by Andrew Todd
Zak kissed at Onyx and the big horse headed down the trail. Zak was trying not to panic. He wanted to remain calm since he knew that Onyx had not been ridden in a while and did not want him to be nervous. He also wanted to be alert enough to pick up any trace of Dusty since he was not 100% sure which way he went.
He decided to try the trail that he and Dusty went on the most, thinking that that would be Dusty’s first option. He kept Onyx at a walk and kept his eyes moving from side to side looking for any trace of Dusty.
The farther they went without any sign of Dusty, the more Zak’s heart sank. There were many trails and he was one person. He wanted to stop and scream. He was getting frustrated, but he could not give up. He knew that Dusty would never give up on him and he would not give up on Dusty.
After about twenty minutes on the trail Zak came to the first fork. He had to decide whether to head deeper into the woods or go towards the lake. He tried to think like Dusty. He knew that Dusty would have taken Phoenix to the lake, so he decided that maybe he had decided to take Ash to the lake as well, maybe to see how he liked the water.
He turned Onyx down the trail to the lake. He moved Onyx into a slow trot to try to cover more ground but not so fast that he would miss any signs of Dusty.
As he approached the spot where the trail opened up at the lake, he decided to do a quick sweep of the meadow and then he would backtrack and try the other trails.
He scanned the meadow and saw no sign of Dusty. He saw plenty of hoof prints in the sand, but since they were out here all the time that was no help. He moved Onyx towards the lake shore, and then he saw it.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw something or someone lying by the edge of the lake. He moved Onyx as fast as he would go; as they got closer he knew it was Dusty.
“Dusty!!” he screamed as tears came to his eyes.
He slid off of Onyx and ran up the beach to where Dusty lay. Onyx followed close by not wanting to lose his boy.
Zak dropped to his knees next to Dusty’s prone body. He tenderly reached down and checked for a pulse. When he found a strong steady pulse and could see the rise and fall of his breathing, he let out the breath he had not realized he was holding.
Zak carefully rolled Dusty over onto his back. He unbuckled the helmet Dusty was wearing and gently removed it. He examined it to make sure it wasn’t cracked. He didn’t know if it applied in this case, but he knew a cracked helmet in a motorcycle crash was bad news. He breathed a sign of relief that the helmet showed no damage.
Zak ran his hands over Dusty’s arms and legs trying to see if there was any obvious sign of broken bones. Zak walked to the water’s edge and stripped off his t-shirt. He dipped his shirt into the cool lake water and walked back to Dusty. He ran the water-soaked shirt over Dusty’s forehead and splashed the few drops of water that clung to his fingers on Dusty’s face.
Dusty just lay there. Zak buried his face in his arms, trying not to cry, trying to stay strong for his boyfriend.
Zak didn’t know what else to do. There was no way an ambulance could get here. Someone with a boat might be able to come across the lake to get Dusty.
As Zak wiped his eyes and reached for his phone, he heard Dusty inhale deeply. He looked down and watched as Dusty’s eyelids fluttered and then flew open. Zak had never been happier to see Dusty’s beautiful black eyes. He leaned down and wrapped his arms around Dusty and hugged him as carefully as he could manage in his excited state.
“Wha…” Dusty started to say, as he tried to sit up.
Zak sat up and gently placed his hand on Dusty’s chest.
“Shhh,” Zak said to him. “Just stay there for a minute, don’t try to get up too fast.”
Dusty looked up into Zak’s worried eyes. “What happened?,” he asked.
“That’s what I was going to ask you,” Zak answered. “I was about to groom Onyx when I heard Ash coming off the trail. When I saw him and not you I was a little freaked. I managed to get him corralled and left him in the round pen and came to look for you.”
Dusty looked around and tried to focus. “Did you take Phoenix? Is he the one that led you to me?”
Zak looked at Dusty guiltily. “Not exactly. I was too worried about you to think straight. There was no one else at the ranch because Joe and Mr. Jones hadn’t come back yet. There wasn’t time for anything else. I had to…” His voice trailed off when he suddenly realized that in his panic about Dusty he had broken his promise to not ride Onyx.
Dusty slowly sat up and looked around. “Had to what?” he asked and then he looked to his side and saw the Friesian standing there. His eyes widened in surprise. “You did it!!” he said to Zak with a huge grin. “You really did it.”
Zak fell forward and hugged Dusty. Tears were coming from his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I didn’t even think. I broke my promise.”
Dusty hugged Zak back. “Shhh,” he whispered to his boyfriend. “Zak, it’s ok. I’m so proud of you. You rode Onyx, and bareback. That’s amazing.”
Zak pulled back and looked at Dusty, his blue eyes still filled with tears. “Really?” he asked. “You’re not mad?”
Dusty chuckled. “Mad? You rode a horse that pretty much hates everyone and you rode him bareback.” He laughed, “No, I’m not mad at you. I couldn’t be any prouder of you if I tried. You’re amazing.”
Zak grinned. “Well, I had a super teacher…and I guess you helped too,” he laughed.
Zak jumped up to escape Dusty should he try to get him. Dusty tried to stand to chase Zak. As he rose to his feet he felt a sharp pain in his right leg.
“Argh,” he exclaimed as he fell back to the beach.
Zak looked at Dusty in panic and ran back to him. “What’s wrong?”
Dusty looked up at Zak, his dark face was visibly paled. He grimaced. “I think I either sprained or broke my ankle. I can’t put any weight on it.”
Zak thought for a second. “How are we going to get you back to the ranch?” He started to bite his thumb as he thought. He stood up and went over to Onyx.
He leaned his head against the horse and spoke to him softly. “Ok, big guy, I know you may not like this, but you have to help me.” Onyx placed his head on Zak’s shoulders as Zak spoke to him.
Zak held his breath hoping that Onyx would do what he needed. He led the horse over so that he was about 2 feet away from where Dusty sat.
Dusty watched his beautiful blond boy and the big horse as they wordlessly communicated.
Zak gave a small tug on the reins to pull Onyx’s head down. Onyx, as if understanding Zak’s need, bent his front knees and lowered his body to the ground. He lay still, his legs tucked under his body as Zak petted him and praised him.
Dusty was sitting on the beach stunned by the sight before him.
Zak walked over to Dusty. He offered Dusty his hand. “Ok, I’m going to help you up, very carefully,” he said very seriously. “I want to keep your weight off that foot and put it on me.”
Dusty grinned at his suddenly in-charge friend. “Ok, Chief,” he chuckled. “Let’s do this.”
Dusty brought himself up on his knees and gingerly moved to his left foot, leaning on Zak as he rose. Given their height difference, he felt like he was using Zak as a cane. Dusty was trying to put most of his weight on his foot and not on Zak. Zak realized this and was having none of it.
“Look,” Zak ordered; “you need to put more weight on me or you’re not going to be able to get over there.”
Dusty couldn’t argue and leaned more heavily on Zak. Zak slowly led them over to where Onyx still lay patiently waiting.
When they were close enough to the horse, Dusty stopped. “I’m not sure about this.”
Zak held onto Dusty’s arm and turned to look him in the eye. “You’re always telling me to trust you,” he said, “and I do, even if it’s not my first instinct. And you never let me down. So this time, you need to trust me and trust Onyx.” He grinned up at Dusty and kissed him on the cheek.
Dusty grinned back. “Ok,” he said. “Let’s try this.”
Leaning on Zak, Dusty placed his other hand on Onyx neck and sat on Onyx’s back with both his feet on the horses left side. He then gently lifted his right leg and swung it over Onyx’s head and shoulders till he was astride the horse. The whole time Zak supported Dusty and petted and spoke gently to Onyx.
Onyx never stirred while Dusty moved onto his back.
Dusty started to slide back, but Zak stopped him. He gestured for Dusty to slide forward. Zak then sat astride Onyx behind Dusty.
“Zak,” Dusty asked, “why are you behind me?”
“So that I can support you,” Zak answered. “You did hit your head and you were unconscious so I want to make sure you don’t get dizzy or pass out.”
“Have I mentioned that I love you?” Dusty asked.
Zak laughed, “Only once or twice. And me, too.”
Zak wrapped his arms around Dusty and took hold of Onyx’s reins. “Ok, baby, let’s go.”
“Yes, let’s,” said Dusty.
“I was talking to my horse,” Zak said giggling.
“Oh, great, now I have competition.”
Zak leaned into Dusty’s back and kissed his neck. “Close, but no cigar,” he said.
Zak gave Onyx a slight kick in the sides and the big horse slowly rose to his feet. He knew from Zak’s tone and actions that he was carrying a precious cargo.
Zak kept his arms wrapped around Dusty and had Onyx stay to a slow walk to keep the movement to a minimum.
It took longer for them to get back to the ranch than usual, because Zak would periodically stop Onyx to make sure Dusty was not suffering any discomfort.
When they came off the trail and were riding towards the ranch, they saw Mr. Jones and Joe coming out of the barn. When the two men saw the boys riding out of the woods they came running towards them.
As Mr. Jones reached the boys he exclaimed, “What in the hell is going on here, boys? We got back from the tack store about a half hour ago and we find Ash saddled in the round pen just running around and getting pissed; Joe and I got him settled down and put up just now. We looked around for you two and you were nowhere to be found and now here you are riding in on Onyx?”
“Well,” started Dusty, “I decided to take Ash out on the trail. The last thing I remember is arriving at the lake. I guess he threw me. The next thing I remember was waking up with Zak hovering over me.”
Zak took over and told Mr. Jones about Ash showing up at the ranch and how he had caught him and simply put him in the round pen to keep him safe and out of the way. He then explained that since Onyx was out and all he could think of was Dusty, he had ridden Onyx out to try to find Dusty and had gone to the lake since he knew that Dusty liked to take Phoenix there and would probably see how Ash handled the water.
When Zak finished, Mr. Jones asked, “Dusty are you all right?”
“I did something to my ankle. You should have seen it; Zak got Onyx to lie down so that I could get on and then he got us back here safe and sound.”
Mr. Jones just shook his head while Joe whistled. Mr. Jones looked at Joe. “I told you these boys were something special,” he said to Joe.
“I already figured that out, I just didn’t realize how special,” Joe answered. “To see them riding Onyx like he was some old plow horse is just beyond anything I had ever expected.”
Mr. Jones agreed. He and Joe walked over to Onyx’s side and helped Dusty down. Joe then helped him into the barn so he could sit on the couch in the office.
Mr. Jones turned to Zak who was still astride Onyx. “Zak, do you mind staying here and taking care of Onyx and the horses? Joe has to get back to his wife–she’s due any day and she can’t be alone too long. Her mother stays with her during the day, but she works the night shift and Joe has to relieve her. I have to take Dusty to the ER. I’m sure you’d like to go to, but I want to get him there quick and I need someone to take care of the evening feedings.”
Zak threw his leg over Onyx’s back and slid to the ground. “Sure, Mr. Jones I can do that. I’ll take care of Onyx and then call my mom to let her know I’ll be late. Maybe I’ll see if Spin’s mom can drop him off, then he can help me and keep me company until you get back.”
“Thanks, Zak. That sounds like a good plan,” Mr. Jones said as he walked off to get his car so he could drive Dusty to the Emergency Room.
Zak pulled out his phone. First he called Spin and laughed as he listened to him beg, cajole, threaten and pester his mother. She finally relented when Zak assured her he did need the help and he would make sure Spin got home later. He then called his mom and let her know what had happened and that he needed to take care of things at the ranch and that he would call her if he needed a ride, but that he would probably be late.
After he finished with his calls, he turned his attention to Onyx. He went and hugged the big horse thanking him for helping him and for proving to everyone that Zak’s trust in him was justified.
Zak then led Onyx to the shower area and rinsed him off and was just finishing scraping the water off him when Spin came running up.
“Hey, Spin,” Zak called to him.
Spin stopped short and stared at Zak and Onyx. “Wait a second. Did you ride Onyx??”
Zak grinned big and nodded. “I had to. No one was here and I had to find Dusty.”
Spin ran to Zak and hugged him big. Both boys hugged, laughed and danced around like fools.
“I’m so damn happy for you!” Spin exclaimed. “I knew you could do it. And now that you’ve done it, none of them can undo it.”
“Nope,” Zak agreed. “And I don’t think they’re even going to try. Now that I’ve shown I can do it.”
“Cool beans,” Spin grinned. “Tomorrow we start training.”
“Hey, you have a valuable eventing horse here. We’re gonna get with Debbie and get you guys trained. At least for hunter/jumper and maybe some cross country or equitation. I don’t know if you could learn dressage that fast,” Spin just kept going.
“Spin!!” Zak yelled. “Stop for a second.”
Spin stopped talking.
“I just rode him for the first time today,” Zak laughed. “Let me get used to that before you sign us up for the Olympics.”
“Ok, fine,” Spin pouted.
Zak chuckled at his friend’s antics.
He clipped Onyx’s lead to his halter. “Let’s get Onyx settled and then take care of the feedings. I have a feeling we’re in for a long night here.”
The boys went into the barn. Zak took care of feeding Onyx, giving him extra treats to reward him for his role in rescuing Dusty.
The boys then went through the three barns taking care of feeding the horses. Spin had only helped out once or twice so he stuck with Zak and did one side of an aisle while Zak did the other side.
When they finished the boys went into the office. Zak pulled out the appointment book and started writing on a pad of paper.
“What are you doing?” Spin asked.
Zak looked up. “Well, Dusty has some lessons tomorrow and we have a trail ride scheduled. I need to call the people who have lessons and cancel them, because there is no way Dusty is going to be able to do them tomorrow. I need to figure out what to do about the trail ride.” He started chewing on his thumb.
“Why don’t I come out and you and I can bring them out?” Spin volunteered.
Zak looked at Spin and smiled. “That should work. You’re a better rider than I am and we both are pretty familiar with the trails. Plus, it’s not a very large group and they’ve been here before so it shouldn’t be a difficult ride.”
Spin grinned big at Zak. “Cool.”
“Why don’t you have your mom bring you out in the morning and you can help with the stalls and feedings too? Joe’s off tomorrow; I’m sure he’d come in if he had to, but his wife is having the baby any day so he should stay close.”
“Wait, I didn’t volunteer for shit duty.”
Zak rolled his eyes. “Are you gonna help with Dusty out of commission or are you gonna give me grief?”
“Aw, man,” Spin whined. “Alright, I’ll come out and help with that stuff, too.”
Spin stayed in the office to keep Zak company while he called Dusty’s students and cancelled or re-scheduled his lessons of the next day.
After he finished his calls, Zak went out into the barn and filled out the white board for the next day. Once he knew how bad Dusty was, then he could figure out what to do with the rest of the week.
“Hey, Zak,” he heard Mr. Jones call. “Are you still here?”
“Yes, Mr. Jones,” Zak answered. “I’m in front of the office.”
Mr. Jones came around the corner.
Zak looked up. “How’s Dusty?” he asked.
“Well, it looks like his ankle is just a sprain. The doctors want to keep him overnight for observation since they think he may have gotten a concussion. He wasn’t too pleased to have to stay there. When I left his mom had just gotten there. They’ll probably let him go home in the morning. He’ll have to stay off the ankle for a few days. I guess we’ll have to cancel any trail rides you have since it will be a week or two before he can ride. He can still give lessons, since most of the time he doesn’t have to ride for those. You can probably help him out. If he wants a demonstration for a student you can do it.”
Zak nodded. “That’s fine, but we don’t have to cancel any trail rides. Spin’s gonna help me take care of them.”
Hearing his name, Spin popped out of the office.
“Is this right, Spin?” Mr. Jones asked. “You want to help Zak do the trail rides?”
“Sure, Mr. Jones. I come out to ride almost every day anyways, so I might as well help Zak out.”
“Well, thanks Spin. But, you aren’t volunteering. We’ll put you on the payroll. If this works out, we can probably find a permanent job for you around here.”
Spin’s green eyes lit up. “Thanks, Mr. Jones.”
“No, thank you, Spin. You and Zak work about as well together as Zak and Dusty, so this is a win-win for me.”
Spin and Zak grinned at each other, each reveling in their new responsibilities.
Mr. Jones grinned at both boys. “Now, remember, Spin, just like Dusty is in charge of Zak, Zak is in charge of you. You boys are gonna work as partners for the time being, but Zak has the final say, ok?”
“Sure, Mr. Jones, that’s fine.”
“Alright then, let’s get you boys home.”
For the next week and a half, while Dusty recovered, Zak and Spin functioned as a great team. The boys got their moms to switch off on driving them in for the first few days, since Dusty couldn’t drive.
Once Dusty was at least able to drive, he would pick up both Zak and Spin on the way to the ranch and drive them home at night.
Zak and Spin would work the trail rides as a team, prepping the horses, leading the rides and taking care of the horses after the rides. They would also help Dusty by at least one of them always being around to do demonstrations if Dusty felt a student needed a visual to learn by.
Dusty and Mr. Jones both had to admit that in spite of their initial reservations, Spin was a very helpful addition to the ranch ‘family’. He had great riding skills and horse knowledge, boundless energy and had no problem telling anyone, adults included, when they were in the wrong.
Spin also took great joy in using his free time to ‘help’ Zak with Onyx’s training. Onyx wasn’t exactly enamored of the red-headed Tasmanian Devil, but Spin was a one-man cheering section whenever Zak had time to ride Onyx and work with him.
Debbie also started spending more time with Zak and Onyx. She was working with Zak on his equitation, feeling that given his speed at learning new riding skills he might even be ready to compete in some of the local fairs at the end of the summer.
This suggestion excited both Zak and Spin and they started training for the competitions every chance they had. When he didn’t have lessons or other responsibilities, Dusty would park himself on the arena rail and cheer on both his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s best friend as they trained hard.
By the time Dusty was ready to fully resume his responsibilities, Mr. Jones had decided on some changes. He offered to keep Spin on for the remainder of the summer with the possibility of him working in the fall as well.
Zak and Spin would continue doing most of the trail rides and act as the prep team for Dusty and Debbie’s lessons. Since Spin had shown the same acumen for working with young children as Zak and Dusty and since his riding skills rivaled Dusty’s, Mr. Jones also let Spin take on some beginner’s lessons to help out Dusty. Spin’s dual riding skills meant that he could also teach beginning English classes and Debbie could concentrate on more intermediate and advanced students.
At first some of the older students balked at Spin being their instructor, but once the ‘Littlest Drill Sergeant’, as he quickly became known, started doing lessons, they realized that in spite of his size and demeanor, he was in fact a very good teacher, demonstrating the abilities that Zak felt had helped him to excel as a rider.
Dusty had been back to full strength and Spin had been a full-time member of the team for a week. Mr. Jones was amazed at how smoothly things were going. Adding another instructor and freeing Dusty from having to do every trail ride allowed him to increase the number of lessons booked. Word of mouth for the ranch was growing every week as word of how good Dusty and Spin were as instructors.
Zak’s initiative and drive was invaluable as well. He had gotten to know the horses so well that he didn’t even hesitate or question who to assign for rides and lessons and all of horses, with the notable exception of Ash, loved Zak.
Zak and Spin were returning from leading a trail ride. It had been an easy one, just a mother and daughter who came about every other week. The daughter was nine and had alternating crushes on both Zak and Spin.
Dusty met them when they got back to the barn. After all four had dismounted, Dusty and Spin took the horses to unsaddle them and hose them down. Zak led the mother and daughter to the office to take care of payment and schedule their next ride.
Mr. Jones had taken advantage of Zak’s abilities with numbers by giving him the additional responsibility of handling billings and bank deposits.
After the mother and daughter had left, Zak sat down at the desk to enter the payment into the computer and start to get the day’s deposit ready. He liked to keep it ready at all times, so when Mr. Jones was ready to go to the bank, he or Zak would just have to total it up.
Zak was hunched over the computer when he heard a light tapping on the open door. He looked up and saw a boy of about 14 or 15 standing there. The boy was taller than Zak and Spin, but not quite as tall as Dusty. He had short black hair gelled into small spikes, almond-shaped hazel eyes and a dark complexion.
“Hi,” Zak greeted. “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” the boy responded, his voice deeper than Zak expected. “I’m here for a lesson.”
“Really?” Zak asked. “I didn’t think we had anymore scheduled for today.” He quickly glanced at the schedule book. “Oh, are you Mateo Alvarez?”
The boy smiled shyly. “Yes, but everyone just calls me Mattie.”
Zak stood up and came around the desk and offered Mattie his hand. “Hi, Mattie, I’m Zak Myers.” The boys shook hands. “I’m sorry; we’re not ready for you. Mr. Jones or Joe must have scheduled the lesson and forgotten to update the board.”
Mattie looked shyly at the floor. “That’s ok,” he said. “I can come back if I have to. I just need to call my mom to come get me.”
Zak shook his head. “No, no. It might take us a few minutes to get ready for you, but we’re all free so we can get you going. Let me just take a look in the book.” He went back behind the desk and consulted the book. “Alright, it says that you already have riding experience, so Dusty will be your instructor. He’s great, you’ll really like him.”
“Yes, I used to ride on my grandfather’s estancia in Spain when I would visit him. He passed away a few years ago and I haven’t been able to find a good place to ride. We just moved to town a few weeks ago and a co-worker of my mom’s recommended I try here.”
Zak grinned. “Well, you’ll love it here.”
Mattie smiled at Zak. “I hope so.”
“Look, we just got back from a trail ride, so Dusty and Spin are just taking care of those horses. Why don’t I take you on a quick barn tour and we can get horse picked out for you and get you ready for your lesson.”
Zak led Mattie into the main barn and showed him where the various facilities were. He introduced Mattie to his favorite horses, making sure he met Onyx. Mattie’s eyes lit up when he saw the big black horse.
Zak noted that as they continued the tour, Mattie became more and more animated as his shyness evaporated.
Zak was leading Mattie out the side door to the crossties area when Spin came flying around the corner and crashed right into Mattie. Both boys went flying and landed in a pile.
Spin turned bright red as he lay on poor Mattie. He and Mattie both jumped up. Spin started to rant “Why don’t you watch where the he–…” Spin stopped and froze as his blazing green eyes locked onto Mattie’s hazel ones.
Zak watched the two and laughed to himself. “Bingo!!” he thought to himself.
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