by Andrew Todd
Zak stood there holding the hand of the most beautiful boy he had ever seen. His heart started pounding in his chest and he felt lightheaded. If ever he had doubted that he was indeed gay, this moment ended those doubts. If he were a more forward person, he would have probably thrown himself at Dusty’s feet and let him have his way with him. But, he wasn’t that forward or brave a person and he just stood there, speechless.
“Hey, buddy,” Dusty laughed. “I’m gonna need that hand back.”
Zak let go of Dusty’s hand like it was on fire. “S-sorry.”
“That’s ok. You are Zak, right? I just saw you sitting here and assumed that you were Zak.”
“Yes, I’m Zak, Zak Myers.”
“Well, it’s great to meet you, Zak. I’m Dustin Crandall, but everyone just calls me Dusty.”
The smile he gave Zak made him swoon again, but he caught himself quickly. “Sorry I’m such a space case; I was just sitting here daydreaming and you caught me by surprise. You’re not what I was expecting.”
“You mean you figured you were gonna get stuck with an old cowboy instead of a young Indian?”
“Ye-, I mean, no, I mean,” Zak stuttered, while Dusty smiled wider. “I was expecting someone older, but I hadn’t given your ethnicity any thought. It certainly doesn’t matter to me.”
“Sorry, I’m just teasing you. And I’m only half Native American anyways. My dad was full-blood Kiowa, but my mom is blonder than you.”
“Yes, my dad passed away when I was little. It’s just been me and my mom ever since.”
“Really; my dad died when I was about two and it’s just me and Mom, too.”
“Wow; I’m sorry, but it’s nice to be around someone who understands.”
Zak just nodded in silence. Not only was Dusty visually stunning, but he seemed like a kind and compassionate person as well; maybe this summer wouldn’t be as bad as he thought.
“Hey, do you know where Mr. Jones is? I thought he’d be with you when I got here.”
“He was, but he said he had to go over to the other barn for a few minutes and he thought you would be right along, so he left me here with Ember to keep me company.”
Dusty looked down at the Retriever who had returned to her spot next to Zak’s chair. Zak sat back down and Dusty leaned against Mr. Jones’ desk. “Wow, she seems to be really taken with you. Usually, she sticks to me like glue and only gives others a passing glance.”
“Mr. Jones said he thought she must sense something in me. But, I’ve never been around any animals, so I don’t know what she sees.”
“Well, she’s a good judge of character, so she probably senses that you are a kind person. She also has a strong mothering instinct, so maybe she thinks you need some mothering too.” Dusty flashed his bright smile again, and Zak felt his face flush. “Did he say which barn he was heading to?”
“No, I figured there was only one more.”
“Actually, there are three. He’s probably over in the boarder’s barn; there’s a mare that is about to foal and he’s probably checking on her.”
“Heh, Mr. Jones wasn’t kidding, you don’t know anything about horses, do you?” Normally, a question like that would have shut him down, but Zak could sense there was no malice in Dusty, just curiosity.
“No, like I told Mr. Jones, I haven’t been near a horse since I went on a pony ride at the State Fair when I was five. I’m an indoor type of person. I spend most of my time on the computer and reading. I volunteer at the town library. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“You’re here to learn and I’m here to teach. Lesson one: When I said the mare was about to foal, it means she is pregnant and about to have her baby. A baby horse is called a foal.”
“Did Mr. Jones give you any idea of what your job would be here?”
“Not really; he spoke about it some, but didn’t really get into the details.”
“No problem. Basically, you and I are going to be a team this summer. What we do here is lessons and trail rides. I do about 70% of the lessons. Mainly kids, and some adults, who want to learn basic western riding; I also teach more advanced riders things like barrel racing, pole racing and trail challenges.” He noticed the puzzled look on Zak’s face and grinned. “Don’t worry. You aren’t going to be teaching lessons, at least not yet. And I’ll explain what those events are later. You’ll be helping me lead trail rides and grooming and tacking horses for lessons.”
“Wait; I can’t ride and while I have some idea what grooming is I have no clue what tacking means.”
“Like I said, I’m here to teach you. Tack is how we refer to the equipment we outfit the horse with for riding–the bridle, the saddle, etc.”
“So, tacking the horses means to saddle them up?”
“Right! See, you’re learning already. Mr. Jones has basically given me the next couple of weekends to train you. My only job for the next few weeks, at least on Saturday and Sunday, is to get you ready for this summer. From what Mr. Jones told me, you’re a pretty smart cookie. So between your smarts and my horse sense, we should make a pretty good team and should have you up and running in no time.”
“Well, like I told Mr. Jones, I’ll give it a go. Though, I’m not sure what I have to offer.”
“Hey, City Boy, you wouldn’t be here if Mr. Jones hadn’t been convinced you had something to offer. Like I said, Emmy is a good judge of character, too, and she seems to really like you. Right, girl?”
The dog looked from Dusty to Zak and barked as if to agree with Dusty. Both boys laughed.
“So, if you do 70% of the lessons, who does the rest–Mr. Jones?”
“No, Mr. Jones is pretty much the manager and he helps out with the manual labor around here, but he really doesn’t have the patience for lessons. We have a lady who comes out two or three days a week–she handles the English lessons.”
“Somehow, I’m thinking your ‘English lessons’ and mine are not the same thing.”
“Now you’re getting somewhere. We teach two types of riding here. I teach western, which is kind of the ‘cowboy’ style and Debbie teaches English, which is viewed by most as the more ‘polished’ style of riding.” Dusty rolled his eyes and used his fingers to make air quotes when he said ‘polished’. I don’t hold with that thought, but there is a demand for English lessons and I’m not doing them.”
“Because you’re a cowboy?”
“I thought we settled this, I’m an Indian…or at least half one,” Dusty laughed. “No, I just don’t have any use for English riding; it’s too fancy for me. Western’s more fun as I’m sure you’ll agree once we get started.”
“Sure,” Zak replied, not looking at all convinced.
Dusty flashed his high-watt smile. “I’ll have you turned into a real cowboy in no time.” He looked at his watch. “Hmm, Mr. Jones must have gotten hung up out there. Why don’t we take a quick tour of this barn and hopefully he’ll turn up soon.”
They both rose and Zak followed Dusty into the barn. Ember placed herself in between them, unable to decide between her old friend and her new one.
“All right,” Dusty started. “Like I said, there are three barns here at the ranch. Each barn is set up pretty much the same way. There are 24 stalls in each barn. They’re all set up like a cross with four sections. Each section has six stalls, three on each side. Each section also has a tack room.” He noticed the quizzical look on Zak’s face. “A tack room is where we keep the saddles, grooming supplies and such. Each tack room is one side of the section and the other side has a feed room, which is where…”
“You keep the feed,” Zak interrupted with a giggle.
“I knew you were a smart kid,” Dusty laughed.
“Kid? How old are you, ‘old man’?”
“I’ll be 17 in December.”
“Really; I thought you’d be older than that. I’ll be 16 in August. What school do you go to?”
“I’m enrolled in the town high school, but I mainly attend the vocational center.” As he explained this to Zak, it was the first time Zak had sensed vulnerability in Dusty. He could guess why. The vocational center was located across town from the high school; it was part of the school district and was set up to teach students a trade and prepare them for life after high school. Most of the kids who attended were ones who had no real chance or desire for college. Many of the kids at his school looked down on the kids who went to the vocational center.
“That explains why I’ve never seen you at school. I’m sure I would have remembered you. Do you like the vocational center?”
Dusty was surprised by Zak’s interest; he was used to the rude comments most of the high school kids made about him and his classmates. He knew he was a smart kid and some day might look to further his education, but he was happiest working on the farm and the vocational center was helping him get ready for life after high school.
“I like it. I take a few basic classes, like Math and English, but I take these at night so that I can work here during the day. I also take some business classes so that I can eventually run my own operation.”
“I’m glad that you like it. My mom works at First National Bank and she’s on the School Board. She was very instrumental in getting the vocational center opened. She’s always so proud of it. She wanted there to be a place where kids could be prepared for the next step in their lives. She was seeing so many kids drop out of school, because they felt if they didn’t plan to go to college, for whatever reason, then they didn’t need to finish high school. She wanted a place where they felt they belonged and they were getting something out of their high school experience.”
“Well, I really like it. Some of the kids are there just to avoid having to deal with the ‘real’ high school, but most of my classmates are trying to get themselves ready for the real world. A lot of people seem to look down on us like we are stupid or something. But in most cases, we know there is no money for college, so we know we are going to have to go right to work.”
“Well, I certainly don’t think you are stupid. I’ve been with you half an hour and I’ve already learned a lot. Just because it’s not ‘book learning’ doesn’t mean it’s not valuable knowledge. I can’t wait to tell my mom that I met someone who attends the vocational center and how much you like it; she’ll be thrilled.”
Dusty grinned and put his arm around Zak’s shoulder and hugged him to his side. “Zak, I have a feeling this is going to be a great summer and the beginning of a great friendship.”
Zak blushed deeply. He quickly placed his arm around Dusty’s side and then stepped away. Being that close to Dusty had his heart pounding and he wanted this boy to be his friend, he didn’t want to scare him away knowing that Zak had a crush on him.
“Well,” started Dusty, “if we’re going to accomplish anything today, I better go see if I can find Mr. Jones. Why don’t you just look around and I’ll be right back.”
Dusty walked briskly out of the barn. Ember considered following him as she usually did, but opted to stay with ‘her’ new boy instead.
Zak slowly walked down the first hallway. Dusty hadn’t finished explaining where everything was, but he’d just poke around a little. Down the first hallway there were the six stalls, but it appeared that only 2 of them were occupied. There was a little white horse in the first one and a brown one in the end stall on the opposite side. He approached the stall with the white horse in it; the horse stretched its neck over the stall door as Zak approached.
“Hi, there,” he said as he reached out to stroke the horse’s neck.
The horse shook her head up and down and nuzzled up to Zak. He giggled to himself. Again he allowed himself to think this summer might not be the lost cause he thought it would be.
He gave the horse a last pat and walked away to continue his exploration. He was suddenly feeling more comfortable in the barn and wanted to see the other horses.
He went down the next two hallways and there were a total of five horses of various sizes and colors. He would cautiously approach each one and talk to them softly, pet them and give them scratches. They all seemed genuinely happy to see a kind face. With each one, his comfort level grew and he found himself actually looking forward to spending more time here.
As he started down the last hallway, he noticed that each stall he passed was empty. When he reached the end of the hallway he saw that there was only one occupant in this section of the barn. His eye widened when, in the very last stall, he saw the biggest, blackest horse he had ever seen. He just stared for a moment; this was without a doubt the most beautiful animal he had ever seen. He was the biggest of the horses he had encountered in the barn. He was entirely black with the exception of a small white diamond on his forehead and had a magnificent long full mane and tail. He also had shaggy black hair around his feet.
He slowly approached the stall speaking quietly to the huge animal. “Hey, boy, why are you all alone down here?” he asked.
The horse responded my lipping Zak’s fingers and snorting at him. Zak laughed and reached up to pet the horse’s neck and as the horse lowered its head he scratched it up near its ears. “You’re lonely down here, aren’t you? Well, since I’m alone here, I’ll keep you company.”
He didn’t know why but something drew him to this horse more than the others. He looked into the stall and noticed a tipped-over bucket and a puddle of water on the stall floor. He looked up and saw the hook on the wall the bucket should be hanging from.
“Hey! You knocked over your water bucket.” He looked around the hallway and saw a large sink in the corner. Feeling braver than he had in a long time he kept talking to the horse and opened the stall door. He eyed the horse cautiously. “Ok, let me get your bucket filled up and then you can get a drink, Ok?”
He walked over and picked up the bucket. The horse was right behind him, following him like a big puppy dog. Ember had placed herself across the hallway from the stall and was watching his every move, as if she thought he might need help.
Zak turned and walked back to the stall door. He closed and bolted the door and took the bucket over to the sink. He was humming to himself while water filled the bucket. When the bucket was about ¾ full he turned off the tap and, using both hands, lifted the now-heavy bucket and lugged it over to the stall. He placed the bucket on the barn floor and reached up to unlock the stall.
“HEY!!” He saw Dusty running down the hallway. He grinned at him and started to step into the stall.
Dusty grabbed him just as he was about to pick up the water bucket. “What the hell are you doing?!?”
Zak turned and looked at Dusty. “I was just filling the big guy’s water bucket. Somehow he managed to knock it down from the hook.”
“You went in that stall?!?” Dusty had a panicked look on his face.
Zak was confused. “Yeah, I was exploring the barn like you suggested and I saw that he was the only horse down this hallway. He seemed kinda lonely so I started petting and talking to him. He was so mellow. I saw the bucket and thought I would help him out.” Thinking he had overstepped, his voice started breaking and he was on the verge of tears. “Did I do something wrong?”
Dusty just looked at him incredulously. “I’m sorry I jumped on you. I was just scared for you. The last person who went near Onyx’s stall other than me spent the night in the hospital.”
“Really? This horse? He’s been so calm and sweet to me. Can I put this bucket in there? It’s getting kinda heavy.”
Dusty thought about it for a few seconds. “OK, just go slowly; he spooks very easily.”
He watched Zak like a hawk as the smaller boy reopened the stall door and entered. Zak started talking very quietly to the big horse. “Hey, buddy, I got that water for you. I’m just gonna try to hang it up over here.”
The horse’s ear perked up at Zak’s voice and he followed him over to the corner of the stall. Dusty just shook his head in disbelief as Onyx lowered his head and watched Zak hang the water bucket.
“There you go, all full for you.” Zak turned to find the huge horse standing directly behind him. He walked towards Onyx and reached his arms on either side of the animal’s neck. “Onyx, that’s a perfect name for you. Black as night and just as beautiful.” He placed his head against the horse’s chest and hugged him. Dusty’s jaw dropped as he watched the horse drop his head against Zak’s back and pull him closer. The boy and horse embraced for a few moments and then Zak backed away still talking in a low voice and walked towards the stall door. “I’ll see you later, ok?”
He walked out of the stall and bolted the door.
He looked up and saw Mr. Jones standing a few feet behind Dusty. He also had a look of horror and confusion on his face.
“I’ll be damned. Dusty, what is going on? What is he doing in that stall?” Mr. Jones didn’t seem angry, just confused about what he had just witnessed.
Trying to save his new friend from getting into trouble, Zak interrupted. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong, I just thought I was helping out.” He then went on to re-tell how he had come to meet Onyx.
Mr. Jones just shook his head. “I told you, Dusty, this boy has the same magic touch that you do. I’ve never seen that horse that docile in the whole time he’s been here.”
Dusty nodded. “He barely tolerates me, but he was following Zak around like a puppy. I’ve never seen him like that.”
“Zak, I know he seemed gentle to you, but we’ve had some real problems with this big guy, so I want you to be careful. I’ll leave the decision up to Dusty, but if he thinks Onyx can behave around you, then you can take over taking care of him, since Dusty has been the only one he has even tolerated.”
Zak’s face lit up with a huge smile and he looked expectantly at Dusty.
Dusty shook his head and laughed. “We’ll take it slow and I’ll be here with you at the beginning. ‘Taking care of’ means cleaning out his stall and feeding and watering him.”
Zak nodded his head and turned back to see Onyx bending over the stall door. He reached up to pet the horse’s neck. “You’d like that, boy, right?” The big horse pushed his face into Zak’s warm hand and shook his head.”
Mr. Jones still could not believe this was the same horse. “Well, I’ll leave you boys to it, then. Zak, Dusty’s only job the next few weekends is to get you up and running for the summer. So you just stick with him.”
“I will, sir, thank you.”
Mr. Jones turned and walked out of the barn.
Zak was about to ask Dusty what they were off to next, when Dusty ran after Mr. Jones. “Be back in a second,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Zak turned back to the stall and just stared at Onyx. He started to stroke the horse’s neck. As he stood there his mind drifted. He started thinking how awesome it would be to ride this amazing animal. He didn’t know if he’d ever have the courage or if Dusty and Mr. Jones would allow it, since they seemed to think Onyx was dangerous. But, he could dream.
He was awakened from his daydream by two hands on his shoulders. Before he could turn around he heard Dusty’s voice whisper in his ear. “I’ve seen that look before; just remember you need to walk before you can fly.”
Zak tried to respond, but all he could focus on was Dusty’s warm breath caressing his ear and the sweet minty smell of his breath. He felt a small shiver run up his spine. He squeezed his eyes tight and willed himself to get it together.
“I-I-I don’t know what you mean.”
Dusty laughed, “Oh, yes you do. You’re thinking about what a thrill it would be to ride Onyx.”
Zak flushed and looked at his feet.
“Not that there is anything wrong with dreaming, but I’m responsible for you, so it will be some time before I leave you alone with this horse and probably even longer before I let you ride him. Not that he isn’t a sweet ride.”
“You’ve ridden him?”
“Once. Just to prove to the idiot who used to own him that it could be done. Mr. Jones seems to think I have a ‘magic touch’ with all animals, but Onyx has been pretty immune. Like I said, he tolerates me working around him, but he still gives me an attitude most of the time.”
“If he’s so much trouble, why does Mr. Jones keep him?”
“He’s a very valuable horse. He’s a Friesian. That’s a European breed from the Netherlands. They are not very plentiful in the US. The lady who bought him for her son had visions of him being a champion eventer. That’s a three-day contest which includes dressage, showjumping and cross-country. The kid was not much of rider to start with, but Mom was one of those who thought that since he was a great athlete–football, basketball, track, etc.–that he would be a great rider. No one could convince her it was not the same thing. So she dropped a huge chunk of change to purchase Onyx overseas and have him shipped over.”
Dusty continued, “When he arrived, it was obvious this was too much horse for TJ.”
“TJ? Not, TJ Oliver?” Zak asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one. You know him?”
“Yes, he’s only tried to make my life miserable every day of the last year.”
“Sounds like him. Well, you’ll like the rest of this story then,” Dusty snickered. “When his mom brought him to meet Onyx for the first time, I thought he was gonna pass out. All the blood rushed out of his face. Like I said, he was not much of a rider. He was and is competent, but he doesn’t have a passion for it. Just like his mom, he thinks everything should come easy to him. So we got Onyx tacked up for him and led him to the arena for TJ to try him out. I perched myself on the fence, cuz I was not going to miss this. TJ tried to mount, but Onyx just danced around and fidgeted.
“Finally, after watching this for about 10 minutes, I hopped off the fence and offered to hold him so TJ could mount. TJ glared at me, but accepted the assistance. He finally got mounted and that’s when the real fireworks began. He got Onyx to make one circle around the arena, but anyone who had ever been around horses, knew that Onyx was up to something. He was feeling TJ out and as soon as he knew that TJ was becoming complacent, he made his move. One big buck and TJ was flying through the air. He landed on his side and didn’t move. Onyx just ran around the arena. Mrs. Oliver was having a fit screaming about how this horrible animal had tried to kill her baby.
“TJ just had the wind knocked out of him. When he finally got to his feet, he had a look of hate in his eyes and he started towards Onyx. I jumped off the fence and grabbed TJ. I told him that he was not going to do anything to hurt that horse, that it had been his fault because he was not yet a good enough rider for such a horse. He laughed in my face and insinuated that Onyx was unrideable. Because if he couldn’t ride him, no one could.
“So, to prove him wrong, I told him to go and wait by the fence. I slowly walked over to Onyx, talked to him and stroked him quietly. When I thought he was calm enough, I launched myself up in to the saddle and made a few turns around the arena on him. Like I said he is a sweet ride.
“Well, after that TJ and his mom decided that he would be finding a new hobby, as riding was now beneath him. Since Mrs. Oliver just wanted to write off the whole experience, she sold Onyx to Mr. Jones for a fraction of what she paid.”
“But, if he’s so much trouble, why did Mr. Jones want him.?”
“Well, one reason was to protect him. Mrs. Oliver was not beyond selling him for dog food. She and TJ see these animals as simply property to be disposed of when they are no longer of use. The other reason is that Mr. Jones, for all his ‘awe shucks’ country manners, is a helluva shrewd business man. He knew that Onyx would pay for his keep with stud fees.”
“Onyx is a stallion. Since Friesians and Friesian-crosses are widely sought after in the US, people pay Mr. Jones to let Onyx breed and impregnate their mares. And he has thrown some beautiful babies.”
“So, Mr. Jones is Onyx’s pimp?” Zak giggled.
Dusty laughed, “You could look at it that way.”
“Anyways,” Dusty continued, “Onyx is stubborn and he can be mean. I’m usually the only one who messes with him. I was out sick one day last winter and one of the other hands thought he could handle simply filling his water bucket, just like you were doing, and Onyx head-butted him right out of the stall. Joe hit his head and they called 911 to take to the emergency room; luckily he just had a slight concussion, but that’s why Mr. Jones and I are both very leery of anyone coming near this horse.”
“Wow,” started Zak. “I know I don’t know much about horses or animals in general, but I get such a great vibe from Onyx. Like he trusts me. Maybe he just doesn’t feel he has anything to be scared of because I’m smaller than everyone around here; maybe he knows I don’t know any better. It’s funny, the other horses were making me nervous–I was walking around petting and talking to most of them–but Onyx was the only one I felt drawn to. Maybe we both have something to teach each other.”
“Could be,” responded Dusty. “We’ll take it slow and find out, but first we have some other ‘chores’ to take care of.”
“Well, not the stuff you’re thinking of,” Dusty laughed. “I’ll hold off on teaching you the intricacies of shoveling shit until tomorrow.”
“Oh, joy,” said Zak sarcastically. “I can hardly wait for that lesson.”
“No; this morning, I’m going to take you on a ride on some of the trails. We’ll bring some lunch so we can talk and go over some of the other duties we’ll have this summer and we can start your equine education. Then, when we get back this afternoon, you’ll get your first solo riding lesson.”
Zak’s eye involuntarily went to Onyx.
“No way, Jose,” Dusty shook his head. “We’re going to start you off on a very gentle, very easy-going horse. Like I said, it will be a while before I even think about putting you on this horse.”
“Well, can’t blame a guy for hoping.”
“Look at it this way. If that’s your goal, then you’ll be focused on learning everything I need to teach you.”
The two headed out of the first barn and walked towards a similar building about 100 yards away. When they got to the entrance of the second barn, Dusty had Zak wait there for him as he ran into the barn.
A few minutes later Dusty came walking out of the barn leading the second most beautiful horse Zak had seen that day. The horse was not as tall as Onyx, but he was big and solid. He had a dark tan coat, and a long black tail and mane. His legs from his knees to his hooves were black and he had a black stripe down his back.
Dusty was flashing his million-watt smile as he walked the horse over to Zak. “Like him?”
Zak just nodded. “Oh, yes.”
“Zak, this is Phoenix. He’s all mine.”
“Yup, I’ve had him since he was born. He’s my best friend.”
“Dusty, he’s beautiful. What kind of horse is he? He looks like the horse in that cartoon movie.”
“’Spirit’? He should look like that; he’s a full blood American Mustang, just like the horse in the movie.”
Zak stepped forward slowly offering his hand to the horse. Phoenix sniffed at his hand and shook his head up and down. Zak reached forward and scratched his cheek. The horse rubbed his head against Zak’s hand.
“Damn, Zak, you may give me a run for my money as the ranch ‘whisperer’?”
“Someone who has a way with horses is often called a ‘Horse Whisperer’. Mr. Jones teases me about being one. I just tell him they know I love them and that I treat them with the respect they deserve. But they all seem to take to you right away. Phoenix tends to be stand-offish with new folks; I’ve never seen him take to anyone this quickly. But it will make things easier.”
“Well, since he likes you, he won’t give me any grief about you riding double with me.”
“R-r-riding double? I thought we were going to walk the trails.”
“No, that’s no fun. You’ll ride with me and that will give you a chance to get used to the horse’s movements and gaits, without having to worry about being in control. Then when we get back this afternoon, you can give it a try solo.”
Zak paled slightly. “On Phoenix?” he asked nervously.
“No, I’ll put you on one of the older, slower and gentler horses. Phoenix may have taken to you quickly but he is pretty much a one-man horse. He should be ok with you riding double with me, but I don’t think he’d take to kindly to you riding him solo.” Dusty shook his head. “Wait a minute, not ten minutes ago you were itching to ride Onyx and now you’re scared to ride Phoenix?”
“Not scared exactly, cautious. Maybe you’re right; maybe I do have some connection to Onyx. I feel safe around him like he would never hurt me. I’m sure Phoenix wouldn’t either, but I don’t have the same feeling. I don’t know how to describe it. But as long as you’re there and telling me what to do, I should be ok.”
“You’ll be fine. Phoenix already likes you.”
Zak just grinned and continued to stroke the horse’s neck.
“So, ready to go, Zak?”
“I guess so, but where’s the saddle and the thing that goes in his mouth?”
Dusty grinned. “The only time I use a saddle on Phoenix is when I show him. Like I said, I raised him from a baby and 99% of the time I just ride him bareback. The ‘thing’ that goes in his mouth is called a ‘bit’ and I don’t use one on him, I just use this hackamore bridle with no bit in it. A bit is used to control the horse; Phoenix & I have been together so long, he responds to my voice and leg cues and he neck reins like a dream, so I’ve never felt the need for him to have a bit in his mouth.”
“So the hack-a-thingy is better for him?”
Dusty laughed, “Hackamore. There’s a lot of opinion on whether a hackamore is better for a horse or not. The hackamore puts pressure on the horse’s nose and face which are sensitive areas, so someone who is prone to use too much force can do damage with a hackamore or a metal bit. I don’t think one is better than the other; it really depends on the horse and the rider. I use a regular bridle with a bit for every other horse here; it’s just that Phoenix and I tend to communicate so well, most times the bridle is just for show anyways.”
Dusty turned towards Phoenix, reached up and vaulted onto the horse’s back.
“Umm. I sure hope you don’t expect me to do that.”
“Not yet. Just stand there and raise your arm up.”
Zak did as he was told. Dusty rode the horse towards him and as he started to pass Zak, he reached down and grabbed his arm by the elbow and swung the smaller boy up onto the horse. Zak landed very lightly just behind Dusty.
“Wow. Kinda high up here, isn’t it?
“You’ll get used to it. Just put your hands on my hips for now and hold on. Just let your legs go loose. Don’t kick him or he may think you want to go faster.”
Zak tentatively placed his hands lightly on Dusty’s hips, trying to keep the rest of his body from making contact with his new friend.
“Ok, Phoenix, let’s go.”
The mustang took off at a brisk walk. He knew the trails well and Dusty gave him his head, while he talked to Zak.
“How are you doing, Zak?”
“Great, so far.”
Dusty laughed to himself hearing the excitement bubbling in Zak’s voice.
“Wanna go faster?”
“Alright, I’m going to get him into a trot. It’s a little faster than a walk, but it is not the most comfortable for a guy to ride; I just want you to feel the rhythm. I want you to hold tight to me and push your heels down; that will help you sit deeper.”
Zak tightened his grip on Dusty’s hips and stretched his legs out to push his heels down.
Zak heard Dusty make a kissing noise and didn’t even notice the slight squeeze he gave the horse with his legs and the horse started to move faster.
The trot was rather jarring for Zak. Every other step of horse, he was bumped up and landed hard on his butt. A couple times he landed right on his nuts. He was starting to realize why cowboys walked funny.
After a few minutes of trotting, Dusty called out, “Ok, Phoenix,” and the horse slowed to his quick walk.
He looked over his shoulder at Zak. “Kinda rough, huh?”
“A little,” Zak groaned.
“Yeah, sorry, that’s definitely the roughest of his gaits.”
“Gaits are the different ways horses have of walking, kinda like people walk, jog, run.”
“Ok, and that was a run?”
“Oh, no,” Dusty laughed. “That’s more like a jog. Most horse’s gaits are walk, which we are doing now, trot, canter, gallop and run. We’ll stick to walk, trot and canter. Cantering is faster than a trot but much smoother. Not so much abuse on the family jewels.”
“So, we’re gonna try a canter now. Phoenix’s is very fast, so I want you to slide up close to me and wrap your arms around my waist.” Zak slid forward a little and grabbed Dusty’s waist. “No, you’re going to need to get as close as possible and hold on tight.”
Zak slid forward as far as he could and wrapped his arms as far around Dusty as they would go.
“As ready as I’m gonna get.”
“Ok, hold on.” Again Dusty made the kissing sound and the horse suddenly took off down the trail.
Zak had never felt anything like it. He felt like he was flying. He leaned his head against Dusty’s back. Dusty’s ponytail was in his face and he inhaled deeply as Dusty’s masculine scent filled his nostril. The combination of flying through the woods on this great horse and holding onto the most beautiful boy he had ever seen was causing the blood to rush below his equator. He was getting the erection to end all erections. He hoped and prayed that Dusty could not feel it.
“How are you doing, Zak?” Dusty shouted over his shoulder.
“Great!! This is awesome!!”
Dusty knew that Zak would like this. How can anyone not relish the freedom of going balls out on horseback?
“Hold on, he’s gonna step it up another notch,” Dusty yelled as he squeezed his legs again. Phoenix poured on even more speed. They sped down the trail.
Zak tilted his head back and let out the loudest whoop he could. He laughed at the top of his lungs.
Finally, with the slightest pull from Dusty on the reins, Phoenix gradually slowed to a walk.
“Oh, shit!!” yelled Zak. “That was amazing!! Are you going to teach me how to do that by myself?”
“Sure, just remember…”
“I know…walk before fly. But I like flying.”
Dusty laughed so hard he shook. “I knew you’d like it.”
Zak looked around Dusty’s side and saw a lake about 500 yards away. “I didn’t know there was a lake out here.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s where we’ll stop for a bit. In the summer, I come out here after the customers and students go home and swim. Sometimes I even camp out here, if the weather is nice enough. It’s so beautiful at night. There’s a small fenced-in area right over there that can hold a couple horses.”
They came to a stop under a large oak tree.
“And how do I go about doing that?”
“Well, you can try this way.” Dusty threw his leg over the horse’s head and slid off.
Zak had vision of trying that and kicking poor Phoenix in the head. “What’s my other option?”
“The easiest thing to do is put your hands flat on his back swing your right leg over and just slide down his side.”
Zak looked at him as if he was crazy. Dusty laughed. “Don’t worry; I’m here to catch you. But, it’s really not that far down.”
“Says the guy who’s 6 foot something to the guy who’s 5 foot nothing.”
“Just do it, you’ll be fine.”
Zak gently laid his hands on Phoenix’s back and tried to move his leg over without kicking the horse.
“Don’t be so timid, you’re not going to hurt him. Put your weight in your hands and just swing that leg over.”
Zak did as he was told and found himself off the horse and sitting on the ground.
Dusty grinned at him as he offered him a hand up. “Gotta work on the landing. Given your size, you should be lighter on your feet.”
“Well, I’m not used to jumping from such heights.”
“Oh, shit. Look at your sweatshirt.”
“Huh?” Zak looked down at his once black hoodie which was now covered in little light-brown hairs. He and Dusty both started trying to brush them off with their hands.
“Sorry, about that. Horses shed a lot, especially this time of year. Their coats thicken in the winter, so when spring comes they shed like crazy.”
“No problem, it’s a little too warm for this thing now, anyways,” Zak replied as he unzipped his hoodie and took it off.
“You’re right; I can probably ditch my jacket, too.” Dusty took off his denim jacket and placed it on the ground by the tree.
Zak’s mouth went dry as Dusty stood there in his wife beater. The tight shirt left no doubt that Dusty was in great shape. Not overly muscled, but obviously fit from all the work he did on the ranch.
“Earth to Zak.”
“Wha–, oh, sorry.”
“You zoned out on me for a minute. Why don’t we take a load off and have a drink and relax for a few minutes.”
“Ok.” Dusty grabbed his saddlebag which had been draped over Phoenix’s back and then reached up to remove the bridle. The horse trotted off.
“Don’t you need to put him in the fenced area or tie him up?”
“Nope. He won’t wander far and when we’re ready to go I’ll just give a little whistle for him.”
Zak sat down on the ground and leaned against the trunk of the tree. Dusty sat next to him and reached into his bag and took out two bottles of water. He handed one to Zak.
They sat under the tree quietly drinking their water for a few minutes. Zak watched Phoenix prance around the lake stopping occasionally in a grassy patch or to drink from the lake.
“I just have to make sure he stays out of the lake,” Dusty said watching his horse.
“He likes to roll when he’s in the water. I made the mistake one time of riding him into the lake when I was fully dressed and while he was only knee deep, he decided it was time for a swim and dropped and rolled with me on his back. I got soaked.”
“What did you do?”
“Not much I could do. Called him every name in the book. Sat back on him and made him get up and out of the lake. When we got out of the lake I dismounted and continued to let him know I was not impressed. Then, since there is nothing worse than riding in wet jeans, I stripped down to my jockeys and rode him home that way. Luckily, it was later in the evening and everyone had gone home and I keep a change of clothes in my truck.”
Zak started to laugh nervously while the image of an almost naked Dusty riding his beautiful horse through the woods caused a renewed stirring in his groin. In an effort to distract himself he said, “So, ah, basically this summer, I’m supposed to help you give trail rides, groom and saddle horses for lessons and take care of Onyx?”
“Well, the first two are the jobs Mr. Jones wanted to hire a new guy for. The last one is your choice, but it will help me out.”
“No, it’s cool. I like the idea of being responsible for one of the horses. I was telling Mr. Jones, the one time I asked for a puppy when I was about five, my mom was correct in telling me I was not responsible enough. I’ve never considered asking her again since we are both busy so much. But, maybe if she sees me taking care of a whole horse, she’ll think a puppy is not a bad idea.”
“Could be, but of course, sometimes a dog is more work than the horse. You need to clean the horses’ stalls and feed and water them, but you can turn them out in the pasture for exercise, even for food and water. But dogs have to be fed every day and walked multiple times a day, unless they are left outside, which a lot of dogs won’t like.”
Zak grinned, “So you’re saying I should ask for a horse instead?”
“Ha, no, that’s not what I’m saying. Dogs and horses are both great, but both are a great deal of work. You just want to know exactly what you are getting into before you commit.”
“How did you get Phoenix?”
“Well, his mama was a BLM mustang.”
“BLM? I swear, I need a dictionary to talk to you.”
“Very funny. BLM is the Bureau of Land Management. They’re a government agency that oversees the park and other government-owned lands. Out west on a lot of this land there are herds of wild mustangs. When there are too many of them they become a nuisance to the ranchers who lease the land to graze their cattle. In an effort to keep the herds down, the BLM will periodically authorize a roundup and then have auctions for people to adopt the mustangs.”
“I never heard of that. Do they auction off a lot of horses?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s a big deal out there. Anyways, Phoenix’s mama was one of the horses auctioned off. Apparently she was just pregnant with him. No one knew she was pregnant until after the lady who adopted her brought her here to board. Mr. Jones had his vet check her out and the vet found out she was pregnant. Well, this screwed up the lady’s plans, cuz she wanted a horse she could break quickly and then sell at a profit. Mr. Jones, in addition to being a very shrewd businessman, also has a very soft spot for the animals. He didn’t want to chance anything happening to the foal, so he offered to take the mare from the lady. Since the adoption fees are not that much at the auctions, he got her for a song.”
Dusty continued, “I was only about 12 and had been coming out here to help out for about a year. I used to get into trouble cuz my dad was gone and my mom had to work all the time. A friend of my mom’s knew Mr. Jones and asked him if I could come by after school and work for him.”
“It does, doesn’t it? Well, one of my jobs was to watch after the mare. She was pretty wild and that’s when I started to notice that I had a way with the horses; she was always calm around me and let me feed and groom her and watch after her. When she was close to term, my mom agreed to let me miss a few days of school and stay out here to wait for the birth. I was so excited. I loved the mare so much at this point and couldn’t wait for her foal to be born.” Dusty had a faraway look in his eye as he told the story.
“The second night I stayed with her she started to go into labor. Her breathing was getting pretty bad and I was worried something was wrong. Mr. Jones and the vet were there to help her, but she seemed to be getting weaker and weaker. She was probably too old to be having a baby, but in the wild there is no real choice. By the time the foal was born, she was too weak to make it. She gave the last of her energy giving birth to Phoenix. I cried like a baby for her. I had all the plans of training her and her being ‘my’ horse.”
Zak looked at Dusty and noticed the tears welling up in his eyes.
“It was the first time I lost one of the animals. I think it brought everything about my dad forward for me and I cried for both the mare and my dad. I sat in the corner of the stall bawling my eyes out. Then I felt something touch me. I looked up and the foal was standing in front of me. I realized that he needed me now, since his mama was gone. I took him on as my project. Mr. Jones, to this day, has never come out and said that Phoenix is mine, but there is no question in anyone’s mind that he is.”
Zak teared up listening to his new friend’s story. “And you named him Phoenix because?”
“He rose from the ashes.” Dusty smiled through his tears. “And he’s been my best friend ever since.”
Zak impulsively leaned over and gave Dusty a one-armed hug. He couldn’t think of anything to say. If he hadn’t already started falling for Dusty just based on looks and personality, hearing his story and the love and compassion in his voice just sealed the deal.
Dusty hugged the smaller boy back. “Well, I think this is going to be fun summer, Zak.”
“I wasn’t sure when I wore up this morning, but I think you might be right.”
Dusty hopped up. “I guess I better go find my fool horse, before we have to walk back, or worse, ride back in our jockeys.”
Zak giggled, “No way am I doing that, so you better find him before he goes in the lake. I’ll just wait here for you.”
“Gonna take a cat nap?”
“I might rest my eyes. I’m not used to being up this early on a weekend.”
Dusty laughed, “Well, you better get used to it. Early morning is your friend on a ranch; it’s the time to get chores done and most days have a bit of solitude before the hustle of the day.”
“Well, getting up at the crack of dawn will definitely be my least favorite part of this job.”
“Well, you haven’t mucked out stalls yet.”
“Say, Zak, where do you live?”
“Hill Avenue just past Jefferson, about 15 minutes away.”
“Hey, I pass right by there on my way. Why don’t I plan on picking you up since you don’t drive yet? That way your mom doesn’t have to come all the way out here. Do you have a phone on you?”
“Call your mom and tell her you have a ride home tonight. That way she can save some time and gas.”
“No problem. Let me go find Phoenix and, if you can get a signal, you can call your mom.” Dusty took off towards the lake letting out a shrill whistle.
Zak took his phone out of his pants pocket and checked to see if he had a signal. He did. He hit ‘2’ to speed dial his mom’s work number. After 2 rings he got her voicemail. He left a quick message telling her that he had a ride home and that everything was going better than he had expected. As he hung up he laughed, hearing Dusty yell, “You fool horse, get the hell out of there!!”
It sounded like Dusty was a ways off and would be occupied for a little while so he leaned back against the tree and shut his eyes.
In his mind’s eye, he saw Dusty’s beautiful face. His hair hung down in his eyes and he was saying something to him. He couldn’t understand what he was saying. Was he whispering? He didn’t know why. Then Dusty bent over him and looked into his eyes. He leaned forward and kissed him. Zak responded to the kiss, opening his mouth to let Dusty’s tongue caress his. His heart was pounding; he had never been kissed like this. Too bad it was only a dream…only he wasn’t asleep. Suddenly, Zak’s eyes flew open and he looked right into Dusty’s eyes while Dusty kissed him.
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