It was still pitch dark. Mason blinked, struggling up out of a deep sleep and pushed the covers away from his face, sleepy and confused. It was Jasper’s low voice, Jasper’s hand was grasping his shoulder and it squeezed. The man was fully dressed in jeans and a dark sweater, his smooth hair was tied back and his tone was gentle.
“Get dressed, we’re headed out.”
“Whah...?” Mason took the t shirt Jasper handed him, still half asleep, sat up and ran his hand over his eyes to clear them. The house was silent, it was the middle of the night. “What’s happening? What the hell time do you call this?”
“It’s a quarter past four. We’re going out on a hike.”
Five back packs stood by the kitchen door, which was closed at this early hour of the morning when it was still crisply cold outside, and only one of the kitchen counter lights was on, giving a single and muted light. Paul was sitting at the table, shaved, dressed in a dark blue, roll necked sweater over his jeans, and drinking tea. The table very unusually for the morning wasn’t set ready for breakfast, and he glanced up and held out a hand palm up as Dale came into the kitchen.
“Good morning. Flynn’s dressing, I said he didn’t need to get up but he didn’t see it that way.”
Dressed as far as his waist and awkward about coming to ask for clothes while half dressed, Dale went to him and Paul grasped his hand and pulled Dale down into his lap, wrapping an arm around his hips and passing him the mug of tea. It shook you straight out of any mindset you’d managed to get your head around since waking; sitting on the knee of a man you loved, who did it as if you weren’t more or less the same height and as if he wanted you there. For lack of a coherent way to respond, Dale accepted the mug and took a cautious sip to figure out the temperature, then a deeper swallow. It was strong, with milk, strongly flavoured, and it tasted of morning. He was very much a morning person, Paul. In the summer Dale had often known him get up early to read or to write in the hours before the rest of them woke; he loved the quiet time to himself in his kitchen.
“How did you sleep?” Paul asked him. “Any more bad dreams?”
“Not last night.”
“Good.” Paul put a hand up to take his chin, turning him around to look directly in his eyes. “How are you doing this morning?”
I have no idea.
As grateful for the understanding in his tone as much as his concern and not keen to extend this line of conversation, Dale twisted around to fold his arms around Paul’s neck to give him a hug that Paul held on to, so that for several minutes they sat there together, Dale strongly aware of the warmth of Paul’s body against his, the feel of his sweater against his face and the faint familiar laundry scent of it mixed with Paul’s aftershave, and Paul’s arms around him, not just draped but holding him tightly. The house was very peaceful in the darkness.
Jasper came into the kitchen, and put a hand on Paul’s shoulder on his way past to put his boots on.
“Good morning. Luath and Mason are on their way down. Are you two all set?”
“We’re ready and waiting.” Paul leaned back in his chair to take Dale’s bandaged hand, unwrapping the dressing and looking for a moment at the closed cut beneath.
“That’s healing nicely. We’ll keep it covered for another day. What are your bruises like hon? Anything sore?”
Dale shrugged, looking dispassionately at the blue marks under his forearm as Paul re wrapped the bandage over his palm, aware of Jasper straightening up to look too.
“Feet a bit. Flynn looked this morning and said to put a second pair of socks on. They’re ok.”
“Mmn. Do not do that again.” Paul let him go with a mild swat on the hip. “Get yourself one of the thick fleece jacket and one of the waterproofs too.”
“Could I have a shirt please?” Dale spread his hands, raising his eyebrows at Paul. “Unless you’d rather I went like this?”
“Well the view’s nice from my point of view but frost bite might be an issue.” Paul gave him a swift, intimate smile and collected a t shirt and a cable knit sweater that were folded and waiting on the counter, tucking the sweater under his arm to help Dale into the t shirt before he unfolded the sweater and pulled it over Dale’s head. Once released, Dale stuffed the tail of the shirt into his jeans and stooped to find his boots as Mason came into the kitchen, looking rumpled and confused and mostly asleep. Luath followed him in, dressed in a heavy sweater that made him look even bigger at the chest, and put both hands on Mason’s shoulders.
“Get your boots on, son. Jas, are you planning to take one of the dogs?”
“Tam. Dale, got a watch on?”
“Yes?” Dale turned up his wrist and Jasper held out his hand.
“Take it off. Mason, give me yours too.”
“What’s the point of confiscating my damn watch?” Mason said bitterly.
Dale unstrapped his and put it into Jasper’s outstretched palm, a little shaken himself as Luath gave him a wry look of understand and flashed a bare wrist at him.
“Oh he let me know the drill already, I’m watchless too.”
“We’re not going to need them.” Jasper said, waiting for Mason to hand over his. “Dale, pick up some knives for us?”
“Do you guys often do these random, middle of the night expeditions?” Mason demanded, reluctantly surrendering his watch to Jasper. Dale took a Stetson down from the hook to pull it on, and heard Paul’s voice answer as he let himself out into the dark yard, shutting the door behind him.
“Sometimes when a client’s having a hard time, yes.”
“Hey, I’m doing fine thank you.”
Dale took five of the multi blade penknives they all carried with them on a daily basis and which lived in the tray in the stables when not in use, taking a moment to check the torch beam on each. He heard the kitchen door open and close across the yard, and wasn’t surprised by Flynn’s hand on his shoulder. Flynn was dressed but still unshaven just as he’d been an hour ago in bed, when they’d taken their time taking leave of each other before anyone else woke. Flynn turned Dale to face him, grasping his hips, and Dale dropped the knives into his pocket and put his hands up to hold Flynn’s face. Flynn nipped at his nearest palm, his eyes on Dale, and nudged the door shut with one booted foot.
When two minutes later they heard the kitchen door open, Dale led the way into the yard, his lips tingling, his jaw faintly whisker burned, and the ghost sensations of an hour ago very successfully reawakened throughout his body, which didn’t make walking anywhere easy for a moment or two. Flynn wasn’t a man of many words when he meant something the most. Riley’s window was dark above the yard, and Riley had been still asleep when Dale slipped into his room on his way downstairs, although he’d stirred long enough to mutter something that might have been either goodbye or get off, depending on how charitable you were feeling. Amused, Dale had scribbled him a brief note and left it on his nightstand for him to find.
Jasper was carrying two of the backpacks and Dale took one from him, pulling the knives from his pocket to hand them out. Full water bottles swung from the packs, each of which was topped with one of the rolled sleep mats and sleeping bags from the set that was kept ready to go in one of the barn outbuildings, wrapped in a sheet of the heavy plastic they used for all kinds of things, from tarpaulins over hay or machinery to ground sheets. Pausing to check the straps on his pack, Dale caught sight of his own boots. Scuffed, dusty, comfortably worn and lived-in boots that spoke of working like this every day, that went along with how his fingers automatically knew to tighten and yank straps and check the top on his water bottle. It was a world away from the blackberry and briefcases he used to be just as skilled with, and it was good, in the same way as the last remnants of the scent of Flynn’s hair and the sensations of Flynn’s fingers that still lingered on his ribs, and the way his breath steamed in front of him in the dark yard. He shrugged the pack up on his shoulders and Jasper helped Mason to settle his, Mason scowling under the brim of his hat.
“This thing weighs a damned ton.”
“You’ll get used to it in a bit.” Paul said, fastening the waist belt of his own pack. Mason grunted in a way that suggested Paul was less than credible. Five of them in the shadows of the yard with jackets, Stetsons and backpacks, and Flynn in a sweater, bareheaded, stood with his shoulder blocked against Jasper’s, although they hadn’t said a word to each other. His hand found Dale’s in the darkness and gripped it, his fingers and strong and familiar, then Jasper whistled to the dogs, indicating to Tam who stopped leaning against his knee and bolted joyfully towards the open gate of the home pasture. And they walked out after her and left Flynn standing in the dark by the barn.
It was hard to be without a watch. Dale found himself wrestling with an odd compulsion to know the time, when he was well aware that had he been wearing a watch he wouldn’t have thought to check it until he had reason. Without it, there was a curiously anxious sensation of being adrift. He found himself assessing the horizon and the light and making calculations about the last moment he’d seen a clock this morning, and then firmly made himself stop. There was no reason to need a watch. And it was peculiar to find how reliant he was on having one, like a portable safety blanket. You are here. This is what the day is doing.
For the first twenty minutes they walked in total darkness, through a world that was cool and very still. The sky was a deep charcoal grey and clouded overhead, the pasture was silent at this hour when nothing else was fully awake, their boots swished in the wet grass as they walked, and they heard an owl hoot once from the aspen woods to the east of them. They were heading south west. Dale, knowing this pasture well, knew how far south it ran – miles - and the wide expanse of land that lay south and south west of the house, some of the wildest land on the ranch. It lay all around them, wide open land with no one in it but them. They walked in silence, a steady pace that Jasper and Paul set which was brisk enough to be satisfying, and the first grey light was starting to appear in the sky when Mason paused, panting.
“What is this, a frigging speed race? Slow down! It’s freezing out here.”
It was still too dark to make out who was who except by their outline, but Dale heard Jasper’s voice answer from a few feet away.
“At this pace you’ll soon warm up.”
“I haven’t even had any friggen’ breakfast, man. Who can do this crap on an empty stomach?”
“You’ve got granola and trail mix in your pack. Side pocket.” Paul said from beside Dale. “Just eat when you’re hungry, that’s what we’ll do while we’re out here.”
“Yeah start a freezing cold day with granola. Fine.” Mason dug in his pack and when he spoke again it was with a full mouth. “This sucks.”
They walked. The silence and fresh air and the stillness around them reached into Dale and drew up a stillness within him that was as peaceful as the mist rising around their feet from the wet grass. It was hypnotic. By degrees they began to be able to see a few feet further in grey misty shapes, and to see each other. The grass began to appear in the mist for a few hundred feet around them, and then as the light slowly strengthened and the mist began to lift, they could see first the woods in the distance, and then to the horizon where the mountains were gradually and greyly emerging. They were far enough out by now that there was no sign of the ranch or stock or anything at all but open land, all around them for as far as the eye could see. An open wilderness without fences, without sight of anything man made. The grass grew rougher out here, and got rougher the further south they went, becoming scrub more than pasture; this was the wildest land of the ranch, away from the lusher nursery pastures the horses roamed in the west, or the stock ground that ran east and north east. The ground was dotted with the blue and white first flowers of spring, laid out ahead of them like a carpet, perfuming the air in the very early morning along with the smell of the wet ground. They walked on, heading south, and Dale watched Luath, the collar of his jacket turned up, his gloved hands grasping the straps of his rucksack, walking steadily a few paces ahead of him, near Jasper. Paul, his eyes on the emerging Teton mountains starting to clarify on the horizon beyond them, snow capped and slightly red tinted. Jasper, moving easily in a rhythmic stride Dale found himself drawn into keeping time with. And Mason, sweating, his movements jerky, keeping his distance which expressed very clearly what he thought of them right now.
“What’s wrong with riding?” he said sharply after a while. “You’ve got horses, you don’t have to slog over ground like this.”
“Even being on a horse distances you a little. Sometimes we like to be the ones doing the walking.” Paul said easily. “I get used to how beautiful it is out here until I’m moving slowly and taking the time to look.”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s about a five day route.” Jasper said, slowing his pace slightly to walk beside Mason.
“Five days? We’re going to be out here five days?” Mason’s voice rose in alarm and Paul put a hand out to squeeze his shoulder.
“It’s ok, it’s not like we had any other plans. You might as well get the full experience of the ranch, it’s a beautiful place and you could use the relaxation.”
“What’s remotely relaxing about this?” Mason said furiously. “Five days? Five frigging days? Are there cabins or something out here? You got a map?”
“Why would we need a map, we live here?” Paul said cheerfully. “No, no cabins. We’ll camp, that’s what we usually do.”
“And eat what?”
“You’ve got rations in your pack, we all have.”
“Granola? We’re seriously going to be out five days on granola? Are you kidding me?”
“We take trail rations, too heavy to carry much more when we go real distances. It’s enough to keep you going, it stays dry and it’s easy to carry.”
“No, I can’t do this!” Mason halted and yanked his rucksack off his shoulders, hurling it down on the grass. “I’m not a boy scout, I’m not geared up for this, I can’t do it.”
“We’ll teach you.” Paul paused beside him, waiting. Luath calmly came to a halt beside Jasper and they turned back, a small circle of them standing with Mason who shook his head, red faced and sweating.
“No, I don’t want any of this crap, I’m done. I’ll do the yard work, I’ll fix the frigging fences, whatever, but I’m not doing this.”
“We’re not going back.” Jasper said gently. “You don’t get to choose which parts of our day you want to join in with. You’ll be ok Mason, we’ll help you and you’ll be able to handle it.”
