Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 5



5


The book that Flynn brought downstairs was leather bound and dusty, with its grey and black cover dimpled and creased by years on a shelf. It was large, and thick, and when Flynn flicked rapidly through the pages inside, they were slightly yellowed with age, but blank. Dale watched him take a couple of pens from the drawer in the kitchen without surprise: Flynn had made him research and write essays before now and while it wasn't exactly fun, it helped enough that Dale had learned simply to trust him – one of the many areas where he had learned to unconditionally trust this man. But Flynn simply put the book under his arm and nodded at the door, going to pull his boots on, and Dale got up to join him, stamping his own boots to comfort and following him out onto the porch.

There was still the cool of early morning outside, despite the brightness of the sunshine, and the breeze was soft against Dale's bare arms, refreshing and carrying the scent of grass and horses. Paul's pots of herbs and plants on the porch were in flower, neatly lined up, and in the distance several of the horses in the corral looked up and came to watch them, one or two nickering hopefully that this was a sign they were going out. Across the yard, the two year olds in the training paddock leaned against the fence and nudged each other out of the way like children, in eagerness to find out what was going on. Further down by the barn, Riley had Ticktock tethered and was grooming him, although he was using his hands far more than the brushes, stroking the twitching colt and talking to him.

That's the one who lost his nerve.

Dale remembered Riley telling him about the young colt taking the fall while he was in New York. He had seen both Riley and Flynn do what Riley was doing now – building up the confidence of a horse before they rode it, getting it used to being touched, getting it familiar with their voice and responding to their will as Riley was doing in a dozen small ways while he petted Ticktock, nudging him to give way, to let each foot be lifted in Riley's hands, to move a step to the left or to the right, backward or forward.  If you didn't know what Riley was doing, it would be easy to assume he was merely playing or taking his time getting ready to ride; with the experience of six months living here, Dale knew exactly what he was doing and could see the skill within it. Riley's casual, easy going manner was exactly what the anxious colt was being calmed by, picking up the message through his hands and his voice, if you're ok, I must be ok.

Flynn opened the stable door and left the book and pen on a shelf there, leading the way down to the tack room. Dale propped the door open with the iron horse shoe kept there for the purpose and watched Flynn collect a broom and a couple of buckets.

"Shall I do the watering?"

"No." Flynn stood the buckets in the hallway and he straightened to look at Dale. "You've got one job to do this morning and that's to stay within six feet of me. That's all you need to concentrate on."

"That's ridiculous-" Dale said reflexively, and stopped when Flynn shook his head, interrupting.


"I move, you move, no more than six feet."

"I can at least do something useful!" Dale protested, and Flynn gave him a straight look that was, if Dale was any judge, slightly amused.


"You feel this isn't? Not a democracy, Dale. I'll decide what I have you do and I'll decide whether or not it's useful. Six feet."

All that, said in Flynn's ever unpolitically correct, laying down the law manner, left Dale slightly stunned. And then Flynn picked up the buckets and headed towards the tap, and Dale was left standing in the dark hallway outside the tack room, for a moment really wondering whether he was seriously going to participate in this nonsense.


And that was a shock, because he had never before thought it was nonsense – not since he was first a client here, baffled by what these ridiculous people thought they were doing. And the shock was at himself, not at them.

"Stop thinking about it and move!" Flynn ordered from the end of the passageway. That tone invariably made Dale's legs respond without conscious permission from the rest of him.

Flynn had made him do this kind of thing plenty of times – there had been several weeks of sitting doing nothing and watching him work when he first came here, which had been very hard- but I saw the point in it. That was anything but nonsense and I knew it.

But I'm not a client!

The thought came quickly and fiercely and Dale swallowed on it.

Flynn knows that. You know him better than that. So what's your problem, Aden? The big businessman having to take orders? Is that what you're mad about?

No, I've never minded that. I never gave orders anyway, I mostly did everything myself.

Being treated like a client?

No. Not if I'm honest, because they never really treated me like a client. They treated me as they do Riley – Gerry – any brat belonging to them.

So when did you get hung up about the brat part?

The little internal voice had become distinctly mocking.

That's the deal you signed up for, you understood it.

Dale felt Flynn's hand close firmly although not at all painfully on his shoulder, turning him around and the swat across the seat of his jeans was sound enough to make him yelp and realise he'd stopped paying attention to where Flynn was or anything he might be saying. He couldn't help reflexively putting a hand back over his now scorching butt – and let's face it Aden, you weren't exactly cool there to start with this morning! – and spinning to face Flynn.

"Six feet." Flynn reminded him. "Stop chewing."

He picked up two brimming buckets that Dale hadn't even seen him fill, and headed towards the paddocks, leaving Dale with an intense image of dark green eyes, and a reflexive effort to catch him up.

He didn't make it easy either. Flynn simply worked, heading rapidly for troughs to fill, and Dale had to concentrate to stay with him.

Which is ridiculous, you're supposed to be bright.

Shut up.

Dale trailed Flynn back to the stables to watch him refill buckets, resisting the urge to rub again at his backside which was moving from actively smarting to feeling as though he had sat on a hot water bottle. It was annoyingly dominant on his mind, which he felt it shouldn't be; it blocked out far more rational thought. Or fragmented and rather uncomfortable thought.

You've never seen Riley treated like this, have you? Nor Gerry. Although you never saw them take off in a truck or rebuild a sheep shelter from scratch either.

A more sensible part of Dale pointed out that Riley had been living here as part of this group for fifteen years, and Gerry's history was just as long in addition to living with Ash within this kind of relationship for years. Another part of him said still more simply,

And they were both kids when they first lived in this kind of relationship, with every excuse to be difficult. You're a grown adult with nothing like the problems they dealt with before they came here.  Let's face it, you just suck at it, Aden.

Still another part of him wanted for a moment to open his mouth and pour all of this out to Flynn, who was filling buckets just a few feet away.

His first instinct was to swallow that thought down, unwilling to betray such weakness, and then to think again, reluctantly, of Paul in the kitchen this morning with a rush of a little embarrassment and a good deal more distress. That spanking in the kitchen this morning – it had been very brief and it had barely stung, but Dale had felt it acutely. Paul never managed to sound anything more than mildly cross at his worst, but the sense of disappointing him, letting him down, was extremely painful.

And that spanking should have been utterly humiliating. The other three were sat there watching, he stripped you down as if you were six.

But it wasn't, and I didn't even think of who was watching. I wasn't thinking about anything except how far I'd pushed Paul. And if I had thought, I still wouldn't have –

No, he would have cared. That was the wrong way to put it. But he wouldn't have been ashamed. There was too much normality, it made too much sense. Which was insane in itself. And Paul had only said what all five of them knew, Dale as much as the others.

Lying to them is a terrible thing, and you know it. There is no excuse and it doesn't matter that it's hard.

Damn.

"If with holding information ranks morally somewhere below irresponsible use of nuclear weapons," Dale said acidly, "and the information being with held is moronic and a waste of your time-"

"You still don't get out of it." Flynn said without looking up, filling buckets. "What did you want to say?"


"The point is that I didn't."

Dale saw the brief smile in Flynn's eyes, flashed at him.

"Say it anyway."

Say what? I don't even know how to explain any of this!

Flynn changed buckets, not looking at him, voice calm.

"Just blurt it out. Any of it. It doesn't have to be right."

"I'm no good at this."

Flynn didn't answer, changing buckets again under the tap, lifting the heavy and brimming black containers effortlessly. The silence left a gap that Dale, swallowing a few times, suddenly found himself filling with a rush of words, incoherent and exasperated.

"I can't do any of this right! I'm useless at this, that's all I can think about. I've done this before, I know about it, it's always made sense- I wish to God I could get my head straight and stop driving myself mad-"

"What can't you do?" Flynn interrupted.


"You don't do this with Riley." Dale said shortly. "Although Riley's lived for years in this kind of relationship and he doesn't go nuts and disappear when things go wrong-"

"No, he goes and climbs something. Or swims something." Flynn supplied. "Go on."


"And he was a child with every excuse. It's ridiculous to try and compare, I know there's a difference,"

"But you're not doing this right." Flynn finished for him when he didn't go on. "No, don't pull faces, that's all right. If we work out what's the perfectionism talking and what isn't, you've got a better chance of figuring this out. What aren’t you doing right?"

Dale looked at him. Flynn picked up the buckets, heading rapidly back into the yard.

"Six feet."


One fathom. One hundred and eighty two centimetres. Two yards. One thousand, eight hundred and twenty millimetres. One toise. Seventy two inches. Flynn stood approximately six foot two and a half, which made the calculation of his six foot radius –

A circle diameter of twelve feet and a circumference of thirty seven point six nine nine feet, not to mention a sphere with a volume of nine hundred and four point seven seven nine, and that meant a surface area of four hundred and fifty two point three eight nine.

"What was that last one?" Flynn asked, stopping in the middle of the yard and putting down empty buckets.

"Four hundred and fifty two point three eight nine." Dale informed him.


Flynn nodded, overturning one of the buckets and resting a foot on it before he took Dale's arm and pulled him over his raised knee, swinging him easily off the ground with a powerful arm wrapped around his waist so Dale found himself abruptly hanging in space, facing the red compacted dirt of the yard and grabbing at Flynn's jeaned legs for support. Flynn didn't stop at a single swat this time. The sound and rapid dusting of the seat of his jeans made Dale yelp and squirm involuntarily, although positioned like this there was nowhere possible to squirm to that in any way defended his backside from Flynn's palm, and Flynn didn't let the denim impede him in the slightest.

He put Dale back on his feet when he was done, stooping slightly at shoulders and neck so his face was very close to Dale's.

"Stop screwing around."

That soft tone would have scared the pants off the most aggressive board of executives.

Dale swallowed and stopped. Fast. Immediately even. Flynn picked up the buckets and went back to work, and Dale hurriedly kept pace with him, putting his hands back to massage rather tenderly at his backside which felt torched and was informing him, clearly, that screwing around was beyond a bad idea.

In the pasture beyond the yard, Riley was now riding Ticktock, who was sidestepping as Riley encouraged him towards the low jumps in the grass.

"Ri. Yields. Every time." Flynn called, and Riley glanced up, hands light on the fidgeting colt.

"He's just worried, not baulking."

"Then be consistent."


Riley pulled a face, but Dale saw his slight shift in position and unwillingly Ticktock made a few neat leg yields to the left, circled neatly and approached the low jump once more. He made four or five steps this time before he began side stepping again, fidgeting, and Riley took him again in a neat series of leg yields, circled him and brought him back. It was a simple strategy and one Dale knew from his own teenaged years of riding; if you won't do this for me, then do that. And now do this. And if you won't do this, do that. Gaining repeated obedience in the small, familiar training actions made the horse more likely to obey your other requests; it was the case of taking the inch to gain the yard. And making resistance harder work for the horse than obeying. It was simply offering the horse the choice. Want to work or want to move on? We can do either.

Ticktock had clearly had enough by the third set of yields. When Riley urged him gently towards the jumps this time, he moved willingly into a trot and stepped over two in a sequence with the long, easy stride that came in all of Bandit's offspring.

"Sweet!" Flynn called, and Riley, praising Ticktock, waved, guiding Ticktock back to the wide circling of the pasture. He would work on something easy for a few minutes, regaining Ticktock's confidence, before he took him back to the jumps.

Flynn headed into the stables and returned the buckets to their place, and Dale automatically kept pace, paying a lot more concentration than he liked to staying within the demanded distance as Flynn collected a brush and went to sweep the yard, moving rapidly and not necessarily predictably.

I have several degrees, and I'm trailing him around a yard, a stubborn part of Dale pointed out, ignoring the throb of his backside. This is pointless.

Oh be a man, Aden. The whole point is that it's pointless and that you deserve it for being a panicking, landrover pinching, emotionally constipated idiot.  

No, the whole point is that he's given you just one thing to do, just one rule to follow, and you're baulking a damn sight more than Ticktock.

The realisation was like a bucket of cold water.

Dale had always thought of himself as being tediously, almost embarrassingly good. He had owned a reputation for it at school – along with being quiet to the point of virtually disappearing – and it never seemed to have left him. Law abiding, unremarkably undistinguished, systematic and in line with protocols.

And no one ever looked at what was going on in your head and what you were saying to yourself while you did it! Dale flushed a little at the thought. Zoning off into calculations when you don't like a situation or a conversation? And pretty damn sarcastic calculations too? Why are you bothering to wonder why Riley and Gerry don't get treated like this? They don't pull the crap you do and expect to get away with it! What kind of a lousy brat are you? Why would Ri need to do this kind of thing? However bright you think you are, bratwise you're not even basic elementary level!

Thoroughly ashamed of himself, Dale closed the gap between himself and Flynn, yanking his mind off the playing with distances. The distance was almost irrelevant. The point was that thinking was irrelevant, everything was irrelevant, he only needed to do that one simple thing exactly as he was told. Accept, and commit to obeying. It had nothing to do with the capacity of his mind, that wasn't the learning here.

My God, in six months surely you learned more than this? You always got this – they always said you just got this on instinct!  How did you forget so much in a couple of weeks?

"I'm sorry," he said softly and sincerely to Flynn. "I'm behaving appallingly, and there's no excuse-"

"I can think of several." Flynn pointed out, continuing to sweep. "Can't you?"


"No." Dale said frankly.

"Ok, change the word 'excuse' to 'reason'." Flynn told him. Dale winced.

"I'm frustrated at being asked to do something I've never seen other 'brats' asked to do – quite rightly as they don't need to and they'd do much better than this if they did – and I'm embarrassed that I need to, and angry with myself about yesterday, and ashamed I'm handling this whole damn thing so badly-"

His voice was cracking. Dale, genuinely trying to communicate was brutally, painfully frank. All or nothing. Either the flood gates were locked tight, or he ripped them down and gave you everything with no attempt to conceal or dress it up – he made himself so intensely vulnerable, even though vulnerability was one of things he most feared. Flynn leaned the brush against the wall, talking quietly to underpin Dale's rising voice.


"What 'thing'?"

"Everything. This. Coming back here. Transitions, whatever you want to call it-"

His shoulders were rigid, his hands were stiff which was always a sign he was getting seriously upset, and the eye contact was typically Dale and what Flynn remembered so well from before he left when they were having a serious conversation – intent, unbroken, all his effort behind it. Very different to the breaking gaze they'd been seeing a lot of the past few days, and that was obviously a years' old work habit.


"Come here." Flynn told him, holding out his hands. "Now. Come here."

Dale took the step closer and Flynn put an arm around his neck, pulled him over and held him tightly, hard enough to contain him and for the deep pressure to sink into him. Dale did anything but protest at the strength of it; Flynn felt Dale's head against his shoulder and his hands close on his shirt, and said firmly,

"Hold on to me."

He almost felt Dale's protest, a baulk from allowing himself that closeness, but despite Dale's hands tightening for a minute on his shirt, Dale slowly and rather awkwardly put his arms around Flynn's waist. The deep pressure was helping; Flynn could feel the tension going out of him as he calmed. Physical contact always helped. Dale craved it as much as he stood around looking entirely too dignified and totally un in need of it.


"This. Is. New." He said quietly against Dale's ear. "There are no books you can read. There are no formulas I can give you. There is no research you can do. You remember what I told you once about empirical research?"

Dale nodded against him.

"Even watching Riley, or Gerry, or anyone else, won't give you all the answers," Flynn told him, "because I don't want you to be Riley. Or Gerry. I want you to be Dale. And what happens between us, we figure out by trial and error together. This is a way of life, a form of relationship between people. It is not a mathematical equation that can just be applied to anyone in any situation. Jas told you from the start: who Riley is with him is not who you will be with him. Or me. Or Paul."


"I'm lousy at this." Dale said so quietly that Flynn could hear the despair in it.

"Compared to what?" he said firmly. "Judged by whom? Dale. What exactly are the performance indicators? Measured by what?"

"What I think an experienced, proper brat should look like." Dale admitted. Flynn let him go, putting a hand against his face and cupping it, rubbing a thumb gently over his cheek.

"There are no league tables, no one is grading you, stop thinking. Come on kid, we've got things to do."

He said nothing else, but squeezed Dale's hand and picked up the brush, returning to work. He swept the yard and raked the drive with his usual, swift efficiency, and walked down the long line of paddocks to look over the horses grazing there, all with Dale shadowing him at the requisite distance, subdued but calmer. It was hard, but it was the message that Flynn wanted him to get, even if it was subconsciously – we're not going over and over this, we're not analysing and planning it, we're going to do. And you'll find out from experience that it's ok.

The morning initially seemed to go on for several years. And then, gradually, it became easier. With just the one physical action to think about, watching and shadowing Flynn, Dale found himself forced to focus on the here and now – the details. The immediacy of each moment, from the sounds and sensations and the sun overhead, to the way Flynn's shirt creased when he stooped and the thickness of grass underfoot. It was a surprise to realise how very rarely lately he had been in the 'now' as opposed to his mind flashing between the immediate past and the varied future. Evaluating, reflecting, planning; in New York, 'now' was often something that happened without being noticed.

It wasn't until early afternoon that Flynn picked up the leather book and pens and took Dale out to the home pasture where the tall jump stood well out in the open.

"Sit down. At the side, you're not in any danger there."

Dale sat, still rather tender despite the softness of the grass, and took the heavy book Flynn handed him. Flynn passed him the pens and crouched on the grass, elbows on jeaned knees, hands loosely linked in front of him.


"Turn to the first page."

Here it came. An essay. Possibly lines. Although Dale knew Flynn was as aware as he was that lines were wasted on him – too easy to repeat mechanically without thought. He opened the heavy old book in his hands, smoothing the first blank page straight.


"I want you," Flynn said mildly, "To write down how you feel about apples."

Dale's mental gears ground to a noisy halt. Flynn shook his head, raising a hand to ward off discussion.

"You heard me. Minimum of 100 words. Don't get up off this spot without my say so. I'll come back and see how you're doing in a while."

Apples.

Dale stared after him in bewilderment as Flynn went back to the colt he had just tacked up, gathered the reins and mounted him, turning him into the wide circle that he and Riley were marking in the grass by repetition day after day with the youngsters in training.

He moved as if he were part of the horse.

Dale sat for several minutes, eyes fixed on Flynn's hard figure and surprisingly gentle hands and the smooth responses of the colt. Not one of the animals, not the youngest or spookiest on the ranch, was afraid of Flynn. Dale, who intimately understood that, watched the sun on his sandy hair which was long enough now to start to curl a little, and the flex of his shoulders, and the subtle movements of his long, jeaned legs, uncomfortably distracted.

Apples.

What the beggaring hell did apples have to do with anything? Except as another fence put in front of him, another exercise in simple obedience. No explanations required, no justification, just trust and do.

Riley was putting Ticktock away in the training paddock and getting out another of the youngsters to work. In the yard, Dale heard the truck pull up. Jasper, back with Tom and Jake. Who were mysteries Dale would have liked the opportunity to watch, intrigued that they seemed a good deal less sociable than Ash and Gerry, who were his only experience of other members of this extended family. One of the dogs, Shane, padded across the grass and collapsed in the shade next to Dale, stretching out on his side with his stomach hopefully extended. Dale rubbed his fur gently, still holding the pen.

Apples?

Flynn, leading neat circles with all the precision of a military man.

Apples.

Shrugging slightly, with the word count in mind, Dale bent his head and began to write.

Flynn dismounted beside him a few minutes later, holding out a hand for the book and Dale passed it upwards, curious to know what the next step in this bizarre game would be.

Flynn read the paragraph, shook his head and passed the book back to him.

"No, I said 'feel'. The genus, species and nutritional content aren't relevant. Write a definition of the word 'feel' before you start, and try again. 100 words, how you feel about apples."

"I don't feel anything about apples!" Dale protested. Flynn gave him a mild look, mounting up again.

"Start with the definition."

Dale looked after him with some exasperation as he returned to the large circle in the grass where Riley was working. The urge to write in immaculate letters 'I am indifferent to apples' in numerous forms and languages was strong. And unhelpful. Dale told himself sternly to behave, mastered the frustration and wrote a definition.

Feel. Implications of sensory experience, touch, sensation, affected by; emotional reaction, thoughts and preferences; past experiences of, images associated with impressions, intuition. Verb; transitive and intransitive, also noun.

The last sentence made him feel slightly better.

Now what the hell did anyone feel about apples?

Painfully, trying to apply the definition, Dale began to work, stretching towards the exact 100 words requested.

It was a while before Flynn returned and once more dismounted. He was hot, his hair was wet and he took his gloves off to reach for the book.

"How are you doing?"

Dale surrendered it rather tentatively. Flynn scanned quickly, not troubling to count the words as he knew how many there would be.

Apples elicit a wide range of sensory impressions based upon a variation of fructose between individual species. The scent is frequently used in merchandising and is generally felt to be pleasant, and evocative of cooking and food preferences. It is associated with cultural and religious images of renewal, of autumn and Christmas, fertility, and the fall of Eve; it is in Elizabethan culture often represented with sexual overtones. 'Apple pie' is often culturally held as a symbol of American ideal, and linguistically it is often connected with positive images of perfection, including 'apple pie order' and 'sweet as an apple'.

"Ok," Flynn said, handing the book back. "Better, but still an objective encyclopaedia entry. That tells me nothing at all about how you feel about apples, or why. Try again, and listen to me. How do you feel about apples?"

He didn't wait for an answer. Dale tipped his head back against the jump post, taking a breath. Then he wrote out exactly what Flynn had said, underlining the key words.

This is a set piece on a set theme, Aden; pull your bloody finger out.

"Start with 'I'." Flynn called, mounting up.

I.

He was gone about ten minutes this time, and Dale's heart started to thump a little with apprehension as he returned, not keen to share this and risk it being wrong again. Which was ridiculous; Flynn was hardly being critical and this was hardly being graded. He swallowed and handed over the book, urging himself to be calm.

I have no particularly strong feelings regarding apples. I marginally prefer sharper and crisper ones to sweeter. I have never enjoyed cooked apple. I lived for a time near an apple orchard where crab apples grew, which were supposed to be too sharp to be edible, but I enjoyed the taste.

Desperation appeared to have set in at this point, as Dale's writing grew visibly more precise to fill the lines.

I have taken apples to horses numerous times and enjoyed feeding them. I have also enjoyed cider, made from apples, on hot days. I have a strong impression of the smell of fermenting apples in the grass in the orchard which I associate with late summer and good weather.

"Excellent." Flynn said, handing the book back and giving Dale one of his brief, rare smiles. "Exactly what I asked for, well done. Ri?"

Riley widened the arc of his current circle and drew the colt in near to them, giving a rather wary look at the book before he shot a look of sympathy at Dale.

Flynn nodded at the book.

"Give Dale a subject to write about?"

Riley looked around at him in shock.

"Any subject," Flynn said mildly.

"I can't!" Riley protested. Flynn raised an eyebrow at him.

"Why?"

"Because I've got way too much sympathy! And who am I to tell him to do-"

"He's not writing as any kind of punishment, halfpint." Flynn said calmly. "I want you to do this. There are ways that Dale is
accountable to you just the same as you are to him. Give him a subject to write about."

Riley looked extremely uncomfortable, but said briefly with a look of apology towards Dale, "Fine, the colts."

"Thank you." Flynn told him. "Dale, 100 words, what you think about the colts."


Warned by experience, Dale wrote down exactly what he said and watched Flynn and Riley return to riding. 'Think about' had different connotations to 'feel about', and he had a feeling Flynn would want the difference clearly apparent. 



It was approaching four pm when Flynn signalled to Dale to come in from the pasture, by which time he had four of the mini essays, Flynn-approved, in the book.

Jasper had about sixty of the cattle gathered at the far end of the drive; the cows with calves. The noise was incredible; the cattle was always far more vocal than the sheep and there was a non stop cacophony of bellows and bawls. Two of the dogs were helping Jasper keep the cattle bunched against the closed gate, and Dale recognised the very elderly and battered car by the fence, and the woman finishing off injecting several annoyed calves and adding serum stickers to the large log book that usually lived on the shelf in the kitchen. Clara, the vet. Jake was working alongside Riley, rubbing down horses in the yard and Flynn went to tether the colt with them, nodding Dale at the ground beside him.

"Sit there."

No doubt he was burning with another essay subject. Dale took a seat against the training paddock fence, watching Jasper talk to Clara as she put away her equipment, his face lighting up in a smile as she laughed, and waving as she got into her car. His whistle to the dogs was to gather the cattle together, and Dale knew he would take them upland to the river to cross them back to their own pastures, keeping them off the horses' land. Clara's engine started and she reversed slowly away from the fence, turned the car and disappeared down the drive of over a mile that led back to the road, with a loud backfire like a gunshot.


The cattle, moving placidly at the dogs' herding, started violently at the bang, and Dale, near to the training paddock, heard the scream and recognised Ticktock's voice. A second later he ducked instinctively, seeing the shadow flash across the grass, and Ticktock sailed over the fence and slid on the earth of the yard, tumbling into the now panicking cows. The top gate of the yard had been shut to keep them together; only the dogs blocked the way further down into the yard and the cows, terrified by the plunging colt crashing into their midst, milled wildly and then bolted past the dogs. Big bodies, interspersed with the much smaller, more frailer bodies of the calves, were suddenly everywhere, trampling, making a noise too deafening to shout over, and Riley, ducking kicking hooves, dodged through them towards the rearing, screaming Ticktock. Jasper was whistling and the dogs were flashing in between the cattle, trying to get in front of the herd, and they were turning them slightly, but it was like trying to hold back a tide. The gate down into the home pasture was also shut: the yard was enclosed and when the cattle hit the gate, the stampede would turn on itself and the calves would be trampled –

Dale flung the book aside and moved without thinking, racing ahead of the charging herd towards the gate, barely aware of Flynn shoving his way through terrified cattle after Riley. He saw Jake from the side of his vision, trying to control the other now alarmed and rearing colts, spin and make a sharp gesture – nothing more – and Tom, who had been wandering in the pasture beyond the gate, and who had turned to look at the racket from the yard, abruptly broke into a sprint and climbed the fence. Dale grabbed the gate as the cattle reached it, yanked the latch free and flung it wide, vaulting up onto the fence rail out of the way as the herd burst through, the dogs streaking after them. 

They only ran for a moment. Bunched tightly together, as soon as they saw open land ahead, they slowed and began to spread out, and as the dogs circled, they gradually walked and then stopped, sides heaving, but to Dale's eye as he jumped down into the pasture and searched, no animal was down. None of the calves were crushed, none had fallen.  In the yard, Riley and Flynn herded Ticktock through the open barn door, their arms spread wide, and closed the door behind them.

Jasper was sprinting through the gate, and Dale spun back to the cattle, anxiously searching the herd for the animal in trouble that he must have missed, but it was him that Jasper grabbed, yanking him over and hugging him tightly, so tightly that Dale could feel him trembling a little with adrenaline. After a few seconds he relaxed his grip and Dale felt one of Jasper's hands cup his head, Jasper's chin against his hair and the unsteadiness of his breathing, but he wouldn't let go. Dale gradually became aware of his own heart thumping against Jasper's chest, his own subsiding adrenaline. And of something else, as across the pasture he saw Jake pull Tom down from the fence.

Never once in his life before had he seen someone run to him like that.

Very shaken, and not by the cattle, Dale turned his face against Jasper's shoulder, swallowing on a wave of emotion, and fastened his arms around Jasper's waist.  

"Is he all right?" Jake's voice demanded. "Jas?"

"We're fine." Jasper said, not letting Dale go and speaking over his head. "He must have been a split second ahead of them."

"Doesn't look like any animals harmed." Jake paused for a moment, then Dale felt a hand brush his shoulder.

"My God, you're fast. You just disappeared under the scrum, I thought you'd been trampled. Talk about quick thinking!"

The barn door opened. Riley emerged first, and Dale, twisting to see, found Riley bare chested with his shirt loosely wrapped over Ticktock's eyes, a rope halter over Ticktock's head, talking to him gently as he led him towards the paddock. Riley was limping heavily, and Flynn was walking close to him, going ahead to open the gate and to help him turn Ticktock loose, pulling the shirt away. Ticktock reared and danced a little and bolted across the paddock, but within a few strides settled down to a fast trot, snorting, and keeping a sharp eye on the yard. Flynn shut the gate and latched it, and put an arm around Riley, supporting his weight and guiding him towards the house. His limping was visibly worsening with each step. Dale and Jasper went to meet them, and before they were half way there, Flynn stooped and picked Riley up, carrying him the rest of the way across the yard and up the steps to the kitchen.

"Once we got his eyes covered, he calmed down." Riley explained in the kitchen. He was half leaning, half sitting on the kitchen table, jeans off which left him in nothing but his shorts, and wincing as Paul gently cleaned a wide, nasty graze across his hip which was already showing deep scarlet around the edges that would turn to a bruise.

"The barn was dark and he hadn't got anywhere left to run to. I don't think Clara even realised what her fricking car did."

"Stay still." Paul said calmly.

Flynn pulled out a chair and sat down, pulling Riley into his lap, into a position where Paul had easy access to the hip. Dale watched for a moment, then silently went to look in the freezer, bringing several of the ice packs that lived there, and a towel to the table and putting them within Paul's reach. Jasper hooked an arm over his chest from behind when he stepped back, leaning on him to watch. Jasper's weight and warmth against his back was extremely comforting, and there was a sense of possessiveness to it that was still making his stomach unsteady.

"Ticktock kicked him, rearing." Jasper told Paul, giving him a slightly clearer picture of events than Riley's explanation. "Riley got in his way and grabbed him before he bolted up on to the Tops, or hurt himself jumping fences. It's a miracle he came out of the paddock without knocking a leg."

"It's a miracle Dale got to the gate." Riley said cheerfully. "Not one calf hurt."


"I'm amazed none of you were worse hurt. Sweetie, you are not going to be comfortable tomorrow." Paul said wryly, wrapping the towel in ice and pressing it gently against Riley's hip. Riley flinched, hissing, and Flynn took the ice pack, holding it and Riley together. Paul opened a cabinet and took down a bottle of painkillers and poured a glass of milk, taking both to Riley.

"I want you to lie down on the couch - yes, don't look at me like that, I'll sit with you."

"Do we need an x-ray?" Flynn said grimly. Paul shook his head, watching Riley swallow the pills.

"He's fine, nothing to look for. Just bruising. I'll be happier if he lays down with the ice for a while, but he's only going to be stiff and sore. "

"If you get kicked you say it's better you move around." Riley objected to Flynn, who shook his head, putting Riley on his feet.  


"Do as Paul says. Now."

It was shortly said and Dale knew both his tone and the brief look of resentment that Riley shot him.

"It wasn't actually my fault I got kicked? I didn't exactly do it on purpose?"

"Move."

Flynn turned to face Riley, waiting, until with a muttered hiss of exasperation, Riley grabbed the ice from him and stalked into the family room. Paul went with him and Flynn got up, heading for the door. Dale followed, automatically staying within the six feet established limit, and Jasper came with them, walking down the yard to the pasture where the cattle were now grazing, watched by the three dogs lying in the grass. Flynn whistled to the dogs, signalling with an arm.

"Take 'em up!"


The dogs instantly leapt up and worked together, herding up the cattle and moving them rapidly towards the yard. Jasper went to open the gates, holding the top gate well back, and the dogs, darting at any recalcitrant cow's legs, pushed them through the yard and took them in a group up the pasture towards the shallow river crossing.

"Don't you need to follow them?" Dale asked Flynn, who was shutting the lower gate. Flynn shook his head, face set.

"The dogs know where they should go."

The colts were in the training pen and there was no sign of the tack they had been wearing- obviously Jake and Tom didn't just have the delicacy to give privacy to Flynn and Riley and the others, they also were well able to pick up chores that needed doing without supervision.

The yard was a churned up mess from sixty freaked out cows and one pirouetting colt. Dale followed Flynn as he collected a rake, and Jasper quietly collected another one, starting at the opposite end of the drive to Flynn as Flynn began to work in quick, sharply efficient pulls of the rake's teeth across the earth.

"Jake's the one who's lived here?" Dale said, thinking out loud. Flynn grunted, not looking up.

"Mmn. Tom's the inlaw."

There was, to the eye, nothing to say he wanted conversation. His face was grim, his voice was gruff, and to the uninitiated, the effect would have been alarming. Dale, who had known plenty of talented, explosive and hard tempered men before he met Flynn, kept pace with him, watching his stiff back with sympathy. Riley could never help but take this kind of mood personally; left alone in this frame of mind, hurt and resentful, he would pick at Flynn until Flynn either walked away, or lost his temper. Riley felt it as blame, and couldn't see it any other way. Dale, unafraid of growling and scowls, knew what Paul knew and had told him months ago.

He doesn't do scared well.

Especially where Riley was concerned. As protective as Flynn was, as much as he loved Riley, he was struggling now with the aftermath of emotion he wasn't good at.

"When was Jake here?" he asked lightly. Flynn's voice was rough and unencouraging, but he responded.

"About six months before Riley came. He was here for a couple of years before he signed up for a five year stretch with the Mounties in Canada. Probably the longest he ever settled anywhere. First brought Tom home a couple of years ago."

Obviously both restless people who took a lot of keeping busy.

"It's Jake we have to thank for teaching Riley to climb," Flynn said shortly. "They did a lot of it together when Riley was a kid."

And so far, what little Dale had seen of them made for interesting watching. He saw them together, walking down the line of paddocks towards the yard, both tall, both still in clothes that looked like they'd seen several hard whaling seasons, and for the first time felt a faint flash of embarrassment that they'd no doubt picked up at least some of what was going on between him and Flynn today. Although there was a distance to them that Dale hadn't noticed with Ash and Gerry, who just appeared as an established part of the family. Jake obviously knew Flynn in this frame of mind too, as he and Tom gave Flynn a wide berth and went to talk to Jasper.


The family policy towards Flynn in this mood appeared to be to give him space and leave him alone. Which didn't help, and was not what Philip had ever done. The one person Flynn did listen to when he was like this.

Dale was faintly surprised to find himself annoyed, and when he thought about it, he realised he had been automatically deferring to the others, waiting for them to do what he knew in real terms they would not do.

You want it said, Aden? You're going to have to say it.

Gently, he put a hand out, gripped the rake and Flynn unwillingly stopped and straightened up.

"You know he'd rather you yelled at him for scaring you?" Dale asked him lightly.

Flynn visibly winced. Dale held on to the rake, not letting go.

"It is his problem as well as yours?"

Flynn gave him an unreadable look, brows down. "Why are you assuming it's just him?"

"He was the one you saw kicked?" Dale said, startled. Flynn's brows came still further down, heavy, making him look still grimmer. The words came out like bullets, as if it was hard to even say, his accent thickening slightly. 

"And you were damn nearly trampled. You think I could stand to see either of you hurt?"

No. He was a man of very powerful emotions, and Dale, with no little understanding himself of swallowing on feelings he had no idea how to channel, did what Flynn always did to him when he was near to choking – put a hand out, touched his back and rubbed a little, gently. Flynn didn't move away or shake it off, and Dale found his hand instinctively moving up to the back of his neck where the worst of the tension was.

"You don't blame him for feeling like this, and I know you're worried about taking it out on him, but you could explain to him?"

"What about you?" Flynn said grimly. Dale shrugged.

"You don't need to explain to me."

Flynn didn't say anything for a minute. Then he put an arm around Dale's waist and picked him off his feet, hugging him tightly and burying his head in Dale's shoulder. Dale pushed his fingers through Flynn's sun warm hair, cradling his head and for a moment seriously wondering if his heart intended to implode with the sheer strength of what was inside it, then Flynn kissed him, bruisingly hard, put him down and headed towards the kitchen.

"Stay with Jasper."

When Flynn kissed like that, standing up became a serious issue, never mind finding anyone. Dale watched him go, breathless, and Jasper looked across the yard, saying nothing, not interrupting Jake, but waiting. Jasper often didn't need to say a word to be heard loud and clear. Dale went to him, receiving a warm smile from Jake and a far more reserved nod from Tom, who smiled but not much. There was nothing unfriendly in the quality of it. Dale, taking in the way he stood, shoulder half behind Jake's, thought suddenly that the man was painfully shy.




*







Flynn was a little quieter than usual at dinner, but whatever he had said to Riley appeared to have helped. Riley, dressed in what looked like someone else's jeans as they were far looser and baggier than he usually wore, chattered as he usually did.
It was when Riley mentioned that the ranch now included the Three Traders land that Jake whistled, giving Tom a nod.

"You've been dying to get in there and look around for years."

"We did a couple of days ago." Riley said cheerfully. "It's wild. Everything's still there, untouched, it's like stepping into a time warp."

"It is amazingly well preserved." Paul agreed. "From what I heard of it from Philip and David, it's probably more or less exactly as they remembered – the older parts of the town were just left as the town was abandoned, the last parts near the road are probably all more 1950s and they were where the last couple of residents lived."

"We found some documents referring to David in one of the houses," Riley said, helping himself to more chilli. "With his name on. Something to do with the mine, or chartering someone to dig there?"


"What was down there?" Tom asked. Riley shrugged.

"Coal by that point? Although it started out as a gold mine."

"There are a lot of quartzite seams around here," Jasper said to Tom. "Several on our land that break surface, and one area where David tried mining himself. Quartzite often is gold bearing."

"Think there was a seam this Chinese guy was looking for?" Riley said hopefully. Jake put his fork down.


"Chinese? This was the Sam Gan guy?"

"Gam Saan." Paul said. "Yes, that's the one on the document."

Jake swallowed the mouthful he was eating, leaning on the table. "The last of the gold miners, I remember Philip telling me about him. David was pretty fond of him, he must have been in his late seventies."

"Who was he?" Riley demanded. Jake forked over salad, thinking about it.


"Well from what I remember, Philip said there was a whole bunch of them from Canton, all emmigrated together in the gold rush. Maybe six or seven? Maybe all friends or relatives, I don't know. They came to Three Traders together and they were among the first men who mined for gold. It was about fifty years later that David would have known him, and by that time he was the only surviving member of the group. Little old man who kept the dockets at the mine, which was a much bigger concern by then when they were mining coal. A lot more men, machinery, the coal was what the town lived on for a couple of decades to keep the railroad going and keep the ranches around here able to sell cattle without days of driving them."

"So he would have known where the gold seams were?" Riley demanded. Jake gave him a good natured shrug.


"I suppose so.  Although I suppose he and the rest of his group wouldn't have quit on the gold seams until they were sure they'd exhausted them. There hadn't been gold brought out of that mine in forty years."

"David might just as easily have had a hand in some new piece of mining machinery," Paul pointed out. "He dug into all kinds of local enterprises, he'd got a very shrewd eye for a good deal."

"With a seventy year old man doing the digging?" Riley said wryly. Jake put his plate aside and got up.


"There's a box of photos I've seen in one of the crates in the loft over the garage, Philip showed me. In fact there's all kinds of David's papers up there."

"Jacob, we're eating." Tom said pointedly. "You can't rush off and find boxes in the middle of a meal, you're supposed to be civilised. Sit down and behave yourself."

Jake grinned and sat down, picking up his fork again. "Sorry. I get excited."

"He's shocking." Tom said to Dale. "You'd think I dragged him up in darkest Peru or something."


Dale involuntarily smiled, not sure how to respond to that, although it was clear Tom was talking to Jake, who only smiled and stole a tomato off Tom's plate, ignoring the dig in the ribs he got.

"Dale, finish what's on your plate." Paul said firmly, leaning over to put Dale's fork back in his hand. "I didn't give you that much."

"Ignore him and he will
feed you." Riley warned with his mouth full.

"I will." Paul confirmed. "Did you two find everything you needed in Jackson?"

"We did." Jake agreed. "Including clothes without holes and stains."

"I found a team of six," Jasper said mildly, "To start on Saturday, which gives us a few days to get organised."

"You're going to need the bunk house for them." Jake said calmly, finishing his chilli.


"I doubt it." Jasper finished his own meal and sat back, looking at Paul. "It's high summer. I think they'll camp up in the pasture and I think we'll have the usual quick turn over."

"They make a few days pay," Riley told Dale, "And as soon as they do, they quit, go back into town and piss it away."

"Hey." Flynn told him. Riley shrugged.


"Well they do. Most of the casual labourers around here do."

"In this weather they're not likely to want to be inside," Jasper went on, "And I'll keep an eye on their fire at night and where they're wandering, but they've worked on other ranches around here and word gets around fast if there's a man in the area not to be trusted. So no, you won't need to move out."


"And that gives you two a few days if you want to walk or climb." Paul added, watching Dale with what Dale found was an uncomfortable lack of subtlety. This must be broadcasting loud and clear to Tom and Jake what they already knew:
Direly behaved brat alert.

Seeing him semi hysterical on a garage forecourt miles off the ranch, and trailing Flynn around sulking all morning could hardly have left them in much doubt. Although the dynamics of their relationship was nothing like as apparent as with Riley and the others, or with Ash and Jake. A few times, Dale even caught himself giving serious consideration to which – if either of them – was the top of the relationship. Or even if this was a flexible arrangement. He hadn't forgotten Jake's single hand signal this afternoon and Tom moving instantly, but then these two were used to the serious hazards of a jungle and no doubt their non verbal communication was particularly well tuned.

Tom was certainly watching as Dale finished his meal, mostly out of sheer apprehension that Paul would, given half a chance, take the fork from him and insist.

"Now can I go and get the box?" Jake asked Tom, and Paul gathered up the plates.

"We'll have dessert in the family room where Riley can stretch out, so yes. Be careful, it's piled high up there."

"I know what I'm looking for." Jake said confidently. Tom got up to go with him, and Flynn nodded to Dale and Riley.  


"Couch, both of you, and don't get off it without permission."


Riley rolled his eyes but headed into the family room and Dale followed, leaving Flynn and Jasper from the sounds of it to help Paul with the dishes. Riley dropped full length on one of the two long red leather couches, wincing slightly, and Dale sat on the far end, careful to avoid jarring him.

"Are you ok?" Riley asked, pulling a cushion under his head to see Dale. "I'm sorry about the book business, that didn't look much fun."

And it was still a bit of a mystery as to its purpose. Dale shook his head.


"It's fine. Not like I didn't deserve everything I got anyway."

"You freaked. We all do it." Riley said simply. "Don't get bogged down in what you think Tom might make of it either. If anyone'd understand, Tom would."

It wasn't the most delicate question to ask, but Riley was a safe audience. Dale lowered his voice slightly, putting it for Riley's ears only.


"What is their relationship?"

Riley grinned. "Not quite how Tom makes it look. It is a discipline relationship – a pretty strict one actually."

"It looks nothing like Gerry and Ash," Dale commented and Riley stifled a laugh.


"It wouldn't, Tom can't stand Gerry. Or he can actually, he gets Gerry and he's very gentle with him, but Gerry starts camping it up and Tom disappears in the opposite direction. He's rather a lot like you. Doesn't say a lot, and if you don't know what you're looking for you'd wonder why a guy like that needed a top or wasn't topping someone himself. He and Jake tease the heck out of each other and Tom can be pretty acerbic if someone's annoying him, he doesn't exactly suffer fools gladly, but he's a nice guy. And he makes Jake very happy. We never thought Jake would stay anywhere long enough to hold down a relationship but Tom's as bad at the gypsy stuff as Jake is. He isn't going to chatter at you or nag until you talk like Gerry did. Give him a few days and he'll warm up, he's not much of a people person. He still finds Paul hard work, although he hides it and Paul gives him a lot of space."

Dale looked at him in surprise and Riley shook his head.


"Watch Tom when we're eating? It isn’t dislike, he's nice enough, but he just never is comfortable around Paul."

"Why?" Dale asked, finding it hard to think why anyone could possibly find Paul difficult company. Riley shrugged.


"Just how he is. But don't think he'll be surprised at seeing Flynn keeping you to heel; he won't be. And if it's any consolation he did see me get well and truly chewed on at lunchtime."

He sounded quite cheerful about it, and Dale looked at him, inquiring. Riley winced a little.


"I may have mouthed off to Paul a bit about Flynn oppressing you, and got told all about not leaping to your defence every time anyone said a word to you. Tom said it must be complicated and he didn't know how he'd handle it if he was us. And yes, they know about the five of us. Jas told them, but Tom said they'd pretty much got it figured out at the garage."

"And they're ok about it?" Dale asked cautiously. Riley grinned.

"Why shouldn't they be? Not that they weren't surprised. Paul thinks at some point we're going to have to make a formal announcement to the entire clan. The gossip's probably flying as Gerry knows."


"We've got it." Jake called from the hall, elbowing the front door open. He had a battered, black sea chest in his arms and Tom followed him, closing the door and heeling his boots off.

"It's like a museum up there."

"We've been stuffing odds and ends up there as long as I've lived here," Paul said apologetically from the kitchen. He appeared with a tray of tea and a large, iced chocolate cake which made Riley sit up, eyebrows raised.


"You two need to come back from Peru more often."

"We've got no clients and no one sugar or caffeine crazed." Paul told him, cutting him a healthy sized slice and passing it over on a plate. "Make the most of it."

Jake put the trunk down on the hearthrug and sat down to look at the catch, then slipped it with a thumb nail and pulled back the lid. The base was wider than the top and a knotted and frayed piece of rope made a makeshift handle on the iron loop at one end. It was deep and stuffed to the brim with papers.

"I think this is most of David's stuff," Jake said to Paul, "Or at least this is what Philip got me to pull down once when he wanted to find something. That was when he showed me the picture."

"It looks like David's," Paul said resignedly. "Total chaos. Jas, get a packet of paperclips from the study? We might as well try and make some sense of it while we're looking."


Jasper disappeared towards the study and Flynn accepted a plate of cake, sitting down on the coffee table near Dale to watch. Dale, accepting a plate from Paul, noticed that Paul simply put two more plates of cake within reach of Jake without commenting, and did the same with cups of tea before he sat down on the carpet with Jake who was lifting out papers by the armful.

"Letters, journals, maps, bits of newspaper – bits of rope – books – Moby Dick, what a surprise-"

He handed the leather bound hardback to Tom, who opened it, flicking through, and lifted out another stack of newspapers, uncovering a brown paper packet.

"That's it."

There was no marking on the packet. Paul accepted it from Jake and opened it with care as Riley stretched out on the sofa above him to watch.


"Bills," Paul said aloud. "Paid – I wonder what David was selling in Three Traders?"

"Cattle." Flynn suggested.


"Possibly. A copy of the contract we found in the house – Gam Saan – and something to do with the mine-"

"And that's the photograph." Jake gently lifted the black and white little slip of card out of the handwritten sheet Paul was unfolding. Riley craned to see as Paul looked at it, and then passed it over to Flynn, who held it where Dale could look too, and Jasper leaned on the back of Flynn's chair.


The small row of men were in heavy boots, jeans, and a motley mix of bare chests, long sleeved shirts and a variety of hats. Several carried shovels and picks, and they stood in front of the wooden wheel that dominated the mine entrance. David wasn't difficult to pick out. Tall, wild haired, he stood at the back near a very small man of Asian origin, wizened and long haired and smiling.

"He couldn't have dug a thing!" Riley said, looking at him over Dale's shoulder. "He's tiny and he's an old man. Why would David be paying for him to dig? Why didn't David dig himself if there was something there?"

"Possibly he did." Paul said, unfolding the hand written sheet and turning it around. "He dug the quartz mine as an experiment here. Maybe it was something they did together."

"There's no names on the back of the picture." Flynn commented. Paul snorted.


"There wouldn't be, David never marked anything. Even this is as cryptic as it gets. It might, possibly be to do with the town, but who knows?"

He offered the sheet to Flynn, who like Paul, rotated it a few times in his hands. The lines were roughly drawn in pen, intersecting at points, and a few scrawled words at intervals were interspersed with several symbols of what looked like Chinese.

"Pot hook." Riley read aloud. "Red. Ginver hole. Mind bloody suzu."

"What was that?" Flynn demanded. Riley pointed the three words out to him.

"I suppose it might be 'mine bloody suzu'? What was suzu?"

"Slang? Local dialect?" Flynn handed the paper to Tom, who put the book down on his lap to take it.

"Might be a phonetic write down of a word in Chinese. It'd be hard to trace without being sure of the word you're looking for, there's no saying David was even accurately translating the word sounds into English approximations, or what local dialect Gam Saan spoke."

"The contract is for the same year as the cave in."  Jake commented. "Although Philip told me there were actually two cave ins. The first was a major collapse on the main tunnel, at which point the majority of the miners refused to enter the mine again. A few dedicated souls kept working another shaft they said was safe, but there was another cave in closer to the river, and I believe seven or eight bodies were recovered? The mine was closed after that. I believe David helped in the rescue attempt, he obviously knew the geography of the place well."

The word 'geography' lit a spark in Dale's mind and he leaned abruptly to look at the paper again.

"Those lines are shafts. Levels and shafts, and that's the river, which is the same as the orientation of the river to the mine. It was a fairly big mine."

"I wonder which shafts collapsed?" Riley mused. Flynn looked at him.

"Forget it. We're not going to check. If it was lethal then, it'll be still worse now – if any of it is still standing at all below ground. Besides, if that's the mine, there's no kind of mark to indicate where Gam Saan and David were interested, or even what he drew this for."

Dale opened his mouth, about to point out that on the contrary, he had a very good idea, and then closed it again. Riley looked sharply at him, but Jake had handed over the papers to Paul and looked back at Tom.


"It's about our time to head out."

"This early?" Riley protested. Jake gave him an easy shrug.


"We'll probably take a walk for a while. Goodnight, thanks for a great meal, Paul."


Tom got up, handing the book back to Paul, who shook his head.

"If you want to read it, love, you hang on to it. It's safe enough in the bunk house. Sleep well. Breakfast at seven thirty."

It was quiet in the family room when they'd gone. Paul slowly repacked the trunk, leaving the town related items near the top, and Jasper looked at him.

"Want that taken up to your office?"

"It's sparking plot ideas." Paul admitted. "Apart from that I like the details on the town and of David. I'll go through more thoroughly when I've got time, and I'll see what else is in the loft. I should have thought to look before."

Riley yawned widely and Paul shut the chest lid and came to sit on the sofa with him, poking him gently.

"If those painkillers are kicking in, why don't you go up to bed?"

"Not tired, just yawning." Riley said firmly. "It's only just eight."

Flynn put his empty cup back on the tray and put a hand on Dale's knee.


"Go and get that book."

"You're not going to make him write essays at this time of night?" Riley demanded, caught Jasper's eye and scowled. "Well that isn't fair!"

"No, I'm not going to make either of you write anything," Flynn said calmly, watching Dale bring the leather bound book from the kitchen. "Although you'll be going to bed if I hear that tone again."

He held out his hand to Dale, ignored Dale's offering the book to him and instead took Dale's wrist, pulling him over and down into his lap in the armchair, book and all. Dale froze, almost automatically shifting to get up, and Flynn hooked an arm around his waist, sitting back and pulling Dale with him.

"No, you're not going anywhere, I'm allowed to do this now."

Since he clearly didn't intend to let go, Dale sat still and did his best not to turn scarlet with sheer embarrassment as the others were apparently making an effort not to watch, and Flynn opened the book, ignoring the first two crossed out paragraphs and turning to the second page where the third and final paragraph on apples began.

"Read that one aloud."


Dale twisted to look at him in alarm. Flynn squeezed the arm around his waist, comfortably relaxed beneath him in the chair.

"Just read it."

With seriously horrible memories of reading aloud extremely bad essays and French construe in front of bored schoolboys in classrooms, Dale felt his ears start to burn and concentrated hard on looking at nothing but the page in front of him, reading the paragraph aloud as swiftly and tonelessly as he could manage and cringing as he did so. There was a moment of silence when he stopped, and then Riley said with interest,

"Where was the orchard?"

At the same time as Paul said "What's wrong with cooked apple? Who fed you that?"

"The orchard was at my prep school," Dale admitted, "it was part of the gardens. The apples were supposed to be crab apples that made you ill if you ate them, but I never found they did. The cooked apple was school as well, we used to get watery stewed apple with a lump of cold custard with skin an inch thick on the top-"

The very thought brought him close to shuddering.


"That is not proper cooked apple!" Paul said comfortably. "I'm not surprised you hate it. My grandmother used to knock up an apple betty that disappeared off the restaurant menu in an hour."

"I never got this English thing for custard." Riley remarked. "What's wrong with ice cream? Or syrup?"


"My grandfather fried apple slices." Jasper said candidly, taking the other couch across from Flynn. "Mostly for breakfast, with honey or maple syrup. Both of which we used to get ourselves. Sometimes he fried them in bacon fat, and that was surprisingly good too."

Several questions were crowding for answers in Dale's mind and he picked one of the largest, looking at Paul and temporarily forgetting that he was, despite being a grown man, sitting on the lap of another man in front of witnesses for no justifiable purpose whatever.

"Who had a restaurant?"

"My mother and grandmother ran a restaurant and boarding house in Maine." Paul said placidly. "A little fishing town. I grew up there. Twelve assorted fishermen boarding in the house and a twenty eight seat restaurant. David appreciated my knowing about fish and having grown up around a harbour, he was still a sailor in a lot of ways. In fact Philip used to tease him the only reason he let me stay as housekeeper when I first came was that I could talk tall sea tales with him as long as he could, and I could cook him fish in ways he hadn't had since he was a kid in Halifax. I used to make apple betty for him too in the days when we were trying to stop him losing any more weight. Through the winter my grandmother made all kinds of heavy comfort food that she said stuck to the ribs, when she'd got boarders going out in the middle of the night to catch the tide. Chowders you'd come back from the dead for. Seafood of all kinds. Clams in everything."

Riley made sick noises and Paul laughed.

"Yes, well you grew up eating McDonalds and room service menus, you were suspicious of anything that wasn't found in a happy meal when you first came here. We used to get whole crates of fresh fish at the restaurant. Whatever was spare from the sold catch, whatever the boarders pulled off the harbour wall when they fished for themselves, lobsters and crabs and all kinds of odds and ends. Someone would walk in several times a week with a box like that as a gift. Now you see why I love it when Jas and Dale wander in with fresh trout?"

"It was mostly trout I used to catch growing up." Jasper said mildly. "Catfish sometimes. Perch. I was scared stiff of the big catfish in the river when I was a kid."

"Why?" Riley asked curiously.


"Whiskers." Jasper said succinctly. "They're ugly things, and some of them up there were big – or at least big to a kid of three or four. My grandfather used to sing prayers we wouldn't see them when we went fishing or I'd scream so much there wouldn't be a fish around for miles."

"He was joking?" Paul said, eyebrows raised. Jasper smiled.

"Mostly. Or trying to distract me. He knew no few songs and chants, what he'd learned from his family. Cherokee."

"Did you fish?" Dale asked Flynn, who shook his head.

"Lamb. We lived on flaming lamb until I was sick to the back teeth of it. It was quite a hike to the nearest town, a lot like here, and we didn't have a freezer so we shopped maybe once a month and ate what we grew. Vegetables and sheep."

"You told me what your mother used to do with a joint of lamb," Paul told him. "Brown sugar and soy sauce, which actually isn't half bad with garlic."

"And your weird meat pies." Riley added. "Did she make those?"


He had curled up with his head in Paul's lap and Paul was absently stroking his hair, the both of them watching Flynn, and Riley's honest pleasure in the conversation touched Dale to the heart. There was a warmth to this, an easy interest that was captivating, and Dale could hear the smile in Flynn's voice without needing to turn to see it.

"Got those going into town. Or to the sheep fairs, a couple of times a year. You'd buy hot pies from the stands, bloody fantastic. I'd rather have had a pie than sweets as a kid."

"So what else did they feed you at this school apart from revolting apple?" Paul asked Dale.

And it was that easy. To be here, with Flynn's arms around his waist, to lean against him while Riley lay against Paul as if it was the most natural thing in the world, uninhibited among them, and to simply open your mouth and join in this easy chatter. To be a part of them.





*




 It was some time in the night that Dale stirred, hearing someone else moving in the room. Flynn stirred beside him and Dale heard his voice, soft,

"What's the matter halfpint?"

"I keep dreaming."

There was a hiss of bedclothes and Dale woke fully as Flynn sat up. Riley sounded unusually subdued. "And I'm hurting."

"Get under the covers and I'll get you another dose of painkillers."

Flynn slid out of bed and Dale moved over, making room for Riley who looked white in the moonlight, and who sat down on the bed in a way that suggested every movement was painful. Dale instinctively put out a hand to help him lie down and pulled the covers over him, watching for a moment, then gently rubbed his shoulder through the quilt. It didn't seem to make things worse; if anything Riley leaned against his hand, although he didn't say a word. Flynn came back with a glass of warm milk and a couple of pills, and sat on the side of the bed, watching Riley gulp the pills. He put the glass out of reach when Riley was finished, pulling back the covers to get back into bed himself.

"Dale, go back to sleep. Ri, settle down and let those work, you're going to feel better very soon. Want me in between you two?"

"We're fine." Dale said softly before Flynn could say anything, lying down and going on rubbing Riley's shoulder as he didn't seem to mind it. Flynn lay down on Riley's other side and Dale felt Riley shift over to bury himself in Flynn's arms. From the catching of his breath he was a lot more uncomfortable than he was admitting. Flynn held him, stroking his hair slowly, and Dale shifted across the bed towards them, settling down against Riley's back and sliding an arm over Riley's waist. Flynn's arm was against his, it was like being two halves of one whole, the two of them cradling Riley between them, and Dale felt Riley relax a little as their warmth sank into him.

"That's nice." Riley said blurrily.

"Shh." Flynn told him.

"I can't, it hurts."

Dale rubbed slowly where his hand rested, following Flynn's example of being still, being close. After a moment he realised Flynn was humming, very quietly, but that Riley had stilled to listen and after a minute he said into Flynn's chest,


"Sing it."

That simple, intimate command told Dale this was the one man for whom Flynn might sing when they were alone together in the privacy of the dark – but Flynn didn't hesitate. His voice was deep, very soft, but Dale heard the words.

For we still keep our time to the turn of the tide
And this boat that I built with my father
Still lifts to the sky, the one-lunger and I
Still talk like old friends on the water

In Make and Break harbour the boats are so few
Too many are pulled up and rotten
Old houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


3 comments:

Mama Librarian said...

Love all the Stan Rogers. He's been a special favorite of mine for many, many years. You might give a listen to David Francey -- his songs on work would fit right in with these stories.

Ranger said...

Thank you, I'll look it up!

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