“He left? He cleared out in the middle of the night and no one told me?”
The outrage in Riley’s voice was penetrating. Dale heard it clearly from the bathroom where he was shaving. Rinsing his face he came to the doorway to find Riley, half dressed and furious, and Paul sounding firm.
“Don’t make it sound like he walked out on us, he went to meet Gerry and he’ll be back in a few hours.”
“He left the frickin’ state and didn’t tell me?” Riley did not sound pacified. “I don’t care where he went or why, who does that! Who leaves the damn state without bothering to even say goodbye!”
“He didn’t want to wake you.”
“Yeah, because sleep matters so much more than knowing where people are!”
Across the hall, Mason came to the doorway of his room, still shouldering into his shirt, and caught Dale’s eye with a mute signal of ‘what’s going on’? It said a lot that he didn’t look particularly surprised after a couple of weeks with them. Dale gave him a faint smile, shaking his head, and Mason rolled his eyes in reply and went back to dressing. Dale padded down the landing in jeans and nothing else, to the doorway of Riley’s room.
“Everyone but me!” Riley was saying hotly to Paul as he made his bed, “Everyone else was awake and knew but me-”
Dale came to help him with the quilt, straightening it a lot more gently than Riley was doing. “It had a lot to do with how annoyed he was with Gerry. You were the only person he could keep from having their sleep wrecked or being upset and he was damned if anyone was going to disturb you too. He said he’d ring as soon as he knew what was going on.”
“Well he better not expect me to answer.” Riley said darkly, although he sounded slightly mollified. “What’s going on with Gerry? How bad is it?”
“He was heading for Wade?” Dale left it there, knowing Riley would pick up on that immediately, and after a minute Riley gave him a wry half-smile.
“Yeah, ok. I would not like to be him when he walks into Corpus Christi and finds Luath and Flynn at the gate.”
Behind him, Paul silently blew a kiss to Dale and disappeared back towards the landing to talk to Mason.
It was usually at this point in the morning that Dale checked on the emails for all of them – they used one box, and his work emails forwarded automatically into it. He had permission to make that daily check to keep an eye out for work assignments, and in the last week or so for Tom’s mails too. There was one there this morning and he opened it with Riley sitting on the corner of the desk to read with him.
I’ve spoken to several people from the Union Pacific Railroad and their heritage dept. They had stock going through Three Traders in 1928 and the Silver Bullet was one of their engines. Stats enclosed from the guy’s mail about her horsepower, speed and on average what he thought she’d have pulled. She was a compound locomotive as you thought, long distance over heavy ground, weight varying between 40-45 tons on an average run, loading and unloading as she travelled. They had a record of the robbery in 1928 at Three Traders when she failed to climb Dead Man’s Hill after they slowed down – no mention of why in the records, I’d guess that the driver didn’t want to tell the company he stopped because he saw a ghost on the track. The driver reversed the train back into Three Traders Station to make another run at the hill. The station master checked the train over again before he let her go and he found a freight compartment door open on the side facing away from the platform, which hadn’t been open when he signaled the train to leave the station ten minutes earlier. The compartment was empty, no one was in sight, and as you thought, it was a dark, wet night. There’s a mention in the records that even with the station master’s lanterns they couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of them. The Cheyenne police were in town and checked all through the train and carriages, they searched the station and the town was searched again in the morning, all the barns, stores, cellars and the mining camp. There was no sign of the cargo that was taken. The freight that was stolen was only listed as ‘local store merchandise’ in crates, taken on board at Three Traders, to be unloaded at Idaho Falls, and no mention of what it actually was.
“Think it could be the crates of moonshine?” Riley demanded. “You’d have needed horses and wagons to shift that lot, several wagons! It wouldn’t have been quick either, I couldn’t lift and carry more than one crate at a time. How would they have had time to get that lot off the train without being seen in between stopping at the station and the station master getting to that compartment when he checked the train over? You’d have a couple of minutes at most.”
All good points.
“Logically, you’d need a lot of people. Who would surely have been heard if not seen in a large gang at a station, even in bad weather. And why then seal the crates up in the woods, even if you could transport them that kind of distance in the dark?” Dale went on, half to himself. “Unless they meant to come back for them later when the fuss died down, but were never able to.”
“Could the train we found in the tunnel have been used to take the crates away?” Riley said thoughtfully. Dale thought about it for a minute, sitting back in the chair.
“The track in the woods must have joined the main track at some point, we know the engine in the tunnel was a little tug used for transporting coal spoil from the mine entrance in the woods so it must have been able to run to the loading points in the town. But even a little steam engine that size makes an unavoidable amount of noise and steam when you run her. The glow of the fire, the smell of the steam, steam engines are not subtle or discreet things, and noise travels at night. The police and the station master couldn’t have missed a second steam engine running in the woods or on the hill. And why were the crates never moved again or noticed if that tunnel was in use? They don’t look as if they’ve been touched from the day they were placed there. The entrance we found was boarded over.”
Riley waited, looking at him. Dale shrugged, still thinking it through.
“I’d need to check the mining records. But I’d take a guess that the tunnel was bricked up some years before the robbery. I don’t think that little train down there was involved.”
“So somehow, they disappeared about fifty large crates out of a train – silently, without any kind of transport like a horse and cart, or car, or train being heard or seen that night – in less than a couple of minutes. And put them in a bricked up tunnel, some miles away in woods, in the dark.” Riley said, shaking his head. “We’re probably looking for Houdini.”
“Houdini died two years before the robbery,” Dale said absently. “But yes, it seems a bit of a challenge. We know the FBI were investigating a moonshine racket. We know, from the evidence in the tunnel, there probably was a moonshine racket going on in the town. We know the FBI suspected the saloon keeper but found no evidence, and we know this Connelly gang were somehow involved – who weren’t moonshiners, but an armed gang who specialized in robbery with violence and menaces.”
“If you were investigating this from a business point of view?” Riley prompted. Dale sat back in his chair.
“There’s a large, effective moonshine business in the town, effective from the point of view that they’re manufacturing something in large quantities that at this point in history has a highly saleable value. A criminal gang are also in town, right at this time, with no observable reason for being there, and that’s suspicious. I’d be looking for evidence of what gain they were after in a little coal mining town in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they were funding the moonshine business, or maybe they were operating some kind of protection scam. I’d also want to know was James Dwyer, this saloon keeper, working with the Connelly gang, and if so was it willingly. The moonshine is still here. If that’s the shipment that was stolen from the train, then no one made any money from it at all. That’s even stranger. Where’s the pay off? What is the pay off? That’s what I’d be looking for. Who benefitted from this.”
“Which makes you think what?” Riley prompted. Dale shrugged.
“Any number of things, but we’ve got no evidence.”
Riley grunted, reading the rest of Tom’s email. “I’ll bet David knew what the payoff was.”
That’s the extent of their records, although interestingly, there’s no record of the Silver Bullet being decommissioned. They don’t know where she is or what happened to her. Keep me posted if you find out any more.
Now need to go do something useful. I’m going to have Jake arrested under the trades description act. What kind of Top keeps nagging you to go play on the internet and the satellite phone? First trek to camp 2 tomorrow, we’ll be gone three days. I’ll check in when we get back.
“That’s getting towards the more dangerous bit.” Riley said, nodding at the screen.
“It is the dangerous bit.” Dale shut the computer down. “The most dangerous bit will be camp four and above, when they go for the summit, but every trek above base camp is high risk. They’ll do slower and more deliberate treks for the clients too.”
“Which is better, isn’t it? Safer?”
“For the clients. If they’d gone alone, as experienced as they are, they probably would have climbed faster and lighter.”
Proportionally, the risk increased with every hour spent on the mountain. Riley eyed him as he got up from the desk chair, taking in Dale’s still bare chest with his eyes glinting.
“I’ve got no complaints about the view, but it’s cold outside? At some point, you’re going to have to face asking Paul for a shirt.”
“Shut up.” Dale told him firmly, locking the office and following him down the stairs to the landing. Riley paused briefly to check the landing was clear of Mason before they let themselves out.
“I’d lend you one of mine, but it’d probably get us both swatted. Want me to come with you?”
It was a sincere and compassionate offer that said Riley knew exactly how difficult it was to do. Which made it all the more frustrating that such a simple thing should feel such a huge deal.
“Been there.” Riley said lightly when Dale hesitated, glaring at the door to Paul’s room. “Done that, yeah it sucks.”
“You’ve done this? When?”
Riley gave him an easy shrug. “Let’s say I wasn’t that good at picking up my room when I first came here. Take a deep breath and go with it. It’s going to work out.”
“It’s just a damn shirt.” Dale said exasperatedly and Riley grinned at him.
“So just go damn ask for it.”
Paul was rarely still upstairs at this time in the morning, so the fact he was suggested that he was hanging around deliberately to be helpful. Which made this even harder. Adults did not usually have to beg for their items of clothing. A year ago his PA had just been organizing suits to be in the wardrobe of whichever hotel he happened to be in, pressed and hung the way he liked them, without his ever having to say a word to anybody. Paul was making his bed when Dale tapped at the door, and he glanced up and smiled.
“Any work projects in the box this morning?”
“No. I asked A.N.Z. to give me a few weeks break, and so far they’ve played ball.” Dale pulled himself together with a firm hand, swallowed and made himself look Paul in the eye. Actually in the eye. “May I have a shirt please?”
“Sure.” Paul opened his closet door. “Which one do you want, hon?”
Stop flinching Aden, it’s a bloody shirt.
“A blue one.” He said slightly more crisply than he meant to. “Please.”
Paul took one of the several navy blue polo shirts from the shelf and unfolded it, not giving it to him but helping him into it. Dale found himself flushing uncomfortably but Paul took no notice, straightening his collar as Dale tucked the tail of the shirt in.
“Well done. Now listen to me a minute. You’re going to stay here with me - yes, I know you talked to me yesterday, that’s exactly what we wanted you to do, but it was hard work and upsetting stuff. We’re not pretending it never happened.”
With an iron effort and ignoring what was a surge of extreme exasperation, Dale kept his voice steady, quite rational.
“I am an adult quite capable of remembering events less than 24 hours old. We are Flynn down this morning, there is still work that needs doing and I’ve left the others a man short all week anyway because-”
Paul was shaking his head. “No, you haven’t, and stop that tone, I’m still not a public meeting. We made the decision, you’re not in any way personally responsible. If Ri and Jasper need help they’ll tell us. Until then, our decision is that you stay with me.”
And that was final. Despite himself, Dale shook his head, voice sharp with frustration.
“You cannot run a business this way.”
“Are you more upset about the work not getting done or having to face me for another day?” Paul said cheerfully. “This is ok.”
“I do not need to hear that every five minutes.”
Paul pushed him gently towards the landing. “Sometimes I think you do. Come on, come have some breakfast.”
“The Connelly gang were caught in Utah in 1931.” Jasper read aloud while they were eating bacon and eggs. He had opened the thick packet of old police reports he had brought up from the mail box this morning, from the Montana state police archives. “They served a four year jail sentence there, were released in 1935, and in 1936 Montana was after them again for another armed robbery. No further interest from the Wyoming state police, possibly they never came back to Wyoming.”
“Who’s this?” Mason took the photocopied handwritten report from Jasper, raising his eyebrows at the date. “You like old news?”
“There was a train robbery and an FBI investigation in the town on our land,” Paul explained,
“One of our family looks like being involved, so this is a little historical research.”
“There’s a town on your land?” Mason demanded. “Seriously?”
“An abandoned one, there’s been nothing there since the 1950s.” Riley told him. “Sorry, nothing like you’re thinking.”
“Damn, you got me all excited there.” Mason gave Jasper a grin and went on reading the report while he ate. “This was a serious bunch of petty crooks from the look of it – your ancestor wasn’t one of this gang was he?”
“We don’t know what the connection was. From the police information it looks like the Connellys were running a bootlegging racket out of the town with the help of the saloon owner.” Jasper held out his plate to Paul who tipped a smoking pancake onto it from the skillet at the stove where he was cooking while they talked and ate. Paul did not do pre-cooked stacks of pancakes; he did them with an audience there to eat them as he cooked them, the same way he cooked trout, and they were different fresh and hot than when left to sit and go rubbery. The whole kitchen smelled warmly of pancakes.
“David and bootlegging, I’m quite ready to believe.” Paul agreed, pouring more batter into the skillet, which sizzled loudly. “David and a bunch of criminals with a history like this – I think that’s a lot less likely. He wasn’t big on working with other people, even if he agreed with what they were doing. The Connellys – they were in their thirties at this point, two brothers and a cousin, all Irish immigrant stock, so I think they were a family concern that stuck together. I don’t know else we can do to find out any more, there’s nothing helpful in this information, it just gives us a little more background.”
“We found the bootleggers’-” Riley stopped at a sharp look from Paul that pointed out they were sitting at the table with a man recovering from a drink problem, and changed tack.
“- tunnel. That has to be what it is.”
“We don’t know for sure. And even if it is, it doesn’t tell us much.” Paul said regretfully. “Unfortunately we’ve only got conjecture left.”
“The place where the train was forced to stop on the hill is probably significant.” Dale finished the pancake he’d been working on and drew in the remaining syrup on his plate with his fork, absently mapping out the hill, the train track, the platform in the town below. “Riley and I were talking about this. There rationally isn’t a way to have got a significant amount of cargo off a train at the station unseen in what would be a couple of minutes at the most.”
“You think it was robbed further up the hill?” Riley demanded. Dale shrugged.
“I see two options. One: the train was robbed somewhere the cargo could be unloaded without being seen or interfered with. By the station master’s and the driver’s report, the compartment doors were closed when the train left the station, but were found open a few minutes after the train reversed back down into the station. We would need to locate where the train could have slowed down enough to be safely boarded and the doors opened without being seen. This robbery was pulled off with the FBI in town who reported seeing and finding out nothing, so it was obviously a well planned routine.”
“What’s the other option?”
“The curious incident of the dog in the night time.” Dale saw blank faces from everyone but Paul who had given him the book the phrase came from, and translated. “It may be that they were seen, but only by someone who was in on what they were doing. For example the station master may have been in the pay of whoever robbed the train.”
“Bearing in mind that this was a rough town and we still don’t know for sure what was stolen.” Paul slid another pancake from the skillet onto Dale’s plate and gave him a firm look as Dale opened his mouth. “You can eat, or I can help.”
Resisting the urge to explain his age, academic qualifications and a general CV of his skills, capacity and experience, none of which would make any difference to Paul, Dale shut his mouth and poked unwillingly at the pancake.
“It’s amazing how good sugar tastes after a couple of weeks without it.” Mason circled his last piece of pancake in syrup on his plate and sat back with a sigh of satisfaction. And grinned as Riley casually slid a fork over the side of Dale’s plate to the pancake and nipped it swiftly over to his own plate, tucking it half under what he was already eating. Riley winked at Mason, Dale saw the very quick and discreet gesture before Riley innocently went on eating, and he felt Riley’s kick against his ankle to do the same.
“How would we figure out where the train stopped?”
“That’s fairly easy, it’s calculable.” Dale said as smoothly as possible while Paul had his back turned. “Gradient. Weight and load. Tom sent me information he’s located on the tonnage of the train,”
With Mason at the table, he didn’t mention how. As they were looking through letters right now and as Mason had often seen them read and share family letters at breakfast time, he would hopefully assume the information was just another letter. Paul paused in surprise, glancing around.
“Tom? Tom’s involved in this now? How is he researching from the middle of Kathmandu? How has he possibly got time to be worrying about trains up there?”
“He’s some distance from Kathmandu and at base camp, they have a satellite connection for at least some of the day when the equipment isn’t frozen and they have solar power.” Dale put his knife and fork together. “There’s a lot of waiting around and not a lot to do, it sounds like he’s appreciating the distraction.”
Riley, his mouth full, added somewhat indistinctly, “He said Jake’s harassing him to quit working and to go play.”
“Which suggests he’s on the stressed side.” Paul said regretfully. “I’m not surprised.”
“This is yet more of the family,” Jasper said to Mason, “With a team at Everest base camp, getting ready for a summit attempt. They’ve been there a few weeks now.”
“He did say that by the Union Pacific reports, ‘crates’ were what were taken out of the train.” Riley informed Paul. “Crates? Like the bootleggers crates?”
Paul put the skillet in the sink and slid another envelope from the pile of mail across to Mason before he had a chance to answer.
“That one’s addressed to you, hon.”
“Me?” Mason accepted it somewhat warily and Dale saw his face change to something surprisingly neither jovial nor sullen nor as defended as usual as he looked at the handwriting on the envelope.
“......that’s from my Mom.”
“She let us know she’d like to write to you.” Jasper said gently. “We explained she can send you one a week and like I told you when you arrived, you can write her back once a week if you’d like to.”
“......Yeah, I’d like to.” Mason’s voice was suspiciously husky, and Dale looked away, feeling as though he was intruding on Mason’s privacy.
“I’ll take the mail into town on Friday,” Paul said lightly, “There’s always envelopes and paper in the drawer over there, help yourself and I’ll post it for you when you’re done.”
“Why don’t you go out on the porch and read it in peace if you’d like to?” Jasper suggested, getting up. “There’s no rush, I’ll help clean up this morning.”
Still sounding stunned, Mason got up and took his letter with him, disappearing out of sight onto the porch.
“Taking Mason out with you this morning?” Riley said to Jasper, getting up. Jasper nodded, collecting plates together.
“I’m going to do a short riding lesson with him here in the yard this morning, and then we’ll take it gently, ride over and take a look around the cattle, then we’ll come join you.”
“I’ll start on the near pastures then and work out.” Riley said cheerfully. Paul took the plates Riley brought to him, stacked them on the side and gave Riley a mild spank across the seat of his jeans as he passed him.
“Take some lunch with you, and stop bailing Dale out of eating properly. It will not kill him to eat a pancake.”
“You had your back to us!” Riley protested. Paul ran the taps, not sounding particularly concerned.
“Between the two of you, I’m developing a highly tuned baloney detector. Effective within two hundred paces. See you later.”
Riley paused to give him a rough hug, dropping a kiss on his cheek.
“If Flynn calls, you can tell him I’m not speaking to him.”
“That’ll be lovely for him to hear after he’s been up all night sorting Gerry out.” Paul said pointedly and Riley scowled, stooping to put his boots on.
“Yeah, well I’m still mad at him.”
Paul and Jasper washed up while Paul gently prevented Dale doing anything useful like re organizing the dish racks, tidying the pantry or stripping down the creaking hinge on the pantry door. At that point, Jasper gave him a mild look and pointed at a spot in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“Take a seat.”
Paul recognised the look that Dale gave them as well as Jasper did. It was what the family had long since labeled as the James Bond look; cool, completely together and disapproving in a polite and you yanks are all insane kind of way. He did however say formally,
And knelt precisely where Jasper indicated. It reminded Paul of a prisoner of war, it had the same military bearing and crisp air of screw you, and Jasper shook off another dish and nodded at Dale, voice calm.
“Cross legged. Hands on your knees.”
He did that too. Immediately and precisely. Paul caught Jasper’s eye and gave him a look that expressed exactly what he thought.
“I think I’ll finish this, love.”
“See you later.” Jasper handed him the dish towel, kissed him and stooped to drop a kiss on Dale’s forehead on his way past to collect his boots and jacket.
Taking no notice of Dale, Paul finished drying the dishes with his eyes on the growing sunshine on the corral and the pastures beyond the kitchen window. When he was done, he wiped the counters down, hung the dish towel to dry, picked up the packet of police reports and held out a hand to Dale.
It wasn’t easy to sit cross legged in the middle of a kitchen floor with any kind of dignity, but Dale was managing it. He rose on the word, and folded his hands behind his back, prepared to follow Paul politely wherever he led. Paul clicked his fingers, hand still outstretched.
“I would prefer not to be touched.” Dale said courteously.
“Yes, I bet you would.” Paul retrieved his hand from behind his back, keeping firm hold of it as he led Dale through the family room. “Unfortunately it’s not an option this morning, no matter how cross you are.”
“I am not….” Dale choked on repeating a highly undignified word and Paul supplied it, taking him upstairs.
“Cross. You were up half the night and you don’t do tired well; no one’s letting you find something repetitive and technical you can do by yourself and lose yourself in to feel more comfortable; Flynn’s away and we’ve got Gerry to worry about, and you’re badly shaken up from yesterday.”
Adjective. Homonym. From the Latin root ‘cruci’, in the sense of ‘athwart’: meaning contrary. Cantankerous. Fractious. Petulant. Belligerent. Tetchy. Grouchy. Ornery.
Aware that it was starting to sound like a group of behaviourally challenged dwarves, Dale made himself stop with an effort, and Paul paused on the stairs, digging a hand into his pocket to retrieve the phone which was vibrating as it was set to silent. Dale leaned against the banister, watching in the hope it was Flynn, and Paul sat down on the step to put the phone to his ear.
“Falls Chance Ranch?”
On the other end of the line Flynn sounded short but reassuringly calm.
“Hey, it’s me. We’ve got Gerry, he’s ok, and I’m bringing him and Luath back with me, we’re waiting for a takeoff slot out of Corpus Christi. I’m guessing we’ll be there in around four hours. Ash is working on finding a flight out as soon as he can.”
“Any more idea what’s wrong?”
“Not yet. He spoke to Ash on the phone and it looks to me more like a bid for help and attention than trying to get away from anything. He looks in need of a good night’s sleep but nothing worse.”
Paul let go a breath of relief. “Oh thank God for that.”
“How are you?”
Paul glanced up at Dale who sat down on the stairs beside him.
“Riley’s not talking to you but he, Mason and Jasper are out doing the stock work. Dale’s not happy with me about leaving them to it, but we’re working on it.”
Flynn grunted, unsurprised. “Don’t let him talk you around. Luath and I will be back by lunchtime, we’ll help with whatever Jas and Ri can’t get to, that isn’t something you or Dale need to worry about. Is Dale there?”
“I’m not letting him go anywhere, don’t worry. Hang on.”
Paul held the phone out to Dale, who took it in the same way he took a business call, with the same detached face.
“Hey.” Flynn said softly. “I’m at Corpus Christi, Luath and I met up with Gerry as he came off his plane, we’ve spoken to Ash and decided we’re bringing Gerry back with us while Ash finds a flight out. I’ll be home in around four hours. How are you doing?”
“Do not say ‘fine’.” Paul said firmly. Dale gave him a Look.
“We are getting by. Thank you. I haven’t as yet taken off for a run, or knocked any bookcases over or required a strait jacket.”
“So you see we’re all about the positives.” Paul said cheerfully.
The sound of engines started in the distance and Flynn’s voice changed.
“I think we might have a take-off slot.” His voice deepened and quietened to something very private that said he knew without being told more or less everything Dale wasn’t saying. “Dale, I’m going to be home by lunchtime. Stay with Paul and I’ll see you soon.”
It wasn’t possible to hear that and to hang on to bad temper. Dale swallowed, saying it and meaning it.
“I will, I promise.”
“Keep breathing, kid, you’re doing good. I love you, I won’t be long.”
Dale ended the call with his eyes rather stupidly stinging, and Paul put a hand over his to take the phone.
“Come on honey.”
He led Dale with him up the stairs and through the door off the landing that led into the short hallway to his own office. It was a small room, and one that got the best of the morning sunshine through the large window, and it was very much Paul’s space. Crowded with bookshelves, not of leather tomes but a whole mixture of paperbacks and hardbacks, fiction and fact all shelved together, several boxes were neatly stacked on the bottom shelves and Dale recognised some of them. Family papers, photographs, all kinds of things that Paul kept to hand. Paul sat down in the armchair in front of the small desk, indicating the patch of carpet beside him.
“Cross legged. Hands in your lap.”
What do I look like? A bloody gnome?
Dale swallowed on a mouthful of comments he was fairly sure would prompt Paul to get his hairbrush, and took up the requested spot and position. Flynn, whenever he did this, didn’t give an inch. If he parked Dale beside him, it was without discussion and for as long as Flynn was involved in whatever he was doing. If either Flynn or Jasper were sitting in the chair now rather than Paul, Dale knew he wouldn’t have given a thought to when they might be done, how long he might be here, or felt much real frustration about it. There would be no point. Instead he’d move straight to that peculiarly calm feeling where time stopped mattering much. The total handing over of responsibility or any expectation of control.
With Paul he was likely to be here a few minutes at most. And it would probably involve some negotiation. And the whole thought of it made Dale irrationally more exasperated, mostly with himself.
This is a mutual adult relationship, it’s as much your job to manage yourself and respond to consequences as it is his to provide them. Pull yourself together and act like a grown up.
“What’s the carved granite expression about?” Paul said mildly.
“You asked me to sit.” Dale said, a lot more stiffly than he intended. “I am sitting. Quietly. As directed.”
“Baloney.” Paul turned around in the armchair to survey him.
That was more of a frontal assault than he’d expected. Dale swallowed, aware of a sense of being pushed off balance.
“I am not screwing around.”
“Upset and trying hard to ignore that you’re upset, combined with a certain amount of proving to me I’m an idiot because I’m annoying you.” Paul laid down his pen. “I call that screwing around. And look at me properly please.”
Dale just about swallowed back the reflexive ‘I am’ and realised, with a little discomfort, that his eyes were actually on Paul’s forehead, just high enough to have Paul’s eyes in his visual field without having to directly look at them. He hadn’t consciously realised the evasion. It was one thing to be able to talk about this when he was feeling settled; to do it in the middle of feeling like this was a whole other deal. Dale looked down at his hands for a moment, aware that he was holding them stiffly on his knees to prevent them pulling at each other, picking or biting at his nails.
“I don’t mean to criticise. It’s not for me to-”
He trailed off, and Paul said without sounding particularly concerned,
“Do I need to start swapping the quilts around again?”
Dale felt his mouth twitch involuntarily towards a smile at the thought, a thin spark of amusement and appreciation that made it easier to look at Paul.
“Then trust me.” Paul said firmly.
It is ok to tell us about things that seem trivial or irrational. You’ve got to trust us enough to try it out.
Dale took a breath and forced it out, fairly sure that proper brats kept their mouths shut and got on with what they were told to do a lot better than this.
“I… don’t like doing this when it’s with you. I don’t know how long it’ll be for, and it probably won’t be long enough, which doesn’t make me feel any calmer. It makes things worse.”
Paul nodded slowly, neither looking shocked nor hurt. “Ok, that makes sense to me. How long is long enough?”
Riley would have pleaded the fifth. Dale considered it with disarming honesty.
“It varies. Which I know isn’t fair on you at all, but until I’m calm. And if it’s Flynn, a hell of a lot longer after I think I’m calm. At least half an hour.”
“Thank you for telling me. We can do that.” Paul glanced at his watch and picked up a pen, starting to order the sheaf of papers on his desk. “Sit up, hon. Back straight, shoulders down, put your hands down flat on your knees.”
Which precluded fidgeting. It was harder to deliberately focus on sitting still, it took attention to maintain the position – like standing in a corner with his hands on his head – which made it difficult to focus on the internal din of too much to think about, the disordered and chaotic clamour inside his head and the roiling in his stomach. And gradually the quiet of the house, the soft scratching of Paul’s pen, the warmth of the room and the softness of the carpet, the far away sounds of the sheep, sank in deep enough to bring a sense of quiet. Genuine quiet.
Paul, discreetly watching him while he worked with his mind half on what he was doing, couldn’t help watching his watch too with the feeling that this was harsher than Gerry or Riley or Bear would have stood for, but Dale sat still, quiet, and Paul felt it when the tension began to go out of him. The atmosphere in the room gradually changed and it became a lot easier to relax and to just let him be, let him have that space. It was well over an hour before he saw Dale stretch his shoulders, his first sign of discomfort, and Paul laid his pen down and sat back to look at him.
“Do you feel done?”
Dale met his eyes, fully, and straightened up to stretch his neck and back.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Paul reached for his hand and pulled gently, helping Dale to his feet and tugging until Dale perched on the arm of his chair where Paul could get an arm around his waist. A strip of card was on the table, the ink still drying on Paul’s neat handwriting, and Paul picked it up, handing it to Dale. The book he had copied it from lay open on the table in front of them.
“I thought you might like this for your journal.”
The poem was brief and structured and not one that Dale had ever seen before:
There Is a Hole in My Sidewalk
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
By Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost…I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit…but,
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault.
I get out immediately,
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
It was so acute that Dale’s stomach clenched as he read it. Not in a painful way. There was something visceral about the understanding within it. Both the poet’s and Paul’s. And the faith it expressed. The acceptance.
“I was thinking it would be a good idea to collate everything we know about these Connelly boys.” Paul said calmly, giving him a hug as if he wasn’t sitting stupidly staring at the card and close to tears. “You’re better at précis than I am. How shall we do this?”
They were still occupied some time later when the front door opened and Dale looked up from the police reports, recognising Luath’s deep and liquid voice.
“Ger, you can shut up or I can crown you, I don’t mind which.”
Dale was surprised at the strength of welcome that rose up in him. Paul, half way to the door, gave him a look that Dale couldn’t read, something understanding, although his voice was teasing.
“Well? Are you coming, or shall I tell them you’re too busy?”
Gerry, theatrical at the best of times, had a knack of filling a room by himself, and with Luath alongside him the room seemed very full of people. Gerry, wearing Flynn’s coat, threw himself on Paul and flung his arms around Paul’s neck.
“They were horrible the whole way here and they grabbed me at the airport, in public, like I was some kind of drug runner-”
“Oh rubbish.” Luath peeled his own coat off and hung it on the coat stand, and came to Dale, wrapping him up in a tight hug that was neither formal or restrained and which he did apparently without thinking, as if it was so strong an instinct on seeing him that he acted without breaking the conversation. “No one was horrible to you, the only one who’s done any shouting and ranting is you – hello Dale – and most of this is for Paul’s benefit, you were fine on the plane.”
“What on earth possessed you to get on a plane out of Seattle?” Paul drew back from Gerry a little to cup Gerry’s face in his hands. “You terrified Ash and the rest of us, whatever happened?”
“He didn’t do anything,” Gerry said fiercely, “Don’t make it sound like Ash did something awful-”
“No one’s blaming Ash, we’re just asking for information.” Luath pointed out. “Which as yet you’re not giving, so you can’t blame us for making guesses. Which you’re quite enjoying, along with the high drama.”
“I hate you!” Gerry spat back.
Dale caught Flynn’s dark green eyes at the back of what seemed a very large crowd of Gerry and Luath, and while Flynn’s face didn’t change, his eyes did. He was saying nothing, but that look reached out and steadied Dale as much as Luath’s arm still around him.
“If I wanted to tell you I’d tell you and it’s nothing to do with any of you!” Gerry was saying hotly, “No one’s done anything but pester since I got to Texas-”
“Another major exaggeration.” Luath added to Paul. Gerry stamped his foot; a gesture that should have been incongruous in a man in his fifties but which actually wasn’t at all, and Dale jumped, startled as Gerry tore away from Paul and unhesitatingly buried himself in Dale’s arms, bursting into tears. Dale hugged him instinctively, taken aback as to why, in a room of extremely secure people, Gerry should cling to him, but not at all unwilling. There was a moment’s silence in the hallway, then Paul said,
“I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll think about lunch. Luath, take the bags upstairs and change into something more comfortable.”
Gerry’s face was still buried in Dale’s shoulder and he was sobbing. Dale held him gently, aware from his own experience how much just quiet and someone standing still and giving you a few minutes of their time could help. The others moved away, which also helped. Dale stood with Gerry a few minutes more, without a sense of urgency or the need to do anything but be here, and after a few minutes Gerry took a couple of slower breaths and loosened his grip around Dale’s neck although he didn’t let go. Dale walked him into the kitchen and Gerry sat down at the table, twisting around to put his head down on his arms in front of Dale. It was a demand for attention and for shelter, and one he’d obviously made many times before at this table, and he had picked the nearest chair rather than his own, which made Dale have to take the chair at the head of the table that was rarely used at mealtimes unless a large group of them were at home. Dale leaned his elbows on the table and instinctively ran a hand over Gerry’s hair, smoothing it. It didn’t seem to make things any worse.
“I didn’t run away.” Gerry told him, sounding plaintive rather than fierce since his head was still down on his arms. “We had a fight about this employee at the gallery, who had his hand in the till and it was all bloody bloody so I fired him, but Ash keeps on about me delegating and not taking any more hours like I’m going to keel over and die if I do, and it was driving me mad and I knew when he found out about me firing this man he’d go nuts and he did -”
“That does not sound to me like Ash.” Luath said, taking a seat on the other side of the table.
“Why does Ash think you’re going to keel over?” Flynn said quietly. He was leaning against the counter near to Dale, and Dale glanced up at him, still stroking Gerry’s head. Gerry didn’t move, his voice muffled by his arms, but he answered.
“….because he’s obsessed and he keeps on at me.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Gerry’s voice went higher and fractured in distress,
“He wants me to have this gall stone surgery, and I don’t want it! Old people have this kind of thing, I’m not that old! I won’t be old!”
“You’re putting us through all this because you’re having a mid life crisis?” Luath demanded.
There was no bite in his voice and while Gerry snorted, it was without indignation.
“Ash didn’t put any pressure on me to have the damn surgery so don’t you blame him, he just keeps wanting to discuss it, and I don’t, I don’t want it, I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t care what might happen.”
It was perfectly possible to be fiercely defensive of someone you loved, while being vehemently opposed to what they wanted you to do, even if you admitted it was the right thing to do. Dale understood it well and found himself giving a rather apologetic look at Paul, who shook his head with an expression Dale read without difficulty, saying gently,
“What might happen, Gerry?”
“I keep getting sick because of it.” Gerry fumbled ineffectually for his handkerchief and Dale supplied his clean one, watching Gerry mop his face. “It’s supposed to be grumbling or something. We saw someone at the hospital. I don’t want to think about it.”
“I’m not surprised Ash wants you to have the surgery if you keep getting sick and you’re going to go on getting sick.” Luath gave Gerry a look of exasperated concern. “If you’d said any of this to any of us we might have been able to help before you stormed out of the state. I didn’t even know this was an issue or that you’d been sick, when did we stop keeping each other posted about this kind of thing? Does Darcy know? Bear?”
“No. I didn’t want you to help, I didn’t want you to do anything.” Gerry buried his head in his arms once more. “I don’t want anyone to do anything, I just want to leave it alone and it’ll be fine.”
It was strange to see an experienced, older brat so unashamedly and firmly doing something that Riley sometimes did, and which Dale could just about bring himself to admit to doing. Very occasionally. A little. Possibly. Arguably. Particularly when his own logic was pointing out to him, clearly, that Gerry had no hope of solving this problem by burying his head in the sand about it. If he wanted rid of the problem, he needed to face it head on and get it over with as fast as possible.
Yeah, spot the guy in denial, Aden, you apply that to everyone but yourself. You’re supposed to be the one with the high IQ.
They ate lunch together. Luath changed into a shirt and jeans from the clothes he kept in his room, and immediately his identity shifted from businessman to the man Dale was used to seeing around this house, someone he’d come to be extremely fond of. The two identities didn’t have a lot to link them; Luath in a suit to Dale’s eyes looked awkward and wrong, and he’d seen before how so many of the family changed into jeans the minute they arrived here, as if they were throwing off some outside skin.
As soon as Luath was done eating he got up, and Flynn wolfed the last bit of his sandwich and took his own dishes to the sink.
“We’ll be back when we’re back, we’ll find the others and see what needs doing.”
“I can reduce that workload down further.” Dale pointed out, sitting back to catch Flynn’s eye. Flynn put his hands on his shoulders and stooped to kiss him, very firmly, with a squashing weight and a strength that went down into his bones. It was as close they’d got yet to saying hello to each other but they were both private people in this way and Dale knew Flynn would wait until they were alone, when they had the time to say it properly. It still helped to feel the grip of Flynn’s familiar hands on him, and for a moment taste his lips and feel the pressure of that kiss still lingering on his mouth.
“No. You’ve worked hard enough for a few days. There’s enough of us to handle it, we’re having no kind of a crisis; relax.”
Without arguing. That was how it worked and Flynn’s tone said he’d have no truck whatever with arguing. Dale watched Luath and Flynn pull on boots and jackets and head outside together, silently collecting dishes. Paul patted Gerry’s shoulder and took his empty plate from him.
“If you’re done, Gerry? You were up most of the night. Go on upstairs, undress and get into bed.”
Gerry grimaced but obviously wasn’t very surprised. He gave Dale a rather wry smile and disappeared into the family room. Dale got up to help Paul clear the table, and they washed up together. When they were done, Paul put two mugs on the counter and nodded Dale at the kettle.
“Make some tea please love, light the fire and settle on the couch. I’m going to check on Gerry and then I’ll come down and join you.”
Dale took the two mugs into the family room and knelt on the hearth to light the fire, watching the small twigs catch underneath the logs. There were several couches to choose from, and from experience Dale knew if Paul said settle on a couch, he meant on it, and not near it or in the general vicinity of it. Once the fire had caught properly, he sat on the nearest long couch to the fire, hugged his knee and watched the flames. Paul came downstairs a few minutes later with a book in his hand, picked up one of the mugs from the coffee table and sat down beside him, cupping his hands around it.
“Come over here.”
Still without arguing, without finding reasons not to, without reminding yourself there’s a client to be looked after and Gerry upstairs and work needing doing, and all the rest of the stuff you hang on to not to have to be too much in the here and now.
Dale slid across to him and with an extremely firm hand, Paul pulled him down to lie so his head was in Paul’s lap. And once there, Dale’s body abruptly rolled over without conscious permission and curled tightly up to Paul without dignity, his arms wrapping around Paul’s waist. Paul held him close, relaxed and drinking tea. Without looking, Dale could feel and hear him swallowing.
“Is Gerry ok?” he said awkwardly. Paul murmured agreement through a mouthful of tea.
“He was already asleep when I went upstairs. You were very kind to him, love. He was a bit clingy and I’m sure you weren’t feeling like handling it.”
“It wasn’t being kind, I didn’t mind at all. I suppose I was the only one there he didn’t feel told off by.”
“Some. And I often tell you how much you remind me of Philip.” Paul said candidly. “Not just your eyes. You’re a natural listener like he was, and you have the same kind of presence. I think that’s some of why Gerry found you so comforting. Are you cold, darling? You’re shivering.”
A little, despite the warmth of the fire, and for no reason Dale understood. Paul pulled the throw down from the back of the sofa and shook it out over Dale, rubbing his back. And they did nothing at all, for some time, other than be there on the couch.
Dale slept hard once he was asleep. Deeply, not moving. Flynn had had them trained for years with their clients that people dealing with hard, difficult emotions needed a lot of sleep to be able to handle them, to rebalance the body chemistry of stress, and the more stress there was, the more sleep they needed. Paul read a little, but far more than that he just relaxed and held him, let himself enjoy the closeness and the peace and hoping some of that would pass across to Dale. That there was pleasure in just being near him.
Luath came back first, alone, stiff and looking grim, and Paul glanced up at him as he leaned around the kitchen doorway with a quick gesture to be quiet. Luath’s face softened at the sight of Dale, he nodded and withdrew back into the kitchen and Paul heard the kitchen bathroom’s door shut. He eased himself very gently out from under Dale, who didn’t stir, and left him covered over and still sleeping soundly on the couch by the warmth of the fire.
Luath came back into the kitchen a few minutes later, damp from the shower and still stretching his neck.
“Hours of trying to sleep sitting upright on planes and carrying struggling sheep wasn’t mixing well.” he said when Paul gave him an inquiring look. “Flynn said to come back and get warm, and he’d finish off. Gerry’s not the only one getting old.”
“You’re neither of you at all old, you’re just not prepared to be reasonable.” Paul held out two painkillers and a glass of water and Luath took them gratefully.
“Thanks. Is Dale ok? I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen him really crashed out.”
“He’s having a rough few days.” Paul sat down at the table with him and explained, and Luath listened with concern and a lot of compassion, and the experience of several decades of this household.
“Well I can see now what the perfectionism’s rooted in.” he said when Paul finished. “Unfortunately that makes a lot of sense. Is there anything I can do? Or shouldn’t do?”
“Just be yourself as usual.” Paul gave him a quick smile of reassurance. “It’s the same with Mason. But Dale’s definitely feeling fragile, and trust me, if Dale ever lets slip to you that he might not be feeling good, you can believe he must be feeling terrible.”
Voices in the yard suggested that Riley had encountered Flynn, and wincing, Luath got up and went to the open doorway onto the porch, prepared to deal with the battle before it got fully started.
“Oh, turned up again have you?” Riley was saying icily, leading Snickers across the yard to where Flynn was rubbing Leo down. “Excuse me not turning cartwheels, but I didn’t even realise you’d pissed off until breakfast time.”
Flynn dropped the brush in the bucket beside him, walked around Leo and swatted Riley hard, and given Riley’s tone, expression and choice of language, Luath didn’t blame him. Across the yard their client was watching, a man who still looked awkward in jeans and was rather clumsily heaving buckets of water to fill the big troughs in the yard.
Riley glared right back at Flynn, squared up to him which put his chestnut head at about the level of Flynn’s chin, but he shut up, and Flynn, standing close to him, gave him a very steady look, hands planted on his hips.
“If you’re not happy with me, tell me.”
“I am not happy with you, Flynn O’Sullivan.” Riley said flatly, looking him straight in the eye. “I am not happy with you leaving in the middle of the night without a word to me, or even leaving me a damn note, and I’m not happy with you just turning up again like nothing happened!”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” Flynn’s voice was quiet, which surprised Luath who had heard this kind of conversation plenty of times before and knew from long experience how hard Flynn and Riley could clash. “I didn’t see any reason to let Gerry disturb your rest too, and I planned on being back within a few hours. The others were here to let you know what happened.”
“I don’t care how many people were around to tell me where you were, the fact is that you didn’t!” Riley informed him, “And I know you won’t care because your damn priorities said that wasn’t important, I know exactly how you get when you go into crisis mode and I know,”
Riley’s voice was rising and Luath winced, knowing exactly where this was headed, even as Riley spat the words out clearly, carefully enunciating each one,
“you’re a pigheaded, self centered, stubborn fricking son of a bitch who doesn’t care anyway so long as you think the important things are handled. So now you can deal with me being good and mad at you and try not caring about that!”
Rudeness, defiance, swearing and a personal attack; you had to hand it to Riley, that was four of Flynn’s buttons punched in just two sentences. Flynn took Snickers’ rein from Riley’s hand, tethered Snickers alongside Leo, and took Riley’s arm, leading him towards the porch steps and the kitchen, and if Luath was any judge there was a certain amount of grim victory in Riley’s face. Paul, watching unsurprised from the kitchen table, spoke softly but with clear meaning as they came in the door, halting them both.
“Anyone who raises their voice and disturbs Dale is going to have me to deal with. Riley James, that was a horrible thing you just said to Flynn. You’re trying to hurt him because you think he hurt you, and if he doesn’t soap your mouth out I will for being that mean and disrespectful to someone I love. Flynn, I told you leaving without saying anything to Riley would be something he’d find hard to understand, and if he’d put it less nastily I’d have said he had a point. Now if you two want to fight, you go a long way off and do it, and don’t come back until you’re done.”
They both looked at him for a moment, frozen together in the doorway, then Riley, rather shame facedly, glanced up at Flynn.
“Ok, maybe I didn’t mean to be that nasty, even if you are being an ass.”
“Corner. Go.” Flynn said very quietly. Riley grimaced but walked past Paul to the kitchen corner and took up position there. Flynn went quietly to the door of the family room and stood for a moment, looking through it at Dale, before he went back outside to finish grooming Leo.
Luath, startled and taking a seat at the table, caught Paul’s eye and raised his eyebrows, keeping his voice low enough to be out of Riley’s earshot.
“When did the brat grow up?”
Paul, well aware of who he meant and that his question had nothing to do with Riley in the corner, gave him a nod towards the family room.
“A lot of that is courtesy of Mr Aden.”
The requirement of being what was termed as ‘pleasant to be around’ had been a maxim of Philip’s that was familiar to everyone who had ever lived in this household. It was one that both Gerry and Riley were struggling with this evening but it was apparent to Luath, having had a very firm word with Gerry in private on the landing before dinner, that Flynn had done the same with Riley, and while anyone who knew them well would know they were subdued, they were both civil, and introductions were made to Mason, who appeared to be enjoying the additional company at the table. Dale was always quiet in Luath’s experience, but he looked slightly pale and there were black shadows visible around his eyes, and while he ate it was with a clear effort. Paul sent him upstairs when dinner was finished, and followed soon after, and neither of them came back. Jasper and Mason took charge of the cleaning up, which left Luath to help Flynn chase both Gerry and Riley out with them and the dogs for a walk out to cairn. It was a long and slow stroll through the home pastures and the gathering twilight which took until almost ten pm and while Riley took the first mile or two to fully warm up to Flynn, he never stayed mad for long and he always blew himself out fast. By the time he was normally lively and talkative and enjoying the walk and the gathering dark, as frankly as Riley enjoyed most things, Gerry was responding to Riley’s lift in mood, and it was a real pleasure to Luath to be here and to be with them. They returned the house in full darkness, pausing at times to listen to the far off coyote yelps and once, far further away, a wolf howl, by which time Riley was walking casually with an arm slung around Flynn’s waist and Flynn’s arm over his shoulders.
The house was quiet when they got in. Mason was asleep, Jasper was off somewhere doing Jasper things which wasn’t surprising on a clear night, and Flynn turned out the lights downstairs, banked the fire down for the night and headed upstairs after the others. Gerry’s door stood wide, announcing that he was in the bathroom, and his clothes were scattered on several surfaces. Mason’s door stood open and Flynn paused in the doorway to watch for a minute, listening to the quiet, regular breathing that confirmed Mason was soundly asleep. Riley was still fully dressed, sprawled across his bed and reading a book, and Flynn came in to take it from him, dropping a brisk swipe across the seat of his trousers.
“I said ‘bed’, not ‘read’, it’s late.”
Riley rolled over, grabbed up his pillow and hit him back, and Flynn wrestled him for the pillow until Riley bounced up to stand on the bed for a better striking angle, and Flynn tackled him around the waist, dropping him flat across the mattress. Riley yelped, laughing, and made one more, thorough attempt to swipe Flynn with the pillow before Flynn got it out of his hand.
“Brat.” Flynn grabbed his chin and kissed him. “I’m coming back to check in five minutes, you’d better be in bed.”
“Or?” Riley demanded.
“You really want to find out?”
Riley grinned at him, Flynn threw the pillow back and went down the hall to his own room. Dale was laying face down in the dark, head on his folded arms, his face turned towards the door, and Flynn could see his eyes were open. Riley burned off stress; the pillow fight had been good natured and fun, but there was a certain amount of real feeling behind it. Dale was a very different man.
Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed, running a light hand over his face and down the curve of his throat, stroking.
Dale raised up on his elbows to kiss him, quietly and thoroughly, until Flynn put both hands on his shoulders and got up.
“Stay. I’m going to check on Riley and get out of these clothes.”
Dale quirked an eyebrow at him, with humour despite the shadows under his eyes.
“Is Ri talking to you yet?”
“So far so good.” Flynn disappeared out onto the landing, peeling his shirt off over his head as he walked. Dale lay back and waited, pulling the pillow further down behind his neck. It took several minutes before Flynn came back, stripped to his shorts, the lines and curves and angles of his neck and chest and shoulders outlined in the moonlight coming through the open window. Even when it was freezing out there, Flynn and Dale both liked it open. It was near to sleeping outside. Flynn softly shut the door behind him – people rarely shut doors in this house except for specific and extremely good reasons if you were in the know – dropped his shirt and jeans on the dresser, stood where he was, met Dale’s eyes and beckoned to him. Dale’s eyes laughed but he kept his face straight, pushing the covers back and padding slowly across to where Flynn was waiting.
The man was beautiful. And big. From the long legs, the lean abs, the solid chest and shoulders, to his dark green eyes which shone nearly black in the dark. Flynn drew him close enough to peel his t shirt off over his head, pulling it off and dropping it on top of his own abandoned clothes. He peeled Dale’s shorts off after it, dropping them at his feet to run both hands over Dale’s buttocks and pull him close, the two of them pressing strongly together at the hips. Dale slipped his hands inside Flynn’s shorts for a moment before he edged them out of his way and Flynn backed slowly to the window seat, kicking them off before he sat down, leaning back against the wall and keeping hold of Dale. Unhurriedly, Dale knelt astride his lap. Their breath was steaming slightly in the air between them and misting the open window. Flynn’s hands felt hot against his skin as they went on sliding, over his back, grasping his hips strongly, and his head tipped back against the wall to watch him. Dale stooped over him, using his mouth to work along the smooth line of his collar bone and further on down his chest, and his hands wandered while Flynn’s hands grasped and massaged where they rested, stabilizing them both, until he yanked, hard, pulling Dale down on top of him to reach his mouth.
It was some time after that when he moved them both to the bed by the simple means of getting up and lifting Dale with him to avoid having to stop what they were doing. By then neither of them were in the least aware of the temperature, or what happened to the bed clothes.
Luath picked up a book from the shelves in the family room on his way upstairs, noticing a few new titles there since his last visit, and put the light on in his and Roger’s small and low roofed room at the front of the house. It overlooked the corral; through the window Luath could see the shadowy forms of the horses beyond the fence, a very familiar view that brought the same familiar sense of calm with it. He sat on the edge of the bed to read, absently fiddling with the folded red and fringed blanket that Roger had loved in this room, and listening to the quiet sounds of the rest of the household settling to sleep.
He’d been asleep an hour or two when he heard the sound of an engine coming closer, the quiet swish of tyres on grass and earth, and then the growls of the dogs getting ready to bark. Someone outside quieted them, Luath heard the low voice and padded down the stairs. Flynn and Jasper were both on the porch and dressed in their night clothes, Jasper carrying a suitcase, and Ash, looking tired and hassled, followed them into the kitchen and shut the door, coming quietly to give Luath a hug.
“Hey. Sorry to wake you.”
“Have you eaten? Need a drink?” Jasper said softly. Ash shook his head.
“I had something revolting on the plane and I’ve been drinking coffee on the road from Jackson to try and stay awake while I drove. I mostly want to sleep.”
They headed upstairs together, Flynn disappearing back into the room he shared with Dale, Jasper handing the suitcase back to Ash who took it quietly into Gerry’s room, and a moment later Luath heard a muffled and sleepy but very genuine squeal of delight from inside.
Ash was in the large crowd of people in the kitchen when Dale came down for breakfast in the morning. Gerry was cheerfully buttering toast and looking nothing like someone who’d run away from the man he was sitting next to less than twenty four hours ago. Ash got up at the sight of Dale, his face lighting up, and Dale came around the table to give him a hug with real pleasure.
“Hey, I didn’t hear you arrive.”
“Middle of the night job, I got a plane as far as Jackson and drove the rest of the way.” Ash sat down again and Dale went to see what help Paul needed at the stove, briefly aware of Mason looking at him with an expression he couldn’t read.
“How are you?” Ash went on, with interest. “Anything more on the German job you were looking at?”
“It went to court, I didn’t hear after that.” Dale brought a couple of the filled plates to the table, and Luath glanced up from his conversation with Flynn.
“This was the one with the clients pulling out in all directions?”
“It was fairly easy to stabilise, although it’ll come apart again depending on how the trial goes. It was their stock problems that took time to sort out.”
“I know the Cadogan Group guy, I was at a meeting with him and heard all about their side of it,” Luath helped himself to bacon and passed the dish on to Riley, who grinned at Dale.
“Another two am job with him walking around down here talking to someone in a language no one else understands.”
“I don’t understand much even if it’s in English.” Paul sat down to take the plate Dale passed him, and tapped firmly on the table in front of Dale’s chair with a gesture Dale had no difficulty in interpreting.
There was an unspoken agreement that morning among the family members that the house would be left for Ash and Gerry to have some time alone together. They left the two of them washing up after breakfast, and Paul, taking down two jackets from the hooks behind the door as the others dispersed towards the corral, handed one to Dale and held up a set of the four by four keys.
“How about we go take a look at Dead Man’s Hill?”
They drove to Three Traders the long way around by the road, following the long since overgrown dirt track that peeled off the lonely highway and led into the town. It took them through the most recently occupied part, where a deserted diner stood beside a broken down and rusting car, but the street blended into the older buildings and finally rounded the corner to the main street through the town, where the hotel and saloon and the row of shops stood opposite the railway station and the rail track. Paul parked quietly beside the station and Dale got out of the passenger seat, zipping the jacket to the neck. They were both wearing sweaters, hats and scarves but the wind was fresh and it was cold in the deserted open street. Paul dug his hands in his pockets and they walked together, slowly up the steps into the station.
They had said nothing since leaving the ranch; not an uncomfortable silence at all but a gravity that was rooted in how seriously they both took this town, and the silence seemed to follow them into the old building where a cracked glass window marked the empty ticket office, and a cast iron bench stood against a wall by an open fireplace. Through the door, the platform still had a few empty crates stacked in the shelter of the wall where a few tattered remains of paper showed where posters and maybe timetables had once been pasted. The rail track, slightly overgrown with the yellow brush of the grassland, ran east towards the mine, and west, out of the town, and on the sidings and the second line beyond the first, several carriages and trucks were rusting alongside an old steam engine. Paul sat down on the edge of the platform to lower himself down onto the track, and Dale followed him across to the engine, which towered above them when they stood on the ground beside her rusted frame. Dale walked around her, her wheels and coupling rods, until he reached her name plate, worn but still visible.
The Lincoln Tornado.
“She’s not the Silver Bullet.” Dale said quietly, knowing Paul had been wondering the same thing as him.
“She’s a 1930s locomotive, younger than the Silver Bullet would have been. Probably one of the last ones in use. The diesel-electric engines came in during the mid thirties, although I doubt this area saw much new rolling stock. They probably used what engines they had until they closed the track.”
“She’s beautiful.” Paul said quietly, and Dale knew what he meant. Even rusted, the distinctive circular front and the long, tubular engine with its smoke stack and round sand box and steam box, gave the locomotive a kind of majesty. A massive, shapely beast, created with care and used for years, and a part of this silent history capsule in the valley where what was left of the town stood decaying in peace.
He paused for a moment to gently test his weight on her step, then climbed up into her cab. The fireplace was empty, as if someone long ago had lovingly cleaned her before he left her, a man doing his job with care, properly, even for an engine which would never be fired up again. Her brake and her wheels were as rusted as her body, and he touched them gently. Then his hand found its way to the side of the cab by the open door, and on some instinct he put a foot down to the step, half in and half out of the cab. A handle was right beside his hand and gently he held it, standing looking along the engine’s body out in front of her, and without warning he saw the flicker of black – a long black coat. He was wearing a long, knee length black coat, a scarf was tied in a loop around his neck, cold wind blew through his hair and he was looking out as the ground rolled slowly away beneath him –
- Dale jerked his hand off the handle, heart racing.
“Dale?” Paul’s voice said quietly. Dale looked down at him, feeling his stomach tight and his hands shaking slightly. Paul gave him a faint smile, putting a hand up to grip his knee.
“You all right, hon?”
You can deny it. A dizzy spell. He’d never know. Oh for pete’s sake Aden get a grip!
Paul’s eyes were steady and his voice was perfectly pleasant, but his tone drew an unwilling smile out of Dale.
“Don’t even try it.”
And he meant it; the man learned extremely fast. Dale looked down at him, finding the words coming clipped but sincere,
“But I don’t know what to trust, or if it’s imagination or what it is, and I’m used to all kinds of images and things I don’t feel connected up to so I have no idea what category to put any of it in, or if it’s something to pay attention to or something to ignore-”
“Breathe?” Paul interrupted mildly. Dale stopped, and Paul squeezed his knee.
“Try saying it. Just like you did with the keys and the butter press. I’m right here.”
“…..Something about a black coat.” Dale took a slower breath and looked up again to the front of the engine. It was odd: for those few seconds he’d actually felt it, but now it was hard to remember clearly. A peculiarly intense experience but it was as if it had left no mark on his mind. No memory trace. “A black coat and the train moving.”
“Mhm?” Paul waited, listening as though he didn’t think that was a weird or disconnected thing to say. “Did it feel bad?”
“No.” Dale thought about it, aware that other than his own surprise at the unexpectedness of it, there was none of the sense of terror or of wrongness that he had felt in the wind storms on Mustang Hill. The images were just that – images. “No. It was just a black coat. Standing in a black coat on the step, watching the ground slip away.”
“No. Very slowly.” Dale hesitated for a long moment, then put his hand cautiously back on the handle. He felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Paul was waiting, perfectly calm, and embarrassment fought with sense for a moment, and sense won.
Jasper’s told you. Again and again. You won’t feel a damn thing with your mind occupied and full, when you’re not listening. Breathe. Calm down. Be open and stop bracing yourself against it happening.
He took a breath and let it go in a sigh the way Jasper did, letting his muscles go loose. Clearing his mind. Being detached as if he was picking up a set of documents to skim through. Letting himself breathe. And calling to mind that unique colour, the warm, golden light of the kitchen at home in the evenings that came from the deepest feelings he had about the house and the people who lived there, surrounding himself with it, letting it lift him in the way it always did.
And it took some seconds, but gradually it came again. If he grabbed for the image, if he tried to concentrate on it, it faded instantly. But if he thought of nothing, if he just let himself be, as if he didn’t care or wasn’t particularly interested, there it was. And doing it, he found himself remembering the night on Mustang Hill. Of being detachedly, almost cheerfully stood back from himself, of having that faith that he knew what to do, believing that it would all be there and make sense. Allowing it to happen.
He was standing on the step, holding on to the handle, half in and half out of the cab. And he was watching the train move slowly, the ground running away beneath him, the wind in his hair, with a sense of amusement that made him smile. The scarf was high enough that his jaw was protected from the cold air in his face, the coat whipped around his knee and the top of his boot.
“He was amused. Not like having been told a joke, there was something he was – joyful about. Like Riley when he’s teasing Flynn.”
“Mhm?” Paul waited, and Dale let go of the handle, carefully not expecting, not grabbing, not trying too hard, and rested a hand on the fireplace again. And the ashes were still warm as a large, soot stained hand scooped them, sad and half angry and half proud that a proper job would be done, that she would be left as she should be, properly, with the job done right.
“The man left her here for the last time. He left her immaculate, as if he was going to come back in the morning and fire her up like he always did, even though he knew she’d never be run again. And he got down from her and went to the diner, and drank coffee, alone.”
Paul, face lifted to his, gave him a smile as Dale looked down at him.
Dale started to say he didn’t know, then shook his head. He did know. How was impossible to define, but there was a different ‘feel’ – like looking out of two different suits of clothes.
“No. They were two different men. The man that stood on the step and the man that was her driver.”
“That seems pretty interesting to me.” Paul held out a hand to help him down, and Dale dropped lightly onto the ground, less shaken than – exhilarated.
Jasper was aware like this all the time. He said it was like having his eyes open. Not something he was consciously aware of doing, but enough to see something that caught his eye and pulled his attention. Jasper, who had been raised like this in a culture that saw it quite differently. Where this was normal. Something everyone learned to do to some extent. Mind racing, Dale walked with Paul up the track that curved up Dead Man’s Hill, letting himself stay in that comfortable mindset of being slightly stepped back. Relaxed, open, cheerfully so. Feeling safe. Comfortable. And he realized then how very different this ‘stepping aside’ was to the numbness of dissociation. They were two different things.
“What are you humming?” Paul asked as they walked up past the mine. “You were whistling that tune in the bathroom this morning, it isn’t one I recognise.”
He’d been doing it without thinking; Dale pulled his mind back to Paul and what he was absently singing to himself, still slightly giddy with how good it felt.
“Four and twenty ponies.”
Paul gave him a look of interest – Paul was always interested in this kind of thing – and Dale dug his hands into his pockets, keeping pace with him up the overgrown train track.
“Something I learned at school, it’s a British folk song.”
“What’s it about?”
“Smuggling.” Dale gave Paul a quick smile. “Finding out about the bootleggers brought it to mind I suppose, it’s based on Kipling’s poem, The Smuggler’s Song. Four and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark – it’s someone talking to a little girl at a child’s level about their secret of the ‘gentlemen’ in their village, the smugglers, and how to quietly look the other way when they pass, to keep the village secret.”
“Do you remember the words?”
“Four and twenty ponies trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk,
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy
Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by.”
Dale paused, thinking through the verses he knew. “The child’s family are involved, her father or brothers are with the smugglers. Goods hidden in their garden, their stable used. There’s a verse about if she hears knocks and whistles outside the house after dark to take no notice unless the family dogs bark – and they don’t bark, and you know what the child doesn’t, that it’s her family members outside.”
“It sounds spooky.”
“It’s quite sweet. Just mild instructions to a child to make sure she doesn’t innocently give the game away. To most people outside the police, the smugglers were often doing a much appreciated job in the village, there was a lot of discreet co operation. I’d think the bootleggers were seen much the same way here in the town.”
The hill was steeper here. Dale paused, turning to look down into the valley and the town with solid enjoyment of the puzzle laid out in front of him.
“Right. I know the Silver Bullet’s approximate tonnage. There will be a lot of variables. Weather affecting traction, variable loads, her speed, but I can make a general estimate along with the gradient of the hill. Which is relatively simple, change in height compared to change in horizontal distance, it’s third form maths. We have an average stride of 2.5 feet, and we’re following the track, we need to walk until we reach the plateau.”
That took a while. Paul was out of breath by the time they climbed the steepest part of the track approaching the woods, and he paused, looking again behind them.
“This has to be the sharpest gradient. In fact I can see easily why a train sometimes failed to make it first time.”
“She’d have had a sandbox to spray sand to improve rail adhesion in bad conditions,” Dale was still walking ahead of him. “The behaviour of which would be affected by forces of the wheel and rail in contact together, the pressure causes a minute distortion of both at the instant of contact, the wheel doesn’t advance as far under traction as you’d expect under rolling contact – there’s an equation for the distortion and slippage – so her apparent speed against the gradient in itself wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Plus the wide curve of the track as it comes up the hill was an attempt to reduce the gradient a little further, it makes the climb slightly shallower and improves tractive effort.”
He paused and dug a heel hard into the grass, chunking out a divot to mark the spot.
“This is the beginning of the plateau. The train is effectively climbing the wall of a basin, and it’s just over three quarters of a mile from the station. 3962 feet. The climb is the half mile up the wall of the valley, a horizontal rise of perhaps 200 feet. So we’re looking at a total gradient of 19%. 1 foot in height gained on average every 19 feet. However the steepest part of the gradient looks nearer 1 foot in height gained in around 12 feet, and they would have calculated by the very steepest section. To make that run up the hill, they’d have fired her up as strongly as possible in the station and got up a full head of steam. They may even have backed her up to gain speed before they reached the steepest stretch. They would run her at the hill fast and hard, but probably not so fast and hard in dark, wet weather when the track was less adhesive, and whatever her speed at the foot of the hill, she would have lost a lot of her speed as the engine reached the steepest point- ”
He walked back down the track some way, passing Paul, surveyed the hill for a while, then dug out a second divot.
“- which is approximately here. Therefore, if I wanted to ensure that she lost so much speed she slowed to a halt, I would put a distraction to the driver aroundhere.”
He walked a little further and dug out a third divot.
“If the train braked around here, if it lost speed at this point before reaching the steepest section, they wouldn’t have enough speed left to compensate for the inevitable slowing down on the rest of the climb. So she would be going most slowly up this stretch here, and I’d guess it would be around this area where she would finally slow to the point of stopping.”
Dale turned his back to the track and Paul followed his gaze to the stretch of woodland now not twenty feet from them and the cheerfully ironic nod.
“Which is rather conveniently close to the woods, don’t you think?”
~ * ~
Capyright Rolf and Ranger 2015