All rights reserved © 2021
Copyright © 2021 by Mark S. Elias
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved by the author, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Product names, brands, and other trademarks referred to within this book are the property of their respective trademark holders. Unless otherwise specified there is no association between the author and any trademark holder, nor are any expressed or implied. Nor does it express any endorsement by them, or of them. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, service mark, or registered trademark.
Published by Mark S. Elias
Thank you for the wonderful cover art for this book! You did an amazing job and I hope to be giving you work for many years to come! You’re an amazing artist who takes all of my jumbled thoughts and puts them into an absolutely stunning picture!
My amazing editor! Thank you! Not just for countless hours of reading and correcting my mistakes, but also the time you’ve taken to become my friend. Thank you for knowing when to give me guidance for a scene and when to let me talk it out myself. Thank you for seeing something in my writing that I sometimes don’t even see myself!
About Mark S. Elias
Mark S. Elias developed a love of reading at a very early age, beginning with timeless classics like Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. His love of reading is not defined to a single genre, but spans multiple genres and authors. Whether it’s the fantasy world of Middle Earth, far off galaxies, or a deserted island with just a boy and his horse, he’s always found an escape in the written word. His first foray into creative writing began when he was just fourteen years old. Nearly 25 years later his love of books and literature has led him to try his hand at his own books. His current series, The Georgia Moon series, is a beautiful coming of age story about a teenage boy shaking off the chains of depression and social anxiety with the help of friends and a deep love of baseball and horses.
Also by Mark S. Elias
Alex Jackson is a small town Georgia boy who struggles, from a very early age, to make friends. His life is eternally changed when he meets his best friend, a new girl by the name of Allison Moon. When an argument threatens to take his family and only friend from him, Alex is pushed beyond his breaking point. Will he overcome his depression or succumb to it?
All the above, and other, stories are available from:
“Cut!” Kendra yelled from behind the main camera. “Max, let me reset things so we can get a different angle.”
“Is the lighting going to be an issue again?” Max asked,
Kendra Robbins had been working for Max Hunter for just under two years. In truth, Max was a good guy, but he could be a pretentious jackass at times. Max was an up-and-coming reporter in the sporting world. So far most of what he had done was regional though being based out of the Los Angeles area meant that he had more chances for national exposure than some other reporters. Yet despite several sports teams with national coverage, he was still to have that big break.
Part of the problem was his attitude. Max had grown up in L.A. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Despite the very humble upbringing of his parents, and in spite of their attempts at teaching him where he came from, the lure of the well-to-do life was too much for him. Max struggled to relate to people. Kendra had been with him for two years now and there were times when she wanted to storm off the set and quit, but there was something about Max that kept her around. In truth, Max needed her. He really did have potential to be a television star and if she could be there when he made it, that also meant that she could ride that success to a career of her own.
“We can stay in here if you like, but the sun is starting to go down so we can change locations.” Kendra looked at me, “If that’s okay with you, Mr. Jackson.”
I nodded, “That’s fine. We can go to the small paddock. The horses are out there right now. You can make them part of the background.”
Kendra looked over to her other team members and started telling them what to do.
“Ricki,” she looked over to a tall lanky redheaded girl, “why don’t you go with Mr. Jackson and start getting a location set up. Felix and I will get the cameras moved over.”
It took about an hour to reset things the way they wanted. In the end, we ended up using two of the tall barstools from the ranch house. Behind us were about ten of the most beautiful black horses. They were tall and a bit stocky as if you’d expect a knight in shining armor to come riding in on them to save the day. Mixed in were several other horses of various sizes and coloring.
“Uncle Alex,” Max said just as Kendra was getting the final touches in place for the next part of the interview, “How many horses do you own now?”
I had to think about that for a bit, “Well, we’ve got well over a hundred horses here at the moment. After I took over the ranch, we bought the five hundred acres on the north side of the ranch. Then a few years later we got a grant to purchase the three hundred acres across the street. When we did that, we started working with the Bureau of Land Management to adopt more wild mustangs.”
“How many of them do you use?”
“I only use a really small portion of them. The mustangs are there for their own freedom.”
Kendra got our attention again, “All right we are ready to go.”
Max went back into reporter mode.
“The term legend is used all the time. Sometimes before athletes even get a chance to prove themselves on the field, we are calling them legends. Most of the time the status of Legend is earned just on the field, but for some that status is earned off the field as well.”
Max’s entire demeanor had changed. Yes, he could be pretentious and a bit arrogant, but there were times, when he didn’t think people were looking at him, when he could be a good person. I’d known that about him. I’d known him since he was born. When he had an audience, he felt he had to be on. There was a switch he flipped that made him perform when the cameras were rolling. He was professional, but it also made him fakey.
“Stop!” I called and waved my hands.
Kendra and Max both looked to me, “Is there a problem?”
I sighed, “Yeah there’s a problem.” I looked over to Max, “What’s with the phony attitude?”
“What are you talking about?” Max asked defensively.
I could see Kendra smirk behind her camera.
“You and I were just talking, and it was just you and me. The cameras were off and you actually seemed like a human being. As soon as Kendra turned the camera on you became some sort of robot or something. It was an act and everyone could see it.”
“He’s right,” Kendra said.
I had a feeling that other than family, Kendra was one of the few people who could be frank with Max and have him actually listen.
“What do you want me to do then?” he asked Kendra.
“Listen, I’ve told you this before. You’re a good reporter. You know how to ask the right questions. I wouldn’t be working with you if you weren’t good at your job, but part of the reason you’re still a local reporter is because people think you’re a stuck-up snob. You’ve gotta be real with people.”
I nodded, “Listen to her. She’s smart.”
“All right. Reset and give me a minute.”
As Kendra went about doing whatever she needed to do I looked over to Max, “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
He sighed, “Sure! Why not? I mean apparently what I’ve been doing isn’t good enough so I guess I need the help.”
I shook my head, “First of all you gotta stop with the not good enough bullshit. If you weren’t good enough you wouldn’t be here right now.”
“You said yourself, the only reason I’m here is because my dad asked you to do him a favor.”
I nodded, “That’s not what I said. I said the only reason that I agreed to do it was because of your dad. You’re here because obviously people higher up in your network believed you had the ability to do it.”
I cut him off, “Still nothing. You know I’ve seen all your interviews, right?”
I laughed, “Of course I have. You’re my godson. I was there the day you sang that horrible musical.”
For once I saw Max laugh, “It wasn’t that bad.”
“It wasn’t?” I laughed hard, “Max, you were great. Well, as great as a ten-year-old could be, but seriously, who ever thought that it would be a good idea to make a musical out of all the Taylor Swift songs should be shot.”
Max laughed again, “Okay, I’ll give you that one.”
“If I could sit through that, I can sit through anything. I’ve seen all your interviews. You’re good and you know what you’re doing. People just don’t relate to you because you think you have to be perfect.”
“So, what do I do?”
I smirked, “Start by letting them know you aren’t perfect.”
Kendra looked over to us both, “Are you guys ready? We need to get rolling before we lose all our daylight.”
Max nodded and Kendra started her countdown, “In 3! 2! …” On one she pointed to him.
Max hesitated for a bit but then there was a moment where he seemed to get it, “The word Legend is thrown around far too much these days. All of us, myself included, want to strive to be remembered. We want so bad for people to remember us that sometimes we try too hard. I’m guilty of that myself. I was so busy trying to become a legend in my own right that I failed to get to know a legend who has been beside me my entire life. The name Alex Jackson is known around the world and soon that name will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but do we really know who this man is? I thought I did. I mean after all, this man was there the day I was born. He is my godfather, so of course I really knew him. Right?”
Max laughed at himself, “I am proof that you can take advantage of people whether you know it or not. When I came to the small town of Judson, Georgia, I thought I was going to be introducing the world to a side of him they didn’t know. However, what ended up happening was he introduced me to a side of himself that I had never tried to get to know. Join me, Max Hunter, as I sit down with my godfather, Alex Jackson, and get to know him … for the first time.”
I slowly opened my eyes, thankful that the curtains in my room were blackout curtains. A quick look at my phone revealed it was almost noon which meant I’d slept for close to fourteen hours. I didn’t intend to sleep that long, but I knew I needed it. The previous year had been the hardest of my life. It had started with some of the worst bullying I’d ever dealt with in my fourteen years! I thought my year, and my life, would be done when I swallowed a bunch of Tylenol and sleeping pills. What I didn’t realize was that, at that point, my life was just starting.
Allison Moon, my best friend in the entire world, found me and literally saved my life. I remembered closing my eyes and hearing her begging me to stay with her. Something changed within me when I heard her say that. We’d spent almost three years not speaking with each other. I thought I had driven her away. She was a testament that true friends never leave, no matter what happens. There may be distance between you, but when they are needed, a true friend will always be there. When I needed her, when my life depended on it, Allison was there. She held my hand and refused to let go. It was like she thought that if she let me go I would have died. Maybe I would have.
Since my room had originally been a maid’s quarters, it also had its own bathroom as well as a large walk-in closet. I didn’t use half of the space that I had, but I enjoyed my space. I took a shower and collected my thoughts before heading down stairs. Mom was busy in the kitchen getting lunch ready.
“Hey, Sweetheart.” She smiled and it looked like a lot of stress had left her, “You just got up?”
“Yeah. I guess I was more tired than I realized.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. You’ve been under a lot of stress.”
“Well, you’re up in time. I was just about to come get you. I’ve got lunch ready. You eat while I get ready. Then we’ll head out.”
“Okay,” I said with confusion.
“Alex,” my mom sighed, “I told you the other day we were going back to school shopping, today.”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
“Is something on your mind?”
“Well, I was wondering. Where do we go from here? I mean now that Mark has been found guilty. What’s the restitution going to do? How much do you think we will get from the civil trial? Will they settle?”
She looked at me, “Alex, you are trying to think too much like an adult. I get why you are, but I don’t want you to worry about those things. Those are all things out of your control. I know you want to be informed of what’s happening, and your dad and I will make sure that we do that; but we also want you to trust us to handle these sorts of things for you. We want you to trust us when we say we are working on your behalf.”
“And I do.”
“Good.” She smiled and cupped my cheek. “I spoke with Mr. Smith this morning. He has sent a formal offer to settle to Mark’s attorney. He expects to hear back from him by tomorrow. We will let you know what happens. Until then just relax and be a kid for a few days. Go exercise with Jason or go riding with Allison. Sam has been cleared to return to working and riding. I’m sure she’d love to see you. Debbie says she won’t stop talking about you and how heroic you were.”
“Really?” I probably showed too much enthusiasm when I asked that since my mom laughed. Allison had mentioned the same thing, but I just thought she was trying to mess with me.
“Apparently you really impressed her.”
‘Yeah well, she’s dating Jake Pollard. So, I don’t know that I want to have anything to do with her.”
“That’s a shame. Debbie says she’s a nice girl.” My mom went back to looking at her computer screen, “So what are you planning today?”
“Well, I was actually wondering if you could take me to a gym.”
That stopped her from working once again, “A gym?”
“Yeah. Jason has been working with me on Saturdays, but I was thinking that I want to do more.”
“I think that’s a great idea. I don’t think Hahira has a gym. We'll go to Valdosta. There’s a Planet Fitness there. I know there is one of those in Adel as well, so you can go to either one. As soon as we finish at the gym, we are going to get you some new clothes. I think there’s a Beall’s by the gym. We can go there first. If you need new shoes, you’ll need new boots too.” She shook her head in mock annoyance and added, “You’re expensive, you know that?”
Planet Fitness was a quick stop overall. We went ahead and got one of the PF Black cards. That way I could go to either of the gyms close by and I could bring Jason with me whenever I wanted. They took a few moments to show me around the gym so that I could see all the things my new membership would be offering me. The hydromassage looked interesting. I tried to convince my mom to let me try it out then and there, but she refused. Saying that we were going to have a hard enough time making it back before dinner with all of the clothes we were going to have to buy.
She wasn’t kidding either. Truth be told, I was in need in new clothes. I hadn’t gotten any real new clothes in over a year. Sure, I picked up a pair of jeans or shorts here and there, and the occasional shirt was bought, but I hadn’t had a real upgrade in my clothes since seventh grade. The more I thought about my clothes the more I realized I had seriously hit a growth spurt over the summer. I was at least four inches taller than I had been this time last year.
A word of advice though, when your mom tells you that she wants to buy you some new clothes … pack a lunch, because it’s going to be a long, long day! Our first stop after the gym was indeed Beall’s where we picked up the first bag of clothes. Then we were off to Shoe Carnival where we got four more bags, though only two of those were mine (They had a sale that my mom just couldn’t pass up.). So, both my mom and dad got a pair of shoes while I got a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of dress shoes. From there it was off to Hibbett Sports for some workout clothes, and a few shirts I could wear working on the ranch. That earned me two more bags of clothes. Boot Barn earned me another three bags including a REALLY nice pair of full quill ostrich boots that were on sale. By the time we stopped at three more stores, the back seat of my mom’s car was completely full. All told, I ended up with eleven bags of clothes.
When we pulled into the garage I got out and looked at the backseat, almost afraid to open it in case bags came flying at me. “I think I’m going to need a new closet, or a new house for all these clothes.”
She laughed, “Tonight you can go through and bag up all of your old clothes that you can’t wear anymore. If you haven’t worn it in at least the last six months, it goes in a trash bag. You can sit them all in the garage and I’ll take them to the Salvation Army later this week.”
It was about an hour later when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs to my room. I figured it was just my mom or dad, so I didn’t even bother to turn around. I had a drawer open and was going through looking at a bunch of shirts and tossing them into a pile if I hadn’t worn them in a while.
“You aren’t getting rid of those are you?”
I turned around sharply to see Allison heading straight for a pile of the t-shirts I was going to be giving away, “I can’t wear them anymore. Mom wants me to get them together so she can take them to the Salvation Army.”
“Well, I get first pick!” She was already rifling through them.
“Why do you want my old shirts?”
“Because they are comfortable! They are worn in already! Besides, I’m like four foot nothing. Most of these shirts I could wear as a dress.” She smiled and giggled softly. “If nothing else I can sleep in them.”
“Help yourself. What are you doing here anyway?”
“Oooh! I want this one!” She held up a red t-shirt that had an angry Donald Duck on it with the words ‘This is my happy face’ written on it. “My mom called to see if you guys wanted to go out for dinner tonight. Your mom said y’all had just gotten back from Valdosta and that you had gotten a bunch of new clothes so she didn’t think tonight would be good. So, we decided just to come over.”
Allison was busy making a second pile of shirts that she wanted to keep for herself for some reason. Most of them were just oversized t-shirts she’d end up wearing to sleep in, though there were a few dress shirts and western style shirts that she threw in for some reason.
“What are you going to do with my old dress shirts?” I laughed.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure something out.” Her smile was infectious if nothing else. “Are you ready for school to start back?”
“Does a cat like bathing?”
She laughed, “That bad, huh?”
“It’s not the school part, you know that.”
“It’s the part about meeting new people, right?”
“Yeah.” I eventually just picked up an entire drawer full of clothes and dumped it on the bed, realizing that I hadn’t opened that particular drawer since I had moved in. “I mean, I’m better. A lot better than I was, but it’s still overwhelming sometimes. I mean, what happens if we don’t have any classes together? Or even worse, what if I don’t have the same lunch with you OR Jason?”
She was quiet for a bit as thought. It appeared as though her small pile of clothes was done growing. “What if we went in to register together? Maybe Dr. Markov can write you a letter suggesting that we have as many classes together as possible, including lunch? Call Jason and tell him the same thing!”
“You know, that’s a really good idea!” I tossed her a trash bag. “Put your ill-gotten gains in this.” We went downstairs with me carrying two completely full bags of clothes and Allison carrying a much smaller bag full of the shirts she had decided to pilfer.
“What are you doing?” Debbie looked to her daughter with a chuckle.
Allison didn’t miss a beat though, and in that bright warm little voice of hers she smiled, “I went shopping. I got a really good deal.”
Once the bags were in the garage I came back, “Mom, next week when we register for school, can we go at the same time as Allison and Jason? That way maybe we can get some classes together.”
“And Dr. Markov can write a letter so that we can get put together as much as possible,” Allison added.
My mom shrugged, “I don’t see why not. I’ll call in the morning to see if Mrs. Markov will write something. Considering everything that has happened the last few months, it’s not a bad idea at all.”
Monday morning was interesting. I arrived at work at 7:30, as I usually do. Most days I would be alone until 8:00 when Lou would arrive. Thirty minutes after that Sam would arrive. I liked to arrive a little early, because it let me get a jump on the cleaning of stalls. When I arrived today, Sam was already at the barn.
“Hey, Alex!” she said. She had Applejack out and was grooming him.
“Oh! Hey, Sam.” I had been given a heads up that Sam had a little bit of hero worship after everything that had happened. I wanted to be careful, but I had no idea how to approach her or what topics to avoid. I hadn’t been to see her since her accident. Part of it was because I had too much going on in my own life, the other part of the reason was because she was going out with Jake. I had just gotten rid of one bully. I didn’t need to attract another.
“You never came to see me.”
“Oh … um … I didn’t know I was supposed to.” Okay that was partially a lie. I wasn’t stupid. I knew it would have been the polite thing to do to try and see her to make sure she was okay.
“I mean you save a girl’s life, and you manage to rescue her horse. You’d think at some point you’d try to come make sure she was okay. Besides, I never got a chance to properly thank you for everything you did.” She had stepped away from Applejack and walked over towards me. I had just started trying to clean a stall two doors down from Applejack. She leaned against the stall door while I began the process of cleaning the stall.
“Allison and Mr. Moon kept telling me how you were doing great.” I was trying not to look at her. She wasn’t wearing the spaghetti strap shirts that I loved to see on her, but that didn’t change how she looked.
“I heard about how all the horses were set loose. I can’t believe someone would do something like that.”
“Yeah. It was a long day to say the least. I’m just glad that none of the horses were hurt too bad.”
“Allison told me that the first thing you wanted to know when you got here that day was if Applejack was okay.”
I was going to have to have a talk with Allison, “Well, yeah, he had just been through a big trauma. I didn’t want him to get hurt any more.”
Sam was walking towards me, her hips swaying from side to side in the most feminine walk I think I had ever seen. I may have been exaggerating things in my mind, but it was a sight to see. I was starting to feel trapped a bit.
“Sam, what are you doing?”
“I wanted to thank you. For everything.”
“You don’t have to thank me. I was just doing the right thing.”
She had a grin on her face that I couldn’t recognize. Somehow, I felt I was swimming in shark infested waters, and I had nothing to grab on to. She had made her way to me and was running her finger along my shoulder.
“I know I don’t have to thank you, but I want to.”
Just then Lou became my favorite person in the whole world. He opened the barn door and called out to me. “Alex! Grab a lunge whip and come out to the round pen. Peter and I need to talk to you.”
“See ya later, Alex!” Sam giggled as I pressed my way around her.
I was too relieved to be away from Sam to worry about what they wanted to talk to me about; though as I got closer, I couldn’t help but ask myself about what was going on. Inside the round pen were the Four Musketeers, those four wild mustangs we had adopted a few months back. Peter had mentioned something about wanting to talk to me on Monday, perhaps this was it.
“Alex! How are you this morning?” Peter was smiling. Whatever was going on, he was excited about it.
“I’m really good. Not sure I’ve felt this free … well, in a long time.”
“That’s good. That’s really good. It’s been a stressful time for you for a bit. You deserve a little bit of freedom.”
“What are the Four Musketeers in the pen for? Are they okay?”
“Remember when I told you that I wanted to talk to you about something today? Well, they are what I want to talk to you about. We adopted these horses from the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management overseas the wellbeing of wild mustangs. There are so many of them though, and conditions are so harsh in the west, that they can’t keep them all. They herd a lot of them and keep them in holding facilities. Sometimes indefinitely. They don’t do it to be cruel. It’s really the only way the horses will survive. There’s just not enough food and water for them in the wild. The BLM is allowed to adopt the horses out to just about anyone who wants one. Of course, you do have to meet certain requirements but those aren’t very hard.”
“That’s tough to hear, but I guess it’s good they can get adopted so easily.”
“You can easily adopt them, but they don’t get adopted quickly. These are wild horses and most of the people looking for horses don’t want them as wild as these are. There are over forty thousand of the horses currently waiting to be adopted.”
“Yeah, it’s rough.”
“What can I do?”
“Well, this is a business. Yes, I love horses, and I would love to keep all of them; but the bottom line is that in order for me to make money to support you and all the others here, I have to sell some of them. When I adopted these horses, the idea was to train them and sell them. We’ve had other stuff get in the way these last few months, so it’s been hard to start their training.”
“You want me to help Lou get them trained?”
“Not exactly, Alex. Lou and I have been talking. We’ve seen the way you are with the horses. You’re good. You really seem to enjoy working with them. I know Lou has been helping you learn some of the basics of training a horse. I also know that you’ve been doing some research on the topic in your spare time.” He paused, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I wasn’t sure what was going on so I just stayed quiet and waited for him to continue.
“Alex, I want you to pick one of these mustangs. It’s going to be your job to train it. It won’t be easy. Lou will be around to help you. I know school starts soon and you’ll probably have a lot on your plate, but I’ve also talked with your mom and dad and we all think that you are more than capable of handling it all. You will have a little over four months to train one of these horses. At the end of that four months, we will make a video of what the horse is capable of doing and we will upload it to our website and sell it. I will take that money and after taking out my expenses, I will give you thirty percent of whatever the horse sells for. What do you say?”
“So, I would be completely responsible for its training?”
“That is correct. Lou will be around to help you. He will be able to step in and do some minor things for you if you need him. School should be your top priority, so let's say you know you are going to have a particularly busy week with school then you can instruct Lou what you’d like for him to work on with the horse. The catch will be though, he isn’t allowed to teach the horse anything new. He is only allowed to affirm things that you have already taught the horse. Anything new the horse must learn from you.”
Lou was the one who answered this time, “Because, Mijo, you have the passion for horses. Peter and I, we’ve watched you. You came here last year just to make money, but when you saw the horses, you couldn’t stop looking at them. You are gentle with them, but strong. You manage to get the horses to trust you. This past couple of weeks have really shown us that you could be really good at this. We want to give you the chance.”
“Alex, I know that Allie doesn’t have the enthusiasm to do this job. It’s just not in her. She does love her horse and they have a wonderful relationship, but I don’t see the same love for horses in her as I have. But when I look at you, I see it. I didn’t have the same opportunity that you have right now. I want to give you all the chances that I can, for you to explore and learn. If you love doing this, and you eventually want to make more of it, then I’ll help you there, too.”
I stepped up onto the fence and looked at the four mustangs, “Which one will I train?”
I could practically hear Lou smiling, “Well, Mijo, that is up to you. We are going to give you the option to choose your first horse to train. We will help you get the other three back out into the paddock and you will have all day to work with the one you choose.”
I looked at the four horses. They were all beautiful animals. One was a roan color, that was Porthos. He was the calmest of the four. Porthos was also the oldest of them, at around eight years old. Athos was a bay color and I loved the black coloring on his mane and socks. It contrasted beautifully with the rich reddish-brown color of his body. Athos was the next oldest at seven years old. Athos was also lazy. For being a wild mustang he would run and play but would stop periodically to rest and catch his breath. Being lazy, he was also slightly overweight. Aramis was a five year old brown and white paint color. He had an overall good temperament. He was a follower and, when he was properly trained, would make a good horse for someone.
The one that caught my eye though was D'Artagnan. He was the youngest of the four being around four years old. I had done some reading about mustangs when we adopted them. Mustangs are a shorter horse so to say that D'Artagnan was the tallest was a bit of a misnomer. No one would ever call him tall, as he was just under fifteen hands high. That made him tall in terms of mustangs. Two things originally made me like him. First was his color. He reminded me of El Jefe, the buckskin horse I helped Lou with. There was something about the way the tanned body clashed with the black mane, tail and feet of the horse. It was like a work of art. The other thing that made me want to choose him was his spirit. D'Artagnan was the exact opposite of me. Where I was quiet, he was loud. Where I was shy he was naturally curious. Where I had allowed my spirit to be broken, he was hot-blooded and full of fire.
“I’ll train D'Artagnan.”
Lou held out his hand to Peter, “Told you.”
Peter just laughed and handed Lou twenty bucks. I looked at both of them, confused.
“Lou knew you’d pick him. I thought for sure you would go with Aramis. He’d be easier to train.”
“Mijo, I have just one piece of advice for you. When you are training these horses, remember what the ultimate goal is. We WILL be selling these horses so you can’t allow yourself to become attached to them.”
I nodded, “Let’s clear the pen.”
Between the three of us, it wasn’t hard to get the other three horses out of the pen, the hard part was actually keeping D'Artagnan inside while we let the other three out. Once the last of the other three were moving back to the paddock I turned my attention to D'Artagnan. All of the mustangs had come through the TIP program with the Bureau of Land Management. All that means is that the horses had been trained to take a halter and a lead rope. You also had to be able to pick up all four of their feet, and they had to be able to be loaded into a trailer. Overall, it wasn’t much training and left a lot in the way of getting them ready to be ridden.
By their very nature horses are proud creatures. In the wild they were free to roam and go about wherever they wanted. They also faced a lot of predators, so they were always on alert. The first thing I would need to do in order to start D'Artagnan's training would be to establish a level of respect. The horse had to know that I respected him, but he also had to come to respect me. Without respect there would be nothing I could do with him, or teach him.
I picked up the lunge whip, a four foot long fiberglass pole with a 6 foot long nylon rope on the end. It was a multitool for horse trainers and was used as an extension of your body rather than a way to hurt the horse. Using the lunge whip I essentially had almost a thirteen foot reach rather than just the length of my arms. I’d picked them up a lot and had used one on occasion when I was helping Lou. Today would be the first day that I was using one on my own as the true authority figure for a horse. It was a little daunting when I thought about it.
I looked around and could see Lou and Peter leaning on the gate to the pen, looking through the iron bars to watch what I was doing. Sam had saddled Applejack and was sitting on him watching what was going on intently. She didn’t train the horses as much as she worked with them on competitions, so to see someone our age, even if she was a year older than me, actually starting on the training of a horse and being trusted to do it by himself was out of the ordinary, although not completely unheard of.
I stood with the whip in my hand for a moment with my body only partially facing D'Artagnan. I was still watching him out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t want to focus entirely on him. I needed the horse to think that he wasn’t a big deal to me. It was a way of challenging the horse’s authority.
“Talk me through what you are doing, Mijo.”
“Right now I want to get him used to me being in the pen with him. I also want to start getting in his head. He thinks he’s in charge. When he’s with the other musketeers, they follow his lead. He expects me to do the same. For several months now we’ve sort of let them just roam as they wish. He thinks he’s King of the Mountain. I have to start showing him that I don’t care about the king.”
The act of training a horse isn’t always the quick action packed drama that so many western shows and movies have made it out to be. The times you’ve seen a horse being trained when he’s running, bucking and making a scene are really just compilations of several much smaller moments. In truth, the first few weeks of horse training can be rather boring at times for those who aren’t interested. Like today, I spent about five to ten minutes just standing around the horse allowing him to get used to me again. I would walk towards him while he was looking at me, but as soon as he raised his head and looked like he was turning his hindquarters to me I stopped and acted like I was more concerned with others than him.
When I was finally able to get close to him, I pulled on the halter several ways to see how he was going to respond. Then I clasped the lead rope on him and led him around the round pen to see how he would react. This had two real purposes. The first being that it started to show D'Artagnan that I would be responsible for telling him when and where to go. That was the first step in gaining the horse's respect. The second thing that it did was help me get a feel for how much of the gentling process had worn off since we had adopted him. We just walked around the pen for a few minutes, changing directions at random to see how much he would follow me. Thankfully, he was fairly obedient. He did keep a lot of tension in the lead rope which was a sign that he didn’t respect me and was only going because I was making him go, but that was something we could work on. I also stopped to try and pick up all four of his hooves, one of the other key parts of the gentling process. That didn’t go quite as well, and I was only able to get up one of his hooves before he decided he’d had enough and wanted to run. I held onto the lead rope until he stopped moving. Once he had, I unfastened the rope and dropped it onto the ground in the center of the pen.
“What are you doing, Alex? Why did you take the lead rope off?” Peter was asking this time. I couldn’t tell if he was asking to test me, or if he really didn’t know. Surely Peter knew the process of training horses, so this had to be a test. Right? I acted as though it were a final exam in school and explained exactly what I was doing and why.
“The first step for training a horse is to gain his respect. Right now, he doesn’t respect me. He sees me as an object and horses don’t like objects. Objects get in the way of them being able to run. In order to get him to respect me I have to get him moving. I have to show him that he only gets to run and move because I allow him to.”
I pointed into the air with my left hand and then made a clicking sound, but D'Artagnan didn’t move, so I slapped the ground behind him with the whip. Immediately he took off trotting in the direction I had pointed to.
“Horses are smart and eventually he will catch on that when I point, I want him to go in the direction I’m pointing. He’ll also pick up that the clicking means I want him to go or speed up.” D'Artagnan had stopped just in front of the gate where, for the first time, I saw that Allison had made her way from the house to watch what was happening. She smiled at me and motioned for me to keep going when I stopped to look at her. “Anytime he stops, or if I give him a rest, I will start by pointing and clicking with my mouth. If he doesn’t start moving, I’ll slap the ground with the whip. If that doesn’t get him moving, then I’ll use the lunge whip to give him a tap on the butt.”
I had to slap the ground again for D'Artagnan to start moving. It took another ten minutes but eventually he was moving when I started pointing.
“Now what I need to do is start to change how fast he is moving, but also in what direction. This is where I will start teaching him to respect me. When I make him change directions, I want him to turn so that his head faces me. I don’t want him to turn so that his butt is in my direction. If he’s giving me his rear that’s a sign of disrespect. If he does that, I’m going to quickly cut off his movement and make him go back in the other direction. Eventually he will catch on that I want to see two eyes. I want him to look at me.”
“Good job, Alex.”
I was right, Peter was testing me.
With a point and a click D'Artagnan was off at a trot. I slapped the ground with the whip to get him moving faster. Once he had gone around the pen a couple of times, I backed away from him until I was almost at the fence. While I was backing away, I held my hand up almost like I could see an imaginary lead rope stretching from my hand to the horse. Horses were quick to pick up on signals. That’s what made them such effective animals on farms and ranches. By starting to establish this cue now, it would be easier to teach down the road. Once I had the horse’s attention I turned and started walking towards his head. He turned and went the other direction, but he had turned so that his rear was towards me. I quickly ran and cut him off, using the lunge whip to slap at the ground and get him going back in the other direction. I kept him at a canter for a short period of time before doing the same thing again, keeping my hands up towards my eyes as if I could magically force the creature to look at me. Once again, D'Artagnan turned but turned the wrong way. Again I cut him off using the whip to redirect him in the opposite direction.
I was starting to breathe heavy, so I knew he was too. Altogether it took about six tries for him to finally turn the right direction, so I allowed him to slow down and rest.
“He did exactly what I wanted him to do that time. Air is the most precious thing to him right now.” That was said as I was huffing a bit myself. “So I’m going to let him breathe right now. That way he’ll start to think in his head that the only way he will get any air, is if I let him. And the only way I’m going to let him, is if he does what I’m asking him to do.”
Once I wasn’t huffing quite as much, I pointed and D'Artagnan immediately started in trot. I kept pointing and clicked and he stepped up into a canter. Horses are incredibly smart and catch on to things quickly. They were thinking animals. So another benefit to the quick stop that we’d had, was that it gave D'Artagnan a chance to think about what had been happening so far. I changed directions with him another five times and only once did he turn the wrong way.
“He’s turning the right way now. He’s giving me both of his eyes and showing me respect. He’s smart and he’s catching on quick.”
“What’s the next step?” Lou asked me as my back was to him.
“Next I start giving him the cue to face me. Eventually I want it to be so that when I give him the cue, he turns his whole body towards me and gives me his undivided attention. Right now he thinks that when I focus and walk towards his hindquarters that means go forward. But I’m going to lean forward when I do this, without pointing or clicking. This is the cue that I want him to face me.” I pointed and he took off as a trot. I then backed away as I had before. D'Artagnan was waiting for the sign to change directions. He had his head facing me, but his body wasn’t. So I leaned slightly forward and focused on his butt. I walked towards it until he turned facing me. As soon as he did I backed away.
Horses are unique creatures. By backing away, I was rewarding him for doing what I wanted. I gave him a second and had him trotting again. We kept at this for a while before he would stop and automatically turn his body towards me, giving me both of his eyes and his undivided attention. I had one final thing I wanted to do before I called it a day with him. I didn’t send him into a trot, but I slowly walked around him. The idea was that I wanted him moving with me the whole time. I wanted it so that this horse kept me in his sight at all times. It took a couple of times but he started doing just that. Eventually I stopped and walked backwards towards the fence. A positive sign that I hadn’t quite expected was that D'Artagnan actually took a few steps towards me when I did this. It was important that we end things on a strong positive note, and that was about as strong as I could have expected for his first day of training.
“That’s enough for today. I’ll let him stay in the pen for a bit on his own. That will give him a chance to think about everything we’ve done. I’ll come back in about thirty minutes and take him to a stall and groom him.”
“Good job, Alex,” Peter smiled. “I’m going to run into town with Martin. We’ve got a meeting with some county officials to get the permits for the new barn.”
He didn’t say much more as he turned and walked away. I closed the gate behind me as I left the pen. Allison jumped down from her perch on the fence and for the first time I noticed she was still wearing pajamas.
“I’m going to get some breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” I asked.
“Yeah. I had just gotten up when Mom told me they were going to start you on your first day of training. I had to come watch! Right now I’m starving.” She smiled before heading off.
I didn’t get very far before Sam was standing in front of me. “You were awesome! I didn’t realize you knew that much about training horses!”
I shrugged, not sure what to do with the attention I was getting. It was different to me. Previously if I got attention it was somehow negative, but this was all positive. Not to mention how Sam was suddenly reacting to me.
“I’ve been working with Lou a lot, I guess. Plus I’ve been reading up on it, and I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos. There’s a guy from Australia that I really watch a lot.”
“Well, I’m really impressed.” Then she shocked me by leaning in and placing a kiss on my cheek. She giggled before lifting herself up onto Applejack’s saddle and heading for the training arena.
I stood there silent for a moment, lifting my hands to touch the cheek she had kissed. I turned to look in the direction she had gone in, but she wasn’t looking back at me. What the hell just happened? Sam had a boyfriend. A boyfriend that I was purposely trying to avoid. Which meant I should be avoiding her as well. There were danger alarms blaring in my head, but I could still feel her lips on my cheek.
“Hey, Papi Chulo!” Lou called to me, yanking me from my stupor, “Get to work. Those stalls won’t muck themselves.”
Tuesday morning Debbie and Allison were going to ride with my mom and I to the school to register for class. She’d made a special trip to Dr. Markov’s office to pick up a letter that we’d be able to use in case the school gave us trouble. We knew that we wouldn’t have EVERY class together, but we were certain we’d be able to get at least two or three classes together. Having classes together was minor compared to getting the same lunch period. Lunch at our school was divided up into two different periods. It was just impossible to have one lunch period for the entire school at the same time. There wouldn’t be enough seats for everyone and nor would they have enough time to feed us all. I could have probably handled being in classes without Jason or Allison, but being forced to try and find a place to sit to eat lunch would have likely meant I’d end up finding a janitor’s closet somewhere just so that I could avoid people.
Jason and his mom, Marcy, met us in the parking lot of the school. Judson High School was a massive place, at least to me it was. It was a lot bigger than the previous schools we had been to. It actually brought together three different schools from across our area. The Knights, as we were known, paid a lot of attention to high school sports as most schools in the deep south did. Friday nights during the fall was football night and it didn’t matter if you had a kid going to school there or not, you showed up to whatever local high school team you had. It’s just the way we were. Some of the larger more urban areas may be a bit different, but for us rural people, the ones who were stuck out in the boonies, you went because if nothing else it gave you something to do.
The quickest way to get through high school and not be the focus of a bully was to become part of one of the sports teams, though even they had their own pecking order. The JV sports were generally looked down upon and you were viewed as someone “lesser” but even then, you were only picked on by the varsity players who were considered your superiors. It didn’t matter WHY you were on the JV team. You weren’t part of the varsity boys club, so you were lesser in their eyes. Still, despite whatever hazing rituals they had, once you were part of a sports team, you were as good as gold to most of the teachers and staff. That’s because the sports programs brought all the fame and fortune for a school. The more successful a school was the more money they brought in. High school athletes that were good enough to start garnering the attention of scouts were kings among peasants, even among their friends.
To a much lesser degree another way to make it through school untouched by bullies, was to become part of certain clubs, the biggest of which was the band. Because the band worked so closely with the sports teams they were often protected by teachers and staff. They fit in more with the rest of the students and weren’t considered stuck up or stand offish so they didn’t get picked on for the most part, except by the sports department who were quick to remind them that the only reason they had any sort of place in the hierarchy was because they, the athletes, let them be there. Other clubs like the drama club or choir didn’t register high on the pecking order, but at least could garner some manner of respect from teachers and staff depending on how good they were. That's just the way things are in the deep south. We are a sports oriented society. That’s why I almost felt a bit of a hypocrite going in because I knew I was trying to go out for baseball, if for no other reason than I had promised Jason I would do it. I felt fake because I was going to be attempting to get into part of the hierarchy when in fact, all I wanted to do was avoid them completely.
Jason led us into the school since he had been here before, several times with the baseball team. Allison and I had never been here and had no clue where we were going. There were signs everywhere pointing to the various tables that would be of interest to students. All the clubs had their sponsor and some of the prized pupils there to lure new people into their web. The various club tables were all decorated in various ways, but the common theme among them all were the colors. The Judson Knights sported the colors of kings, a deep violet color of purple along with gold accents. The gymnasium, where all the clubs were set up and all the registration would take place, had banners from various sports notating their achievements, but most of them meant nothing to me. The Knights hadn’t been overly successful in most sports. There were too many football powerhouse schools for us to compete every year for a state title which left other sports like track and field, basketball, and the most successful of them all: baseball.
My mom led us all to the table which had been clearly designated for freshman registrations, of course to get there we had to pass by every club known to exist at Brook Country High School.
“Welcome to Judson High School. Who are you here to register?”
“Alex Jackson.” She smiled while the lady in front of her looked over her computer screen and searched for my name.
“Ah, yes, I have him right here. I’ll just need to see your ID and proof of residence as the person registering him. Then I’ll need to see his birth certificate and a copy of his vaccination records.”
As my mother gave her what she was looking for she started on her own questions, “Maybe you can help me. I need to make sure that my son has at least some of the same classes, and the same lunch period, with a couple of other students. Who would I speak to about that?”
The lady was very polite and quick in checking off that I had all the needed shots. When she was finished, she looked at my mom trying to smile, but I could tell she was hoping she wasn’t about to cause a scene.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. We can’t promise any students special treatment. Classes are randomly assigned as is the lunch period. We do this in order to expose students to as many new people as possible. This helps them build new friendships.”
“Oh, I understand that. Trust me, I really do. It’s just that my son has some special circumstances. I actually have a letter from his doctor if that helps.” My mom handed her the letter from Dr. Markov and the lady looked it over.
“I can’t do anything here, but if you give me a few minutes to get the other two registered, I’ll get someone over here to help.”
My mother thanked her and moved aside so that Debbie and then Marcy could step up to each get their child registered. When she had finished, she told the person behind us to give her just a minute and she’d be right back. Most people tried to get into registration early so they could get the prime classes. Though if this lady were to be believed, that didn’t help really, since 'everything was assigned at random.' A few moments later she returned followed by a woman who looked to be in her late forties or early fifties. She had a big smile, and far too much makeup on her face. She wore a brightly colored business suit that made me want to put some shades on. She looked like the quintessential southern businesswoman. When she opened her mouth there was no doubt this woman was raised in the heart of the south.
“Hi! I’m Nancy Withers, the Vice Principal. Renee tells me you have an issue you need addressed?”
My mother smiled, and I think her own accent went up about ten notches. Mrs. Withers had a way of making everyone around her sound more southern.
“Yes, Ma’am. My son has a bit of a special circumstance, and I need to try and get him into some of the same classes, and the same lunch period, as a couple of other students.”
“We always try to accommodate our special needs children. Does he need to be with our special education students?”
My mom laughed as my eyes went wide, “Oh no, nothing like that. It’s more of a social need.”
“Well, we don’t usually do that, but why don’t y’all come with me and we will see what we can do.” She looked to the others, “I’m assuming y’all are the ones wanting to be together?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself, I’m Debbie Moon and this is my daughter Allison. And this is Marcy Graves and her son Jason. We’d like to see if we can’t get them together if at all possible.”
Mrs. Withers led us into her office and we children stood while our moms sat across from her desk.
“Mrs. Jackson, Renee said you had a letter from a doctor?” My mom handed her the letter and she took a moment to read it, “Do you mind if I make a copy of this so that we can have it on file?”
“Of course not.”
Mrs. Withers left and when she returned, she gave Mom the letter back. “I went ahead and pulled up what we have for their schedules. They were all scheduled to be on the first lunch period, so we don’t have any issues there.” She paused and looked over our schedules before looking onto her computer for a few things.
“Okay, I can’t put you in all the same classes, and even your doctor doesn’t think that’s a good idea. We have an absolute zero tolerance policy for bullying and violence. So, Alex, if you ever find yourself in that situation, I want you to feel free to come to me at any time. My door is always open, and I will handle the matter with whatever discretion is needed. Okay?”
I nodded shyly, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Now then, Allison you and Alex both took algebra and science in eighth grade, but Jason you didn’t. So I can’t put all three of you in those classes. I can put all three of you in Freshman English together. Jason, you and Alex can have the same P.E. class together. So what I need to know now is what sort of electives y’all want to take.”
“I want to take some sort of art class,” Allison piped up first in her smiling mousey voice.
“Okay. Most students start out with drawing. Is that okay?” Allison smiled brightly and nodded.
“Jason, what about you?”
“Can I take a drama class?”
“Absolutely!” she said with a chuckle. “I think you’ll love the drama teacher. She’s a riot.” She made a note on her computer and then looked at me. “And what about you, Alex?”
“I was thinking maybe FFA?”
She gave me a nod, “A farmer are you?”
“Something like that.”
“You’ll like Mr. Henry. He’s been here for a long time. He really knows what he’s doing. Give me just a moment to make some changes here and I’ll get these printed out for you. Then you can go back into the gym and visit any of the club tables you’d like.”
After a few moments we left with a printout of our schedules. I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t be alone in my classes, but more importantly, that I wouldn’t be eating lunch in a dark damp janitor’s closet just to keep from meeting new people. We did stop by the gym where Allison met with the art teacher, Ms. Jenkins. Jason stopped by the baseball team’s booth and introduced me to the coach. When he told him that I was going to be trying out for the baseball team in March I could almost hear the coach laugh inwardly. My demeanor, and the way I dressed, didn’t quite scream out “BASEBALL STAR” but to his credit, the coach just shook my hand and said he would see me in February.
I had almost gotten out of going to any of the tables, but my mom finally convinced me to at least go up to the Future Farmers of America table to see if the teacher was there. Derrick Henry was exactly what you’d expect from a farmer. He was tall and well built, even for a gentleman who looked to be in his late sixties. His skin looked like it was made of leather and was a deep bronze color from years of work outside. He reached out to shake my hand and I could feel the rough calluses on his hands. This man definitely knew his stuff. I also understood why Mrs. Withers said I would like him. He actually reminded me a lot of my grandfather on my dad’s side of the family.
“Alex, what makes you interested in FFA?”
“Well, for the past few years I’ve been working at Blue Moon Ranch.”
“Have you now? And what sort of things have you been doing?”
I found myself easily talking to him instead of drawing inward like I had with so many others, “A lot of typical farm things like mucking out stalls and such. But I’ve also helped with harvesting hay. Yesterday I was assigned my first horse to train. It’s a wild mustang that we adopted a few months back.”
Mr. Henry nodded, “That’s wonderful. I think you’ll be a big help to some of the other students.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell the man that I doubted I’d have a full conversation with a single classmate all year.
After getting some lunch in the town of Hahira, my mom dropped us all off at Allison’s house. I needed to work some more with D'Artagnan, and Allison said she’d bring me home in the Polaris later. It was also agreed that I’d stay for dinner with Allison and her family. It would give my mom and dad a rare night alone.
That day in the round pen D'Artagnan had decided that he wasn’t happy with the arrangement we had worked on yesterday. Part of me knew that things went too smoothly yesterday. D'Artagnan was too proud of a spirit to give in that easily. Today, when no one was watching, he became the horse I knew he was. We started simple that afternoon with me trying to put him through paces in the round pen. He didn’t want to move so I was having to resort to hitting him on the butt in order to get him moving. The object of the training is to get him moving when I point, he didn’t even pay attention to me pointing.
Trying to get him to move through the various gaits was another hassle. He knew I wanted to get him to run, after all horses are very smart. Instead of running he was insistent on walking everywhere. It took me a half an hour of working with him to finally get him responding to my pointing and clicking. I could tell he wasn’t happy with it but was reluctantly going along with it. If for no other reason than he was tired of me hitting him on the butt with the whip. I wanted to yell at him to just do what he was told, but that just seemed like the equivalent of a child yelling at a child. I needed to keep my interactions with him calm.
I finally reached a point where I felt I could get him to turn and face me, so I began to change the cue just as I had the previous day. I leaned slightly forward, a sight that I’m sure looked silly to an outsider. It was akin to what a parent might look like if they were sneaking around playing hide and seek with their child. Regardless of what the cue looked like it was important to get him to respond to it. The first few times I tried he didn’t turn to face me and instead gave me his butt. A quick slap on the ground with the whip and he was running again. We had been going at this for almost an hour in the hot summer sun. We were both huffing and tired, but he was reluctant, and I wouldn’t stop the day’s training until he had given me SOMETHING. I couldn’t let him think that he made me stop, but rather I had to make him think that I let him stop.
I tried once again to make him turn his whole body towards me so that I had both of his eyes facing me. We have two round pens. The one that we use for the mustangs was fifty feet in diameter and had permanent wood fencing that was six feet high. D'Artagnan was staying along the perimeter of the fence while I was almost dead center of the pen. I ran him before bringing him to a stop to try and have him face me, but he didn’t. When I tried to send him once more instead of running, he went up onto his hindquarters and reared towards me. Part of me wanted to back away and run out of the pen, but I knew this was a pivotal moment. If I were to back away and give now, he would never respect me.
He came down with a loud snort and stomped his hoof on the ground. His head was held high as he stared at me. He had given me his full attention, which I wanted, but his rearing in the air was a sign of defiance. It was akin to a child throwing a tantrum in the middle of the mall because he wasn’t allowed to get a new toy.
“Stand your ground, Mijo.” I heard Lou calling from behind me. He was encouraging me, and I was glad to know that my first instinct was right.
I was trying to picture this scene in my head as it was happening. The buildings around me were gone and instead were replaced by some old western style fencing. This wasn’t a working horse farm anymore, instead it had become some western ranch. At least, that’s what it felt like to me at the time. I felt like an old cowboy hell bent on breaking the spirited devil in front of me. I was just missing some classic music playing in the background.
D'Artagnan stared back at me, and for the moment it really did seem like I was staring down at the Devil himself inhabiting the form of a horse. He stomped the ground and snorted several more times, but I wasn’t moving. I couldn’t be sure if Lou were speaking to me or not because I had completely tuned everyone out and my sole focus was on the mustang in front of me. Truth be told, it was a dangerous situation, but one that couldn’t be helped. If he had charged after me, he could trample me and cause a lot of harm, but I saw something in his eyes, even if he didn’t know it was there yet. This was a competition for him. He wasn’t scared of me. He was challenging me.
A horse has many signs that you have to pay attention to. Since they can’t talk with words, they use their body to give lots of clues, some more subtle than others, to what they are feeling. Two major signs to look for when you are training a horse are in his head. If a horse drops his head, it’s a big sign of submission. Another, far more subtle clue, is that the horse will lick his lips. The licking of the lips can be easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. A third major sign from your horse comes from his back leg. When a horse cocks his leg is a sign of relaxation, and in a stare off like we were having any sign of relaxation was a good thing. I almost missed him licking his lips but did manage to catch him. As soon as he did, I backed away.
I gave him a few moments before pointing. I had barely gotten the click off my tongue when he turned easily into a trot. When I redirected him he did so easily and fluidly without me having to move the whip. I finally brought him to a stop and bent slightly forward to give him the cue to give me his head and he did so immediately. Once he did, I turned my back to him and waited. I saw Lou, but he wasn’t speaking, and I wasn’t moving. This was a critical moment. It was a moment some call “The Join Up”. It’s a moment when the horse recognizes that there is someone else in charge and a bond forms. As soon as my back was turned, I started walking forward, keeping my shoulders slightly turned so that I could see him with my peripheral vision. Lou’s smile told me it was working. I stopped walking, but D'Artagnan kept moving towards me. His head was down, his ears were lowered. The two of us had battled in the pen today and this great combatant was acknowledging defeat. He came up to me and pressed his muzzle into my shoulder. I turned immediately and began running my hands along his head and down his neck.
“That’s a good boy.” I reassured him. I grabbed the lead rope which I had laid over the fencing and clipped it on. It was important that when a horse had worked as hard as D'Artagnan had today you didn’t just give them food and water and be done. Just like Jason had me go through a cooldown, so too did horses. I walked him for another ten or fifteen minutes until his breathing was normal and it seemed like he wasn’t sweating as much. Then I led him to the stalls where I groomed him for another thirty minutes.
When it was all done, I was leaving the barn when I saw Sam. She was finishing up working with one of the other horses, this one was being trained as a ranch horse so she had been taking him through several exercises which would help him herding cattle.
“You were awesome today!” She ran up to me and wrapped her arms around me. I stopped dead in my tracks, not sure what to think or feel. “Like seriously! When he reared up at you, I wanted to yell for you to run, but you just stood there. Then I saw Lou, so I knew you’d be okay.” She was talking a mile a minute and it was everything I could do to keep up with her.
“But you gotta tell me,” She kept going as we kept walking out of the barn. “Why did you turn your back on him? Like, that would have scared the shit out of me! He could have run you over.”
I shook my head to get out of the fog, “Oh, um, it’s called The Join Up. I haven’t ever done it before, obviously, but I watched a lot of people talking about it and doing it with their horses. It’s basically when a horse acknowledges that someone else is above them. It’s like the ultimate sign of respect from a horse. If you can get them to join up with you then you can pretty much do anything with them. He’s forming a bond with me.”
“So he won’t be so, shall we say, spirited?”
I laughed, “Not quite. The join up doesn’t affect his personality. D'Artagnan is a hot-blooded horse. He’s naturally going to be tough to train and deal with. That’s just part of who he is. The join up just means that he will work with me, and by extension anyone else.”
“Wow, that’s so cool. How did you learn all that?”
I shrugged, “I have a lot of time on my hands. I don’t really talk to anyone other than Jason and Allison. I don’t really go anywhere but here and home. So I have a lot of free time. When I started working here last year, I really liked the horses, so I did a lot of research on them. I started watching any videos I could find.”
“I’m impressed, Alex.” She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek again before wiggling her fingers. “See ya tomorrow!” And then she was gone.
I was so distracted watching her walk away that I didn’t see Lou and ran into him and fell on my butt.
“All right, Papi Chulo,” he laughed as he reached down to help me up. “You did good today. And I mean really good. I didn’t expect you to try to join up with him. Where did you learn that?”
“I saw a guy on YouTube do it. I started reading about it last week. When he reared up at me and then started licking his lips, I knew he was ready to submit.” I shrugged a bit as I dusted myself off. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. If nothing else when I turned my back to him, even if he didn’t join up with me, I was at least rewarding him for doing what I asked. It’s the approach and retreat method, right?”
“Si, Mijo.” He nodded and patted my shoulder, “I’m damn proud of you. Now go get washed up. Allison told me to get you for dinner.”
Lou was apparently joining us for dinner, and the conversation at the table was lively. I found myself bouncing between two different conversations and at times, it was hard to keep them straight. Lou was going on and on to Peter about the training session I had with D'Artagnan. Debbie and Allison were constantly pulling me into a conversation about school and all the things we needed to do before we started school on the seventh of August. It was about halfway into the conversation that I finally noticed what Allison was wearing. She had worn it to registration, but I had been too distracted to notice it.
“Allison, is that one of my old shirts?”
She laughed heartily, “It only took you eight hours to realize it!” She had to put her fork down as she was laughing too hard. “But I will give you this, at least you did eventually notice it without being prompted.”
“Well, it looks a lot different on you than it did me. You’ve gussied it up.”
“It’s called upcycling. I like to do that with a lot of my clothes. It’s where you take something you’d normally be throwing away and you modify it and recycle it so you can use it again. Like with this shirt. It was just a plain old plaid shirt that you weren’t going to wear anymore, but I took off the sleeves and made them into this little ruffle around the neck. I can tie it off at the waist and now I am cowboy chic!”
It was my turn to laugh, “Well, I think you did an awesome job. You look really pretty.”
For some reason, the conversation got quiet after that. I was worried about what I said and wondered if I had said something wrong. I mean Allison had always looked pretty to me. I don’t know that I told her that a lot because we had just never had that sort of relationship. Maybe friends weren’t supposed to say that to each other. Maybe I had just made things awkward and she wouldn’t want to be my friend again.
Any doubt about that was cleared up as Lou stood up to get ready to go, “Alex, you want me to drop you off at your house?”
I started to say yes, but Allison cut me off. “Nah, he’s staying here for a bit longer. We are giving his parents a date night. He’s not allowed home before 10:00.”
She laughed, “Nope. You’re stuck here with me. Don’t worry. We are popping some popcorn and watching a movie.”
She nodded, “Pacific Rim! Dad and I watched it in the theater, but mom hasn’t seen it.”
I looked to Lou with a shrug and a laugh, “I guess I’m staying here.”
Wednesday morning, at 8:00 sharp we were all standing around waiting to get started on the first hay harvest of the year. The tractor we usually used was currently broken, so we wouldn’t be able to have the hay automatically baled and thrown onto a waiting trailer for this. This meant that we were going to have to walk around by hand and collect the hay. It wasn’t a new process, we’d had to do it before, but it was definitely time consuming. I had warned Jason ahead of time to make sure he wore some sort of long pants. It might be a little bit hotter but hay rubbing all over your bare skin could irritate it quickly.
We had a trailer hooked up to two of our bigger horses who would pull it around while the rest of us picked up hay and stacked it on the trailer. Debbie, Allison and Sam all took turns driving the cart while the rest of us picked up the hay. We would pick up the bales of hay and throw them onto the trailer. Then one of the girls would move the hay bale and stack it. We’d do this pretty much all day, pausing only for short breaks while someone went to switch out the trailer. During one of the breaks Sam went back with the adults to switch out the trailer leaving just me, Allison and Jason each sitting on a hay bale enjoying a quick lunch.
“Dude, no wonder you can throw so far. This hay thing is hard work.”
I laughed, “I told you! I think the hay is harder to throw than that medicine ball. I don’t know if its heavier or not, but it's definitely harder to throw because it’s bigger.”
“So you don’t like big balls?” Jason laughed and nodded, “I’ll remember that.”
Allison slapped him on the shoulder, “Be nice.”
“So … Alex,” Jason was trying to ask something, but was unsure of what to say.
“Out with it, Jason.”
“Okay. Don’t hate me, but I gotta ask you man. What’s going on with you and Sam?”
“Huh? Me and Sam?”
Allison covered her mouth to try and hide a laugh.
“Dude don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
“Noticed what? I’ve been working in case you haven’t noticed.”
Allison couldn’t hide her laugh now. “I knew he’d be clueless about it.”
“About what? What am I missing?”
Jason shook his head, “You have to be the most socially blind dude I have ever met.”
It was my time to push Jason, “What are you talking about?”
“Sam likes you, man.”
“Me?” I looked to Allison expecting her to say otherwise. When she didn’t I shook my head, “It can’t be. She’s got a boyfriend.”
“Yeah. She’s going out with Jake Pollard of all people. He and I had a little … chat when he came to pick her up a few days before her accident.” Allison was looking down as if she was trying not to say anything.
“Allie?” Jason saw it too.
“Huh?” She looked up, trying to put on an innocent face, one she normally wore quite easily, but Allison was never good at hiding things.
“Spill it, Allie!” Jason eyed her.
“You know something.”
“Allison,” I asked, trying to give her some sort of puppy dog look. Instead I think it came off looking like I was going cross-eyed while having a stroke. “Please?”
“Well you are half right. She DID have a boyfriend. For a very short time. It seems that Jake wasn’t too kind to her on their date. And she wasn’t very happy when she learned that he was a bully. They were on rocky ground to start, but after she had her accident and she couldn’t go out with him because she was on bedrest, it seems he decided to take out Tracy Fracker instead.” She looked at me, “So now poor Samantha Fox doesn’t have a boyfriend. Too bad she doesn’t have some sort of crush on a big strong hero who saved her life.”
I sighed, “Well, shit!”
We spent the entire day in the field bringing in the hay, and when we were finished, I suddenly remembered something I had to do at home. I just needed an excuse to get off of the ranch quickly. Jason’s mom had picked him up, so I didn’t have to worry about sticking around to take him home. Allison was laughing at me as I hurried across the fields in the Polaris, promising to bring it back when I came for work the next morning. I took the long way home, going past the pond and through several of the trails. At some point I guess I was taking too long because my mom texted me to ask if I was almost home. I responded that I would be there shortly and sped up.
When I pulled up I knew why she was wanting me to get home. As soon as I pulled into the driveway, I recognized the visitor. Richard Smith, our lawyer. This likely meant that we had heard back from Mark Green’s lawyers. I was hoping that some sort of settlement had been reached. I turned off the Polaris and took a deep breath to settle my nerves. My mom was at the door before I made it to the front porch.
“What took you so long?” She looked a bit worried.
“I took the long way home. I was just enjoying riding. Sorry, I should have texted you or something.”
She hugged me and kissed me on the forehead, “That’s okay. Go get changed and come back down so we can talk to Mr. Smith.”
“Is it good news?”
“We don’t know. We haven’t talked yet. We wanted to wait for you. After All, this is more about you than anything.”
I headed to my room, pausing only to greet Mr. Smith and apologize for being late. Once in my room I took a quick shower and changed into a pair of shorts and an old t-shirt. I was done for the day and this meeting didn’t require me to dress up. When I came back down Mr. Smith didn’t waste any time getting started.
“So I heard back from the attorney’s for Mark Green.”
I sighed, “They don’t want to settle do they.” It was a statement and not a question.
“Actually they do. They were very happy that we were willing to settle out of court. It seems that Mrs. Patrick’s display backed them into a corner. They know they would lose. But there is a problem. That revolves around what they can pay. There are several factors we have to consider. I think I know what you are going to want to do, but, by law, I have to present the offer to you first before I can accept it.”
I nodded, steeling myself for whatever may come.
“Let me start at the beginning. The court has ordered them to pay restitution for all of your medical expenses. They are including all the expenses from the suicide as well, since it's a direct result of Mark’s actions. This also includes your therapy sessions, too. The restitution payments will be made directly to your insurance company. You will have to discuss with them about getting reimbursed for your out of pocket expenses.” The last statement he made to my parents and they nodded. “The $1700 will be given directly to Alex since that was his money. Your medical expenses alone will cost the Greens over $250,000. Their attorney sent over some financial statements from the family showing their income and what they have in the way of assets. I can only tell you that paying that much out of pocket will be doable for them, but it will put them in a bad way. Now comes the civil suit.”
I sighed, not really liking where this was going, “I hate this already.”
“I know it’s tough, Alex, but it’s almost over.” My mom started scratching my back like she knew I liked.
“If we were to go to trial, with the evidence we have, the damages that a jury would award you could easily go into the millions. Juries typically show a lot of sympathy towards victims like you, Alex. If we did that then the Greens would be forced to pay that amount, but it would also mean it could be a long time before you ever saw a dime. The Greens would be able to jump through a lot of hoops to avoid paying the money.
However, with a civil judgement that is settled out of court they can’t really get out of doing that. They have to be able to pay the money up front or they can’t settle. Again, having looked over their financials as they have given them to me, I can tell you it’s in both our best interest and theirs to settle. We won’t get as much, but it will save a lot of time and be a lot less of a headache.”
“You didn’t want to settle though.”
“You’re right, Mrs. Jackson, I didn’t. I’m a lawyer working on a commission. I get a percentage of whatever we get from the lawsuit. That may be a little sleazy, but I’m honest about it. And it’s also why you hired me.” She nodded and he continued, “After looking over their financials, and speaking with their lawyer, we have come up with the following settlement. It’s been presented to the Greens who have approved it. So now it’s just up to you, and since your parents are going off of your wishes, Alex, that means it comes down to your decision.”
“What’s the deal?”
“Five hundred thousand dollars. Two hundred thousand of that would go to me as per our contract. Another one hundred fifty thousand would be set aside in an educational trust fund. This would be an irrevocable trust and the money would be used for any educational opportunities that arise, but specifically would be aimed at setting money aside for Alex to go to college. If he doesn’t pursue college then the trust fund would be paid out when he turns twenty one. The rest of the money, another one hundred fifty thousand, would be deposited wherever you’d like it to go.”
“Do it. I don’t care, I just want this to be over.”
Mr. Smith looked to my parents and they nodded, “I thought this is what you’d want.” He reached into his briefcase and pulled out some papers. “Alex, I’ll need you to sign here, and then I’ll need one of your parents to sign here since you are a minor.”
With a few signatures everything was done. I was free of the entire Mark Green ordeal. My dad walked Mr. Smith to the door leaving just me and Mom on the couch. I laid my head down in her lap and sighed, “Are we really done with this?”
She ran her fingers through my hair, helping me to relax. “Yes we are. We are finally done with it all.”
Thursday morning Sam went back to arriving at her usual time, which gave me an hour to figure out how to avoid her for the first part of the day. I wasn’t trying to avoid her because I was mad at her. This time, I just didn’t know how to react to her. I had never had someone interested in me. I didn’t see why anyone would be interested in me at all.
I started off with my usual routine in cleaning out some of the stalls that needed the most attention. Just before the time I knew Sam would be arriving I quickly switched to cleaning out one of the far paddocks. This would put me out of her sight for at least another forty five minutes. I wasn’t sure what I would be doing after that. After the paddocks had been cleaned I saw Sam in the arena working with one of the competition horses again. I watched her for a bit as she was teaching the horse to run the barrels. I wasn’t sure of what the process was, but Sam was more than familiar with it. At the moment she was just trotting the horse in the figure eight like motions. My guess was that she would do this over and over, adjusting the speed every so often until finally the horse was doing it at full speed.
I couldn’t help but keep my eyes on Sam. Damn it, that girl had me thinking now. What could she possibly see in me? Did she actually have a thing for me, like Allison and Jason said? Or was it just hero worship? Would it pass quickly or was this something I had to address? If I addressed it, did I want to end it? Or could I possibly see where it would go? I shook my head at the last question. It wasn’t a good idea to see where something like this would go. I would only end up hurt.
I wasn’t sure how long I was leaning on the fence by the barn, watching Sam run the horse through its paces. It must have been awhile because the next thing I knew Lou was standing beside me.
“Do you plan on doing anything today? Or are you just going to stare at her all day long?”
“I was just watching the horse.”
“Oh sure, Mijo, you were watching the horse. And a cat just wants to play with a mouse too, right?” He laughed. “She is a very pretty girl, Alex. You could do far worse.”
He looked to him and shook my head, “It’s nothing like that.”
“No! Allison said it’s just hero worship. She thinks I’m some sort of hero.”
“Well you did save her and her horse.”
“Not you too, Lou!”
He laughed, “Listen, Alex, I’m not the person to give anyone advice on relationships. I’ve had my share and none of them worked out. I never married and never had any kids.”
“But you’re going to anyway right?”
He chuckled and pushed me playfully, “You’re too smart for your own good, Mijo.” He looked back to Sam, “All I’m going to say is, don’t close yourself off. You never know what could happen. You say 'no' like you’ve already decided, but don’t be so quick to write it off.”
“You want to help me with D'Artagnan today?” Redirect. That’s what I had to do with horses. Maybe it would work with people too.
Lou only laughed, “Sure, Mijo, what do you want to do?”
I had Lou help me for about an hour. The first few minutes all we did was go through the same paces we had before. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing that because D'Artagnan was accepting all my cues quickly. I knew a spirited horse like him would get bored quickly, so I wanted to move on to desensitizing him to several things. Horses were naturally fight or flight creatures, so the least little thing would spook them. I would need to take him through a desensitizing process to get him used to various objects. The first few objects were just the simple tools I’d be using during his training. This included the whip. He was used to the lead rope, so I was confident he was okay with that. I took the whip and slapped it against the ground several times on one side of his body, making sure that I had a firm hold of the lead rope in the other. This part of the process was called “advance.” His natural instinct would be to move away, but I had to make sure that I stayed with him. I would keep doing it until he stopped moving. Once he stopped moving and gave me a sign of relaxing, like cocking his back leg or licking his lips, I would “retreat” and give him some space. The “Advance and retreat” method of training horses had been around for many years and was a common way to train horses. Whatever I did to one side, I had to make sure to do to the other.
After the whip I moved on to other items. Things that made noise were the worst. As soon as he heard a noise he wanted to bolt. The process I was using would mean that I would walk him around the pen while Lou used some everyday common items to make noise or distract him. We had a tarp that Lou rattled for a while until D'Artagnan stopped reacting. After that we would rub the tarp on his side to get him used to having something on him. At one point we had a beach ball that Lou was tossing up and down, coming closer and closer to the mustang until he finally just accepted it and calmed down. Each time he accepted it I would reverse the direction I was walking him, and we’d start the process all over again. This wasn’t a very strenuous exercise so we could take a little more time in doing this. The more items a horse could get desensitized to, the better off he would be. If he were riding on a trail, there is no telling what sort of things he’d run into. The rider needed to be able to trust his horse as much as the horse needed to trust the rider.
It was lunch time when I saw Sam finishing up the grooming process for a second horse she had been working with that day. This one was a new project that she had started. The horse itself was a beautiful silver gray horse with some dappling that would get darker as she got older.
“Oh wow, Sam. She’s beautiful.”
“I know, right! She just came in today. Gonna start working with her on jumping. She’s still young though, so I’ll have to take it slow.”
“What is she?”
Sam laughed, “A horse, silly.”
I could only roll my eyes, “I’m sorry I asked.”
“Don’t be that way,” She playfully tapped my chest. “She’s a five year old Swedish Warmblood. I’m technically training her to sell, but if she’s as good as I think she is, I may have to kidnap her.”
“I wouldn’t blame you.” I ran my hands down the horse’s neck before Sam turned the horse and led her back into her stall. “I was going to go get some lunch, you want to go with me?”
“I wish I could,” She smiled, “But I’m about to leave.”
“Oh? Is your boyfriend coming to pick you up?”
She laughed, “Are you jealous?”
“What? No!” I was probably way too forceful with that but what’s done is done.
“Whatever,” She laughed, “If you must know I’m leaving for vacation. I’m going with my mom up to my grandparent’s place in the mountains. I’ll be there until the day before school starts, so today is my last day until then. As a matter of fact,” She looked out the barn door, “That’s my mom, there. Bye!”
She didn’t kiss my cheek or anything this time. She just turned and left. That left me more confused than I had been in a long time. On the one hand she had been trying to get close to me for a while, going back to the day she had her accident. She kisses me twice on the cheek before I even realize what’s going on. Then when I figure something out and I start showing any sort of interest she seems to cut it off? This is why I wanted to stop any sort of hero worship.
I turned and looked at the dapple gray horse she had just finished putting in a stall. “Don’t write it off!” I was doing my best impression of Lou. “You never know what could happen!” I scoffed, “I’ll tell you what could happen. You could try and be made a fool of, like I just was. See, this is why I’m not going to open myself up to other people. It’s not worth it!”
The rest of the weekend went by fairly normally. I continued to work with D'Artagnan on desensitizing him to various objects. This would take me at least a week to get him to a really good place where I trusted him enough not to spook at things. At times I would work with him alone, and at times I would enlist the help of other people, including Allison.
For her part, Allison never pressed me on Sam. A few times I could have sworn she wanted to, but she didn’t. It was like she knew best to just let it go for now. There would come a time when I would want to talk to her, and when that time came, I knew she’d be there. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, I was done. I had my two friends. I had met my quota for the year. I didn’t need to add another. Besides, I was fairly sure that when school started Sam would find a guy who actually deserved to be her boyfriend and would pay her attention and I’d be off the hook.
Jason and I got together several times. We went to the gym again to work on various things. He still had me going through interval training, and now that we were in a gym with actual equipment, he seemed to be ramping things up. On more than one occasion, sometimes multiple times a day, I had started to curse the day I’d met him. He just laughed it off and said something to the effect of “Love you too, Bro.”
The one thing we did that I was really looking forward too, was going back to the three hundred yard shuttle drill. It had become a bit of a measuring stick for me. The first time we had done it, I didn’t finish it at all. I ended up falling and rolling my ankle. We had done it one other time since then and I had come in at one minute and seventeen seconds. It was a horrible time, but I was a horrible runner. Since then we’d been working several times and I was starting to get the hang of things. It had managed to go through two full workouts without falling or hurting anything, a feat I was very proud of.
“Okay. You know the drill.” Jason looked at me to make sure I was ready. It was Sunday and we were once again in my backyard with the orange cones out. “Go!”
Immediately I took off, trying to remember some of the things that we had been working on, and some of the things one of the coaches at planet fitness had taught me. Apparently, I needed to keep my arms parallel to my body rather than waving them around like I was drowning in an ocean. I had been given lots of tips and pointers. I had to sort through all of them to get a good idea of the ones I should use and the ones that weren’t going to help. Today I would figure out how much they worked.