Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Chapter 18 -Ranch

18


            They moved on again not long after dawn. The woods were shadowy in the half light, and Jasper led them off the path and away from the trails, where the undergrowth was dense and tangled, where they climbed steep banks and clambered down deep hollows, muddy and dank and heavily shaded, and thick with creeper and brambles. It was other worldly at this time of the morning. A mist rose up from the ground and settled in the hollows, and it was silent, very still.

Paul had taken Dale’s hand when they got up to leave, and so far he hadn’t let go, although walking through a woods holding hands could not have made covering the rough ground any easier for him. From Dale’s own perspective, scrambling hard ground one handed was a small price to pay for the warmth of Paul’s hand over his. It was a powerful sense of being anchored, of Paul present in every flex and movement and tightening of his fingers as they walked that said he was there. For a while, subconsciously, he kept his pace exactly to Paul’s to prevent the temptation of increasing to the old, distracting high speed, and it was only when Paul came to a stop at the top of a particularly muddy bank and turned to face him, that he realised what he was doing. Paul gave him a smile that was far warmer than he felt he deserved.

“Did you hear anything I just said?”

Dale hesitated, horribly aware that he’d just been making appropriately polite noises in the right places on autopilot. 

“........I’m sorry, I wasn’t really listening.”

“No, I didn’t think so.” Paul squeezed his hand and went on walking. “You’ve got no idea what you’ve been agreeing to for the last ten minutes, have you? I could have committed you to anything.”

Only Paul had the knack of putting that cheerful directness into his voice, whether he was teasing you or telling you off. It was the same tone he yelled at Flynn in when they were playing, or demanded to know whether an abandoned wet towel planned to make its own way to the laundry room, or switched around quilts or suggested loud Hawaiian shirts to irritate you into expressing a definite opinion to him; if you knew him, you knew it was how he communicated with everyone he loved. 

Dale climbed up beside him, vaguely aware that his free hand and the knees of his jeans were now slick with mud and green slime. They were some way behind Luath, Mason and Jasper, who were probably having some kind of conversation themselves as they walked, but they might as well be in a different galaxy for all the awareness Dale knew he had of it. It was hard to get any kind of explanation into words, and it took a moment to find anywhere to start, which involved the strategy Flynn had taught him right from his first few days here, and fighting back the headache and the dry throat and a grim awareness that his hands and knees were shaking slightly as he walked, and that this was probably going to need to get worse rather than better.

Blurt. Just get something out, start it off, your responsibility is to share this. Even if it sounds incredibly stupid.

“It’s difficult not to look for control.” he said with difficulty, and it was never easy admitting to making mistakes or faulty thought patterns, even with all the practice he got. “I would like to pick the speed up, and I probably could do it gradually enough that you wouldn’t notice much at all. I actually know how to do it, do you know that? Not that I ever got clients to hike anywhere at high speed but move them around inspections or tours within a defined time frame in all kinds of venues, yes, definitely. Without them feeling harassed or even noticing I was herding them, I’ve studied the science of crowd movement, I could write you papers on this. I could find the hardest possible ways to climb up this path, which takes more effort, more energy, and preferably hurts, because that’s distraction too, even if it’s just incrementally fractionally harder with a combined effect over time, and I could make sure no one noticed. I am looking all the time for opportunity to sublimate because it makes this feel less lousy, it’s an appalling habit and I’m not giving in to it because I am not going to let this damned thing win-”

“Hey, hey, hey.” Paul drew him to a stop and the grasp on his hand was as warm as his voice. “Look at me.”

“I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

For no reason he understood, Dale found himself actually closing his eyes and averting his face away from Paul altogether. Paul took an unhurried seat on a semi rotted trunk laying along the bank by the path, keeping hold of him, and Dale couldn’t stifle his hiss of frustration that was, if he was honest, largely because he knew very well what was coming.

And this is what happens if you give yourself away, isn’t it? Open your mouth and you do,  and then he’ll push back, and it all gets a whole lot messier.... keep your mouth shut, Aden.

Shut up.

“We are part of a group you realise, who are already some way ahead of us and it’s murky enough that if we get separated it’s going to be extremely difficult to-”

Rabbit trail, you know it, he knows it, why do you even bother? It isn’t going to work.

Paul shrugged, unmoved. “They’ll do their own thing and we’ll catch them up. You’re trying very hard not to cope by shutting down. Or going off in your own head to block it out. When you’re this upset, it has to be really hard not to do it, and a lot harder to talk to me instead.”

How the hell did you answer that?

“You seriously want to discuss this in the middle of a soaking wet wood?” Dale found himself saying with a venom that shocked him, “ Presumably until I am prepared to give you the eye contact you’re demanding. Which is coercion, which I’m fairly sure is illegal under the terms of-”

“I’m licensed to coerce, it’ll be fine.” Paul kept hold of his hand, talking very gently which made it still worse. “Breathe, honey. Shut your eyes, take a few deep breaths, we don’t need to rush into anything. It’s ok. I’m right here.”

“If you’re at all interested, what would help is walking, catching up with the others and covering some distance today since we are actually supposed to be doing this in the name of supporting Mason.”  Dale made an unsuccessful attempt to politely free his hand, which did not work since Paul quite impolitely kept hold of it in a way which would have required an extremely unsubtle jerk and twist to escape. “I am fine. Thank you. I am not panicking. I do not want to ‘talk about it’. I am not going to fall apart. I am not going to make this situation worse or any uglier than I already have done, I had no intention of ever allowing it to get this ugly in the first place-”

“Are you trying to yell at me or apologise to me?” Paul interrupted mildly.

There was a confidence to him and Dale was very aware of it; a relaxed certainty that had never been so strongly present before. Until now there had always been the instinct of being stronger than Paul, having the edge and the control over what would happen. This was for the first time really different, and it was deeply and intensely alarming. Paul wasn’t letting go his hand, he wasn’t at all rattled, he wasn’t getting distracted at all, and Dale realised belatedly that his heart was pounding and had been from the start of this conversation, and by reflex heard his tone get still colder. He found himself standing as far away as Paul’s grasp would allow, at the full stretch of his arm, with ice in his voice and it was that known feeling of being the passage of a kamikaze driver heading at high speed for a wall along with that same urge to get down on the ground against something, a bush, a tree, to be small and to give in to the overwhelming sense of fear.

“It ought to be perfectly apparent that I am not ‘yelling’ with anyone, thank you.” He made another attempt to free his hand in a fairly dignified way, and when Paul failed to respond in an equally dignified manner, let his hand go limp so that Paul was the only one doing any holding and it ought to be fully apparent that it was totally without co operation. “I am perfectly competent to-”

“Yeah, I know this speech too, hon.”

The sympathy was awful to hear. For one very bad second Dale found himself on the very brink of yanking free and telling Paul exactly what he could do with himself, and he knew way too much would pour out on the tail of that explosion. It took effort, real effort, to bite it back, swallow it down, to breathe calmly until the impulse was safely past, and then to draw on years of training and expertise that had been infinitely easier in a board room.

“I understand that you are trying to help. I know you’re trying to lighten the mood, but what would help most is if we can walk, because that at least is regulating, and if I can calm down slightly then it’s easier to put this into words and explain it. This is what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Make this something we can talk about.”

“Oh really good try.” Paul said thoughtfully, not moving. “That’s even using my phrasing, isn’t it? But no, we’re going to sit here. It’s ok, honey.”

He shifted on the bank to get a better purchase and abruptly, too quickly to have time to fight, tugged Dale down, not just onto the log beside him but directly into his lap. He had too good a grip to immediately get away from either. Dale twisted against him with a swell of real panic, and Paul wrapped both arms tight around him, containing him as if he did this every day and it was as normal as baking bread.

“You know what? The woods are not going to blow up. The sky is not going to fall. I’ve got you and we’re ok.”

For the few seconds Dale frankly fought him it was with more emotion than he could contain-  and then behind it came a rush of total safety that overtook the need to fight like a tidal wave, swamping everything in its path.

It was a complete and totally illogical change of state. But he’d known it before. He’d always known it here. How it felt when your body knew something your head didn’t, and let go of the stress in one rush. And instead of drawing properly away, it betrayed you by pushing to get closer and to cling. There was still one small, cool and separate part of his head that pointed out this was ridiculous and it was stupid, humiliating surrender that should not be allowed. None of the rest of him was listening. He was aware he was hanging on to Paul as if he was drowning. Paul went on holding him very tightly, head against his, and he was swaying very slightly, hypnotically;  he didn’t ever remember in his life being held like this before Flynn, before Paul and Jasper, and logically it was ridiculous that mere physical contact could feel so profound.

“I know.” Paul said eventually against him, very quietly. “I know. You’ve told me way too much and now there isn’t anywhere left to hide, and this is a bad day. It’s ok. Remember what Gerry told you? You teach us how to fight this for you on the hard days when you can’t. I’m right here, I’ve got it.”

“Everything I am used to doing is about escape.” Dale said grimly, and it was quite ridiculous to even try sounding like this when seated on another man’s lap and clutching him, as if a suitably mature tone could conceal any of the indignity of it. “All of it. It always has been. It’s all cowardice. I have got the self discipline to see off demonic toddlers and anything else you want to name, I just don’t make myself bloody try hard enough.”

Paul drew back far enough to see him, putting a hand up to brush at his cheek, which horribly, was actually wet. When and how it had gotten wet, Dale really didn’t want to know. He managed to duck his face far enough to give it a sharp scrub with his sleeve when Paul wouldn’t let his hands go.

“Honey, you could die in the attempt and you’d still insist to me you hadn’t tried hard enough. What’s that called?”

Dale glanced down at his own hands, which were muddied past being useable to touch anything much, aware that he was no longer having to consciously control his voice. He was calmer, nonsensically far, far calmer. “Do you think Jasper could find a muckier route if he tried?”

“Hey.” Paul swatted his hip, lightly, but it was enough that Dale gave him a rather shamefaced glance.

“......Perfectionism.”

“Mhm. You’re so used to taking command in a crisis, you’re used to being able to figure out what’s needed and go do it, done, gone, next problem. Can you look at me yet?”

It took effort but Dale looked up and met his eyes. Mostly. Paul smoothed his hair back under the brim of his Stetson, mud and all. His eyes were way too soft and within a few seconds Dale found his gaze defensively slipping away.

“We’re not talking about a rogue company or a fraud attempt.” Paul told him. “This is not a corporate project you can burn through and fix, we’re talking about a child. No, don’t even bother with the baloney. You know exactly what this is and so do I.”

Just the thought of it sent a bolt of panic through his stomach.

Which is it. That’s what you’re trying not to think about, that’s where you’re trying not to go, the avoidance is so ingrained you won’t even admit to yourself what you’re pretending isn’t there. Coward. For pete’s sake grow a pair and face it.

“Tell me something.” Paul said quietly, and he was still swaying slightly. “Do you feel any empathy at all for yourself as a child? I don’t mean empathy for your mother. I mean separate it out, think about it and tell me, as an adult, do you look at what that child handled with any kind of emotion?”

It was actually almost impossible to do. Dale thought for a moment, running it from several angles in his mind, and it was like hitting a blank wall.

Data not found. Blue screen of death.

“.....I don’t feel much about that part of it one way or the other.”

“Which is what?” Paul said gently. “Go on. Channel Flynn for me.”

Dale resisted the urge to growl, but admitted it. “Detachment. Probably denial. Which is-”

“It isn’t just a river in Egypt.” Paul agreed. Dale suppressed a snort despite himself.

“That is bad.”

Paul smiled, but didn’t argue. “Say that again without the rabbits.”

It was far harder to say it without surrounding it with distractions, to let it be heard, to be honest about saying it and then allow Paul to respond to it.

“......Denial.”

“Denial. You’re a logical man. Separate the feelings out from the logic. You feel nothing for yourself in that situation. You told me this part of you needs to be heard and acknowledged. I’ve been watching him step in and protect you all morning.”

Dale’s shoulders were aching and belatedly Dale realised how tightly they were clenched. He was in serious danger of throwing up, his throat and stomach were just as tight. Paul went on holding him, close, his voice calm as if he was talking about something normal.

“He does a good job, and he thinks he’s protecting you. He thinks if you stay numb enough, if you sort things out yourself and don’t buy into any of this trust us crap, the danger’s under control. Doesn’t he?”

That was down in the deepest, darkest and least subtle part of it...  but yes. This was what Gerry knew, this was what Dale had known in himself for months.

The safety catch always on. People allowed so far in but no further. Always control.

“He’s been there when no one else was there for you,” Paul said gently. “and I agree with Jas, I’m very grateful that he was. These beliefs and behaviours got you through that time in your life in one piece, they were strong, sensible adaptations and they worked. But he’s just a child. He’s acting on what he knows and trauma has no time sense. He doesn’t have the understanding that times change and situations change, and today is any different to the days you spent living in that house. He doesn’t have the ability to understand that he’s hurting you now rather than helping you. It isn’t what he means to do, he just can’t understand it in the terms that you can.”

 “So listen to it and do what?” he demanded of Paul. “I appreciate it’s not happy. I’ve got that information. What is going to make the bloody thing shut up?”

Paul gave him a calm shrug. “If Riley’s ranting at us, do we just force him to shut up?”

.....No.

Anyone trying to force Riley to do anything was likely to get their jaw broken. There was nothing so guaranteed to make him see red and Dale had seen Riley utterly refuse to get out of the way of a man holding a gun on him. The image went right along with a sure knowledge of Jasper, Paul and Flynn’s reaction to someone behaving with that kind of.... brutality. Dale swallowed, realising the split in his own perspective.

“You do understand it.” Paul said gently. “The difference is that you love Riley. You don’t want anything to do with this kid at all.”

“I don’t have any particular feelings one way or the other.”

Paul shook his head, very definitely. “Darling, you’re dreaming about him trying to kill you. You’re determined he’s a Boojum, you don’t want to hear anything to the contrary. What do you think you did at this age that makes you so totally untouchable?”

“I have no idea.” Dale said shortly. Paul went on holding his shoulders, rubbing them slowly.

“Well we’re going to need to think about it. Because one of you two is going to have to be the grown up, put the britches on and sort this out, and I really don’t think it should be him. Shall we catch the others up?”

Dale got up, troubled and irritated, and Paul kept hold of his hand, taking the lead up the trail.

“She is not going to know. You cannot hurt her by sharing this with us.”

“I have kind of got a grasp on that one, thank you.”

“Cut the sarcasm please unless you want some rocks to carry too.” Paul said succinctly. “You might know it; I still think you need to hear it.” 

That brought back something Tom had said to him; another brat with years of experience. It had been about not circumventing the process to keep control; even if you knew the answer, sometimes you still needed to hear it said out loud by the man you loved, because hearing it said to you, the experience of him telling you, was very different to just knowing it. And if you didn’t recognise that it was a different experience; if hearing it didn’t raise far more emotion and hit you far deeper, why would you want to avoid it?

