Dylan was finally allowed to return to school the week following Cody's arrest. Neither his doctor nor his parents were thrilled by the fact that he had snuck out of the house, but seeing what being a part of Cody's capture did for his spirits allayed his parents' fears and anger.
The Saturday morning following his arrest, Cody's picture and story were on the front page of the state's biggest newspaper. Since Dylan was underage, his name did not appear in the papers. But in the days following the publication of the story, dozens of victims came forward. A number of kids who rode at the same barn as Dylan and Tanner came forward to press charges against Cody. It also became apparent that during his year and a half on the run, Cody had victimized a number of kids at various locations around the state.
Eventually, the State's attorney took over the case, since Cody's crimes crossed multiple jurisdictions.
The final nail in Cody's coffin was the fact that he had turned eighteen while he was on the run. His crimes at the barn where Dylan rode happened when he was still a minor, but there were several children who testified that they had been attacked by Cody after he had turned eighteen. This allowed the prosecutors to charge him as an adult without having to go through any special motions in court.
Cody's public defender was finally able to convince him to take a plea deal offered by the state. Cody wanted to fight the charges, never believing that he would be convicted. His lawyer let him know in no uncertain terms that he would be convicted. He knew that a juror that watched a parade of children for days on end telling their stories would never be able to acquit Cody.
The public defender made sure that Cody knew that if he went to trial and was convicted, it was entirely possible that he would never see the outside of a prison again.
The deal the prosecutor offered was for Cody to plead guilty to the charges that had occurred after he had turned eighteen. In return for a guilty plea, the prosecutors would recommend a sentence of fifteen to twenty-five years in state prison. While the prosecutor would have loved to have seen Cody put away for the rest of his life, he knew what having to testify in a public courtroom would do to the victims and he wanted to save them even more trauma.
Dylan and Tanner, along with their parents and friends, were relieved when the state prosecutor informed them that Cody had taken the plea deal and neither would have to go through the ordeal of a trial.
Dylan's happiest moment was when the doctor cleared him to return to the ranch. He wanted to wait one more week before letting Dylan go back to school, but after a two-pronged attack from Dylan and Jesse, he finally agreed that Dylan could accompany Jesse to the ranch after school, provided he did not overdo it.
That week, Jesse stopped to pick up Dylan every day on his way home from school. The first day, Jesse laughed when he hadn't even stopped the car and Dylan came tearing out of the house in his riding clothes.
"Let's go!" Dylan ordered before he had even shut the car door.
Dodger was excited to see his ‘real' boy back at the ranch. The first couple of days, Jesse and Dylan worked with Dodger. Jesse did most of the riding, allowing Dylan a few turns around the arena, but making sure he was not overdoing it.
On Friday, when Jesse stopped to pick up Dylan, he turned off the car and walked up to the door. Dylan started to run past him, but Jesse stopped him.
"Hold on, Dyl," Jesse said. "I have to use the bathroom."
"Well, hurry up," Dylan called over his shoulder as he jumped into the car.
Dylan sat in the car waiting for almost twenty minutes, when he finally got so frustrated that he went back into the house. He was not happy to find Jesse standing in the entryway talking and laughing with his mother.
"Can we please get going?" Dylan asked impatiently.
"I guess so," Jesse shrugged. Dylan turned to walk out the door and missed Jesse's wink at Dylan's mother.
When they got to the ranch, Dylan was shocked at what was awaiting him.
As they drove down the drive to the new house and private barn, their friends were mounted along the side of the driveway all waving at Dylan.
They passed Spin and Revanche, Mattie and Ash, Zak and Onyx, Dusty and Phoenix, CJ and Whisper, Danny and Angel, Devon and Apollo, and Ace and Bullet. Dylan saw that Josh and Casey held Dodger and Val who were saddled and waiting for their boys.
Also waiting to greet Dylan were Kaya, Cesar, Herc and Loki. When Dylan got out of the car all the dogs rushed him. Kaya held back as she felt that Dylan was one of ‘her' pups. She allowed the other dogs to greet him and then chased them off. Kaya stayed between Dylan and Jesse as they walked over to where everyone was gathered.
Dylan had a few tears in his eyes as he looked at all his friends. "What's going on?" he asked with a slight quiver in his voice.
Ace smiled at him. "We're celebrating," he said. "Jesse wouldn't let us have a real party for him, cuz you were sick. So we're going to the lake and we are gonna have a bonfire and celebrate Jesse's birthday and you being back with us." He slipped off Bullet and walked over and hugged Dylan hard. "We missed your skinny ass," he laughed.
Dylan hugged Ace back. "I missed all you guys too."
Ace, Jesse and Dylan all walked over and mounted their horses and the boys all took off down the trail.
As they continued down the trail, Dylan rode up beside Devon.
"Hey, Dev, where's TJ?" Dylan asked.
"He wasn't sure if he should come or not," Devon answered. "CJ did invite him, but TJ's still a little apprehensive, especially where it was going to be a big family thing."
"That's too bad. Make sure he knows he's welcome and that I was asking about him," Dylan said. "I owe him for that night."
"No, you don't owe him; as far as he's concerned, what he did that night doesn't make up for what he did to you in December."
"It does for me," Dylan answered. "Part of the reason I have the panic attacks is the fear I have from what Cody did to me and always wondering if he was out there still. TJ helped to put those fears to rest. He didn't need to risk himself to help me, but he did. Maybe he can come out and you, me and Jesse can go on a ride. That way we can ease him into things."
Devon smiled. "That would be great. I'll give him a call tonight; maybe we can do that tomorrow."
"It's a plan. I'll tell Jesse."
When they got to the lake, they saw that Sarge was there with a roaring bonfire. The boys spent the rest of the afternoon and better part of the evening roasting hotdogs and marshmallows and laughing and joking. Things only came to an end when the temperature dropped to a point where even the bonfire couldn't keep them warm.
The next day, TJ came out to the ranch. Devon met him and led him into the barn.
Jesse and Dylan were already getting Dodger and Val ready.
"Zak said I could take Apollo and Ace said you could take Bullet," Devon told TJ as he led him to the stall where the big black gelding was waiting. "He wanted to come along, but he had some stuff to do for Dad."
TJ stopped and looked at Devon. "Are you sure it's ok? I don't want to piss anybody off here."
Devon laughed. "It was Ace's idea. I was gonna have you ride Whisper, cuz CJ never rides that much anymore, but Ace thought that Bullet would be better for you on the trails. He was insistent that you ride him. I showed him some of the pictures I took of you that night and he thought you looked really good on him. Now, don't get any ideas, cuz no matter how good you look on him, Ace wouldn't sell Bullet in a million years," he laughed.
"I don't blame him," TJ said as he stroked the gelding's cheek. "He's a great horse. Once I can get my parents out of the competition mentality, maybe I can look at getting a new horse just so we can do some trail riding."
"That would be great. I know there are always horses we can borrow here, but I miss having my own horse too," Devon said. "The biggest mistake I ever made was selling Jazz. She was awesome, but at the time it was best for her. If I had known I was going to end up here, I never would have let her go."
"Well, that can be our project this spring and summer--to find ourselves a couple of horses."
"Deal," Devon said as he hugged TJ.
Devon, TJ, Dylan and Jesse spent the afternoon riding the trails. They joked and talked the whole time. Devon was happy that TJ was making these small inroads to acceptance with his friends.
After their ride, Devon was showing TJ some of the new buildings that CJ had had built in the compound.
As they entered the new indoor arena, they heard music streaming out.
They found Danny in the ring working Onyx. He was practicing a dressage routine.
Dusty and Zak were standing off to the side watching.
TJ was mesmerized watching Danny put the Friesian through his paces.
"Wow!!" he said in a low voice. "He's great!"
Zak and Dusty turned.
"Hey, guys," Zak said, and turned back to watch his brother and his horse. "Yep, he's something else. I tried to do a routine like that when we had the open house in October, but it wasn't anything like this."
"Babe, you only had a few weeks to practice; Danny's been doing this since he was eight or nine," Dusty said.
TJ kept watching Danny closely.
"He's got such a connection when he rides," TJ said. "I know Onyx is good, but Danny's just an amazing rider."
"Do you still compete?" Dusty asked.
TJ shook his head. "No. I finally put my foot down with my mother. I never wanted to compete in the first place, I just wanted to ride, and I wanted to do something that no one else in my family did so I could get away from them. My parents only see value in something if there is a prize at the end. They think competition is the only way."
"Well, now you can come out here and ride when you want and not have to worry about competing," Devon said as he took TJ's hand in his.
"Yeah, I guess."
"No, no guessing about it," Zak said. "You're welcome here, TJ. You took care of Dylan when it mattered and you stepped up. I know that you and Dusty have cleared the air. He told me about your parents and that it was them pressuring you that made you come after Onyx. We're good."
"Thanks, Zak. I appreciate that. I'm glad that Onyx ended up with you. I know you take good care of him and seeing the work Danny is doing with him, it's amazing."
Devon was in a rush to get to the art studio.
Mrs. Baumgarten, his chemistry teacher, had held him after class to review his last lab with him. Chemistry was not a favorite, but he was still pulling an A. Mrs. Baumgarten was questioning his methodology on this lab, so he had to show her step by step how he had reached his conclusions.
It was a complete waste of time, but Devon was used to certain teachers judging him on his appearance instead of on his work. They immediately assumed that he was not that bright and must cheat to get good grades.
Now, he was late. He was speed walking through the halls. He knew better than to run--that would just give some teacher an excuse to stop him and give him detention.
He came around the corner and out of nowhere felt something slam hard into his shoulder. He collided hard with a bank of lockers.
"Fuck!!" he cursed as he grabbed his shoulder. He looked over and saw Ty Franks standing there staring at him. Ty was a defensive lineman on the varsity football team. Devon knew he had been a friend of TJ's.
"Man, why don't you watch where you're going?" Devon said as he started to walk away.
Ty grabbed his arm and swung him around.
"Just who the fuck do you think you're talkin' to, faggot?!" Ty raged in Devon's face.
Devon, never one to back down, got in Ty's face. "I think I'm talking to a Neanderthal jock who just slammed me into a locker for no fucking reason!!"
"You being a fag is reason enough for me."
"Why? Are you scared it's contagious?" Devon scoffed. "Don't worry, you're not my type."
Ty grabbed the neck of Devon's t-shirt and lifted him off the floor. He pinned Devon against the lockers holding his forearm against Devon's throat. Devon kicked out futily; he couldn't catch his breath.
"Put him down!!"
Ty turned to see TJ standing about five feet away. He leaned into Devon to keep him in place. "Hey, Teej, you wanna crack at this faggot?"
TJ turned several shades of red. He clenched his fists. "No. I want you to let him down and get away from him."
"Naw, if you don't want a crack at him then I'm gonna finish him off myself."
TJ watched as Ty put more pressure on Devon's throat. Devon's face was turning bright red and he could see his boyfriend was having trouble breathing.
TJ charged at Ty, hitting him with all the force he could muster.
Ty let go of Devon, who slipped to the floor.
TJ dove on Ty and drove his fist into Ty's face. TJ hit Ty three or four times before he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"TJ," Devon wheezed. "Stop. Please, stop."
TJ looked at the unconscious boy and left him lying there. He turned and grabbed Devon to him.
"Are you ok?" he asked Devon.
"I think so. My throat hurts and my shoulder."
"I'm gonna take you to the nurse," TJ said as he stood up. He lifted Devon in his arms.
"Put me down," Devon ordered.
"Not until I get you checked out."
Just then, Mr. Dyson, the librarian, came around the corner. He surveyed the scene before him.
"What is going on here?"
"Devon was late for class, so I was sent to find him. When I got here, Ty was choking him and had him pinned against the lockers. I told Ty to let him go and he wouldn't so I clocked him," TJ explained.
"Mr. Oliver, you know the rules about fighting on school grounds." Mr. Dyson looked at TJ suspiciously.
"Yes, sir, but since my friend was in danger, I'm not concerned with what punishment I might get," TJ replied. "Right now I want to get Devon to the nurse, so she can check out his shoulder and his throat."
"Ok, but I will be reporting this to the Dean for review."
"You do what you have to," TJ called as he carried Devon down the hall.
The nurse insisted that Devon be checked out in the Emergency Room. She called Sarge, who met Devon and TJ at the hospital. Devon's shoulder was mildly sprained and his throat was bruised. He was told to take it easy for a day or two.
TJ ended up being suspended from school for a week. Although the Dean of Students believed that TJ acted to help Devon, the school had a zero tolerance policy for fighting.
Several of the boys complained to Zak's mother, Kate, who was president of the School Board. While she was sympathetic to TJ's plight and understood the reasons behind his actions, she fully supported the zero-tolerance policy and told the boys it would be unfair to play favorites in this case.
Since it was not his first time to be caught fighting, Ty was expelled from school.
When he returned to school, TJ was surprised to see Devon waiting for him in the parking lot with the other boys from the ranch. No one said anything, but his rescue of Devon combined with his actions the night of Cody's capture convinced the boys to offer TJ the second chance he was looking for.
Word soon got around school that TJ was involved with Devon. While TJ wasn't sure he was ready to be completely out, he knew he loved Devon and he wasn't going to let anyone hurt him.
Dusty came around the corner in the barn to find Erik standing in front of Rain's stall.
Erik was gently stroking Rain's cheek and neck and speaking to the filly softly.
"Hey, Erik," Dusty said.
Erik pulled his hand back as if he was burned and turned to Dusty. "I'm sorry, Dusty," he said.
Dusty walked over to Erik and reached over to pet Rain. "Sorry about what?"
"Well, I know she's your horse...I was just looking to see if, uh, anyone was around...and she was here and she's so sweet."
Dusty chuckled. "Erik, it's cool. I was surprised to see you, cuz you haven't been around since everything went down."
Erik looked down at his feet. "Yeah, my parents were just starting to accept me being gay and then I had to tell them that the first boy I had a real interest in was a rapist and tried to rape me." Erik looked at Dusty and shrugged his shoulders. "They kinda freaked and put me in solitary confinement."
Dusty laughed involuntarily. "Was it that bad?"
Erik nodded. "My mom has been driving me to and from school and not letting me out of her sight. I finally snapped last night and told them they had to let me come back out here. At first they were dead set against it, but I told them that you guys were my friends and it was not your fault about Jamie...uhh, Cody...finally, they agreed, so I made a break for it, but there doesn't seem to be anyone here."
"Well, Zak, Dylan, Jesse, Spin and Danny are practicing in the new ring, Devon is still at school and Ace and Mattie are out checking the trails. Since things have been thawing, they wanted to make sure the trails were clear of debris."
"Oh, ok," Erik said; he looked rather dejected.
Dusty looked from Erik to Rain and a light bulb went off. "You know, Erik, you could actually help me if you wanted."
"Well, I've been working with Rain, training her and getting her ready to be ridden," Dusty answered. "She's ready for a rider and I've been trying to get Zak to help me, but he's so busy getting ready to show, if I wait for him it will be summer."
"You want me to help you?"
"But, why don't you ride her?"
"Well, she's just turned three and I'd like her to get a little bigger before I ride her. I wanted someone smaller, which is why I've been after Zak. You're about his size, and you're light, so you should do good."
Dusty saw the nervousness in Erik's eyes.
"Don't worry," Dusty said. "She may look like Phoenix and her grandmother, but she has a personality all her own. She's so mellow and gentle. And she likes you."
As if to prove Dusty's point, Rain stretched her neck over the stall door and lipped at Erik's face. Dusty laughed since it looked like his horse was trying to kiss the smaller boy.
Erik giggled and reached out and took Rain's cheeks in his hands. He stroked the horse's cheeks and neck and looked into her soft brown eyes.
Erik looked at Dusty and nodded. "Ok, I'll do it."
"Great! I'll tell you what, grab her halter and take her out to the crossties. My grooming stuff is out there. Go ahead and get her groomed and let her get used to you handling her. There are some treats for her in my kit, but just give her a few, I don't want to spoil her. I need to get some stuff out of the tack room. I'll meet you at the old arena. Ok?"
"Sure." Erik nodded as he reached for Rain's halter and lead.
Erik opened the stall door and slipped the halter onto Rain. He led her out to the crossties and clipped her in. He found Dusty's grooming kit. He grabbed a few treats and slipped them into his jacket pocket and grabbed the curry comb. He worked patiently and diligently at grooming the filly.
Every time he finished a step he would reward Rain with a treat. He laughed as she anxiously took the bits of food from his hand.
When she was groomed and shining like a new penny, he clipped her lead back on and led her to the arena where Dusty was waiting for them.
Dusty watched and smiled as Erik led Rain. "Wow, you do a really good job; we'll have to hire you as a groom this summer," he teased.
Erik grinned shyly. "Are you sure this is ok?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Zak isn't going to get mad at me is he?"
Dusty was perplexed. "Why would Zak be mad at you?"
"Well, you said you had asked him to do this. I don't want to ruin something that he wanted to do."
"Oh, god, no." Dusty shook his head. "I've been asking him for a few weeks and he's always busy. He loves Rain, but he's so focused on his first competition, he'll probably be relieved that I found someone else to help me. Besides, Rain's my horse. She was a gift from the old owner of the ranch and I get to decide who rides her. Since she obviously likes you and you're the right size and available, you get the honor."
"Ok, I just didn't want to cause any waves with you guys. Zak's been a really good friend to me."
"Don't worry. I love Zak, but we kinda do our own things here since he's become so focused on competitions and I'm trying to get the rescue opened up."
"Rescue?" Erik asked.
"Nobody told you? We're opening a rescue ranch on the other property that CJ bought next door. Actually the new house and barn sit in the center of the two properties. The Triple J will still be there for boarding, lessons, trail rides and probably a small breeding operation. But the new ranch, which CJ put me in charge of, will be for the rescue and rehabilitation of abused and abandoned horses."
"Wow, that sounds like a good cause."
"It is," Dusty agreed. "A friend of ours over in Lancaster, his family has a rescue ranch; that's where Spin got Revanche and Zak and I got Apollo."
"So, how are you going to be the manager and be in school at the same time?" Erik asked.
"Actually, I graduate in June," Dusty answered.
"But I thought you just turned seventeen."
"I did, but since I go to the Vocational Center, I've been on a ‘fast track' to finish," Dusty explained. "Since I'm not planning on going to college, at least right away, I'll graduate in June and then work at the rescue as the manager and a trainer. I'm actually going to be emancipated in June as well. I'll be living at the ranch. The new barn we're having built has a huge loft apartment above it."
"Your mom's gonna let you do that?"
"Well, she knows how much this means to me. That's why she's agreed to the emancipation. It's not a situation where I'm trying to get away from her, but it will make me legally able to take care of myself."
"Wow, my parents would never go for that."
"But, you are on a college track, so it would be a different circumstance for you."
"So you're not going to college at all?"
"I'll probably take some classes eventually," Dusty said. "Some business and accounting, but not till Zak graduates. Once we know what he's gonna do then we can figure things out."
"Do you think he'll go to school locally?"
"I think he wants to go to State. Tuition won't be a problem, but I know he wants to stay close by. If he goes to State, he can live here with me or with his mom and commute. I'm sure he'll always be involved with the ranch and the horses, but I think he'll end up teaching so he'll need to at least get a Masters and they have a good five-year program at State where he can get his Bachelor's in four years and then do his student teaching and Master's program the fifth."
"So are you and Zak going to work together on the rescue?"
Dusty shook his head. "No. I won't let Zak work there. He gets way too attached to the horses. The main goal is to rehab them and then find them permanent homes. Zak falls in love with every one of them. Every time we go to Nick's I think we are going to come back with a new horse. I think Ace, Mattie and Jesse are going to work mostly at the rescue--maybe Dylan since he's done so much with Dodger."
"Do you think it's something I could work at?" Erik asked shyly.
"Sure," Dusty nodded. "Actually, once we get up and running, we are gonna need volunteers for everything. I know Ace was planning to make an announcement at one of the GSA meetings to see if anyone wanted to volunteer."
"Great. That will give me an excuse to come out here."
"Erik, you don't need an excuse, you can come out here anytime you want. Right now everything is crazy with half the guys getting ready for show season and all of us planning to go to Spain next month."
"Yeah, Mattie and CJ's parents are over there. Their dad is getting cancer treatments, so they want us all to come over for a visit." Dusty thought a minute. "Actually, you could do me another favor."
"Well, we leave in about a month and a half. If we can get Rain to the point where I can trust her, you can come out while we're gone and keep her training up."
Erik's whole face lit up. "Really? You think I could?"
"Well, let's see how things go, but if she does as good as I think she will, it would be great for you to keep her working while we're gone, so she doesn't backslide." Dusty walked over to where Erik stood holding the filly and attached a lunge line to her halter. "C'mon. I'll show you everything I've done with her. I'll train both of you," he laughed.
Erik nodded. He had enjoyed the time he had spent out at the ranch and was anxious to learn whatever Dusty wanted to teach him.
Over the next hour, Dusty showed Erik how to lunge Rain. He showed Erik how he had taught Rain to respond to voice cues.
Rain stood at the end of the line. Dusty held the line and Erik stood beside him. Dusty held a lunge whip in his hand, but he explained to Erik the goal was to use the whip as an extension of his hand, to move Rain along.
"Anyone can get a horse to move by beating them," Dusty said. "It's getting her to understand that you are the boss and that she needs to work with you," he explained.
Dusty looked at Rain and made sure he had the filly's attention. He pointed to his right and said, "Walk on." Rain turned and began walking in the direction that Dusty had pointed. Dusty held the whip by his side. He let Rain walk the circle two times before he made a kissing sound and Rain transitioned into a slow trot.
"Right now, I try to keep her in a slow trot," Dusty explained. "You want to keep her at the same pace. Once you give her a signal, if she moves into the correct gait, then you stop and let her continue. If she starts to drop back to a walk then you would give her the signal again. If she doesn't move into the trot or from trot to canter, then you would move the whip behind her to encourage her. You don't want to hit her with it. If the very end touches her legs, that's ok, that won't hurt, but you don't want to bring it right down on her."
Erik nodded as he took in everything Dusty was telling him. He was nervous and excited at the same time that Dusty was letting him help in training the mustang.
After Rain had circled them several times at a trot, Dusty said, "Hup, Hup." Rain jumped from a trot into a very smooth canter. "Good, girl," Dusty cooed. "It's important that she transitions correctly," he said to Erik. "She has to move from walk to trot to canter. Since she's being trained as a trail horse and for western pleasure we'll work on the lope eventually, but right now I want to keep her in those three gaits. It has to work like going up and down stairs. Walk to trot to canter to trot to walk. It doesn't matter how many times she goes around on each gait, just that she does the transitions."
Erik watched the filly canter around them.
Dusty kissed the air again and the filly slowed to a trot; after one time around Dusty slowed her to a walk.
He let Rain walk around them several times and then dropped the whip.
"This part is very important," he said. "Whether you are lunging her or working her in the round pen. With a western horse, you want them to turn in when they are finished. It shows that they are listening to you. If she doesn't turn in, she keeps going until she does and she only turns in when you tell her to. You are the boss--she is not allowed to stop or change gaits until you tell her to." He smiled at Erik. "Watch this." Dusty had both of his arms by his sides. Without saying a word, he turned his left hand so that the palm was facing Rain and slowly slapped his right leg three times.
Erik watched in amazement as Rain stopped walking and turned to face Dusty and walked towards him until she was only about two feet away.
"Good girl, Rain," Dusty praised as he walked up to filly and stroked her neck. He turned to look at Erik who wore a huge grin on his face. "Cool, huh?"
Erik nodded. "Wow," he said. "You taught her to do all that?"
Dusty grinned. "She's really smart. The important thing is that she knows from the beginning that whoever is in the center is the boss. When she turns in she has to come all the way in; if she just turns her head towards you, she is not listening and you need to make her keep going. You need to move her back through all the transitions. Sometimes she's not listening cuz she's still a baby and sometimes she's just not ready to stop working."
"That's enough for today," Dusty stated. "I just like to work her for maybe thirty minutes or so right now. That way she gets used to the work, but she's not being overworked or getting bored."
Over the next week, Erik would show up every afternoon after school and he and Dusty would work with Rain. Dusty showed Erik how to work the filly in the round pen, which was similar to working her on a lunge line, but there was usually no line or tack on the horse.
After a few days, Dusty let Erik try his hand at lunging and then the round pen. Rain had taken to Erik very quickly and she listened just as attentively to him as she did to Dusty. A few times, Dusty had to correct Erik or make him be a bit firmer in his commands. "Remember, Erik," Dusty said one afternoon. "You are the boss. You're not hurting her or her feelings, you need to make sure she is listening to you. I know it can seem harsh sometimes, but when she is out on the trail and you are riding her there should only be one brain working--yours; she should not do anything that you don't instruct her to."
Erik nodded. He tried to be as firm as Dusty, but it was not in his nature to be aggressive and he loved the little filly and didn't want to hurt her. Gradually, he understood that Dusty was right and he found his ‘voice' when working with Rain. He praised her lavishly when she earned it and he chastised her accordingly when she was not behaving. He realized it was very similar to a parent/child relationship. He was the parent and being stern or using ‘tough love' was not hurtful or abusive it was teaching her to respect and listen to him.
"Ok, are you ready for the next step?" Dusty asked one afternoon after Erik had finished lunging Rain.
Erik looked at Dusty with a nervous smile. "I think so," he said.
"You'll be fine," Dusty reassured him. "You're not going to be doing any more than be dead weight for now. I just want her to get used to someone on her back. I'll still be controlling her from the ground. The important thing is that you relax and don't try to control her. You're essentially a ‘crash test dummy'."
"That's reassuring," Erik said.
"Well, without the ‘crash' part," Dusty laughed.
Dusty instructed Erik to pet and rub Rain all over, to get the filly used to being touched and used to Erik. Dusty then had Erik stand on Rain's left side. He told Erik to bend his left leg, so he could give him a leg-up.
"Wait?" Erik said, turning to Dusty. "What about a saddle?"
"We're not going to use one yet," Dusty answered. "I want her to get used to the weight and the signals. I don't want to get her confused by tack and aids and that stuff. This is more natural. Hopefully, she'll turn out like Phoenix and we'll ride her mostly bareback with a hackamore."
"Umm, I've never ridden bareback. What am I going to hold on to?" Erik asked nervously.
"You're not," Dusty told him. "First, you're just going to hang over her, just lie on your stomach across her back, just dead weight. As we progress, and you sit up, you can hold her mane if you have to, but you'll just balance yourself and put your weight in your heels. Don't worry, I'll be right here and we're going to take this very slowly. We won't do much more today than have you be a sack of potatoes on her back."
"Ok," Erik responded hesitantly.
"Bend your leg," Dusty instructed. "I'm gonna give you a gentle boost and you're gonna just lie across her back and then don't move. Don't swing your legs or arms; you can stroke her offside with your hands and talk to her softly, but no quick moves. Got it?"
Erik nodded. "Got it."
Erik placed his hands on Rain's side and bent his left leg. Dusty took Erik's shin in his hands and gently lifted Erik up. Erik lay across Rain's back and gently patted her side. The filly took one nervous step and then stood still as Erik spoke calmly and gently to her.
"Great," Dusty said. "I didn't think she'd make much fuss. Just let her get used to your weight and keep talking to her."
Dusty held tight to Rain's halter in case she made a quick move, but the filly remained calm and placid.
"Ok, I'm gonna just lead her around at a very slow walk," Dusty said after a few minutes had passed. "Just keep stroking her and talking to her, let her know you are there." He turned to Rain. "C'mon, baby girl. You're doing good. Let's give Erik a pony ride."
Dusty walked forward and Rain followed slowly. Erik kept stroking the filly. He felt a little off balance given the position he was in, but a part of him was thrilled to be the first person to ever ride this horse. He didn't realize it would be such an exhilarating feeling.
After leading Rain around for a few minutes, Dusty brought her to a stop. He walked over to her side and tapped Erik on the leg. "Ok, cowboy, that's enough for today, let's slide down. Gently."
Erik slowly slipped to the ground.
Dusty looked at the smaller, grinning boy standing in front of him; Erik's clothes were covered with tan hairs.
"Oh, shit," Dusty laughed. "I forgot to warn you about that."
"About what?" Erik asked obliviously.
"Look at your clothes."
Erik looked down and laughed. "Ha, my mom won't be too happy, but what the hell, it was worth it," he said as he walked over to Rain's head and hugged the filly's neck. "You did so good," he told the filly.
Erik took Rain's lead and led the filly out of the arena.
Zak was walking into the arena as Erik was leaving.
"Hey, Erik," Zak said as he passed his friend. "How're you doing?"
"Great," Erik replied as he led Rain from the building.
Zak walked over to where Dusty was gathering his tools.
"Hey, babe," Dusty greeted him. "What's up?"
"Just finished practice," Zak replied. "What are you doing with Erik?"
"He's been helping me with Rain."
"I thought you wanted me to do that."
"I did, but you are so busy right now and Erik looked so lost. I feel so bad about what almost happened to him. He was telling me his parents almost banned him from coming here anymore, so I figured I'd be killing two birds with one stone. He could help me with Rain and he'd have a reason to come out here." He looked at Zak. "You're not mad, are you?"
Zak shook his head. "No, not at all. I guess I'm relieved. You're right. With us practicing for this show and everything, I was worried I would let you down."
Dusty hugged Zak to him. "You didn't let me down. You never could. I knew you were probably beating yourself up trying to figure out a way to make everything work and this way, you can practice and I can get Rain going. Plus, Erik can keep working with her while we're in Spain."
"I hadn't thought of that. That will be good. Most of the horses won't get the work while we're gone."
"They'll be fine. The hands will take care of the barn and turn them out so they get some exercise. I was only really concerned about Rain, cuz I want her to be worked daily so she gets used to being handled and ridden. Erik should be able to take care of that for me."
"I'm glad," Zak said. "I know he likes it out here. His parents are very overprotective, so I figured when we didn't see him that they had him under house arrest or something. It will be good for him to work with you. He can learn so much that way."
"He's gonna volunteer at the rescue once we get up and running."
"I'm glad. He's so gentle and easygoing; he'll be great with the rescues."
"That's what gave me the idea; I found him by Rain's stall and she was taken with him. The idea just clicked for me to have him work with her."
Zak laughed, "You're already slipping into manager mode aren't you?"
"I guess so. I want to be more hands-on, but I know I'm going to have to give up some of it so I can work on the business side too."
"My mom is always saying that if you surround yourself with good people, everything takes care of itself."
"Well, I know I'm going to have a good core group. With Ace, Jesse, Mattie and now Erik."
"What about Dylan?"
"I'm assuming he's gonna at least be there part time; I'd like him to be there since he's done the work with Dodger."
"If Jesse's in, then I'm sure he'll be there as well."
"They do make a good team don't they?"
"They click differently than you and me or Mattie and Spin."
"I know what you mean. We're all boyfriends and we share the same interests, but I think if any of us worked together all the time, we'd eventually kill each other. But those two could be together every minute of every day and never get on each other's nerves."
"Why do you think that is?"
"Probably, cuz they've gone through similar things in their pasts. They connect in a very different way--it's not like they're more in love than any of us, they just have a unique connection."
"I know they love being together all the time," Zak said. "But, I like that we have our life together and then our lives apart. It makes the time I spend with you mean so much more."
Dusty grabbed Zak tight and kissed him. "Sometimes you are just the sweetest guy," he whispered.
"Just sometimes?" Zak pouted.
Dusty laughed and swatted his boyfriend's behind. "And sometimes you're just a pain in the ass."
Over the next couple of weeks, Erik continued his tutelage under Dusty. Both worked with Rain every day until one afternoon Erik was able to ride the filly unassisted around the round pen.
Dusty was happy with both his pupils and Erik was beside himself at having helped to train the mustang.
Devon was in his studio puttering around when there was a knock on the door.
"Come in," he called.
CJ walked in carrying Idgie.
"Hey, CJ," Devon greeted him. "What's up?"
"Not much. How are you doing?"
Devon grinned and reached out for Idgie. "I'm great now that you've brought me a little visitor," he said as he took Idgie from CJ. "So what brings you to my humble studio?" Devon laughed as he played with the baby.
"Well, I have an offer for you."
"Really? What kind of offer?"
"I have a job for you," CJ said. "I need a new logo done for the ranch that will incorporate the new ranch name and the rescue. I've seen some of the work you've done and I think you could do a great job."
"Wait? New name for the ranch?"
CJ nodded. "Yeah. We haven't said anything to anyone else, but me, Danny and Dusty have been trying to decide if the new ranch would be separate or part of the larger ranch. We decided that it would all be one ranch, but we wanted a new name to kind of incorporate all we are doing. What I'd like is if you could come up with a few logos for us over the next couple of weeks. We'll choose one and then while we are in Spain, we will have the new signs and stuff made up. Then the second weekend in May, we will have a grand re-opening with the rescue."
"Sounds like fun," Devon said. "Just one question."
"Yes, I'm gonna pay you."
Devon laughed, "Nice to know, but that wasn't the question. What's the new ranch name?"
CJ told him.
"Oh, wow!! That is so perfect," Devon said.
"It's pretty neat. But you need to keep it under your hat for the time being. We want to surprise everyone."
"Now about compensation..."
"CJ, I was kidding before, you don't have to pay me. I love that you trust me to do this. You guys have been great to me and everyone's giving TJ a chance, so I owe you."
"No, Dev, you don't ‘owe' us anything. You've pulled your own weight around here and TJ has earned his second chance. I'm going to pay you just like I would pay an advertising agency or anyone else. Art is your career and you need to make money when and where you can."
"Ok," Devon laughed. "Well, you better take the munchkin here," he said as he handed Idgie back to CJ, "so I can get started. I've already got some great ideas."
"Well, then, I'll let you get to work," CJ said as he left the studio.
Ace had a second period study hall and decided to spend it in the cafeteria. He was sitting at a table off to one corner working on his calculus homework when he realized there was someone standing at his table.
He looked up and saw TJ standing there.
"Hey, TJ," Ace said. "What's up?"
"Hey, Ace, can I talk to you for a minute?" TJ asked nervously.
"Sure. Have a seat."
TJ sat down across from Ace.
"What's on your mind?' Ace asked.
"Well, I know that Devon's birthday is coming up."
Ace grinned. "First week in May, his and mine."
"He didn't tell you that?" Ace laughed. "We're three days apart. When we were kids, he and I always had our birthdays together. We had all the same friends, so we always had joint parties."
"...older?" Ace asked.
"Actually, Devon is. Everyone always assumes it's me cuz of the size difference, which is stupid cuz it's only three days, so we are pretty much the same age. But like twins who argue about who came out first, he never lets me forget that he has that three days on me."
"Well, anyways. I was trying to figure out what to get him for his birthday."
"And you needed some tips?"
"Actually, no. I know what I want to get, but I need your help in finding it."
"What are you planning to do?" Ace asked curiously.
TJ told him.
"Oh, shit!!" Ace exclaimed. He looked around; he had been louder than he planned to be. "If you can pull that off, Devon will love it and I will take back every bad thing I ever thought or said about you."
"Well, I probably deserved most of them."
Ace nodded. "You did, but if you can do this for Devon, all will be forgiven." He looked at TJ seriously. "But, that's not why you're doing it?"
TJ shook his head. "No. I mean, it would be nice to not have to worry about whether or not everyone is ok with me and Devon and to just enjoy our time together, but this is just for Devon. I've never felt for anyone what I feel for him and this is the only thing he's ever told me he really wanted."
"It won't be easy. But, you're right, this is something he really wants and he'll love it."
"I hope so."
"I guarantee it," Ace said emphatically. "But what do you need from me?"
TJ told him what he needed.
Ace thought about it for a minute. "Let me e-mail his dad. He may know. It may take a day a two, but as soon as I hear I'll let you know."
"Alright," TJ said as he got up to leave. "Thanks, Ace."
"No, TJ. Thank you. I know we're all still trying to feel our way around this, but I appreciate the way you haven't let anyone scare you away from Devon. I know how he feels about you and he means the world to me, so if you can make him happy, then you're ok in my book."
"I'll do my best," TJ said.
"I know you will and that's all I can ask."
Mattie's sixteenth birthday was the next on the calendar. The third Friday in March was set aside for a family party.
Mattie was excited about going to Spain and making sure that everything was ready for the big trip. He was anxious to show his friends around his home country, so his instructions were that his party was to be a small family affair.
Given that it was his sixteenth, CJ had plans to buy Mattie a car. He had several long distance ‘discussions' with his father who had the same plans. Finally, they decided that it mattered less who purchased the car and more that Mattie got one and got to pick it out.
Every afternoon for a week, CJ picked up Mattie and Spin after school and took them a different car dealership so that Mattie could choose a car. Since Mattie would not get his license until his actual birthday, CJ would take the cars to a local deserted parking lot and let Mattie drive the car around to get a better idea of which he liked.
CJ enjoyed spending the time with his little brother and his boyfriend. He laughed constantly at the bickering between the pair when it came to choosing a car.
Mattie, being thoughtful and careful, was looking for something stylish, but safe and practical. He favored a truck or an SUV since there were so many of them and it made sense to have a vehicle that could hold a crowd.
Spin, on the other hand, favored flash and speed. He steered Mattie towards sports coupes and muscle cars.
Both boys tried to drag CJ into the argument, but he was adamant that Mattie make the choice. He told them that Mattie could let Spin and his other friends influence him as much or as little as he wanted, but he and Danny were neutral and would not take a side in the discussion. The ‘big brothers' were there to offer guidance and not opinions.
The Friday night before his birthday, Mattie and Spin were lying in his bed. Cesar was lying at the end of the bed, both boys currently using him as a footstool. Since moving into the new house and being around him more often, Cesar had started to accept Spin as a second master and Spin had become more fond of the huge dog.
"So, have you made any decision yet?" Spin asked anxiously.
"No," Mattie replied. "I'm just confused at this point."
"What's so confusing?"
"I just can't make up my mind. I like all the sports cars, but it would make so much more sense to have a truck or SUV around here."
"Matt, you're thinking like CJ or Dusty...you need to think like a sixteen year old for once."
Mattie turned and looked at Spin. "What do you mean?"
"CJ, Dusty and Danny are the ‘adults'; they will make sure that we have enough trucks or vans or SUV's or trailers to move when we have to. CJ's gonna make sure that the ranch has everything we need. This is about what you want, not what you need." Spin took Mattie's hand in his and ran his fingers along the back. "I know you don't like to show off and you don't like people to know how well off you are, but this is one of those times where you need to show off or at least do something fun, that's just for you."
"I guess so, but it just seems like a waste to get such a flashy car."
"It doesn't have to be flashy, but there is another benefit to a small sports car."
Spin grinned. "Alone time. Look at Zak; he has to cart everyone around cuz he has the SUV, but Jesse and Dylan get a lot of alone time cuz no one wants to be squished into that joke of a back seat."
"Now that's a good point," Mattie agreed. "I know the night Jesse got his car, when Zak and I were in the backseat it was very uncomfortable. But there's enough room for him to take Kaya with them. We need the same thing. We need to have room for Cesar."
"The grump can fit in the back seat, he just can't wander around--which probably isn't a bad thing."
Mattie rolled over on top of Spin and started to tickle him. "What did I tell you about calling him the ‘grump'?" he said as Spin giggled and squirmed. "Just cuz CJ does that, doesn't mean you get to."
When Spin was laughing so hard that he couldn't catch his breath, Mattie rolled back to his side of the bed.
"You do make some good points, though," Mattie said and he put his hands under his head and closed his eyes. "I need to sleep on it."
Spin snuggled up to Mattie and ran his fingers down Mattie's chest and reached under the covers. "Rest? Already? Man you are getting old."
Mattie's eyes popped open and he pulled Spin tight to him and kissed him hard. "Old? I'll show you old."
The discussions about Mattie's car purchase continued over the weekend. Finally, on Monday afternoon, he made his choice. On the night of his party, Mattie became the proud owner of a bright blue Dodge Challenger.
As was becoming the family ritual, the first ride in the new car was with the birthday boy and his closest friends. In this case, Mattie, Spin, Dusty and Zak spent the night joyriding around town in Mattie's new car.