Zak stood at his locker emptying the debris of another school year into a trashcan. It was the last day of school and he was so glad it was over.
He was so excited. Dusty would be here in a few minutes to pick him up. It was Thursday and Mr. Jones had given them Friday and Saturday off as a 'last chance at fun before the summer begins' holiday.
Dusty was going to take him on a trail ride and they were going to camp out at the lake. He didn't know everything that Dusty had planned as he had been very secretive since Mr. Jones had told them last week that he was giving them the weekend off.
In the past month, Zak had spent almost every day at the ranch. At first Dusty's plan was to pick Zak up one or two days after school so he could work on his riding. But Zak enjoyed going out to the ranch so much, he soon had Dusty picking him up every day after school.
The first week, Zak had just spent his afternoons riding in the indoor arena practicing. Dusty would set him up with a different horse each day, letting him learn firsthand about each horse's personality and quirks. Although he really liked all the horses that he rode, he soon developed favorites. His absolute favorite, besides Onyx who he was still not allowed to ride, was Max. Max was a Morgan horse, big, black and very heavily built. He made Zak feel very safe and secure while riding, but he had a playful personality and seemed to take to Zak almost as quickly as Onyx did.
After a week of trying different horses, Zak spent most of his time riding Max. He and Dusty would start their weekends cleaning stalls and feeding horses and then Zak would practice in the ring. They would spend the afternoons riding the trails until Zak felt comfortable enough to find his way on them on his own.
Since Dusty was supposed to be working on the weekdays that he came out, Zak had started riding with one of the boarders, a young boy named 'Spin'. Spin's real name was Anthony, but as he explained to Zak, when he was very little his mother had bought him a DVD of the old 'Adventures of Spin and Marty' serial that had originally been broadcast in the fifties on 'The Mickey Mouse Club'. Little Anthony was so obsessed with the show and the young cowboy, 'Spin Evans,' that his family starting calling him Spin and the nickname stuck. According to Anthony's mother, the other reason for the nickname was that he was a bit of a whirling dervish as a child and hadn't really slowed down as a teenager.
Spin was 14 years old and a red-haired spitfire with a very pale complexion and a splash of freckles across his nose. He was an excellent rider and had a biting sense of humor. He was very energetic and seemed to always be talking. He was the kind of kid that Zak would never approach in school. Yet at the ranch, with horses in common, they became fast friends.
A couple of days a week after school, Spin's mom would drop him off and he and Zak would go on long trail rides. Zak would usually ride Max and Spin would ride his quarter horse, Marty (again, named for a character on his favorite show.) The boys would ride to the lake, race around the trails and just spend the afternoons enjoying each other's company.
Zak really liked Spin; he was fun to be around and with the exception of Dusty knew more about horses than anyone he had ever met. Riding with Spin helped Zak to improve his own riding skills. Spin had a way of helping him with his riding without making Zak feel like he was doing things all wrong. He would make 'suggestions' to Zak on ways to improve, rather than just tell him how to do things.
Though Spin saw himself as a cowboy and would show up to ride with Zak in his jeans, boots and cowboy hat, once a week he would come out for a lesson with Debbie the English trainer. The first time Spin had showed up to a lesson, Zak had burst out laughing at seeing his new friend. Instead of his usual western attire, Spin was dressed in his breeches, tall boots, pressed polo shirt, helmet and gloves.
Spin smiled at Zak and flipped him the 'bird'. Since he had no actual plans that afternoon, Zak sat on the fence in the arena and watched Spin's lesson. While he thought Spin's clothing was amusing, he was fascinated watching him ride in the different style. He watched as Spin cantered Marty around the ring and took the little horse over a number of jumps. Zak hadn't considered jumping. It looked scary but exciting to him. He knew Dusty was a cowboy and had no real interest in English riding, though he could do it. But Zak thought it might be fun to at least try.