Because then you’d have to believe it. Always control. Always on my terms. If it’s on my terms then I can see it coming and I know I can take it. Coward. Always the coward.

Dale grasped Paul’s hand, swallowing on the automatic clench in his stomach, and knowing what it was he wasn’t saying, and why he wasn’t saying it, although it was there. It was in the wanting to curl up on the ground. It was in the fear, the awful, dominating sense of extreme danger. Physical danger. Steeling himself, with grim determination, he dragged a part of it to mind. Anything. Anything at all to start the chain rolling. Flynn had taught him that it was unstoppering a trickle, somewhere, that eventually brought down the dam.

Blurt it out. God help me, just do it, blurt it out. Enough that you can’t pretend any more that it isn’t there.

They found the others a few hundred yards further on, the three of them sitting together on their packs and very tactfully deep in conversation about nothing in particular. And they moved on, through the woods, which grew thicker and darker and muddier as they walked, and Dale, walking with Paul, looked without seeing the trees, the mud, the shadows and the dark, took a deep, slow breath, cleared his throat, and it welled up like thick, black tar in slow drops that clotted on his tongue.



.....and he stood on a station platform in a stiff, dark blue blazer with a powerful sense of unreality, in a crowd of little boys in identical blazers, and suitcases half as tall as he was. There were adults among the boys, men and women. Some of the women were tearful and a couple of the boys were too; he looked with vague surprise at them, big boys of seven, actually crying. He remembered shaking hands with his stepfather, offering his hand to shake when his stepfather said goodbye, and that his stepfather touched his hair, just rested his hand there briefly, and then a strange man in a tweed jacket ushered him towards the group of boys and he stood in a haze, as if time was moving very slowly, as if none of this was real, as if he was a boy in a picture, watching men and women hug little boys and wave and smile and talk to each other, noisy and a million miles away from him. He remembered how bitterly cold it was on that platform. He shivered all the time, although he didn’t show it. It was important not to show it.




....and he walked through the front hall on one of the regular parents’ days at school, which must have been very early on before he had his own plan for those days which included the library or the deserted common room where there was no competition for the armchairs by the fire, and not going anywhere near the dining room or the front hall or the main school at all. It smelled of coffee and perfume and aftershave, and was crowded with staff and adults mixed up with boys, noisy as a football scrum, and he saw the subtlety of it there, men whose eyes and faces lit up when they saw their sons, women who demanded to be taken to see dormitories and cricket fields and appeared to be honestly interested in them, adults who listened to what their sons said, not even just politely. It made him profoundly uncomfortable and he left the area as fast as possible and avoided it ever after. It was another experience, like standing on the station platform, that the rules were different for other people. These things existed, but for some reason or some deficit that he did not understand, they were not for him. It became far easier when he was old enough to simply use those days to work in peace.




.... and he paused by a door at the Ludlow house. He had no idea how old he might have been or when he saw it; it was only a flash of memory. She was wearing a sleeveless, lace white nightgown, sitting up in bed with the counterpane neat and pillows behind her and her hair loose over her shoulders, and she was holding the baby wrapped in a white shawl, laying in her arms. She was looking down into the baby’s face. Gazing. Her face was soft, her eyes were rapt, he remembered that. Seeing her look down with such intense attention, and the expression on her face, and feeling nothing at all. He moved softly away from the door, in the quiet way that meant people rarely looked up and saw you or knew you were there.
 



Somewhere in the middle of that one he paused for a moment and leaned with his hand on a tree trunk, very aware of the cool of it under his hand, the sweat across his forehead and upper lip. Paul put a hand on his back when he stooped forward to throw up hard into the undergrowth.  Luath passed him an open canteen of water when he was done. He and Mason and Jasper had been listening in silence as they walked together, and Dale was vaguely aware of his own voice talking in a stumbling kind of way as they yomped on through the woods, waded muddy hollows, walked through freezing cold streams over bright moss, scrambled up steep and rough banks where roots stuck out of the ground and dragged at their feet and stung their hands, and where leaves rotted unseen and stagnant water lay dank green in pools in the shadows. It was like some kind of botanical graveyard. Dale saw bits of it, like photographs that passed through his mind, but most of what he saw was the house in Horse Guards, with the white painted banisters, where everything had towered above him and where every image pulled harder on that dragging sensation of ice in his stomach. At times one of them asked a question, something quiet. He often didn’t notice much who it was. It was like walking through a treacle thick mist that numbed out everything while he tried to keep on talking. 

Oddly too, he was half aware that occasionally people passed by them, infrequently but as much a part of the woods as the trees and the mud. An older man wearing an animal skin hat and carrying a gun on his shoulder smiled and nodded as he climbed down the slope near them. Two men with candle stubs in their hats, carrying lanterns and blackened with coal gave him a nod as they walked along a trail that was no longer there, their legs invisible in the undergrowth that didn’t stir as they walked. Somewhere in the distance was a very faint train whistle at intervals, and the occasional and so distinctive whiff of a coal burning steam engine. A girl walked past them on the track, barefoot although she was immaculately clean, a flower embroidered in pink thread on the knee of her flared jeans and her white shirt moving very slightly in slow motion. She smiled too, her long dark hair tucked behind her ear, and there was real sympathy in her smile. None of them said anything or indicated anything, and it should have been weird and disturbing, but actually, every one of them met his eyes and gave him that smile, which helped in a way he couldn’t have quantified. Particularly as none of the others, not even Jasper, showed the faintest awareness of them.



.... and there was a garden, he was very small, so small the tall white flowers in the border were enormous above his head, and she was sitting on the green grass with her long hair hanging over her shoulders, her skirt spread out all around her. He didn’t remember more; just that second and how beautiful she was in it, and how wonderful it felt when she was happy, how much he loved her when she looked like this and smiled like this. He wanted it to go on forever, he clung to every moment of it, and it was all the more magical for the fact it was rare, it happened without warning and there was no idea of how long it might last before something would well up in her, the shine would go out of her eyes again, she would be limp and silent and unseeing and would flinch away from him if he spoke or got too close, or worse when she’d drop on the bed or the floor or her head on her arms and sob endlessly and inconsolably, and shake him off if he touched her. Or worst of all go into another room and close the door behind her. That sobbing was the worst sound in the world.



.........and she was laying face down on her bed, her face hidden in the crook of her arm, her lovely hair scattered in soft, dark waves, and she was sobbing so hard she shook. Her room was dark and the house was dark and silent. He sat by the banisters on the landing, listening to her cry and knowing if he tried to talk to her or hold her hand or touch her she would go away. Instead he waited by her open door on the landing, drawing small patterns in the pile of the carpet with one finger, and the prince cut his way through a forest of tangled trees, hacking strongly with his sword towards a cave where the princess was trapped... and with a small part of him left over he listened very carefully while she gradually got quieter and stiller. And when she’d been still for a very long time, he got up, his knees stiff from sitting, went into her room and very carefully took the edge of the fat, pink silk eiderdown on the side of her bed and towing it with him with both hands, which took some effort, walked around the edge of the bed, folding it over her while she slept, and then very lightly and very carefully stroked her soft hair out of her wet eyes. Just a little, it was important not to waken her. And then he went back to the silent landing and sat on the floor by her door, facing out towards the stairs. There was something dangerous in the house. He didn’t know what it was; it was something he felt, not something he ever saw or heard more than murmurs about, but it was what made her cry so terribly and it was as bad as the other intangible things to be scared of like the dark and witches and monsters, and there was no one but him in the house to face it. If he sat on guard, if he watched the house, he was braced for whatever it was and it couldn’t creep up on them although waiting for it made him tremble, and he lost himself in thinking about the prince to tolerate the cold and the dark on the landing. 


*


He was starting to look terrible. That was one of the most alarming parts of it. In all the time Luath had known him and known of him, Dale wasn’t a man who gave much away even under the greatest pressure. He was always quiet, contained, he did whatever he was doing in the same competent way whether it was chairing a meeting or brushing his teeth.

“I didn’t see much.” Jeremy Banks had admitted at a function some months ago where in a quiet corner amongst the tuxedos and wine glasses, he and Luath had been chatting. “He was getting run down, I could see some of that. My PA told me she thought he’d got thin, women notice this kind of thing more I suppose and I think there’d been some talk about it. I knew he was working ridiculous hours even by our terms and I knew logically not even he could keep that going forever, and I was worried about him, but he isn’t a guy you can pull aside for a drink and a chat in that way, he doesn’t open up. He wasn’t disliked, don’t get me wrong, but Dale does intimidate the crap out of just about everybody. There’s nothing he can’t do, he’s always quiet, calm, always so damn polite, no one’s ever got him to lose his temper or get emotionally involved in anything or get involved in any of the politics and backbiting, and there’s the whole British accent and the way he looks at people. Not aggressive, not arrogant - around here that makes sense and people know how to react to it - but I had guys say to me it was like having your brain scanned, willing or not. People don’t know what to do with that kind of strength in a man other than lean on it. I honestly didn’t realise how bad he had looked until I went out to the ranch to see him a few months later, and saw the difference.”

Roger had been shy. In the right situation, with people he didn’t know well, he could be painfully quiet or uncomfortable. Dale was shy too, Luath was prepared to swear he got that vibe from him but Dale, if he wanted to, could make it hard for you to remember he was even there. Or he could have a presence that you couldn’t ignore even if he was simply standing still doing nothing. There was a control and choice there, and you still couldn’t read in his face what the choice was or why. Flynn could read him. Paul did. Riley did. Luath knew his eye still slid off the polished surface of Dale most of the time, and in conversation with Ash, who knew Dale better, Ash had said he couldn’t do it either.

It was what made it so shocking to see him looking- sick. Awful. There were dark rings around his eyes, Luath had been watching those grow since the first light at dawn, and his colour was unmissably bad.  He’d several times now seen Dale pause, quietly step aside from them discreetly out of their way and vomit, and seen the sweat on his face. He made no fuss about it, but Mason, keeping pace with Luath, glanced back the third time and said under his breath,

“Look, someone ought to make that guy go home and go to bed.”

Yeah, I agree completely.

“I don’t think it’s physical.” Luath said just as quietly, since showing a united front came under the first rule, but fairly sure almost every Top in the family would feel the same way he did. “And I guess he doesn’t want to go. He hasn’t said anything about quitting.”

Mason grunted, but Luath saw the look the man made towards Dale that acknowledged that in Mason’s mind, Dale wasn’t a guy you expected to quit, and that someone needed to be doing the telling.

“Dale’s quite right, Mason spends a lot of time watching him.” Gerry had commented airily to him the day before they left on the hike. “He’s not about to admit it and actually ask, but I’m pretty sure he’s got no idea why someone who overawes him and walks around looking like The Spy Who Loved Me is getting swatted or sent to bed. I love it, I’m all for fucking with a guy’s mind in a healthy way.”

“Go tell Ash you just said that.” Luath ordered. Gerry laughed in much the same way Darcy did when he was enjoying shocking someone.

“Darling I would if I thought you really meant it. The guy’s whole concept of machismo is screwed right up. Have you seen Mason’s face when Dale tells him off?”

Yes, several times. And today, Mason was listening to Dale talking in that quiet, fairly expressionless voice about things that made Luath’s throat tighten and stirred up emotions difficult to keep out of his face, and difficult to remind himself it wasn’t his job to do anything more than listen.

It had to be quite an experience for Mason to hear a strong guy talking about these things openly in front of them. It took real strength to be afraid in front of other people; it wasn’t something Mason was yet able to do himself, but he’d find it difficult viewing it as weakness in Dale. He’d been willing without complaint or hesitation to pack up the camp this morning. He’d walked without complaint with a lot of attention to Paul and Dale behind them, watching where they were, if they were keeping up. For a guy with a lot of problems himself, and a lot on his mind, he was genuinely concerned. With damn all else he could do to help, Luath had been prepared to distract Mason if necessary to let Dale talk to Jasper and Paul in peace, but Mason had slowed his pace to match theirs and listened without comment, and so it had been things confided between all five of them. When you spent three days and nights solid with four other guys, sleeping with them, eating with them, walking with them, sharing water with them, it changed things. From looking so angry and demoralised and defensive on the first day they hiked out, Mason had changed a lot. His circle beard was shaggier again, he’d gotten the knack of wearing a Stetson and he looked scruffy, tanned and surprisingly at home with them. He liked the outdoors stuff and he was good at it; Luath had watched him learn from Jasper and learn fast, and he had no hesitation in getting his hands dirty. 

They came to a halt by a stream where they washed their filthy hands, and sat down for a few minutes to eat and drink. Tam, who had been shadowing Jasper, stood in the shallows and lapped noisily. Paul stooped to fill his water bottle, and Jasper turned Dale, took the pack off his shoulders, sat down on the bank, and drew Dale down to sit between his knees, folding both arms over him. Dale went where Jasper guided him, slow moving, and without much expression on his face at all. His face was greyish, he was shivering despite the jacket, and while Jasper looked equally calm, Luath had never seen him enclose anyone like that before, even Riley. Jasper and Paul’s concentration was tangible, Luath had seen it many times in this household, Philip had been capable of an intensity of it that you could feel across a room, and at one time Luath had known it well in himself when Roger needed him. He crouched beside Paul to fill his own bottle, speaking quietly enough for only Paul to hear him.

“What can I do?”

“Exactly what you’re doing, love.” Paul gave him a quick and surprisingly optimistic smile. They’d all lost sleep and Paul was always remarkably resilient about disturbed nights, but Luath knew too the energy rush that came when you needed it, when yours was the strength keeping two of you going. “I know this looks horrible, but the time to worry about Dale is when he looks fine. If he’s melting down and letting you see it then he’s telling you he feels pretty safe. He knows what he’s doing, we’re ok.”

“You don’t think he’d be better doing this at home?”

“No.” Paul glanced over at Jasper and Dale and Mason who was sitting on the bank. “No, I really don’t, Dale’s a lot like Jas and Flynn. Don’t let it scare you. He’s a strong personality in a very unobtrusive kind of way, I’ve always found myself tending to believe what he thinks is happening, but this is a serious case of ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’.”

Luath gave him an askance look and Paul smiled and patted his knee as he got up.

“You’re ok. I promise not to sing, and you’re safe from the yellow brick road dance. Gerry and Wade are out of earshot.”

He opened his pack and dug for his bag of granola, and sat down beside Jasper and Dale to open the Ziploc bag.

“Honey, I know you don’t want it and it’s not what I’d like to give you right now, but you need something to buffer your stomach. Just try a bit.”

Dale shook his head, but Jasper took a pinch of the grain and held it to his mouth. Dale politely drew back far enough to avoid it, trying to get his hand past Jasper’s.

“Thank you, but I’m not quite that incompetent yet.”

“You’re having a hard day and I’m married to you.” Jasper said calmly. “This is legal between adults in this state.”

Dale gave him a look, but he opened his mouth and did clearly his best to chew and swallow. He also successfully got up and off the path before he threw it straight back up.

Paul gave Luath a thoughtful nod, going to help. “That’s a pretty expressive rejection.”

