Aaron is always ready to fight.
Perhaps a summer spent in a less stressful atmosphere will allow him to relax.
After riding Old Bess around the corral, and then hearing Harry’s words of praise, Aaron was feeling pretty good about himself. Always an introspective boy, he was well into his own head all the way back to camp. He went to his cabin, lay on his cot, and continued to simply think.
Harry was right about how he’d been, but then, Aaron had been that way out of necessity, hadn’t he? He’d had to defend himself, probably because that was the way of the world where he lived. You were tested constantly, and you had to respond. So if Aaron was confrontational at the slightest insult, was that being thin-skinned and defensive, or was it showing he was up to any challenge, ready and willing to stand up for himself? Was that wrong?
It was a little confusing, thinking about that. He decided that where you were, your location and the people around you, made a lot of difference. Here in camp, kids were friendly. There’d been no bullying, either of himself or anyone else that he’d seen, and no fights. So it made sense that, here, he could let his defensive shield down. He wouldn’t be able to do that at home, but here: yes, certainly.
What that meant was that there was nothing wrong with how he’d been at home. There was also nothing wrong with being different here. What he was doing was adjusting to his surroundings.
While he’d been lying on his cot, mulling this over, he became aware of something, something different. He sat up, looked around and only saw the same cabin it had always been. Nothing sounded unusual, either. Then he sniffed, and a smile came to his face. I stink, he thought. He noticed he’d brought quite a bit of Old Bess into the cabin with him, a certain miasma he now recognized. He needed to shower, and probably do so with his clothes on at first so as to rinse them out.
It was late morning and he had the shower room to himself. He decided it would be easier using his shampoo on his tee shirt and shorts if he were wearing them, so he got under the shower that way and scrubbed his clothes where he could reach, then undressed, finding it much more difficult to do that with wet clothing than it was when everything was dry. He washed himself then, and when he was done was struck with a thought he should have had earlier: now that all his clothes were wet and after he’d finally gotten them off, how was he going to get back to his cabin?
He finished his shower thinking about that. He decided that if the campgrounds were as deserted as they’d been when he’d come to the washroom, then he could simply wrap his towel around himself and run for the cabin, carrying his clothes. If one or two kids did happen to see him, that should be all right, no more embarrassing than what he could live with. It was certainly better than racing there in dripping wet clothing or nude. It was one thing to be nude with everyone else on the beach; it would be something much different in the middle of the campgrounds with everyone else dressed and staring.
He dried himself off and wrapped his towel around his middle, picked up his wet clothes which now smelled more like Suave Men shampoo than Old Bess, and walked to the door. He stood just inside and peeked out. Then gulped.
Headed his way were Dylan and Micah. They were both carrying towels and a fresh set of clothes. No doubt they were coming to take showers. They’d probably been on horses, too. He remembered Harry had told him Dylan had a bunch of younger kids out on a trail ride that morning. These two probably needed a shower for the same reason Aaron had.
And what was it with Micah? It seemed that wherever Dylan was, Micah was there, too. Probably he’d been on that trail ride, too.
The two were talking to each other and hadn’t looked up, so Aaron hadn’t been seen. He stepped back into the washroom, instinctively looking for a place to conceal himself. If he could hide for a moment, they’d be in the showers and he could leave undetected. He didn’t want Dylan to see him in only a towel holding an armload of wet clothes. It would be too apparent he’d not thought ahead. He didn’t need that kind of embarrassment, not with Dylan.
The two older boys entered the building. By then Aaron was in a toilet stall. The stalls were in the back section of the building. The dressing room was between him and the door. He’d have to wait till they’d undressed and gone into the showers before leaving.
He realized he could hear them talking. They were obviously in the middle of a conversation. Dylan was speaking.
“. . . my own horse,” he heard Dylan say. “I ride him whenever I want. I’ve got the top half of the house all to myself; I’ve turned one room into a computer room with a game system and another I can use for a huge closet with all my gear. There’s another room for sleepovers or parties or whatever I want to use it for. Like my very own rec room.”
Then Aaron heard Micah’s voice. “But you have to do chores . . .” Dylan interrupted him there. “Oh, but I like doing them. I’ve put on weight and gotten strong doing them. See these muscles? Don’t you like this body?”
Aaron could hear Dylan’s tone of voice, sarcastic, challenging, mean-spirited. It was what he’d heard from so many of the bullies he’d seen operating at his school, the rich ones mostly. There was that same insufferable arrogance in his voice. Aaron felt himself getting angry. Obviously, this kid was like so many of the kids he so hated in the city, the ones who treated everyone else like they were less than dirt under their shoes. He had a built-in antagonism for rich kids like that. Dylan fit in that category like a hand in a glove—in his case a lotion-softened hand in a silk glove. The kid had everything he wanted—a great room for sleeping, another for his electronics, even a room for all the clothes and stuff he had. Then, too, he had his own horse—and to top it off, he was bragging about it as though it was his due!
Aaron had none of these things. He had clothes he had to wear till they were past fitting, he had to share a room with his sister, he had to take care of his mother and do the cooking and cleaning, and he didn’t have friends for the sleepovers Dylan had.
Yeah, the kid was a jerk, just like he’d thought. Well, screw him. When he’d been on his cot earlier, thinking about what Harry had said, he’d even wondered a bit if he wasn’t making too much of his animosity for Dylan. Maybe he was going overboard disliking him so much. But now, hearing this, he knew he’d been right about him all along. And there would be no more thinking about trying to make nice with him. For all he knew, what Dylan had done, bumping into him, laughing at him, had been done because that’s who the kid was: a bully and an asshole. He was that kind of a kid, just like all the other rich assholes he’d known and learned to hate.
» » » »
Two days after Dewey and Frank had left, Aaron was bored. He’d been bored since they’d left. He’d gone swimming and Richie had partnered him up, and Johnny had found someone for him to go out kayaking with, but that kid was 11 and way too young for Aaron to be the kind of friends he’d become with Dewey and Frank. He’d only found one thing to do that was really enjoyable and that was taking more riding lessons with Harry. In the back of his mind, he carried the idea, mostly hidden even from himself, that he’d get good at it and then show Dylan he was very capable on a horse. The reality of it, though, was that while he was learning—and Harry working with him in his supportive way—Aaron wasn’t getting that much better. Like most physical activities, becoming really proficient at it was beyond his capabilities. But he was trying, and Harry kept complimenting him for that.
That day, he was bored, and he sought Harry out to see if he could work with him again. Harry was in his office.
“Gee, I’d really like to, Aaron. Camp is about being outdoors, doing outdoors stuff, but I have all this paperwork that I’ve been putting off and putting off, and if I don’t get to it, there won’t be any food on the tables for you guys, the horses won’t have anything but grass to eat and there isn’t enough of that, and the counselors will all go on strike because they aren’t getting paid. So no, I just can’t take the time today. I’m sorry.”
He saw Aaron’s shoulders slump. The kid muttered, “That’s okay,” and turned to leave. Harry knew that since his friends had left, Aaron wasn’t having the kind of camp he should have. Aaron didn’t make friends easily, being as defensive and proud as he was. Harry hated seeing him walk out after making the attempt to solicit him. An idea occurred to him, and he bounced it off Aaron.
“You know, there’s a trail ride scheduled in fifteen minutes. You could go on that. You’re a good enough rider now to enjoy that. I’ll call over there and have them put you up on Old Bess. How’s that sound?”
It sounded better than going back to the cabin and reading. For some unknown reason, he’d found reading somehow unfulfilling here at camp. And Shaun was off playing basketball again, so that avenue to companionship wasn’t available. Coupled with the fact he hadn’t been out on a trail ride yet, this idea was quite attractive.
“Okay,” he said, his spirits rising a bit.
Harry was delighted. “Okay. Great. Old Bess should be ready for you by the time you get there.” He picked up his cell phone and was punching in numbers as Aaron left, headed toward the stables.
» » » »
Aaron couldn’t believe it when he got to the stables. He’d been expecting Old Bess to be saddled up and waiting for him. He hadn’t given any thought to who’d be heading the trail ride, but he’d been looking forward to it. Aaron hadn’t received much praise for anything in his life, and the comments Harry had made yesterday when he’d been with the horses had given him feelings of pride he wasn’t accustomed to.
When he got to the stables, it wasn’t what he was expecting. Aaron almost turned around and walked away. It was only because he was stopped that he didn’t.
It was Dylan who stopped him and Dylan who apparently was in charge. Dylan!
“Hey. You’re Aaron aren’t you? Harry told me to look out for you. He said to put you on Old Bess, but I’ve got a kid who’s never ridden before, and I thought it best to put him up on her. I’ve got Jesse saddled for you. She’s right here.” He pointed to another horse, as big as Old Bess, being held by Micah, who was standing next to Dylan.
Aaron looked at the horse, then at Dylan. “Where’s Harry?” he asked.
“Still in his office, I imagine. In any case, I’m the one who does the little kids’ rides. We’re all ready, just waiting for you.”
Aaron looked around and saw seven younger boys already mounted, all looking at him. Dylan took hold of Jesse’s reins from Micah, held onto her bridle and said, “Hop on up.”
Harry had boosted Aaron up onto Old Bess every time he’d gotten on her saddle. This was different. He put his foot in the stirrup and realized how far up he had to go to reach the saddle. He tried and didn’t make it, not rising high enough to throw his leg across Jesse. He saw Dylan watching and tried again, but his left leg, bent as it needed to be to get his foot up into the stirrup, just wasn’t strong enough to get him all the way up. This wasn’t how it had been before. He was not only failing, he was showing how weak he was in front of Dylan and Micah, and a feeling of desperation, then anger, set in. It didn’t take much for Aaron to feel this way.
“Hold on,” Dylan said. Aaron looked hard for something in his voice, some hint of contempt, but he didn’t hear it. A quick glance at his face didn’t reveal anything either. So, reluctantly but feeling persecuted, he said, “Okay,” and put his foot into Dylan’s interlaced hands. Then he again tried to raise himself up into the saddle, and with Dylan’s boost, it was no problem this time. He plopped down onto the leather, and Dylan handed him the reins.
“You’ll be right behind the kid on Old Bess. Watch him for me, will ya? I’ll be up front.”
They set off in a long line, Dylan in front, Old Bess near the back, only Aaron behind her and Micah riding last.
Dylan controlled the pace of the ride, which was a slow walk. He took the line into the woods on a trail that let the riders catch glimpses of the lake through the trees occasionally. It was an easy ride, and the younger kids got quite comfortable on their horses and were able to enjoy the scenery. It was a warm day, as they’d all been while Aaron was there, and he found he was enjoying himself, too. He was far away from Dylan and put the boy out of his mind.
Aaron found Jesse a little bumpier to ride than Old Bess, but he got used to it quickly. Somehow, he’d felt an attachment to Old Bess that he didn’t feel at all with Jesse. Jesse was just a horse; Old Bess seemed to have feelings he could kind of read or at least sense.
The camp was surrounded on three sides by woods, the lake on the other. The trail they followed was for the most part level as it ran close to the shoreline, so it wasn’t hilly, making it easier for the riders. The woods were pretty, composed mostly of red maples, red oaks and black birches—interspersed here and there with several varieties of conifers. The lake popped into view now and then, always surprising the riders when their view had been only trees for a few minutes; it seemed to add a pleasing counterpoint to the ride.
All the riders were doing fine, and perhaps, Aaron thought, that was why Micah felt it would be all right if he changed positions. What he did was surprise Aaron when they’d reached a point where the trail was quite wide by unexpectedly kicking his horse into a canter and riding past him and the other kids. When he’d reached the front of the line, he pulled his horse back to a walk and cozied in next to Dylan.
The riders, all nine- and ten-year olds other than Dylan, Micah and Aaron, were as surprised as Aaron was, and when their horses reacted to being passed, they seemed to lose some control of their horses; they acted a little frightened, but then settled down as their horses did the same. The horses were frequent trail riders, used principally for this purpose, and they weren’t easily spooked. Also, they knew their job, what was expected of them: they followed the horse in front of them. They all stayed pretty much together—all except for Old Bess. The kid on her, right in front of Aaron, was nervous. Dylan had told Aaron he was on his first trail ride. Now he was showing his inexperience. And his age. He tightened his grip on the reins and ended up pulling back on them while doing so. As a result, Old Bess kept slowing down and sometimes even stopping. What that meant was Old Bess and Jesse were both falling farther and farther behind the rest of the group.
The more distant the group ahead became, the more Aaron’s frustration rose. The entire walk had been slow, but now his part of it was hardly even that. It was stop and go, and when they came to bends in the trail, he would lose sight of the rest of the group entirely. This made him feel quite uncomfortable. He’d never been on a trail ride before and didn’t know where they were. What if the trail split just ahead and he was far enough behind to not know which branch to take? What if either of their horses just stopped? He wanted to catch up, but how could he get Old Bess to move faster?
His frustration was quickly turning into anger. And that anger was pointed directly at Dylan. Wasn’t he supposed to be in charge here? The guy’s job was to keep them all together, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t he be checking over his shoulder? How had he managed to lose sight of twenty percent of his group and not have noticed?
Aaron wasn’t sure what to do but felt he had to do something. He was sure they were falling farther back with every passing moment. There was only one thing he could think of to fix this. That was somehow to let Dylan know what was happening at the end of the line. There was only one way to do that: he had to pass the horse and rider in front of him and catch up with the group ahead. Quite obviously Dylan was paying a lot more attention to chatting and laughing with Micah than anything else. He had to be told how badly he was screwing up.
Aaron could see they were coming to another wider portion of the trail. He decided this would be where he’d make his move. He’d had more than enough of this business of walking a few steps, stopping, walking, stopping again. He was going to ride ahead and tell Dylan to pay attention to what was happening back where they were. Dylan had asked him to watch out for the kid on Old Bess, hadn’t he? Then it was certainly okay to do this. Of course it was! Dylan had asked him to! He was just following orders.
So when they reached the spot where the trail widened, Aaron was ready. He leaned forward, yelled “Yee hah!” like he’d seen in the movies, kicked Jesse in the sides with his heels and slapped her butt hard.
Jesse had been in a semi-somnolent state. When she was kicked, she woke up, jerked forward, and the slap on her butt sent her into a gallop.
Just that fast, Aaron’s whole world changed. He’d never been on a galloping horse and had no idea how to control it. He grabbed the saddle horn, losing the reins while doing so, and tried desperately to stay in the saddle. But he was bouncing so much, and the ground and trees were such a blur, he quickly lost his balance.
He’d never felt such fear in his life. “Help!” he shouted, his voice so high-pitched in his terror that he sounded like a boy soprano.
Jesse thundered forward, quickly catching up to and passing the other slowly moving horses in front of her like they were standing still. It was mere moments before she and Aaron reached the front of the line and then were sailing past it, still galloping, with Aaron hanging on for dear life and screaming.
Aaron would slip to one side of the saddle, pull himself upright the best he could using the horn, then bounce to the other. He seemed to be in the air half the time, bouncing off the saddle, feeling like he was flying uncontrollably and could momentarily shoot off Jesse altogether. This was horrifying, knowing that at any moment he could land back in the saddle wrong, precariously, and then the horse could run out from under him, and he’d hit the ground at 80 miles an hour or whatever speed they were going. Or his foot would get hung up in the stirrup and he’d be dragged, maybe kicked with her flying hooves in the process.
He was losing the strength in his hands and arms, getting ready for the pending disaster which was quickly approaching when he’d be unable to hold himself on the saddle any longer. Through his fear he could hear a noise coming from behind, getting louder, and then there was a horse beside his, and Dylan was leaning over, grabbing Jesse’s bridle, slowing her down, then bringing her to a stop. Aaron, no longer able to hold on, let go of the saddle horn and slid off Jesse. When he reached the ground, his legs wouldn’t hold him, and he fell, then lay in the dirt of the trail, just trying to breathe, shaking, amazed he was still alive.
Dylan jumped down and crouched down on the ground, leaning over him. Aaron’s head was spinning, but he was conscious enough to see how pale Dylan looked, how his eyes were wide open; Dylan looked scared.
“Are you all right?” the boy asked him.
“I, I think so,” Aaron stuttered. He moved his legs and arms, and said, “Yeah, just bruised a bit.”
He was looking into Dylan’s face and saw color come back and his eyes change. Dylan pulled his face away from Aaron’s, and then he abruptly stood up.
Aaron wasn’t ready for what came next. Dylan began shouting at him, his face now livid. “What the hell was that! You trying to get yourself killed! You were supposed to be walking slowly at the back, watching the kid in front of you! I thought I could trust you with that! Instead, you go barreling off and I have to save your stupid ass and leave the rest of those kids by themselves. Of all the irresponsible, crazy people I’ve ever met, you’re, you’re . . . I don’t know what the hell you are. What if when you took off galloping, some of the kids’ horses had followed? Huh? The kids would have fallen off, that’s what, and they could have been seriously hurt? They could have been killed! Did you think of that? No, you only thought of yourself! You’re an idiot and an asshole and a danger to whoever’s around you! I’ll tell you this. You’re not riding back with us. You can walk. Give you time to think about how dumb you were.”
“But . . . I don’t know where we are!”
“I don’t care. Get lost for all it matters to me. Just follow me if you’re that dumb. Go back the way we came. I’m turning us around, taking the group back now. You’ve ruined the ride. Even you can’t get lost just following the trail. If you can’t follow the trail, if you do get lost, it’ll be no loss to anybody here. You stupid shit! You’re lucky, just lucky, you’re not dead! You’re lucky I don’t kill you myself!”
With that, leaving Aaron still in mostly a state of shock, still lying in the dirt, Dylan grabbed Jesse’s reins, climbed back on his horse, turned around and headed back along the trail to where, in the distance, Aaron caught sight of Micah and the younger boys, all sitting on their horses together, waiting and watching. Even Old Bess had finally caught up.
It took several minutes before Aaron had settled down enough to try standing. He did, but felt woozy. He took a couple of tentative steps and found he was able to walk well enough. He took a deep breath, then began the long trek back to camp.
» » » »
By the time Aaron got back to camp, his mood had changed several times. He’d started back feeling very sorry for himself. Then he’d gotten mad at Harry for getting him on a horse in the first place, then mad at himself for thinking he could ride much better than he’d been able to. But all the while, the memory of Dylan yelling at him was boiling under the surface, and when he finally allowed himself to think about that, his adrenalin rose again. It was Dylan’s fault Aaron had tried to get to the head of the line. It was his fault for not putting him on Old Bess like he’d been told to do. It was his fault for not paying attention to the rest of the riders. And he had no business shouting those things at Aaron or making him walk back.
He was livid by the time he reached camp, and the first thing he saw was Dylan, standing talking to Harry. No one else was around, and Aaron realized they were probably at lunch. It had taken him most of the morning to walk back to camp.
He was already seething mad at Dylan, and the sight of him casually chatting with Harry put him over the top. He started walking, then ended up running, at the two of them, and when he reached them, he shouted, “You son of a bitch,” and took a wild swing at Dylan.
The punch missed as Dylan stepped back quickly. Aaron tried again, only to find himself being jerked backwards.
“Hey, hold on here! None of that now!” A voice accompanied the arm that had wrapped itself around his chest from behind. He squirmed loose and looked up to find Harry was holding him back. “What’s this all about then?”
Aaron was too angry to get his voice to work, but Dylan filled in the gap. “This is what I was telling you about. The kid’s crazy. I saved his life and now he wants to hit me. You need to get him to a psychiatrist!” Aaron could hear the anger in Dylan’s voice, loud and clear.
Aaron was struggling to get loose, and Harry squeezed him tighter, then shook him enough that Aaron stopped squirming. “Can you control yourself? Or do I need to lock you in a closet till you calm down? Huh? Why are you so angry, anyway? Sounds to me like you’re the one who screwed up. Maybe you’d like to tell me your side of the story?” He let Aaron loose but moved so he was partly between the two boys and ready to intercede if Aaron lunged toward Dylan.
“He’s got it coming, and I’m going to do it. I’m tired of him . . . how he acts . . . all innocent . . . I’ll show him.” Aaron was so angry the words came out in a sputter. It wasn’t just today he was mad about, although this had been the frosting on the cake. Every encounter with Dylan had pissed him off, and he was ready to settle it. Now.
Harry gave him a hard look, then turned to Dylan who was simply standing there, expressionless. Pausing to think, Harry looked back and forth between the two, then addressed Aaron. “You really want to hit him? To fight him? Really?”
“Yes!” Aaron was emphatic.
“Hey, I’ve got no quarrel with him. He’s crazy, but that’s nothing to do with me. If he wants a fight, though, I’ll accommodate him.” He grinned. Aaron made a lunge for him, but Harry caught him again.
“Okay, but we do this my way. In the boxing ring. With gloves on. Timed rounds. Three, if it lasts that long. This afternoon, when you’ve cooled down some, Aaron. Meet me at the ring at 2:30. Until then, Dylan, why don’t you take off, and I’ll hold the tiger here at bay.”
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