“Yeah, screw you.” Mason sat down on his rucksack, giving Jasper a bitter look. “I’m not doing this.”
Paul met Dale’s eyes and gave him a quick smile as he shrugged his pack off, putting it down on the grass and taking a seat on it.
“Look over there.”
A few, very low level clouds were bright gold near the horizon behind the woods, standing out against a grey sky. The first signs of the sun, as yet not quite in sight. Luath and Jasper dropped their packs and Dale did the same, following their example of just settling down with Mason. Not too close; they spread out around him, not excluding him but not watching him either, and Luath stretched his legs out in front of him, leaned back against his pack and dug in one of the pockets, pulling out a handful of something he began to munch through, his eyes on the red streaked sky to the east.
“What, we’re just going to sit here?” Mason demanded. Jasper took a seat on the grass, giving him an easy shrug.
“I guess so.”
“Ok, I have anger problems.” Mason said after a while. “I have anger problems, all right?”
Dale, watching the first red crescent of the sun start to emerge slowly over the woods in the far distance, didn’t look round but listened for Jasper’s response. There wasn’t one, and after a moment Mason said more loudly,
“Look, I said, I have anger problems. I know I do, I did a programme on it.”
“It doesn’t sound like you found it helped much?” Jasper asked mildly. Mason hissed through his teeth and Dale watched him shove to his feet and stalk a few feet away in frustration.
“I said, I have anger problems.”
He expected the phrase to have an effect. Dale had heard similar phrases used by similar men as a kind of half assed apology that meant not saying sorry at all but was actually both an excuse and a demand for clemency. It wouldn’t fly with Flynn for thirty seconds; in this household behaviour got called what it was, and there weren’t the excuses for it you all too often heard around an office. ‘I’m tired’. ‘I’ve got a hot temper’. ‘I speak my mind’. ‘I’m not tactful’. They all essentially meant the same thing. I did something I know was unacceptable, but I don’t plan on taking responsibility for it. It was the Russell Conjugation again, where perception was everything and you justified in yourself what you’d condemn in a stranger: ‘I am plain spoken. You are aggressive. He should be arrested for disturbance of the peace.’
“I need help with it.” Mason snarled at Jasper, coming back. “I’ve admitted it, ok? I need help. I need help to manage my anger.”
“What help would you like?” Jasper asked him.
Mason gave him a sour look, dropping back on his rucksack. His shoulders were hunched, his jaw tight in a scowl, and Dale, watching him, had a fair idea of how Mason would have been to work with on a project or to deal with across a board room table. He’d have a reputation as a go getter. A bulldozer, leaving blunt force trauma in his wake and not caring. He’d work largely by bludgeoning, by force of personality and by aggression, and he’d go after people until he beat them down. A corporate bulldog, the biggest and the toughest in the pack with the loudest bark, but not the brains, the subtlety or the speed for the real fights.
“You’re the frigging experts, aren’t you?” Mason said sourly. “You tell me.”
“What would you like to be different?” Jasper crossed his legs on the grass, his elbows on his knees as if they could sit here in the half light of this wet, open valley all day. Mason glared at him.
“To not get angry, manage it right, whatever.”
Jasper shook his head.
“Bullshit. If you believe you’re a jerk with anger problems then you’re going to be that jerk. That’s what you’ll do to prove yourself right. I don’t think you’re a jerk.”
“Why are you friggen’ doing this to me?” Mason demanded. “I didn’t do anything wrong, I don’t deserve to get treated like this, you were all over me yesterday about demotion and all the rest of it!”
“You get the length of rope you show us you can handle. Not because we’re mad at you, but because that’s what you can currently do well with.” Jasper watched him, his voice gentle. “Sometimes you have to go back to go forward.”
“I was doing fine going forward or whatever crap you want to call it.” Mason’s voice rose, angry and energetic in a way Dale recognised. “What planet is this where you don’t get a second chance for crying out loud? It’s not ok to have one off day or make one mistake, you don’t even try to reframe your expectations-”
“They’re not negotiable.” Jasper said simply. “It’s ok to have off days. How can you come from years of poor choices and straight off make all good choices here? But there’s always a cost to poor choices. You won’t find that privileges just come because you’ve been here the right number of days, it isn’t our job to make you ready for them. You have to earn them and you have to work to keep them. You need to plan what you’re going to do about it.”
Mason’s reply was short and indicated a desire for Jasper to do something anatomically unlikely.
We don’t usually give them explanations or reasons for what we ask them to do. We don’t give them much information about what’s coming up, even about what we’ll be doing this evening or tomorrow. Flynn had explained a long time ago. We’re dealing with guys who are used to having total control over their environment; the way they react when the control’s taken away shows us where their problems are. It’s their issues in microcosm. And this kind of conflict gets stuff up and talked about, hard physical work and physical discomfort brings the emotional barriers down; it isn’t easy to get a man to really open up. They start to move to a place where they can figure some stuff out for themselves and accept help to make sense of it.
“Ever done one of these hikes before?” Luath asked, and Dale glanced up at him. Luath was chewing on what looked like jerky. For a big guy he looked surprisingly at home half reclined on the grass, his ankles crossed, and it was a question with a subtext of are you all right? that wasn’t nearly as casual as it sounded. Like the way he’d put a hand out and rub your back, there was a connection in it that reached straight past the whole concept of personal boundaries, the same way Flynn and the others did, that said you’re one of ours. Paul, settling down on his back with his knees up and his head on his rucksack, gave Dale quick smile that held a lot of affection.
“He came to us so exhausted that hiking was the last thing he needed.”
“I’d have been delighted to hike all you wanted,” Dale met Luath’s dark and very kind eyes with an effort, aware it was harder than usual in the same way that sometimes talking to Paul’s eyes could be difficult. Not because you said anything different but because you were trying to let yourself say it at a whole other level, where it wasn’t just polite social chit chat in the same way Luath’s concern wasn’t just superficial courtesy. It wasn’t so long ago that even being politely conversational with wider members of the family had been hard going. “I was used to running miles on a treadmill every chance I got, it was a great way of blocking everything out.”
“Tough customers, CEOs.” Luath tipped his head back to watch the long fingers of gold light visible through the grey of the trees. “I’m always aware when I come back here how used I am to comfort. Everything easy, everything at my fingertips, everything comfortable, choices in everything, you know? I can eat pretty much whatever I want whenever I want it. I can have a drink in a few seconds at any temperature I want it. I can easily be warmer or cooler or drier the moment I’m uncomfortable, I can send information out and get it back in seconds. And it’s scary how used I am to having my world that easy, it doesn’t take a lot of resources from me at all. But if you’ve worked up to exec level in serious business, the high level stuff, then you have pushed through immense discomfort. You’ll have worked all hours whether you’re tired or sick or no matter what your other commitments or pressures. You’ll have fought hard, against the competition and against the work you’re trying to do, you’ll have fought for every personal victory you have and you’ll have dealt with stress, politics, the shouting, the criticism, the fighting, the back stabbing, the back biting – talk about discomfort, you’ve got to be hard as nails to survive through it. Tough. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Anyone else would give up. You’re talking about some of the toughest fighters of this age.”
“Exceptional people do exceptional things.” Paul said comfortably. “Flynn always says it.”
“Very much so.” Luath agreed. “I came up the ranks through a bit of a cushier route, I know it. But I’ve done most of that myself, and I still come back here and it’s a shock to find despite all of it, despite thinking I’m pretty hard, just how easy I’m used to having my life. How soft I am in some ways and what I’m reliant on.”
“Is it driving you mad not having a watch?” Dale asked him, and Luath glanced over, eyes lighting up in a smile.
Mason was listening to them. Looking at the grass, his hands clasped in front of him, but he was listening. Paul shifted a little on the grass to get comfortable, tipping his head back.
“Look at the clouds over there.”
They were large this morning in a half lit sky gradually gaining colour. Paul reached over for Dale’s hand.
Dale went where Paul drew him and lay back on the grass beside him, his shoulders flat against the rough grass, and pulled his Stetson off to look up at the sky. Shoulder against his, Paul pointed up and left, indicating a formation gradually changing shape.
“That looks like a ship. Mast and sails.”
“They’re cirrus clouds.” Dale put a hand under his head, the information coming to mind without effort. “On average there’s 30 ice crystals per litre of cloud, and five most frequently consistent shapes to the ice crystals, and they segregate by type, with column shaped crystals near the top of the cloud and rosette shaped crystals near the bottom. You wouldn’t think a cloud would naturally be that organised, it’s always fascinated me.”
“Yes, but what does it look like?” Paul felt for his hand, linked his fingers through Dale’s and pointed at another one. “What about that one?”
It’s a cloud. It’s a cirrus cloud, it’s likely to indicate relatively good weather conditions for the next few hours, it’s approximately four kilometres above us bearing in mind we’re probably near to 6000 feet above sea level here......
“What do you think?” Paul tugged again on his hand, gently but persistently.
“It’s a cloud?” Dale said dryly enough to make it sound like a joke rather than anything more embarrassing like I don’t know. Paul didn’t let his hand go.
“I’m right here. Have a try.”
Given a set of visual illusion pictures, particularly colour and geometric ones he could see straight past them every time, and the Stroop effect had little effect on him; he’d attended a maths class somewhere around the fourth form which had studied it......
“You really like clouds.” Dale said for want of something better to say than please shut up. Paul smiled.
“Those that morph into funny shapes, yes. It's relaxing, looking at the sky and seeing what develops.”
“Have you camped out this way often?”
Paul nodded slowly, relaxing back on the grass, thankfully following his lead.“A couple of times that I can remember, yes.”
“Who did you usually come with?”
“Numerous people. I followed Jasper out here once.”
“Followed?” In spite of himself, Dale asked that with real curiosity.
Paul smiled. “Yes, I stalked him.”
“Yeah, you did that a lot.” Luath said dryly, and Jasper, a few feet away, grinned.
“It was before he’d move into the house with us,” Paul went on, taking no notice of them, “And it was going to storm, the forecast was terrible, so I followed him with some supplies. It took a while to track him down, but once I caught up with him he let me stay, mostly I think because he wasn’t sure I’d make it on my own in the weather conditions. Jas taught me how to camp.”
Dale gave him a quick smile, and Paul returned it, nodding towards the sky.
“What do you see in that cloud up there?”
Dale withdrew his fingers from Paul’s, and sat up. Mason was still scowling at his boots. Jasper was winding grass around his fingers, his eyes on the sky above the trees. Luath had closed his eyes, face turned up to the sun. Paul tapped his back.
“No, I’m not going to politely shut up and go away. I think you’d rather not talk about this because yesterday was a very hard day, and this runs the risk of getting a little too close to the same way the bubbles made you feel.”
He said it very gently, it was only the tone that made it at all bearable, but it still felt like being punched in the stomach.
“I know it's hard.” Paul said after a moment. “But as far as you came yesterday, I'm not letting you take a step back.”
“It’s a cloud. That’s pretty much all.”
Not entirely the truth, and Paul knew it as well as he did. Dale resisted the urge to get up and walk away; an action that would have been as rude as it was childish, and forced himself to think instead.
You’re frustrated because he won’t leave it alone, and he won’t leave it alone because he knows you’re screwing around instead of saying you can’t do it, and what you actually mean is you don’t want to. Talk, Aden. Words. Try explaining it.
“......Yesterday was not fun.” he said very shortly, mostly to the woods. Paul’s fingers tapped again, and Dale knew what he meant.
Voluntarily sticking your hand in a mincer. Damnit Damnit Damnit.
He turned far enough to look at Paul, to meet his eyes, which were anything but uncaring, or provoking, or obsessed with clouds. It wasn’t possible to look at him and avoid feeling.
“I’d rather not feel that way again.”
“I can understand that; I wouldn’t either.” Paul said quietly. “But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away, hon. What makes it go away is letting yourself feel it.”
Damn that too.
The sun was now half visible above the trees, red gold, and a wall of hazy golden light was creeping steadily across the cool, grey shadowed ground towards them. Mason was watching it, his attention entirely distracted. The sky was visibly changing colour by the second from red to golden, the quality of light was changing, what had been mist was becoming all colours of light, hanging in the air over the open wilderness all around them. Visibly, inexorably, the wall of light came closer, inch by inch, until it reached them and Dale blinked on the wave of light, the change of temperature that came with it, and in seconds it travelled over them and moved on, growing in strength and brightness. It was seeing the world visibly change before you; the transition from dark to light, from cool to warmth, the newness of the day – a daily miracle, and it was an emotional experience. There was no other word for it. He’d seen no few sunrises since he first came to the ranch but it never lost its impact.
They sat in silence for some minutes as the thin sunlight grew stronger and brighter and the haze of golden light hovered over the ground. Then Mason glared at Jasper, his voice rough.
“You’re going to sit here until I move, aren’t you?”
