Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 9a


"Where do you suppose the mine runs to?" Riley asked when they had to slow the horses to walk through the woods.

There had been no discussion as to where they were headed; they both knew. The horses had been very fresh after almost two weeks of far less exercise than they were used to, and it had taken a good, hard gallop over the safe parts of the pasture to take the edge off Snickers, who wanted to take the uneven woodland path a good deal faster than a walk. Dale, knowing Snickers, and knowing Hammer's more staid temperament, took Hammer ahead onto the narrow trail through the aspen woods and held him down to a steady walk, letting Hammer's stolid frame block Snickers from speeding up. The steady rock and sway of his gait, the soft sound of the horses feet on the hard earth and old leaves, and the dappled shade of the wood was very calming. Dale heard an impatient snort from Snickers and a returning grunt from Hammer who knew he was being hassled and didn't care.

"The diagram in David's trunk showed a whole set of shafts." he said absently.

"A set?" Riley demanded. "Was that what the drawing was that Jake showed us?"

Riley wasn't good at not having your full attention. Dale found himself forced to stop thinking of Flynn and mowing and a hundred other concerns, and to pull himself together. 

"Well, logically."

"Logically what?"

Dale adjusted his weight in the saddle, bracing his feet in the stirrups  to let Hammer climb the steep bank in front of them and hearing Snickers try to bounce his way up after them instead of walk.

"It showed the river in relation to the mine entrance, and I'd guess that the lines showed shafts and galleries. Which would fit with it having been both a drift and a shaft mine in its working life."

"Where did you learn about mining?" Riley reached the top of the bank and held Snickers in while Dale took Hammer first onto the path again, keeping Snickers hemmed back.

"I did some work for a mining corporation a few years ago, and they took me to see their primary mine,"

Dale glanced down the bank beside them, catching sight of the now familiar landmark below; the toppled and rusted steam train on its side, hidden in the woods. It was an oddly comforting sight.

"Courtesy visit, they do a lot of that kind of thing."

"They?" Riley said curiously. Realising Riley had no idea what he meant, and how bizarre he would find the idea, Dale smiled, distracted in spite of himself.

"Corporates. Clients. If I was out doing a project or consult on site, the client very often organised visits and events and so on – it was mostly a break from sitting in a board room, or supposed to be socialising, or 'informal' time for negotiation. I've been shown over all kinds of strange landmarks and factories. Ships. Oil rigs."

Usually in a large crowd of politely bored people in suits, trying not to yawn through the tour.

"I bet you loved that," Riley said acutely, making Snickers wait for Hammer to take the trail turn towards Three Traders, although it made Snickers sidle backwards and sideways in sheer frustration. Dale nodded.

"There was usually someone around to talk to – foremen or engineers – who knew exactly how things worked, and they often had a lot of information on the basics of the corporation and management. The mine was all high tech, machines and computers, but I walked round with an engineer and he explained the history of it."

In fact they'd had a pretty good afternoon together. The engineer had obviously been expecting to be polite through gritted teeth to a bunch of stuffed shirts, and had been delighted to find someone actually interested. And he'd given more detail and insight on productivity than the entire senior management's dossier.

"Drift mining is horizontal tunnels, that's the basis of most gold mines." Dale said, ducking under the last aspen branches as they came out into the open pastures again. Sheep were grazing as far as they eye could see, doing no more than glance up towards them as they passed by. "Following a seam. Probably with carts or a short rail track to take out spoil, and probably near the river bed as that's often a clue to the gold seam. Shaft mining is vertical shafts with horizontal galleries running off them. Lets you get much deeper, and try multiple levels. That's needed if you're going to get a decent amount of coal out every year. You have to keep finding and working fresh coal faces. There won't just be one seam of coal, it's a lot less rare than gold. I'd think the Three Traders mine probably started out as a drift mine, probably a very small one, and was opened up a lot when they went to coal mining."

"So there'll be a lot more of it than there looks." Riley said thoughtfully. "We should be able to see the rail track part of it at least? Without actually going in?"

"Flynn's going to kill you," Dale pointed out. Riley grinned.

"No worse than you got killed this morning. How bad did it get?"

Probably not as bad as I deserved.

"…..Not bad." Dale said uncomfortably. "It was my own fault."

"Trust me, there are whole lot better ways to change Flynn's mind than yelling a declaration of war at him." Riley said cheerfully. "What you want is the quiet approach, which kind of keeps the subject open without going far enough that he starts making threats. Hurl abuse and they tend to go straight for a paddle."

"I did not hurl abuse!" Dale protested. Riley grinned at him, raising his voice in a mock yell.

"I'm not pissing about-"

Snickers reared at the yell, Riley laughed and let him out, and Dale let Hammer go too as Snickers broke into a gallop over the open ground, scattering sheep in all directions. There was nothing in the world like the speed and the physical power of Hammer at full charge. Breathless, finding himself grinning from ear to ear and wanting to whoop like a ten year old, Dale chased Riley and Snickers for a while before the horses eased down to a canter and finally, as they approached the trail towards the town, a sedate walk. Riley turned Snickers in a wide circle to bring him up beside Hammer.

"You're a bad influence on Flynn, you know?"

Dale looked across at him in shock and Riley smiled.

"Paul was saying the other day; Flynn's swearing far more since you came and started throwing British curses around. The language is too like what he was used to in New Zealand. Philip told me once, Flynn couldn't get a clean sentence out of his mouth to save his life when he first came here. Look. I've yelled. I've refused. You catch on eventually that the quicker you co operate, the less sore your butt."

He said it quite easily, as if it was a rational concept, although his eyes were soft.  

"I'll tell you too, when you know for sure you can count on a sore butt if you start yelling refusals, it's amazing how quick you learn to think first. They're going to be tougher on you while it's still so new. Like Flynn dropping on you for being out of bed the other night."

"I'm not used to getting so het up about anything that I stop thinking." Dale said more with ruefulness now than the bleakness he'd felt half an hour ago. "That's the part I don't like."

"What you don't like is not being in control." Riley said succinctly.

There was never unkindness in anything Riley said; it was frank and it was blunt and Dale swallowed on it.

"I know what I'm supposed to do - it's the whole control thing that I've been trying most to work on-"

"You still want it written down." Riley led Snickers up the steepening pasture, holding him in as they were approaching the sharp, shelf drop down into the town. "Pre-agreed. You'll agree to it if it's been discussed, analysed and laid out first so you know exactly what's coming and you've prepared yourself. That's kind of missing the point?"

It was difficult to refute.

"I got this." Dale said in frustration, thinking again of that feeling of looking in the mirror. The sharp haircut, the obvious ribs. Not the body he'd left here with which had been well worked, tanned and him. It had looked like him, it had felt like him, and somewhere in New York that body and that man had been subsumed into…

Something else.  

"I was here for six months, and all that time I had no control over anything at all, not what I did, not when I could leave – I could do it then!"

"Yeah, but that was different," Riley drew Snickers in at the edge of the plateau, looking down over the still, silent town below them. It was still a stunning sight, even now it was becoming familiar. Dale looked down with him at the rooftops, the buildings, the empty streets mapped out below. There was always a sense of hush in this valley that wasn't present in the open pastures.

They went down by the wagon path, the slow and zigzagging descent that let the horses walk comfortably, leading eventually into the red dirt street past the first of the houses. It made you want to whisper rather than talk; the houses were still quieter close up, nothing moving in the streets, not a sound to be heard.

That was different.

Riley said that so simply.

Except reluctantly, Dale found himself thinking of what Flynn had said, repeatedly since he came back to the ranch. Something he'd technically heard, as in it had reached his ears, but hadn't really allowed to penetrate.

This is new. Major life changes. You've altered  your career, you've moved home, you've walked into not just one new relationship but four and you don't handle change well – this is going to hit you hard.

So deal with it, Aden. Don't dig your fingers in your ears and look the other way.

"You said the other night," Riley said more softly, "Whenever you were stressed things got worse."

Yes. Looking back over the last few years, Dale knew, if  he was honest, being tired, being stressed, being under pressure, always pushed him to the edge and started off the less – rational – thought patterns.

"And you said it was neurological." Riley drew Snickers in, looking across at him. "Not something you can choose to do or not do, it isn't your fault. You don't want control over everything because you're a control freak bastard – and we've seen plenty of clients here who are, who get off on power. We know what that looks like. You just get scared stiff you're doing something wrong. What did Flynn do about it? Does he go through the psychology stuff with you?"

Dale shook his head, a little shocked at hearing it so bluntly put.

"No – he only did that a couple of times at the beginning, when he made me read the books so I had some concept of what the problem was –"

Mostly he just did what he had done this morning. Handled it bluntly and without fuss, taking no prisoners, as if Dale was as capable of being as flexible as anyone else. Like a normal brat.

"If he got too into the clinical part of it, I'd get fixated on that too," he said abruptly, "He wasn't rough about it, he never is, but he expected me to get on with it."

To face the anxiety and to walk into it. Because like most shadows, once you walked over and looked at them clearly, they weren't half as terrifying as you thought they were. That was the strategy Flynn had been showing him over and over again for months.

And if I ever paid a damn bit of attention, I'd be doing it myself by now, instead of panicking and grabbing for any bit of control over the situation I can see. Like staying up half the night preparing for meetings, like going nuts because you won't be involved in what happens on the field today – when did I make myself personally responsible for the entire harvest for pete's sake? It's all about trying to control any possible failures. Alone. Personally. It's all about fear and trying to evade it, instead of having the guts to confront it and see how damned blinkered it makes you.

"You waste a hell of a lot of the day beating yourself up." Riley observed. "Can't you hand it off? Get a PA to do it."

There were times when Riley appeared uncomfortably good at mind reading.

"Flynn calls it a bully." Dale said bleakly. "Perfectionism, the OCD part of it."

Riley nodded, apparently making sense of that.

"I quit going to high school in Milwaukee because of a couple of bullies there. Got into several fights – the police got involved in one of them - and finally got so scared about walking into the hallway I quit school."

Dale gave him a sharp look and Riley shrugged.

"They'd cottoned I was gay. Or maybe I just thought they had, I don't know. I was pretty paranoid about it."

"Was your father aware of it?" Dale asked him. Riley shook his head.

"Only the fights. He didn't much like getting yanked out of meetings to come collect me from the principal's office. I was out of school about six months until I came here, although I wouldn't have passed that year anyway. But Philip said the only way he'd let me stay was if I finished high school."

"How did you get to a school from here?" Dale asked. Riley shrugged.

"I didn't. Not all the kids on the ranches around here do, it's a two hour bus journey each way. Flynn got me signed on with the school in Jackson and I did the rest of the grades from the kitchen table at home. I hated it at first, I was kind of phobic about the whole idea of education, but Flynn wouldn't let me near him or the horses until I did two hours study every day, and Philip made sympathetic noises and took no notice. So I got the idea pretty fast. Hanging around Flynn and riding was about all I wanted to do at the time."

It wasn't too difficult to think of an alienated, lonely teenager and why he'd cling to Flynn's company. Dale had every sympathy with that; he'd done it himself. No one could make you feel safer.

"How long did it take you?" he asked, and Riley shrugged.

"Couple of years? Paul's a pretty good teacher – and so's Jake, they did a lot of tutoring one way and another. Philip had a knack of making you feel so great if you did anything that pleased him, whether that was that you sat down and did an hour of math or you got a half way decent grade on something. It got addictive, you just wanted to please him all the time. I didn't mind it once I got the habit, it just was part of being at home. What?"

Dale shook his head. "I wish I had half your courage."

The horses were keen to drink at the river, and Dale tied up Hammer's reins to let him go. Riley nudged him in the ribs, nodding at a small fenced area some way across the open plain across the railway line.

"That's the cemetery. I walked around it the last time I came down here."

They walked together across the grass, stepping over the rusted tracks to the rather pathetic collection of stones and old wooden crosses in the enclosure. The most pathetic part of which was the sheer number of them. Men, women and children's names and dates were on the still readable stones and crosses, and grouped in families and by incident. Dale found several mining accidents recorded in the epitaphs, a railroad accident, 'snow storm' on one set buried together, including a man who had 'man, not known, froze on the river path' chiselled into his stone, and two pathetic groups marked 'cholera' along with their names and the same date. The town had seen its share of hard living.

They walked in silence, reading the stones with the hush of the town in the valley behind them, and the occasional tear of grass as the horses grazed. At the back of the cemetery by the battered little fence, stood a closely packed line of old stones and the names caught Dale's eye. Gin. Kwon. Wong. A couple had two names together, Lin Sam stood next to Fred Yow. The rough, phonetic Anglicisation of their names was poignant.

"There's no other Saans." Riley commented. "Jake said this group arrived together. Gold rushers."

"Saan was his first name, Gam was his surname." Dale said absently, looking down the mix of dates. From the 1890s to the 1930s, this group had been living and working in this town. Gam Saan had been the last left. "And Saan may not be accurate. These men probably didn't write much English and officials just wrote down what they thought they heard. Gum Saan means 'Gold Mountain', it's what the Chinese called the United States during the gold rush. That was probably a phrase the officials knew and thought sounded close enough."

"He isn't here." Riley walked again down the line. "Even if they wrote his name down differently every time, there's nothing like Gam or Saan."

"Philip told Jake there was a second cave in and bodies were recovered?" Dale ran over the conversation that evening in the family room, the memory of that little black and white photograph from David's box. "David helped."

"You think Gam Saan died in the mine?" Riley crouched, propping his elbows on his knees to read the nearest of the stones more closely. "He was obviously digging for something. David had bought the licence for him, they thought something was down there."

"These were the men who dug the gold mine, and without any kind of technology. They probably had skills and knowledge the coal miners didn't." Dale gave Riley a slight shrug as Riley looked up at him. "If I want to know something, I go and ask the man who does the job."

"He was a friend of David's, David would have known Gam Saan knew everything about the mine." Riley looked back at the stone, thinking aloud. Dale could hear the fascination in his voice. "Gam Saan was here in this town for the entire life of the mine. What did Philip tell Jake? That when David knew him he was the little old man handing out dockets at the entrance? I wish I knew what made him go back into the mine at his age. It must have been knowledge they were after; he couldn't have dug anything."

"He may have just moved on." Dale said reasonably. "Once the mine was out of action there was nothing left to stay for."

"He'd lived in the town for fifty years, this was more his home than Canton was." Riley pointed out. "What else did it say on that diagram thing of David's? Do you remember?"

Dale stepped over the low enclosure fence and Riley followed him down to the river bank where Dale sat down on the grass beside a patch of bare earth and picked up a sharp edged stone, starting to scratch rapidly into the dried mud. Riley's eyebrows rose and Dale winced at the look of amusement he got.

"Ok, ok. Photographic memory, I can't help it."

"There really isn't much you can't do, is there?" Riley sat down beside him, watching, and Dale grimaced.

"Like not have kittens because I get sent to take a day off? That was the diagram. Vertical and horizontal shafts. I don't remember much of the Chinese symbols and I couldn't read them, but the bits in David's handwriting were here, and here, and here. Pot hook. Red. Ginver rock. Mine bloody suzu."

"Logically directions to something. Or somewhere." Riley leaned an elbow on Dale's knee, looking thoughtfully at the diagram. "Maybe they were looking for new coal faces. The mine was on its last legs at this point, they'd had a cave in on the main tunnel. A bad accident. Men were refusing to go back in. Maybe Gam Saan knew old tunnels that could be rebuilt for safer access. I wonder what caused the cave in?"

"Waterlogging." Dale said without hesitation. "Gold's formed by water channels, that's why it's so often found near or on river beds. The mine is right on the banks of the river with flood plains over the top of it, and the whole town is in a valley."

"I've seen some serious flooding on our river." Riley agreed slowly. "And rock collapses where water took out foundations. That seems most likely doesn't it? That David knew the mine was near to closing, and paid Gam Saan to show him the old access tunnels, looking for ways to keep it open?"

It sounded likely.

"I wonder what suzu is?"  Dale said, looking at the words he'd scrawled out. "And ginver. Rock types? Mineral types? Dialect or Chinese terms for mineral types? Landmarks?"

"We could probably see if we went down there." Riley traced one of the shafts with a finger. "If that's the main entrance over there – depending on how collapsed it is. Flynn and Jas said they didn't go too far."

"You see according to this," Dale said slowly, thinking what he'd thought before in looking at this diagram. "I think there's more than one entrance."

"Really?" Riley demanded. Dale touched the several suspect points.

"David didn't show where any of these break surface – but the vertical shafts HAVE to break surface, and there have to be ventilation shafts too. And that's even assuming that the main entrance over there was the original entrance to the gold mine. I'd guess several of these shafts have other entrances."

"Some of which have to be more intact than this one, especially if they're away from the river bed." Riley got up, heading across the rough grass towards the mine entrance, and Dale followed with another look at the diagram. Looking at the rough rising slopes ahead, the town and the mine was built into the lower slopes of the valley.  In the days of the wagon trains, the wagons had come from the east, across the valley floor, and camped for the night on the banks of the river before they hauled their wagons up the steep zigzag road that led to the woods and the pastures across the ranch, leading west. As the houses had been built and streets were laid down, they had moved onto the higher, rockier ground with stronger foundations. But the early camps would have been down here, on the sofa banks of the river, and the earliest mining would have been hacking and blasting into the rock formations around the river, finding the gold deposits in ancient channels through the rock where once water had sought its way to the surface.

Which here, meant the water was running downwards.

Dale stood and looked at the mine with its wooden wheel, the square entrance where Riley was approaching, walking around the roughly grassed over ground littered with the remains of boxes, rusted containers and abandoned carts. If you ignored the buildings and mentally placed the diagram on the land formations in front of you, rotating it to fit the marked river….. it didn't help much. By David's drawing, the shafts could be a few feet long or a few hundreds of feet long. There were no marks on the landscape to show where they  might lie.

Damn it David, did you never hear of drawing to scale? Proportion?

A stretch of railway line ran into the remains of the mine yard, and Dale stepped over the rails. In the square mine entrance, a much smaller pair of tracks emerged, crossing the yard, and as Dale joined Riley by the entrance he could see three small carts connected together, rusted red and still littered at the bottom with bits of the spoil they had carried away. The tracks disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.

"It looks ok in there." Riley commented, peering. "I should have brought a flashlight."

"The coal mine probably goes down." Dale said, thinking aloud. "Out under the flat land. The gold mine – the original mine – probably goes that way into the rock. It's inside the valley slope. You're not going in are you?"

Riley, one hand on the timbered entrance frame, gave him a look that was mixed mischief and reluctance.

"………….. thinking about it. Which isn't in itself bad. Hey, that's Tom."

He waved, and Dale looked round, at the grass that stretched away to the north west and led over several miles to the steeper, north ground of the ranch. Tom was dressed for running and he moved like a wolf over the plains, at a long, loping jog that ate ground and which looked as easy on the rough, deep grass as it would have been on a running track. He was as strong as he was fit; Dale, watching him run, thought that Tom might not know how to hold that long, awkward body in company, but he knew exactly how to use it in any physical challenge. He had been heading towards the main street of the town, but his stride hesitated as he caught sight of them, and he changed direction, his pace slowing down as he approached.

"Isn't it amazing how brats gravitate up here?" Riley said cheerfully. "How many miles do you cover in a day?"

"No idea." Tom paused and leaned down, bracing his hands on his knees. His t shirt was sweat soaked, but he wasn't seriously out of breath. "We look for hard ground more than we notice distance. Need to stay in training."

And build up their stamina if they were heading for Everest.

"Are you lone wolfing?" Riley inquired. Tom gave him a brief grin.  

"Jake likes lazy morning starts more than I do. This place is amazing."

And Dale thought that he and Jake, who had seen cities hidden in the jungle where no human had stepped for hundreds of years, had more understanding than most people.

"We were looking for what's left of the gold mine." Riley scuffed a foot at the grass and sat down. "Without much luck. We're guessing as to where it all is."

"What's wrong with the main entrance?" Tom asked, nodding at the open entrance.

Riley snorted. "Flynn, mostly. He and Jas went down there years ago and said it was crumbling then. Unsafe, collapsing. Too near the river. You've done caving haven't you? There's stuff in amongst all the junk you and Jake keep out in the store? You wouldn't believe what they've got in there." he added to Dale. "Diving, ropes, camping gear…."

"We've done caves." Tom agreed. "A few mines. You need wet gear, they're often flooded. Jake's done more potholing than me, he used to give training in it when he was a Mountie – although why the hell Mounties would pothole I never figured out."

"What's a pothole?" Riley asked Dale, who smiled.

"English for cave. Mostly vertical ones, most of the British mines are vertical shafts with galleries. I think the coal mine here probably is, and there must be vertical shafts somewhere around here."

"Which would be more accessible than this entrance?" Riley asked. Tom sniffed, putting his hands on his hips and giving the tunnel a sceptical look.

"Ok. In a vertical shaft, you've got a ladder going down. Vertical ladders are lethal. You can't effectively check each rung as you go down without putting some weight on it. And timber rots, you never trust timber, which is what the shaft ladders will be. So before you even start, you need ropes, someone to handle them and a decent anchor point well out of the way of the shaft in case the walls start to collapse. Which is likely."

Riley was looking less certain. Tom gave him a brief nod, taking in their jeans and shirts.

"Ropes, harness, lights, hard hat. Minimum. Shaft mouths are most dangerous because the rock's already been disrupted. The earth rots the timbers and supports, gravity pulls it down and inward. Generally? We won't touch vertical shafts. Horizontal only. It's about calculated risk, not suicide. You have to think too of the poor sod who'll have to decide you can't be rescued, or will kill themselves trying to help you if the wall does come in."

"You're a cheerful so and so," Riley protested. Tom grinned, but continued.

"Horizontal shaft? Like this one here? Biggest risk is a collapse, and if you're not experienced, you won't see the warning signs. You can cause a cave in by moving or talking, any vibration, or touching anything. Disrupt the status quo and things that have rotted through just give way. If you do get caught in a cave in, hope you're directly under falling rock and it's quick and clean. There's rock here and there would have been blasting used, so there's likely to be explosives everywhere, and damp explosives are lethal. Oh and snakes. Snakes love it under ground."

"No snakes." Riley said firmly.

"Pockets of carbon dioxide." Tom added. "Also fun. And at least part of the mine will probably be under water. You can't swim through mine tunnels. You'll stir up the mud and even with masks on you'll see nothing."

"So basically forget it?" Riley asked. Tom shook his head.

"Not at all. Calculated risk, like I said. Just not bloody silly ones."

"Like climbing Everest." Riley muttered. Tom grinned again, flashing very white teeth as he sat down on the rocks at the entrance, stretching long and angular legs.

"The mother of all calculated risks. That's a lot of the fun of it."

"Which face are you planning to climb?" Dale asked, taking a seat on the grass near him. Tom gave him a brief look that to Dale's eye said What do you know about it and are you taking the piss? before he answered.  

"North face."

The more challenging face, mostly attempted by the serious climbers. 

"With two possible summit attempts." Tom added more easily when Dale said nothing, just nodded, accepting the information.

"At least that's what the group is planning for. A lot depends on weather and luck. A lot of the team we're going with have been up Everest before, but not many of them have summitted."

"Bad weather?" Riley finally left the mouth of the mine and joined Dale on the grass. The only sound other than them was the ripple of the river some way off; the silence here was remarkable.

"Bad weather. Bad luck. Getting sick. Getting hurt." Tom said briefly. "Only a small percentage do ever make the summit. A lot don't handle the altitude, there's a good reason it's called the death zone up over 8,000 metres. Besides which, getting to the summit is still only half way. The only successful way to achieve a summit is to get to the top and back down again, alive."

"You're going on oxygen?" Dale asked. Tom nodded.

"A couple of the party have climbed without oxygen before and are planning to go for the summit without if they can. Jake and I haven't been at that altitude before, it'd be stupid for us. You know a bit about this, don't you?"

"I was asked to organise corporate sponsorship for an old boy from my public school who climbed the south face a few years back." Dale told him. "He achieved camp three, but no one in his party made the summit. I admired his decision to know his limit and stop as much as I did the climb itself."

"Have to plan to come down as much as go up." Tom said shortly. "The climb down is the harder one, more dangerous. Tired. Low on oxygen. Mentally you have to stay focused that the job isn't done, the euphoria you get on the summit isn't the end. People go up on adrenaline, use too much energy, and can't make it down again. Sit down and never get up again. And people lose their minds on the low oxygen, start talking to pink elephants and believe they can do anything. Like keep on climbing."

"And you call this calculated risk." Riley pointed out. Tom shook his head, using the crisp, detached tone Dale was starting to recognise as meaning he was saying something very personal.

"When we talked about joining the expedition, I made Jake swear that we only went as far as we both could go, neither of us went alone. And if either one of us said 'quit', whether it's at base camp or when we're ten feet away from the top, there's no discussion. We both turn around and we go down. There's no way I'd let him do it unless I'm there too and I know he's got his head together, he isn't sick and his equipment's straight. And he's the only one I know could turn me around if I lose it."

The concept of 'letting' Flynn do something was a peculiar one. Dale glanced at Riley, caught his half smile and knew exactly what he was thinking, and there was a sudden and enormous warmth in it.

"We're practicing that as much as fitness." Tom said cryptically, getting up. There was someone else approaching from the same direction Tom had come. Jake was stripped to t shirt and brief shorts that made the length of his legs very apparent, and his skin was as golden brown as his hair. Tom glanced up and smiled, only a small smile but his face came to light, and Jake hung an arm over his shoulder as he got up, giving him a rough hug and leaning on him to catch his breath.

"How much of a head start did you get?"

"I left at seven forty." Tom told him. Jake nodded, apparently satisfied.

"Twenty minutes. Not bad. Is this the mine?"

"Either that or it's a really good imitation." Tom told him. Jake bit his neck, Tom swatted what he could reach of Jake behind him, and Jake came to have a look inside the entrance.  

"Not in great nick. Has anyone had a look down there?"

"Flynn and Jas, years ago." Riley told him. "Flynn said it was a mess then."

"The walls are wet." Jake commented. "Condensation. And the supports are shifting. Flynn's right, I wouldn't want to hang around in there. Isn't this where the main cave in happened?"

"You know more than we do." Riley came to look with him, and Jake indicated several points down the tunnel, as far as the eye could see into the dark.

"There's a beam come down over there. Earth piles. If this was the section they cleared then who knows what it's like further on. Even with full equipment I wouldn't want to muck around in there. What's Flynn said to you about going inside?"

"Don't even think about it." Riley said succinctly. Jake nodded.

"I'd agree. Going to let it alone or do I need to make you two promise to back off it?"

"It's no good you making Toppish noises," Tom said dryly behind him, "No one's convinced, you know? They've all seen you not eating your greens."

Jake put a hand behind him and snagged Tom, almost lazily pulling him around despite Tom's wrestling, and snagged both Tom's hands in one of his large ones, pinning them in the small of his back and doubling Tom over his knee without taking his casual gaze from Riley.


He was pinning Tom without the slightest effort and Tom was laughing, and Riley smiled, although he nodded, giving what Dale knew was a clear commitment.

"We'll let it alone."

Riley didn't say such things casually. If he said it, he meant it, and Dale nodded too, a little surprised at Jake turning to include him in that friendly but very steady look.


"Yes sir."

"Yes sir what?" Jake said mildly.

That picking down to the specifics reminded Dale of Flynn, who did the same, and he found himself answering promptly.

"We'll stay out of the mine."

"Great." Jake lightly swatted Tom's upturned butt and let him go. "Let's go, brat. Race you to the top."

As the top could only mean the top of the valley, which was the best part of a mile away up the steep, winding streets of the town and the upper slopes, Dale raised his eyebrows, but Tom promptly loped away and Jake followed, both of them heading straight for the main street. For a while they could neither been seen nor heard as they disappeared among the houses, then two figures appeared on the path above the town, way off in the distance, and rather than follow the zig zag of the path, they both went directly up the steepest part of the slope without noticeably slowing their pace. The smaller and darker of the two reached the top first and stood for a moment, apparently haranguing the figure still climbing, who reached the top of the plateau and as far as Dale could see, promptly grabbed him. The two moved out of sight, and Riley stretched, tipping his face back towards the electric blue sky overhead.

"They'll probably go find somewhere to make out all afternoon if I know those two. Total rabbits. Want to get something to eat?"

Dale walked with him back towards the grazing horses and automatically unpacked Hammer's saddle bags. Riley had taken the water bottles from Snickers' saddle when he turned back, and was standing on the river bank, rapidly stripping off. It was hot under the sun, and hotter still in the basin of the valley where heat gathered in the streets and the bricks of the houses. Dale sat down on the grass, unfastening one of the water bottles to drink, and Riley, shucking off the last of his clothes, waded out into the slow flowing river. It wasn't deep. He stood for a minute, water running to about mid thigh and the rest of him lean and brown and glowing in the sun, tan lines at his upper arms and neck, and sharper still at his waist, and there were curves to Riley where there were planes and angles to Flynn. And to Jasper. Rather guiltily, Dale discovered he had very accurate memories of precisely what Flynn and Jasper looked like when stripped down, and that his memory was happily finding the data regarding Paul when he got it under control. Then Riley dived forward and flashed under the water like a fish, swimming with the current under the clear surface, and Dale made himself concentrate on the water and the mine in the distance and to behave something like a gentleman.

It was a few minutes before Riley waded back to him, water running off his hair and skin, looking cooler, very cheerful and out of breath, and he climbed up the bank, dropping full length on the grass beside Dale without anything even approaching self consciousness. Dale passed him the saddle bag containing food, and Riley dug a hand in without looking, pulling out a couple of rolls and starting to eat one without sitting up and with his eyes closed against the sun.

Dale looked at him, the outline of his shoulders bare on the grass, the scatter of his bright chestnut hair which was so familiar, something he looked at every day with increasing emotion, and took a deep breath, summoning up his courage. If it hadn't have been the two of them alone, here where there really was not another living soul but them, he doubted he'd have been able to say it. 


Riley opened one eye at his tone. Dale swallowed, never having felt more awkwardly adolescent in his life.

"Jas explained weeks ago – something about invitations?"

Riley grinned and shut his eyes again. "Thank God. We were starting to think you were straight."

Dale shut his mouth, shaken, and Riley rolled over, shaking his head.

"You are so easy to mess with. You do realise Flynn won't lay a hand on you until you make the first move?"

"………No?" Dale said helplessly, shocked. "No one thought they might want to mention this to me?"

Riley snorted. "Jas made me swear to him I wouldn't even mention the word 'sex' to you unless you opened the subject with me first."

"Why?" Dale demanded. Riley gave him a pointed look.

"You don't even comfortably cuddle with anyone. If Flynn pulls you down on his lap you look like you're expecting to be arrested. You think any of us want to see you grit your teeth and Do It Properly because you think you're not doing something you ought to?"

"I'm not that bad." Dale protested. Riley lay back on the grass and shut his eyes again, going back to eating the roll. 

"Invitation means exactly what it says. You're as free to ask as anyone else is, but no one's going to rush you without being damn sure you're comfortable with it."

"Then I might as well die celibate." Dale said in exasperation. "You do realise I'm British? That means in the dark, behind closed doors and never talking about it- stop laughing!"

"Tom seems to manage." Riley said cheerfully. "What did you do at ANZ? Send guys text messages? Make appointments?"

More a quiet code of smiles and discreet hovering around offices late at night, or lingering in hotel rooms when work was done. Discreet suggestions of coffee. A very sweet PA with dark eyes in Tokyo, a talented translator with a strong accent in Milan, others who if they met again would smile and whose unobtrusive offers would last until the next plane flight onwards. All men who had been kind, who had respected his distance – and who Dale now realised had been overawed by sharing a bed with the man from ANZ with a reputation that preceded him, the man leading the projects they worked on.

"Did you find you got propositioned a lot?" Riley asked acutely, watching his face. "If you were leading big project teams – there must have been people wanting to get your attention, or get an advantage?"

"I didn't really notice." Dale said honestly. "I just went to work and I didn't often end up alone with people. The few guys I did…. I suppose they were the ones who caught my attention and I went along with it. There weren't exactly any formal discussions or invitations or anything else."

"In your hotel room, on your terms." Riley said, propping his head on his hand. "There must have been pushier ones?"

"There were always difficult people to deal with, it was part of the job." Dale said, thinking about it. "That was what I was usually sent in to sort out. But not personal conversations. And it was very- low key, I suppose. Just- friendly. A pleasant evening."

No phone calls, no contact afterwards, just a few men across the globe who would catch his eye and smile if they met again. There was no knowing with them precisely how they moved, or exactly the way their eyes moved when they laughed, or a difficulty looking away from how they sat and stood and lay and how their hands moved when they ate –

Yeah, you're obsessive, we know this.

And there had been no trying to think or act around extremely powerful emotion.

Riley was looking at him with his eyes very soft, and he put out a hand and brushed Dale's hair back from his forehead with the same gentleness Dale saw him touch the colts. Sure and with affection that still made Dale's throat catch, that a man should know how to do this. Then he leaned over and kissed Dale with the same gentleness, lightly on the lips. With Riley's familiar face so close to his, Dale found himself looking at Riley's smiling eyes, the bright hair that had slipped forward over his forehead, and then he tentatively put a hand up to Riley's head, threading his fingers through Riley's hair and drawing him back to return the kiss, with as much care as he could manage with a thundering heart. His throat closed almost immediately, his stomach clenched tight with a rush of more muddled sensation and emotion than he could cope with, and Riley let him go when he pulled away and rolled over. For an awful moment Dale fought with the urge to turn his face into the crook of his arm like a child – and then still more awfully to find something, anything to soften the rejection – and then Riley turned over beside him, Dale felt Riley's arm close over his shoulders and the warmth of Riley's face against his back.

"You worry far too much. Are you going to swim or not?"

 They spent a long, hot afternoon in the quiet valley, swimming in the cool of the river, drying out on the grass, diving the shallow river to search the river bed for anything even approximating gold; something Riley began as a joke, but which neither of them could quite resist checking on. Riley had always been the easiest company Dale had ever met. It was as simple as breathing to talk with him; he was lively and funny and uninhibited, a freedom that came without a trace of cynicism, and he could lift your mind off anything, no matter how bad. Dale found himself laughing and watching Riley mess around more like a kid than the man who spent hour on hour working with some of the toughest horses on the ranch, distracted in spite of himself. They didn't dress again until mid afternoon, catching the horses and starting the ride back, and it was approaching five when they came in sight of the gate in the home pasture that led into the ranch yard. There were horses in that part of the pasture – Dale saw the first of the mares and smiled, recognising some of the familiar figures grazing. Pocket. Belle, with her colt grazing near her. Marika, in the centre of the herd, several small foals near her. Experienced, he looked around to the side and behind them, and Riley laughed and drew in Snickers as they found Bandit pacing them quietly, maybe fifty feet back on their tail.

"Hey boy! Bandit! It's all right fella, it's us. Just passing through."

The stallion broke into his floating, high trot at Riley's call, the "Hi boy" in the same note and tune that they all used when they called him, and Riley leaned down from Snickers' neck to rub Bandit's neck and ears as he reached them.

"Hey boy. Hey handsome. Come to see what the mowing's all about?"

"Is that what's brought him down?" Dale asked. Bandit lifted his head at Dale's voice and came around Snickers to investigate. It was easy to forget until you saw him close to, just how huge he was. Not just in height; the sheer muscle and weight, the breadth of his neck, his shoulders and hocks, was impressive. You could pick him out of the herd instantly. And he sailed as he moved, feet silent on the grass, eyes not missing a thing under his blond forelock.

Hammer stood stolidly, not moving at the stallion's approach, and Dale put out a hand to let Bandit catch his scent. He was surprised at the stallion immediately nosing against it without a trace of hesitation.

"He remembers you." Riley told him. "Brighter than any of us, aren't you fella? He always comes down when the mowing starts. People around, machinery, he wants to keep an eye on the threat. He'll come looking for Flynn now, you wait."

Bandit continued to walk with them as they went on towards the gate. Tired – and actually a relaxed tired, not the boneless tired of the past few weeks work – Dale had his eyes on the sun shining off the red roof of the house, and it was Riley who jerked back on Snickers' reins, making Snickers jump and Bandit break into a trot, circling them.

"Look at that!"

Dale followed his gaze and saw the unfamiliar body of a man in a red t shirt, with something wrapped around his arm, smash an elbow through the window of the stables and then pull himself up to disappear inside.

"There's another one," Riley said savagely, "Over by the barn. That's Henson, the bastard –"

He said nothing else but Snickers leapt into a canter and Riley didn't bother to open the gate. He put Snickers straight at it and Snickers landed cleanly in the yard, drawing up by the barn to let Riley slide down. Not wanting Hammer loose in the yard around men they couldn't trust, Dale pulled Hammer back before he could follow, took him close to the fence and swung straight from his saddle down into the yard, sprinting after Riley. The man in yellow was quietly opening the barn door when Snickers leapt the gate, and Riley was on him before he had time to retreat.

Dale hit the ground running, seeing Riley's fist go back and Riley land a swift and very purposeful blow to the man's chin, immediately followed by another to his stomach that dropped the man at his feet. The man in red burst out of the stable door, and without time to make any kind of logical plan, or any kind of previous experience anywhere in his life to relate to, Dale followed Riley's example and placed his faith in it working.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders