Friday, May 14, 2010

Chapter 2 - Ranch


Apparently the routine was that everyone not directly involved in meeting the poor bastard getting off the plane, got out of the way and went to Jackson for the day.

“You want to see a man cry when his cell phone’s taken away?” Riley demanded when Dale asked him about it. “Not pretty. You’ve been there, would you have wanted an audience?”

Riley had a knack of getting straight to the point. Dale had vivid memories of standing in the kitchen with a quietly immoveable Flynn, and of the bitter rage he’d been swallowing down. Emphatically no, he would not have wanted an audience.

“You know we do it deliberately to make it shocking?” Riley said when he didn’t answer, with a compassion that Dale knew meant he wasn’t joking half as much as his tone made it sound. “We want to jolt them off balance, get them facing that they’re going to have to confront the mess they’re in, and things are going to happen on our terms, not theirs. It’s the same way you’d handle a horse. You start with leg yields, transitions, little easy stuff and pretty soon you’ve got them in the habit of doing what you ask, and you can ease them up to the big stuff. If you’ve let someone take anything off you that they don’t think you should have, including your usual clothes, you’ve already pretty much agreed they’re in charge.”

It wasn’t a technique Flynn kept just for clients; that kind of silent consent was something he and Riley lived by every day.

Riley was watching him and drew Snickers a little closer to Hammer, as relaxed in the saddle as Flynn always was, and with the same fine balance that meant he moved like part of the horse. It was early morning. The sunlight on the pastures was still thin and stretched out in long fingers that lanced through the trees and across the grass, they were wrapped in zipped up fleeces and turned up collars against the morning chill, and headed home, the stock work already done for the day, which meant that they could go into Jackson and leave Jasper alone to receive Mason Dempsey.

“I’ve never watched it done.” Riley said casually, “It’s high stress stuff, puts clients under a lot of pressure when they’re most fragile, and he’s never said so but I think Flynn doesn’t want me around in case a client loses it and hits out. I’m pretty sure if I ever did take a client someone else would be around during this bit. Can I ask you something?”

“What was it like to go through it?” Dale gave him a wry look, lengthening the rein as Hammer shook his head, huffing steam in the chilled air. “I didn’t really notice. I was mostly preoccupied with this large New Zealander with no concept of personal space and bulging biceps, who seemed very convinced he was the boss.”

Riley laughed. Dale shook his head, able to confide this to Riley when he was joking in a way he would have struggled to talk to anyone else.

“I didn’t have much of a grip on reality at the time, and I hadn’t done for a while. I didn’t realise how far gone I was until after the first couple of days when I got over the caffeine withdrawal, caught up on sleep and stopped hallucinating, but mostly I was scared. Really, seriously scared, I felt totally out of control and I had no idea what to do. It was a shock to have someone demand I handed over my phone and to lay down the law about what was going to happen and what I could and couldn’t do, but it was a huge relief. I know I’m wired that way, but even so.”

“You were different you know?” Riley’s knee bumped his and Riley leaned over to give him a quick one-armed hug that was as warm as all Riley’s ready gestures of affection were. “You would have been an unusual client even if you hadn’t had ‘brat’ written all over you.”

The intake process for a client happened extremely fast. Dale, having spent a career moving things quickly in emergencies, hadn’t been surprised by it, although he’d appreciated the efficiency. It gave him an uncomfortable insight into the work behind the scenes that must have gone into his own admission to the ranch’s programme. The printout for Mason had been laid on the table when he sat down to dinner with the others just two days ago, and Riley had picked it up, skimming rapidly through the sheets.

“Hey, emergency referral. What’s this one done?”

Dale felt his stomach lurch and sat down, watching Riley read. Paul put the rest of the dishes down on the table and sat down with them amidst the clink of china and the steam rising from hot vegetables. “The Corporate just narrowly avoided a very public court hearing over the man’s treatment of several employees by a settlement with a very large pay off. Second time in six months. At a guess, someone in the Corporate knows or has heard of someone else who came to us. They’ve suspended him while they apply to us, and their terms look likely to be that either he agrees to come to us or he’s fired.”

“In other words, they really don’t want to lose him but they can’t afford to keep him unless something drastic is done about his people skills.” Flynn leaned on the table, reading over Riley’s arm. “Are all the forms here?”

“The lot.” Paul confirmed, passing Dale a plate. “They called too to check we had everything and I let them know we’d get back to them tonight. We make a decision on the emergency referrals straight away,” he added to Dale. “Either to get things moving and get the client out here, or to let the Corporate look for other avenues if we can’t help.”

“How do you make the decision?” Dale asked.

Flynn glanced up, catching his eye, and the dark green eyes penetrated straight through him without difficulty; Dale saw them miss nothing and flushed slightly. Flynn’s tone said clearly he’d seen, understood, and wasn’t putting up with any of it.

“We will be making this decision. And it’s based on the individual and our situation at the time.”

“No major mental health red flags that I can see,” Riley commented, flicking paper over as he ate one handed with his fork. A label at the top of each page indicated highly confidential information but there was no name mentioned anywhere. “He’s single, aged 43, CEO for the last six years – one of the older ones rather than one of the whizzkids then, has a CV that goes on for two pages- a lot about the incidents, going back about the same six years, all personnel related – no medical involvement or concerns there, no obvious pattern on the profile tick list.”

Paul extracted several pages from the print out and laid it on the table beside his plate, turning it so Dale could read with him. The list contained over seventy questions covering a wide range of areas, and several of them jumped out at Dale’s eye.

Have there ever been concerns regarding impulsiveness?
Have any incidents arisen due to verbal aggression towards colleagues or clients?
Have any incidents arisen due to physical aggression?
Have there ever been concerns regarding alcohol use?

The columns for that particular section provided the options of ‘never’, ‘rumoured but not witnessed’, ‘observed on a few occasions’, ‘regularly’ and ‘area of current concern’, with an additional space requesting details. Another section asked searching questions about the individual’s communication styles and working relationships.

“We ask not to be told the name unless we agree to take the client.” Paul explained gently.
“Eat something hon, it’s getting cold.”

Paul never missed that either. Dale pulled himself together, picked up his fork and began to eat. Paul turned the pages, passing the ones he had read to Jasper.

“Names are none of our business unless we’re going to work with him; we just need clear information on what the problems are and what help is wanted.”

The Corporate was asked to define, clearly, what they hoped to achieve by entering their exec into the Falls Chance programme; Dale could see the sheet on the table by Riley. This represented several hours of hard work by Human Resources and several high up people in the Corporate if he was any judge; work carried out quickly which suggested this man was highly valuable to them, and that they were in a crisis situation. People at this level didn’t sacrifice time or respond this fast without good reason.

“It’s a test of the Corporate’s commitment as well as information for our use,” Flynn said to him from across the table. “If they’re going to sponsor a client we need to know if they’re committed enough to see it through, comply with the programme and support the client afterwards. It’s a bit calmer when the Corporate and client have agreed together that the client comes to us, as a form of sabbatical or training, or if the client is the one who applies to us himself, but the emergency referrals have particular rules.”

“How do you decide?”

We decide.” Flynn repeated, with a little more emphasis. “We’ll score the profiles after dinner and make some decisions then.”

In the family room after dinner, in front of the fire which they were still lighting for warmth in the evenings even now spring was starting, Jasper took a seat on the hearth stone, reached over for Dale’s wrist as he often did and pulled him down so that Dale folded up at his feet on the hearthrug and leaned back against his legs. It was like being enclosed when you sat with Jasper in that way with him over you, around you, and it was the nonchalant intimacy of it that Dale most loved; as if to Jasper it was a comfortable habit to have him there. The firelight cast shadows over the hearthrug that flickered and danced along with the radiant warmth of the fire, and Jasper’s long fingers slipped through the hair at the nape of his neck and rubbed, deeply and slowly. Sometimes it was difficult to think back to a time when days hadn’t always ended in this room with these men; it seemed like a different lifetime. Evenings here were by no means always quiet, but they were always social and comfortable, and always involved doing something together.

