Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chapter 4 - Ranch


The voices on the landing were low, but enough to draw Flynn out of sleep. By the dim hands on his watch, it was just after two am, and beside him, Dale was leaning up on one elbow, looking towards the door. Flynn rolled over and put a hand on his shoulder to listen, and Dale glanced back, face shadowed in the dark.

“Mason. It’s been about ten minutes, Jasper’s with him.”

Jasper had been expecting this, and judging by his tone Dale wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t said much about Mason, but he didn’t miss much either. Flynn squeezed Dale’s shoulder and slid out from under the covers.

“I’ll go.”

The light was on in Mason’s room. Flynn went as far as the door which was partially open, looking without drawing attention to his presence. Mason was sitting on the edge of the bed and the sweat staining his t shirt was obvious, as was his sweat-soaked hair and the drops standing out on his forehead, and the give-away trembling at his hands and knees. Jasper was sitting with him and talking quietly. The words were indistinct but Jasper’s tone said a great deal. Calm, reassuring, deliberately slow in the way that drew someone anxious or distressed to calm down and breathe along with you.

“Withdrawal?” Paul said very softly behind Flynn. Flynn gave him a nod, standing far enough back in the shadows that Mason wouldn’t be aware of them. The man had enough to deal with tonight without worrying about an audience.

“Jas was right. This is even with the meds cushioning it.”

A day of physical work- and work based on proprioceptive input that would force Mason’s nervous system to rebalance itself- plus the removal of sugar, salt, chemicals and caffeine from his diet and a total change of environment, pace and levels of social and electronic stimulation: that was enough for every client of theirs to feel some degree of withdrawal and it was usually a good sign, but the shaking and sweating was typical of real alcohol withdrawal. Which meant the drinking had been at a higher level than perhaps even Mason had been aware of.

Paul said nothing more but went just as softly downstairs to get Jasper what he was likely to need from the kitchen. Flynn moved far enough clear of the shadows to draw Jasper’s eye, and Jasper looked up without missing a word he was saying to Mason. At this point what he said probably didn’t matter much; it was his tone that was keeping Mason from panic. Flynn read what Jasper signalled, nodded, and stepped back softly, going to take towels and a blanket from the linen cupboard on the landing. He left them beside the door where Jasper could reach them easily, then soundlessly checked first Riley’s room, and when he drew a blank there, Paul’s. Riley was asleep, face down in his usual sprawl, too used to this household to wake easily. Flynn watched him for a moment until he was sure, then softly closed the door, shielding Riley from any further disturbances. When he turned, he found Dale on the landing, standing far enough in the shadow to see through the open door into Mason’s room. Dale moved so quietly when he wanted to, a natural talent that he’d added to through living with Jasper, that he could make you jump by just appearing to materialise. Flynn went to him, putting his hands on Dale’s shoulders, and through the door saw what Dale saw. Mason, with his head in his hands, shaking, his big shoulders hunched and with tears running down his face. Jasper had a hand on his back and was talking to him quietly. Flynn pulled gently until Dale moved with him and guided him back to their own room, leaving their door open enough to hear if Jasper needed further help.

“This happens,” he said softly to Dale once they were out of Mason’s earshot. “With every client to some degree, and it needs to happen. You went through this yourself.”

There was no question of Dale not understanding, probably in more concrete terms than they did, but he felt braced under Flynn’s hands. He had a powerful protective instinct that often came out under pressure, a need to take action, especially if he saw one of them working on a problem and he wasn’t actively helping. Flynn pulled back the covers on the bed, deliberately calm in the same way Jasper was talking and moving with purposeful calm down the landing. It was the same way they habitually handled the stock, a physical message that passed by osmosis. This is ok. Trust me, this is all right.

“It’s worse for Mason because he’s drying out. Jasper will stay with him, he knows what to do, we’ll have Emmett come out in the morning to check him over and he may suggest better meds, but mostly this is something Mason and Jasper need to work through.”

Dale would understand that too, just as he understood the large, brash man so comprehensively broken just a few doors down the landing. There was a mental process in drying out, whatever your addiction had been, that involved you realising the mess you’d got yourself into, making your own decision and reaching the point of consciously taking back control.

“Hey.” Flynn said bluntly when he didn’t move. “Bed.”

The terseness worked; it often did. He saw Dale’s half flicker of appreciation and he unfolded his arms and sat down on the bed. Flynn yanked him the rest of the way, the right kind of roughness and possessiveness went deep into Dale. This was inevitably stirring up still recent memories for him of what it felt like to be in Mason’s position, and to Dale they weren’t pleasant memories, they were ones he’d had to spend a lot of time dealing with and learning to live with over the past year.

“There’s nothing you or I can do right now. Paul’s gone to help.” he said quietly into Dale’s hair as they settled down with the long experience of two bodies used to tangling comfortably together, and Dale’s arms found their accustomed place around him, light but with a strength in their clasp that could surprise you, and his palms flat against skin as if he held you in his hands. Quiet and gentle in bed as he was everywhere else, Dale still had a lot of presence. Flynn ran his hand steadily up and down the long line of his spine, feeling him gradually let the tension go.

“He’ll stay as long as he’s needed and Jas is good with this kind of thing, Mason doesn’t have to get through it alone. It happens, and it’s all right.”

All right or not, he knew they both more dozed than slept for the rest of the night. Whereas Riley could calmly entrust this kind of situation completely into their hands, roll over and fall asleep and leave them to it, Dale was never going to be a leave-them-to-it kind of a man. Around five am Paul tapped on their door, fully dressed.

“Flynn? I think we need some help. I’ve called Emmett, he’s on his way over.”

Flynn rolled up off the bed, pulled a pair of jeans on, and padded down the hallway to Mason’s room. Jasper was sitting with him and Mason was wrapped in blankets and shivering violently in the bed. The smell of vomit was strong in the room despite the open window and a rinsed basin stood ominously close to the bed. He was very pale and sweating badly, and tears were still running with monotonous regularity that went with the kind of shocked cast of Mason’s face, as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He was clutching Jasper’s hand as if it was a lifeline. Flynn wondered if he’d ever in his adult life held hands with another man. He certainly wasn’t thinking twice about it now. Jasper glanced up, calm as he always was, and his certainty that this was normal, that this would pass, was probably most of what was helping Mason cope. It had helped no few other clients in this kind of a state.

“Good morning.”

“Hey.” Flynn said quietly, coming to sit on the windowsill which put him near them both. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so rough, Mason. Has this ever happened before?”

Mason shook his head slightly. He wasn’t really looking at either of them and his eyes were glassy.

“He’s had plenty to drink,” Jasper said in the same unhurried, even tone he’d been talking to Mason in, “Gatorade and the rehydration salts, painkillers to control the headache, and he’s shaking more than feeling cold. We talked about calling Emmett and agreed it was a good idea.”

“Do you know what’s causing this, Mason?” Flynn watched the man’s face, taking in the paleness and the lack of expression. Mason managed a snort in between shivering. His teeth were chattering with it.

“Sobering up. I haven’t gone without a drink in – months. Damn. I’d have stopped months ago if I’d realised this would happen.”

“It’s ok. We see a lot of clients handle this and we get every one of them through it.” Flynn said quietly, “Can you tell me what time it is?”

There was none of yesterday’s sarcasm or arrogance in Mason’s voice, the man was too scared and too desperate for their help.

“Around five, I heard the clock go. My watch is over there on the dresser.”

“Good. Where are you right now?” Flynn leaned over to reach the hand Mason was clutching Jasper with and put two gentle fingers over the inside of his wrist, feeling for the pulse.

“Wyoming.” Mason gave him a very slight, deaths head smile. “Ranch. My date of birth is fifteenth of the eighth sixty seven. It’s a Thursday, I lost track of the date.”

Flynn nodded slowly, reassuringly, glancing at his own watch to mark the time before he let Mason’s wrist go. “That’s ok. I want you to remember three words for me, I’ll ask in a while what they are. Car, fish and orange. Ok? Can you tell me what half of fifty is?”

“Twenty five.”

“Twelve times two?”

“Twenty four.”

“Eight less than forty.”

“Thirty... two.” Mason swallowed and Jasper picked up the glass of Gatorade, holding it while Mason drank.

“Can you remember those three words?” Flynn asked him, and Mason coughed, nodded.

“Car. Fish. Orange.”

“Good.” Flynn said, getting up. “Your heart isn’t racing, you’re thinking clearly, those are all good signs. Withdrawal messes with your nervous system and sends it hyper so you’re going to feel like hell for a few hours more, but nothing worse is going to happen. All we need to do is work out how to get you more comfortable and Emmett’s going to be able to handle that. I promise you you’re ok, you’re safe.”

