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Riding Lessons II: Lessons Learned

by Andrew Todd

Part 24

Chapter 20

Dylan squirmed in the overstuffed chair.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and all his friends were at the ranch getting ready for a trail ride while he was stuck at his therapist's office for his monthly appointment.

Zak had assured him that they would wait for him, but that did not make the hour-long appointment any less excruciating.

He was happy that he had managed to convince his mother and Jean, his therapist that he could get by on once-a-month sessions at this point. Both women had seen a marked improvement in Dylan's demeanor since he had started school in September. Though both were convinced it had more to do with the boys at the Triple J, than the school itself.

"So, Dylan…" Jean started; she was seated in a recliner across from Dylan. "Dylan?"

Dylan looked up. "Huh?"

"I know you probably want to be somewhere else today, but these sessions are still important for you."

"I know," Dylan sighed. "It's just that we had a half-day today and everyone is getting ready for a ride. Since it snowed last night, the woods are going to be amazing. I'm just too excited to sit still right now."

Jean laughed, "Well, let's try to get through this session and then get you on your ride, ok?"

Dylan nodded. "Ok."

"So, I haven't seen you since right before Halloween," Jean started. "How have things been?"

"Great," Dylan answered. "So much has happened in the last month. Zak got thrown and had to spend the night in the hospital. Ace and Sarge moved to the ranch and Ace started going to school with us. We had been planning the fall festival since the first day of school and then CJ and Danny went out of town; we thought they were going to be back in time, but they didn't make it back…"

The Saturday before Halloween was the day of the big fall festival that the boys had been planning since the start of school.

With CJ's blessing, Dusty had sought out and purchased two Belgian geldings and a large hay cart. They were going to give hayrides throughout the day and the guys had set up a 'haunted' hayride for the evening. Two of the new ranch hands/security guards were in charge of running the hayrides.

Ace and Dylan had saddled up some of the smaller and gentler horses and had them in one of the outdoor rings to give kids pony rides around the ring.

Spin, Mattie and Zak were giving barn tours to visitors and signing people up for future lessons and trail rides.

Dusty had contacted some area craftsmen and many of them had set up around the ranch to sell handmade crafts.

Everything ran smoothly and the boys were pleased with the outcome. Sarge made sure that he had all the new ranch hands on site and on the lookout for any security problems. He was impressed with the way the boys handled the whole day's events. He knew that they had expected CJ and Danny to be back, but they hadn't missed a step when CJ called to say they would be in Florida longer than expected.

The highlight of the day was a series of riding demonstrations that the boys had been practicing and preparing for the last month.

They had wanted to highlight all of the things their horses could do as well as to show the different types of riding they taught at the ranch.

Since Spin had the gift of gab, he had been elected the Master of Ceremonies.

They had had a number of bleachers erected around the largest of the outside rings and a new public address system had been installed. Spin rode out on his older horse, Marty. He was all decked out in his finest western clothing: red-checked shirt, black jeans, chaps, black Stetson and a bandana around his neck. Marty was wearing an ornate western saddle with silver buckles that the boys had polished to an almost blinding shine. Spin also had a microphone hooked over his ear, so he didn't have to hold it.

Spin stopped Marty in the center of the ring and tipped his hat. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "And, of course, little ladies and gentlemen," he added to laughter from the crowd. "Welcome to the Triple J Ranch and our first fall festival. We hope you've had fun today. What we want to do for you now if give you a small taste of what our horses can do and what we can offer here at the Triple J."

Spin dismounted and pointed to an opening in the gate. Marty trotted over to the opening when Zak was waiting to lead him away. The audience clapped for the little horse.

Spin stepped up on a riser that had been placed in the center of the ring.

"Now, folks," he continued. "First out are the newest members of our Triple J family: Ace Evans and his quarter horse, Bullet."

Ace came riding out. He was dressed simply in blue jeans and a western shirt. He wore his always present black Stetson. He cantered around the ring and then stopped in front of Spin. He pulled loose the lariat that he had attached to his saddle and rode around the ring swinging the lasso over his head and from side to side.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ace fancies himself quite the cowboy," Spin said dryly. "Watch him spin that lariat." He put his hand to his mouth like he was telling a secret. "Not that he'd catch anything."

On cue, Ace spun Bullet around and galloped towards the center of the ring. He spun the lariat over his head and tossed it when he was a few feet from Spin. The lariat flew through the air and landed around Spin. When it reached Spin's waist, Ace gave it a jerk and it tightened and he pulled Spin off his stand. Ace stopped Bullet so that he didn't drag Spin along.

The crowd was laughing at the boys' antics. Spin made a show of pulling himself up off the ground and brushing himself off. He pulled the lariat off and handed it to Ace.

"Ok, ok," Spin said. "Anything else that nag can do?" He exaggerated the 'nag' comment for comic effect.

Ace nodded and grinned at Spin. He motioned to the barrels that had been set up around the ring.

Spin turned back to his audience. "So, Ace thinks that Bullet can run the barrels. Anyone want to see him try?"

A round of applause went up from the audience.

Spin turned back to Ace. "Ok, Ace, it's all yours." Ace turned Bullet and started to ride away. "Wait," Spin called. "I think we should time this…don't you folks?"

Another round of applause went up.

"I need someone to man the stopwatch, cuz for some reason he doesn't trust me." Spin rolled his eyes and looked around the arena. "Dylan!!" he called.

"What?" Dylan yelled from his spot along the fence.

"C'mere and time Ace and Bullet."

"Alright." Dylan walked over to the starting and finishing mark and waited for Ace and Bullet to get ready.

"Ok, folks, while those two jokers are getting ready, let me explain what they are going to do. Barrel racing was originally created as the 'women's' event at early rodeos. Guys rode broncs and bulls and women ran the barrels. Now, it is still dominated by the women, but we guys are allowed to do it too. You can see the three barrels set up in a triangle pattern. The goal for the horse and rider is to circle each barrel and return to the starting point in the fastest time possible. Oh, yeah, and they can't knock any barrels over. They are allowed to start with the barrel on the left or the right, and then they must circle the center and the remaining barrel." Spin looked over to Ace and Bullet and back to the crowd. "You know, I think this would be more interesting if Ace had some competition, don't you?"

The crowd was getting into Spin's antics and cheered. "Let's get some competition out here for him."

To more applause, Dusty and Mattie rode out.

"Ok, now we've got a competition. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dusty Crandall riding his mustang, Phoenix, and Mateo Alvarez on Whisper." Each boy tipped his hat when introduced. "If you guys want to take your places, let the race begin."

One by one, Ace, Dusty and Mattie ran the barrels. The crowd was impressed by the speed at which all three moved their horses and the fact that none of them knocked over a barrel, though Mattie and Whisper rocked one hard.

When the three had run the pattern, they all rode to the center of the ring and lined up behind Spin. Dylan ran over and handed Spin a paper with the results.

"Thank you, Dylan." Spin turned to the crowd. "How about a hand for our racers." The audience applauded loudly. "Now, let's see the results. Mateo ran the barrels in a time of 15.3 seconds, which was good for third place. Dusty and Phoenix did the pattern in 13.4 seconds. Was that good enough to win it?" He paused to tease the audience. "Nope. With a time of 12.9 seconds, the winner of our Triple J Barrel Race is Ace Evans." The audience cheered for the three riders as they took a final lap around the arena and then rode out the gate.

Spin spent a few minutes talking to the crowd, while the hands removed the barrels and the next rider got ready.

"So, Mateo didn't win the barrel race." Spin stood back on his podium. "But, that boy has some mad skills when it comes to riding. He's kind of our jack-of-all-trades. He does some rodeo, some English, but what he does best, that none of the rest of us can seem to do anywhere near as well, is Spanish riding. So with a demonstration, here is Mateo Alvarez and his Andalusian stallion, Ash."

Mattie entered the arena on Ash. Ash was decked out in the ornate Spanish saddle that Mr. Jones had purchased when he bought the horse. Mattie circled the arena several times at a walk, trot and canter. He had Ash do a Spanish walk across the arena.

During Mattie's whole performance, Spin gave a running commentary explaining the gaits and the training that Mattie had done with Ash. Standing against the gate and listening to Spin, Dusty and Zak both had to agree that he was a natural showman and salesman. They could see the lights going on in many of the eyes in the audience and knew that this day was a success.

After Mattie and Ash had finished their demonstration, Spin re-introduced Dusty and Phoenix. Dusty was riding bareback and demonstrating some tricks that he had taught Phoenix. Spin continued his running commentary, commenting on Phoenix's performance as well as telling the story of how Phoenix and Dusty came together.

After Dusty had finished, Spin spent a few minutes giving the details of the ranch's expansion and the opening of the rescue. As Spin spoke about the rescue, Dylan was waiting at the gate with Dodger.

When signaled by Spin, Dylan led Dodger into the arena. Dodger was almost fully recovered from his ordeal. As Dylan led him around, Spin told of how they had found Dodger and the work that the ranch, especially Dylan, had done to help him recover. Spin explained that Dylan was waiting for an all-clear from the vet before he was able to ride Dodger.

Once Dylan and Dodger had left the arena, Spin made an announcement. "Ok, folks, we're gonna take a short break in our program. If you want to grab a snack, we have a table with all sorts of goodies set up or be sure to check out some of the local artisans who are here; if you want to sign up for lessons or ask questions you can see any one of us. We'll be back in about twenty minutes, as soon as we get set up for the second half of our demonstration."

The audience gave Spin another ovation as he walked out of the arena.

While the crowd dispersed and milled around the food vendors and artisan tables, Dusty, Mattie, Ace and several of the new hands set up the arena for the second half of the demonstrations.

Dylan, Spin and Zak were in the office changing into their riding clothes and then they went to make sure their horses were ready.

When they started the second wave of the demonstration, the guys chose to have Ace act as emcee. Ace had a down-home 'aw-shucks' rhythm to his speech and the guys thought his Texas accent would be funny when narrating the performances of the English riders.

"Hey y'all, welcome back," Ace started from the center podium. He knew the guys wanted him to really play up the Southern charm. "We showed you the western side of things, so now we have another group of guys who are gonna show you the English side of things…the side I just don't get, but these guys are pretty good.

"The fella you are gonna see first has only been riding for about five months. He's taken to it like a duck to water. He's gonna give you a little dressage demonstration. Now I want ya to be nice to him, cuz he wasn't supposed to do this demo--his brother was; but he was unable to be here, so instead of disappointing y'all, Zak Myers is gonna give you a demonstration on his Friesian, Onyx."

Zak rode into the arena on Onyx. He was nervous as hell, since he had only been practicing this stuff with Danny for about a month. He spent the next few minutes putting Onyx through his paces, while Ace narrated and explained what they were doing. When he was finished and had Onyx stand in the middle of the arena, Zak was relatively pleased with his performance. Any errors were all his he felt and not Onyx's. He exited the theatre to loud applause.

Ace spoke some more to the crowd, while the boys got ready for their next demonstration.

"Again, we are missing a key member of this team, so we have a pinch hitter of sorts helping out," Ace explained. "The boys have been practicing as a drill team and are going to come out and perform for you. In this demonstration, we have Zak Myers riding Silent Angel, Spin O'Brien riding Revanche, Dylan Summers on Apollo and out last minute sub, Mateo Alvarez on Zephyr."

The four boys rode in. Mattie was very uncomfortable having to dress in the English riding gear. He had been watching the boys practice this drill performance since early September and he was the only of the 'cowboys' who remotely understood what they were doing. He also had reached a détente of sorts with Zephyr after she threw Zak, so he was comfortable performing; he just wished he could do it in his jeans.

Ace once again narrated as the riders performed a number of synchronized moves in the arena. Everything went off without a hitch and the audience jumped to their feet to give the riders a standing ovation.

The four riders stopped in the center of the arena and each of the horses took a 'bow' with their rider. The applause grew louder at this and the boys rode out of the arena.

"Thank you, folks, for your applause and your appreciation," Ace came back on. "We have one more rider to give a short demonstration for you. Then you are free to come and meet the riders and the horses, to tour the facilities, visit with the food vendors and artisans or see one of us about lessons or trail rides. The hayrides will continue for about another hour or so and then after dark we will be doing a few 'Haunted Hayrides'. Now, I know that some of you want to know how old your kids have to be to start riding lessons. Well, if they can sit up we can start 'em." There was a lot of laughter from the audience. "Oh, ho, y'all think I'm being funny? Well, here to show you that it's not about age, but about loving the horses and being determined is Maxie Rollins."

As Ace said Maxie's name, Zak led Scout into the ring carrying the three-year-old who was all decked out in his English riding gear.

"Maxie is only three years old, folks," Ace informed the crowd. "He's been riding on trails with us a while now and he and his horse, Scout, ride solo with us. Zak has been his informal instructor as of late. What Zak is showing you right now would be called 'lead line' in shows. Zak is leading Scout while a young rider shows some of their abilities. For those of you who think that it's the equivalent to a pony ride, let's see what Maxie can do."

Zak walked up to Scout and unclipped the lead rope.

Maxie kicked the horse into a walk and walked in a small circle around the center of the arena.

Maxie and Scout made a few circles and then Maxie stopped Scout in front of Zak who clipped the lead to the horse's bridle.

"Well, folks, that ends our little demonstration. But the festival is still going on, so please enjoy yourselves," Ace ended things to a loud ovation from the crowd. "And thank you for coming."

"So the day was a success?" Jean asked.

Dylan nodded. "Oh, yeah. We signed up so many new lessons, that a couple of the new hands got recruited as beginning instructors. We were full up on trail rides all through November. Dusty talked to CJ and they decided that they'd offer some winter rides for more experienced riders. That's one of the reasons we're going out this afternoon--to check the trails and make sure it's safe since we got so much snow last night." Dusty grinned. "It's neat; CJ listens to all the ideas we have and lets us have a say in what we offer at the ranch. Dusty bought the two Belgians and the hay wagons and that was so much fun for everyone that he also found a place that makes carriages and we ordered a couple of those, so we could offer carriage rides for two around the trails. We've already got a few weddings to go to in the spring. Ace really likes the little kids, and he wanted to be able to give pony rides and lessons to them, so he and Mattie went out and bought three of the cutest ponies; they also went and got a miniature horse and miniature donkey. They put them in a pen in front of the ranch so the little kids can see them and play with them."

Jean smiled. "Now, you've told me plenty about Zak and Danny and how they've helped you, but what about the other boys?"

"What about them?"

"Tell me about them." Jean requested.

Dylan smiled. "They're all great guys. I've never known people like them. Mattie is probably the one I'm closest to besides Zak and Danny; he's so compassionate, so at peace with everything. He can get riled and he has a temper when provoked, but he's the peacemaker. Spin is just the opposite--he's the instigator. If there's a fight or an argument, Spin is probably in the middle of it, but he argues for the sake of the argument. If I was in a fight or someone was after me, Spin would have my back and fight to the end. Dusty is like the dad for all of us, probably more than Danny and CJ. He's so mature, so level-headed. Ace is great; he and I have started getting close since he moved here. He's another one who you can't peg. He's an aw-shucks country boy but he blows away every stereotype of that type of person. He's caring, accepting, not a prejudiced bone in his body. There was one day at school when my cousin had an idea and we found out a lot more about Ace…"

Denise sat down at the lunch table. She was the last one to arrive and dropped her books on the table between Dylan and Ace.

"Where the hell have you been?" Carmen asked. "Lunch is almost half over."

"I was talking to Miss Stanley." Miss Stanley was an English teacher who had just started teaching at the beginning of the year. "I was asking her if she would be our faculty advisor."

"For what?" Mattie asked.

"For the new GSA."

"What's a GSA?" Zak asked.

"Gay-Straight Alliance," Ace answered. "We had one at my last school in California. I can't believe you guys don't have one already. They're a great way to bring people together and to show support for everyone no matter their sexuality."

Denise looked at Ace and nodded. "What he said," she laughed. "We never have had one here, cuz Mr. Phillips, the old guidance counselor, always fought against it. He didn't want any organization that 'encouraged deviant lifestyles'."

"He actually said that?" Ace laughed.

Denise and Carmen both nodded.

"It's ridiculous that in this day and age, someone with such a narrow and bigoted view is allowed to teach in a school," Ace said.

"Well, he didn't teach, he 'guided'," Carmen laughed. "He was a prick. I'm so glad that he was forced to retire. Mrs. Fields is a much better counselor then he ever was. She's all for the GSA, but we needed an advisor." She turned to Denise. "So, what did Miss Stanley say?"

"She's all for it. She said she would be happy to be our advisor. I figure we need to get some posters and other stuff out so people know what we are doing. I assume you all are in?" Denise said as she looked around the table.

"Denise, if all of the gay kids you know join the 'Gay-Straight Alliance' aren't you afraid that will scare away the straight kids who are afraid of being labeled gay?" Zak asked.

Ace answered, "Zak, the whole point is to create a safe environment for everyone. It only works if people are less scared about what everyone thinks about them and more concerned about what they think about everyone."

Denise looked at Ace. "Ok, Ace," she began. "I gotta know something and I'm trying to figure out how to ask…uhh…politely." Dylan groaned, which got him an elbow in the side.

"What was that for?" he asked as he rubbed his side.

"What was the groan for?"

"I know you and I can only imagine what you are going to ask poor Ace."

Everyone was laughing at the cousins' antics.

"Denise, darlin', I promise whatever you want to ask me, just ask, I won't get mad or offended."

"Ok, Cowboy," Denise laughed. "You're from Texas, right?"

"Born there and lived there until I was fourteen, why?"

"So, if you are from Texas, how is it that you are so…uhh…tolerant?"

Ace laughed, "Why ain't I a racist, bigoted redneck?"


Most of the boys at the table cringed. Ace was very much a 'good old boy', but he was also their friend.

"Denise!!" Dylan hissed.

Ace laughed again. "Don't worry, Dyl. I know she doesn't mean anything by that. I know that my brethren in that area of the country have earned their less-than-glowing reputation when it comes to tolerance and acceptance. There are a few reasons I'm the way I am. One, my dad's brother, Adam, who I was named after was gay. He was killed--murdered, really, because of it. He was still in college and I never knew him, but my dad loved him and he made sure that I knew from a young age, that it wasn't a choice and there wasn't anything wrong with being gay. Second, my best friend, Devon, who I've known since the first day of first grade is gay. I would kill for him and I would die for him. I don't care who he sleeps with or loves, it doesn't change the fact that he is one of the best people I know. I knew from a very early age that Devon was different. It actually caused me a lot of heartache."

"Because you had a problem with him being gay?" Denise asked.

Ace shook his head. "No, cuz I wasn't." He paused a moment. "He's my best friend in the world, always has been. Once I figured out that he was gay--probably before he did, and that he had a crush on me--I actually prayed and tried my damndest to have the same feelings for him. I didn't want to disappoint him or let him down."

"You wanted to be gay?" Spin asked.

"No, I wanted to be what he wanted," Ace answered. "I didn't need a label, I wanted to be in love with him so bad. But, once puberty hit I knew that it wasn't going to happen. I never let on that I knew how he felt until right before I moved. We found out my dad was being transferred to a base in California at the same time we found out my mom had cancer…so there was a lot of mixed feelings--happy that dad wasn't going to be deployed anymore, sad about my mom and not knowing what was gonna happen, and miserable to be leaving Devon.

"We went on one last camping trip together to this lake we always went to. Devon wasn't much of an outdoors person; he loved riding, but he wasn't big on camping or fishing or shooting; he did it all for me so we could be together. I would fish or shoot on these camping trips…"

"You hunted?" Denise asked unable to hide the disgust in her voice.

"No. I know how to use a gun and a rifle. But I would shoot cans and shit. I couldn't kill something unless someone's life depended on it. It's funny, cuz here I am an army brat and I have martial arts training, I can shoot, I can use a knife…I probably know more ways to kill something than I ever wanted to…and yet, I think I'm the gentlest guy I know. Now, Devon, he was the complete opposite. He couldn't shoot for shit; I tried to teach him some judo and it was almost comical; but he has a temper like you wouldn't believe. It's probably safer for most that he can't shoot.

"So, anyways, on these campouts I would fish or shoot and Devon would draw. He is the most amazing artist. He would sketch all afternoon and then he would spend days holed up in his 'studio' painting and drawing and doing these incredible works. Well, we went on one last campout. We always shared a tent and to keep warm, we always zipped our sleeping bags together. In the middle of the night I woke up with a…" he looked at Denise and Carmen, who both rolled their eyes, "...problem. I was hard as a rock and there was a hand wrapped around it that didn't belong to me. Devon thought I was asleep. I rolled over and he freaked out. I just grabbed him in a hug and told him I knew what he wanted and I wished I could give it to him, but I just couldn't. He thought I'd hate him. I could never hate him, he's the closest thing to a brother I've ever had. I just held him tight for the rest of the night.

"We left a few days later. I haven't seen him in person since. But not a day goes by that we don't e-mail, text, Facebook, tweet or Skype. He's miserable there in Texas, cuz he just doesn't fit in with anyone else. Hopefully, when we both graduate high school, we can find a college to go to together."

"You, cowboy, are going to be our 'straight guy' poster boy," Denise declared. "If someone can be as country and studly as you and believe in equality, you are the best bet we have to make this thing a success."

"I'm in, Darlin'." Ace looked at the other guys. "How about you guys?"

"I guess I'm in," Zak said. "Maybe CJ will let us use the ranch for meetings."

"I'm sure he will," Mattie said. "Spin and I are in." Spin nodded his agreement.

All eyes turned to Dylan. "Ok, I'm in, too." He grinned.

"Awesome," Denise crowed. "We'll meet tomorrow after school and start planning how we're going to get the word out."

"So, Denise went ahead and started the new GSA at school," Dylan said. "We had our first official meeting last week and we had a great turnout. There was some grumbling from some of the jocks and some parents, but the administration has actually been very supportive."

"So how do you feel about being part of the GSA?" Jean asked.

"I was nervous at first," Dylan stated. "I know that we don't have to be 'out' to be a part of it and we have lots of straight kids there, but I was nervous cuz I still have a hard time with new people. But, all my friends are there too, so I have the support I need to make it work."

"So how are things on the ranch? How is Dodger coming along?"

Dylan lit up. "He's doing so great. The vet cleared him last week for me to start working him and to ride him if we thought it was ok."

"And have you?"

"Well, I was going to a couple of times and I kept putting it off. Then this weekend when Danny and CJ got home, they brought Jesse, their new foster son. He's a really cool guy. I think he might even be a match for Dusty when it comes to horses and his way with them. I went out after school on Monday, most of the guys had work to do, and I wanted to work with Dodger. Jesse was there and he helped me out…"

Zak parked his SUV at his usual spot by the barn. He had Dylan with him. Mattie and Spin were right behind him in Ace's pickup. Since Ace and Mattie were living at the ranch, Ace would drive the two of them to school and Zak would pick up Spin and Dylan.

Jesse wasn't going to start school until after Christmas break. He had missed a semester, so Zak's mother, Kate, who was president of the school board, made arrangements for him to get catch-up work so he could start in January and not be left behind. He was a sophomore like Mattie, so every effort was being made to put them in classes together.

Jesse came out of the barn when the guys drove up.

"Hey, Jesse," Zak greeted his new 'nephew'. "How're you doin'?"

"Hey, Zak. Pretty good. Kinda bored while you guys are all at school. But Dusty's been keeping me busy here and I've been working Val."

The boys all gathered around Zak's SUV; Dusty came out of the office.

"So, what's on the agenda?" Spin asked Dusty.

"You have lessons at 4, 5:30 and 6:30. I have a lesson at 5. Zak and Mattie have two trail rides."

"And it's only Monday," Spin declared.

"The fall festival really worked for getting things hopping around here," Mattie said.

"Now, there's nothing scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday because of the holiday," Dusty informed them. "But Friday, Saturday and Sunday are crazy busy. We're supposed to get snow tomorrow night, so I thought when you guys get out of school we could take a ride in the snow and check the trails for downed branches and stuff."

"That sounds like fun," Zak said.

"Shit. I have an appointment that day right after school," Dylan complained.

"How long is it?" Mattie asked.

"Just an hour."

"No problem; we'll come here right after school and get the horses ready and then as soon as your mom can drop you off, we can head out."

"Cool. I'll tell her we're in a hurry."

"So, Dylan, what are you doing this afternoon, since you and Ace are the only ones with nothing on your schedule?" Dusty asked.

"I thought I'd work with Dodger in the round pen. I'd like to see if I can ride him. He's coming along, but he's still a little hesitant."

Dusty was a little apprehensive. "Ok, make sure you wear your helmet." He turned to Ace. "Ace are you going to be around in case he needs help?"

"Actually, I need to make a run to the feed store for Dad."

"Umm, I can help Dylan, if he wants," Jesse spoke up.

Dylan grinned at Jesse. He thought Jesse was just about the cutest boy he had ever seen. "That would be great, Jesse. Danny told me that you're a good trainer, I bet you could give me some tips."

"Sure," Jesse answered. He was still rather shy around the boys. He had been conditioned for years to expect torment from his peers, and he was still leery of the boys even though Danny and CJ vouched for each of them. He also had a small crush on Dylan. Even though he was younger, Dylan was about his height and was so cute he couldn't stand it.

"Ok, then," Dusty interrupted Jesse's daydreams. "Let's get going."

Everyone went off in their separate directions.

Dylan led Jesse to Dodger's stall.

"Hey, buddy," Dylan called as he approached the stall. "Are you ready work?"

Dodger stretched his neck over the stall door as Dylan scratched his head and neck.

Jesse came up beside Dylan. He watched Dodger carefully and reached out his hand to the gelding. Dodger sniffed at Jesse's hand and dipped his head down towards Jesse. Jesse scratched him behind the ears and ran his hand down Dodger's neck and under his mane. Jesse spoke quietly to the horse.

Dylan stepped back and watched Jesse's interaction with Dodger.

"Wow," Dylan whistled. "Danny wasn't kidding."

Jesse turned to Dylan, his hand still under Dodger's mane, scratching the horse's neck. "About what?"

"He said you might give Dusty a run for his money as 'horse whisperer'." Dylan grinned. "Zak is good, but he doesn't have the experience, he just seems to connect with the horses. Mattie, Spin and I and probably CJ are riders. We're all pretty good, but I don't think any of us have delusions of being trainers. We just work with our own horses and have moderate success. Dusty is a whisperer; he can work magic with most of the horses he comes into contact with. Danny's pretty good too, but in less than five minutes you've gotten further with Dodger than anyone but me. And the only reason I get anywhere with him is that he remembers me from before."

"It's more than that, Dylan," Jesse explained. "He remembers you, yes, but you've also been the one who's worked with him and cared for him since he got here. He's been yours. He understands that. As for me, I've always had this gift. When I was little, some of the barn managers would call in my mother to actually get me to work with the horses. I don't know why. I just have this connection with them. It worked with Val. We can see if it works with Dodger, but I'm going to help you. I don't want to be the first one on him; I want that to be you. You've both earned that. It's important for him that you are the one. Let's get him ready and head out to the arena. If we stay away from everyone else, maybe it will help him, limiting the distractions."

Dylan grabbed Dodger's bridle and lead and went into the stall. After they had Dodger groomed and tacked, the boys led him into the indoor arena. They knew they would have quiet and privacy in there.

Jesse had brought a lunge line with him. He had Dylan clip the line to Dodger's bridle and Dylan kissed at Dodger and got him moving around the two boys in a circle. Dylan had plenty of experience in lunging horses, but Jesse gave him a few pointers and tricks he liked to use. They worked Dodger on the line for about 45 minutes, having him walk, trot and canter in each direction. Jesse took over holding the line and had Dylan walk alongside Dodger. He told him to just place his hand on Dodger's shoulder or neck and keep contact with him as they walked around the circle.

After a few minutes of this, Jesse brought Dodger to a stop and unclipped the lunge line. He had Dylan walk about 20 feet away. Jesse held Dodger and walked him around a bit. He then told Dylan to call Dodger. The Arabian trotted right over to Dylan and put his head in Dylan's open hands. Dylan laughed to himself. He had never seen any of Jesse's tricks before. He figured that Jesse had come up with some of these actions when he was younger and since they worked he kept doing them.

"Ok," Jesse said walking towards Dylan and Dodger. "You ready to try this?"

"I think so," Dylan answered.

"Dylan, I know it's been a while for both of you, but you have to be sure," Jesse said. "If he senses any hesitation this first time, he could backslide or lose his trust in you and that could be disastrous."

Dylan nodded. "Ok, then I'm ready. Let's do this."

Dylan moved to pull down his stirrups.

Jesse stopped him. "No, leave them."

Dylan looked at him questioningly. "Why? I need those."

"No. Actually, let's pull off the tack," Jesse suggested.

"Ok, but why?"

"It's all about trust. You and Dodger. No tack, no equipment, just you and him," Jesse said. "The first time I rode Val, it was me and him in a field--no saddle, no bridle, no halter."

"But you'd been working with him for a while, right?"

Jesse shook his head. "I had just seen him the field. I spent maybe fifteen minutes petting and talking to him."

"And you just hopped on?"

Jesse grinned. "It had been the longest I had ever gone without being near a horse. When I ran away in August, I was on the road. Bumming rides with truckers. I would find a place to camp and stay there for a few days and then move on. The last place I stayed in before I got to Ocala, I was sleeping in a park. Kaya must have wandered off to go to the bathroom. I woke up and there was this guy standing over me with his dick hanging out. He must have thought I was a hustler or something. He grabbed my head and tried to make me blow him. I fought as best I could. He punched me a couple of times, once really hard in the side. He made a move to yank my shorts down and then I heard Kaya growl behind him. He saw her and ran. I could tell she wanted to go after him, but I made her stay with me. I didn't know if the guys had any friends."

"But, he didn't…I mean, you weren't…"

"No, he didn't rape me, though it wasn't for lack of trying."

"You were lucky then," Dylan said with a faraway look in his eyes.

Jesse noticed the fear in Dylan's eyes. He walked over to Dylan and took the younger boy's hand in his.

"You were, weren't you?" he asked quietly.

Dylan had a few tears in his eyes as he nodded. Before he even realized what he was doing, he had related the whole story of Cody and his subsequent depression and suicide attempt. Something about Jesse made him comfortable and at peace and he wanted to share this dark part of his past with his new friend.

Jesse hugged Dylan tightly. "I'm so sorry that happened to you," Jesse whispered. "I'm glad you are better now and that you didn't die. If I can do anything to help you, I will."

"You already are," Dylan answered as he hugged Jesse back.

The two boys stood there for a few minutes and then Dodger neighed loudly.

The boys pulled apart and wiped their eyes.

Dylan laughed, "I guess he's feeling left out."

"Well, then let's get down to business."

The two quickly pulled off Dodger's saddle and bridle and put them off to the side.

Jesse had Dylan walk around Dodger, quietly talking to the horse and stroking him all over. He had Dylan walk around so that Dodger would follow him. Jesse wanted to take everything slow so that Dodger would not feel pressured and so that everything would work out for him and Dylan.

After he had had Dylan and Dodger walk around for a while, Jesse walked over to the two.

"Are you ready, Dylan?" he asked.

Dylan nodded.

Jesse scratched Dodger's cheek. "How about you, big guy? You ready?"

Both boys laughed as Dodger shook his head up and down as if he was nodding.

Jesse had Dylan stand at Dodger's side. Jesse boosted Dylan so that he was lying across Dodger's back. While Dodger had been ridden before, Jesse wanted to treat this like a first experience so it was all positive for Dodger.

Jesse had Dylan lay quietly across Dodger's back and he led Dodger around the arena at a walk.

Once he was sure Dodger was comfortable, Jesse had Dylan slowly swing his leg over Dodger's back. He told Dylan to keep his legs on each side, but not to sit up yet. Jesse continued to have Dodger walk around; to him it was important that Dodger know he had a choice in this and that he work with the two boys and not feel 'dominated'.

Finally, Jesse had Dylan sit up and take a normal riding position. Dylan stroked Dodger's neck and sides as Jesse continued to lead him around.

After a few more minutes, Jesse said, "Ok, I'm gonna go stand over there. Just ride him around. Use your leg cues and get him used to it again. You're both doing good. Just let him know you're with him. Keep talking to him."

Jesse walked over to the side of the arena and watched Dylan and Dodger as they continued to walk around the arena. At Jesse's cue, Dylan moved Dodger into a trot and then a canter.

Dylan felt like he was soaring. As great as he felt when he started riding again, he felt even better since he was riding Dodger now. This was his friend, his companion…it meant so much to him to be a team with Dodger again.

Finally, Jesse walked back to the center of the ring and Dylan stopped Dodger next to him.

Both boys were glowing with excitement. Dylan slipped off Dodger's back and grabbed Jesse in a big hug.

Dylan lifted Jesse off the ground and swung him around. "Thank you, so much, Jesse!!" he exclaimed. "You have no idea how much this means to me."

Jesse laughed as Dylan swung him around. Dylan put him down and the two stood looking at each other. Dylan reached up and caressed Jesse's cheek. They took another step closer to each other. Like two magnets, they were drawn together. Dylan tilted his head and kissed Jesse gently.

Jesse froze for a second. He had only ever kissed one other boy before and had lost him. He had been afraid to open his heart again. But Dylan was so cute and so sweet. He was so open and honest and Jesse felt a connection to him. Jesse gave in and returned the kiss.

The two boys stood in the middle of the arena gently kissing and holding each other as Dodger wandered around them.

"Ahemm!!" They jumped apart and looked over to see Mattie and Zak standing there watching them.

"I thought you two were training Dodger," Zak grinned.

Jesse and Dylan both blushed and nodded.

"We were," Dylan answered. "In fact, with Jesse's help, I just rode Dodger. It was so great."

Mattie and Zak walked over to where the other boys were standing.

Zak wrapped his arm around Dylan. "Ok, just make sure you take good care of my 'nephew' here."

Jesse rolled his eyes. "They warned me about you being a matchmaker, Zak. I guess you can scratch me and Dylan off your list."

Zak nodded. "Good," Zak said as he put an arm around both boys' shoulders. "Saves me having to do the work." He smiled.

"So, you and Jesse?" Jean asked.

Dylan smiled. "He's so cute and kind and smart and…" He sighed. "He's everything I've ever wanted."

"Do you think you're ready for a relationship?"

"I don't know. I've told him everything and he didn't run away. He's been so supportive. I know we're young and we've only known each other a few days, but I want to try."

"Good. I think that's a real step in the right direction for you. The fact that you found someone you connect with and felt comfortable enough to tell him about everything is great. The fact that he responded the way he did speaks volumes about him as well. It sounds like you both might be able to help each other."

Dylan nodded. "I sure hope so."

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