Zak sat nervously on Angel waiting to enter the ring.
He had survived the equitation class with Apollo, coming in third out of twenty entrants, but he was much more nervous about the showjumping course he was about to attempt.
He had been running jumps with Spin for almost eight months and training with Danny since September, but he was still nervous to finally be in a real competition. What was making him most nervous was having to watch his friends go before him. By some strange quirk of fate, he had been given the last run on the course. Already, Jesse and Val and Dylan and Dodger had run the course clean and were in the jump-off. Spin had gone for speed, as he usually did, but he was reckless, as he usually was, and finished the course with eight faults after knocking down two fences.
Zak had kept himself busy walking Angel around the practice arena waiting for his turn. Danny had given him a few last-minute tips. Prior to the start of the class, they were permitted to walk the course to plan their run. Zak, Jesse, Dylan and Spin had all walked it together. They all knew the stride of their horses and measured out how many they would need between each jump. Jesse and Dylan each gave Zak a few pointers.
Zak had to wait through one more rider before it was his turn. He took Angel to a small practice area and took her over a few practice jumps to warm her up. He then rode back to the gate from which he would enter the arena.
Danny stood there waiting for him.
Danny grinned up at Zak.
"Relax, little brother." Danny grinned. "Just take it one jump at a time. Remember, this is your first competition. A lot of these guys have been competing for years. Just breathe and enjoy it. Angel will take care of you." He scratched Angel's cheek. "Won't you, baby girl?"
"I just wish I wasn't the last one," Zak said.
"Luck of the draw," Danny answered. "Just remember: in the first round you are only competing against yourself. Just jump it clean and don't go over the time limit. If you get to the jump-off then we can worry about speed. Just take it easy." Zak looked like he was going to pass out. "And breathe, damn it," he laughed.
In the stands the Triple J boys had their own cheering section consisting of Dusty, Mattie, CJ, Ace, Devon, TJ, Erik, Casey, Josh and Sarge. They had all cheered loudly as Spin, Dylan and Jesse had finished their runs and now they all waited anxiously for Zak.
"God, I can't believe he has to go last," Dusty said. "He must be nervous as hell."
"He'll be fine, Dusty," CJ reassured him. "Danny's been coaching them all, but you know he's looking out for his little brother."
"I know. I just wish I could be down there with him instead of up here."
"If I gotta watch Spin from up here, then you can watch Zak from up here," Mattie laughed. "'sides, since the red-headed menace isn't going to be in the jump-off, Zak could actually beat him in the standings."
"I just want him to get this one over with," Dusty replied. "I want him to do well, but if he just gets through this first one I'll be happy."
"Jesus Christ, Boy, will you quit ya worryin'!" Ace instructed Dusty. "Zak's gonna be fine. The only one who Angel runs better for is Danny. She'll take care of him just fine."
Dusty was about to respond when an announcement came over the PA system.
"And that was Tricia McAdams on Iron Maiden with four faults. Our last rider for this round is Zachary Myers on Silent Angel."
Dusty held his breath as Zak entered the arena.
Mattie was on one side of Dusty and Ace was on the other. Both boys reached over and grabbed the one of Dusty's hands that was closest to them and squeezed.
All the boys watched as Zak and Angel ran the course. Angel cleared the first five jumps with plenty of room to spare. Each of the boys said a silent prayer when Angel's rear hoof tapped the sixth jump, but after it rocked in its holder for a second it stayed up.
Finally, Zak cleared the last jump and all of his friends jumped to their feet and cheered.
Dusty turned first to Mattie and then to Ace and hugged them both as they all whooped and hollered.
Three of the four Triple J boys had made the jump-off and Zak was going in his first competition.
Zak rode Angel out of the arena and over to where Danny, Dylan, Jesse and Spin waited for him.
Dylan grabbed Angel's bridle as Zak jumped down. He ran over to Danny and hugged his brother tight. He then felt Spin and Jesse join in the hug as well.
"I knew you'd do it," Danny said with a huge smile on his face. "How was it?"
Zak was smiling so big and bright. "It was amazing. It wasn't like any other time. She was so good." He turned to Angel and hugged her neck. "You took great care of me, Angel. Thank you." He kissed the mare on the nose.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have seven riders in our jump-off. Would the riders please report to the arena."
Dylan handed Angel's reins to Spin and he, Jesse and Zak headed to the arena.
They were given a chance to walk the new course and plan their runs.
The jump-off was done differently than the main course. The course designer would remove and rearrange the jumps so that there were fewer of them. The winner would be the rider who completed the course in the fastest time and with the fewest faults.
Jesse and Dylan both pointed out to Zak certain areas of the course where they could cut down on time. These events were often settled by one-hundredth of a second, so they made sure Zak knew all the 'tricks'.
The three walked back to the holding area where Spin and Danny waited with Val, Dodger and Angel.
The three competitors mounted up and headed towards the arena.
"Good luck, guys," Danny called after them.
Zak looked up in the stands and saw Dusty and their friends all waving furiously at them. Dusty was grinning huge and flashed Zak a thumbs-up.
As he waited his turn, the butterflies returned to nest in Zak's stomach. He tried to calm himself. He was still the last one to go, but this time around his wait would be much shorter.
From where he was waiting he could only hear the PA announcements and not actually watch his competitors.
After a few minutes he heard, "Currently in the lead, Dylan Summers with a time of 24.3 seconds and no faults."
Two more jumpers went; one rode clear but had a slower time than Dylan, and the second jumped faster but knocked down the last rail.
After Jesse's run, Zak heard, "Our new leader, Jesse Osterman with a time of 23.9 seconds and no faults."
Zak completely zoned out the last rider before he went. He honestly didn't know if the girl before him beat Jesse's time or not.
Then he heard his name being called and he and Angel took off.
He took the first two jumps with ease and knew that Angel was setting a good pace. He heard Dylan's voice in his head telling him to cut this corner as close as he could. Angel turned on a dime and they were heading to a triple combination. Angel took the jumps without coming close to touching a rail. There were only two combinations left. The first Zak cleared. He aimed Angel at the last one and gave her her head. Angel soared over the final jump, but Zak miscounted the strides and he felt her front hoof connect with the rail. Before they landed, he knew the final rail had come down. He heard the groan from the crowd.
He rode to the gate and exited.
"Our final competitor, Zachary Myers, finished in a time of 24.5 seconds with four faults," came the announcement over the PA. "Our winner this afternoon is Jesse Osterman on Prince Valiant."
Zak passed Jesse as he rode back into the arena. Zak smiled at Jesse. He was glad that one of them had won.
Zak rode over to where Danny was waiting with Dylan and Spin.
Danny looked at his dejected brother.
"Zak, don't you dare get depressed. Do you realize that you came in fourth in a class of twenty-five riders?" Danny said heatedly. "That's so impressive."
"Yeah, but if I had counted that last jump better…"
"You made a mistake--we all do, and then we learn from them," Danny argued. "You need to accept that you did the best you could." He looked at Dylan and Spin. "You all did. I can honestly say that I didn't think we'd take three of the top four places in this event. There are some really good riders here, the competition was impressive." He looked at Zak and Dylan who were still mounted. "You guys need to go back and collect your ribbons--you earned them."
Zak and Dylan rode side-by-side back in the arena. They bracketed Jesse on either side. Jesse reached over and grabbed their hands and raised them up.
All three looked into the stands to see their 'cheering section' on their feet, stomping, clapping, whistling and otherwise making fools of themselves.
They rode out of the arena and out to the holding area.
As Zak slid of Angel's back he was grabbed from behind.
"Alright!!" Dusty yelled as he grabbed Zak tight and spun him around. "I'm so proud of you, babe," he said as he hugged Zak.
Zak hugged Dusty tight. "Thanks." He smiled.
"Come on; let's get Angel taken care of so we can watch Danny in the dressage competition."
Dusty and Mattie took Angel so that Zak could help Danny with Onyx.
Zak finished tacking Onyx while Danny was changing.
"You and Danny are gonna win this thing," Zak instructed his horse. The big horse nuzzled him. "I know, I wish it was me, too, but I'm nowhere near good enough at this and Danny is great; you guys are going to kill 'em."
"Well, we're gonna try," Danny said as he walked up.
Zak hugged Danny and wished him luck.
"Ready, Big Guy?" Danny asked Onyx as he leapt into the saddle. "Let's go, then."
Zak ran into the stands with his friends and watched as the dressage event began. He watched mesmerized as the horses and riders danced around the arena. He was impressed with the various riders and horses. He, Jesse and Dylan kept a running score between them. They knew this was stiffer competition than they had expected.
Danny was the second to last rider.
As soon as Danny and Onyx started the boys knew he had won the event. They had been watching him practice with Onyx for months, but none of them had ever seen Daniel James in 'competition mode'.
Even CJ was surprised. Danny had never competed while they were in college, so although he knew of the successes he had had previously, CJ had never witnessed them firsthand. CJ was almost shocked to see the hard look of determination on the face of his carefree, gentle lover.
Danny and Onyx performed as one. When they finished the stands erupted in applause and everyone jumped to their feet. Many of the members of the audience knew Danny by reputation, but few had had the opportunity to see him compete in the past.
The last competitor took to the arena, but there was never any question as to who had won the event.
The guys all filed down to the paddocks to congratulate Danny. Before CJ could reach him Zak was there and flung himself into Danny.
"That was amazing!!" Zak shouted as he clung to his brother. "It's like you flipped a switch and were a different person."
Danny nodded and grinned.
CJ grabbed Danny from Zak and hugged him hard. "Oh, my God, Hun, where did that come from?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's like Zak said--you were a completely different person. I mean, you've always been the best rider, but it's like you had your 'game face' on or something."
"I don't know, that's what I've always been like in competitions," Danny said, shrugging. "Remember, I started really young and most of the people I competed against were a lot older, so I just sort of created a 'competition mode' for myself. It's been so long since I've competed I hadn't even thought about it, but as soon as we entered the arena, that feeling just fell over me again and it was on."
"It sure was," TJ said as he came up and offered Danny his hand. "Danny, you are amazing. I thought you were good when I saw you practicing last week, but what you did today was so far beyond anything I've ever seen in competition. You should be teaching and coaching more. You'd coach circles around some of the guys that I've had in the last few years."
"Thanks, TJ. I probably will slide more into coaching for these guys. It felt good to compete, but I probably won't do too much more."
The rest of the guys all offered Danny their congratulations.
Danny was just getting ready to take Onyx back to his stall when an announcement came over the PA.
"As a special treat for you folks, we have a special guest today. Olympic Gold medalist and Champion Grand Prix Jumper Trevor Van Edsel will be giving a demonstration in the main arena at two o'clock followed by a meet-and-greet for today's winners."
"Wow!!" Jesse exclaimed. "I used to see him show in Wellington--he's amazing." He looked at Dylan and Zak. "And we get to meet him after his exhibition!!" he said excitedly.
Dylan grinned and nodded; he knew who Mr. Van Edsel was and was excited to meet him as well. Zak knew the name, but was not as familiar with the 'heroes' of the sport as Jesse and Dylan.
It was 1:30 and the boys wanted to get seats to see the exhibition.
Danny looked from his charges to Onyx.
Dusty laughed, "Here, Danny, let me and Ace take Onyx and get him taken care of. I know you and your team here would rather see this exhibition."
Danny laughed as he handed Onyx's reins to Dusty. "Thanks, Dust; when Ty Murray is in town, I'll take care of Phoenix for you."
Dusty and Ace laughed at Danny's joke which went over several other heads.
Danny led the group to the stands to get seats for the exhibition.
They all watched excitedly as Trevor Van Edsel came out with several of his horses. He demonstrated techniques and then answered questions from the crowd.
After the exhibition, Danny, Zak, Dylan and Jesse were among the riders who were invited to personally meet the Olympian.
There was a receiving line set up. Zak was the first to get to Mr. Van Edsel. He congratulated Zak on his ride and was impressed to learn that this was his first competition. He spoke to Dylan about his future and congratulated Danny on his beautiful ride with Onyx. He spent extra time talking to Danny as he had followed his career for many years and had at one time expected Danny to be a candidate for the Olympic team. Danny thanked him, but told him he was pretty much retired and only rode in the competition because he wanted to see how Onyx would do.
Last in their group was Jesse.
"Great ride, young man," Mr. Van Edsel said as he shook Jesse's hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Van Edsel," Jesse answered nervously.
"Please, Jesse, call me Trevor. I think I've seen you ride before in Wellington."
"You might have, I'm from there. I used to compete all the time down there."
"Your mother was Elizabeth Osterman, wasn't she?"
"Yes, sir, did you know her?"
"We met several times; I was sorry to hear about her passing."
"Thank you, sir. It was hard, but I have a new family now."
"It seems like you have quite the team here." Trevor smiled. "I expect to see more of you boys in the future. You know, Jesse, I host a camp for young riders every summer at my farm in Wellington. You boys should look into attending. You certainly have the talent to go far."
"Thank you, sir, that sounds cool, but my family owns the ranch we ride at now and we'll all be working there this summer," Jesse said.
"Well, the invitation is open to you and your teammates," Trevor said. "See the gentleman standing over there in the black windbreaker?" He pointed to a short man talking to a couple of well dressed women.
"That's Eli Wells, he's my manager. Give him your contact information so that we can at least send you some information on the camp."
Jesse thought for a moment and nodded. "Ok," he agreed. He wanted to talk some more, but the people behind him in line were becoming impatient.
Jesse went over to Danny and told him about Trevor's offer and then went over to Mr. Wells and gave him the ranch's address and phone number.
A few days later, Devon summoned CJ, Danny and Dusty to his studio.
"Hey, Devon, do you have something for us?" CJ asked.
Devon nodded. "I can't make up my mind, so you guys are gonna have to decide," he said as he handed them each a packet with several pages of drawings.
The three flipped through the pages.
"Wow, Dev, these are great," Dusty exclaimed.
Danny agreed, "I knew you were talented, but these are way beyond what I would have hoped for."
CJ nodded. "Yeah, I'm having a tough time just narrowing it down, never mind choosing one."
Danny looked at Devon. "Which one are you leaning towards?" he asked.
"Well…" Devon hesitated. "I know you wanted a logo for the ranch as a whole, but my favorite one is kinda a hybrid idea," he answered as he propped a large poster onto an easel.
Danny, Dusty and CJ all stared speechless at the picture that Devon had created.
Across the top was the new ranch name, centered in a very bold font. Under the ranch name, to the left were the words 'Horse Ranch' and to the right the words 'Rescue Center' with a bold ampersand. But what drew the focus of the audience of three were the pictures that Devon had placed above the words.
Above the 'Horse Ranch' he had drawn a picture of Phoenix and Onyx running side by side and above the 'Rescue Center' he had drawn a picture of Dylan leading Dodger.
"Oh, my God, Devon. That is perfect," CJ said as he stepped forward to look at the logo even closer. "How did you get Dylan and Dodger so perfect? That's what he looked like when we found him in Lancaster."
Devon grinned slyly. "That's kinda how I do a lot of my drawings. Zak had taken some pictures of Dylan and Dodger when he first got here and he had given them to me. It's a surprise for Dylan's birthday, but Zak and Jesse asked me to paint a mural of Dylan and Dodger showing Dodger's recovery, so I used the different photos they gave me to create the picture here."
Dusty got right up close to the picture. "Well, I can tell you, after Zak sees this, you're going to get a commission to do portraits of Phoenix and Onyx, and probably Angel too, knowing him."
"Anytime," Devon laughed.
"This is perfect," Danny said. "The best part is we can continually change the pictures over the logos to feature different riders and horses."
Devon nodded. "That's what I was hoping you'd say." He pulled some smaller sheets out from his desk. "I did some mock-ups already."
The three were stunned as they looked at the pictures that Devon had drawn of the different horses and riders at the ranch.
"Devon, if you weren't sure before, you can be sure now: we have just hired you as the ranch's advertising agency," CJ laughed. "I want to get copies of the logo sent to the sign makers this week so they'll be ready when we get back from Spain. I want you to use these pictures…" He gestured to several of the drawings Devon had done. "...for the trucks and trailers, and these?..." He looked at Dusty as he pointed to two other pictures. Dusty nodded. "...for the Rescue's trucks and trailers. Can you have final proofs done by the end of the week?"
"Sure. They are just about done. I just need to enlarge these drawings and transfer them over to the right size; they should be done by Thursday--Friday at the latest."
"Great," said CJ. "Thanks again, Dev. These turned out better than anything any of us could even have imagined."
Devon just grinned and nodded, excited that he could contribute to his new family.
Ace stopped by TJ's locker.
"Hey, TJ, where's Dev?" he asked.
"He's still in chemistry with that bitch, Mrs. Baumgarten," TJ answered as he pulled books from his locker.
"Jesus Christ, is she still on his case?"
TJ nodded. "She spends more time going over his tests and his lab reports than she spends on the rest of the class. I think every time he proves to her he actually knows the stuff she doubles her efforts to prove he cheats."
"That is so much bullshit," Ace complained. "If she doesn't knock it off I'm gonna talk to Kate."
"Zak's mom, she's the president of the school board. I know she doesn't like to pull rank, but that bitch is just after Devon cuz of the way he looks. She assumes that he must be cheating, no matter how many times he proves he's not. It's ridiculous."
"Hey, man, I agree 100% with you, but Devon will have a fit if you get anyone involved," TJ said. "I've been trying to get him to report her for over a month, but he's determined to win this battle on his own."
"Doesn't surprise me, he's a stubborn little shit."
"That he is," TJ laughed.
"Well, since he isn't here, how are things coming with his birthday present?" Ace asked.
TJ grinned. "Perfect. My parents were not happy with how much money I spent, but it's my money so I really don't care. The 'package' should arrive at the ranch a few days before you guys get back. I just need to know where to stash it until the big surprise."
"My dad will be there. He knows all about it and will have a place for you to hide it," Ace said excitedly. "I'm gonna be on pins and needles the whole time we're gone. I haven't said anything to anyone but my dad, so I feel like I'm gonna explode."
"Well, just keep it zipped for a little longer. This was too much work for you to blow the surprise," TJ warned.
"Don't worry," Ace reassured TJ. "No matter how badly I want to spill, I want you to be the one to give it to him and get all the credit."
Devon walked up just then.
"Credit for what?" he asked.
"Credit for telling Zak's mom about that bitch chem teacher of yours," Ace said quickly.
"No!!" Devon said forcefully. "She's my problem and I will handle her. No one says anything to Kate or anyone else about this," he instructed.
"Ok," said TJ.
"Ok, but I reserve the right to change my mind if the bitch gets any worse," Ace said.
Danny was sitting at the kitchen table feeding a fidgety Idgie when Zak came in dragging Jesse behind him.
Zak pulled out a chair and directed Jesse to sit down. Jesse had a look of exasperation on his face as he sat down and exhaled loudly.
"Jess, what's wrong?" Danny asked.
"Ask him," Jesse answered pointing at Zak who took a seat at the table.
Zak looked at Danny. "Were you serious the other day at the show when you said you didn't want to compete anymore and you wanted to concentrate on training and coaching?"
Danny nodded. "Sure. I've had my moments competing. I spent most of my childhood doing it and it just doesn't hold the same interest for me that it did. I'd like to keep coaching you guys, maybe take on some students when Dusty stops instructing to take over the rescue. Why?"
"Then I need to you to start coaching Jesse."
"I thought that was the plan already--that I was going to coach you, Jesse, Dylan and Spin."
Jesse rolled his eyes. "He means he wants you to train me and Onyx…in dressage."
"Ohhhhh…" Danny sat back and thought for a minute. "And you don't want to, Jesse?"
"It's not that, it's just that Onyx is Zak's horse and he should be working with you and him."
Zak shook his head. "I keep trying to get Jesse to understand I'm just not that good at dressage. Learning to jump and show is one thing, but to perform like you did at that show, I'll never be able to do that. Onyx will go to waste if someone doesn't show him and the only ones besides you who have that kind of background are Jesse and TJ; and while I accept TJ as Devon's boyfriend and I'm getting used to him being around here, him and Onyx would not be a good idea. And anyways, he doesn't want to compete anymore."
"Jess, Zak makes a good case," Danny said. "I don't agree that he'll never get there, but it takes years of training to get it down right and you have the background to do it and do it well. I think it's a good idea."
"I don't mind the idea of doing dressage, but…" Jesse cringed.
"You're apprehensive about Onyx?" Danny asked.
Jesse nodded. "He's Zak's horse for a reason. He lets you ride him, cuz you guys are brothers, the same reason that Angel does so much for Zak."
"But you ride Angel all the time," Zak argued.
"I know, but I don't get the performance out of her that you and Danny do," Jesse replied. "She doesn't respond to me like Val does. Actually, she doesn't respond to me like any of the horses I've worked with."
"Just like Dusty…" Zak mumbled.
"What does that mean?" Jesse asked.
"When I got here, Dusty was the resident 'horse whisperer'. He had even ridden Onyx, just to prove to TJ it could be done. He was actually the only person that Onyx would tolerate until I got here and we connected right off. But, when Mr. Jones bought Ash and wanted Dusty to train him, Dusty's 'powers' failed him. No matter what he tried, he could not get Ash to cooperate. Then Mattie showed up and I saw the connection between him and Ash and the rest is history," Zak explained.
"Zak does have a point, Jess," Danny laughed. "Though he takes a while to get to it." Zak flipped his brother the finger. "You and Dusty are alike in that you've always had a way with horses. I've had the same luck in my career, but there is always going to be a horse somewhere that we don't connect with. You're a good enough rider that you can handle Angel, but you are right, she performs much better for me and for Zak, just like Val does for you. Remember the first time you rode him: there were trainers on Abigail's farm that couldn't even get a saddle on him and you hopped on bareback with no tack and rode around the field."
"That's what I was always used to," Jesse explained. "When I was a kid, they were always putting me on the most difficult horses and I was always able to get the best out of them."
"And you still do," Danny said. "It's just not going to happen with every horse. You can't look at that as a failure, but a challenge. Look at Dusty and Ash. Once Mattie and Ash connected, others, including Dusty, have been able to ride him no problem. Onyx is the same way. He's still apprehensive at first, even with me, but I think you and he would do well."
"I don't know…"
"How about this…tomorrow afternoon the three of us…" Danny stopped when Jesse raised his eyebrows. "Ok, the three of us and Dylan," Danny laughed. "We'll take Onyx to the arena and you can give him a try; that way Zak and I will be there and you can see how you do and then decide."
"C'mon, Jess," Zak begged.
Jesse nodded. "Alright, I'll give it a go and see what happens."
"Yes!!" Zak pumped his fist in the air while Danny and Jesse laughed and rolled their eyes.
"Good, Erik, keep her nice and steady," Dusty called as he watched Erik trot Rain around the pen.
Erik had been helping Dusty with Rain for over a month and the progress for both horse and rider was impressive.
Erik was handling Rain virtually on his own, with Dusty providing tips and support, but allowing Erik and Rain to make their own mistakes and find their own rhythm.
Erik had come to the ranch just about every day to work with Dusty and Rain. He was so proud of Rain, that he often had to be reminded by Dusty that his riding had improved by leaps and bounds as well.
While Dusty had Erik saddle Rain several times so that she would be used to the feel of the tack, Erik rode bareback most of the time and was developing a great sense of balance. So far he had only gotten Rain up to a fast trot, but he had grown so confident that he was now regularly begging Dusty to let him move to a canter.
Dusty was finally ready to relent, but he wanted Erik to earn it, so he had been standing back that afternoon and making Erik do everything himself. While he was offering encouragement, Dusty told Erik that he wanted to see everything that he and Rain had learned and if he was satisfied, then and only then would he let Erik move to the next step.
Dusty knew he wasn't punishing Erik; he saw his work with Erik as a chance to train a new rider and to bolster a friend's confidence. He knew that Erik was shy and quiet by nature and that the whole Cody incident had shaken his already wavering confidence.
Dusty knew that Erik had everything down that he expected him to do with Rain, but he needed Erik to know that. By offering the chance to canter as incentive, Dusty could see Erik's confidence and determination growing over the afternoon.
After watching Erik put Rain through her paces, Dusty called Erik over to where he waited by the rail.
Dusty looked up at Erik. "So, you think you're ready for more?" he asked as seriously as he could manage.
Erik looked back at Dusty and nodded confidently. "Yes, I am," he said.
Dusty nodded. "Good. Cuz I think you are too."
Erik grinned from ear to ear.
"Why don't you start her out at a walk and we'll go from there," Dusty instructed.
As Erik got Rain walking along the fence, Dusty moved into the center of the round pen.
"Ok, Erik, move her into a slow trot."
Erik signaled Rain who moved into a very easy trot.
After Erik and Rain had circled the ring a few times, Dusty said, "Give her a little more leg and have her speed up the trot, just a bit. Remember, you want to control her speed; you're not giving her permission to just go as fast as she wants. She needs to know that you are in control at all times."
Rain's speed quickened, but Erik kept her at a trot.
Finally, when Dusty knew both were ready he started giving Erik more instructions. "Now, keep the reins taut, but not too tight. You need to feel her mouth and she needs to know you're there, but all the instructions should come from your mouth and your legs. Ankles down, sit deep and keep your ass on her back--I don't want to see any daylight. When you're ready just give her a little squeeze and the cue and she should move right into a canter. Nice and smooth."
Erik kept Rain at the trot and followed Dusty's directions. He kept the reins just tight enough to feel her mouth and ran his fingers down Rain's neck to let her know that he was still there. He pushed his heels down even further than they were and tightened his thighs to keep his seat and balance. 'Hup, hup," he cued the filly and she sped up almost instantly.
As Rain moved into a graceful canter, Erik was elated. Even within the confines of the round pen he could feel the freedom of riding the mustang. He had never felt this free in his life.
Dusty watched with a grin as Erik and Rain cantered around the pen. He knew what Erik was feeling--being the first person to ride a horse was a special experience and he was glad that he had been able to share that special feeling with Erik.
By the time Dusty called to Erik to slow Rain back to a trot and then a walk to cool her off an audience consisting of Ace, Jesse, Dylan and Zak had gathered along the rail.
"Alright, Erik!!" called Ace. "Lookin' good, cowboy!!"
The other boys clapped and hollered their congratulations.
Erik grinned and blushed as he walked Rain around the pen. He rode over to Dusty and slipped from Rain's back. He stood in front of Dusty with his back to his 'fans'. "Thanks, Dusty," he whispered so only Dusty could hear him.
Dusty put his hand on Erik's shoulder. "Erik don't thank me. I should be thanking you. You've done so well, Rain is even further along than I thought she would be at this point."
"Hell, yeah. When we started I figured when we were gone to Spain, I'd just have you ride her in the round pen some to keep her in training, but with where she is now, we should be able to get some trail time on her in the next few days and you should be able to take her out while we're gone."
"Wow, are you sure?"
Dusty grinned and nodded. "Tomorrow, I'll get Phoenix and we'll take them out for a trail ride to see how she does outside the round pen. But, Erik, she really responds to you, so I don't think there is gonna be any problem. The problem might come when someone else has to ride her."
"What do you mean?"
"He means that you are so good and she likes you so much, he might have created a one-man horse," Ace said from behind Erik.
The other boys had gone back to their own work, but Ace had stayed behind.
"What do you mean, 'one-man horse'?" Erik asked.
"Just what I said; sometimes you get a horse that keys into a single rider and no one else can ride them. Devon's old horse, Jazz, was like that. She'd tolerate me riding her, but only so long as he was around. The first time I took the liberty she shot me across the paddock," Ace laughed.
Erik was scared now. "I don't think Rain would do that."
Dusty shook his head. "No, I don't either, but after we get back, we'll have some of the other guys, probably Spin or Devon or Zak, take her out some too so she expects other riders besides you; but right now, she is connected to you and you're both doing great so don't worry."
The next day when Erik arrived after school, he went to get Rain ready while Dusty waited with Phoenix.
Erik laughed to himself; a month ago he would never have considered taking a trail ride bareback, but today he never even considered getting a saddle for Rain. He just groomed her and slipped her hackamore on.
Erik led Rain to where Dusty was waiting.
Dusty grinned. "No saddle?" he laughed.
Erik grinned back and shook his head. "Nope, if we're gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right."
"Ok, then, but I do want you to wear this," Dusty said as he handed Erik a helmet.
"Really?" Erik asked.
Dusty nodded. "I think she'll be ok, but she is still green, so for the time being anytime you take her on the trail I want you to wear a helmet." He told Erik about Zak's being thrown from Zephyr and how he had gotten a concussion. "It can happen to any of us. Last spring, Ash threw me and I ended up spraining my ankle. We tend to forget these are living, thinking creatures. They take such good care of us, that we take it for granted that they will always be calm and easygoing, but horses are a flight creature and even the calmest of them can spook."
Erik strapped the helmet onto his head and Dusty gave him a boost onto Rain's back.
Dusty leapt onto Phoenix and the two took off down the trail.
Dusty trusted Phoenix enough that he could let him meander down the trail with little or no encouragement from his rider; this allowed Dusty to focus on Erik and Rain.
As they both expected, Rain performed admirably on her first foray outside of the round pen. She never spooked or tried to give Erik any trouble.
They only stayed on the trail for about a half hour, but continued to go out each afternoon until Dusty left for Spain.
One Sunday afternoon in April, Ace was coming out of the main barn when he saw a small sports car drive up.
The car stopped next to Ace's truck and two teenagers got out.
The driver was a girl about sixteen or seventeen. From the passenger side emerged a boy who appeared to be the same age. The girl was about 5'6" and the boy a few inches taller. Both had raven-black hair. Hers was shoulder length and his just hit the nape of his neck in the back but he also had long bangs that hid the sapphire-blue eyes which were identical to his sister's. Both teens were very pale and wore matching black jeans, boots and black leather jackets.
Ace watched the two as they approached him. They were obviously twins. In fact, if not for the fact that they were opposite sexes he would have thought them identical twins.
"Hey, there," Ace called. "Can I help you guys?"
"We're looking for Mr. Evans," the girl said.
"Well, I'm Mr. Evans," Ace laughed. "But I think you are probably looking for my father, Sergeant Evans."
"Sergeant?" The girl was the only one to speak so far, her brother just stood silently and watched Ace.
"Yup, he's retired Army; most folks just call him Sarge--he's the barn manager here."
"Then he's the man we're supposed to see," the girl replied.
"Well, he's out for the afternoon. In fact, I'm pretty much it right now, most everyone has left for the day," Ace said. "Was he expecting you?"
The girl shook her head. "No. I didn't think to call ahead."
"Well, what did you need from him? Maybe I can help."
"Well, I'm Stephanie Andros and this is my brother, Luka. Our dad got a new job in town and we're moving here in a few weeks. Your ranch was suggested by someone at my dad's new office as a place we could board our horses."
Ace offered his hand to Stephanie and Luka and each teen shook his hand. "Well, I'm Ace Evans. Like I said my dad is the barn manager, but we do board here and I can give you guys a tour if you'd like to see the facilities."
"That would be great," Stephanie said.
"Well, come on," Ace said as he walked back into the barn. "I'll start you with the main barn here. You'll have to excuse all the work going on. CJ Alvarez bought the ranch back in the fall and he's been upgrading the building and facilities. This is the last barn to be overhauled. As you can see, he's increased the size of the stalls and added sliding doors which make things easier when moving the horses around. We also have a tack room and feed room down each corridor in this barn and the other two barns. We use this barn mainly for boarders and the other two barns house the ranch's horses. As part of the refurb, we had a locker room added to each of the barns so that folks could leave their riding clothes and have a place to change." He looked between the two. "Each locker room has separate facilities for guys and girls," he added quickly.
Stephanie stayed close to Ace as he continued the tour. Luka walked a few steps behind taking more of an interest in the horses than in the facilities.
"So where is your dad's new job?" Ace asked.
"He's the new partner at the Sullivan and Oscar law firm," Stephanie answered.
"Ok, that makes sense then," Ace said.
"What makes sense?"
"Well, Dusty Crandall--he works here, and his mom, Lu, is a paralegal at that office, so it must have been her or one of her friends who recommended us to your dad."
They walked out of Barn 3 and Stephanie pointed to what had become known as 'The Compound'. "What's over there?" she asked.
"Well, when CJ bought the ranch, he also bought the neighboring ranch. His plan is for this one to still be used for boarding, breeding, trail rides and lessons, and then the ranch next door is being completely rebuilt. We're opening it in early May; it will be a rescue for abused and abandoned horses. So between the two properties, CJ and his partner Danny built a big new house, a private barn, arena and a gate house."
"Wow, big property," Stephanie whistled. "So, you're opening a rescue?" she asked.
"Yup. Dusty, the guy whose mom works with your dad, is going to be the manager."
"That's awesome; actually, I got my horse from a rescue ranch in Lancaster."
"Dream Makers?" Ace asked.
"Yes--you know it?"
"Well, I haven't been there, but some of the guys have. Actually, we have three or four horses that were adopted from there." He started to walk towards the compound. "Come on, I'll introduce you."
As they walked towards the private barn, Ace asked. "So what kind of riding do you folks do?"
"Well, Luka's the 'real' rider," Stephanie said. "He does dressage, showjumping, and eventing. He has a Haflinger gelding named Winston. I only started riding to keep him company. I'm not big on competing and I mainly just trail. My dad got sick of paying for me to lease a horse, so he finally told me if I was going to ride I should go ahead and buy a horse. Instead I went to Dream Makers and adopted my quarter horse, Lily."
"You have a quarter horse? That's cool, so do I," Ace said as they walked into the private barn. He led them over to the first stall. "This is my horse, Bullet."
Luka walked right over to the black gelding and offered him his hand. Bullet nuzzled Luka's hand and the boy laughed. It was the first sound he had made since he had arrived.
Ace continued to show the twins around the barn and introduce the horses. "And this is Onyx, he's a…"
"Friesian," Luka said as he approached the black stallion. "My god, Steph, look at him, he's gorgeous."
"Just be careful of him," Ace warned. "He sometimes has an attitude problem."
Ace watched in amazement as Luka walked right up to Onyx and scratched the horse's cheek. Onyx pressed his face into Luka's hands.
"Wow," Ace said to Stephanie. "The only person I've ever seen that horse act like that with is Zak, his owner."
"Yeah, that's my baby brother," Stephanie sighed. "He'd spend all his time with the horses and none with people if he had his choice."
"Baby brother?" Ace asked. "I assumed you guys were twins."
Stephanie laughed, "We are, but I'm older."
"By six minutes," Luka said as he walked back to the two. He smiled at Ace. "We'll definitely be boarding here," he announced. "I've never seen horses so happy and well taken care of. The place we board at now is fine, but I have to go there every day to make sure they are feeding Winston properly."
"Well, you won't have to worry about that here," Ace said. "We feed twice a day and if you have him on a special diet just make sure you give the instructions to my dad and we'll post them in the feed room. Now, if you use any special feeds or hays, you are responsible for providing them, but we keep them separate and marked so they will only be used for the horses they are provided for."
"I assume you have practice facilities here," Luka said.
"Sure," Ace nodded. "Right now, the arenas at the ranch are being upgraded like everything else. We're all fixing to go away for a couple of weeks, so the ranch will be closed during that time so that everything can be finished. If y'all are boardin' here by then, you are more than welcome to come out and ride or visit. The hands will still be here and a couple of our friends will be coming out to ride. Luka, if you need a place to practice I'm sure Danny and CJ won't mind if you use the new arena," Ace said as he led Luka and Stephanie to the new building.
Luka's blue eyes were wide as he looked around the arena. "This is fantastic. I know you said this one was 'private', but will the others be like this?"
"Sure will. We will have indoor and outdoor. The indoor ones are heated and air conditioned and the outdoor ones are fully lit. We even have video equipment in each one, if you need to record any work you are doing."
"Shit, this place is heaven," Luka exclaimed.
"You know, Luka, you should talk to Danny. He's coaching some of the guys here for competitions and they are always looking for new recruits."
Luka suddenly looked dejected. "That's ok, Ace. I'm usually not much of a team player. That's kind of why I got into riding in the first place."
"Well, of course, the guys compete individually, but they practice together to help each other."
"I'm sure they wouldn't want me," Luka said.
"Why would you think that?" Ace asked. "I can tell you love the horses and the horses definitely like you--that's all that matters to the guys."
Stephanie took Luka's hand and looked him in the eye. Ace had heard of twins having their own languages, but he had never actually known any twins. He watched as they communicated wordlessly. It was obvious that Stephanie was trying to get Luka to do something he didn't want to do.
Finally Stephanie turned to Ace. "Ace, the reason we are moving in the middle of the school year and right before our senior year of high school is that Luka is gay and he has been bullied to the point of brutality for the past few years. He has been physically and verbally attacked. It finally got the point where he almost had a breakdown. My parents finally had had enough, since the school would not do anything to help, and my dad found this new job to give him a chance at a new start."
Ace walked over to Luka and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Luka, you came to the right place. I don't know how bad things were for you at your old school, but I can guarantee you they won't be like that here."
"Sure," Luka said unconvinced.
"Luka, the guy who owns this place--CJ, I told you he and Danny are partners."
"Yeah, business partners."
"Yup and life partners; they are a gay couple. They have a little baby named Idgie who is just about the cutest thing you've ever seen."
"The guys who own the ranch are gay?"
Ace nodded. "And the boys on the team I told about."
"All of them?"
"Yes, all of them," Ace nodded.
"And no one picks on them?"
"Well, not about being gay. This is a safe place. Actually, the person who gets picked on the most is me, cuz I'm, in Zak's words, their 'token straight guy'."
"And you don't care that these guys are gay?"
"No, I don't. I don't give a damn who they love, all I care about is that they are a great bunch of guys and some of the best friends I have ever had."
Luka just stood there absorbing everything that Ace was telling him.
Luka turned to Stephanie. "We are definitely boarding here," he said with a smile. He turned to Ace. "What did you say the coach's name was?"
Luka's blue eyes flashed. "Danny James!?!?" he exclaimed. "The Danny James??"
Ace shook his head. "I don't know about the 'the' part; he's the only Danny James I know."
Luka turned to Stephanie. "Danny James was the top rider in his age group for years before he disappeared."
Ace nodded. "Yep, that's him. He didn't disappear, though, he just went to college," Ace explained. "He was going to start competing again after school, but some stuff happened and he didn't get back into it. He actually competed at a show a few weeks ago. He killed in the dressage competition with Onyx. I'm not a big fan of that sort of thing, but even I was impressed."
Luka was beside himself. "Coached by Danny James," he mumbled to himself. "Oh, wow…"
"Luka, don't get too starstruck," Ace laughed. "Danny is a very down-to-earth guy, but according to Zak he's a real hardass as a coach."
"I don't care. I've been outriding my coaches for the past few years; it will be awesome to have one that can actually teach me something."
Stephanie looked at her watch. "Hey, Luka, we need to get going. We have a two-hour drive to get back home." She looked at Ace. "Well, I guess we'll be moving the horses here," she laughed. "We're moving into the new house next weekend and the horses should be coming over sometime that week; I can let you know the exact day."
"Ok," Ace said. "Let's stop by the office and I can give you the contracts that your dad needs to sign and the gate codes you'll need if there's no one here. I'll give you a card with the ranch number. Most of us are heading out next Saturday for two weeks, but my dad will be here and he'll make sure either he or one of the hands is here to take care of the horses when they arrive." He looked at Luka. "Luka, why don't you give me your cell number and I'll have Danny give you a call before we leave."
"Sure," Luka agreed.
Ace walked the twins back to the office and gave them the necessary paperwork and walked them to their car.
"I'll see you guys in a few weeks," he said as they got in the car.
Luka rolled down his window. "Thank you so much, Ace. I'm looking forward to riding here."
"Glad to hear it," Ace said as the twins drove away.
The night before they were leaving for Spain, CJ gathered everyone at the house. All of the boys who were going on the trip were staying the night at the house. CJ had also invited TJ and Erik to an impromptu pizza party.
Everyone was packed and ready for two weeks in Spain. Most of the boys had never been outside of the country so they were all excited for the trip.
As they sat around the table, CJ stood. "Guys, can I have your attention for just a moment?"
All the conversation stopped as CJ spoke.
"As you all know, when we get back things are going to be very hectic: we have the last month or so of school and we have Devon and Ace's birthday right away." Everyone cheered. "But since these are 'sweet seventeens', no new cars…sorry, guys." The boys booed. "And then we have the grand re-opening of the ranch. That whole week is going to be very busy as we get ready. We are having an open house and dedication that Saturday. If you guys want to do demonstrations like you did in October, you can, but we are under some time constraints. There are going to be reporters from the city paper and the state paper there and there will be a film crew from Channel Nine. In fact, the film crew will be coming out Friday as well. They are going to do a whole feature on the rescue and they are going to feature Dylan and Dodger."
The boys erupted in cheers for Dylan, who blushed red. Jesse leaned over and kissed his boyfriend causing Dylan to turn an even deeper shade of red.
"Ok, so one other bit of business concerning the re-opening. Danny, Dusty and I have been going back and forth for a while about whether we wanted the two ranches to be separate or if we wanted it to be one big ranch with two separate functions. Finally, we decided that we were going to be one big ranch and just have different facilities. The second problem we had was whether or not we should continue to call the ranch 'The Triple J'."
The boys started to erupt in protest.
"Hold on, guys!!" CJ said as he raised his hands to silence everyone. "Look, I know we kept the name for sentimental reasons, but we had to give some serious thought about whether, with all the work and changes we put in, we should rechristen the ranch. We all had strong opinions just like you guys. Finally, I asked Dusty. He's been here the longest and he's the most attached to the Triple J. Dusty?"
Dusty stood up. "I love this ranch and I love Mr. Jones for what he did for me, for most of us. But, the Triple J was his and was him. The new ranch is us and our new mission. I thought that since we were starting things fresh we should give ourselves a new name, something that tells folks about us, about the ranch, the people and the horses."
Dusty sat down and CJ stood back up. "We weren't going to share this with you guys until the re-dedication, but seeing the reaction tonight, I'm glad we rethought that idea. After we decided to change the name, the three of us brainstormed to come up with a name for the ranch and we did. Other than the three of us and one other person, you are the first to learn the new name and we are asking that you guys keep it under your hats for now. Not that anyone in Spain will care, but TJ and Erik, I need you guys to keep a lid on it too, ok?" Both boys nodded their agreement.
"So who else knew?" Zak asked.
"Devon," CJ answered. "And before anyone tries to lynch him, I asked him to keep it quiet. But we had to tell him, so he could design a new logo for us. And as you are about to see he has outdone himself. Dev?"
Devon and left the room followed by Dusty. The two came back carrying several posters that were covered.
"When CJ asked me to do the designs for a new logo, I was blown away that he even asked me and then I was thrilled, cuz it was a chance to give back to you guys for how you all have taken me in. Then when CJ told me the new name for the ranch, I was even more determined to do my best. The name inspired me, because, as Dusty said, it's about us all…it tells people what we are about and what we do…so here they are."
Dusty and Devon removed the covering from the posters and the boys were all taken aback by the work that Devon was showing them. They looked from poster to poster. Devon had included most of them and their horses in various depictions of work and play.
While all eyes were first drawn to the art work, when the boys finally looked at the logo they were all silenced.
The signs read:
Horse Ranch & Rescue Center
"Well, guys," CJ said. "What do we think?"
One by one the guys began to clap their approval until the sound of applause filled the dining room.
The boys sat around the table eating, talking and laughing for hours, until CJ ordered everyone to bed so they could be up early for their flight.
TJ and Erik left with promises to be at the ranch to help out over the next couple of weeks.
That night in the house as the boys slept there was an overwhelming feeling of peace, of love and of family.
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