Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 10a



10a


Flynn was still getting dressed when Dale slipped downstairs to the kitchen. Paul's work was in evidence – the kettle was steaming and breakfast was being assembled – but there was no sign of Paul in the kitchen, or in the yard when Dale pulled his boots on and went out through the open door to feed the dogs.

There was a strong freshness still in the air, the sunlight was thin and mist was rising off the grass at not quite six am, but it was hushed outside as though the birds and horses hadn't yet woken. Even the trees were still. There was just David, driving a new fence post into the ground at the gate with steady, crashing blows of a sledge hammer.

It was most definitely David. He was in his shirtsleeves and jeans, hatless, his collar wide open, as solid as anything else in the early morning landscape. He glanced up at Dale and paused, letting the hammer drop onto to the grass, and picked up the coil of wire at his feet, rapidly beginning to set it in the notch at the top as Dale came down the steps and went to him. 

The first few times he had seen David, it had never occurred to Dale that David might not actually – be as there as he appeared to be. What happened if you touched him, Dale had no idea. But the law of physics appeared to be under temporary suspension. David continued to work and Dale could hear the twang of the wire in David's gloved hands and hear the scuff of his boots on the rough dust of the yard as he moved.  

"You took your time." David gave him another quick glance over the top of the fence post, and a smile. It was a shattering smile, with an intensity that hit as hard as he'd been swinging that sledge hammer, lighting up his eyes, and Dale felt an answering rush of joy.  

"I love it when the fields are finally cleared. Mind."

Dale stepped back, watching him set the tack in the top of the post and pin the wire down with a few powerful blows of the sledge hammer. It was overwhelming just how very real and solid he was at this moment, how normal it felt to be here with him, and to feel this enormous warmth and emotion for someone who rationally wasn't here at all - and there was no warning. No clue. Just David in the yard as though he was here all the time.


"David?" Dale said tentatively, "Can I ask you something?"

David tugged the wire straight and wrapped it, glancing upwards at the sky.

"Weather'll break shortly. You be careful up on the hills in a storm, I've seen the landslides after heavy rain."


"It's about the mine." Dale said, watching him. "Up at Three Traders?"

David pulled clippers from his pocket, cut the wire and gathered up the rolled wire bale.

"It isn't about making the right noises in the right places. About being honest. You have to decide whether or not you're going to let it go. There isn't much more they can do but wait for you."

Wait for what?


That was about as cryptic as David had ever sounded, and it had the distinct ring of a rebuke, with the same friendly bluntness that Riley used when he thought Dale was doing something he shouldn't. David slung the wire over his shoulder and the sunlight caught the metal, reflecting brightly from it –

- and there was nothing in the yard but the sunlight on the red dust, and Flynn coming down the porch steps. The fence post David had been putting in was weathered, no longer new, and was lurching at an angle where Bandit had kicked the rails yesterday evening.

Flynn was wearing a dark blue polo shirt which made his tan even darker on his arms and throat, and his hair was still damp from the shower. The dogs followed him as he came down the yard to lean on the fence beside Dale, looking out over the pasture beyond.

"No sign of the mares or Bandit this morning," Dale said in an effort to say anything except er, did you just spot David?

Flynn nodded. "They'll have moved on now he's sure there's nothing here he needs to worry about."

Dale looked down at the weathered post, the one David had been fixing.

David, did you put it there to start with? What did you mean, 'it's about being honest'?

"…….Flynn? Did I deserve to be in trouble yesterday along with Riley?"

"That's second guessing." Flynn said calmly, folding his arms on the rail. "Did
you deserve to be in trouble?"

"I couldn't have left Riley in that fight." Dale said bleakly. "No time. I saw the second one coming and there wasn't much I could do except get involved. I didn't get the time to stop him."

"Would you have stopped him?" Flynn asked. Dale considered, a little surprised he'd even said it. Riley was most definitely the senior brat here, the more experienced and Dale would have said in most things he followed Riley's lead. Except-


"I would, if I could have done. We'd have done better finding and disabling the car."

Which would have left two men walking a lot of distance on open ground, easily collected by a Sheriff. That was a Dale-style solution and Flynn gave him a brief, tugging smile.

"That'd work. You don't have a problem with temper or impulse, and I don't expect you to leave Ri to be beaten up. This isn't about blindly applying consequences to both of you because it's supposed to be 'fair' or 'balanced'. It isn't. We got that before we started, and we're all grown ups. Neither you nor Riley had any problem with how you handled yesterday and we didn't either. I meant what I said, that I was bloody grateful you were there to pick up the pieces."

"But I wasn't particularly polite to Paul." Dale said uneasily.

Flynn laughed. It wasn't something he often did out loud, and it was one of his sudden cracks of laughter, like amusement bursting out from behind a dam. It suddenly occurred to Dale that to see him laugh – and talk, and stand like this, relaxed, with his shoulders down, was surprising in itself. He'd seen Flynn's reaction before when he'd been badly scared by something Riley did.

"Paul knows what you meant and I think if that's the worst he ever has to deal with he'll be grateful. Ask him."

There was the sound of cupboards opening and people talking from the kitchen. Dale glanced back, grabbing the last of the moment alone.

"Are you all right? I know you sometimes….."

There was a limit on tactful ways to explain it. Flynn put an arm around his waist, pulled him roughly over and kissed him, turning his head into Dale's shoulder for a minute. Dale cupped his hands over Flynn's head with a surge of protectiveness and a strength of emotion that was hard to swallow on – the trust in that gesture, from this man, was intense.

"I think," Flynn said indistinctly into his neck, "You must have a good effect on me,"

"Other than the swearing." Dale said without thinking. He felt Flynn laugh and Flynn lifted his head.


"You've had your ear bent too? Just watch it around Paul, that's a pet bug bear of his."

He kissed Dale again, swiftly, powerful hands gripping Dale's hips for a moment, then he started the walk up towards the kitchen, leaving Dale breathless.

"All right," Dale said, heading after him, "Tell me just exactly how long am I supposed to handle this embargo on…..?"

"On what?" Flynn grinned at him, heading up the porch steps. "You'll just have to tie a knot in it, you'll live."


Riley had all the indefatigability of a rubber ball. It was a strength of character that never failed to draw Dale's admiration. After one piercing and rather apprehensive look at Flynn that disappeared with Flynn hooking an arm around his neck and kissing him good morning on his way to the orange juice, he was in every way his usual self. He was extremely unkeen to sit, but to him, the matter was obviously over and done with. Paul was equally cheerful and Dale, who knew he should have found Paul's normal and warm good morning a reassurance, actually felt still more uncomfortable.

They ate muffins for breakfast, and for the first time since the harvest began, they ate together, although out on the porch in the heat of the morning sunshine instead of at the table. The end of the mowing was in sight and then there would then be only the last of the bales to store.

"I'm going to take Dale with me into Cheyenne this morning," Paul announced as he collected dishes. "Now that you can spare us. I'll leave a cold lunch on the table and we'll be back before dinner time."

Dale looked up, shocked. It had been something Paul had mentioned just before the harvest started, but to suddenly have it announced without warning that they would do it today – no one else appeared at all concerned, and Riley handed over his plate, finishing the last of his muffin.


"If you pass a bookstore I wouldn't mind another Clancy."



*


It was a long way to Cheyenne, and Paul was a good driver.

It was the first time Dale remembered being so long alone in his company, Paul was always in the middle of them somehow. Dale thought of him as by far the most social of the group. He was aware too as Paul turned out of the driveway, under the wooden sign that read 'Falls Chance', that while at one time he had found Paul one of the easiest of the four to be around, today the thought of being alone with him was extremely nerve wracking.

It was ridiculous too. Paul chattered gently in a way that was easy to respond to, in a way that was obviously designed to make him comfortable and which like Paul was so unbearably kind  – Dale felt like an ungratefully sullen adolescent in struggling to answer him. He was aware too of an odd sense of detachment that grew as they passed increasing numbers of signs to Cheyenne, until by the time they reached the car park outside a mall with an alarming number of references and shops about cowboys, it was like walking under a soft blanket of snow that muffled everything. The light and noise of the mall, the crowds of people, the tinny music in the store Paul took him into, leading him into racks full of menswear.

Paul was talking about Flynn and how much he hated stores, even menswear departments like this which were designed for shoppers with high testosterone who needed to grab and go, and Dale was hearing fragments of it and making interested sounds in the right places, so he was rather surprised by Paul holding out two shirts to him which apparently he was expected to take.

"Ok, let's start with these."

Start what with these?


Paul steered him into a dressing room, coming in with him, and handed him the first of the two shirts, which was a soft grey.

"Put that on, honey."

There was a large mirror in front of them. Dale shouldered into the shirt mechanically – which was the right fit of course, Paul seemed to do this kind of thing on instinct – and Paul turned him to face the mirror, settling the shirt over his shoulders with a deft pull.

"Have a look."

It's a shirt.


It was actually quite an all right sort of shirt, discreet and quiet. Paul took the dark red shirt off the hanger and held it out to him.

"Now try this one."

He took the grey one while Dale changed, putting it back on the hangar, and then turned Dale to face the mirror, holding his shoulders.

"See the difference?"

It's another shirt.

"Just look." Paul said when Dale would have turned back to him. "Look at your eyes. You disappear in the grey – which is why I think you wear a lot of bland colours."

Paul was still talking and Dale continued to make politely agreeing noises, changing the red shirt for the polo and jacket he'd arrived in. He was half way into the polo when Paul turned him around so they were face to face and put a hand under his chin.

"All right, where are you?"

It was such a direct question, and such an odd one, that Dale found he spoke without thinking.


"At school."

To Paul, that seemed to make sense. He picked up Dale's jacket and put a very firm hand on his shoulder, and a few minutes later Dale found himself at a table in a quiet corner of a coffee shop with a large, hot coffee in front of him and Paul sitting at the table opposite, cupping his hands around his own mug.

It was warm in the little shop, and the mixed scent of spice and coffee reached through the fog. Dale looked down at the cup and blinked.

"That's coffee?"

On the ranch, it was a banned substance, and Paul was usually one of the firmest advocates of the ban.  

"One won't hurt you, and I thought you looked like you needed it." Paul leaned on the table, voice very gentle. "What about school, honey? Why don't you tell me and we'll straighten this out, because I can see something isn't right."

"I get so tired of this." Dale said without thinking, picking up the cup. And winced, putting it down again. "Oh God! Paul I'm sorry! I don't mean you, I'm sorry, that sounded so much better in my head-"


"You're tired of finding the land mines." Paul sipped his own coffee, quite calm. "Every time you start to feel as though things are settling down, you find something else you have to deal with. It must be incredibly frustrating."

That was so exactly how it felt that Dale felt his eyes sting in response. Paul put out a hand discreetly, covered his and squeezed.


"Listen. I remember you telling me at school someone took you to buy uniforms and clothes."

A variety of- Dale stopped and made himself say it out loud.


"A variety of people. Usually matrons got sent to do that kind of thing – there were always boys from overseas who couldn't go home for holidays, the solicitors paid the bills… a few times it was the house master's wife. She was very kind about it…."

He trailed off, and now he could hear it in his own voice, the role he'd taken on without thinking about it.

"That must have been hard, having to be grateful and deal with being organised." Paul said mildly. "Not to mention uncomfortable at that age with women you didn't know too well."

"The matrons weren't hung up about much," Dale said dryly, "They'd seen it all. They were very kind about it, they always were, and they kept it to the minimum – what they could get without needing to involve me they did."


And then he got head-hunted into a corporation with a stylist who did more or less the same thing, and if he was honest, he knew he'd been just as politely vague to her. There were ways, when you were terribly busy, to be elusive to people you really didn't want to see. He could remember Caroline dealing with the woman and her colour swatches, and both had the familiar expression he'd seen on faces of many of the A.N.Z. staff when they were around him. That's the price of genius in a C.E.O……

In fact as a CEO, people were very accepting of your social quirks. They certainly never parked you behind a table, put a coffee in your hands and Looked at you with a demand that you explain yourself. Paul was doing it very gently, but that was exactly what he was doing.

"I am here." Dale pushed both hands into his eyes and picked up his coffee, propping his elbows on the table to drink. "I'm sorry, give me a minute and I'll pull myself together."

"That's not all of it, is it?" Paul said quietly, leaning both his elbows on the table so they were close face to face. "And no, you're not very here at all. You want to tell me the rest of it, because I think that's about the fifth time you've apologised to me this morning?"

It was actually quite hard not to answer Paul when he looked at you like that. Dale found his mouth opening involuntarily, and stopped himself, looking back at the coffee. Paul took the cup out of his hands.

"Go on. Blurt it out, it doesn't have to make sense."

It was never so hard to try to explain himself with the others. Having expressed the problem, the solution came to mind almost instantly.

Yes, because-

Damnit Aden, say it. The man's not psychic.

"The others don't tend to ask." he said, aware he was sounding even vaguer. "Or well, yes, they do ask, but not so you'd notice. They tend to just barge in and demand-"


Grab your hand and refuse to let go when they were demanding that you communicate. Tease, as Riley did. That made it so much easier.

"It's about consent, isn't it?" Dale said shortly. "I like approaches where I can pretend it's not really me wanting to; that I've been made to. Even if it's mostly joking, which it is, there's still that illusion to hide behind."

And that's exactly why Flynn said no last night, isn't it Aden? He doesn't miss a thing.

"And I don't barge?" Paul asked. Dale winced and Paul took his hand again, making him look up.

"Dale. Since you came back, you've needed to be doing physical things, with the people that do the heavy physical things and the only time we've had alone together is  when you've been stuck at home and unhappy about it. Storms? Riley kicking off? Me nagging you about clothes? So I'm not surprised it feels harder to talk to me right now, but I still expect you to try."

"I feel horrible about yesterday," Dale said unwillingly. "Paul, I honestly didn't mean to be rude, I was thinking about what was happening and not really listening-"

"When?" Paul asked, sounding confused. Dale looked at him, surprised.


"You were –"

"Yelling?" Paul supplied when Dale paused to look for a tactful word.


"……You said 'don't give me that look'," Dale was aware he was flushing to the ears. "I probably should have been politer about it-"

"As I remember it, you gave me a very understanding look, and went on sorting out the situation with Jasper, which was just as well, as I couldn't." Paul said frankly. "Riley shut up and moved when I shouted at him, mostly because he was as scared as I was, and he knew what I meant. Dale, you listen to Flynn ranting and crashing about when he's wound up, and you don't for a moment think he means what he's saying. You never get confused by that the way Riley does. Why did you think I meant stop helping and look helpless? Do you think of Riley or Tom or David as particularly helpless people?"

David, coal dusted and soaked in the dark and rain of the mine, his eyes burning at Philip with an order to get back, to not dare come closer to the still sliding rocks.

"…..no." Dale admitted.

"Jas said you'd told him something about feeling insufficiently bratlike." Paul said dryly, handing him back his coffee. His voice and his eyes were reassuringly warm and his tone was gentle. "Yes, we do talk to each other. Trust me, like Flynn has told you before, no one is going to demand proof from you of adequate brathood. We know you can do it, you do qualify."

Dale felt himself flush still more darkly.

"You can also trust me that if you do something I don't like, I'll tell you," Paul went on, going back to his own coffee. "I won't leave you in any doubt about it. So until then you don't need to worry."

"I feel like I push too hard around you." Dale admitted. "I don't know how to explain it or what to do about it. I shouldn't do it. I don't intend to."

Ah. Paul took another swallow of coffee, thinking that one through. Of course Dale would realise; he was as acutely perceptive in some ways as he was oblivious in others.

I can win, that was what Dale was confessing. He had no idea how compelling he could be when he was fixed on an objective; he really had no idea of the strength of his own personality. In his head, Paul knew Dale saw himself as quiet and mild mannered and not particularly noticeable, without the faintest understanding of how he affected people around him. He just knew that he could talk quickly enough and convincingly enough to sway Paul when he tried; that yesterday he had walked away from Paul's rebuke; and that he could when under enough pressure push hard enough that it took Flynn or Jasper to stop him. It was unsurprising at the moment that he felt more secure with them.

Flynn, you're going to have to teach me how to handle him better. He's not going to be happy to leave the rough stuff to the two of you the way Ri is.

"No, of course you don't push too hard," Paul said mildly, still thinking. "But this is a team game for five. Honey, you have to work at relationships. It takes practice and time to get it right, and we're all different people. We'll figure out what works between you and me the same as you'll do with the others. There isn't any one set way to do it."

He was still looking taut. Upright in his chair, managing to wear a polo shirt and fleece jacket like a formal suit, his too short hair immaculate and his grey eyes – still anxious but no longer vague. Paul put out a hand to touch his face, trying to get him to smile back.


"You're not doing anything wrong. Drink that coffee while it's hot, get your shoulders down from around your ears and in a minute we'll go and try again. I promise we can do this without making you feel like you're being fitted for school uniform."


He avoided the clothes stores for a while when they left the coffee shop, and instead walked with Dale through the mall, held their pace firmly down to a stroll instead of a tense stride designed for a fast get away, and they looked in the windows of the stores they passed. It took a while, but somewhere in a kitchenware store, while they found the several items Paul needed for home, he saw Dale's shoulders start to lose their stiffness and his face start to regain animation, and he began to show interest instead of apprehension, and to gradually come out of his shell and talk as he did at home. Used to Riley, who by now would be trailing six inches behind his heels, pleading to know when they could either do something interesting or go home, and to Flynn who would be commenting darkly on the displays and music, and demanding to know how much longer this was going to take, or even Jasper who disappeared silently without warning in malls, and then re materialised beside you with still less warning as though he'd been there all the time, Paul took his time, kept their pace slow and enjoyed Dale's much less strenuous company.

It was in the book store that he saw Dale's conflict most clearly. David had belonged to the Jasper school of shopping with a low boredom threshold, and Philip had often physically kept hold of him in stores like this, serenely deaf to David's muttering. Riley and Gerry, and the other 'experienced' brats of the family automatically stayed close to you in places like this, unless they were on a definite mission which they mostly remembered to discuss with you first. It came naturally to every one of them to stay near, partly because they liked to be near, and partly because they were naturally happy to hand off the decision making, but mostly because being with you was the normal state. Default mode. Had it been Riley that walked through the door of the book store with him, Paul knew Riley would have shadowed him through the shelves and sections, looking through books with him unless something specific caught his eye and he asked permission to go look at it.

Dale walked in the door of the book store and Paul, pausing by the Best Sellers rack, saw him crunched between two worlds.

When one walked into a bookstore alone or with a colleague, one minded one's own business and did not stay so close as to make them feel rushed or intruded upon, one browsed independently with a polite eye on both the time and the colleague so that one was ready to leave at around the same time they showed a desire to leave, and organised one's own purchases. A brat, shopping with his Top, most emphatically did not.

Dale didn't have the brat information. Paul saw the split second of conflict in his body language, the hesitation as to whether to follow Paul or whether he should walk away to browse by himself; the impulse to stay close, rapidly followed by self control. Dale faded politely away in the direction of a different section.

One does not behave inappropriately in public places.

It was so blatant that Paul stood where he was for a moment, shaken by it. And then followed Dale across to the Crime Fiction section, with a sudden and very powerful thought of Philip, who would have seen this coming and who would have known how to explain to and manage a CEO brat with an unhealthy amount of self control. He took Dale's hand, which made him jump; obviously that also came under inappropriate behaviour in a public place.

"And where do you think you're going?" Paul steered him gently back towards the Best Sellers rack, keeping his voice light. "You stay with me please, unless I tell you otherwise; you're not a free agent. That's my fault, I should have thought to explain to you before we got out of the car. Aha, I think that's probably the new Clancy novel Riley was after."  
 
He saw Dale flush; the automatic reaction to getting anything wrong, but kept nattering gently, taking no notice and drawing his attention to several authors and novels without making any direct suggestions. With encouragement, Dale gradually began to accumulate a small stack, which if Paul was any judge, were re evaluated several times and probably numbered about a quarter of the books Dale would have liked to have bought. Apparently he didn't do impulse purchase either. Taking no notice, Paul acquired a small stack himself of books he was fairly certain would catch Dale's interest, and several for himself and the others, and took Dale with him to pay for them. After which, still keeping his hand lightly threaded through Dale's arm, he led him back into the menswear department of the first store he had chosen, and took him straight up to a loud, yellow Hawaiian one, picking it off the rack.

"Right. That's a good strong colour to start with."

He met Dale's look of alarm with innocence, and laughed when Dale swiped the shirt out of his hands and returned it to the rail.


"Not under any circumstances!"

That was clear, definite and from the heart, and Paul gave him a quick hug, taking the bag of books from him.

"Ok, so you do have an opinion on what you don't like. Now go find something you do like. I'm banning muddy and boring colours and they can't all be the same design either. Pick six to try on to start with."

It took a long time, but with persistence, gentle nagging and downright harassment, Dale selected a range of shirts and tops in dark blues and greens, colours that Paul saw him increasingly look for and go straight to. Plus a few of the dark reds that Paul thought he looked particularly striking in, and which he had to be firm about; he suspected that red was far too ostentatious a colour by Dale's complicated standards. Once they had a set that passed Dale's approval, Paul pointed out to him the similarities in his preferences: tailored, classic styles, with collars, and plain colours without patterns, and saw Dale's mathematical brain catch on to the pattern with relief. After that, he began to look less alarmed by the range of choice and to go straight to items that belonged in the set.

Paul got him to try a few different styles of jeans, pointing out the differences, left him to choose some, and then drew him towards winter weights and a range of fabrics, some heavy brush cottons and wool sweaters that were obviously strange to someone used to business suits and coats.

"I don't think you'll find everything in one colour," he pointed out as Dale looked rather blankly through the racks. "Need some help, honey?"

"I'm not sure." Dale took a step back and dug his hands in his pockets, which Paul thought was a very positive and honest gesture that hunched his shoulders and abruptly made him look ten years younger. His hair was no longer rigidly neat from pulling t shirts on and off as he tried them on, he looked overwhelmed more than vague, and when he caught Paul's eye, he smiled, and it was his real, warm, lively smile.

"I think plaid is against the law if you're British."

"It probably ought to be tweed, but we just won't tell anybody." Paul came to look at what he was stuck on; a set of brush cotton plaid shirts, heavy and warm.


"Those are ideal for winter, what's the problem? They're blue."

"With red." Dale pointed out. "And it's not winter yet."

"We'll have one, brush cotton won't kill you." Paul told him, giving him a nudge towards the rack. "What? Were you planning on escaping before winter?"


Dale gave him another flash of that smile, surrendering one of the shirts to him. "No. It's just kind of a nice thought that I'll still be here by then."



*


The kitchen was covered with the debris of busy men who were hungry and had no time to spare for domestics. Dale put the stack of clothes away neatly – Paul suspected he did everything neatly, Flynn's bed was worryingly precisely made these days – and appeared back downstairs on the run like a teenager, hovering in the kitchen with a rather askance look at the chaos on the table.

"Need some help?"

He was always thoughtful like that, even when he was obviously dying to go up to the mown pastures and see what progress had been made. Paul smiled at him and shook his head.

"No, I can do this. Go on up and see if they need help."

He heard Dale pull riding boots on, and watched from the kitchen window as he jogged through the gate and up the pasture towards the mown slopes where the machinery, the men and the bales were visible in the distance. 


Flynn came out of the kitchen bathroom, shouldering into a clean shirt, and winced at the sight of Paul.

"Sorry, I hoped I'd get this cleared before you got home."

"Or at least started, so it looked like you were showing willing?" Paul said dryly. "Don't worry, I knew you'd be flat out clearing the last of the mowing and it doesn't take me long. How much got done today?"


"We finished the cutting. We'll be done on Friday night."

"I'll make a buffet supper Friday night then, you can ask the hired men to come down and eat with us when you pay them off." Paul stacked dishes in the sink and put his hands on the counter, looking round as Flynn went to put his boots on.


"Flynn? Have you got a minute?"

"Always." Flynn stopped at once, one hand braced on the door frame.

"Dale." Paul took a cloth and went to wipe the table.

"How did the shopping go?" Flynn came to lean against the counter, watching him. Paul didn't look up, sweeping crumbs efficiently into a heap.

"Well he's much better behaved in a mall than you are. He was gorgeous. Sweet and polite and willing."

"And?"


Paul dropped the crumbs into the sink. "When he gets to the point of being that polite, I start itching to swat him. I have no idea why. All the way there he got very quiet and vague, you know how he gets - and when I finally sat him down to talk to him, he told me a lot about school and being kitted out by strangers, and that was pretty much what he was being. A well brought up, nice teenaged kid wearily putting up with having good done to him."

"I'm not surprised." Flynn said regretfully.


"Nor am I, that's his nearest experience." Paul rinsed his hands and the cloth under the tap. Flynn pulled out a chair at the table and sat down, propping his elbows on his knees.

"In a lot of ways. That's his experience of caretaking, of any kind of domestic care."

"I know." Paul flung the cloth down into the sink with rare exasperation. "You stand him in front of clothes racks and ask him what he likes, and he gives you that 'this doesn't compute' look, because he doesn't know. He honestly doesn't know
, because it's never been relevant. And then we stand around calmly wondering why whole sections of him are on autopilot!"

"Thumping his school staff might make you feel better, but it wouldn't help." Flynn said apologetically. Paul shook his head.


"It's his mother I'd like a quiet ten minutes alone with. How do you do that? How do you assume a school by itself is going to produce a functional adult? Functional's the wrong word. Dale is too functional. He doesn't know how to need anything much."  

"Including you?" Flynn said gently. Paul gave him a pointed look.

"Don't Freud at me."

"But it's true isn't it? He doesn't really know how to accept being looked after, and that's most of what you want to do."

"He even understands it." Paul said exasperatedly. "He told me in detail about issues of consent and how it's so much easier with cavemen who don't ask first. He's so desperate not
to seem needy-  I know, I know. It's the same reason poor Tom won't come in the house."

Flynn got up and Paul turned into Flynn's arms, leaning against him.


"We got there in the end. He calmed down and we managed to sort him out with clothes he actually chose for himself- you'll be staggered to know this season will be either green or blue. If it isn't green or blue with a proper collar, he won't be wearing it. But I thought obsessive or not, it's his choice and that makes it a hell of a good start."

"You know Jas or I couldn't have done that for him?" Flynn asked him softly.

"You might have thought to explain to him about the etiquette of shopping." Paul said wryly. "It didn't occur to me until he politely disappeared off by himself in a bookstore. Of course he's never seen any of us away from the ranch and he had no idea how it worked, but I saw it. I saw him stand there and want to stick close with me, and then make himself stop and go and do the independent thing. The instinct's there and we've always known it is, but he can't let himself. Which is exactly why he prefers the caveman approach where in theory he has no choice."

"So does Ri; it involves a lot less effort." Flynn said lightly. Paul let him go, turning the taps on to run a sink full of water.

"Yes, but Ri does it because he prefers it, not because he can't do it any other way."


"We're fighting thirty five years of habit." Flynn pointed out. "If you think where he was six months ago compared to where he is now? He's made some pretty substantial changes to some of his foundation beliefs, and he's doing his best to come to terms with them, but we're asking an awful lot of him and it's going to take time."

"Look at Tom." Paul said wryly. Flynn looked rather deprecatingly towards the bunk house.


"Tom's a different kettle of fish, and I think Dale tries a lot harder. Apart from which, I doubt Dale has ever in his life failed to achieve something he set out to do."   

"I just wish we didn't have to be a decathlon challenge to him." Paul said bleakly. "He's been through a lot, he was pushed into a breakdown just six months ago, he's been stressed to his limits ever since, and it worries me."

"He isn't stressed to his limits," Flynn said gently. "He's eating, sleeping; that had gone completely to pieces before he came to us. We're not seeing much obsessing, any problems he has get dealt with and we don't let him stew. Physically and mentally he's fit and well. This is hard for him, but we're doing everything we can to help and Dale is tough. Look. The others won't be back for a while. Come for a walk?"

"I've got dinner to sort out."

Flynn held out a hand, waiting. "Dinner can be late. Oh, by the way? Did you take a look at the corral?"


"What about the corral?" Paul paused, looking at him, then took his hand and let Flynn guide him out onto the porch. "What's wrong with it?"

"See who's missing?" Flynn invited, leaning on his shoulders. "We spotted it just after you left this morning."

"Gucci." Paul said, looking through the familiar horses grazing in the corral. "Gucci's gone."

"With Bandit." Flynn said calmly, going to put his boots on. "She must have jumped fence last night. Jas found her hoof marks all over the yard with Bandit's, going out the gate towards the home pastures."

"The tart!" Paul accused, taking his own boots from Flynn. "Aren't you going up to get her?"


"In a day or two." Flynn stamped his boots to comfort and waited for him at the foot of the steps. "I think she's probably going to get that foal she's been hankering after."  



*


Letters often arrived at breakfast from various of the extended ranch family, and Paul, who was the main family correspondent, usually read them aloud while they ate.
There was one from Gerry about a week after the end of the harvest, and an enclosure which Paul passed to Dale, quietly appreciating the fact he was wearing well fitted jeans and a navy blue collared polo shirt which turned his grey eyes dark, his hair darker still, and made him look fit, long legged and well cared for. It was a subtle difference, but in Paul's mind an important one; and he thought too that Dale couldn’t be completely oblivious.

"That's addressed to you, hon."

It was from Ash; a Wall Street Journal article about a corporation Dale had worked with, and a short and very kind note that asked, with sympathy, how it was going and how bad was the shell shock. There were parts to this that only Ash, who knew a bit about the world of A.N.Z.,  truly got. Gerry's letter was long, chatty and entertaining, filled with news of the gallery, Ash's work, their friends, the decorating and what films they saw on the weekend, and it was a while before Paul picked up another letter in small, curly handwriting and opened it with his knife. Riley, finishing a last piece of toast, leaned over to look at the name at the bottom. 


"From Wade?"

"He says he's on his way out to stay with us." Paul turned to the second page. The letter was short and to the point. "Jackson airport, tomorrow at three pm. It looks like he just felt in need, he doesn't mention a reason but everything seems ok…."

"I can get him." Jasper offered. "I need to pick up some feed from Jackson, I'll meet him on the way back."

"He's fancied Jasper for years," Riley said, grinning at Jasper. "That'll perk him up no end to find you in the reception lounge, waiting for him."


"Likes them tall and dark." Jasper winked at Dale and got up to put his dishes in the sink. "Paul, I'm going to need a hand this morning to bring the cattle back down to the mown pastures, can you spare an hour?"

"I'm going to need Ri and Dale to work the colts," Flynn said with gruff apology, "We don't have long before the polo scouts will come out and we've only got a few weeks left with the saleable ones."

"I can come up with you." Paul folded Wade's letter, shaking his head. "You do realise if Wade's coming here then he's told Luath? And if he's told Luath, Luath will come here to see him because here is a lot nearer than Texas, and if Luath comes then Darcy will have to come too, and if Darcy's here then he'll tell Gerry-"

"And if Gerry knows, it'll be in the national papers." Riley said cheerfully.

"Stand by for the invasion." Paul agreed. "I think our few weeks of peace and quiet are probably over."

"We'll have a family party and a full scale commitment ceremony then, with hand written vows." Riley said dodging Flynn. "Silver balloons. Celine Dion songs. And –"


Flynn grabbed him.


"All those in favour of NOT having a large public commitment ceremony?" Paul invited. Flynn, Jasper and Dale promptly raised a hand and Riley laughed, still wrestling with Flynn.

"Yeah, the introverts have it."

"Who is Wade?" Dale asked Riley as they rode up through the woods. They were doing the long rides now with the colts who would be shown to the polo team scouts, taking them over as much and as varied terrain as possible. Slopes, muddy ground, through shallow streams over the rocks, and wading hock deep through the river where it took coaxing and encouragement to get the youngsters to feel their way and keep their balance. They were gaining in confidence now, adapting themselves to the ground and showing what they had learned, and their fitness was reaching its peak. They were a pleasure to work out, and it was a pleasure to spend much of the day riding, covering miles of the ranch land.

"He is – was officially – the first rescue." Riley ducked a branch, guiding Ticktock around to the narrow path uphill. "David found him in a bar in Jackson, drunk and discharged from the Air Corps. He flew with a Wellington Bomber crew in England during the war until the plane was shot down. He was only nineteen. Philip said he was out of his head on painkillers and shock, and David manhandled him into the truck and brought him home. What, you thought only Philip collared strays?"

"I did," Dale admitted. Riley grinned.

"Gerry was another one of David's. Philip did the fish on the hook approach; I get the impression David just kind of yanked."

"You pretty much do have to yank Gerry if you want to get anything done." Dale said dryly, and Riley laughed.


"I don't think Gerry minded much. Or Wade. There are a few left from that generation, the ones that really knew David. Not many of them travel now, but Wade comes out at least once a year. He's a sweetheart, I love him to bits. He's eighty four, we've asked him a few times to move out to us permanently but he likes his independence. Paul loves looking after him, I think Wade reminds him a lot of David."

Dale swallowed on that one, saying nothing. He had found the slip of paper in the bookcase, slipped inside a narrow volume of poetry and photographs that had probably evaded at least Riley and Flynn's attention for the past fifteen years. It was in Paul's handwriting and scribbled, with crossings out, but the sincerity of it had moved Dale almost to tears.


I sit here, rocking slowly on the porch
My coffee cooling quickly beside me
I hear the occasional whinny from a horse
Nosing around in the yellowing grass

Looking towards the trees I’m greeted with the most beautiful golden hues
The white trunks a stark contrast to the color
The birds have fallen silent from the raucous sounds of spring
Heading south for a warmer winter

The house is also silent
A quiet enjoyed after the weeks of backbreaking work of harvest
It’s more silent now than in years past
With the passing of a friend

As with nature, so are we
Making our way through the seasons of our lives
One day it’s spring, the next, summer
And one day you find it’s Autumn

Slower days more than fast
Quiet more than loud
The changing of the seasons
None of us are ready for

Your golden years were beautiful
Just like the aspens in the yard
Winter is almost here
I’m not ready yet.


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


3 comments:

rachelmorph said...

I've been avidly reading this series (rather than doing my homework as I should). I've enjoyed it immensely, but as a native Wyomingite I do have to question your geography just a tad. It seems as if you've been vague as to the exact location of the ranch (which is understandable), but locating it closest to the tourist haven of Jackson Hole. However, in this chapter, you've also located the ranch within half a day's travel of Cheyenne, which is actually roughly nine hours away from Jackson. I truly don't mean to nitpick, but I was wondering if you had a more precise location in mind as to the position of the ranch?

Ranger said...

Hi Rachelmorph, it's lovely to hear from a WY person! We have intentionally been vague to avoid having to get too precise and pinned down by facts which are horribly inconvenient to a story. We figure the ranch to be somewhere in the wilds in the general vicinity of Dubois and Pinedale, about 2 hours from Jackson and about 5 and a bit hours from Cheyenne. Hope that helps.

Crystal Watterson said...

I too have been reading your story instead of doing my school, I am just waiting for Flynn to come down and spank me ;).....beautiful story means so much to me. And I agree with Dale on the poem by Paul, almost brought me to tears.

Three Traders