Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 3

 3


In about ten minutes, Jasper and Flynn were asleep. Dale, watching the dark blue sky overhead and listening to the dying crackle of the fire and the breeze blowing across the grass, heard the stillness and deepness of their breathing around him. Their day's work was physical and hard, their day started early and they were always tired at the end of it. Dale remembered it himself; coming back to the house in the evening ravenously hungry and tired enough to fall asleep immediately on closing your eyes – very different to the mental exhaustion at the end of the working day with ANZ.

It was bizarre just three days out of ANZ, to have the two so closely in comparison. The last time he had been on the ranch, it had been long enough for the ranch to become reality. Normality. ANZ had seemed very distant. Within hours of re entering ANZ's world of always ringing phones, always appearing emails and texts and the surging flow of information that moved at such speed, it was hard to remember he had ever been away. Dale had been aware of his own amusement at the speed and earnestness of it all, the phone calls urgently wanting some small detail, now, and of his own detachment from it all, because in his mind and heart he had already left. For those last weeks at ANZ, a part of him had always been here, on ranch land.

And now, lying here with Flynn, Paul, Riley and Jasper in the valley of a ghost town with not another human soul for miles and stars so bright overhead they lit the rippling grass below- there was that nagging, disquieting feeling of detachedness. Incompleteness.

Dale turned over onto his stomach, chin on his arms, and tried to analyse it. When he searched his mind, he could find no thoughts that were connected with ANZ. No projects he was brooding about. Nothing left in New York that he still cared about. All the work he had been involved with had been handed over and was long in other people's hands; it was nothing further to do with him. The pieces of work that would come his way as a consultant would be different, they would be new, and those would be of interest, but no; there was no pining for anything left behind at ANZ.

So what the hell is the matter with you, Aden?

He had never really brooded on work here. This was the one place he had ever in his life been made to focus on and put serious effort into himself. These four men lying on the grass around him knew him, in ways Dale knew he hadn't ever really bothered to know himself – which sent a stab of guilt through him as he wondered how well he really knew them either. Really. Compared to someone else whose brain was not tied up in knots, and who was actually emotionally literate at times.

Take one total emotional incompetent, invite him to marry you and look what you get.

For God's sake Aden, belt up. Shut up, go to sleep, keep your head down and get on with it until you get yourself together. You did it before, you can do it again, just take some time and try not to bloody hurt them while you're wandering around feeling like –

He bit that thought off and turned over, prepared to grimly discipline his body into sleep, and was startled at seeing Riley's eyes open on the other side of Flynn, his face expressive but carefully putting a finger to his mouth to indicate shhh. Dale looked at him, baffled, and Riley looked cautiously at Flynn, then slowly sat up, looking around the fire. What he saw must have reassured him as he got very carefully to his feet, picking up his boots, and the look he gave Dale was quite obviously,

"Well? Come on then?"

It was late at night; a time Flynn, Jasper and Paul generally had strong views about either of them wandering about in. Flynn and Jasper's orders last night had been very specific too: no going anywhere without Flynn, Jasper or Paul present and in charge until he was 'much calmer'.

Are you calm, Aden?

No, not really.  

This was very likely to end in disaster. Dale reflected on this, then picked up his boots by the laces, moved very slowly away from Flynn and to his feet, careful not to disturb him. And then he and Riley together moved step by step away from the fire until they were past the risk of movement disturbing the three men soundly asleep by the fire, and Dale was aware of an insane sense of feeling like a ten year old, the excitement and the apprehension, and the frank knowledge that they really shouldn't be doing this. Riley's hand closed on his arm, keeping his pace slow, and when Dale glanced at him Riley's grin made him have to shut his mouth tight on a ridiculous urge to laugh, and as they reached a safe distance they turned together and jogged rapidly over the grass towards the town.

They reached the darkness of the street and Riley let him go to stoop and put his boots on. Dale leaned his hands on his knees to catch his breath and started to laugh, although he stifled it as much as possible.

"Shhh!" Riley told him under his breath, grinning.

It took Dale a minute to get himself under control and to put his own boots on.

"You know what's going to happen if anyone wakes up?"

"They might not." Riley said with cheerful optimism, waiting for him to fasten his laces. "Do you want to miss walking around here at night?"

No. Dale got up and came to walk with him, down towards the main street. There was light enough to see by, it was a moonlit night and the stars overhead were strong and clear. The street was shadowy and the looming buildings eerily silent. They were passing the train station now where the platform still stood, and several rusted carriages waited patiently on the line. It made Dale think of the fallen train in the woods, left where it fell.

"Philip used to tell me about Three Traders," Riley said, looking with him at the carriages. "He was on his way to a business meeting in Cheyenne, and there was snow on the tracks and the train couldn't pass through the town, so he had to stay overnight. He walked in the door of the hotel into some fight, the hotelier and the Sheriff trying to get David out, and David throwing several other people out and not taking much notice, and Philip stepped in. He said he never got to his meeting."

"Bit of a knack for picking up on hopeless cases." Dale said dryly. Riley grinned.

"Not hopeless. Stroppy, yes. Although he kind of watched and let Flynn and Jasper do most of the work with me."

Dale looked at him. Riley gave him a good natured shrug.


"Flynn said he spoiled me horrendously and he was never that soft with anyone else. Paul said I was his last brat and Philip knew it, and that made all the difference. And I liked to listen to him. He had the kind of voice you can just sit and listen to for hours."

A battered paperback, one of Paul's, read in every spare moment because it was a way to hear Paul's voice when you couldn't get to the phone –

They turned the corner into the street with the hotel and the saloon and walked slowly along the street front, up onto the still intact boardwalk.

"Don't you wonder what you might see?" Riley asked, looking across at Dale. "You've seen different things out here, like Jas has. David for one."

"I didn't realise at the time." Dale said absently.


"Jas will never say exactly what he's seen." Riley paused to peer through the window of the saloon. "But then he's got a weird sense of time anyway, it's like all his tribal legends and his mighty ants. I don't think he explains it to anyone much except Flynn."

"So what's the excuse for the cracked CEO?" Dale asked dryly. Riley grinned and Dale felt Riley's hand slip into his and hold it, with a warmth that arrowed straight through him.


"Well that's the kind of cracked I envy? Jas has always said this is stacked land. Layers of people and memories and events, some people are just more in tune with it than others. You and Jas do a lot more listening than the rest of us."

Listening? Dale found himself chewing on an unpleasant thought as they walked on. He had been here several days and without sight of anything at all in the way Riley was describing. His intermittent glimpses of David and Philip in the previous months he had lived here had been few and far between, and Dale still wasn't sure how much they were simply day dreams or wishful thinking or pure imagination – but this time so far there had been nothing. He had seen nothing.

Possibly even Philip and David were thoroughly disappointed with the mess he was making of this.

He felt Riley slip before he heard the sound of sliding wood, and yanked on Riley's hand, pulling him up and away, and steadying him. Riley yelped, gripping Dale for support, and the two of them looked down at the board of the sidewalk that had moved. It had simply flipped up when Riley stepped on one end of it, the nail holding it in place had slipped or rusted. The board was still intact and as Riley stooped to replace it, he paused and put a hand down to where something glinted. They were still near to the saloon and Dale raised his eyebrows as Riley withdrew a bottle and flipped it over in his hand.

"Whiskey." Riley said, reading the label. "Sheesh, it's still unopened! 1942."

"Probably when they were clearing stock or emptying the shelves as they left?" Dale peered with him. "That'll be worth a bit, vintage scotch."

"Not to anyone here." Riley said pointedly. "We keep the house clear of that kind of stuff because of clients, remember?"

He put his hands around the bottleneck, figuring out the unfamiliar opening, then popped it and offered it to Dale.


"Are you a scotch fan?"

"Only when I couldn't sleep." Dale admitted. "Never have done much. Beer. Wine. Glass with a meal with a client but I was always needing to keep a clear head."

"I've never exactly had the chance, although I got absolutely stoned once in the hotel where were staying when I was about fourteen," Riley said mildly.


Dale tasted cautiously, and nodded as the ancient scotch went down more smoothly than he expected.

"Well it's beautifully preserved. Good stuff."

Riley accepted it back and took a swallow himself, wincing and hissing slightly as it burned his throat.


"Eurrrr… yes, not bad. Cheers, I'm glad you're home."

Dale gave him a quick smile and took the bottle back, taking another cautious sip along with a wish that he could say this and truly feel it.


"Thanks. So am I."



 They managed to get back to the fire and under the blankets without waking any of the other three – which to Dale was luck nothing short of a miracle. The whole way there he was waiting for Flynn or Paul to turn over and demand to know where they had been. But the outside air seemed to have made them sleep deeply, there was no sound of footfall on the grass and within minutes of lying down, Dale knew Riley was asleep, as comfortable and as at peace as though he was asleep in his own bed. So long as he was near the others, Riley was always happy. Dale watched his chestnut head pillowed on one arm, his expressive face relaxed, and swallowed on sensations and emotions that swelled up whenever he looked at any of them for too long, which were entirely too powerful to cope with. Flynn's sleeping back was a familiar outline in the shadows, comforting and very near, and it took an immense effort of will not to press close and disturb his sleep in some childish demand for reassurance.

To distract himself, he found his watch and discovered it was nearly one am. Which was six am in London. And four am in Milan. The simple calculation exercise helped to take his mind back to the banal and manageable. He saw two and three am, before he dozed off, hearing the faint tear and chew of the horses grazing nearby.




*



Riley, who loved water and was oblivious to cold, swam as soon as he woke in the morning. Dale had been dozing more than sleeping and heard him slip away, and then the splash and yelp as he hit the water, and Flynn's voice in the distance. When he looked, he saw them both, stripped to the skin and Riley swimming while Flynn stood waist deep in the river, running water over his face, arms and head. They were talking and Riley was laughing, and they looked like a natural part of the landscape, bare skinned as though they belonged to the emerald green grass and the bright water and the sky that always looked electric blue here on sunny days, with the woods in the distance and the mountains on the horizon – it was like sitting watching a picture with no sense of connection.

"What's wrong?" Paul asked, sitting back on his heels by fire. Dale shook off the blanket and got up, folding it and coming to join him. Jasper's sleeping mat was neatly rolled and there was no sign of him. Paul put a can of water over the fire to heat and put out a hand to take Dale's, watching him with soft, dark eyes that were hard to look at.

"Nothing," Dale said as positively as he could, squeezing Paul's hand and letting it go. Paul was kind – too kind, and much too watchful, and questions were more than Dale could bear. He crouched to help Paul build the fire – which was something he did ridiculously badly for someone with several degrees, none of them in anything useful, and Paul put out a hand to stop him.

"You know Jas and Flynn aren't the only ones who'll spank for social lies?"

And he would if pressed to it, far more gently than it seemed possible to do any good.

"Just still a bit strange." Dale said as lightly as he could. "I still wake up and have to think twice where I am."

And I'm sorry Paul, that's a flat out lie. There wasn't a moment through the night when I wasn't thinking about where I was.


He was both relieved and at the same time slightly dismayed when Paul, after looking at him for a minute, accepted that and went back to searching through the heavy brown leather saddle bags from which he was unpacking bread, cheese and fruit.

"It's bound to be for a while, you've just gone through some very major changes. And you lost weight again while you were staying in the hotel, you've come back skinnier than we sent you."


That kind of thing mattered to Paul, whose love for the others manifested itself in how he turned them out daily, well fed, well cared for, even in the way he sent them out with their shirts crisply ironed. Unable to stand any more, Dale made some kind of polite noise and escaped to a quieter part of the river to wash his face and hands, some way up river from Riley and Flynn who were apparently wrestling each other in the water. The reflection in the water's surface showed him a dark haired man with heavy eyes, who Dale thought looked tired and older and unpleasantly unreal. The whole day had a horrible sense of unreality, from the feel of his clothes on his skin to the way his hands moved as they splashed the cold water on his face. Everything seemed to belong to someone else, as though he did nothing more than observe from a distance.

Get it together Aden.

"Don't talk yourself into believing you don't want to be here." Flynn had told him last night. No, there was no doubt about wanting to be here. Trying not to behave like a complete fool, trying to wrestle his stupid brain and heart into the right places, trying to stop feeling like he was braced for something terrible to happen any second – those were much realer issues. Dale made himself take a few breaths, clenching his hands. It wasn't easy to think he'd succeeded in worrying Flynn that he wasn't sure he wanted to be here, that they'd actually mentioned the word last night 'mistake'. Dale fought off a wave of hot and cold at the thought.

Get through the day. Every day will get easier. Get yourself together, don't hurt them because they don't deserve it, and get your stupid head under control.

He'd done it plenty of times. For clients, for projects, for senior managers in tears, for teams at the point of hurling things across board rooms. He could certainly do it for Flynn, Jasper, Paul and Riley.


He had gone a little way up stream as if to avoid the noise and horseplay from Flynn and Riley.

Jasper watched him as he walked back towards Paul and the fire, slim and dark and crouched like a cat on the river bank in his dark blue shirt and jeans. He had had his hair cut in New York, it was out of his eyes and ordered, and to Jasper it made him look regimented – although perhaps that was equally in the way he currently held himself and even in the way he spoke.

Paul glanced up and Jasper saw Paul follow his gaze to Dale on the river bank, and then look back towards the fire and the bacon he was frying. Jasper said nothing, but stooped, put an arm around Paul's neck and kissed what he could reach of Paul's face, and went to collect his belongings and pack them, casting a discreet eye over Riley's belongings as he passed them. Riley had hidden the whiskey bottle well. Jasper had done no more than tail them into the town last night, moving as quietly as he would do when stalking an animal, watching from a distance that didn't intrude or overhear, but ensuring too that they ran into no trouble from wildlife or derelict buildings. He would not mention to either of them that he had been there, any more than he would mention it to Flynn or to Paul; in Jasper's view no one needed to know. He did wonder if Dale realised that he was as good for Riley as Riley was good for him.

He saw Dale take a breath where he crouched on the back, a deliberate effort to gather himself before he straightened up and came towards the fire, and Jasper saw the tension in his hands and shoulders, and the eyes that weren't touched by his smile. Always a giveaway with Dale, who had a sweet, frank smile when it was real rather than a social mask. Flynn, dressing by the river, caught Jasper's eye and Jasper read his message without difficulty, as he knew Flynn read his reply. Let him be; be patient. If you stamped out every individual spark in the grass, you never found where the source of the fire lay or got to the heart of it.


They reached the ranch by mid morning, having paused on their way through the cattle and sheep pastures to do their daily looking over the stock, fences and shelters. They dismounted in the yard amongst the three excited dogs left on guard at the house overnight, and Flynn tied Leo to the fence rail, fending off Shane's over enthusiastic forepaws from his knee.  

"I need to work the youngsters – Ri, take one of the further on ones out and exercise them, and then put in some work on Ticktock, he's starting to get his nerve back when you ride him. Jas, you wanted time to see what supplies are getting low."

"And to start rearranging the barn and getting the machinery to the front if we're looking at mowing." Riley pointed out, unfastening his saddle bags. "It's a hell of a job but it needs doing."


"I'll make a list of what I need from Jackson and then I'll come and help." Paul said comfortably. "Leave the saddlebags, I'll unpack them."

"Dale," Flynn dropped a hand on Dale's shoulder, a heavy pressure that felt miles away to Dale. "Untack the horses and get them rubbed down, and come and find me when you're done."

In other words, you're working here, in the yard, right under my eye.


Dale carried out the task mechanically, unbuckling and removing sun-warmed leather tack, collecting the brushes and combs and working through the horses one at a time. Each one of them a known and loved personality. Leo, Hammer, Gucci, Snickers, Nekkid. Running hands down warm, smooth coats, with the strong smell of horse and sweat and leather, feeling breathing muscle underneath, the shifting feet and curious glances and heavy heads that brushed his shoulder or teeth that pulled hopefully at his shirt, the occasional clop of a hoof on the yard as one of them eased their weight – it was simple, physical work and it should have been a pleasure. Dale worked, with a growing knowledge wrapped in an icy layer of fear that none of it touched him at all.

Riley and Flynn's voices came frequently from the other side of the fence at the end of the yard where they rode the youngsters in training in the grass pasture. Riley's coaxing and encouragement a sidling Ticktock, Flynn's soft clicks and whistles and his short, emphatic praise to the colts he was working. The clank of iron in the barn, the doors stood wide as Jasper began re organising, and the sound of Paul's voice faintly, singing, at intervals from the open kitchen door. The heat of the sun and the frequent breeze that came in from the open pastures all around the house. None of it felt real at all.

Dale worked, with a vaguely hysterical sense of amusement and horror that he was here but not present in any way he understood. His hands moved but he could barely feel them. It was like watching someone else's hands touch and work, listening to someone else's voice who talked to the horses in a cheerful tone as though everything was fine. It had been a sensation that had grown steadily on the ride back from Three Traders, that creeping sense of detachment until he had looked down at his hands as they were crossing the river and actually found himself surprised at these fingers that grasped and moved and handled Hammer of their own accord.


What the hell is the matter with you?

Several times the knowledge touched him that he needed only to put down the brush and speak, and Flynn would immediately respond. Except quite what he said then, he had no idea.

What the hell is happening?

"Flynn?" Paul called from the kitchen doorway. "Clara's on the phone, they've got a problem with their generator again?"

Flynn drew in the colt he was working, looped his rein over the gate post, and jogged towards the house. Dale watched him go, his hands still efficiently grooming Leo. Jasper was out of sight in the barn. Riley was currently on the far side of the pasture, doing his best with Ticktock who was crabwalking and from the look of things, sweating badly. A sudden roar of machinery started from the barn and while none of the horses moved, Dale flinched so hard he barged into Snickers behind him, who startled and tossed his head. Dale dodged under his neck with his heart thundering, his breath gone and a feeling in his stomach that rose up and into his throat until for a moment he seriously thought he was going to stand in the yard and choke. He walked rapidly clear of the horses, and the roaring of whatever Jasper was operating, until he reached the far side of the house out of sight of the yard, and there, shaking, he tried to catch his breath.

It wasn't working.

Something was stinging his eyes and Dale realised after a moment that it was sweat, which was pouring off his face and dampening his hair. His hands were shaking visibly and his knees were starting to get in on the act, and cold terror was getting steadily worse as he wrestled with his breathing. It was getting faster and shallower and there was no way to stop it; he was aware he was starting to get light headed and that his heart was racing.

I'm going to die. I'm going to have a stroke or a heart attack and I'm going to bloody die, this is what's been building all day.

The terror was overwhelming. Walking wasn't easy, but standing still would have been even harder. Dale stumbled without being very sure of where he was going and found himself by the garage, the heavy doors opened, the two battered four by fours there in the dark, and Dale leaned hard on the nearest one, gulping for breath.

He was never afterwards sure what made him do it. Mostly he thought it was the urge – so old he didn't remember a time before it – to escape, to be alone, to be somewhere hidden. Possibly it was a more primeval urge to try and escape the sheer sense of fear, but the keys were in the ignition of the jeep.

It started first time, its purr lost in the thundering of whatever Jasper was working on, and it skidded several times on its route up the grassed drive, the wheel slipping in sweat soaked hands.




*



Riley saw the jeep disappear out of sight as he brought Ticktock around from another of the low jumps set in the grass, and for a moment he reined Ticktock in and searched the yard, expecting to see Clara or Emmett, or any of their other neighbours, most of whom drove the same dust green, battered vehicles they did. Five horses were still patiently standing in the yard, tied to the fence, with no one in the yard at all, and Riley thought it with a cold shock of alarm, automatically gathering in Ticktock who sidled, picking up on his fear.

Where the hell is Dale?


He took Ticktock at a trot into the yard and had to let him go there as Ticktock reared in panic at the sound of the combine revving in the barn. Riley slid to the ground and let him bolt back to the safety of the gated pasture, jogging into the cool and shade of the barn and around the several pieces of huge machinery they kept for hay making. Jasper was in the cab of the largest of them.  

"Jas!" Riley yelled above the noise, climbing up the massive wheel to get his attention. Jasper saw him before he heard him and turned the key, killing the engine. The sudden quiet was shocking.

"Where's Dale?" Riley demanded. Jasper cast a swift look around the barn and dropped to the ground, following Riley as Riley fled back to the yard, pursued by the now curious dogs. He caught Riley's arm there, keeping his voice calm.

"What made you look?"

"Jeep." Riley towed him around the front of the house, and stopped dead at the ominous sight of the garage door raised and the jeep gone.

"It might be Flynn, or Paul," Jasper said swiftly, gripping his shoulders. "Stand here, don't move."

Riley was too shocked to argue, and Jasper slipped in the front door, standing just inside it to listen. Paul was cooking; Jasper could hear cupboards opening and closing and the occasional humming, and Flynn's voice was audible from the family room, practical and calm.

"- or the flue might block again. Check the oil and then I'll talk you through re starting it-"


Jasper slipped out again, closing the door softly behind him.

Riley was white in the garage, arms tightly folded, surrounded by three solemn dogs seated at his feet. Jasper pulled out the keys from his pocket, pausing to hug Riley tightly around the shoulders.

"Come on."

"Where?" Riley demanded passionately enough for Jasper to hear he was very near to tears. "If Dale wanted to go, he'd-"

"He's got no cash or cards on him because he locked his wallet in the kitchen safe with ours when we went out to Three Traders last night," Jasper said practically, pushing Riley towards the jeep and sending the dogs back to the yard with a click of his fingers. "And the jeep he took has about fifteen minutes of gas left, if that. He isn't trying to go
anywhere."

Riley got into the passenger seat and Jasper shut the driver's door, starting the engine and taking the jeep rapidly up the drive.

The drive ran for almost two miles through the pastures towards the open gateway and cattle grid that marked the entry to the ranch. Riley was hunched in the passenger seat and Jasper heard his swallowing as they reached the road.

"We don't even know which way he's gone – he's never been out on the road here, he's got no idea where to go-"

"Then we'll try five miles each way," Jasper said mildly, turning right, "Because we're more likely to find him stuck on the side of the road than anywhere else."

"If Dale doesn't want to be found-" Riley started. Jasper interrupted without hesitation, although he put a hand out and squeezed Riley's leg.  


"If Dale wanted to leave, for a start he'd tell us. And then he'd plan it to the last decimal place and carry it out like a military black op, with diagrams. You know he would. This isn't running. This is Dale hitting flashpoint and bolting, you've seen him do it before. He doesn't go far."



The gas tank indicator caught his eye.

There was a kind of numb detachment to driving: Dale had let himself be swallowed up in it as his breathing gradually slowed a little and the hammering in his ears reached bearable proportions. His chest hurt and his hands hurt where they gripped the wheel, but he was zoning it out until that flashing red light.

The tank was pretty much running on vapours.

He was staring at the indicator without really understanding what to do about it, when he saw a small, battered gas station ahead and yanked on the wheel, swerving the jeep onto the edge of its forecourt and braking hard. And then somehow he turned off the engine, stumbled out of the jeep and around to the far side of it, in the lee of its shelter, and leaned hard against it, breathless and nauseated and beyond despair.

Of the two men perusing the shelves in the garage, the dark haired one observed the jeep's lurching entry at speed onto the forecourt and paused to watch, one eyebrow sardonically raised.

"The local driving skills are improving." he observed to his companion, who didn't take much notice. Neither did the man at the counter, who didn't look up from his newspaper. The dark haired man set his rucksack down on the floor and moved to look out of the window for a moment, eyes sharpening.

"Jake?"

His companion, taller and fair haired, glanced around and came to stand by him, leaning on his shoulder and following his gaze out of the window. Then he moved to the door, and walked across the forecourt at an easy stride towards the jeep, leaving his companion to pick up both rucksacks and go to pay the disinterested man behind the newspaper.

Dale was leaning against the jeep, hands linked behind his neck, trying to breathe and to clear his head enough to think, when a voice said mildly,

"Hi. I'm Jake."

Congratulations.

Dale took another breath, tried and failed to come up with a response, and found a large, gentle hand on his arm that turned him around and steadied him, facing someone very tall with fair hair and warm brown eyes, and a serenity that suggested finding wheezing ex CEOs by the side of the road was just part of life's rich pattern.

"Breathe." The man said firmly, and it was so like Flynn, who said so often in that blunt tone, Dale, breathe – that Dale found his chest locking and his hands starting to shake alarmingly. The man steadied him as his knees sagged, took a firm grip on both his arms, and without much choice in the matter Dale went where he steered, to the grass bank in the shade on the far side of the forecourt, where the man sat him down on the grass and sat beside him. Someone else was there, Dale was aware of him but couldn't see him or stop wheezing long enough to look around, but a brown paper bag was put into his hand and Jake put a hand over his to make him put it over his mouth and nose.

If it was possible to die of sheer humiliation, Dale would have pioneered it. He gasped for several minutes into the bag, aware that his eyes were running and that he was shaking all over, and that both men had simply sat down on the grass with him. Jake had a bottle of water in his hand, Dale felt the cold of it pressed against his neck as he started to get his gasping under control, and when Jake exchanged the paper bag for the bottle, he took it and gulped, dropping as much down his shirt as went into his mouth.

"What's your name?" Jake said mildly.

Dale took a few more, much deeper breaths, bitterly embarrassed and aware he had no out from the situation at all.

No cash, no phone, damnit man you don't even know where you are!

"Aden. Dale Aden. Thank you, I'm –"

"Are you from one of the ranches around here?" the man asked just as mildly.


"I-" Dale began and stopped, really not wanting to explain himself to strangers. The dark man, sitting with his angular elbows propped on still more angular knees, nodded at the jeep.

"That's one of the Falls Chance four by fours."

"Falls Chance?" Jake asked more gently. Dale nodded, not very sure why.

"Yes. I need – I'm sorry."

Jake unscrewed the cap of another bottle of water, took several long swallows and passed the bottle to his companion.

"This is Tom, my partner. Do you need gas?"

Dale had no idea how to answer that. Tom broke the silence, quite matter of factly, and Dale was startled to hear a British accent.


"What did you run from?"

It is not possible, when dripping with water and still shaking, to maintain any kind of dignity but Dale did his best to gather himself, hunting for a voice he'd used to deal with business situations for fifteen years. The voice wouldn't come.

"I know the look." Tom said bluntly. "Been there, done that, got the t shirt."

"But not that t shirt." Jake murmured. Tom gave him a reproving look.


"Jacob, you're supposed to be taking this seriously."

"I hate the t shirt." Jake said apologetically to Dale, who in spite of himself, looked at Tom's extremely aged and rugged t shirt which had once been pale blue and still stated in faded letters around a kind of crest, Illegitimi Non Carborundum
.

"Don't let the bastards grind you down." He said aloud, mechanically and Tom grinned.

"Quite. Are you headed from home or to home?"

Neither was an accurate answer. Dale pushed his hands through his hair, aware he was starting to shake again.


"I – it's not exactly-"

The sound of an engine on the road made him look around and he recognised the four by four that turned onto the forecourt with flooding relief.


"That's them."

He moved to get up, and Jake, following his gaze, put out a hand out and took his arm, speaking quickly and quietly. 

"Dale. If you want to leave, all you have to do is tell me."

It was a promise, quietly and sincerely made. Dale, used to men like him with that same capable presence, looked at him and knew he meant it. He said it as you'd say it to someone who was afraid, a victim trying to escape, and it was such a ridiculous thought that despite his shaking, Dale found himself close to smiling. It threw everything into perspective, the very groundlessness of the fears that were torturing him. He gently detached Jake's hand and got up, grateful but definite.  

"Thank you. Really, but I'm fine. Excuse me."

He was crossing the forecourt to meet them as Riley exploded out of the cab of the four by four, leaving the door swinging, and if Dale had intended to try to find an apology or an explanation he didn't get a chance. Riley barged straight into him with a hail of not very well aimed slaps at his chest, head, shoulders and anywhere else in reach, voice raised and furious.


"What the hell are you doing! Do you really think you can just get up and disappear like that?"

Dale instinctively raised his hands to fend Riley off, which didn't do much to help.

"I'm sorry, I-"

"You don't just leave! You don't do that to us!"

Dale ducked at another several vigorous slaps although he was aware as he did it that not one of them was really aimed to hurt, and while Riley was spitting mad, it was anything but a 'never speak to me again' anger, and Riley was very near to tears. That, more than anything, cut straight to his heart.

"I'm sorry. Really."

"You don't do that to us!" Riley said again, taking a breath and walloping him again somewhere around shoulder height, "You do not
leave. No matter what happens nobody leaves."

"Riley." Jasper said from behind them. Neither Dale nor Riley took the slightest notice of him.


"I didn't mean to, I really didn't," Dale said sincerely and gently, keeping his hands up to fend blows from his face but doing nothing more to defend himself. "I don't know why, I just started thinking and I couldn't stop, and it got worse and worse-

"So open your damned mouth!" Riley ordered, wiping angrily at his face. Dale's own voice cracked in response, and he dug in his pocket for a handkerchief which Riley grabbed with something nearer to a blow than acceptance.

"I don't know how, I wish I did. I'm trying the best I can and it's not good enough, it may never be good enough, Ri-"

"Do you think we care?" Riley demanded. "Do you? You're talking to me!  How hard is it? How hard is it?"

He was openly crying now and Dale touched his arm, unable not to, and not at all sure Riley would allow it.

"When I feel like this about you? And Flynn, and all of you? Nearly bloody impossible."

"I don't expect you to open your mouth and come out with Shakespeare, but you know how to talk, you've done it all your fricking life!"

"Not like this." Dale told him softly, and very apologetically, "Never to someone it mattered with."

Riley hit him with the handkerchief, still gulping.

"What, because I love you there's some sort of shield in place that talking doesn't go through? If you ever do this again I'm going to kill you."

"I'm sorry." Dale said again, wholeheartedly, and this time in addition to the whack around the head, Riley clutched his arms around Dale's neck and hugged him hard. Dale hung on to him, in danger of choking, and the two of them pressed together their entire body length from head to foot.

"Do you need gas?" Jake's voice asked mildly from somewhere near by.

Riley looked up from Dale's shoulder and Dale saw his face freeze with surprise. Jasper threw the keys across into Jake's hands and Jake caught them deftly, one elbow hung on Tom's shoulder.

"We'll bring the jeep home. And I guess we'll probably be a while."

Dale watched, still clutching Riley, as Jasper hooked an arm around Jake's neck and kissed him, then Jake and Tom walked on towards the abandoned jeep. Jasper put an arm around Dale's shoulders, turned him around and pulled him close, tall and quiet and without drama. He had a knack of making time stand still, Jasper. The quietness of him reached out and surrounded you when he touched you, and Dale shut his eyes, head ducked against the hardness of Jasper's chest for a moment, realising he was still shaking a little, and aware too of a peculiar sense of calm settling over him. Nothing else was going to get out of hand now.




*



When he thought about it afterwards, and judging by Riley's reception, Dale thought he probably should have been scared stiff at the thought of facing Flynn and Paul. In actual fact, he was in a state of weary, shaken calm that grew at the sight of the house, and of Flynn erupting down off the porch to meet them. He and Paul followed the jeep around to the garage and Jasper opened the driver's door, voice calm.

"He's all right. One major panic attack and he's still very shaky."

Paul muttered something about kettles and disappeared towards the house. Flynn opened the door before Dale could, and put a hand gently under his chin, lifting his face and looking for a few seconds intensely into his eyes, his own dark green eyes absorbed. Then he ran his thumb over Dale's cheekbone, as calm as Jasper was.

"You're back with us, aren't you?"

"Obviously." Riley said shortly, shutting the door on the other side. "He didn't know what he was doing, he's still shaking like hell-"

"And Riley beat him up on the garage forecourt." Jasper added.


Dale saw the corner of Flynn's mouth tug in one of his rare, brief smiles and knew as well as Flynn knew; that hadn't been what Flynn had meant. He'd seen Flynn read his eyes before now, this man had seen him hallucinate, and they both knew the worst was past. His voice was still quietly reassuring, as much as the hand that drew Dale out of the jeep.

"It's all right Dale. It's over now, come inside and get warm. Ri, go run a hot bath."

"Take a guess at who Dale picked up at the garage?" Jasper said mildly as Flynn steered Dale towards the front door. Flynn raised his eyebrows and Riley, heading inside and towards the stairs, called back over his shoulder.

"Jake and Tom. In the other jeep and headed this way."

"You're joking?" Paul demanded from the kitchen.


"It's hay season and they always try to fit their time here with when they know we'll need them." Flynn pointed out, walking Dale towards the stairs after Riley.

"I didn't even know they were in the country," Paul called back. "I swear neither of them own a pen."

"Not many stamps in Peru." Riley pointed out from upstairs.


"Dinner for seven then," Paul said, not sounding at all put out. "And clean linen and towels in the bunkhouse, unless Tom's learned to sleep indoors."

"I'd think it's unlikely, they'll have slept outside for the past six months." Jasper hung his hat at the door and heeled his boots off. "Four walls are going to seem a little small to them."

Riley was standing inside the open doorway of the bathroom as Flynn and Dale reached the top of the stairs, and Dale heard the sound of taps running. Paul followed them up with a mug in his hands, setting the mug on the shelf beside the bath, and taking several towels out of the linen closet.

"I'll get you something warm to sleep in," he said as Flynn steered Dale towards the bath, "Shout if there's anything else you need. Riley, come downstairs honey."

"I'm ok here." Riley said mutinously. Flynn let go of Dale to put an arm around Riley's neck and pull him over, dropping a hard kiss on the top of his head.

"A panic attack is no one's fault and I'm not about to let Dale out of my sight. I promise. But you don't have to go anywhere if you don't want to."


Riley's arms wrapped tightly around his waist and Flynn hugged him, then let go and turned Dale around, pulled his shirt off over his head and unbuttoned his jeans. Paul tactfully left, pulling the door to behind him, and Dale took over with shaking hands, circumspectly turning his back to ease his jeans off, horribly aware of how his knees were trembling and how cold the bathroom felt to bare skin, and of standing naked under Flynn and Riley's eyes. The water when he stepped in was hot in contrast, and for a moment he shivered, discreetly arranging himself in the water for privacy's sake. Flynn drew the bathroom stool up and sat beside him, palming handfuls of the water over his shoulders and rubbing his back.

"Lie back, get your shoulders under and get warm. Ri, sit down, he's not going anywhere."

Riley unwillingly stopped fidgeting and sat down with his back against the radiator, and Flynn turned the stool to have an equal gaze between Dale and Riley, although his hand was still rubbing slowly against Dale's shoulder.

"So where did you find Jake and Tom?"

"At the garage." Riley said slightly less brusquely. It was an unusual tone for him and Dale noticed it. "Jake was with Dale when we got there. He told Jas it was a panic attack, he said Dale was still going strong when he got out of the jeep."

"Was this when you beat him up?" Flynn asked mildly. It pulled a very unwilling smile from Riley.

"I didn't beat him up. Much. Why did you stop at the gas station?" he added more sharply to Dale. "I know you didn't have any cash on you."

"I saw the 'tank empty' light blinking," Dale said slowly, thinking about it. "I wasn't really thinking at all until I saw that. Then I saw the garage up ahead and thought thank God, somewhere to stop. I didn't really have any plans to what to do after that."

"You could have told anyone at the gas station you were from Falls Chance and they'd have called us for you, or given you a lift." Flynn said quietly. "You can do that any time around here in a fifty mile radius. Most people out here are ranchers, or work with ranchers, and pretty much they know everyone. Are your hands steadier?"


Dale lifted them, looking with morbid interest. Flynn looked too, then reached for the mug on the shelf and handed it to him. Dale sipped tea, hot and strong, and felt the warmth run down inside him. The shivering was finally stopping.

"Jake saw me come in," he said, mostly to the mug. "He came over and asked if I was ok, and he could see I wasn't which was fairly obvious." Dale hesitated once over the details, then went on with brutal honesty, "He made me sit down and gave me a paper bag to breathe into until I stopped hyperventilating – that's one I haven't actually done before – and his partner, Tom? He said it was clear I'd run away from something."

"Did you?" Flynn asked mildly. It was interest, not accusation; Dale knew his tone and knew his eyes, and Flynn lightly touched the back of his knuckles to Dale's cheek as he looked up.

"No." Dale told him and meant it. "I'm not sure what happened. I felt –" he hesitated, not sure how to put it, "Strange, all day, and it got worse when we were riding back from the town. I was grooming the horses when Jas started up one of the combines in the barn and I just – lost it."

It was hard to explain those minutes of choking panic, being unable to breathe, heart racing and an utter conviction he was going to die alone, out of sight by the garage.

"I went absolutely –" he said rather lamely, staring into the half empty tea cup. "Like an animal. Just wanted to get away and be alone and stop feeling –"

"Panic." Flynn said quietly when he didn't go on.


"And the jeep was there, with the keys in sight." Dale went on, not looking towards either Flynn or Riley. "If you've got a client around you don't leave keys where the stupid bastards can get their hands on them in mid impulse. Perhaps you ought to be less trusting?"

"Quit." Flynn said bluntly. "You're not a client, you live here, and with that much adrenaline burning around your system you might just as easily have taken a horse, or run up the first path you saw. What I want to know is why you were feeling so bloody awful all morning and you didn't mention it to anyone."

"It's my fault too," Riley said unhappily, and Dale looked up, too late to stop him as Flynn's eyebrows rose.


"Go on?"

"We went out and walked around the town last night after you and the others were asleep?" Riley admitted. "And we found some bottle of whiskey still intact and drank it- I didn't realise what it would do to Dale, I should have thought-"

"And how much did you have?" Flynn interrupted. Riley winced, thinking about it.


"Maybe a couple of swallows each? Not much, it was pretty strong and it wasn't really either of our thing-"

"Show me." Flynn said simply. Riley got up and they heard him walk down the hallway, returning a minute later with the bottle in hand. Flynn took it and turned the bottle over in his hand.


"Barely half a shot between the two of you. Half pint, I think you'd have to try harder than that to get drunk. I do remember Jas telling you that if you two wanted to go off somewhere together, you needed to ask one of us to go with you? For good reason too."

Riley already looked horribly upset and Flynn put the bottle down, coming straight to the verdict.


"You can go to bed directly after dinner, and possibly that will convince you Jas was serious, as well as make up for lost sleep. Dale, you're going to bed right now. Ri, go downstairs and tell Jasper what I said, and that I meant the minute you're done eating."

Riley didn't look happy about it but he got up and Flynn took a towel off the rail, holding it out. .

"Come on."

Scoured from head to foot, dry and tingling, Dale went where Flynn steered him, onto the landing, save for a brief moment where he automatically turned towards his own room and Flynn pushed him past the doorway to his room.


"No, I want a closer eye on you and the last thing you need is some more time on your own."

Paul had obviously anticipated them. A clean t shirt and shorts were laid out on Flynn's bed, and Dale hastily put them on, feeling a good deal less vulnerable once he was dressed. Flynn opened the window wide, not watching, and pulled the covers back on his bed.


"In."

His usual charm and diplomacy, but the gruff tone was comforting. Dale slid under the cover, warm and still a little shaky, and aware as soon as he lay down of being bonelessly tired.  


"Adrenaline." Flynn said, pulling the covers over him. "You're going to feel horrible for a while, and probably exhausted. Best thing you can do is sleep until it wears off. And in the morning we're going to talk about spending four hours chewing yourself up into a panic attack while working on convincing us that you're ok. Turn over."

Dale rolled over, making room for Flynn as he sat down on the edge of the bed, and the hand Flynn slid under his t shirt began to rub in slow circles over his back, long and smooth strokes with a heavy and familiar hand that banished any last trace of numbness or detachment, although there was no answering stir of interest from his adrenaline battered body. It was just deeply personal, a comforting and all consuming sensation.  

"Do you remember what you were thinking about at Three Traders this morning?" Flynn asked quietly after a moment.

Dale thought about it, pillowing his head on his arms. It still felt strange to be here, so be the centre of so much intense attention, as if Flynn really had nothing better to do than sit here with him after what he'd done today.

"Isn't this reinforcing negative behaviour?" he asked, twisting to see Flynn. "I disappeared off without warning, I upset Riley, shouldn't you-"

"Whose decision is it?" Flynn asked. Dale shrugged a little.


"Yours, but – I know we've been over this."

"Let's go over it again." Flynn invited. Dale knew the tone and despite himself, smiled faintly, laying back down.


"It's not my job."

"No." Flynn agreed. "And we'll stick to the question at hand. What were you thinking about at Three Traders this morning."

He wasn't going to give up, and Dale knew it. He rolled over onto his back and Flynn leaned with an arm either side of him, waiting.

"A lot about being wrong. Getting this wrong. Riley said something-" he stopped, and Flynn waited, not moving. Dale swallowed and said it out loud, painfully.

"I haven't 'seen' anything since I've been here. I did a few times when I was here before-"

"And what is that leading you to tell yourself?" Flynn said dryly. Dale winced.


"All right, that Philip and David wouldn't approve of me…."

"Being here?"


"Making such a mess of it." Dale said bitterly. "If I was less emotionally incompetent, if I actually could feel any damn part of this-"

"Feel what?" Flynn interrupted. Dale hesitated, not sure how to explain.


"This morning – it was an awful feeling, like watching from a long way away. Not really feeling what I was touching, not really feeling here,"

"Dissociation." Flynn said matter of factly. "A self preservation strategy and I'd think it's very likely one you've used for years to be able to be objective in stressful work situations. A lot of professionals do, within limits. What were you trying to be objective about?"


Dale flinched, the thought there, but really not wanting to explain it. Flynn waited, then tapped his hip through the covers, firmly.

"Dale, I really don't want to spank you right now, but I will if it's necessary because we are going to talk about this. You don't get to decide what you share and what you with hold, and you know it as well as I do."

It was too difficult being still. Dale twisted to reach the side of the bed and get up, wanting to pace, and Flynn put a hand on him to keep him on the bed, giving another firm, warning tap.

"Dale."


"Because I was getting into a state and I didn't know what to do about it." Dale winced, putting his hands up briefly to cover his face. "And no, that's not true either. I was trying not to make a bloody fool of myself."

Flynn nodded, listening. "Ok. How? Dale stop chewing and say it. Just get it out, don't evaluate it."

"I can't go through life clinging to you like a child to a bloody stuffed toy every time anything bothers me," Dale said sharply. "It's ridiculous, I'm a grown up, I used to be a relatively competent one,"

"Do you feel we make you less competent?" Flynn asked him. Dale shook his head at once, angrily.


"No
. It's my fault, I'm the one not doing it right –"

He stopped as he realised, and Flynn gave him a pointed look.

"That's always a key thought for you, isn't it? Dale, what does being a grown up have to do with not allowing yourself to seek comfort or support when you want it?"

"For a grown man it's pathetic." Dale said roughly. Flynn had no difficulty hearing the emotion behind it.

"Define pathetic."

"Weak. Incompetent."

"Doing it wrong." Flynn said simply. "What's talking?"


"The perfectionism." Dale admitted.

"Which isn't rational, and which isn't you." Flynn agreed quietly. "Dale, you've done more in a few weeks than most people have to deal with in a few years.  Closing out the career you've spent your life on.  Moving across the country.  Going from single to committed, and not to one person, but four.  Three major life changes in the space of a few weeks.  There is no way to make that easy. Even for the most laid back people. There isn't a blueprint for how to do it, and the rules you're making up for yourself on what it looks like when it's done right are not realistic, and they're not achievable. They're not even based in valid beliefs."

He waited a moment for that to sink in.

"The only way you have right now to block and control those kind of emotions is to wall them off. And if you do that, they'll just build up until they burst out anyway, in a way you can't control. What you are trying to do, the changes you're trying to get used to, is not easy. The physical steps of packing up and coming out here may be, but the mind does things on its own time schedule and in its own way. You are going to have to give yourself time."

Dale nodded slowly.

"As for seeking comfort when you want it," Flynn said bluntly, "What the hell do you think I am? Your bloody bank manager?"

His outstretched arms were as warm as his tone, and Dale twisted free of bedclothes and buried himself in them, closing his eyes as Flynn wrapped arms around him, holding him close and tight enough to give the illusion that he could hide here.

"It is not weak to want comfort, it's not unmanly." Flynn said against his hair. "It's your right from any one of us, the same way it's our right from you. And you keep in mind, we wanted you. Not the perfect rancher, not the perfect partner, not the edited highlights of yourself when you've decided what's appropriate to share with us. All you need to do is just be here and be with us and let your mind catch up with the rest of you."


He made it clear he was in no hurry to let go, and Dale had no idea in the end how long they sat there, locked together. It was only when he stirred at last, slightly cramped and a very good deal calmer, that Flynn's arms relaxed around him, he drew the bedclothes back and straightened them.

"Lie down."

Tired beyond arguing, Dale slid under the covers and settled himself, and Flynn got up to pull the covers straight over him.

"You can lie there and do some serious chilling out."

He picked up a book from the shelf against the wall and sat down in the window seat, propping one elbow on one raised knee to open it. Dale watched him, outlined against the sunlit glass. It was early afternoon, he could hear the dogs barking in the yard as a jeep pulled up and then a yell from Riley and the sound of him running down the steps. Tom and Jake.

"Do you need to go down and-" he began, and Flynn didn't even look up from the book.

"Shh."

"I don't-"

"Shh."


There were no books within reach and Dale had a feeling that Flynn would not be receptive to a request for one. He found himself watching Flynn with another rush in his chest that made his throat tighten. His sandy hair shone gold under the sun, his head was bent over his book, his long hand was hanging from the elbow on his knee. Big, solid, calmly immovable like the mountains outside on the land he loved. There was no one easier to trust, and no one for whom Dale would have wanted more desperately to try.

He dozed for a while in the end, with nothing else to do. The quietness of the trees through the open window and the occasional scrape of paper from Flynn were as soothing as cool sheets and the mattress under his back.

He was woken much later by Riley's voice on the stairs, sounding hotly and plaintively exasperated.

"I only haven't seen them for eight months! It's not like we get to talk on the phone-"

"They'll still be here in the morning." Paul was saying stolidly, "And you can argue it with Flynn if you like, I'll wish you luck. Go get ready for bed."


There was a bang on the landing in response and Flynn lowered his book, looking towards the half open door.

"Riley......"

The deep growl was followed by a shocked silence. Flynn caught Dale's eye and smiled as much, much quieter footsteps passed their door on the way to the bathroom, and Dale lay down again, swallowing a laugh that would have been very unkind.

Definitely the sounds of home.


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


Three Traders