Flynn brought some documents from the study, laid them out on the coffee table beside the tray of tea Paul had brought in, and sat on the edge of the couch with a pencil in hand to compare them to the printout profiles, scoring them rapidly. Riley sat on the floor beside him with his long legs crossed with easy flexibility and went on reading through the other sections of the application, passing the sheets back to Paul as he finished them. Jasper took them from Paul as Paul finished them, putting them down to read on the hearthstone where they were in Dale’s line of sight. Someone from the Corporate had explained what they knew of this man’s career and of his life in general, including a mention that he’d grown up with his mother and sister in L.A. after his father abandoned them, but the main detail was in the descriptions of the incidents that had led to court involvement, and it was easy to read between the lines of those. Dale scanned them, reading between the lines with full knowledge of the dynamics, politics and stresses that went on in offices like these. A Chief Executive Officer of a Corporate’s job involved a high level of risk in all ways; personal, professional and financial. To be good at it took a certain amount of ruthlessness and he’d met plenty of people who had it.

“Lowest area of need is physical and mental health, there’s a low score there.” Flynn said, laying down his pen. “Followed by issues around working skills. The Corporate’s happy with those but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we would be. Low stress indicator score. Some social skill concerns, mostly around working relationships with colleagues, linking into a high behaviour score. Behaviour by far the biggest area of need. Possible red flags around appropriate responses and boundaries, handling emotion and provocation, and working relationships. The Corporate is the one thinking there’s a problem, not the client.”

“Let’s play spot the denial.” Riley murmured beside him.

“Nothing standing out in the background information, and it’s long term patterns of behaviour that have gradually built up rather than specific or one-off incidents.” Flynn went on. “Actually he sounds like a fairly classic behaviour case.”

“Most of them fit into one category or another on paper.” Riley said to Dale, glancing up to catch his eye. “But that’s only ever the Corp’s side of things. We usually get a different perspective once we actually get to know the guy. You were red flagging all over the health section but A.N.Z. scored you as practically no concerns in all the other sections. Yeah, we’re fine with him obsessing, exercising himself sick, working 25/8 and being a brat, just stop him hallucinating.”

“Riley!” Paul protested, but Dale understood it wasn’t by any means tactlessness: Riley knew this was information he wanted and couldn’t bring himself to ask out loud. Riley’s whole reaction to the paperwork, to this unknown man with the behaviour problems, was strongly, cheerfully positive, and that helped too. Dale returned the private grin Riley shot at him, and Riley stacked together what printout he had left, dropping it on the coffee table.

“I say yes.”

“My vote’s yes too.” Flynn glanced up at Jasper, who nodded, hand on the back of Dale’s neck where it was still massaging.

“Yes. Dale?”

Dale tipped his head slightly to look up at him. Jasper’s face was calm, but that didn’t make the question any less serious.

“You know Dale wouldn’t say no even if he hated the idea.” Riley pointed out.

“Dale wouldn’t do that, because he knows what I’d do to him if he did.” Paul said firmly. “Dale, ask whatever you want and we’ll talk about it. You don’t have to step off into the deep end with us.”

“It’s..... interesting to see the process from the other side.” Dale agreed. “But yes, of course I’m all for it. I know firsthand what it can do.”

Riley whistled a clear wheeeeeeeeee....crash sound effect. Getting used to him now, Dale shook his head.



Flynn’s raised eyebrow backed up Riley’s bad imitation of a British accent. Dale sighed.

“All right, it’s odd to look at the papers and think you all sat here and dissected me like this, but it’s hardly stepping off into the deep end. The man’s obviously in a bad situation, I don’t see any reason to turn him down and I’d be keen to do whatever I could to help.”

Across the room, Paul was still looking at him searchingly. Dale met his gaze, letting him look and deeply appreciating the quite unnecessary consideration behind it, and after a moment Paul nodded.