Jasper gave him a nod. “Yes.”
“And you’ll wait three weeks if you have to, you’re a bastard. I know. Ok, let’s go.”
He got up, grabbed up his rucksack, and Luath stretched his shoulders and got up too, holding out a hand to help Paul to his feet.
“Wandering around the damn place can’t be any worse than sitting here,” Mason said not quite under his breath, heaving his rucksack up onto his shoulders. Jasper helped him get it balanced, then nodded him at the ground.
“Find a rock.”
“About palm sized.”
Mason glared at him speechlessly. Dale, shrugging his pack into place and clipping the harness, stood with the others until Mason swore and scanned the ground, snatching a rock up at random.
“And another one.” Jasper said calmly. Mason growled and grabbed a second, and Jasper nodded.
“They’ll do. Put them in your pockets. You know the rules about swearing and saying hurtful and disrespectful things, you can feel the weight of those words.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me?” Mason demanded. “Rocks? You want me to carry rocks? What is this, an exec prison programme? Camp fires and rock breaking?”
Paul caught Dale’s eye and smiled, following Luath’s lead on across the open land. Mason followed them, still ranting at Jasper.
“Let him get it out.” Paul said quietly to Dale, keeping pace with him and lowering his voice out of Jasper and Mason’s earshot. “You did this too, it’s ok. We let you get yourself upset, we let you get frustrated, we didn’t let you distract yourself away from feeling it, and you started figuring things out.”
And I shut Mason down when he annoys me too personally, like the two occasions he’s tried going for Riley.
Dale swallowed, realising Paul’s reason for the gentle warning as he discovered that his shoulders were hunched in irritation at what Mason was currently hurling at Jasper.
“...Sorry. Biting his head off at dinner last night wasn’t the most helpful thing I could have done.”
Or the time you told him off in the yard and he spent the rest of the day and half the night in battle with Jas. Great, Aden. Any time you do anything involving people, you just trail chaos and destruction in your wake.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with what you said to him last night, or the way you said it.” Paul said candidly. “I thought it was well timed. We won’t let him cross the line, but right now this is real emotion he’s having trouble laughing off or turning into a joke, and he needs to feel it long enough to start thinking about what it’s telling him. Distract yourself, talk to me, let him yell himself out. Jas is letting most of this go past him.”
You are not an impulsive kid who can just open his mouth and snap when you’re personally irritated, Aden. Dale kept his eyes on the grass, angry with himself and hotly ashamed to find how true it was. You’d never do this at work, you’d never be so stupid in handling a corporate client or team. Just because you’re here without so much of the sole responsibility does not make it ok to abnegate all responsibility and dive after the first urge that occurs to you, pull yourself together. If you were less self obsessed, you’d have noticed some of this.
They walked, and walked, and walked. The walking helped, in the fact that it was regulating; the rhythm, the physical effort was something to get lost in. Surprisingly, Mason attacked the hike like a personal insult. He was breathless, sweating, and obviously tired, but periods of silent, angry, rapid walking where he was clearly simmering up, were punctuated by another burst of ranting and invective, and he was pushing their pace, as if the speed was fuelling his temper. He was carrying seven rocks by Dale’s calculation by the time the lowering sun indicated mid afternoon, he’d argued each one just as bitterly while he shoved it into his now crowded pockets, and he stalked onwards still complaining. Little of it demanded an answer. Luath, walking stoically with his hands grasping the straps of his back pack, kept his eyes on the horizon and Dale got the impression he needed his breath for walking and was mostly occupied with his own thoughts. Paul, who smiled whenever he caught Dale’s eye, was walking with the slightly inward expression that Dale knew meant he was mentally going over plots while he watched the scenery around them. Jasper, walking with Mason, was listening with patient attention, but Mason’s bargaining and demanding and bitter complaints about Wyoming and ranches and the stupidity of hiking in general, were mostly a monologue without pauses for reciprocation. It was amazing the man hadn’t yet lost his voice; most of it was loud with some of it yelled, and if Mason realised the futility of shouting at the pasture and open sky, he hadn’t shown signs of it.
He had come to the end of another long outburst and they were in a period of sullen silence when Dale heard the rush of water ahead of them, and Jasper walked with him to the banks of one of the many shallow, fast running creeks that came down through their land to join the river. The banks were wide and rocky and scattered with the sage brush that grew freely. Jasper unclipped the harness of his back pack and put it down.
“This looks like a good place to camp.”
“Good timing for more water, my bottle’s just about empty.” Luath dumped his pack beside Jasper’s with a sigh of relief at stopping, and Dale watched him take the bottle to the water’s edge and crouch to fill it.
“You’re just going to drink from the damn stream?” Mason demanded. “Is that even sanitary?”
“It is with iodine tablets.” Luath said matter of factly. “There’s some in your pack, take a look.”
Mason unclipped his pack and dropped it, and stooped, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. The man must have been exhausted, he was scarlet in the face and they’d walked without a break since sunrise. Paul, crouching by his pack to open it and rummage through, was by contrast not breathless nor apparently at all tired, and Dale found himself watching him, aware that while Paul joked about being the least fit of the five of them at home, about enjoying cooking and housework and writing above the heavy stuff, he had shown every sign of finding the day no physical trial and of taking pleasure in the land around him, irrespective of Mason’s ranting. He was handling camping kit on scrub grass as practically and easily as he handled pans in the kitchen at home.
“Mason, Dale, change your socks and t shirts and let the ones you’re wearing dry. Damp, sweaty clothes cool you down and it’ll be cold out here in a few hours.”
“We’re camping here. In the middle of nowhere.” Mason straightened up, giving the shale bank and scrub land a look of loathing. “We’re just going to lay down on the damn ground?”
“More or less.” Jasper took the plastic wrapped roll of bedding from the top of his rucksack and unwrapped the plastic, and dug in his rucksack for a rope. “You’ve got plenty of shelter from the plastic if you use it as a bivouac. Come over here and I’ll show you.”
“You’re gonna make a tent out of plastic.” Mason dug his hands on his hips, feet astride, still out of breath. “That’s about enough to cover half of you.”
“You fix it as a wind break or a rain shelter, any way you need it.” Jasper crouched on the grass, fastening the plastic to one of the more sturdy sage bushes so it formed an angled screen, and spread his sleep mat and sleeping bag beneath it.
“You gonna do mine?” Mason demanded, watching him sit down on the sleeping bag. Jasper gave him a tranquil smile and shook his head.
“No, but I’ll help if you need it. Go ahead and have a try.”
Mason stared at him and Dale saw his mouth open, then he apparently decided seven rocks in his pockets were enough and stalked over to his pack, roughly yanking the bed roll free. Bivouacking was something that Dale had done several times with the others, the first time being last summer when they camped out for a week together, and the maths involved in planning the angle of the plastic was basic stuff a first form class would have enjoyed. Dale unwrapped his own bed roll and Paul put a hand on his arm to stop him.
“No, you’re not setting up anywhere on your own, slow down. We’ll handle that in a minute, you sit down and eat. I know you don’t think you’re hungry, but it’s long past time.”
“Considering neither of us have a clue what time it is,” Dale said acidly, “the point surely is to go by body clock and eat if and when hungry?”
Paul simply put his pack down, turned Dale by the elbow and swatted the back of his leg. It was a brisk, purposeful swat that stung and Dale involuntarily yelped, startled, and abruptly very aware of the look Paul was giving him, exactly what it meant, and a definite keenness not to invite another swat.
“Anything else you want to add?” Paul said pointedly and Dale shook his head a little too quickly to be quite dignified.
“Sit down, breathe, eat.” Paul pointed at the ground directly beside him and Dale sat down, pulling his rucksack towards him to un-strap it. It was the first time he’d opened it, and he was slightly surprised by the contents. The fleece pants and sweaters not so much, nor the rope, the several t shirts, pairs of socks and underwear, light aluminium mug and mess tin, but his journal and a pen lay at the bottom of the pack, the bow drill kit he’d made months ago and kept in the barn with the camping things, a small plastic bag containing nothing more than toothpaste, his toothbrush and a small towel, a packet of iodine tablets, and several large Ziploc bags that also filled the side pockets, that held granola, trail mix, tea bags, dry oats, and a wrapped amount of jerky. That was all.
Across the clearing, Jasper was helping Mason figure out how to angle the plastic sheet to offer shelter that would ensure any night rain ran away from his sleeping bag rather than dripped onto it. Luath, on the river bank, had taken off his boots and socks and was soaking his feet. Dale surveyed the granola and the trail mix, and picked the trail mix for preference, pulling out a handful and picking his way through the nuts and raisins. It was an effort to eat and an effort to swallow, not something he particularly wanted to do. When he’d eaten the handful he changed his socks and his t shirt under his sweater, and spread out the damp clothes to dry far enough beneath a bush not to be blown away, and dug in his pack for the rope. Paul got up, taking up his own plastic and rope which he’d laid out ready.
“Here with mine.”
Great. Not commenting, Dale efficiently tied off the sheets side by side, fixing them as one long angled roof they could shelter under if they needed it, and dropped the sleep mat and sleeping bag on the ground beside Paul’s, and Paul shook it out flat and pointed to it.
“Lie down, stay put.”
There were times when it was the littlest, simplest things, sit down, take a rest, eat that, that were the hardest acts of discipline. Sometimes the big stuff was easy in comparison to the moment to moment requests within every day things that said I’ll decide what you need.
Mason was still struggling with the ropes under Jasper’s tuition. Luath was sitting on the bank with his bare feet in the running water. Paul sat down to change his own socks, and Dale unwillingly stretched out on his back on the sleeping bag. They rarely put the mats under shelter unless they actually needed it; right now, he had a clear view to the sky, his shoulders to the earth and the blue above, thankfully with barely a cloud visible.
“That’ll hold.” Jasper said to Mason, checking the last knot. “Good job. Come find a place for a fire with me and you can get one started.”
Their discussion about finding a place for a fire, then finding tinder, went on for a few minutes.
“Don’t you people use matches?” Mason demanded after a while, and Dale knew without looking that Jasper had taken his bow drill set from his rucksack.
“Not always. We make and carry these. Use mine for the moment, when we get nearer woodland you can pick your wood and make your own. Kneel down like this, get yourself stable, keep your front foot firm down on your base board and lock your wrist tight against your leg. See?”
Jasper and Riley had taught him this last summer during the week they spent alone camping out on the ranch land, although it had been to a much slower, much easier pace, with a lot of time spent swimming, talking and exploring. It had taken a while to catch the knack of a bow drill with Riley and Jasper tutoring him, and a day or two before he was able to do it alone, but there was something uniquely satisfying in having that independent secret of fire starting, the primeval gift of man, as well as a skill learned, and Dale heard Mason’s voice lifted out of its sullenness after a few minutes.
“Speed up a little now. Long, steady strokes,” Jasper prompted him, and Dale heard him talk Mason through gathering up the little smoking coal, adding it to the dried brush and cupping the whole in his hands, blowing very lightly to coax the smouldering into flame. That was the hardest part, and it took a moment or two and some help from Jasper before the handful of brush showed the first, thin flame and Mason actually laughed, for the first time all day. They added the now burning kindling to the fire, coaxed that into lighting the brush and sticks laid ready, and a few minutes later there was the steady crackling and the wood smoke smell of an open fire, along with the fragrance of burning sage brush. Paul filled a tin kettle from his rucksack with water from the stream, wedged a forked stick in between the rocks and suspended the kettle over the fire.
“So what do we do now?” Mason said more cheerfully.
“That depends.” Luath told him. “If you’re Riley, you figure out how to swim in less than a foot of water. If you’re me, you take a nap.”
“Are there fish in this creek?”
“Not in this one.” Jasper told him. “Too fast flowing and too shallow.”
“So we’re stuck eating the dry crap?” from the sound of it Mason was rummaging through his rucksack and all the amusement was gone from his voice. “Seriously? This is it?”
“It’s fine to live on.” Jasper reassured him.
Luath stretched out on his sleeping bag and rested, and it was obvious he was tired although he hadn’t complained. Jasper walked slowly up the bank of the creek, watching the water and periodically stooping to pick up a rock that caught his eye. Mason, apparently appalled that they were seriously going to sit here and do nothing, in a place where there was nothing whatever to do, and disgusted with all of them, zipped his jacket up to his nose, dragged his sleeping bag right under the plastic sheet of his bivouac, and lay down on it, turning his back on them. Paul dug for his own and Dale’s mugs out of their pack, dropped tea bags in them both and took them to the fire, lifting the kettle off with the stick to fill them. Then he held out a mug to Dale, standing and waiting for him, and when Dale got up to take the mug, he put a hand through Dale’s arm and walked him slowly and unhurriedly downstream, away from the camp.
It was a very slow pace, along the bank of the rushing creek, and the tea was disgusting; metallic and weak, a very poor excuse for tea, but it was hot and wet, and Paul said nothing at all, just strolling with him with a hand through his arm, sipping occasionally from his mug. Well out of sight of the others Paul let go of Dale’s arm and took a seat on a rock, cradling his mug between his hands, and Dale crouched to watch the creek rush over the shale bed, clear water in an urgent hurry to make it to the river. Follow the direction of the water and eventually you would reach the river. Follow the river and you would reach the house. If you knew that, it was impossible to ever be lost on this land.
“I’m sorry.” he said to Paul, aware it was in rather a crisp tone of voice which he didn’t mean but which made it easier to force it out. “I’m a bit dysregulated.”
“I bet.” Paul shifted his feet on the stones, resting his elbows on his knees. “I thought you weren’t feeling too good when you got up this morning, but then yesterday must have been sheer hell, and you’ve had Mason being very unhappy in your ear all day.”
If you know you’re dysregulated Aden, then do something about it; pull yourself together and regulate. Breathe. Think. You know how to do this, you don’t require someone to walk you through it.
When you thought in academic terms about it, it was clearer cut. Following Paul’s example and thinking of Jasper’s teaching, Dale crouched down on the shale bank and sat, in contact with the rock, the ground, and took a few slow, deep breaths, aware as he did it that his chest tangibly opened. He hadn’t noticed how shallowly he’d been breathing. Now, taking stock, his forehead and neck were tight, his hands were tight, his stomach was tight, his head was full of noise,
Yeah, you’re stressed as all hell, and Paul knows it, and you don’t. What you really need is a ‘now run maintenance’ or ‘this unit is malfunctioning’ alert.
Shut up Aden.
“Just breathe, honey.” Paul sounded compassionate. “It’s ok.”
“I never used to be this useless.” Dale said irritably. “I could deal with Masons day in and day out, it wasn’t a problem,”
Paul held out a hand to him and Dale took it, gripping it more tightly than he’d meant to. Paul held on just as strongly.
“Look at me.”
“No.” Dale said apologetically but frankly, “Because right now I’m just about holding it together and this is not a good time or place to fall apart, so if you don’t mind-”
Paul smiled but squeezed his hand. “Look at me anyway.”
It should have been easy. Paul’s blue eyes were gentle, soft eyes that had warmth in them that made him look as if he was smiling even when he wasn’t, a spark in the dark blue that was lovely to look at unless they were focused directly on you when you didn’t feel up to it.
“You can do it.” Paul said mildly, as if it was a normal thing to say, “I’m right here.”
You’d have to be made of stone to resist that. Dale met Paul’s gaze, made himself hold it, and as it always did, once that connection was made, emotion surfaced hard, uncontainable, inescapable, because it was Paul, and telling him, communicating this to him made it unbearably real.
“I am making a pure mess with Mason,” Dale told him helplessly, “I shut him down when I don’t like what he’s doing, God knows I’m not good around strong emotion,”
“I don’t agree, you never shut Flynn or Riley down when they’re in mid rant.” Paul pointed out. “Actually, good luck with that. Feel free to try any time.”
Dale shook his head, not in the mood for joking. “Both times it was pure impulse, it was because what he was doing annoyed me, not because it was the right thing to do. I am useless at people, I shouldn’t be allowed near them.”
“What harm are you going to do him?” Paul said matter of factly. “Hmm? What real harm can you do by telling him to quit when he’s being a pain and he knows he is? He’s a tough, educated guy, and you know exactly how to get through to him, I’ve seen you do it twice and he’s lived both times. Those impulses were not wrong.”
“I was ready to shut him up today,”
“And I asked you not to, and you’re very triggered right now, so you feel like you’ve done something wrong and that’s pushed your buttons. Yes.” Paul tugged his hand. “We can’t fix him or tell him off until he gets it. This is the hard part. It’s about letting him be mad and miserable and frustrated until he decides to be something different, and I know it’s hard to watch. Riley finds it hard, and I do too sometimes. I want people to feel better, I want to help, and we live in a dynamic where among ourselves we can step in and we can insist, and it works for us. That isn’t going to work for Mason.”
“I’m walking around,” Dale said with frustration, “With a programme that’s going strong emotion is dangerous, bleep, strong emotion is dangerous- and this is an exec and I know how execs should behave- I’m treating Mason like a damn colleague, aren’t I? I have the same expectations and relationship with him I’d have with a colleague, no personal contact, and I’m the senior control freak and will decide how meetings go thank you.”
Paul laughed, and Dale gave him a look of exasperation, trying not to smile.
“Stop it, it’s not funny.”
“If the four year old has the wheel hon, you probably need to take it away from him.” Paul said mildly. “How much of this really has to do with you being mad at yourself and mad at me because of the whole cloud thing? Honestly?”
“I’m not angry with you.”
“About that? Yes you are.” Paul said just as frankly. “I know it, and the world definitely isn’t going to end if you say it.”
“I never used to be affected by ranting and scenes at work.” Dale said with difficulty. “It didn’t touch me, because it was nothing to do with what I was focused on, it was just another problem to solve. Here....”
“You’re emotionally involved.” Paul said when Dale trailed off. Dale let go a heavy breath that was part exasperation and part wishing this would all just go away.
“I don’t blame you for having an obsession with clouds that I can’t get enthusiastic about.”
“Rubbish.” Paul said simply. “Try letting the person who’s angered by it answer?”
It was only when Paul smiled that Dale realised the ferocity of the glare he’d turned on him, and Paul reached for his hand, grasping it quickly before Dale could get up.
“No, you’re not stomping off. Come for a walk with me, let’s follow this creek. We must be fairly near the wagon trail, Jas knows where it runs across this part of the ranch.”
It was a cold evening, windy, and only the angle of the bank and the shelter of the sage brush protected the fire. Mason, balled up in his jacket under the plastic tarpaulin, didn’t move or speak and ignored them, radiating anger. Dale, the collar of his jacket turned up to shield his neck from the wind, sat at the fire beside Paul, who was cheerfully keeping him close and taking no notice at all of polite hints to back off, and across from Jasper and Luath, watching the flames leap in the twilight, lighting up Jasper’s angular face and his long fingers, and Luath’s strong features and dark eyes. Sad eyes. He was looking into the fire, and Dale, watching him, saw heaviness in every inch of his big shoulders, the way he held himself. A weariness nothing to do with the day’s hiking. He was a strong man, Luath. Powerful in build, heavy with muscle at his neck, in his shoulders and chest, there was a quiet stability to him that Dale had known ever since he first met Luath, but this was the first time that he’d really seen what Flynn was concerned about. It was an expression that reminded him of something he’d never shared with anyone else, the glimpse of Luath standing alone in the dark at the gate when he thought everyone else in the household was asleep, looking blindly out towards Mustang Hill and the tops beyond. Maybe in some way he’d been calling; Dale had no way of knowing, but Jasper said any action done with intent had meaning, and just watching him at the gate Dale had felt the intensity around him. It had been the night he’d walked up Mustang Hill on instinct and with pieces of an idea of what to try, and had found Roger sitting in the clearing.
On instinct, deeply concerned, Dale found himself wanting to do what Riley and Gerry would do, what Darcy would do too come to think of it; the high energy, good natured chatter and distraction that made Luath smile, that he responded so warmly to. Gerry often hugged him, sat close to him, Riley who was effortlessly demonstrative often touched Luath, they knew how to be a friend to him in a way that Dale knew he could remember enough about to imitate. Be the kind of brat that would help, that would distract him, it was something only they could do. Except that didn’t seem to be the type of person Roger had been. And like the weight of Mason’s radiated bitter anger, it was about an impulsive want to fix. To make it stop, to put it away.
I’ve been doing it for years, it solves nothing.
It was what Paul had said to him earlier, about allowing someone to feel. That you could love someone simply by being there with them, which seemed a ridiculous idea in the abstract but Dale found himself thinking of the appalling ten minutes of yesterday on the porch, with Paul saying nothing at all but sitting near him, staying with him, and how that had felt. How it felt right now that Paul wouldn’t let him distance himself, and was perfectly well aware Dale was irritated with him about it. Dale found himself looking at Jasper, the quiet clasp of his hands, the mirroring of Luath’s position, and Paul, his eyes soft as he looked at the fire, making up the circle with the four of them, and it was like being thunked over the head, or a light bulb switching on.
Because I don’t connect, I don’t realise anyone else does. This is not three men sitting in their own heads, oblivious inside themselves. They’re sitting together, Jas and Paul understand this and they’re keeping him company, this is how you support the man. Aden, quit looking for the magic formulas, the complicated answers. Half the time what you want to know is actually in the most basic, concrete things that you don’t understand at all and think are too simple to notice. What did Gerry say? Philip knew the glue that kept a family together, and it was the little things like eating together, hello and goodbye, “we say good morning around here”.
For Pete’s sake Aden, could you be any slower on the uptake if you tried?
But who showed this sort of thing where I came from? Schools don’t work like that, you just go where you’re supposed to go in the herd and you do the job you came for- literature, French, physics, prayers, bedtime, whatever. And what I remember before that –
It was like delicately probing a sore place in your mouth with your tongue; something you were afraid to do but could not resist pushing until you found where it hurt.
It was about quiet. Leaving people alone.
Leaving her alone.
It was still, ridiculously, too painful a thought to let grow.
Why? Why is that? It’s a fact.
Because she did the best she could and it wasn’t her fault. Because I wanted to make everything right for her and I couldn’t.
And the many, many fantasies about the prince on the horse, the man in armour, strong enough, brave enough, who could do anything at all, who could save the princess whatever the danger she lay in, who always rescued her in the end and despite the perils of towers and dragons and dungeons and witches, she was always joyful, thankful, reunited with the person she belonged to and would be happy ever after with.
You know exactly what Flynn would say: Want to think about why you’re twisting yourself into knots about letting yourself think happy ever after now? And why you tell yourself you’ll fail any person you try to help? And logically, if you state it wasn’t her fault, you’re acknowledging that there is blame, so it must lie somewhere.
Shut up. Shut up.
Dale found himself digging his fingers deep into his forearm where they rested, hard enough to seriously hurt, and slightly shocked, made himself let go before anyone noticed. The strength of anger behind those thoughts was alarming.
My God, the way you argue with yourself Aden, it’s no surprise you’re as messed up as you are. Jas said he wouldn’t let you speak to anyone else the way you speak to yourself; admit it, you wouldn’t behave like this towards someone you hated. Few adults would.
When they settled to sleep – with no idea of the time, other than that it was dark and they were tired – they wished the angry huddle of Mason goodnight, and Paul explained to his hunched back about keeping a set of clothes to wear to sleep in, to keep one set always dry. Mason didn’t respond. Changing clothes, leaving packs properly positioned and closed to avoid invasion from snakes or any other unwanted creatures, and leaving boots similarly organised, Dale still didn’t succeed in avoiding Paul placing their sleeping bags directly together, or Paul helpfully holding his sleeping bag steady while he climbed inside, and sliding the zip all the way up before he leaned over to smooth Dale’s hair back and kiss his forehead. It was hard to miss the affection within it, or not to feel like a complete arse for being so petty as to be making it difficult. Dale put a hand up to catch his head and kiss him back, and Paul’s smile said he understood.
“Goodnight hon. Sleep well.”
Lying against Paul’s side, which shared a surprising amount of warmth, Dale zipped his sleeping bag against the cold, lay back with an arm behind his head, and looked up at a sky bright with stars, brighter than you ever saw in a city. Mechanically, he could figure out and name no few of the constellations, it wasn’t difficult to correspond them to pictures he could call to mind, and that was more white noise. More shields against simply experiencing and accepting that feeling came with the experience. Look past the patterns, and they were bright, jewelled lights far away, astoundingly vivid, in an infinite sky above the open, wild land around them. They brought a sharp change in perspective too, laying underneath something so vast, so infinite. Those balls of light were planets far bigger than the one Dale lay on, spinning endlessly in its small corner of just one tiny little galaxy. Stars and planets sending light that had travelled so far over so long that the source of the light may no longer even exist. Stars that had looked down on this land patiently for century after century, while dinosaurs roamed it, while Shoshone people hunted it, while wagons rolled over it carrying hopeful pioneers west, while Three Traders was built on it, while Philip and David lived in the house on the home pastures – it made that overwhelming feeling of difficulty, of everything being a huge, impassable problem, shrink into proportion and be very small when put into its place in the whole.
Far away a coyote called, a high howl and a few yipping barks. The fire, banked down and surrounded by rocks, crackled and spat, and its glow cast shadows over the rocks and the rushing water in the creek beyond. It was a phenomenally peaceful place to be, an amazing place to lie and rest.
The room was so crowded that there was nowhere to stand and warmth radiated from massed bodies damp from the rain and standing on mud slicked wooden floors. The windows were misted with too many people breathing on a damp night, their coats steamed and hats dripped with water. It was difficult to see the men at the front who were talking; children were seated on adult shoulders and it was hard to hear, but suddenly the room erupted in cheering, clapping and cheering and men stamping heavy boots on the floor, and then there was the smash of glass and a door ripped open in the darkness, and a group of men, roughly dressed in dark clothes, looked up from where they sat with wolfish, triumphant grins. And then there was a house or an apartment, something modern with large glass windows that looked out on nowhere in particular but the windows streamed with rain, and none of the light switches worked. Dale walked through the rooms in the gloom, trying several switches before he looked for the fuse box, but there appeared to be no cupboards or even a kitchen or bathroom to this place. Just room after room with a neatly made bed, towels laid on a chair, a clock ticking on the nightstand as if it was waiting and prepared. Room after room prepared and nobody there. And a boy, a beardless boy in a green glowing uniform beneath a tall hat, walked slowly across a hill in the darkness and the rain, beating a silent drum.
And then the stairs again. The stairs at home, familiar and safe, except Dale stood on them, looking up towards the darkness on the landing and something up there was wrong. He gripped the banisters, his heart thudding uncomfortably, knowing he couldn’t go down, and forced himself to walk steadily up on to the landing where there were no doors in sight, where it was dark and damply cold, where a broken window lay at the end of the hallway and the massive grey shapes loomed on either side of him. He went on, through the shapes that grew larger, and higher, his stomach growing colder and heavier in dread of something intangible that was here, unseen, until he heard a faint whirring and hooting sound, and saw a slightly opened door. When he pushed it wider, there was no one and nothing in the room at all but a train set laid out on bare floorboards, and a small, steaming engine pulling four cars slowly around and around the track in circles.
He was shocked by the bang in the hallway behind him. Leaving the small whirring train set, he jogged down the grey landing towards the stairs, following the sound, and at the foot of the stairs, laying face down with its pages crushed as if it had been hurled with all the force someone could muster, lay the Boys Own book with the prince’s picture. Dale stared at it, gripping the banister, confused, and without warning two vicious little hands shoved him hard, low in the back, throwing him head first down the stairs-
“Easy.” Paul’s voice was against his ear and Dale grabbed the arm that was urging him to lay down again. It was dark, the stars were still bright overhead, he could still feel the blow in the small of his back, and he was gulping with shock.
“Come on.” Paul said, tugging until Dale moved with him. “Lay down sweetheart. I’ve got you, you’re just dreaming.”
Just dreaming. Dale lay back and rubbed his eyes, and glanced over to where Luath, propped on one elbow, Jasper, and Mason were all sat up and looking towards him.
“Turn over and go back to sleep.” Paul pulled until he turned on his side, away from the others, and ran a hand up under his clothes to find his back, rubbing slowly and soothingly. “You’re all right. I’ve got you, go back to sleep.”
It rained gently in the early hours. Dale woke to the sound of pattering drops on the plastic sheet above over him and Paul. The stars were no longer visible, the sky was grey and beginning to lighten, and Paul was sound asleep, his face half covered by his sleeping bag, his breathing even, and Dale moved very carefully to avoid disturbing him, drawing the plastic a little further over them to shield Paul more completely. A few feet away, Mason had apparently gotten into his sleeping bag during the night, had his hat pulled low over his face and was a large, huddled up shape tucked right under the bush he was sheltered by, his plastic sheet well anchored above him. Luath slept beneath his own shelter on the other side, and Jasper – Jasper’s sleeping bag was folded well under his shelter, but it was empty.
Dale slid very cautiously out of his sleeping bag, grateful he’d slept in fleece pants and a sweater so that all he needed was his jacket, hat and boots, and he padded across the scrub, well away from the others before he dressed so he didn’t risk disturbing them. His jacket was satisfyingly warm in the half light and the soft rain, the Stetson shielded his face, and Dale pulled his boots on and dug his hands in his pocket, on instinct following the river upstream. Jasper was perhaps half a mile away where the water ran faster and deeper. Dale saw the flash of his skin first in the half gloom of early morning, and walked slowly up the creek, finding Jasper’s clothes folded on the bank. He was kneeling in the creek facing into the oncoming current, his hair loose down his back, naked, his hands on his knees, his face turned up towards the rain splashing into the running water all around him.
This was something private, an act of worship Dale only partly understood although he’d seen Jasper do it before, and he stopped where he was, then crouched down on the bank, watching him in silence, experienced enough to know he wasn’t intruding or unwanted, but not wanting to disturb him. For a long time Jasper knelt there, oblivious to the freezing water which came down off the Teton mountains to cross their land, his face lifted to the slowly lightening sky, his eyes closed. Then his shoulders flexed, he put his hands together in the water and seven times he lifted water to his face, over his head, then over his arms and his chest. They were not obviously devout, the men of this family; Dale had yet to see one of them go into a church, these weren’t men who openly prayed or talked much about their faiths, but Jasper, Flynn, Riley, Paul, all of them sought this out in times of need. They came out here, to the open places, to the high places, to running water, the open sky. Jasper’s faith was the strongest and most formed, there were private rituals like this that only he fully understood, but all of them knew the truth of what he believed at some level. There was something out here that grounded and healed, even if they did not know what. In Jasper’s mind the ground itself was healing, and he had brought Mason out here where twenty four hours a day he was in contact with it. Sleeping on it.
The sun was rising through the rain when Jasper stood up and waded to the bank, glancing towards Dale without surprise. It was very difficult to approach Jasper without his knowing it. He paused on the bank beside Dale and ran water off his skin with his hands before he stooped to pick up his clothes. Lean, brown, muscular in a way that went straight through Dale, he seemed to fade into the grey stones of the bank and the silver of the water, as if he was a part of it. The stories of animal spirits, men who could turn into a stag or a bear, those stories must go back to someone who had seen a man like this by the water in the misty early morning when you could blink and believe that beauty, that strength, was something surreal and blended into the wildness and grace of a beast. In the half light, for the first time, Dale saw too that there were hoof prints on the bank. Fresh. The sight of them drew an irresistible smile from him. Flynn. Flynn had been here in the night, he’d slipped out here to meet Jasper in the early hours of this morning, to know they were safe and well. He’d be home before the others woke, and likely they’d never know he’d been gone any more than the others asleep in the camp would know he’d been here, but he and Jasper had met on this bank in the darkness for a while and knowing it was good.
Jasper paused, his shirt in one hand, watching his face for a moment, oblivious to the rain and his dark eyes very soft instead of smiling back. Intent in a way that made Dale’s throat and stomach tighten, his heart start to beat a good deal faster, extremely aware of how he must look, crouched on a bank, drenched in the rain, and just how close Jasper was. The planes of his chest. The rain running on his skin. Then Jasper pulled his shirt on, and Dale swallowed on the tension and silently damned himself for a coward.
He stayed crouched on the bank while Jasper dressed, zipping up his jacket and pulling his boots on, and then he straightened up and held his hand out to Dale, waiting until Dale took it and straightened up. Instead of turning back towards the camp, Jasper led him instead directly towards the creek, towards some larger rocks in the middle of the rushing water, just breaking surface, and Dale stepped with him out into the creek to stand on them, aware that despite the coldness of the water and the morning, Jasper’s hand was warm over his. Jasper found a secure foothold on two rocks, legs slightly astride, and drew Dale to stand on the same rocks with him so they were pressed together to avoid falling, and held his shoulders, prompting him to turn so that he stood facing into the onrushing current of the creek which ran directly against their boots and the rocks they stood on. Jasper steadied him while he found his balance, then folded over his waist, stabilising him and holding Dale against him. His voice murmured in Dale’s ear.
“Look at the water.”
It was impossible to do anything else. The creek was still grey, shadowed and dark in the early morning light as it rushed past and under them. Pressed against Jasper’s warmth and the hardness of his chest, which made coherent thought still more complicated, and knowing exactly how strong the arms were that were around him, Dale gave in to a base impulse to lean back against him, holding on to Jasper’s arms.
“Think about what’s in your mind this morning.” Jasper said steadily. “Find one thing at a time and separate it out from everything else. Emotions. Thoughts. Concerns. Sensations. Memories. One at a time, everything you’re aware of. You don’t need to name them, just separate them.”
Specific sensations of unease or tension, namelessly lurking under his ribs on one side; a tension at the bottom of his gut that felt like a dark, shifting ball shaped mass that had to do with bubbles and clouds and Paul and awful dreams of broken windows and toy trains and cold landings; Riley’s frustration; the awful rawness of having let Jasper feel rejected this morning and not having had the courage, which scalded from throat to stomach, the steady, pulsing dark ache that had been in his stomach for days now, sometimes further away than others – when you focused, it was possible to find each one and the weight of it, and to know it as something separate, even if it was only to know it as something there. Jasper’s breath was warm against his neck.
“Take the first one, the worst one, and imagine seeing it in the water right over there, ahead of us. The current will carry it towards us, think of its colour. It’s texture. It’s shape. See it come with the water right up to you.”
A dark, purplish thick texture that floated on the water, greasily. Dale found himself slipping automatically into the deeper breathing that supported this kind of thinking and visualising, somewhat surprised at how readily his brain latched on to imagining. Jasper’s hands on him were firm, warm and held him too strongly to be afraid of whatever it was that floated their way, and Jasper said quietly,
“Now watch it. We’re above it, it isn’t part of us. It can go around us but not touch us. Look at it, see it for what it is, and let it go by. Clean water will follow it, let it go. This is something that’s just passing by.”
It’s just passing by.
Thoughts and feelings and sensations and emotions, things that weren’t of you, but washed past you on their way by. Familiar with his own knowledge of separating from the immediate here and now, that step into a balanced, logical and detached place where he could scan and analytically search through information to find answers, Dale gripped Jasper’s arms and looked down at the rushing water, seeing it in a wholly different perspective.
“This is what you do.”
“It’s a way I separate out what’s in my head, and look at it.” Jasper confirmed. “I take distance from it and identify it, and let it go by. My Grandfather did the same thing, I learned it from him. Try the next one. See it. Trust yourself to know the right colour, the texture, the shape, the weight of it. How it moves on the water.”
A muddle of colours. A mad rainbow of colours like children’s paints, thick black and muddy yellow, nightmare clownish orange and yellow, nauseous pinks – awful colours and they poured onto the water in a sticky, glutinous stream as if out of a bucket. Dale grabbed for control before he crushed the image out of his mind, feeling the fear that flashed through him at the awfulness of the colours, but knowing too that this first, unplanned instantaneous image was the most honest one, and the most useful one. It took courage, but as he imagined the stuff in the water, coming towards him, he could separate each colour out, know what each grim and awful problem it represented.
They reached him, swirling and diseased, but they touched nothing more than the rock and his boots, passed around him, and disappeared with the current, washed away by the flow of clean water that followed, and as they passed, Dale felt a rush of release, the sensations inside himself gone too. They left almost an emptiness, a numb hole inside him where the stress had been, but relief too.
Just passing. That’s all. Not in me, not of me, just passing by.
And then beyond the clear water, unbidden, came other colours. They were pale. Translucent and delicate but they were so visible and so real that Dale blinked instinctively, but they flowed towards him lighting up the whole creek and the banks with a bright white light. First was a clear orangey red, the colour of the heart of a fire, that warmed the water to the brightness of flames in the darkness, sweeping all the shadows out of the creek. Then a soft blue, like the shallows of a tropical ocean, so large that it took some seconds to flow around them and pass by. Then a softer, shimmering and light violet colour, wavering gently from mauve to a shell pink as it swirled around the rocks. And beyond that, a delicate faint gold that filled the creek from bank to bank. They flowed with the water, they distilled out to turn all the creek those beautiful colours, bathing the rocks and the banks and everything they touched, and Dale felt the lift and the energy flood up inside himself at the sight of them, filling all the holes and the emptiness and knowing the names of what they meant too with such certainty that he smiled.
Flynn. Riley. Paul. Jasper.
It means you have to let the ugly things go. Root them out, and fill all the space they leave with what’s good, and there is good, there is so much good. Find the good, uncover it and make it bigger, brighter, pay more attention to it than you do the bad, make it take over. And this takes conscious effort. You have to do it.
Further up the creek, beyond the last of the colours flowing by, David was crouching on the bank in his shirtsleeves, watching them.
What you’re afraid to let go of goes right on poisoning you.
Letting it go felt amazingly good. It was well past dawn when Dale and Jasper walked together down the river bank towards the camp through the grey, misting rain. It was quiet and very still, and the atmosphere in the little circle of wet plastic tarpaulin shelters was subdued. Tam lay on Jasper’s empty sleeping bag, her head on her paws, her martyred brown eyes saying she missed her comfortable bed under the porch at home, and she was watching Paul who was awake and dressed. Jasper put a hand on Paul’s shoulder as he passed him, collecting his bow drill from his rucksack and going to kneel on the stones and light a new fire. He had the skill to build it even in the rain, and Dale, still breathing the calm of the colours sliding by on the water, watched him with both appreciation for his skill and the eyes of someone who loved him, how he leaned to shelter the smouldering coal with his body, and the gentle, slow breaths into the kindling in his long, cupped fingers to coax a flame out of the smouldering. He did it so easily. Despite the rain, a few minutes later the fire was strong and he filled the kettle and stood it over the flames, crouching there to warm his hands. The smell of the curling wood smoke was warming. Acrid and strong. Paul slipped an arm around Dale’s waist.
“Good morning. Make sure you’ve got a set of clothes kept dry in your sleeping bag, and give me whatever shirts you’re not wearing.”
It was an infuriating yank back to reality from what a moment ago had been a sense of peace and clarity.
“You are joking?” Dale said shortly, and Paul gave him a cheerful smile from under the brim of his dripping Stetson, patting his hip.
“You are not carrying half my gear as well as your own. I’m not having it.”
“Not your decision.” Paul gave him a slightly firmer pat. “Shirts please.”
Sense dictated arguing this; it was ridiculous Paul should carry additional weight for no good reason. And sense dictated too that arguing it was going to get him at best swatted, and at worst....? Dale hesitated, not entirely sure how much Paul was prepared to enforce out here where there was very little shelter or privacy of any kind, but knowing him well enough not to be keen to find out. Exasperated, he went to the still roped little plastic shelter over his and Paul’s sleeping bags and rucksacks, and dug out his two spare t shirts. Paul crouched beside him, waiting while he searched, accepting the t shirts and holding his hand out, waiting for the remaining sweater too.
“Thank you. Look at me.”
He said it firmly, and Dale met his eyes, which were gentle considering the tone of his voice.
“I know you don’t like me doing things for you, and now you’re bothered about whether I’m carrying more weight than you are and working harder than you are, and it’s hitting you all wrong. So let’s get it over with. I want you to think all over, up and down and inside out how this makes you a terrible person. Go nuts. Worry yourself crazy, do statistics on it if you want to, and then run a few miles, we’re headed that way this morning, you can wait for us to catch up when you’ve worn yourself out-“
Dale shook his head, a smile unwillingly dragged up despite himself. “You’re worse than Flynn.”
“Or you can beat up a few bushes if you like, they’re going to dent less than the filing cabinet?” Paul suggested, straight faced. Dale elbowed him in the ribs, and Paul laughed, saving his balance by grabbing for Dale’s shoulder.
“Ok, but it’s one or the other. A good freak out and get it out of your system, or let it go.”
“I am not going to freak out about two t shirts and a sweater.” Dale said, half amused, half exasperated.
“Then let it go, hon.” Paul leaned on his shoulder to get up, a warmth, weight and pressure that went through to Dale’s bones as much as his words did. “You don’t need to earn your keep with me.”
Do I really try and do that?
Dale watched Paul go to join Jasper, aware of Luath crawling out of his sleeping bag yawning, and Mason turning over, not getting out of his bag but at least looking towards them.
His journal was in his pack. Dale hesitated for a moment, half checking that Paul and Jasper were occupied and Luath and Mason weren’t yet awake enough to see, then with his back to them, pulled the journal out from the bottom of the rucksack. It was a thick journal and it was half full. Some of the earliest stuff was difficult to look at, but the most recent entry was something Paul had had him write a few days ago; reasons why he trusted them.
You don’t have to show me. Paul had said at the time. Just write down something that you can go back to when you need it.
It was all there in his own hand writing, and every word of it true, not in an objective data way but strongly associated with real, potent emotions, thoughts, images, sensations. Powerful memories. It worked. Dale looked for a moment or two at the page, aware of the feelings it lifted inside him, then took the pen and added on the opposite page a swift list, hunching over it to keep the raindrops off the paper.
F. J. R. P.
Red, blue, pink, gold
Red, blue, pink, gold
The smell of the ground.
The smell of the ground.
The last one he looked at for a moment more. It had been only a moment that David had been in sight beyond the colours on the water, crouching on the bank, watching him. Unhurried, his eyes on Dale but without the intensity to them that was a sharp, urgent message. Then he’d risen to his feet and walked on down the bank, disappearing into the grey dawn. Seeing him was still always something good. Something rooting, and permanent and deeply reassuring, although it would have been difficult to explain why.
They ate from their own supplies for breakfast. Dale chewed through several handfuls of granola and they shared the hot water to drink awful black tea close around the heat of the fire, bundled up in sweaters and fleece jackets and waterproofs over the top. When you were warm, it was surprising how little you minded the rain. The light was fully up and the sky was a heavy yellow grey when they took down the bivouacs, wrapped their bedrolls in plastic, and Jasper showed Mason how to make up a tight, small and easy to carry pack. Mason was quiet. Subdued, as though his anger had burned out in the night, or been dampened out by the rain. They were all stubbled this morning, jaws shadowed, hair uncombed, different from the groomed group that had left the ranch yesterday, and Mason tugged his Stetson low over his brow in a way that said he’d moved on from seeing a hat as an affectation and it was now a piece of clothing with a purpose. They shouldered their packs while Jasper buried the last embers of their fire, then they walked through the shallow creek and turned south west, Tam in the lead. Mason walked backwards a few steps as they left, looking back to the little clearing by the bank where they’d spent the night and where now there was no sign of them.
They walked. At the same steady pace as yesterday, and today Mason didn’t force the pace through the steady rain. Initially they walked in silence, the companionable silence that Dale was used to with Jasper, the five of them close together, then Mason said impatiently,
“Oh man, it’s like hanging out with a gang of zombies, usually I can’t shut you lot up. Where are we headed to this morning?”
“This is the lower range of the ranch.” Paul nodded towards the rise in the far distance under the rain clouds. “That’s the start of the canyons and the plateaus.”
“We’ll aim to be up on the top of that square shaped canyon to camp tonight.” Jasper said, and Luath groaned.
“Hey, you’ve got an old man back here, you know?”
“Seriously, we’ll get up there by tonight?” Mason said, sounding somewhere between intrigued and alarmed. Jasper gave him a smile, walking beside him.
“Yes, we can be up there tonight.”
They ate as they walked, drank the foul tasting iodine tablet water from their water bottles which Mason emphatically complained about, and went on covering ground. Mason talked, incessantly, but without the aggression or the anger of yesterday. There was at times a kind of manic speed to his chatter which ranged from football teams to brands of coffee and gave very few pauses for anyone to reply to him in; he was talking at them rather than to them, and Dale began to hear in it the sounds of a man trying to distract himself, or to fill his own head full enough to avoid thinking. There was nowhere to hide out here. Physically or mentally; the open land stretched out all around them. When you realised what he was doing, it became less stressful to listen to, and easier to gently let roll over you just as noise, particularly with Jasper, Paul and Luath quietly walking with you, radiating as much calm as Mason radiated chaos. Dale walked with his mind mostly in neutral. The ground kept on rolling away beneath them, like the ugly colours had slid away on the water. Something he stood apart from and let go.
Later that day as they reached first the tawny coloured boulder-scattered slopes that led out of the plateaus and the nursery pastures, and then reached the foot of the canyon and began to climb, straight up the steep, wet, serrated red rock. Mason initially tried to plough up, walking at the same stride, and Luath called up to him, warning him to take his time and save energy. It didn’t make much impression, Mason strode on ahead of them, and Dale, deliberately keeping pace with Luath who wasn’t finding the steepness too easy and occasionally needed someone’s arm in reach to lean on, watched Mason critically as a hundred yards on he began to slow, and then to grind to a halt and sit down, breathless. It took them nearly an hour and a half to get up the long, slow, steep climb up the canyon. There were several points where Mason swore he couldn’t go any further and he’d never do it, and several points where Luath, flushed and sweating and stripped down to a t shirt despite the steady falling rain, looked ready to agree, but Paul and Jasper with patience and a tenacity Dale admired, coaxed and badgered, encouraged and talked Mason on step by step, teaching him the trick of picking a short and easy goal and achieving it, and then picking the next distance goal, the next land mark, and bit by slow bit they climbed, standing at times to look back and see the progress they’d made, the height they’d achieved, until finally as daylight began to fade, they reached the big, flat top of the canyon and Mason dropped his rucksack with a shout of victory a winning football team would have approved of, his arms stretched above his head and his fists clenched as he stood on the edge and looked out over the view, his wet beard and wet face shining under his Stetson.
“Whoo, suck on that! Look at the height up here! Will you look at the damn height we covered?”
It wasn’t that great a height, there were far taller canyons and cliffs on the ranch and Dale had climbed several of them with Riley, who loved handhold rock climbing and hard challenge, and would have strolled up here in forty minutes, but to Mason this was obviously something he’d never done before, a serious ordeal and a serious victory as he looked down the long, steep rock face below them, and the miles of grey open land they’d walked today. Luath dropped an arm around his shoulders and gave him a hug, equally out of breath and with more of a real grin than Dale had seen from him since they left the ranch.
“Now call me an old man.”
Mason laughed and hugged him back, and turned back to face the valley with another victory yell that echoed high among the rocks and out over the plain, his fists clenched and his body stiff like a cockerel crowing. Dale had heard plenty of similar whoops in board rooms and offices for triumphs. Deals won, takeovers, the predatory instincts were powerfully strong in men who won these victories at high level, hard and aggressive stuff; it was hunting and fighting, warriors in high tech form who fought rival deals and companies instead of rival armies to build their empires. They excelled at it and gloried in it and the testosterone ran free. I’m the winner. I’m the big man.
They were exposed up here. It was a high, bare place with open views of the sky and the plains below, and it took Mason a long time to get a fire going. Jasper sat with him, talking him through using the bow drill and encouraging him when Mason broke off to swear at the rain or complain that the base board was too small or the wind was too strong, and he acquired two more rocks to add to the seven already in his pockets in the process, which brought forth more complaints about no room left in his pants. If he’d put the energy into the bow drill that he was putting into explaining his frustration about the bow drill not working fast enough, he’d have had considerably more success. The crash of his mood so abruptly following his elation on the top of the canyon was noticeable and Dale, reflecting on it as he tied his and Paul’s tarps into a shelter against the weather, thought Mason’s moods swung up and down at the best of times depending on his circumstances. How un-rooted did you have to be to be knocked off balance by any wind that blew you, whether good or bad? Considering his own reaction this morning, the instant swing from calm to stressed at one sentence from Paul, it wasn’t a comfortable thought.
What is Mason’s attachment style?
Jas treats him like a friend, so do the others. That was always what they did with you as a client, that’s what you owe him. Connect, don’t analyse. And let’s pretend for a moment you don’t suck at connecting.
But what is his attachment style? How does he relate to people?
The question framed, the answer came straight back from the available data.
Mostly he works on them to give him what he thinks he needs. Charm. Bullying. Intimidation. Whining. Give me what I need so I can feel better. Fix the fire for me so I’m not frustrated. Reduce the challenge so I can win comfortably. Bend the rules for me so I’m not wrong. ‘Make me ok’. Simplification, but what you end up doing out here is just what you were doing a mature, discreet version of at work.
The light was almost gone. Flames flared up from where Mason was huffing into a ball of dry sage, and Paul and Luath cheered, Luath dropping his hands on Mason’s shoulders and gripping them.
“You got it!”
“Finally!” Mason grinned, stacking the twigs around the now flaming sage. “Someone else gonna put the shelters up? I made the fire you know?”
“Your shelter hon, you put it however you want it.” Paul said cheerfully. “You don’t have to put up at all if you don’t want to; getting wet’s an option too.”
Jasper had guided Mason to build the fire near to the wall of the canyon where the fire was sheltered. Luath roped his shelter, from scrub and boulders, angling the sheet sharply to act as a wind and rain break, and after several minutes scuffing and grumbling, Mason undid his pack and roped up his own tarp. Too tired to do more than eat a few handfuls of trail mix and drink tea from the water they heated over the fire, they sat on boulders close together for warmth around the transparent, flickering orange flames mostly in silence, until Tam growled and Jasper put a hand down to her collar and very softly said,
“Look over there. Slowly.”
A coyote, trotting briskly across the rock, paused and looked back at them as they looked at him, his coat slicked down and white and grey in the rain and firelight. For a moment he surveyed them in silence, then apparently deciding they presented no threat, he trotted on out of sight. There was the same movement in his tail, his ears and long legs that you sensed when you held Jasper’s coyote carving – the little totem Jasper had given to Dale some months ago now, telling him the qualities of the coyote in legend. The mischief maker, the explorer, always in trouble, but in every trouble learning and turning failure to success. There was something amazing in seeing one wild, so close, and for a moment Dale could feel the wonder of it in all of them. The moment they’d seen it poised in the firelight.
“You used to tell us the coyote stories when we were up this way.” Luath’s deep voice said softly in the darkness to Jasper. “Coyotes and snake stories up here, the bear stories by the river. I always liked the coyote best.”
If you had a soft spot for disaster-prone men, then you would. Dale stifled a smile, drinking tea, and Mason said from Luath’s other side,
“Coyotes doing what? Stories about the coyotes you’ve seen here?”
“These are the stories I was brought up on, where the animals have spirit meanings.” Jasper told him. “Qualities particular to the species, and meaning when you see them, particularly if you’re on any kind of particular expedition. Seeing a coyote might mean both wisdom and foolishness.”
“Is that a comment on what we’re already doing, or what we will be doing?” Luath said dryly.
“Might be either. You’re the only one who knows what that symbol might mean to you today, you find your own meaning.”
“So what about these stories?” Mason asked, clearly not interested in expeditions spiritual or otherwise. “What does the bear mean?”
Jasper leaned his elbows on his knees, his cup cradled between his hands, the firelight casting leaping shadows over his face. “Bears tend to mean healing. Courage and self knowledge. My grandfather was Cherokee, he told me what he remembered of the stories he learned as a child, although I think some of them were ones he made up himself. Storytelling was a deep part of his culture. In the winter when the light was gone early and the evenings were long, it was a time in his beliefs for people to draw together and share stories and songs that reminded them of their values and their traditions, not just to fill time when they had nothing else to do, but with intention. It was to remind themselves who they were, what they had in common, what their lives were rooted in, and it was led by the hardest warriors and the wisest men of the group. That was what you committed to when the weather was bad and food was short and the year was at its hardest. Making the group stronger. With a strongly bonded group you would all survive whatever came.”
“So what did these coyotes do?” Mason asked off-handedly like he wasn’t particularly interested, but he was watching Jasper. Jasper smiled.
“Ok.” He paused for a moment, and Dale, who had heard him tell a few of these stories before at home, recognised his voice taking on the slightly deeper, even and slightly slower tone that made it easier to follow his words.
“A long time ago, Coyote was crossing the river by evening. He climbed down the great boulders that formed the river bank, trotted through the water to the far bank, and he paused there on a rock and leaned down to drink the water running over the stones in the river bed. As he was drinking, he saw first ripples appear on the water, and then deep in the earth he felt trembling, and then the ground shook and rumbled so it hurt his ears. The great boulders on the far side of the bank began to move and tumble over each other, and as the deepest boulders within were thrown up, Coyote saw that deep within the rocks was a great coyote, huge and magnificent, the sleeping spirit of the coyote god.
As the smaller boulders rattled and tumbled, the great coyote lifted his head and stretched, shook his massive, rocky shoulders so that rubble poured down into the river, and he turned his muzzle towards Coyote. Coyote trembled, for he had never seen anything so marvellous, and the great coyote in the midst of the tumbling rock, looked into his eyes and smiled. The kindest, warmest smile that Coyote had ever seen, and it went straight to his heart and took away his breath. Then the great coyote spirit yawned, and turned himself around within the rocks, and settled back down to sleep on the bank, and the rocks slowly settled once more. Until the ground was still, and silent, and on the opposite bank there was nothing to be seen but a great pile of boulders that looked, if you looked very, very carefully, a little like a mighty coyote curled asleep.”
Jasper was silent for a moment, Dale heard him sip his cooling tea and the fire snapped and crackled ahead of them as they sat close together around it. Then Jasper said softly,
“It was the most magnificent thing that Coyote had ever seen. For hours, he stood on the bank, mesmerised by the mighty spirit asleep in the rocks, and the memory of that beautiful, wonderful smile. It grew dark, and his hunting time passed away, but Coyote didn’t notice. He could not take his eyes off those stones, and the hope that another tremor might come, the coyote spirit might stir again and look towards him. Night passed without the rocks stirring. Day came. Coyote drank a little from the river, watching the rocks all the time, and caught a small fish that ventured close enough for him to catch without breaking his gaze. It was not enough to eat and he was hungry, but he barely noticed the hunger for his waiting. Another night passed. On the second day at the heat of noon, Coyote’s brother, the fox, paused to drink at the river and looked in surprise at Coyote sitting on the bank.
“What are you doing there? Why aren’t you sleeping? Hadn’t you better rest so that you can hunt tonight?”
But Coyote shook off the advice and sat, watching the rocks and waiting, hoping for them to stir again. On the fourth night, they did. Just a little, one or two boulders shifted and rolled down the great heap, and Coyote saw the rocks become a great head again, resting on two paws, that stretched. Coyote, standing on the bank with his heart beating fast with hope, waited in delight for the spirit to look towards him, but the great stone muzzle turned a little and the mighty coyote looked up at the stars before he sank back into stillness and sleep and faded once more into the rocks. Coyote slowly sat down on the bank, his ears and his tail limp with grief. The spirit had not looked his way. At first, he was too disappointed to do anything but sit, but after a while he began to think again and to remind himself, this was clearly a lesson. The spirit is showing you that you did not wait patiently enough, he thought. You ate. You drank. You didn’t show proper loyalty, or wait in a way that deserved his notice. You have lost this chance and you were not worthy this time, but next time – next time you will do better.”
Dale’s heart caught painfully. If he’d been anywhere but here, he’d have found an excuse, anything, to slip away, but there was no means of leaving the fire without being noticed, nowhere to go up here, and no way to move without broadcasting his discomfort. Instead, nails digging into his palm, he sat still and Jasper’s soft voice went on, quietly,
“Determined to do better, Coyote neither ate, nor drank from the river at his feet, although he was dry with thirst. He did not doze, or move, he sat still as a rock himself and he watched the boulders with all his heart, ready and longing for the moment when the spirit would stir again. It was three more days this time. Three days and nights before he saw the few tumbling pebbles and the great spirit stirred very slowly within the rock, stretching his head towards the water. Coyote leapt to his feet, trembling with hope, looking eagerly towards him. The spirit looked down at the river and laid his head more comfortably on his paws before he closed his eyes and the spirit sank once more into the stone.
Bitterly saddened, Coyote sat down on the bank, hanging his head. At first he wondered why the spirit took no notice of him, and wanted to bark and scrabble at the rocks in desperation, but no, he told himself. You failed again. Maybe it was that you were standing. That was not humble before a spirit. You did not deserve his notice. You must wait, and try again, and try harder.
And time, after time, after time, Coyote lay on the bank and longed for the great spirit to smile at him, but the spirit never looked his way again, no matter how Coyote tried. Until the first frosts came, and Bear came along the riverbank, fishing for salmon, and found Coyote half dead on the rocky bank, weak with hunger and thirst and sadness.
“What are you doing?” Bear asked him. Coyote hadn’t the strength to lift his head, but his eyes were still on the boulders and he would not answer.
Bear asked no more as he fished, but he watched Coyote, and in a while, he left salmon pieces where Coyote could reach them, but Coyote would not eat and he would not drink.
The next day Bear came back to the river and there was Coyote in just the same place he had left him, almost too weak to lift his head.
“You’re cold here by the water.” Bear said to him. “It’s warm in the meadow behind you. Turn around and sit in the sun.”
“I don’t need to be warm.” Coyote said without moving.
Bear sniffed at the salmon left on the bank, untouched. “You’re hungry. There’s food here. Turn around and see.”
“I don’t need to eat.” Coyote said without moving.
Then the rocks began to rouse, and the ground began to tremble, and for a moment the rocks took the shape of a great, stirring coyote head which shifted and sighed in its sleep. Coyote trembled all over with hope, whining in his throat, but the great beast never woke, and a moment later it faded back into the boulders and all was still again, and Coyote dropped his head back on his paws in despair.
Then Bear sat down on his big haunches beside Coyote and looked with him at the unmoving rocks by the water, and understood.
“Brother." he said at last. "Since the day you first saw him move, you've barely eaten or drank. Your entire world has shrunk to here. You've missed the most beautiful of rainbows. You've missed the eagle, passing overhead. You've missed the squirrels, playing on a log. Maybe you've missed your mate, hunting through the fields behind you. You do no good here. It is time to drink, to eat, and see what lies behind you.”
"He smiled at me once," Coyote said in anguish. “He looked at me once, and if I wait long enough, if I am only good enough, one day-”
“Yes, perhaps.” Said Bear. "And perhaps not. That smile did warm you once. It did feed you. Look at yourself in the water. Is it feeding or warming you now?"
Coyote looked in the water, and was shocked at the reflection he saw. Drained and weak, a skeleton of a coyote.
"Whatever it was, and whatever it may be," Bear said gently. "It is cold rock now. What you truly seek is the smile, not the rock, and you must search in other places for that, because it won’t be here again. Get up, brother. Take a look at what you have turned your back on."
There was a silence, then Mason said,
“So what happened? Did the coyote listen to him?”
“I don’t know, that’s the end of the story. I think it’s up to people to decide for themselves.” Jasper said mildly. “Whether he chose to listen, or whether he chose to go on sitting there, and whether that ended in him getting the smile he waited for and if that one more time was enough for him. Or whether he pined away on the rocks and is still there now.”
“I think he listened.” Mason said decisively. “He saw the reflection of himself, he realised what he wasting his time on.”
“The Coyote didn’t see it as a waste of his time, to him it was worth his absolute devotion.” Paul said softly. “It’s very hard to face that you may be focusing your energy on something that isn’t going to respond to you, or be what you hope for. I’d like to think he turned and left the river, but I can understand it may be too hard to do just because someone walked past and made a few comments.”
“My partner died some years ago.” Luath’s deep voice said pensively. “Roger. I find myself having to consciously remind myself sometimes to look at what’s there instead of focus on what isn’t. And when I’m thinking straight, I know what I’m looking for is way easier to find if I’m not looking for it. Out here, all the time I know what he’d think of where we are, what we’re talking about, I can remember all kinds of details about hiking with him out here, it’s more real than any brooding I can do. It’s just hard to make the decision to let go and turn around. It’s admitting to yourself what you’ve lost head on, and nothing hurts more.”
“I’m sorry.” Mason said more quietly after a moment. “Yeah, I know a bit about what you mean. My father ran out on us when I was a kid, took a long time to accept he wasn’t coming back, especially around Christmas and whatever. Got a lot harder then.”
“There’s a theory that divorce is effectively a form of bereavement.” Dale said measuredly, with an article in some magazine on a table that he’d flicked through in an airport coming to mind. Page 32, columns 1, 2 and part of three, above and to the left of a large advertisement for Chanel. Called to mind in that way he could actually re read the image in his memory, skim it for the information he wanted. “It affects adults and children much the same way apparently, but children tend to be less supported with the after effects. And inevitably blame themselves.”
Paul, beside him, recognised the tone in his voice and the choice of works with concern but without surprise. It took looking hard in the darkness, with only the fire flickering for light, but if you knew what you were looking for, you could find it. Stiff arms. Stiff shoulders. Hands tense, fingers of one very slightly tapping where they rested on the other. Paul glanced across to Jasper, unable to see his face either, but pretty sure he knew.
“Did you find that happened to you? You blamed yourself?” Luath asked Mason, who sounded offhand.
“I guess. A bit, kids do.”
“I did over Rog, no matter how irrational I know it was.” Luath said frankly, and his deep voice was rough. “If I’d not been shut in a meeting, if I’d had some idea of what was going on I’d have called him in the first thirty seconds and said get your butt out of there now. And at that point, he’d have made it. I should have walked him through the escape drills his company and none of the other companies ever bothered with, I knew about emergency exits going wrong because no one has a clear plan and has walked it through. There’s still no shaking that feeling that it was my job to take care of him. I loved doing that job, and when things went really bad for him I wasn’t there.”
He might have said that to Flynn in privacy; if Luath confided in anyone it was Flynn, but that was the deepest insight into what he was thinking that he’d given in Paul’s hearing since the day it happened, and his throat tightened and his eyes stung hearing it. He saw Jasper stir and knew Jasper had grasped Luath’s hand. There was a long moment of quiet, then Luath said in a lighter tone, “I think I’m turning in, I’m bushed.”
Mason got up too, and as much more casual chit chat got started about finding sleeping bags in the dark and about iodine flavoured water and toothpaste, Paul found Dale’s hand. Dale didn’t pull away but Paul felt him stiffen and then an instant later deliberately relax his hand to hide it.
“Come for a walk with me?” Paul said casually. “I need to stretch my legs, I’m stiff.”
“Don’t go far, you’ll walk off the edge of the canyon.” Jasper warned.
Paul held on to Dale’s hand and walked with him out of sight of the fire. Almost instantaneously a thin torch beam came on and lit the path ahead of them. Dale, flicking the multi function pen knife into action with immediate competence that went with the passively tolerated hand in his. Even the torch beam didn’t give much light, and after a moment Dale’s hand came to life and gripped firmly, drawing him back.
“The edge is six feet that way. Stop here.”
He’d know. He’d have memorised the terrain and the data processing went with the crisp tone and the abrupt, matter of fact speech that made him sound as if he was directing a client. Politely, but very definitely from a position of authority and control. Paul sat down where he was on the cold, wet rock, ignoring the drifting rain.
“Going to sit down with me and talk about it, hon?”
“Ok, we can just admire the view.”
It being pitched black and their barely being able to see two feet ahead, it should have drawn some comment, or lightened the mood, but Dale was stiff beside him, in that officer and a gentleman stance that was oddly old-worldly and distancing.
Which means total shut down. Grownups don’t get hurt. They freeze off concern or inappropriate questions, they have the power to politely withdraw and do their own thing. It’s full blown self defence and it’s worked for him for years. Except we don’t politely respect those barriers and leave him alone behind them, and that’s all they are. Just barriers, supposed to be scary enough to put people off and convince them he’s far harder than they are, like a kid hiding inside a monster suit.
Paul sat where he was and put a hand out to find Dale’s leg, rubbing over the damp wool of his pants, slowly and comfortingly, and found himself singing softly under his breath to himself while his eyes got used the dark.
Oh my love, my darling,
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long lonely time,
And time goes by so slowly,
and time can do so much....
He heard a faint hiss from Dale, but nothing more and he didn’t move away. He went on singing quietly, more for the sound of his voice than anything else, which was at least offering comfort in a way less confrontative than talking. He just let the song play in his brain on repeat and sang along, entertaining himself and not taking much notice of how many repetitions he got through. It was somewhere in the break, when he was doing a committed,
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhh, that Dale made a sound that was half groan half sigh and crouched down beside him.
“Please don’t sing.”
Paul reached over to find his head, pulled the Stetson off and ran his fingers through Dale’s soft, dark hair, stroking it back as the rain began to wet it.
“Bet you hated that story.”
Silence. Too big a thing, Paul thought. Sometimes a direct assault breaks through, but he’s not going to be able to sit down and explain this in detail.
“I bet too you’re thinking that everyone around that fire has lost someone they loved.” He said after a moment. “Me with my mother and Jas with his grandfather and Luath with Roger, and that’s far worse than what you had to handle so you’ve got no right to find it hard.”
Dale didn’t answer. Paul went on stroking, which Dale wasn’t fighting off even if he was stiff, talking gently and bluntly with what felt like brutality, except for knowing someone had to put it into words for him and give those feelings a voice because he couldn’t.
“Except the three of us lost people who didn’t want to leave us and didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have to handle someone making the choice to separate, or leaving us with the feeling that it was our fault. That isn’t easier. That sucks beyond belief, I can’t imagine how that has to feel. And you were a little kid, you can’t have understood what was going on. You must have felt you were so bad or so much trouble for someone to act like they didn’t want you.”
Dale didn’t answer. He was as immobile as a robot, but Paul could feel him struggling with himself. And then he felt Dale reach a decision, felt him steel himself with a rigidity that went all through him, and stand up, straight as a guardsman.
“I don’t remember realising it was futile.”
“Mhm?” Paul said gently when Dale trailed off. There was a long moment’s silence, then he went on just as stiffly,
“It must have dawned on me at some point. I stopped going home, that was my decision. Although we’d more or less just shared a house in the holidays, that was all. I didn’t have any more to do with her at home than she did with me, I stayed out of the way. That’s giving up too, isn’t it?”
“Do you think you did give up on her, or was it that you let her have what you thought she wanted?” Paul said gently.
Dale sounded completely toneless in the dark.
“At some point, I must have given up. I was building a career for myself through my A levels and through university. That was for me.”
Over focus, sheer academia, a real escape for a bright kid. Independence, enough to think about, success and approval.
“I admire you honey, you sorted out a life for yourself a lot younger than most kids do without a lot of support. You and Flynn, you’ve both got the same kind of drive. He did much the same.” Paul glanced towards him in the dark, wanting to ask but knowing too that it was touching even further on the sorest points. “What about her other kids? I know she has some.”
“Three. Alastair, Victoria and Giles.” Dale’s voice gained no more expression. “I’ve barely ever met them, they were toddlers in the time I stayed at the house. They’re much younger than me, Alastair was only a few weeks old when I went away to school.”
“Was your mother as detached from them as she was from you?”
“No. She more or less started again, it was the family she should have had. I suppose she was married by then, and was in a much better place, happier. She’s involved with them, I’ve heard odds and ends from my step father on the occasions we’ve met up, although I don’t think he likes to talk to me about them. I suspect it makes him uncomfortable. But I don’t remember when.” Dale paused, as though a programme had frozen. Then he said slightly less rigidly, “It’s annoying. It’s even more annoying to realise most of this – mess – is about still stupidly standing in front of a bloody rock because it’s ingrained, subconscious habit. It’s autopilot, it’s not even intentional.”
“I think it’s about tremendous loyalty and your capacity to love.” Paul said gently. “No, don’t shake that off, I live with you, I know. I don’t think you ever gave up on waiting for her or stopped loving her, you’ve always shown lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Did you ever feel angry with her about it?”
The answer came back honestly. Not defensively, almost wearily.
So this is purely the hurt we’re processing at the moment. The actual acknowledgement that it did hurt, and how much it hurt.
“Come down here.” Paul found his hand and pulled until Dale sat down on the rock beside him, the dark shadowing his face too much to read, but the tension was visible in the outline of his body. Paul wrapped an arm around him, pulling, and after a moment Dale softened against him, right into him almost in one go the way Paul had seen him do at times with Flynn, his head against Paul’s shoulder. There was real exhaustion in it, but pressed close, he did it. His voice was soft and almost bewildered. Numbed, and far more painful to listen to than the clipped academic tone.
“I really don’t remember realising it was futile before tonight.”
Paul made him move his sleeping bag to the inner spot, tucked in between the boulders Dale had rigged their tarpaulins to, and Paul. There was a certain amount of reassurance in that, even if it made sitting up and brooding or slipping back to the fire very difficult. Which Dale was experienced enough to realise was probably the point. They changed into dry clothes in the dark, left their wet ones under shelter to dry, and the sleeping bags were warm and sheltered by the tarps low above their heads, on which the rain pattered softly, near but not touching them.
The rock surface was rigid under the sleeping mats, and that was good too in a way. You could feel it and know it was there. Dale zipped up the sleeping bag, stretched out with his shoulders against the hard ground, and stared up at the tarp, while Paul turned over, put an arm over him and pulled him close. It wasn’t possible to see the outlines of the others under their shelters, it was too gloomy and heavy a night, but no one had spoken when they came back to camp, and they’d moved softly not to disturb anyone.
It took a long time for Paul’s breathing to even out and his arm to grow heavier as it relaxed. Dale lay with an arm under his head. Sleep wasn’t an attractive thought, even though he was tired; feeling this unsettled he was well aware that it would very likely lead to dreams and startling everyone awake, more of the mess in his head finding its way out any way it could as soon as his conscious control slipped. He waited ten minutes more, then very gently tried lifting Paul’s arm away. It worked. Paul sighed and turned over, huddling deeper into his sleeping bag without waking, and Dale waited a moment more before slowly and carefully working on sliding out of the top of his sleeping bag without making a sound or waking Paul. He was half way out when Jasper’s voice, low and very definite, said from way too close by,
Dale froze, heart thumping with shock. “I need to....” he began after a moment to catch his breath, saying it dryly enough to imply anyone sane would understand why someone would normally be crawling out of a sleeping bag in the night.
“If that’s true, I’m coming with you, and when we get back, you’re sharing this sleeping bag with me.” Jasper did not sound open minded or at all genial about it, he could pack a lot of meaning into a very quiet tone, and Dale found himself saying swiftly and with a lot of sincerity,
“No, it’s fine thanks.”
Dale slid deeper into the sleeping bag and lay down, heart still racing. It took a while to calm down, during which Paul slept peacefully and it was utterly impossible to tell where Jasper was and whether he was asleep or not. The man was quieter than a cat.
Resigning himself to not being able to move, Dale stared up at the tarpaulin for a while, then closed his eyes and tried to visualise standing on the rocks in the creek, looking down into the water.
Find and separate. Put it in the water, see it come towards you and let it wash on by....
He must have dozed off eventually. The next thing he knew, the sky was light, the rain had stopped and the sun was coming up and long fingers of light were coming over the top of the canyon, making it difficult to see David crouching on the very edge, looking out over the land below. Paul didn’t stir as Dale slid out of the sleeping bag, and neither did Jasper, a few feet away from them, sleeping soundly under his tarpaulin. Luath snored gently, flat on his back. Mason was a curled, huddled ball.
David didn’t look around as Dale joined him. They could probably see seven or eight miles of land stretched out below them from up here.
“Look.” David said matter of factly. “Everything down there has energy.”
Dale nodded, eyes on the view. “Yes. I remember Jasper telling me he believed that. Good energy, bad energy, good sources of energy-”
“Well go on then.” David said as if he hadn’t spoken. “Look properly and see it.”
Look properly? Dale looked out over the rocks and the pasture in the distance, bewildered at what to look for, until David straightened up and stood beside him. Shoulders down, breathing quietly, and Dale understood then what he meant.
The deeper, slower breathing was almost second nature now. By habit, Dale visualised the golden light around him, to the left, to the right, in front and behind, above and below, and then cleared his mind as he had done with the creek yesterday morning. Took that step back to detach himself, let his awareness of himself lift up above the confines of his forehead, and as always it was like lifting his eyes, feeling tension disappear from his eyes and head.
And with those relaxed eyes, calm, almost straight away, he saw it. Faintly at first, just in one or two places, a very flickering white thread that ran through the veins in the rocks below him, but as he saw it he saw the threads emerge more and more – in the scrub sage bushes, below in the pasture, every single blade of grass containing a thin thread of light, a rabbit in the grass with light inside it like a web of the white lines, but the light was alive wherever it was, moving, constantly flaring and subsiding. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. David, beside him, was vivid with the light, and it shone out through the tarps and sleeping bags of the other others- Mason, Luath, Jasper, Paul, the very rock they lay on. Paul’s water bottle lay by the fire, it was radiating light thinly, and Dale left David to pick it up, unfastening the top and pouring a few drops over his fingers. It came in a stream of light. In the ground. In the water. In the rocks, in the grass, in everything that lived. The energy was in everything, tangible and there.
And then he was at the foot of the canyon and David was walking out ahead of him through the pasture. Not scrubland, but thick, green grass, deep and rich in the bright sunlight, and as Dale walked and stirred it, a cloud of bright blue butterflies rose into the air around him. Not a few, not even localised. The whole pasture, as far as the eye could see, was alive with them. The sky blue fluttering on every inch of the ground, like a soft mist, clustering on stalks of grass like flowers, and as he walked they swirled around him like a delicate whirlwind, not touching, but surrounding his path wherever he stepped. There must have been millions of them collected together.
There was something childishly delightful about it. David was no longer in sight, he was alone in this cloud of fairy like blue, and Dale took a step to the side, a step back, wherever he moved the butterflies whirled up, and on impulse Dale found himself waltzing gently in the meadow, the butterflies swirling up in waves that were like keeping step. He laughed aloud with the sheer pleasure of it, standing still so the butterflies subsided once more on to the grass, like a shimmering quilt as wings stirred and fanned.
And his hand encountered nylon sleeping bag and Dale opened his eyes on still pitch blackness and rain. The fire was still dancing its light against the canyon wall, showing Luath snoring gently on his back, and Mason curled in a ball, and Paul’s water bottle laying near the fire. Dale’s chest was still full of the joy of that pasture full of butterflies, the wonderful colour, the movement, the mass of them as far as the eye could see. He lay back, breathing it, still feeling that impulse to dance, and yet oddly he could barely call the images to mind at all. They were gone, they left no memory traces, but the wonder of it, the joy of it, filled him.
He would have slept after that, but that every time he began to doze, it was to images of little claws in the darkness that hooked around a damaged, scratched banister, a hiss so soft there was no telling where it came from, and two harsh, blazing little lights. It carried a sense of something evil. Something dark and threatening, so that time and time again he dragged himself awake, refusing to take the risk of waking everyone yet again with nightmares. In the end he lay on his back and stared at the tarpaulin and listened to the rain and breathed the cold night air and waited for the sun to rise.
~ * ~
Copyright Rolf and Ranger