by Andrew Todd
The boys quickly settled into a routine at the ranch. Mr. Jones had insisted that they have at least one day a week off. The boys had agreed to take Mondays off, since the weekends were their busiest days and Zak had Driver's Education classes every Monday morning. This way he could go to class and schedule his practical driving time for right after class.
Dusty would spend Monday mornings running errands for his mother or working around the house.
After their first weekend together, Dusty declared that Monday nights would be 'date night'. The boys would alternate choosing something to do on those nights; the only caveat was that it had nothing to do with the ranch.
Their first date night had been Dusty's to plan, since it was his idea. He instructed Zak to dress 'preppy casual' and that he would pick him up at five o'clock.
Four o'clock found Zak frantically running around his room in his bathrobe trying to decide what to wear. He heard a knock on his bedroom door.
"Come in," he said.
His mom opened the door and poked her head in. Zak's usually tidy room looked like a cyclone had hit it.
"It looks like someone was stealing all your clothes, but left in the middle of the job," Kate laughed.
Zak rolled his eyes. "Mom!! I need some help here."
"I have a…date." Zak blushed.
"Zak that's great," Kate smiled. "I assume it's with Dusty."
"Uh huh," Zak nodded. "We decided that Mondays would be date night, since we are both off, but Dusty planned tonight's and he told me to dress 'preppy casual' and I have nothing to wear," Zak spit out without taking a breath.
Kate burst out laughing as she looked around at the room--there were enough clothes strewn around to re-stock a major department store.
"Honey, I think we can find something here. Do you know what Dusty's plans are?"
"Nope. All he told me was how to dress."
"Ok. Preppy casual? That's probably like business casual or resort casual. Dressy without being too formal." She reached into a pile of shirts on the bed. "Why don't you wear one of these polo shirts and a nice pair of khaki slacks? That will look smart and dressy without going overboard."
Zak flipped through the shirts and chose one. He grabbed a pair of khakis and some briefs and ran for the bathroom.
"Thanks, Mom. I gotta get a shower. He's gonna be here soon," he yelled over his shoulder.
Kate shook her head and laughed as she went about picking up scattered clothes and putting them away. She had never seen Zak as excited as he was tonight. She was so happy for him.
Zak hopped in the shower and washed up quickly. He used some vanilla shower gel that he had. The scent reminded him of the body lotion that he and Dusty had used during their camping trip. He was beside himself with glee. Never had he allowed himself to imagine that he would have a boyfriend, never mind one as gorgeous as Dusty.
He stepped out of the shower and toweled himself off. He brushed his teeth and ran his fingers through his hair. His wavy blond hair was still growing; it was at the base of his neck now and if he combed it straight the bangs were over his eyes. His mom, miraculously, had not got on him about cutting it, so he was glad to let it keep growing.
He rubbed his face with his hand. He rarely had to shave since his hair was so blond and so fine. About once a week was all he needed at this point. It looked good for now.
Zak quickly dressed and then ran back to his room to dig for a pair of shoes. He grabbed his watch and put on a silver herringbone chain that his mom had given him last Christmas.
He ran downstairs to the living room to wait for Dusty. As he got to the bottom of the stairs, the doorbell rang. He was about to jump to the door, when he saw his mom had beaten him to it and was opening the door.
"Well, hello, Dusty," Kate greeted him. "Don't you look handsome tonight."
Dusty blushed. "Thanks, Kate. Is Zak ready?"
Zak popped out from behind the door. "Right he…Wow!!" Zak couldn't stop staring at Dusty. Dusty was dressed in a black Izod shirt, black Dockers and boat shoes with no socks. He had a silver chain around his neck that was beautifully set off by his dark skin and he had his hair down.
"What?" Dusty asked, when Zak grinned at him.
Zak pointed to his shoes. "I didn't know you had anything in your closet besides boots and that old pair of flip flops," he laughed.
Dusty laughed, too. He was just as taken by Zak's appearance. Zak was wearing a light-blue polo shirt that went fantastic with his sky-blue eyes and blond hair and a pair of tan slacks. He was also wearing boat shoes with no socks.
"So," interrupted Kate. "Where are you guys headed?"
"It's a surprise," answered Dusty. "But, don't worry. I'll have him home by nine since we both have to be up early tomorrow."
"Ok. Well, you boys have a nice time."
Zak grabbed Dusty's hand and started to walk out the door.
"Oh, Zak," called Kate. "I'm going to run to the store for groceries, is there anything you need or want this week?"
Zak stopped and thought for a minute. "Umm, carrots and apples."
Kate looked at him curiously. "Carrots and apples? Are you going on a diet?"
Zak and Dusty looked at each other and grinned.
"Oh, I get it. For your friends," Kate said.
"You got it, Mom," Zak called over his shoulder as he dragged Dusty to the truck.
When they got to the truck, Dusty opened the passenger door and took Zak's shoulder and helped him get in. Zak grinned at Dusty's actions.
When Dusty was belted in and had started the truck, Zak asked, "Now, tell me where we are going."
Dusty just shook his head and grinned at Zak. "Nope. If I tell you it won't be a surprise."
Zak just crossed his arms and pouted, which made Dusty laugh even harder.
They drove to the other side of town and Dusty pulled up in front of a small brick building. There was a sign on the building that read 'Stromboli's'.
"Oh, wow," said Zak. "This place is supposed to be great."
Dusty grinned at him. "You told me that Italian was your favorite and my mom told me this was the best Italian place in town."
The boys exited the truck and went into the restaurant. It was a very small place and was quite crowded for a Monday night.
They were greeted by an older lady. "Good evening, gentlemen. A table for two?"
Dusty spoke up, "Yes, ma'am, thank you."
She looked at the seating chart on the podium. "I'm afraid that it's going to be about 30 minutes."
"Oh," said Dusty. "I thought my mom had called for us."
"Oh, my," the lady exclaimed. "Are you Lu's son?"
Dusty grinned, "Yes, Ma'am."
The lady grabbed Dusty's hands. "Oh, that's different. Your mama comes here often and she called me this afternoon to make sure we had a special place for you and your friend." She gestured to both boys. "You boys follow me."
She led Dusty and Zak to a small table for two in an out-of-the-way corner of the restaurant. The table had a red-checked table cloth and had a small candle in the center. The corner was dimly lit and, to Zak, very romantic. Both boys took a seat at the table.
"Your server will be right with you, boys," the lady said to the boys as she placed their menus in front of them. "You enjoy your meal and tell your mama, Carmen says 'hello'."
"Thank you, Carmen, we will," Dusty replied.
Carmen left the boys there.
As the boys opened their menus a young man of about eighteen walked up to their table.
"Hello, gentlemen," the young man greeted them. "I'm Carlo. Welcome to Stromboli's. I'll be your server. Can I bring you something to drink?"
The boys greeted Carlo and ordered soft drinks. When he returned they ordered their entrées and spent a great evening enjoying fine food and each other's company. They spent time quizzing each other to each get ideas for their future dates.
When they had finished their dinners. Dusty went to the register to pay and then met Zak at the truck.
Zak hugged Dusty before he got into the truck. "Thank you for a great evening. That was amazing. This will be 'our' place from now on."
Dusty grinned at him. "It can be. But the evening isn't over yet."
"Where are we going now?" Zak asked excitedly.
"Get in and you'll see," Dusty answered as he opened the door for Zak.
They drove to a small club that Zak had never seen before.
Zak turned to Dusty. "What is this place?"
"It's a little 'all ages' club. I'd thought you'd like it tonight, because they are hosting an Eagles tribute band."
Zak was ecstatic; the Eagles were his favorite group.
The boys went into the club and were seated right in front of the stage. They sat at their table holding hands and enjoying the show.
Later when Dusty was dropping him off at home, Zak turned to hug him. "Wow. You sure set the bar high for me," he exclaimed. "This was the best night."
Dusty hugged him back. "And it's only the first of many," he said.