“If you’re sure you feel all right with it, then my answer’s yes too. I’ll go into Jackson in the morning and kit him out.”

Flynn passed Paul the sheet with detailed information on clothes and shoe sizes.

“No diet issues, no health needs that anyone’s aware of, not a smoker.”

“I’ll do the mentoring.” Jasper said quietly. Flynn glanced up, and Dale saw the look pass between them with a slight thud in his stomach as the facts made themselves clear.

“Jasper or Flynn usually take the stroppy ones.” Riley explained from the floor. “They like the stroppy ones.”

“It’s usually whoever’s a good match for the need of that person and who currently has time, but yes.” Paul said calmly.

“He means he mostly takes the depressed or sick ones,” Riley pointed out, “Or the older ones.”

“There’s all sorts of things that factor into the decision, and we keep saying to you that you can take a client any time you like.” Flynn leaned down to hook an arm around Riley, hauling him up from the rug. Riley wrestled with him, grinning as Flynn fought him down into his lap and folded both arms over him, suppressing him without difficulty.

“Too much responsibility.”

“You do as much of the work as any of us and most clients want someone they can talk to, not a therapist. You’re outstanding at getting someone’s confidence.”

“It’s not can’t, it’s I don’t want to.” Riley said calmly. “I’m happy helping from the sidelines.”

“Dale, the same goes for you too.” Jasper’s hand squeezed gently on the back of Dale’s neck. “I’d suggest watching the first one or two go through first to get used to it, but you’ve got a lot to offer any client we take on and you’re always free to take one on yourself. The mentor just acts as the co-ordinator; we all do the job together.”

Emails were sent; Flynn went upstairs to dispatch them, accepting the client and detailing the arrangements which the Corporate would now need to follow to get their man out here. They
then sat together by the fire and talked, as they did most evenings, and Paul watched Dale hugging his knees, folded up as only Dale could fold up with his back against Jasper’s legs. It was never easy to read his face, he always looked pleasantly composed, but Paul too often caught his grey eyes focused down on the rug tonight instead of involved in the conversation, his hands just a little too restless, and they were the clues. Subtle, but there. The clock chimed nine slowly from its place by the bookcase, and Flynn tipped his head back to see it.

“Dale, head on up and get ready for bed.”

Of course Flynn wouldn’t have missed it. Riley’s lack of surprise or protest on Dale’s behalf also said a lot; he usually vigorously advocated on Dale’s behalf if he thought Dale was being oppressed. Dale neither protested nor questioned nor even pulled a face, he just got up.

“Yes sir.”

Jasper caught his hand, pulled him down and kissed him, the two dark heads close together for a moment. Dale always looked slighter still against Jasper’s leanness. Paul reached out his arms for a hug, and when Dale stooped down to him, held him close. Riley, still curled up quite unselfconsciously on Flynn’s lap, was avoiding Flynn’s eye or any indication at all that anyone was preparing to sleep as Dale padded upstairs, and he grimaced as Flynn patted his hip.

“Half pint, get yourself a cup of tea or hot chocolate. You go up when it’s done.”

“It’s too early!” Riley protested, not moving. “Just because Dale doesn’t mouth off when you send him up and he needs sorting out-”

“You can go right now if you’d rather?” Flynn offered. Riley grimaced and got up.

“Fine. Yippee. Cocoa. If you had two of us that good we’d be headed to bed at lunchtime.”

“Just as well you’re not then.” Flynn stretched the kinks out and got up too as Paul headed for the stairs. “Paul? I’ll go.”

Paul paused at the foot of the stairs. “I don’t want him to think we sent him upstairs so we could talk about him.”

“It’s ok, I won’t keep him waiting.” Flynn put an arm around Paul’s waist as he passed, gave him a brief, rough hug and went upstairs. Paul went back to join Jasper and sat down beside him on the warm hearth stone, looking at the fire. Riley, in the kitchen, was out of earshot, and for a moment it was just the two of them.

“An emergency client is a lot different to the ones we’ve had drop in.”

Jasper put a hand down on his knee and squeezed. Paul wrapped his hands around Jasper’s familiar one and looking down at the weather tanned long fingers interlacing his own.

“I know, I know. Let things happen the way they happen and we’ll help him wherever he needs help. I just-”

“- like being able to keep him on calm water.” Jasper finished for him when he trailed off. Paul grimaced.

“Ri doesn’t care who’s here, he’s never bothered at all about what they think, it doesn’t worry him. Dale will mind. It’s important for him that he doesn’t feel he has to be competent 24/7, and he won’t stand up for what he needs. Unless one of us sees and does something about it, he’ll just quietly do without. He’s never been anyone’s priority, no one’s ever made decisions around what makes him happy, and you saw him, he still looks politely amused if any of us do.”

Jasper squeezed his hand and got up. “You know Dale better than that. He and Ri are always our priority and he knows we don’t fall for him looking polite. There’s lots of ways to keep that at the front of his mind. I’m going to join Riley with the hot chocolate. Want a cup?”

Getting sent up to bed early had become something he had become familiar with but not by any means inured to. Not that it happened a lot these days. It didn’t. But when it did, it was a firm reminder of the lifestyle they lived by, that for some reason went very deep for Dale by the very nature of it. No explanations, no discussion, just a quiet instruction from whichever of them decided he needed an early night, as if that was the end of the matter. There was a deep kind of peace in permitting yourself to accept it and be taken care of, in that quiet act of discipline of doing something you didn’t choose to do just because someone else decided it for you. Responsibility lifted from your shoulders. That sense of peace hung around upstairs as he moved quietly from bedroom to bathroom, getting ready for bed. He loved this house. The space of it, the familiarity of it, how it felt, the feel of the carpet, the colours, the presence of the others that said every day this was home, and sometimes it was orienting just to have the time to consciously remind himself.

He spent a few minutes straightening up the bathroom before he left it, used to the members of the family that couldn’t handle an evening wash or shower without splashing the mirror and leaving a towel carelessly tossed down, and that was good too. He’d come to understand what gave Paul pleasure in taking care of this house, in things like ironing shirts, making beds, there was a lot more to it than just a mundane need for order. When he padded back down the landing towards his and Flynn’s room, Flynn was sitting on the bed, shirt sleeves rolled back, forearms bare, his elbows on his knees and his hands linked between them.

Dale’s stomach jumped at the sight of him. Not...... in so much a bad way, but this was another known indicator of something that also didn’t happen very often at all, but whenever it did, made a very deep impression.

Flynn mutely held out a hand and Dale laid his clothes, neatly folded on the chair, and put his hand into Flynn’s, letting Flynn draw him over to stand beside him, aware every thought in his head had gone in one straight rush, his stomach was flip flopping and his attention was very acutely on Flynn and the fact he’d probably let things get slightly out of hand in his head tonight. Flynn didn’t miss much. He was also uncomfortably direct. Dale found himself flushing, stomach sinking still further and feeling acutely present as Flynn let go his hand and nodded at the shorts.
“Pull those down.”

Nothing focused your mind quite so strongly, and you never got used to it. Face hot, Dale put his thumbs inside the waistband of his shorts and slid them downwards, resisting the childish but compelling urge to push them no lower than he absolutely had to, and forcing himself instead to do the grown up thing and let them fall. Flynn sat back, not doing the kind thing which would have been to grab his hand and pull, and Dale put a hand on his knee to ease his hips down and then to bend over his lap, settling with his arms folded on the quilt and his shoulders tight with apprehension. Flynn’s arm curved over the small of his back, drawing him competently closer with a hand over his hip, and Dale felt Flynn’s other palm, heavy and warm, rest on his now bare backside which felt phenomenally bare and very vulnerable. Then it lifted and Dale jumped, eyes involuntarily going wide, teeth baring at the hard swat that fell. Flynn never gave any kind of warm up time when he spanked, he just went straight to the point and he spanked so damn hard that any thought you’d had of not co operating, whole heartedly, immediately and without reservation, fled in panic. Six of those hard swats fell, Dale jerked and yelped, unable to keep still, feeling his backside blazing and the fire getting sharper and hotter with each repetition which felt like it was in exactly the same place, and he was out of breath when Flynn paused and once more rested his hand across Dale’s now ignited behind.

