User:Eirik/A Gentle Touch

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A Gentle Touch

Author: Eirik

Easing the truck off the asphalt and onto the dirt road, Frank felt his heart race. Even if he was still early, he could never overcome the nervousness of the first day of a new job, and a dream job at that.

It hadn’t been easy, either. At only 23, he was the youngest assistant Clayton Stone had ever taken on, and the noted trainer didn’t just hire anyone. He was one of the few true experts around in breaking wild horses without the use of whips or straps. He had a gentle touch with his horses, all of them mustangs, and insisted on the same from his small staff. It was rumored that even his stable hands went through a mini version of the process he had gone through to get here. The only ones that didn’t get that treatment were the kids.

He pulled the truck up to the house and jumped out, taking in the early morning air. Even as he reached for his satchel in the bed of the truck, he heard the rusty spring of the screen door squeal. "Good morning!" yelled a cheerful voice. "What time did you leave Boise to get here at this ungodly hour?"

"You do not want to know," replied Frank, grinning. "I just wanted to be on time, Mr. Stone."

The trainer jogged down the porch steps, balancing the oversized white coffee mug in one hand and holding the other out. "Please, I told you on the phone, call me Clay. I’ve always thought the last name thing was overdone. Besides, we’ll be spending a lot of time together, I hope."

"That’ll take some getting use to, sir-I mean Clay." He hefted his bag. "Where should I stick this?"

Clay grabbed the bag from his hand and started up the steps. "Usually I’d say the loft in the barn, but it’s going to be a bit too cold tonight. The heater is busted. We can work on it after we get the new kids settled in."

Frank nodded and followed Clay into the house. "You mentioned that. They’re coming today?" he asked. It was the only part of the job that disturbed Frank. "I mean, I told you in the interview that I didn’t know a thing about dealing with kids like that."

Clay set the bag down a small guest room off the side of the kitchen and walked back out. "Coffee?" he asked even as he poured a cup and handed it to Frank. He settled into a chair. "Don’t worry about a thing. I hired you because you had a wonderful rapport with horses. I’ve talked to your riding instructors and your professors out in California. I’ve known Dr. Smithson for about half my life, and I believe every word he says." He shrugged and picked up a battered accordion file off the table, sliding a page out. "There are four kids who’ll be out here for ten weeks. Fifteen or sixteen years old, one having family problems, all in trouble with the law for petty things."

The trainer stood and walked to the window, looking out over the ranch. "Helping them is a lot more like taming those mustangs out there than you think." He checked his watch. "They’re going to be out here in a couple hours. How about giving me a hand with the herd?"

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Clay wiped a hand across his forehead and set down the wheelbarrow. "That’s the last of them. What’d you think?"

Frank sat down on a haybale. "Loved it," he said with a grin. "Are all of your horses wild mustangs?"

"Most of them," confirmed Clay. "Ten of them were born wild. The other four were born in captivity. So to speak," he added with a grin. "None of the ones here right now are wild, though." He waved a hand through the barn. "You’d be good riding any one of these."

The conversation was interrupted by the sound of a motor coming down the road. They stepped out of the barn in time to watch the Suburban pull up next to Franks truck. The doors popped open one by one, teenage kids spilling out onto the dusty driveway. Three were white, one Hispanic, the tallest white one had a clean shaven head. All of them were quiet, and from the looks of them, uncharacteristically so. The driver, a middle aged woman who looked like she had a jovial expression painted on, waved a clipboard at the two men walking toward her. "Clay! Great to see you! It’s been months."

They exchanged a quick hug. "Good to see you too, Deb. How’s Harold?"

She sighed. "Pretty good. You’ve got to come out and see him sometime. He really misses you. I think he wants to head up into the canyons again this summer."

He took a quick look at the four assembled teens. "Tell him as soon as this session is over, I’ll be there. Mark it on the calendar. Have you met Frank?"

Deb reached out and took Frank’s hand. "I haven’t. New here?"

"Yes, ma’am," he replied. "Just got here this morning.

She chuckled and signed a couple papers on the board. "You know the drill, Clay. Sign these, here and here."

"Contracts from the parents?"

She signed and pointed at the clipboard. "One of them under there. The other three are in the foster system. State forms are underneath."

"Okay," he said jutting his head at the house, "I guess that’s on the forms you already sent." He signed a couple more pages. "Okay, we’re done here. Remember…"

"…No contact for ten weeks, I know. We’ve been at this before," she turned to the boys. "This is the end of the road for you kids. Your last chance to shape up before you start getting in real trouble. I’ll be back in July to get you." She and Clay bid their good-byes and she took off down the drive.

The six of them were all left standing in front of the house in silence. The kids each had looks of smug superiority mixed with just a bit of fear. Clay finally spoke up, using the same friendly tone that he always seemed to employ. "Okay, lets get a couple things straight right off. I’m the boss. When I’m not around, Frank here is the boss."

One of the kids snorted once, "Sure thing, boss."

Clay continued without flinching. "No matter what happens over the next ten weeks, neither me or Frank will use physical punishment to enforce the rules. No hitting, no beatings. That’s a promise. Food will never be withheld, you will not go thirsty unless you chose to." He smiled, "I can lead you to water but can’t make you drink."

The kid with the shaved head crossed his arms, even the small bit of fear gone from his expression. "Then why should I do a damn thing, old man?" he asked smugly. "I didn’t ask to be here. God damn councilor…"

"It’s hard to explain, son," interrupted Clay, gently, "but you will." He pointed at their bags. "Drop them into the kitchen for now and get a drink from the fridge. Then come out to the barn. Come with me, Frank."

Frank followed the man out to the barn, stealing looks back at the kids who were sullenly walking into the house. "You’re not worried about them being alone in there?"

Clay chuckled. "Not in the slightest. Go grab Blaze, he’s the pure red one down at the end of the stalls, and bring him up here."

Frank nodded and headed down to the stall where the horse was. The mustang stuck his head over the door and whickered as the young man approached. Smiling, Frank reached out slowly and touched him on the neck. "You’re a friendly one," he said quietly. He grabbed the halter off the peg and slipped it over the horses head, who didn’t fuss at all. "Good boy." He attached the lead rope and popped open the stall door, leading the horse down to the end of the barn.

Clay was leaning against the door of the barn and looking at the house. He glanced over at his new assistant and the horse he was leading. "Thanks Frank." He took the rope and started rubbing the horses neck. "Time for another group, old friend. You ready?"

The horse whickered and nuzzled the trainer. Frank laughed, "It’s like he understands you."

Clay took a long, significant look at Frank. "Young man," he said quietly, but for the first time this morning, forcefully, "you have no idea. Yet." He looked up to the house and watched the four youths sauntering toward them. "Here they come." He reached over and gripped Frank on the shoulder. "This is going to be a little odd."

The kids stopped a few feet off. "What next, sir," asked the older one again.

Clay smiled. "This, young men, is a horse," he said without a trace of sarcasm. "He was like you kids, once. Wild, completely untamed. It took a little time, but he became something more."

The Hispanic kid snorted, "Yeah, a wuss." The others laughed.

Clay sighed. "Okay, a little earlier than I’d hoped, but we can go through the orientation later. It’s time for lesson number one." He pointed at the paddock fence. "All of you, get in there. Go on."

With no enthusiasm, the four jumped the fence. "Now what?" asked the oldest.

Clay stepped up onto the bottom plank of the fence and leaned over. "Now I show you a little trick I learned a few decades back." Clay didn’t seem to do anything, though. He just stood on the lowest rail of the fence, leaned over slightly, with one hand still on Blaze’s lead rope.

The kids started to exchange bemused looks after about five seconds, until the Hispanic kid felt the top button of his baggy jeans pop off. "What the hell?" he yelled. At that instant, he burst out of the rest of his clothes, falling to the ground in a heap. The other three boys turned to run, but none made it more than four steps before they were hit with the same. With cries of equine terror, the four teens were all suddenly mustangs.

Frank didn’t move at all, it took a few minutes before he realized that his heart was even still beating. His gaze locked on the four new horses stumbling around the paddock on unfamiliar legs.

Clay had turned away from his handiwork and was stroking Blaze on the neck. "Don’t worry, Frank. You’re not next," he chuckled.

"What…?" asked Frank in a quiet voice.

Clay smiled. "Something I learned working on the reservations when I was about your age." He turned back to the horses, three of whom had managed to get decent footing while a fourth floundered on the ground. "I told you that helping these boys was like taming wild mustangs, and I wasn’t kidding." He hopped off the fence and laid his hand on the young mans shoulder. "I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but you have to admit that you would never have believed me."

Frank took a tentative step toward the fence. The last of the horses had managed to stand, but all looked about as comfortable as newborn foals. "You’re not going to leave them like that?"

"Only if they want to," said Clay. "That’s only happened three times, though."

Frank turned and looked at Blaze. "Him?"

Clay chuckled. "Yup, the first one who felt this life was better than what he left. That was twelve years ago, right Eric?" The horse nodded. "The Harold that Deb talked about was about 8 years ago."

"The other?" asked Frank nervously.

Clay shrugged. "The horse life isn’t for everyone. Turned him into one for about four years, then he had his fill. He went back to college."

Frank heard an angry snort from the paddock and turned to find one of the horses staring angrily at them, his legs splayed out to keep him from falling. "What about them?" he asked.

Clay leaned against the fence. "It’ll take a couple days for them to get their bearings, then we treat them like wild mustangs. You’ve worked with them before, and you’ll find that these are amazingly similar. We might get bitten from time to time. You might have to leap the fence once or twice. These can be a little sneakier" He smiled. "But they always come around in the end."

"What if one of their parents comes up? Or someone from the state?"

"I hide them in plain sight," laughed Clay. "No one expects that their kid is the horse in the paddock. They could be wearing a neon sign and people wouldn’t believe it. And, as for them scratching a message in the dirt," he said more loudly, "They’ll find themselves cut off from those parts of the brain."

"This is a little much for me," said Frank nervously. "What if I want to leave?"

Clay shrugged. "I’d send you a check for the day," he said. "I hope you wouldn’t. I like you, Frank. Wouldn’t have brought you up here if I didn’t."

"I’m not sure I see the point, Clay," said Frank. "How does this clean them up?"

"I’ll be honest, I’m not totally sure." He went back to stroking Blaze. "Some of them act like this is a near death experience, some of them take the time and solitude to examine deep inside themselves." He sighed. "A few actually seem to respond to training, and it carries over. They’re mellowed, not as quick to anger. It doesn’t always work, but most of the time."

Frank stood in silence, his heart finally slowed back to normal. The four mustangs were slowly beginning to look like they’d been born that way. "I’ll stay," he said finally. "It’s too bizarre an opportunity to pass up."

Clay chuckled. "And there is a tiny part of you afraid that you’ll end up like Blaze here if you try to take off."

Frank returned the laugh. "A little," he admitted.

"Don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that." He started walking Blaze back into the barn. "We’ve got a couple hours before those four are going to be in any state to hear me talk to ‘em, so go grab a horse and I’ll take you on a quick tour of the fence line." He motioned down the line of stalls. "Any of these would be fine for you."

Frank nodded, still a little numb. He took a few steps and then stopped and turned. "Uh, Clay, mind if I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

With a sheepish grin, Frank asked, "What happened to my predecessor?"

Clay smiled wide, then went back to saddling up Blaze. "Take Posti out."

There was a whinny from further down the barn. Frank turned to see a horse sticking it’s head over the stall door, looking right at him. He looked back at Clay and pointed a thumb at the horse. "Posti?"

"What can I say? Some people retire to Florida," said Clay, "and some just want to stay on the farm." He set the saddle on Blaze and looked over at Frank. "Consider it a part of the optional and unwritten retirement policy."

A bit past being stunned, he turned and started walking toward the waiting horse. He got two steps, then turned again. "What happens if I get fired?"

"Ask Duke. He’s in the stall next to Posti."

"You’re kidding, right?"

Clay didn’t respond, but just went back to grooming Blaze for the morning ride. He waited until Frank had turned his back to check the stall before he allowed himself a little smile.

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Copyright 1998