When Spin was taking a break he rode Marty over to where Zak sat on the rail. Debbie walked over to the boys. Debbie went over with Spin some mistakes he had made and things he could do differently to improve his jumps and riding. She asked Zak if he was interested in learning English. Zak told her he was not sure, it looked very different to him. Debbie told him that it was a different style, but that even if he didn't wish to compete, learning to ride English would help his overall riding ability.
Zak thought about it. His main interest most days was Onyx. He knew that Onyx was a horse that was mainly ridden with English tack given his dressage and eventing training. It might not hurt to be at least familiar with the style.
Zak told Debbie he would be interested in getting his feet wet. She agreed that the next time Spin had a lesson that he could join him and she would work with Zak to give him the basics.
When he told Dusty, Dusty just rolled his eyes. He didn't think that Zak needed to learn to ride that way. But, when Zak told him he wanted to be a better rider and learn a style that Onyx was more used to, Dusty decided to put aside his personal feelings and support his friend. Dusty knew that Debbie was a nice person and a good instructor, so if Zak wanted to learn, she was a great person to teach him.
The next time Spin had a lesson scheduled, he showed up a little early and handed Zak a duffle bag. Since the boys were the same size, he had brought Zak the proper riding attire. Zak hadn't thought of that. Not wanting to hurt his friend's feelings, he went into the office and changed into the clothes Spin had brought. When he came out of the office in breeches, tall boots and a t-shirt carrying his helmet and gloves, it was Dusty's and Spin's turn to laugh. They really only laughed because Zak looked so uncomfortable in the new clothes. Zak turned to go back into the office and both boys told him that he looked fine and that those were the clothes he needed to wear for that type of riding.
Dusty had suggested that Zak use a little bay Arabian named Zephyr for his lessons. He knew that Zak loved Max, but Max was really a western horse. He would not be that great at English. Zephyr, on the other hand was well-trained for hunter/jumper and was used by many other students who took lessons with Debbie.
While waiting for Debbie, Spin and Dusty showed Zak how to saddle Zephyr with the English tack. It threw Zak off that the saddle and girth were two separate pieces that had to be attached at both sides of the saddle. On the western saddles he had used, the girth and cinch were always attached to the saddle on one side already. Spin showed him how to place the smaller saddle pads on Zephyr's back and where to place the saddle. He then showed Zak how to attach the girth to one side of the saddle and then the other. He explained that they needed the saddle snug enough to stay on, but that they would tighten it in the ring before they rode.
Spin then had Zak place his hand on the middle of the saddle and then in the other hand take hold of the iron. He told Zak to pull the stirrup so that the iron was under his armpit. Zak thought this was a strange request. But Spin explained that this was a good way to measure how long the stirrup lengths should be. When they thought the stirrups were the correct length, Spin showed Zak how to pull up the stirrups so that the irons were out of the way and resting against the saddle.
While Spin went to get Marty tacked up, Dusty showed Zak how to put on the English bridle. There were so many straps, buckles and chains on the bridle, Zak longed for the very simple hackamores.
When Zak and Spin were ready, they led their horses into the ring, where Debbie awaited them. Debbie showed Zak how to tighten the girth on the saddle and how to pull down the irons. She had him lead Zephyr over to the mounting block, where Spin was already mounted and waiting. Debbie had Zak mount and then checked to ensure his stirrups were the correct length.
Debbie had Zak just take Zephyr on a slow walk around the arena. She wanted him to get used to the different tack. She then had him bring Zephyr over to the rail and watch Spin as he took Marty around the arena first at a walk then a trot and then a canter. She told Zak to watch Spin's hands and position in the saddle, explaining that in English riding your hands and reins should never cross over your horse's neck.
She also took his feet and moved them into the correct position. It was not an angle Zak's feet and calves were used to being bent at and he knew it would take a while to get used to it. Debbie laughed as Zak groaned when she moved his feet. She explained that he would be very sore after his first couple lessons because he would be using muscles that he was not used to using.
While Spin continued to warm up Marty and get ready for some jumps, Debbie had Zak take Zephyr out in the ring and walk her around. She called out to him with instructions and corrections as he rode. Zak could imagine her in army fatigues being a drill sergeant.
