Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 2


I live here.

It was the first time Dale had awoken with that thought in his mind. Yesterday morning had been a sudden awakening with the bleeping of his watch at five am, with no time to do anything but dress and to very quietly slip out of the house with Riley to get to the auction. The day before that had been the plane flight from New York that started, if Dale was honest, in the middle of the night. Both days had a sense of having hit the ground running, and of moving too fast to be able to think.

But not this morning.

The thin and early morning sun, coming in through the open window, had woken him when it touched his eyes, and Dale blinked on it, feeling the cool of the morning air on his face and the bare arm outside the covers, and the hypnotic warmth beneath the covers. The distant smell of grass and the whistles of birds and the faint baas of the sheep far away. And he didn't have to open his eyes or look to know that two inches away, face down and breathing quietly, smooth brown shoulders spread and relaxed against the white of the sheet, was Flynn.


The stillness, the muted sounds in the distance, it tasted and it smelled of home, and of Flynn, and it was so powerful that it was like being punched in the gut. In some ways Dale felt calmer than he knew he'd been in weeks; in other ways he felt ready to fly apart with the sheer overload of it all. And more overwhelming still was being here, in Flynn's bed, with Flynn lying here beside him as if they'd casually laid down together like this for years.

It was almost too much to bear, being this close to him.

Swallowing on sheer overload, Dale cautiously shifted and winced a little at the immediate soreness as his bare backside pressed the mattress. That was another familiar sensation and set of emotions he'd let slip to the back of his mind. Last night had been a serious reality check. And he was here in nothing more than a t shirt, which he'd been too sore to think twice about last night, but this morning made him feel ridiculously exposed.

"Good morning." Flynn said softly.

It made Dale jump. He hadn't heard Flynn move or noticed his eyes open. Wishing there was a tactful way to slide out of the bed and as far away as possible until he had a better grip on himself and looked less of an idiot, Dale swallowed and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Sitting looked casual. Normal people sat like this, he'd seen them do it.

"Good morning."

Flynn's familiar, heavy hand stretched out and brushed his back, rubbing slowly in circles and Dale resisted the urge to shut his eyes and arch against it, or to just drop right back on the mattress and throw himself against Flynn forever and ever and ever...

Like you're a bloody teenager Aden, stop it.

"How did you sleep?" Flynn asked mildly. 

Dale stifled a smile at the thought. He'd never slept like this in hotels, and the past few weeks sleep had been an effort, something he tried to do and to sustain through often restless nights.

You're out of your tree. He turns you across his knee and wallops your backside until you're sobbing, and you sleep like a baby for the rest of the night.

"Ok thanks." he said lightly.

He'd never before been allowed to get up before he was called – that was one of the house rules he'd always had here, and while he had his feet on the floor and part of him was screaming to escape as fast as possible, Dale didn't quite like to move without Flynn's say so. He gave Flynn a cautious glance, and Flynn, aware of the shoulders that were up around Dale's ears and the tension in his back, leaned to hook an arm around his waist and pulled, yanking Dale back down against him without ceremony.

"All right, come here. I thought we got it straight last night who was in charge, but we can check again if you want to?"

He gave no quarter, and that growl was the most comforting thing on God's earth. Crashed against his chest, held so tight that breathing was a real issue, and knowing exactly what this man meant when he was at his gruffest, Dale folded his arms over Flynn's and shook his head, reassured, and despite himself, near to an equally adolescent smile. The contact almost set him on fire.

"No bullshit. I promise. I'm trying."

"You don't need to try." Flynn said firmly in his ear. "You don't need to know what to do. All you need to do is trust me to know what I'm doing."

Dale gave him a silent and very tight hug and felt Flynn's arms brace around him, although his voice didn't change.

"If you're wound up enough to go disappearing at midnight, then you stay with me today, right where I can keep an eye on you. You're not on the management committee here. Now go and get under the shower, we've got a lot to do this morning."

His orders were as comforting as his growling. Dale gladly moved to get up and paused at Flynn's hand closing on his wrist, turning him back. Propped on one elbow, Flynn looked still more tanned against the white of the bedding, and bare chested the definition of muscle across his shoulders was strongly marked. His eyes were steady, the intent dark green that always turned Dale's heart over.

 "This is going to be ok. You've gone through this before. We know how to do it."

The soreness was more distinct sitting on the edge of the bed, something else that kept a firm grip on the reality of being here, with him, with Flynn looking at him like this and sounding like this – impulsively Dale leaned down and Flynn kissed him, briefly and reassuringly hard. Then let him go and gently swatted his hip.

"Shower. Get moving."

He shaved at the sink while Dale showered, wincing slightly as the hot water hit his backside, which stung. He took the opportunity for a tentative rub, and as much of a look as he could. He was tender – and he'd forgotten entirely what it was like to walk around with this constant physical mnemonic at the back of his mind. The working morning routine in New York, the familiar one, years old, did not include prolonged showers. Dale shaved under the water and was still out, dry and dressed before Flynn had finished shaving at the sink. He was aware of something in Flynn's eye, something faintly ironic, as Flynn wiped down the counter and looked him over, but all Flynn did was jerk his head at the stairs and follow him down them to the kitchen.

The table was set, the backdoor was open into the yard which made the kitchen cool with fresh air and the smell of toast, and Paul was pouring juice and tea, although he looked up and smiled when he saw them.

"Good morning."

"Hi." Flynn dropped a brief kiss on Paul's cheek as he passed, taking down a glass to fill with orange juice, which he passed to Dale, indicating a chair. Dale sat rather gingerly, taking the place which had been his for some months, and Paul put a hand on his head as he passed.

"Excuse me, I said good morning? We talk around here."

"Hi." Dale felt himself flushing as Paul stooped to kiss him.

"Did you manage to sleep in the end?" Paul said cheerfully, going back to the tea.

How many people exactly knew the story of last night? Dale winced at the thought, thoroughly embarrassed.

"- yes thanks?"

Jasper came up the porch steps, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, long and brown and angular, and he heeled his boots off at the door with a quick smile at Dale as their eyes met.

"The corral's done, there's no stable work as no one's in there, everyone's watered."

"And you and Riley checked on the horses yesterday morning so they'll do until tomorrow," Flynn poured a second glass of juice for himself and came to stand in the doorway with Jasper, looking across at the yard. Dale found himself watching the both of them almost hungrily, shoulder to shoulder the way they often stood, although they did it quite unconsciously.  

"Sheep. Cattle. Fences." Flynn said. "I need to exercise the colts we've got in, and we need to check on the hay meadows."

"We can't get away with leaving them much longer." Paul said from the stove. Flynn shook his head.

"We'll need to start next week."

"I'll go into Jackson on Friday and see who's hiring." Jasper said mildly, taking a seat at the table. "And check the bunk house. The stove was smoking in there when the shearers were using it."

They must be talking about mowing. Dale had heard Riley talking about the annual chaos every summer when they cut and stored the hay that fed the ranch livestock through the winter; one of the biggest tasks in the ranch year. Paul poured and passed him a cup of tea and Dale murmured thanks, wrapping his hands around it. There were hay barns here by the house, on the tops where the horse herds spent the winter, and out on the pastures where the sheep and cattle herds roamed. A lot to transport, and by the size of the barns, a lot of hay involved.

"If Riley takes two of the colts and exercises them," Flynn said, as Riley appeared, still yawning, and slid into his chair at the kitchen table, "I'll take the other two,"

"I'll do the fences and the herds on the north east pastures." Jasper said calmly. "We can cover the mid east ones on our way over to Three Traders."

"We're definitely going?" Riley demanded, eyes lighting up.

"We're definitely going." Flynn confirmed. "As soon as we can get the work done this morning."

"Then I'll make lunch for us to take over there." Paul said, cracking eggs into a skillet. "We might as well take our time. Dale, you've seen maps, haven't you? What are the parameters of the town?"

"Buildings covering 3.572 kilometres," Dale said without thinking. "Variant ten to one foot above water level at high point of the river-"

"And 425.37 mice." Riley said easily, helping himself to toast. "The .37 mouse is an aggregate figure reflecting the mouse amputee population."

Dale looked up at him in surprise and Riley grinned, his familiar, uncritical smile which was as affectionate as it was teasing. Dale had seen him smile like that countless times at the others, at Paul or Flynn when he teased them, but this one was directed straight at him and it caught him in the throat. Riley buttered toast, propping his elbows on the table to eat.

"Wasn't that on the survey? I didn't think the Chance river went through Three Traders."

"A branch of it does." Paul said, bringing scrambled eggs to the table and filling plates. "A tributary. They had a water mill I remember, at the top of the town, and the river runs down past the mine. It was supposed to be the river that caused a collapse towards the end of the mine's useful life. The walls were too saturated to stand. The town was originally just a safe camp by the river for the wagon trains passing through. Open plain, water, woods for hunting, a good place to spend a night. From what I remember David telling me, it started out with a few traders regularly going there when there were wagons in camp, to having a semi permanent camp there, that eventually became permanent buildings. The wagons always needed food, skins, repairs and animals, and the settlement of people providing it just got steadily bigger. Then there was the gold mining and the railroad, both of which brought a flood of people to the town to work."

"I've got a disc of town data if you'd like it," Dale said to Paul since it seemed relevant. "Population records, all kinds of things?"

"Which you gathered or had researched?" Flynn asked.

"Both." Dale said a little tentatively. "It came from a researcher, but I did a certain amount of fishing myself. A lot of original documents were scanned from various archives."

And what'll you bet it's tabled, organised, written up and triple checked? Flynn thought wryly, watching Dale cut bacon into neatly geometrical pieces.  

"I'd love to see!" Paul said in delight, taking his seat at the table. "I've got a few papers of David's regarding the town but not much at all. I was never really able to track much down. Dale, eat some of that. It's quite edible, I promise."

It was far better than was offered in any hotel, but Dale's stomach rebelled at the thought. Flynn leaned across the table to take his plate, briskly separating scrambled eggs from bacon, and putting a piece of toast on the side of it.

"Eat that. There isn't much. Your stomach's probably sore as hell after last night."

"The eggs ought to help." Paul said mildly, which told Dale that Paul knew exactly what had gone on.

"We heard." Riley said helpfully through a mouthful of bacon. "If you're trying to sneak out at midnight it's probably better not to drop things on your way?"

"I was-" Dale began in a stupid attempt to try and explain himself, horribly self-conscious, "It –"

"You were stressed enough to want to go out and run." Jasper said mildly. "There's four of us to choose from if things get that bad."

Paul put a discreet hand over, rubbing his back.

"Just eat, honey. It's ok."

Ok being a relative term. Their acceptance was kind, this was normality here – Dale had seen Riley and Gerry both scolded at this table for similar aberrations, and no one thought twice of it – but there was still something that stung. They knew him, they knew the worst and the least controlled parts of him, and they knew just what he was capable of when he lost control.

But I didn't do this kind of thing, not since the break down. It isn't ok that this is what they expect of me, as though I'm not capable of any better.

Eating was extremely difficult. Dale choked down most of the eggs and to his relief Paul quietly took his plate away without commenting, although as they finished clearing the table Paul caught his hand, opened a cabinet and Dale winced at the two Zantac Paul took out of a bottle, holding them out along with a glass of water.

"Yes please." Paul said firmly when he didn't take them. "I don't want you burning holes through your stomach. You were going through antacids like sweets in New York."

Dale picked them out of his hand, painfully aware of Paul's watchful eye while he did it, which spread both an awkward heat across his cheekbones and a warmth winding through his stomach. He'd forgotten what this felt like. Paul took the glass from him when he was done, pushing a hand through his hair to smooth it back.

"Thank you. There's sunscreen in the bathroom, go and put a good layer of that on."

"Better still, bring it here to me." Flynn said bluntly, putting the last of the dishes in the sink. Dale went to get it and Paul raised his eyebrows at Flynn as soon as Dale was out of earshot.

"Are you sure we need to be going anywhere today?"

"He's ok." Flynn saw Jasper pause in the doorway to look at him, and caught Riley's eye, seeing a flash of anxiety. "He's ok, half pint. I promise. Give him time. And yes, I think heading over to Three Traders is a very good way to spend the afternoon. Stop worrying and get those colts exercised. Barrack needs a good hard session, he's getting tubby gorging himself in that paddock."

"So's Moo." Riley said, pulling his boots on. "If we're not going to keep her busy she'd do better to go up with Bandit than kick around in the corral. It's about time we thought of resting some of the riding horses anyway for the summer. Jas, wait up!"

He disappeared down the porch steps after Jasper, and Paul and Flynn could hear him whistling as he crossed the yard. Happier than he had been for some weeks while Dale was away. For someone so quiet, Dale left an awfully big hole when he was gone.  

Dale reappeared from the bathroom with the bottle of sunscreen in his hand and Flynn held out a hand for it, giving Dale no choice over whether to attempt to do it himself. He stood passively while Flynn competently coated his face, throat and arms, but he still flushed a little at the contact and the attention. Flynn put the bottle on the kitchen counter when he was done, picking up one Stetson and passing Dale another.

"All right. Let's go."

Riley was in sight across the yard, tacking up one of the colts and talking to it while he worked. Towards the corral, Jasper was visible tacking up Gucci. Flynn led Dale in the opposite direction, towards the large pile of smooth, local rocks kept for weighting down tarpaulins and covers over hay and equipment. When Dale had last seen the stack, it had been resting against the side of the barn. Now they were roughly and untidily heaped near the gate of the home pasture and Flynn nodded towards them, pausing by the stable door.

"You can make a start on those this morning. Get some gloves from the stables, and stack this lot somewhere out of the way and looking less of a mess."

It was a job Dale had done before, and it was undemanding, mindless and physical all of which Dale was craving this morning, and which was as calming as receiving those simple, blunt orders. He saw Flynn put a bridle on one of the colts in the training pasture and lead them down the yard to the home pasture which was in clear and near sight of the yard, but that was the last he noticed. Gloves on, he started in on the untidy heap by the gate, and gladly lost himself in the steady weight and rhythm and physical effort the rocks demanded, which blotted out everything else.

It was some time before he noticed Riley standing and watching while he drank from a water bottle, hat tipped to the back of his head, and Dale placed the rock he was carrying and paused, automatically running his own arm across his forehead where sweat was irritating his eyes. A good third of the rocks were neatly stacked against the barn wall, and Flynn, a long leading rein running from his hand, was whistling to the colt trotting in circles around him.

"You're doing a way better job with that than I did." Riley said dryly, offering the water. Dale accepted it, aware as he did so of how numbed he felt. It was like watching someone else's hand move, and the sensation of water in his mouth felt oddly disconnected.

"You did?" he said aloud. Riley grimaced.

"Flynn thought I needed the work out. I got a little mouthy about something we don't need to go into- are you ok?"

Dale swallowed again, carefully, looking from the rocks to the water bottle in Riley's hand with growing conviction.

"I know this script."

"You what?" Riley said, confused, and grabbed for his shoulder as Dale took a few swift strides to the long grass of the stable pasture and doubled over.

He threw up several times, hard, hands braced on his knees until there was nothing left to bring up and his stomach muscles felt wrenched. Riley went on rubbing his back and a moment later Dale heard Flynn's voice, quiet and unsurprised.

"Ri, take the colt for me. Can I have the rest of that water?"

His hand was heavier than Riley's and Dale let it help him up, accepting the handkerchief and the water Flynn passed him, blinking his eyes to clear them as they were streaming.


"Yes?" Riley paused, and Dale wiped his face, looking across the yard to Riley and the leggy colt chewing on Riley's shirt.

"What exactly are these rocks for? Because I've only ever seen about three used for actually doing anything useful."

"De stressing execs." Riley said easily. "And me if I've hacked Flynn off enough."

"I thought so." Dale took a long mouthful of water, rinsed his mouth and spat into the grass before he gave Flynn a pointed look. "You bastard."

"Proprioceptive pressure." Flynn did not look even slightly abashed. "Deep muscle input. The weight and walking organises and rebalances the nervous system. Makes the body regulate itself if it's out of whack."

"And makes me throw up!" Dale pointed out.

"Which is pretty much your body chemistry re balancing." Flynn said calmly. "You might get a headache again like you did last time, but you'll feel a lot better in a few hours. Bring that water with you."

Stomach wrenched, light headed, Dale walked with him towards the open gate into the home pasture and Flynn nodded at the deep grass by the fence.

"Sit there. I've only got one more colt to work."

It was Flint he brought out; the long legged, high stepping grey two year old Dale had started work on with Riley weeks back before he left for New York. In the time he'd been away, Flint had grown in confidence as much as skills. Dale dropped down on the grass and watched Flynn saddle, mount up and take the colt around the pasture moving smoothly from a trot to canter and back again without hesitation. There were several jumps set up in the grass and when Flynn put Flint at them, he sailed over lightly, long legs tucking under him. Most certainly Bandit's son. In contrast, the bay Riley rode out into the pasture was sidling at the sight of the jumps and of Flint working them, and Riley had him gathered in on a short rein, talking to him soothingly as he sidled and turned in circles. Flynn took Flint well out of the way, and Riley took the colt around in a wide arc, letting him gradually out as he went rather nervously into a canter. Ticktock. Dale recognised the colt from his distinctive, fidgety gait. Riley took him around twice before he set him at a jump, and immediately Dale saw Ticktock wrestling for his head, the catch in pace as he saw the jump ahead. Riley held him in with hands and knees, not letting him turn away and Dale watched with interest as the colt responded, taking Riley's signals and very awkwardly springing over the jump. It was ungainly, but he cleared it and landed, and Riley immediately took him out in a wide circle, patting and praising him. He had light and gentle hands, Riley; Dale had seen it before when he was riding, but he had a surprising amount of authority too in the saddle, and a patience that Ticktock was responding to.

Dale shut his eyes against the sun, and after a moment, lay back in the long grass which was soft under his spine. Cloudless blue sky was directly over head. The grass swished softly in the breeze around him and in the distance he could hear the steady thud of Flint and Ticktock's hooves and Riley's voice encouraging. His stomach still felt wrenched and Flynn was right; a headache was threatening behind his temples, but the nausea was gone and nothing but a calm kind of weariness was left in its wake.

He had no idea what time it was when he woke, and someone had tipped his hat over his face to shield him from the sun. Dale blinked for a moment, breathing grass and warm air and silence but for the trees and the sheep in the distance, and then pushed the hat away and sat up on his elbows. Paul was stretched out on the grass a few feet away with a book in his hands, and he glanced up and smiled when Dale moved.

"Hi. How's the headache?"

"Gone." Dale sat up, more than slightly surprised. The headache had vanished entirely. No one else was in sight, the sun was past the direct over head point, and Dale felt for his watch. It was approaching two pm. Flynn was in sight in the yard, working on Leo and Hammer who were harnessed side by side by the barn. Paul shut his book.

"Come and get something to eat."

"You should have woken me." Dale got to his feet and stretched shoulders that felt very well worked and somewhat pulled after hard physical exertion following weeks spent sitting at a desk, but not unpleasantly so.

"Why?" Paul asked mildly, walking with him towards the gate and the yard. "Considering you were up a lot of the night and you haven't really stopped since you got here? I thought it was a pretty good thing."

Gucci and Nekkid were both tied by the training paddock and Dale paused, recognising what was loaded on their saddles.

"Who's going where?"

"Three Traders." Paul led the way up the porch steps towards the kitchen. "Everything's done here, so we thought we'd all make a night of it and camp. Go get a sweater and tell Riley we're getting ready to go, I'll make you a sandwich."

Getting these kind of orders again made Dale feel about ten, and yet it was curiously freeing- as was the thought of a night out in the open, out here. He heeled his boots off at the door, a habit he'd picked up again without thinking, and headed upstairs, pausing at the bathroom to wash his face and arms of rock dust and sweat, and changing his shirt as he passed his room. The familiarity of the house was still odd and still grated in a peculiar kind of way, both welcoming and strange in that each time Dale noticed it reminded him: this time it's for good. This time you're staying. He dug a sweater out of the bottom drawer of the chest and went on down the hallway to Riley's room, tapping on the half open door.  

Riley was digging the tail of a t shirt into his jeans and glanced up with a quick smile.

"Hey, you're up. I thought you were down for the rest of the day, Paul wouldn't let me wake you."

"I kind of passed out." Dale admitted, sitting down on the end of the bed. Despite himself, it elicited a faint wince, less of discomfort than remembered tenderness, but Riley saw it.

"Are you ok? How ugly did it get last night?" 

"How much did you hear?" Dale said in alarm. Riley grinned, not unkindly.

"Not that much. Paul heard you drop something on the landing, and I was in with him. Flynn said to go back to bed and he'd take care of you."

"Well he did." Dale said dryly, and was warmed by Riley's laugh.

"I bet."
No question about 'how could you be so stupid'. No comment about 'you should know by now what to expect'. Riley's sheer acceptance raised a rush of warmth in Dale. 
"Paddled?" Riley asked without delicacy. Dale felt himself flush, out of the habit of this kind of frankness, but nodded.


"Ouch." Riley fastened up his jeans. "How sore? Are you going to be able to ride?"

Surely being thick enough to get oneself paddled didn't preclude one from having to get on with work, no matter how uncomfortable? Dale, not at all sure how to answer that, hesitated and Riley took his arm, turning him around.  

"Show me."
Dale gave him a look of pointed bafflement and Riley laughed.

"Just show me. If it's that bad you don't need to be riding. Trust me." 

He was obviously experienced in this. Still more flushed, Dale unbuttoned his jeans and eased them and his shorts far enough south that Riley could push up his t shirt and see the damage. He sounded sympathetic but his verdict was swift.

"No, you'll be fine, you're barely even pink."

"What?" Dale demanded, shaken out of all politeness. "It hurt like bloody hell!"

"Well it would." Riley said calmly. "One, that lexan monstrosity stings like a bitch; two, Flynn's way too good at it; and three, you haven't been spanked in weeks. He probably hardly needed to touch you for it to sting like all hell, but there's not much to see and you won't be that sore. It always seems way worse to me after a dry spell, the thought of it as much as the feel of it."

That was painfully acute. Dale discreetly rubbed as he raised his clothes and Riley was right; he was tender, enough to know very well he'd been spanked, but he wasn't exactly uncomfortable. Riley pulled a brush rapidly through his hair and Dale watched him, the familiarity of him and his movement and the total lack of affectedness or artificiality that came so naturally to Riley. Without needing to think, Dale abruptly sat down on the end of his bed.

"I don't get this. I really don't. I didn't think it would be this hard."

"It isn't." Riley said calmly. "You're worrying too much."

"Too much?" Dale demanded. "Have you got half an idea of what I left on my desk in the office for a start?"

"Well that doesn't make much odds, does it?" Riley jerked his collar straight and held the door, waiting for him. "It's nothing to do with you now."

"It's not that simple!" Dale found himself protesting, almost indignantly. Riley abandoned the door and grabbed his arm, towing him out onto the landing to close the door.

"It's exactly that simple. It's not like you've got any say in what you're going to do or be allowed to work on right now, and if you keep up this kind of state you'll be lucky if you get any say this side of Christmas."

"Dale! Riley, come on!" Flynn's voice called from downstairs. 

Riley gave Dale a gentle push ahead of him towards the stairs. "Unless you really like looking at corners, I'd chill out."


It was over an hour's ride out, through the pasture by the cairn, across the river and into the woods where the fallen, rusting steam engine lay on its side among the trees, left where it had fallen for over a hundred years. The horses picked their way quietly through the woods, their feet quiet on the mulch and grass, climbing the hill that led up to the open pastures beyond where the sheep grazed. They rode due east, following the flat pasture where over a century before Dale knew the wagons must have rolled, line after line of them, and eventually they reached the five foot high barbed wire fence, that marked the old boundary of the ranch. There was nothing to see beyond it but more rough green pasture, but Flynn swung down from Leo's saddle and pulled wire cutters from his pocket, snipping the strands of wire and pulling them back. The space was wide enough to walk the horses through and Jasper leaned to take Leo's bridle, walking him alongside Gucci, until they were through and stood to watch Flynn wire them in again, twisting the cut strands together.

"It'll do until we put a gate there." Flynn commented, mounting up to join them. "Or decide where we'd move the fence to. This part is useable grazing land."

"The town is a good two miles further on." Dale said, thinking of the maps he'd looked over. "And we could extend the tops further north to give the horses more grazing through the winter if there's the time to look at moving fences and re setting the boundaries. It's only the town itself that needs restricting."

"And if I remember it's a good distance from the road." Paul agreed, nudging Nekkid to keep pace with Hammer. "Which is why it's escaped people wandering around it out of interest. It's in the middle of nowhere."

Nowhere was a good way to put it. They continued to walk the horses over the pasture with the afternoon sun getting slowly lower in the sky, and Dale, used to the plateaus and sudden drops of the land on the ranch, was still surprised when they came abruptly to a shelf several miles further on. The ground cut away beneath them in a long, steep bank, and suddenly, as they reined the horses in, the town was spread out below.

"It looks like David's map upstairs." Riley said in shock, loudly enough that Snickers snorted and sidled and Riley had to turn him in a circle to bring him under control again. "Just like the map!"

He was right. The town was down far enough that they could see most of it and the buildings dotted on the green, looked like toys, in amongst yellow and red dust paths that cut the grass. It spread out, in clusters and scattered units, silent and deserted and shockingly whole. Dale, who had seen the blueprints, was still startled at how whole. Roofs stood intact below them. A wheel tower indicating a mine was untouched. It was just silent, as though some disaster had swept abruptly through and cleaned the people away in one sudden rush, rather than been deserted slowly, family by family over a decade.

Riley drew Snickers in and Snickers, with the long legs and feet like a cat, picked his way quickly and delicately down the steep bank while Riley balanced his weight over Snickers' shoulders.

"Riley be careful!" Paul ordered, and Jasper took Gucci wide and quickly, following Riley. Dale saw Flynn look to either side and saw with him the shallower mark of a trail that was slow enough, zigzagging down the bank, to have pulled wagons up and down. No horse or vehicle had walked this road in decades and yet the grass still grew more shallowly and sparsely, showing rock and pebbles where wheels had run for so long that the ground was permanently marked. Paul followed them down and they gathered at the foot of the bank where the first of the houses were in sight.

"Where did you come in?" Riley demanded of Jasper as they joined up, walking the horses on down the path in the grass. "You and Flynn came here years ago to look around, you told me."

"We came in at the road." Flynn said, gathering Leo in. "Through the fence by the barn where the auction was. The barn belonged to the town, it's the last building still in use around here. We cut the fence up there and walked down the main road into town, you'll see it when we're further down."

"And that was at night?" Paul shook his head. "I knew you two wandered all over the ranch but I had no idea you were up  here in the dark around mine shafts and heaven only knows what else, and I doubt Philip did either."

"Philip knew." Jasper said mildly, catching Riley's bridle. They were near to the first house, and Jasper held on, turning to catch Dale's eye.

"Go carefully, don't assume anything's safe. We look together inside buildings and neither of you go anywhere until you've checked with Flynn or me."

Riley swung down from the saddle and left Jasper holding Snickers as he headed towards the house, and Paul rolled his eyes skywards. Jasper slid to the ground, tied up both sets of reins and let the horses loose, going straight after Riley.

Dale dismounted more slowly, eyes on the building ahead. Timber walls were weathered to a dead grey and the tin roof was still intact, along with two very dusty and opaque windows. Grass grew to the door, which was closed, and it stood almost directly on the track, the first – or last – building of the town.

"There was a wide range of people here," Paul said aloud, winding up Nekkid's reins before he let go. "Labourers and miners alongside the shop keepers and the more well off families."

The house was pathetically small. Dale let Hammer go and Flynn walked ahead of him towards the house where Riley was shading his eyes to peer through the window. He rubbed a few times, gently at the glass, then tried the door. It was unlocked, and the dirt floor inside smelled of damp. There was nothing at all but a few broken crates and boxes scattered.

"Think this was a storehouse?" Riley demanded as Paul looked past him, ducking slightly to get his head and shoulders under the small doorway.

"Might have been. Or a labourer's home. Who knows?"

They closed the door when they left. The path diverged shortly past the small house, leading along and leading down, and Riley hesitated, torn.

"Let's do it properly." Flynn told him, leading Leo. "We'll start on the outside and work in."

They found several buildings of various sizes along the path that led horizontally along the wall of the valley. Several small houses, one or two with the remains of fenced yards or crop beds. In one a few potato plants grew haphazardly amongst the weeds and grass. Several of the houses were one roomed, and in one they found a broken bedstead and the ashes of a fire in a rusted stove. In another, two rooms led off the central room, one with the remains of a wooden bed, a dust covered table and chairs, and in the other room, a rusted iron bath on the wall and a heavy pump just outside.

"Wells." Flynn said when Riley tried it, without shifting it an inch. "There's no shortage of water under here, this close to the river. I don't know how deep they'd have had to dig for it, but the water is probably why the settlement grew here."

"I can't believe what they left behind." Riley said bleakly, running a finger over the table as they walked back through the house. They were all quiet, touching as little as possible, saying very little in the houses themselves as if they were in a museum, or near someone's grave. This was the burial site of a way of life, people's lives abandoned.

"I doubt they could transport it or needed it where they were going." Flynn said simply. "Most of these people arrived with wagons and left with wagons – trucks in the forties and fifties when the last people left."

What was gone were the pots, pans, blankets, the useful things that travelled easily and packed small. They followed the path back to where it had diverged and this time it widened into the main dirt track that became a dusted road as the slope evened out and they reached the floor of the valley. Several larger houses came into view, houses with weathered porches and more than one storey. Flynn grabbed Riley as they let the horses go and Jasper sounded out the porch before they walked up the weathered steps and tried the door. Like all the doors, nothing was locked, nothing was barred. The stairs inside were old and dry but intact, and a few books were left on mostly empty bookcases. A few cracked china cups hung in the kitchen by a battered and heavily dusted wooden table, and dry, crumbling curtains hung in the kitchen windows. An outhouse stood in the yard at the back, the door standing wide. Further down into town, the buildings began to stand thicker and closer together. More affluent homes with more rooms, and fenced gardens long since turned wild. Then around a corner they found a wide, dirt street lined with buildings that reared up two or more storeys, some with signs and fronts still visible in the colours they were first painted. And not a soul in sight.

"It's ridiculous this is so well preserved." Dale said aloud and Paul gave him a faint smile, hardly able to take his eyes off the buildings around them.

"No pollution, the walls of the valley sheltering it, the weather out here isn't so wild. Spooky as hell, isn't it?"

The first building of the street was large with a weathered sign no longer readable, but rows of horses' stalls around a wide yard beyond an open gateway, and Riley, exploring the rickety wooden stairs that led up from the yard, found rooms and empty sacks of feed, and bedsteads above the stalls. Beside the stables was a large fronted building also with a yard, and from the remains of broken equipment and the wood stacked against the walls, Paul thought it was probably a wheelwright and joiner. Next to it a sign indicated a general store, with shelves and counters left empty and barrels stood in rows the way they must have been the day the last occupant loaded up what he could take and left the town. They couldn't figure out the purpose of the next building which Paul thought might have been a restaurant or a meeting house from the two long tables which were all that remained, but the building beyond that was a hotel, and beyond that a saloon, and both had enough rooms that Dale eventually sat down on the long, raised wooden walk way outside and simply looked at the street. Riley searched every room, methodically and swiftly like a cat casing territory, and Flynn went with him. His own energy and curiosity was as little contained as Riley's was. Jasper searched too, but what caught his eye was different. Dale saw him move around the alleyways, the paths and the yards, where Paul simply drank in with his eyes, drawing conclusions and making his mental notes. The bank was one of the few brick build buildings they found, and still locked, although they looked in at the windows. Opposite, the jail was also locked.

"David knew it well." Paul said dryly when Riley tried the door without success. "I always got the impression from Philip that the sheriff here had a hard time."

"Why?" Riley peered through the glass of the windows. "David didn't do anything awful, Philip wouldn't have let him. And the ranch is miles away."

"David was careering around this area for some years before he met Philip." Paul pointed out. "From what I heard, he knew a lot of the miners, he drank at the saloon here and spent no little time in and around the town, and he saw law and order as open to interpretation. Or rather justice and expediency coming above the law. David was three parts wild, even when I knew him, and he was in his seventies then."

They found a school house, still with desks and a globe and what remained of a blackboard, and a bell which Riley pulled on the rope of, raising a steady toll that was probably the most noise heard in the silent valley for decades. The train station was still intact, with the platforms visible and a few iron tracks in the grass, with one or two stationary and broken carriages and wagons, and a ticket office with the arched window fractured above the desk. Beyond that, came a more modern street with buildings spread out and distanced from the rest, which spoke more of the twenties and thirties, where the broken windows of a diner were visible and the rusted frame of a Buick lay in deep grass alongside a smashed wagon with the hoops visible above the wagon bed. Several newer houses were abandoned with a few pieces of more modern furniture inside, and a few paperbacked books and sheets of newspaper, with dates from the late forties printed on them, before the road petered out at an elderly gas station with pumps still standing on the forecourt.

"In the UK," Dale said aloud to Paul as they stood in the street to look, "The usable ground is at a premium- there are just a few settlements really, so over the centuries the same land and the same buildings are developed and redeveloped and evolved. If you take apart a modern farm house or a hospital you usually find the walls and foundations are farms and almshouses hundreds of years old, modern on top of old and squeezed in along side it. Here – you're lousy with space and you walk away from this kind of place and start again, just leaving it. It's mind blowing."

 "Where are we camping?" Riley asked, appearing out of the diner and stretching until his shoulders cracked. "We haven't found the river yet and it's hot enough to swim."

"The river is east over by the mine." Flynn said, following him, and looking hard at Riley. "Which no one is going down. Ever."

"Except you and Jasper when you're in the mood." Paul murmured. Flynn looked at him and Riley grinned.

"How far did you get?"

"Enough to know it's lethal." Flynn said shortly. "Do it and once I get you out of there, I swear you won't sit until Christmas."

"There was a cave in," Jasper said peaceably as they caught up with the grazing horses and began to lead them back down the main street towards the east of the town. "They took the mine too close to the river, the water saturated the walls until they collapsed. Several men died I believe, and the mine was abandoned."

They were walking towards the mine wheel, visible in the distance, where the houses once more opened out to wide, green grassland. One or two large houses were left on the outskirts of town, more tumbledown than others, and Paul thought they were likely the boarding houses for the miners. One or two small houses were left on the slopes above the mine itself, and the river sparkled blue in the grass beyond.  It was easy to forget just how damned beautiful this place was.

Dale found himself breathing it in as he unstrapped fire making and cooking equipment from Hammer's saddle, until Jasper's hand closed gently over his and pushed him away.

"I'll do that."

"I can," Dale protested and Jasper glanced up, giving him a smile from dark brown eyes.

"I know you can."

"I can do things other than shifting rocks for no good reason." Dale said loudly enough to reach Paul and Flynn.

"When you quit going at everything like a horse trying to clear a five bar gate, we'll think about it." 
Flynn said without looking up, cutting a square of turf with his pocket knife. "Come here." 

Paul gave him a rather shrewd look as Dale passed him, and Dale registered it uncomfortably, following Flynn's clicked fingers and point at the grass.

I am not stressed. I'm perfectly fine. This is exactly what I wanted, this is the happy ever after, look at me being fine. I can handle being fine.

He watched almost without seeing Flynn's hands cut out the square of turf, and Riley disappear into one of the cottages, his whistling reaching them faintly. Jasper took a fishing rod from his saddle, lifted the saddle from Gucci's back and unbridled her, turning her loose with a gentle slap on the haunch and taking the fishing rod towards the river bank where he picked his spot, up river as Dale had known he would, setting himself up for a cast into the shallows where the trout sunbathed in the afternoon. Paul brought fire lighters and kindling across to help Flynn make a fire, and Dale swallowed on a mouth full of acid and a twisting stomach.

Stop it. This is stupid, what on earth do you have to worry about? You've been fine all afternoon, why fall apart now?

Yeah we know this one, Aden. You just quit doing. You're fine if you're busy and you've got no time to think.

"Are you ok?" Flynn asked, looking up. Dale swallowed on an automatic affirmation, the answer he'd have given anyone else on the planet but these three.

"…..I plead the fifth." he said after a minute, making it as light as possible.

Flynn got up, holding out a hand to him. He didn't say anything but Dale got up and silently took it, and walked with Flynn across the grass to the river, some way from Jasper. On the river bank, Flynn sat down on the grass, grasped Dale's belt and pulled him down, so that his back was against Flynn's chest, Flynn's knees surrounding him on either side. Flynn's arms folded over his chest and held him strongly and Flynn's jaw rubbed against his, rough and hard. He smelt of grass and clean sweat, the faint traces of the conditioner Paul used on clothes, the leather of the tack. Dale breathed it in, in spite of himself feeling his chest open a little and his jaw relax.

"What are you thinking about?" Flynn said bluntly against his ear.

No one else could say something that blunt and make it sound so infinitely kind. Or hold on to you like this as though you actually belonged here. Reflexively, uncomfortable with the thought of it, Dale had a try at straightening up and Flynn simply yanked him back, holding him tighter.

"Quit it. You don't want to go anywhere, you don't need to go anywhere, leave yourself alone. What are you chewing on?"

Too much to explain. Dale looked at the river, thinking again of the conversation last night, of multiple things twisting in his stomach and at the back of his head.

"I can do more than shift rocks."

"Why does it matter?" Flynn asked bluntly. "Who decides what chores you do around here anyway?"

That should have been offensive. In fact it produced the usual surge in Dale of outrage and an odd kind of affection and calm. It was an old affirmation, and it was almost exactly what Riley had said.

"You do." 

"So what does it matter?"

That was the heart of it. Dale twisted a little, uncomfortable with the thought.

"I've done that. I didn't come back here this time to be fixed."

"You never came here to be 'fixed'." Flynn said firmly. "People aren't machines, we don't 'fix' anyone. You came here to de stress and to work out what you wanted."

"I'm not what Riley calls a stressed out exec." Dale said, trying to put it into words, and heard a brief snort from Flynn which was one of his short, gruff laughs.

"Actually, yes, that's exactly what you are."

"That isn't how I meant it." Dale said darkly. He felt Flynn shake his head a little; jaw still against Dale's it made Dale move too.

"Yes it is. You don't want to feel like a client, because you think that's wrong, and you don't know how else to feel but like a client. And you're stressed as all hell and you don't really understand why, and you thought you'd come back here and leave the stress behind in New York."

That was so accurate that Dale found himself blurting out before he'd had time to think, "It's ridiculous! I shut down ANZ to come here!"

"Don't start talking yourself into questioning whether you want to be here." Flynn said so firmly that Dale stopped and swallowed. Flynn turned him around to see his eyes, their faces very close.  "I know you, and I've done the same thing myself. There's a lot of emotion, it's difficult and I know it is."

"I know haven't made a mistake." Dale said quietly but from the heart. Flynn stooped a little and kissed him, a brief and rough caress that helped as much as the heavy arms wrapped around him.

"No one's made a mistake. It's going to take time to change gear. It's going to take time to burn off the last few weeks, and it's going to take time for you to figure out who you are here without the client starting point. It's different. It's ok not to know. It's ok not to have the blueprints."

"I'm still obsessing." Dale realised as he said it and let his head drop back on Flynn's shoulder, hissing in exasperation.

"You're still obsessing." Flynn agreed quietly. "You don't like not knowing exactly what's happening, you don't like not getting it right first time, you're still in work gear where you're used to being in control."

"I'm trying to change gears." Dale said shortly. Flynn's arms tightened around him.

"I know you are. But you can't just do it on the surface and not feel it. It isn't a conscious choice. We're going to have to work through this and it's going to take time. Just let yourself be. All you need to do is what Jas and Paul and I tell you, and trust that I know what I'm doing."

"Last time I got through this because I didn't have any choice."  Dale said quietly. "I couldn't quit, I couldn't block it out. This time I'm here because I want to be, and it's still different."

"Of course it's different." Flynn said calmly. "We talked about this. You don't have much experience of belonging anywhere, or in settling into a relationship where you don't have the lion's share of the control."

"I've lived like that, I love it. I love you."

It was like listening to someone else's voice say it. Dale heard it almost in surprise, with a sense of 'who said that?' Where did that particular voice learn to come out with something so personal?
Flynn's arms tightened and Dale felt the hard pressure of a kiss against his temple.

"I love you too. And it's going to be fine. This is not the time to panic. This is the time to try to stop thinking, accept you've got a lot of physical stress, a lot of emotion, and this is a time to let us take physical care of you, and take some time to calm down. We've got you. I've got you. This is going to be ok."

"I want the blueprint." Dale said grimly. "I like the blueprint."

He heard another snort from Flynn and the smile in his voice. "Yeah I know you do, and you're not going near blueprints or anything else work related until I say so. So let it go."

"He's really simmering." Paul said quietly to Jasper, taking a seat on the riverbank beside him. Jasper glanced calmly down stream to where Flynn and Dale were knotted together, sandy head over dark one.

"I think he's settling down, and then something else touches him wrong and it's all still there."


"I just want a magic wand to make it ok for him." Paul said in exasperation, still under his breath. "I look at his shoulders and all the tension in his face – I hoped last night would make a difference. Flynn's hardly taking his eyes off him."

"And Flynn knows how to handle him. Dale's running on autopilot." Jasper said, making another cast out into the river. "We knew he would. When he's anxious he can't help himself. I don't think he's stopped tapping on things all day."

"Tapping?" Paul said, distracted. Jasper looked at him and the brief, rapid action of his fingers he demonstrated was so classically Dale that Paul blinked. He was so used to seeing Dale do it he hadn't noticed.

"I've always thought," Jasper said, guiding his line along a little as the float bobbed, "Dale does best to be allowed to boil over."

"He did." Paul said dryly. "Last night. Except Flynn caught him before he could run himself sick."

"Preliminary tremors." Jasper said briefly, making another cast. Paul gave him a quizzical look, but Riley joined them, a sheaf of papers in his hand which he held out as he sat down on the grass between them. "What does that say?"

Paul took the papers, shaking them out to look where Riley was pointing. And blinked, leaning closer.
"That's David's signature. And writing. Where did you find this?"

"I thought it was David's name." Riley gestured to the house further up the slope. "That little shack there. There's a few trunks left and that was in one of them. What is it to do with David? They're all legal papers."

"It looks like David was standing guarantor for something." Paul said slowly, glancing through the papers. "It's all in legal jargon, we'd need a lawyer to make sense of it-"

"Dale?" Riley yelled up the bank.

"Riley-" Paul began, exasperated, but Dale and Flynn untangled, Dale pulled Flynn up and they walked together down the bank. Riley pointed out the paper in Paul's hand and Paul offered it.

"Honey, can you make head or tail of that?"

"It's a contract." Dale said absently after a minute, reading through the sheaf. "David – is that your David!"

"Yes." Paul said briefly. "That's our David."

Dale raised his eyebrows but looked back at the sheaf. "David paid for the man's licence to mine here, and it looks to me like they had an agreement, for rental of tools and so on, that they were partners. Whatever this man dug in the mine here – a Mr Gam Saan – he and David had equal shares. Dated 1943."

"The last few years of the town." Paul said out loud. "There was nothing but coal left in the mine by then and the miners were paid by the hour, not by quantity."

"Was he after quartz?" Flynn asked.

"Or gold." Paul said thoughtfully, accepting the papers from Dale. "David was anything but Quixotic. If he agreed to this man searching the mine for something then he seriously believed it was there. If David was willing to financially back him they must have been friends."

"No one exactly knows what David was sitting on in the way of hard cash." Riley explained cheerfully.

"He stashed stuff everywhere. Not even Philip ever completely knew, and Philip always said David was cagey about where things came from."

"I suspect a lot of it came from piracy." Paul said dryly. "I think he worked through Canada with a haul of heaven only knows what. 1943 was the year he and Philip met, and I think Philip kept a bit of a firmer hand on their financial affairs after that – but David was pretty shrewd. Speculator, but not a gambler. He did hide things all over the ranch. Philip came up with a bag of some very bizarre bits and pieces once that he found in the woods stuffed down the funnel of the old steam train, including some emerald brooch worth thousands. No idea at all where David got it, but it's unlikely it was inherited."

"There wasn't anything else in the shack, I looked pretty carefully." Riley said as Paul folded the papers along their original lines, handling them gently.

"Well it's nice to have something with David's name on – and evidence he was here. He spent a lot of time in the town. I'm going to light the fire. If we leave Jas alone the fish might actually bite?"

"Dale, going to join me?" Jasper said quietly, giving Dale a quick smile. Dale felt his heart turn over again and swallowed, nodding.

"I'll get a rod."

They didn't settle down under blankets until long after it was dark. They had eaten the trout fresh from the river, another taste that Dale associated so powerfully with here and with home that it sent another wave of tension through him. Flynn and Riley bickered about how dangerous the mine was until finally they went to look. Paul lay and read, chewing slowly on a blade of grass, and Dale followed Jasper's invitation to walk down into the town once more, slowly through the deserted streets in the same companionable silence with which they fished together. That helped a little. And they sat by the fire while the sky went a dark navy blue dotted with stars overhead, far brighter than ever Dale saw in any city, with the breeze blowing warm and softly across the grass and the silent town below. How it was possible to feel this wound up in a place of such peace and beauty, Dale only wished he knew.

When they put out their sleeping rolls, Dale would have settled on the far side of the fire, keeping a polite distance from the others, until Flynn snapped his fingers and pointed next to him.

"Oh no you don't. Here."

Riley, settling down on Flynn's other side, grinned at him and Dale moved the sleeping roll with a twisting stomach that wouldn't quit no matter how much he tried to force it. He lay down on one side of Flynn, with Riley settling on the other and Jas beyond Riley. Paul spread his own roll near Dale, giving him a quick and very understanding smile as he dampened the fire down. They lay in silence at first, drinking the last of the tea Paul had made before they settled, until Paul broke it, voice quiet.  

"Wasn't there a song about a town on that vinyl record of David's that he was obsessed with?"

"I never knew it first hand," Flynn said from beside Dale. He was lying on his back, hands linked behind his head, the outline of his face very clear in the moonlight. "I just liked the songs when Ri found the record and kept playing them."

"They were famous in Canada when I was a kid." Riley said, shifting to get comfortable. "Philip told me once that was why David liked the singer, the songs reminded him of Canada and his time out there."

"There was one about a town and gold, wasn't there?" Paul asked. "Something about fields touched with gold?"

No one said anything for a minute, then Riley began to sing, softly, in a husky and surprisingly sweet tenor. 
"Worn down shacks of labour past, on a hill of broken stone
Once brought by men to the stamping mills to crush away the gold
But before it could pass to their sons, the glory left the hole
The Rawden Hills once were touched by gold."

Flynn put out a hand and found Dale's in the dark, and Dale squeezed it gently, somewhat surprised by the fact there were tears pricking his eyes. 


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders