Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 4


Long used to the sounds of the house, Flynn stirred at the creak of the landing and then the quiet hiss of the shower. Dale, spread out and boneless under the covers beside him, didn't stir, and Flynn paused for a moment, propped on one elbow to watch him, before he slid out of bed and padded towards the bathroom.

Jasper hadn't bothered with a towel or drying off, and was shaving in front of the mirror, dark hair dripping slowly from his forehead quite unheeded. He glanced back at Flynn, shook the old fashioned razor in a basin of hot water and went on with what he was doing, voice soft in deference to those still asleep.

"Did he stay asleep?"

"Right through. He said he didn't sleep much at all out at Three Traders."

Flynn leaned his shoulders against the tiles, folding his arms across his chest, eyes on Jasper's long back, from the angular shoulders where muscles moved under the skin as he shaved, down his spine to hips and buttocks still wet from the shower. Jasper shook off the razor again, the hot water sending steam up the mirror.

"When we found him on the forecourt, Riley lit straight into him, and Dale said several things that I don't think he'd have said to the rest of us."

Flynn raised an eyebrow, waiting. Jasper met his eyes in the mirror.

"Riley told him to try opening his mouth and talking. Dale said he was trying but that the best he knew how wasn't good enough, and he was afraid it would never be good enough. And that the way he felt about us made it nearly impossible to communicate, and he'd never had to try like this for anyone who really mattered."

"Ah." Flynn said softly.  Jasper rinsed his face and put the razor back in the cabinet. 

"That made a lot of sense to me."

"Ri has a knack of getting straight through to him. Always has done." Flynn commented. Jasper gave him a look over his shoulder.

"I'm not sure assault and battery is going to work for the rest of us? Although I don't think Ri landed a single blow that was actually meant to hurt."

Flynn pulled a towel from the rail and tossed it over, watching Jasper dry his face.

"What previous experience has Dale had? Really? He grew up in boarding schools, he's always been valued by achievement. He knows about people being kind to him, he knows about relying on himself, and any previous relationships he's had have been casual, easy come, easy go."

"Literally." Jasper said dryly. Flynn gave him a brief smile and shook his head.

"No commitment, no invasion of him as a person. He's spent his entire life burying himself in facts, figures, numbers, projects, and people were willing to accept him as being detached as part of being brilliant. We're the only ones who have ever challenged it. Everything he knows about being with a family or in a committed relationship he's learned from us. Now he's left work, and all the security and success and control that went with it, and a lot of his self image is tied up in work achievements. We've got him stuffed full of all kinds of emotion, a lot of which is new to him; he's in the middle of several major life changes, and he's a perfectionist who doesn't do trial and error. I'd be alarmed if he wasn't finding this hard. "

"And rationally, that all sounds nice and logical." Paul said from behind him. Flynn moved to let him past, and Paul ran himself a glass of water from the tap and sat down on the bathroom windowsill to let Jasper pick up his clothes and start to dress.

"Practically, I feel like I'm watching a car wreck. I know he's always had a problem communicating, but he was getting a much better handle on it than this before he went back to ANZ. He ate. He talked."

"It's all still there, this is just a very hard few days." Flynn said with conviction. "It's going to take him time. I don't think it's easy for any of us to really understand the courage it's taken him to do what he's trying to do. The only thing he's got is that he wants to be here. He's given up everything to do it. Paul, it wasn't pleasant but a panic attack isn't dangerous, he calmed down once we got him to bed, and he slept ok."

"I know he did, I looked in on you both at least twice last night." Paul gave Flynn a wry look. "Not that I'd want Tom and Jake to leave, or that I'm not delighted to see them, but we did talk about keeping it just us here while we all had some time to adjust…? I feel like this is already hard enough on Dale. I wrote to everyone else to ask them to let us be for a few weeks, but how do you get a letter to nowhere in particular in Peru?"

"This is Jake's home as much as it's ours, and how often do we see him?" Flynn pointed out. "And it's the reality of living here, people come and go. It doesn't affect us as a group."

"And we were wanting to give Riley time to adjust as much as Dale." Jasper said succinctly. "Which Riley isn't needing. Dale scared him yesterday but Riley deals with it and he lets it go. He has this figured out and he's fine."

"I'm not worried about Dale either." Flynn said, leaning against the wall. "For someone six months out of a breakdown, trying to do what he's trying to do, panic is a sane, sensible response. We expected this, we spent weeks preparing Ri that Dale wasn't going to find this easy."

"It wasn't easy to see him that upset yesterday." Paul said darkly.

Jasper pulled on jeans and fastened them, buckling his belt. "Boiling over doesn't hurt him. It proves to him he can lose control and no one dies, and it clears his system. We've seen it before. He builds up charge like a thunderstorm. With the charge blown out he can think and he can talk."

"And he did last night." Flynn agreed. "Mostly about a lot of very critical self-talk. If we go on supporting him, he's going to come through this, don't under estimate him. He's got a phenomenal amount of determination. But if talking and communication are bothering him, there is something we can try that might help, and I'll set that up this morning. And we need to talk about working himself up and not telling anyone."

Riley appeared in the bathroom door, looked from one to the other of them with bleary eyes and went to sit with Paul, who moved over to make room on the windowsill for him.

"Why are we talking in the bathroom?"

"We were talking about Dale," Paul said, wrapping an arm around him. "That we expected him to find it hard to settle back in."

"Well you're all being too damn soft with him for a start." Riley hugged his knees, settling his head against Paul's shoulder with his eyes closed, looking more than half asleep.

Jasper looked at Flynn, eyebrows raised.


"Soft." Riley said without opening his eyes. "From the brat perspective, weeks out of here doing your own thing? He's sucking at basic boundaries, and I would too."

It was a very fair comment. Flynn accepted it in silence, and Riley gave him a rather apologetic look, glancing from him to Jasper.

"It's hard for you too, I know it is."

"The day you fell on Leo." Jasper said to Flynn, "He did exactly the same thing. Worked himself quietly up into a state and vanished."

"And he got six with the paddle for it, with a promise of twelve if it happened again." Flynn said soberly.

"QED." Riley said bluntly. "No extenuating circumstances. Are we going to eat? I'm starving."

"I'll start breakfast." Paul said, getting up. "Possibly one I can persuade Mr Aden to eat."

"Then we'll meet after breakfast," Flynn said, moving to let him past. "This involves all of us. Yes, you too Riley. I know you don't want to watch, but Dale's responsible to all of us."

"If you're going out to unlock," Paul called after Jasper, "Let Tom and Jake know breakfast will be on the table in twenty minutes?"

He started the shower and began to undress, and Flynn followed Riley to the doorway of his room, snagging his hand. Riley turned, giving him a half shamefaced look.

"I'm sorry I wouldn't say goodnight last night."

"You did say goodnight." Flynn said dryly. "To rhyme with 'go to hell' admittedly, but I'll live."

Riley gave him a reluctant smile. "Sorry. Seven is too early to go to bed."

"That was thoroughly deserved." Flynn said heartlessly. Riley pulled a face at him but put his arms up around Flynn's neck to give him a quick and tight hug.

"You're a grumpy old so and so, but I love you anyway."

Flynn held on to him, gently blocking what would have been Riley heading towards his clothes, voice soft and for Riley's ears only.

"Are you ok half pint? We've got our hands full with Dale right now. I don't want you feeling neglected."

"I'd make it very clear if I did," Riley said candidly, "And I don't. You don't spend every waking minute wrapped up in Dale, and Jas and Paul are around if you're not. I know Dale's having a hard time."

"And how hard a time are you having?" Flynn asked softly. Riley shrugged a little.

"I don't like that he got so far into a panic attack. I've seen clients have them, but I've never seen anyone shake like Dale did yesterday, and we only saw the tail end of it."

"You know he didn't leave?" Flynn asked him. "He went off by himself the first way he saw."

"I know." Riley said calmly. "He told me."

Jasper was right. Riley was an exceptionally open, accepting and sweet natured man, and he had a cheerful faith in the people he loved that always out lasted any immediate anger or resentment on his part. It was rare, and Flynn, who had loved him for it for years, put a hand behind Riley's head and kissed his cheek, with love and with deep appreciation.

"Just tell me and let me help if it gets difficult."

"You over think it as much as he does." Riley said, heading in search of clothes.

 The only reason we never thought about wanting anyone else was because we hadn't met Dale yet.

Riley had said that, quite simply, the first time Flynn talked to him about admitting Dale into their relationship. And now here Dale lay, with one hand half curled above his head as he slept, in a way that Flynn could never resist. He sat on the side of the bed and slid a finger gently into the vulnerable palm.


Dale didn't stir. It was hard to wake him. Flynn never looked at him, sleeping like this, without being aware that there were probably few other places on the planet – if any – where this man let his guard down to such an extent that you could touch him without startling him awake. The trust Dale put in them was sobering. He put his fingers against Dale's face, stroking.


His body knew what his head didn't. His first movement was not a startle, or a withdrawal, but a long, slow stretch that spoke of a deep and peaceful sleep.

And you always sleep properly in the house here, don't you kid? Where you feel safe.

It was only when the dark eyes opened that Flynn saw his body language change to the awkward, like a teenager caught in some childish act. Flynn touched his face and pushed back the immaculately short hair, taking in eyes that were no longer shadowed as they had been last night.

"Breakfast time. Come and get under the shower."

Dale rolled to his feet with just a little too much alacrity and Flynn picked up his clothes, resisting the impulse to smile. The body language was as conflicted as Dale was.

"Where do you think you're going?" he said bluntly when Dale started towards the door. Dale turned back, looking startled.


Flynn shook his head, passing Dale's clothes across to him.

"After yesterday, you're not going anywhere out of my sight. Wait."

He saw Dale flush, but where Riley would have scowled and argued and protested, Dale simply stood, body language as quiet as his face. Flynn made the bed, straightened the room and only then nodded to Dale, herding him towards the bathroom.

"You shower first."

The hot water was strong from the jets and pleasant as Dale stepped under the shower, strongly aware of Flynn, stripped to the waist and shaving at the sink. Riley's whistling on the landing and the sound of him running downstairs. The smell of bacon rising from the kitchen. The steady movements of Flynn at the sink. Dale shut his eyes, soaped his hair and tried to slow himself down, making himself breathe it in. It was only when he stepped towards the sink, intending to shave while Flynn showered, that Flynn spoke and that was with a brisk click of his fingers and a point at the floor beside the shower.

"No. Sit there where I can see you."

Dale swallowed on a little shock, too experienced in Flynn to doubt he was serious. Flynn simply waited, finger still extended until Dale pulled himself together and feeling like a small child in disgrace, awkwardly wrapped the towel tighter around his waist and stood where Flynn indicated.

"Sit." Flynn repeated, waiting until Dale still more awkwardly sat down on the tiled floor. It brought back a vague memory of his prep school, of being perhaps seven years old, and seeing some miscreant sitting cross legged on the floor outside the housemaster's study. It was a penalty Dale had never experienced at school simply because he never did the things that the other boys appeared to find it impossible not to do. Outwardly, he had always been extremely good at being good.

And then he ran into this Kiwi who was absolutely unfooled by any act you put on.

Dale watched Flynn's outline in the shower, oddly calmed. Riley hated this kind of restriction with a passion but to Dale there was a peace in it that he had never fully understood. And he understood it and he understood Flynn without difficulty; it was as clear as it was matter of fact. This man was often at his most loving when he was gruffest.

"Get dressed." Flynn told him when he'd dried off. "Tom and Jake sleep at the bunkhouse when they're here. We've got some privacy to talk about winding yourself up into a panic attack without mentioning it."

He said it in the same tone as he said things like 'and then we'll water the stock', quite normally, and Dale knew again while Riley would have been thrown immediately by that into alarm and sulking, he found it calming. Reducing stress instead of increasing it. Timed, acknowledged, dealt with, and Flynn knew that too.

For Pete's sake Aden, why don't you ask him to schedule you appointments and make you really happy?

Dale had encountered a family meeting once before, along with Riley on an occasion when he and Riley encountered a cougar, and he had a fair idea of what to expect. His stomach tightened as they reached the doorway of the kitchen and his mouth dried a little – he had not seen the others since yesterday's humiliation and he was well aware of exactly what he'd done to them in panicking and leaving. He deserved everything they might say to him. However Paul was making breakfast at the stove and Riley and Jasper were both sitting in their usual places at the kitchen table as they did every morning and the kitchen held no sense of a judicial chamber. Jasper looked as calm as he always did. Riley was sitting slumped back in his chair as if he was there under protest, his arms were folded, and he grimaced at Dale as he saw him, which produced a very incongruous urge in Dale to smile.

Flynn pulled out a chair for Dale and sat down beside him.

"Paul? Going to join us?"

"I can hear from here." Paul said without turning around from the stove. Flynn glanced at Jasper who shook his head slightly, and leaned both elbows on the table to look at Dale, voice soft.

"We've seen clients have panic attacks before now,"

"Although not quite that spectacular." Riley murmured. Jasper glanced at him and Riley shrugged, although he didn't smile.

"What? This is making me nervous!"

"I doubt Dale is finding it much fun either, but there are five of us in this relationship and this is between all of us." Flynn said quietly. "And we've talked a lot about bolting when things get bad."

"He was in a state and a half when we caught up with him," Riley argued, "He didn't exactly do it for fun."

"No one's arguing that," Flynn told him. "And no one is blaming Dale for having a panic attack, what we're talking about is-"

"Disappearing, which wasn't his fault." Riley said mutinously.

Dale opened his mouth to say clearly that this certainly was his fault, and to reassure Riley who was obviously prepared to stand up to Flynn on his behalf, and was startled by Paul's voice behind him and the thwick of a tea towel as Paul dropped it on the counter. 

"Right, I've had enough of this. It is not going to be a nine act drama. Dale come here. Here, now."

It was the kind of tone he occasionally said 'Dale Edward' in, and Dale found himself moving involuntarily on the word, standing where Paul was pointing right in front of him. He didn't look annoyed, Paul's face couldn't do annoyed, but he looked straight at Dale with soft brown eyes that missed nothing.

"I am tired of you walking around here, looking like you're going to explode and not wanting to share that with any of us. I don't think anyone here is that scary, do you?"

"No?" Dale admitted, truthfully although with Paul looking at him like that he wouldn't have hesitated to give any answer likely to make Paul happy.

"Or would you say anyone here was unavailable yesterday?" Paul asked just as crisply. "Dale look at me, I want an answer."

"I could have asked anyone," Dale said, feeling his face start to burn with pure discomfort and making himself keep eye contact with Paul which wasn't easy and made him feel still younger, "I know that, I just-"

"You just what?" Paul asked, gently but extremely firmly. "Because I hated watching you go through what you did yesterday. I'm hoping you have a good reason."

"I don't." Dale let go a breath and looked Paul straight in the face, ashamed and distressed. "It seemed stupid, I didn't want to hurt anyone, I'd already pushed Flynn to worrying that I was thinking I'd made a mistake-"

"I didn't say anything about worrying," Flynn said, and Paul looked at him.

"Flynn, shut up. Dale?"

"I wasn't thinking I'd made a mistake, I just couldn't stop –"

"Chewing." Paul when he trailed off. "What do you do when you're chewing on yourself?"

"Talk to you or to Jasper or to Flynn, and say what's happening," Dale admitted. "And it works, I know it works, I just – this is different."

"No, it's not." Paul said very firmly, "It's not different at all. You told me once you were mad about realising you could never lie to us again – not the big lies or small ones, not the spoken ones or the polite little lies you tell with a smile or by changing the subject, or the lies that happen when you just don't share with us that you're worried or upset or in trouble. Do you think it doesn't matter to me when you feel like that? Do you think it doesn't matter to any of us? Do you expect us to keep that kind of thing from you?"

Dale shook his head, shattered, and wasn't in the least surprised when Paul took a brisk grasp on his wrist and led him to the nearest of the kitchen chairs, taking a seat and drawing Dale to him to start unbuttoning and unfastening his jeans with an uncomfortable deftness.

"I am very disappointed you forgot about that, and you can regard this as a wake up call, because the next time you look me in the face and lie to me like that, not only will I put you over my knee, I'll soap your mouth out first."

There was nothing rough or angry about Paul's voice, or hands, but Dale wouldn't have dared to move as Paul opened his jeans, hooked his thumbs into the sides of Dale's underwear and pulled both straight down to his knees without the slightest hesitation, as if there weren't three other people in the kitchen, and he put a hand in the small of Dale's back, guiding him to his right side and down over his lap, which in a very few seconds left Dale with both palms flat on the kitchen tiles, his bare backside upturned over Paul's lap and Paul pushed his polo shirt up above his waist, resting one warm hand there over his hip. His other hand didn't hesitate. About twelve, brisk spanks fell, hot and smarting and delivered crisply enough that it must have been over in as many seconds.

It was nothing like a spanking or a paddling from Flynn, or Jasper. Those hurt, and while this stung, it was nearer to uncomfortable than seriously painful, but Dale, put on his feet and just as efficiently dressed by Paul as he had been undressed, found himself swallowing hard, and having to make a serious effort to prevent himself breaking down into tears. Paul buttoned his jeans, got up and turned him towards the wall with another firm pat across the seat of the denim.

"There's a corner there, go and fill it. Hands on your head and not a word, I've had enough messing about from you."

That, said in tones of mild exasperation, were peculiarly comforting. Dale, very glad to escape the eyes of the others, took up the corner post with alacrity, interlacing his fingers on top of his head, and heard the silence in the room behind him. Other than Paul, briskly lighting the stove and starting to set the table.

"There is a barn that needs un locking, Riley, that shirt isn't wearable, change and bring that one down here, we have guests in the bunk house who need to know breakfast will be on the table in ten minutes."

People moved; from the sound of it, very quickly.

Dale listened to the sounds of Paul preparing breakfast behind him, the smart in his backside rapidly easing to nothing more than a glowing heat and his self control gradually re establishing itself. It was several minutes before he heard Paul say in the same tone, "Dale, come here."

It wasn't easy to look him in the face, save that Paul gave him no opportunity whatever to refuse. He simply took Dale's face in his hands, looking at him with soft eyes that were anything but hard or angry, but which didn't miss much. It was too easy to underestimate Paul.

"I'm sorry." Dale said sincerely before Paul could say anything. "Really, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do anything except-"

"Fix it yourself." Paul finished for him. "It's up to you how sore you want your butt, Dale; we are not putting up with this. Are we clear?"

Dale nodded as best he could, with heartfelt sincerity. "Yes sir."

"Then we forget about it and we work on this being a much better day."

Paul kissed his forehead, pulled him close and surrounded him in a hug that went into his bones in a way Dale hardly remembered, save that it made him feel more secure and protected than he had felt in a long time. It was very different to one of Flynn's embraces- or Jasper's – as unique as Paul was, and Dale found himself turning his face against Paul's shoulder and swallowing again to resist the swell of tears.

"It is going to be fine." He said against Dale's hair when he finally let go. "This is going to straighten out, I promise. Set the table for me, sweetheart. Seven places. Jake and Tom won't sleep in the house but they'll eat with us."  

The atmosphere in the kitchen had changed entirely by the time the table was set, and Riley and Jasper were talking as they came in, Riley looking far more himself as they heeled off their boots in the doorway, followed by the two men from the garage who looked distinctly cleaner than they had yesterday, and who took their places side by side at the table. Flynn arrived a moment later and Jake, the taller, fair one got up at the sight of him, grinning. Dale, who knew Flynn's body language from a lot of private study, saw his stride quicken and the warmth with which he grabbed and hugged the tall, rangy man, and the tightness of the hug Jake gave him in return.

"About time." was all Flynn said, and Jake laughed.

"Harvest. Give us credit for making it in time for harvest! We don't spend a lot of time looking at calendars."

"No excuse." Flynn let him go and the darker man got up as though it was an effort, shaking his hair back from his face and offering a hand.


"Hi Tom." Flynn ignored the outstretched hand, put an arm around the man's neck – although gently, Dale could see the care- and kissed his cheek. "It's good to see you."

Tom didn't respond, but Dale saw the brief look of pleasure in Tom's face as he sat down. Both of them were brown as nuts, thin and muscular and dressed in clothes that looked like they'd seen several hard seasons and a lot of rough washing. Jake smiled at Dale as he sat down across the table. He had a warm face, lively eyes and a relaxed manner that was very unlike his much quieter partner, who had his chair half turned away from the table and was occupying much less space, although he was nearly as tall. Both men must have been well over six foot.

"You're looking better this morning." Jake said cheerfully. Tom glanced at him, shaking his head slightly.

"Jacob. Tact? Diplomacy? Leave the poor guy alone."

"Sit." Flynn said briefly, pulling out a chair for Dale next to him. Paul, setting a couple more plates on the table, stopped beside Dale and leaned a hand on his shoulder, turning Dale to face him.

"You tell me this morning what you'll eat and I'll make it, because I'm done seeing you pick."

"He means we're hitting his 'half starved' button." Tom said dryly. "We're actually not, we're just fit."

"Skeletal." Paul corrected, still looking at Dale. "Dale, what will it be?"

This was clearly not the morning to annoy Paul. Panicked and aware of all eyes on him, Dale racked his brains for anything like a sensible answer.

"Eggs." Riley said cheerfully, helping himself to toast. "Waffles. Donuts-"

"You have never had a donut for breakfast in the entire time you've lived here." Paul told him.

"Jas likes donuts." Riley pointed out and Jasper grinned.

"Jasper likes anything with sugar." Paul said, looking back to Dale. "You tell me what you'll eat?"

Dale swallowed and grabbed for a comfort food he remembered from numerous school Sunday breakfasts.

"Poached eggs on toast?"

"Poached eggs it is." Paul squeezed his shoulder and went back to the stove. "Jake, how comfortable was the bunkhouse last night? Were you two warm enough?"

"It was great." Jake said with feeling. "Although I have it on authority it's cushy and we should move to the barn."

"Or a tent." Tom said, taking toast from the plate Jasper passed him. "We don't do proper beds."

do proper beds." Jake said to Dale. "And hot showers. Hot water is a luxury I may never get tired of."

"Soft as butter." Tom accused. Dale saw the grin that Jake flashed him.

"Tom doesn't like indoors very much." Paul said to Dale, bringing a large dish of bacon, tomatoes and sausage to the table. "Technically they live here – at least this is the only home they actually have and we're their only postal address, but they spend most of each year wandering around the globe. It's been Peru the last couple of years."

"What do you do out there?" Dale asked softly, not able to resist asking.

"Guiding." Jake said easily. "There are archaeological teams and naturalists wanting to get to ruined cities and all kinds of remains in the middle of thick jungle, not mapped and hardly ever touched. We freelance as guides for parties searching for those places. Essentially we act as survival leaders while they do their job."

"Extreme sports." Riley said, digging into a healthy portion of bacon. "They're barking, both of them. If you can dive it, climb it or jump off it they've probably done it."

"We're planning Everest for the Spring." Jake said casually, filling his own plate.  

"Seriously?" Riley demanded. "Everest?"

"So you're tired of Peru?" Flynn asked as Paul brought a plate of two perfectly poached eggs on two slices of hot toast to the table, sat down on Dale's other side, and put the plate in front of him.

Jake shook his head. "Never tired of it. A summit attempt on Everest is something we've talked about for years, and we've got a friend leading an expedition this coming season who wanted some experienced climbers along. It seemed like the perfect time. Paul, this is fantastic."

It was. Dale, running a knife cautiously over the nearest egg, broke the yoke which poured over the toast exactly as he had always loved to see poached eggs break as a child. He hadn't previously thought he was hungry, but the smell of the eggs was rapidly convincing him otherwise.

"Makes a serious change from caterpillars in the jungle." Riley said, grinning at Tom who shrugged.

"Ants. Snakes."

"Eat to live rather than live to eat out there." Jake agreed. "We had a party of German archaeologists on our last tour who couldn't handle the diet at all and nearly starved before we convinced them they were going to have to live off the land with us if they wanted to go as far into the forest as they planned. They were our last team, so we took a few days in Cuzco and spoiled ourselves getting clean and eating what passes for real food out there in a hotel before we flew out. We got to Cheyenne yesterday morning and hitch hiked out to the garage, we thought you might be ready for a hand with hay."

"I'm going out to Jackson to try hiring today." Jasper said through a mouthful of bacon. "If either of you want to come."

"There's things we could do with." Jake said, glancing at Tom. "Like a razor with an actual blade still on it. Yes please. After which if you tell us what you want us to do, we'll go out and dig in."

"Horses. And we really need to make a start on summer resting them, its getting late in the summer." Riley said to Flynn, who leaned on the table, thinking about it while he swallowed what he was eating.

"Tom, you're ok with Moo or Nekkid. Moo could use the work. Dale, if you take Flint from the youngsters' paddock if you need a horse to ride? He knows you and you can manage him. Jake, you're safe with Hammer, and Riley I'm going to need you to put in all the time with Ticktock you can manage, although I don't want you taking him off the home pastures if you're alone. If he throws you, I want someone else around."

"How did you manage to breed a nutcase?" Jake demanded. "From Bandit's temperament? They're all good tempered!"

"Ticktock is good tempered." Riley said at once, "He had a fall about a month back, put his foot into a hole and went right down, and he's lost his nerve. That's all."

"He's coming round for Riley." Flynn helped himself to more bacon. "He's got lighter hands than me and Riley's always good with the freaked out ones. But still not alone until Ticktock has his confidence back. Ri, if you're going to ride Ticktock, we can take Snickers out to the batchelor herd for ten days and make a start on resting them in rotation. And if you, I and Dale keep riding the other youngsters, Leo can go up too."

"We're not great riders." Jake explained to Dale. "We don't do it often enough to get in the practice. I'm sorry if Hammer is a favourite of yours."

"Dale's pretty much up to handling anyone we've got." Jasper said mildly. "Hammer just took to him early on."

"I can manage enough riding to handle cattle on a good day," Jake said comfortably, "And Tom and I can do fences and pretty much anything you need fixing or repairing. Give us a list."

"If you want to do repairing, we can keep you busy for a few weeks." Riley said gladly, "There's all the shelters out in the east pastures to start with."

They were finishing up breakfast. Dale saw Tom hesitate over several slices of bacon and look at Jake, and although Dale couldn't see anything pass visibly between them, Tom grimaced slightly and finished what was on his plate. Jasper glanced at his watch, finishing his cup of tea.

"I need to get into Jackson early if I'm going to catch any teams for hire. I'll meet you two outside in about five minutes?"

"We'll get our stuff." Jake got up and Tom gave Paul what Dale thought was a surprisingly shy glance.

"Thanks for breakfast."

Flynn glanced across at Dale and got up.  

"Paul, do you remember those leather log books that used to sit on the shelf in the alcove in the family room?"

"Philip had a whole stack of them, yes." Paul picked up a dish towel to wipe his hands and turned the taps on. "I've been using one as a stud book for years. The rest are up in the box room with the stock logs."
"Thanks. I'll be right back."

Dale put knife and fork together on an empty plate and Jasper got up, nodding to Riley who was finishing toast.

"Give me a hand to check the supplies before I head out? We were low on a few things."

"Oats." Riley tossed up the last fragment of toast and caught it in his mouth, following Jasper to the door, although he paused on the way and hooked an arm around Dale's neck to give him a rough hug.

"See you later."

Jasper too gave him a warm smile as he put his boots on and disappeared out of the door. Dale got up, gathering up plates, and Paul took them from him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"If I were you I'd sit right there until Flynn tells you to move."

Paul loved Flynn. Dale, who knew how much, and how Paul inevitably came to Flynn's defence against Riley's temper and anything else that hurt him, glanced up at Paul with nasty suspicion as Paul gathered up the plates.

"…this is really bothering him isn't it?"

"Seeing you struggling? Of course it is." Paul put the plates down, taking the seat beside Dale. "And don't you start thinking for one minute that's your fault or it would be better if you left, because it wouldn't. If any of us understand what this is like for you, Flynn does. He was a raving nightmare when he first came here. Jasper hid up on the Tops for eight months and I had to sneak up on him with casseroles. Riley was a handful for the first few weeks he was here. This is the tradition, honey. We deal with it. We just wish it wasn't so hard on you."

"I didn't think it would be hard." Dale said slowly. "It never was before."

"If you leave yourself alone it might fall into place." Paul said gently. "Stop chewing. Or if I have to, I'll keep you too busy to think about how you feel about anything at all. You're not the first one to go through this and I doubt you'll be the last, Philip collected people who had strong personalities and stronger emotions."

"Philip didn't exactly collect me." Dale pointed out wryly. Paul smiled and got up, collecting the plates stacked on the table.

"I think Philip picked you out very early on. I believe that even if you don't."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders