Zak stood silently watching as Spin and Mattie just stood there staring at each other. He would swear he could see the lightning bolts actually moving between the two boys.
Dusty came up behind Zak. "What's going o…" he started to ask before Zak shushed him.
Zak pulled Dusty down and whispered in his ear, "I think Spin just got shot in the ass by Cupid."
Dusty started shaking he was laughing so hard and trying not to make any noise.
After watching the two boys for a few more seconds, Zak couldn't take it anymore. He loudly cleared his throat and both boys immediately turned in his direction, both blushing profusely.
"Spin, this is Mateo Alvarez, he's going to be taking lessons here. He likes to be called Mattie." Zak motioned to Mattie. "And Mattie, this is Anthony O'Brien, he works here with us. We just call him 'Spin'."
Both boys turned back to each other and tentatively shook hands. Both were staring at their feet, each trying to avoid the other's eyes.
Zak and Dusty were beside themselves trying not to laugh out loud. Dusty started to break and Zak elbowed him in the gut.
"Oof", Dusty exhaled. "Hey, what was that for?!" he said as he rubbed his stomach.
Spin and Mattie both turned to look at the two other boys.
Zak grinned. "And Mattie, this…" he motioned to Dusty, "is my boyfriend, Dustin Crandall, but we just call him 'Dusty'. He's going to be your instructor."
Dusty stepped forward and shook Mattie's hand. "Nice to meet you Mattie." He turned back to Zak. "I have a lesson today?"
Zak laughed, "Yep. Apparently, Mr. Jones scheduled it and forgot to put it on the board or let us know. I was just giving Mattie the nickel tour of the ranch and barns until you guys were finished."
"Well, Spin was supposed to be coming to get another scraper, because one of the ones we leave in the shower stalls seems to have disappeared, and when he didn't come back I decided to see what he was up to…before disaster strikes."
Zak and Dusty laughed while Spin shot them both a double bird. Poor Mattie just looked lost as the three friends joked and bantered.
Finally, Zak took mercy on Mattie. "Are you guys anywhere near finished?" he asked.
Spin and Dusty looked at each other and shrugged. Finally, Dusty said, "Probably about another half an hour or so."
"Ok, I'll finish showing Mattie around and we'll find him a horse and then meet you guys outside."
"Sounds good," Dusty replied. "Who are you thinking of using?"
"Well, he's really an intermediate rider so I was thinking Max or maybe Chief." Chief was a big paint horse that was a favorite of the more experienced western riders.
Dusty nodded. "Either should be good; why don't you introduce Mattie to both and he can decide."
Mattie looked up from the ground in shock. "Really, I get to pick which horse I ride?"
Dusty nodded. "Sure. Zak can tell you their quirks and personalities, but since we are only going on your say-so for ability, you need to decide if you are up to either one. We have some other ones that are better for beginners, but if you are experienced then either of these two will be a good match for you."
Mattie just nodded. He was overwhelmed by how nice these boys were being to him and he was still floored that Zak had come right out and called Dusty his 'boyfriend'. He wondered if Spin was gay as well. He thought Spin was the cutest boy he had ever seen.
"Well," started Zak, "come on, Mattie, let's finish your tour and find you a horse. These two need to finish their work." Zak chuckled as he took Mattie by the arm and led him out of the barn.
Dusty looked over at Spin. "You all ready, Romeo?" he laughed.
Spin looked over at Dusty. "Ya, uh, um, what?" He shook his head and stared off in the direction Mattie and Zak had gone.
Dusty just rolled his eyes and laughed. He went over and put his arm around Spin's shoulder and led him out of the barn. "Man, Spin, you have it bad."
Zak and Mattie walked into Barn 2.
Mattie spoke first, "So, Zak…"
Zak stopped and looked at Mattie. "What?"
Mattie stared at the ground. "Are you and Dusty really b-b-boyf-f-.." He was turning redder with each attempt to say it.
"Are we really boyfriends?" Zak asked gently.
Mattie looked up and nodded.
"Yes, we are. We've only been together for about a month or so, but I love him so much."
"Wow." Mattie was stunned. "You aren't scared of your parents finding out?"
"No, my mom knows and she loves Dusty. And Dusty's mom and grandmother know and they like me too."
Mattie just stood there taking all the information in.
Zak stepped forward and placed his hand on Mattie's shoulder. "Mattie, do you think you are gay?" he asked.
Mattie looked up into Zak's eyes. There were huge tears in his eyes. "No, I don't think I'm gay," he answered, "I know I'm gay. But, I can't tell my parents. They are very old school and religious; they would never accept it."
"Well, sometimes we are surprised by our parents. I felt that my mom would never understand and she actually already knew when I came out to her. She told me nothing could make her not love me anymore."
"Really?" Mattie asked. "I don't think my parents would stop loving me, but I just can't take the chance."
"Well, it's not something you have to do today. But you can always hang with me and Dusty. We'll help you out."
"And Spin?" Mattie asked hopefully.
Zak laughed, "You like him don't you?"
Mattie looked down shyly. "Yes, he's very cute."
Zak looked at Mattie with a sparkle in his eye. "Well, I think he likes you too. And he's always hanging out with me and Dusty, so he'll be around. He's my best friend, even though he can be a little much to take sometimes."
Zak led Mattie into the barn. "Come on, let's see the rest of the horses, so you can get ready."
Mattie smiled at Zak. He felt so comfortable with Zak and knew he was going to like the boys of the Triple J.
They started to check out the horse in Barn 2. Zak introduced Mattie to each horse. Mattie was at ease with the horses and could tell that Zak really loved each one.
"Hey, Zak!!" he heard Dusty yell from outside.
"What?!" Zak yelled back.
Dusty poked his head in the door. "I'm trying to help the mental midget over here."
"HEY!!" they heard Spin from outside.
Both Dusty and Zak laughed.
"Can you get the phone in the office?" Dusty asked. "I picked up out here, but they want to schedule a ride and the calendar is in the office."
"Sure. I'll grab it in a second," Zak answered. He looked at Mattie. "Why don't you hang out here and visit with the horses and I'll be right back."
"Sure," Mattie agreed.
Zak ran out to the main barn.
Mattie walked around the barn. It had been so long since he had been around horses, he felt like he had died and gone to heaven. He used to spend every summer at his grandfather's estancia in Spain. His grandfather had died the summer before last and the ranch had been sold by his uncle who was more interested in the money the land could bring than in the horses Mattie's grandfather had raised all his life.
Mattie had loved to ride across the open fields of the ranch. He had been less than a year old when his grandfather had first put him on a horse and he had always loved it. In the last two years, he had tried to find someplace to ride, but he could never find a place where he felt comfortable and welcome. He had a feeling the Triple J would be different. Already, he liked Zak and Dusty and he knew he had a crush on Spin.
Mattie approached the different horses. He laughed as they greeted him and accepted the pets and the scratches that he offered.
He started to walk down one aisle and noticed that the stalls appeared to be empty. He heard a horse walking back and forth and breathing heavily at the end of the aisle.
Mattie stopped in front of the stall and just stared at the huge grey horse. He was enraptured by the big stallion. He knew immediately that this was an Andalusian, as that was the breed that his grandfather had raised for many years in Spain.
The big horse danced in the stall, wild-eyed with nostrils flaring. He shook his head up and down, shaking his grey mane.
Mattie smiled at the big grey horse. He looked right into the beast's eyes. He walked forward very slowly, speaking quietly in Spanish.
Ash bowed his head down to allow Mattie to stroke his neck and cheek. He gently placed his head on Mattie's shoulder. Mattie laughed as the horse nuzzled his hands.
Mattie reached over and opened the stall door and stepped into the stall. He kept talking to the big horse and stroking his neck and side. He reached up and hugged the big horse's neck. Tears came to his eyes as this horse brought forth all of his happy memories of his grandfather's estancia.
Zak came walking back into Barn 2. He looked up and down the aisles for a sign of Mattie and he could not find him anywhere. The only aisle he hadn't gone down was Ash's. Zak was suddenly panicked--he hadn't told Mattie to not go near Ash.
Zak ran to the aisle where Ash's stall was and stopped short two stalls down. He heard Mattie's voice speaking softly in Spanish. He stopped and listened. Usually, anyone this close to Ash's stall would hear him snorting and screeching and stomping his feet. All he could hear was Mattie's voice and then Ash's soft rhythmic breathing.
He slowly walked to the stall right next to Ash's and peered around the corner.
"Holy Déjà vu, Batman," he thought to himself as he laid eyes on Mattie standing in Ash's stall with his arms wrapped around the big horse.
Zak's first instinct was to storm in and grab Mattie and get him away from Ash. But something held him back. If he did that, then he would be treating Mattie no differently than Dusty and Mr. Jones had treated him when he and Onyx first met. Since his first meeting with Onyx, he had believed that Onyx was his and they had a special connection. Who was to say that Mattie and Ash didn't have the same connection?
If Mattie could work with Ash the way he and Dusty did with Phoenix and Onyx, then Ash would be a bigger asset to the ranch.
Zak stepped forward. He spoke to Mattie very softly. "Mattie, are you ok?" he asked.
Mattie turned. His hazel eyes were glistening with tears. "Yes, Zak. I am wonderful. I didn't know you had an Andalusian here. He reminds me so much of the horses on my grandfather's estancia and this one looks like the horse I would ride there every summer."
Zak was still a little nervous. "Mattie, do you want to come over to me for a second, please?"
Mattie looked at Zak curiously. Zak looked a little scared. So he walked out of the stall and locked the door and went over to where Zak stood.
"What's wrong, Zak?" Mattie asked, suddenly concerned. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No. I did," Zak answered. "I should have warned you before I left you. The reason this horse is down here by himself is that he is a bit of a pain in the ass. Dusty's been trying to train him since Mr. Jones bought him back in May. He already threw Dusty once and Dusty ended up in the Emergency Room."
"But, he's so gentle with me."
"I know, I saw that," Zak agreed. "You might be just what he's needed."
"Well, you remember I showed you Onyx?"
"The beautiful Friesian in the first barn?"
"Yes. Well, when I got here he was viewed by Dusty and Mr. Jones the same way as Ash."
"Ash?" Mattie asked.
Zak grinned and pointed to the big Andalusian. "That's Ash."
"Ash," Mattie said as he walked back to the stall and started to pet the big horse again.
Zak kept explaining, "So, even though Onyx and I had this connection from day one, Dusty was stuck in his opinion that Onyx was bad news and even when he promised to help me train him, he would put barriers in my way. My first thought when I saw you with Ash was the same thing, to get you the hell away from him. But, then I thought how I felt when Dusty and Mr. Jones did that to me. So I have a different idea."
Mattie turned back to Zak. "What's that?"
"Do you think you can get Ash groomed and saddled?" Zak's eyes were sparkling with mischief.
Mattie grinned and nodded, "Sure, I know how to do that."
"Ok, you take him out that side of the barn. The others can't see there from where they are. I'll send Dusty and Spin off on an errand and then come back to help you. We'll see how Ash does with you. If this goes the way I think it will, then we can give my boyfriend a heart attack."
Mattie laughed at Zak's excitement. He was excited at the thought of riding this big gorgeous horse.
Zak quickly showed Mattie where Ash's tack was and where to find a grooming kit. Mattie went into the stall to get Ash while Zak ran out to find Dusty and Spin.
Zak found Dusty and Spin as they were just finishing putting the horses away. He told them that Mr. Jones had called and needed them to bring the deposit to the bank as he was stuck in traffic. Since Dusty was the only one who could drive, he had to be the one to take it. He suggested that Spin go with him and then they could pick up some dinner for the three of them on the way back. Zak said he would stay with Mattie and help him get his horse ready for the lesson. He would have Mattie call his mom and tell her he was running late.
Dusty suggested that he ask Mattie if he wanted to hang out and have dinner with them after the lesson. Zak thought that was a great idea and told them to just get extra because he was sure Mattie would want to stay.
Once he had given Dusty the deposit bag and made sure the two boys were on their way, Zak ran back to find Mattie.
When he found Mattie, the new boy was grooming Ash. He had lugged Ash's big saddle and ornate bridle out. Zak looked at the heavy saddle and thought it might take two of them to get the damn thing on the horse.
Just as Zak was thinking this he watched as Mattie took the saddle blanket and delicately placed it on Ash's back. Zak was about to ask Mattie if he needed help when Mattie grabbed the saddle and in one smooth and gentle motion placed it precisely on Ash's back.
Zak whistled. Mattie turned and Zak smiled at him. "I was about to ask if you needed help with the saddle, but apparently you don't."
Mattie grinned. "My grandfather had me saddling horses as soon as I could lift the saddles. I used to have to stand on a mounting block to get the saddle on the horses."
Zak watched Mattie grab Ash's bridle. This he really wanted to see. Ash was a bastard when it came to the bridle; he had seen Dusty fight with him time and again. Zak was curious to see how he acted with the bridle in Mattie's hands.
As if he knew he was being watched, Ash bent his head to Mattie and almost eagerly took the bit in his mouth.
Zak laughed to himself; this was going to blow Dusty's mind. He knew Dusty well enough to know that he was more concerned with Ash's being useful to the ranch than he was concerned that he be the one to do the training. Ash had come a long way with Dusty, but he was showing the same connection to Mattie that Onyx had with Zak and Phoenix had with Dusty.
Once Ash was tacked up, Zak had Mattie lead Ash into the indoor arena. It was rather hot in there, but he wanted to do this in secret until he was sure it was going to work out the way he hoped.
As they walked to the arena, Zak was noticing the change in Ash's demeanor. He wasn't just taking to Mattie, he wasn't bothered when Zak reached up to stroke his neck. It was like Mattie had just infused the horse with a calm that now overtook him.
When they reached the arena, Zak had Mattie lead Ash over to a mounting block. Zak handed Mattie his helmet that he had grabbed from the office. Mattie looked at Zak questioningly, but Zak just nodded and Mattie put the helmet on.
Zak held Ash's bridle while Mattie mounted.
Ash never even budged as Mattie mounted. Zak pulled the reins over Ash's head and handed them to Mattie.
"Just try to walk him around nice and easy to see how he's going to react."
Zak stepped back to the rail and watched as Mattie rode Ash around the arena. After a few minutes, Zak called out, "Ok, it looks like he's good with you. Let's see what you can do."
Mattie looked at Zak and grinned and nodded. He dug his heels into Ash's sides and spent the next 20 minutes riding the horse all over the arena. He galloped, cantered, trotted and walked. He even showed Zak how he could make Ash 'dance' almost trotting in place.
After his demonstration, Mattie rode Ash over to where Zak sat on the rail.
As he approached the rail, Ash placed his head in Zak's lap and Zak stroked the big horse's head.
Zak laughed, "This is not the same horse that has been here for the last two months."
Mattie laughed and stroked Ash's neck as he patiently stood there. "He's a great horse. I can't believe he has been trouble."
"Well, he has, but then so was Onyx before I got to him. Maybe there is a rider for every horse."
Zak sat there a minute thinking.
He looked up at Mattie. "Hey, hop down for a second, I want to try something."
Mattie dismounted and Zak dropped down from the rail.
"Can I borrow my helmet?" Zak asked.
Mattie unbuckled the helmet and handed it to Zak, who put it on and buckled it.
Zak walked over to Ash and spoke to him softly. He grabbed hold of the saddle horn, put his left foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up. Ash didn't budge.
Zak sat there for a moment and then prompted Ash into a walk. The horse slowly walked around the arena with Zak. Zak worked him around the arena in each direction at a walk, trot and canter. The horse did everything he was asked and never acted up.
Zak rode back to where Mattie was waiting with a huge grin on his face.
Zak dismounted. He was so excited. "I can't wait for Dusty to see this."
Mattie was suddenly worried. "Is he going to be mad at me?"
Zak looked up. "Why, because you rode Ash?"
Mattie nodded silently.
"No; he might be a little ticked at me for taking a chance like this, but he won't be mad at you. And once he sees what you've done, he'll be happy. He's a good guy and he'll recognize that you accomplished something that was not happening before."
Mattie still looked unsure.
Zak put his hand on Mattie's shoulder. "It'll be ok, Mattie, trust me." He grinned at his new friend. "I do have a question for you, though. If you can ride like that, why the hell are you taking lessons?"
Mattie looked at Zak. "I guess I didn't want anyone to know how well I could ride."
"Well, I learned to ride on my grandfather's estancia in Spain. He was very wealthy and he raised Andalusians. My parents moved us here when I was very little, but I spent every summer in Spain with my grandfather. My parents, at least my mom's family, are very wealthy. When I've shown people what I can do, they tend to pick on me for being a rich kid. So I figured if I said I was just an 'ok' rider then they would leave me alone."
"Well, we're not going to pick on you," Zak grinned at Mattie. "Dusty and Spin are the best riders here--they both give lessons. I've only been riding a few months, so I'm just ok."
Mattie's eyes bulged. "You've only been riding a few months?!?" He was shocked. "You ride better than my older sister and she's really good."
Zak laughed, "Well, I had good teachers. And I've been riding almost every day."
The boys kept chatting until Zak heard Dusty's truck drive into the yard.
"Ok" Zak started, "this is what I want you to do. I'm gonna go intercept Dusty and Spin--give me about 10 minutes. I'll keep them busy in the yard and then you just come and ride up on Ash. Alright?"
Mattie grinned and nodded. "Alright."
Zak ran outside and met Dusty and Spin as they were getting out of the truck loaded down with bags.
"What the hell did you guys do, buy out the restaurant?" Zak laughed.
Dusty rolled his eyes at Spin. "Well, this one couldn't make up his mind and he wanted to make sure we had plenty for Mattie, too." Behind Spin's back, Dusty started making kissing motions with his lips.
Zak laughed hard at Dusty's antics.
Spin turned on Dusty. "Hey!! I'm just trying to watch out for a potential new friend," he pouted.
Dusty laughed. "Potential new boyfriend is more like it," he said. "On that note, where is my newest student?"
Zak looked around. "Oh, He's just finishing getting his horse tacked up. I think he's a little more experienced then he let on."
"Why do you say that?" Dusty asked.
"Well," Zak started, hearing the sound of hoof beats, "I think you'll see for yourself."
Zak stepped aside and Dusty and Spin watched in shock as Mattie rode Ash out from behind the barn.
Mattie sat atop the Andalusian with perfect posture and body position. As Zak smiled wide and Dusty and Spin stared slack-jawed, Mattie rode Ash around the yard. He ran the big horse through his paces and showed off a little by making him dance.
After he had finished his demonstration, Mattie rode over to where the boys stood waiting and dismounted.
"What the hell?" Dusty asked, stunned. "How, why, when, huh??"
Spin just looked from Mattie to Dusty. "I guess he don't need any lessons from you, Smart Guy."
Zak grinned, "Oh, wait there's more."
"More?" asked Dusty, not believing this scene.
"Yup," replied Zak as he walked over to Mattie and Ash. Mattie handed him the reins and Zak mounted up and took Ash for a spin around the yard.
Zak only rode for a few minutes and then came back to his friends and dismounted.
Dusty was flabbergasted. "If one of you doesn't tell me what is going on...!!" he yelled.
Zak and Mattie laughed and then Zak explained to Dusty and Spin about finding Mattie with Ash and how Ash seemed to be as taken with Mattie as Onyx was with Zak. He explained how he had sent them away so that he could test his theory about Mattie and Ash.
Zak was very animated as he told of how well-behaved Ash had been with Mattie and then how he had been when Zak rode him as well.
"He's great now," Zak concluded.
Zak looked at Dusty with a smile on his face. Dusty's face was emotionless. Zak was worried that maybe he had overstepped, maybe he had gone too far.
Dusty glared at Zak for a minute while he thought over what his boyfriend had done. Then he started laughing.
Zak exhaled in relief.
"So, Mattie, where did you learn to ride like that?" Dusty asked.
Mattie explained about his grandfather's estancia and the horses he raised. He told them how Ash reminded him of the summers he spent in Spain.
Dusty took Mattie by surprise when he walked over to the younger boy and gave him a huge hug and lifted him off his feet. "I can't thank you enough. I love this big lug, but he's been an absolute pain in the ass to train. And yet for you he's a puppy dog. And seeing Zak ride him was worth everything, since Zak hasn't trusted him since day one."
"Hey!" exclaimed Zak. "You didn't trust Onyx either."
Dusty just laughed. "Ok, I have to see how he does," he said as he took the reins from Mattie.
Dusty mounted Ash and was cantering around the yard in no time.
Just then Mr. Jones drove up. He got out of his car and went and stood with the boys.
Dusty rode over to where they all stood waiting.
"Dusty, that's great; you finally got ol' Ash settled down," Mr. Jones said.
Dusty hopped down from Ash and handed the reins to Mattie. "No, Mr. Jones. It was Mattie here."
"Mr. Jones, meet Mateo Alvarez--Mattie. I think he's your newest stable boy," Dusty answered.
Dusty, Zak and Spin all clapped Mattie on the back as he just stood there with a huge smile on his face.