Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 16


Luath found Paul alone in the kitchen and whistled softly at the neatness of it.

“Wow. I was coming to see if you wanted help clearing up from dinner. What did you do, throw everything out?”

“Oh this isn’t me, this is Dale.” Paul shut the pantry door with his hip, hands full of things for tomorrow’s breakfast. “He sees something that needs doing and he goes for it. Look at the cutlery drawer.”

Luath opened the drawer and raised his eyebrows.

“Well I guess you’ve finally got one of us who is naturally domesticated. Does he use a ruler when he does this?”

“No, he just likes things done right.” Paul put together a bread mix with the skilled knack of sheer habit and put the dough out on the table, starting to work it. “Especially when he’s fraught. It’s been a stressful few days.”

“With the full crowd gathering to stare at him I’m not surprised.” Luath said with sympathy.

“Are you all ok? This wasn’t a great time to have everyone descend on you so soon after Dale left work. He can’t be finding it easy.”

“He isn’t.” Paul said frankly, “We didn’t expect him to, but we’re doing ok.”

“From what I know of him by reputation, he’s an extraordinary man.” Luath took a seat at the table, watching Paul work. “Nerves of steel and a mind like a razor. He was an expert witness in a major financial fraud mess a year or so ago that I was following, I read his testimony. It was inspired.”

“Get Ash on the subject.” Paul advised. “He can’t resist getting Dale to talk shop every chance he gets.  If you knew of Dale before he came here; what did you think?”

Luath, who had worked with Philip from this house in the days when Philip had a finger in many large national corporations and links with the people who ran them, and who for twenty years had played a similar role himself in several, leaned his elbows on the table and gave Paul a wry look, knowing what he meant. They’d been discussing high flying financiers over this table for the past twenty years; it was familiar territory. 

“Why are you asking? For his sake or mine?”

Paul gave him a calm shrug. “Both. I can’t help wanting to understand as much as I can about Dale before he came here, he’s not someone who finds it easy to talk about that kind of detail and it was important to him. And I guess there’s a good reason too why you’ve been trying to get me alone and ask.”

“You’re still nastily pre cognisant.” Luath complained. Paul gave him a sympathetic smile and Luath sighed.

“Yes, ok, I knew of Dale and I thought: there’s a young man who’ll burn himself out. You realise he would have caught Philip’s eye just for that reason? Someone of that age, that talented? Philip would have found a way to meet him and get him out here years ago, and he would have put some work into stabilising him. I should have done. When I realised who it was you had here, and how bad things had gotten for him, I felt horrible.”

“We thought you’d blame yourself.” Paul said wryly. “Don’t. Dale’s very elusive, I doubt you would have got near him. He’s a master at letting no one realise he’s in trouble until he’s past controlling anything at all. He only came out here when A.N.Z. blackmailed him into seeking help, and it was only then that we realised we were dealing with a brat as much as an exec.”

“Even more reason I should have done something.” Luath said bleakly. “If I’d tried a bit harder, I
might have been the one who spotted him and a couple of years earlier. One of us in the right place at the right time and the chances are he wouldn’t have had to go through a major breakdown that ended his career.”

“I’d stop worrying. Dale’s very clear on what he thinks of his career and he’s a very definite decision maker once he has the facts figured out.” Paul put the dough to rise and wiped down the table. “He likes the work, the problem solving – Flynn says intellectual challenge is like bait on a hook for him, but he told me once that at A.N.Z. he felt like a kid pretending in a suit. Always scared stiff that someone was going to find out he was working out what to do as he went along. He’s driven to excel and he can excel so the whole thing becomes a vicious circle unless someone gets in his way and makes him keep a sense of perspective. And I mean ‘make’. He’s very polite about it, but he’s got a will of iron.”

“I’m aware he’s intense.” Luath said with feeling. “He’s got an amazing amount of presence too, I’ve every sympathy with Darcy being scared of him. I’m surprised Riley isn’t.”

“Riley saw straight through him from the start.” Paul said with affection. “He was about the only one of us who could get a word or a smile out of him for a while.” He wrung the cloth out and began to collect salad items from the fridge, stacking them on the table. “Dale has absolutely no idea he’s intimidating, he just resorts to being stiff and formal when he’s nervous. He’s mostly anxious that he’ll be caught out not being a brat properly.”

“How on earth do you be a brat properly?” Luath demanded. “It just flows, naturally and in stereo from every one I’ve ever met!”

Paul smiled, sitting down to chop tomatoes. “I know, but it worries him. Actually one of our very few problems has been Riley rushing to his defence every time one of us needs to say anything to him.”

“So I’ve seen.” Luath said dryly. Paul gave him a quick smile.

“Very natural but we didn’t expect it, particularly poor Ri. I think he’s going to have the hardest time when Dale starts picking up work again.”

“He’s planning to?” Luath asked. Paul nodded, tipping the diced tomatoes into a large salad bowl and picking up a cucumber to slice.

“Free lance for A.N.Z., who apparently jumped at any chance to keep handing him the difficult stuff to unravel. He can pick his projects and his clients, and work from here. Mostly, he says, the detective type stuff that he enjoys, although we had one panicked Italian on the phone at some ungodly hour of the morning demanding to speak to him and only him when some poor senior person committed suicide. I’m sure we’ll get a few like that.”

“And Flynn’s ok?” Luath said casually. Paul rested his knife on the table and looked at him.

“What do you think? We do take proper care of your boy when you’re not looking.”

“I haven’t seen him stand still since I got here, and I think he looks stretched.” Luath said forthrightly. “I saw how quickly he herded your guys up to bed after dinner. But then if I’d thought Rog had been buried in a landslide and seen him come out of a mine with hypothermia I’d probably look a bit tense too. And two of them to worry about must be even worse.”

