Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Chapter 3 - Ranch


There were apparently five of them in this large, suspiciously rustic house. There were no cattle horns hanging from the wall, no saddles around the place – although yesterday Mason had caught sight of a swept, well ordered tack room with racks of leather in all shapes and sizes – and well filled bookshelves lined the stone wall alcoves in the big living room downstairs. It was neat and well kept, and to someone who had lived all his life in cities and never come closer to a ranch than a tv set, it sure didn’t look much like Bonanza.

Knocked out by a combination of jetlag and the pills the Blackwater guy had handed him last night, he’d followed the man’s instruction to go to bed at 9pm in a narrow, bare little room a hotel wouldn’t have dared offer, that didn’t hold so much as a tv, never mind a mini bar. Blackwater plainly had some Native American blood. It was in his face and the sleek, shoulder length black hair he wore bound back in a leather thong at the nape of his neck, although his accent when he spoke was soft Virginian. This morning there were four more of them, none of the rest of whom looked Native American or sounded Virginian, or looked like the staff of a rehab centre. They were all men, apparently occupying the row of bedrooms off the long, wide landing upstairs, and they were gathered around the table downstairs when Blackwater had pestered him into getting out of bed, putting on what he termed as ‘work clothes’, and coming downstairs for breakfast. How you pestered while speaking as little as Blackwater did, Mason didn’t know, but the guy pestered good.

“Who gets up at this hour when they’re on vacation?” Mason demanded when Blackwater repeated an instruction for him to shave.

“You’re not on vacation.” Blackwater said calmly. “You’re here to work.”

“Rehab. Retreat. Whatever.” Mason trimmed his circle beard, taking his time until Blackwater, leaning against the doorway with his arms folded and watching him, commented,

“Mealtimes don’t wait for people’s convenience here. If you want to eat, you need to get to breakfast before it’s over.”

Yeah, typical power play stuff. Any negotiator knew, you played the game, you set your lines and you laid them down hard to start with. Blackwater was real good at acting the tough guy.

Downstairs there were four men eating a large cooked breakfast from the serving dishes on the table, and discussing something about a fence. They broke off at the sight of him, and one of them, a younger man with a lively smile and bright hair, got up and stuck out a hand.

“Hey! You must be Mason. I’m Riley.”

Mason shook hands cautiously, an eye on the big, sandy haired man with broad shoulders who sat beside Riley, whose presence was as significant as the assessing look Mason read in his face. This was the top dog. The leader. He got up too, offering a hand as Riley let go, and Mason was aware and immediately wary of the held-back power in the grasp.

“Flynn. Welcome to the ranch.”

Weirdly, his accent was one of the down-under ones.

“I’m Paul,” a friendly, comfortable looking man with greying dark hair, passed dishes down the table to within Blackwater and Mason’s reach, and shook Mason’s hand. “It’s good to have you here Mason. That’s Dale next to you and that’s all of us. Did you sleep well? How bad are you jetlagged?”

“I slept ok.” Mason took a seat, looking with distaste at the tomatoes, eggs and bacon on the dishes. “I usually just have coffee.”

“Give it a few days, you’ll get used to it.” the man beside him said in a quiet British accent. “Good morning.”

Oh Jeez. Bangers and mash. The Queen’s knickers. Let’s all have a knees up down the jolly old Bull and Bush, don’t you know old chap?

“....Yeah.” Mason returned the handshake, getting a brief impression of dark hair that hung long on the collar. A man as lean as Blackwater but slighter in blue jeans and a loose, blue shirt, and with rather unreadable grey eyes.

Blackwater put bacon and a spoonful of scrambled eggs on Mason’s plate and poured him a glass of orange juice.

“Mason, you need to eat. You didn’t have much last night and you’ll find you use a lot of energy here.”

“I’ve never worked on a farm.” Mason picked up a fork and poked cautiously at the eggs.

“It’s not rocket science, you’ll pick it up.” The man called Riley said cheerfully, mopping his plate off with a hunk of toast. “I grew up in a city, I wasn’t born and bred to it either, but the bug kind of bites you after a while. Even in mid winter when I’m up to my ass in freezing water or snow and thinking why would I want to do this for a living, I still couldn’t do anything else.” He shoved the toast in his mouth, pushed his plate away and sat back in his chair, hooking an elbow over the back and picking up his mug of tea. “Which reminds me.” he added with his mouth full. “I’m going to take a couple of the Clysdales with me this afternoon and haul that fallen tree out of the south river, down by the falls.”

“Keep an eye out.” Flynn said shortly. “We had cougars coming north from there last year.”

A cougar, and that was a one off.”

“Be careful anyway.”“I will. I’m going up to move the new moms in the north east pasture first, I’ll take Tam if that’s ok. She’s better with the cattle.”

“That’s fine so long as you leave Dale and me a dog each.” Flynn finished his bacon and helped himself to another slice from the central dish. “We’ll flush the woods through again this morning, I’m still not convinced all the ewes have lambed.”

“We need another dog.” Riley said finishing his tea. “We do! I’ve been saying for a while, three between the five of us doesn’t work out any more, we’re covering more work and more ground than we were a year ago.”

“We mostly use the dogs for the cattle and sheep herds.” Paul explained to Mason, who was still poking at his eggs and grunted.

“You mean they’re real actual cowboys? Yippee ki yay and all that?”

Riley grinned, getting up. “We only yell that for tourists if we’re paid to, but yeah, we’re a working ranch. I’m out of here.”

“Take something for lunch.” Paul called, and Riley disappeared into the pantry.

“Do you still have the box of information about Three Traders or has that gone into storage?” the Brit said quietly to Paul in that ridiculously cultured accent. How did a Brit get onto a cowboy ranch?

“It’s up in my room if you want it.” Paul told him.

Riley emerged from the pantry, stuffing something into a leather bag and heading for the tap to fill a water bottle.

“That’s going to be the new obsession, is it? The newspapers of Three Traders.”

“I do not get obsessed.” The Brit said without heat.

Riley gave him an affectionate grin on his way to the door. “Yeah you do. See you later.”

“Be careful with the tree.” Flynn called after him.

“I’ll bring the box downstairs.” Paul told the Brit, starting to clear the table. “Maybe we can go through it this evening, I’d like to see anything in there on the papers too. Three Traders is an abandoned gold mining town on our land, Mason. It’s been empty since about the 1950s and we keep an eye on it. Dale’s the real historian among us, he knows most about it, but Riley and I like to find out what we can about it too.”

Mason pushed his plate away and sat back in his chair, folding beefy arms across his chest and ignoring the orange juice.

“Yeah. So what is this place? The cowboy united nations?”

The Brit turned his head and looked at him. That was all he did, but Mason felt the shock strike through his stomach.

“We’re quite a polyglot of accents, yes.” Paul said calmly, continuing to clear the table. “We come from all over, but we get along good. Dale, finish that toast before you go.”

The Brit withdrew his eyes from Mason and picked up the uneaten slice of toast from his plate without comment, apparently un moved by being spoken to as if he was ten and waiting for the school bus. Blackwater put out a hand for Mason’s untouched plate.

“Done, Mason?”

“Yeah.” Mason got up and Blackwater nodded him at the sink.

“Ok. You can wash the dishes and I’ll show you where everything goes.”

“Oh man, I get to do the domestics too?” Mason demanded. Blackwater dropped a hand on his shoulder, nudging him to his feet, and it wasn’t an unfriendly touch.

“You do. We all muck in here, you’re going to get good at most chores.”

Dale whistled to the dogs in the yard as Riley pulled Snickers’ girth tight and mounted up. The dogs, circling Riley and waiting to see where he was going, came over at the whistle and Dale crouched down, keeping a hand on Ash and Shane as Riley called to Tam. Shane sat down on the red dust earth and buried his muzzle in Dale’s hand, tail thumping the dust, and Ash stood quietly, watching Tam shoot across the pasture ahead of Snickers like a small brown and white bullet. It never took much to explain to them who was going with who, although the dogs had their preferences. Left to himself, Shane was Flynn’s shadow and Tam invariably chose Jasper’s company, while Ash was happy to go anywhere with anyone on horseback and liked speed and distance. The two remaining dogs followed him in and out of the stone hallway to the tack room while he found what he wanted, and sat by the gate of the corral to watch as Dale climbed the fence and went first to Nekkid, slipping a bridle over his head. Paul would ride today, and for the next few weeks at least would be riding out every day, although not to take over Jasper’s share of the work. That gave Dale some measure of satisfaction; with five of them rather than four, one could be spared far more easily, and less of Paul’s time would be eaten up by stock work. Paul was capable of doing it, and doing it well, but his real love was in the housekeeping and his writing, and Dale took every chance to protect Paul’s time.

Flynn came down to the corral to join him, picking up Leo’s tack from where Dale had laid it ready on the fence rail. Dale glanced across at him, ducking under Nekkid’s neck.

“Mason’s slightly less hostile than I remember being.”

“With far less good manners.” Flynn’s eyes smiled when the rest of his face didn’t; Dale saw the dark green eyes light up and returned the grin.

“I never did tell you I was sorry for the fit I threw in the pasture the first few days I was here.”

It wasn’t so long ago that even thinking about it would have made his face burn. Flynn shook his head, eyes softening.

“You’d been needing to let some of that go for days when you got here, we wanted you to do it. That’s usually what the first few days are about with any client, giving them some time to get rid of the stress and change gear. What? Say it.”

“It’s the....” Dale hesitated, pushing the words out forcibly beyond the reserve. “...compassion of it. You take in someone who’s rude, angry, aggressive and unpleasant, and you see through it. If I met Mason in a board room I wouldn’t think twice or notice why he did what he did unless it was to know better how to get done what I needed done.”

“In a board room that wouldn’t be what either of you were there to do.”

That seemed suddenly a very sad thing to Dale. He found himself watching Flynn, the steady, efficient hands tacking up the gelding and the occasional pat he dropped on Leo’s neck or haunch, the sun glinting off the dark gold and sand brown strands of hair under the brim of his Stetson. Autumnal colours in Flynn, but more subtle than the rich autumn colours of Riley. Or the winter colours of Jasper and Paul. A year ago in a board room Dale would have had no concept of looking at any man and knowing that, loving that, knowing precisely the tone of someone’s skin so well he didn’t have to think about it, knowing exactly how someone moved, breathed, cleared their throat, the tiniest details that every day was rooted in. Here, out of sight of the house, Flynn hooked a hand in the back of Dale’s jeans, pulled him over and kissed him, briefly and deeply, expertly tipping his head to manage their Stetsons brim to brim without affecting his ability to reach Dale’s mouth. And he did that easily too, as he did every day.

“Take the east woods down by the falls and work up. I’ll do the south east and work up. I want to be around when Ri’s shifting that tree.”

The weather was starting to turn seriously towards Spring now, and when you rode this land every day and knew it well you saw the small signs of it. The grass that was gradually greening despite there still often being hard frosts in the morning. The buds thickening in the still bare trees. Even the quality of the light and colour of the river had warmed from the greyness of late February. Dale swept the woods with Ash darting through the trees and bushes ahead of him. The dog knew what he was looking for; the three dogs knew the herd-work well and Dale had come to respect their intelligence as well as their skill. So it was Ash who found the heavy bellied, panting ewe in the shelter alone, and drove her up the path towards Dale. Most of the ewes had lambed alone and successfully. Flynn ran a breeding programme that was rigid in its selection each year of ewes who lambed easily and were good mothers, and who passed those genes down into the flock. From the earliest days of the lambing season they had swept the pastures and the woodland areas daily, bringing in the ewes about to lamb and keeping them nearer to the house, and in the heaviest nights of the season as the ewes most often lambed in the early hours of the morning, they’d taken it in turns for two of them at a time to spend the night in the barn and walk out around the pasture with lanterns every hour or so with an eye out for a ewe in trouble. Ash flushed two more ewes from the woods, darting around the small flock of three to keep them together, and Dale walked Hammer, taking it slowly not to rush the panting ewe. Walking her was safer than trying to carry her. Ash kept the flock moving out of the woods and across to the home pasture, and as soon as the house was in sight, Dale spotted Mason, looking sour and standing near to a heap of rocks. That brought a wry smile to Dale’s face. The rocks were always stacked somewhere in the yard, a firm weight and large enough to be lifted fairly easily in two hands, and the first task for every client – or anyone else in need of settling down – was to transfer the heap from one place to another, rock by rock.

It had taken Dale just under three hours to shift that pile, and he knew he’d gone at it like a machine, at the manic speed that at the time he’d thought of as normal, losing himself in the physical relief of something to pour movement and concentration out on. Mason wasn’t moving at all. Gloved, he was standing, stretching his back and not doing much else, and when Dale followed Ash and the ewes into the yard, he saw the sour look on Mason’s face and the approximately ten rocks dumped in a new and untidy group against the barn wall. He’d barely made a dent in the heap by the porch. Jasper was mucking out the corral in the distance, sleeves rolled, apparently not watching Mason although Dale would have bet any sum that Jasper hadn’t missed a move Mason had made so far this morning. He didn’t bother either of them, whistling to Ash who knew what he intended and herded the distressed ewe towards the stable, waiting for Dale to open the door. The dog put her into the large pen just inside the door, then went back to the two other ewes, waiting for Dale to come and open the stable paddock gate before he drove them both inside. After which, he slid underneath the bottom paddock rail and came back to the stable, lying down in the doorway to watch the ewe. She’d flopped down on the straw, and while she was keeping a wary eye on the dog, she obviously didn’t care enough right now to worry about him. Dale pulled off his hat and jacket and crouched on the straw to have a look at her.

He had reached a conclusion when a shadow fell from the doorway and Dale glanced up to see Mason, diffidently watching him from the doorway. Even in jeans and a shirt, he still looked like a biker. It was the circle beard and the beefy arms, the trick of holding his head slightly back. His expression was mildly revolted and cynical rather than interested, but he nodded at the ewe.

“What’s with her?”

“She’s trying to lamb and not getting anywhere.” Dale got up and went to fill a bucket from the tap, took the bar of soap and towel kept on the shelf by it, and knelt down by the ewe, vigorously washing his hands and arms, and soaping his right arm thoroughly.

“We try not to help unless we really have to. Most of them do it by themselves, Flynn breeds them for good independent birthers but she’s got a foot showing- see?- and she’s obviously been trying for a while and nothing’s happening.”

“What are you going to-” Mason paused and screwed up his face in disgust. “Oh say you’re not going to do that. Please.”

Taking no notice, Dale slipped his soaped hand gently inside the ewe. He’d learned to do this early on in the lambing season and wanting to be prepared, he’d studied thoroughly until Riley started demanding to read his term paper. Although however much he teased, Riley was a good teacher, as was Jasper when it came to matters of stock, and Flynn had lived around birthing ewes his entire life and did this as easily as he fell asleep. Dale had ransacked Philip’s library and read every book on sheep husbandry he could lay his hands on, as well as asked every question he could think of, until now he fairly confidently knew what to feel for and what it felt like when you found it. The foot just emerging showed a hoof facing down which meant the lamb inside was the right way up, and Dale felt very gently up the little leg until he reached the shoulder. And there was the problem. One leg was straight, but the other leg was not in reach and when he found it, the head was bent back and the leg caught up behind it. Not so complex a problem.

Gently, carefully, Dale pushed everything back inside the ewe to get manoeuvring room, shifted on the straw to get into a better position, and slipped his hand up over the little head until he could get his fingers behind it and pull it down and round. From there it was easier to get his hand gently along the shoulders and find the stray leg, work it inch by inch around until he could straighten it up and put the lamb’s chin forward on its knees. The ewe was tired but she seemed to know the obstruction was freed and she heaved as Dale withdrew his arm. This time two hooves showed together, then a nose which was wriggling, reassuringly lively, and then a live, black lamb slid onto the straw. Dale drew him clear of the ewe and ran a gently squeezing hand over his nose to clear the sac and the fluid from his airway as the ewe was too tired to help. With his nose and mouth clear, the lamb wriggled more vigorously, spluttering in a voice so high it was cartoonish. He was large; it wasn’t hard to see why the ewe had had trouble shifting him. Still connected by the afterbirth inside his mother, Dale drew him gently around to lay him against his mother, careful not to pull on the cord, and knelt up to wash in the bucket. By the time he’d done, the lamb had already got itself up onto its chest, head up. Dale gently stripped the plug out of the ewe’s teat, milking it until milk spurted free, splashing the lamb’s face. That seemed to encourage it. With very little help it fastened onto the nearest teat and began to suck. Dale got up and stooped over the bucket, washing off again before he went to the locked drugs cabinet, found what he wanted and set the syringe.

“What’s that?” Mason asked gruffly. Dale glanced at him over the syringe. The man’s face had changed and he’d crouched down in the doorway, watching the lamb.

“She’s exhausted. This is for her.”

“How quickly will the lamb get up?”


Mason crouched where he was, watching the little creature suckle, then gradually stagger up onto its feet. After several false starts and wobbles it managed to brace and the ewe wearily got up, but as the lamb found the teat again and went on suckling, the lamb’s tail began to waggle enthusiastically and the ewe bent her head, beginning to nose at the lamb. Mason gave an abrupt, rather crooked smile.

Thinking of Flynn and Jasper and the effect they’d had on him, Dale held out the syringe to the man in the doorway. “You do it. Put it in her neck

I can’t do that!” Mason protested, shocked. Dale took a swab from the drugs cabinet and brought it to him.

“Yes you can. Swab her neck – lower, in a padded part and go right down to the skin.”

“Hey, I don’t do sheep.” Mason said sharply, raising his hands.

“It’s like fixing a copier.” Dale said crouching by the ewe and waiting for him. “Once you know the knack of it, you’ll do it without thinking twice.”

“Yeah but copiers don’t-”

Dale expected to hear ‘bite’, then Mason unwillingly moved a little closer to him.

“... feel it if I do something wrong.”

Dale held out the swab to him.

“Trust me, you won’t hurt her.”

Hesitantly, Mason took the swab from him, leaned forward and Dale saw the hesitancy and the firmness in his hands as he parted the ewe’s thick, woolly fleece. You didn’t get to the rank of CEO at this kind of level without a certain kind of practical confidence. He held the syringe for Mason to take, staying where he was on the hay next to him. The lamb was still sucking hard, it’s tail wriggling vigorously in pleasure at the milk.

“Pinch her skin up a little, tent it. That’s it. And just slip the needle under the skin. Firm, steady movement.”

Mason was sweating, but he tented up the hide, took a breath and the needle slipped in without the ewe appearing to notice. Mason emptied the syringe, carefully withdrew it, and Dale nodded him towards the shelf.

“Well done. That goes over there in the sharps box.”

“What will you do with her now?” Mason got up, taking the syringe to the yellow box with curiosity.

“Leave her in peace for a few hours, and then put her out in the paddock. We keep the new mothers near the house for the first couple of days, and then they go out into the nearer gated pastures until the lambs are big enough not to get into trouble.”

“That.....” Mason trailed off, shaking his head at the rapidly drying lamb. “That isn’t something I get to see every day. It must be amazing to be able to do it.”

“It is.” Dale said sincerely. “Feels very real.”

Mason glanced at him, and Dale saw his shields sliding back up. After a moment Dale nodded him towards the door.

“You’d probably better get on with those rocks.”

“Why?” Mason said sourly. “A heap of rocks over there, over here, what does it matter?”

You like reasons, a clear purpose, you hate boredom. None of that even occurred to me, I just shifted rocks.
Dale waited for him by the door, leaving the ewe and lamb in peace.

“Think of it like an apprenticeship. You start making coffee and doing the copying and work upward.”


The tree had died in the snows and been rocked by the early spring gales until it fell across the river, its roots torn halfway out of the bank. It was always sad to see an old tree die but it was blocking the river and it definitely had to go. Two of the Clysdales, the large, patient heavy horses, had walked with Riley down to the river and were standing on the bank in the harness, waiting for Riley who was wading down into the still freezing waters of the river and examining the trunk for the best place to tie the ropes. He heard Leo’s familiar huff before he saw the dog burst out of the woodland and called without looking back.

“No cougars here. Just ‘happened’ to be passing did you?”

“I thought you could use a hand.”

“I’m not sixteen anymore?” Riley stooped over the trunk to tie the ropes, hearing Flynn wade through the water to join him. A hand touched his back and Flynn took the second rope, stooping to knot it.

“I know you’re competent, I just like helping you. I’ll steady this, you move the horses.”

“Look, I’m doing this job.” Riley straightened up and gave Flynn a fair attempt at a severe look. “So you steady this, and I’ll move the horses.”

Flynn flicked water at him as he slogged through the water and back up the bank, wet through to the waist, and went to the horses’ heads, taking their bridles. They knew what he wanted, and as soon as he clicked to them they took the weight, leaning their bulk against the harness. In the river, Flynn braced his weight against the trunk, guiding it as it started to move, and the bank behind them began to creak as the other half of the roots began to slowly tear their way out of the ground.

“Come on babies,” Riley coaxed the shires, “That’s great, a little more-”

The earth gave way, the roots tore out of the ground and Flynn stepped back fast as the trunk dragged through the river and rumbled up the opposite bank, leaving deep scores in the mud. He was starting to follow, waist deep in rushing, stirred up water breaking free from behind the partial dam of the trunk when without warning there was an explosion behind him, a deafening bang and a blast of mud, water and debris that hit him in the back and knocked him off his feet.

Flynn heard the horses scream and Riley’s shout before the water closed over his head, and for a moment nothing was very clear, then his collar was grabbed and he was hauled up until his head broke the surface and Flynn scrambled for footing to help as Riley dragged him towards the bank. They didn’t stop until they were well clear of the bank and by the snorting, shivering horses. Riley was still clutching his collar and his arm with all his strength, gasping for breath, and Flynn twisted to get his arms around Riley and break his hold, hugging him tightly.

“I’m ok. I’m ok. Are you? Are you hurt?”

Riley shook his head hard. Flynn ran his hands over Riley’s head, looked hard at his face, and to his relief found nothing worse than wet and mud.

“What was that?” Riley demanded. “What happened?”

“Stay there.” Flynn started back to the bank and Riley grabbed him, hauling him back.

No. No way are you going near it!”

“I’m just going to-”

“You’re not.” Riley said with utter conviction.

Flynn stood still, holding onto Riley and looking with him at the tumbled down bank. It was still smoking and a strange smell was in the smoke. In the crater where the roots had been, fragments of cloth were burning and tiny but peculiarly luminous flames were rising weakly, struggling against the wet earth.

“Calm the horses down.” Flynn went to pick his Stetson up from the grass.

“Don’t go near there.” Riley ordered.

“I won’t.” Flynn knelt on the far bank to fill the Stetson with water and tossed it out over the smouldering fire. It hissed and immediately went out, releasing more stinking smoke. Flynn threw several more hatfuls of water, drenching it thoroughly. Across the pasture, two horses were approaching, cantering. The explosion had obviously been heard just under a mile away at the ranch.

Flynn came back to Riley, rubbing the clysdales’ necks soothingly as they waited, until Dale on a fully tacked up Hammer and Jasper on a bare backed Nekkid with nothing more than a halter. They were the two largest of the corral horses, both big, chunky geldings, and they were both impressive at charging speed, as was Jasper who didn’t need a saddle to ride well. He reached them first, slid down from Nekkid’s back and let him go, eyes on the still smoking bank.

“No idea.” Flynn told him, watching Dale swing down from Hammer’s back. “We pulled the tree roots clear and the bank exploded. There was a fire-”

“Can you smell garlic?” Dale demanded, interrupting. Riley gave him a blank look.

“What? What kind of a time is it to-”


Dale said it shortly with nothing more than a lifted hand, but Jasper, on his way past Flynn to the bank, stopped on the word and looked at him. Dale wasn’t doing anything but continuing to sniff, voice level.

“Am I imagining it, or can anyone else smell garlic too?”

“Yes.” Jasper said just as quietly.

“Why would an explosion smell like garlic?” Riley demanded. “Something burned, we saw it.”

“It looks like fragments of cloth to me.” Flynn added.

“Cyanide smells of bitter almonds,” Dale said mostly to himself, looking into the middle distance as if he was scanning through a mental chart, “Phosgene smells of fresh mown grass ... white phosphorus smells of garlic on contact with air. It’s unstable, particles become excited on exposure to oxygen and it’s pyrophoric- spontaneously ignites.”

“Phosphorus?” Flynn demanded. “What would phosphorus be doing under a tree?”

Dale shook his head, still thinking. “I have no idea. It can be stabilised by immersion in water.”

“Then we need a bucket and spades.” Jasper went to take Hammer’s reins. “I’ll be right back.”

“Did you get any on you?” Dale looked from Riley to Flynn. “Are you sure?”

“I was nearest and it blew me under water, nothing touched me.” Flynn let Dale turn him, aware of Dale scanning his back carefully before he let go. He sounded grim.

“Phosphorus is terrible stuff. It’s used in chemical weapons, it doesn’t stop burning until all the oxygen’s exhausted. I’ve seen phosphorous burns.”

“Well that tree’s stood here as long as I’ve lived on the ranch and there’ve been no chemical weapons around here in that time.” Flynn said shortly. “That tree must be over a hundred years old. There wouldn’t be any natural sources of phosphorus there that caused it?”

Dale shook his head. “It does occur naturally, but not in unstable form, that would have to be processed white phosphorus.”

“So the tree moved, oxygen got to it, and boom.” Riley said darkly. “Why would you get phosphorus out here?”

“It might not be phosphorus, that’s just my suspicion.”

That was Dale; mind open to every eventuality and unwilling to be definite without hard facts, despite the fact he was more likely to come up with the right answer than the rest of them put together.

“It’s the best guess we’ve got so far.” Flynn pointed out. “And I did think the flames were an odd colour. I think we’ll go with that theory until it’s disproved. How would processed phosphorus get out here?”

“There was probably some in Three Traders at some point – the 1800s,” Dale had the absent look that they associated with him scanning mentally for everything he knew, summoning up and organising data. “It was used to make matches. Dipped. It caused terrible working conditions, very dangerous, explosions, fires, poisoning – a lot of match sellers ended up with necrosis of the jaw from breathing it. It was banned in Europe at the turn of the century, I think if I remember, the US declined to sign up to the ban? The material was legally available longer here. There probably would have been a match shop in Three Traders, it was like a blacksmith or a baker or a chandler, one of the crucial industries.”

“So a match seller came out here and blew up?” Riley said wryly. “Shall we go check his jaw?” he paused, then gave Dale a more suspicious look. “There isn’t a body in there, is it?”

“All I saw was cloth, and we’re not looking.” Flynn said, keeping hold of Riley’s arm. “Thankfully nothing of it went into the river, we don’t need to worry about poisoning.”

“I can check on how we safely dispose of it.” Dale glanced up at the sound of hooves on the grass to watch Jasper cantering towards them. “The safest thing to do now is to put it under water and make sure no one touches it with bare skin.”

The lidded container Jasper brought with him was filled with river water, and Jasper and Flynn, with gloves, spades and extreme caution, dug out what looked like the remains of a charred, filled hessian sack. Flynn dumped it into the water and rammed the lid down, and he and Jasper dug the bank over for several minutes, digging deep and hard into the wet earth to turn it over for several feet until any possible remaining traces were buried.

The ranch had long rubber gloves that went up above the elbow, used for handling chemicals, fires, various other dangerous farming jobs. Dale grabbed a couple of pairs from the shed along with a large plastic crate, and filled it at the yard tap. Jasper, putting the sealed bucket down on the yard floor, gave him a steady look.

“Is it a good idea to touch this stuff?”

“If it is phosphorus, if we keep it under the water it’s safe.” Dale said, crouching down on the hard earth of the yard, “And if it isn’t phosphorus, we need an idea of what it is.”

“Then be very careful.” Jasper put a hand up to keep Riley where he was, and Riley crouched down, putting an arm around Shane’s neck to stop him nosing at the water. Flynn, hands on his hips, stood behind Dale, and Paul, with Mason following, came down the porch steps to join them.

“Is it phosphorus?”

“Inspector Gadget’s still investigating,” Riley said, nodding at Dale. Mason snorted. Dale took no notice of either of them. He had the slightly luminous look to his eyes, the cheerful intensity Paul associated with Dale’s mind running at high speed and common sense not necessarily keeping up, and he slung the tea towel he was carrying over his shoulder, raising his voice slightly.

“If there’s the slightest risk of anyone getting burned, I want to know now.”

“I can’t calculate the probabilities until I’m more sure on what it is.” Dale said absorbedly, pulling the gloves on. He tipped the contents of the bucket into the tank, and submerged the sack deep into the water, soaking it thoroughly before he let the kindling go and very carefully opened the mouth of the sack.

“What’s this doing on our land anyway?” Paul demanded of Flynn, who shrugged, eyes on Dale.

“Dale thought maybe Three Traders, apparently it was used in making matches.”

“And ended up being buried how?”

“We haven’t got to that bit yet.” Riley hung on to Shane who was whining with curiosity, and peered at the discoloured, extremely mouldy cloth Dale was very gently drawing out of the hessian sack under the water. Whatever it was had once been red, and there was quite a lot of it. Something smaller, shapeless and black followed, then Dale drew out of the sack a couple of blackened, small items and laid them at the bottom of the tank. Little discs.

“What’s safe to touch?” Paul demanded, crouching down to see better. Dale turned another of the discs over.

“I don’t know about the fabric. These are hard – I’d think if we washed them thoroughly we’d get the chemical traces off.”

Riley got up and went to get another crate, filling it, and added a heavy couple of squirts of the detergent they used to scrub out the stables. Dale dropped the discs into the new tank as Riley set it down, rubbing them hard between his gloved fingers for some minutes, and swishing them about well.

“Can I have one of the old scrubbing brushes?”

Riley brought one of the more battered ones to him and Dale scrubbed for a moment at one of the discs. Paul saw his eyes light up with interest as it began to change colour, and after shaking off the water, Dale held it out to him.

“Take it in the cloth, not with your bare hand. What do you make of that?”

Paul took the cloth from his shoulder and accepted the item, and Riley leaned over Paul’s arm to look at the disc and the date stamped on it.

“It’s a nickel. 1928.”

“And that.” Dale scrubbed off another one of the discs, hard and thoroughly before he held it out.
“That’s a button.” Paul said, turning it over. “Metal.”

The face showed a blurred but recognisable raised number 17 on its face, with a rolled edge around the button like a rope. It had faded away altogether in places. Dale handed him another, and while the number on this one was less distinct, the two buttons were identical.

~ * ~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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