After a few laps around the arena, Debbie called him back over to the rail. She asked Spin to ride Marty around at a trot and told Zak to pay attention to the way Spin raised up and down when Marty was trotting. She explained that this was called 'posting' and while it was difficult for many to master, once you had it, it made riding a trot much easier, especially on the boys.
After Spin finished his demonstration, Debbie had Zak move Zephyr out at walk and then when she was going good told him to ask for a trot. She watched as he tried to imitate Spin's up-and-down motion. After a few minutes of this she had Zak stop. Zak rode back to the rail, groaning a bit as he had managed to smash his family jewels more than a few times. Debbie told him he did well for a first timer, but it was something that he could practice in a western or English saddle.
After that afternoon, Zak would join Spin for his English lessons and then they would spend time afterwards practicing. Some days after they finished, Zak would watch Spin run extra jumps. He thought that looked so amazing and there was a part of him that really wanted to try it, but he did not feel ready as yet. Hopefully, with more practice he would be ready.
Zak was excited that his riding had improved so much with the help of Dusty, Spin and Debbie. He was starting to think of the ranch as a home away from home. Mr. Jones was so nice and treated him like a son. Joe was funny and fun to be around; he was like a big brother to Zak and Dusty.
Zak was the most critical about his riding. He was just used to seeing failure in everything he did. He was harder on himself than anyone else. So while he saw some improvement in his riding abilities, when Dusty or Spin or Debbie would tell him what a fast learner he was or how he was further along than most students at the same point in learning, he usually thought they were just blowing smoke at him just to build him up.
There was one afternoon, where Zak started to believe them.
Zak had gotten a call from Spin's mom right as he was leaving school. Spin's mouth had gotten him into trouble (again) and this time he had gotten a detention. As his at-home punishment, his mom was not letting him come riding, except for lessons, for the rest of the week. Zak was bummed because he enjoyed his rides with Spin.
When Dusty picked him up he got more bad news; his usual horse, Max, had come up lame and couldn't be ridden for a few days until the extent of the injury was known.
After thinking about it on the ride out to the ranch, Zak decided that he would head out on the trail by himself and take Zephyr. Dusty said she had been on the trails before. She could only be ridden with English tack, so Zak looked at this as an opportunity to practice his new riding skills.
When he got to the ranch he went and got Zephyr. He was distracted thinking about his first trail ride in English tack and he didn't notice how nervous Zephyr was. He was used to her being a little high-strung, so he didn't really pay attention to her mood.
Zak got Zephyr all tacked up and headed out onto the trail. Dusty suggested he not venture too far, since he hadn't been out by himself yet. Dusty was sure that Zak could handle himself, but wanted to be nearby in case anything came up.
Zak and Zephyr had been out about 15 minutes when they were passing a clump of trees. A small bird suddenly flew out and Zephyr spooked and reared up. In a split second, Zak heard Debbie's voice in his head telling him to sit deeper in the saddle. He heard Spin telling him not to yank or pull too hard on the reins, because a spooked horse was looking for a way out and if you pulled too hard, they would have nowhere to go and be further spooked. He heard Dusty telling him if a horse spooked, to speak calmly, but firmly and stay with them. He heard a fourth voice, which he now knew was his father's telling him everything would be alright.
Zak pushed his heels down in the irons and sat deeper in the saddle. He held firm to the reins, applying a subtle but steady pressure. He spoke calmly to Zephyr telling her she was ok. After a few seconds, the horse calmed down and Zak leaned forward and stroked her neck telling her she was ok.
When the mini-rodeo was over, Zak realized for the first time that maybe everyone wasn't blowing smoke; maybe he was actually getting good at this.
Dusty drove through town on his way to the high school. He was running late because he had been setting up some surprises for his and Zak's weekend camping trip to the lake. He knew that Zak had never been camping before and was still a little apprehensive about it. Dusty loved camping and he wanted to make the experience so great for Zak that he would want to do it again.
