Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Chapter 5 - Ranch

5



Subject: Re: Large Financial Mess 

Tom:

Paperwork enclosed. It’s as water tight as I can make it without involving a legal team. If you need book keeping work for this I’d be glad to do it.

How are things going? As far as I can work out, you should have reached base camp by now?

Paul et al send good wishes.
Aden. (D)



Subject: Re: Re: Large Financial Mess

Good morning Aden. (D). 

Thanks for the paperwork. Jake’s comment was to the effect of if you think it’s water tight then it’s probably going to be declared a drought disaster area. He continues to think he’s funny, it’s the altitude.

I didn’t expect to have access to email up here, only the big expeditions do but as you’ve gathered we are now part of a big expedition. There is a letter on its way to you which was written before I discovered technology has taken over base camp. Some of our clients are going to need surgical detachment from their IPods before climbing. Apparently they think a shout from another climber or an avalanche will signal itself over Abba’s Greatest Hits. Thank you for your letter. It was kind. I appreciated it.

We’re at base camp, acclimatising and setting up. Equipment is arriving in hordes, things happen surprisingly fast through the local network. We’re planning the initial expedition to set up camp one in the next few days, and give the clients a few more days to acclimatise. They don’t mind. Walk out of our compound and it’s like being in a mall, Starbucks coffee and big tv screens and logos everywhere. 

Again thanks
T






Mason was visible in the yard when they walked the horses in. He was sweeping, slowly and with frequent pauses to rest, but he was dressed and on his feet and he glanced up with a slightly shaky smile as Riley and Dale dismounted.

“Hey, you look a lot better!” Riley said cheerfully, and Dale saw the hand he dropped on Mason’s arm as he walked around Snickers to start unfastening the luggage hanging from his saddle. “Much less green. How are you feeling?”

“Thinkin’ I might live. Just. How was your trip?”

There was something almost shy about Mason’s tone and something different about the way he looked at them. Initially Dale took it for embarrassment at their having seen him in flat out withdrawal yesterday, but it wasn’t just that. This was Mason genuinely making an effort to be sociable. Riley didn’t comment or appear to be surprised by it, the chatter to Mason about Three Traders and fences as he unharnessed Snickers was as friendly as Riley always was and didn’t expect a lot of reply, and the kindness of it nudged Dale to get himself together and at least try to join in making this man feel welcome here. The fact he couldn’t think of anything even vaguely appropriate to say wasn’t helpful. Jasper came from the direction of the corral with the vestigial remains of a salt lick on a chewed rope, dropped it into the bin and came to help with the horses.

“You made good time. Fences done?”“I went with Dale?” Riley said over his shoulder, unbuckling the girth. “What’s already up there is sound, and we have survey maps, paced, with measurements, for what needs to go up there. We started at about 5am this morning.”

“Five?”

Riley grinned at Dale, heaving Snickers’ saddle down from his back.

“We were up, it was light, it seemed like a good time to go do it. Is Emmett coming back to see you again Mason?”

“He came this morning, I can start reducing the meds.” Mason looked at Jasper who gave him a reassuring nod.

“We’re in no hurry, and he said we were over the worst of it. Stables done?”

“Hey come on, I’m dead on my feet here?” Mason produced a mock stagger and Jasper smiled, coming to look with him at the corridor.

“How much would you say is done?”

“Half?” Mason tipped a hand side to side. “Hey go on, stretch a point.”

“You can finish it in the morning.” Jasper took the broom from him and Dale saw the look Mason gave him; the man was doing a fairly adult and dignified version of clinging, as if he was only coping because Jasper was here with him. Jasper touched his back, saying something quiet to him, and Mason nodded, heading slowly up the steps of the porch. He was tired, Dale could see the heaviness in his movements and he leaned against the doorpost to take his boots off as if it was an effort to balance, which explained why tonight Jasper wasn’t insisting on chores being properly finished.

It took a further half hour to groom the horses, who were hot, sweaty and dusty after a night out in the pasture, and it was a sweaty and dirty job getting them clean. Hammer, who loved being brushed, leaned into the curry comb and periodically leaned on Dale whenever Dale leaned down to reach under his massive belly, and it took an elbow in his ribs to get him to be less heavily affectionate. By the time that Dale finished with the soft brush on Hammer’s head, the horse was shining and he was dripping, and the forearm he ran over his face came away with black smears of dust on it. He put away the camping gear while Riley worked on Snickers, who was taller and less co operative and took longer to groom, and when there was nothing left in the yard, Jasper nodded him towards the kitchen.

“Go and shower, I’ll lock up when Riley’s done.”

Riley, stooped with Snicker’s foreleg between his knees, engaged in picking out his feet, heard Dale head up the porch steps and the yard was quiet. Jasper shut and locked the sheds by the barn and Riley saw his booted feet pass Snickers and then the creak as Jasper sat on the edge of the horse trough.

“The pastures are so soft from the rain the horses were picking up mud by the bucketful.” Riley said without straightening up, shaking another chunk of drying mud off the pick. “We had to do their feet this morning before we rode them, and walk them through the river a few times to get some of it off their fetlocks when we came down off the banks.”

“How did you come to be up half the night?”

It wasn’t critical. Riley let go of Snickers’ foot and moved to the next one, running a hand down his fetlock to cue him to lift up.

“It was a clear night, bright moon, seemed like too nice a night not to be out in it. Especially with no one around to mind.” Riley gave Jasper a brief grin around Snickers’ haunch and shook more mud off the pick. “We walked up the railway track. Dale found a story in one of the newspapers about a train robbery there, that sometimes the train didn’t make it up the hill
in one go and had to try again and some gang lay in wait and robbed it when it was slow coasting back down.”

“What did they take?”

“We couldn’t find out.” Riley hooked the last of the mud out of Snickers’ hoof and straightened up, stretching his back. “Train was going west, I guess it could have been taking any kind of supplies out.”

He clicked to Snickers and led him towards the corral, turning him out into the small herd of grazing horses, and Jasper followed and leaned his arms on the top rail, watching Riley collect the bridle and latch the gate. Riley hooked the bridle over his shoulder and climbed up to sit astride the rail beside him, hesitating for a moment while he thought about how to put it. If you told Flynn things, he acted on them. Flynn did the right thing, with no hesitation and no negotiation, and that was that; and at times Riley deliberately chose him to talk to for that exact reason, knowing that he was starting off wheels that needed to be in motion whether or not he was sure he could cope with the ride. Paul was Paul, and you could confide in him, and rely on him at times to look the other way or keep something quiet you didn’t want the others to know about, although he was very definite where the line was. But Jasper was a slightly different kettle of fish and with slightly different values, and you could talk to him in a way that you couldn’t with the other two.

“....We had a look in town for the printing press and the match seller. We thought the match seller might be the one who had the phosphorus.”

Jasper went on leaning against the rail, quite relaxed, and he waited when Riley paused.

“Did you find any?”

Riley gave him an appreciative look, knowing what Flynn and Paul would have been demanding.

“Nothing blew up or caught fire. We found a barrel of it in a shed. Dale found it.”

“Mhm.”

Riley pulled off his Stetson and ran his hands through his hair, trying to find some more tactful way of saying this and coming up blank.

“..... Jas? You remember last summer when he stepped off the garage roof when we were bottle dancing? It .......was kind of like that. He told me what it was as soon as he had the lid open, and then he crouched there, he had his face right over it, and he was about to poke around in it with his knife when I grabbed him.”

Jasper nodded slowly, still listening without many clues as to what he was thinking.

“What did you do?”

“Shoved the top back on the barrel, stood another barrel on it, grabbed Dale and ran.” Riley said frankly. “I could have strangled him. We talked, he talked, quite a lot, and he was ok after that, but-”

The image of Dale leaning over an open barrel of phosphorus was something that while he had no wish at all to get Dale into trouble, he didn’t feel comfortable keeping to himself.

“I know,” he said shortly when Jasper didn’t finish the sentence for him. “If it had been you or me who opened that barrel, he’d have stopped us, he’d know all about the risks. Why the hell would he think we wouldn’t mind about him blowing his face off...?”

“Did you ask him?” Jasper said when he trailed off. Riley shook his head.

“He was upset afterwards.”

Jasper nodded slowly, absorbing. “So what do you want to do?”

“Nothing.” Riley said flatly. “Nothing happened, no harm no foul. He talked to me about it, that’s all we ask, isn’t it?”

Jasper didn’t comment. Riley sat beside him for a while, picking at a loose splinter on the rail.

“Except I don’t like him doing things like that.” he said eventually. “If that was a brat of mine-”

“He is a brat of yours.” Jasper pointed out. Riley grunted.

“Not in the way I meant.”

“What do you want to do about it?” Jasper said gently. Riley grimaced at him.

“What would you do?”

Jasper shrugged his shoulders, shifting his weight against the rail. “I want both of you to have the sense of self preservation not to do anything wilfully dangerous. We ask you not to swim or climb alone in high risk places for a good reason and you understand.”

“If I do something like that, it’s because I’m mad and it’s a way of hitting out.” Riley said frankly. “Or because at that moment it seems worth getting into trouble over. He gets wound up about something and it’s like he short-circuits, it isn’t wilful.”

“Possibly, and Flynn might understand it better.” Jasper agreed. “But we know this happens sometimes. Learning not to short-circuit is probably a long term goal. In the short term both you and he usually find a spanking an immediate, concrete reason to stop and think before you do something.”

Riley grimaced again, working the splinter out of the rail.

“Which means I’ve got him into trouble.”

“If you do what Gerry would and blurt this out in the middle of dinner, yes, probably.” Jasper agreed. “Although I don’t think Dale will see it that way. There are other ways you can handle it.”

“Like?”

“You can talk to him yourself, explain how you feel and leave it there. You know he’ll listen and take you seriously.”

“Yes, and he’ll worry about it because he’ll hate that he’s upset me, but it still won’t connect up the next time he’s faced with something stupid.” Riley said immediately. “Paul and Flynn chewed his ears up and down for stepping off the garage roof but he couldn’t generalise it to this. He just won’t step off the garage roof again. What are we going to do? Blitz this one disaster at a time as he survives them?”

“Or you can make this a family matter and we’ll discuss it together when Mason’s in bed,” Jasper went on calmly, “It affects all of us.”

“And Flynn’ll go nuts.” Riley added.

“Which would make an impression on Dale. Have you ever known Dale end up feeling things are worse because Flynn knows about them?”

“Of course not,” Riley said defensively, “and I don’t mean that, Flynn never makes things worse, it just feels- too mean. Dale hates letting Flynn down and this isn’t a big thing. He just needs to stop stuffing his head in barrels of explosive.”

“Or I can take him aside and have a quiet word with him.”

Riley gave him a pointed look. “Actually or metaphorically?”

“Metaphorically.”

“And you won’t tell the others?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.”

Jasper said it without weight and from experience Riley knew that if he went with his first impulse and said no, Jasper would abide by it. The problem was that when someone took your word so seriously you had a lot of responsibility to him, and Riley knew he was unlikely ever to say no purely because he knew Jasper would respect it.

“No,” he said after a moment, sighing. “I’ll tell them. I want you to talk to him. Thank you.”

Jasper straightened up as Riley dropped to the ground to give him a rough, tight hug. He could feel Riley’s tension, and he held on when Riley would have let him go, wrapping both arms around him from neck to waist far more gently than Riley was holding on to him. He felt Riley’s first response which was a hiss of mild exasperation, and then after a moment the tension relaxed and he breathed out and leaned hard against Jasper, turning his head under Jasper’s chin.





Flynn was leaning on the desk in the office upstairs, comparing something on the computer screen to some sheets of paper on the desk, and he glanced up when Riley opened the door.

“Hey halfpint. Landing door shut?”

“Yes. And Mason’s downstairs with Paul.” Riley came to look at the screen, still damp haired from the shower, leaning against Flynn’s shoulder in the way that inevitably made Flynn put an arm up around his waist, and then sit back in his chair to draw Riley down into his lap, turning his face appreciatively into Riley’s shoulder.

“You’re still wet. You made it back in good time, how was Three Traders? Did you get caught out in the rainstorm?”

“We took cover in the saloon, there’s hardly any winter damage at all.” Riley curled up against him. “We got the stove working in the saloon kitchen and camped there. Dale found a whole lot of Three Traders newspapers and we brought them home with us They’re amazing reading, most of them are near eighty years old. Fences were mostly sound, we surveyed for the new fence line, Dale’s got diagrams.”

“You’re tired.” Flynn’s hands ran over him; what information they found Riley had no idea but Flynn tugged him closer. “How are you both? Did either of you get any sleep at all?”

Against him like this it was never easy to remember why it seemed difficult to tell him anything, and yet at the same time, Riley’s stomach was jittering in protest and had been doing so all through his shower, with a very good idea of how Flynn was about to react. It was only through having told the worst of this to Jasper and being sure he was handling it, which at least defended Dale from the wrath of Flynn, that it was possible to say at all, and when it came out it was more of an angry demand than any kind of coherent statement.

“Why does he have such a lousy sense of danger?”

Flynn barely hesitated, and his voice barely changed, but it went slightly deeper.

“What happened?”

“He ripped the top off a barrel of phosphorus and tried to poke around in it.”

What?”

Riley hung on to him, preventing him from getting up and talking fast. “Jasper’s talking to him, I wanted to talk to you and we’re both fine. Really. Nothing happened, I swear.”

“No fires?” Flynn sat back in the chair slowly, inch by inch, and Riley kept tight hold of him.

“Nothing. I pulled him away and got the top on the barrel, and nothing happened. Really.”

Flynn was all the way back in the chair now, and his arms were a lot tighter around Riley’s waist. It was a long time before he said anything.

“Are you all right?”

He didn’t mean physically. Riley swallowed, with very mixed feelings about Flynn sounding that grim and being in any way involved with it.

“Yeah. Why does he do that? He’s so frickin’ competent, he’ll know more about that stuff and the risks of it than the rest of us put together.”

Flynn didn’t answer at first. Then he put out a hand to the mouse and shut the computer down. He really didn’t like the thing; there was a dismissiveness in his movements that there never was when he was handling a horse or a person.

“A brain is an organism,” he said eventually, “that develops by interpreting experience. What do we know about Dale’s family?”

He apparently wanted an answer, although he was still talking in clipped sentences and in a tone that made Riley answer very quietly and with extremely good manners.

“Not much? He hardly ever mentions anything about his parents, he just occasionally talks about school- although he said something about home yesterday morning. It’s the first time he’s ever told me anything about it, a railway bridge he used to go to.”

“Go on.”

“His father was killed in action when he was a baby.” Riley said slowly, thinking it through. “His mother married again, she has a second family, and he went to boarding school from the time he was seven.”

“So his mother dealt with the sudden death of her husband, not long after she was married. She then finds and presumably dates another man, marries him, has children by him.”

“Yes.”

“A small child has to have an adult protector to be able to physically survive.” Flynn went on grimly. “Evolutionary law. Children are hardwired from birth to do whatever they have to do to stay around a protecting adult. Now make that adult a first-time mother shocked with grief. Probably angry with her husband for abandoning her, and leaving her alone with his baby when she’s least able to cope with it. Emotionally detaching from her previous marriage and starting again with a new man, who is prepared to accept her baggage, including another man’s child, even though it’s a disadvantage.”

“That’s a horrible way of putting it.” Riley protested.

“A major predictor of risk to a child is the mother taking a new partner, and the younger the child the bigger the risk.” Flynn said matter of factly. “There’s a reason why in the wild a male animal will kill existing offspring that aren’t his when he wins a female. How does a baby signal a need?”

“Crying. Screaming.” Riley frowned, half a step ahead of him. “A traumatised woman isn’t going to respond well to that.”

Flynn sounded even shorter. “I’d guess her response was somewhere in the vicinity of ‘I can’t deal with this’. A child in that situation learns that if they’re needy, the adult protector leaves them, and a child’s nervous system is programmed to panic and act strongly at losing contact. Survival instinct. But that protector will tolerate you near them if you’re quiet, if you’re undemanding, if you don’t communicate need.”

“Dale.” Riley said bleakly.

“Then add to that an older child, who is away for most of the year at school and a guest in his mother’s home in his holidays, alongside her children from her ‘now’ marriage and relationship. A child’s likely to make sense of that as you’re being allowed to stay, so you’d damn well better be a good boy. And the kid’s going to try to figure out for themselves what a ‘good boy’ looks like. That’s some of the material Dale’s had to work with. Brains are capable of developing by making sense of experience, and the quality of the experience creates the quality of the development. Say for example high quality academic experience, high quality language experience and bloody awful emotional and social experience.”

There was a silence. Riley’s face was expressive.

“Children learn about emotion and how to manage it from their carers calming them down when they cry or they’re in pain or they’re frightened.” Flynn’s tone had quietened down, and it was the same tone that for years Riley had heard him use when they talked about the papers he was writing, or about their clients. “Babies’ nervous systems are like old boilers, there’s no sophistication yet, they just shoot into the red zone at the slightest threat. So they scream and adults hold them. Talk to them. Rock. Feed. Solve the physical problems like pain, hunger, thirst, cold, they settle the child’s nervous system down from panic to back to calm. Think of a tiny baby. There’s crying or there’s calm, there’s nothing in between. The brain and nervous system learns from being consistently calmed down, and it gets better and better at regulating itself, so that over time minor needs cause only minor alerts instead of a full shoot of adrenaline and panic. It learns to calm itself down quicker and quicker. A two year old asks for something to eat rather than crying. If you’re hungry you go to the fridge or you go nag Paul, you don’t feel panic.”

Riley gave him a faint smile, listening.

“But if a carer has trouble responding to a baby,” Flynn went on more slowly, “If they don’t consistently give that help, if the carer can’t cope with demands and needs a child to be quiet to be able to tolerate it, the child’s got a choice. Shut up, somehow, or you won’t just be hungry, you’ll be alone. And the child’s programmed to do whatever it takes to survive; a child alone is in extreme danger. So they can learn to block themselves off from those alerts, be quiet on the outside and look calm, which wards off the biggest threat of the adult walking away, while triggers to their nervous system just go on getting higher and higher. I’ve read about children sitting calmly with their heart rates and adrenaline at a level a typical kid would have to be hysterical to get to. And while those children can learn later on and from other sources what normal emotional behaviour is, and what it looks like, and how to manage their feelings and stresses, as adults they’re still living with a nervous system that hasn’t had the training in how to regulate itself that a typical person has. They still have a nervous system that shoots up into the red zone more easily, goes higher, takes longer to calm down, and their programming may be that outwardly you don’t react much to triggers. They may even have learned to not feel or not recognise those alerts at all, it probably makes things easier and a lot less painful.”

“Dale does nothing at all until it explodes.” Riley said very soberly. “There’s nothing to see, no warning, and then pow. It’s always been like that.”

Flynn nodded slowly. “At the point he flips it’s because the adrenaline takes over, it’s not a conscious choice. And if you’ve learned, at the earliest and most basic level you have, that you’re safer when everything’s quiet, then the emotional temperature rising in any relationship is probably going to be quite alarming for you.”

It made a horrible amount of sense. Riley sat quietly, thinking it through.

“What about the not recognising danger? He mostly does, he could tell me the whole chemical composition of phosphorus with diagrams. Just sometimes he gets wound up, stops thinking and calmly sticks his head in a barrel of explosive.”

“Think about it.”

“...I asked him to do something and it didn’t go well,” Riley said a little guiltily. “He said he felt he’d done something stupid, he told me and I knew he was quiet, but he seemed ok? We were looking around the town, he was calm, he looked all right- he wasn’t feeling anything at all when he opened the barrel, was he? It was all shut down.”

“He doesn’t shut down consciously or deliberately, and he doesn’t always realise when it’s happened.” Flynn tightened his arms around Riley, shaking him gently. “And we all have to cope with getting things wrong, that’s life, so don’t blame yourself. We’ve seen him do this kind of thing before, I can guarantee you we’ll see it happen again, and he needs the practice in dealing with it.”

“I used to get mad at him when he did something like this.” Riley leaned back against him, thinking it through. “And now I feel horrible for setting Jas on him.”

“Is Dale going to see it like that?”

“No.” Riley said frankly. “He’d probably have come straight to tell you himself, I know, but I still feel horrible. I just know I should have told you when he was counting damn fence posts and it didn’t help him that I didn’t. And I’d feel a lot more horrible if he did this again and this time managed to blow his head off.”

Flynn grunted approbation. “No kidding. Go with your instincts. This is something we needed to know about, halfpint, this needed sorting out.”

There were a few minutes silence while Flynn went on twisting the chair and Riley went on leaning against him, thinking several things through.

“...In your home, you learned to fight, didn’t you? That was what worked on your parents.”

“Shh.”

It was said half ironically. Riley turned and wrapped his arms around Flynn’s neck, hugging him tightly.

“Anyway.” Flynn said eventually. “I was lucky. I had Philip, and I had you and Jasper and Paul. And I wasn’t that far off still being a kid.”



*



Mason was actually not bad in the kitchen, and he looked far more at home than he had done a day or two ago. He was chopping vegetables fairly neatly and quickly which Paul was frying off in batches, and they were chatting about fedelini and capellini which Dale knew the translation of but little about their relative merits in a meal. Mason gave Dale another of those slightly wary smiles as Dale came to get cutlery to set the table, that suggested he knew he hadn’t made a good start and would like to make amends if possible. Dale well remembered the feeling of beginning to understand that this was not the prison camp it had first seemed. He was still looking for anything remotely relevant and supportive to say to Mason about pasta when Jasper emerged, dressed and damp haired from the kitchen bathroom, and took half of the cutlery from him, setting the other side of the table. He had to walk behind Dale to do it, and Dale felt the discreet pressure of Jasper’s hand on his hip, and his voice, deeper than Paul’s and too low to reach the ears of the others as he passed by.

“Want to come and tell me about the phosphorus?”

.......no thank you?
Dale’s stomach abruptly plummeted and he looked very carefully at the cutlery he was placing, aware his face was starting to get hot and that it would be perfectly obvious to anyone who looked at him. Thankfully Mason continued to talk about Italian restaurants and Paul was busy with the vegetables he was frying, and Dale managed to get the places set and to escape into the family room ahead of Jasper without either of them noticing.

There was no one in the family room, but Jasper still guided him into the study and shut the door, which probably said as much as was needed about where this conversation was going to go. Finally relieved of any need of dignity, Dale let go a lot of the breath he felt like he’d been holding since the early hours of yesterday morning and dropped into the couch, tipping his head back against the dark and squashy leather. Philip’s books lined the wall in front of him, floor to ceiling, many of them leather bound in the familiar wine red and deep greens and browns of this room, which was oddly comforting. This was a very safe place in the house.

“I ripped the top off a barrel of phosphorus.” he said conversationally to Jasper, who sat down beside him, not in any kind of counselling or lecturing position but as relaxed back in the couch as he was so that they were shoulder to shoulder and Jasper too was looking at the wall of books. “So do you want to go get Flynn and we’ll do the whole fandango and get it over with?”

Jasper nodded slowly, considering. “Do we need Flynn?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Dale gave him a flat look, not bothering to take the sarcasm out of his tone. It was like taking a stopper out of a bottle, he could hear the acid bursting out in his voice and a small voice at the back of his mind was starting to scream no you fool, shut up!
“The really reprehensible bit was probably continuing to rip the top off after I knew it was white phosphorus; I had to get the lid a certain way off before I recognised it. It was old, it was damp, Riley didn’t like it much, but it was unlikely to catch fire without a lot more exposure, and it didn’t blow up or do anything exciting. The primary reason for the banning of phosphorus from common use was actually not explosion or fire, what was known as ‘phossy jaw’, the disintegration of the jaw bones from prolonged exposure to the vapours, as described by the London match girls’ strike of 1888. Did you know that? I knew that. I was taken around a London museum once and told in great detail about that. I was about nine and I was probably the only one in the group actually listening. I doubt Three Traders took much notice of the safety matches regulations or manufacture so I’d estimate that barrel is probably at least ninety years old and very likely older, and only about a third of it has been used. Would you like the details of the stability of damp phosphorus?”

Flynn, who knew exactly what to call speeches like that, would have jumped on him about two sentences in. Jasper said nothing at all, continuing to survey the books on the shelves opposite them. If anything it incited that nasty little acid feeling to go further just to see him react.

“Phosphorus was also used in a solution of carbon disulfide by the Fenian arsonists in the 19th century.” Dale informed him. “The carbon disulfide would evaporate and the phosphorus would ignite and light the fumes of the disulfide. It was called Fenian fire. Again I doubt this particular barrel ever got used for anything so interesting.”

“What can phosphorus do in the way of injuries?” Jasper asked mildly, still surveying the books.

Dale paused, slightly thrown off track and remembering saying this to Jasper, Flynn and Riley on the river bank, the day the bank exploded. He’d seen pictures of the burns from chemical weapons. Worse, on an oil rig some years ago, he’d seen an accident and witnessed live chemical burns to a degree he hoped never to see again.

“Inhalation. Ingestion I suppose, that would be possible. Military injuries from it are mostly through burns......terrible burns.”

“I’m sure we’d find that exciting.” Jasper commented.

He said it quite casually, but to hear your own nastily sarcastic and distancing phrasing said back to you was downright painful, particularly when it was in Jasper’s familiar voice. Particularly by Jasper, who minded vehemently about damage and harm done to anything, who had an attitude towards violence that Dale had more absorbed from him than consciously understood. He couldn’t have said anything that made Dale more wretchedly aware of what he was pretending to make fun of. It was like running headlong into a brick wall.

“What would be interesting do you think?” Jasper asked when Dale didn’t answer. “Riley with those burns? You? Do you want to joke about that? An explosion would have caught both of you full in the face, wouldn’t it?”

Stop it!”

Dale grabbed for him, any part of him, just to stop him saying any more, and Jasper took his hand, interlacing his fingers with Dale’s and grasping so that Dale looked up and met his eyes. Jasper wasn’t fooled in the slightest. There was no need to say how sorry he was, how stupid he felt, that he hadn’t meant a word of that horrible, derisive speech in the way it sounded, or that the sarcasm was a last ditch cover for all sorts of things he didn’t want to have to say aloud, like I did something really stupid and I have no idea why! Jasper already knew. There was an immense safety to being so comprehensively understood, and it stripped away any remaining armour Dale had against him. And all Jasper said after that extremely penetrating look, was exactly what he meant.

“Don’t take thoughtless, impulsive risks.”

Flynn was an expert in clearing his head and inspiring wholehearted co operation and regret. Jasper used a very different approach but he equally went straight for the jugular. Dale swallowed, shockingly near to tears. Jasper gave him a minute to absorb it, and it was only when Dale looked up at him again, that Jasper squeezed his hand and drew him forward. Knowing what he meant, bitterly angry with himself and in a grim kind of way welcoming the penalty for it, Dale stumbled to his feet, half trying to pre-empt what he knew was about to be said by starting himself to fumble with the buttons of his jeans. Jasper interrupted it by simply turning Dale to him by the hips and doing it himself. It wasn’t usual for him; he tended to leave this kind of thing for you to do, he and Flynn expected you to be a mutual partner in the business, and while he was gentle about it there was a very pointed message involved that Dale had loud and clear by the time Jasper took his arm and guided him over his knee.

He did an extremely thorough job. Jasper spanked every bit as hard as Flynn did, but while Flynn left you feeling torched when he was done with you, Jasper used a far more flexible wrist and hand that stung like hell and he covered slightly more ground than Flynn usually did. Already near to tears, it took less than a minute before feeling horrible and grim was accompanied by wet eyes, a lot of involuntary movement, breath holding and a whole lot of emotion much worse than grim which he had no control over at all while Jasper was doing this. And neither Flynn nor Jasper ever quit while things were anything like bearable, which felt even worse when you knew damn well that you didn’t deserve them to. Jasper just went on, and on, until and while it felt like hours it was probably in reality only a couple of minutes before Dale lost any grip at all on the sound, the swallowing or the emotion and found himself making the horrible, strangled choking sounds that came with real tears.

By the time he’d calmed down slightly and was sitting beside Jasper again and this time curled up against him with his arms tight and purposefully around Jasper’s waist, face against him, backside blazingly sore and without his jeans which at the moment he had no desire to try putting on again, his eyes were sore, his chest was burning, he was out of breath and he felt shaken, clean and overwhelmingly better, with that torturing, dragging weight of guilt and anxiety gone. Subsumed in the burning of his butt and the choking sounds still occasionally shaking him. Jasper said very little, he often didn’t when they were most comfortable together, and he simply went on sitting with his arms around Dale and one long hand rhythmically running up and down his hip, as if he didn’t mind very much if they went on sitting here like this for the rest of eternity. He wasn’t much of a ‘sorry’ person, Jasper. Actions to him were more important than words, and if you were sorry about something he expected to be able to see it. Which helped, as words were horribly complicated and multi faceted things that often didn’t express properly half of what you intended, and ‘sorry’ seemed such a cheap and pointless thing to blurt out. Jasper also, like the others, was unconditionally finished with whatever it was you’d done wrong once you’d been spanked for it. The line was drawn, it ended there, you felt close to them and sure again, and it helped hugely to have that expiation. There was no other way in thirty six years of experience that Dale had ever found of feeling so thoroughly having paid for and written off whatever piece of idiocy he was currently responsible for.

He was still breathing shakily but with breath that felt like it went right down to the bottom of his chest when he cleared his throat and said, half as a question, “Mason looks a lot better.”

“He’s fine.”

There was finality in Jasper’s voice, which was reassuring and which said that he didn’t have any concerns about how Mason was going to manage without him while a brat old enough to know better was involved in yet another meltdown.

“I don’t know why I did it.” Dale admitted eventually. “That’s what bothers me most. I didn’t know at the time and I still don’t.”

He felt the weight of Jasper’s head over his shift, and the pressure of Jasper’s mouth against his hair.

“I’m not bothered why. Don’t do it again.”






It was more or less dinnertime when he pulled himself together enough to slip upstairs and wash his face, with Jasper heading into the kitchen which Dale appreciated as it ensured that Mason wouldn’t come past him and accidentally see or hear anything difficult. He found Riley sitting near the bottom of the stairs, ostensibly with a book in his hands but the book wasn’t open and Riley was looking distinctly anxious. The expression was clear if you understood: are you mad at me?, mixed up with are you all right?, mixed up with guilt, mixed up with we’ve been here before and I know you. Dale pulled himself together with an effort and stooped over the book to give Riley a quick, hard hug and to put his heart into it, keeping his voice low to avoid it carrying anywhere near the kitchen.

“I’m sorry. I swear to you eventually I’ll get the hang of this.”

“Are you ok?” Riley’s voice was low and his hug was fierce which said a lot, and Dale put a hand behind his head to let Riley look at him, knowing he was a mess but knowing too from experience that Riley could look the same way and be very much all right.

“I’m fine. I just need to wash and get myself together.”

Riley looked at him for a long time, and Dale let him look, a lot more sure than Riley was, until Riley shook his head, reluctantly starting to look amused as well as anxious.

“You’re nuts. I’d want to throttle someone that just threw me to the lions.”

“You didn’t, you threw me to Jasper.” Dale said dryly.

Riley laughed, a little unsteadily, and grabbed him for another, tighter hug. “Then for pete’s sake work on looking less tired, or you’re going to be in bed before eight.”

Tired was about right. Running his hands over his face, Dale headed slowly up the rest of the stairs and found Flynn in the dimming, early evening light on the landing, leaning with his arms folded and his shoulder against the linen cupboard door, well out of sight of the stairs but probably in earshot. There was no saying how long he’d been there and his face was expressionless, but his eyes weren’t and he simply held out his arms.



*



Paul’s delight in the armfuls of newspapers that Dale and Riley had brought home was obvious. Mason, still new to the ranch and groggy from the medication he was taking, went upstairs at seven thirty and Jasper went up with him, and Dale, sore and still feeling somewhere between subdued, wrung out and with the deep calm that somehow only came afterwards when he’d really gotten into trouble, sat with Paul on the hearthrug and helped him spread the papers out along the floor, sorting them into groups by date.

“On the quiet,” Riley commented to Paul, stepping over a carefully organised stack, “You’re as bad as he is.”

“This is your actual historical study.” Paul pointed out. “Which you heathens wouldn’t get because it doesn’t involve a horse. You leave us alone.”

“I think we’re coming to the end of what we’ve got.” Dale added another copy to the right pile beside him. “I haven’t yet managed to find anything more about the train robbery in the ones I’ve read.”

“Or the Three Traders ghost, which I’d love to know more about.” Paul said absently, turning over another paper to check the date. Then he lowered the paper and looked at Dale with open exasperation. “You know what? I’m an idiot. Where’s the phone?”

Dale got up and went to retrieve it from the locked and rather well concealed apartment in one of the kitchen cupboards where it lived when a client was with them, and Paul sat on the sofa, dialling from memory.

“Wade? It’s Paul. Yes we’re fine hon, how are you doing?”

The social chitchat passed over Dale’s head as he settled back to sorting the next sheaf of newspapers, an eye on Flynn who was Looking at him at times in a way that suggested he had less than an inch of rope left today and he’d better not put a foot wrong. He was used now to the regular phone calls that came and went from this house, and could as easily involve Flynn firmly pointing out to Gerry or Bear that what they called a fight and in their opinion meant that Ash or Theo ought to be remonstrated with was usually not half the drama they thought it was, as it could Paul soothing a ruffled community nurse who was trying to persuade Wade to install a grab rail in the bathroom, or Ash or Luath ringing for a friendly and sociable chat that often when the phone was passed to Dale, moved on to the more interesting and cheerful gossip currently hanging around Wall Street.

Then Paul switched the phone over to loud speaker and Dale lowered the papers, hearing Wade’s voice, thoughtful and cheerfully interested.

“Yes, I do remember something about a ghost around Three Traders, although no one ever saw it whenever we went into the town. It was supposed to be up on the west side of the town which was pretty much abandoned by then.”

“By the rail track.” Riley called.

“That’s right, it was supposed to manifest on the rail track. Dead Man’s Hill. David said he’d seen it, which didn’t surprise me, I don’t think there was anything in that town David didn’t know about, but he never talked about it when Philip was around which I always thought was suspicious, and he never wanted to say very much about it even to us.”

“Why was it called Dead Man’s Hill?” Paul asked. Wade snorted.

“The name’s probably older than the hill, they used to get wagons up and down that slope somehow. The only train crash I ever knew about was the train that went out of control down through the woods when the rails went out of true, and that would have been a year or two after I came to the ranch. David and Philip went up to see if they could help, but the train couldn’t be shifted and no one died – the driver jumped clear when she went out of control – so they left her there.”

“So the ghost wasn’t supposed to be to do with the railway?” Paul had turned a notepad over on the table and was scribbling down bits of what Wade was saying.

“No, not at all.” Wade said cheerfully. “From what I knew, it was just supposed to manifest on the hill on dark and stormy nights. It was supposed to be a soldier.”

“From what?” Riley demanded. “The Civil War came nowhere near here?”

From several states away, Wade snorted. “Three Traders was well established by the time of the Civil War, it would be way before that.”

“Cavalry?” Paul said thoughtfully. “There were plenty of them around here?”

“No, all I ever heard about was a soldier. The US Cavalry were never called soldiers in my hearing and they still had a reputation around Jackson and Three Traders when I was young.” There was satisfaction in Wade’s voice, this was a time he clearly enjoyed remembering. “Most of the local legends I ever heard were about wagon disasters, or bits of Shoshone legend. Never anything about battles.”

“Did you ever hear anything about a stash in a tree along the river bank, not so far from the crossing point where the downed wagon is?” Riley asked, going to join Paul on the couch and perching on the arm of it. Paul put an arm around his waist, sitting back to hold him.

“Stash?” Wade said curiously. “Of what? One of David’s?”

“Possibly.” Paul said dryly. “All we could find was old cloth and buttons.”

“Quite probably David’s, he stashed all kinds of weird stuff.” Wade said dryly. “I helped him move one once, I had no idea what half of it was and Philip wasn’t supposed to know about that either.”

“So far everything we’ve ever run across involved bottles or bits of jewellery.” Flynn said from the chair where he was reading. “And I’d count those two stashes as semi secret at best, Philip knew about both.”

“The one under the barn floor at the tops?” Wade said scornfully, “That wasn’t a stash, that was a cellar, everyone knew. David lived on the ranch when prohibition was alive and strong and no one was supposed to have liquor, particularly that moonshine stuff of his.”

“Yes, did he ever have a still anywhere?” Paul chipped in. “I never did ask him about that.”

“If he did I never saw it.” Wade told him. “James might know more of what Philip knew about that kind of thing? I never thought David told us half of what he got up to.”

“Did you know any reason he’d use phosphorus?” Paul asked. “Any contact with a match seller or a match workshop?”

“Not the faintest idea.” Wade said candidly. “I don’t remember him mentioning it. The only chemicals I ever saw at Three Traders were to do with the mine.”

“It’s not a gold processing chemical.” Dale said when Riley looked at him. “Wouldn’t be connected to the mine use and the barrel we found hadn’t been used in years. It was in amongst the shops, not near the mine.”

“Have they been down the mine again?” Wade demanded. Paul winced.

“No. Nobody has been down the mine. Nobody is going down the mine. We just found the cloth and wondered what it was, and if you knew about the ghost legend.”

“Well that’s all I remember.” Wade said apologetically.

The rest of the conversation was purely domestic and Paul conducted most of it. When he finally put the phone down, he looked again through his notes, and then glanced across to Dale.

“Well the logical thing to do would be to take another look at the files at Jackson museum and get copies of everything they’ve got that’s relevant. And then see how what information we’ve got upstairs, and what the museum knows fits in with this lot.”

“Oh God.” Riley said involuntarily. Paul gave him an exasperatedly affectionate look.

“Relax, I meant Dale who actually gets this. Dale? If everyone else can spare the two of us, how about we go over to Jackson tomorrow morning and spend a couple of hours there?”

“I’d love to.” Dale said frankly.

“We can spare you.” Flynn marked the place in his book and put it down. “You two, go on up to bed now.”

“It’s eight thirty!” Riley said in outrage.

“And you got what, about four hours sleep last night?” Paul pulled him down to kiss him and put him on his feet. “I’ve got no sympathy, go on.”

“You better be glad I like you.” Riley mumbled, going.

“I’ll be up in a minute.” Flynn leaned over to give Dale a hand up from the floor. “Quietly. Mason’s probably asleep by now.”

“I’ll sort the rest of the papers.” Paul watched Dale stoop to kiss Jasper, and held out his arms for a hug as Dale came to him. “Goodnight sweetheart. Sleep well.”





“We’ve always had this issue.” Paul said eventually, perhaps an hour later when first Jasper and then Flynn reached the end of the description of his conversation with Riley, and his following one with Dale. Flynn had checked upstairs half an hour ago, and despite his arguing, Riley was sound asleep, making up for what Flynn suspected was a very scant few hours of sleep last night. Mason who was still struggling to stay awake without being groggy for long on the meds cushioning his withdrawal, wasn’t likely to wake before breakfast time without a lot of encouragement and Dale, had equally laid down, turned over and more or less passed out.

“We’ve always known he has these social communication gaps, he isn’t good at knowing what he feels or when he’s hungry or when he’s tired- talk about functional skills, no wonder he could go on like a robot for A.N.Z. and work the kind of hours he was working. And these kind of incidents do just come out of left field with no warning.”

“He had several triggers to handle in a row yesterday.” Flynn was leaning on his knees, back against the hearth stone and a mug cradled in his hands. “Mason in a bad way. Dale saw that and Ri didn’t, Dale knows far more about how that feels than we do and he still went back to bed and let us handle it. It was hard, but he did it. My asking him and Riley to go over to Three Traders was another trigger. He coped with that one too. Then the third one, which was whatever Ri asked him do by the river that he couldn’t do, which I didn’t get to the bottom of.”

“Riley told me he asked Dale if there was anything spook-like around the bank where you found the bag with the phosphorus.” Paul said wryly. “From what I understand, and I admit I don’t understand much, Dale had a look and wasn’t aware of anything.”

Jasper looked across at Flynn, and Paul swatted his knee, exasperated.

“Ok, stop with the aha expressions and tell me. We’re in danger of ‘spook’ becoming a taboo word in this house and it isn’t helping.”

“Which is my fault, I’m the one that doesn’t like to talk about it.” Jasper said fairly. “Which Dale and Riley both know, and you can’t blame them for picking up on.”

That was an unusually definite statement from him, and Paul paused a moment, disarmed and slightly surprised.

“I don’t, and Flynn’s as protective of you about it as they are, but it worries me about us getting into the territory with Dale and Riley of there being things we can’t talk about.”

“And it’s never been an issue before because it has only been me, and I could keep it as private as I wanted to.” Jasper said quietly. “What Riley would have asked Dale is was there anything he was aware of in that place, and there is a process of actively being aware. It takes confidence to both do it for someone who expects an interesting answer, and to be sure of anything that you may become aware of. It’s subtle, subjective and it’s easy to start investing it with personal meaning – ‘I didn’t do it right’ or ‘I’m merely imagining what I want to imagine’.”

There had always been light hearted teasing about the subject of ‘spooks’. Paul remembered the first time Dale confessed to them his seeing of David on the ranch and how easily they had been able to make light of it that Jasper also occasionally mentioned seeing similar things to them. But that had been only brushing on the subject and this was going much deeper. It was apparent in Jasper’s face and hands that this was intensely personal ground for him and not something that in his beliefs was meant for casual conversation. It was a subject where the knowledge and faith of his childhood, the normality of the world as he saw it, clashed with the culture Paul and Flynn had been born into, which didn’t acknowledge such things at all, never mind see them as integrated into everyday life. And it was an area into which Flynn and Paul had never pried, respecting it as private, much as Paul and Jasper accepted Flynn never speaking of the first nineteen years of his life and a New Zealand sheep station. Some things were too sensitive to be touched.

“To me, this is a natural and not abnormal thing.” Jasper said slowly. “That is how I want Dale to see it, and it is something that takes a lifetime to fully evolve and understand. It’s part of the purpose of a lifetime.”

“You’ve taught him some of it.” Flynn said more gently. “In the way that you’ve taught me some of it, and Riley, and no few clients. They’re techniques that would be very familiar to any therapist or layman in any culture for basic relaxation and simple meditation, but you’ve said to me that Dale is sensitive in the way that you are. Aware of it to a higher level.”

“Which we have always known since he first told us he had seen David.” Jasper put his mug down and crossed his legs, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his hands in front of his face. He’d slipped into what Paul thought of as his more private form of speech, slightly more formal and distinct, and with less contractures than he used in casual conversation, which always reminded Paul that Jasper’s first language had not necessarily been English.

“He uses and builds on what I show him, which is as simple and safe as I was shown as a child, like the first water games you play in learning to swim, but it comes naturally to him and he had already begun to explore it for himself before I taught him anything. It is better he explores this with us and with some knowledge of what he’s doing than to do it alone. But while I know what I would call what he is doing, I’m less sure of what the rest of the family would call it or see it as, or how others might feel if they saw it as my encouraging him to believe in things they do not.”

“That’s total rubbish.” Paul said emphatically after a brief, shocked pause. “If Riley or Dale heard anyone say anything like that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for the consequences, and no one’s going to dare say that in my hearing either. Honey, I’ve never met anyone less likely to do harm than you, particularly to the two of them, that’s ridiculous.”

“Firstly, if it was just you and Dale without the rest of us, you wouldn’t hesitate,” Flynn pointed out. “As your partner of course he would share in your culture and your perception of it, it’s a part of you, and we all do. That’s how it’s always been between the four of us. Secondly, we went through this years ago. Different cultures call it by different names, but the same beliefs are in every culture. This is normal, I don’t see it matters what we call it.”

There was a brief lull while Jasper looked from Flynn to Paul, and Paul sat back, satisfied, continuing to drink tea with a hand still on Jasper’s jeaned knee.

“And thirdly,” Flynn went on, “I think you’re under estimating Dale. We know he’s the least likely of the five of us to be persuadable to something he hasn’t sincerely understood and validated. We had the same kind of discussion when we could see him responding to a discipline lifestyle while still being a client. We gave him the information and encouraged him to take his time and make sense of it in the way that worked for him.”

“And he did. With graphs and statistics.” Paul said dryly. “I agree. So I think the first thing we need to do is normalise it. It has to be something that we can talk about and be open about, and that’s bothered me since all those dreams he had about David when Roger was found. We were so wrapped up in supporting Luath and all the legal stuff he had to go through that we pretty much just let it go.”

Jasper gave him a nod that was more one slow inclination of his head, a formal courtesy.

“I suspect that Flynn and Dale were also happy to let it go because they knew I didn’t want to speak of it, and that is my fault. You are right and I am sorry.”

Paul shook his head at him, rubbing where his hand rested. “I’m not blaming, love. I just don’t want Riley and Dale feeling they have to go off alone to talk about or act on this kind of thing and that they can’t tell us afterwards.”

There was another moment of silence, then Flynn drained his mug of the rest of his cooling tea.

“From what Dale said to me this evening, the way Ri and Jas both dealt with it made a lot of sense to him. Short, clear and to the point: don’t do that. No point in making it any more complicated. By the time we talked, he was calm and he could be objective, and he could reason through what he was thinking about and how it added up.”

“If you’re right about his mother and the implications,” Paul began and Flynn shook his head.

“It’s something I’ve suspected a long time but it’s no more relevant than what we know about how he got through work at A.N.Z., I just wanted Ri to have some understanding of what these short-circuits are.”

“But to me, that’s useful information. It’s something I need to know and it makes a lot of sense. I keep thinking of him stepping off the garage roof.” Paul paused, shaking his head at the thought. “Of course that was another one. And thinking about it there was a large crowd of strangers standing looking at him, I was telling him off, and hey presto, he did exactly what I told him to. He was more concerned about placating me than about the drop, which I suppose if you’ve grown up in a household where the scariest consequences are when you draw attention or cause trouble, is natural enough.”

“The bargain we made with Dale from the start was that he stayed and saw a problem through with us instead of bolting, even if that involved mess, and we’d help him get through it and long term it would reduce the panic.” Flynn put his mug down and leaned back against the hearthstone. “He didn’t bolt with Riley yesterday; he stayed and it was hard, and he reacted to it. He is getting there. It’s been a long time since he’s bolted, and over time the fall outs have got smaller and easier. It took three triggers to flip him yesterday where six months ago it would only have taken one, and he calmed down, moved on and got on with the rest of the day when at one time it would have taken him hours to settle himself. But it’s a long process, and it’s helping him hold onto the idea that making mistakes is not a disaster. It’s not the end of the world when he makes the wrong decision or it gets away from him and we have to have another talk about withholding.”

“He was livid with himself when I sat down to talk to him.” Jasper said quietly. “All guns blazing in defence, he knew exactly what I was going to say to him.”

Flynn gave him a short nod. “What I don’t want is for him to have to deal with anyone getting frustrated with him. It’s only going to take one incident of someone hinting that he ought to pull himself together and shut up, and it’ll take us months to get back to where we are now.”

“You don’t think Ri’s in danger of that?” Paul demanded. Jasper shook his head, mouth twisting up at the corners which broke his still rather sober expression.

“Never. Riley’s hit him, yelled at him, I’ve never yet seen Dale mind, he knows exactly where Ri’s coming from. How many times have you seen Ri spend hours – days – with a horse that won’t come near him or is trying to take his hand off? He won’t give up, he’ll stick it out longer than I can.”

“He’s got the instincts and the patience.” Flynn said, with a gruffness that did nothing to hide either pride or affection. “No, I’m not worried about Ri, but I want to be careful around Mason. We can rely on the rest of the family to understand what’s going on but it’s going to be harder for a client, especially one whose self esteem is fragile. Dale looks a lot harder than he is, and men like Mason tend to go for strong targets.”

“Then for the moment let’s make sure we’re not leaving them alone together.” Paul got up, collecting the mugs on the tray. “That shouldn’t be too difficult with Jas and Mason based here doing the yard work.”

“And step in fast if Dale’s looking like wobbling.” Flynn got up too, stretching until his back cracked. “What are you going to do with all these newspapers they’ve brought back? There’s stacks of them.”

“Archive them.” Paul rinsed the mugs out in the sink, not troubling to turn the kitchen light on. “And Dale and I will both enjoy that, thank you.”




Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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