“Do we understand each other?”

It was so politically incorrect, so totally unfairly unreasonable, and so typically Flynn that Dale, gulping for breath, found himself cracking into a snort of laughter.



Flynn drew his shorts back up and settled them into place – which was an equally acute thing to experience when you were draped over someone’s lap and very much at their disposal – and Dale responded to Flynn’s hand on his shoulder by getting to his feet, very hot, smarting and breathless.

Flynn kept hold of his hand and shifted back to stretch out on the bed, and Dale followed the pull to lay down facing him. Flynn ran a hand through his hair, combing it back from his face, and cupped the back of his head, and sometimes it was like those dark green eyes went right through him.

“You are a total bastard.” Dale told him without heat and saw one of Flynn’s brief, crackling smiles that went right through him, as strongly as that heavy caressing hand on his head and the solid, familiar body close against his and the flaming handprints on his butt.

“Yes Jasper did take on the new client not to take my time away from you. Our decision, our reasons. Deal with it.”

That was just as politically incorrect, and just as comforting, and Dale shook his head on a reluctant smile.

“All right, I’m not stressing. No comparisons with the new client, no getting stuck, no obsessing, I promise. I’m not going to stress.”

“You can stress all you like so long as you talk to us about it.” Flynn said bluntly. “You don’t have any need to make promises, come here and calm down. We’re fine.”

It was the first time in Dale’s experience that they’d gone en masse to Jackson, which was a colourful, friendly and touristy town that was heavy on the ‘old west’ theme. Paul drove there regularly to shop, and Jasper to pick up drugs and feed for the stock and sometimes Riley went with them for the ride, but Flynn appeared to avoid leaving the ranch at all if possible. There had been an incident late January when Paul, exasperated by the snow which was reaching the yellow, muddy and tedious stage, sent Dale and Riley to change into what Paul referred to as ‘decent clothes’ and took them both with him into town where a good deal more of the snow had melted and they spent the afternoon at one of the local movie theatres and at a coffee shop eating Belgian waffles, which was an entirely new experience to Dale.

It wasn’t much different now in Spring. It was a beautiful drive through the Teton Park forest and mountains to reach Jackson and the town was alive with skiers and tourists in a cheerful kind of way. People in Jackson didn’t seem to take life too seriously or to rush at anything much.

“Do you need anything from the grocery?” Flynn asked Paul as they drove into town. Paul snorted.

“Thank you, no. I shopped yesterday when I bought Mason’s clothes as there’s no way I planned on taking you into a supermarket today.”

“If you want to shop, I’ll shop.” Flynn said steadily. Paul, in the passenger seat, gave him a look of exasperation that held as much affection as experience.

“No you won’t. Everything I put in the cart you’ll get out again, tell me why we don’t need it or the price is ridiculous, and put it back, while you make loud comments on what you think a supermarket should and shouldn’t stock. It’s too muddy to hike up into the park and Dale hasn’t seen much of the town at all. Let’s do the museums. By the time we’ve looked around them and eaten, we’ll have given Jasper plenty of time to get Mason settled in.”