Jasper had gone with Dale and was holding his shoulders despite Dale’s body language which indicated a sharp desire for him to get off and allow him to vomit in peace.

“No.” Luath heard Jasper inform Dale, “We do the ugly stuff too. That’s ok.”

“Thank you so much.” Dale turned around and accepted the water bottle Paul handed him, rinsing his mouth out and spitting with sharp acuity into the bushes. “To love, honour, obey and surrender the right to throw up without an audience awarding marks out of ten for presentation.”

He was white as a sheet and he sounded livid, Luath could see the shake in his hands as he swallowed water.

“Bullshit.” Paul said matter of factly. “Which one of you is mad at us right now and why?”

Dale gave him a level glare that Luath personally wouldn’t have liked to stand under.

“You are a bloody annoying man.”

“Yeah, I love you too.” Paul ran a hand down his back. “I think you’re mad with yourself for what you’ve been telling us. You’re mad that you feel better when we stay close. You’re so mad about letting Jas put food inside you that you have to throw it up. You don’t want us here when you’re upset or sick, because that’s when it’s too hard to stay tough. That’s ok, I get it. You had to look after yourself, you had to be tough.”

Dale didn’t answer, a shade whiter, not looking at any of them, and then he turned sharply away and threw up again.

Jasper said nothing but he was still holding Dale’s shoulders and Luath could see him rubbing them a little.

“Do I really,” Dale said bitterly, when he finally straightened up, and his eyes were running and his voice was scratchy from acid in his throat, “need a full audience for this? Would anyone like deckchairs or popcorn?”

“Hey you’ve watched plenty of my crap. Not much gets done behind closed doors here.” Mason said with roughness that was surprisingly kind. He was crouching, silking Tam’s ears through his fingers, as Tam was sitting a little uncertainly looking from one to the other of them, aware of the tension. “With the stuff you’ve been telling us about you’re frickin’ entitled to find it hard going. Want to try tea with boiled water instead of the iodine flavoured stuff and see if that stays down?”

Dale took another, slower breath without retching and wiped his mouth.

“This is merely a nuisance, I’m all right.”

“Man, trust me. You really are not all right.” Mason glanced up to Jasper, “Isn’t there a near way out of the woods to somewhere we can set up camp? No sense trying to camp under trees, we’ll get dripped on all night.”

“There is Three Traders over in that direction if you’re interested.” Dale indicated uphill and east north east, “Approximately four statute miles, or six four three seven point three six metres depending on your preferences, I can re calculate the US survey mile if you’d prefer; or south east there’s the mine shaft which is fun too although a definite subsidence hazard, I’ve checked that out personally, approximately 2 point four, possibly five miles-”

“Or you could be honest about being mad at us and we can talk about it.” Paul interrupted firmly.

Dale looked him right in the eye, spreading his hands slightly with a sardonic civility in his tone that went right along with the challenge in his gaze. “I can also do it in furlongs if that’s any easier, would you prefer gradients and the directional derivative, cubic air capacity-”

Jasper swatted him. It was hard and efficiently done, and over wet jeans, it had to have stung.

“I’ll take that as a no, shall I?” Dale said courteously to Jasper, swiftly walked back to his pack and swung it up, buckling the harness with his back to both Jasper and Paul. To Luath, who would have been sorely tempted in Jasper’s position to turn Dale straight over his knee and clarify that ‘no’ in a way that would take the smartness right out of his tone, the turning of his back was extremely pointed and totally unacceptable. “Luath, how far would you say we are here from the wagon trail?”

That was what gave it away.

Dale rarely initiated conversation, and never chattily. That charm, that conversational tone was forced and false, there was an edge to it that was sheer desperation, and his hands were still visibly shaking. Luath put both hands on his shoulders, turned him around and walked him directly back to Jasper with a grip that didn’t plan on being argued with.

“No. I’m not who you need to be with right now.”

“The tea is a great idea Mason, thank you.” Paul said gratefully to Mason, who nodded and Luath came to help him organise a fire, appreciating that after several days Mason did this independently and with growing efficiency. Jasper took Dale with him to a higher spot up the bank to put his back against a tree, sat down and once more drew Dale down in between his knees, close against him, going on silently massaging his shoulders and neck, with gentle hands. Paul sat down beside them, against Jasper’s shoulder, and they said nothing at all. They just sat there, and Dale stared at the ground with his shoulders tight, his hands linked between his knees, his face grey and his body stiff.

Taking his cue from them, Luath stayed quiet and so did Mason. They drank tea, sitting in the quiet of the wood with only the day time noises of birds and the rustling trees. Dale held the cup between his hands for a long time, eyes still on the ground, and then he drank most of it and this time it stayed down. After an even longer time of silence, Dale freed a hand from the cup, found Jasper’s hand and gripped it hard. Nothing more than that, he didn’t look round, he just felt for Jasper’s hand, laced his fingers through Jasper’s and gripped. A few minutes later he cleared his throat. He didn’t lift his eyes and he spoke in that strangely flat, quiet tone, but he was confiding to all of them.


.....and she was wearing a suit, sky blue, he remembered it ever after, the neat skirt and jacket and the low hat with the veil and the small bouquet of flowers in her hand, and the house full of people in suits with flowers in the hallway below the banisters, holding glasses and making a lot of noise, and someone had his hand – he didn’t remember who – and guided him outside to a car. He had obviously been going somewhere and knew where he was going, he was not frightened, but he remembered seeing her in the suit and seeing her smile and being bewildered as to what was happening. Rationally, he must have known, he must have been told, but he remembered being led out of the house and feeling nothing but bewilderment....



*


Mason took the lead when they finally moved on. Jasper asked him, saying that he needed to stay with Dale and Paul, and Mason just gave him a brief nod, shouldering his pack.

“Yeah, no problem, man.”

He led the way on up the trail, and Dale was aware that he was picking the easiest routes he could, and that he paused at intervals to glance back, keeping their pace slow enough that no one got left behind. It was a nice gesture of consideration, although getting left behind would not have been easy anyway considering that Jasper appeared to be prepared to dislocate his shoulder rather than let go of his hand no matter how steep the path or how narrow. Numbed, Dale walked between him and Paul and wasn’t aware of much else. The train steam whistle was still audible at long intervals as it had been all day. It was no louder, but it was sounding more often. Not clearly, not full whistles, it was like catching a fragment of sound on the wind from a long way off.

At the top of one steep bank he was hit by a sudden wave of light headedness, a dizziness that felt like tumbling down from a great height, and he had to stop, bracing himself. Jasper stopped at once, his hand tightening on Dale’s and he turned back to steady him, his dark eyes watchful. Concerned. Dale held on to his arm as the dizziness receded – and something in the hollow below caught his attention, penetrating through the nausea and what was now a severely pounding headache. He’d paid very little attention to where they were or what direction they were walking in, despite Mason’s rather erratic route finding, but as he saw the dark, curved shape in the leaves a few pieces of information abruptly snapped together and demanded his attention.

“We're going to die in this frigging forest, you know?” Mason was saying conversationally to Luath further ahead of them. “There isn’t a way out, I swear we’re walking in circles and it’s all steeper than hell. We’ll rot out here and they'll identify our bones by the granola.”

“You're the leader.” Luath pointed out. “We’re following you. If you’re going to get down, you’re going to pull the whole team down with you.”

“Yeah, well I'm hauling more rocks than you are.”

“Work on thinking about how you earned those and pick a route before I give you half a tree to lug around as well.” Luath suggested, and Dale heard Mason crack into a laugh.

Its – yes. It would be here. It’s highly likely.

Dale unclipped his harness and dropped his pack to the ground in one swift movement, slipping Jasper’s hand without thinking. He heard Paul calling sharply as he made his way down, but it was barely thirty feet below, hardly even leaving the group, and Dale reached his objective within a few seconds.

It was the tumbled steam engine. Lying on her side, half buried in the leaves and mulch, rusted and moss covered. He’d passed her many times, but never before come close enough to touch, where moss grew over her round bellied boiler and funnel. There was a rush of warmth in seeing her that blotted out a lot of the hell of the last few hours. She was one of the familiar ranch land marks, and he felt a well of excitement too as he checked and confirmed a few facts in her shape and size. He felt his way gently along her side, seeking with his fingertips under the moss and finding himself touching her with love for this rusted, inanimate object. Then he climbed with care up on to her boiler cylinder, aware from the sounds behind him that at least one or two of the others had followed him down the bank.

With both palms pressed to her, Dale caught an abrupt and shockingly clear sense of rushing. Something hugely heavy moving at speed, and then that head spinning sense again of something tumbling over and over, this time far stronger, with steam and fire flashing against the black of the sky and men’s voices shouting from the top of the bank, far up above them where the rail line lay. For a moment he breathed steam and knew that the sound of her whistle had been piercing, he heard a flash of how it had sounded in the days when she ran on the tracks above. Rather than alarming, it was exhilarating, which was as nutty as feeling this rush of tenderness for her. His fingers found what they were looking for deep under the moss and gently dug with their nails to peel that part away in a neat strip.

“It is her.” he said softly to Jasper and Paul. “She’s here.”

With the same great care not to damage her or snap rusted metal, Jasper climbed up beside him and looked over his shoulder at the worn and corroded letters set into the name plate. Silver Bullet.

For a long moment they looked together, and then Dale gently laid the moss strip back in its place to cover the name, and Jasper hooked an arm around his waist and physically lifted him down to the ground. Paul took his arm the minute he was within reach, turned Dale back to face the bank they’d come down, and swatted the back of his thighs soundly, one crisp swat on each leg that made him yelp.

What is the gradient of that slope?”

“Approximately one in two point one,” Dale said automatically, checking it, unable not to put a hand back to rub at the smarting. “Probably slightly less in places?”

“You do not run headlong down what’s more or less a cliff!” Paul sounded out of breath. “If you’d lost your footing or hit a tree you could have seriously hurt yourself, you just took about five years off my life.”

“She’s the Silver Bullet.”

“I don’t care if she’s the Archangel Gabriel, don’t do it.” 

Having made his point, Paul held onto his arm and looked with him at the half buried engine they’d had on their land for decades, which had been here before either of them came to the ranch, and the crossness didn’t cover exactly the same warmth in his face and his voice that Dale felt.

“That’s really her? She’s been here all the time?”

I love this man.

“That’s her.”

It was so strange. There was nothing at all in the landscape or her position to suggest how she’d fallen, but Dale was aware of flashes of it passing through his mind, the tumbling, the steam, the flash of steam and fire rolling in the darkness, exactly what obscenity a man’s voice had said as he hit the ground at the top of the bank where he jumped clear, and his exact accent but nothing of his face or his name or anything more about him – puzzle pieces. Just fragments, a few scattered sensory fragments that only made sense and that he only paid attention to at all because he knew her story already.

I would have dismissed them as imagination. Just natural images from thinking about it. What factual evidence do I pick up without consciously realising it? Where’s the difference between thinking or imagining or actual trustworthy information that comes from outside of me? I don’t know at all. I really don’t know.

It was almost funny. Keeping his face straight with an effort, Dale put a hand up to steady Jasper as he climbed down, stepping carefully to avoid Tam who was circling the engine to see where Jasper had gone and if she could go too.

“She’s quite a size.” Mason said from where he had his head stuck into the cabin, looking at the rusted remains of her fire box and controls.

“She’s a locomotive. She ran through Three Traders for years,” Dale said lightly, still working on keeping his voice even. “This is the train we’ve been researching, the train that was robbed at Three Traders.”

“Seriously? This is her?” Mason stepped back to survey what was visible of her body. 

“She went out of control at the top of Dead Man’s Hill. Which is up that way with Three Traders right below it.”

“You are way past fried, aren’t you?” Paul said darkly, taking very firm hold on his arm. “High stress, not enough sleep, electrolytes and chemistry totally out of whack, and probably dehydrated. I think Three Traders and a camp as soon as possible sounds a very good idea. Mason, if you don’t mind, Dale lead on and let’s get out of here.”

“Hey, if you know a way out then I’m with you.” Mason said fervently. “Dale, be my guest, please.”

Luath, who had brought Dale’s pack down with his own, handed it to Dale with a very definite Look, which awfully, made Dale want to laugh all the harder. He got a grip over his face and tone with an effort, indicating the direction.

“If we cut straight across this way and keep walking uphill at a diagonal, we’ll come out on Dead Man’s Hill itself.”

“Then drink that, all of it, and let’s go.” Paul handed Dale his water canteen, took his arm, and with Tam trotting ahead of them,
they walked between trees, up the steep mulched and leaf covered banks.

The ground was far drier up here than it had been this morning in the lowest and deepest part of the woods. The ground was much rockier, the plants a softer green instead of the intense and dark colours in the wettest bogs they’d clambered through, the smell of the ground was fresher, and the mulch under foot was brown and gold and dry, crunching rather than squelching. It was warmer too, the sun was starting to dapple through the treetops and touch the ground so that they walked through pillars of light and shade. At the end of tree covered bank was a kind of steep gulley that led up hill, grassed and rocky and easy walking between the trees, and they had been following it a short while when Luath paused and hacked with the heel of his boot at some of the thick moss to reveal rough cut rock below.

“I thought so. You know there’s steps cut here?”

Mason looked with him, then followed his example both of them kicking out the moss and earth covering the carving in the soil and rock until they’d exposed the whole of the rough hewn step.

“The mine is only two miles that way.” Dale said turning to look down the angle of the gulley. It ran for some way, cleared of trees, probably following what had once been a natural channel of rock that had been easy to walk on and had been made even easier with minimal work from a team of men with pick axes. The gulley wasn’t wide, but the steps were broad and shallow enough that you could have easily wheeled a hand cart down or led a horse without trouble. “The mine’s railway siding isn’t far below us either, it lays in this direction. This was probably the miners’ path from the town down to the steam train and the mine shafts.”

“I guess it’s well worth cutting steps in a steep, muddy bank if plenty of men are walking it every day.” Luath agreed. “Much easier walking than scrambling down through muddy trails in all weathers.”

His suggestion raised a sudden and brief flash for Dale of the sound of many feet, boots walking on the moss covered rock, a sound he heard in his head as clearly as if he’d heard it with his ears. The steps led on and on, up through the woods until the light between the trees suddenly became stronger, and they stepped out of the cool, gloomy shade into the shock of bright sunshine on the open pasture where the emerald green grass rippled in the wind for miles ahead of them in open, rolling land. They were at the brow of the steep hill that ran down into the valley where the warm red and brown roofs of Three Traders, with the mine wheel and the dusty main street lay below. It was a physical relief after hours of darkness in the woods, hard ground,  aching legs and mud to emerge on open, familiar ground and the bright sun lay like a divine spotlight on the town, like some peculiarly derelict, but wonderfully familiar and welcoming promised land.








            They followed the railway line down the hill. Dale, eyes on the green grass by the blue of the river, saw a brief, flashing glimpse of white tents, just a handful of them on the banks with furs pegged out on posts on the grass, and then they were gone. It was warmer still in the shelter of the valley. On the wide, shallow banks of the river Paul dropped his pack, pulled out his bedroll and unfastened it, spreading out his ground pad and sleeping bag.

