand on Dusty's crotch. He scooted over and whispered in Dusty's ear, "No, this is below the belt." He kissed Dusty's cheek and slid back to his seat. Dusty was blushing under his dark skin.

Dusty looked at Zak. "You don't play fair," he said.

Zak laughed. "I didn't realize I was supposed to."

Dusty sighed, "Ok, we'll listen to your station on the way home and then we'll switch off going forward. Deal?"

Zak nodded. "Deal."

Dusty just shook his head as they drove down the road with Zak singing along to the radio. He didn't know any of the songs that were playing. He only ever listened to country radio. He especially liked classic country. Hopefully, he and Zak would broaden each other's horizons.

Dusty listened to the song on the radio as Zak sang along at the top of his lungs.

"Let's go crazy, crazy, crazy till we see the sunI know we only met but let's pretend it's loveAnd never, never, never stop for anyoneTonight let's get someAnd live while we're young"

Dusty turned the radio down when the song ended. "I like that," he said. "Who is it?"

Zak shook his head. "Man, I have to educate you. It's One Direction. They are a British boy band." They're awesome and they are all very cute, too."

Dusty rolled his eyes. "Are cute singers a prerequisite for your music?"

Zak giggled. "No, but it doesn't hurt. That was their newest song, 'Live While We're Young'."

"You have a great voice, Zak."

It was Zak's turn to blush. "You really think so?" he asked.

"Sure, you have a very pure tone to your voice. You should sing more often."

"I only sing in the car, the shower or my bedroom and it's going to stay that way for right now."

"Ok, but you should think of joining a choir or chorus at school or something. Your voice is great and you would meet new people."

"Now, you're starting to sound like my mom."

"Well, meeting people isn't a bad thing. If she hadn't sent you to the ranch, we wouldn't have met. Every once in a while you need to take a chance."

Zak just sat there thinking. He started to gnaw on his thumbnail, something he only did when he was thinking hard. "I guess so, but new people make me nervous; hell, most people make me nervous."

"Do I make you nervous?"

"No; that's why I've felt so connected to you. From the moment I met you you've been great to me and you've made me feel so comfortable. But, you are definitely an exception to any rule."

Dusty laughed. "Well, you'll meet lots of people this summer. Part of doing the trail rides is having to deal with new and different and sometimes difficult people."

"How difficult?"

"Well, most people are pretty cool. But whenever we book a trail ride, we ask them what kind of experience they have. We base the ride on the riding level of the least experienced person--that way it is safe. You'd be surprised at the number of people who lie and exaggerate their experience level. They don't realize they could get hurt doing that. I'll often have some people ride in the round pen or the arena to see how they do. If you think someone is not up to riding the trail we have planned, you need to tell me so we can change the plans."

"Wow, that's a pretty stupid thing to do."

"Yes, it is, but some people aren't too swift."

They both laughed as they pulled up in front of Dusty's house.

Dusty got out of the truck and went around to the passenger side to help Zak out. His back was bothering him more. As they stood in the driveway, they heard loud barking and looked up to see Herc gunning for them. Afraid for Zak's back, Dusty yelled, "Herc, stop!!"

The big dog skidded to a stop in front of the boys. Before he could jump up on Zak, Dusty grabbed him by the collar. Zak walked over and petted the dog. "Hey, Herc. Good boy. Dusty's not mad at you, he just wants to keep me from getting a bigger bruise on my back.

Dusty laughed as Zak conversed with the Great Dane like Dusty wasn't even there.

"Come up to my room, Zak," Dusty said. "I have something that might help your back."

Dusty took Zak's hand and led him into the house. He quickly peeked into the kitchen but his mom was not home yet. Before he could close the front door, Herc was in the house and running up the stairs.

"Watch this," Dusty whispered to Zak as Herc hit the hardwood floors and skidded down the hall. "He does it every time; he just never learns that the floors are slippery." They both laughed at the poor dog.

Dusty led Zak upstairs to his room. When they walked into the room Dusty said, "Ok, take off your shirt and get on the bed."

As Zak pulled his t-shirt over his head, Herc jumped on the bed.

Dusty looked at the dog. "I wasn't talking to you, Herc. Get off the bed."

Zak went over to the bed and laid on it. He put his arm over Herc's big body and cuddled with him. "Let him stay, he can keep me company." Zak said.

Dusty rolled his eyes. "You are so going to spoil him. I'll never get him off of that bed tonight."

Zak turned to look at Dusty, mischief gleaming in his eyes. "Are you always so mean to poor Herc? He can come live with me, you know."

"Oh, yeah, I bet your mom would love that."

"Sure she would," Zak answered. He reached around Herc's neck and hugged him. "You want to come live with me, Herc, and get away from this meanie who won't even let you sleep on the bed?" The big dog looked at Zak and licked his face. "Oh, Yuck."

Dusty laughed, "You asked for it."

Dusty walked into his bathroom and grabbed a small bottle from his medicine chest. He walked back into the bedroom and knelt on the bed next to Zak. He inhaled sharply when he saw the angry bruise on Zak's back. He opened the jar and dipped his fingers into the fragrant lotion. He started to rub the lotion over Zak's bruise.

"Wow that feels good," Zak purred. "What is that stuff?"

"I don't actually know," Dusty answered. "Gram has lots of these potions and notions. She uses a lot of plants and herbs that she says have healing powers. I've used this stuff a few times for bumps and bruises; it works great."

"It sure does. My back is feeling so much better."

"Good. I'll let you take the jar home, and then you can apply some more if it starts to hurt again."

Zak rolled over onto his side. "That won't be as much fun as you rubbing it on for me," he giggled.

Dusty put the jar on the nightstand and laid on his side on the bed facing Zak. He shook his head. "You know we'd have more room here, if you hadn't insisted that the moose stay on the bed."

"I can fix that," Zak replied as he rolled Dusty over on his back and then laid on top of him. He looked into Dusty's dark eyes. "Is that better?"

"Mmm hmm," Dusty answered. "Come here," he commanded as he took Zak's face in his hands and lowered Zak's lips to his. The boys laid there kissing hungrily.

There was a knock on the door. "Dusty are you in there?" they heard Lu call.

They both jumped off the bed. Dusty ran to open the door. "Yes, Mom, we're here."

Lu walked in the door and saw Zak trying to put his shirt on. "Hi, Zak," she giggled.

Zak turned several shades of red. "Hey, Mrs..uh, Lu. Dusty was just putting some ointment on this bruise I've got on my back." He turned to show his back.

"Zak, that looks awful. How did that happen?"


Dusty jumped in. "He fell at school and got hurt. But the ointment seems to have worked its magic on him."

"Good. Dusty can you come down and help me with the grill?"

"Sure, Mom, we'll be down in a second."

"Ok, I'll see you boys down there," Lu said as she walked out of the room closing the door behind her.

When he was sure his mom was out of earshot, Dusty walked back to Zak and took him in his arms. "Now, where were we?" he asked as he leaned down to kiss Zak.

They shared a few short kisses and then went downstairs and out into the backyard, Herc following closely.

Out in the back yard, they found Dusty's grandmother sitting on a bench in the garden. Lu was working at scraping off the metal grill that went on a large stone barbeque pit that had been constructed off to the side of the yard.

Dusty turned to Zak, "I'm going to go help mom get the grill started and then help her with dinner. Why don't you go and sit with Gram for a bit."

Zak looked at Dusty's grandmother nervously. He liked the old woman, but something about her intimidated him. "Are you sure you don't need any help?" he asked hopefully.

Dusty shook his head, "No, we've got this." He walked off towards where his mother was working to clean the grill off, he took the grill and brush she was using from her and sent her into the house.

Zak stood in the yard for a minute. Herc stood beside him and Zak was stroking his head and ears without even thinking about it. He slowly walked over to where Gram was sitting on the bench.

She smiled when she saw him coming over. "Hello, Little One. It's nice to see you again. How are you?"

Zak answered, "I'm pretty good, Gram. How are you?"

"I'm well." She patted the empty seat next to her. "Here come sit with me. Dustin and Lu will be a while getting dinner ready.'

Zak sat down on the bench. He was fidgeting due to his nervousness.

"Would you like some iced tea, Little One?" Gram asked as she gestured to a pitcher and some glasses on the small table in front of them.

"Please," Zak answered.

Gram reached down and filled a glass for him from the pitcher and handed him the glass.

"Thank you," Zak said as he took a sip of the tea. "Mmm, I like it sweet like this."

Gram smiled at him. "I like it sweet as well, but Dustin often thinks I make it too sweet. He never complains, but I always know what he is thinking."

"You do?" Zak asked curiously.

"Oh, yes. He is my only grandchild and he has a strong and noble spirit. I can feel him wherever I am and wherever he is. I know what he is thinking and how he feels about things. There was a dark time in his life when this was not a good thing."

Zak nodded. "Dusty told me what he was like after his father died and how you tried to help him."

"If he told you of his past then he must trust you and like you a great deal. That is not a time he is proud of, but he has become a very different person since then. He is the loving little boy that he was when his father was still alive."

Zak shifted his eyes as he thought of his own loss. Gram reached over and took his hand and looked him in the eyes.

"You have suffered the same loss, Little One." It was a statement, not a question.

Zak nodded. "Yes," he answered quietly. "My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was only about three. I really don't remember much about him. I was too little. Not like Dusty. I don't know how I would have gotten through if I had been able to remember my dad the way he does."

"We all deal with our grief in different ways. Even though you were younger when your father passed, I would guess that in your mind, you still can remember him. The mind is a funny thing; it often tries to protect us from ourselves. It is most likely hiding your memories from you to make the grieving easier."

"Do you really think I can remember my father?"

"I do. When you go home, before you go to bed, try clearing your mind. Just sit or lie on the bed. Focus on what you can remember of your father and then, sometimes, in your dreams you just might be visited by him."

Zak smiled. "I'll try it. I would like to be able to remember something about him."

Gram patted his hand and smiled at him. "Now, what's going on with you and my grandson?" she asked.

Zak's eyes widened and he stuttered. "Uh, W-w-what do you mean?"

"Little one, you are a two-spirits just like Dustin. I saw the connection between you the first time he brought you to meet me and I see the look in his eyes every time he speaks of you. It's the same look I see in your eyes now."

"Well, we're friends. We're not sure where it will lead, but we are taking it slow."

"Slow is fine. You are both trying to protect your hearts and probably each other's as well. Dustin has a big heart and I sense you do too. Your aura is strong and I sense a great capacity for love in you. But, you tend to hold it back, don't you?"

"I have a hard time getting close to people. I'm close to my mom, but that's about it. I don't have many friends at school, well any, actually. Dusty is the first new friend I've made in ages. I really like him; he has been so great to me. He's teaching me to ride and helping me at the ranch. He so handsome and kind…but…"

"But, you are still afraid of being hurt. You are afraid of loving him and then having him leave you."

Zak looked down as his eyes started to fill with tears. "I know it's awful for me to think something so bad about someone who's been nothing but kind and loving to me, but…"

"Little one, it's perfectly normal to feel that way. Losing your father, someone you loved so young, would make anyone cautious about being left behind by another. Don't let that scare you off. You and Dustin are so good for each other. Just take things at your own pace and learn to love and trust one another."

She smiled again at Zak.

He just sat there for a moment reflecting on her words to him.

They heard Dusty's whistle. "Hey, dinner's ready," he yelled to them.

Zak leaned over and kissed Gram on the cheek. "Thank you for talking with me." He stood up and offered her his hand. She took it and he helped her up. Gram reached up and stroked his cheek.

"You are most welcome, Little One. I believe you have a strong and noble spirit as well, you just need to believe in it."

Zak nodded and walked her over to the picnic table where Dusty and Lu were already seated.

Dinner was fun. Zak was used to eating by himself or with his mom, who was usually exhausted from a long day at work. Dusty and Lu joked around with each other a lot. Gram and Lu regaled Zak with tales of a young Dusty. Dusty often tried to hide when they told their embarrassing stories about him, but Zak loved them and laughed so hard he couldn't breathe.

When dinner was over, Zak looked at his watch. "Oh, man," he said. "It's getting late. I really need to get home. I've got school in the morning." He looked at Dusty. "And you have work even earlier than that."

"Yes, I do," Dusty replied. "We better get you home, then."

Both boys stood up and started clearing the table so they could bring the dirty dishes into the kitchen on their way out.

Zak looked at Lu. "Thank you so much for dinner, Lu, it was great."

"You're very welcome, Zak, come again, anytime." She smiled at Zak.

He then turned to Gram. "And thank you as well, Gram."

"My pleasure, Little One. I enjoyed your company."

Dusty and Zak said their good-byes and brought the dishes into the house and then went out to the truck. Once again Herc was standing in the bed of the pick-up.

Dusty slapped his forehead. "What does he have, a sixth sense?"

Zak just laughed. "Let's just get going, before my mom starts a search party."

They both climbed into the truck. Dusty started it up and headed to Zak's house. They rode in relative silence, except for the radio.

"So, you seemed to be having quite the conversation with Gram," Dusty said.

"Yes, she was trying to help me and she wanted to know if I have honorable intentions towards her beloved grandson," Zak laughed.

Dusty smirked. "And do you?"

Zak looked over at Dusty and took his hand. "I'm starting to think so."

Dusty took Zak's hand and raised it to his lips and kissed it. "Well," he said, "we'll find out together."

They pulled up in front of Zak's house and Dusty turned off the truck. They sat in the darkness for a few moments. Then Dusty pulled Zak over beside him. He put his arms around Zak and brought his lips to Zak's. They shared a long hungry kiss, feeling safe in the darkness of the truck.

They did not see Zak's mother watching them from behind a curtain in the front window.

When they broke the kiss, Zak quickly got out of the truck. "I'll see you Saturday," he said as he climbed out of the cab.

"If you want to go out to the ranch one day this week, let me know. You can practice your riding or just help out around the ranch," Dusty told him.

Zak nodded. "That sounds great. Like I said, I usually get my homework done before I leave school, so if you can get away to pick me up let me know. I can always do with more practice and I can hang out with Onyx."

"Ok, I have class tomorrow, but let me call you tomorrow night and maybe I can come get you on Wednesday."

Zak grinned big, "Sounds great." He shut the truck door and ran to the house. When he was under the front door light he turned and waved to Dusty.

Dusty waved back as he started the truck and drove off.

Zak walked into the house. "Hey, mom, I'm home," he called.

"I'm in the living room, Zak."

Zak walked into the living room; he found his mom lying on the couch watching television.

"Hey, Mom."

"Hey, Zak, how was your afternoon?"

"It was awesome. Dusty helped me get some neat stuff at the tack shop for this summer." He opened his bag and showed her the different items he had gotten at the store.

"That was nice of him."

"Well, Mr. Jones bought most of it, because he figured I would need it for this summer. But Dusty helped me to pick out everything and make sure I got what I would need. Then we went to his house for dinner. We just had a little picnic outside, burgers and salad."

"Was it just you and Dusty's parents?"

Zak was silent for a minute. "Actually, it was me and Dusty and his mom and his grandmother, who is visiting. Dusty's father was killed when he was seven."

"Oh, that's awful. So have you boys talked about that?"

"Yes, he told me about what it was like when his dad died. He had a rough time, because he was older than I was and he was very close to his dad. Then I talked to his grandmother and she said she thought that maybe I could remember more about Dad if I tried; she thought maybe my mind was hiding my memories to try and protect me."

"Maybe she's right. Maybe someday when you are ready you'll remember more about your dad. If you ever have any questions about him, you know you can ask me, right?" Kate asked.

"Yeah, I know. Someday we'll have that talk. But right now, I think I need to hit the hay. You look like you're ready for bed as well."

Kate yawned. "Yes, I am. I was just waiting for you to come in."

Kate reached for the remote and turned off the TV. She rose from the coach and turned off the light on the end table. She walked over to Zak and hugged him and kissed his cheek. "Good night, sweetie."

"'Night, Mom."

They both walked up the stairs and to their bedrooms.

As Zak was preparing for bed, Gram was in her room. She had a small earthenware pot in which she had placed some incense and herbs. She dropped a match in the pot and the contents began to smoke. She chanted for a minute and waved her hands over the smoke. She said a prayer for her grandson's new love and hoped for him to find some peace. As the smoke dissipated, she smiled to herself and hoped the boys would realize they were each the missing piece for the other.

Zak drifted right off to sleep and entered a dream. In his dream, he was a little boy on a swing. Someone was pushing him and he was getting more and more excited and going higher and higher. He was laughing so hard and going so high. His hand slipped and he fell to the ground. He was lying on the ground, covered in dirt, his knee bleeding when a man came over to pick him up. The man was blond, with a slight build. He had brown eyes and glasses. The man hugged Zak to him and kissed his cheek. He carried Zak to a bench and sat him down and kneeled in front of him. He smiled at Zak and told him that everything would be ok.

In his sleep, Zak was overcome with a feeling of peace. Someone had always watched over him.

"Daddy," he mumbled in his sleep.

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