“It’s taking both of them some time to recover and Flynn can’t stand Riley to be unhappy or at risk in any way, you know what he’s like.” Paul went back to cutting cucumber in deft, small chunks.

“And the same goes for Dale?” Luath asked. Paul tipped cucumber into the bowl.  

“No, actually. Not in the same way. There’s real steel in Dale, he’s a lot like Flynn and Jas in that way and they understand it. It’s me that’s the soft touch.”

“Are you?” Luath said in surprise. Paul gave him a wry smile.

“For Dale? Oh yes. He hits every protective nerve I’ve got, and he’s a classic of the quiet ones needing a firm hand. Jas and Flynn are a lot tougher with him than Riley, and Ri tends to push us to be tighter still, he reads Dale very well. Dale’s made a lot of difference to Riley. To all of us, but I can see it especially in Riley and in Flynn. We’re getting a lot less of the black moods from Flynn. Dale pulls him out of himself.”

“How can you not be jealous?” Luath demanded. It was a question he’d asked before, and Paul, who had known and lived with Luath before Flynn and Jasper ever came to the ranch, smiled, knowing it was mostly rhetorical.

“There’s no one to talk to,” Gerry complained, coming in from the family room. “Where is everyone? There’s half the family here and no one’s doing anything interesting.”

“Riley and Dale have gone to bed,” Paul said, covering the finished salad, “I think Flynn’s still upstairs with them. Jake and Tom took Wade back to the bunk house with them, Jas is locking up and Darcy went with him-“

“And Theo and Bear were getting gooey eyed and hand in handy and were walking out towards the cairn when I saw them last.” Gerry sat down at the table with a heavy sigh. “It’s shocking, I don’t know how Theo doesn’t come back with crush injuries. And Ash keeps napping. He’s fallen asleep on the couch again

“It was quite a drive you made overnight,” Paul pointed out, “And I’m sure Ash drove most of it. If you’re bored, put that salad in the fridge for me and you can sweep the floor in here, I’ll mop it before I go to bed.”

“Don’t you think you carry the whole farm-boy early night thing a bit far?” Gerry complained, getting up with bad grace to get the broom. “It’s not like Philip’s looking.”

“It’s the same routine here it’s always been, you know it well.” Paul said cheerfully. “You’ll live.”

“Was Wade all right?” Luath asked Paul discreetly. Gerry snorted, pushing the broom over the floor.

“All right? He’s been in crying need of a thorough tanning for about the last six months, Darcy and I felt like lining up and cheering. I swear it got to the point where I thought about doing it if no one else was going to. It was past time you got over the whole eighty-four business and pulled your finger out. What did Riley and Dale catch it over? Anything interesting?”

“Gerald, mind your own business.” Paul said, covering the bread to rise for the morning.

“I’ll only ask them.” Gerry pointed out.

“They may not tell you.” Paul nudged him out of the way with a hip as he passed. “And you might as well sweep properly the first time, or I will make you do it again.”


Very late that evening after the household was in bed, Dale heard a car on the drive and grabbed for a t shirt, following Flynn out onto the landing. Riley, Ash and Gerry were in the night clothes in the dark of the kitchen with Paul visible in the dim yard among the excited dogs, helping two unfamiliar men lift bags out of the trunk of the car.

“Jungle drums.” Gerry said, winking at Dale. “I told you.”

He yelped at a sharp swat from Ash who looked exasperated.

“Without mentioning a word to me, or Paul or anyone else who lives here before you start issuing invitations, they really don’t need this right now–“

“This is Gerry’s home as much as mine,” Paul said soothingly from the yard, “And this is family so they don’t need invitations, they just come home when they want to. An idea of how many people will be wanting breakfast would be nice, but we’ll manage.”

“I don’t know how many are coming.” Gerry protested. “We rang around, that’s all. It’s who can get away.”

“We were raised like this,” Flynn said reassuringly to Ash, “You saw Philip do it. It’s never a problem.”

“They’re coming for the funeral of course,” Gerry said as though this was obvious. “David’s friend.”

Dale felt his stomach clench and swallowed carefully.

“So I guess that’s happening tomorrow.” Riley said, not as a question, propping up the door jamb and giving Flynn a slightly challenging look.

“I guess it is.” Flynn said mildly. He slipped an arm around Riley’s waist and gave him a hug, guiding him away from the door post. “You and Dale go back to bed, we can catch up in the morning. Yes, now, both of you. It’s past midnight and they’re going to want to sleep, not talk. They’ll still be here in the morning.”

Shaken, Dale padded back into the family room, hearing Ash growling quietly at Gerry about manoeuvring people into things they didn’t want to do, weren’t ready to do and hadn’t been consulted about, and Gerry in indignation and Flynn with a lot of tact go on explaining that they still didn’t think this was a problem.

“Does it really not matter?” he asked half an hour later when Flynn came back to bed. From the footsteps on the landing, the new arrivals had been accommodated somewhere – possibly in the attic rooms, the existence of which Dale knew of but had never seen. Flynn made himself comfortable, slid an arm under Dale and pulled him over, not relaxing his grip until Dale had settled down on his chest.

“You should be asleep, not chewing.”

Riley would have objected vociferously. Dale didn’t, but Flynn could feel his disquiet. This was information Dale was fascinated by and ravenous for; he had a lifetime trained habit of seeking information at high speed whether or not he was ready for it, and tomorrow he was going to be surrounded by these people and this situation, and needing to understand it. Gerry had rather forced their hand. It had been only a few weeks, and in the past six months Dale had made some tremendous changes in his life and in his own identity. Identities were fragile things; change too much and people easily lost themselves, and for that reason Flynn had stepped gently and made sure that the others did too. Dale needed time to consolidate, nothing further to think about or deal with, no further stresses. He had counted without Riley’s spectacular skills at finding trouble, and Dale’s extremely capable support of Riley.

“You do realise,” Paul had pointed out a few days ago, “That we’re just going to have to get used to this? Riley will go right on thinking of mad things to do, and Dale will always happily show him how. If Riley decided he wanted to locate Atlantis, Dale would probably know how to go about tracking it down."

“Does what not matter?” he said mildly. “Gerry calling people to turn up without warning, or Gerry making that decision? Which he wouldn’t have done alone; at least Darcy, Ri, Bear and Wade would have been involved, and Ri wouldn’t agree to anything you didn’t like, so I’m guessing it was ok with you too.”

“They didn’t really discuss it,” Dale said, considering. “They just all got out cell phones and someone went to  get car keys, and Ri said I’d see what was going to happen.”

“Ah.” Flynn said mildly, letting the darkness cover the fact he was smiling. Naive with even the most obvious social cues, Dale often innocently gave out information that Riley and Gerry would both have been extremely discreet about.  A straight question got a straight answer. It sent a bolt through Flynn of the fierce emotion he’d always felt around Dale; powerful affection, a deep protectiveness, and a combined amusement and respect. The naivety was only one facet of Dale, and a facet he only shared with them; a highly intelligent and competent man who had the courage and the trust in them to be so completely open about how little he understood out of his familiar work territory. Flynn went on rubbing slowly over Dale’s shoulders, pushing gently at the tension there.

“Philip had very strong ideas about what the word ‘family’ meant, and what responsibilities you had, and that was how he raised us. This was never run like a guest house or a refuge. Either you committed all the way to belonging or you didn’t.”

Dale turned his head and Flynn saw dark, reflective grey eyes which already understood a lot of what he was saying.

“Philip can’t have explained it to you in those terms when you first came, or you’d never have stayed.”

“No.” Flynn admitted. “It was a lot more implied than said, culture rather than written rules. Philip had a knack of getting your emotions in the right place and the rest just came naturally without you realising. You have no idea what a little sod I was when I first came here.”

“That isn’t how Paul sees it.”

“Paul wouldn’t.” Flynn said wryly. It was difficult to know how to explain, how to put it into words, and in many ways to say things that he’d never been able to really explain in words, even to Jasper and to Paul who had been there at the time and who knew.

“I came from a big family,” he said slowly, “But it was very different to this one. We weren’t close, there wasn’t any of that culture in the family. We were competitive – very competitive – and what got valued was work and tough. You learned very young what got ridiculed, you didn’t show weakness, you didn’t show any kind of need. Where I came from, stock was stock. Objects. You didn’t get attached to them, they were things you worked with like trucks and spades. You never let anyone catch you talking to a horse or petting it, or you got days of snide digs about your new girlfriend. I had enough of a temper for it to be clear in the family anyone who bothered me ended up bloody, and I suppose I survived on being mad. If I look at it from a professional point of view, it was all kinds of thwarted emotions being shoved down and covered with a front of acceptably tough mad.”

To the extent of going to the regular sheep fairs at the age of sixteen and seventeen, hard and muscular from fourteen hours a day heavy work, and releasing some of that pent up rage in bare knuckle boxing in the rough grass rings: something that still made Flynn go hot with shame when he thought of it. Not boxing so much as an excuse to cream some poor guy stupid enough to get into the ring and be the temporary personification of all his frustrations. The prize money had played a big part in the airfare across to the States, a passage literally bought with his own blood.  

“Where I came from, your family responsibilities were that you worked, hard, mostly by yourself, and you got respect for how much you got done, how long you kept going.” he said aloud to Dale, who alone with Jasper could truly understand that. With Dale, and the equally macho business culture he came from,  it was also hours of work through the day and through the night, never letting ‘sick’ or ‘tired’ or ‘personal life’ show that won status, just that it involved offices and computers rather than hours digging ditches and stringing fences, shearing sheep through the rain, riding miles a day, day after day, and sleeping rough up in sheep shelters and barns.

“So I came here thinking if I worked as I was used to working, which was hard enough to earn my keep anywhere – and I kept my head down and shut up – I’d be left alone. It was one hell of a culture shock when I found how wrong I was.”

“How did you realise?” Dale asked him softly.

He had a knack of listening that drew you into talking so easily that you forgot what time it was, or how much you were confiding. It was another thing that made him so like Philip.

“In psychological terms, it would be called modelling.” Flynn said out loud. Dale’s cheek was resting on his chest now, one arm flung over him. He was relaxed and listening and uncritical as only Dale and Riley could be uncritical.

“Demonstrating. Showing how. There was a house full of people showing me how they talked to and behaved to each other, all day, every day – like learning a foreign language, it gradually rubs off on you. Philip and Luath especially. Two guys who weren’t in any way soft or effeminate, who didn’t swear, didn’t lose their tempers, had impeccable table manners, social skills. They didn’t treat stock like objects and horses like trucks, and they told me what they thought and what they expected in words of one syllable when they saw me doing it.”

That didn’t gel with what Dale had seen every day since he first came here – the way Flynn touched and handled animals, sure, gentle, endlessly patient and intuitive, especially with the horses, all of whom loved him. From the foals still with their mothers, to the nervous colts he taught to tolerate tack and riding, to the most temperamental of the riding horses and the big shambling clysdales, every horse on the ranch was fearless around him and came eagerly to the fences at the sight of him. Dale understood their love and trust intimately himself for this deceptively taciturn man.

