They didn’t linger in the valley. There was an unspoken respect that Dale felt rather than saw from the men who didn’t chatter or wander off to explore, but left the town as they had arrived, gathering together the horses and climbing back onto the dusty wooden wagon to leave the newly dug grave in peace alongside the others. The quiet lasted through the long ride through the silent town, the dappled woods and across the pastures. It was only when they reached the yard at home and put the horses away that a quiet kind of party began.
‘Party’ was not a word Dale was good at. It brought back numerous uncomfortable memories of office affairs, and occasional dances and dinners that he had attended, properly dressed, occasionally given speeches at, and usually disappeared as fast as possible once the formal bit was over. He associated them with boredom and formality at best, and raucous boisterousness at worst; he had no frame of reference for this, which was happy, relaxed, and anything but raucous. It didn’t forget the seriousness of this morning either, it felt like a natural continuation, a celebration of something done together and a very obvious pleasure in being together. Paul spread the kitchen with a buffet lunch with the aid of several men who just washed their hands and stepped in to help him, while Flynn and Jasper and multiple others unsaddled and turned loose the horses, and men spread out on the porch and in the yard and on the fences and on the grass, sprawling comfortably and without formality under the brims of their Stetsons, and talked while they ate. There were no divisions of age; they appeared to mix without the faintest concern. And there was no way either to categorize brat from Top if you were interested in that kind of thing. Looking around the yard, couples could be occasionally identified from the way they shared a plate or sat together, but Dale had no other means of recognising them unless he knew the man in question.
For Pete’s sake Aden, what did you expect? Name tags? T shirts?
They didn’t politely leave him alone either. Wherever Dale tried to go, someone or several someones at once came to help him, or to chat, or to draw him into a group, and they were all nice. Friendly and kind and everywhere, competent at helping, and totally overwhelming. Flynn was similarly surrounded and busy releasing the shires from the cart harnesses, and Dale had no idea at all of what to do with this persistent attention. Giving up on trying to hide behind putting away horses or hanging up tack, neither of which worked, he finally went in desperation for an excuse he hadn’t resorted to since about the age of nine and pleaded a desire for the bathroom, which allowed him to flee to the peaceful isolation of upstairs. There he sat on the stairs, leaned against the cool grey stone of the wall and drew the first deep breath in a while.
It was immaculate up here as it always was. Somehow Paul never lost touch with that kind of thing and he enlisted people to do whatever chores needed doing. He’d obviously found time to get someone to vacuum this morning. The carpet was clean, the open doors on the landing led into rooms with beds neatly made with their brightly coloured quilts, and up here it always smelled of fresh linen and the grass scent that hung in the air and came in through the open windows. It was familiar and calming. Dale could hear Paul’s voice downstairs in the kitchen as he sat here, and it was clear that Paul was loving the noise and the company. He’d greeted every man here with the same warmth, and they just as clearly adored him- it was equally difficult in that sense to separate those who called themselves family to those who called themselves the in laws; Paul seemed to be equally pleased to see either. Jake’s unaffected, easy laugh was easily identifiable from the yard, although Dale had seen no sign of Tom and suspected he had disappeared somewhere in the pastures on the way home. And Gerry was talking rapidly outside, Dale could hear and recognise his boisterous voice if not the words, and knew that Bear and Darcy were with him, and so was Riley.
And Riley wasn’t enjoying this.
It was a bit of a sudden realisation.
Where he’d got the impression, Dale wasn’t sure, and it didn’t go with Riley’s fierce declaration earlier that he loved gatherings like this, but in the quiet of the stairwell Dale found himself reflecting more and more on what he’d seen on the ride home of Riley, who in Dale’s experience was usually happy to see anyone and everyone who visited. Then he got up and went to Riley’s room, the one room with a view of the yard, and standing far enough back from the window not to be seen himself, he could watch the men spread out below. There were several groups on the porch, scattered among the chairs, seated on the rails and in some cases sitting on the wooden decking with their plates and glasses. Riley was on the fringes of two such groups and he was being pulled into both sets of conversations. He was hatless, the neck of his shirt was wide open and he looked relaxed and smiling, but everything about Riley was deeply familiar to Dale, who had the details catalogued and carefully filed. He knew exactly how Riley stood, how he moved, the tone of his voice.... he’d spent months studying Riley, Jasper, Paul and Flynn. And there was something about Riley now that Dale couldn’t identify clearly, but which was wrong. The groups on the porch weren’t leaving Riley alone; he was obviously popular and everyone was chattering at him without the faintest awareness.
“Dale?” Flynn called from the family room below. It was the answer me or else tone, and Dale found himself on his feet and moving before he’d consciously got into gear.
“Are you all right?” Flynn had left his hat and boots in the kitchen, he looked tall and hot in several senses Dale could think of, and he gave Dale a hard, surveying look as he came downstairs, holding out his hands. “Come here.”
It was still a revelation that after a lifetime of fading politely out of sight to escape uncomfortable situations, here it wasn’t possible to fade even for two minutes without being noticed and followed, and from experience Dale found he knew with an affectionate certainty that he had about three seconds leeway left before Flynn decided he was out of his depth and took over.
“I’m not hiding, I just needed a few minutes to clear my head,”
Flynn’s voice didn’t change from its usual brusqueness, but he put up a hand to push Dale’s hair back from his forehead.
“Need any help? There’s a lot of people here and it was an intense few hours this morning. I don’t expect you to just go and mingle gracefully.”
He was speaking quietly, careful not to let anyone overhear them; as considerate as he always was, and in the privacy of the deserted family room Dale put an arm around his neck and kissed him. Flynn tugged him over into a tight hug, cupping a hand behind his head and pulling it into his shoulder. They fit together so easily. The pressure helped, being close helped. Dale felt his shoulders and neck relax and his stomach unclench, and the pressure of Flynn’s arms sink into his bones, leaving him feeling lighter.
“I’m ok.” he said into Flynn’s shoulder, and meant it. “I can do mingling. I’m well trained.”
“I don’t want you to do it because you’re trained.” Flynn said grimly into his ear. “I want you to do it because you want to. You don’t have to just go out there and cope.”
“I’ll work on it. Right now I want to go and find Riley.” Dale stepped back from him and when Flynn held on to his shoulders, looked him in the eyes, knowing what Flynn was searching for.
I am. Really. I’m doing ok.
It was still a minute before Flynn let him go and Dale gave him a quick smile, rapidly ran his hands through his hair, straightened his collar and shirt with the habit of long practice, and found himself heading for the kitchen with a sense of purposefulness he’d previously only ever felt in corporate hallways.
It was a trained skill. He’d done seminars in it, read books and studied those who did it well, learning the technique and perfecting it as he perfected every skill. How to talk to clients, how to research or quickly find out what subjects interested them, how to deflect awkward questions and change the mood or topic... He’d just never before done it for any reason other than a clear business objective.
As he picked up a glass from the kitchen – since you had to hold a drink to do this, it was regulation kit – and slipped in to the group Riley was standing with, he found himself feeling that old, familiar confidence again, but it was mixed with something else. Riley, lounging against the porch rail, glanced up at him and while Riley looked casual enough, Dale saw both welcome and relief in his face. It raised a sharp rush of protectiveness in him. No detached strategic goal. No corporate chess game in mind with several moves laid out in front of him. Just a strong desire to shield Riley and a knowledge that he knew exactly how to do it. As soon as he began to work, he realised that what made it still easier – child’s play - was that these men were nice. And they were genuinely interesting to talk to. And they were talking about things that Dale actually wanted to listen to and know more about.
“I thought he was supposed to be shy?” Theo murmured to Luath, leaning against the porch rail beside him and watching the group around the swing and the basket chairs. Dale was standing with Riley, his posture relaxed and while he wasn’t talking much and he wasn’t in the least dominating the group, what he said held the attention of the men around him. They often laughed and they often looked towards him, even if they didn’t realise they were doing it. It was all in the body language, but Dale was deftly keeping the conversation flowing and directing it with a skill Luath had only ever seen in professional hosts. And Philip, standing on this same porch, about fifteen years ago.
“He is shy.” Luath said softly. “Very. I have no idea where this is coming from.”
The group was laughing at some story Darcy was telling, someone made a comment to Riley and smoothly and immediately Dale spun the conversation away. Luath took a sip of his drink, understanding.
“That’s something Philip was good at.”
Particularly around the tongue tied, the upset or the vulnerable: mealtimes had always been very easy experiences here. Philip had the knack of letting people take their time to feel safe.
“Paul says Dale reminds him of Philip.” Theo leaned on the rail, studying the group through his glasses with a film maker’s eye, shoulders hunched under his khaki green t shirt. Theo almost always wore khaki colours; Luath had long since thought that Theo’s observer role in his film making meant he more or less went into public in disguise, blending easily in and becoming part of the wall paper. “I notice Flynn still watches Riley like a hawk at conventions like this.”
He did; Luath had noted him, never very far from where Riley was.
“I suspect in Flynn’s mind,” he began, and stopped as Darcy, having grabbed Bear’s arm and muttered something urgent into his ear on the way past, appeared at his shoulder, Luath stooped the little necessary to let Darcy reach his ear and Darcy spoke rapidly, voice soft and pitched for him only, sounding slightly agitated.
“Wade’s starting in on Flynn about Philip and David’s room-“
“Now?” Resisting the urge to swear, Luath followed Darcy rapidly to the other end of the porch where Flynn had been cornered by Gerry and Wade. Wade was talking loudly and firmly, and Gerry was nodding in agreement beside him.
“- isn’t something either of them would have wanted. You’re the ones who live here, you’re the ones who have the need of it and you’re all still crowded into those little rooms you’ve been in since you were teenagers-“
It couldn’t have been more good naturedly tactless, and it was rapidly attracting an audience. Luath privately damned the fact there was no sign of Ash, who was the one person who Gerry really paid attention to once his tongue was in motion, and interrupted swiftly, seeing Paul making his way across to them.
“That’s their business, it isn’t something for casual discussion.”
Flynn met his eye over Wade’s head with a raised eyebrow that asked very clearly why Luath felt he needed help. Luath looked right back, sharing the glare between him, Gerry and Wade, who took no notice of it.
“You’ve said it yourself and I’ve heard you.” he was saying firmly, waving a glass at Luath. “It isn’t healthy, it’s like a museum up there-“
Flynn had obviously been working on changing the subject. Now it had reached the flat out bludgeoning stage and he had Luath and a number of other observers, he simply sipped tea and didn’t respond, his face neutral. Luath resisted the urge to wince, speaking firmly before Paul had to and quietly enough to try and avoid making this into a scene, and thankfully seeing several men discreetly move away and pretend not to see.
“Both of you, leave it now.”
“And we know it’s you,” Wade said kindly to Flynn. “We know Jas and Paul won’t push you about it, but it’s you who-“
“Which part of New York do you live in, Luath?” Dale said clearly, joining them and speaking as casually as though he’d stepped into a natural break in the conversation. “I’m not too familiar with most of it. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been around any of the tourist areas and Darcy tells me I’ve missed almost every good aspect of the city.”
It was easy, charming, and somehow it stopped everyone dead, including Wade. Darcy grabbed thankfully for the life line.
“Well everyone does the Russian tea rooms of course – and I do the Village thing much more than Luath does, he’s a bit stuck in his ivory tower, although with an apartment like he has I don’t blame him.”
“But-” Wade began.
“My apartment?” Luath demanded over the top of him. “You virtually live there.”
“You have a better view than me.” Darcy gave him a grateful smile, chattering to keep the subject too firmly established to let Wade get back in. “You should see it Dale, it’s nothing like the corporate buildings, it’s beautiful, all windows, right over the park.”
Flynn was still sipping tea and gazing past them, apparently reflecting on whether the barn needed re weather proofing. There was a sudden falsetto and deafening shriek from the other end of the porch, several people involuntarily dropped cups and most people looked round in alarm. Theo, looking resigned, was jogging over as the shriek repeated itself, getting longer and more dismayed, a very large group was gathering in the vicinity and people got up to help and pick up broken glass. Paul caught Dale’s eye in the confusion, giving him a reassuring smile.
“Bear’s found a spider, it’s all right.”
Gerry had plunged straight into the crowd and was talking loudly about poisonous spiders native to the area. Someone – probably Theo – had cornered the offending beast, Dale could hear Bear’s bass voice in high, panic stricken expostulation, and as Bear dwarfed a lot of the crowd, could see several people including Jake trying to contain and comfort him as he was stampeding like a bull in his attempt to escape from whatever Theo was removing in cupped hands, scattering people far and wide. His large, liquid brown eyes met Dale’s as he was steered past, soft and innocent and wide with alarm, and the sounds he was making were still shrill and horrified like a dowager duchess discovering a frog in her handbag. Dale swallowed on a sudden and very mean urge to laugh, coughed instead, and saw one of those large brown eyes close at him in an unmistakeable wink.
Darcy was still chattering about New York.
Dale made encouraging noises without really hearing what he said or what Darcy said in reply, looking discreetly from Flynn’s still neutral face to Paul’s rather anxious one. Riley, who had joined the group, put an arm around Flynn’s waist and Flynn, as he very often did when Riley leaned up against him like that, sat down and drew Riley onto his lap. Riley wrapped an arm around Flynn’s neck and gave Wade a truly murderous look.
“If you so much as hint at the subject again while you’re here,” Luath informed Wade as soon as he and Paul had extracted him to the kitchen out of earshot of anyone else, “It’s going to involve a paddle and most of a bar of soap. Do we understand each other? You haven’t yet reached the age when you can say what you like and get away with it.”
“You said yourself it was past time the subject was raised with him!” Wade protested.
“Raised, not beaten over the head with it.” Luath told him. “And this really wasn’t the time, they’re dealing with enough right now, you can see they are. I told you and Darcy not to raise it, so if you didn’t explain that to Gerry, you should have done. I swear when you and Gerry get together you’re like a pair of jack hammers, you know that isn’t the way to get Flynn to do anything.”
“But it’s a great way to start a fight with Riley.” Paul added. “As if he and Dale weren’t having a hard enough day?”
He saw that go home; Wade winced and his voice quietened. “Sorry. Really, I didn’t mean to upset them. But it is ridiculous, Philip would have gone spare if he knew we were keeping a museum up there.”
“We all come home once in a while, Flynn and the others live here.” Luath pointed out. “They do the work here, they keep the house and ranch going for which I and everyone else in this family is very grateful, so if they wanted to put tutus on the cattle I’d respect it even if I didn’t agree with it. In the meantime, issues we may have as a family get politely raised as a family, at the right time. Do we understand each other?”
Wade glared at him, obviously not concurring, but muttering with relative sincerity.
It was amazing what a paddle did for someone’s attitude; Wade’s was radically calmer than it had been twenty four hours ago. Luath nodded towards the family room.
“I can feel an early afternoon nap coming on for you, you can go lie down on the couch in the study. Go on. I’ll tell you when you’re done.”
Wade gave him a resentful look but moved towards the doorway. “I’m eighty four, you know.”
“If you want the opinion of someone your own age, James is in the yard.” Paul pointed out. “I’m sure he’d be happy to give us his opinion-”
“We do not need James.” Wade said fairly quickly, moving. “Sheesh, it’s like gang warfare around here.”
They could hear him muttering to himself all the way through the family room. Darcy pulled out a chair and sat down at the table, looking at Paul with deep apology.
“I’m sorry. I should duct tape Gerry’s mouth shut as soon as we come over the WY border.”
“I’ll go one better, I’m going to have a word with Ash.” Luath said darkly. Darcy gave him a shocked look.
“You can’t do that!”
“You’re not a brat, remember? You’re supposed to be neutral.”
Used to that kind of teasing, Darcy batted it back without hesitation. “I don’t have to be a brat to get the concept, that’s mean. Gerry and Wade have no idea what tact is but you know they mean well, they aren’t doing it to upset Flynn and we have talked about it among ourselves, there’s no point pretending we haven’t.”
Luath took the chair beside him, watching Paul putter with nothing in particular on the stove.
“Paul.....Are you going to stop filling time and talk to me?” he said apologetically. “It’s idle chatter but there is a point to it....”
“We’re not ready.” Paul said simply.
“Well he’s not ready.” Darcy said just as gently. “Be honest.”
“We’ve never seen any sense in rushing him. Or Riley.”
“Yes, but Riley’s mostly protecting Flynn.” Darcy said with experience.
“You can’t tell people how to grieve.” Paul said firmly. “It isn’t the same experience from person to person, what one needs to do isn’t what another needs. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to do it.”
“Sometimes I think the best way would be to get the two of them out of the house for the day and a couple of us come and pack everything away, just do it so he comes back and it’s done. Over with.” Luath said heavily. Paul shook his head.
“No. No one here is ever treating him like that, I won’t allow it. Neither would Jas. And Riley would never forgive you.”
“And I for one do not want to be around here if anyone pisses off Dale.” Darcy agreed. Paul and Luath both gave him a look and Luath said it, more with habit than force.
“Darcy..... look, Paul, you’re the ones who know him best, I’m not suggesting otherwise.”
Paul didn’t answer. Luath steepled his hands, looking across at Darcy’s dark eyes. Flynn and Jasper had always been hard to pin down, and Paul, not indefinable at all with the rest of the family, was completely unreadable when any questions were asked about either of them. And Riley was the same. The bare fact was that none of the family had ever fully known or understood exactly how things worked between the four of them. Not for sure. They were welcoming and friendly to every other member of the family, and intensely private between themselves, and even more discreet. It was never possible to tell for sure if you were talking about a friendship or a marriage or a combination of, or something else entirely, and Luath, who had been very fond of all of them and deeply protective of Flynn since he first stalked onto the ranch, still leggy from the last of adolescence and with a temper that everyone except the family’s brats was intimidated by, found it difficult and slightly frustrating not to be able to establish exactly how to handle it. It wasn’t as simple as keeping your nose out of a marriage: in this particular family none of them ever politely looked the other way in difficult times, and over the years various of them had plunged in without hesitation to interfere when one of them was in need; the bonds between them went too deep and were too complicated for the usual boundaries to apply. Philip had been in the business of taking men without much experience of roots and teaching them very clearly what ‘family’ meant; the men in this house and yard were more Luath’s brothers than any blood relatives could have been.
“Gerry says they’ve invited this guy to stay with them.” Darcy had said some weeks ago, barging into his office very early one morning to show him the email. “Dale, the one you told me about.”
There had been something in his voice around the word ‘stay’.
“Stay how?” Luath asked him, trying to keep his eyes off the narrow strip of fluorescent material masquerading as Darcy’s shirt, and skimming Gerry’s flamboyant prose through details of jeans, plumbers, Ash and the lawn mower. “We’ve all stayed there at some point, it’s normal enough.”
“By Gerry’s hints, he and Ash think they’ve asked Dale to join them as well as us.”
There was a photograph of Roger on Luath’s desk, and Luath found himself looking at it as he reflected on that. Roger wouldn’t have been in the slightest bit interested in the details, or thought twice about it, accepting at face value. It was a grounding that Luath often found himself missing in the most normal of situations, a hole where Roger should be.
“Why do you have to push it in a labelled box?” Roger would have asked peaceably, probably from behind a book. “Who is labelleable? It’s none of our business anyway.”
Darcy got up and put his arms around Paul’s neck from behind to stand cheek to cheek with him as he used to do frequently when he lived here, and Paul put his hands up over Darcy’s, holding them for a minute.
“It’s all right hon. Go take those jugs of tea round outside, and make sure James and Niall have plenty to drink, they’re not used to the sun out here now.”
“James was making noises about him and Niall going upstairs for a lie down.” Darcy picked up the two massive jugs from the counter, grunting slightly at the weight. “Niall wasn’t keen.”
“Niall wouldn’t be.” Luath said dryly as Darcy went out onto the porch, letting the door close behind him. Paul waited until he was out of earshot before he turned a very straight look on Luath, voice quiet.
“That doesn’t happen again.”
“I’ll have a word with James and we’ll choke off anyone else.” Luath said sincerely. “This is mostly my fault, I’m sorry. I just-“
“Worry about him. I know how you feel about Flynn,” Paul said more gently. “But this really isn’t the time. You saw Dale in action just now? I think that it might be Dale who eventually makes the difference about this, but he won’t do it by pushing.”
Luath raised his eyebrows, reflecting again on what he’d seen of Dale Aden.
“That boy certainly stands up to his reputation.”
“He’s still getting up his confidence,” Paul said mildly, “But yes, he does.”
Jasper wasn’t a fan of the crowds and the noise. The people, yes, but not the crowds, and Dale suspected not the sitting around chatting either. Jasper could relax back in a chair in the evenings and whittle or read or play cards, or lay by a river bank fishing without moving – he was one of the most peaceful people Dale had ever known – but there was always a purpose to it. He therefore found him on the river bank without difficulty, leaning back on one elbow in the grass beside a balanced fishing rod, and a few feet away from Ash who was sprawled on his back in the grass with his arms folded behind his fair and greying head and his eyes closed.
Jasper had seen him approach; Jasper always did, and he glanced up as Dale reached him with a brief smile that went straight through Dale. Not a casual greeting, not the kind of smile that you might give anyone. It was something very direct and personal that said less ‘hello’ than ‘there you are’.
“There’s a spare rod over there.” Ash invited without uncovering his eyes.
Of all the less familiar people here today, Ash was probably Dale’s favourite, and he didn’t hesitate to speak frankly.
“Someone just tore into Flynn about Philip and David’s room. Ri was already having a hard time, the mine and Gam Saan-”
“And I should think he’s getting ready to punch out someone now?” Ash said mildly, sitting up. “Who started that conversation?”
Dale hesitated with no idea how to answer that, and Ash gave him a wry smile, getting to his feet.
“I see. Say no more, it won’t happen again.”
He mooched slowly back towards the yard, and Jasper reeled in his rod, picked up Ash’s and captured Dale before he could get up.
“How are you?”
He was always so calm about everything. Nothing was a problem, nothing was a crisis. Dale knelt down on the grass, letting a breath go.
“I’m actually ok. But Ri isn’t, and I don’t like leaving him.”
“If I had to guess, Riley’s hung over with a lot of emotion from this morning, and he’s probably thinking about Philip and Roger as much as Gam Saan.” Jasper got up and walked slowly with Dale back across the meadow. “Ash was just talking about it, it’s on a lot of people’s minds. The funeral this morning was very like Philip’s, and we’ve never yet been able to do this for Roger. We don’t even have total certainty that he died. It’s been terrible for Luath, and Ri loves them both. He was very fond of Roger.”
And Riley was always sharply perceptive about how people were feeling. Jasper leaned the rods against the back of the barn and put a hand on Dale’s shoulder.
“I’ll take Riley. I’m going to head over into town and pick up some vet supplies, we’ll be gone a couple of hours. You find Flynn, and tell him I said to remind him he wanted to take a look at Bandit and his herd today.”
There was a private shared meaning in that instruction and Dale understood it immediately.
“He’ll think about the stock herds as a priority.”
Jasper nodded at the bunk house.
“Jake and Tom went out to see to them about half an hour ago. Leave Wade to me, you take Flynn and get him out of here. Don’t worry about Paul. I’ll let him know where we’re going and he can take very good care of himself.”
People were starting to drift out of the yard as they’d finished eating and things had become a lot slower and more peaceful; Dale saw several of them strolling slowly out in the direction of the cairn and several more lying in the long grass of the pasture together. A couple were dozing on the porch in the chairs, and from the open doors of the house came voices that suggested more people had gathered in the shade of the family room or were helping to clean up the kitchen.
Flynn was alone and leaning on the top rail of the corral, one booted foot up on the low rail, absently rubbing the nose of Moo, who liked attention from anyone with time to stand and talk to her, and Leo who was snorting and barging her occasionally in his attempt to monopolise Flynn’s hand. Flynn looked as he always looked; taciturn, not a lot to read in his body language at all. Hammer stopped grazing and lifted his head at the sight of Dale approaching, then snorted hopefully and came to lean on the fence, swinging his head up and down. Dale climbed up to sit on the top rail, patting his neck firmly enough to raise a cloud of dust and make Hammer lean against his hand.
“Jasper told me to come and remind you that you wanted to check on Bandit. He’s taking Riley into town with him.”
He saw the sharpness of Flynn’s glance at him and returned it innocently, well aware of the effect Jasper meant it to have.
If Jas sent me to find you, particularly with a hint to get out of here for a while, then you’re going to guess that Jas thought I was starting to panic, and he wasn’t free to handle it. Which is a pretty sure way to get your mind off anything else.
It worked. Flynn ran a hand down his back and straightened up off the rail, opening the corral gate.
“Come on then. We might as well head straight out. It’ll be a quiet afternoon, most people are tired from the drive out here.”
No one was around – or on the porch, awake – to see them quietly tack up Hammer and Leo outside the stables, and Dale tugged the stirrups down into place from his saddle and pulled on the cinch, aware how familiar the action had become, how very familiar and comforting was the smell of leather and horse, and the prospect of riding out. Anywhere. It never felt like work, no matter what they went to do. Hammer nosed at him, eager to go out, and it was second nature now to put a foot into the stirrup and swing himself up, settling on Hammer’s broad back and hardly needing to look to adjust the reins in his hand or do more than shift his weight to back Hammer and signal to him which way they were going. Flynn swung up onto Leo, settling very lightly into the saddle as he always did, and glanced at Dale’s stirrups with a faint smile.
“You’re still riding English in a western saddle. Why don’t you try letting those out a notch?”
They’d never commented on it before, most likely because he came here as an experienced rider, and because Dale usually tacked whichever horse he rode himself in the style he was used to; but Dale knew what he meant. Flynn, Riley and Jasper all rode with the longer stirrups, legs almost straight, and often one handed with the reins. Flynn led Leo closer and stooped, tugging Dale’s stirrup leather out another notch on either side.
“Give it a try.”
Dale slipped his feet back in the stirrups, aware of the different leg position and the subtle change in weight and balance in the saddle, and Hammer stepped gladly after Leo into the home pasture through the open gate.
“I never thought about it.”
“We’re not unfamiliar with it here, Philip rode in a very English style.” Flynn glanced over at him as they walked the horses west, away from the house. “Played a lot of polo when he was young.”
And he’d trained Flynn, so he’d obviously been a very talented rider and horse trainer. Flynn saw him watching and Dale saw the brief smile in his eyes and a very subtle movement of his hand and knee, and Leo, barely breaking step, went into a beautiful series of piaffe and passage dressage steps, balanced and rhythmical, then a couple of neat flying lead changes. He did it so beautifully, so smoothly that Dale, who had done some dressage training in his teens years ago, knew the hours of work and training that must have gone into it. Flynn rubbed Leo’s neck as Leo dropped back into a walk.
“Only Leo. And Snickers a little, I taught Riley when Riley was first training him. It does a lot for balance and body strength, and the bond with the horse.”
And he and Riley both did hours of training that barely looked like training, Dale had seen them do it, often with no rein or saddle in sight, just an interested and relaxed young horse stepping with them, following them, responding to the touch of a hand on neck, shoulder or haunch, and then confidently nosing for a bit of whatever Riley or Flynn’s pockets would be full of for them. It looked like simple playing to the inexperienced who had no idea what movements were being taught and developed. That was Flynn’s most frequent style of teaching; calm and natural, and so gradual that you barely realised you were being taught at all, or what skills you were acquiring until you already had them established.
Like coping with a yard full of total strangers without feeling an utter pillock, or being able to let go and participate in a natural ceremony like the one that took place this morning at Three Traders. Thinking of it, Dale felt the same rush of calm and peace there had been in the valley, that sense of completion, of it having been done right as he had desperately wanted it to be. How it felt when your trust was given and so definitely rewarded, not just by Flynn and the others he knew well, but by all of them, every man on that ranch; the older ones, the tactless ones, the eccentric ones. And all of it centred on the quiet man riding beside him, very upright, one hand on his jeaned knee, his Stetson casting a shadow over his face.
I love this man.
There was still that sense at times when it got away from him of being too full, of being too small a vessel for so many too powerful emotions, until there was a serious danger of bursting with them. At one time it had felt terrifying. Now it felt risky and inconvenient and slightly embarrassing, but there was space enough out here for most things.
Hammer broke into a canter when he whooped, the sound echoing across open ground, and then laughed at his own foolishness, letting Hammer have his head, and he heard Leo promptly follow, chasing them out across the green pasture.
It took a while to find the herd. They were out on the edge of the home pastures, the nursery pastures where the foals were born and raised, where the soft and flat green pastures were broken with little creeks and streams, to where the land began to stretch out in rocky plateaus and rocky outcroppings, and then to steepen up into canyons stretching further west. Bandit found them before they saw the mares; Flynn turned in his saddle and Dale looked with him, and found the stallion pacing them quietly from behind. How far he must have circled to come up behind them unheard and unseen, and how fast he must have moved, Dale could only imagine. Bandit quickened his step when Flynn reined in Leo and waited, and the stallion walked with them to the edge of a plateau, sharp and rocky. Below was the circle of mares, the most vulnerable and highest ranking in the centre, and the look-outs spread out around them as they grazed, periodically lifting their heads to scent the wind and to look around over the foals, many of whom were lying on the grass in the afternoon sun.
Flynn dismounted, turning Leo loose. Bandit stopped square in front of him, and for a moment they stood face to face, as seriously as one army commander consulting with another. Dale almost expected a polite bow on other side. Bandit stretched his heavy neck when Flynn stroked him, accepted whatever it was that Flynn drew from his pocket, and then turned his head to Dale, still crunching, briskly running his nose over Dale’s chest and sleeves as if taking an inventory. Dale stroked his face, feeling the same lift of awe and excitement he always felt around the stallion, from the size of the head moving over him to the blond mane and massive shoulders and hindquarters, powerful and solid with muscle above the long legs and wicked fetlocked feet. Then Bandit turned and cantered down the long, steep bank as effortlessly as if it had been flat grass, and with his high, sailing trot that made him look as if he was floating, he circled the herd and went to Marika, the lead mare, running his neck along hers.
Flynn had his hands on his hips and was scanning the herd below with an expert eye. He and Jasper were almost superhumanly alert to the most subtle signs of a change in condition that might signal sick or injured. Dale knew to look at their positions, to check for an animal alone on the edges of the herd, to look for a head hanging low, to look at gait and the dullness of coat or a foot raised that could indicate trouble, but Flynn knew every one of these horses as an individual and his eyes, Dale knew, went a lot deeper. The foals were getting long legged and their gait smoother and more fluid; they still moved as though an invisible tether held them in mirror with their mothers when they walked. They were peaceful, some grazing, some sleeping, and Flynn relaxed, having surveyed them to his satisfaction. One long legged paint foal abruptly barged into another foal, bucking and nipping, and when the foal ran away, continued bucking a few steps, ducking his head down and kicking his still fluffy little rear hooves high in celebration. None of the mares nearby took the slightest notice, but when the paint foal then barged the nearest mare, apparently intending to nip and run away, she was ready for him and Dale saw her head snap out, teeth bared, and the paint foal fled.
“Colt.” Flynn said softly beside Dale. “They tend to do a lot more nipping and mounting and play fighting than the fillies, most of the fillies’ play is galloping.”
Still slightly drunk on freedom, on the emotions of the day, Dale stood close to him, watching the horses below.
“That’s a bit rough for play.”
“They’re mostly five to six months old here. We leave them with the herd for the best part of a year before we separate them; a lot of breeders would be taking them away now, but we don’t hurry them into maturing or break the herd relationships. That was one of the high status mares he tried teasing, did you see? Fledgling dominance behaviour. The dominant herd members don’t allow too rough or too aggressive behaviour, that’s one of their functions, to control it. Too rough play risks a herd member with an injury that stops them moving or feeding, and survival relies on co operation, sticking together. They won’t let that colt get too above himself.”
It made sense. Dale had seen a few such snaps, metaphorically speaking, from the dominant herd members at home for much the same reason, Luath’s being a case in point this afternoon.
He didn’t want to open the subject with Flynn and pull his mind away from the horses and the wilds out here - two things that Flynn loved and often sought out when he wanted to orient himself – and he felt the same aggressively protective affection he’d seen in Riley’s glare at Wade in the yard. There were other ways to distract this man, other ways to make him feel loved and comforted and to get his mind very firmly off Wade.
Flynn was leaning with one foot raised on a rock, one elbow on his bent knee in a way that tightened his jeans and shirt against his body, and his long fingers were tearing a piece of grass while he watched the herd below. There was no one but them for miles; no one but the herd of horses and the stallion, the rolling grass and the canyons, and the blue sky overhead with its endless space. It suddenly all seemed very easy indeed.
He’d always before waited for someone else to initiate – responded to their cues and followed their lead – but this was Flynn who he slept against each night, who was so physically familiar that it was as natural as breathing. Flynn glanced up when Dale took his arm, let Dale pull him around and Dale dropped his own Stetson on the grass, took Flynn’s off his head and dropped that too, and put a hand up to smooth out his sandy hair. Soft, warm, glinting a little under the sun which picked up the gold in it, the warm colour of sandstone that went with his very deep green eyes. Looking into those eyes out here, letting himself look fully and deeply without reservation, made Dale’s breath catch and most of his insides ignite, and he saw the response in Flynn and knew that he most definitely had Flynn’s undivided attention. When Flynn lightly ran both hands down his arms it was very different from his usual touch, and it felt as if he left fire where his fingers brushed. There was no argument about waiting or right times that was going to work now even if Flynn tried it; Dale knew it with some deep sense of amusement. He had experience enough of Gerry and Riley and Tom to have learned plenty of nuances from them about their partners in the relationships they shared, one of which was, in certain times and situations, do not mess with the brat!
From the answering glint in Flynn’s eyes, he understood. He quietly raised his arms when Dale took his shirt, letting Dale pull it off over his head and get rid of it, and he helped Dale out of his a good deal more slowly, taking his time, with the strong and very sure hands that Dale was so used to being handled by. And when Dale put both hands against his face, cradling it to kiss him, Flynn bent his head down to him and held his hips, ran his palms down Dale’s bare back and ribs, mapping him slowly. It was a while before he simply took hold of Dale, lifted him and laid them both down on the grass, and helped him to get rid of his jeans, and Dale stopped being aware of anything much but Flynn .
He stirred at some point, mostly asleep on the grass but vaguely aware of Flynn’s hands on his back and legs with some kind of oil, and recognised the scent of the sun lotion they carried in saddlebags with other essentials like water and matches. Some time later the lotion got used for something else entirely.
It was approaching five pm and the sun was getting lower and more deeply golden in the sky when they finally got up from where they had been lying naked on the grass, close together where they could watch the horses below, moving periodically between dozing and long and fluent interludes of kissing, and of simply laying together. The feel of grass under bare skin was as powerful as the feel of Flynn against his back, the weight of Flynn’s leg and arm draped over him, their fingers entangled and Flynn’s face against his neck and throat and the curve of his shoulder. And Flynn was as peaceful as he was; Dale could feel it in him. If it had been an effort for him to be so patient and wait so long – and Dale suspected that it had – he’d never shown any sign of it. The man was as thorough, as thoughtful and as practically proficient in love making as he was in every other part of his life, and Dale had no doubts at all that for the past almost three hours, Flynn’s mind had been wholly here, with him.
Very calm, still faintly sleepy, Dale dressed, straightening his shirt and hair neatly by force of long habit, and went to retrieve Hammer and Leo from where they were grazing. As he freed Hammer’s reins, Dale felt Flynn’s arm close around his waist, let Hammer go and instead wrapped himself around Flynn’s neck, returning the hug. Flynn picked him up off his feet for a minute, surrounding him completely, then found his mouth, kissed him and put him down, standing for a moment with his forehead against Dale’s. He’d done that before, after the night they camped out on the plateau together, and Dale put his hands up to Flynn’s face, realising now how close Flynn had been to the edge of his self control, and how hard Flynn must have worked not to spook him, not to rush him, not to allow this to be mechanical or alarming or guilt filled. And it was worth it, it was truly worth every hour of waiting to stand here with him now, feeling like this. This free. This filled. This good.
“Ok?” Flynn said quietly.
Dale nodded, not able to come up with anything more coherent.
Very, very ok.
The sun got lower and the shadows gradually deeper as they rode over the long, open pastures, through the early evening of fall instead of the late afternoon of summer. People were still walking, long shadowed in the home pasture and Flynn knew the cairn would have several bunches of wild flowers laid against it. It was always somewhere people wanted to go when they came home. The yard was full, the kitchen chairs added to the porch chairs outside, people sitting on the porch steps and the rails, and Riley had clearly been at the record player. Flynn recognised the lively guitars and the distinctive, rich baritone as they approached. Stan Rogers, one of David’s favourite albums, one that everyone who had ever lived here knew well, and several people were singing with the record.
We talked of her all winter, some days around the clock
For she’s worth a quarter million afloat and at the dock
And with every jar that hit the bar we swore we would remain
And see the Mary Ellen Carter rise again
Dale quietly walked with him to put the horses in the corral, standing alongside him to lift the tack from Hammer’s back onto the fence rail to take back to the tack room. Flynn found it hard to keep his eyes and his hands away while they worked. Still very lean, but with the weathered tan on his arms and face, and his hair starting to lengthen from its severe neatness into a much more Dale-like fluidity, Dale moved quietly and worked accurately, each item put in the right place, cleaned, positioned, but his shoulders were loose and while he looked tired, he looked relaxed. He was as physically quiet as he was softly spoken; if you didn’t know Dale very well you’d have no idea of the fire underneath the very muted surface, or the depths of it. Or that he was just beginning to, very occasionally and very hesitantly, deliberately let a little of that fire free on his own terms.
Flynn took Dale’s saddle along with his own before Dale could take it towards the stable, catching his eye. Soft eyes, grey, still smoky with a lot of emotion, and probably more tired than Dale realised.
“Leave that to me, go get a shower and change, kid. There’s no hurry, you can take your time. People won’t get together to eat until sevenish at the earliest.”
The men visiting would want all the time they could to talk and be together, and some would leave late tonight to drive or to head out to catch planes, others would leave early in the morning. A few would probably stay a few days, making the most of the trip out here. Dale lifted his face to kiss him, a brief and gentle kiss that made it very difficult not to pull him back and continue, and Flynn stood and waited to watch Dale head towards the porch before he took the saddles and tack back to the tack room in the stables, taking a moment or two to straighten it up as today had probably seen the widest use of tack on the ranch in some months.
He heard Luath’s voice before he heard any footfall; the big man moved almost as quietly as Jasper sometimes and he leaned his arms on one of the saddle trees, watching.
“Need any help?”
“It’s all done.” Flynn put a couple of bridles back in the right places. “Going to need a serious tack cleaning and grooming day tomorrow, hopefully there’ll be enough people around to make it an easy job.”
“Did the ride help?”
Like you wouldn’t believe.
Flynn didn’t look round or answer, and a moment later felt Luath’s hand close on his shoulder, heavy and squeezing.
“This year’s foals are a good crop, some real potential there,” he said casually, and heard Luath’s soft snort.
“Brat. Don’t try that on me. If you’re angry with me, say so.”
“I don’t much appreciate getting gossiped about.” Flynn said bluntly. Luath sighed, tightened his grip on Flynn’s shoulder and let go. His deep voice was rough, gravelled and honest.
“I know. That’s my fault, and I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation Paul chewed my ears good and hard. I just worry about you, kid. Philip would have hated to think you couldn’t let him go.”
“I’m the psychologist, I know where the line is.” Flynn said steadily. “And this still is their house.”
“It’s your house.” Luath said gently. “You and the others, you’re the ones who live here, who keep it going for the rest of us. It’s your place now. You know I think that, James thinks that, Wade thinks that – this has been their home more than sixty years, if they think it’s your right then you don’t have much higher authority.”
“It isn’t about authority.”
No, it wasn’t. Luath watched Flynn work with wry exasperation and a lot of understanding.
“You know something? I’d like to know if you ever plan on forgiving yourself for not coming to Philip’s funeral. Don’t tell me that wasn’t on your mind today, I could see it. Even if you had your hands full.”
It was a very old wound and only Luath would have so unerringly touched on it.
Flynn didn’t look at him, continuing to work.
“You did what you needed to do.” Luath said after a moment. “There wasn’t one of us who didn’t understand. And you know that no one would have understood it more than Philip, who’d be kicking your butt right about now.”
That got a grimace from Flynn although he didn’t look round.
“I thought you were supposed to be the one apologising? How did you turn this around to be about me?”
“Talent.” Luath said bluntly.
“Despite your lack of practice.” Flynn said without heat.
Luath shrugged, not denying it, and watching Flynn straighten out a tangle of bridles hung on hooks. There was a wealth of leather harness in here, some of it over a hundred years old, and all of it was kept supple, cared for and dust free, along with the brushes, combs and the clean blankets folded on the shelves. This remained a vigorously worked and well kept, well run ranch, and it was a job that was done with real love. Flynn was a natural at running it, he’d had the instincts, and the basic love of the land right from his teens, even if he’d never fully understood it for the sheep station he’d grown up on. Luath, used from his roots here to evaluating blood lines and sires, thought that whatever Mr O’Sullivan senior’s faults, the man must have had his redeeming qualities. He’d sired a man of good blood in Flynn, a powerful heart, a good horseman and a good rancher.
“It’s the first time I’ve really got to talk to you since I got here. You had a real scare a few days ago.”
“Thank God a scare was all it was.” Flynn said gruffly. “We were bloody lucky.”
“I can only imagine what you had to be thinking when you realised that both of them might have been under that slide.” Luath said gently.
Flynn paused, hand stilling on the harness. That came from Luath’s heart; a man who had spent some years now with the imagining of his own brat’s last moments under another slide.
“We were just lucky. They were cold and scared – or at least Riley was scared – but nothing worse. It wasn’t much short of a miracle. I’ve been pushing both of them to try and avoid any post trauma trouble but I think we’ve escaped. Riley’s too up front for that kind of trouble, and Dale had his mind on the practicalities.”
“It’s you I’ve been worried about.” Luath said bluntly. “I can see it and I can see Paul thinking it too. You’ve been running on overdrive ever since it happened, holding them together, keeping the ranch going, not to mention picking up the pieces of this business with Gam Saan as if the mine business wasn’t bad enough. It doesn’t change that for a number of hours you had no idea where half your life had disappeared to and whether you’d see them again. That isn’t something you can just walk away from.”
Flynn straightened out the last of the harnesses, reflecting on that for a moment. It had been the same for Paul and Jasper, they had gone through this together as they went through everything together, and the fact that the three of them shared in it helped more than Luath would understand, but the psychologist in Flynn grabbed for Luath’s wording and what it told him.
“No, it isn’t.” he said quietly, picking his words carefully. “But we were still in the adrenaline stage when we found them. We had alternatives, things to do. We never had to reach the point of stopping and thinking or facing what might have happened.”
“It gets worse from there on.” Luath said wryly. “But I saw your face when you let Dale go back inside that adit today. I don’t think you could have let Riley do it, even if he wanted to.”
“No, I couldn’t.” Flynn admitted. “Dale’s a different matter.”
Luath nodded slowly. “He seems like it. I’m developing some serious respect for that boy. And he’s not forever at the back of your mind as that vulnerable little kid of fifteen you took care of, like Riley is. Trust me, if you see them that way once, that’s it. No matter how tall they get or how old they are, in some part they’re always that kid to you. Are you going to be ok?”
“I’m fine.” Flynn told him gently, and Luath pulled him over and hugged him, wrapping both arms tightly around him. “It’s going to be ok, I’m fine.”
Darcy and Bear were lounging with Gerry, Riley and Wade on the porch nearest the back door when Dale came up the wooden steps and Darcy sat up from the swing and caught Dale’s wrist in a tentative hand before he could pass them.
“Dale, I’m really sorry about what you heard earlier. We’ve grovelled to Riley and he’s just about forgiven us.”
“Just.” Riley agreed.
“We’d have broken it up quicker but it took Bear forever to find a spider.” Darcy went on apologetically.
“I hate the things and it has to be a real one.” Bear rumbled from the middle of the swing. He was dwarfing Riley and Wade on either side of him, the glass of tea in his hand looking like a doll’s cup. “Theo gets suspicious if I do it about anything else.”
Theo was doing a good job if he could resist anything at all about those melting eyes: Dale was increasingly finding that Bear looked at him and he promptly would have been willing to go along with almost anything Bear wanted, there was something so appealing about that gentle and innocent face. The man could not seriously be called Bear; it was something Dale kept meaning to ask Riley about and then getting distracted.
He looked from Darcy to Wade now with the same sense of confidence he’d felt earlier, and knew what he wanted to do. Another trick he knew well but one he’d never before used for himself. He casually slipped Darcy’s hand to lean on the swing over Wade, voice soft and very pleasant, expression pleasant, and his eyes straight on Wade’s. Dale fixed him with a look that had made crowds of caffeine hyped, and exhaustion-drunk financiers sit down and start paying rapt attention in meetings on several different continents.
“Say another word to Flynn on that subject- just one- and I will crown you.”
The rest of the group froze in their seats. Darcy’s eyes were circular and so were Bear’s, and Gerry looked as though he’d shrunk back towards the safety of the porch steps. Dale saw it from the side of his vision but kept his eyes on Wade’s blue ones, which were quite steady and entirely unintimidated in a way that reminded Dale this man had spent his working life first in a B17 bomber crew flying raids over Europe, and then serving in the police force, and he’d clearly been formidable in both roles. Wade’s steady expression cracked into a very warm smile and Wade patted his knee firmly.
“Good lad. You’ll do.”
Satisfied they understood each other, Dale returned the nod to him, straightened up and headed inside.
“There.” Gerry said to Wade in the hush he left behind. “I told you. James Bond. Screw about with him and he’ll probably pull out some kind of fountain pen hand grenade and blow us all up.”
“Isn’t it enough that he can look that scary?” Darcy said, shuddering. “Riley, how do you find the courage to share a house with him? He’s worse than Flynn, I’d be hiding under the bed.”
Getting his breath back, Riley got up, shoved his glass into Darcy’s hand and chased after Dale, pausing unwillingly at Paul’s call from the sink.
“It isn’t as if I don’t do my share of the cleaning up around here!” Riley protested, pausing to heel his off and catch Dale up. Dale was at the top of the stairs before Riley reached him and followed him into his and Flynn’s room, watching him throw the window wider open.
“Dale? Are you ok?”
“Fine, if Wade can keep his mouth shut. How are you?” Dale said it in his usual, soft tone, and Riley, who had never seen Dale look quite so piercingly at anyone before as he had at Wade, relaxed a little, dropping down on the end of the bed.
“Better. I really didn’t like going back up near the mine. I don’t ever want to go in it or near it again. I’m very glad we moved Gam Saan, I really am, but I’m damn glad you did it because I couldn’t have.”
“I needed to see him again. It was like making sure he was real.” Dale sat down on the windowsill and ran his hands through his hair. “Did you go into town with Jas?”
“Yes.” Riley rolled over onto his stomach on the bed, propping his chin on his hands. Dale thought he looked better, far more his usual self. “It was nice to get away for a bit after this morning. We walked around some of the tourist stuff, which Jas doesn’t often like to do. I like it, there’s something about seeing really bad tourist tat. And he convinced me not to batter Wade.”
“I won’t batter Wade,” Dale said with conviction. “I shall however fix him if he starts that again. I’m sorry, that was about the last thing you needed today.”
He got up and started to take his shirt off, and paused as Riley got up, hooking an arm around Dale’s neck to hug him, tightly. Dale returned the hug, aware that Riley was seeking comfort as much as giving it, and that while Riley had always been happy go lucky with everyone, easy, friendly – it was only seeing him with other people around that Dale realised, there truly was something to Riley that only he saw and only he knew. It was the same as Jasper’s smile down by the river, and Flynn out by Bandit’s herd, a realisation of something meant for only him.
It was very powerful and very mixed up in how felt like to hold Riley like this, knowing that he was feeling stirred up and fragile, wanting security and reassurance and seeking it from him. With trust and without hesitation, as though he was sure Dale had everything he needed. It was a faith Dale wasn’t used to. He rubbed Riley’s back gently and when Riley finally released him, kissed his cheek and let him go, keeping his voice steady.
“I’m going to take a shower.”
“I’ll wait.” Riley offered. “What the heck have you been doing, your back’s scratched to- ah.”
His face lit up with mischief, affection and a lot of teasing.
“Saddle blankets. Saddle blankets are good you know, keep that in mind.”
Dale found himself flushing helplessly like a thirteen year old. He peeled his jeans off and folded them neatly, adding them to his shirt.
“Is Flynn ok?”
Riley said it nonchalantly but Dale heard the concern and gave Riley a quick and meaningful smile that he wouldn’t have shared with anyone else.
“He is now.”
Riley burst out laughing and caught him in a far more exuberant hug.
“This is so much more fun with you here.”
“Riley?” Ash looked in from the doorway, pulling a clean t shirt over his head. “One of the colts in the stable pasture is getting a bit spooky about the noise, should I move him? Wade says this one is a bit high strung.”
“Ticktock.” Riley moved at once, jogging downstairs. “I’ll put him up with the shires, they won’t bother him. Thanks Ash.”
“You’re welcome.” Ash settled his clean shirt and leaned against the door post, folding his long arms and watching Dale sit down on the end of the bed with his soft eyes and his kind mouth under his floppy moustache. It was the first time they’d had a moment alone together and Dale returned the smile, honestly glad to see him.
“How are you?” Ash asked him. “I found it quite an emotional morning, and I didn’t know the man.”
“Well neither did I.” Dale said lightly. “Only from the research I did with Riley.”
“But once you start researching people you get to know them. Gerry told me all about your hike through the mine and how you found him. Remarkable stuff.”
“It’s a bit different from what A.N.Z. wanted from me.” Dale admitted. Ash smiled.
“Have you picked up any projects yet?”
“I did one emergency piece of work for a panicking investor, just a couple of hours, but otherwise no. Flynn wants me to wait a while longer, and I’m guessing he knows what he’s talking about.”
“Do you miss it?” Ash asked, a little curiously. Dale laughed, the answer coming without thought or hesitation.
“Honestly? No, not at all. When I went back to New York I found it hard to remember what I ever wanted to do it for. All the noise, the rushing about, the taking it so seriously – I’ll enjoy the problem solving when I do pick up projects again but it’ll be from here, by myself, just the playing with numbers. None of the rubbish surrounding it.”
“It’s going to be that easy?” Ash teased him.
“Well I can hope.” Dale said, grinning.
“It’s still quite hard to come out of a career.” Ash slipped his hands in his pockets, shoulder against the door post. “I started up my business on my own after the company I was working for went bust. There was about three months where I didn’t really do anything, and I remember how much it blew my confidence. I was used to being good at my job and my job was most of my week, and when I stopped working I didn’t feel as if I was doing anything I felt good at.”
Dale snorted. “I’ve been constantly trying to do things I’m no bloody good at ever since I came here, there isn’t one part of it where I’m even half way competent.”
“That must be hard.” Ash said thoughtfully. “A.N.Z.’s whiz kid. You were brilliant at everything, you had a lot of autonomy, a lot of power.”
“I don’t miss any of that either, I hated it.” Dale said frankly. “I just didn’t realise what it was that I was hating.”
“You’ve got a lot of guts.” Ash told him. “I don’t know how many people are willing to throw themselves in the deep end like that, to commit to something they don’t feel good at or know how to do.”
Dale shrugged. “There’s a lot of incentives, I guess it depends how much you want it.”
“That was what Riley told me very early on. And Flynn talked to me a lot about perfectionists basing their entire identity and confidence in work outcomes, it’s something I knew I was going to have to work on.”
“Yes, but you have to feel good at something or succeed at something day to day to have a sense of confidence.”
“The mine actually helped?” Dale said slowly. “The problem solving with the map was something I could academically do, and once Riley and I were caught in the landslide, getting out was something I could practically solve. I knew how to go about it. That convinced me a bit that I do have some practical use around here, I do actually have something to offer.”
“Have you ever said that to the other four?” Ash asked him. Dale shook his head.
“There isn’t anything they can do. The only way to get good at things is to work at it, practice. Not a lot of point in being self pitying about it.”
“I thought you were getting good at the concept of with-holding?”
Dale looked up at him, slightly alarmed, and Ash gave him a reassuring look.
“I’m not going to pull you up on it, but you were doing very well with that before you went back to New York.”
“It hasn’t been easy.” Dale acknowledged. “I thought I’d pack up A.N.Z. and just pick up here right where I left off, and from the point of view of neurosis and panicking it’s actually been as bad in some ways if not worse than when I first came here. Flynn and the others have been incredibly patient. I don’t know how they’ve put up with it, but I suppose they’ve let some things slide a bit while I was....”
Freaking out. A lot.
“You were a person at work who took the lead, organised, enabled, you have an amazing range of skills.” Ash said mildly. “I guess it’s settling into how you use them here, to put that energy into here that you were used to putting into corporate work.”
“They’re not exactly a useful skill set!” Dale said wryly. Ash smiled but shook his head.
“I don’t see why they’re not equally applicable here or anywhere. After all, it’s not about individual tasks, it is? Filling a horse trough compared to balancing an account? Whatever you do, it’s about interaction, communication, organisation, planning, all the things you excel at. Unless you’re thinking that a brat should be properly passive and not do that kind of thing?”
Dale looked at him, and Ash nodded slowly.
“You need to spend more time with Gerry. ‘Passive’ isn’t in his vocabulary. I don’t think it was in David’s either. You’re a whole person, not the work bit and the brat bit. You don’t see Riley separate himself out.”
“I have a very narrow practical skill base,” Dale began, and Ash laughed.
“Yes, I’ve read about your skill base in national papers! I saw you taking the heat off Riley and organise help for him this afternoon too, without him realising or being embarrassed by it. And I saw you handling a very young horse this morning without Riley or Flynn looking twice, and they don’t let many people near the youngsters until they’re fully trained. That’s pretty skilled.”
That was a lot to think about. On top of a lot of other things to think about today. Dale found himself swallowing on a feeling of being very crowded and full and really not wanting to discuss this uncomfortable information any further.
“I was going to take a shower,” he said lightly, getting up. Anyone else would have taken that as a hint. Ash, like Flynn or Paul, didn’t necessarily do politely looking the other way, and his face visibly softened.
“I didn’t mean to harass you, I know you’ve had a beast of a day. I’ll leave you in peace.”
“Thanks,” Dale said, and meant it. Ash waved a hand as he headed leisurely down the stairs.
The room seemed very quiet when he’d gone. Dale sat down again on the end of the bed with both hands palm down on the quilt either side of him, looking at the white painted wall beyond the two mismatched dressers side by side. He didn’t know how long he sat there; he didn’t hear anyone come up the stairs or notice Paul until he was in the room, a cup and plate in his hands.
“Hey. I thought you might be needing a drink.”
“You mean Ash found you and said I needed sorting out.” Dale said without looking up. Paul put the plate down on the dresser.
“From the look of you, he was right.”
“I’m tired,” Dale said exasperatedly, getting up. “It’s been a hell of a day. I’m going to take a shower and go to bed and read, I’m done.”
Paul held out the cup. “Have a drink. It’s hot out there and you’ve barely eaten anything at all today, I was watching.”
“I don’t want a bloody drink.”
“I wasn’t asking.” Paul said mildly. He kept hold of the cup, half prepared as Dale could be very unpredictable when bothered enough, but he got the politely icy look that in Dale was an intense glare and Dale took it, drinking deeply enough to prove that he hadn’t been entirely truthful. Hot, over stressed, overwhelmed and with crashing blood sugar Paul thought, putting up a hand to straighten Dale’s rather grassy dark hair. For multiple reasons if what Riley had told him was correct, and it was, if Paul was any judge of the grass scratches on Dale’s shoulders.
“David used to like hot tea when he was over heated and over done.” he said conversationally, more for the tone of voice than the words, “He always said Americans never got the hang of how refreshing it was.”
“Mmn.” Dale said uncommunicatively. Paul handed him the plate, and while Dale was too polite to transfer his glare from the plate to Paul, he sat down on the bed, picked up one of the pastries and started to eat.
Paul sat down on the window seat, saying nothing, listening to the very far away murmur of voices outside through the open window, mixed with the distant call of sheep and the whisper of the trees. Dale ate slowly, but he ate everything on the plate, and then finished the tea, wrapping his hands around the mug. Paul took the cup and plate gently from him when he was done, put them on the nightstand and took Dale’s hand, pulling him up off the bed. Dale came with him reluctantly, trailing Paul to the linen closet where Paul retrieved a towel, and then to the shower where Paul turned the shower on.
“In. Come on, you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve cooled down.”
“I’m perfectly capable-” Dale muttered, taking the towel from him.
“You can take one or I can give you one, I don’t mind which.” Paul invited, and smiled as Dale growled and stripped off his shorts, disappearing under the spray.
While the water ran, Paul collected his clothes, checked the jeans pockets which in this household often contained unexpected bits of wire, shears, hoof picks and any number of other things which didn’t mix well with washing machines, and put them in the clothes hamper. Fresh clothes were in the dresser drawers, underwear, jeans and Paul dug for one of the shirts at the bottom of the drawer choosing the burgundy red one, and laying the clothes out and ready. He took the tube of antiseptic cream from the medicine cabinet above the sink and retrieved Dale as he stepped out of the shower, taking the towel and drying his back and arms a lot more gently than Dale would have done. Dale trailed him into the bedroom, still towelling his hair, and Paul sat him down on the edge of the bed, turning him away to squeeze antiseptic cream into his palm and rub it into scratched shoulders and hips. Dale let him, hunching his shoulders a little at first. Paul took his time, making the most of the physical contact, and when he was finished, there was nothing irritable or taut about Dale’s shoulders or hands, which were often the giveaways. He looked limp and tired and subdued, and Paul put the tube of cream out of the way, lay back on the bed and pulled until Dale stretched out beside him. Paul held onto his hand and went on saying nothing, rubbing a thumb gently and steadily over his knuckles. Dale abruptly rolled over and curled up against him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“What did you think I was going to say?” Paul teased him gently. “Get back outside and be polite to people through gritted teeth until I say otherwise? You have met us?”
“You know I promised Flynn I’d tell someone if I started to feel numbed or detached?”
“This is an official declaration.”
Paul dropped a kiss on damp, dark hair, wondering if Dale had the experience at all of handling low moods, anxiety or tiredness in any way other than shutting down and going away. He’d learned so young to be self reliant; a little healthy dependence was a tough thing to learn from scratch.
“I’m not surprised honey, it’s been a rollercoaster of a day. You probably need some time to stop and take stock.”
Dale didn’t answer, and he allowed himself about a minute and a half by Paul’s count before he tried to gently draw away and sit up.
“I shouldn’t be keeping you. I’m ok, I’ll come down in a minute when -”
“I’m sure someone down there can find their way to the fridge.” Paul said comfortably, holding on to him until he relaxed and lay down again. “We don’t need to go anywhere for a while.”
It was some time later when Dale noticed that it felt as if everything had slowed down. The tiredness and the zombied sensation had faded away so gradually he hadn’t noticed it go. The room was cool and quiet, there was nothing to hear but Paul’s breathing and the whisper of Paul’s hand rubbing slowly over his neck and shoulders. It felt good. The door creaked softly and Dale glanced up. Jasper was obviously also fresh from a shower as his hair was still damp. He smiled at the sight of them and put the door to behind him.
“That looks tranquil.”
“I heard you got towed around the dodgy bits of Jackson.” Paul said without moving.
“It cheered Riley up.” The bed gave as Jasper stretched out on Dale’s other side, and Dale turned over on to his back to lay shoulder to shoulder, blocked between the two of them, ridiculously safe. Jasper’s fingers threaded idly through his, long and flexible.
“Luath and Jake are supervising a fire being built out in the home pasture. Apparently it was felt that we needed one.”
“I can guess by who.” Paul said wryly. “Where are the others?”
Among the numerous others outside, Jasper didn’t question who he meant.
“I took the shower up here. Flynn grabbed Riley and dragged him into the downstairs one with him.”
“Is he ok?”
It was a moment before Dale realised Paul was asking him. In the same tone he was speaking to Jasper in, as though Dale would know.
“Yes. He’s ok.”
“Good, I could have cheerfully strangled Wade.”
It was said in a classic Paul tone, mild and without exasperation, and Dale smiled at the sound of it. They lay for a while together, not saying much, just lying under the breeze from the window, then Dale stirred, reluctant to get up.
“I suppose I really need to put some clothes on.”
Neither Jasper nor Paul bothered to move from where they were stretched out on the bed while he dressed. It made for a very comfortable and comforting atmosphere, as though there was no hurry and as it didn’t matter very much if they chose to go down or not. Riley and Flynn came upstairs as he was running a comb through his hair, both of them in fresh jeans from the laundry room and nothing else. Riley disappeared towards his room and Flynn caught Dale’s eye on the way to his dresser, giving him a very private and very warm smile that touched his eyes if not his mouth. He took out a dark olive green shirt in a much softer and less practical fabric than he usually wore. Evening wear wasn’t a concept that Dale had seen much of out here; he belatedly noticed the red shirt that Paul had chosen for him, and that Jasper, comfortably sprawled as he was, was wearing a simple honey coloured shirt that after a moment he realised was actually made of some kind of soft leather or buckskin, so thin that it was barely noticeable. Riley re emerged in a cotton shirt that draped around his hips and which he was rolling up the sleeves of to be comfortable, and from the deep rust colour that turned his hair from chestnut to near auburn and lit up his eyes, was definitely one of Paul’s choosing, as much as Flynn’s was. Only Paul noticed or cared about this kind of thing, although Dale definitely appreciated the result.
“I suppose, if you’re going to clean up,” Paul said, getting up, “Then I probably ought to.”
“We’re only cleaning up because we knew you’d make us.” Riley pointed out. Paul smiled at him, took Dale’s towel and disappeared into the bathroom.
“Be quick!” Riley called after him. Flynn finished buttoning his cuffs and held out a hand to Dale, and Dale knew before he took it that something was going to happen. He wasn’t sure what, but Riley walked ahead of them down the hallway and opened the door into Philip and David’s room.
Flynn followed him inside, leading Dale with him, and Jasper ambled after them. It was, compared to the other bedrooms up here, by far the biggest in the house. It stretched from front to back of the house with three walls containing windows: views to the north, the south and the west of the ranch, and the large, neatly made up bed stood among the stands of silver glassed black and white photographs, which covered the shelves, the bedside table and the dressing table opposite the two large oak closets. Dale had never seen inside the closets but he knew without asking that Philip and David’s belongings still stood in them. The room was as if it had only been left this morning by two men who would come back to it, to use the silver backed brushes on the dressing table and the fresh linen on the bed. Riley sat down on the window seat and Dale, still holding Flynn’s hand, went to look at the photographs.
After today, he knew many more of the faces in them, even though those faces were younger, and in some cases considerably younger. Wade, with dark hair, and a man who Dale thought was probably Charlie, a thickset man with very kind eyes and a warm smile. Darcy, looking in his early twenties alongside a very young and teenaged Riley and a younger and shaggier haired Jake; Gerry in his early twenties, much slimmer but with exactly the same smile; Bear not looking a whole lot different to now, but with an arm around Philip and towering over him, with the same wide and happy smile alongside an expression on Philip’s face that caught Dale’s eye; one of a good deal of tenderness. Luath, sitting on a fence alongside Jasper and Flynn, none of the three of them looking at whoever had taken a picture, and apparently engaged in trying to untangle some piece of harness, and another of Luath with dark hair, arms around a man in glasses with a sweet and slightly puzzled smile and a book in his hands, who was probably Roger. A very young Paul, leaning on the shoulders of an elderly man with wild hair and long legs who was sitting on the porch swing. David. And the picture on the bedside table that Dale knew and loved; Philip with an arm around David’s hips, the two of them on the porch together.
Paul came in to join them, still buttoning a very dark navy blue shirt, a colour he often wore but with long sleeves which he didn’t, and shut the door behind him.
“No one’s around, we shouldn’t be disturbed in here.”
For what? Dale was about to ask, and then Jasper put his hand into his jeans pocket and took out a small, velvet box, and Dale’s throat caught.
They had chosen the designs individually and without much difficulty, although with a fair amount of teasing between Flynn and Riley, but Dale had seen nothing of the process or the materials since he and Riley hacked the chunks of glittering quartz out of the rock in the Three Traders mine. That muddy, encrusted rock was a very far cry from the polished and glittering five rings in the box, gold rings inset with the white quartz still veined with gold. It was easy to see whose was whose. Flynn had chosen a signet ring style, and Jasper and Paul had chosen styles very similar, although Flynn’s was a very traditional signet where Jasper’s was heavier and rougher shaped and more natural, and Paul’s was inset with five tiny stones. Riley and Dale together had had chosen two very similar and smaller designs, Dale’s just the simple quartz inset in a band, and Riley’s the same but inset like Paul’s.
They stood together in a cluster for several minutes, looking at the finished rings. Then Paul put an arm around Riley and said slightly thickly,
“Aren’t they beautiful? I had no idea your bits of muddy rock could turn into this.”
“The craftsman who made them was fascinated.” Jasper said softly, tilting the box so the light caught the gold veins in the quartz. “I don’t think he’d ever had quite such raw material given to him, he told Riley and me this afternoon that he thoroughly enjoyed himself making these.”
Flynn squeezed Dale’s hand and let go to take the signet ring that was Paul’s gently out of the box, reaching across for Paul’s left hand.
“I think you’re owed the first one. You’ve waited a hell of a long time for this, and no one could have been more patient with us. God knows you deserve it.”
“You were always worth the waiting for.” Paul said gently, letting Flynn turn his hand over. Flynn slid the ring onto his fourth finger, and Paul grasped his hand and kissed him. Then Paul took Jasper’s ring from the box and Jasper offered his hand, and the ring passed smoothly over his knuckle into place on his fourth finger. Jasper stooped to kiss Paul and then very simply and directly, Flynn, taking the third of the signet rings from the box and slipping it on to Flynn’s finger.
Flynn took the fourth ring from the box, Riley’s more slender band, and held out a hand.
Riley was standing still, very quiet, but he put his left hand into Flynn’s and Flynn slipped the ring into place on his finger, stooped to kiss him, and then picked him up as Riley hugged him, lifting him off his feet for a moment in a tight, fierce embrace. Riley promptly moved from his arms to Jasper’s and to Paul’s, for a moment, without saying a word, and then Flynn took out the fifth ring and held out a hand to Dale, giving him one of his very rare, real smiles, mouth as well as eyes.
It didn’t feel real, to be standing shoulder to shoulder in this circle, belonging there, part of this. Dale pulled himself together and found his left hand, lifting it to take Flynn’s, and Flynn fitted the ring gently onto his fourth finger and slid it up into place. Riley hit him in the chest a split second later in a crushing hug, and his place was taken by Paul, who kissed him and gave him a rather gentler although no less encompassing hug. Jasper put a hand behind his head, smiling at him in the way that lit up his eyes, and kissed him gently on the mouth before he hugged him. And Flynn took Jasper’s place, cupped Dale’s face in his hands and kissed him, a brief but lingering kiss that left its mark even after their lips parted.
“You’ve belonged to us for months,” Paul said to Dale when things calmed down slightly, “It’s hard to remember there was ever a time when you didn’t, so this is less a late wedding present than something we thought you needed.”
He put his hands on Dale’s shoulders and guided onto the landing, towards Flynn’s room, and Riley laughed and towed him inside, and Dale realised what had taken Paul the time to join them.
The silver frames were identical to the 1920s antique style in Philip and David’s room, gleaming and immaculate, and two stood on either end of Flynn and Dale’s dressers as they stood side by side. One framed the black and white picture of Dale’s father in his army uniform. Dale stared at it and felt Paul’s arm slide around his waist and give him an apologetic hug.
“I’m afraid I sneaked it from your wallet and had it enlarged. I thought he was far too good looking a man to try looking at in such a small picture.”
The other picture was equally enlarged to be a matched size, and was a copy of the picture on Philip’s night stand; the photograph Dale had loved since the first time he saw it. Philip and David together on the porch, Philip’s arm draped around David’s hips, both of them smiling. Dale looked at it, awkwardly aware that tears were coming to his eyes and blurring the pictures in front of him.
“Don’t,” Riley warned him, “You’ll start me off. There’s two more.”
These two lay on the bed, in the same silver frames, black and white as the others were, but Dale realised as he looked at them that they had been deliberately tinted to black and white; they were actually new pictures. One was of him and Riley sitting on the swing on the porch, obviously deep in conversation as neither of them had seen the photographer and Dale’s hands were busy pulling the ears of Shane who was sitting with his head on Dale’s knee. The other was of Dale walking up the drive between Flynn and Jasper; from the light it was probably early evening and one of the evenings he had walked out with them to do the final day’s checks on the horses and to lock up. Several horses, Hammer among them, were standing by the corral rails in the background. They were both beautiful pictures, both obviously Paul’s work, and Dale turned around to find him, well aware whose idea this had been.
“We thought we needed to keep the family collection up to date,” Paul said when Dale hugged him. “And that it was time to start some new shelves of pictures downstairs in the family room.”
It was twilight when they went out into the yard. The shadows were taking over now and a kind of gold haze hung in the air and rose from the grass. A small campfire was crackling in the pasture beyond the gate, set on bare earth inside a ring of stones, and several men were sitting or lying alongside it. An impromptu baseball game had started further out in the pasture with a mixture of men some of whom could run and others who trotted stiffly but still bowled and caught, and other men were sitting along the fence, watching. Wood smoke was in the air, and despite the voices, it seemed very peaceful. The record player was still playing quietly from the family room, out of the open windows into the yard.
Paul stopped in the kitchen to move empty plates and to take more jugs of tea out of the fridge; the running buffet still appeared to be going strong. Jasper, Riley, Dale and Flynn walked out onto the porch and found Luath sitting alone on the swing, relaxed back with a glass in his hand. He smiled at Dale, lifting the glass in a casual greeting.
“Hey. I haven’t had a lot of time to visit with you yet, why don’t you get a drink and sit down a while?”
“I’ll get them.” Flynn said calmly and went back into the kitchen. Riley perched up on the porch rail alongside Jasper, and Dale sat down on the other end of the swing, feeling slightly overawed by the very good looking man who was watching him so searchingly, who knew him in the city and in the business world, and who Flynn loved.
They could beat around the bush, go through pleasantries, keep this light and Dale knew Luath wouldn’t push him; Ash was the same. Kind, understanding and tactful, but this wasn’t a cocktail party and this man wasn’t a casual acquaintance. Dale had a clear understanding, looking around the men in the yard and the pasture, that he would see these same men very regularly for probably the rest of his life, and just as Luath’s offer of help in New York to him as a total stranger but as a family brat had been sincere, Dale’s own commitment to these men, strangers or otherwise, was just as strong. So he took a deep breath and looked the man straight in his dark eyes.
“So was Flynn really as bad as he says he was when he first came here?”
Luath’s shout of laughter made the men on the fence look around. “Yes.” he said when he calmed down a bit. “Yes, he really was, although it was all a front.”
“Tell him about the hunger strike.” Paul called from the kitchen.
“Don’t tell him about the hunger strike!” Flynn ordered, coming out of the kitchen with four glasses of iced tea, one of which he handed to Dale. Luath grinned, leaning back in the swing as Flynn sat down.
“Now that was pretty early on.”
“It was a pride thing,” Paul said, coming to join them and taking the basket chair opposite, “Meaning: I'll work for you, but catch me eating your food or taking anything from you…."
“It was not that bad.” Flynn protested. Luath shook his head.
“About the second week he was here – breakfast time – Philip told him to sit down and eat with us, and Flynn blessed us all out and told us he’d look after himself. And Philip invited him to stand in the corner of his study until he was ready to join us at the table, and Flynn was so surprised he actually did it.”
Dale looked at Flynn with his eyebrows raised, and Flynn shook his head.
“Lies. All lies.”
"Now tell him how long you were there." Paul invited. Flynn shook his head, grinning.
"I don’t remember."
"Eight hours." Paul said calmly. Dale's eyebrows shot up and Paul levelled his glass at Flynn. "Eight. Stubborn as a bull and fit as a marine, and he just stood there. And Philip sat at his desk and worked and they both totally ignored each other. We were taking bets by lunchtime over which of them would break first."
"How did it end?" Dale asked. Flynn shrugged a little.
"Philip tended to just …. take your co operation for granted and you found yourself going along with him. Eventually he just took my arm, sat me down at his desk in front of a plate, and by that time I’d done a lot of thinking, and I felt a lot less bloody minded. No lecture, no fuss. And after that I turned up for meals."
“I was a sod myself when I first came out here, I can’t blame you.” Dale said to Flynn who shook his head.
“You weren’t that bad.”
“Figuring exactly how many seconds per step I was allowed if I was given a set time for a task?” Dale explained to Luath. “I did everything at speed of light – nervous energy – so Flynn told me I had to take twenty minutes for this, forty minutes for that, to try to slow me down.”
“And you calculated exactly how to slow down?” Luath asked, smiling. Dale winced slightly.
“To about the third decimal place.”
“Literally.” Paul said catching Dale’s eye with a smile that took all the sting out of the teasing. “I was- Darcell Julien....!”
“You said we were supposed to tidy up for dinner.” Darcy said serenely, picking up a glass from the kitchen table as he came out onto the porch.
There was a shocked silence while they surveyed his outfit, from the extremely brief and clinging royal blue silk shorts that emphasised the length of bare legs above tennis shoes, and the purple and orange paisley t shirt, which was as skin tight as the shorts were. He had the body for it, but Dale, rather surprised, looked him over from the one gleaming earring in his left ear to the slim and well turned ankles above tennis shoes and thought that actually the outfit looked rather incongruous with what little he knew of Darcy. Riley, grinning, focused on his drink and said nothing. Flynn pointed at the door.
“Ok, you made us look. Now go and change.”
“It’s a Gaultier, this is top of the range. It was on the runway less than three weeks ago-“ Darcy said good naturedly, turning to give him a better look at the shorts and grinning as Gerry wolf whistled at him from across the yard.
“Forget it,” Flynn told him, swatting the tight seat of the blue shorts. “No one is ever walking around here looking like they charge by the hour.”
It wasn’t much of a swat, Darcy only grinned at him, but followed Flynn’s point inside.
“You’re about forty years behind the times, this is what I wear for special occasions and no one would look twice-”
“The only useful thing you could do in that outfit is swim in it,” Paul informed him, getting up. “Or perform ‘YMCA’ if someone gave you a hard hat. Philip would go up the wall.”
“I don’t believe you let him buy that kind of stuff.” Flynn said to Luath as Paul took Darcy upstairs. Luath was smiling, but shook his head.
“He’s a free agent. Some of what he calls ‘couture’ I’d call ‘brothel’, but then what do I know about fashion?”
“You’d have let Roger walk around looking like that?” Flynn demanded, and Luath laughed.
“It was hard enough to get Rog to change out of patched jeans and a threadbare sweater. And you know he’s playing.”
“I do, it’s deliberate provocation.” Flynn settled back into the swing and picked up his drink again. “Shock value.”
“Well where else does he get to play like that?” Luath said mildly. “He’s always liked to flirt with the idea, he does with me at home. He doesn’t often get a more expert audience.”
“Mmn.” Flynn said darkly.
There were parts of this conversation that Dale didn’t understand a word of, although from Riley’s grin he was understanding every word. Flynn sat back in the swing, wrapping an arm around Dale’s shoulders, a casual and possessive gesture that took Dale’s mind straight off Darcy.
“So while we’re dealing with the stroppy and the difficult – what happened to the roll I told you to eat this morning?”
Riley caught Dale’s eye, firmly enough to stop Dale opening his mouth, and answered cheerfully on his behalf.
“Oh it got eaten, I made sure.”
Dale shut his mouth, stifling a very childish urge to laugh, and instead hid himself in his drink.
The music changed on the record player to something rapid and unaccompanied, a man singing a shanty alone to a very clipped rhythm
Oh the year was Seventeen Seventy-Eight
How I wish I was in Sherbrook now
A letter of mark came from the king
To the scummiest vessel I've ever seen
Riley slid off the rail and jogged inside and a minute later the volume increased sharply, and several of the men on the fence looked around, grinning. Others promptly abandoned the baseball field and came back into the yard, and most of them appeared to know the words to the chorus which came round and round again with a deceptively fast and cheerful tune,
I was told we’d cruise the sea for American gold
We’d fire no guns, Shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers
Most of the men gathered on the porch were singing it, Riley and Flynn among them, and Riley stood up on the porch rail. All the men had come back from the pasture, some to sing and some to apparently enjoy watching in a way that suggested this had been a family favourite for several generations. Probably stemming from David; Dale had an idea this would have been a song David enjoyed. Darcy, emerging from the house now in a very elegant and understated white shirt and jeans, caught Dale’s eye and smiled at him, joining Gerry who was beating time on the porch rail nearest Riley and singing with enthusiasm.
Now here I lay in my twenty-third year
How I wish I was in Sherbrook now
It's been six years since we sailed away
And I just made Halifax yesterday
God damn them all
I was told we’d cruise the sea for American gold
We’d fire no guns, Shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers
The maniac speed of the shanty didn’t break until the very last line, and that was drawn out as far as possible with cheers and applause when it ended.
“Riley, turn that racket down a bit,” Flynn said when he could make himself heard, standing up and coming to the head of the steps. Men in the yard, on the steps, on the rail and on the porch were gathered and looking towards him, some in identifiable pairs and some in groups, and as the music softened into the background again Flynn cleared his throat and the group gradually hushed to listen.
“I won’t make speeches, but while we’re together, thank you everyone who dropped everything and came to join in today. There are people here who knew David well and they’ve told me he would have very much appreciated it. So in the memory of David and Gam Saan, and for the others we dearly would have loved to have had here with us today: gentlemen, absent friends.”
He raised his glass and Dale lifted his, saying aloud with the men around him,
Tom and Jake were on the fringe of the crowd, standing close together; Dale heard Tom’s voice repeat the toast and looked up. Tom caught his eye and gave him a rather wry smile. On the porch, Darcy slipped his arm through Luath’s.
“And also while we’re together,” Flynn went on, “You’re all aware from the grapevine if not directly from us that Dale has been working here on the ranch through much of this year, and that Paul, Jasper, Riley and I were delighted when he decided to permanently move in with us in August. Thank you for giving us some time together before you came to meet him-”
“Hey, that’s a ring!” Gerry accused, pointing at Flynn’s hand on his glass. Darcy promptly grabbed for Riley’s hand and yanked it into view, Luath picked up Dale’s hand and turned it over to find the ring, and Wade shouted back from the steps,
“Jasper and Paul too, that’s the five of them!”
“When did you do that?” Gerry demanded. “You weren’t wearing them this morning, I’ve been looking! Five matching rings? They’re gorgeous!”
“This afternoon,” Paul said above the hubbub, “And we did it our way thank you, we don’t do commitment ceremonies or anything else.”
“Or three of us don’t, and two of us were out voted.” Riley said cheerfully. “No Celine Dion, no silver balloons-“
“But nevertheless something to celebrate.” Luath squeezed Dale’s hand, giving him a smile, and got up. Ash had pulled car keys from his pocket and he went to the trunk of his car, opened it and removed a blanket from a box of champagne.
“We thought we might have, so we prepared just in case.”
The bottles disappeared into willing hands and the horses in the corral came to stare at the popping of corks. Jasper put an arm around Dale as they were herded into a group on the top of the steps with Flynn, Paul and Riley, and iced tea was exchanged for champagne. Gerry grabbed one bottle and shook it vigorously before freeing the cork with his thumb and briefly spraying them and everyone else in their vicinity until Ash grabbed his hand and jerked the spray towards the ground .
“All I can say,” Luath said when everyone had a glass and Gerry’s exploding bottle was under control, “Is that it’s wonderful to see people we love so
“Even if you were rotten enough not to let us in on the ceremony,” Wade added.
“- and Dale, we’re delighted you’ve joined us.” Luath went on, unmoved. “You’ll get used to the mouthier among us, and you’ll never be short of a sympathetic ear if you want one. I read once that the writer Sam Keen said that love comes not from finding the perfect person, but from seeing an imperfect person perfectly. That’s always seemed to me very true of many of us here, and the basis for some of the best partnerships I know.”
There was an outbreak of ‘here here’ from the gathered men around them, Flynn caught Dale’s eye and smiled at him, a smile that said all kinds of things that he’d said very privately this afternoon out by the horse herd. Luath lifted his glass.
“To Flynn, Jasper, Paul, Dale and Riley.”
Despite the presence of alcohol, the atmosphere still stayed very relaxed and calm as the evening went on, and Dale suspected that actually not very much was drunk at all. Flynn kept one eye on Riley throughout and several times Dale saw him either signal Riley across to him or drift over to join him.
It was long past dusk and Jasper had lit the lanterns from the stables and stood them in the yard when Gerry flung a friendly arm around Dale’s shoulders and guided him down off the porch and casually around the side of the house.
“Little tradition on family special occasions. We thought you ought to know about it.”
“Oh yes?” Dale said warily. Riley, who was with a group Dale recognised as entirely brats, plus Darcy who seemed to be an included part of the set, grinned at him and waved a mostly empty champagne bottle.
“It’s harmless, I won’t let them do anything to you. This is one of David’s customs, although I never saw him do it.”
“I did.” Gerry said happily. “And Wade did, and Niall. He told me once, it was something he picked up while he was at sea. They used to do it on a beam or mast rail or something, until someone fell off, although I never saw David fall when he did it.”
“Did what?” Tom inquired, appearing out of the shadows quietly enough to make Darcy jump. “Dale, I came to see if you wanted rescuing.”
“I’m not sure yet.” Dale said dryly.
“Bottle dancing,” Riley indicated the champagne bottle and his Stetson which he had in his other hand. “Ever seen it? Eastern European tradition. You balance the bottle in the dent of your hat-” he demonstrated, seating the bottle firmly upright, “and then there’s a series of steps you have to get through without the bottle tipping over.”
“In order, doing four of each step.” Gerry told Dale, taking a second bottle to fit to his own Stetson. Both he and Riley were standing very upright to balance the bottles, and they faced each other, Gerry grinning.
“And I really ought to practice this more often. The first is just a step forward and back...”
He began to click his fingers slowly in time with his cautious steps and the others assembled and watching joined in the clicking as Riley and Gerry moved in careful time with each other, moving from forward and back, to slow and careful turns, to slowly dipping down to one knee and straightening up again, at which point Gerry’s bottle tilted and he grabbed to rescue it, laughing.
“I’m too old to do this well now, I used to be able to get right through to the last step.”
“Which is the hardest.” Darcy took the bottle and Stetson from Gerry, set it on his own head, and with a surprising grace and agility went down onto both his knees keeping his head and back straight to support the bottle, then extended one leg straight out in front and to the side of him, heel planted, and slowly slid himself forward on his knee until both knees were on the ground again, then extended the other leg and slid forward again in a move that reminded Dale of Russian Cossack dancing he’d seen once on a business conference in St Petersburg. Darcy rose without spilling a drop and Gerry snorted.
“Of course it only counts if you do ALL the steps in sequence up to that point, then stand up with still nothing spilled. And properly you should do it up on the garage roof which was the nearest David could get to a mast beam,”
“Except you broke your wrist doing it once,” the man addressed as Niall commented, who had neatly cut white hair and bright eyes and was of Wade’s generation. “And I remember Roger coming off there backwards. David never fell, and he must have been eighty the last time he did it.”
“You want to try?” Wade invited. Niall shook his head.
“I don’t fancy a broken hip, or explaining to James how I got it.”
Tom held out a hand to Darcy, who handed him the bottle and the hat, looking slightly surprised. Tom stepped back for a moment to survey the side of the garage, and then neatly and quickly scaled the wall and climbed up onto the low roof, balancing on the ridge pole like a cat.
Dale watched him for a minute with a detached and growing sense of freedom and enjoyment that bore no relation to rationality, and turned to Riley.
Riley raised his eyebrows but handed Dale both hat and bottle, and Dale looked for footholds and climbed the low wall, finding that once he stood on it, it was an easy transition on to the roof.
It was the first time he ever remembered standing on a roof. Or doing anything so unusual or foolhardy, although on reflection he had done no end of both unusual and foolhardy things on this ranch and it was a bit late to worry now. He had never found it difficult to do anything he set his mind to, and he was aware too that he was thoroughly enjoying himself – the height and the silliness of the risk as much as the idea of David doing this very thing on this same roof. Tom caught his eye and from his grin, he understood very well.
He moved to the opposite end of the roof and balanced the bottle on his hat, and Dale did the same, facing him, feeling the weight of the bottle on his head and instinctively centring himself to balance it. Tom appeared to know the steps and Dale followed his example, beginning the slow clicking of fingers in time with him and following the slow sequence that challenged balance more and more.
It was a complicated game; you learned rapidly about increasing balance, about angles and the physics of it, and Dale, who had occasionally played a demon game of billiards against business associates, found his knowledge increasing step by step. Tom was grinning, moving effortlessly with his body straight like a dancer and keeping eye contact with him, touching first one knee to the floor before standing, and then the other knee, and then sinking to both knees. Dale balanced on the wide ridge pole, cautiously ready, and followed Tom’s example of casting one leg out straight ahead of him to slide himself forward. Moving slowly on the ridge pole but sticking to the rhythm of the clicking fingers, they managed the four steps and slides forward which brought them almost face to face, and stood up and lifted the unspilled bottles down from their hats.
Riley and Gerry whooped from below in the yard, there was a round of applause and Tom grinned at Dale, raising the bottle to him.
“Oh who on earth started this off again?” Paul said in the yard, sounding horrified. “Most of you are old enough to know better! Gerry for pete’s sake, you broke a wrist doing this!”
“But it’s fun.” Gerry remonstrated, “How many times did you watch David doing it?”
“David never fell off. Dale, get down from there right now.”
“Oh don’t put it like that,” Dale heard Tom said wryly.
People were coming from the direction of the yard, attracted by the noise, and slightly flustered at being caught doing something so ridiculous, Dale followed Paul’s order promptly, stepping straight off the roof.
He landed neatly, although the shock of the drop stung feet and ankles, and he straightened with the bottle in his hand, uncomfortably aware of a sudden and deathly hush and that people had stopped moving. Paul, staring at him, had gone a strange shade of white in the half dusk light, and Riley’s mouth had dropped open.
“Told you,” Gerry said quite audibly to Darcy.
Unsure of what to do with the bottle and distinctly uncomfortable, Dale looked around and found Flynn, who took him and turned him by the shoulders to look at the garage, speaking mildly and quite calmly in his ear.
“That is about a ten foot drop. Standing jumps from a ten foot height are not a great idea. We’ll talk tomorrow in detail about why. Are you all right?”
The group around the garage was unfreezing, although the conversation was still hushed, and Jake smiled at Dale, holding out his hand for the bottle.
“Dale? May I?”
There was a lot in that smile; it said something personal and very warm that had to do with Tom, still up on the roof. Dale handed over the bottle, and Paul shook his head in disbelief as Jake climbed easily up to join him.
“Jacob, you’re as bad as David.”
Possibly, but Dale thought that the grin Tom gave Jake as Jake reached the rooftop probably made the risk worthwhile. Jake balanced his bottle on his hat as Tom replaced his bottle. They stood facing each other, Tom started the finger clicking rhythm, and moving in synchronisation he and Jake moved through the sequence of steps faultlessly, one after the other. For all his height Jake moved with the same graceful control as Tom did, not looking to see where he placed booted feet on the ridge pole tiles and mostly he and Tom watched each other as they often did, as if this was some kind of private joke. They completed the four final steps without the faintest tremor, stood up and lifted down the bottles to cheers and a round of applause from below. Jake took both bottles and dropped them down to Jasper, climbed down via the wall and once he was down, held up his hands to Tom who dropped into his grasp so off handedly that it was obviously a well practiced manoeuvre. Jake kissed Tom as he put him down, murmured something to him, and Tom laughed.
“That’s it.” Paul said firmly, herding people around the corner. “No one else anywhere near the garage, move it.”
The lantern light was stronger in the yard and the music was still playing softly.
Paul slipped an arm through Dale’s as they walked, speaking under his breath.
“‘Get down’ means find a safe route my lad, not ‘jump’.”
“You said ‘right now’,” Riley cut in, “And it wasn’t that far.”
Paul, who’d seen the impulse in Dale’s face when he stepped off the roof, wasn’t sure Dale would have thought much more about a fifteen foot drop than he had about a ten. Dale probably could have calculated the height, force and impact without difficulty on request, but it wasn’t the first time they’d seen his common sense short circuit.
“We’ve had a brief committee meeting,” Luath hailed them as they reached the porch. Gerry snorted, coming to sit with Ash.
“You lot don’t have committee meetings, you’re completely disorganised.”
“Well we had a try,” Luath apologised. “The upshot of which, Jasper and Flynn – we did some planning. Darcy, Ash, Gerry and I can stay a week. Jake agreed that would be enough of us to help he and Tom keep the ranch ticking over, and I can do the straight forward horse work. We’d like to offer the five of you some time to go off by yourselves if you’d like to.”
“We’d love it!” Paul said emphatically before Flynn could answer, “I can’t remember the last time we got off the ranch for more than one night.”
“Yes, that’s what we thought.” Luath said dryly.
“Say yes.” Riley commanded Flynn. Flynn and Jasper looked at each other for a minute, although nothing was said, and then Flynn pulled gently on Dale’s hand.
“Do you want to?”
“Camping by the hot springs.” Riley said equally firmly to Flynn, Jasper and Dale. “Eagle Canyon.”
“I’d love to,” Dale said quietly to Flynn.
“I hereby promise to return the ranch in the exact same condition, work done and harness cleaned.” Luath said, holding up his hand. Flynn nodded.
“Thank you. Then I guess we’ll be heading out tomorrow.”
“And not coming home to check every night.” Paul said to Luath over Flynn’s shoulder.
There was a waltz currently playing on the record player and Niall and his partner James, a tall and slender man with very light grey hair and a hooked nose, were dancing in the shadows of the yard with an old world grace that suggested they’d been used to dancing together for a very long time.
“Do you still waltz?” Luath asked Flynn, raising an eyebrow. Flynn smiled, putting his glass down.
“Then come and take your mind off leaving your horses.”
Flynn took Luath’s offered hand and they walked down the steps into the yard. Luath turned Flynn by the hand into his arms and they fell into a smooth waltz step. Flynn was a surprisingly good dancer, as light on his feet as he was in the saddle.
“I love watching him do this.” Riley said cheerfully, climbing up to sit on the rail beside Jasper. “He only ever really does it with Luath.”
“Philip danced properly,” Paul said, leaning on the porch rail beside Dale. “And James did – they were of that generation, it was something men were expected to be able to do, and they taught the rest of us. James taught me how to jive years ago, he and Wade could do it beautifully, they learned in the forces during the war, all the lifts, the lot. James told me his division used to jive on the march in parades or on long marches when they were bored.”
“Do you waltz?” Dale asked him. Paul gave him a surprised look.
“I’m a public school product, we were trained in it.” Dale tucked one hand behind his back and offered the other courteously to Paul, thinking of a school hall full of awkward school boys learning the steps, and of various formal events in large convention rooms, none of which were as pretty as the red dust, lantern lit yard here in the dark. “It was useful at work at times, mostly senior officials’ wives, but I’ve never tried it for fun before.”
Paul laughed, took his hand and Dale led him down the steps to an open spot, held out his arms to Paul and led him in a smooth circle, finding Paul was as easy to lead as he was to talk to, and that it was easy to dance in riding boots on scuffed hard earth. And that Paul was infinitely more fun to dance with than an official’s wife.
Tom – another British public school product- was standing with Jake, watching, and Jake had both arms around his waist, muttering something into his ear. Dale caught Tom’s eye and Tom gave him a resigned shake of the head, but he took Jake’s hands and from what Dale could see was teaching Jake the steps of the waltz, and Jake was catching on very quickly. Luath passed them with Flynn, out of breath, and paused, holding out a hand to Paul.
“Paul, please? I need someone less energetic. I used to be able to keep up with him.”
Paul went to Luath, and Flynn held out a hand to Dale, who stepped into his arms and fell into step with him. It was the same song they were dancing to that Dale remembered Flynn singing softly one night when he and Flynn were lying in bed with Riley.
For we still keep our time to the turn of the tide
And this boat that I built with my father
Still lifts to the sky, the one lunger and I
Still talk like old friends on the water
It was quiet but for the music, just the quiet hum of voices from the porch and around the yard, the couples dancing in the shadows, and the occasional soft clink of a glass or the distant snort of a horse. Riley, arms around his knees and keeping his balance on the narrow porch rail by leaning against Jasper, was watching them and he and Jasper were talking about something that was making Riley laugh. Flynn was humming to the music very softly under his breath along with the guitar and the distinctively western swoop of the violin. He moved as smoothly as Bandit sailed over the grass in the pasture, his arm warm around Dale’s waist, his hand light and firm in the small of Dale’s back, his dark green eyes on Dale’s. Luath was right; Flynn moved swiftly and with a lot of vitality, and to dance with him was like flying.
The ranch yard was in darkness now but for the lanterns in the yard, the lights from the house and the stars appearing one by one overhead, far brighter out here than they ever shone in the city.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009