“This really happens with other clients?” Mason said shortly. The man was shaking like a leaf and his anxiety was painful.

“Yes.” Flynn said matter of factly. “We work closely with Emmett whenever alcohol or drugs are involved, he always knows when we have a new client so he can be here if we need him, and he knows his stuff. There’s also a clinic in Jackson, our nearest town, which specialises in supporting substance withdrawal, and they’ve worked with us when we’ve needed them. We’re well set up, you’re going to be ok. Still remember those words?”

“Car. Fish. Orange?”

“Good. I’ll be right back.” Flynn pulled the door to behind him and went back to his room, pulling a clean shirt out of the drawer. Dale was sitting up, folded arms resting on his knees, and Flynn shouldered into the shirt, aware of the reserve in Dale’s face.

“He’s ok, just miserably uncomfortable. There’s a couple of assessment formats Emmett and I use for drink problems, I need to go and sort them out. Go back to sleep.”

It wasn’t a casual suggestion. Flynn stooped as he passed the bed, still buttoning his shirt, and Dale lifted his face to kiss him.

“Anything I can do?”

“Yeah.” Flynn ran a work-callused hand down his cheek, voice blunt. “Let me handle this and stop worrying. You’re not in charge here, this is not your responsibility, Jas and I have got this under control.”

That tone would have drawn a scowl from Riley. To Dale, it was comfort, not reproach. Flynn tugged the covers back over him, making him lie down.

“Clear your head and let it go, kid. Sleep.”

Emmett parked in the yard and accepted the mug of tea Paul handed him as he came in the kitchen door. He always wore the battered khaki anorak, as old and shapeless as the black bag he carried, and the phone call made to him an hour ago might as easily have disturbed him in fishing as in sleeping: he did both in his rare free time from the battered, shack-like house he occupied in the woods forty minutes down the main road from the ranch. Whether he’d been fishing or sleeping, he looked as comfortably scruffy as he always did, and in need of a shave. He swallowed tea and kicked his battered trainers off, following Paul towards the family room.

“What does Flynn think?”

“Mild withdrawal. He’s not worried, but we’d always rather make sure.” Paul took the second mug with them and led Emmett into the study where Flynn was sitting on the edge of one of the desks with several sets of papers spread out. One of the things he researched most carefully in the psychology journals he kept up with were any assessments and screening tools that might be helpful to a client and he and Emmett had worked together like this for many of them. Emmett put his bag down and pulled out the admiral’s chair, and Flynn turned the nearest set of papers around to show him, accepting the mug from Paul.

“Jasper breathalysed him when he arrived, that was the reading. Jas found about a bottle and a half of vodka in his luggage, and thought he presented as a low level chronic drinker more than an alcoholic. Mason’s shocked, I believe him that he hasn’t experienced this kind of withdrawal before. From everything else I’ve got on him he’s looked pretty stable, and until this morning he didn’t think he had any kind of problem.”

“You’ll have kept him up on fluids and salts, I know Paul.” Emmett gave Paul a brief smile and sat back to read the paperwork. Paul left them to it and went upstairs. His own bedroom door was closed as Flynn had shut it to let Riley sleep, and had stayed closed which meant Riley was still asleep. Mind on the other person he’d been thinking a lot about this morning, Paul paused beside Flynn and Dale’s door which still stood half open, speaking so softly that if Dale was even dozing it wouldn’t disturb him.


Dale’s voice answered immediately, just as quiet. “I’m not asleep.”

That wasn’t much of a surprise. Paul stretched out on the bed beside him, seeing the mist starting to clear on the pastures visible through the window. Full daylight was less than half an hour away.

“Emmett’s here. Poor Mason, I don’t think he ever thought he had anything like a drink problem.”

“If you don’t have to think about driving, it’s easy to get into the habit of a couple of drinks a day without noticing.” Dale muttered, and Paul thought he sounded grim. “You’re often meeting clients in social settings, hospitality suites. Alcohol is a part of the furniture.”

“How did you stay sober?” Paul asked him. Dale shrugged. He’d obviously tried to relax and to rest, but he sounded wide awake.

“I mostly needed a clear head, and I was always working. When I drank it was usually alone to be able to sleep or calm down, I got good at keeping one drink going for hours if I was in a meeting or a client meal.”

As mathematically planned as he did most things, but then Dale would never have understood social drinking; he wouldn’t have joined a group of friends in a bar, or even gone to a bar. He always would have been working.

“It was caffeine, panic and sleep deprivation I had to dry out on.” Dale said curtly. Paul felt for his hand and wound his fingers through Dale’s cool and slightly longer, slenderer ones.

“Honey, that’s pretty much standard for almost every client. The kind of headaches and exhaustion you had are very normal; even when people come back to visit us they often spend the first twenty four hours with headaches. Even Luath does sometimes when he comes home. I think the real air after all the air conditioning and the break from non-stop coffee and noise and glare and eye muscle work probably comes as a shock to the system. Mason’s all right.”

Dale didn’t answer for a minute, and when he did it was abruptly, in a way that Paul had learned to hear warning bells in.

“I’m not going to sleep any further. I’d like to check the emails, I can do that now without attracting Mason’s attention.”

Flynn would have vetoed that without hesitation and told him to sleep. And with Flynn there, Dale might have managed it too, but that kind of approach didn’t work between the two of them.

“Go on then.” Paul said mildly, squeezed Dale’s hand and got up from the bed. “I’ll be in my office, come down and find me when you’re done.”

He understood the look of relief and thanks Dale shot him, and followed him quietly onto the landing. The door to Mason’s room was now closed and Dale was right; this was something they could do without Mason’s attention being drawn. Dale opened the door into the short hallway that led to Paul’s office and the narrow flight of stairs that led to the little workroom he used. Paul saw Dale take the key down from where it was hidden on the top of the door ledge and disappear inside, and he left Dale in peace, letting himself into his own office and opening the window. It was cold and fresh outside, and the crisp air filled the little room. In the room above he heard the soft clunk of the computer and fax being turned on. Dale, with his need to keep up with any incoming work offers, had picked up the habit of checking communications for them all once a day, something he did briefly and efficiently, and being Dale he never strung out the time beyond what was strictly necessary as Gerry or Riley would have done. Only a moment or two later Paul heard the printer run, and then the door being locked, and Dale came into his office with a sheet of print-out. Barefoot and bare legged under his brief, white shorts, he sat down on the window seat and leaned his elbows on his knees to read.

“It’s from Tom.”

“They’ve got email up there?” Paul demanded. Dale nodded, skimming through the lines and subconsciously pushing his hair back out of his eyes. It was getting heavy, thick and dark and as yet unbrushed it was appealingly dishevelled.

“Solar powered. There’s a situation with a commercial expedition that’s gone wrong – details apparently following – and he and Jake plan on bailing it out. Judging by this, they mean buying it out. They’d like me to draw up a business plan and the paperwork.”

He went on looking at the paper a moment more; no expression in his face but it reminded Paul of an evening during the winter, watching Riley, Dale and Flynn playing Kim’s game; something that had gotten sillier and rowdier as the game went on and Dale calmly beat the pants off both of the other two. It had turned into a straight attempt by Flynn and Riley to create a number and complexity of items sufficient to catch Dale out, and they hadn’t succeeded. He’d given each set of objects the same assessing look he was using now on the print-out.

“This isn’t a good proposition.” he said after a moment more. “Not in terms of profit; if they intend on investing long enough to see the return they’ll do all right, it’s clear from this they know what they’re doing - but it’s disproportionately generous to the existing company if the circumstances are what they look like.”

“That may be why they’re doing it.” Paul said wryly.

“I’d want better protection around their financial interests than this. Their bank won’t be happy about the unfair advantage.”

“I’d think it’s unlikely that financial interest is much of a concern, Jake doesn’t have too many financial worries.” Paul collected up the papers scattered across his desk, organising them into one stack. “And his bank will be used to him, he’s been a great source of disappointment to them for years. I doubt most of the time they have the faintest idea where he is.”

Dale’s eyebrow raised at him with the straight look that was just about a polite request for information. He tended to forget about social niceties when he was thinking.

“Jake inherited an extremely large income from his family estate.” Paul said baldly. “I don’t think he was very old at the time, but he’s never been particularly interested. He was Philip’s godson, Philip knew his family and stepped in to help when everyone else involved was struggling with the fact that Jake wasn’t doing anything that heirs are supposed to do.”

“Rescued him?”

“I don’t know you could get Jake to understand the concept of needing to be rescued? You might as well try harassing a mountain as harassing Jake, he just smiles at you and carries on doing what he wants, it drove his family and his bank insane. No yachts, no fast cars, he mostly wanted to go off alone in ripped jeans to climb or read or herd cattle, or get a basic pay job with a lot of physical work involved that he thought looked interesting.”

That drew a thoughtful nod from Dale; he had spent a fair amount of time with both Jake and Tom when they were on the ranch over the summer, and Paul thought that Tom and Dale had found a fair amount of mutual understanding. Dale probably got more conversation out of Tom in two months than the rest of them had managed put together over the years they’d known him.

“Philip supported him in doing all of the work and climbing and whatever else he wanted,” Paul went on, thinking of the first few years he’d known Jake. “Philip had the concept of character and values, and not much else mattering, that made a lot of sense to Jake. He was very fond of Philip, and Philip had his own experience of what it was like growing up with a heavy financial responsibility behind you, and not following the standard path with it. Jake’s certainly able to buy out a small company and not worry about immediate returns, especially if he’s got an ulterior motive. Not that I know much about it, but we’ve had letters and photographs for him from at least one village in Peru with water supplies and buildings that would surprise you for a poor, remote area. Will you do the paperwork they want?”

“Of course. And make it as secure as possible.” Dale passed him the email. He looked more relaxed now his mind was on something else, the tension had reduced in his shoulders. “I can do it now, it won’t be a long job.”

“You might as well hon, I won’t start breakfast until Emmett’s finished.” Paul skimmed through the mail and handed it back, thinking that anything that kept Dale’s mind occupied and off Mason was probably a good idea. “That’s Greek to me. Go ahead, I’m going to clear up here.”

“Looking for something about the Three Traders’ newspaper?” Dale paused, looking at the papers now stacked on Paul’s desk. The box of papers that had been gathered on his request on the sale of Three Traders lay open on the floor, and several more sorted piles of paper laid next to it.

“Yes, I was looking.” Paul pulled out another handful from the box. “Nothing so far, but it’s interesting reading.”

He went on reading while Dale worked, half an eye on the time. Dale had worked on a steady flow of free lance jobs from A.N.Z. over the winter, and while he’d accepted some offered projects he’d chosen to reject others, preferring the short ones, usually completed in hours and often by phone, or at most taking him a day or two, although from Paul’s limited knowledge ‘short’ didn’t always translate as easy. Dale had talked with Flynn about it probably in more detail than he had with the rest of them, but they hadn’t pushed him to explain the ones he chose to reject, and Flynn had quietly told them that Dale had chosen not to explain to A.N.Z. either, although his refusals didn’t appear to deter them in any way. In Dale, that would be a carefully considered decision. It was as if he was building up his confidence in his usual painstaking way, staying within the limits in which he felt safe.

He was back within half an hour, Paul heard the office being locked upstairs and he reappeared, shivering slightly. The room upstairs wasn’t heated. Paul took the grey, cable knit cardigan draped over the back of his chair and passed it to him, and Dale pulled it on and sat down on the floor beside the open box, picking up another sheaf of the papers. The wool garment hung loose on his shoulders and long beside his bare legs, which he folded up as he always did, occupying an impossibly small space.

“All done?” Paul asked him. Dale nodded without looking up.

“I sent the draft to them, I think it’s fairly water tight. I can put that through the channels to formalise it if that’s what they want. I get the impression Tom knows what he’s doing. I wonder if any kind of legal qualification was mixed up in his degrees.”

“I know about the Egyptology one, the geology one and the Medieval French poetry. Can you imagine trying to teach Tom French poetry?” Paul caught Dale’s eyes and rolled his, and Dale’s rather serious expression cracked into a smile. Paul put out a hand to touch his face, and got up.

“It’s past six, I’m going to go and start breakfast. Go wake Riley, and get dressed before you freeze.”

Flynn was downstairs in the kitchen with Emmett, and Paul tapped Emmett’s shoulder as he passed him.

“Take your coat off and look like you’re staying, I’m just about to start breakfast. How is Mason doing?”

“I gave him a loading shot of diazepam.” Emmett took the chair Flynn offered him and Flynn came to set the table as Paul pulled out a skillet and began to organise the ingredients he wanted out of the fridge. “And left oral diazepam with Jasper. One every couple of hours today and then from tonight we’ll start spacing them out. That should help the shakes and anxiety until he’s through the worst of it. I took a blood sample but I don’t expect much to worry about, he’s not in bad shape, just been too used to a steady level of alcohol in his bloodstream.”

“From what Dale tells me, it’s not uncommon.” Paul dropped bacon into the skillet and put rolls into the oven to bake. “Not that it occurs to Dale to tell you this kind of thing, but I get the impression he’s seen someone in this state before.”

“I don’t particularly want him or Ri seeing any more.” Flynn said shortly. “This isn’t going to be a pretty few hours.”

No. Having seen the tension in Dale this morning, Paul found himself in full agreement, but still looked up at Flynn, putting a discreet warning in his tone.

“Do it with a bit of tact and diplomacy then, or let me do it.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow at him, and Emmett caught Paul’s eye and stifled a grin. He was getting to know the dark haired, quiet man that followed Riley into the kitchen and gave him a polite nod good morning. He was still lean and lightly built, but to Emmett’s eye he’d gained some of the weight he’d been in need of last summer, and while the lines under his shirt were more subtle than Riley’s, they were apparent in muscle along his shoulders and chest.

“What’s wrong with Mason?” Riley demanded.

“Nothing but withdrawal, he’ll be fine when it wears off.” Paul put a hand on his shoulder to sit him down and passed him a plate. “He had a wretched night poor man, but Emmett’s made him more comfortable.”

“Hi Emmett.” Riley helped himself to the orange juice, slopping a healthy amount into his glass. “He didn’t profile like a classic alcoholic, is this the usual detox come-down or did he have more of a habit than we thought?”

“Like Jas thought, he’s been used to a steady low level of alcohol.” Flynn accepted the bottle of juice from him and filled his own glass and Dale’s. “I’m going to need to be around today in case Jas needs a hand. Could you two handle a camp out?”

Paul, watching as he turned the bacon and added eggs into the pan, saw Dale’s eyes, always intense when they rested on you, lift and sharpen. Riley sat back in his chair, unsurprised and cheerfully open to suggestions.

“Where and for what?”

“The fences up by Three Traders need a thorough going over now the weather’s improving, and a survey done for how much grazing land we can include if we move the fences.” Flynn said it brusquely but in much the same tone he usually talked about work needing doing at breakfast time, and with an effort to explain instead of order. “If you go out and stay overnight the two of you’ll get it done in one go and then we can turn the cattle up into the north pastures this weekend and start resting the south east pastures.”

That would get both of them well out of the way until tomorrow night when Mason should be well past the worst, and Riley loved Three Traders and was extremely good at taking Dale’s mind off anything stressful. He was still by far the best of them at getting Dale to forget himself and play, enjoy himself, as they would if they were hanging around the town.

“Sounds good to me.” Riley said easily, “Camping up at Three Traders is no kind of chore.”

Paul tipped bacon and eggs on plates. “I’ll sort you out with food. Take the thermal blankets and sleeping bags, it’s cold at night.”

He put two of the plates on the table and Emmett saw him put his hands on Dale’s shoulders and grasp them. That was all he did, he said nothing, but Dale glanced up at him. And then quietly got up to take the rolls out of the oven as though that was all Paul had meant.

Occasional camping out was an inevitable part of working on a ranch this size, usually kept for the good weather seasons, and the kit lived in one of the several sheds near the barn, packed and ready to go. It took them maybe ten minutes to assemble what they needed and another five to collect personal essentials. Dale, collecting a spare change of clothes and a heavy sweater from his dresser, heard Jasper’s voice from along the landing, calm and quiet.



Jasper was in the doorway of Mason’s room, blocking the doorway which made it difficult to see past him. He didn’t look like a man who’d been up all night, and he smiled when he saw Dale.

“Watch the weather, it’s changeable right now. If you’re going downstairs, ask Flynn if he picked up the keys?”

“Anything you need?” Dale paused at the top of the stairs and Jasper shook his head.

“No, we’re fine. Enjoy the trip.”Dale headed downstairs and out into the yard where Flynn was helping Riley tack up Hammer and Snickers, and loading the camping gear on their saddles. Dale added his folded clothes to a saddle bag on Hammer, catching Flynn’s eye.

“Jasper asked if you’d picked up the keys?”

“Yes, I’ll take them up to him.” Flynn finished the last attachment with a brisk and competent yank on a leather strap and hooked an arm around Riley’s waist to give him a rough hug that pulled him off his feet for a minute.

“Stay out of the mine, don’t do anything stupid around derelict buildings, stay together. I want you back by four tomorrow. Did you pick up a spare box of cartridges?”

“I did.” Dale tapped the saddlebag under his rifle, both he and Riley had automatically attached one to their saddle as they did every day.

“Get on with it then.” Flynn let Riley go and put a hand under Dale’s chin, and the look between them went on for some seconds before Flynn kissed him and pulled him over for a crushing hug that ended in a mild swat.

“It’s ok, stop chewing. I’ll see you tomorrow. Take Ash with you.”

He jogged across the yard and headed into the kitchen and Riley gave Dale an experienced look, checking his girth once more as Snickers was given to ballooning when he was tacked up.

“If you’re going to flip, want to get it over with now before we go?”

Riley normalised these kind of emotions so easily. Dale gave him an expressive look, and Riley grinned and swung up into his saddle, whistling to the dogs.

“Just asking. You don’t usually like anything that looks like skiving.”

No. But things that Flynn saw as ugly, disturbing or hard, he wanted to deal with himself and spare the rest of them as much as was possible, purely because in his mind that was what a man did for the people he loved. It had taken time to learn to understand, but it was hard to mind about being loved like that.

“What was happening with Mason when you came downstairs?” Riley asked as Dale gathered up the reins and made the rather large step up into Hammer’s stirrup. Hammer wasn’t just wide, he was tall too, and while he was standing patiently he was starting to click his hooves rather often on the hard earth yard. Dale settled into the saddle with the habit now of using the long western style stirrups, and let Hammer turn and follow Snickers out of the yard into the home pastures. He’d got the knack somewhere of hanging over to unlatch the gate, nod the right dog through and the other two back, and re latching the gate without it taking up too much of his attention.

“Nothing I could see. Why?”

“Keys.” Riley held on to Snickers who was making it clear that if they were on open ground he wanted to go somewhere, preferably as fast as possible and at least keeping pace with Ash, the small border collie who was bulleting ahead of them. “That’s the code for back up when there’s a client here. If Jas tells you to go ask Flynn if he’s got the keys, it means go tell Flynn he needs help. If I said to Jas do you have the keys, I’d mean-”

“Does he want any help.” Dale finished for him, understanding. “Yes. I had code words with my PA and with other A.N.Z. personnel.”

“Like what?” Riley asked him curiously.

Dale considered, mentally counting them up. “Depending on the situation? Things like ‘call security’, ‘call me back in two minutes giving me an excuse to leave immediately’, ‘this looks dodgy’, ‘negotiations look like closing’, ‘hold clients wherever they are, there’s someone else around they shouldn’t see’, all kinds of things. They all had to be things that slipped naturally into general conversation or instructions, and we had more than one phrase for each thing so it wasn’t obvious. It was usually interesting working out the code words and phrases being used by the other side in negotiations or when investigating corporates, it gave away a lot of information. What?”

“You led such a damn exciting life. Although I bet it only looks that way from the outside. Let’s go this way?”

“Since when did Three Traders lay in this direction?” Dale said quizzically. Riley grinned at him, guiding Snickers down the bank of the river.

“It doesn’t, but I want to take another look at where we found the exploding bag.”

The horses were not pleased at halting after such a short walk. The deep scoring on the bank showed where the heavy tree trunk had been dragged clear, and the ragged, wide hole on the far bank was all that was left of where the roots and the bag had been buried together. Ash plunged down the bank to nose in the river as though he’d never seen water before, and Snickers danced and stamped and tried to turn in circles, protesting as Riley showed signs of dismounting. Riley soothed him, gathering the reins in and making him stand. Dale looked across to him, leaning on Hammer’s saddle bow.

“What did you want to see?”

Riley dropped to the ground and hung on to Snicker’s bridle, coaxing until the gelding accepted that he was going to have to wait.

“Come over here.”Hammer, not as young or as high tempered as Snickers, only snorted disapproval as Dale dropped down to the ground, wandered a few steps away and found a patch of wild flowers to eat. Dale patted his flank as he passed and followed Riley down the bank. Riley glanced up at him, bracing one booted foot on a rock and leaning out over the river.

“Nothing else is going to blow up, is it?”

“I have no way of knowing what else might be buried?” Dale pointed out.
Riley gave him a come on look, stepping out onto another rock for a closer look at the crater.

“The right answer is No, Ri, nothing else is going to blow up, go look, it’s fine. It really blasted the bank out...... I don't see anything else, at least without digging, someone must have just stashed that bag. Why would someone hide a few pieces of clothing?”

“If that’s what it is.”

“What else would have buttons on? Is there anything here that you or Jas would know about?”

For a moment Dale had no idea what he meant.

“Well?” Riley said when he didn’t answer. “You’re the one who just magically knows where stuff is, Paul always asks you if he can’t find something. You were the one who knew his watch was down the back of my dresser.”

“Logic and photographic memory, that’s all.” Dale said mechanically. Riley shrugged.

“Whatever it is, you’re good at it?”

“It.......” Dale found that his hand in his jeans pocket had automatically closed on the uncut chunk of rose quartz crystal he carried with him by habit. It had become something he often found himself absently pulling out to hold and fidget with, as subconsciously as nail biting or fiddling with a pen, and he transferred it from pocket to pocket whenever he changed clothes.

“It doesn’t work like that, it isn’t exactly something to just do.”

As soon as he said it he knew he was saying it to one of the four men in the world who not only trusted him to be honest with them, a bargain tied up in the quartz and gold rings they both wore on their left hands, but who knew him well enough to know when he was lying. Riley’s eyes were uncomfortably steady, and Dale winced.

“Ok, that’s not quite true.”

How did you explain that you weren’t sure and you were even a little nervous to intentionally try it out here for no particularly good reason, in part that it might not work, in part that it might, and in part to let Riley see you do something that was arguably – in broad daylight and in front of a witness - foolish?

“So what’s the risk in giving it a try?” Riley said candidly.

To him it really was that straight forward, and it was one of the reasons Dale loved Riley as fiercely as he did. Things weren’t complicated to Riley, and he had a knack of going straight to the point without trivialising that made it possible to talk about the most ridiculous and most awful things as though they were normal. There had been other times, when Dale had been in Mason’s position, new to this place and not understanding, finding everything insane, when Riley had made it possible to talk and put thoughts into words, and Dale had learned back then to trust him.

Based on that trust, and when Riley – probably deliberately and tactfully - turned his attention back to the crater in the bank, Dale pulled the crystal out of his pocket and walked a few steps down to the bank where he hesitated for a moment before he sat down on the grass.

There were tricks that magnified concentration; he’d used them all his life without realising, and it was only since he’d lived here, with Flynn and Jasper’s patient teaching, that he’d come to consciously recognise when he was doing them. One was that sense of stepping aside from himself, that step into pure concentration, hyperawareness where he could take in and process data at speed, and that he had learned some intentional control over, to evoke it and to shut it down when he was doing the short, brief work tasks he’d experimented with over the winter. It was no longer something that happened without his realising when he was worked up enough, and he knew how to initiate it. The other two things to do were things he tried mostly when he was falling asleep at night, a time when he felt very safe. One was the slow, deeper breathing that came from the stomach, not the chest, and which slowed things down and came with a deliberate attempt to drop his shoulders and consciously relax his body from forehead to eyes to jaw on downward, followed by that sense of not just being contained within his body but of lifting slightly out beyond the edges of it. The other was that visual image, not exactly of the white light Jasper had talked to him about, but an image that came far more easily from his own visualisation and which always filled him with a sense of calm and lifted spirits: the golden light of the kitchen in the evening at dinner, not just the yellow of electric light but something of the atmosphere. The people there. The feel within the house. His fingers were running absently back and forth over the rough surface of the crystal. More granular than rough, a sandy sensation, the stone warm from his body heat. He’d forgotten what an amazingly relaxing thing this was to do outside, a sense of feeling very focused, very calm.

Then deliberately holding onto that sensation, Dale got up and stood for a few minutes, kind of both looking and not looking at the river passing by, at Riley climbing around the crater on the bank, at the horses grazing on the grass. To take in and skim information it was kind of necessary not to focus on anything particular, to not let any one thing grab your attention , to take your time and let the whole picture come together. He did it with data, and he’d done in a very few times in other places, most strongly up on Mustang Hill.

And there was nothing at all. Nothing but the river, sparkling in the morning sunlight, and the crunch of Riley’s boots on the bank, and the smell of wet earth and grass, and the occasional huff of the horses behind them. Ash’s wet nose dug into his palm, a rough tongue ran over his hand and Ash plunged again into the river to join Riley.

“What do you think?” Riley said, splashing back to join him, oblivious to soaking his jeans to the knee. Dale shook his head, discreetly pocketing the crystal and suddenly feeling hotly, horribly stupid, like a kid caught believing in tooth fairies.

“Nothing we didn’t notice yesterday. I can try identifying the buttons, that’s a much more sensible way of locating information. We ought to get moving.”

They took the horses through the river at the crossing place where the wreck of the wagon was visible deep below the surface of the clear water, and through the path in the woods that eventually wound past the steam engine, tumbled on its side in the leaves and mulch, beached among the trees.

“Dale?” Riley said sharply.

Dale blinked and realised Riley had said it several times, and that Hammer, instead of following the path, was picking his way slowly down the steep bank towards the train. Dale reined him in, pulling himself together.

“Sorry.”Riley waited for him as Hammer scrambled back up the bank, frowning under the brim of his Stetson.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Dale said reflexively. “Just day dreaming.”

“You turned Hammer right off the path.”

“I must have been looking at the train. I'm fine, really. Sorry.”

He ducked away from Riley’s searching look and Hammer took the lead up the path through the woods. They were climbing a long, steep slope here; the slope that once the train had tumbled down. It must have smashed the trees in its path on the day it fell, but there was no sign of the disaster now, just the steam engine, a foreign object surrounded by peaceful woods. The sunlight dappled down through the trees which were bright green with new and still emerging leaves, and the horses’ feet crunched on the now very crisp remains of last falls’ leaves underfoot. The sunlight was much brighter as the path reached the top of the slope and emerged out of the woods and Dale paused, turning Hammer slightly to look not to the left and towards Three Traders, but to the right, the pasture that led beyond the edge of the woods, a part of the ranch he didn’t know.

“The train tracks are still here.”

“I guess they are.” Riley turned Snickers to look with him. The rails were overgrown with grass but were visible in places in the grass. Following the line of them, Dale led Hammer onto the track itself and Snickers followed.

“How far do you suppose they go?” Riley said after a while. Dale shrugged slightly.

“I guess until it leaves the ranch at least. In England the disused lines were mostly taken up – iron and timber used for other things, the stations have been turned into houses now, the only things left are the bridges over nothing. It’s quite eerie, there was one near home I used to walk around when I was a kid.”

“Home not school?” Riley gave him a rather questioning glance. “You never talk about home.”

“I wasn’t there much.”

The line was running wide of the town which lay in front of them. The woods were on their left and further on a branch of the river emerged from the woods too, eventually both the line and the river emerging on the plateau of Three Traders down by the mine and the main street. Both wound wide to come gradually downhill, skirting the sharp plateau ending in the steep cliff road down through the town, which had been built into the shelter of the valley wall itself. Dale nodded to his right, their usual route to the town.

“We’d better head that way if we’re going to survey the fence.”

“Blow the fence, I want to see how the town stood up to the winter.” Riley turned Snickers with him towards the wire fence that bordered their land with Three Traders. “We can camp by the river again, that’s a good spot and it’s sheltered.”

“We are going to do some work as well?” Dale said dryly, and Riley laughed.

“Maybe. If we have some free time.”

They cut the wire to let themselves in and Riley wired it again behind them. The plateau was just as it had been – a long stretch of green out over a long view that suddenly dropped away beneath their feet with the town below, set into the steep wall of the valley. It was familiar now, and Dale was surprised by the warmth with which he looked down at the sandy brown and grey buildings, the big mine wheel in the distance, the tin roofs, and the streets below. The streets had the same eerie silence as they reached the compacted rock paths and only the horses’ hooves echoed between the buildings as they passed house after house down into the streets where the bigger buildings stood.

“It still looks in perfect nick.” Riley said cheerfully, using a phrase he’d learned from Dale as they reached the main street down by the station, the long, wide road that lay along the railway line towards the mine and the river. The hotel and the saloon, the blacksmiths, the stores with their faded wooden boards with some painted words still visible.

“Sheltered by the valley. I’d think it escapes a lot of the snow.” Dale said abstractedly. Riley gave him another, sharper look and drew in Snickers, blocking Hammer’s path.

“Ok, what? You don’t look like that unless you’ve got a bur under your tail.”

It made a difference when you lived with men who taught you how to communicate and insisted that you did it: Dale credited being spanked, consistently, every single time he broke that rule, for the fact he found himself stopping and thinking now. He’d promised Riley, having hurt him last fall in the wake of the A.N.Z. project fiasco, to trust them to be capable of understanding and of helping with anything that mattered to him, no matter how petty or humiliating a thing it was to explain, and that was a commitment that Dale took as seriously as every other commitment he’d made to Riley and the others.

“I’m-” he hesitated and went for a phrase learned from Riley, who he’d heard model it often and effortlessly in conversation without ever sounding strangled, “- upset with myself for doing something so stupid down by the river.”

That didn’t appear to be what Riley had expected; the hazel eyes were genuinely surprised.

“Stupid? You? Why? Because you think it didn’t work?”

Hello, my name is Dale Aden and I’m a Pathological Perfectionist.

“Maybe that’s just because there’s nothing there?” Riley pointed out when he didn’t answer.

And you’d never think of that, Aden, would you?

“Where are we camping?” Dale asked to change the subject. Riley gave him a brief glare and shook his head.

“And they call me a brat. Suppose we leave the stuff here and we can sort it out later?”

He turned in the saddle, taking a look around him. The sunshine of earlier had faded, and the sky was grey now rather than blue, slowly taking on the heaviness that might well mean rain to come.

“I wouldn’t mind a look around the town. Where would we find a match seller’s shop?”

“Or a printing press?” Dale dismounted and began to remove the gear from Hammer’s saddle. “That’s an interesting idea.”

They left the camping gear on the steps of the saloon and turned the horses loose to wander down to the pasture by the river to graze. Being easy to catch was a prerequisite of a ranch riding horse which often had to be left loose while work was done, they were trained for it and Snickers and Hammer would stay together for company and not wander far. Ash left the horses and trotted into the town with them, nosing around the street and sniffing hopefully under the wooden steps and walkways.

Riley linked his hands behind his neck, looking back down the street the way they’d come.

“Ok. Most of the shops are here, right? You’re the mastermind. Where would a match seller operate from?

“Not a shop.” Dale put the bridle down with the tack and looked with him. “We’re probably talking a shack at the back of something else, somewhere small for dipping, and probably boxes sold out of a tray on the street.”

“There’d be a chandler wouldn’t there?” Riley said thoughtfully. “A candle maker?”

“Yes, but two different things. Match selling wasn’t a rich trade, it’s a poor cottage industry in a town this size. And that’s only one possible use of phosphorus- there might be mining chemicals, gold processing chemicals-”

“And they involved white phosphorus as a raw chemical?” Riley demanded. Dale hesitated, but shook his head, a little embarrassed at knowing he was right.

“...no. Cyanide’s used in gold processing, but not phosphorus. There wouldn’t have been that much manufacture here. Candles. Probably a timber mill. Cobbler.”

“Matches.” Riley gave him a gentle dig in the ribs. “Trust your instincts. Where do we look for a match seller’s shack?”

There were yards and alleyways around the large buildings at the front. They found little yards, abandoned wash tubs and bottles, quite a stable yard behind the hotel, and numerous very elderly outhouses. Riley peered in through the broken door of one and pulled a face.

“The town must have stunk in hot weather. And Cholera in the wet seasons, remember the cemetery? There were whole sets of people there from the epidemics.”

It must have been a rough life. The printing press would have been here somewhere, most likely also in a back room of another building. A newspaper would have been more a hobby than a paying concern, run by someone in his free time.

The alleys, once you got into them, were a small maze. Narrow, leading into the sheds and nooks and crannies of a horse dependent, plumbing free and short on storage town. Most of the town’s occupants had taken only what they could easily transport when they left, and most of the larger things had simply been left in situ where they stood. Dale discovered a still-working mangle in what must once have been a small laundry at the back of the hotel, heavy with dust. He stood for a minute, slowly rotating the large, heavy handle, wondering how many of the town’s people had occupied these alleys behind the shops and businesses, working in these little sheds. The further towards the river and mine that the main street got, the smaller and darker the alleyways got. It was apparent that the east end of the town had been the socially upmarket part with the larger houses, the hotel and saloon, the shops, the stables. The west end of the town bled into the mine workers’ shacks and dormitories and eventually the mine itself. The buildings were smaller, crowded together and more primitive, a faded pawn broker’s sign hung over a narrow shop doorway, and there were more makeshift sheds tucked in anywhere there was space. Many of them were empty. Others contained bottles, crates, broken tools, unidentified muck accumulated and left for likely over a hundred years. The final residents of the town and the last days of the town’s occupancy had been over in the far east street where the diner, the chapel and the broken down Buick stood, some way along the road from this, the old part of the town. It didn’t look like anyone much had come here since the mine and the railroad closed down.

“Someone needed to talk to this guy about advertising.” Riley’s voice said from somewhere out of sight in another of the little rat-runs in between the buildings. “Match Seller. Get Your Matches Here. Arrows.”

“He probably couldn’t read.” Dale walked around another of the anonymous little timber sheds, windowless and with a tin roof, and eased open the broken door. “At least we’re assuming it was a he.”

There were the same crates in the shed that he’d found everywhere. At a guess, much of the goods shipped in by rail had come in crates like this, they were all over the town and people had put them to good use. There were small barrels too, like the ones in museums in England that came from ships – maybe knee high, with lids that bore nail marks and scores where nails had been levered out.

“What’s that?” Riley asked, appearing around the edge of the shed with Ash at his heels. His hands and jeans were filthy, dust was in his hair and he looked gamely unaware of it.

Dale took out his knife and pried up a lid, crouching on the earth floor to look. He shut the lid on the first barrel and put it to one side, pulled another one to him and Riley watched him slip the blade of his knife under the second lid and lever it up. Dale always moved neatly, efficiently, with no wasted movements. His head was bent over the barrel, he was looking with care at the contents, and in the doorway Riley was hit by the faint and unmistakeable smell of garlic.

“Jackpot. White phosphorus.” Dale said detachedly, still peering into the barrel.

That’s phosphorus?” Riley watched him in disbelief, then dived to yank him back as he actually moved the knife to explore the contents as if he had no idea of the explosion Flynn and Riley had witnessed yesterday on the riverbank. “Dale! What are you doing? Get away from it!”

A faint green glow and a white vapour was beginning to emerge from the barrel in the darkness of the shed, and the smell was becoming strong. Ash whined, walking a few steps backwards in the alleyway, then barked. Dale got to his feet when Riley dragged him up but he was still just – standing there. Riley slammed the lid of the barrel down fast, took precious seconds to make sure the lid was secure and dumped another barrel on top of it for weight before he grabbed Dale, hauling him bodily backwards through the door.

“Out. Run.”

He had to manhandle Dale to get him to move through the alley and in the main street with Ash racing ahead of them, Riley gripped Dale’s arm and ran, expecting a detonation behind them all the time, past the railings of the board walk outside the saloon and down the road past the shops and the hotel. Dale moved with him in the long, fluent sprint he did so easily, and only when they were down by the railway station did Riley let him go and slow down, leaning on his knees to catch his breath. He was shaking all over with adrenaline.

“Is that going to blow?” he demanded. “Dale. Is that going to start a fire we need to deal with?”

Dale sounded less out of breath than on another planet, and he didn’t respond to Ash nudging at his knee. Unusually vague, detached.

“......Very unlikely.”

“What is wrong with you! That was a fricking stupid thing to do, shoving your face in it!”

Panting under control, Riley straightened up, more than ready to grab Dale and shake him until his teeth rattled, but the look on Dale’s face was so odd that it stopped him where he was and the urge just melted away. It wasn’t his ‘this doesn’t compute’ look. It was another one that Flynn or Jasper usually spotted first and handled long before it got out of control, but Riley knew it, and when he thought about it, he’d been seeing it build since they left the river where the bag had been found. Not knowing what else to do, Riley got hold of Dale’s shoulder, gripping hard through his jacket, and turned his head against Dale’s, forehead to forehead.

“Hey. Come on. Stay with me. You’re supposed to be the sensible one.”

Dale was panting less than he was, his breath was soft against Riley’s face, but he felt stiff and faintly cold. After a minute he put his arms around Riley and Riley immediately returned the hug, tight, holding him and running his hand steadily down the back of Dale’s dark head. It took him a minute to realise that he was instinctively doing what calmed down a freaked out horse, but it seemed to work on freaked out partners too.

“Sorry.” he heard Dale say very quietly after a moment, and felt Dale try to draw away, gently, tactfully as if he was embarrassed to find himself standing in this deserted street, clinging. With understanding, Riley tightened his arms before he let go, dropping a rough and deeply affectionate kiss on Dale’s cheek.

“It’s fine. Get it together.”

It was starting to rain. A fine, misting rain. Riley ran his hand over his hair and pulled his Stetson further down, looking back the way they’d come. Ash was sitting close against his leg, more upset by his raised voice than at getting wet. All of the dogs were oblivious to weather.

“What do you know about that stuff? Is it safe the way we left it?”

Dale crouched down on the street, resting his elbows on his knees. He still looked rather white, but his face was mobile again.

“No way to know how old it is but probably prior to 1911 when the international bans were in place. Age might make it less potent or concentrate it. The bag by the river was probably exposed to oxygen for several minutes on the bank before it blew, likely from the time you first started moving the tree. And there were probably other chemicals created by the moss – damp, the minerals in the river bank, which made it volatile enough to explode. People manufactured for decades with the raw material, it was dangerous but it was done – it was banned mostly because it was poisonous rather than because of spontaneous accidents. It doesn’t automatically catch fire or explode.”

“Ripping the top off a hundred year old barrel of it still not a good move.” Riley leaned down on his knees again, getting his breath and calming down. “Ok. I say we hunker down somewhere until the weather’s more stable.”

The saloon door was unlocked; most of the buildings had been left that way. There was a touching kind of hospitality to it in a town that owed its two hundred years of life by travellers. They’d had a quick look around last summer when they first came to Three Traders, and it was pretty much as Riley remembered it: a large room of bare floorboards, with a fireplace at one end, tables and chairs in groups across the floor, and a long, wide bar, curved at one end. Odds and ends still stood on the shelves behind the bar, but nothing useable. The whole room was thick with dust. Ash padded in ahead of them, his claws scratching on the wood. Riley shut the door on the rain and went to the fireplace, stooping with a hand braced on the wall to squint up the chimney.

“I daren’t try lighting the fire, I’ll probably catch the chimney alight. Full of bird nests and who knows what else.”

Ash shook himself vigorously to get the water off his coat, and flopped down on the floor, putting his chin on his paws. The room filled with the inexorable smell of wet dog. Dale was watching him, hands in his pockets, face still expressionless. Riley wandered back to the bar and hitched himself up on it.

“Any ghosts in here?”

He saw Dale almost choke on the question, his mouth dropping open in shock. It broke the look of blankness off his face. “What?”

Yeah that’s better.

Riley leaned back full length on the bar on his elbows, stretching out his jeaned legs in front of him on the counter and crossing his ankles comfortably, fairly sure he had Dale’s full attention.

“We’ve got time, it’s not like we’re going anywhere. Dale, I’m interested. Why can’t we talk about it? I know Jas doesn’t talk much about what he sees but you don’t mind nearly so much, you told me about the dreams you were having about Mustang Hill.”

“It’s too personal for Jas.” Dale said briefly, as if it was a confidence that shouldn’t be said aloud. It was very personal for him too, and Riley, who had been raised by Jasper on the stories and beliefs Jasper himself had been raised on, had a clearer understanding of it than he thought Dale realised.

“Yes.” he agreed, casually, watching him. “While you’re afraid if you talk about it too much you’re admitting you’re nuts, because when you first came to us you were hallucinating.”

Dale looked at him, and it wasn’t the vague look.

“You can’t fool me that you haven’t thought about this,” Riley said gently. “You think things to bits. You’ll read about it and work it out and test the information until you’re sure. Don’t you ever want to play with it? Explore it? Figure out what you can do?”

“........That makes it sound like it’s something bizarre.” Dale eased a chair out from a table and sat down, testing the weight carefully. Riley, still lounging on the bar, turned over on his side and propped his head on his hand to see him better.

“It is bizarre, get over it.”

Dale gave him a faint snort of laughter, shaking his head. “Thanks. Thanks a bunch.”

“You’re welcome.” Riley returned the smile and Dale leaned both arms on the table, visibly trying to put it into words, and probably, Riley thought, into terms Dale knew he’d understand.

“I think it’s the same way a lot of data analysis works. You look at the data – the whole picture – you study it, absorb it, get familiar with it, give yourself time, your brain keeps on working at it even when you’re not consciously thinking about it, and suddenly you see the pattern. The problem jumps out at you. A lot of accountants will tell you they can look at a screen or a page of data and anything wrong kind of just pulls their eye.”

Riley nodded slowly, listening. He’d seen Dale working enough at home to have an idea of what he meant, and had sat a few times in the office, looking with curiosity through the piles of files and computer discs Dale made sense of, watching him scan and pull together information. He’d equally seen Dale suck in information on lambing from Philip’s books and online articles he had permission to find and read, or take in the diagrams of a piece of machinery he wanted to repair.

“When I worked for A.N.Z.,” Dale said slowly, “a lot of what I did was trouble shooting. There is gut instinct involved at that level of business, there is psychology to it, you’re dealing with people as well as facts and figures and people take mathematics into whole new dimensions – they have infinite variables, they throw the equations everywhere. If you’re working at that level you have to get good at picking up cues, making connections, finding the pattern.”

“And you get good at pretty much whatever you turn your hand to.” Riley said thoughtfully.

Dale grimaced. “Idiot savantism. I’ve got the memory, I pick up patterns fast, and I’m a perfectionist so I go at whatever it is like it’s a life or death situation and don’t quit until it’s right. Like finding the vegetable patch, there was nothing strange about that. I knew bits of information about it from Paul, I knew the yard, I knew likelihoods and probabilities of where logically it would have been, I probably picked up cues in the ground I was only subliminally aware of, and one day in the yard I was wandering around there and I was calm and detached and letting myself think, and the data just snapped together.”


“I’ve done this for years without really knowing what I was doing or how.” Dale ran a finger through the dust on the table top, watching the dark line stand out in the white. “I always have kind of zoned out when I was working. What Flynn calls hyperfocus. There are different kinds of it. There’s the kind that I’m so intent on what I’m doing I don’t hear or see anything else and I can lose track of time, forget eating, sleeping, anything. There’s another kind that’s about kind of stepping back, not thinking about anything specific, letting the data flow in and waiting for something to stand out.”

“Like clearing your mind?”

“Like stepping back.” Dale gave him a brief, very self conscious look. “Not thinking about anything, just being – open I suppose. Aware of the whole picture. I know it helps if there isn’t anything physical distracting my attention, like being starving hungry, and I can’t manage the concentration if there’s any strong emotion involved. That state of concentration is pretty much putting emotion and everything else to one side. That was probably what got in the way so long with the A.N.Z. project that caused all the trouble... I was thinking too much about how stressed out I was and what I was doing wrong, no brain left to deal with the project. It helps too if I’m-”

He hesitated, as this was a part that sounded silly. Riley gave him a look of inquiry.

“If you’re what?”

“....Upbeat.” Dale said lightly. “What Jasper would call high energy or good energy. What Flynn would probably call endorphins or brain chemistry. I’ve found myself zoning out when I’ve been really upset about something, to get away from it, dissociating, but that’s different to doing it deliberately when I’m working. If I’m doing it deliberately, it helps to feel...”

“Good.” Riley supplied. “Makes sense to me. If I’m going to work with a horse, I have to get in a good state of mind, you can’t work a horse if you’re in a mess yourself. Can’t communicate, can’t control what’s going on, you don’t pick up the cues, the horse just reflects it all back at you.”

Dale gave him a faint, but grateful smile with eyes that said a lot more than he was saying out loud. The sound of rain abruptly grew louder overhead and Riley sat up on the bar, peering out of the old and clouded window at the street beyond.

“We might as well plan on camping in here, it’ll be drier and warmer. Let’s set up and get something to eat, and get comfortable until this blows itself out.”

They brought in the gear they’d left just inside the doorway when the rain started. A wooden staircase with a wide banister led upstairs, but they tried several of the doors downstairs first, looking for a room with a shorter chimney or a safe place to set a small fire. It was cold in the large bar room. Riley drew a blank in the first room, which from its large table had possibly been a meeting room or a card room at one time. Another, further behind the bar, led to a better option; a stone floored scullery, with a wide sink under a pump, and a large, iron range, on the top of which stood several empty pots that must have been too large to pack and carry. This must have been where glasses were washed and food prepared, for the owners of the saloon if not food served in the saloon itself. Dale opened the door of the stove to check its interior and Riley, coming to look over his shoulder, was surprised that the previous occupant had obviously cleaned it before leaving. Probably a matter of pride. Dale got up without comment and went to get a length of the coil of barbed wire they’d brought with them, running it through the pipe. Knowing what he intended, Riley took the outside door into the yard, watching the wall, and called back as he saw the end of the wire emerge.

“Yes, it’s through.”

Which meant it was clear of obstructions and safe to light. Dale found the kindling and dry wood they’d brought with them and Riley crouched on the stone flags, stacking the wood in the belly of the stove. He was coaxing the fire into existence when he heard Dale call and turned around. Dale had opened the doors leading off the kitchen, one leading into a pantry with empty shelves. Another opened into a small, dark room and Dale was out of sight. Riley followed him, blinking slightly in the dim room, and found Dale with a curious Ash at his feet, examining a large, iron contraption looking rather like an overgrown old fashioned sewing machine dominated the floor. It was upright, several feet high with a lot of horizontal and sloping flat plates and shelves on it at various angles and a large iron turning wheel attached to a foot treadle. A printing press. On the floor around it were more of the ubiquitous crates, filled with newspapers. Dale crouched over the nearest one, gently turning over the top sheet and pushing Ash’s nose out of the way to see. The top line had a large, decorative font and proudly announced itself as The Golden Nugget: the newspaper of Three Traders Town.

They lay on their sleeping bags in front of the stove when the rain really got heavy, looking through the piles of slightly mouldy papers and reading fragments of them aloud to each other as they found particularly interesting bits.

“A gunfight took place outside the Mine Shaft Saloon at eight o clock of the evening on the 21st of June between Mr Jim Balloy and Mr Bob Kirk.” Riley read out at one point. “A witness reported hearing two gunshots and located both men laying on the ground, Mr Kirk complaining that he was mortally wounded. However after both guns were proven to have entirely missed their aim to the detriment of shop fronts in the vicinity, the matter was settled by the barman who refused to serve either Mr Balloy or Mr Kirk with further whiskey. This must be the Mine Shaft Saloon we’re in.”

“Makes sense, it was probably mostly miners who drank here.” Dale lay back, gently shaking out another paper to see more clearly the part he wanted. “A suggestion that Mr East, our worthy town Marshall, consider taking a team of Cowboys with him to establish better order in the mine encampment on the next occasion of a fight, was declined today. Mr East said that cowboys fight pretty well but rarely do as you tell them. The editor of this had a sharp sense of humour. Oh and this one in the notices section: This Sunday we expect that all good people will go to church and all good children will go to Sunday school. The rest of the town are welcome to attend the ball game which will begin in River Meadow at 11am.”

“The church wasn’t too popular according to this.” Riley passed him another paper, pointing out a section that read: It is this paper’s opinion that if our good Father James would have mercy upon the night shift miners and not allow the Catholic church bell to be rung earlier than 9am, it would be less likely that his parishioners should feel compelled to continually steal the clapper.

The acidity and humour of the notices was acute. There appeared to be three consistent headings in every two page newspaper: a section labelled ‘The Mine Shaft’ which held news regarding the mine, ‘Arrivals’ which named arrivals on train and stage, not just of the times and the train and stage coach in question but details of the people and their business in the town, and ‘Announcements’ which was not just births, deaths and marriages but also social events from baseball, boxing, cockfights and horse racing, all of which appeared to have been keenly enjoyed by the town, to dances, picnics, a sewing circle and various meetings. The social life of the town appeared to have been active among people who had no entertainment other than they made themselves, and were living in a town a long way from anywhere else to visit or turn to for company.

“On Tuesday last,” Riley said with enjoyment, reading from another paper, “Morgan Whitehall was fined the sum of five dollars by Judge Matthews for attempting to burn down the house of Miss Elizabeth Young, also known in town as Buffalo Liz. The fire caused no damage save to Morgan Whitehall, who burned both his hands and his eyebrows. Can you imagine a women who earned the name Buffalo Liz? Makes the town seem – very real, doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe this many people lived here, enjoyed living here, it was this busy, and now there’s no one here. Been no one here for fifty years and more.”

Dale picked up another paper which from the headline was explaining that the town jury had been unable to reach a decision as to whether elk wandering the streets constituted a public nuisance, and focused on a picture at the bottom of the paper that was slightly blurry but showed a group of men standing in front of a steam train. Riley, putting his own paper aside, rolled over to look with him at the headline.

“Three Traders Train Robbery. That’s a bit more dramatic than whose laundry got blown away, and whether Mrs Jemima Shaw has painted her door pink or green this season. What’s the date?”

“1928.” Dale skimmed down the article under the picture. “On Monday last, at 8.53pm in the evening, a large amount of goods were stolen from the locomotive familiarly known as the Silver Bullet as it left Three Traders and was climbing Dead Man’s Hill. As regular readers will be aware, the locomotive has on several occasions this year failed to climb the hill due to the manifestations of the apparition known to appear on Dead Man’s Hill, has lost momentum and been forced to return backwards to the town in order to get up steam and to make another attempt. On this occasion it appears that a team of bandits had been hopeful of such a delay and slow movement and lay in wait to take full advantage of both this and the passengers having retired to their sleeping cars. The contents of the stolen goods have not at this time been divulged. The team of policemen from Cheyenne who as town residents will know have been staying in the hotel to investigate and to search the town for possible clues as to the identity of the bandits, or the storing of said stolen goods, but have had to leave the town without a trace of evidence. Appeals are growing for Father James to make a further attempt at exorcising the hill.”

“Wow.” Riley grinned at him, sitting up to rub Ash’s stomach as the dog was lying against their feet, belly turned up to the fire’s warmth from the stove. “Ghosts after all.”

The rain grew stronger through the evening, they could hear it drumming on the tin roof of the outhouse in the yard. They’d brought an oil lamp with them and left it burning on the rickety table, and with the stove it cast a soft, low light through the kitchen. It was strange, being in this big, silent building where sixty years ago men had flocked to talk and drink and eat, filled it with the town’s business, and slept in the bedrooms upstairs. It was strange too to know they were alone in the town, that in all the houses and shops, the churches and the streets, there was not even one other soul tonight.

“It won’t turn to a storm.” Riley said casually, coming back to his sleeping bag having taken a whining Ash out into the yard. “Just heavy rain and a bit of a gale.”

Dale, still deep in the newspapers, didn’t answer. He wasn’t just skimming them. He was reading, tenaciously, one after the other and stacking the read ones neatly to one side, and where Riley’s interest had finally waned over an hour ago, Dale’s was just as intense on the paper he held now as it had been with the first one. It had never really occurred to Riley before why at home Dale usually had only the one book on the night stand by his bed, and that he only ever saw Dale read occasionally. Days started early and were too busy for reading, in the evenings they tended to talk, write the stock logs, play cards or one of the games, something that involved being together, until they went to bed. Riley, who liked to read when he had the time, had never thought anything of it, but watching Dale now, he understood why Paul was so definite with Dale that evenings were time to be spent doing things together when he’d never been that definite with the rest of them. Left to himself, Dale buried himself in something worthy, even if it was only reading for entertainment, and he burned through it with a purposefulness and energy that didn’t go with leisure time or down time. He would be completely unaware he was doing it too; the concept of wasting time didn’t register on him.

Riley leaned over, gently detached the newspaper from his hand and put that one and the others out of Dale’s reach.

“Hey. It’s a wet night. There’s nothing to do. We’re alone in the middle of nowhere with no kind of risk of being disturbed, do you really plan to read the paper?”

Dale, who had looked slightly surprised at the confiscation of his paper, quirked an eyebrow at him.

“As opposed to doing what?”

“This.” Riley said, and tackled him.

The rain stopped shortly after three am. Riley, asleep in the depths of his sleeping bag, woke to a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“It’s clear outside.”

“And what? You want to go survey the fence?” Riley asked with suspicion, getting his eyes open.

The door to the yard was open. Dale was right, ‘clear’ was the only word for it. The sky had cleared, it was cloudless and crisply cold, and the strength of the moon and stars overhead in this valley without artificial light, was so strong that it was possible to see as clearly outside as in daylight. Dale was dressed, and within a few seconds of looking at that amazing, silver shadowed world outside, Riley understood why and reached for his own clothes. There was no resisting weather like this, or being out here alone under it.

Jackets zipped against the frost forming on the roofs and wooden railings on the porches, they walked down the main street, which was still more silent in darkness. Hammer and Snickers, grazing by the river, looked up, and seeing no tack in their hands, went back to grazing again. Ash darted ahead of them as they walked, without discussion but with common consent, along the line of the railway track that led parallel to the main street, past the mine, past the little cemetery across the pasture, and then on in a long, slow curve up the hillside to the plateau that ran alongside the woods. When the track began to curve, they walked on the rails themselves, half hidden in the grass, and several times Dale turned, hands dug in his pockets, to walk backwards and look behind him the way they had come.

“This is why the train would have had to make a run up to get enough momentum to climb the hill.” he said when he paused, just as the hill began to get steeper. “This is as wide and shallow a curve as they could manage without having to lay the railroad through the woods. The train would have to be steamed up and ready before it left the station, and the driver would have to get speed up on the flat coming out of the town, to have enough speed when he started the climb for the train to keep on going. Especially pulling carriages.”

“It’s a rolling weight, isn’t it?” Riley measured the distance with his eye. “Once you had it moving? Although the shires would struggle to get much weight up that hill, I’d be careful with them and they can shift amazing weights.”

“I’ve seen a mountain steam train which pushes carriages uphill ahead of it rather than pulls.” Dale said thoughtfully. “Safer. But if the train lost momentum to the point it had to roll backwards to the station it was pulling, not pushing. The engine is still carrying the gravity and weight of the entire rolling stock. Some of the first locomotives could pull 30 tons up hill, going at about 4 miles per hour – the Blutcher was one I’ve read about – the Silver Bullet would be coal burning in 1928, and she’d have to be big to work on these steep grades, a lot more powerful, even if she was an old model. Three Traders would be a perfect place for a major halt for locomotives, even though it’s a relatively small town and out of the way – the river, and the coal mine, both would make it a perfect place to take on fuel and water. I’d guess most trains stopped here, and it takes time after you’ve added cold water to a tank, to get the water hot enough to be useable for steam. Trains would have halted here probably for an hour or more. I’d guess the Silver Bullet was a compound locomotive too, they were used for heavy grades where the engine was making a lot of effort over a long time, like climbing the plateaus around here.”

Riley shook his head, half delighted, half amused that yes of course Dale would knowabout this kind of thing. He was a fascinating person to be around once you could start him talking, and sometimes he talked most freely when they were alone together.

“What’s a compound locomotive?”

“Re uses the steam, the aim is to keep the engine at a steady temperature. A simple expansion steam engine just expands the steam once. A compound steam engine expands the steam in a high pressure chamber, then exhausts it into a larger volume, low pressure chamber, or even two or more chambers. It’s used in series, not just once. Increases high power and weight ratio. Some of the compound locomotives could pull 120,000 pounds – about 53 tons - but on grades like this you have to take into account tractive effort, gross trailing tonnage, horse power per ton and conditions like the weather.”

And he would know all about that too. He would seriously know stuff like that. He would have talked to someone, or seen something, or read something, and sucked the information in like an industrial vacuum cleaner without even particularly intending to. Riley had often seen him do it with harvesting, fencing, baking bread, the man was a mine of information and processes and you usually only had to tell him or show him once.

“On a wet night,” Dale went on absently as though going over every possibility, “the traction would be reduced on the rails, she’d struggle more to pull the weight up hill.”

Riley looked up and then down the slope, considering. “So every train heading west gets up a head of steam up in the station. They have that one or two minute run on level ground out of the town to get up speed and momentum, and then they have a try at running up the hill, which doesn’t always work.”

“Presumably if something makes them brake suddenly, or distracts the driver’s attention, or it’s a particularly wet night, she loses momentum, slows to a halt and you have to run her backwards to the station and try again.” Dale agreed. “Not surprising it’s called Dead Man’s Hill, this must have been an engineering nightmare. The top of the hill was where the train in the woods derailed and fell. Probably someone took too much of a run up and lost control.”

“So the ghost on the track makes them brake, the trains rolls back, this happens fairly often, especially in wet weather, and you’ve got opportunists who like to rob the train on days when it stalls.”

“Or who know the train stalls or goes slow enough to board fairly often, and were prepared to wait around until it happened.” Dale said fairly. “We’re assuming the ‘apparition’ whatever that was appeared on the track, but the paper only made mention of it on Dead Man’s Hill, not its position. Arguably that’s anywhere at all on the hill within sight of the train driver.”

Riley turned slowly, taking in the hill. On one side of the track, within about twenty yards, lay the woods. On the other, the increasingly steep, rocky and uneven slope that at the bottom of the hill became the mine and the west end of Three Traders. The end that Riley was starting in his own mind to think of as the dodgy end. In the moonlight it was still and tranquil and apparition free, and it was impossible to imagine anything ugly in this peaceful place.

~ * ~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015 

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