By Andrew Todd
Diego balanced the tray with one hand while he opened his bedroom door. He noticed that the bedside light was on and the bed was empty.
He set the tray down on his dresser and went over to the bathroom door. He tapped on the door. “Luka?”
“Just a minute.”
“I just wanted to be sure you were alright.”
Diego heard the toilet flush and the water running in the sink. After the water stopped the door opened and Luka emerged.
“Yeah, I’m ok,” Luka said as he came back into the bedroom. “I was a little lost when I woke up and you weren’t here.”
Diego took Luka’s hand and led him over to the bed. They both sat down on the bed.
“I wanted to let you sleep,” Diego explained. “So I went down to get us some breakfast.” He got up and retrieved the tray and set it on the nightstand. “Bridget sent up some pastries and milk and juice.”
“Looks good, but I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat something. I know it will going to be hard, but you cannot starve yourself.”
Diego set a muffin on a plate and poured a small glass of juice and handed them to Luka.
Luka set the glass on the nightstand on his side of the bed and picked at the muffin.
Diego finished several pastries in the time it took Luka to work through half of his muffin, but Diego was happy that he had at least eaten something.
“I ran into Mattie, Spin and Ace downstairs,” Diego said. “Ace is planning to take Dylan and Jesse on a trail ride later this morning to distract them.”
“Distract them from what?”
“I am not sure. Something is bothering both of them and I know it has something to do with Danny taking them to Florida tomorrow. But I do not know the details,” Diego replied. “He wanted to know if we wished to join them.”
“I don’t know,” Luka said quietly. “I’m not sure I can deal with that.”
“I know,” Diego said as he wrapped an arm around Luka’s shoulder. “I told him as much. It might be good for you though. It would give you a chance to let the others get to know you.”
“Maybe…” Luka said hesitantly. “Let me think about it.”
“Do you know what happened to Winston?” Luka asked.
“Yes, CJ had someone come yesterday and he was buried in a field that CJ had set aside for that purpose,” Diego explained. “He is going to have a marker made for the grave. I am sure he will speak with you about what you want it to say.”
“He’s really going to do that?”
“Of course. I asked him about it and he said he would do the same for any of the horses here if they were to pass. It is a beautiful field and it will only be used for this purpose. I believe that Winston is the first horse there.”
“Can we go and see it?”
“Of course; you can get dressed and then we will take a walk over to see it.”
Luka looked around for his clothes.
“Wait,” Diego said. “I had not thought about you needing clothes. Let me check to see if Mattie has something that you can borrow as my clothes will be too big for you.”
Diego ran out of the room and returned in about ten minutes. He handed Luka a pile of clothes.
“Mattie said he was not sure if they were your style, but you were welcome to borrow them.”
“Thanks,” Luka said. “Can I take a shower first?”
“Certainly,” Diego answered. “Take your time. I took mine this morning, while you were sleeping. I’ll be downstairs when you are ready.”
Luka nodded and slipped into the bathroom, while Diego headed down to the family room.
There was no one in the family room, so Diego sat down on the couch and started to flip through a magazine.
After about twenty minutes, Luka entered the room. Diego couldn’t help but smile when he saw him. Normally, Luka would dress in all black, tight-fitting clothes. Now he stood in the doorway wearing a bright red t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. His hair, which was normally styled and gelled, hung loose over his eyes and down his neck.
Luka looked at Diego shyly. “Don’t laugh,” he instructed.
“Why would I laugh?” Diego asked. “You look very good. I do not mind darker clothes, but it is nice to see you in something bright and cheerful. You are very handsome.”
Luka grinned and sat next to Diego. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“For taking care of me, for helping me, for making me feel better than I thought I would after yesterday.”
“You are welcome,” Diego replied as he put his arm around Luka’s shoulder. Luka melted into Diego’s side.
“We’re in the family room, Brandon,” Diego replied with a grin. He heard the front door slam and Brandon came running into the room.
“Hey, there’s something wrong with Dixie, can you take a look?” Brandon said excitedly. Dixie was one of the boarders.
Diego and Luka jumped up from the couch.
“What is it?” Diego asked.
“I’m not sure,” Brandon answered. “Her butt is all scaly and hard--it looks like a scab or a rash.”
“Sounds like rain rot,” Luka said. Diego nodded.
“What’s that?” Brandon asked.
“It’s a fungal infection,” Luka explained. “It’s very contagious. It gets spread by shared blankets, grooming tools or just touching a spot an infected horse has touched.”
“Does it hurt her?”
“The rain rot itself doesn’t--actually the cure usually bothers them more than the illness; but it can lead to worse stuff like staph if we don’t treat it,” Luka continued. “Did you notice it on any of the other horses?”
Brandon shook his head.
“Let’s go take a look. There should be some medicated shampoo in the tack room; if not, I have some in my locker.”
Luka led the way out of the house and towards the boarders’ barn. While he was concerned for Dixie, Diego was happy that this was distracting Luka from dwelling on Winston’s death.
Luka stopped in front of Dixie’s stall. She was a palomino mare about 14.3 hands tall.
Luka slid open the stall door and walked up to the mare. “Hey, girl,” he said gently. “Can I check you out?” he said as he stroked her neck.
He walked along her side and as soon as he saw her rear, he knew he was right. He turned and saw Diego and Brandon standing in the stall doorway. He nodded. “It’s rain rot, alright.” He walked back to where the others waited. “Brandon, can you get a halter on her and bring her to the wash racks? I’m gonna go and grab the stuff I need out of my locker.”
Brandon nodded as Luka ran to the other end of the barn to get his things.
“Sorry, Diego,” Brandon said as he slipped the halter on Dixie.
“Why are you apologizing?”
“Well, I know that Luka’s still feeling bad about Winston, but I couldn’t find anyone else to look at her.”
“Do not worry, my friend. I actually think this is a good thing for Luka. It is distracting him and giving him some purpose if only for a little while.” Diego smiled. “I am going to go make sure he has the right items, ok?”
“Sure,” Brandon replied. He led Dixie out to the wash rack and clipped her bridle to the cross ties. He stood stroking her neck while he waited for Luka and Diego.
Luka and Diego came out of the barn. Luka was carrying a large bucket. He put the bucket down at the wash rack.
“Ok, first thing we need to do is give her a good bath using this shampoo.” He handed a bottle to Brandon. “Make sure you wash her good, especially the affected areas. Then comes the part she’s not gonna like.” He grimaced. “You need to pick as many of the scabs off her as you can.”
Brandon stuck his tongue out. “Gross!”
Diego and Luka laughed.
Luka nodded. “Yes, it’s nasty, but it’s also the best thing for her. It’s gonna hurt her, and she’s not gonna like it, but it needs to be done. The organism that is causing the infection works best with no oxygen, that’s why it creates the scabs, so if you pick and peel off the scabs it exposes it to oxygen and makes it easier to kill. As bad as hers is, it’s gonna take a few days to make some headway. After you’ve picked the scabs, apply some of this anti-fungal spray and then slather on the aloe vera--that will keep the area protected and make her feel better.”
Diego stood back while Luka explained everything to Brandon. He knew that this was good for both of them; Brandon was learning and Luka was distracted. He also knew that Brandon, with his outgoing personality, would be a good person to pull Luka out of his shell.
“I am going to check on the other horses, to make sure that none of them have been infected as well,” Diego announced.
Luka and Brandon both nodded at him as they were both involved in washing Dixie.
Diego checked the horses in the boarders’ barn and then went through the other barns as well. There didn’t appear to be any more cases amongst the other horses, but he made sure to let a couple of the hands know so they could keep an eye out.
He called Dusty to have him check the horses in the rescue barns and Sarge to have him call Dixie’s owner. He knew from Ace that Dixie’s owner was mostly absent. She was a senior at the high school and had all but given up riding. He made a note to himself to have Sarge or CJ see about one of them working with her to at least make sure she was getting exercise. She might be a good project for Brandon or Erik in addition to their work with Chance and Rain.
When he finished, Diego went back to the wash racks. He stood in the shadow of the barn watching Luka and Brandon as they cared for Dixie; they were laughing and splashing each other with water. Diego smiled seeing Luka enjoying himself.
Dylan woke with a start when he heard his phone ringing. He unwrapped himself from Jesse and hopped out of the bed and ran over to where he had left his phone on Jesse’s dresser.
He grabbed his phone and ran into the bathroom not wanting to wake up Jesse.
Jesse woke up as soon as he couldn’t feel Dylan holding him. He looked around the room and just caught a glimpse of Dylan running into the bathroom.
He laid back with his eyes closed. He was trying to be positive, but he couldn’t get the fear of being ripped from his family out of his head. His sleep had been restless at best and he had awakened several times from nightmares.
He tried to fall back asleep, but without Dylan beside him it was impossible. He decided to get up and get dressed.
He was just finished dressing when Dylan came tearing out of the bathroom. He had a huge smile on his face and grabbed Jesse in a hug.
“What’s gotten into you?” Jesse asked.
“Wait a second,” Dylan said as he ran from the room.
Jesse shook his head. Dylan was usually rather modest, so the fact that he ran out of the room wearing only his underwear was very unusual. Jesse could hear him run down the stairs and a few minutes later he came running back up and into the bedroom.
“Here!!” Dylan said handing Jesse the newspaper.
Dylan had opened it to page three and folded it so that Jesse could see the story he was talking about.
The headline read: ‘Serial Rapist Stabbed In Prison’.
Jesse’s eyes got wide and he looked at Dylan. “You mean…”
Dylan nodded. “My mom just called, she wanted to make sure I knew. I called Tanner and he had just seen it too.”
“Is he dead?” Jesse asked, not bothering to read the article.
“Yes,” Dylan answered. “I guess someone did to him what he did to us. Then they stabbed him.” He looked at Jesse curiously. “Am I a bad person if I’m happy right now?”
Jesse grabbed Dylan in a hug and held him tight. “No!!” he exclaimed. “How could you not be happy that the person who hurt you the most is gone and can never hurt you again? I’m happy, too. That doesn’t make us bad people…we didn’t kill him, even though I did want to.”
“Me, too,” Dylan replied. “Sometimes, I wonder if when I shot Diego’s father I was thinking about Cody.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you were. But it’s all over now and we have something good to think about instead of Florida.”
“Let me get dressed so that we can find Ace, Danny and Zak and let them know,” Dylan said as he let go of Jesse and scurried around the room.
“We need to tell everyone,” Jesse declared.
“I know, but I want to tell them first.”
Dylan was still pulling his t-shirt over his head when he and Jesse scrambled out of the room and ran down the stairs.
There was no one else in the house so they ran over to the private barn. They found Ace cleaning out Bullet’s stall.
“Hey, guys,” Ace greeted them, leaning on his fork. “What’s the hurry?”
Dylan ran up to Ace and hugged him tight. “He’s dead!!” he screamed.
Ace stepped back and put his hands on Dylan’s shoulders. “Dylan, what are you talkin’ about? Who’s dead?”
“Cody!!” Dylan and Jesse shouted.
Dylan and Jesse excitedly relayed the information to Ace. Ace was glad that this news was distracting them from Jesse’s situation.
“We need to find Danny and Zak and tell them,” Dylan said.
“I think they’re both over at the rescue,” Ace answered. “Do you guys want to go on a trail later?”
“Sure,” Dylan replied. “We’ll run over and find Danny and Zak and then come back and meet you. Is it just us going?”
Ace shook his head. “Whoever wants to go,” he replied. “I asked Diego and he didn’t think Luka would be up to it and Spin’s too sore from his first ride yesterday, but Devon and TJ will probably go and if I see Brandon or Erik I’ll ask them.”
Jesse nodded. “We’ll ask Zak, Dusty, Danny and CJ when we find them,” he said as he and Dylan headed out of the barn.
They ran over to the rescue. They looked around and couldn’t find anyone. They decided to try Dusty’s loft.
They ran up the stairs and Dylan excitedly knocked on the door. “Dusty!! Zak!!” he called through the door.
The door finally opened.
“Hey, guys,” Dusty said as he opened the door.
“Is Zak here?” Dylan asked.
“Yeah, he’s here. Come in.”
Dylan and Jesse bounced through the door.
Zak, Danny and CJ were all sitting around. Zak bounced Idgie on his lap.
“There you are,” Dylan said excitedly.
“What’s up?” Danny asked. “Jesse, how are you doing this morning?”
“Well, still anxious and nervous about Florida, but Dylan got some news this morning. I guess it’s good news…”
Dylan relayed the phone call he had received from his mother.
“So, Cody’s dead?” Zak asked.
“How do you feel, Dyl?” Danny asked.
“Well, when I first heard, I was actually celebrating,” Dylan replied. “I know that probably isn’t right, but I am so relieved and I guess happy that he can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Danny stood up and went over and hugged Dylan. “Dylan, you’re not a bad person because you’re relieved and even happy that someone who hurt you so bad is gone now, “ he said as he released Dylan. “You are a good person and it’s not like you’re planning to dance on his grave.”
Zak reached up and grabbed Dylan’s arm and pulled him down onto the couch. He wrapped one arm around Dylan while he held Idgie with the other. “I’m happy, too,” he said. “You deserve some good news and now you can feel safer.”
Dylan nodded. “Since he went to prison, I haven’t felt like he was gonna jump out at me, but knowing he’s dead and that he can never hurt anyone ever again is just such a relief.”
The six sat around talking for a few more minutes.
“So, what are your plans for today?” Danny asked.
“Oh!!” Dylan exclaimed. “I almost forgot, Ace wants to take us on a trail out to the lake and we wanted to see if any of you wanted to come with us.”
“I wish we could,” Zak said. “But, Dusty and I are taking our moms out for the day. Since Dusty moved out here and I’m almost always here, they’re both complaining that they’re not seeing us enough.”
“And CJ and I are headed over to the mall. I have some last minute things I need to pick up before we leave tomorrow,” Danny explained.
“Ok,” Jesse said. “Well, we need to get going. Have you guys seen Brandon or Erik? We wanted to check with them, too.”
“Brandon is over at the boarders’ barn with Diego and Luka--Dixie has rain rot, so they’re showing him how to treat it,” CJ replied.
“And I think Erik is down in the barn finishing stalls,” Dusty said.
“Well, we’ll go check with them and then we are headed out,” Dylan said as he jumped up off the couch. “We’ll see you all later.”
Everyone said their goodbyes as Dylan and Jesse left the loft and headed down to the barn.
They found Erik just finishing cleaning the last stall.
“Hey, Erik,” Jesse greeted.
“Did you hear the news?” Dylan asked.
“Cody was killed in prison yesterday.”
Dylan, again relayed the story.
“Wow, I don’t know what to feel,” Erik said. “I’m sure you’re relieved and I guess I am too.”
Dylan nodded. “At first I was just really happy, but I guess now I am relieved, just knowing that he can’t hurt us or anyone else again.”
“So, Ace is taking us on a trail out to the lake, do you wanna come?” Jesse asked.
“Sure, I need to take Rain out anyways. She loves the water.”
“Ok, we’re gonna go check with Diego, Brandon and Luka and then we’ll meet you at our barn.”
“Sure, that will give me a chance to get this stuff put away and clean up.”
Jesse and Dylan walked over to the boarders’ barn and searched around. They finally found Diego, Brandon and Luka at Dixie’s stall.
“Hola, my friends.”
“Hey, Diego,” Jesse replied. “Do you guys want to go on a trail out to the lake?”
“I do,” Brandon said excitedly. “I want to see how Chance does in the water, maybe I can get him to swim.”
Diego looked at Luka. “It is up to Luka.”
Luka nodded. “You know, I think it would be good for me,” he said with a small smile. “I’ve actually haven’t gone on a trail ride in a long time. I just need a horse.”
“That’s not a problem,” Dylan said. “I’ll check with Zak, but I’m sure he’ll be ok with you borrowing Apollo.”
Dylan pulled out his phone and walked away to make the call.
“So, how’s Dixie?” Jesse asked as he stroked the palomino’s cheek.
“She’ll be ok,” Brandon said. “Luka showed me how to take care of her and we gave her a bath in this special shampoo and then picked off a lot of scabs and rubbed this anti-fungus stuff on her.”
Jesse grinned. Brandon’s enthusiasm was always contagious; he was sure that spending some time with him had definitely helped Luka.
“What about Stephanie?” Diego asked.
Luka shook his head. “She’s with a friend today,” he replied. “Back where we used to live, her best friend invited her to visit for the day.”
Dylan walked back over. “Zak said no problem taking Apollo.”
“Thanks,” Luka said.
“Hey, where is everyone!!”
“We’re over by Dixie’s stall, Ace!” Dylan yelled back.
Ace, Devon and TJ came around the corner.
“So, who’s goin’?” Ace asked.
“You’re lookin’ at ‘em,” Jesse answered, mimicking Ace’s southern drawl.
Ace grabbed Jesse around the neck. “Dyl, you might need to be lookin’ for a new boyfriend.”
“Are you volunteering?” Dylan laughed.
“Shit, you can have him back,” Ace said kissing Jesse on the forehead and then gave him a little shove in Dylan’s direction.
“How are you doing, Luka?” Devon asked as he walked over.
“Hanging in there,” Luka replied. “Been distracted taking care of Dixie this morning, so that’s actually been good.”
“You’re coming with us?”
Luka nodded. “Yea, I was just telling Diego, it’s been a long time since I just went on a relaxing trail ride--it’ll be fun.”
“Ok, guys, let’s get this show on the road,” Ace instructed.
“I have to run over to the rescue to get Chance,” Brandon said. “Don’t leave without me,” he said as he raced out of the barn.
The other boys went to get their horses groomed and tacked.
Jesse and Dylan took Luka with them, since Apollo was kept in the same area as Val and Dodger.
Diego smiled as he watched them walk off together.
“You’re fixin’ to crack that boy’s shell, ain’t ya?” Ace said and he put an arm over Diego’s shoulder and led him to Domingo’s stall.
Diego grinned. “I am hopeful.”
“Well, you must be working some magic on him, cuz I ain’t never seen that boy smile like that and after what happened yesterday, I figured he’d be holed up in your room all day.”
“He is a very nice boy. Hopefully, being around everyone here will, as you said, ‘crack his shell,” Diego said. “May I ask you a question?”
“Why is it sometimes you speak very proper English and other times you talk as you are doing now?”
Ace laughed. “This is more the way I usually talk, after livin’ in Texas most of my life,” he explained. “But when I moved to California, I practiced speaking in a more refined manner so that the other kids didn’t give me a problem over my accent.”
Diego laughed at the way Ace changed his accent and his speech.
“I usually try to talk more without the accent, but around here, I can just be myself and I tend to slip more into it.”
“You must show me how you do this sometime,” Diego remarked. “I think that sometimes people have a difficult time understanding me.”
Ace shook his head. “I don’t think anyone has ever told me they couldn’t understand you. Your English is very good and your accent isn’t bad at all. But, you can tell you learned English as a second language.”
“Your speech; you speak very proper,” Ace said in a very distinguished voice. “We all talk more casual--that’s what you need to learn to do.”
“I shall try,” Diego said.
“I’m gonna give it a go,” Diego replied as Ace laughed.
“Good job, let’s go get the horses.”
The boys were just getting mounted up, when Brandon and Erik came trotting around the corner on Chance and Rain.
“We’re ready,” Brandon said with a grin.
Once everyone was mounted they started down the trail.
They formed a loose column riding two or three abreast. Ace, Dylan and Jesse, with Rusty running out in front of them, led the way, followed by Devon and TJ, Luka and Diego and Brandon and Erik bringing up the rear.
They walked the horses a nice leisurely pace.
Ace and Jesse were talking, so Dylan reined Dodger in and turned back where Diego, Brandon, Erik and Luka were. Diego was giving Brandon and Erik tips like they were having a lesson and Luka rode quietly next to them.
He rode up alongside Luka.
“How’s Apollo doing for you, Luka?” he asked.
“He’s great,” Luka answered, stroking the gelding’s neck. “It’s been so long since I’ve ridden a different horse.”
“He’s a good one.” Dylan smiled. “I rode him a lot when I first came out here. At first, I didn’t have Dodger and then when we found him it took a few months to get him into shape.”
“He looks like he’s doing really good now.”
“Oh, he is,” Dylan laughed. “He’s full of piss and vinegar as my grandfather would say. But we did really good at the show in March and hopefully, we’ll do some more this summer.”
“I was planning on showing, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
“You’ll keep training,” Dylan said. “There’s horses around and we’re getting them into the rescue weekly at this point. You might not be ready to have a new one of your own, but you’ll be able to ride and train till you are.” Dylan thought for a minute. “Actually, you could help me out.”
“Well, Jesse and I are heading down to Florida with Danny tomorrow and I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone. If you want you can ride Dodger. That way he’ll get some work.”
“You really want me to?”
“Sure, you’re a good rider and Dodger’s a good boy. I’ll tell you what…on the way back we’ll switch, you can take Dodger back and I’ll take Apollo, that way you can try him before you agree to anything.”
Dylan smiled at Luka. “Thanks,” he said as the continued to ride along.
Diego smiled at Dylan from behind Luka and winked at him. Luka was starting to open up more and that made him happy.
When they got to the lake, everyone dismounted.
Rusty raced straight into the lake.
“Who else is up for a swim?” Ace laughed.
“Uh, Ace, we didn’t bring any suits,” Erik objected.
Ace grinned. “Never stopped me before.”
“You aren’t serious.”
“Oh, he’s serious all right,” Devon laughed.
“Are we taking the horses?” Jesse asked.
“If anyone wants to,” Ace answered.
“I’m in,” Brandon said as he pulled off Chance’s saddle, which he had already loosened. He put the saddle on the ground and threw the saddle pad over it. He then pulled his t-shirt over his head, took off his boots and shimmied out of his jeans and underwear. “Well, what are you guys waiting for?” he said.
Ace laughed at the small boy standing there in all his glory. “You heard the man,” he yelled as he pulled off Bullet’s saddle and stripped.
The rest of the boys watched laughing as they watched Ace and Brandon lead their horses into the lake. The contrast of the tall muscular Ace walking alongside the small, skinny Brandon was amusing.
Devon, Dylan, Jesse and TJ all shrugged and started pulling the saddles off their horses. They then all started to strip.
Jesse looked over at Erik and Luka who both seemed a bit shell-shocked. “Are you guys coming?” he asked.
Erik was wide-eyed. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“Why not?” Dylan asked. “We’re all friends here and no one’s gonna pick on you.”
“Are you sure?”
Devon went over to Erik. “Erik, listen, if you don’t want to skinny-dip you don’t have to; you can leave your jockeys on or swim in your clothes or stay on the shore. Do whatever makes you comfortable, but no one is going to make fun of you or pick on you. Ace and I used to do this all the time and let me tell you, he was an early bloomer and I was not and he never made one comment about it.”
Erik replied in a low voice. “But what if…”
Devon put his hand on Erik’s shoulder. “Erik, there are eight gay guys and one gorgeous straight guy here,” he laughed. “Do you think there aren’t gonna be hard-ons all over the place. It’s not a big deal, besides we’ll be in the water.”
Erik looked at Luka who had been talking with Dylan and Jesse. He nodded at Erik.
“Ok,” Erik said as he pulled his t-shirt over his head.
Jesse and Dylan pulled off Apollo’s tack. Erik was in the habit of riding Rain bareback so he was all set once he was stripped.
The boys spent the afternoon swimming with the horses, sunbathing, playing dick tag and just enjoying each other’s company.
They let the horses graze in the small fenced-in area so they would dry before they put the saddles back on them.
They were getting ready to head back when Dylan said to Jesse. “Hey, Jess, Luka’s gonna ride Dodger back and I’m taking Apollo.”
“I asked him to work with Dodger while we’re gone. He’s not ready to get a new horse since he just lost Winston, but he needs to keep working.”
“Good idea, maybe I should ask him to work Val, too,” Jesse replied. “That way they’ll both stay in shape while we’re gone.” He looked over and saw Luka saddling Dodger. “Hey, Luka.”
“Could you work with Val some while we’re gone?”
Luka looked up. “Really? Are you sure?”
Jesse nodded. “I’m not sure how long this is gonna take and I don’t want him just sitting around. Maybe you can alternate days with Dodger and Val. You know, you should get with Zak and see about doing some work with Onyx too.”
Jesse grinned. “I was the same way, but if Zak’s there the first few times, he’ll be fine. Zak wants him in dressage and you and I are really the only ones, besides Danny, that have that experience. I can give you the routines and movements we are working on.”
“Well, I’ll talk to Zak,” Luka said hesitantly. “I have no problem working with Val and Dodger, but as much as I’d love to try Onyx, I’m just not sure it would work.”
“I’ll talk to Zak tonight and then you guys can get together and work things out, ok?”
Luka smiled and nodded. “Thanks, Jess.”
“No, thank you,” Jesse replied. He stepped closer to Luka and whispered, “I know it’s hard to get through something like this but keeping busy is the best thing you can do and you’re really helping me and Dylan.”
Diego walked up leading Domingo. “Is everything alright?” he asked, with a touch of concern in his voice.
Luka nodded. “Everything’s great. Jesse and Dylan asked me to work with Dodger and Val while they are away.”
“Excellent,” Diego said smiling at Jesse.
Jesse walked over and stroked Domingo’s neck. “This guy seems to be adapting well to the move.”
“Yes, he loves it here as do I,” Diego said. “Jesse, would you like to ride him back? I could ride Val if you wish.”
Jesse smiled big and nodded. “Sure. I’ve only ridden Ash once, but I love how smooth these guys are. Are you sure it will be ok?”
Luka laughed. “Aren’t you the one who just a few minutes ago was trying to convince me to ride Onyx?”
Jesse blushed and nodded.
“Do not worry, my friend,” Diego said. “Since we have been here, Domingo has been getting used to many people being around him and I am here, so he will be fine for you.”
“Cool,” Jesse said as he tossed Val’s reins to Diego and took Domingo’s. He vaulted onto the Andaulsian’s back. “Awesome,” he said as he rode over to where Dylan was waiting with Apollo.
Dylan pouted when he saw his boyfriend riding on Diego’s horse. “No fair.”
Jesse laughed. “Right place, right time.”
“It’s still not fair.”
Diego and Luka rode up.
Diego laughed. “When we get back to the ranch, you can ride him in the arena if you wish, Dylan.”
Dylan grinned. “Cool beans. Thanks, Diego.”
The ride back was far less organized than the ride out. The boys broke into smaller groups--some raced back to the ranch while others took a more leisurely pace.
Brandon and Erik were out in front alternating between trotting and cantering Chance and Rain. Rusty kept up with the two boys and their mounts.
“Those two are getting pretty good,” Devon said to Ace.
“Diego and Dusty have done a really good job teachin’ ‘em,” Ace replied. “But, we need to find Erik a horse of his own. Dusty’s got plans for Rain; as it is Erik’s gotten real attached to her.”
“There are horses coming into the rescue every day,” TJ said.
Ace nodded. “Yeah, I know, but so far nothing really special. We need to be on the lookout for that special horse for our little buddy.”
“Has Brandon ‘officially’ adopted Chance yet?” Devon asked.
“Nothin’ official, but that’s his horse,” Ace answered. “That’s what we need to find for Erik and eventually for Luka, though I think Dyl and Jess are on the right track letting him ride their horses while they’re gone. That will keep him busy and he won’t dwell on Winston. Eventually, though, he’ll be ready for a new horse, so we need to keep an eye out.”
“He may not want a rescue,” Devon replied.
Ace grinned. “I’m thinkin’ that boy’s gonna be changin’. Especially, if he’s gonna be with Diego.”
When they got back to the ranch, Brandon and Erik rode over to the rescue to do some work in the arena with Rain and Chance. Ace, Devon and TJ went to take care of their horses at the private barn.
Luka, Diego, Dylan and Jesse rode over to the arena.
“So, how did you like Dodger?” Dylan asked Luka.
“He’s great,” Luka answered. “You’ve done some good work with him.”
“Thanks,” Dylan said. “He was really well trained when I got him and we gelled. When we found him last year I didn’t know if he’d ever be whole again, but he’s better than ever.”
The two looked into the arena, where Jesse was cantering Domingo. Diego was giving him directions.
“Diego is a natural as a trainer,” Dylan said. “I don’t think he understands how good he is.”
“You really think so?” Luka asked.
Dylan nodded. “Look at Brandon. That kid’s been riding a couple a months and he rides like he was born in the saddle--that’s all Diego. Plus, he’s teaching Brandon all the little things that most instructors don’t bother with. Brandon could adopt Chance tomorrow and he’s more than ready to care for him.”
“I’ll have to watch him,” Luka said. “We’ve spent some time together, but I haven’t seen him training. Well, I saw what he was doing with Brandon and Erik on the trail.”
“You like him, don’t you?”
Luka blushed red. “Is it that obvious?”
“Takes one to know one,” Dylan replied. “Everyone is always telling me and Jesse that they can always tell we’re a couple. That’s why we came out to that reporter: we figured we had nothing to hide.”
“That was really brave of you guys.”
“I guess,” Dylan said thoughtfully. “Really, we were just trying to prove that the bullshit that people were saying about CJ and Danny ‘recruiting’ us was just that…bullshit. And then there are people who think that me getting raped ‘made’ me gay. I knew I was gay way before that and if that made you gay, then they would have to explain why my friend Tanner is straight, cuz it happened to him too.”
“I can’t imagine going through that,” Luka said. “Here I am feeling sorry for myself and you guys have been through much worse.”
Dylan shook his head. “Don’t think that way. We all have had stuff happen to us and we all survive. We survive cuz we have each other to get us through. I love Jesse with all my heart and I can’t imagine a single day without him, but I love my ‘brothers’ too and I’ll do whatever I can to help any of them and that includes you now.”
“I just tell like I see it.” Dylan grinned. “I guess hanging out with Ace is rubbing off on me. But, I think you and Diego will be great together. He is such a good guy, even after everything that happened in Spain. If anyone can get you through it’s Diego.”
Luka nodded. He didn’t know what to say.
“Hey, why don’t you take Val for a spin in the arena,” Dylan suggested. “Jesse can give you some tips for him and that will get him off Domingo so I can try him.”
Luka grinned and nodded. The two slipped off their horses and entered the arena.
The four boys spent the rest of the afternoon riding each other’s horses and enjoying each other’s company.
“Jesse, calm down,” Danny ordered.
Jesse was seated between Dylan and Danny on the plane. He had been jittery all morning and the closer they got to Florida, the worse it got.
“I can’t help it, Danny. I just keep feeling like I’m never going to be home again.”
“Yes, you will,” Danny said calmly. “Whatever happens on this trip, you will be coming back with me and Dylan. We’re not leaving without you.”
“Damn straight,” Dylan piped up.
Danny laughed. “You’ve been spending too much time with Ace.”
They landed at Orlando International Airport and after collecting their bags, they went to the Hertz counter to pick up the car Danny had arranged.
Danny drove them to Ocala and their friend Abigail’s ranch.
Abigail was waiting on the porch when Danny pulled up to the house.
“Danny!! Jesse!!” she cried as she grabbed each of them in a huge hug. “I miss you boys.” She looked at Dylan. “And you must be Dylan,” she said as he hugged him. “Jesse has written me so much about you. I am so happy that he has someone that he cares so much for.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Dylan replied.
“Please; Abigail,” she protested. “None of that ma’am or missus stuff.”
Jesse and Danny laughed. They were used to Abigail’s casual style and motherly attitude.
“You boys have the whole second floor to yourselves. I had your rooms made up for you.” She looked at Jesse with a wink. “I assumed you and Dylan would bunk together, but I can have the third bedroom made up instead.”
Jesse and Dylan both blushed.
“No, that’s ok,” Jesse answered. “You don’t have to go to the trouble.”
After they had brought their bags up to their rooms, Jesse led Dylan down to the kitchen where Abigail and Danny were catching up.
“Abigail, is it ok if we take Macho out?” Jesse asked.
“Of course, sweetie. I have a young man who’s been coming a few days a week to ride him, but he won’t be here today.”
“Dylan’s never ridden a Paso before,” Jesse explained. “So I want to show him what he can do.”
“You boys have fun, I’m sure Macho will be happy to see you.”
Jesse and Dylan ran out of the house and Jesse led Dylan to the barn.
“Wow, this is a big place,” Dylan remarked. “Not as big as Second Chances, but still pretty big.”
“Yeah. Danny and CJ worked here in college and this is where Danny found me.”
“And where you found Val.”
Jesse nodded. “This is where I thought I was happiest,” he said. “Until I found you.”
Dylan hugged Jesse tight. He gazed into Jesse’s green eyes and kissed him. “Wherever you are is where I’ll be happiest,” he whispered. “I love you so much.”
“Me, too,” Jesse whispered. “Forever and always.”