“You love the horses.”

Flynn nodded slowly.

“I always did. With Philip strolling out every morning in plain sight to talk to his particular favourites and play with the yearlings I got the courage up to start letting myself get attached to one or two and showing it. It was never a case of someone laying down rules, it was very gradual, and Philip knew from the start when he had a willing student, even when they didn’t look it. You know Philip never once showed he even noticed that I swore like a pirate? He waited until I realised I thought it was unacceptable – actually I realised I hated the fact I swore around Paul, I felt awful doing it - and talked to Philip about it, and then he and Paul and Luath helped me break the habit. The number of times Philip or Luath would sit beside me at the table at meals and not say a word, but just show me how a civilised man ate, what to do....  It was the same way Philip taught all of us about what he expected in the way of family responsibilities. Demonstrating and expecting. People mattered. You took care of each other, you stayed in touch, you listened, you took responsibility for each other. You were expected to turn up for events and occasions, no excuses, which is the button Gerry’s hit. So people will turn up, I’d guess most will, and no, none of us will mind. Philip had us well trained.”

“But you and Jas said you’d decide when and how to deal with Gam Saan.” Dale said neutrally. Flynn didn’t misunderstand the tone.

“That’s another ball game.” he said gently. “How the five of us do things is up to the five of us. When it comes to family matters, it’s not so clear cut. If Gerry and Wade and others feel it needs to be a full family affair then I don’t have any right to insist things happen my way. If you or Ri weren’t happy about it, that would be very different, but like I said, I know you and Ri were part of that decision.”

Riley because he knew what was intended, and Dale because he had no idea of what tomorrow might bring, other than that Riley was ok with it, and Dale put a tremendous amount of trust in Riley. Flynn could feel Dale chewing on that, trying to make sense of it, and it sent a bolt of protectiveness through him. In fact the emotion deepened by the day, and it was an ongoing effort to control it from showing around Dale, although at the same time it was easy to do anything Dale needed of him. To provide a relaxed consistency around him while he was finding his feet, making himself the safe and easy option for Dale to turn to, knowing that Dale had all the complexity and strong emotion in his life that he could handle at the moment. And Dale had no idea of his own limits. Or any idea of how much the body lying up at the mine was affecting him, or why.

“I don’t understand at all.” Dale said eventually. “They didn’t even try discussing it, they just did.”

Which went against every code he had been struggling to learn since he came here.

“Who they choose to be with their partners isn’t who they are with everyone.” Flynn said lightly, running a hand down Dale’s back to gently pat his rump which was still very warm and very tender from Jasper’s handiwork with the paddle some hours ago, knowing how powerful an anchor that gesture tended to be for him. “You know that. Gerry and Wade are senior to me in many ways, they’re more experienced and older members of the family, and this is their home. Who am I to tell them what they can and can’t do?”

Dale thought about that, well aware that there were certain areas in which Flynn would without hesitation tell Gerry and Wade and others what they could and couldn’t do. Just as he knew that Luath or any other member of this family, even the total strangers, wouldn’t hesitate to intervene with certain things they saw him do. But it was just as likely to be someone who preferred the brat designation as a Top who intervened. Riley could be more direct and demanding than Flynn or Jasper at times.

“But you don’t mind they just – bulldozed it into being tomorrow?”

“I might have.” Flynn said reflectively. “And if I had, we’d have discussed it and dealt with it. We don’t always agree and that’s a part of living in any group. You can’t draw a line down the middle, it’s nothing like that simple, but – I suppose those of us on the Top side of the line tend to manoeuvre on our own. Some more than others, Luath and I are probably the worst, but we like to plan alone by our priorities particularly when things are rough, and our main concern is our own immediate people and responsibilities, and we can get single minded about it.”

Yes. What Riley called ‘protect the herd’ mode, with no regard at all for what the herd might be thinking at the time. If Flynn wanted them moved, he moved them.

“The movers and shakers in the family,” Flynn went on quietly, “have always been mostly brats. David, Gerry, Darcy, Wade – Ri doesn’t get in on the flying texts and emails and he stays on the fringes of it, but there’s a pretty tight network. Ash swears if he stubs his toe at breakfast, the entire family have been notified by lunchtime.  And the ones you can rely on to send the emails, keep up with the social chat and keep others posted day in day out and to be more interested in discussing and negotiating as a group – it just tends to be more the brats.”

And Flynn and Jasper had patiently waited and filled time in the corral yesterday morning, not interfering in any way with the meeting in the barn, although they’d watched people go in and come out. That tradition was obviously older than either of them; Dale wondered who’d taught Flynn to politely look the other way.

“You thought something like this would happen.” he said, realising. “You knew that was what would come out of the meeting yesterday.”

“I thought it was probably on the cards from the minute Wade texted everyone to say you were stuck down a mine.” Flynn said dryly. “I’ve known meetings end in blazing rows, I’ve been called in to mediate once or twice, and I’ve insisted on mediating a few times, but yesterday looked like it came to an agreed conclusion which meant you and Ri were okay with it. Those of us who have lived here saw Philip handle this and go with the flow so many times, it’s not a problem. You think if David reached a decision like this that Philip just would have dismissed it? Can you see David going along with that?”

No. That made perfect sense. And they went on living as Philip had taught them to do, and to them this was Philip and David’s house; Dale understood that because he felt it so acutely himself, and had done from his earliest days here. He too loved two men that in practice he had never met, for himself and still more for how much Paul, Jasper, Riley and especially Flynn loved them.

In that light he could understand too why there had been the silence in the barn yesterday, why Gerry had so decisively acted and the others had followed, and why Flynn and the others who belonged here didn’t question it.  It was the same powerful emotion that had driven Dale from the very first he knew of the little Cantonese miner; it was amazing to realise that they genuinely shared in it. Dale had only known that something needed to happen for Gam Saan, some proper ceremony, although he couldn’t have explained what. But Gerry and the others knew, and whatever happened tomorrow, Dale knew it would be right. The rightness of it was as deeply comforting as Flynn’s body against his. Gam Saan was David’s friend, and to every man in this house, that made him one of them.


In the hours through the night and before breakfast, more cars rumbled slowly over the grassed drive and lined up along it.

If the lines of authority had seemed blurred and uncertain to Dale last night, they certainly didn’t seem so this morning. While Dale heard the cars arriving, the voices downstairs and the out in the yard, Flynn kept him from sitting up or going to the window to look, apparently fixated that this was nothing whatever to do with either of them and in no way relevant to his plans for the day. He kept Dale in bed until well past seven, and from the vigorous, muted and very brief argument Dale heard on the landing, he did the same with Riley. When Flynn came back, dressed and shaved, and gave Dale permission to get up, he then stood over him while he showered, shaved, dressed and helped to make their bed and straighten their room, giving him no time to think or to do anything except get on with the task at hand. It helped. Dale always found Flynn’s ability to yank his mind off everything else but now and him ridiculously calming. When he followed Flynn downstairs, the house was full.

There were those obviously freshly dressed who had managed at least some hours of sleep here during the night, and there were others, blue jawed and dressed in a variety of every day clothing from those in crumpled business suits and ties who had clearly travelled through the night, to those in casual slacks, drinking tea and stretching cracking shoulders, and disappearing at intervals to re emerge in the worn jeans and riding boots they all seemed to own and to look completely at home in, as though gladly putting off a uniform. There seemed like crowds of them, but Dale assessed twenty eight people in total, ranging in age from him and Riley as the youngest in their thirties to Wade as the oldest in his eighties. Many of them had brought bags of groceries with them which they handed over to Paul, and Dale was stunned and deeply touched when he discovered that most of them had also arrived with wreaths, crosses made of flowers, sprays and sheafs of flowers in quiet and subdued colours that they lifted carefully from the backs of the cars and brought down to lay alongside the gathering collection in the shade at one end of the porch. Men were gathered everywhere, filling the family room, surrounding the table in the kitchen, spilling over onto the porch and sitting on the fences of the paddocks and the corral. They greeted Riley, Flynn, Luath, Gerry, Jasper and each other with obvious delight. And yet they talked quietly, in a tone that was subdued, and that went with the flowers and the way that unfamiliar men embraced Riley and the others, with warmth, with concern, with real understanding that said they were anything but strangers. Surrounded by a blur of unfamiliar faces and names, Dale shook hands, feeling more than slightly lost and without any information on what was expected or how to behave, other than that Flynn’s unequivocal and extremely un politically correct order, given without the faintest regard for witnesses, to stay with him.

Paul had produced a buffet breakfast which covered the kitchen table, with no shortage of people who helped him, who appeared to know exactly where to find butter and plates and knives, and who turned out to have brought rolls, croissants and pastries with them in numbers sufficient for an army. Flynn picked up a couple of the rolls and headed outside, taking Dale with him into the yard and signing to Riley, who detached himself from a group by the corral and came to join them. Flynn put one of the rolls into Dale’s hand, speaking crisply and in the tone of voice that would have got him thrown out of the army for being too authoritarian.

“You two get the hay cart out, get the wagon harness and clean it, and then bring the shires down here. Just the two of you, it doesn’t need to involve chatting to anyone else, you’ve got twenty minutes.”

“We’re going to take the cart into the town?” Riley demanded. Flynn gave him a brisk nod.

“Plenty of wagons did it, there’s no reason we can’t. I told you we were going to do this properly.”

Dale had no idea why, but Riley almost flung himself at Flynn and Flynn picked him up to hug him, very tightly, ducking his head into Riley’s neck for a minute. Then he put Riley down with a light swat across the seat of his jeans.

“Get moving. Dale, eat that. Riley, don’t let him get rid of it. I’m right over there, and I’m watching both of you.” 

Riley led the way into the barn, slightly red eyed, and gave Dale a rather watery grin as he began to pull tarpaulins off something high and huge at the back of the barn.

“This is what we did for Philip. Are you ok? You’re not going to bolt or take a plane out to Venezuela or something?”

“I might be sick,” Dale conceded, helping with the tarpaulins. He saw Riley’s face and shook his head, promising and meaning it.

“I won’t bolt. I swear to you, whatever happens, I won’t bolt.”

“It takes Gerry and the others to make this happen, to have everyone come home like this,” Riley said, balling up tarpaulins. “I couldn’t do it, but I love it.”

He said it quite fiercely for Riley, and Dale realised the depth of comfort he was taking from this, from the house full of people here, what it meant to him. This was going to help him; Gerry had known it would.

The hay cart was a massive thing, and to move it required moving a lot of other things first, many of which had been kept in the barn since Wade was a young man living here. Men just appeared quietly, Luath among them, with keys in hand and competently drove the baler and tractors and combine out of the way, and several helped to manhandle the huge wooden flat bed cart with its low side rails out of the barn double doors and into the yard. Riley led Dale into the tack room in the stables and took down sets of harnesses that Dale had always thought were display pieces, massive head collars and bridles with horse brasses, and Dale followed Riley’s example and polished the brasses, working with him over the tack until all of it shone. And then they left the yard where men were filling the bed of the cart with hay, some pitch forking up broken bales and others spreading it out and several of the more elderly men standing watching, and they walked up to the pasture at the top where the clysdales were grazing.

It was while they were putting the head collars on Raglan, Boris and Petra, who had gathered hopefully at the fence at their approach and were snorting and pushing in front of each other in a plea to be chosen to come out and join the excitement in the yard, that Dale saw Tom. Tom had walked with Wade over to the house for breakfast maybe an hour ago; Dale had seen him put a protective hand out behind Wade’s back, prepared to steady him as Wade climbed the porch steps, and he remembered seeing Jake, face alight, disappearing into the groups in the family room and hugging people who looked delighted to see him and were demanding information about Peru in ways that suggested they knew all about his work out there. But Tom had disappeared as soon as Wade reached the house, and Dale had seen no sign of him since.

Now he was a long way off on the grass by the bunkhouse, far enough from the main house that probably only Riley and Dale could see them, and Dale touched Riley’s arm so that Riley glanced up and then followed his gaze.

Jake was standing relaxed with his hands in his pockets, his back to the main house, and Tom was between him and the bunkhouse. They were too far away to hear, and initially Dale thought they were arguing, and then he realised that only Tom was speaking; it was heated, angry, but Jake wasn’t saying anything at all, nor looking like a man in the middle of a row. It was only a few seconds that Dale saw them standing like that; then Jake took his hands out of his pockets and simply walked into Tom without breaking his pace, and wrapped both arms around him, ploughing Tom with him towards the woodland behind the bunkhouse. There was a brief struggle which Jake appeared to contain without any difficulty, and while they were still wrestling when they disappeared into the trees, Dale could see that Tom was walking where Jake was steering him.

“Wonder what that’s about?” Riley said under his breath to Dale, going back to buckling the head collar on Petra who was patiently waiting for him.

“Tom was getting edgy with the number of people around yesterday.” Dale said with some sympathy. “This must be hell for him.”

“Not for you?” Riley glanced over, and there was no pressure in his face or voice, just frank caring whether or not this was hard.

Dale shook his head.

“No. I want to be here, I’m just no bloody good at it.”

“I think you do fine.” Riley gave him a brief smile and went back to buckling the harness. “You’d better feed that roll to someone quick. Flynn can’t see us clearly up here and he’ll check your pockets.”

Yes, Flynn would. Dale weighed up the relative dangers of having to explain about ditching the roll with the certainty of throwing up, then sighed and  fed the roll to an appreciative Raglan.

“You realise I’m facing a serious possibility of not sitting down comfortably again this side of Christmas? I’ve spent more time with a sore backside in the last few weeks than without, and I’m signing myself up for a lifetime of this. I must be insane.”

“About the roll or in general?” Riley fastened the last strap. “It’s how things are when you’re new to it. It isn’t that bad. They’ll never let it be that bad. And the fax machine business yesterday was my fault, and Wade’s, not yours. I knew there’d be trouble about that if anyone realised. You’re not that sore now are you? I can feel it this morning, but trust me, that was Jas making a point more than Jas seriously meaning it.”

“Making a point will do.” Dale said dryly. “Do you realise there are men in that house who knew me in New York, and are about a quarter of a mile away from me seriously discussing what I let someone do to my butt yesterday afternoon? Because I used a fax machine?”

Riley batted him gently across the back of the head, leading two of the shires with him back towards the yard.

“Stop talking like a stuffed shirt.”

Dale led Raglan with him after Riley, aware after a few feet that Riley was laughing.

“What?” he demanded. Riley shook his head, glancing back at him.

“You. ‘Let’?”

Jasper helped to back Boris and Raglan in between the shafts of the cart and he and Riley completed the complex harness.  Flynn, with plenty of competent help, had been tacking up every horse in the corral and paddocks, and signed immediately for Dale to join him, thankfully not asking questions about the roll. Dale silently helped him go on tacking, glad to focus on the work and on keeping up with Flynn and not paying too much obvious attention to the men gathering in the yard, Stetsons in hands and on heads, obviously waiting to leave. Every riding horse was tethered to the fence; even the colts were tacked up and watching with wide eyes and fascination at the crowd in the yard. Riley even tacked up Petra for riding, and then with an amazing lack of fuss men just sorted themselves between the riding horses and the cart where most of the older men seated themselves. The wreaths of flowers were handed up to the men sitting on the cart who carried them and made themselves comfortable on the hay. Paul shut the kitchen door with a kind of finality – it was not often that the house and yard stood completely empty but for the rather disconsolate dogs – and came to take Luath’s outstretched hands and accept his help to climb up into the cart. Riley mounted Ticktock and Dale followed Flynn’s nod towards Flint with a kind of warmth in knowing he was counted among one of the family able to handle one of the most challenging horses, leaving the easier ones for the less experienced riders. Flint danced a little as Dale settled into the saddle and Dale automatically from weeks of practice soothed him, talking quietly as he turned the youngster in circles, letting him see the crowds around him before he tucked the colt well into Leo’s side. Jasper climbed up the shafts of the cart to the driving seat and took the reins with Wade sitting beside him. And with the gates to the home pasture spread wide, Jasper drove the massive cart slowly out over the grass, with its crowded load of men and flowers. The men on horses spread around them like out-riders, and they left the house behind.

They moved at walking pace, a slow and dignified pace which initially the younger and more high bred horses protested, but within a few minutes the atmosphere and the slow pace of the shires seemed to reassure them that this was a special occasion and not their usual ride. In the freshness and the sunlight of mid morning, the pastures seemed very quiet but for the creaking of the mighty cart wheels and the rustle of the grass and the aspens which were beginning to turn from green to rich yellows and golds.  Through the home pastures, they passed the cairn with its pink and white quartz rock glittering in the sun, and the lake beyond it shining blue and sparkling as the sun hit the water, and Dale saw every man on the cart watch the cairn as they passed it, saw the warmth in both the familiar and the unfamiliar faces and heard the quiet chatter, fluent and friendly but still soft as they rolled on over the grass with the flowers in their arms. The grass was knee high and wild grasses and wild flowers grew freely amongst it, dotted purple, yellow and white on the emerald green, and there were so few fences on this land. It was open space. It opened to the sky, the steep hills in the distances, the woods and the pastureland that ran for miles and miles uninterrupted. The sunlight shone out here, it dappled through the trees, caught glints in people’s hair, lit sections of their Stetsons and cast shadows on others. The men walking the horses through the crossing place at the river cast up splashes that glittered in the light, and the cart rocked and creaked as Jasper drove it over the rocks and shallow water. The prairie coneflowers and blanket weeds, yarrow and purple asters grew freely out here, where they’d grown every late summer and early fall for years, from before David and Philip’s time.

They took the long, slow way down into Three Traders valley, the winding road that the wagons used to travel, and the shires paced it slowly and steadily with the cart behind them, and the men on the horses and in the cart grew very quiet, watching the empty town below.

It seemed a very long time ago rather than just a few weeks to Dale that he had first ridden down this path with the others, the first day they came to Three Traders. He remembered the day well; the numb sense of panic he hadn’t understood at the time, the sense of dissociation. Every one of those fears and anxieties that had been chewing on him that day were still present now, although less all consuming; what was different was a sense of stability and resilience that was layered over the top of them, and the acute sense of Flynn riding beside him with one hand on his jeaned knee, Riley riding with Darcy on the other side of the cart. Paul, sitting with Luath and an older man Dale didn’t recognise, one of the wreaths in his hands. And Jasper, driving the cart with relaxed, competent hands. 

They rode slowly through the deserted streets, the horses’ hooves loud by the creak of the wheels, down through the main street and alongside the railway line to the where the tracks stood rusting and overgrown with the rough grass leading out to the little cemetery with its battered and leaning fence. And there Jasper drew the shires to a halt and the men began to dismount from the horses, tie up the reins and turn them loose to graze.

Flynn drew Leo up alongside Flint and Dale, and Dale caught his eyes, dark green under the shade of his Stetson. He dropped his own eyes and stood up in the stirrups, swung a leg free and dropped to the grass, made himself busy with the reins for Flint, stomach knotting tighter by the second now they were here, now it was actually going to happen. He wasn’t at all sure what
was going to happen, or how, and for a moment the loss of control was terrifying – he seriously had no idea what these men intended to do about or to Gam Saan, or what he’d have to stand by and watch. And then Flynn’s hands dropped on his shoulders, squeezed, and it was like calm and strength pouring down into his bones. Flynn stood against his back, and Flynn’s voice said very softly by his ear,


That was all he said. Dale glanced back at him, and then the crowd around them, and realised there was a total lack of anyone giving orders, taking over, or in fact doing anything but waiting, with a lot of understanding in every face.

For Pete’s sake Aden. Did you seriously think they were just going to do this to you, willing or not? They made it clear from the start who you were to them – at what point do you plan to try trusting them?

It was so simple. So ridiculously simple.  

People had come down off the cart and gathered beside the two shires who were grazing. Paul found Riley in the group and stood with his arms around Riley’s waist. Dale looked around and saw Jasper lifting something white and folded small from the cart before he came to join them. A little further up the steep hillside two men were waiting on the grass, one slighter and darker, one taller and fair haired. Jake and Tom.

Dale looked up at Jasper, who gave him a very reassuring nod. It took a moment to catch Riley’s eye and when he did, Dale could see why Flynn had asked him and not Riley. Riley winced slightly and Dale saw him caught between two emotions, not very sure of either, but obviously not happy. Then Riley turned and led the way up the hillside, and Dale, Flynn and Jasper followed. Jake pushed to his feet beside Tom and gave Dale an honestly apologetic look.

“We’d be happy to help, but I’ll understand if you don’t want me to.”

In the city they’d have chewed an answer to that, it would be complicated. Difficult. Here they just said straight out what they meant with simple good manners, and Dale answered the way they’d taught him.

“We’ll be glad of you. Thank you.”

They walked together the long way up the valley, and Dale found Riley walking close by him so that their shoulders knocked together, watching the grass for the signs they both remembered. It took a few minutes before Riley gripped his arm and indicated the adit, almost entirely concealed by the long grass. Jake put a gentle hand out to stop them going closer.  

“Need to take this slowly and not crowd, we don’t want the walls down on top of us. I’d stand well back from the entrance and standstill, and no more than two in there at a time.”

“You’re the best qualified.” Flynn said bluntly. Jake nodded, looking at Dale.

“May I help?”

Riley didn’t want to. He was radiating it, from the hands dug deep in his pockets to the set of his face. Feeling very calm, quite detached, Dale slipped his hat off, dropped it on the grass and absently rolled back the sleeves of his cotton shirt, surveying the low, squarish hole in the grass. And then he crouched and found hand holds, lowered himself feet first, and moved cautiously down into the tunnel.

He remembered it as having been quite well lit, where as this time for a moment or two he could see nothing at all. He was surprised for a few seconds until he remembered and chastised himself that this time he was coming from the light, where as he and Riley had found this tunnel in pitch darkness. He moved slowly down the adit by feel on his hands and knees, and the light dimmed still further as Jake slid his angular length surprisingly carefully into the adit. Then a torch beam switched on, and Dale knelt beside the little length of greyed cloth and bones against the adit wall. Jake came slowly down the adit to join him, unfolding the squares of white that Jasper had brought from the cart. Cotton sheets. He put them together, hem to hem, one on top of the other, and passed an end to Dale, although he said nothing and he waited. For what, Dale wasn’t sure, except that he knew he wasn’t ready yet to cover the slight little remains that lay in front of him, or to hurry them from where they had rested for sixty years.

“Take your time.” Jake said softly beside him.

Ever since he had found Gam Saan lying here, Dale had been haunted by images of struggling, choking, the terrible fear of a frail and elderly man trapped and alone. But there was nothing sinister about the tunnel. Dry and silent, there was a peacefulness here. Dale touched the fragile bones very lightly, the man who had been David’s friend, the man David had searched for and grieved for, and never known what became of him.

I know what it’s like to be driven and unable to say no, even when you know how stupid it is, and I was just luckier than you. We’re here now, sir. We’re David’s people and we’re here.

And David’s people were gathered, waiting in the valley together.

Jake stooped to help him when Dale began to spread out the sheets along the length of the little body, tucking them as close under him as possible, and then Jake took the shoulders, Dale slid his hands under the pelvis and legs and as softly as breathing, very slowly, they turned him onto his back. Years of water running over him had crusted the body in lime, riveting the bones together. A few separated instantly where they weren’t held by the remains of his clothes, but most of Gam Saan rolled in one piece to lay on the sheet, and Jake very gently gathered up his arms from above his head, lifting them with great care to lay them down by the man’s sides. They folded a third of the top sheet across the body, laying it gently to cover the bones and ragged clothes and grey hair, then folded up the cotton at the head and the foot before laying the last third across him, and Jake spread out the bottom sheet as a flexible stretcher, waiting for Dale to take the bottom corners. 

They eased him with them, foot by foot on the sheet, lifting and lowering as they needed to find their balance. And at the mouth of the adit, willing hands came to take the sheet acting as a cradle and Gam Saan’s remains were lifted into the sunlight.

They carried him on the long walk down the valley, the six of them holding the sheet between them, and to Dale the sense of rightness was overwhelming. The green and peaceful valley, the quiet group of men watching them from below, the men walking slowly and in silence as they carried him – Riley, Jasper, Flynn, Tom and Jake, every one of them with the heart and understanding to value who Gam Saan was, from the young man who came half way across the world to find work, to the old man who had been David’s friend, still pinning his hopes on finding gold in the rock of his home. It was being able to do this together and to just let go and leave them to take their parts in it, knowing they would do it right – to be able to trust so completely in their understanding that was so powerful. Dale found himself swallowing on a wash of crashing emotion for each of the men around him, the knowing that this was as important to them as to him and for the same reason.

Flynn said I try to control, even before I go into a situation. It’s all about trust.

I suppose I’ve never been a team player. I’ve been the lead, the organiser, the referee and the adjudicator, and the team was something I dragged after me. And I was always moving on.

David kept saying I had to decide to let go, and I didn’t realise what he meant.  

A few people had come to meet them on the street below, watching. Gerry and Ash were standing holding hands among faces Dale didn’t recognise, but they quietly followed out across the rusted rail tracks and across the open pasture to the cemetery. The gates had been opened wide, propped on their rusted hinges, and the wreaths and sheaves had been laid together on the grass at the end of the line of stones and wooden crosses that marked the graves of the immigrants who had come together from Canton to seek gold here more than a century ago. Luath, Bear and several others had dug a grave with surprising efficiency; deep, neat and in perfect line with the others, and Luath and Bear waited at the bottom of it amongst the crowd of men gathered amongst the gravestones, watching the figure on the sheet being carried through the gates. There wasn’t a sound in the little cemetery that must have seen many processions across the pasture just like this one. At the graveside, Luath and Bear silently held up their hands to take the sheet, they took it with great care, and Dale saw tears running freely down Bear’s heavy face as he stooped and laid the little body down on the earth, as gently as though it was a child.

Riley made a faint sound and Luath glanced up, still standing in the grave, and he took the item Riley passed him. It flashed in the sun, a little chunk of quartz lined and encrusted with gold. Luath stooped, tucking it gently inside Gam Saan’s sheet. Then he and Bear climbed up onto the grass, and Jake and Jasper among several others took up the spades and quietly began to fill the grave. Riley turned away at that point, leaning with his head against Flynn’s shoulder, and Flynn put an arm around him. On the other side of the grave, Luath’s face was still and immobile, and Darcy beside him held Luath’s hand in both of his and leaned his cheek against Luath’s shoulder, his face equally unreadable. Wade had his arm through Tom’s, and several of the other older men were close by him. Bear, tears still running quietly down his face from his large, soft eyes, was stood with Theo who barely reached his shoulder in his khaki green t shirt, and had an arm around his waist. Dale was slightly surprised by the hand sliding into his, unobtrusive, yet grasping firmly and possessively, but didn’t need to look to know it was Paul, and squeezed back, feeling Paul’s shoulder against his. There was no sound but the spades until the grave was completely filled. And then silence.

It was Bear who began it; the rich bass voice was unmistakeable, sincere and heartfelt.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.

Other voices picked it up and joined in, Dale recognised Tom’s baritone and looked up, seeing Tom’s eyes on the grave and his hand over Wade’s, singing the words clearly, as familiar with them as Bear was. It was easy to join in, the words were engraved in Dale’s memory from years of school chapel services, but they had never before sounded so sincere as now, sung by quiet men’s voices together in an open pasture. 

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders