Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 9b


A punchbag in a gym tended not to hit out at you, nor to make the peculiar noise that Henson did when Dale's fist landed in his stomach.

Having never in his life done this outside of a gym, Dale ducked the swung fist without effort and countered, and judging by the way the man crunched, he had used an appropriate degree of force. With a brief reflection on the physics involved, and a distinct sense of interest in its outcome, Dale hooked a foot behind Henson's and yanked, dropping Henson heavily on his butt on the dust of the yard. There really was a kind of satisfaction in the success of it. A thud and a curse came from the direction of the other man – Riley had obviously followed this procedure before and looked in no need of assistance – and then Paul's voice came from the direction of the house, unusually crisp.

"Dale, Riley, get out of the way right now."

Paul was standing on the porch steps with the heavy Winchester rifle in his hands, the one big gun that lived among the light rifles in the gun cabinet. It was cocked and it was aimed, and Paul was looking extremely grim behind it. It was peculiar to see Paul handling a gun with such matter of fact efficiency. Dale, moving politely back from the sprawled Mr Henson, reminded himself that this was not only America, but the west of America, and that the laws here fully supported householders defending their own property. He had no doubt too that the ranch was some way from the nearest police officer. This was obviously normal to them. Or at least more normal than it was in England.

Riley was rather unwillingly stepping back from the other man who was sprawled on the ground., as if he didn't feel quite finished He was dusty and out of breath, and he ran his forearm over his mouth. In the distance, Dale could hear one of the dogs barking, so frantically it was near to howling. Henson had obviously taken precautions before he began his work. Paul, not taking his eyes or the rifle off the two on the ground, went across to the brass bell that hung from the porch roof, and rang it sharply, then nodded at the two men.

"Get up."

And then Henson, on the ground, pulled a hand gun from his pocket.

Dale recognised it with a cold thud in his chest. A small, grey hand gun, and Henson held it in a way that suggested he'd held one many times before. And then there was a sudden blur of chestnut by the gate, and Dale saw Bandit sail over it without effort, to land loudly in the yard with his heavy feet sending up clouds of dust, head very high, ears flat to the back of his neck, his blond tail switching from side to side. It was not a friendly or safe looking stance, and Henson and his companion froze. Riley moved instantly to stand in front of him, arms spread, voice quiet, although he kept his eyes on Henson.

"Easy. Easy boy, these lowlifes were just leaving."

Paul hadn't lowered the Winchester. The two men started to get up, Henson keeping the gun levelled, although Dale could see his hand shaking slightly. Bandit raised a foreleg as soon as they moved, the whites of his eyes clearly visible, and the sound he made went through Dale's ears like a knife. It was an unearthly scream, deafening, and he couldn't blame both men freezing to the spot. Henson lifted his gun hand towards Bandit, with Riley stood directly in the way, and Paul raised the Winchester higher, voice as sharp as Bandit's.

"Henson! I will do it, and it'll leave a hole I can put a fist through."

He meant it, and Dale knew he did. With the gun pointed at Riley, Paul wouldn't hesitate. Riley didn't move and Dale equally knew he wouldn't. Standing square in front of Bandit, arms still wide in an attempt to keep the stallion behind him, he was looking down the barrel of Henson's gun with an expression of grim distaste.

The whole situation was starting to get ridiculous, and the time for politely taking a back seat had probably passed.

"That," Dale said quietly and conversationally to Henson, "Is a stud stallion. He weighs approximately thirteen hundred pounds and I've seen him fight and kill a cougar by trampling it. Letting a gun go off is probably going to annoy him rather a lot. For your safety I would suggest you put the gun down – very slowly and with a good deal of care – and think about crawling in this direction, right now, while you've still got intact skulls."

Both men glanced towards him. Bandit was scaring the sense out of them. For all Henson's holding that gun, Dale could see him sweating, the tiny movements of the eye muscles. He was terrified and it wouldn't take much to steer him.

"Or alternatively," Dale told him in the same calm tone, "You can see whether you can race him back to wherever you left your car. He can reach about 35 mph when he's in the mood."

There was another long silence. The dog, wherever it was imprisoned, had stopped barking. Dale continued to look at the men, hands relaxed, eyes calm. There was never any need to rush a cornered man towards closing a deal. Paul, sparing Dale a very anxious glance over the Winchester, thought he looked almost kindly, and quite at ease as though he had no idea what a gun was, and there was an authority to him that everyone in the yard was responding to. The men on the ground were watching his face. Then Henson very carefully stretched out a hand and laid his gun down on the ground.

"You know, that's probably a very good idea." Dale said mildly. "Push it well away if you'd be so kind?"

Henson looked apprehensively at Bandit, but put a hand back to the gun and his reluctant push slid it several feet beyond his reach. Bandit's ears went back further, and his scream this time made the other man on the ground whimper. Bandit's foreleg was still raised, poised, then there was a sudden explosion of movement and a shocking sound, and the fence behind his massive back hooves disappeared as he lashed out at it.

The thick rails splintered like matchsticks. Henson's eyes were nearly circular and the other man was visibly shaking. Riley slowly moved a few steps away, easing out of reach of Bandit's wicked hooves. He'd gone white, and he turned his back to the two men on the floor, a hand outstretched towards Bandit's nose as if he was trying to hold an invisible bridle. Dale couldn't hear him but he knew Riley was talking in the soft monologue he used to calm any animal.

"This way gentlemen," Dale said politely, raising his arms to herd the two men away. "I'd move very slowly indeed and stay on the ground if I were you."

Bandit stamped warningly at their first movement. In the corral and the paddocks, several horses were starting to run back and forth behind the rails, heads high in response to Bandit's threats. Gucci screamed from the corral, and Hammer circled on the other side of the wrecked gate. Snickers, still tacked and standing further up the yard, bucked a few steps, high and wide, making the men on the ground flinch still further. Then three small shapes shot around the side of the house, bulleting so fast their fur was slicked back, and Jasper's whistle stopped them both just short of the men on the ground. The dogs stood still but Shane's lips went back and he snarled, and Tam crouched, rumbling softly in her throat. Jasper unhurriedly crossed the yard after them and took a key from his pocket, opening the stable door behind Dale.

Flynn, moving wide not to block Paul's line of fire, kicked the hand gun clear across the yard. Bandit thundered welcome at him and Flynn walked the last few paces across to the angry stallion with his body language quiet and purposeful. He yanked Riley by the neck of his shirt in one clean, fast swipe, shoving him out of the reach of Bandit's hooves and well behind him, taking Riley's place and putting his hand on the stallion's nose, the other on his heavy shoulder. Bandit didn't lower his head but he stood still, snorting.

"In here." Jasper said quietly to the men on the ground.

The men moved initially with extreme caution, but when Bandit stood still under Flynn's hands, they hurriedly crawled into the doorway of the stable and Dale politely gestured them ahead of him, following as Jasper led the way down to the tack room. The dogs had followed with Dale, still growling, and the men went inside without a word of protest.

"Keys please," Dale said politely as Jasper prepared to lock the door. The men looked at each other and Dale waited, holding out a hand. It was Henson who took a set of car keys from his pocket and reluctantly tossed them over. Jasper closed the door on the men and bolted it, top and bottom. There were no windows or exits from that particular room, and the stone walls were as solid as the rest of the stable. Jasper murmured to the dogs, and Shane lay down on the floor outside the door, teeth still bared. Tam and Ash returned to the yard, moving swiftly, and from the way they disappeared around the back of the stable block, moving at a rapid trot, they intended on making sure no one else had invaded their territory.

"Is there anyone in the house?" Flynn said shortly to Paul, who shook his head.

"I don't think so but I can't be sure."

"I've got it." Jasper went swiftly across the yard to Paul, taking the Winchester gently out of his hands. Paul let it go and Dale saw him press his forehead against Jasper's shirtfront for a moment. Jasper went into the kitchen with the rifle, whistling so that Tam bounded across the yard to him and followed him into the house.

Riley headed towards the dropped gun on the ground, and Flynn interrupted him, voice very curt.

"Riley, get away from that."

"They're locked in-" Riley said just as sharply. Flynn cut him off with a roar that made every other horse in the yard jump, except Bandit.


Riley glared at him, not moving. Paul came down the steps to the yard and went to Riley, catching him by his arm and swatting him several times, and Dale could see that by Paul's standards, those swats were pretty hard.

"You do not get in front of a gun! Since when do you stand anywhere near a stallion attacking? He could have trampled you, he could have kicked you-"

He was about to break down, Dale could hear Paul's voice fracturing. He was watching with sympathy when Paul spun around on him. 

"And you – I told you both to move and no, you both stand there with the testosterone flaring- I seriously thought I was going to see one of you shot! And don't you dare to stand there giving me that who me look Dale Edward, yes you!"

It was pent up fear and Dale didn't mistake it, giving Paul a look of sympathy but addressing himself to Flynn with the keys in hand.

"Vehicle. I'll find it and check."

"Take a dog." Flynn snapped back. Dale whistled to Ash and the dog bounded in front of him up the drive. Behind them, Paul could be heard ordering Riley to get in the house. Dale left them to it and jogged after Ash.

The car wasn't far; just far enough towards the road to be out of sight of the house. Henson and partner obviously hadn't planned on taking anything heavy. The engine was off and Dale paused to look inside the glove compartment, then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and used it as a glove to remove a couple of wallets and a driving licence. The boot was filled with odds and ends, including a half empty box of small bottles with rubber caps. Dale recognised the bottle but not the name on the label. He pocketed one of those too before he locked the car. Ash was sitting patiently and waiting for him, and the ground was flat enough here to see someone coming from a long way off. Only the two of them then. Ash got up, shook himself and trotted ahead of Dale, tail waving as he turned back towards the house.

Bandit was still stalking around the yard, and the other horses were still restless in the corral. Jasper was there, lifting the saddle from Hammer's back and Dale went to help him, collecting Snickers' tack from where it hung on the fence rail.

"They're after drugs. Veterinary drugs. The boot – trunk – is full of these."

Jasper took the bottle from his hand, flipping it over to see the label.

"For cattle. Not something we use, but then every ranch for miles has at least a few cattle."

"There was ID too which probably ought to go to the police."

"Paul called the Sheriff." Jasper followed Dale to put the tack down inside the stable door out of Bandit's way and put a hand on his shoulder before he could head back outside. "Are you ok? Are you sure?"

"Fine." Dale paused to think about it and gave Jasper a quick and rather surprised smile. "It's probably crazy, but I'm fine. Just a bit scuffed."

He indicated his knuckles which showed signs of firm contact with Henson's colleague and Jasper took his wrist to look.

"Better wash that, you've got dust in it. We'll need to stay clear of the yard until Bandit's cooled down a bit."  

The hand gun was still lying in the dust. Paul was standing on the porch, watching Flynn kick out the broken rails from the fence at the end of the yard; something he did with a few, short, powerful movements that reminded Dale a lot of Bandit. He threw the fractured wood aside into the pasture and pinned the gate back wide – leaving a safe exit for Bandit when he was ready. Dale automatically looked for the band of mares in the home pastures but there was no sign of them. Marika had done her job. In danger, the lead mare took the band to safety and the stallion stayed to fight.

Jasper put the last of the tack in the stable and shut the door on it, watching Flynn stalk across the yard. Bandit snorted, breaking into his high, gliding trot to keep pace with him. Jasper moved away from the stable door and after a moment of highly suspicious sniffing around the doorway, the stallion scraped a massive hoof in the dirt of the yard and took a few steps, urinating loudly and copiously at the threshold. Flynn picked up the dropped gun, opened the chamber and pocketed the bullets with slow, meticulous care. The dogs, picking up the atmosphere, slunk down the steps, gave Bandit and Flynn a very wide berth, and disappeared around the back of the stable. Dale had disappeared inside. Jasper caught Paul's eye and leaned against the porch rail beside him, and Flynn walked very calmly up the porch steps and came to join them, the empty gun in his hand.

"What the hell happened?"

"No one's hurt." Paul said, and Flynn rounded on him.

"I hear the bell and come running into the yard to find a gun on Riley, while you're holding one on Henson!"

"Come inside and calm down." Paul said, taking his arm. "It's all right. No one's hurt, come on.

There was no sign of Riley or Dale in the kitchen, for which Paul was grateful. Flynn passed him, not stopping to kick his boots off, and put the gun on the table, placing both hands palm down on the wooden surface and leaning on them as if he was containing himself. Which he was. Paul, who knew how close he was to unlocking the tack room door and letting his temper have a free rein on the men inside, had a lot of sympathy. He took no notice of Flynn's stare at him, or of Jasper leaning against the counter with his ankles crossed and his arms folded, and concentrated on put the kettle on and lifting mugs down from the cupboard. He didn't jump at the crash of Flynn's hands on the table.

"Damnit Paul, answer me!"

"Not in that tone of voice, no." Paul put the kettle down and leaned right back on the table, looking straight at him. "Cool down. I mean it."  

Flynn's eyes were dark green and blazing, and his jaw was so hard the muscles were standing out. Jasper said nothing, but he got up and put his hands on Flynn's shoulders, his long fingers wrapping them. Paul straightened up and went back to making tea. Flynn ducked his head, and for a moment there was silence in the kitchen. Paul poured tea, put the kettle back and brought the cups across to the table, pulling out a chair and taking a seat. After another moment Flynn ducked out from under Jasper's hands and went to take his boots off. Jasper took the seat beside Paul's and picked up one of the mugs, leaning with one elbow hooked over the chair back while Flynn went into the bathroom and they heard the tap running and the splashing of Flynn cooling off his hands, his face, and very likely his temper. It was a few moments before he came back, damp haired, and leaned his hands on the table once more either side of the empty handgun.  

"Are you ready to answer my question?"

"Don't waste that tone on me." Paul said firmly.

"Who challenged who?"

Paul picked up his mug, keeping his voice calm. "From what I saw, Riley caught them in the yard, breaking into the barn."

"And jumped in without thinking." Flynn said, not as a question.

"I was there within seconds." Paul told him. "Seconds."

Flynn grabbed the disassembled gun up off the table, holding it out to Paul.  

"This is exactly why I told Riley he wasn't, under any circumstances, to confront any of them!  Henson could have pulled the gun before you even had a chance to come outside!" 

And that was what he was seeing. Shot bodies lying on the ground. The shouting was the one thing keeping him from exploding, or doing something about it. Paul leaned over the table and grabbed his hand. He hadn't the strength to shift Flynn anywhere if Flynn really didn't want to go, but Flynn would never have torn his hand free or refused, even this angry. He came around the table and Paul squeezed his hand hard, feeling the rigidity of it, as tense as the rest of him.

"Sit down. Shut up. It's all right."

"It could not be less all right." Flynn said flatly back to him. "I could throttle you, taking a gun out there. You were at as much risk as they were-"

"You can try." Paul informed him. Flynn looked hard at him for a moment, and then Paul got up and Flynn stooped and held him very tightly.

"Are you all right?" Paul heard him say very quietly. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." Paul shut his eyes, turning his forehead against Flynn's shoulder, and after a moment he felt Jasper's hands on his back. There were several minutes while the three of them stood together, saying nothing.

"I need to check on Ri." Flynn said eventually.

"Dale's obviously gone up to him, and I don't see the point in trying to deal with this until the Sheriff's been and gone and we won't be interrupted." Paul kissed Flynn's cheek and sat down rather shakily, picking up his cooling tea. "Apart from which, I need to be able to talk without wringing necks."

Flynn sat down beside him and reached for his own mug. "We've talked about this before with Riley, a few times, and it goes in one ear and out the other."

"He needs a much stronger reason to remember." Jasper said grimly. It was the first thing he had said and Flynn looked up at him, understanding the tone. Jasper had seen more of the reality of men like Henson than any of them.

"And Dale…." Paul took another mouthful of tea and a few careful breaths. "No. The only reason I'm upset with Dale is he scared the hell out of me. He was amazing but then Dale is. I think he assumed Riley and I must know what we were doing until it became blatantly obvious we didn't. He put Henson on the ground when Riley went for the other guy-"

"Dale?" Flynn demanded. Paul nodded.

"I saw him put Henson on the floor. Quite efficiently too. With that expression of innocent interest as he did it, and that was what made Bandit jump the fence and weigh in. Then Henson pulled the gun and started waving it at Bandit, and Riley got in front of Bandit and wouldn't move-"

Flynn swore, quietly, and Paul gave him a wry look.

"Yes. Me too. Exactly. That was when Dale decided he ought to do something and took over. He told Henson to put the gun down, and Henson did. Just did what Dale told him, meek as you please. Where did they have the dogs shut in?"

"In the garage." Jasper said briefly. "Probably baited them in there – they're ok, I've checked. Dale found their car further up the drive-"

There was a particularly high pitched screech from a horse outside and Flynn got up to look out of the kitchen window.

"Gucci. Tarting up and down, flashing her eyelashes at Bandit."

"What are we going to do with him with the Sheriff on his way?" Paul said dryly. "I don't particularly want to deal with a summons for Bandit kicking in a patrol car-"

"I can't stop him pacing around out there and he's the best watchdog we've got, but he won't attack." Flynn said with conviction. "Not without very good reason."

"You're worse than Riley, standing right under his hooves while he's threatening. He's a semi wild stallion, not a pet."

Flynn shook his head, looking back out of the window. "Bandit wouldn't have hurt him."

 Riley had sprawled on his back on his bed, folding his arms over his eyes. His hands were shaking, his shirt and jeans were dusty and Dale could see his bruised knuckles. He couldn't resist putting a hand on Riley's knee as he sat down on the edge of the bed, shaking gently. It was unusual for either of them to come into the house still wearing dusty work clothes. At the end of the day they usually stripped and changed in the kitchen downstairs.

"Are you ok?"

It was a minute before Riley answered and his voice was as unsteady as his hands, although still flippant.

"Dead man walking. Flynn is going to kill me this time. Oh God, I really thought Henson was going to shoot Bandit."

"I don't think Bandit would have co operated." Dale said dryly. "He's still stalking around the yard."

"He hardly even looked at me." Riley said after a minute, not looking at him. "I hate making him this mad."

He still meant Flynn, and not Paul who had actually done far more demonstrating of his wrath outside in the yard.

"It's just noise." Dale said gently, "That's all. Just letting off steam."

"I'm not scared of him."

That was almost aggressive, as if daring Dale to suggest Flynn might be capable of being alarming, and it went to Dale's heart. No. Riley, who did his fair share of yelling under pressure, was not in the least scared of the noise or of Flynn's wrath. Just his disappointment.

"It's scared, not mad." Dale said, still rubbing his knee. "He just saw a gun held on you. And he isn't going to yell. He wants time to calm down so he doesn't yell."

"And then he'll clam up and refuse to talk for days, you know what he's like," Riley said bitterly.

"No, he won't." Dale swallowed on the second half of that statement of fact, a presumptuous but utterly sure little voice that dared to add, because I won't let him.

"Let him blast it out of his system and he'll calm down, that's all you need to do."

"And not pick back at him." Riley said bleakly. "Yeah. I've got a knack of knowing just how to really piss him off when he's already mad."

Personally Dale thought Flynn understood very well that it was defensive. He'd only ever heard Riley speak rudely or sharply when he was in trouble with Flynn, and Flynn never did anything more than separate himself from Riley until they had both calmed down.

He got up and went to the bathroom, soaking a washcloth under the tap in cold water and bringing that, with a towel, back to Riley. Riley accepted the face cloth, sitting up to gingerly wipe his grazed knuckles. After one touch, he winced and thought better of it and folded the washcloth, pressing it much more carefully.

"Thanks. Are you ok? I didn't see much of what happened with you and Henson."

"Not very much." Dale glanced down at his own knuckles. "First time I've ever tried that."

"Seriously?" Riley demanded. Dale smiled at his tone, shaking his head.

"Terminally well behaved, you know me."

"We've corrupted you on so many levels." Riley got up, still pressing the cloth to his hand, and went to look out of the window. "I got into fight after fight in high school. It was part of what got me into so much trouble."

"You said there hadn't been fights here before with hired men?" Dale asked, watching him. Riley shook his head restlessly.

"No, Jas and Flynn are too careful. Usually. Damnit. I've had barneys with one or two before now and Jas tanned me last year for mouthing off to one instead of letting him deal with it. Jas worked with labour gangs for several years and I've probably got no idea of what he knows – not that it matters anyway, he says and he expects me to do and that's about the end of it. And Flynn…."

Riley paused and sat down on the windowsill, wincing as he checked on the knuckles under the cloth. "…… is nuttier still because he did bare knuckle stuff at farm fairs at home when he was a kid, and he says unless you've done that you have no idea how much damage a fist can do. He did it for cash and he usually won, and he's still got some of the scars. Flynn says it wasn't boxing, he just had a temper and he'd strip off, go into the ring, see red and not really know much else until the fight got broken up – I think he's pretty ashamed of it. And he got into a serious fight his first year at college, the police got involved and he almost got thrown out."

"Did he?"

"Philip flew out and helped him handle it. I don't know the ins and outs but I know he got suspended and Philip fixed it so he did the work here at home and the work was still graded. He blames himself, he told me once he had no control over his temper at all until Philip – although the other guy must have done something serious, Flynn wouldn't cream anyone without a good reason."

Riley leaned back against the wall and sighed.

"So he's nuts about letting loose and thinking later, because he says he got that t shirt the hard way."  

"But they were breaking and entering." Dale protested. Riley gave him a pointed look.

"Change gears, you're not in Kansas any more. Remember? 'Buts' don't exist, except mine, and that's grass unless I leave now for the Mexican border. Stuff doesn't matter; you do."

That was obviously a quote he was familiar with. There was the sound of a car outside and Riley leaned to see.

"That's the Sheriff."            

 It was Jasper who came upstairs half an hour later and sent Riley to shower with an order to go downstairs and find a corner in the family room when he was through. There was an uncomfortably blunt message within that. Uncomfortable with his own level of dustiness and not sure how welcome he would be downstairs while Paul and Flynn were so obviously upset, Dale changed too and waited for Riley, and they went downstairs together. The kitchen door was still shut. The Sheriff's car was still in the yard outside; Dale had seen it from the bathroom window. He had seen before the habit out here where the drive between ranches and towns was numbered in hours more than miles, that doctors and vets and no doubt Sheriffs were offered at least a drink and snack if not a meal, and would have paperwork to write. The family room was quiet but for the slow tick of the clock.

"Great." Riley muttered, glaring at the shut door and stalking towards the couches around the hearth. "We just get to hang around and wait for the execution scene."

He threw himself down on one of the couches, bare legged in the shorts and t shirt he usually slept in. Dale hesitated, torn between wanting to remind Riley about Jasper's order to find a corner and save him additional trouble, and knowing that right now it was the least helpful thing he could say.

The front door opened quietly and Jake slipped in, still in running clothes. His eyebrows raised at the sight of Riley and Dale, and he shut the door quietly behind him.

"What's going on? We saw the Sheriff's car, and Bandit's marking territory every which way out there. He barely let me across the yard."

"A couple of the labourers tried breaking into the stables." Dale said when Riley didn't answer. "There was a bit of a fight and one of them pulled a gun. No one was hurt."

"I was in the wrong place this afternoon, obviously." Jake said dryly. His eyes were on Riley and Dale wasn't surprised when he sat down on the arm of the sofa, one hand absently going to massage the back of Riley's neck. Riley didn't even look up at the touch.

"Are you two ok? I saw the kitchen door was shut."

"Flynn's madder than a wet hen, and the other two are trying to cool him down." Riley said flatly. "So with any luck he just maims rather than murders me. I started the fight. Dale came with me, but it was my fault. I didn't really give him a chance to do much else."

Jake nodded slowly, eyes still on Riley. "And where are you supposed to be?"

"In a corner, naturally." Riley said sourly.

"You'd better get moving then." Jake caught Dale's eye and gave him a brief and reassuring smile. "I'll stay with you."

Another man who spoke as though grown men standing in corners was a completely normal activity.

Riley didn't move from the couch, and after waiting a moment, Jake physically put him on his feet, moving him across to the stretch of wall on the other side of the fire place. Riley grimaced but let Jake steer him and stood without arguing, head down in front of the wall. Unsure of what else to do, Dale took a seat on the hearth stone, near Riley, and Jake sat on the couch behind them both, saying nothing, but he was large and he was very calm, and it was clear that Riley took a lot of comfort in his presence.

Paul was clearing the remains of the Sheriff's sandwich and coffee from the table when Flynn followed Jasper across the yard and they both came inside, pausing in the doorway to heel off their boots.

"They're gone." Jasper said when Paul looked at him. "And we're locked up out there. I'll walk up in a while and check on the others up at the camp, but quite a few of them came down to watch the Sheriff put Henson in the car, and they didn't think much to him from the start."

"What on earth did he think was in the stables that was worth taking anyway?" Paul asked him, rinsing dishes.

"Drugs." Jasper said succinctly. "Veterinary drugs. Dale found a trunkful of them. That's the only saleable thing he'd find in the outbuildings of most ranches. The Sheriff said he'd ring us if he found a record on Henson or the other man, and the ID Dale found ought to help – I'm guessing the guy was just a side kick with a car, he hasn't done work for us."

"I don't want to leave Riley sweating too long." Flynn leaned past Paul and poured a glass of water at the sink, knocking it back in several long draughts.

"Riley's all right, he's shaken up and it won't hurt him." Paul told him. "What are you going to do?"  

"Exactly what I said I would." Flynn said darkly. "That was just what I told him not to do and exactly the reason why. We were bloody lucky no one was shot or knifed today. Riley's a damned sight too ready to dive in without thinking twice, we've talked about how he handles hired help several times before, and it goes in one ear and out the other once he's fired up about something."

Jasper, arms crossed, nodded, still propping up the counter.

"If you don't, I will."

"I was the one who made the threat." Flynn finished the water and rinsed out the glass. "Paul, if you want to go for a walk, I won't blame you. You're as shaken up as Riley."

"I wouldn't chicken out." Paul said shortly. "This is something we're all involved in, and consistency gets even more important now we have the two of them to think about, but Riley did have one hell of a scare. It was thoughtlessness, nothing deliberate."

"I'll take that into account, but this isn't happening again." Flynn said flatly. He opened the kitchen door, heading towards the study and leaving Paul and Jasper to go into the family room.

Jake was sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees, Dale was sitting quietly on the hearthstone with what Paul thought of as his boardroom face, and Riley was standing in the corner nearby like an orderly book end. There was something about how close Dale had positioned himself. Jake gave them a faint smile and got up, quietly heading past them for the door.

"We'll see you tomorrow."

Paul caught him and kissed his cheek as he passed.

"There's food in the fridge and pantry, help yourself."

Jake closed the kitchen door behind him. The house was very quiet with only the five of them inside it, with nothing but the slow tick of the grandfather clock.

"Come and sit down, you two." Jasper said quietly, taking a seat on the couch. Paul sat down beside him, and Riley turned away from his corner as Flynn came back from the study, the lexan paddle in his hand. Riley's face changed instantly; Dale's didn't react visibly at all, and Flynn kept his voice calm and matter of fact, taking a seat on the couch across from Jasper.

"Ri, I warned you exactly what I'd do if you challenged any one of the hired hands instead of going through me or Jasper. Let's go."

"That's all you want to say?" Riley protested, looking alarmed.

"What else do you want said?" Flynn held out a hand to him, snapping his fingers briskly. "Thank God you had Dale with you and he knew how to handle what you started? Thank God you had Paul in earshot with access to a gun? I've already said that a lot Riley, trust me."

Riley hung back, voice getting plaintive with alarm.

"Flynn…  I'm sorry, I swear it won't happen again-"

Flynn got up, leaning across the coffee table to take his hand and pull him the rest of the way over. "I plan on making very sure of that, half pint. I don't want either of you shot."

He took his seat again and Riley half lifted his hands to stop him, flushing as Flynn slipped his thumbs inside the shorts Riley usually slept in and stripped them straight down to Riley's knees.

Dale saw Paul glance across to him, his soft eyes concerned, and it wasn't hard to see what he signalled. Paul would think of that. Dale shook his head slightly, returning what wasn't quite a smile but said thank you. This wasn't easy to watch, but it wasn't awful either; Dale had been in Riley's position too often to be too alarmed. Riley's t shirt barely covered the curve of his buttocks and when Flynn turned Riley over his lap, he brushed the tail of it upwards, laying his forearm across the small of Riley's back to take a firm and practiced grasp on Riley's wrist, holding it down at his side. Bare from midriff to ankle, tipped at a vulnerably acute angle across Flynn's jeaned knees, Riley squirmed anxiously and Flynn picked up the paddle, wasting no further time.

Riley yelped and jumped at the first brisk swat, the paddle landing soundly across one cheek and then being applied equally firmly to the other, and he was already starting to twist and to roll as much as Flynn's grasp allowed. Dale understood very well; it was impossible to keep still under that particular paddle on bare skin, there was no conscious choice about it. The rhythm didn't pause in the slightest, unhurried and steady, painting the whole of Riley's upturned backside an even and deepening red with each hard swat. And Flynn was using the paddle hard, with the same deft practicality with which he worked a horse or mended a fence, controlling Riley in a competent embrace over his lap. Riley's yelps rapidly became cries and fragmented protests and apologies, some of which Flynn quietly answered, emphasising his key points with the paddle.

"Some of these men can be dangerous," Dale heard somewhere in amongst it, "Some of them carry weapons. We know nothing about addictions. Previous convictions. You do not challenge one of these men. You do not take that risk."

Riley was sobbing, and Flynn said nothing more, breaking his rhythm with a short, brisk flurry of swats that were the hardest yet before he laid the paddle down. He steadied Riley as he helped him up to his feet, giving him a minute to find his balance before he helped him dress and stood up, taking Riley's face in his hands.

"You don't ever do that again, half pint. You don't want to know how serious I am."

Whatever Riley said was unintelligible, but there was no doubt it was sincere agreement. The second Flynn let go his face, Riley flung himself around Flynn's neck and Flynn sat back into the couch, pulling Riley down on top of him.

This was no time for an audience. As Paul got up and went to sit with Flynn, Dale quietly got up from the hearth and slipped out towards the kitchen, shutting the door softly behind him. There were times Riley needed all of Flynn, just as he'd had for the last fifteen years, and Dale didn't plan on ever getting in the way of that. He went out onto the porch and leaned on the rail, aware his hands were a little shaky and also that this no longer felt like moving around someone else's home as a guest. The yard was familiar, the air was starting to cool as the evening went on, and the smell of the cut grass was heavy in the air with the mown fields beyond the corral.

It was, rationally, a most bizarre scene he had just witnessed, and equally rationally it came at the end of a bizarre day for someone supposedly a competent grown up. Dale acknowledged the thought and let it pass, no more than amused by it, and too lost in a sense of gathering calm. When he thought about it, the calm had been there most of the afternoon.

Leaving work half done to go and play – there was no kinder term for it- was still a faintly guilty pleasure, and Dale was surprised that once Riley dragged him out somewhere and had him alone, that he was capable of forgetting himself and playing without conscience. He could well imagine the faces of A.N.Z. colleagues on being informed that Dale Aden had spent several hours on and off diving a river in a light hearted gold hunt, and rationally, he wouldn’t believe it any more than they would. It was just different in reality, with Riley when no one watching them. It was the first time too since he came back from New York that Flynn had simply turned him loose with Riley and left them to find their own occupation. Ok, perhaps 'turned loose' was the wrong term: ordered out, with threats and menaces was more accurate.  Having been entirely self reliant his entire adult life, which often included fending for himself in unfamiliar cities on unfamiliar continents, it was strange to feel this kind of childish excitement and an equally strange sense of vulnerability at being away from Flynn, or Jasper or Paul, allowed to go off alone like a kid allowed to cross the street by themselves for the first time.

He didn't need to look round to recognise the arm that slipped around his waist. Only Jasper moved quietly enough that you didn't hear him coming. Dale glanced across as Jasper leaned on the rail beside him, watching Bandit still roaming the yard up by the corral.

"Have you ever had a gun pulled on you before?" Jasper asked him mildly.

Out here, that was probably a sensible question to ask people. Dale stifled a smile at the thought of most of the board rooms and offices he'd worked in.

"About the worst it gets is people swiping things off tables. You tend to get veiled threats and back stabbing in corporate work, not weapons."

Jasper nodded. He rarely stood if he could lean; Dale was used to seeing this stance and being comfortably near to it. "I overheard the last of what you said to Henson.  You were very calm about it. Henson had a gun, and he knew how to use it. He might at any point have panicked."

"No, he wouldn't." Dale said absently. "I know what panicking men look like. Henson's a one trick pony. He had his plan and once it went wrong he was looking for the first offered out. Not even a good amateur and they are
dangerous when they're cornered. There was never any risk that he'd shoot."

"So you were fine with seeing a gun aimed at Riley? Paul?" Jasper gave him a quizzical look. "That didn't bother you?"

"What is this?" Dale asked him, amused. "Am I not taking this seriously enough or something?"

Jasper looked as casually amused himself but his arm didn't let go, keeping Dale where he was.


"Of course I took it seriously, but handled right, it wasn't going to be a problem."

"What would you have done if it had?" Jasper asked. Dale shrugged a little, resting his weight back on the rail and rubbing abstractedly at one hand with the other.

"Standard negotiation procedures I suppose."

"You're trained in that?"

"All the trouble shooters for A.N.Z. were, it's a part of the job. And I did the work on handling crisis, moving people in dangerous situations, mostly because we did a lot of large project work in weird buildings with variable fire escape routes, but the techniques had all kinds of relevant applications. Although I never really got the hang of shouting. Do you know if air stewards try to clear a plane in an emergency situation using polite tones of voice and requests, the statistical outcome is the same as if they said nothing at all?"

"Really?" Jasper got negligently to his feet and steered Dale with him to the swing, taking a seat.

"Really." Dale sat down beside him, tipping his head back to look at the sky turning pink above the red roof of the barn. "You're trained to walk into dangerous situations shouting if you've got a bunch of people acting like headless chickens. And most people do in a crisis. You go in like a tank, loud, aggressive, rude, and the statistics suddenly turn round. Herd instinct. It's been documented in disasters; behaviours that gather and steer the herd save lives. Jerry Banks used to turn it on like a tap when he handled a really bad situation going wrong at A.N.Z.; he'd stalk into the room swearing at the top of his lungs and bang the table and you could see everyone else in the room think Thank God, he's got the nerve to sort this, and they'd shut up and let him take charge. Rather like Bandit kicking and driving the mares when he herds them."


"I'm being insufficiently bratlike, aren't I?" Dale gave him a quick smile and got up. "I'm going to take another look at the car-"


Somehow Jasper hadn't let go of his hand. Dale had a polite try at slipping his grasp.

"I'd just like another look. I suppose it'll be a few days before it can be moved."

"That's more the Sheriff's problem than ours."

Jasper relaxed back into the swing as though he had the rest of the day, and after a moment Dale came out with a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and plaintiveness, tugging gently at his trapped hand.

"Ok, ok,  Jas, please?"

"Please what?" Jas said comfortably. "I can't see you need to go anywhere."

"I'd just like the walk."


Dale groaned, Jasper laughed and pulled and Dale dropped back down into the swing, leaning back beside him.

"Ok, all right! It scared the hell out of me, I'm not quite that insensitive."

"I never thought you were insensitive." Jasper told him.

He heard Dale sigh.

"I go into overdrive around crisis, it's what I get paid to do. I am terribly good in a crisis."

 "We noticed." Jasper said frankly. "It's a very good thing for us you are."

"And I'm not going to burst into tears. I want to go pick up the pieces, it's the way I am." Dale sounded a lot more heartfelt and his voice was quieter. "I'm not good at this Jas, but the – dramatics – aren't me."

"No." Jasper agreed.

He said nothing else and Dale finally laughed, too bewildered now to hold on to any kind of seriousness.

"Oh God. I used to wonder how you handled clients, but now I'm bloody sorry for the poor bastards!"

Jasper smiled. "What would you do now? If you handled this your own way?"

"Go for a walk? ….Run." Dale admitted. "I know, it's all cowardice. It's running to get away from the anxiety, it's not having the basic guts to do what Ri and Gerry do and honestly act on it. I don't even know I'm wound up until I find myself flipping out!"

"Then how about trusting me to know?" Jas said mildly.

There was a silence for a while and he heard Dale's subdued mutter.

"What's wrong with a little healthy bottling up anyway?"

Jasper swatted his hip gently.  "Come here."

He was surprised when Dale turned and put his arms around him, burying himself in a way that Jasper had only seen him do with Flynn. Jasper hugged him, holding him close, and it took a few minutes before he felt Dale truly relax against him.

It was a while before Paul came out of the kitchen and sat heavily down on the swing with them. Jasper automatically tightened his grasp, holding Dale where he was, and Paul put out a hand to push Dale's hair back from his face. He looked tired but his hand was gentle and held a lot of sympathy.

"Are you two ok?"

"We're good." Jasper said easily.  

That was a bit of an oversimplification. Dale looked at Paul, trying to work out how you apologised for not remembering the role you were supposed to take under crisis. The image of Paul in the yard was a nasty one. Dale found he remembered it in excruciating detail, Paul's white face and the break in his voice as he scolded him and Riley impartially; at the time Dale knew he had felt nothing more than sympathy and hadn't thought twice about taking no notice and doing what needed to be done. Now, the thought turned him hot and cold.

You're a lousy brat, Aden. And of all the people you'd want to hurt, Paul's the last.

"Today feels as if it's been doing on forever." Paul sat back, looking up at the pastures beyond the corral, most of them now stripped of hay. "I love haying season, but by the time we get to this point it feels like we've been working on it for months. And then it's fall."

There was something sad in his voice. Flynn came out onto the porch with a very red eyed Riley by the hand, and Paul scooted over to make room on the end of the swing. Flynn sat down, pulling Riley down on top of him and Riley squirmed into a bearable position, his feet in Paul's lap.

"Anything good at Three Traders?" Jasper asked. Riley lifted his head from Flynn's chest, giving an apprehensive glance upwards.

"We didn't go in the mine."

"I know you wouldn't." Flynn dropped a kiss on his forehead and Riley curled up deeper into his chest, laying his head back down. He was wrapped around Flynn like a jacket.

"It was good. We swam. Had a look for gold in the river."

It was very quiet in the yard. The swing was rocking slowly, crowded with the five of them together.

 There was a huddle of bodies moving fast in the rain and the dark, mostly blackened with coal dust. Only eyes and teeth and the streaks of skin washed clean with rain occasionally flashed in the lamplight.  The noise should have been deafening – the roar of water and the voices from the crowd behind them, the shouting and the crash of rocks being handed back from man to man from the few at the front who were digging with their hands, no longer daring to use picks. There was actually nothing to hear at all but the fall of the rain and the suppressed speed of his own breathing. His shirtsleeve shone in the lamplight when he ran it over his face, brushing away rain that was blurring his vision, and he held the lamp higher. It was easy to pick out David, even shirtless and with his hair and skin blackened like the others. He had been yanking at rocks for hours, stooped and moving like a machine, and his teeth were bared as if he was locked in a fight. He had only glanced back once, making eye contact through the dark with his eyes burning.

Stay back. Stay there.

He had the physical strength for this, David knew the mines in the same way he'd known ships, he had dug before for men buried under rock, he knew the men  he was digging with, and he knew the risks. There was no time for amateurs no matter how willing. And so holding the lantern high, Dale wiped rain from his face, stood back and stayed out of his way, watching him work and waiting, ready to help in any way he could, and flinching every time there was another crash of rocks falling -  


Flynn was up on one elbow over him and his heavy hand pushed over Dale's forehead, smoothing his hair back. The room was dark, and beyond the window there were heavy clouds racing against a grey sky. Dale took a breath and realised his throat was sore and he'd been saying something – he had been Philip, and Philip had been shouting it. Screaming it to reach David over the roar of the rain and the river.

"It's ok. I've got you." Flynn said quietly. "Come here. Come here and get warm."

The covers were half on the floor. Dale pulled at them and Flynn leaned across him, shaking them back over them both and pulling the pillows straight. Dale lay down again and Flynn wrapped around him from head to foot, Dale felt the weight of his chin on the top of his head and the warmth of his hand rubbing over his back, under his shirt.

"What was that about?"

"David was digging someone out from the mine." Dale swallowed, thinking about it. "Philip was watching. David wouldn't let him come any closer."

The image of the shouting and the bodies in the rain was still strong.

"We couldn't find Gam Saan in the cemetery." he said aloud. Flynn grunted.

"Riley said. It's reasonable to think he was lost in the cave in. He was an elderly man."

"I can't imagine David giving up on finding him."

"I suppose it depends on how possible it was to get into the mine after the collapse. It's over ten years since Jas and I went in there, and we couldn't get far. The tunnel was completely caved in."

Some part of Dale was still saying 'but'….

He turned over, closer to Flynn, and ignored it. Flynn stretched out a hand to find his watch, turning it up to read the dial.

"Just after two. I'm going to have a quick look at Ri."

Dale slid out of bed and went to stand at the window, listening to Flynn pad softly up the hallway. He had discreetly suggested sleeping next door in the small room that had previously been his, and leaving Flynn's bed to Riley if  he wanted it. Flynn had put a firm foot down on that and he was right. Dale knew if Riley decided he wanted Flynn's company he wouldn't think twice about coming to demand it.

Flynn was back a moment later, and he pushed the door to softly.

"He's asleep. Come on, we can get another few hours sleep yet."

Dale stood for a moment more at the window, looking out towards the aspen woods. The rooms here at the back of the house looked towards the direction of the home pastures.

"How long until the mowing's finished?"

"The weekend." Flynn came to stand beside him, looking down with him at the pasture. "We'll get the last of it away by the weekend."

He was very close, taller than Dale and a lot broader at the shoulders and chest, his skin and clothes and hair alike turned black and silver in the dim light outside. There were a whole lot of things Dale found he wanted to tell him; from what Three Traders looked like in bright sunlight, the story of the mine that was still nagging at the back of his head, to begging his advice about what to do about Paul – they were all things Flynn would understand. But the strongest thing on his mind was Riley, lying on the river bank, saying with the gentle flippancy that was as frank as Riley was frank at heart.

You worry too much.

Dale took a deeper breath and put his back against the wall by the window, and put a hand up to touch Flynn's face, then brushing his fingers down the plane of his chest. Flynn's eyes were black too in the dark, very kind and very soft. And the hand that came up and caught Dale's was kind too, although it closed his fingers and held them closed before they could slide any lower.

"No." Flynn said gently. "When you want to. Not until then. There's no hurry."

There were a hundred very stupid phrases crowding to Dale's lips, some of embarrassed apology, some of frustration and an insistence that yes, obviously he did want to - and a lot more that wanted to point out to Flynn that if he'd just take the lead and be firm about it, things would probably work out fine.

You want to hear a lecture about the 'probably'? You think you'll slip that past him?

Flynn put a hand behind his head and kissed him, a brief and gentle kiss, the kind that happened without thought between people who belonged to each other, and drew him back towards the bed with the definite strength in his hands that made it very clear – reassuringly clear – what was going to happen and what was not.

"Stop chewing and get some sleep. We're not on a deadline, things happen in our time. It's all right kid."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders