Rhydian looked out across the yard to the fields. There were two figures on horseback leading four other horses in from the big field on head collars. Both figures were riding bareback, grinning and laughing as they came in. Rhydian shaded his eyes in the August heat to see them both clearer. One was obviously Moreta and Pal's son, he had the same caramel skin and curly dark hair. The other figure was golden brown and sun-bleached under his Stetson.
"Who's that?" Rhydian asked, turning to Moreta as she handed him a cup of tea bearing the legend "Me or the Horse"
"The one on the big palamino is my son Caleb, and that's Sam. They're in charge of all the horses." She took a sip from her own mug, "You'd better drink up if you wanna help with the tack kiddo. Go get to know your horse."
Rhydian gulped down the rest of the tea, handed the mug back to Moreta and sprang down the wooden steps.
He turned in time to catch his boots.
"You can't go riding in socks kiddo."
Rhydian pulled on the cowboy boots as he ran and arrived at the stables in a flurry. There were six horses in moderately sized loose boxes, and the four that had been lead in were hitched up and munching hay quietly. The other two were loose, rubbing each other over their stable wall. Caleb and Sam were nowhere to be seen. Rhydian jumped as three girls in full English riding gear came around the corner into the yard. He caught the very edge of their conversation.
"-really how can someone expect to do any real work on horses like these. They're not pony club trained I'll bet."
Rhydian raised an eyebrow. It took all sorts he supposed to keep a place like this running. Iron Hill Lake was a boarding house specialising to the mad horse crowd. Three meals a day and all the riding you could want. Thirty horses and a sprawling ranch house with converted chalet out-buildings. A passing trade in people travelling with their own horses and people who wanted the full Western riding experience right in the heart of the Northern Californian horse country.
For Rhydian this was not heaven. It should have been, it should have been the beginning of a wonderful summer, but he should have been sharing it. His sister, Claudine, two years older than him, had gotten a job working on her new University campus back home. Spending the summer riding with her little brother had been trumped by early acceptance, earning money and working closely with her new tutor on her thesis. Seventeen year old Rhydian had only been going for her, to keep her company over the long summer. He rocked nervously on his new cowboy boots.
Sam and Caleb appeared in the main stable doorway, big leather saddles over each shoulder.
"Come on then people," Sam called out in his deep southern voice, "Come get 'em." Sam's wide grin made Rhydian shiver, his spine going tingly when Sam spoke. The pair handed the saddles over carefully to the girls, but Caleb practically threw one to Rhydian, and seemed surprised when he staggered.
"Okay then," Caleb took a clipboard off the wall and scanned his assembled party, "Every saddle and bridle and head collar has a brass name tag," he flicked the one on Rhydian's saddle with a calloused finger, "The tack room is through those doors," he pointed down the end of the yard, "There is a saddle peg with a name on, the bridle hangs on the hook to the left of the saddle peg with the head collar below it."
"It's really not that hard," Sam grinned, and Rhydian felt instantly calmer, "So," he grabbed the clipboard from Caleb, "Emma you have Darkie, the little black on in box five. Jen you get Bastion; box four, Charlie is it? Yep, you are riding Philip, the chestnut in box two. These are your horses for the duration of your stay. I see you've all signed up for full duties, which means you are responsible for mucking out, grooming, stabling and the tack. As this is your first ride we'll be with you, but you must sign in and out and take a trail map every time you go out, even if you aren't leaving the farm. You must," he slapped the clipboard against the wall, making all four of them jump, "Go out with someone else if you intended on going off the farm or on the roads. That is not a polite suggestion, that's an order. Go get your horses and tack up."
Caleb turned to Rhydian, and checked the nervous looking boy up and down.
"You must be Rhydian, you get that lovely boy in box ten. He's called Shura. I'm Caleb."
"Thanks," Rhydian shook the proffered hand an turned to the stall where a dapple grey quarter horse, about sixteen hands stood patiently, looking at him with big liquid eyes. Rhydian put the saddle over the stable door like the others had done and went to go and find the bridle.
About ten minutes later Sam found him standing in the loose box, bridle in hand, reins trailing, looking confused.
"You okay there champ?"
Sam slipped into the loose box and deftly un-hitched Shura and took off the head collar, stroking the big horse's face gently.
"You've done this before haven't you? Your booking said you own horses."
"Not without my sister I haven't. It's her horse. I sometimes ride the pony next door with her."
"I can get you a smaller horse, but he's good for your build." Sam took the bridle and began to fiddle with the leather straps, "Okay kiddo, you hold it here. Yep that's right," Sam moved behind him and reached around to get his arm, hands rough but soft on his knuckles, "Put your hand under here. Easy boy," that was to the horse, "Now swap hands, hold his nose just there with two fingers; good; grab the bit and ease it in. Gently now."
Rhydian let the horse take the bit from his hand, Shura was definitely used to the handling, and he was an easy horse to tack up. Rhydian scooped his ears through the bands gently, touching the soft velvet like fuzz of his grey hair. He exhaled deeply.
"Better?" Sam asked, his voice rumbling.
"Yeah, I think so." Rhydian replied. The big shouldered Texan stayed in the stable with him as he tightened the nose band and throat lash. Rhydian did it on the loosest hole, just like at home and turned to the saddle. It was a big western one, mahogany brown and tooled with leaves and flowers. Rhydian folded the square numnah blanket and placed in on Shura's neck, heaved the saddle over and dragged both of them down below the point of the shoulder.
"Good," Sam was smiling at him, fiddling with his hat band, "You're used to lighter saddles huh?" He looked over to the other stables where Caleb was having to do the heavy lifting for the girls.
"Yep." Rhydian struggled about with the girth, trying to make sure not the pinch the horse's sensitive under belly, "You worked here long?"
"I came here two summers ago for a week and never left. You going to be alright now?"
Sam nipped over the stable door and walked along to his horse, a strong buckskin gelding with a white star and snipe. Rhydian stared as he tacked up the horse. Everything he did seemed soft and slow: he touched the horse, stroked it and spoke to it, but he was still done in less than three minutes. Caleb's horse was a seventeen hand cremello, light golden with four white socks and a flowing mane and tail. Caleb whistled from the door of the tack room.
Rhydian assumed that was him.
"Come get a hat."
Next the tack room was a slightly messier room full of hats, crops, chaps and riding boots. Rhydian stood and waited patiently as Caleb fitted him for a helmet.
"You don't wear one?" Rhydian wondered aloud, looking at the way Caleb's dark hair curled out from under his grey ten gallon hat.
"I've been riding since I was five." He finally got the right hat on Rhydian and adjusted the chin strap, "And I still fall off all the time." His big hand rocked Rhydian's new helmet on his head, "Don't worry about me."
All six lead the horses out by the reins, Rhydian went last. Before the fields opened up was a sandy fenced in pen with a large concrete mounting block in the middle. Caleb swung himself up into the saddle, turned his horse in a tight circle with a gentle clicking noise and leant on the pommel, reins wrapped around the horn. He watched the four guests closely.
Though his parents owned the farm and the boarding house, these were Caleb's horses though only the one he was riding, his Boy Latte, was actually his on paper. He watched all the guests on their first ride, he didn't trust any of them until he'd seen them ride, both in the school and on the hack. As the guests mounted he ticked things off in his head; good short reins, a loose hold on the mouth, heels down, easy on the kick. Sam stayed on the ground to tighten girths, he was easy on Shura's boy, helping him with the stirrup on a horse that was obviously bigger than what he was used to. Caleb had read the application carefully, as he always did. The boy had been coming with his sister who'd pulled out and was an experienced rider, but the brother was not, though he seemed to handle Shura with care and attention. He sat well in the saddle, shifting his weight as Shura paced the school.
Sam mounted up and Caleb barked the guests through their paces. Walking on both reins, turning opposite directions at the corners with the heels and not the mouth. The girls were good at changing rein, swapping directions as they walked, though Darkie's rider was a little harsh on the rein. Sam rode up after a nod to correct her. Walk to trot, back to walk, back to trot, change rein, back to walk. He made all of them bridge their reins, folding the leather across the horse's neck as a safety precaution, trot and on the straight ask for canter. Each of the girls rose with the stride and rode it out well. Sam pulled up sharp and caught Shura's rein, pulling the horse up short. Rhydian was not on. At the other end of the school the three girls pulled up, turned and smirked. Rhydian got up, brushing dust off his jeans. Sam swung down and took the boys shoulder.
Rhydian was shaken.
"You landed well." Sam said, the big hands checked him over, "You let go of the reins and panicked huh?"
"Yeah," Rhydian rubbed his right hand, he'd curled over on it quickly but it throbbed gently.
"You still wanna get back on?"
They rode out of the school and into the fields. Both young men rode with one hand on a long rein and Rhydian tried to copy their style. It was nice to feel relaxed in the saddle, supported by the structure in a way that English saddles weren't designed for. The day was warm but the breeze was brisk and the cold of the distant mountains made the day bearable. And Shura was a lovely horse to ride; even Rhydian could tell that with his limited experience. But that wasn't what he stared at as he rode.
Caleb and Sam rode sometimes split, sometimes side by side, constantly roaming the group, but they always watched each other: and when they rode together it was not only spurs that touched. Hands on the shoulders, the thigh, albeit briefly, Sam reaching over to ruffle Caleb's hair where it came out from the back of his hat, grinning. The relationship was palpable between them. Rhydian was jealous.
He turned his attention back to the horse. Shura had a good build and walked with his neck high, ears swivelling back and forth as he picked up on sounds and the noise of the other horses. Rhydian clicked to him gently, and the ears turned back to listen. He reached out and rubbed the horse's neck with one hand just as Sam turned his horse and rode back to him.
"How you doing there buddy?" Sam dropped his own reins over his saddle and leant across to rub Shura's face, "And how's his rider?"
"So how long are you here for?"
"Four weeks, my parents are moving house and they figured it would be easier without me getting in the way."
"That seems odd." Sam paused, "We're coming up to an open field, are you going to be alright to trot? You and I will go across, Caleb will canter the girls around the outside."
"OK." Rhydian sounded rather unsure, and Sam reached across and knuckled his shoulder gently.
"Don't worry. Ikara here is very reliable. He won't try and bolt away so you'll be fine. Anytime you think Shura's getting too fast just pull of the reins a tiny bit and think slow."
"He can hear my thoughts?" Rhydian stared at the horse who snorted and flicked an eye back at the sound of his voice.
"Not quite bud. But they can feel your pulse through where you touch, and he'll know if you're scared. Just relax. It'll be fine. We're good!" he called to Caleb who turned Boy Latte and the other three horses away from them before breaking into a trot that quickly became faster. Rhydian was jealous. He wanted to canter too, but he knew he'd muck it up. Instead, he bridged his reins again and followed Sam and Ikara in a steady rising trot across the field.
By the time they returned to the yard nearly two hours later, Rhydian was exhausted. They'd walked and trotted all over the place, and though Caleb had said that the trail was marked asthe green trail on the map and on the little wooden sign posts, Rhydian had no idea where they'd been. As the girls dismounted neatly, but with grumbles of their own, he practically fell off Shura's back.
"Easy there bud." Sam steadied him with a big warm hand on his shoulder, "You'll get used to it." Rhydian smiled, the heat of Sam even through his t-shirt making him put a brave face on his aches and pains.
"I'm glad you think so." As he stood there, Shura turned and nuzzled him, "And you must think I'm hilarious huh?" the horse snorted in response.
"Oh he likes you plenty. Come on, he did well and therefore deserves a good rub down."
Untacking was easier, and Rhydian found the correct saddle peg and hung the bridle next to it, making sure that he'd looped up the reins correctly and hadn't left any trailing bits of leather. He placed the helmet he was using on top of the saddle so that he knew where it was and wouldn't have to spend ages finding it again next time he rode. Voices made him stop just inside the tack room door.
"Babe..." Caleb's voice, a definite petulance that Rhydian would never have associated with the stoic Native man.
"Ah, cher," Sam's deep fried Southern drawl, "That's why it's called a surprise."
The voices went quiet, and something inside Rhydian knew, just knew, that if he leant around the door the two cowboys would be wrapped up in each other's arms, kissing. There was a soft, slightly wet noise.
"Later cher. Go see to the water while I finish up here. I'll see over the brushing and check the rules with them. Don't you worry about a thing."
The sound of boots, and Rhydian walked out of the tack room as though he hadn't just been eavesdropping. Caleb was walking away down the length of the stable yard, hat his hands, and Sam was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He encompassed Rhydian in that smile as he turned and the boy felt his heart leap.
"Come on then Shura's boy. Gotta make sure you give your horse and proper massage."