He laughed to himself as he listened to one of many CDs Zak had presented to him over the past few weeks. Zak was taking very seriously what he saw as his 'responsibility' to introduce Dusty to pop and rock music.
Some of the music Zak gave him Dusty really enjoyed. He liked some of the current groups like One Direction and Hot Chelle Rae. He really loved the classic rock that Zak seemed to cherish. Groups like The Eagles, Journey and Lynryd Skynyrd. Zak was very happy that Dusty was enjoying the music he was being introduced to. Unfortunately for Dusty, Zak was a harder sell on the country music. Zak would listen to it, but he was not becoming a fan of Dusty's music in the same way Dusty was becoming a fan of Zak's.
The last month had been great for Dusty. He and Zak had spent lots of time together at the ranch. He had worked with Zak on his riding and they had spent most weekend afternoons riding the trails, always ending up at the lake and resting under their tree. Often they would swim and would end their swim making out. They hadn't gone any further than kissing and caressing each other, but most of their make-out sessions at the lake ended with mutual climaxes.
Dusty was really happy that Zak seemed to be coming into his own at the ranch. He had been afraid that apart from Dusty, Zak would shy away from people. But, Zak proved him wrong by becoming fast friends with Spin and taking lessons with Debbie.
Dusty was happy that Spin and Zak got along so well. He was not at all jealous of their friendship, in fact he encouraged it. He knew that he and Zak were working towards the possibility of a romantic relationship. He also knew that in spite of his young age, Spin had quite the reputation as a miniature Don Juan around the ranch and his junior high school.
Spin's willingness to ride with Zak during the week had helped to advance Zak's learning curve. And even though Dusty did not see any reason for him to learn English, he could see an improvement in Zak's overall riding.
He knew that Zak's main reason for learning to ride English was his single-minded focus on riding Onyx. Their feelings and opinions about Onyx and Ash were the only disagreement the two had. Dusty knew that Zak did not like or trust Ash. Ash could be a real pain in the ass and Dusty had bit the dust more than once working with him. This frustrated Zak, because he felt that Dusty was unfairly punishing him by not helping Zak enough with Onyx. Dusty sometimes thought Zak might be right. He didn't trust Onyx any more than Zak trusted Ash, but he was trying his hardest with Ash and knew Zak felt he should get a chance to try with Onyx.
Dusty was trying his best to live up to his promise to Zak regarding Onyx. He knew he had to look at the situation objectively. Onyx did behave completely differently around Zak than anyone else. This was apparent to Dusty one day when Zak could not come out to the ranch.
Dusty had gotten used to Zak taking care of Onyx and when Zak was there the big horse was no trouble. This day was the first time in two weeks that Dusty had had to take care of Onyx. When Dusty approached the stall the horse became the Onyx of old. Ill-tempered, dancing in the stall, unwilling to go into the paddock. It took Dusty three times as long to take care of his stall than any of the other horses.
But, the next day when Zak was back to take care of him, he was mellow, almost puppy-like in his devotion to Zak. Dusty was beginning to believe that Onyx would do anything to protect Zak and wouldn't hurt him. He still was not sold on Zak riding the Friesian, but he was trying to give Zak more chances to work with him and train him.
He had started showing Zak how to lunge him in the round pen. He had Zak do that several times a week. It was good for Onyx to be able to run and let out some steam. He also started showing Zak some natural horsemanship tricks. He showed him how to join-up with a horse, or at least he tried to show him. Dusty tried using Ash to show Zak, but Ash was having none of it and Onyx was already joined to Zak, heart and soul.
Dusty was self-aware enough to know that there was a part of him that was jealous of Zak's bond with Onyx. While he knew it was rather irrational he couldn't help it. Since the first time he had approached Phoenix's mama, the only horse he could not connect with was Onyx. To see Zak, who had never been near a horse in his life develop an instant bond with Onyx had, at some level, bothered Dusty. He had tried to not let those feelings influence the way he handled Zak and Onyx, but he knew it had.
He had to realize that that Zak and Onyx's connection was very similar to Dusty's connection with Phoenix. No one could break the bond between Phoenix and him and no one could break the bond between Onyx and Zak. It was only fair that he do everything he could to help Zak realize his dream.
Working with Ash was helping Dusty to realize that he would not have his way with every horse he encountered. In Ash's case, he was working double time to earn the horse's trust and to bond with him.
Dusty wished Gram was still here. She had gone back home two weeks earlier and he missed being able to talk to her. He could talk to his mom, but it wasn't the same. He loved his mom, but he had always had a special bond with Gram. Luckily for him, in spite of being an old school Native American woman who embraced many of the old traditions, she was also up on current technology and she and Dusty communicated by e-mail at least once a day. Dusty loved hearing from her, but it was not the same as seeing her in person.
Dusty knew he was falling in love with Zak and Gram was telling him it was time to explore those feelings further. He had been hesitant because he was afraid of Zak not returning the feelings. If everything went as planned then this weekend would be very special for both of them.
Kate sat in her office finishing up some last-minute paperwork before she left for the weekend. She was thinking about Zak and his plans for the weekend. At the age of 15 ('almost 16' according to him) he was spending his first night away from home.
She knew that many of her friends would be shocked to know that Zak had never been on a sleepover. Never spent the night at a friend's house. He had never been away from her for one night. It was not that she was overprotective. She had always tried to encourage him to find new friends and would have been thrilled to even host a slumber party for him, but he had always been so painfully shy and withdrawn when he was little that she was never surprised that he was always home.
After the death of his father, Zak pulled himself into a shell of his own making. Even though Aaron, her husband, had died when Zak was only three he seemed to always fear being left alone. Until he was 10 or 11 he had a hard time just being without his mother at all.
Kate remembered his first day of school. She had walked him to his first-grade class and introduced him to his teacher and he was beside himself when he realized that she was planning to leave him there. She had had Zak talk to professionals about his abandonment issues, but they could never get him through them. It was like Aaron's death had shut off some part of Zak. Some of the psychologists thought that his mind was protecting him by 'hiding' his memories of his father. Kate just thought that it was because he had been so young when his father was killed.
Then came the morning after his first dinner at Dusty's house. Zak had come down to breakfast looking almost content. She knew he had been very happy about the way things turned out at the ranch, but this was something more. He got himself some cereal and juice and sat at the table. He looked right at Kate and asked her if his father ever pushed him on some swings.
Kate almost choked on her coffee. This was the first time Zak had ever asked such a question about his father. He had always been resigned to the fact that he could only remember his father 'sleeping' in his casket.
She told Zak that his father took him to a small park near their first house and that Zak's favorite thing at the park was the swings. She told him that his father would take him every Saturday when Kate had to work at the bank. He always referred to that as 'Daddy time' and going to the park was his favorite thing to do with Zak.
Zak then asked her if he had ever fallen off the swings.
Kate confirmed that one Saturday about 2 months before his father was killed, they had been at the park and Zak had wanted to go higher and faster on the swings and he had lost his grip and fallen. He had scraped his knee and elbow, but his dad had picked him up and brought him home assuring him he was alright.
She asked Zak how he knew these things. Tears filled both their eyes as he explained that he had dreamed of being on the swings with a man who made him feel very safe and that he had fallen, but the man had told him he would always be there to pick him up.
She went around to Zak and hugged him tight and they both cried at the memories.
After that, Zak would come to her every few days to ask more questions. He kept telling her that he was dreaming of his dad all the time and it seemed like he was remembering more about his and his father's relationship.
Kate couldn't help but think that Zak's friendship with Dusty had something to do with the resurgence of these memories. Dusty had become a very important part of Zak's life in a very short time.
Not a day went by that Kate did not say a silent prayer thanking God for bringing Dusty into Zak's life. She had seen the boys kissing in Dusty's truck more than once when Dusty would drop Zak off at night. She was happy that her son had found happiness at last. He had been so quiet and sullen most of his life. She knew that he had been picked on and bullied at school, but even being on the PTA could not guarantee your child protection.
She had asked Zak recently how things were going at school and he had cryptically told her that Dusty had saved his life. She wasn't sure what that meant or how much of an exaggeration it had been on Zak's part.
She did credit Dusty with helping to give Zak a life. He was so happy now. He loved the ranch. He was making new friends and learning new things. There was one horse in particular that he was infatuated with and dreamed of being able to ride. She laughed as he defended his horse friend against the perceived slurs of Dusty, Joe and Mr. Jones.
Then last night, Zak had come to her acting very serious. He was more nervous and hesitant than she had seen him in the past month. It was like he was suddenly the timid Zak of old. The 'pre-Dusty' Zak, as she thought of that version of her son.
Zak sat on the couch and started gnawing on his thumbnail, a sign that he was thinking and he was nervous. She asked him if there was something bothering him. He kept his eyes down and just nodded. Her heart was breaking for him; obviously something was really troubling him and she knew what it probably was.
In an effort to help Zak, she asked him if what he was bothered by had anything to do with Dusty. Zak looked up in surprise. His eyes were wide as he nodded at her. As gently as she could, she asked him if maybe he had feelings for Dusty beyond friendship.
Tears came to Zak's eyes as he nodded his head, unable to verbally answer her. Kate scooted over to where her son sat on the couch. She took him in her arms and rocked him as he cried. Tears came to her eyes. She told Zak that she had known or at least suspected for some time that he was gay and that it was not a problem for her.
She explained that from the first moment he had introduced her to Dusty, she knew there was something between the two boys. Her only concern had been that Zak not be hurt. If he had feelings for Dusty and Dusty returned them, then she had no problem with the boys being more than friends.
Zak sat back and looked at her, a huge smile on his tear-stained face.
Kate told him that nothing he could do would ever make her not love him. Zak was stuck with her. This made Zak laugh and hug his mother harder than he had in a long time.
Wilma Running Deer sat in her favorite rocking chair on the porch of her small house. Her thoughts were on her grandson Dustin and his friend Zachary. She connected with Dustin almost every day via e-mail and she knew he had strong feelings for Zachary. But, he was scared that maybe Zachary did not return those feelings.
She had told him the only way to move forward was for Dustin to tell Zachary how he felt. Dustin was worried that if he did that and Zachary wasn't ready he would scare him away. Wilma assured him that a strong friendship would always survive the truth.
As confident and self-assured as Dustin had become in the years since he had started working at the ranch, he was still very much the scared little boy who woke up one day to find his father yanked out of his life.
Wilma also suspected that Zachary suffered from the same fear of abandonment since he too had lost his father at an even younger age.
She saw much good in both boys and knew they had much to offer the world and each other. She knew she could only do so much to encourage them; they had to follow the paths of their hearts on their own.
Wilma stood up and walked into the house. She went into her living room and sat on her couch. On the coffee table was her earthenware dish. Into the dish she placed some herbs. Next to the earthenware dish was an incense burner. She lit the incense and then placed the match in the earthenware dish.
As the incense filled the room along with the thin smoke and scent of the burning herbs, she began to pray. She prayed that Dustin and Zachary would find their way to each other and realize their feelings. She prayed the spirits would look over both boys and protect them and their hearts.
Zak walked out of the school free for the summer. Never in his life had he been so excited for summer break.
He stood on the front steps looking for Dusty's truck. He was so ready for their camping trip. He had never been camping, nor had he ever wanted to go camping. But there were so many things that Dusty had opened his eyes to in the last month, that he was willing to try anything Dusty suggested.
The sound of a beeping horn broke into his daydream. He looked up to see Dusty waving from his truck.
Zak ran to the truck and hurriedly climbed in. Dusty leaned over and kissed him. Zak kissed him back, hungrily.
"Ready to go, Hot Stuff?" Dusty asked, beaming his million-watt smile.
Zak returned the smile. "I am so ready."