Zak kissed Dusty goodnight. As he exited the truck, he said, "I love you."
Dusty smiled at Zak. "I love you, too. I'll see you in the morning."
Dusty watched to make sure Zak got safely into his house and then he drove home.
Tuesday mornings would always start with Dusty and Zak planning out their week. They used a large eraser board in the office to chart out the lessons and trail rides scheduled for the weeks. Each night they would list the next day's schedule on a second eraser board on the wall outside the office. They would decide which horses were needed and Zak would keep track of when and where they needed to be.
They would block lessons by the hour and give themselves more time for trail rides depending on the length of the ride and the number of people involved. Zak would handle grooming and tacking of the horses for lessons, while Dusty would also help him for trail rides. If there was an especially large group riding, Joe or Mr. Jones would also lend a hand getting the horses ready.
Zak enjoyed his job. He would make sure each horse was groomed and ready to go for each lesson. He soon knew every horse's personality and quirks. He loved when Dusty had lessons with the smaller kids as they were still the most fun to him. They would all want to help Zak get 'their' horse ready and they would always want to help groom them after their lessons. Zak did what he could to make them feel that they were 'in charge' of getting the horses ready and putting them away.
The parents loved bringing their kids for lessons, because Zak and Dusty treated them so well and seemed to genuinely care about their progress.
When he had time, Zak would also help Debbie get horses ready for her students. Zak liked helping Debbie, because she was still giving him lessons several times a week and she was helping him a great deal. Most of her students, though, to Zak were a pain in the ass. Most of them were girls in their mid- to late teens that would fawn over Dusty and treat Zak like he didn't even exist. They would not even try to help get their horses ready and many were downright rude to Zak.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays when Debbie gave lessons, Zak would dress in his English clothes, usually breeches, a t-shirt, short boots and half-chaps. This just made it easier for him to be ready for his lessons. If he had a trail ride, he was dressed fine for that, though some of the trail-ride customers who fancied themselves cowboys would give Zak a few looks about his clothes.
The pain in the ass girls would give Zak a hard time because to them he was an amateur trying to imitate them.
One day after a lesson had finished, Debbie asked Zak if he wanted to try the new horse that Mr. Jones had just purchased. She was a very tall chestnut thoroughbred that was well trained as a hunter/jumper. Her name was Jade.
Zak knew what Debbie was doing. Several of her students had been after her to let them try Jade and Debbie had not allowed them yet. She also knew that Zak had been working with her since she arrived and she was certain the new mare had taken to Zak. Upon hearing Debbie ask Zak if he wanted to try Jade, the three girls who had just finished their lessons stood around fence outside the arena. They were shocked that Debbie was going to let this boy ride that horse, but if nothing else they could watch him fail.
Zak went to get Jade. He quickly had her groomed and saddled. He led her into the arena, aware that he had an audience that now included Dusty and Spin, who had arrived for his lesson. Spin and Dusty grinned at Zak and each gave him a thumbs up.
Zak led Jade over to the mounting block. He tightened the girth and pulled the reins over Jade's head. He stepped onto the block and mounted the mare. Seeing that his stirrups were too short, he raised his right leg over Jade's shoulder and adjusted the stirrup to the correct length and then did the same on the left side.
Once his stirrups were set, he walked Jade over to where Debbie stood in the middle of the ring.
Debbie looked right at Zak and winked. "Since this is her first go, let's take it easy to begin with," she said loud enough for her students to hear.
Zak nodded and moved Jade into a walk around the fence. After he had made several passes in each direction, Debbie signaled him to move Jade into a trot. Zak easily moved into the trot and both posted and rode in a 2-point. After circling the ring in both directions, he gracefully moved Jade into a canter and again sat it out and rode in a 2-point.
After he circled the arena in each directions a few times, Debbie had him come to the center of the ring.
She walked over to Zak and whispered, "Are you ready?"
Zak was excited. He nodded to Debbie. It was now or never. He had only tried this for the first time last week with Zephyr who was at least 2 hands smaller than Jade. But he was going to try.
He kissed at Jade and gave her a small kick to get her going; he progressed to a trot and then to a smooth canter. He circled the arena twice and then aimed the big horse at the first jump.
Neither Dusty nor Spin knew this was in the plan. They both held their breath as Zak approached the first jump and only exhaled after Zak had cleanly jumped all three jumps that were set up.
Debbie, Dusty and Spin all clapped as Zak and Jade came to a stop in the center of the arena.
"Well done," Debbie called to him as Dusty and Spin whooped and hollered.
Even the snobbish girls had to admit that Zak was a good rider. From that point, word spread that Zak actually knew what he was doing and the girls, especially, treated him with more kindness and respect.
As per their agreement, when things were slow, Dusty would work with Zak and Onyx. Every few days he would show Zak something new and then Zak would work with Onyx. Dusty would watch them in the beginning, but as he began to trust that the big horse wouldn't pull his usual crap with Zak, he let them be most of the time. Onyx seemed to work better when it was just him and Zak.
One day when things were slow and Joe and Mr. Jones had gone to the tack store for supplies, Zak was spending a bit of time lunging Onyx in the round pen. After a while, Zak removed the line from Onyx's halter and let the big horse run around the pen. Eventually, Onyx dropped to his knees and rolled around in the dirt.
"Onyx, get up," Zak instructed. "I'm going to have to give you a bath after this."
The big horse rolled around side to side and then onto his back, his huge legs and hooves waving in the air. He then rolled over to his belly and lay on the ground with his legs tucked under him.
Zak walked over to him and again ordered him to get up, but the big horse just laid there.
"Fine," Zak said as he sat next to the horse and leaned back against his neck.
The two just sat there in the middle of the round pen. The warm sun on his face combined with Onyx's warm body behind him was making Zak very sleepy. He started to doze off.
"You have got to be kidding me."
Zak's eyes snapped open and he saw Dusty sitting on the rail. He jumped to his feet and Onyx, seeing Dusty, followed suit.
"He wouldn't get up," Zak tried to explain. "So I was showing that two could play at that. I didn't do anything wrong did I?" he asked nervously.
"Wrong?" Dusty asked incredulously. "No, Zak, you didn't do anything wrong." He shook his head. "I've just never seen any horse do that besides Phoenix with me."
"Do what?" Zak asked, he was getting confused.
Dusty tried to explain. "Zak, a horse is a 'flight' animal, do you know what that means?"
"When any animal is attacked or in danger they basically have two courses of action, fight or flight. Since horses have no real weapons to stave off a predator their instinct is for flight. This is why we warn people to move slowly around them and to watch their feet and legs. When a horse kicks it's usually out of fear of attack, it's defense not offense."
"Ok, so what does that have to do with this."
Dusty just shook his head again. "When a horse rolls or lays down they are putting themselves in one of the most vulnerable positions they can be in. Think about it; if you are a predator and a horse is lying down like Onyx was, with his feet under him, they are a sitting duck. A faster animal can be on them before they could get up or kick out. Most horses will roll or lay down, but when they see a person coming they immediately get up. Even when it's a person they know and trust, it's just instinct. So for Onyx to not only roll with you there, but to let you approach him and basically rest on him shows he has an amazing amount of trust in you."
"Really?" Zak grinned.
"I know you've said it, but I don't think that horse would do anything to ever hurt you. He might even go all out to protect you."
"Does that mean I can finally ride him?"
"Well, it's a step in the right direction. We still need to do some work with him, but we're definitely getting closer."
Zak was beside himself as this was the first time he really felt that Dusty truly wanted to help him with Onyx and wasn't just doing it because he promised.
"Look, why don't you keep working him in here a little longer and I'm going to take Ash out on the trail."
Zak was suddenly concerned. "Really? Do you think he's ready?"
"Well, he's finally not fighting me every time I ride him, so I need to get him out there and see where we're at."
"Ok, just be careful."
Zak clipped the lunge line back onto Onyx's halter and grabbed the long whip he used to direct him around the pen.
He had Onyx circle the pen in both directions at all gaits. He would stop him occasionally to pet him and talk to him. He would lean against the big black horse and hug his neck.
At one point, he saw Dusty and Ash head to the trails. The big grey was dancing up a storm and made Zak very nervous. Dusty had a big Spanish saddle on the Andalusian. It looked like a western saddle, but the stirrups were very ornate and the horse was huge. Mr. Jones had purchased it when he had bought Ash.
Zak noticed that Dusty was wearing his helmet, which he never did, even when they had trail rides with kids who had to wear them. He was glad Dusty was protecting himself, since Zak really did not trust Ash.
He knew that probably wasn't fair since he had gone to such lengths to get Dusty to trust Onyx and understand what the Friesian meant to Zak, but Ash was different. He was important to Dusty was far as his being a trainer, but Dusty did not have the connection that Zak had with Onyx.
Zak pushed the thoughts out of his head and turned his focus to Onyx.
Zak spent another half hour lunging Onyx and then brought the horse to a stop. He unclipped the lunge line and attached a lead to Onyx's halter.
He led Onyx out of the round pen, leaving the gate open since no one was using it. He brought Onyx over to the shower and clipped his halter into the crossties. He went into the barn to get his grooming kit which he had left in one of the tack rooms.
From inside the barn he heard the sound of hoof beats. Since he and Dusty were the only ones around that afternoon, he assumed that Dusty had come back.
He thought it was strange that Dusty would ride Ash back at a full gallop, but he was probably trying to run off some of the grey's energy to make working with him a bit easier.
As he walked out of the barn, he saw Ash come running out of the woods. Dusty was not with him.
Zak's blood ran cold, where was Dusty?
Ash came to a stop near the barn. He stopped to graze. Zak grabbed a lead rope and held it behind his back. He reached into the fanny pack he had begun wearing to carry treats for the horses and pulled out some carrot pieces.
He slowly approached Ash talking to him very calmly and quietly. He held out the hand with the carrots in it. Ash sniffed at his hand and stretched his neck to try to reach the treats without being within Zak's reach. Once he knew Ash was enticed by the carrots, Zak very slowly moved his arm back until the horse had moved himself within reach of his other hand.
Zak then let Ash take the carrots from his hand. While Ash was distracted chomping on the carrots, Zak brought his other hand out and clipped the lead rope onto Ash's bridle.
Taking a firm hold of the bridle, he led the horse into the round pen. He closed the gate behind them and detached the lead. He examined Ash closely. There did not seem to be any sign of damage to the tack or injury to the horse.
"Where the hell is Dusty?" he said to himself.
He could only conclude that Dusty was injured and he had to go find him. If Dusty had been hurt, then time was of the essence.
He thought about it for a minute and realized he had no other option, it would take him too long to get another horse ready and he was not about to try to ride Ash, not knowing what he had done to Dusty.
Zak walked out of the round pen, shutting a perturbed Ash in. He ran into the barn and grabbed a bridle from the tack room.
He went over to where Onyx was waiting patiently for him in the shower stall. He unclipped one side of the halter from the crosstie and took the halter off his nose and re-buckled it around his neck. He reached up and pulled the bridle over Onyx head and the big horse took the bit from him with no trouble.
He looked up at the big horse; he knew he was going to need a boost for this.
He remembered something Dusty had told him once. He led Onyx over to Dusty's truck and lowered the back gate. He positioned Onyx right next to the gate and scrambled into the truck bed.
He stood on the gate with the reins in his hand breathing deeply. He petted the horse and whispered to him.
"This isn't how I wanted the first time to be, but we need to find Dusty," he whispered to the horse.
He gathered the reins tightly and stood hovering over Onyx's back. He took a deep breath. "Well," he said, "it's now or never."
Exhaling he slipped his right leg over Onyx's back and he was mounted. Zak's heart beat faster and faster, finally he was astride his horse. For Onyx it seemed to be a non-event, but for Zak it was a dream come true. But losing Dusty would be a nightmare.
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