"Diego," Paolo called. "It's a long ride. Hurry up!"
"Coming," the boy responded as he gulped down the last of his breakfast cereal, then carried his bowl to the sink. He ran to his room for his bag, then took last minute instructions from his father, then kissed his mother on the cheek, and ran across the patio to the waiting truck.
Diego Vizcarrondo-Rosa had turned thirteen two months and two weeks earlier. Then his family moved from their native Mexico to the United States, and apart from a nominal accent Diego could easily be mistaken for any American kid. He had taken to the new culture like a frog to a lily pad, and Americans his age took to Diego in the same manner.
The family was staying in rented quarters while work commenced on the ranch they were rebuilding, and they'd found an interesting little compound to live in. There were four houses inside a common wall, and they shared a circular driveway to the street, with a common garden within that circle. Each house had a private little yard in the back, fenced from the other yards.
In nice weather, Diego's family liked to take their meals out front, on the circle and under a large roof overhang that provided shade. It was reasonably private there thanks to an ivied trellis.
At that moment, Paolo was there beside the family's new GMC truck, and there was a 6-horse trailer attached to the back via a fifth wheel mechanism. Paolo had been impatient just moments before, but he was now going over the checklist for this trip one more time. This trip would take them to northern New York, not far from the Canadian border. Barring false advertising by the sellers, they'd return the next day with four Appaloosa geldings, all two years old. There was no reason to expect anything would be amiss, as the seller was well-respected.
"I"m ready," Diego announced as he tossed his overnight bag into the back seat of the running truck. He climbed into the passenger seat, buckled in, and rolled down the window. It was a nice day, and they wouldn't need the air conditioning; not yet anyhow.
Paolo got behind the wheel and did one more last minute check, making sure he had cash, credit cards, phone numbers, directions and a map. He had already programmed their destination into the GPS, so with a quick toot of the horn they pulled out.
Diego was fidgety before they got out of sight of their house, so Paolo asked, "You really like these horses?"
Diego nodded, "You saw the video. I can't wait to see for real, but that one they call Steve looks brilliant."
Paolo looked at his brother, "You can't always tell from the pictures."
Diego sighed, "I know. Even so, it's a two year old. If he's only half that good, then let me have him for a year. I just have a good feeling."
Paolo snickered, "Your horse has finally come in?"
Diego didn't smile. He looked out the side window and muttered, "I hope so."
His one disappointment in his new country was with the horses. Oh, they bred beauties all over the place, but they didn't train many horses for fast riding, at least not in the east. In Mexico the opposite was true. Horses were used for many kinds of work, and work animals were trained specifically for the work they would do. Race horses were trained for racing, and there were many kinds of racing. There were show horses too, of course, but in Mexico the vast majority of horses were trained to the saddle, and every saddle horse knew how to cover ground as fast as its legs would carry it.
Diego thought at first that he was in horse heaven in the U.S. The horses were bigger, and they looked better bred for starters. He soon learned that the smaller horses on his home ranch were the more versatile ones, though. They were sure-footed in the high, rocky terrain, would walk into a stream without pause, and would run like there was no tomorrow on level ground.
The men they were going to see in New York seemed to want the same from the horses they bred and trained. They called them all-around saddle horses, and the dark-brown and silver one they called Steve had intrigued Diego since he saw the first photo. The animal had very unusual markings. That was a trait of Appaloosas in general, but Steve was different even for that breed. He was mostly a deep chestnut brown, but there was a shadow of silver right over each of his hooves, and the hooves themselves were striped with silver. That silver picked up again in his mane, and there was a dagger of it down his snout. He was a beautiful animal, but what intrigued Diego the most was the abandon with which the horse ran.
Diego dozed off remembering, and even in his dream that horse dazzled him. It was a powerful animal that seemed destined to run, and it ran as if it loved to.
Paolo woke Diego at a rest stop on the New York Thruway, and they took a long break. They used the bathroom first, then sat in the restaurant for a light meal.
Paolo was twenty. He was tall, and he seemed older than his age, but that was mainly because he chose to sport a bushy moustache. Anybody looking at him would recognize his Hispanic origins, and that was largely due to the moustache.
Diego, on the other hand, looked like an American kid with any number of possible backgrounds. He had black hair and dark eyes, but he could have been descended from anywhere around the Mediterranean, anywhere in the Americas, or even from the Balkans. He wore a tee shirt that was so big the neck hole often slipped over his shoulder. The pants he had on were new Old Navy cargo shorts that his new friends had thoughtfully helped him to beat to a pulp, so they looked like old, Old Navy pants. His sneakers were Converse low rise, black canvas. Plain Jane.
The one thing that set Diego apart was his hair. In an age of shaved heads, buzz cuts, and otherwise short hair, Diego had every hair that he'd grown since he was nine still on his head.
Normally, like that day in the restaurant, he kept it pulled back in a long, tight braid, and he would tuck the braid inside the back of his shirt. He had his hair long because he liked having hair, and it wasn't more complicated than that. Most people never noticed.
Still, when he was alone on a horse he'd let the braid out, and he had his own mane of silky, black hair that reached the middle of his back. It didn't hang there, because the one thing that Diego could do better than almost anyone was to spur a horse into action. Then the horse's mane and tail would fly with the wind and Diego would fly too. That was his talent, his expertise, his freedom. His hair would catch the wind too. Then there would come a moment when boy and horse were in communion with what had gone before, and what would come after.
To Diego it was timeless, although he suspected that horses, no matter how spirited, didn't care much one way or another. Given the opportunity, they'd run of their own volition, with or without a rider.
Diego could see that his brother was weary from driving. He couldn't relieve him, but they did start to stroll around the rest area for a little exercise and to get some air. After ten minutes of walking, they got back in the truck to resume their journey. It wasn't much farther to their turnoff onto Route 12, and they were both pleased with the scenery along that road. It was a rural area that was hilly and pretty, with the varied deep shades of green that only a northern summer seems to produce. Diego opened a map to see where they were, and was excited by their proximity to Lake Ontario, which was about twenty miles to the West of where they were headed.
"Can we go to see the lake, Paul? After business, I mean. It's not far."
Paolo groaned, but he had almost expected the question."How far is not far?"
"Maybe twenty miles," Diego replied. "Can we go if there's time?"
"If there's time," Paolo smiled. He drove on, relaxed now that he was far from the Interstate, and it wasn't long before they found the farm they were looking for.
They turned into the long, gravel drive. There were paddocks on either side, enclosed with the whitewashed wooden fencing that seemed to be everywhere in the northeast. The entire family had been charmed by that fencing the first several times they saw it, because it was so different and more substantial looking than the rough-hewn hemlock logs they used in Mexico.
This place looked a lot like many they'd visited; older, with big, spreading trees and deep green pastures, horses minding their own business here and there.
They were expected, and when they pulled into a parking area by a barn, the two men they'd come to see were waiting for them. When Paolo and Diego descended from the truck they were welcomed warmly by the two men, who both looked to be around fifty.
The shorter of the two held out his hand, a grin on his tanned, wrinkly face. "Hi boys. I'm Dan Ebersol, and this is my partner, Rod Wheeler." Everyone shook hands while Diego and Paolo identified themselves.
Then Rod offered, "Come on in the house and stretch for awhile. We have some sandwiches and cold drinks. Then we can get down to business." They walked toward the house making small talk. Both Paolo and Diego were familiar with Rod, because he was always on the horses in the video they had. Rod was tall, with a weathered face and wonderful white eyebrows that matched his white moustache.
He had silvery hair that was long beneath a cowboy hat with a big feather stuck in the band. He was one of those people it looked right on, not foolish. Dan wore a regular John Deere cap, and Paolo thought he might be bald underneath it.
The house was old and new, the old part being a two-story box with a steep roof. The newer section was single story ell, with an equally steep roof, and the side they approached had a porch that went the length of it. It was attractive, but more business-like than homey.
Inside that new section was a large, rustic looking room. It contained a big, stone fireplace, a small bar in one corner, and lots of comfy-looking overstuffed furniture in loose groupings. There was another room, which Dan disappeared into as soon as they were inside, and he was soon back with food and beverages.
People are clubby beings, and horsemen are especially clubby. The two older men and the two young brothers had horses in common, and they chatted easily as they relaxed over lunch. Diego gushed about Rod's riding ability in the video, and Paolo promised the older men that they'd be impressed by Diego, too.
Diego asked, bluntly, "Who named these horses? These are just guy's names. I never met a horse called Steve before." He grinned, "I think it's funny, but why?"
Dan looked at Rod, then smiled sadly. "We both love our horses." He snickered, "We used to give them good horse names, too, but not very original ones. We had Lightning, then White Lightning and Black Lightning, then Red Lightning, but come on." He smiled, then his face turned grim, "Then ... then about twenty five years ago, just when we were birthing a foal, we got news that a friend of our had died, so we named that little colt Dave, after him." He peered at the boys, "After that, we got a baby names book, and it's been our guide ever since. We've had fillies named Tilly and Milly and Lily, and even a colt named Holt." He grinned, "We try not to embarrass them. The four you're here to look at are Steve, Gus, Cosmo and Phil. You ready?"
Diego was ready, and he nodded eagerly. Paolo wanted to use the bathroom, so Diego went out with Rod. Dan stayed to wait for Paolo.
Walking out, Rod said to Diego, "I have the feeling that one of these horses will end up being your own, Diego. If I was a wagering man, I'd bet that horse is Steve."
Diego looked at the man and grinned, "Then I won't bet you. What's he like?"
Rod burst out laughing. "What's he like? I like you already, kid! "Okay, heh, heh ... um, okay. Steve is a beautiful animal, only he doesn't know that. He's lithe and he's powerful, and he absolutely loves to run. He was easy enough to train, but in most ways he's as dumb as a rock. You saw him at his best in the video, and he can be like that when he's ridden hard. You leave him on his own and ... and ... well, I think he daydreams. He'll walk around and bump into things. Lean up against a building and fall sound asleep." He eyed Diego, "You weren't around in the sixties, but if you were you'd know what Steve is. I don't know what he finds around here, but there's not a doubt in my mind that this horse is on drugs."
Diego was laughing, but as they approached a small paddock, three horses ran expectantly up to the fence while one, apparently asleep, had his mouth to the ground as if to eat grass. That was Steve, and Diego put fingers to his mouth and whistled loudly. Then Steve lifted his head abruptly, looked, and trotted over.
Diego stepped up on a low rung on the fence and held his hand out, and Steve came close and allowed the boy to stroke his muzzle, then he showed his teeth and whinnied loudly.
"You talkin' to me?" Diego asked in amusement. "You talkin' to me, horsey? Wanna go for a run?"
In fifteen minutes, Rod had a saddle on the horse and Diego was astride Steve, and the two didn't waste time on niceties. As soon as everything was tight they took off, and their first ride together bonded them as horse and rider with no questions asked on either side..
Rod watched in amazement as the young boy disappeared into the distance on his horse. Rod had trained Steve, so he knew the animal's spirit, but he wasn't quite prepared for the abandon they took off with.
It was a full fifteen minutes before Diego came back, and by then Paolo and Dan had joined Rod to look at the other horses while they waited. Then the horse appeared in the distance, headed toward them at a dead run, the boy leaning down close to its neck. At the last moment the horse reared up, his front hooves playing for purchase in the sky before he settled down, and only then did Rod let a breath out and smile. For there before him, horse and rider had equal smiles on their faces, as if to say, 'That was fun enough! Let's do it again.'
Diego leapt to the ground and led Steve toward the others. He looked right at his brother and said levelly, "This is my horse. Let's try the other ones."
Paolo laughed, "Oh? This one is yours just like that?
Diego nodded seriously, "Mine." Then he grinned, "Did you see him run? Isn't he beautiful?"
Paolo smiled at his brother. He recognized love when he saw it. He glanced at Steve and said, "He sure is a good looking animal. Now let's get a good look at the others."
They spent an hour with the other horses, and they were pleased with them all. Before sealing the deal, Rod and Dan took the boys to another paddock where the yearlings were held. There were eleven young horses there, two of them already sold to people who liked to train their own animals. The rest would be available in another year, so Paolo and Diego looked them over carefully. They were pleased with those horses, too, but not ready to commit anything so far in advance.
When Paolo said he had to call his father first, but he was ready to make the deal, Diego stayed with the horses. He had a budding interest in the business end of things, but right then he wanted to get better acquainted with the horse they called Steve. He couldn't help with a wire transfer anyhow.
Paolo went back to the house with the men, and Diego approached Steve, who was hanging around serenely in the shade with the other horses. When Steve saw Diego approaching, he trotted over. That delighted Diego, that the horse seemed to feel the same connection that he did. He sat on the top of the fence, and Steve stood right there in front of him. Diego stroked the horse's muzzle and said, "We're friends already, aren't we?" He snickered, "Mexican horses ain't so easy. They want food before they want friends. Look at you! You're not fat, but you do look happy. I should brush you off though. Can you show me where your stall is?"
Steve just contemplated his new boy with his baleful eyes. Diego took that to be an invitation, so he sat on the horse bareback, and he just sat there. "Come on, Steve," he prodded. "I'll brush you all out, just show me where you live."
Steve started walking toward the nearest barn, and found a shady spot next to it. He put his long cheek up against the warm side of the building and went to sleep, leaving a hugely amused Diego there on his back. "You know what?" Diego asked. "I don't think this is right. I only wanted to brush you; make you the pretty horse you should be. How about if we don't buy you, and we get Phil instead? You wouldn't like that now, would you?"
The horse drooped his head even further in response, and Diego laughed, pulling on Steve's mane, "No you don't! You don't get it, do you? We're a team now, and that means I get equal say. And I say that you need to be brushed, else my papa's gonna take my hide off for putting his money on a mangy mammal like you. So let's move it, okay?"
There was no response from the horse, so Diego slapped his haunch with his bare hand. "Okay?"
Steve woke up with a start, and he would have run except the boy on his back didn't have a saddle. Instead he lumbered back toward the other horses and leaned against the fence there, where he suddenly kicked up his hind legs, tossing Diego neatly across the fence, where he landed on the thick grass with a soft thump.
Diego had a hot temper, and he leapt to his feet and let the horse have it, with a long string of expletives in Spanish, English and Aztec. When he had it out of his system, he put his face right up to Steve's and said, "You know what else?" He poked the horse between the eyes, "Horses can't swear, that's what else! You dump me one more time and you'll know where glue comes from. Then you can learn to swear, and it'll be too late!"
Steve bowed his head and Diego thought he got through, until he realized the horse had gone to sleep again. Then he just laughed, liking that he'd been outdone that way.
He said, "Okay, you sleep. See if I care if you look like a sweaty bum." He turned to go to the house, and saw Rod walking toward him, so he leaned back against the fence and waited instead. When Rod was close enough to hear him, Diego said, "This horse doesn't mind me! Did Paolo already pay for him?"
Rod grinned. "The transaction just went through."
Diego grinned back, then grimaced., "I guess I'm stuck then. He won't even show me where he lives so I can clean him up."
Rod reached over the fence and woke Steve up by roughing his halter. "Steve won't show you anything. You're not bleeding, so I know he likes you." He looked at Diego and said, "Take the halter. He'll follow you."
They started walking, and the other horses followed. Rod looked at Diego and said, "I'm impressed with your riding. Really impressed."
Diego shrugged, "Well, give me a good horse ..."
Rod smiled, "I'm impressed with your English, too. You and Paolo, and your father on the phone. You're really good."
Diego said, "Yeah, I guess. It's funny. In Mexico Grandpa always had us speak English on the ranch. School and everything was Spanish. Heh, now we speak Spanish at home so we won't forget, and it's English everywhere else." He changed the subject, asking, "You've been with horses a long time, no?"
Rod nodded, "All my life. I grew up on a farm with horses, and I never really wanted to do anything else. When I met Dan, he had this property and some seed money, but not much else. It's worked out pretty well. He runs the business and I do everything else, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm really interested in what your family is doing, too. I hope you do well, and I'm sure you will. You should have one of the only western-style riding opportunities in the east. If you get the word out and price it right, I don't see how you can go wrong. Are you planning on breeding, too?"
They had just walked into a barn, and Rod showed Diego to Steve's stall, because otherwise Steve would have walked right past it. There was a card in a holder that read 'Steve', though, so Diego backed Steve into it and closed the gate from the inside.
Rod left to put the others away, and Diego found Steve's grooming gear and set to work on him, talking all the while. "You think you can fool me, horsey? Haha. Maybe right now you can, but when I get you home guess what? How about I give you a new stall every day? You could be like a homeless horse! Or I could feed you alfalfa all day and make you into el Blimpo! You wanna be a fatso horse? Waddle, waddle, blub, blub?" He continued brushing out Steve's beautiful coat, and said lovingly, "No, no, no. That's not what you want, so let's make a deal, okay? I, Diego, will ride you faster and faster every day, and you, Steve, will be kind to Diego. If you see a fence, you can laugh at what you once did, but don't toss me over no more, okay? 'Cause I don't like that too much. I'm your owner now, and we should get that straight pretty soon. Now show me your feet."
Diego took the chance and knelt just to the side of Steve's hind leg. Steve lifted his foot at Diego's prodding and allowed the inspection, and Diego was up front when Rod came back. Rod leaned over the gate and watched, not making a sound until Diego noticed him there. Then he said to the horse, "Looks like you made a friend, Stevie boy." He smiled down at Diego and added, "A really special friend."
Afterwards, on their way back to the house, Diego asked Rod, "Is the lake far? I want to see it."
Rod smiled, "It's about twenty miles. The place we were thinking of for dinner is right on the water. We can go earlier if you want to look around, but it's not really much of a shore right here."
"I just wanna see the lake," Diego said. It'll be my first Great Lake."
As they walked inside, Rod said, "You'll like seeing it then." His voice made Paolo and Dan turn, and Rod said, "Let's clean up and get going. Diego wants to see Lake Ontario."
Then Dan showed Diego and Paolo to their room. This wasn't unusual, because if someone traveled to buy a horse, it was expected that the seller would put them up, either in their own home or a nearby motel, and they would provide dinner and entertainment, then breakfast the next morning.
The room that Paolo and Diego got was small and plain, but it was clean and the beds looked comfy. As soon as Dan left, Paolo looked at Diego and said. "We did good here, Doug. I talked to Papa about the horses, and he's excited to see them. And Steve is yours, no problem. Just don't go changing your mind the next time we get a new horse."
In a half hour the boys had showered and changed, and they waited in the living room for Dan and Rod to show up. When they came in, the men were dressed casually, and they were ready to go.
On the way, in Rod's car, Dan looked into the back seat and said, "This restaurant isn't any great shakes food-wise, but there's an outside dining area right over the water. This hill we're going down is the last one for miles, so don't get your hopes up. This end of the lake is kind of blah for scenery, but if we get a sunset I don't think you'll forget it very soon."
The boys both smiled. They looked out the window for the rest of the ride, keen on new scenery even if it wasn't anything spectacular.
When Rod pulled into the restaurant parking lot, they still couldn't see the lake because there was a line of trees. Diego ran out front to see the water, and it took him a moment to replay Dan's words in his mind. It was a calm evening, and the lake was there lapping at the shore without drama. It didn't bore Diego, because it was a huge body of water that disappeared in the distance. To Diego, any body of water was beautiful, and Lake Ontario certainly was beautiful, but not in any spectacular way. On a peaceful evening, the beauty came from the lake's vastness, and that in itself gave Diego minutes of fascination. When he finally turned around, he almost bumped into Paolo, who had been standing behind his brother.
Paolo smiled, "It's beautiful, no?"
Diego looked back to the water and mumbled, "Yes it is." He turned back to Paolo and said with some animation, "How can anybody say this much water is boring. Tell me what you think about those horses."
Paolo smiled at his brother, who had one mind about horses. "They're fine," he said. "Especially your horse, Steve."
Diego grinned, "You're saying that because you're hungry, but so am I." He started toward the restaurant and said, "Rod is a horseman. I like him, and I like Dan, too."
Diego wasn't looking at Paolo when Paolo rolled his eyes.
Diego enjoyed the fish he ordered for dinner, and Dan said the food was up a tick from the last time they ate there. Their table was on the upstairs deck, and when the sun set over the lake it truly was beautiful. The clouds in the distance were layered, and the colors that bounced off them were bright and spectacular, as if they were burning up the atmosphere. All of them sat and enjoyed the display, and Rod and Dan took the opportunity to finish off a second bottle of wine.
Rod had the presence of mind to hold out the keys for his Mercedes to Paolo and ask, "Do you mind? I do believe I've overdone it a bit."
Paolo took the keys and said, "Si. I mean yes." He grinned, "I think you overdid it a lot, but I'll drive. I don't mind."
Back at the farm, and after goodnights were said, the boys went to their room, and the men departed for their quarters. Diego flopped down on his bed fully clad, and Paolo admonished him. "Even cowboys take their boots off. You can't sleep in your clothes."
Diego groaned, but sat up. He kicked off his shoes, dropped his pants and pulled off his shirt, then he got under the covers and squirmed around until he was comfortable.
Paolo was doing the same, and when he turned off the lamp Diego asked, "Why don't you like these guys?"
"I wouldn't say I don't like them. I just ... I don't know. I get uncomfortable around gays," Paolo said after thinking about the question.
"Gays," Diego said absently, then, "You think they're gay? You mean men who marry men, right? Why do you think that?"
Paolo sighed, "I don't know why ... it's just ... things about them. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so."
Diego was silent for awhile, then said defiantly, "Well, I like them. They're real horsemen, and they raised Steve just like they knew I'd come looking for him."
The boy had no strong concepts yet about sex and sexuality. He understood the reproductive aspects of course, having grown up on a ranch. He saw relationships between people, too, and men loving women seemed as natural to him as the sun rising in the East. At the same time, he didn't see anything unnatural about the relationship Dan had with Rod. He'd only been witness to the business and social aspects, but they seemed like normal people, and above all they were horsemen.
He turned his thoughts to his new horse and the adventures they'd have, and that was far more important to think about than whether the guys he got Steve from were a little different. Diego had his horse, and that was what mattered most to him. He dream was to become a great horseman, and for that he needed great horses. Steve was surely a magnificent animal; bold and fast and beautiful. So what if he was a sleepyhead? With a horse like Steve, Diego was certain that he could improve his riding skills tenfold.
Diego fell asleep to the comforting thought that he once again had a horse to call his own.