The first museum Paul had in mind was the Jackson Museum itself, which held an extensive collection of artefacts from the Grand Teton and Yellowstone area. They ran from pioneer and trapper pictures and objects to American Indian and ranching, photograph archives, manuscript archives, maps and many other local history resources which Dale could have happily lost himself in for hours. Flynn and Riley wandered around together, talking amongst themselves and focusing mostly on the horse related exhibits. Paul spent far more time reading labels and looking carefully, particularly at photographs, and glad of his slower pace, Dale shadowed him and did much the same. Jasper always said the history to this area was layered; deeply aware of the layers on the ranch at home and having come to love and feel at home on this land and to be fascinated by any knowledge regarding it, Dale pored over the pictures of the gold mines, the wagon trains which had passed through their ground headed west, the Shoshoni and the cattle ranchers, aware that relatively speaking these pictures and artefacts were not so very old,

One small corner of an exhibit on mining towns caught his eye and Dale stooped to look closer at the faded photograph in what looked like an old newspaper clipping. Paul’s hand brushed his back, his voice tactfully pitched for Dale’s ears only.

“I hate to hurry you honey, but those two are going to start climbing the walls unless we catch them up. They don’t really do culture except in very small doses.”

“That’s Three Traders.” Dale straightened up, quite sure. “That’s the side of the mercantile building on the way down the hill street towards the main high street.”

“Is it?” Surprised, Paul peered through the glass at the picture. “What’s the article about?”

“A local legend.” Dale narrowed his eyes to make out the indistinct print around the picture. The newspaper section was part of a large display of mining town history, and was there purely to illustrate that many of the tiny, isolated towns took pride in printing and running their own papers; whoever built the display had not been particularly interested in the article’s content or placing it to make it easy to read.

“Something about a drummer.”

“Not something I remember hearing about, but then I knew next to nothing about Three Traders until you collected that box of information.”

“There was no mention in the information there about a newspaper in Three Traders,” Dale said thoughtfully. “I wasn’t aware so small a settlement would be able to write and run a paper, the circulation must have been tiny.”

Paul murmured agreement, reading the display label nearest to the picture. “It doesn’t say. It’s possible the town might have had a small printing press somewhere in some back shed or office isn’t it? I suppose until the days when the trains were running, the city newspapers must have been weeks old by the time they reached Three Traders and probably of not much local interest. A small paper is the kind of thing someone in a small community does for the love of it, a hobby, especially in that period when there was no tv and books were scarce and precious.”

“What’s taking this long?” Riley demanded, coming back to join them. “It’s a display, they’re pictures, you look and keep walking.”

“There’s a picture here of Three Traders.” Paul told him. “And we’re not racing you. If you two are bored, go ahead and we’ll meet you at Ripley’s.”

“Really Three Traders?” Riley hung over the glass case and Dale moved to make room for him. Riley whistled softly as he found the photograph.

“That’s not so far from where we found the bottle of whiskey. Did the town have its own paper?”

“That’s what we’re wondering.” Dale glanced at his watch, then at Paul. “I can have a quick word with the staff and see if they have any archive records of a newspaper there?”

“I’d be interested to know.” Paul nodded at Riley. “You two go ahead, we’ll catch you up in a while.”

The ‘quick word’ ended up taking several, fascinating hours. The member of museum staff who helped them was obviously delighted to find someone genuinely interested and with local information, and by the time Dale and Paul, both slightly blurry eyed from reading microfiche and computer screens, reached the outside of Ripley’s Museum where Riley and Flynn were sitting waiting on the rails outside, they had several facsimile printouts of the Morning Herald, the newspaper that had been printed and run from the town of Three Traders.

Dale glanced through them while they waited for food at the restaurant until Paul gently took the paper away.

“Don’t read at the table.”

It was both peculiar and pleasant to be held even in public to a standard of manners that most would find old fashioned, and to know neither Flynn nor Paul would care in the least about fashions, old or otherwise.

“I read at the table for years.” Dale pointed out to him, not very seriously. “I’ve read at restaurants in approximately sixteen different countries.”

“Well you wouldn’t have done if I’d been sitting with you.” Paul said mildly, folding the papers.

Flynn glanced at the date as Paul put them to one side. They were in a plainly decorated hamburger restaurant, chosen after Riley and Flynn both refused to eat anywhere that sold food they didn’t recognise or had menus containing outlandish phrases like ‘coconut shrimp’, and Flynn refused to eat anywhere that had flashing neon signs or loud music playing.

“How long did the paper run for?”

“From 1874 to 1942. On and off.” Dale looked up as the waitress arrived with plates loaded to a height he still found alarming even after years of working in the states. “There were several breaks in the late 1890s when the original editor died until a new editor took over, it started out as weekly and then went to three weekly, and it petered out when the town did. The paper was small, not much more than two printed sides of one sheet, but they took a lot of pride in it. There’s an article in the first one about the setting up of the press, and the original editor’s background. He came out to Three Traders from Chicago and was determined the town was going to have the dignity of its own newspaper.”

Riley, unintimidated by the size of the burger in front of him, was pulling cocktail sticks and unwanted bits of greenery, onions and pickle off it with a confidence Dale admired.

“What about the drummer? I saw the bit of the article in the cabinet.”“I couldn’t find a copy of that edition.” Far more cautiously, Dale lifted the lid of his own burger, wondering how on earth you picked something of that size up or got it in your mouth. His experience of American restaurants had mostly involved coffee, muffins or food edible with knives and forks.

“Just pick it up and have a go?” Riley encouraged. “It’s only food. Three Traders never had any contact with the army, did it?”

“Well the US Cavalry would have been around, there was the Black Hills war,” Paul said thoughtfully. “Most of that was the 1860s, but nowhere near our land. Wyoming men signed up during the Civil War and I know there was the occasional training camp in the state but no battles or armies I’m aware of, and American troops went out to Europe in the First World War, but I’m pretty sure no troops came from or went through Three Traders.”

“David fought in WW1, didn’t he?” Riley said with his mouth full.

“Yes. And worked his way across Canada afterwards, I know he was on our land from about the mid 1920s.”

“What was this drummer supposed to be doing?” Flynn asked. “Local boy makes good, that kind of an article?”

“I couldn’t see.” Dale gave up on trying to pick up the burger, took up a knife and tried to work out where to cut it into more manageable quadrants. “Just some kind of story about the local drummer-”

“Flynn he’s actually going to cut that up,” Riley protested, laughing. “He’s planning angles, take it away from him!”

Flynn took the knife out of Dale’s hand and moved it out of his reach.

“Just pick it up. Two hands, no one’s watching.”

“You won’t let me read at the table but it’s ok to pick up something this size?” Dale demanded, and got one of Flynn’s brief, crackling smiles.

“It’s good for you. Get the full sensory experience. Go on, both hands.”

Dale hesitated, warily putting his hands down to pick up the large bun which was dripping lettuce, tomato and some kind of sauce in all directions.

“It’s going to fall apart.”

“Ok, easy, I’ll talk you through it.” Riley said, leaning on the table to watch him. “Incline upper body 30 degrees north towards the table, hold and stabilise position. List burger 28 degrees south in both hands, sustaining firm grip. Raise burger towards mouth at a steady trajectory, engage with mouth and insert 1.2 inches past front teeth-”

Dale gave him a politely cool look that invited him to take his instruction manual somewhere else. Riley grinned.

“Or I could just shove it in for you?”

“Get stuffed.” Dale said firmly. He took a cautious grip on the burger and Paul nudged Riley.

“Leave him alone and eat.”

Riley picked up his own burger, half an eye on Dale gingerly raising the bun to his mouth.

“Huston, docking manoeuvres are almost complete....”

Dale took a bite, laid the burger down and flicked a stray piece of onion neatly at Riley. It hit him square in the face and he reared back, laughing, until Flynn’s low growl got his attention.

“Hey. Riley lay off, and Dale stop flicking, otherwise we’ll go test the sound proofing in the men’s room.”

Dale choked as Flynn’s meaning dawned on him. Riley didn’t appear surprised at the threat, nor to mind it; his grin at Dale was unsubdued.

“The least you could have done with all those precise instructions was flick something edible my way.”

There were times when Dale found himself still thinking what Mason was no doubt thinking about now: they were all mad.

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

No comments: