Dusty put the truck in gear and they pulled out of the school parking lot.
"Ready for the summer?" Dusty asked.
Zak grinned at him. "I'm more excited about this summer than any I can remember."
"I'll remind you of that thought when you've been doing non-stop trail rides for five days straight," Dusty teased.
"I don't care," Zak laughed. "I feel so good about this summer and about working at the ranch. You, Spin, Debbie, Joe and Mr. Jones have become like family to me. You've all taught me so much. I learn more and more every day. If you had told me a month ago that I would be spending almost everyday outdoors at a farm with horses and dogs, I would have had you checked in for psychiatric treatment. But, here I am having the time of my life."
Dusty was speechless. Hearing Zak voice his appreciation like that had him choking up. Every time he thought his feelings for Zak could not get any stronger, they did.
Dusty took a deep breath. "Well, you've earned everyone's friendship. You help out more than your fair share. You've learned everything we've needed to teach you and you've learned it quickly. The horses love you, especially that big one that doesn't love anyone." Dusty grinned at Zak.
Zak rolled his eyes. "I'm feeling so good right now, don't start in on Onyx and spoil it."
Dusty reached over and took Zak's hand. "Zak, I'm just teasing you," Dusty said kissing Zak's hand. "I've actually been thinking a lot about you and Onyx and I think I need to give you and him the benefit of the doubt."
Zak looked at Dusty wide-eyed. "You're not teasing me are you, Dusty?" he asked.
"No," Dusty answered. "Look, I don't trust Onyx and I may never trust Onyx, but I also realize that I might have been a little jealous of your connection with him."
"Jealous? I don't understand."
"Zak, the ranch has been my salvation, like it's starting to be yours. Since the first time I let my guard down and went over to Phoenix's mama, there hasn't been a horse at that ranch that I have not had some connection to. The worst horses would come in and I would be able to work with them and get them to trust me. All except Onyx. He would tolerate me, which was more than he would do for anyone else. But I never felt the connection with him I feel with the other horses."
Dusty gripped Zak's hand tighter. "Then, you came here. A kid with no interest in horses, no experience and not really wanting to be there and what happens? You have this instantaneous connection with the one horse I can't get through to."
Zak looked at Dusty. "So, you're mad at me?"
Dusty shook his head. He saw the parking lot they sometimes stopped at and turned into it and parked in the remote corner they usually parked in. He turned the truck off and turned to Zak.
He took both Zak's hands in his. "No, Zak, I was never and have never been mad at you. I liked you from the first moment I met you in Mr. Jones office. I told you that day that no matter what we would be great friends. I have been so proud of you over the last month. You've learned so much, you've blossomed. I've watched you change before my eyes. The problem was with me not you. I didn't even realize that I had this spark of jealousy until I was thinking about you and Onyx on the way to pick you up." Dusty sighed, "I really don't trust Onyx, but I should have opened my eyes to the fact that you do and he trusts you as well. I've seen with my own eyes how different he is with you. I was so set on protecting you that I dismissed what I was seeing. I refused to acknowledge that Onyx is as much yours as Phoenix is mine."
"Does that mean you'll help me more to train him and let me ride him?"
Dusty nodded. "The same rules apply. I'll help you, but we'll do it my way. It will still be a while till you can ride."
Zak stared at him, feeling that he was getting hosed.
"Zak, he hasn't been ridden in almost two years. In that time, he's been pretty ornery. He may let you ride him, but we need to work with him to get him used to the idea again. It's one thing for him to be affectionate and playful with you, it's another for you to ride him." Dusty took his hand and caressed Zak's cheek. "But, I promise you we will work together to train him so that before the end of the summer you can ride him."
Zak lurched forward and wrapped his arms around Dusty's neck. "Thank you, Thank you. I'll do whatever you say."
"Ok," Dusty gasped. "Right now you can loosen the choke hold."
Zak removed his arms from around Dusty's neck and laughed. "You don't like me hugging you anymore?" he pouted.
"C'mere," Dusty laughed as he grabbed Zak and pulled him across the seat. He took Zak in his arms and kissed him deeply. They kissed for a few minutes and then Dusty pulled away. "I need to get back to the ranch. I'm still on the clock till 5."
Zak slid back to his seat and buckled up.
Dusty started the truck and pulled out of the parking lot. "So, since you had a half day today, what are you going to do all afternoon, while I'm working?"
"Well, I'm going to spend some practice time with Zephyr in the arena. Then Spin is coming out so we can go on a last-day-of-school trail ride."
Dusty laughed, "Somehow I think Spin is more excited about the last day of school than anyone."
Zak nodded. "Oh, yeah. He hates school. I think he's jealous that you don't have to go to school every day and get to work at the ranch."
"Well, his time will come. I like the kid, but I think if he was around every minute of every day I would go slowly insane."
Zak laughed, "I know, he has so much energy and he never stops. When you and I go on trail rides, we see all sorts of little animals, like the wild bunnies we saw last week. I told Spin and he complained that when I ride with him we never see anything. I told him if he shut up for a minute and stopped scaring everything in a 100-mile radius he might see something."
Dusty laughed hard and nodded his head. "That's Spin. He's been like that the whole time he's been coming out to the ranch. I'm surprised he's as good as he is at the English riding because he's so wild."
"I think that's why he's good. He is very smart and very observant, but his wild streak makes him fearless too. You should see him take jumps. He's lucky that Marty is such a smart horse and just as reckless as he is. A more cautious or nervous horse would probably throw his ass."
"Wow, you are learning a lot aren't you?"
"Yuppers," Zak nodded. "So what are you doing this afternoon?"
"Well, I've got to spend some time working with Ash. I love him, but he is such a pain in the ass. I'm starting to see why his old owners didn't put a lot of training into him. He's so stubborn."
"You can't work that 'Dusty magic' on him?"
"Not so far. He's like Onyx. Beautiful and stubborn. He's not mean, he just doesn't care. The few times I've tried to ride him, it's been rodeo time. Of course, I have to keep getting back on till he stops so he doesn't think he's won."
"Be careful. I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Well, getting hurt is an occupational hazard if I want to be a trainer. You can be a great trainer and do everything right and still get that horse that wants to have a bucking fit. People always forget that horses are living, breathing creatures and they have minds of their own. Some people think you just walk up and hop on and it's like a fucking merry-go-round."
"Or a pony ride," Zak giggled.
Dusty laughed and rolled his eyes.
Dusty turned down the ranch driveway and in a few minutes they stopped in front of the main barn.
They each exited the truck and went their separate ways, agreeing to meet up at the office at five o'clock.
Zak headed around to the side of the barn where Onyx was waiting for him in the paddock. He walked up to the paddock and climbed up on the fence. Onyx trotted over to him.
"Hey, Beautiful," Zak said as Onyx rested his head on Zak's thigh. "Miss me?"
Zak reached into his pocket and pulled out some bits of carrot. He held them out for Onyx in one hand as he stroked the big horse's mane with the other.
Zak sat on the fence visiting with Onyx for few minutes. Then, he hopped down from the fence. "Well, I gotta go get in some practice before Spin gets here," he said as he scratched Onyx's cheek one last time. "I'll see you later, Big Guy."
Zak ran over to the office and grabbed his riding clothes that he left there. With his first paycheck (and some additional funds from his mother) he had bought a pair of breeches, some short boots and a pair of half chaps. He liked the short boots and half chaps more than the tall boots that Spin had lent him. They were more comfortable. He ran into the office bathroom and quickly changed into his riding attire. Then he left the office.
Zak walked over to Barn 2 and found Zephyr waiting in her stall. "Hi, Princess," he cooed as he grabbed her halter and entered her stall. "How are you today? Ready for some work?" The little Arabian nipped at his fingers as he fastened the halter. He led her out to the crossties and quickly groomed and saddled her.
Zak led her to the outdoor arena, which he preferred to use now since the indoor one was so hot this time of the year. Since there were no lessons today, he had the arena to himself.
He led Zephyr into the arena. He checked the saddle and tightened the girth. He then mounted from the ground. When he started he had used a mounting block. But Dusty had pointed out that there might not always be one, so mounting from the ground was good practice.
Zak started Zephyr at a walk and rode her around the arena. When she was sufficiently warmed up, Zak had her move into a trot and he worked on his posting. He was finally getting the hang of posting, only smashing his balls every once in a while instead of every other time like he did at first. He had even started practicing his posting when he was trail riding in a western saddle. Practicing in the western saddle had given him more support and helped him to get the rhythm of the trot and posting down.
Zak kept Zephyr trotting around on the fence for a while, giving her an occasional walking break. He had learned that if he simply sat down while she was trotting she would instinctively slow to a walk without him having to apply any pressure to the reins.
Whenever Zephyr would perform the way Zak wanted, he always made sure to praise her and stroke her neck. She could be a pain in the ass (something Dusty attributed to her being both a mare and an Arabian,) but Zak couldn't help but love her since she had helped him so much with his riding.
After letting Zephyr walk around the arena, Zak moved her back into a trot and then had her canter. He loved the speed and the grace of the little horse's canter. It was so smooth. He cantered her around the arena for a few minutes and then slowed her back to a walk.
Zak heard some applause and whistling from off to his side. He looked over and saw Dusty and Spin standing there.
"Looking good, Zak," yelled Spin.
Zak rode over to his two friends.
"How long have you two been standing there?" Zak asked.
"Long enough to see that you are becoming quite a good rider," Dusty answered.
"Yup," added Spin. "You'll be ready for jumps in no time."
"Ah, I'm still thinking about that one," Zak responded.
"Oh, come on, man," Spin whined. "Once you try it, you'll love it."
"Sure," Zak responded even though he had his doubts.
Dusty just laughed at the exchange.
"Dusty, I thought you were going to work with Ash," Zak said.
Dusty answered. "I was, but the vet was here to see Gem, so I had to wait for him to leave."
"Is she ok?" asked Zak.
"Oh, yeah, he was just checking on her. One month old and all."
Spin jumped down from the fence. "Are you all set to hit the trail?" he asked Zak.
"Well, I'm done here, but I have to cool down Zephyr and put her up and then get Max ready."
"Here, I'll take Zephyr and get her cooled down and put up and you go change and grab Max. Then I'll get Marty and meet you outside the barn. Ok?"
Zak hopped down from Zephyr. He pulled the reins over her head and handed them to Spin. "Sounds
like a plan," he said. He turned and gave Zephyr a kiss on the nose. "Thank you, Princess," he said to the little horse.
Zak ran off to change his clothes, while Spin took Zephyr to the shower area to remove her tack and hose her down.
Spin was just bringing Marty to the crossties when Zak came around the corner with Max. The boys chattered away while they groomed and saddled their horses.
Zak and Spin mounted up and headed towards the trail. Dusty yelled to them from the barn as they were leaving, "Stay away from the lake!!"
"Why?" Zak hollered back.
"Never mind. Just stay away from there."
As they rode away, Spin asked Zak, "What was that all about?"
Zak giggled, "We're going camping at the lake tonight through Saturday and I think he has some surprises he doesn't want me to see."
Spin just nodded, not completely understanding.
Dusty walked into the office while Mr. Jones was on the phone and plopped down in one of the chairs across from Mr. Jones' desk. Ember came over to greet her friend and Dusty leaned down to pet her and talk to her.
Mr. Jones hung up the phone and looked over at Dusty. "What's up, Dusty?" he asked.
"Not much, just a little frustrated."
"Let me guess, Ash?" grinned Mr. Jones.
Dusty grimaced. "Yes. He's frustrating the hell out of me. I've never had this much trouble with a horse before. Even Onyx who is the biggest pain in the ass, wasn't this much trouble."
"But, you haven't been trying to train Onyx. You've only been trying to feed and groom him and clean out his stall. At least you were before Zak got here. You're trying to train Ash--that's a whole different thing."
"I'm just not used to having this much trouble with a horse."
"Dusty, since the day I found you in the mustang mare's stall, I have always talked up your way with horses. I've seen you work magic more than once. Phoenix is living proof that you are a great trainer. But no one is going to hit it out of the park at every at-bat. Cut yourself some slack. If you had started Ash from the ground up maybe you'd have more success. But the people I bought him from had hired some half-assed 'trainer' and he made more of a mess than he should have been allowed to. Part of the reason I got such a good deal on him is they didn't think anyone could make a useful saddle horse out of him. I disagree. I believe you can, you just need to step back and remember that you don't have to do it overnight."
"I just feel like I'm letting you down."
"Dusty, you're being way too hard on yourself. Maybe you're also trying too hard. Look at Zak."
"Yes, look at that boy, coming in here with no experience and he's so joined with Onyx, it's stunned us all."
"I know, I promised him that I would do more to help him with Onyx. I think I was getting jealous because he was getting so close to Onyx, who was the one horse I could never get close to."
"That might be just the thing you need."
"I don't understand."
"Work with Zak and Onyx. Instruct him, but let him do things his way. Maybe he's got some magic of his own that will help you with Ash."
Dusty sat up. "You really think so?"
Mr. Jones laughed and nodded. "Look at how much that boy has changed in just a month. You two are best buddies. He and that little shit, Spin, are joined at the hip when you aren't around. Debbie and Joe love him. And Onyx has definitely adopted him. That boy's definitely got some magic in him."
Dusty smiled. "Yes, he does," he agreed.
Mr. Jones smiled. "And he's working that magic on you too. Isn't he?"
Dusty just looked at Mr. Jones. "What do you mean?"
"Dusty, you know what I mean. Your feelings for Zak are pretty strong, aren't they?"
Dusty looked at his feet and thought for a moment. He looked up at Mr. Jones. "I think I love him."
Mr. Jones looked at Dusty seriously. "I know you love him and I'd bet money he loves you too. The question is what are you going to do about it?"
"Well, we've wanted to take things slow. I didn't want to do anything major until we were both sure. Zak has come along a lot since he's been here, but he's still fragile."
"So are you, Dusty. I think you both are so afraid of getting hurt that you are denying yourselves a chance to explore what you feel."
Dusty sat and thought for a few moments. "Maybe you're right. We've both suffered the same loss and both dealt with it in not the best way. Being here has started to heal us both. Maybe it's time to see where this all leads us."
"Of course it is. You boys are going to be friends forever. I've watched you and have no doubt about that. But, you'll both be kicking yourself if you let the chance to explore your feelings get away from you. You may spend so much time taking it slow that that boy goes and finds someone else."
Dusty bolted upright. "I never thought of it that way."
"You should take this weekend to figure out what you both want."
"Well, I do have some surprises planned for him out at the lake. Hopefully, we'll get some time to sort this out and figure out where we are heading."
"Good. You head out with that boy and I don't want to see either of you back until Sunday morning. That's an order."
Dusty grinned. "Yes, sir."
Dusty jumped out of his chair and ran around the desk and hugged Mr. Jones. "Thanks, Mr. Jones. I don't know what I'd have done without you these past few years."
Mr. Jones hugged Dusty back. He was starting to tear up. "You're more than welcome, Dusty. You've been such a blessing around here. Now, you go finish up whatever needs to be done and then get your boy and get out of here."
"Yes, sir!" Dusty hollered over his shoulder as he ran out of the office.
Zak and Spin were making their way back to the ranch. They had ridden several different trails, making sure to avoid any that led to the lake.
Zak was curious about Spin's mood; he had been unusually quiet this afternoon. Spin was always a bundle of kinetic energy and right now he was almost sullen.
"Hey Spin," Zak started as they rode along the trail. "Are you ok? I've never seen you this quiet."
Spin looked over at Zak. Zak could see pain in his eyes. Zak looked ahead and saw a small meadow with a grassy area.
"Why don't we stop over here for a minute and give the horses a rest?" Zak asked.
Spin just looked at Zak and nodded. They rode over to the grassy area and dismounted. They both sat down under the trees, each holding onto their horses' reins so they could graze but not wander off.
Zak looked at Spin. "Spin, you can tell me what's bothering you. I'd like to help if I can."
Spin looked up at Zak. "Can I ask you something?"
Zak replied, "Sure, you can ask me anything."
Spin looked over at Zak with a very serious look. "Are you…?" Spin looked down.
"Spin, I've never seen you at a loss for words," Zak smiled. "Am I what?"
"Are you g-gay?" Spin stammered.
Zak took a deep breath, "Yes, I am."
Spin looked up at Zak, shocked that Zak would admit that. "How did you know?" he asked.
"Well, I've never been attracted to any girls…ever," Zak started. "I never really thought about it until a year or so back. When I was in the locker room I started to notice the other boys. At first I tried to make myself think I was just curious. Just comparing things…you, know?" Both boys giggled nervously. "After a while I had to admit that all my romantic fantasies involved boys, never girls. It took me a long time to admit it to myself and even longer to say it out loud. In fact, if you had asked me a month ago I'd have screamed 'NO!!' from the rooftops. But, I accept who I am, I don't have a choice."
"Do you really think it's not a choice?"
"I know it's not a choice." Zak looked Spin in the eyes. "Why did you ask me that?"
"I think I am too," Spin blurted out.
Zak was taken aback. "But, I've heard from everybody what a player you are in junior high."
Spin grinned. "Well, the girls at school like me, so I've used that to try to make myself normal."
"Spin, you are 'normal'. If you are gay then that is the way nature made you. It's not something you chose. If any of us could choose, of course we would choose to be straight. Not because there is anything wrong with being gay, but because it would make things easier for us." Zak scooted over to Spin and put his arm around his shoulder. "You're a great person. I'm so glad that we've become friends. Whether you are gay or straight I will always be your friend."
Spin looked up at Zak with tears in his eyes. He hugged Zak hard. Zak hugged him back. Spin pulled back from the hug, looked into Zak's eyes and leaned forward. Without a warning, Spin kissed Zak.
Almost immediately, Spin pulled back and began to cry. "I'm sorry, Zak."
Zak continued to hold Spin. "Spin, you don't need to be sorry. You're my friend, probably one of my best friends. I love you. But…"
"You're not in love with me…" Spin choked out.
"No, I'm not."
"You love Dusty." It was a statement not a question.
Zak just sat there for moment. "Yes, yes I do."
"I thought so. But, I had to try."
"Spin, you're going to find someone. You are so outgoing and funny. People in high school are going to love you next year. And you'll find someone. I know you will."
Spin smiled at Zak. "Thank you, Zak. I do love you."
Zak smiled back. "I love you, too. But, now we need to get back."
"Are you still going to ride with me?"
"Of course, why wouldn't I?"
"Won't Dusty be mad since I kissed you?"
"Spin, I'm flattered that you feel that way about me. I spent most of my life thinking I wouldn't find love and in a month I've made two great friends and I love them. I told you, I will always be your friend and so will Dusty."
The boys stood up and brushed themselves off. They looked at each other and hugged a final time. Then they mounted up and headed back to the ranch.
Dusty was just finishing the evening feedings. Mr. Jones was in the office and Joe had had to leave early to take his wife to a doctor's appointment. He was coming around the corner of the barn when he saw someone who didn't belong there.
Dusty felt his temper rising. "TJ!!" he yelled. "What the hell are you doing here?!"
TJ looked up at Dusty and grinned. "Hey, Tonto. I'm just here with my mom. She's in with Mr. Jones buying my horse back."
Dusty stopped and glared at TJ. "Onyx?" he asked.
"He's not for sale."
TJ glared back at Dusty. "Isn't that Mr. Jones' decision?"
"Yes, it is, but I know that will be his answer. Why do you want Onyx anyways?"
TJ smirked. "Well, after I got away from this place, my mother found me a real instructor so that I could improve my riding. Now that I am riding at an Olympic level, my instructor feels I need an Olympic quality horse. So since she already paid to bring one over, my mother figures we should get him back."
Dusty shook his head. "Like I said, he's not for sale. And he's not yours."
"No, he's Mr. Jones' and everything is for sale."
"No, TJ, Onyx isn't Mr. Jones'. He's Zak's."
TJ barked out a laugh. "Zak?? That little boyfriend of yours? You're trying to tell me that that skinny little pipsqueak can ride a horse like that?"
Dusty was getting madder by the moment. "No, what I'm telling you is Onyx is Zak's horse, because Zak loves him and Onyx loves Zak. To you Onyx was just another possession. To Zak, he's a friend."
TJ rolled his eyes. He stepped towards Dusty. "Are you kidding me? I'm still trying to figure out what you see in that kid, Dusty." He was right in Dusty's face. "We had a great thing going there. Don't you miss the fun we had?"
Dusty started to answer. "N.."
TJ lunged forward and pushed Dusty against the barn wall. He held Dusty there and leaned forward and pressed his lips to Dusty. Dusty struggled to get TJ away from him, but since TJ outweighed him by fifty pounds and had him pinned he had the advantage.
Dusty heard a loud gasp and out of the corner of his eye saw Zak looking right at him and TJ and turn and run. Gathering all his strength, Dusty finally pushed TJ off of him. He looked at TJ with blood in his eyes. He grabbed TJ's shoulders and drove his knee straight into TJ's crotch.
"Aaarrggh!!" TJ screamed as he hit the ground.
Dusty ran around TJ's body and in the direction he had seen Zak run.