“You, here.”

It was fairly clear who he meant. Dale unclipped his harness, Jasper let go of his hand and helped him ease the pack down off his shoulders, and Paul unzipped his jacket and began to peel him out of filthy boots and jeans.

“A swim would be really good.” Mason dropped his own pack and shouldered out of his jacket before he walked down the bank to put a hand in the water. “Hey, this is warmer than the river yesterday. I guess I’ll find firewood, I’m ready for a drink that isn’t iodine flavoured.”

He headed off, wading without hesitation towards the tree line. Jasper walked a way up river, looking for a clear spot to re fill the canteens. Stripped as far as Paul found necessary, Dale dropped his Stetson on the ground and lay down in the sleeping bag where Paul indicated, tipping his head back. Luath dropped his own pack, sat down on the grass and lay back too, stretching his shoulders with a groan of comfort.

“It’s good to stop.”

“How bad is the headache?” Paul put the back of his fingers against Dale’s forehead, then took the first aid case out of his own back pack. “1-5, and honestly.”

“About a 4.”

“Stomach sore?”

Following his one experience of an ulcer, there was a particular kind of soreness that often came with stress or stomach trouble and always made Dale nervous. It was powerful that Paul knew him well enough to know it.

“....Fairly.”

Paul handed him several different pills and a canteen. “Ok. Swallow those hon. You could probably use some salt, but I want you to be able to keep something in your stomach first.”

“We’re by water, so Jas will fish.” Luath said without opening his eyes. “And fish versus granola and jerky? I’ll be fishing too. That should be easier for everyone to keep down.”

Dale swallowed the pills, and Paul took the canteen from him and zipped the sleeping bag up around him, stretching out on the grass on his side and putting a hand on Dale’s hip to pull him into the position he usually slept in. It was lying half curled into Paul, sheltered by him, and Paul went on rubbing his back where his hand rested. The ground was soft, he was extremely tired, aching all over and starting to get warm for the first time in hours, and while he wasn’t in the least sleepy, it was good to be here in the sun with no further need to go anywhere today. He’d spent a night out here in this pasture with Jasper, Paul, Flynn and Riley months ago, when he first came back from New York to live here permanently, and it had been a rough night and a still rougher morning. It was only when he reflected on that, that he realised how close he and Paul were laying, and that it was a huge part of the sense of peace he was feeling. Comfort. Safety.

“How are you doing?” Paul said very quietly. His voice was low enough and near enough that it was a private conversation. Apart from which, Luath looked as if he was either sound asleep or very nearly. Dale gave him an apologetic half shrug.

“Thinking if I’d had any idea how to.... ask for this or even allow this the first night we spent out here last year, I probably could have avoided the whole panic attack and disappearing in a jeep bit. Which was ..... incredibly grim.”

“I remember.” Paul held his eyes, his own eyes very gentle. “You know I’d know now that things were getting that bad? And you tell us a lot more than you could do back then. I think the chances are good that we’d head it off a lot earlier, so you don’t need to  worry about it happening again.”

Unsteadily, Dale leaned up on one elbow to put a hand against Paul’s face and kiss him.





            He was too tired to sleep, but it was good to lie with a dozing Paul and Luath. Jasper sat on the bank of the river near them with Tam flopped on the grass beside him and watched the water run, and Mason came back with firewood, started a fire and put water on to boil. Tea with boiled water was distinctly better than iodine. After which Mason, Luath and Jasper together went to fish with their improvised rods, which had improved drastically since yesterday. Dale would have gone with them if Paul had allowed it, which he categorically didn’t. Instead they went on laying comfortably together listening to the river and the slow crackle of the fire. There were two dots circling in the sky above the town. Dale watched them for a while before one wheeled and he recognised both the movement and the distinctive flare of the wing tips, like curved fingertips against the electric blue sky. It brought the same jolt of warmth and familiarity the train had done. The same kind of recognition. Eagles. Rarely seen on the ranch, but there, glimpsed from time to time, belonging to their land and a part of it. They always touched him with the same kind of awe at their beauty and their size. Spirit messengers in the Shoshone culture and the Cherokee culture Jasper had been born to. Athletes, able to move between earth and sky to heights nothing else could reach, with the perspective of seeing everything from the air, to gain a full and clear view.

Lucky bastards.

And after a while he cleared his throat, and met Paul’s eyes, and started to talk again.



.........in another room, he didn’t know which, she was crying and he was crying too, hanging on to her skirt. It was soft and blue and filmy, delicate like all her clothes, and she had her hands lifted up out of his reach so he couldn’t touch her, she turned away and covered her ears to shut out his noise. It was as if he wasn’t there, as if her skirt had merely snagged on something. And when he let her go, she fled through the door to her room and closed it behind her, and in panic he ran at the door and clutched at the wooden panels, horribly aware of his own howling – an awful, horrible sound, so wrong and so bad that he was terrified at himself but he couldn’t stop, and it sounded detachedly false, ridiculous in his own ears, but it wouldn’t stop...



.......and there was a heavy wooden chair, so tall he had to drag it by one fat wooden leg across the cold black tiles of the scullery floor to where a tap dripped into a stone sink. It took a minute to stretch up high enough to get his knee on the high wooden seat, and from there to climb up on to the chair and from the chair onto the thick wooden draining board, where he pulled and pulled with both hands at the cold tap, struggling with it until it squeaked and turned and splashed softly down into the sink. And then he twisted around his arm to see his elbow where it was bloodied, and looked at the matching scrape on his knee, his hands still shaking and his chest still heaving from the crash and roll down the hard wooden stairs onto the hard tiles of the hall. The kitchen and scullery were silent. Mrs Barker had long since gone home, and no one knew he was down here, and for a moment his chin shook too and he held his breath, tight, carefully rubbing at the trickle of blood running down his shin before it could stain his sock. The pain of the scrapes was numbing slowly into a tolerable burn some way away from him; it was as if it was someone else’s leg with blood oozing slowly from the graze. It mustn’t be seen. He knew that. It was knowledge long since internalised, and the fear of that betraying blood being there, visible, was worse than the tumble down the sharp edged steps. He clumsily began to wet his hand under the tap and wipe at the grazes, rubbing off every trace of the blood. It welled again as soon as he wiped it away, reappearing over and over again, and his stomach tightened and shook and his chin began to ache along with his throat from how hard he had to hold his breath, and he went on and on doggedly wiping the blood away....  



His throat was not just scratchy but actively sore when he trailed off, and Paul’s expression was painful to look at. Down by the river, Mason, Jasper and Luath were at different spots on the bank, quiet, focused on their fishing rods, far out of earshot and unaware of what was being talked about. Normality, just thirty feet away.

Numb, aware of the shaking in his hands – which was stupid, all kids scraped themselves, it had been a minor, minor graze- Dale looked down at the grass with no idea what else to say or do, or what should come next, or what he wanted Paul to do or say, and not wanting to allow an obvious gap which Paul might feel he had to fill. It seemed demanding and rather unfair to throw all this mess at him and then just wait for him to react.

Paul simply slid closer and pulled him into his arms. It was such a simple thing to be so exactly the right answer. Dale shut his eyes, swamped with the physical reaction that washed through him, tightening his throat, burning his eyes, and Paul held him closely, one hand holding his head against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry. I am so sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry you had to do that.”

Oddly, hearing it said aloud really helped too.

Except what did you say? Thank you? It seemed a very mechanical response. Understanding it and wishing he didn’t, Dale was aware of the wall still in place between what he said and the real emotion attached to it; he’d often felt it there. Flynn never missed it, he would have known and unhesitatingly now yanked that wall straight down and steadied him through it breaking, however devastating it felt for the first few minutes. It just wasn’t possible to do it alone. He had no idea where to start, or even how to try to explain it if that would be remotely fair to Paul, with all he’d put up with and given today without complaint or hesitation. 

But it was also not ok to just let the separation stand. Not if he was honest.

Nauseous with it, still shaking, Dale let Paul go and took a few discreetly deep breaths to get a grip. Paul watched him, his eyes painfully concerned.

 “I do wonder if there wasn’t guilt for her. It may have been that was some of why she separated herself from you. She must feel terribly guilty for what she put you through.”

Did she?

That was a new thought, and a raw one.

“She was so pretty.” Dale said with difficulty, not sure why that mattered. “She’s dark too.”

“Like you.”

“Well she was; I don’t know now. She had long hair at the time like something out of a book. And blue eyes. Really bright blue eyes. She wasn’t always .... depressed or withdrawn. She was very young, maybe that made it worse. But sometimes when it wasn’t so bad she could be- wonderful. She was lively and so – sparkly. Everyone loved to look at her and talk to her, and she’d climb around on the floor or the stairs without caring about her dress, I suppose she must have been young enough that she could really play. She could be enchanting when she was...”

“In a good patch.” Paul said gently when he trailed off. “You must have adored her.”

“I did.” 

“What was it like on one of her bad days?”

That was even harder to think about. Dale pulled softly at the grass with his fingers, warm from the sun and thousands of miles from that house and that time. Adult fingers. Large, long, capable. They looked incongruous somehow.

“.....She would just sit sometimes, in her room.  It must have been for hours because I know it could be all day, it would get dark and she wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t talk or look around, she just – went away inside herself. I remember the crying most. She’d be completely limp, on the bed or on the floor or with her head down on her arms, like a broken doll. It must have been absolute despair for her.”

“What was it for you?”

“It was an awful sound.” Dale said it neutrally but Paul heard the strength under it. He watched Dale’s face, trying to read anything there and knowing exactly what the ‘went away inside himself’ looked like. Her son had learned it well.

“What did you do when she was like that?”

“Nothing.” Dale’s eyes stayed fixed into the distance, and Paul knew it was a distancing manoeuvre, he’d seen Dale do it so often. It meant that no matter how toneless he sounded, it hurt, and by blanking his eyes, by saying it to no one in particular, he could keep it at arms’ length. He put a gentle hand on Dale’s jaw, not trying to turn it, just touching him. Dale didn’t move for a long time. Then he turned his head slowly towards Paul and met his eyes. Paul looked back at him, not trying to keep the pain of this off his face, how awful this was and how sad it was, and saw Dale flinch in response to the emotion there. And yet he held the eye contact. It was one of the most intimate things in the world, to look into another person’s eyes; one of the most vulnerable things any human could do. Something only ever done with a parent or a lover, but he did it, he didn’t look away and his eyes looked very large. Undefended and faintly bewildered. It took a few moments for him to say anything else, and when he spoke it cracked his iron control, Paul heard the shake under his breathing.

“...If you touched her, or you tried to comfort her, she’d shake you off. Sometimes she’d move away and shut the door behind her, and that was worst because God knows what she was doing in there that you couldn’t see.”

“Were you ever afraid she’d hurt herself?” Paul said gently. Dale shrugged. The weariness in the movement was painful to see.

“Not consciously, I just knew I was afraid when I couldn’t see her. The best thing to do was be quiet, not draw her attention, and then she’d forget I was there. At least then I could stay with her. If I’d known more, if I’d had any real idea of what to do, or what to say, then maybe ....? All I did was shut up. Say nothing, do nothing. Riley would have argued and fought back. You would have fought back. I just let it happen.”

“Dale, you were only a baby.” Paul cupped his face, the roughness of his jaw, and Dale finally looked up again, directly at him. Paul stroked his cheek, his own throat tight.

“How can you blame yourself for not knowing what to do? What child would? This wasn’t your fault.”

Dale shook his head with a grim and horrible kind of humour. “I’m emotionally illiterate and you know I am. I am very certain that Riley at that age had more spirit than I had.”

“No.” Paul said as firmly as he could. “
You were an amazing, sweet and loving kid, and I know you were because I know you now. Please don’t try to see yourself through her eyes, hon. You have no idea what she was actually seeing. You’re saying what you felt at the time, that you felt you weren’t enough for her, you couldn’t be what she needed to be happy. To a child that must have hurt like hell. You had no way to comprehend what it was like to lose a husband, or what an adult needs from their partner, how could a toddler possibly compensate for that? This was not ever your fault.”
                                                
Dale didn’t answer, but Paul saw him swallow and he looked down at his hands, linked between his knees. Paul sat where he was, close to him, his hand still cupped around Dale’s face, watching him. He saw the first tears run, without Dale’s face changing at all, without his expression slipping.

“Don’t you think,” he said eventually, feeling for the words with great caution, “blaming yourself might have been less painful than not blaming yourself? If you believed it was your fault, then you could still believe you had the power to fix it if you just tried hard enough. You didn’t have to accept that you were powerless and give up, and I know you, you don’t quit. You don’t ever give up. You said to me you thought you’d never consciously given up on her.”

Dale was still watching his hands, but he was listening. He just couldn’t answer. Paul ran his thumb over his cheekbone, looking at the grey of his eyes, the so familiar forehead and the line of his nose, the tiny, faint scar near his right eyebrow in a short triangular line. Saying anything more wouldn’t help. He just sat close with his body against Dale’s, his hand against Dale’s face, and watched him, and waited with him, and it took a long time. First for the silent, expressionless tears to come faster, and then, finally for the shuddering to start, deep inside him, still silent and still without expression. Dale drew his knees up then, folded his arms, shoulders rigid as he put his head down on his arms, the instinct still to ball up around it, force it down, shut it in. Paul pulled gently at the huddle of his arms and kept his hand on Dale’s face, aware that Dale wasn’t throwing him off, it was just at least outwardly what Mrs Aden had once done – just appearing to deny the existence of the touch, waiting for it to leave.

Then Dale lifted his head enough to let Paul get both arms around him, turned his head into Paul’s shoulder and Paul hugged him, tightly, dropping frequent kisses against his dark hair and feeling the painful tremors working their way up out of him one by one.






It was well into the afternoon when Dale got up and went to the edge of the water and knelt down far enough to wash the mud off his hands and arms and then to splash his stiff face and sit back on his heels to run wet hands through his hair. Lightheaded, shaky, more tired than he ever remembered being, his stomach felt very empty and was still burning slightly despite the antacids Paul had fed him. Kneeling made the crystal in his pocket dig in to him, and Dale shifted his weight to pull it out. The chunk of rose quartz he now by habit just transferred from pocket to pocket as he changed clothes. It was muddied too and he stooped to rinse it in the running water which made the rough planes sparkle and shine. It was very quiet in the valley here by the town, and it was a surprisingly hot afternoon for such a cold start to the day. Not unusual in bright spring time out here where the seasons were far more intense than you ever saw in a city, and the sun was bright on the green grass and on the clear water chuckling over the stones in front of him. Flynn and Riley would be getting ready to start the ride home from wherever they were this afternoon, and while the thought of them drew a physical ache they were only a few miles away. They were here on the same land.

This time of the afternoon was one of his favourite parts of an ordinary day. You usually had an hour or more of riding ahead of you to get home with your work finished for the day, nothing more hanging over you the way it did in an office, at the slow and calm pace that life happened out here, and you couldn’t switch off from a horse the way you could in a car or a plane. Not if you planned on the horse co operating with you. Even Hammer, the most level-headed of the riding horses, objected to day dreaming too much, where the higher strung Gucci or Snickers tended to take advantage of any lapse of concentration or regard it as a personal insult. As a result you stayed fully present. You saw and took in the land around you, the weather, the views, the colours, the landmarks, the seasonal changes on familiar ground that altered colours and shapes and textures subtly over a few weeks at a time. You spent the time with the horse and whoever it was you were riding with, and riding was always a pleasure.

Jasper had followed him. His shadow stretched across the surface of the water, and after a moment Jasper crouched behind him and folded both long arms over his chest, dropping a gentle kiss on his cheek. He didn’t say anything, but he was strong and he was very safe and Dale shut his eyes, letting his head sink the few inches further forward to rest on Jasper’s arms. One or both of them had been right beside him all day, and most of that time they’d been in physical contact, and there weren’t words to explain to them the difference it made or how much he appreciated it.

Jasper drew him to his feet and started to undress, and Dale followed his example, stripping to the skin and leaving his mud encrusted clothes and the crystal on the grass in the sun. They were all five of them filthy after the day’s hike. Mud was plastered up Jasper’s arms, up his legs having seeped through his jeans, and there were dry smears on his face; under his own clothes Dale discovered he was if anything, even worse.  

“The way I was brought up,” Jasper said, seeing him looking, “The less you know what to do...?”

Dale gave him a brief smile, finishing for him. “The more you need to be in contact with the ground.”

Not just the ground, Jasper meant the rich soil they raised their stock on, that served them with hay for the winter, that held the foundations under their home. The earth was the fount of all life and that was in your face every day when you lived on a ranch. Everything ate of the earth, drank the water that came from the earth, returned eventually to the earth itself. It was a strong belief of Jasper’s, one he’d inherited, which in itself made it powerful to Dale. You shared in the history and the culture of the people you loved, it was a part of loving them as much as there was information in Jasper’s knowledge and beliefs that had never come Dale’s way through a very academic education and a dry and unspiritual career. It had at the time seemed like a very thorough education, but it had left many gaps of knowledge in what Dale had come to see of some of the most essential parts of life.

“The cultures that use sweat lodges,” Jasper said conversationally, stepping down the bank into the water, “send men into them naked to sit on the ground in the lodge, in the dark. They take the time without distractions to think, they sweat out what’s in them and endure the ordeal of leaving it behind, and when they come out they’re muddied, smeared from contact with the earth and all its energy, and it’s like being re born.”

A meaningful ordeal that you felt and remembered in concrete ways with your whole body, a physical experience to hang your mental and emotional path on that gave you real experience of where you’d started and where you’d come to. What you’d vanquished. Like a long, hard trek through the roughest and foulest grounds of the woods that moved from the lowest and dankest ground to the highest, leading to that moment when they emerged out of the woods into the sunshine and the emotional high of looking down from the brow of a high, sunlit hill into the welcome of open pasture. The sense of having won. The severity of your ordeal equated the high of the victory in having overcome it, and the pride you took in it. It was a clear glimpse into what made Tom and Jake want to be enduring the conditions they were in order to climb their mountain.

It was a thought that made Dale smile a little wryly, aware there was something deeply soothing about Jasper’s familiar voice and the kind of private philosophy that Jasper only shared like this when they were alone together. Naked as Jasper was, Dale followed him down the bank into the shallow but swift moving river, clear enough that they could see the bottom, and Jasper waded slowly into the middle, reached for his hand and drew Dale to stand beside him facing into the current of the oncoming water. Fresh water was rushing past them, the afternoon sunlight was warm on his face and chest, and it reflected brightly off the water. Lightheaded enough that it came easily, if Dale half relaxed his eyes he was aware of the light rising up off the water as he’d seen in the dream of white light within everything – every blade of grass, every animal, every drop of water. Gather those drops together in a river which had a life force all of its own as it found its way through land to the sea, and here was strong, positive energy pouring over them.

Any action done with intent has meaning.

Jasper had taught him that, and intent was what made the difference. The intent needed to be clear, specific and strong, yet just clarifying it intellectually was not enough. Intent in Jasper’s terms, in the way Dale had learned to understand it, was not an academic thing at all. It meant you felt it too, wholly, powerfully, as clear and focused in heart as you were in mind, and with your head and your heart in the same place it became a powerful thing.

I never would have understood that before I came here.

It was not easy to do either, because very little worth having came easily. Standing alongside Jasper with his mind clearer than it had been all day, Dale took several breaths right down to the bottom of his lungs, the icy touch of the water becoming comfortable as he grew used to it passing all over his skin and the rapid movement of it against him, drops splashing lightly up into his face and over his shoulders. It was fast enough in this stretch that it pushed against his legs, his torso, making him brace his muscles gently against it to stand still and root his feet against the smooth sand and shale at the bottom, and he felt its power. The energy within the flow running over him. Then he washed, thoroughly, with his mind not just on rinsing away the physical grime and mud on his body which rushed away downriver, but with full, powerful intent. There were other things he ran off his skin too with this water that had filtered for miles from the mountains visible in the distance and down through the rock and earth of their land, and which sparkled in the sunlight and glistened on his skin as he washed away the sweat of the day. The physical expelling of chemicals, salt, stress and fear, the bleakest and ugliest of thoughts and emotions, everything in his body that he had been forcing out of himself since before dawn through that hell of a hike. He’d been sweating like a horse.

And vomiting. As Paul said, it’s a pretty definite rejection. It’s all physical expulsion. Like forcing out poison.

So let it go.

Jasper was beside him, not behind him where any water running off Dale could touch him, and that was important. It was important to know he washed this away, the most awful of it, the most dark and ugly of it to be swept out of his reach in the current of water where it could touch no one else and do no harm. Where it would be safely diluted and purified and filtered back into the ground. Gone.

Every inch of his body. His hair. His mouth, which he rinsed out thoroughly. Dale worked methodically for a long time, so focused on what he was doing that for a time he might have been alone in the valley in the water. It took some time to feel ‘done’, long after his skin was outwardly clean. He obeyed the feeling and his instincts and continued the process, knowing the need to feel the internal peace of being finished, and finally it came. There was no feeling left of being soiled.

Unneeded. Unwanted. Wrong.

No, that’s a child’s distorted view. Conclusions drawn with too limited information. This was never all about me. I had no idea what she was ever really thinking.

Jasper’s hand slid gently into his, his fingers winding through Dale’s.

“Now put the rest of it in the water.” Jasper said quietly to him. He meant mentally. What was left of the mental mess. Dale held on to his hand and looked at the stream ahead. It was a few minutes before Jasper squeezed his hand.

“Finding it hard?”

It was difficult for some reason to get the concentration. Irritated, Dale forced his shoulders to relax, stretched his neck and schooled his mind to collect itself and visualise and relax. Jasper drew him around, turning him away from the oncoming current.

“Trying to force it won’t help.”

“I can do it.”

“Maybe you’re not ready to let that part of it go yet.” Jasper sounded gentle but there was something firm about it that suggested arguing with him was not going to be a good idea. More frustrated than he was prepared to admit to himself, Dale sank down in the water and let it cover his shoulders.

Give me information, I don’t much care what about. Please just give me something else to think about.

 “Readiness matters to you, doesn’t it? Not just being careful about what effect we have by finding something out, but not forcing knowledge before its time, or asking whether we’re ready to know it, and I don’t fully understand that.”

Jasper gave him a faint smile. “It’s a long winded concept.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

Jasper sank down in the water too, his dark hair flowing out behind the sharp, clean lines of his shoulders and collarbones, and he looked down into the water for a moment while he thought. Dale had a sudden breath of a clean scent of pine and sage brush, something that seemed to come across the water, and then Jasper met his eyes, gentle but speaking quietly and quite seriously.

“I believe there’s a purpose in every life. So the right experiences will come to you at the right time for you to learn what you need to know at each step, and the right teachers will be there when you’re ready for those lessons. It’s like.......imagine a great, co-ordinated dance. Who knows whose teacher you might be or I might be in our lifetimes, and who we’ve already taught without realising it? When you’re open to finding your purpose and serving it, then the learning will come to you to equip you to do it. At times when you’re less focused you may mark time in your life, and people tend to talk about feeling a sense of repetition, or stagnancy.”

“Time wasting.” Dale said quietly, understanding that very well. “I had years of it with A.N.Z.. I tried to fill the hole with everything I could think of, and nothing worked.”

“And when you came here, spiritually and emotionally you grew very quickly.” Jasper said gently. “Yes. I can often see it with clients. They’re often stuck in some way, it’s often a part of their problem. Sometimes emotionally. Often spiritually, although it probably wouldn’t be spiritually in a sense they would view it. Sometimes physically. They’re people out of balance who need help to re find that balance, to think clearly and to move forward in their lives. If you view it as energy – energy is in all things.”

“Water, air, earth, animals, plants. Yes.” Dale watched the water run around them for a moment, the current drumming steadily against their skin. “I had one of the dreams the other night that’s not quite like a dream. It’s more intense than a dream is, it’s very vivid at the time but doesn’t seem to leave much real memory afterwards, it’s odd enough that I always know when I’ve had one.  I was standing at the edge of the plateau on the rocks and I could see the energy in everything. Every blade of grass, every animal, I could see the lines of light in them.”

Jasper reached for his hands and drew them out of the water, positioning them a few inches apart with the palms facing. He held his own hands in the same position to demonstrate, moving them very slowly towards each other.

“Feel the heat between your hands as you move them closer.  Don’t let them actually touch, just feel what’s between them as they get close, and then draw them gently back and forth. At some point you’ll feel the heat there, and a sensation of pulling, almost like you’re stretching dough.”

It took a moment, but Dale, moving his palms fractionally closer and then gradually apart a few times, was suddenly aware of that faint pull, as though a magnetic force was drawing one palm towards the other, and it took a gentle increase in force to pull them apart.

“That’s it.” Jasper said, watching him. “That’s your own energy you can feel. Like you can melt snow by holding one hand above it and not touch it. You radiate energy out all around you, and all energy in all things seeks for balance. It’s the natural state.”

He put a hand down into the flowing current, just against the water surface, and Dale watched the current push against it and the water build and stir.

“So force builds up behind a blockage. Water has to find its own level. Heat and water conflict until the energy translates the water into steam to achieve balance. It’s the same within people. All emotions are energy. Watch two people in an argument and you’re watching conflicting energies combining and trying to find a state of balance, whether that’s a resolution, a compromise, or the stronger energy pushing the other one away. People are full of energies. When those energies inside one person are out of balance, or where you have strong negative energies, balance is the only state in which peace exists, so those energies conflict, they have to find exits and reach a state of resolution, or that conflict goes on inside that person constantly. Sometimes it’s controlled, sometimes it’s put aside for a while, but it will always build up again.”

That was absolutely and painfully true. Jasper’s voice was very calm.

“The drive towards balance isn’t always gentle. There’s nothing gentle about an earthquake or a flood. But if you can recognise the conflict within yourself for what it is then you have understanding of it. And you can know how to reach for good energy, know how to draw it in and build it up to help yourself reach a place of balance.”

The words in the journal. The day’s good things. Running water. Contact with the earth.

“If you don’t have that internal balance, if you haven’t got that peace, you’re less able to listen to or take on board what’s happening around you, and you understand the level I’m talking about.” Jasper said quietly, watching him. “Whenever you ran a board meeting, you were never just taking in what was being said and done, you were alert for the subtlest cues. Movement, expression, tones of voice, posture, the atmosphere in the room, predictors of success or conflict, you were aware at a far higher level and that information was often more vital to knowing what was happening and achieving what you wanted than the words people said out loud. That higher level is there all the time in everything if you keep the balance and stability inside yourself to have your mind free to be aware of it. I was brought up to be aware of my own balance and maintain it. In the culture my family came from, a man out of balance, agitated or angry, was a man in urgent need of help and care. And teaching and reminding of his first responsibilities if it was a habit of his.”

It was a culture in their household too. Dale reflected on it, several threads gathering together at the back of his mind.

“You said your grandfather told you to talk less and listen more.”

Jasper gave him a nod with a smile behind it that said he appreciated the understanding. “Yes. He didn’t mean children should be seen and not heard. He meant I wasn’t paying enough attention to all of what was happening before I started to act. A shift in the wind communicates to you the weather may change. The quietening of birds around you might tell you a predator’s near. Or something may communicate to you that today you need to take this path instead of that path – or that checking that particular animal or fence post feels like a good idea, or that other energies are present. There are communications being made all around you all the time that you might pick up on if you’re balanced and able to listen for them, and those subtle communications are often the most important ones. Does that make sense to you?”

“In technical terms, of course it does.” Dale said slowly. “I hear phones before they ring, I know exactly what you mean about the subtleties of meetings, they’re trained skills I spent years practicing, although I think a lot of it was probably something I subconsciously did already and just developed because it was practically useful. I wouldn’t say I know what I’m picking up on or always what the information is exactly or where it’s come from.”

Jasper’s voice was very gentle. “This is an aptitude you already have, and you came to us knowing how to balance yourself, mostly by shutting down anything that got in the way of your concentration.”

The lightning flash of thought finishing that sentence was already in Dale’s mind and it took effort to stop it, to say it out loud and understand why it was important to say out loud to Jasper and not just move on to the next chain of thought.   

“....Which shuts down emotion and blanks out picking up emotional information, which is all very well when it’s in a business context where the only reason you’re interested in people signals is to achieve an academic goal. It doesn’t work in real life.”

“If you want the whole picture, then you have to have that peace and openness in all parts of you.” Jasper said gently. “Which you know. It’s what you’re doing for yourself, in your time, as you understand what you know now that you didn’t know before and you can see what to do next. If I’d come to you at your desk at A.N.Z. two years ago and said to you, ‘you’re using only half your mind and soul here, I know you need to pack up and come and live with us, so go get your stuff?’ You’d have been very polite about it, but it would have meant very little to you, you hadn’t got the foundation stones in place. You hadn’t had the feelings and experiences you needed to have to make each step a natural and meaningful discovery for yourself. It’s your journey. Your learning, your time, your way. You have to form the right questions for yourself.”

“Clarity of intent.” Dale said out loud. Jasper gave him another nod.

“Yes, exactly. You have to formulate and hone that intent for yourself, have the real desire to know, and then have the experience of finding and learning the answers.  This is why we can’t press Mason towards anything. We can listen to him. We can see he has experiences that bring him balance, good health, we can give him a safe place, time and friendship. Often all of that combined is what motivates people to make changes in their lives, but they have to do it, it’s not in our power. What Mason really does with his time here is for him to decide. Who are we to try to do that for him? Would that really be caring about Mason, or just using him because we thought he needed to be fixed?”

Dale thought about that for a while, watching the town beyond the river and the open green pasture around them, and thinking about several things which he’d had filed mentally under different headings.

“Was that what we felt up on Mustang Hill? Conflicting energies?”

“Yes, in part.” Jasper said it candidly but Dale, watching him, had the sense he’d had before that this was ground so personal for Jasper that it wasn’t easy for him to talk about. “I think you have a skill for recognising energy disturbances or blocks and that is one of the things you had a lot of practice at ANZ. You’ve found slightly different types of energy here than you’re used to, but it’s the same essential skill you’re using.”

Dale nodded slowly, taking that in, and Jasper turned Dale to face him, putting both hands on his shoulders. Taller than him, longer limbed, Jasper was always gentle in everything he did, but that took nothing out of the firmness of his grasp, the stability within it that was a part of Jasper that made you feel held.

“Look at me. Do you understand what I mean when I say that if putting this into the water isn’t something you can do naturally, then maybe the answer is that you’re not ready to let it go yet? And that isn’t a criticism, or a hint that you should work harder.”

Dale hesitated; it was difficult to put into words he could actually bring himself to say even to Jasper, and not easy to say it looking directly into his dark eyes which were soft and very understanding and made this horribly real.

“.....I’m full of these negative bloody energies, Jas. They’re so negative it’s ridiculous, and I know exactly what you mean about conflict. I just don’t know what to do other than what I’m doing.”

“Maybe you’re doing exactly the right things but you’ve not given yourself enough time.” Jasper suggested in the same low tone Dale had used. “Maybe there’s more to understand in what you already know. Are they really negative energies?”

“Fear. Anger. Stabbing with broken glass. Not telling, not talking, deceit,” Dale heard his own tone harden with disgust, and Jasper nodded slowly, holding him where he was.

“Loyalty. Protectiveness. Courage. Endurance. Faith. No, look at me. This little spirit of yours acts on all those things, they’re underneath a great deal of what he believes. If you go to help an injured animal in its pain and its fear and it bites you, would you say it was being negative?”

“.....no.”

“There’s a difference between pain and harmful intent.” Jasper said quietly. “We felt that up on Mustang Hill, I thought we’d met with harmful intent but you could see through it. You weren’t afraid of it, you  knew it was just fear. Something to understand and help. Blocked energy. Think about it. When you’re most upset your instinct has never been to do harm, it’s to get away. There’s never been ill intent, no part of you has ill intent, including this part. You’re dealing with a lot of conflicting energy but is this little spirit really something negative or harmful? I think a tremendous amount of the power under him is pain and love, not harm. You knew what to do about that on Mustang Hill.”

“I’ve tried walking through it like I did on Mustang Hill, it was the first thing I tried. It just got worse. When I pushed further, the thing stabbed me.” Dale said shortly.

Jasper nodded slowly,  listening. “So what haven’t you paid attention to yet? What haven’t you listened to?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea.” Dale said bitterly.

“And your drive is to push for an answer.” Jasper pointed out. “To know more, to do it faster and better and get directly to that end point. That’s the frustration blocking you, that you don’t know enough yet to do it now. Immediately. Properly.”

That was so painfully true Dale found himself flushing. Jasper touched his face and let him go.

“If you’re trying to do something and it isn’t working....”

“The answer might be to think about why I’m not ready.” Dale said wryly.

“Or what you’re too busy to pick up on while you’re so focused on getting the solution.” Jasper gave him a steady look, voice gentle but Jasper never did protect you from the facts, or try to soften them. “Do less, listen more. Feel more and listen to what you’re feeling. Courage is not your sticking point. Effort isn’t your sticking point.”

“Patience might be.” Dale finished for him. Jasper shrugged a little in the water.

“Possibly. I think compassion might be.” 





Compassion?

It was still a warm enough evening that Dale swam for a while. Tam briefly came into the water to Jasper, then shook herself vigorously on the bank and padded along the shale looking for fish. She was fascinated by their movement in the water, whenever she found one she leaned down with her nose almost in the water, making very soft snapping sounds at it, and darting down the bank after it when it moved. Luath, Paul and Mason stripped off too, came into the water and washed, and Dale watched Mason, unselfconscious and bearlike when his beard and hair were dripping water, splashing vigorously by Luath, who splashed him back, and for a few minutes there was a hail of water and shouts and a lot of noise and laughing. That was hard enough to take even when it was Flynn and Riley making all the noise; Dale eased himself away from it, further up river, and Paul waded up to join him. His hair was drenched, but he looked relaxed, fit, tanned in the water, and as natural as Paul always looked at home anywhere, whether it was in an armchair behind a book, behind a row of steaming pans in the kitchen, asleep on the open ground in a pasture or bare in a river. He was himself wherever he was, without the faintest kind of games or notice of any kind of expectations, and it was exactly why Tom was so evasive around him. Dale understood it acutely because he’d always been aware of it himself.

When you’d grown up surrounded by expectations in the very male dominated arenas of public school and corporates that meant having to ruthlessly quash whatever in yourself did not fit those standards to compete and to be accepted, when you’d never dared be who you actually were and when being accepted as gay in the working world came with distinct limits, it was not easy to meet a man like Paul who was so entirely himself. Even Mason had accepted Paul lock, stock and barrel; Dale had logged the insult thrown at Gerry about ‘screaming queen’ which had actually not bothered Gerry in the slightest, but Mason had never baulked once at Paul’s hugs or the endearments that punctuated his speech, addressed to everyone he liked from the horses to the postman, because that was just Paul. If you knew how rare it was and how much you valued that there was a man in the world who could do it even if you couldn’t -

No, be honest. How much you longed to be able to love and be loved like that, openly –

Then you were into the realms of those games that Paul had pointed out this morning: It’s too hard not to believe in it around you. It’s too hard to stay tough, I might weaken and think things and do things that I mustn’t, so I’m out of here.

Flynn had confided in Paul as a teenager without the faintest idea of two men made love, how it was even possible, and it was probably only to Paul that Flynn could have confessed those questions. Paul, who Riley told everything to, and whom Riley spent most of his evenings on or against, just as the letters and calls that poured in from the rest of this large extended family mostly came to Paul as the one who wrote letters, made calls, remembered all the birthdays and anniversaries, and through it kept the contact strong for all of them.

Dale had known all of this when he’d sat down on the bed with Paul just a few weeks ago, and confided to him things he’d never told anyone. He had done it in the full knowledge that he was giving Paul a key to a door he wasn’t sure he wanted unlocked, that he was deliberately and intentionally surrendering his choice about it, and that Paul would push it through to the end, well past the point he’d be willing or able to do himself. He’d known too that it wouldn’t matter whether or not he felt able to cope with the process. It would happen and it would work and ultimately it would be ok.

So there still is a sane mind at the back of all this somewhere.

“Stop chewing.” Paul put a hand behind his head as he reached him, kissed him and sat on the pebble and sand bank beside him, which let the water run over them at about chest height.

“Do I have a problem with compassion?” Dale was aware it came out rather bluntly, but Paul just leaned back against the bank, eyebrows raised.

“Compassion? No, I wouldn’t have said so at all. What made you think of that?”

“Something Jasper said.”

“What did he actually mean?”

“We can play games around that for a while.” Dale said sardonically. Paul gave him an affectionate smile.

“I don’t mind, but don’t feel you have to, hon. It’s only me listening.”

Dale sighed leaning on his knees. “I think he means I hate the kid. Not all children per say, I don’t actually know anything about children at all, I have zero experience of any kind, but this one, particular, specific,”

“And that rabbit’s outta here....” Paul made a whoosh noise, shading his eyes to see it go, and Dale shook his head, near to laughing.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“And bloody annoying, I remember.” Paul ran a hand through his hair, a casual and protective gesture of affection that went through Dale to the heart. “Darling, you don’t hate anyone, you’re just not that kind of person. Think it through.”

What does it look like I’m doing? If I knew the damn answer, I’d do it!

Dale watched Paul scoot a little further up the bank and turn over, leaning on his elbows at the edge of the water and putting a hand out to rake through the wet pebbles there. He searched for a moment before he held out a little piece of white quartz with a smile.

“Here, look. I love the quartz. The rose colour chips are quite rare, but the white is often around on the banks if you look for it. It’s what I weight the vases and plant pots with at home.”

He went on searching, holding the shining white little pebble, and aware he’d given Paul one hell of a day and prepared to make any effort to support anything that gave him some pleasure, even if it was simply locating a quantity of quartzite to fill plant pots with, Dale swallowed down frustration and shifted over to join him, picking efficiently through the wet pebbles with him in the shallow water. He recognised a few of them; serpentinite, mica, but the quartz chips were quite plentiful here below the mine where quartz had been chipped away for decades to find the gold veins carried within them. It was a peculiarly peaceful thing to do, both the digging and running the stones through his fingers and the sorting the quartz out as he found it to add to the small pile Paul was collecting. He found himself getting surprisingly deeply involved, and there were thirty five quartz pebbles in a heap when Paul finally sat up, shivering slightly.

“I think it’s time to get dry, I’m starting to lose sensation in my legs. Come on hon, I know Jasper believes in stuffing people in freezing water at every opportunity but you don’t need a cold on top of everything else.”

Dale helped him collect up the chosen pebbles, tired to the point his legs were unsteady, chilled but inexplicably calm again, the same calm that had been punctuating total chaos all day.  

“Why do you put pebbles in plant pots and vases?”

“It’s a habit I picked up from my mother, not that there’s a whole lot of quartz lying around in Maine. She liked picking up pebbles off the shore.” Paul began to dress by the fire as Dale dug for his least soiled clothes in his back pack. “There were always flowers in vases in the boarding house, it was Standards to her, and to my Grandmother. You might be living with a bunch of fishermen but you were living properly and decently with flowers in vases. The greengrocer in the town used to keep a bunch of whatever was currently in season for us and there were two huge crystal vases, one on the front windowsill in the dining room and one on the bar, I’ve still got the vases. In the winter if there wasn’t much in season, she’d use dried flowers or twigs or whatever there was, the pebbles at the bottom of the vase weighted it, kept it steady theoretically if anyone reeled into it – that was not allowed – and you could push stems down into the pebbles to support the arrangement.”

“How do you keep a group of fishermen permanently sober?”

“You don’t.” Paul said practically. “There were limits, everyone knew them, and God help you if my mother, or worse, my Grandmother had to come and throw someone out or break up a fight. You were dead if you swore in her dining room, or spat, or started a row. There was never any real trouble, the boarders never would have allowed it, they were a lovely bunch of guys, but either of them could walk into the middle of an argument and Look, and you’d have a bunch of tough fishermen looking like they wanted to get under the table and nothing louder through dinner than ‘please pass the salt’. Born Tops, both of them.” 

Dale said it gently, something he’d wondered a few times but not wanted to ask too directly. “What happened to your father? You never mention him.”

“I’m rather like you, I didn’t know him.” Paul glanced over at him as he pulled jeans on. “He and my grandfather went down together on the same fishing boat. The Bermuda. She got caught in bad weather, it goes with the territory in fishing towns. My grandmother and my mother had no one else but each other, I was a few weeks old, so they used the insurance to buy an old house on the harbour front and set it up for boarding and they made their own living. A lot of the boarders were men who’d known my grandfather and my father and the rest of the Bermuda crew, and weren’t going to see any harm come to their families, and there wasn’t much coming and going. Mostly the men who moved in stayed as long as I was there. Some were still actively running boats. A core of them were elderly, retired or semi retired, did a bit of fishing for themselves and had their daily routine around the town in the bars and the boarding house in the evening. You could set your watch by some of them.”

Dressed, Dale crouched by the fire, elbows on his knees, and Paul shouldered into a sweater, settled it around his waist and tugged the sleeves back briskly. It was a habitual movement, something every day and part of him, and it caught Dale’s eye for its familiarity. Paul sat down beside him, his voice gentle.

“Don’t compare your mom to them, love. My mother had her mother, they were very close and it was a whole community where everyone knew everyone. Put a foot wrong anywhere in the town and within an hour you could bet someone would have told your family. There was a lot of support.”

“I have no idea what my mother’s situation was, or who we lived with, or where the rest of the family were.” Dale admitted. “I don’t know at all. I didn’t know at the time, it wasn’t something I saw or heard anything about – and I don’t remember people being around that I knew the names of – and afterwards,”

He trailed off and Paul finished gently, “It was like that whole part of her life never happened.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,”

“You’re worried about making me feel bad?” Paul put an arm around him, pulling him over. “Different people have different strengths, love. You’ve said yourself, she was very young, she was obviously devastated when she lost your father.”

“But the difference is fairly obvious, isn’t it.” Dale said quietly, looking at the fire. “You come from a family who can pick themselves up after a disaster and have the character to go on. I come from a family that goes to pieces when the going gets tough.”

“You do what?” Paul’s tone confused Dale totally; he sounded near to laughing. “How many years did you work for A.N.Z. and how many crises did you handle there a week? I’ve seen you handle crisis! You don’t fall apart, you wade straight in, take charge and stop it dead on the spot. You and my Grandmother would have got along very well, she’d have approved of you.”

That was a rather pleasant thought. Paul hugged him, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.

“You know what Flynn told me? Children internalise their abusers. To get closer to the person they love, they treat themselves like that person treats them. I think you need to think about whose eyes you’re seeing yourself through, because you have no realistic idea of your own strength sweetheart, you never have.”

The word ‘abuser’ grated like a knife over stone.

“I don’t feel as if I have a realistic idea of anything much anymore.” Dale said darkly, not wanting to explain it, and Paul let him go, smoothing his hair back off his forehead. “You’re so tired you’re pretty much cross eyed. Get back in your sleeping bag. Go on, you don’t have to sleep, just lay down for a while.”




The other three came back to dry off by the fire, after which Luath and Mason walked together towards the main street to take a look around the town. Jasper picked up a piece of the kindling Mason had collected for the fire, took out his knife and began to peel neat spirals of shavings off it with the blade. Paul lay on the grass, head on his hand, watching the fire.

It took a while to get warm, even with the sleeping bag and several mugs of tea inside him. Dale watched the sky slowly turn from blue to shaded pink as the sun began to sink, and eventually must have dozed off, as when he next opened his eyes it was dark, the sky was black and starry overhead, the fire was much lower, crackling softly, and Luath, Paul and Mason were in their sleeping bags and laying still. Jasper, head bent, was sitting cross legged on the grass close to the fire, knife still working on the wood figure emerging in his hands. Tam, her head on her paws, lay beside him.

Dale watched him work for a while, in the deep calm of the river running in the dark, the smell of the grass around them, the silence of the town, dark roofs without lights or sounds under the moonlight. An elk walked slowly out from between the trees and bent its head to graze.

Feeling distinctly strange – very calm, still lightheaded, Dale very softly stood up to see it better, moving closer to Jasper to follow his gaze. The elk ate peacefully, taking no notice of the distant fire. From here, Dale also had clear sight of Paul’s face, peaceful, his eyes closed, an arm under his head. Jasper glanced back, and Dale crouched on the grass beside him.

“What will that be?”

“I don’t know yet.” Jasper turned it over in his hand to start on a new plane. “How are you?”

“.....Odd.” Dale  gave him a brief, apologetic smile. “I don’t know how else to put it. Would it be all right if I went for a walk? I won’t go far.”

“No.”  Jasper said mildly.

“Please?”

Jasper looked at him, a steady look that took in an awful lot, and Dale let him look, knowing and appreciating that neither Jasper, nor Flynn or Paul took being worried lightly.

“I’m not in a state, this is about the calmest I’ve felt in hours. I just want to stretch my legs and...”

“Have some peace and quiet.” Jasper said with comprehension. “No. You don’t need to be on your own.”

“Jas.....”

Jasper blew softly on the carving, scattering sawdust. “Bring your sleeping bag over here.”

Exasperated, and yet again in some way calmer which made no sense, Dale got up and collected his sleeping bag. Jasper moved over to give him space by the fire, patting the grass next to him, and Dale slid into the warmth of the bag, automatically shunting himself far enough back that he wouldn’t roll into the fire if he dozed off. Jasper put a hand out to stop him, holding him where he was.

“I’m watching, I’m not going to let you get too close. Get warm.”

It was nice to be directly in front of the radiating heat. Dale turned over on his stomach with his head on his folded arms where he could watch Jasper’s hands work on the wood. There was something very safe about being here, close to him with Paul asleep only feet away, in the town that was very much part of home. The soft and rhythmic scrape of the knife of the wood was hypnotic, Jasper’s hands were deft, and the flames flickered and jumped and crackled quietly in front of him.




............and he walked slowly across the grass with his hands in his pockets, alone in the dark and moving unhurriedly towards the town in the moonlight.

The cemetery lay in his path, and he paused for a moment, looking at the uneven stones, with the newer one at the back. Gam Saan’s. Who had lived in this town and known David, who as a family they had carried down the steep hillside on the other side of the track from Dead Man’s Hill, and laid to rest beside the men he’d lived with and worked with in this town.  Further on towards the main street he stepped across the rusting train tracks where the Silver Bullet had left on her final journey, before tumbling down through the woods on Dead Man’s Hill.

There was something very potent in the air.

The stirring in his stomach wasn’t bad. In fact quite the opposite of bad. It was not exactly excitement but it wasn’t apprehension either, it was a pull of something being here, something he needed to go to, and he’d had it a few times this strongly since he’d lived on the ranch. On the night he woke Jasper and Flynn and walked with them up to Mustang Hill. The pull towards the adit where Gam Saan lay. And the need to bring Gam Saan’s body down from the mine to lay in the cemetery.

He’d known that pull all his working life, from the first apprentice projects when he was in his mid teens; it was the same one that meant there was something laying in boxes of financial evidence that would justify the sense that something was wrong, or the hint in someone’s face, voice, decisions, that implied they were hiding something their corporate didn’t want made public. The same one that meant he would go over the evidence over and over again, research, explore, do whatever it took until he got what needed to be found, it was the pull of something, intangible, that touched his senses and said, clear your head and focus and it will be here. It had always raised that rush of excitement in it, the thrill of the chase, the intellectual challenge of surfing information at level after level, drawing in not just the visual and factual but the tones of voices, body language, timing, eye movements, hidden texts and signals, codes, a complexity that was delicious. And here, where it was safe, built on a sense of balance that he found sometimes to a level he’d never known before he came here, it was fun.

And sometimes, like tonight, it was so strong that there was no resisting it. There was that sense of moving into the zone, of taking an overview where he could see everything, where his eye would be pulled to any glitch in the pattern, any hint or clue, where he could filter information at high speed – as if there was vast amounts of information in a silent, abandoned town in the middle of the night.

Paul is right, you’re so tired you’re loopy. Step away from the phosphorus.

He was on the main street now, at the west end where the poorest, most tumble down shacks and shops and workshops crowded together below the mine.

Where I dreamed about a boy darting between the houses like a rat. With a muffled drum. Probably with a jacket painted with phosphorus, which Ri and I found in these alleys, right here. On his way up the hill to stop the train.

Logically in the pay of the smugglers.

The Connelly gang are present in the town. They are never caught here, no criminal activity is ever proven here, but they never come to Wyoming again.

Yet the train is robbed. No one knows of what. Nothing is seen.

The facts marched out, one by one in a neat line.

The train leaves the station checked, all goods present and intact. She goes up the hill in the rain, the ‘ghost’ drummer shakes the driver, the train loses momentum and she can’t make the hill. She slows to a stop, the driver takes her back to the station. There, the station master finds a truck door open, goods gone, but no one and nothing is ever seen.

The Cheyenne police are here investigating an illegal still. A notice goes out from the town newspaper regularly in a code phrase ‘the moon is full’, and the paper is printed on a press at the Mine Shaft Saloon.

 There is a bricked up siding holding over 500 bottles of moonshine. Except it would take time to move that many crates and transport them, it would need transport, which could not pass unseen.

Four and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark........there was a town meeting held in the saloon, I dreamed of it. Men, women and children crowded together and it was raining outside. The mood was high, they were cheering, and David was standing on the bar.

And a door slides back on men grinning in the dark.

He found himself grinning as he reached the saloon, looking up at its windows and frontage and wide porch in the silent street where once at this time of night it would have been bustling with music and men coming and going, the mine’s day shift making the most of their pay and the evening. Yes, there were the facts. But there were a whole lot of other things too, and they were the things that made him stand here smiling like a lunatic because they leapt the gap between the facts. The feel of the people in that rainy, damp room, where they were cheering, the feel of those men in the dark of the carriage as the door was pulled back, an excitement that hung over the whole town in the dark.

If you wake at midnight and hear a horse’s feet
Don’t go drawing back the blind nor looking in the street....

David, I know how this was done. I don’t know why, but I know how.

He stood for a moment more, looking up at the saloon and knowing if he went inside that David would be there, standing on the bar in that noisy, crowded room, but this wasn’t where he was drawn to be tonight.

Instead, he walked slowly back down the deserted main street. Past the shops. Past the workshops. Past the shanty and below the big mine wheel with its spokes heavily shadowed as he walked beneath it. The smell of coal was strong here, where spoil lay in the yard with the rusting carts that had run up and down the lines that led deep into the mine underground. He walked through the rough spoil and earth covered ground and out onto the green pasture beyond. The stretch of river here was where he and Riley had once dived for gold in a not very serious kind of way. It had been a hot afternoon, a good and a safe one. The pasture here was below the hill where he and Riley had been sitting when Jasper and Flynn found them, only minutes out of the mine. It spread out to the grazing fields below the town where they had brought Gam Saan out on a hay cart, every member of this family that could drop everything and come, and they had buried him together. This was a good place.

And there was a flash of white on the river bank in the sun.

The tents again.

Ok. Clarity of intent.

Hands in his pockets and his fingers closing on the cold, rough planes of the rose quartz crystal, Dale stood on the grass, at the bottom of the sloping hill, took a deep breath, let his muscles drop and his eyes relax. And to draw around him that golden yellow light. It took several minutes, but he’d practiced this with Paul several times recently, enough to confirm to himself that trying never helped. It was kind of a consciously not trying, and it was easier in the dark and quiet, almost a kind of easy going, focused spacing out, not unlike skimming through papers looking at numbers in columns and letting instinct tell you where they jarred. A kind of letting your mind go open and your emotions fade back under a layer of concentration where you weren’t too bothered whether anything was there or not....

....and gradually the flashes grew stronger and went on for longer and there were a few white tents on the bank of the river. No town, nothing at all in the grassy valley, but the tents with the animal skins pegged out to dry. And gradually like pictures turning over in a book, there were more tents and then one wood building with rough, new planks and a muddy trail running past it. And then buildings began to join it, the track diverged and multiplied and houses began to appear in the valley. The town grew in front of him, the mine wheel grew up out of the ground and began to turn, church bells rang and pillars of steam rose in the dark. He smelled the powerful, distinctive coal smoke and something large and dark rolled past him in the dark, with the wheels heavy and sparking on the rails and the whistle deafening....

He was left breathless as it faded. Exhilarated.

It felt exactly  as it had felt as a very small child, disappearing into the pictures of a book he had loved; it was a shock to remember the feeling so acutely. Riding through forests. Climbing mountains. Searching through dark, dripping alleyways and across rooftops. That intense visualisation of a child, so strong it blotted everything else out, that you were there, and was deeply comforting. Something to fill your senses with, somewhere safe to be where no one else knew.

That’s the difference.

The realisation was a sudden one. There was a difference between those emotions being faded into the background, there and whole but put to one side while he focused – and the clinical sealing off of emotion, the total detachment that was a familiar and rather ugly feeling. Dissociation. Which made the other one –

-          something else. Nameless. But quite different.

There was excitement in seeing the town. Exhilaration. The grim delight of the men in the carriage, the weariness of the men walking off shift from the mine and headed down the street towards the saloon..... emotion was there. Whole. Part of it. And tonight it was strongly connected with sitting on the landing with the book, looking at that picture of the prince and envisioning his missions, and there had been fear and danger and satisfaction in battle, excitement and victory –

Emotion. Whether he was hacking his way through jungles or through dark alleyways -

Do many children really fantasise about dark alleyways? How did I imagine those? At the time I swear it was so intense I knew what they sounded like, smelled like.....

I was living in London so I must have walked past alleyways, driven past them, seen them from windows.....  what other information did I pick up on that I didn’t think to question? Was this what I was doing back then without realising it? A child doesn’t question, they just do what comes naturally.

The memory of sitting on the landing in the dark was very strong.

At what point did the emotion stop?

At what point did I realise the only safe thing to do was stop feeling at all when necessary? How old was I?

Dale tipped his head back to look at the sky, the stars very bright and intense in this open space. There was space all around him. Cold air, a clear head, and time.

Taking a deep breath, he sat down on the grass, at first awkwardly, and then slowly he crossed his legs as he had done on that landing years ago with his back to her doorway. Felt the cool ground beneath him. Breathed the night air, the coal spoil, the grass and the river. Drew the rose quartz crystal from his pocket, holding it gently closed inside his palm where it was cool and familiar, the other hand loosely over the top. And closed his eyes, letting his muscles go loose, and summoning that golden light. Above. Below. To the left. To the right. In front of. Behind.

All he got initially was a kind of numb, sterile image of sitting alone on some stairs with a book. It went on for a long time. Dale sat against the cold of the wall and thought nothing at all and felt nothing at all, with the book on his knees and his hands on the book, and the stairs were anonymous. They could have been any stairs, in any house, they were just – stairs. At times when he looked down at his hands he felt a vague confusion as to whose hands they were as if they weren’t connected to him at all. There were people downstairs; he could hear their voices, but there was no desire to go down to them.

He wasn’t sure what drew his attention to upstairs. It wasn’t exactly a sound or movement, it was more an awareness that there was something up there. It bothered him, as if it was something that shouldn’t have moved, as if it was breaking a rule. At first he tried to ignore it, but it was relentless in not moving and making no sound and still dragging his reluctant awareness back to it. Eventually, deliberately, he closed the book and got up. Just facing upstairs made his heart thump. Cold, knees trembling slightly, he held the banister and made himself take a step up further towards the landing. And another. And another. Eventually he was only one step from the landing, and there he hesitated, seeking for the courage to either turn his back on whatever it was, or to face it. The landing was dark, and to the left it was colder still. Darker still. To the right – Dale looked and saw a door cracked open with warm, golden light behind it, the gold of soft lamplight or firelight, spilling out onto the landing. There was a lot of welcome within in it. Dale took the final step up onto the landing and it was then that he recognised it as the landing of the ranch. Home. The door being ajar made his heart thud harder as he walked towards it – you did not open doors at home. You did not go inside, you did not intrude. And yet that golden light was very hard to not want to be closer to. For a while he stood silently near to that light on the landing, warmed at the edges of it, and then he put a hand very tentatively out to touch the door.

It opened easily. A man with steel grey hair was standing by the bed, neatly and deftly putting a pile of freshly ironed shirts onto hangers and slotting them one by one into the wardrobe. He was taking his time as if he was in no hurry, straightening the collars and sleeves until the shirt hung properly before he put it away, and the fabric smell of clean laundry was fresh in the room. Philip took another shirt to the wardrobe, glanced up at Dale and smiled at him as he took an empty hanger to the next shirt.

His smile was familiar, and it took away all of the fear. Dale knew it, and he knew every other man in this house knew it too. It was real pleasure in seeing you, it made you welcome whatever time of the day or night it was, whatever Philip was doing, as if to him you were a normal part of it. It said it would be fine to sit on the bed and watch him. To sit on the window seat, or to go to help him, to talk or just to be there, the invitation into the room was unspoken but warm. Dale stayed where he was and Philip hung the shirt he was working on and then he came to the doorway, looking down the landing towards the darker end.

Dale looked with him, swallowing, knowing what he meant. It wasn’t possible to see through the gloom, peering didn’t help to make out any shapes. Philip’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, heavy and warm, and Dale closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the deep comfort in his grasp. It wasn’t possible to feel that comfort and still be afraid. It pulled out instead the calm warmth of the kitchen at dinner time in the evening in Philip and David’s home, when the light was golden yellow and the room was warm with the steam from a hot meal, when the table was filled with people who chattered together while they ate, where the room was welcoming and noisy and safe. Philip had met every man around that table from the moment of meeting them, no matter how difficult or challenging they were, with that same open welcome. He simply loved the man in front of him, like a friend, like a son, and let everything else come second. To every one of them it had been a visceral thing, a life changing experience to be loved like that, to be welcomed as if they already belonged, and Dale understood it because he’d felt it himself through Philip’s men. Philip’s mark was still strong on every one of them.

Compassion.

For who he knew you could be. Irrespective of what you’d done, how you might be acting, what baggage you brought with you. Unearned, just given freely.

He had the impression that Philip knew what he was thinking. Philip’s hand on his shoulder squeezed gently, a deeply personal touch, encouraging, comforting. Then leaving Philip stood on the landing in the pool of golden light, Dale took a deep breath and walked slowly away from him towards the dark. It was grey there. Large shapes emerged out of the darkness, looming above him like giant building blocks. Dale walked slowly between them, following the long path through the shadows. One of the giant shapes had a drawer handle that was set high above his head. Another of them had a sweater draped over it, so big it could have been a tent, the sleeve hanging down like a scarf. The shapes grew closer and closer together like a lumber room until he had to edge in between them, a more crowded, more secret place, that ended in the broken stained glass window with the grey, filthy and torn curtain blowing against it. A book was open on the floor among the shards of glass. It took effort to keep the emotion from taking over, but Dale crouched down to look at its open pages, blowing back and forth in the cold wind through the broken window.

It was an elderly, battered Boys Own annual, open at the black and white colour picture of the prince. He picked it up, handling the antique book gently. There had been a set of them in one of the unused rooms upstairs in his mother’s house. Filed in an unused bookcase in a room where the furniture was as old as the books and even older, where the wardrobes smelled of mothballs when they were opened, and where on a dressing table a set of  tortoiseshell clothes and hairbrushes were laid out for an owner who hadn’t been back to them in decades. The dressing table was surrounded by a mirror at the front and two moving mirror wings at the sides. When you moved the wings you became magnified by hundreds, until it was like looking into the facets of a diamond with your face reflected over and over and over in the glass to infinity. Like shards of broken glass.

I know where this is.

The lumber room was like a path so overgrown that it was hard to still find the trail and to recognise what at one time in his life he would have known so easily.

It’s the way back home.

There was the soft hiss of the stalking thing in the darkness, and Dale didn’t move, crouched on the floor with the book in his hands, understanding now.

 “You don’t need to be afraid. I know who you are.”

The thing rushed him, and Dale didn’t move, or look up, speaking not as he would to an irate managing director, not threateningly, but from memory replicating the exact same tone that Paul used to him in his hissier moments, because Paul and Philip would know exactly how to speak to this thing. In many ways, Paul already had. He’d been demonstrating what to say and how to say it for days.

 God knows I’m good at imitating scripts from a good teacher.

“I belong here too, this is my place as much as yours. I won’t hurt you, but I am coming in.”

And abruptly the window was no longer broken. The landing ran in a soft, red carpet alongside the white curved banisters in full daylight, to the floor above and the floor below.

The hissing thing was gone. Alone, Dale crouched by the banisters and looked down between them, knowing the view of the furniture and the black and white tiles below, the quiet of the rooms around him, the deep bay window at the end of the hall that overlooked the neat, green ornamental garden. He hadn’t set foot in this house since he was a very small child. Small enough that the house had been enormous, with furniture that towered above him.

The house was empty and it seemed bizarrely small, seen from an adult’s height. He walked slowly down the red carpeted stairs, which curved into the hall. A couple of large green plants stood in antique vases which must have occupied their plinths for a couple of hundred years. Another vase with immaculately arranged lilies stood by the tiled front door, just like the vases of flowers had stood in the house Paul grew up in. Standards. There were rooms he’d rarely gone into when he’d lived in this house and which he only glanced through the door of now, walking softly as if around a museum. The dining room with twelve chairs around the dark polished table. The drawing room and the piano. The kitchen, empty, with its scrubbed wooden table and the floor to ceiling shelves on two walls, lined with great serving dishes, shining pots and a twenty four piece dinner service, probably as old as the vases in the hall. The scullery lay beyond the kitchen with the great stone sink where he’d once sat desperately trying to stop the blood from a graze on his knee. It was not even a particularly high draining board, although it had seemed like an almighty climb at the time.

His footfall echoed in the hall as he walked over the black and white tiles, and climbed the stairs again. He hesitated on the first floor, looking at a door he’d only ever entered a few times as a child. Probably taken in there by someone, he didn’t remember who, but he knew what lay behind the door. Eventually he turned the handle and let it open.

It didn’t appear to have been touched save for occasional dusting since the last day of his father’s leave before he went back to his battalion in Ireland. It still held a masculine smell of shoe polish, aftershave and very faintly, of cigars. Wooden polished clothes brushes stood neatly in lines on the dresser. Not just arranged but organised. This was a man who liked things orderly. The few books on the shelf above the desk were equally arranged in line. A tailor’s mannequin stood in the middle of the room with an immaculate scarlet dress uniform jacket hung on it. It must have been a spare; a new one or an old one being repaired, his father would have had the other in his kit with him, but this one had hung here and he’d seen it several times as a child. It was a symbol of a man he had no memory of. Above the books, a silver framed picture showed his father in dress uniform in the stone archway of a church door with his mother in a white flowing wedding dress, flowers in her hand and her arm through his, her veil thrown back. She was beautiful. He found himself picking up the picture and gently touching her face with one finger, brushing it lightly over the glass. It looked like an informal picture, something someone had snapped at a moment they’d been taken by surprise. They were both laughing and ducking what was probably confetti, pressed close together; Dale remembered having seen the picture as a child, but as an adult his eye caught and understood the couple not just as his parents but as two young adults in that doorway, the easy way they leaned together as though they often stood arm in arm like this, as though this day was something they were doing together because it was tremendous fun, and whatever they did tomorrow would be just as much fun. Their faces were alive. It might have been Riley and Flynn, or Gerry and Ash. Two ordinary, happy people very much in love.

On the landing he caught a trace of another scent that made his chest clench, something else from a long time ago but this one so familiar. Her perfume.  

It still drew a visceral reaction from him after all this time. Something powerful and painful. The scent was stronger in her room when he risked opening the door. She wasn’t there. The house was empty and silent, which made it safer to look with adult eyes at what he’d known all his life. The white carved doors of the wardrobes and the dressing table. The expensively delicate cut glass bottles on the glass table top. The large, high double bed with the carved bedstead and the fat pink satin eiderdown laid on top of the neatly made covers. He ran his fingers gently over it as he passed, looking for a moment at the bed and the windowsill overlooking the street below. Her dresses hung inside the wardrobe. The filmy, flowing fabrics he remembered. Soft colours. The fragile, pretty things of a girl. He was a decade older now than she’d been then.

If someone took Flynn or the others from me, can I really say I’d do better? I wouldn’t know how the hell to relate to a child.

And a very uncomfortable part of him said quietly,

.....Yes, but you might choose to try harder than she did.

He closed her door very softly behind him when he left.

The book that held the picture of the prince lay on the carpet outside her door. Dale picked it up and carried it with him up the stairs to the third floor. The fourth floor held the staff quarters and was strictly out of bounds; he knew the rule but had no memory of who had made it, save for a sense that his mother had been bound by it too. The third floor rooms were the oldest rooms, the ones that hadn’t changed in years and they were only rarely used for guests. It was always quiet and deserted up there if you needed somewhere to be out of the way. The spicy mothball scent was stronger in these rooms, and the doors stood open to air them. Dale walked past each door. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see until he saw it.

The little boy sitting in a small huddle on the floor was small, grimy and dressed in rather non descript grey that didn’t look appropriate for a child outside of a Dickens novel.

This was it.

This was the ‘thing’ in the darkness, small and fast and vicious. Push through the outer layers and here it was. Under everything, a human little boy. Dark haired, with hair in need of cutting that hung in grey eyes that Dale recognised. They were the same eyes visible in the picture of his father in the dressing room. The same eyes he saw in the mirror daily. Then the child glanced up, and Dale’s stomach jumped at the open hostility in its face. Not just a child’s suspicion but real, vicious animosity, aimed directly at him. It was a shock.

They looked at each other for a moment and Dale gripped the stair post, shaken by how possible it was for a man to truly fear a child. He was young. Dale had no expertise in guessing the age of children, but this one was very small with dark hair and those shockingly fierce grey eyes.

And one of you two is going to have to put the britches on and be the grown up.

Dale slowly crouched down to the child’s height. He had no idea what to say now they were face to face. The stock negotiation starting points he’d used for years with great success with multiple business personnel seemed utterly pointless here, addressed to this glaring kid who wouldn’t understand bullshit. And it was mostly bullshit.

He was so small. Dale found himself taking in the information, looking objectively at what had once been himself and finding with some shock that it was – just -  a little boy. Truly, just a little boy. Just as small as any other child. Just as young, with the still baby curves to his face and his large eyes. No larger, or wiser, or stronger, or worse or different from any other small boy. The child glared at him, a glare with teeth in it, of deep suspicion, but it was an angry child’s glare. No red demon eyes, nothing evil, nothing bad.

Paul’s right. Who’s eyes have I been looking at you through?

....Hers.

But no, not hers. Not really. I saw in myself what I thought she saw. Something noisy. Difficult. Demanding. Unwantable. For God’s sake, I was what, three? Four? I have no idea what she actually saw when she looked at me, I don’t know what was in her mind. I still don’t and I never will.

The anger radiated off this little tot, but any horseman knew that a vicious horse was often acting on fear. Philip had told Gerry years ago: Anger is fear with a different coat on. Here, under all the threat posturing was a very frightened little boy, and that was all. It was the accusation in that glare that made Dale finally understand something he’d only partially understood before, along with that detached, surveying feeling. 

This is all my staging. I’m creating this. The broken window, the greyness, the grime, the way in cluttered and blocked up. Her house with no one here but something filthy and angry that hates me.  This is symbolic, it’s a code, and I wrote it. This is a message in a bottle to myself. Flynn would be all over this. Where do I keep the image of myself as a kid? Er... locked up somewhere dark and cold and derelict, full of broken windows and broken furniture, where I think he deserves to be.  And I’m afraid of him and he hates me.

And phrased, staged like this, with the child like a cornered animal on the carpet, the answer came back clearly, calmly, bringing stability with it.

So I admit this is an innocent thing I’ve been blaming all this time.

There was such release in the knowledge, a weight melting from his chest that had been there longer than he could remember. It was exactly what Gerry had described; discovering the source of your terror in the dark was nothing more than a familiar, folded robe on a chair.

This is old, old stuff I’m clinging to. It’s just a little boy’s muddled misunderstandings from a long time ago. It’s been over and gone for decades, it doesn’t matter now.

Dale turned where he was on the carpet, not getting up, and looked at the walls of the room. It wasn’t exactly as he remembered, he could see it now. The proportions were wrong, like a badly built set in a horror film. The house had never been this dark, this forbidding. Certainly he’d never been ragged, dirty, outwardly uncared for as this child was.

It’s symbolic, see the message behind it. The message in a bottle to yourself. Mentally, emotionally – yes, admit it. You were uncared for. Alone. And yes, angry. You might have been quiet and calm all your life but he’s been in here, raging. Smashing windows. Hunting and stabbing, because you wouldn’t admit he even existed. In here are the dirty little secrets you never told and that you covered up for her, and you honestly don’t know if she’s even aware you did it. You’ve carried this for her all your life.

So what the hell do I do with him?

He honestly had no idea. Except that Paul had shown him over and over again how you reached someone bitter and refusing to talk, someone that wanted a fight, someone covering very frightened with anger. The tone of voice. The loving eyes.

Compassion.

This is what you meant, Jas, wasn’t it? Not compassion towards others, compassion towards him. Compassion for myself.

You’re a member of this family and they know, they’ve taught you. Think of David’s map. Forget about logical shape and space.

David, who put Halifax next to Dover, and a sea port by the ranch, untroubled by anything but his own internal map. It made him think of David and of the ranch, something he had plenty of strong images of, that were easy to reach and to concentrate on. When he tried to create the image in his mind it faded and blurred – as if it was something that disappeared if you looked at it too closely. Over and over again he tried to construct it, fighting off distractions that wandered into his head, the solidity of the wall and the furniture in front of him, but gradually he discovered that if he stopped trying and instead just let it happen with the intent clearly in mind –

The room filled slowly with light, afternoon light, the way the river and the aspen woods down by the cairn looked in early fall on a warm afternoon, and it was easy to do then, because he loved it. The colours and images were strong in his mind and filled with the best he remembered of them. The smell of the grass came into the room, the sound of the river and the soft breeze in the trees, and then the wall dissolved away and the pasture stretched out beyond the edge of the carpet. Miles of open pasture, warm and sunny, with green grass and rolling hills spread out under an electric blue sky. And with it came the sense of calm and stability that always came with this place, where it was safe. Where problem were things faced and dealt with, and not something to fear.

The child sat where he was on the carpet, looking at the sunny pasture with an expression Dale couldn’t read. Then he looked back at Dale, and Dale  spoke gently, directly, finding the words Flynn had given him some weeks ago and feeling them go painfully deep, taking that chance to look at and speak to himself as he might have done at a time when it would have made a difference. When, if he was honest, he would have given his heart and soul to someone who would talk to him like this.

“You never stopped trying no matter how hard it got, and I’m proud of you for that. You’ve been very brave. You’re brave enough to listen to me and to feel this too. I promise you this is the right thing to do and it’s going to be worth it. We are going to be ok.”.”

The child went on looking at him, warily, with deep, deep suspicion.

Because I’m the one that’s silenced you. I’m the one that’s battered you down, denied you existed and blamed you that it happened. I’m the one who left you here alone. Why the hell would you trust me of all people?

Dale crouched down to him, struggling for something to say that was real enough and sincere enough.

“.....Ok. I’ve been mean to you, and I’m sorry. This was not your fault. It was never your fault.”

What would Paul say? What tone would he use? Dale knew exactly. The hard thing was letting himself say it with the honesty that Paul would, because it was bloody painful to even think it.

“....you’re a good kid. You’re a decent, bright, caring kid and you didn’t deserve for this to happen. She was the grown up. It was her job to look after you and she made mistakes. You were brave to take care of her. And I know I left you here alone too. I know I say mean things to you, I make you be quiet, I won’t listen to you. You’re angry with me and I understand it and I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again. But it’s time to stop now. You can’t behave like this anymore, I won’t allow it.”

The kid was actually listening. Dale put a very tentative hand out, touched the small head, felt the softness of its hair, and stroked it, very gingerly. The child didn’t bite. It didn’t detonate. It just felt like a small human like any other human. With more confidence, Dale took the small hand, drew the child to him, and the kid abruptly clung to him as he embraced the little body, painfully aware of how very little it was, and that suspicious of him or not, it knew him. It clung to him. Some part of it couldn’t help, however unwillingly, that it still trusted him, and that drew real emotion from him and made him tighten his arms, hold the little body with the strength of feeling he would have for a child of Flynn’s or Riley’s or the others, who he’d love for the blood in them and their connection to him. 

“We’re going to be all right.” he said softly against the child’s warm hair. “We’re leaving this house and we’re never coming back. I know a much better place for you to be.”

And I might not know what the hell to do with you or how to help you, but there are people here who do, and it’s the safest place I know.

He put the child down, and the little boy looked unsteady now, vulnerable instead of fierce, but calmer. His shoulders were lower, his hands unclenched and he stood close for a moment with his eyes on the deep, green grass. Dale waited, not saying anything, just as Paul often did, waiting with him. Being there. Then the child took a hesitant step  across the cold and the gloom of the landing towards the pasture. Dale watched him, seeing the small figure hesitate as he reached the threshold of the sunlight, blinking, then he moved slowly and very doubtfully into the warmth of the open grass. He stood for some minutes, cautiously on the ground, looking around him with care, and Dale stifled a smile, recognising the collation of data, the weighing up of the facts first. And then he spread his arms like a bird in flight, his face lit up and Dale felt his heart lift as the kid ran out into the deep grass.

It was a small boy’s paradise out there. Running creeks, trees to climb, fish in the water, open pasture, the paddocks of horses, the sanctuary and comfort of the house which was warm and ordered and welcoming.

Dale stayed where he was for a while, crouched on the carpet and looking out into the pasture, long after the child was out of sight. There was no sense of urgency and no particular desire to turn back to the room and the house behind him, or to explore it any further. It was done with. Finally he got up and walked out into the sunlit pasture where the child was, and left the house behind.  


~ * ~



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015







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