Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 15



15


Paul appeared with an armful of clean sheets while Flynn was in the shower, and Dale stood by the open window, dressing while he watched Paul rapidly strip the bed and then deftly flick out a fresh sheet to cover the mattress, releasing the scent of clean cotton into the room.


There was something about watching someone you loved taking care of your own home: a sense of deep security that came every day from Paul by his keeping this house so dependably cared for and welcoming. Dale buttoned jeans and came to help make up the rest of the bed. Paul straightened the quilt over the top and smiled at him, gathering up the rest of the laundry.


“You’re taking whatever’s at the top of your drawer again. Give me that shirt and go find something that isn’t navy. Take a risk.”


Riley would have demanded to know if the colour police were in operation around here. Dale, who still flushed when Paul teased him like this but didn’t mind in the slightest, surrendered the shirt and went into the small room next door, opening the chest of drawers there to look through the collection of neatly folded shirts. Not crisp new either now he’d worn most of them, but washed and pressed and with the same clean scent as the new sheets. He was aware of Paul leaning in the doorway behind him, watching while he dug out one that was what Dale thought of as British racing green, and Paul gave him an approving nod as he pulled it on.


“That’s good. Now come and eat something so your ribs stop showing.”

“My ribs don’t show.” Dale protested.



Paul came to put both hands on his shoulders, turning him to the mirror over the dressing table. The face beside Paul’s in the mirror looked tanned again, not darkly like Flynn and Jasper tanned, but weathered and no longer white. And even Dale could see the lack of shadows under the eyes. Paul pushed a hand through Dale’s hair, shaking out some of the neatness and smiling as Dale winced.


“It’s growing.”


There was a world of understanding there, of what it had been like to come back here feeling so disoriented, so little himself, from someone who said very little about it but knew how the most simple things in life made you feel the most safe. On impulse Dale turned around and hugged him, putting his heart into his arms. Paul put a hand against his face when he let go, eyes very warm, then folded the abandoned navy shirt to put at the bottom of the drawer.


“We need to move this dresser into Flynn’s room so you don’t have to wander around to find things in the morning. Go tell him I said we’re shifting it and I’m going to move his dressing table over. Yes, now, I’ve been meaning to do it for weeks.”


“You-“ Dale stopped, and Paul gave him a look that Dale knew well enough to say it with him, resignedly,


“I know, I know, just blurt it out and worry later.... you all have your own rooms, I can’t invade his space-“


In fact he’d had no idea what to do about this issue and there was a kind of permanency in moved dressers. 

“He’s been insisting on having his space invaded by you for a while now, and he’s showing no sign of stopping.” Paul said with dryly. “You haven’t looked like you’ve minded, and you’re both people who like things your own way, so I don’t think there’s a problem. Go tell Flynn I’m moving your dresser.”
Flynn didn’t seem to mind having his room rearranged in the slightest. He was still shower damp when he helped Dale manhandle the dresser across the landing, and Paul moved the dressing table over to make room for it beside Flynn’s chest of drawers.


“It doesn’t really go, but it’ll do for the moment,” Paul commented when they were done. “Dale, stop looking worried. There’s all kinds of furniture stuffed into the store room by the garage, I’ll find another dresser and clean it off to fill the space in the other room, but unless we have a client or family descend on us, there’s no rush.”

 

The kitchen table was set for breakfast when Dale went outside, intending to feed the dogs who would be waiting patiently at the foot of the porch steps. It was a fresh morning, the breeze was a little stronger outside, and a large, blue jeep was parked beside Luath’s car in the yard. Dale saw that just as he saw a very large, very wide man in a white vest and baggy dungarees that did nothing whatever to hide arms like hams and skin as dark as Luath’s, lumber up the porch steps and fix him with a large eyed, sepulchral stare.


“You Dale?”


It was a bass rumble that nearly shook the porch. Other people were getting out of the jeep, but it was impossible to see around this giant, whose large brown eyes weren’t wavering.


“You Dale?” the man demanded again, and when Dale rather warily nodded, the man grabbed him, engulfing him in an embrace that nearly hoisted him off his feet.


“That’s right,” someone said soothingly behind them, “Scare the hell out of him and that should really help.”

Gerry
?” Dale said in disbelief from somewhere against the giant’s chest.


“Put him down.” a different voice ordered. “It’s all right Dale, I’m sorry, we’re just really pleased to meet you.”


The giant let him go, standing him gently on his feet, and moved so that Dale could see a short, middle aged man with glasses and bottle brush red hair, offering a hand to shake.


“Hi. I’m Theo, this is Bear, and we’re actually not insane. Much as you’d have reason to think it.”

“And naturally I’m unforgettable.” Gerry ran up the porch steps behind them and flung himself on Dale in an exuberant hug. “Everyone stop panicking, I’ve arrived. Are we in time for breakfast? I’m beyond starved, Ash wouldn’t stop anywhere that sold decent bacon sandwiches, you’d have thought I was asking for a heart attack in a bun the way he was carrying on - is Darce up yet?”



He shot inside the house without waiting for an answer, Dale heard Paul’s delighted exclamation from the kitchen and the thunder of someone running upstairs, then an answering yell from the landing. Bear lumbered after him with a deep bass chuckle that actually sounded like a gleefully innocent “Hee... hee... hee...”


Theo ran a hand over his bottle brush hair which didn’t flatten it in the slightest, gave Dale an apologetic smile, and went into the kitchen.


“Shall we go somewhere sane and hide?” Ash asked, lifting the last case out of the trunk and looking up at Dale to smile.


Dale stood frozen for a moment, stunned and delighted to see him, then jogged down the stairs to help and Ash held out his arms, laughing when Dale returned the embrace.


“Hey you’ve been practicing that!”


“Another few months and I might forget I’m British.”

“Actually you look very well.” Ash said shrewdly, holding his shoulders to look at him, and Dale recognised the assessing look in his eyes from Paul and Flynn. “How are you doing?”



“Pretty good.” Dale said sincerely.


“Near death experiences aside?” Ash picked up the nearest case and shut the trunk. “Gerry got a text from Wade, saying drop everything, we had to get over here, now, immediately, there were people stuck down mines, and it was awful.”

“It’s calming down a bit now.” Dale took another couple of cases, following him up the steps. “But the mine part was right. Do all the in-laws, er....?”



“Drop everything on command and run?” Ash said helpfully. “You think we get a choice? That’s why we picked up Theo and Bear at Cheyenne.”


Ash?”


Dale looked around at the demand, and Ash turned with him, grinning as Jake broke into a jog across the yard.


“Good morning! Yes, I have got Gerry, he’s inside. And Bear. We were expecting to find police and ambulances and total mayhem going on. I’m not surprised you decided to give the jungle a miss for a few weeks, it must look positively dull compared to this.”

“You know Peru, same old same old.” Jake gave Ash an emphatic hug and towed him into the kitchen where a bass voice shrieked in delight.



There were an awful lot of them.


Dale had always known the group of men connected to this house was large and that there were a lot of people out there that Paul and the others referred to as ‘family’ – seeing so many of them en masse was alarming. And alienating.


Too many people looking at a very poorly qualified brat, Aden? A cracked CEO?


No, no bullshit. You have to decide whether or not you’re going to let go.


Dale swallowed down the wave of insecurity, and headed towards the barn for the water buckets, deliberately not letting himself show hesitation or admit that this was a retreat. Work needed doing. It was perfectly justifiable to get chores done first. He caught Tom’s eye across the yard, and Tom was honestly hesitating. Standing, looking with distaste towards the kitchen where from the noise, a lot of excited greetings were going on. Except it wasn’t true distaste. Dale was starting to know this painfully shy, sardonic man, and he was starting to recognise the down-the-nose look in Tom as being very well disguised apprehension. It touched a chord of sympathy in him, and a certainty that unless someone acted quickly, Tom would melt away out of sight and stay there. Dale had every urge to do the exact same thing.


Except that you couldn’t do anything that looked more like a cry for attention. How pathetic can you get, Aden? Be a grown up.   


Why can’t someone around here ever ask me to do something easy, like sort out profit to revenue margins or international fraud?


“I don’t do this either, I have a note.” he said to Tom in the light tone he’d learned years ago from a good project manager, and which always calmed down nervous young execs who looked in expectation of having their heads bitten off. “I’m going to go sort water out for the shires, which is a very long walk, and I may be gone some time.”

It was an indirect invitation, but he caught Tom’s faint smile and nod of appreciation, and Tom followed him, taking another of the buckets brimming with water that were lined up in the yard.



I used to use that tone to people who were too freaked out to talk, to get them to start being useful. Dale looked ahead of him as they walked, not really seeing the green of the still damp grass. If I’m honest, it’s an interrogation tactic. I know how to steer people into doing what I want them to do, and that’s pretty much it. I have the social skills of a brick.


Damnit, how many degrees have you got? This is not rocket science. Talk to the man. Have a try at being human. What would Flynn say?


The three big Clysdale shires were grazing, and looked up with lazy interest as their water trough was topped up. Dale let himself back out of the paddock, latching the gate securely behind him, and forced himself to say out loud one of the things at the top of his mind.


“I think I now know less than half the people in the house.”


Tom grunted, hands deep in his pockets which hunched his shoulders and made him look still longer and scruffier than usual. His jeans were faded and tattered at the hems over his boots, and the still more faded t shirt had once been khaki and had the remains of a white skull and crossbones on the front.
   
“This isn’t the full complement. I’m not sure how many there are altogether, and there’s groups within the group. Jake’s closest to Paul, Flynn, Ri and Jasper. Gerry, Darcy and Bear are another set.”

The people who lived here at the time they did, the closest relationships, like siblings having their own closest friends and confidents within a large family. That was more alienating still.



“I suggest a new set.” Dale said for something else to say, and hefted the buckets, starting the long walk back towards the yard. “An in-law set. You, me, and Ash, who is also sane.”

He saw the rather curious look Tom gave him. “You’re not in any way an in-law. You came here on a rescue job like the rest of them, you didn’t just marry one. You were officially adopted.”



Someone – from the distance, Dale thought Gerry – appeared on the porch and rang the bell, vigorously, for a long time, making the horses in the corral look up.


“I think I can do without breakfast.” Tom said, wincing.


Yep, this is going to be ghastly.


Dale put the bucket down and on impulse, put a hand through Tom’s arm. There was a time when he would have eaten breakfast in a room full of strangers and not thought twice about it, or noticed any of them. It would have involved either polite greetings and work related conversations if it was a breakfast meeting, or else a newspaper at a table alone and no social contact whatever. But there was something still with him from that conversation with Paul this morning. Something to do with that when your world was safe and stable enough, you found yourself feeling willing to try a risk without your throat closing up and your stomach clenching. At least not to the point where you couldn’t function.


Dale had spent a working life calculating risks and taking many that were so heavily weighted that the teams who called him in were afraid to make them. There was no ability to calculate information here, no control over it, and absolutely no expertise. On the other hand, in that house was Flynn, Riley, Jasper and Paul. And they would expect him to try.


“Well I need the moral support if I’m going in there.” he said lightly to Tom. “I will if you will. Come on. The British always do best against overwhelming odds.”


He could see something in the way that Tom looked at him, something wry and not very happy, but Tom didn’t pull away and after a moment, came with him.


Jake was watching them from the porch, leaning with his elbows on the porch rail as they walked across the yard, and Dale heard him singing quietly as they reached the steps.


When the foeman bares his steel, tarantara, tarantara
We uncomfortable feel, tarantara....

It seemed a bizarre thing to do, but Tom looked up and gave him a grimace that bore a very distant relationship to a smile, and Dale was startled by his baritone as he joined in. They were both remarkably good singers.


     For when threatened with emeutes, 


                    Tarantara tarantara 


     And your heart is in your boots,
                    Tarantara!
     There is nothing brings it round
     Like the trumpet's martial sound,
     Like the trumpet's martial sound


Jake put out a hand to Tom as they reached him, saying nothing but giving him his very easy going smile. He was looking entirely at Tom and not Dale, and Dale saw the communication pass between them, nothing to do with what they were saying.


“Ok?”


Tom looked down at their joined hands, taking a breath. Jake gave Dale a look that was very kind and he nodded Dale past him, into the kitchen. Dale left them together on the porch as he took his boots off, wondering if they would disappear back towards the bunkhouse. Then he heard Tom’s voice, gruff and bleak.


Morituri te salutant.”


He and Jake often exchanged obscure quotations; it seemed to be some complicated game they played between themselves, but that was one that Dale remembered from school.


We who are about to die, salute you.


It didn’t appear to have phased Paul at all to have to produce breakfast for four more people than he’d expected – and there were fourteen people in total in the kitchen. Luath and Jasper were adding leaves to the kitchen table as though this was something they were practiced in, Darcy was getting down extra plates, and Bear was hefting extra chairs through the hall from the direction of the store room above the garage. The atmosphere was happy, noisy, crowded, and terrifying. Dale took his time with his boots, swallowing on a very tight stomach, and happy to delay entry as long as possible.


About four conversations were going on at once, Paul seemed to be engaged in at least two of them and Riley was talking animatedly in another. Dale saw Jake and Tom edge around the crowd and take chairs on the far fringes of it. And Flynn, seated in his usual place at the suddenly much larger table, was watching him, with his dark green eyes steady. He knew. Dale let the last boot go, and Flynn leaned over to snag his hand and pulled Dale over to the empty chair that was waiting between his and Jasper’s, his fingers squeezing strongly out of sight of anyone else. Jasper, beside him, caught Dale’s eye and his smile was calm, as reassuring as having his and Flynn’s solid frames on either side.   


Fenced in between the two of them, Dale found himself looking around the table with a kind of apprehensive fascination. Enormous Bear, with his large, solemn eyes, like a St Bernard, his massive arms propped on the table. Wade, still a remarkably good looking man under the whitened hair and the stooped shoulders. Luath, large and crisply dressed, with his iron grey and close cut hair and beard, his slightly watchful expression and his deep chocolate voice. Jake, fair haired, easily dressed and comfortably shaggy as he and Tom always were, as if they were just stopping by on their way to a hiking expedition, and with his elbow hung over the back of his chair and his long legs stretched out, ankles crossed. He smiled often, always looked completely at his ease whatever he did, and his hands moved competently among the china. Gerry, who seemed to take up far more space than his comfortably rounded frame justified, and whose flamboyancy made him seem larger still. He was the centre of one of the discussions, his voice loud and lively and he gestured often as he talked. He and Darcy were sitting close together, Darcy wearing a checked shirt far too large for him, knotted up over a tight white t shirt. Lean, dark haired and in his forties, he was listening to Gerry and laughing, and there was something slightly exotic in the tone of his skin and the darkness of his eyes. Possibly something Dominican. Ash, fair haired and greying with his moustache, relaxed back in his chair and oriented towards Gerry, he appeared to be enjoying the show his partner was putting on, and Gerry often glanced back to him as he talked. Small, bottle-brush haired Theo, behind his glasses, ate toast and talked to Paul, dwarfed by his massive partner. A more unlikely looking couple was hard to imagine. They must have sat like this in the days when Philip ate his breakfast at the head of the table. Some of them had sat here with Philip and David both.


 “So much for no rush to sort out that room,” Paul said, interrupting himself to put a plate of steak and eggs down in front of Dale, and give another to Flynn.  “Darcy, take Bear with you after breakfast and dig out a chest of drawers from the store room, and you can take it out on the porch to wash it down. We moved Dale’s dresser into his and Flynn’s room this morning. Ri, if I move in with you then Bear and Theo can have my room-“


 “Rubbish.” Darcy said cheerfully. “They can have my room and I’ll go in with Luath, we’ve done it before.”

Luath gave him a resigned look but nodded to Paul.



“It’s all right. I’ll just kick him when he snores.”


“They can have the client room, can’t they?” Dale said as lightly as possible. “I won’t be needing it.”


Riley caught his eye, without breaking off his conversation, and his smile went through Dale like a mug of hot tea. Flynn squeezed his hand again under the table, let go and plonked toast on his plate.
“Good point. Eat something.”


“Wade’s in my room,” Gerry said through a mouthful of warm bread, “Which is atrocious, I shall throw him out immediately,”


“The trouble with everyone home at once is that most rooms belong to several people,” Paul filled two more plates, handed them out and took his seat. “There isn’t a quick solution to that.”

“I can take Gerry with both hands tied anyway.” Wade pointed out. Gerry grinned.



“You keep your kinks to yourself, you’re turning into a dirty old man.”


“We’ll go anywhere there’s a space.” Ash said firmly. “We turned up with no notice whatever and we’ll just be grateful.”

“Jas has camped out before now.” Gerry said shamelessly. “In fact Jas and Flynn used to sleep out every chance they got in good weather-“

“Wade, why don’t you come up to the bunk house with us?”



Tom said it softly, but his baritone with the English accent was too distinctive to miss and it cut across the gossip. Dale looked across to Wade and saw the pleasure in his face. He saw Paul pick up on it too and answer promptly, before anyone else could comment.


“That’s a brilliant idea, thank you honey. Can you and Jake give Wade a hand to move his things over there?”


“Straight after breakfast.” Jake said comfortably.


Dale jumped slightly at the weight of Flynn’s hand touching his back and rubbing, low enough that no one else would see. His voice was quiet, slipping under the chatter.


“Eat.”


That wasn’t possible.


“I’m planning to do some work with Ticktock this morning,” Riley said, looking towards Flynn. “And the colts need exercising, they haven’t been worked for several days, so whatever else needs doing is going to need to get done early.”

“You and Dale,” Flynn finished a mouthful of steak and leaned on the table. “Give them a good session around the square in the home pasture. Leave Flint, I’ll ride him today, and don’t you two worry about anything else. Then take Snickers and Hammer out, find the mares and bring bloody Gucci back before she gets the idea she doesn’t have to work anymore.”



“They were out by the woods in the valley where all the creeks are yesterday.” Luath said in his deep voice, pouring himself more juice and re filling Darcy’s glass. “What can we do?”


“Paul needs some help with the dresser and probably with house chores,” Flynn looked at Paul, who nodded, “And the yard work would help.”


“The next big job will be clearing the woods.” Riley pointed out. “Great time to do it too while we’ve got everyone here.”

“Shh.” Gerry ordered. “No ugly talk at the table, I’m not heaving dam’ great logs about in the sun all afternoon. And why are we having breakfast and talking calmly about doing work when there’s mines flooding and all hell’s going on?”



“We’re doing fine.” Paul said calmly, “You’ve got nothing to worry about, eat your breakfast.”

“We come rushing from Seattle because you’re all stuck down mines, and you say eat your breakfast?” Gerry demanded.



“Yes.” Paul put more toast on his plate and Ash put a hand over Gerry’s when he opened his mouth again. Flynn pushed his chair back, looking down the table to Paul.


“I’ll go up with Jas, Tom and Jake, and we’ll have a proper look over the stock and the east fences, we’ll be gone all day. Paul, is it all right if Jake takes Nekkid?”


“It’s fine, I won’t ride today.” Paul said comfortably.  “We’re going to need to think about bringing some of the bachelors in to work, or we’ll be struggling for riding horses.”


“Need to think too about taking the mares back to the tops now fall’s here.” Riley said with his mouth full. “Won’t be long now."


Dale recognised it, and knew the others around the table did too. To the initiated of the ranch, that was a yearly land mark; the first sign of approaching winter.





There was never a sense of rushing here, people just didn’t have that kind of urgency in anything they did, but there was a sense of practiced order to the way people scattered after breakfast that it that touched Dale, as though the more distant family were so familiar with the house and its routines that they just fitted straight back in. Dishes were cleaned, the table was cleared, people went out to work without getting in each other’s way, just as if there were fourteen of them at the table every day. Paul took his plate without comment for the untouched steak and eggs, and handed Dale a large mug of milk, standing in front of him with the distinct expectation that Dale drank it. Now. It was easier to choke down than food, and Paul took the empty mug from him without commenting and with a lot of understanding.  
Dale was putting boots on, glad to escape and make a start with one of the colts, when he realised there was a small crowd on the porch and that Gerry was in the middle of it, saying very firmly,  
“Riley and Dale stop looking like you’re going to go and do some work. We’re holding a meeting before we do anything else.”


The crowd on the porch consisted entirely of brats. Dale realised it as he looked around the faces, the variety of ages and builds. The sheer diversity of the group didn’t lend itself to immediate categorisation, it was almost a shock to realise that there was something that all of them had in common. And that the group apparently included the almighty Bear. The thought of that enormous man as a brat was a challenge to the imagination.   


“The barn.” Riley said calmly as though he’d been expecting this. “It’s stuffed with hay at the moment and no one’ll need anything from there.”


“Good.” Gerry waved both hands towards the barn. “All of you. Assemble. Dale, don’t think for one moment you’re sneaking off, Riley grab him.”

“Are we allowing in the part time brats these days?” Wade demanded, and Darcy laughed, hooking his arm through Wade’s as they followed Gerry.



“Think of me as an observer.”


“I don’t know who you think you’re kidding.” Wade said amicably.


“I swear this isn’t going to be awful.” Riley said, putting on his other boot and giving Dale a disarming look that made Dale smile in return.


“Will it be sensible?”


“Sensible?” Riley grabbed a jacket from behind the door and followed down the steps. “Oh God, no.”


“And don’t let Thomas wander off either!” Gerry commanded from the door of the barn. He was making enough noise to startle the horses who were watching with interest from the corral, but neither Flynn nor Jasper looked around from their tacking up.


“I’m only an in law, I don’t count.” Tom said warily. He had been standing on the porch, waiting for Jake. Riley, waiting for Dale at the foot of the steps, leaned on the stair post.


“Actually, you do. It’s never made a difference as far as I know.”


Tom looked grimly as if he was being asked to take part in some kind of student rag. Which was certainly the spin Gerry was putting on it, but Riley seemed quite at ease with the idea. Dale’s own stomach was getting tighter by the second, but he gave Tom a deliberately easy shrug as Tom looked at him.  


“I will if you will.”


Gerry, Darcy, Wade and Bear had seated themselves on bales of hay, Gerry grinned at Riley as Riley shut the door, knocking on the wooden beam nearest his bale.


“That’s it, that’s everyone, we’re quorate. Oy! Sit down, shut up and stop gossiping or we'll be here all night. I call to order the meeting of the Falls Chance Brats in Residence, we will now repeat the oath as spake by David at the first meeting so held.”


Dale raised his eyebrows at Riley who grinned and chanted briskly and loudly with Wade, Gerry, Darcy and Bear, in manner of a toast,


“For Pete's Sake Get On With It!”


Tom stifled a snort and sat down astride a bale, propping his elbows on his knees. Dale caught Gerry’s eye and returned the private smile Gerry gave him, thinking of David. The big, wild haired Englishman turned rancher that he’d caught a few glimpses of on the ranch. It was like being taken into the most secret of Stone Mason meetings, alongside men who had truly known and loved David and sat here messing around with him.


“And that said, gentlemen,” Gerry said severely, “The main business on the table, which must be addressed immediately. When are you five planning to have the wedding party, not to mention the stag night, and why haven’t we been invited yet?”


Riley sat back, looking straight faced at Dale.


“Did you see that written on the agenda?”


It was familiar enough now that Dale shook his head, deadpan, picking up on his tone. “I haven’t seen the minutes of the last meeting yet. Give me a few weeks, I’ll go and get my P.A.-”


Gerry put out a hand to stop him, laughing.


“Oh no, we heard what happens when you go to New York. Details! Is someone actually going to get Flynn into a suit?”


Riley grinned and shook his head. “Shut up, it's private. You're not scaring Dale off before he’s even got unpacked.”


“We're not scaring him, he’s scaring us! He's terrifying!” Darcy protested.
What?


Dale looked at Darcy, surprised, and Darcy gave him a completely uncritical smile that surprised him even more.


Gerry shook his head.  “I told you, he was very sweet and extremely scary, but what's really terrifying to any sane person is why anyone would go marrying three tops. Riley’s never explained. It's complicated enough keeping up with just one of them!”


“It has its plusses, trust me.” Riley told him. “And I’m not explaining anything. Are we talking about anything else other than your filthy voyeurism?”


Wade dropped his voice, imitating three different voices in quick succession, “Go to bed.  GO TO BED.  Go to bed.  Pick up your socks.  PICK UP YOUR SOCKS.  Pick up your socks-“


“Come on Dale,” Riley said, getting up, “Let's leave them to imagine and go do some work-“


“There is plenty of time to do the whole cowboy thing, sit down. “ Gerry said, rapping on the beam. “If you won’t share any decent gossip on that, then would you please tell us about the stiff before we all die of curiosity on that count too?”


It was like a bucket of cold water.


Dale lifted his head and looked at Gerry, aware of Darcy and Wade both glaring. Riley spoke swiftly and fiercely, and there was no joking in his tone now at all. 


“Gerry, can it. I mean it, or we're walking, right now. “


The atmosphere in the barn had changed completely. Long used to watching dynamics in group meetings, Dale saw Darcy’s whole posture change from someone amused but uninvolved, to someone taking the floor, and he saw too the body language of Wade, Gerry  and Bear orient towards him. He was a known leader of this group. Dale filed that knowledge away for later consideration, aware that all the laziness had dropped out of Darcy’s voice. 


“You don’t get any more tactful with age.” he was saying acidly to Gerry, who looked shocked. “Ri, we're sorry. It's always a high getting together no matter what the reason, and some of us have the impulse control of a gibbon. It’s obviously been horrible, Wade’s text scared the hell out of us, I’ve seen what the last couple of days have been like, and from what Dale told us the other day, the man you found was a friend of David which makes him as important to us as you. You know the mine business is why we all came. Please?”


Riley turned and looked at Dale, and Dale read his face. The question and the protectiveness there was as warming as Darcy’s apology. He nodded, and Riley slowly sat down again to Gerry’s obvious and shamefaced relief. The barn was very quiet.  


“We located evidentiary support of a joint venture between Gam Saan and David.” Dale said, not seeing the hush deepen as he spoke.


There was a slightly alarmed look on the face of those that didn’t know him; Riley saw it and recognised the tone Dale was using. He’d heard it in the kitchen, the morning Dale dealt with a client by phone in fluent Italian. Wade interrupted, his voice disarmingly gentle, and Riley thought that Wade had understood a great deal of what Riley had confided in him during their morning together in the study.  


“Dale? No, son. Not the edited version, this is storytelling and it’s family. We want to know all of it. From the beginning.”


Riley saw Dale look around the room. Bear’s dark eyes steady, Darcy’s rather exotic face sober, all eyes on him, even Tom, who had been here all the time, but never known the full story. Dale glanced again at Riley beside him, the only other person who knew all of it. He cleared his throat – and Riley saw him realise what tone he was reaching for. The presentation tone. The financial forecast tone. Then he cleared his throat again, several times, uncomfortably. When he spoke, his voice was softer, and much more hesitant.  


 “...Gam Saan was one of a group of Cantonese immigrants, who came to the US during the gold rush. He was part of the group that began the gold mine at Three Traders, and then when the gold lines were exhausted and the rail road came through the town, coal became the new gold and the mine was turned to a coal mine, and expanded right out from Three Traders to underneath the woods on the edge of the ranch. From what we can work out, David knew Gam Saan as an old man, when he was the only one of that group of Canton miners left. A little old man who took the dockets at the mine head.”


“David told me he was quite a character,” Wade said softly. “Had a lemon yellow python. David detested it, but he did what he could for the old man. Kept wood in his stove, roof on his hut, made sure the men in the town kept an eye on him and didn’t ask too much in the way of bills paid.”

“If David leaned on people they tended to do what he wanted.” Gerry agreed.



“David bought him a mining licence.” Dale went on when the room fell quiet again. “Partnership. He paid, tools and digging rights, and whatever Gam Saan found they split fifty fifty.”

“We found the licence.” Riley added. “In Gam Saan’s house. And a diagram with Cantonese symbols which Dale got translated for us. We knew it was the mine.”

“You went down the mine?” Darcy demanded. Riley shook his head.



“No, not to look, and forget it. The place is derelict, it’s lethal. We were trying to figure out where the entrances were and what they were looking for – we thought maybe the coal faces were running out and Gam Saan was looking for ways to keep the mine open. He’d been one of the first miners there, he knew it better than anyone.”


“And?” Gerry demanded. “How did you two get into the mine to get stuck there?”
Dale glanced again at Riley.


“We were up riding the colts in the woods, up past the locomotive, when a bank collapsed. Landslide, the ground was saturated and it’s a layer of mulch on top of tons of coal spoil. Riley set the colts loose and we ran for it, and then a bloody great cave opened up and we bolted into it, and the whole bank came down on top of us. Blocked the entrance solid.”

“And you were in the mine.” Darcy said softly. “Wow.”



“So we started walking.” Riley said lightly. “Pencil torch lights on the knives, that was all we had and it was a mess – pools everywhere, falls, we felt like we were walking for hours and we knew the main entrance had fallen in years ago and wasn’t passable.”


“How did you know where you were?” Bear rumbled.


“Dale knew.” Riley said lightly.


“David’s diagram.” Dale explained when everyone looked at him. “It was the lay-out of the shafts, logically we could work it out by process of elimination, knowing where we came in.”


“And then we started spotting land marks on David’s diagram – map as it happened –“ Riley went on, “And eventually we found the spot Gam Saan had marked for David to find, and we realised that Gam Saan was after gold.”

“You saw it?” Gerry said in the shocked silence.



“We did.” Riley looked at Dale, and Dale knew he was remembering the cold, the damp, the thin glitter by torchlight. One magic moment in several hard hours. “We also found Suzu. Gam Saan’s python. She was sliding around our ankles.”

There was an outcry at this and Riley had to raise his voice to be heard.



“Yes, seriously! And Dale then figured out that she had to be able to get to the surface and he worked out how to get out, and we climbed up out of this adit-“

“Darling, talk English.” Gerry said firmly.



“Adit.” Dale explained. “It’s a shaft, not an entrance. Drainage, air, just where a mine breaks surface. I’d guess it was the first tunnel created following the gold line – the first mine, which is why Gam Saan knew it. It’s barely big enough to crawl down, it wasn’t the main entrance to the gold mine, so David would have looked without ever finding the adit or knowing it was there. The evidence points to Gam Saan having been in the gold tunnel when the main tunnel near the entrance caved in. The cave in caused a flash flood through the tunnels, he tried to climb up the adit to escape, but the adit would have been running with water from the run off of rain above – it would have been like trying to climb up a waterfall.”

“Dale found him lying in the adit.” Riley added softly. “Where he fell.”



There was a silence in the barn. A long silence. Gerry broke it, his voice unusually practical. 
“What’s going to be done for him?”


“Officially we have no right to the remains.” Dale told him. “If the authorities knew, he’d be removed for forensic work, and it would take weeks to get him back, if we ever managed it.”


“Rubbish,” Gerry said sharply, “He’s David’s friend and he’s been there sixty years, David would have had kittens at the idea of any authority getting involved.”


“We found the other Canton gold miners in the cemetery in the town.” Dale looked across at Riley, thinking of the line of weathered stones. “That’s where I’d like him to go. He lived almost all his adult life at Three Traders.”


“We were told we’d discuss it when things settled down a little.” Riley said.

“Flynn promised me Gam Saan would be moved. And properly.” Dale added.



It seemed rather strange to be acknowledging, publicly like this, that his actions depended entirely on what Flynn decided, but no one else appeared to find it odd.


Gerry glanced at Darcy, who appeared to know what he meant and who dug in his pocket and came up with a cell phone.


“Got it. The gas station’s the nearest point. Gerry, get Ash’s keys, we’ll go start the jungle drums.”

Bear pulled out a phone of his own that was nearly dwarfed in his massive hand, and got up. 



“What are they going to do?” Dale said under his breath to Riley. Riley slipped a hand through his arm and walked with him towards the yard, hooking his other hand through Tom’s arm. Tom looked at him, but didn’t shrug him off.


“You’ll see.”


Flynn and Jasper were still by the fence at the corral, standing there with Jake, and with four horses saddled up and waiting. Flynn called as soon as Dale and Riley stepped into the daylight.


“Dale?”


Dale crossed the yard to him, Riley following, and Flynn went on adjusting Flint’s bridle, giving Dale one steady, assessing look before he nodded.


“Yes, you’re coming with us. Go get Hammer’s tack. Ri, do what you can of the colts and we’ll finish the rest when we come back. Take someone with you to get Gucci.”


The yard was full of strangers, watching. Experienced brats, an entire set of Tops who were unknown quantities – Dale bit down on himself before his face could start to burn, caught sight of Tom’s expressionless face as he went to take Moo’s reins from Jake, and remembered to produce a properly enunciated “Yes sir” as he headed to the stable and the tack room. Flynn was talking to Riley as he left, and when he came back with Hammer’s tack, Riley was leading out the first of the colts into the training square in the home pasture, and Darcy was leaning on the rail, watching him.


Apparently the day would carry on fine without the presence of a neurotic CEO.


Jasper led a slow pace up towards the eastern pastures, probably out of consideration to Tom and Jake. They actually rode well. Dale, assessing them alongside Flynn and Jasper, who rode every day and had done so all their adult lives, thought that Jake was more confident, but both he and Tom were athletes, and their balance was faultless. They separated as they reached the first bunches of grazing cattle, Jake nodding to Tom.


“We’re probably most useful with the fences. We’ll ride the perimeter of this pasture and go up and check the next one.”


“Have a look at the river too while you’re up there?” Jasper asked him. Jake nodded and he and Tom followed the river bank northwards. Jasper, without comment and a brief smile at Dale, turned Leo across the pasture, threading through the cattle, and Dale followed Flynn, knowing they’d spread out and cover the ground between them to look over the whole herd.


“Want me to start on the south bank?”


“You can stay with me.” Flynn said bluntly. He was watching cattle, one hand relaxed on his blue jeaned knee, Stetson low on his brow so his face was shaded. He was letting Flint keep a leisurely walking pace, which Hammer was following, taking his time while he scanned the herd spread out around them.


Dale swallowed again, and Flynn gave him a swift glance.


“And you can quit that too. Take your feet out of the stirrups and cross them over Hammer’s neck.”


Yes of course, because it’s a perfect moment for a riding lesson.


Dale silently did as he was asked with memories of riding lessons in school paddocks years ago, balance and posture exercises. Flynn watched while he crossed the stirrup irons so they hung where they wouldn’t irritate Hammer, and nodded.


“Wrap his reins around the saddle tree.”


Leaving Hammer’s head free, Dale wrapped the end around the saddle tree in a neat twist. It wasn’t at all alarming riding without anything to anchor himself with – Hammer’s gait was even and deeply familiar, he knew the big bay gelding well and Hammer was not about to do anything unpredictable. 


Automatically, he had adjusted his seat in the saddle, sitting with his weight evenly between seat and pubic bone, heels under his hips, shoulders above his hips, neck and shoulders correctly relaxed –

“Put your hands on your knees, shut your eyes.” Flynn told him. “And tell me six things you’re physically aware of right now.”

You had to know Dale very well indeed to see the exasperation. It wasn’t in his face or his expression or in his movements, which were calm and controlled and courteously unhurried. It was actually in that control, in the deliberate calmness, which said that while he was so politely humouring you, you were obviously a lunatic.


He kept Flint close, an eye on Dale who balanced perfectly even without the stirrups and with his eyes closed, although he now looked slightly less as though he was about to perform in a dressage competition. It was an effort for him to be still. Flynn could see the restlessness in his fingers and his eyelids.

“Well?” he prompted.

Dale answered reluctantly, and Flynn recognised that too. No idea what he was trying to do, and damned if he’d fail at it. He didn’t pay a lot of attention to his physical body at the best of times.

“Just the bruises from the mine. That’s all.”

“Where?” Flynn asked him. Dale had to think for a minute, Flynn could see him organising the information.


“Back of my head when I move my neck. Hands a bit sore.”

Which you didn’t mention to me or Paul this morning, kid.


Now he was letting that iron control go a bit, Flynn saw clearly what he’d seen a shadow of in the yard, and thought he looked tired, weary and dispirited. A headache he hadn’t noticed; Flynn could read it in the tightness of his jaw and the stiffness of his neck. Dale had no idea what to do when he got this stressed other than ignore it and push on. And while he understood the stress of today and of strangers, he didn’t understand what Flynn did: how deeply upset Dale still was about Gam Saan lying up on the hillside. That wouldn’t heal until Gam Saan was buried, until he saw that chapter closed.
Flynn put that away to deal with later, keeping his voice quiet.

“Think about what else you can physically feel. Right now.”

The painful silence made it clear: he didn’t know. Dale still lived mostly in his head, and this wasn’t a strength of his at the best of times, never mind when he was stressed. He wasn’t good at knowing what tired, or hungry, or scared felt like; he still didn’t recognise or respond much to his body’s signals until it forcibly took possession of him, and each assault upset him so much, with its total loss of control, that he fought giving in even more than before. Flynn had seen it happen multiple times, and Dale, ever a quick learner, was instinctively getting better at covering it. The signs were more subtle each time.

“Think about what it feels like to be inside your clothes.” He encouraged Dale gently. “Which fabrics you can feel and where it touches. What’s the difference between one fabric and another.”

It took a lot of work to get Riley calm enough to relax and to listen to you with this kind of thing, but Dale focused on doing exactly what you said to the very best of his ability. Even if he thought you were out of your tree at the time. Flynn waited, sharing his attention between Dale and the grazing cattle around them as the horses ambled on.

“Think about where your feet are. What position they’re in. If you’re holding them stiff or relaxed. Think about your legs and the position they’re in, what they feel like. What the saddle feels like, what movement you can feel.”


It took time. Several minutes of quiet talking before Flynn saw him almost imperceptibly relax and straighten his knees, and saw his fingers loosen up on his thighs. More importantly, with his attention diverted to his body, his breathing had deepened; his chest was rising and falling more slowly and more purposefully, and he was no longer struggling to keep his eyes closed. Flynn went on quietly directing his attention for a few minutes more before he repeated,

“Now tell me six things you’re physically aware of.”

Dale’s answer wasn’t confident, but it was immediate.

“The sun on my hands. The wind against my hands and face. Hammer warm against my legs. My shirt getting damp on my shoulders. Grass pollen in the air when I breathe-”

He’d hesitated, not stopped. To Dale six meant six, exactly. Not five. Not seven. Not a rough attempt and a plea for mercy as Riley would have cheerfully tried.

“And?” Flynn prompted. Dale winced. Visibly. And glanced across to him with an expression Flynn knew. Shields down. If you got past Dale’s reserves, he held nothing back.

“My stomach’s tight as hell. I know I’m not a realistic judge of what I’m going to handle, but I didn’t do anything. If you’d let me I might have been ok with-“


“A yard full of strangers and a lot of pressure.” Flynn supplied. Dale didn’t argue.

“I thought I could handle it and still be some use instead of having to be –“

He stopped himself. Flynn raised an eyebrow.


“Babysat? What are the assumptions in that?”

Dale glanced at him, and Flynn saw him change gear to detach and analyse; something he was well able to do. And then wince again.

“Ok. Forget I said that.”

“Nice try.” Flynn guided Flint closer, into step with Hammer. “Go on.”


Dale sighed. “That I failed. That I fully expected to fail. That I’m casting myself as a consistent failure in need of damage control. I don’t even realise when I’m getting into that mindset. And my definition of ‘handle’ isn’t the same as yours.”

“What you mean is you’d get through without showing any outward sign of stress, no matter how hard it was, or what you had to do to process the stress at the time or afterwards.” Flynn said bluntly. “So yes. It’s not synonymous with my definition. Which is?”

“You want the lid off?” Dale said bitterly. “All right. You’ve got a house full of family who have never met me and are experienced in this lifestyle and watching me make a total hash of it, and wondering what on earth you and the others are doing with some failed businessman having an early midlife crisis. I don’t enjoy proving to them I am as neurotic as they’ve heard, and that I can’t even put in a decent day’s work without you having to change your day’s plans to prevent me going off and having a nervous breakdown somewhere out of sight the minute you take your eyes off me-“

Flynn swung down from Flint, hooked an arm around Dale’s waist and yanked him down onto the grass so fast that Dale was still in mid sentence. Leaving the horses to graze, Flynn took Dale by the arm to a distance where they wouldn’t spook them, unbuttoned Dale’s jeans and put a foot up on the slope of a bank before he doubled Dale over his knee. He got no protest, not even a hint of resistance; Dale looked too startled, although he definitely flinched and grabbed at Flynn’s legs for support when Flynn pulled both his jeans and underwear well down. Flynn wrapped a firm arm around his waist to steady him and addressed the palm of his hand to the slim, bare bottom over his knee, hard and very accurately. Dale jerked at the first couple of swats, and as more rained down too fast for him to process or to catch his breath, he found himself squirming without the faintest dignity. It was like a fire being lit, smart over smart, Flynn’s hand not missing a single spot, and within seconds his entire backside was burning and he was twisting and yelping without a thought in his head except what was happening to his rump. It seemed like an overwhelming relief when after a downpour of that awful swatting Flynn actually stopped, although his arm hadn’t slackened in the slightest around Dale’s waist.

“Feel like you’re done with that tantrum?”

Oh yes.

Dale managed to clear his throat and manage a coherent and fervent “Yes!”, and rapidly became a good deal more fervent as instead of standing him back on his feet, Flynn simply went on holding him, bare butt up, hanging over his knee.

“I’m still waiting for my definition of ‘handling’.”

He expected clarity of thought in this position? Dale clutched for a better grip on hard, jeaned calf, and tried to stop gasping and to pull himself together.

“Without getting stressed.”

His answer was an immediate and still harder swat, and he yelped and surrendered, immediately.

“Not going into it defensive and struggling and stuck on managing it like a crisis – Flynn I’m sorry! I was trying to prove to myself that I could do it, and I hate not getting it right. I’m done. Really, I’m done.”

I’ll be good! I swear!

“Is there some kind of exam that I’m not aware of?” Flynn demanded. “Or are you assuming that years of experience in this kind of relationship ought to be faked so you properly fit in? Or that the others were never at the point you are now?”

There was something horribly clarifying about observing the grass and Flynn’s boots in this awful position, butt on fire and Flynn’s palm still resting on it. Dale took a breath and shook his head.

“They were mostly younger than I am now, and most of them hadn’t screwed up a career before they – ow!”

The swat was still harder.

Dale blinked, trying to regain his breath and aware his eyes were blurring.

“Ok, ok, no one thinks I screwed anything up except me. I don’t get this paranoid when it’s just us here, it’s because I feel like I’m being judged and that makes me start judging first and I know it’s not rational, they’re not even rational standards. I just can’t help feeling like this! I don’t even realise until it’s happening, it’s not something I decide to do....”

He trailed off and Flynn’s hand patted where it rested, heavy and sustaining his wholehearted attention.

“Who plans what you’re going to do with a day?”

“....You.”

Flynn heard the change in his voice. Not resentful, not reluctant; that admission always came to him with relief, a handing over of choking responsibility.

“My decision.” he said bluntly to Dale. “And that’s all it is. Right now you’re seeing it as a judgement on what I think you can and can’t do, it’s all in terms of failing and success criteria, and that’s sheer bullshit. You know exactly what I think of that. If you think I’m going to leave you alone to chew yourself up with that kind of thinking, you’ve got another think coming kid. If need be, we’ll go right back to you doing nothing at all until you remember how to do things calmly and with your mind on the here and now, and not on whether or not you’re achieving to Olympic standard. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir.”

Quick and very sincere.

Flynn put him down on his feet and helped him dress, and put a hand under Dale’s chin when he was done, making him look up.

“Every one of us has been where you are now, and you are doing fine. And whoever is here, it makes no difference at all to us, or to what I expect of you.”

Dale nodded, and Flynn held his gaze long enough to be sure it was understood. Then kissed Dale very firmly and gave him a brisk swat towards Hammer.


“Then let’s go.”
      


*


It was a long, slow, physical day that brought its own kind of peace. Dale, who loved riding Hammer, who loved the rolling, beautiful land of the ranch, and loved the company of the men he was with, and had the mild but definite tenderness of his backside constantly at the back of his mind, found it easier to do as Flynn demanded and simply be. Be here. Be with them. Respond moment by moment to what was now.


They settled on the bank of the river in the shade of the overhanging trees to eat the lunch they had carried with them. Tom and Jake caught up with them there, and Tom swiped Jake’s hat off his head and roughly shook out Jake’s damp hair.


“Dry off for pete’s sake. You sweat like a pig when you’re hot.”


Jake gave him a tolerant grin, sat down in the long grass with his back against a tree trunk and gripped Tom by the belt, pulling him down between his knees. Tom leaned back against his chest and sharply criticised Jake’s tearing up of the filled roll he shared between the two of them, which Jake took no notice of. Dale had often seen them eat off the same plate; even when they were given two plates they seemed to graze freely between both.


Hungry, having eaten very little at breakfast, Dale made a good meal from the ample supplies Paul had sent them with, and rather than plunge straight back to work when they were done eating, as usual the others simple stretched out and rested, taking their time. Jasper pulled himself up to sit on the remains of a fallen tree trunk, and held out a hand to Dale.


“Come here.”           

Dale looked at him, slightly wary, but got up and Jasper turned him to sit on the grass, back against Jasper’s legs, and Jasper’s long, sensitive fingers pushed his head forward and felt along the line of his neck until Dale jumped and hissed between his teeth.



“You’ve been holding that stiff all morning.” Jasper said mildly, very gently finding the remains of the bruise on Dale’s head underneath his hair. “You must have given yourself quite a crack.”


“I don’t remember.” Dale admitted. “We were thinking about other things at the time.”

Jasper pulled his shirt off over his head, found the tightest muscles at the base of Dale’s skull and his fingers seemed to sink right into them. Dale found himself dropping his head forward with a grunt of comfort. Flynn crossed his ankles, lying back in the grass, and tipped his hat over his face. Jake, on one elbow, had pulled another battered book from his pocket and was reading, chewing on a stalk of grass. Tom, face down with his head on his arms, had his eyes closed and Dale assumed he was dozing until he jumped and muttered, and Jake put a hand on his shoulders without looking up from his book, rubbing slowly. Tom turned his head and muttered something else, and went limp again, and Jake went on rubbing over his shoulders, gentle circles of his palm as if he was mapping the bone and muscle underneath.



“Bad night?” Jasper said softly from behind Dale. Jake looked up, taking the grass out of his mouth.
“Full moon.”


You never knew with these two if they were serious or not. Dale ducked his head, trying not to hiss or to wriggle as Jasper worked on a particularly sore spot with fingers that seemed to find the exact most sensitive places, and found that he had numerous images of them at lunchtimes settled like this together on the grass, Jake reading with Tom asleep beside him. Or at least lying with his eyes closed. Dale had never seen him reading himself at these times. 


Jasper appeared to have tireless hands. It was a while before he worked right down Dale’s spine and out across his shoulders, and while he was quietly ruthless when he found a knot, what initially was painful rapidly melted away and Dale was aware of his shoulders and neck feeling a good deal freer and a heaviness in his head having lifted for the first time in days.


“You could use a rest yourself.” Jasper said softly when he finally let Dale go. “Put your shirt on and lie flat for a while.”


Dale sat up to shoulder into his shirt, and Jasper got up, taking one of the water canteens with him and walking slowly down the river bank. Aware of Jake’s presence and of having been given what Jasper would regard as an order rather than a suggestion, Dale rather self consciously lay back in the grass, arms under his head. Light filtered down through the green leaves and the soft sounds of the passing river were mixed with the rustle of the trees and the grass.


“What are you reading?” he asked Jake quietly enough not to disturb Flynn or Tom. Jake flashed the cover of the book up at him. Voltaire’s Candide. Dale blinked, with grim memories of literature lessons at school, and admiration for the fact the man was actually reading it for pleasure.


“It might just as easily be John Donne poems or Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Jake said lightly, “We’re pretty eclectic. Are you much of a reader?”


“Paul’s working on me.” Dale admitted. Jake smiled.


“He’s quite a writer. Although he’s very quiet about it. And he’s been driving his publisher nuts for years by refusing to have anything much to do with a manuscript once he’s finished it. I don’t know what they make of ‘you publicise it if you want to, I’m baking’.”


That was such a perfect imitation of Paul’s familiar voice that Dale stifled a laugh. And it reminded him again of the unusualness of the men on this ranch. Intelligent, able, powerful people – who chose to be here and to put the full force of themselves into things that a year ago Dale would have been baffled they would waste their time on. Paul, who loved to cook and to organise and who did it so effortlessly. Jake and Tom, both of them with powerful minds and restless bodies. Flynn, a qualified, published psychologist, who put the same dedicated attention into mending a fence and looking over stock as he did to working with a screwed up client, and made it all the same part of his day’s work. Jasper. Who was a mystery, except to those who loved him most, and who had practical skills and knowledge that Dale knew he hadn’t even started to plumb the depths of. People and animals and the land; Jasper understood all three in the same way, with the same expertise. 


You whine that you’ve bollocked up your career – it’s no wonder they won’t sympathise Aden; they don’t see why an intelligent man is wasting his life doing something so silly as finance. And they’re more than happy for you to do what you want with your career, it’s you that they won’t see screwed up.


It was the people who mattered here.


“Of course you’ll talk to him.” Tom said conversationally without opening his eyes. “Me, no chance, but him...? What kind of a Top do you call yourself, Jacob?”


“Yours.” Jake said genially.


“He’s like this even up a mountain,” Tom told Dale, “Twenty four hour comedian.” And while Jake’s expression didn’t change in the slightest, or his eyes lift from his book, there was nothing genial at all about the hard swat he dealt Tom’s upturned bottom.


Tom didn’t yelp but he grimaced and after that he said nothing else. Distinctly thoughtful, Dale lay back and went on looking at the trees overhead.



*



They reached the yard around four pm and stood the horses in the yard to groom them before turning them out into the corral. Flynn put Flint in the corral with the others, instead of into the paddock with the other two year olds, and Dale saw him pause to speak to a very disgruntled looking Gucci before he climbed the gate into the colts’ paddock. Jake took the saddlebags into the kitchen and Tom led Nekkid and Moo after Dale and Hammer, towards the paddock. Jake was already standing by the fence across the yard when they turned them loose, obviously waiting for Tom, who glanced back at him.


“I guess that means we’re not staying for dinner.”


“Would you like to?” Dale asked, genuinely curious. Tom gave him a shrug.


“Very mixed feelings. But it’s not relevant now anyway.”


He said that without the slightest rancour. Dale shut and locked the corral gate.


“You don’t mind?”


“Neither do you when you’ve got your head straight.” Tom said bluntly. “You have now; you hadn’t this morning.”


It was still embarrassing that someone else saw, never mind understood. Tom gave him a rough barge with his shoulder as they walked back towards the yard.


“Yeah everyone here saw. Yeah they understood too, it’s happened to everyone. Don’t worry about it.”

“Can I ask you something?” Dale said slowly. Tom gave him a reserved look.



“Depends.”


“You never stop teasing Jake. Why did he swat you this afternoon? I’ve never seen him mind before.”


“He didn’t.” Tom said laconically. “That meant shut up. I was talking. Actually he gave me a lot more slack than he usually would, because you lot were there. If we’d been alone he’d have just turned me straight over his knee.”


That begged as many questions as it answered. Tom dug his hands in his pockets and Dale watched him walk with Jake towards the bunkhouse. What they’d do with their evening was anyone’s guess.


Wade was sitting on the far end of the porch overlooking the home pasture, and Luath, Darcy, Gerry and Ash were sitting with him. The hood of someone’s car was up and Bear was stooped inside, a spanner dug into the loose pocket of his dungarees. Theo, reading a book with his glasses on the edge of his nose, was sitting with his back to one of the tyres. Dale walked up the porch steps, not very sure about the evening ahead or what would be expected of him, and quite ready to offer himself to Paul to do anything useful that would involve being purposefully occupied.


He found Paul in the kitchen, showing a piece of paper to Riley who did not look happy about it, and Paul looked up as Dale heeled off his boots.


“Ah. Just who we needed. Riley was explaining to me about this.”


Dale accepted the paper from him and glanced at the heading.


“It’s the fax we sent to Raf, he’s a translator I employ.”


Riley dropped his head down onto his arms on the table with a loud thunk. Dale looked at him in surprise and Paul took the fax out of his hand.


“Explain to me about Raf?”


“Don’t.” Riley said into his arms. “Don’t explain, just deny everything.”

Paul tapped the top of Riley’s head. “Raf.”



“He’s a translator, I’ve worked with him plenty of times.” Dale said, increasingly baffled. “Riley sent a fax across to him with a copy of David’s map to see if he could get an interpretation of the Cantonese on it-“


“You researched the map?” Paul asked Riley. “Who exactly gave you permission to use the office or to contact this guy? I don’t remember any discussions about it?”


“..... it's a fax machine,” Riley said unwillingly, “it was kind of there, and it was only once-“

 “Dale, are you allowed to work in the office whenever you want?” Paul inquired. Dale, knowing the answer to that, gave it promptly.

“No sir”

Riley shot him a faintly resigned look. “Dale didn’t, I did.”

“After he gave you the number and the contact.” Paul surmised. “What do you think Flynn is going to make of this?”


Riley winced visibly.  “We don’t need to involve him! I won't do it again, it wasn't a problem, it wasn't like we went looking for the mine...”

“You're asking me to cover this up from him?” Paul said mildly. “Dale had a breakdown six months ago. Do you think we're just going to be easy come easy go on how that office gets used? We’ve discussed this.”

“But he didn't use it, I did.  And just once and it won't happen again.”

“What won’t?” Jasper asked from behind Riley, who jumped and glared at him.

“Can't you wear a frickin’ bell?”

Jasper quietly came to look at the paper on the table, peering over Paul’s shoulder. Then looked up at Riley.

“Ri, do you want to go and get Flynn or shall I?”

“We don't have to, that's what I'm trying to say...”  Riley began and stopped as Jasper raised an eyebrow. “You're making a big deal out of nothing. Ok, I'm going to find Flynn.”

“Riley.” Jasper said mildly.

Riley stopped in the doorway, looking rather uncertainly at Jasper. Jasper spoke as calmly as he always did.

“Are you done snapping?”

Riley didn’t look sure for a moment, then sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“Go ask Flynn to come here please.”

“Yes sir.” Riley headed out of the door and they heard him yell across the yard.

“This is probably my fault,” Dale began, still not very sure what the problem was. “I had the contact-“

“You went to Riley and suggested faxing something to your contact?” Paul asked him, not sounding very convinced.

“No, he said Wade came up with the idea and he came to me to ask for the number-” Dale broke off as Paul looked up at Jasper, then got up and went to the kitchen door.

 “Wade? Can we have a word please?”

“Ubiquitous.” Wade suggested from his chair.

Paul waited. Wade rolled his eyes and got up.

“Irritating?  Verbose? Am I going to need to get a dictionary out for this?”

Luath, seeing Paul’s face, got up and put a hand in the small of Wade's back, pushing him ahead into the kitchen

 “Can I help?”

“You can go find my walking cane,” Wade offered. “Some bugger keeps hiding it.”

“Trust me, you really don’t want me to go get a cane.” Luath said, folding his arms and leaning back against the counter in the same posture Jasper often used.

Wade grimaced at Dale and sat down.  

“That’s a revolting threat. Don’t you think that’s a revolting threat? Someone should explain to him, he might be big and loomy but he’s American and he’s not allowed to do weird things like canes.”

Flynn appeared with Riley trailing him, and paused, hand on the door frame to heel his boots off. Riley did the same and came to sit down at the table, not looking very happy at all. Dale, watching Flynn’s face, saw him look closely at Riley and then around the table, and his voice, while abrupt, was gentle.

“What's the problem here?”

“Creative use of the fax machine.”  Paul said succinctly, handing over the fax sheet.

Riley cut in, voice muffled as he had his head down on his arms. “Before you go nuts, I did it, Dale never went into the room. I asked him and he knew a translator guy who translated David's map, the Chinese on it.”

“What's the big deal with that?” Wade said airily. “Good lead as it turned out.”

“Don't even start.” Luath said sharply, and Dale saw Wade jump. “There has never been a time in this house when it’s been acceptable to start contacting strangers without permission, or to go gathering information not discussed and agreed beforehand.”

“Well I wouldn’t know dear boy,” Wade said sweetly, regathering himself. “I was before your time.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't think before I gave Riley that number.”  Dale said uncertainly, aware of the atmosphere in the room and of Riley’s obvious distress.

Paul answered him, looking again at the fax.

“Who is this Raf, honey? Is he ok? You’ve known him a while?”

“Raf Pavlak, based in London. He’s worked for me for years, although I’ve never met him,” Dale said, trying to think through years of automatically reaching for the phone, fax or email. “I send him things, he translates, he invoices me via A.N.Z. – there’s a long term account set up with him.”

“When did you two contact him this time?” Flynn asked.

“After we found the map.”  Riley said without looking up.

“Found?” Paul commented. “That map was in my office, on my desk with the other paper. That isn’t finding, that’s search and rescue.”

“When.” Flynn repeated. “Early morning, afternoon, what were you both doing?”

“Evening.” Riley said reluctantly. “I think Dale was in trouble that day, he was in bed early?
I just went and asked him how to do it.”

“And how are you involved?”  Flynn went on, looking at Wade.

Wade answered a lot more politely, eyes on Flynn’s in a way Dale recognised. It was the same way he looked at Flynn too when Flynn was sounding this grim.

“I suggested trying faxing a copy to someone. I suspected Dale would know someone useful.”

“And why didn't anyone ask us for permission?”

Silence. Dale was not at all sure of the answer to that, but uncertainly sure that at the time he and Riley hadn't wanted to be overheard.... which made his conscience distinctly uncomfortable in a way he hadn’t felt since the age of about ten.

“Riley.” Flynn prompted.

“I knew you'd probably say no.” Riley said plaintively. “It wasn't anything harmful, we just wanted to know!”

“That’s always worked for me.” Wade murmured. Flynn ignored him.

“And that's a reason to not ask us?”

“Why do you need to ask, Ri?” Jasper asked quietly.

Riley looked around the three of them, Flynn, Paul and Jasper, and surrendered.

“....Because we discuss what's safe, and whether you're happy with it.”

“Why?”

“We never had a fax before this summer anyway!”

“No, it wasn't discussed outright.” Flynn agreed. “Which makes no difference whatever.  Dale, I know this is still new to you, and Riley knows it well, but we expect that the two of you check with us before you go making investigations or contacting people. We make judgements together on what’s safe and appropriate, and these are things you need permission for, no matter how curious you are or how small a deal it seems.”

With a career behind him where often he got to deal with information and people that everyone else was afraid of and baffled by, there was a very curious security in that.

“Yes, sir.”

“Moreover,” Jasper said quietly, “Riley, you know Dale's issues here and this is a line you two don't cross. If the office is off limits to Dale, and it will be without permission and time limits, you both know very well that means that emails and faxes don’t travel by proxy. There are good reasons why.”

Riley nodded unwillingly, and Luath put a hand on Wade’s shoulder.

“Wade. Come on.”

Wade looked glad to get out of the line of fire. He got up and followed Luath, who closed the kitchen door behind them, and Flynn nodded to Riley.

“Ri, go get the lexan.”

“Flynnnnnnnnnnn...” Riley began pitifully, and Flynn interrupted him, voice quite gentle.

“Go on, half pint.”  

Riley got up extremely slowly and went out towards the study. He was back a moment later, the lexan paddle in his hand. Flynn took it from him and laid it on the kitchen table, and Jasper cleared his throat from where he sat.

“There’s one more thing I think we need to discuss here.”

He spoke quietly, but very seriously, and it felt as if the kitchen got very still. He hadn’t stood up, felt no need to stand to exert his authority, but his dark eyes met Dale’s and Dale felt a severe jolt in his stomach at their seriousness.

“Riley, where did that diagram come from to be faxed in the first place?”

“From Paul’s office.” Riley admitted after a minute, very quietly. “It was mostly borrowing for a few minutes, but yeah, I know.”

“Strictly speaking it’s our information anyway.” Paul said in his defence, “I only had it there because I was looking through it-“

“I still shouldn’t have just taken it.” Riley said subduedly. “We don’t just go through each other’s things. I’m sorry.”


“You’re both also aware,” Jasper said just as quietly, “That this is land with a lot of memory stacked on it. It’s been sacred land for centuries. You’ve both got understanding of what that means. What you concentrate on, what you think about, what you pursue, has an impact.”

“We didn’t make the landslide happen!” Riley protested. Jasper gave him a level look.


“If you stir up memories, things that were important to people, you have no way of knowing what is and isn’t possible. It’s something the people we inherited this land from would think very foolish, and so do I. This is another reason why we discuss together what we do, before we act. There are things to think about before you let your curiosity run away with you – both of you.”

It was succinct and to the point, but the impact was in his tone and his gravity as much as his words.  There was a silence when he’d finished, then Flynn looked up at Paul, both hands resting on the table.

“Anything you want to add?”

Paul shook his head. Jasper and Flynn looked at each other, and it was Jasper who got up and pushed the nearest chair well back. Dale realised why with another and nastier jolt to the stomach as he simply took a seat and drew Riley to him, unbuckled his belt and unzipped his jeans and Riley stood with his hands by his sides, watching helplessly as Jasper put his thumbs inside the waistband of both his jeans and shorts, stripping both briskly downward. Jasper put a hand on the small of his back to turn Riley over his knee, Dale watched him brace a long arm across Riley’s back, securing him in place, and he picked the paddle up from the table, shifting it in his grasp. He didn’t raise his arm far, but the swat of the transparent lexan blade against bare skin was loud and Riley yelped, jerking and grabbing for Jasper’s ankle.

Dale had been paddled before by Jasper, but never bare and never with the lexan which had far more bite to it than the wooden paddle. Riley’s yelps were rapidly becoming yells and his backside was scarlet and twisting over Jasper’s knee. Dale had lost count of the swats, steady and unhurried, and was having a lot of difficulty looking at anything else. It seemed like a long time before Jasper put Riley on his feet and steadied him, putting a hand up to wipe the worst of the tears from his face. Riley kicked off his jeans and eased up his shorts, and Jasper said something quiet to him, after which Riley went slowly towards the corner by the door and clasped his hands on top of his head, squirming slightly as he stood.

Jasper held out a hand to Dale, and Dale swallowed and went to him, already trying to unfasten his belt buckle in an attempt to avoid the humiliation of being undressed. It made no difference, Jasper simply moved his hands and did it himself, shorts and jeans skinned down together and far lower than was necessary, which made Dale feel still smaller and still more significantly in disgrace. Somewhere in the room Riley was sniffling and Paul and Flynn were watching, but there was no attention to spare for them. Jasper simply rested the flat of his hand on the small of Dale’s back, and Dale somehow made himself lean down over Jasper’s knee, bracing his hands on the cold kitchen tiles and trying to forget that his backside was still tender from Flynn’s handiwork this morning. He felt Jasper’s hand on his hip, long fingers and a warm palm, then the cold touch of the paddle against his cheeks for a second. And then a swat so sharp that he had no hope of stifling the yelp that burst out. That damn paddle hurt. And before the blazing sting of that swat was even fully realised, another fell, lower, making him jerk over Jasper’s lap, quite unable to be stoic. Flynn paddled like he spanked; hard and with a stiff wrist, with a lot of force behind it. Jasper was no lighter, but having watched him do this with Riley, Dale had seen the flexibility in his wrist and the result was a heck of a lot more sting.  And relentlessly, swat after swat, that burning sting got worse, even after the point where Dale would have sworn he was past noticing another swat.  The sixth or seventh tore a yell out of him, he was aware of doing a lot of very undignified wriggling around, and by the twelfth he was breathless, his eyes were watering and he was on the brink of swearing off any kind of electrical equipment ever again. He was acutely aware of the relief of hearing Jasper lay that paddle down on the table, and of the hand on his hip that kept him where he was for a minute, while he found the floor again with both feet and both hands and tried to catch his breath and pretend he’d behaved with anything like appropriately manly valour.

Jasper helped him to his feet, and Dale somehow fumbled his clothes back into place, trying not to hesitate too obviously as he eased denim over his flaming hot, blazing backside. It was impossible to stand still, he was shifting from foot to foot with the sting of it. Jasper put a hand on his shoulder, turning him towards the door.

“Shower, and lie down on your bed until dinner.”

He called to Riley then, but Dale, too grateful for the chance to escape, had already fled.

In the sanctuary of the family room, alone, he put both hands very gingerly over his backside and squeezed, the instinctive response to try and do something about the stinging and the heat, leaned against the nearest cool wall and swore, comprehensively under his breath for some minutes while the worst of it eased to manageable levels. It was standing there, in the quiet near the study, that he heard the distant and very familiar whop....whop....whop of a paddle falling- the duller sound of the wooden paddle – and realised that the study door was closed. And that the muffled yelps, squeals and protests came from a familiar voice.

Wade.




There was peace in having some time to himself while he showered, after his initial discovery that hot water and a well paddled backside did not combine well.

In a tepid shower, Dale scrubbed himself down on autopilot, aware that rather than upset, in any way, he actually felt more together than he’d felt all day. Which was probably mildly insane. From what he’d observed, Riley usually wanted to dive for comfort into the arms of whoever had felt sufficiently strongly to spank him. And there were times Dale understood that; there were times when he felt more emotionally shattered afterwards than physically.

And then there were incidents like these, which were simply very clear lines drawn in the sand, with no hard feelings on either side. That was something he would have liked to ask of the others; if he was the only one who could feel this safe, this oriented along with this horribly uncomfortable.

But Jas understands it.

There was just as much security in that. He left the bathroom mechanically tidy as he always did, stopped for a moment in front of the newly placed chest of drawers in Flynn’s room and found himself resting a hand on it.

This is me. This is me here, my life.

Normality.

He pulled out a clean t shirt, shorts, and stopped there, as the thought of jeans right now was not comfortable. Instead, in front of the open window, he lay face down on Flynn’s – their – bed, and propped his chin on his arms. His butt still smarted fiercely. He was going to be lucky to sleep on his back tonight. 

Closing his eyes, he fought the quick blush that started when his mind replayed the events downstairs. Three- three - of them paddled soundly, with most of the rest of the extended family within hearing distance.  The thought of facing them at dinner time made his stomach twist uncomfortably, yet....there was no doubt that everyone in this house at this moment, understood.  It was a fact of life under this roof that brats would inevitably at some point be punished. And from Riley, who had learned from others, some of whom had known David, Dale had learned their culture, and knew that to them, there was no shame in being spanked. Any shame involved came earlier in the realisation that you had let someone down. The men you loved, and most of all yourself.  The punishment itself, whether it was motivation, warning, an attention getter or a firm change of perspective - was just balancing the books. 

And it had happened here, just like this, for decades.  To think of Philip and David being the first on this old land was probably short sighted, but it was here under this particular roof that Philip and David started the current traditions that were carried on through the generations of family members that had lived here on their ranch at different points in their lives. Dale knew from Flynn himself that Flynn had found himself across Philip's knee on more than one occasion, though not the particulars.  He didn't know particulars on most everyone besides Riley, and in his experience people here were discreet in a quietly protective way towards each other. But it was the .... way of life here, the beliefs and the values and the routines that carried on. This was still Philip and David’s home, still their family and their way of doing things, and that sense of belonging – oddly it was very powerful.  

Jasper leaned against the doorpost of the open door and Dale glanced up and gave him a subdued smile, not turning over. Jasper came over and stretched out on the bed beside him, saying nothing but putting a hand on his back and rubbing slowly. It reminded Dale of watching Jake with Tom up by the river, and the connection was rather a jolt – that protective, infinitely affectionate and private gesture between those two being replicated here, as though he was actually –

Actually what, Aden? What did you think you were? A client?

He put his head down on his arms again, face towards Jasper, with a sudden and very childish urge to plead to stay here, like this, just like this, until he fell asleep and finished what had been a very mixed day. It was peaceful up here. The room was cool. He was tired and this felt overwhelmingly safe until he was nearer tears than he had been all day.

“It’s going to be easier when it feels finished.” Jasper said quietly, still rubbing his back.

That was so exactly it that Dale’s throat tightened painfully. Jasper leaned over him and kissed his cheek, resting his forehead against Dale’s.

“You’ve handled his possessions, you followed his message, you found him, how could you not be involved with him? And he was a friend of David’s, which makes him one of ours. You feel strongly about that, the same way we all do. Flynn promised you, and I promise you, we will put this right. Tohidu.”

The accent was Jasper’s familiar one, but the word was unfamiliar.

“What does that mean?” Dale asked unsteadily.

Jasper lay down beside him again, close and still rubbing his back slowly.


“Perfect peace. Mind, body and spirit.”


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

6 comments:

Ciejye said...

I love the ups and downs of this chapter. The insight we get into the Brats, the way they team up together and yet still let others know what is what when they cross a line. I also love the way Dale and Tom seem to be responding to each other. That is a nice touch.

My favorite thing of course was that Wade, sweet darling that he is, FINALLY got what he needed. That someone was there and straightened him out. The family so tight that when a Brat needs taking in hand, it will be done.

I love Wade and think he needs to come and live on the ranch. Luath and Darcy too :P

Ranger said...

awww, thank you Ciejye :)

Liz Lilies said...

I don't really get Darcy's part. Is it possible to be in-between being a top and brat?! His character sounds more brat-like.

@Ciejye: how come you didn't finish 'The Camping Trip' series or that of Madison and Barth's or the others. Those were great reads (sorry for using this forum to get my comments to you)

Kacey said...

Great chapter, though I feel a little frustrated that nobody thought to point out the fact that understanding that map, and having those notes translated, is probably what saved Dale and Riley's lives down in the mine. I can't help but feel indignant on their behalf that while Jasper will gently accuse them of indirectly contributing to the landslide through their interest, nobody acknowledged the much more tangible result, which was using the translated clues to find the adit.

Barbra said...

@Kacey-My thought exactly!

Rebecca Myers said...

Love this series! Is there a story for when Tom and Jake met?

Three Traders