Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chapter 20 - Ranch

20




Gerry and Riley were sniping at each other in the yard.

Watching from the kitchen window, Paul had no real idea of what was going on and both of them were working while they did it; tack was being cleaned, horses were being efficiently groomed, troughs were being filled, but the movements were short and crisp and interspersed with glares. They moved around each other with what in Gerry might be termed accurately as a flounce; it was like watching two cats having a standoff.

Skimming the cauldron of stock on the stove, Paul watched another and apparently sharper altercation as they broke up a bale of hay together for the benefit of the corral horses who were clustered around them eagerly as the grass was still recovering from winter. Luath, who had been hauling several more bales of hay down from the barn loft, slung the bale he was carrying on to the wheelbarrow, brushed off his gloved hands and walked down to the corral, leaning on the rail to say something short that made both Riley and Gerry look up at him. Then come to the rail and rather unwillingly climb out and stand beside him in the yard. They both looked abashed. Whatever Luath said to them, it was brief, to the point and concluded with Luath indicating the house with a thumb and delivering a brisk swat to the seat of Riley’s jeans to send him on his way. Riley, not looking pleased, headed towards the house, yanking his hat and gloves off as he came. He let the door crash shut behind him as he came into the kitchen, and almost at once gave Paul a guilty look, glancing towards the ceiling as though he could see whether he’d woken Dale.

“.....Sorry.”

“What was going on out there?” Paul put the cauldron lid back on. The whole kitchen smelled warmly of the chicken stock and the bread in the oven. Riley heeled his boots off and disappeared into the kitchen bathroom to wash, leaving the door open.

“Ger.”

“Doing what?”

“Nothing.”

There was another muted crash as muddied jeans were flung down against the floor. Paul heard the shower start and paused the conversation until Riley reappeared five minutes later, wet haired, in fresh jeans and shouldering into a clean t shirt. He sat down at the kitchen table with an equally vigorous bang that meant at the moment his state of mind could only properly be expressed by noise, even if was fairly muted noise. Paul reached one handed into the pantry, found a tin by feel and handed it across to him. Riley sat back, took the lid off the tin and Paul heard his faint grunt of amusement and appreciation.

“Did you bake this morning? I think we ate everything in the pantry while you were gone.”

“That’s what it was there for.”

“What are you cooking?” Cookie in mouth, Riley got up to look and Paul wiped off his hands.

“Proper chicken stock.”

“What, as opposed to pretend stock?” Riley lifted the lid to peer. “Ah. You mean your bring you back from the dead stuff.”

“Dale might feel like something light.”

“How is he?” Riley’s tone expressed most of what he felt around that question. Paul started on the few dishes in the sink, keeping his voice calm.

“He’s still asleep, Flynn’s up there with him.”

“He’s been asleep all day.”

“That’s what he needs, hon. His temperature’s down, I’ve been waking him every couple of hours to drink and he says apart from feeling cold and a bit achy he’s ok, he’s coherent.” Paul shook bubbles off another dish and put it on the draining board. “I don’t think this is a bug, I just think he’s exhausted.”

“Oh come on.” Riley yanked a tea towel from the towel rail on the stove and leaned against the counter to start drying the dishes Paul was stacking.

“Come on what?”

Riley glared at the glass dish he was drying, flicking bubbles off as if they were deliberately in his way. “You know and I know. Every time one of those things happened to him, he would have just shut down and carried on,  that’s what he does, that’s how he thinks.”

Ouch.

Paul hesitated, choosing his words carefully with real concern for him. “Honey I can see why you’d be upset with him-”

“No I’m not upset with him, I’m upset with her.” Riley said succinctly. “Him I get. This is probably every damn reaction he never got around to having at the time, isn’t it? All the stockpile in one go, whoomph, because he does that too. He can’t dust a shelf, he has to steam clean the entire closet. And I am not mad at him, I just hate this and I’d like him to stop scaring the crap out of me for five minutes.”

Riley had an acute knack of hitting the nail on the head, hard enough to drive it straight through the wall and out the other side. Paul drained the sink and leaned against the counter, watching him, taking in the suppressed energy with which he was wiping dishes and the weight in his shoulders.

“Mhm. What was up with Gerry?”

Riley, putting a dish back in one of the wall racks, gave him a slightly sheepish look.

“.....He’s better with the cattle than I am. Today that may have ticked me off slightly. Luath said to get out of the yard, chill out and stop scowling before he dropped me in a horse trough.”

Paul smiled and Riley unwillingly returned it, pausing to give him a rather tight hug as he passed to get another wet dish.

“We were shifting the bullock herd up to the gated pasture this afternoon, the grass is better up there. You know what they’re like to move, it’s like a mad hatter’s tea party even with the dogs, and Ger didn’t even need me. He just has it. I may have said something about I know he was doing it before I was born, that probably didn’t help.”

“You think?” Paul said pointedly.

Riley put the last dish away and hung the towel up to dry. “I know, I know, I’ll talk to him later but he was pretty patient, he didn’t throw anything at me. Want me to get the new armchair out of the garage? It was delivered on Friday morning, we signed for it and Flynn said to leave it wrapped until you’d had a chance to check it was what you wanted. I didn’t know you’d ordered anything new?”

“I saw it in a catalogue and I thought it looked a good match for the family room. Bring it through for me love, we’ll have a look.”

The house was very quiet. Quiet was something Paul had been working on creating all day; not just physical hush but atmosphere too; Dale would be aware of it even if it wasn’t consciously, and it was soothing to him and to Riley, and to all of them. The house as Philip had kept it, as they all loved it. Calm, ordered and comfortable quiet, that went with the new polish on the table in the family room and the jonquils in a vase. Flowers were not something Flynn or Riley would ever buy in Jackson while they were shopping; Paul suspected Ash’s hand and appreciated it. He and Riley carried the large leather recliner to a space by the fire and Riley cut the plastic wrappings off it, raising his eyebrows as he saw the base.

“Wow, it’s a rocker.”

“Yes, I think we’ll retire the armchair next to the fire over to there by the bookcase and make it a reading corner, it’s a bit scorched from the fire, and this one can take its place.” Paul stood back to look at the colour match with the deep wine red couches and nodded in satisfaction, feeling no need to explain further as to why he’d gone looking for a rocker for this room. “It’s a good match, it looks like a part of the set.”

They manhandled the older armchair to the bookcase corner, and put the rocker in its place. It was broad and deep, all the chairs in the room were; this was a room furnished for men, no few of whom were large and needed to be able to lounge comfortably. Bear and Luath and Jake would have no difficulty relaxing in this. Riley dropped into it, settling back into its squashy depths to test it, and grinned as it began to softly glide back and forth, the first real, heartfelt smile Paul that had seen from him all day.

“Ok, this is wild, I love it. How long do you think it’ll take for Flynn to notice it’s here?”


*


Flynn was laying on the other side of the bed close beside Dale. Jasper was doing the same whenever he took a turn up here with Dale, in the same way Paul did; the proximity deeply mattered and all three of them knew it. They hadn’t left him alone either, they’d taken it in turns but at least one of them had been here all the time. Had he been in any state to take notice, Dale would have pointed out that there was no practical purpose for them to spend their time watching him sleep, but Paul seriously doubted if at any time in his life he’d known someone want to or need to be with him at a difficult time just to be there. More essentially, he was theirs. They were responsible for him and they would be with him whether he understood why or not. Practicality had nothing to do with it.

Paul sat on the edge of the bed beside him, moving carefully even though currently it was taking real effort to waken him. Dale was laying on his side, one hand near his face, very still, his breathing slow and even and very soft.

“Hasn’t stirred.” Flynn said softly, laying his book down.

Dale had barely moved in hours, this was the same position he’d been in since dawn. His face was peaceful, this appeared to be a deep and a dreamless sleep and to Paul it felt like a kind of hibernation. A shut down, as if his brain had to offline for a while until his body had time to process. His forehead was cool when Paul touched it, and his colour was better.

“I came to see if he wanted anything to eat, but there’s no sense in disturbing him, he’ll wake if he’s hungry.” Paul said just as softly. “Dinner’s on the table., You go on down and eat, love. I’ll sit with him for a while.”

He half expected Flynn to refuse. Flynn tended to stick very close to Riley on the rare occasions Riley was sick and not much got Flynn more grimly protective than Riley in need, but he was different about Dale. Calmer, as if he knew without having to stand guard exactly how Dale was, and Paul thought that Dale was much the same with Flynn. Flynn gave Paul a short nod and rolled to his feet, pausing for a moment to look down at Dale with an expression Paul understood. He felt it a lot himself. Flynn’s arm closed around his shoulders as Flynn passed him, Paul felt the hard pressure of a kiss dropped against his head and Flynn’s voice in his ear.

“Are you ok?”

“Fine.” Paul gave him a quick smile, glancing up from Dale, and Flynn stood for a moment looking with him, then heeled out the chair in the corner of the room and sat down, leaning his elbows on his jeaned knees. Broad shouldered, solid, moving as quietly as he did around his horses and their brats.

“Go and eat with the others, you’ve hardly seen them all day.” Paul said gently.

“They’re fine downstairs, I can eat later.” Flynn watched him, dark eyes steady, compassionate, and Paul knew exactly what he meant.

Tell me.

Dale was too deep in this comatose sleep to be aware of them, and any part of him that was would hear the voices of people who loved him, and who’d stood with him through the battle he’d been fighting for days. Years. His face was immobile against the pillow, shadowed with stubble that he usually never allowed to grow; it darkened the clean line of his jaw and reflected back the darkness of his scattered hair which had fallen forward over his forehead, the eyelashes on his cheek, the line of his brow. The curve of his bicep below his t shirt showed as tanned against the sheet, his half curled hand was formed of long, slender fingers, as capable and as quiet as the long line of his spine and his legs under the covers.

“What was the worst part for you?” Flynn said quietly from the chair.

While the others ate downstairs going through a normal mealtime, and while the light slowly faded outside the open window, Paul leaned back against the wooden bedstead and sat beside Dale, watching him sleep while he talked softly to Flynn. And Flynn listened mostly in silence, with occasional quiet sounds of comprehension or soft questions that drew Paul’s attention to details, to what he’d seen and heard and felt, things he hadn’t had time to notice or think of at the time throughout the night by the river, the hike through the woods and the long night at Three Traders. 



*


Throughout the night he didn’t stir. Paul paused more than once by the doorway of his and Flynn’s room, watching the line of the two of them under the covers in the dark, Flynn’s arm loosely over Dale’s waist as it often was when they slept. There was a curious peacefulness in seeing it. Unable to sleep – and not wanting to while the house was this still, while there was this much peace within the dark – Paul sat in his study for a while, not turning the light on or opening the book in his hands, mostly looking out of the window at the familiar shadowed grey yard below where the horses were dark outlines in the paddocks in the distance and the trees moved softly in the woods beyond by the bunkhouse. When at length he heard the kitchen door shut softly downstairs, he went down to the porch, pausing to get a jacket from behind the door before he went outside. Jasper, sitting on the swing with one knee drawn up and one bare foot braced on the swing boards, glanced up from whatever he was carving, met his eyes, and Paul took the other end of the swing, sitting with him in the all-absorbing quiet.

Mason had been shocked to find that hike or not, he was still expected to return to the most basic stage of yard work. Paul watched him through the kitchen window when Jasper set him to transferring the rock pile from where it stood to cover a tarpaulin by the barn fifty feet away. It caused an initial angry outburst, Paul couldn’t hear the words but he saw Mason’s face and the bared teeth and his expression when after a few minutes he roughly went to grab a pair of work gloves from the shed and began to work. And he worked. Angrily, his t shirt showing the sweat stains at chest and armpits, his forehead smeared from where he ran his dusty forearm over it, but he worked. From the window Paul saw too when Luath walked by Mason with an armful of tack and said nothing at all, but dropped a hand on his shoulder and gripped as he passed, and the look Mason gave him communicated resentment and grim displeasure, but it was a communication to him, not at him: the different was subtle but even through a glass pane Paul felt it. After five days and nights spent in each others’ company all the time, every hour, the sense of connection between them was powerful. It was in the mugs of tea he took outside to the others, and in the look Mason gave him as he took his mug, that said yeah, I know. Paul stood with him for a few minutes, leaning against the fence rail and drinking his own tea, and Mason pulled his gloves off, shoved them in his belt and leaned beside him, saying nothing for a moment or two and then giving Paul a very gruff look.

“Is he ok?”

It was obvious which ‘he’ he meant, and it said that Dale was on Mason’s mind too.

“I think he’s ok.” Paul said honestly. “Just exhausted. All he wants to do is sleep, I’m not seeing anything worse.”

“Poor bastard’s entitled to crash.” Mason said shortly. He drained his mug and shook it out, a habit acquired on the hike and Paul noticed it as much as the rolled back sleeves and the dusty jeans. He’d taken hold this morning in a way Paul hadn’t seen him do before, there was a certainty to the way he was shifting the rocks that was as striking as the hard work he was doing on keeping his temper.

“Anything I can do?” Mason said even more roughly. Paul leaned on the fence with a strong rush of warmth for him, using the tone Mason would have heard him use to Dale a lot in the last few days and knowing Mason would understand it.

“Yeah, look at me when you’re being nice like you’re actually going to admit you’re doing it.”

Mason gave him a quick look and a slightly abashed grin that split the dust streaked glower, and Paul smiled, hooking an arm around his shoulders to give him a hug that Mason returned.

“We’re all here, we’re keeping the house calm, we’re carrying on as normal. I think that’s probably what Dale needs most.”






He watched Mason after dinner that evening sit on the porch steps with Gerry and give him a tongue in cheek description of the travails of hiking and they both laughed a lot, Gerry readily enlarging on his own experiences of being wet, muddy and sleeping out on the ranch. It was good natured and casual, and in Gerry’s hands it didn’t tip over into trading war stories that justified or made light of anger, resentment or defiance. An experienced brat and an older man with a good few years of maturity in various ways over Mason, Gerry was bluntly and cheerfully open about his own mistakes and Mason didn’t criticise them, and more tellingly, he didn’t make fun of them either. They talked until dark out on the steps, Ash, Luath and Jasper joined them and Paul, watching Mason relaxed against the stair post and absently petting Tam who was leaning against his knee, saw him sit in the same way as he had when he’d sat by the fire with them every evening in a makeshift camp, comfortable and settled together to talk, with each other the sole focus of company and entertainment.  Riley drifted in and out of the group like a ghost, sometimes settling on the porch rail with them for a while close by Jasper, and sometimes spending forty minutes or so on the window seat upstairs in Flynn and Dale’s room, silent and watching Dale sleep alongside whichever of them happened to be there. He couldn’t stay long. Partly because to sit still and do nothing for so long nagged at Riley’s nerves like acid at the best of times, and partly because he couldn’t bear to watch without wanting to wake Dale and check and know that he was still ok. It was a temptation he resisted without talking to them about it, but Paul could see it fretting at him.

He settled for a while on the couch with Paul and with effort Paul could get him to talk or distract him, and physical comfort meant a lot to Riley. He disappeared with Jasper at dusk for a walk and came back calmer, and later Paul saw him go down to the shire horses that had always been Philip’s favourites to watch and talk to, and climb the fence to their paddock to sit with them and feed them the apples he cut in the tack room. While Jasper took his turn sitting with Dale, Flynn followed Riley and sat out there on the fence with him, and he saw Riley to bed which meant he went without much of a battle and calm enough to sleep.

In the meantime, dishes in need of washing quietly disappeared from the sink and the floor was mopped whenever Paul came downstairs. He suspected Ash, who was always easy company in this house and had a thoughtfulness to his nature that was as understated as it was genially friendly. Ash generally read, or sat on the porch with Gerry and the others in the evenings, he was a quiet presence but he was there and Paul knew he was. Someone who’d hand you a mug of fresh and hot tea in passing, give you a mild smile and go right on outside without needing you to stop and talk or acknowledge them. Gerry and he had the same gift for open hearted kindness.

And Dale slept.


*


He woke enough to drink the juice and tea Paul took him a while after everyone else went to bed on the second evening, when it was quiet and dark upstairs. Dale-like, there was no complaint at being woken by so much as a grimace, he drank as if he was thirsty and with Flynn guiding him, he stood up and walked to the bathroom, steady on his feet. They didn’t turn any lights on, and like Flynn, Paul found himself moving slowly, speaking quietly, which Dale seemed to respond to. He answered direct questions very softly, rather absently, and as soon as they let him lay down, he turned over and was almost instantly asleep again as if he’d never fully been with them. But it wasn’t abandoning them. He didn’t turn over away from them, his body was open to them, and knowing how subtly definite Dale’s body language could be and having many, many times seen him sit or lay in a way that discreetly segregated his own space from theirs even if it was only by a few inches, Paul knew the difference and its significance. Flynn slid an arm under Dale and drew him into the middle of the bed, and Paul lay down on his one free side and Flynn lay on the other, in the dark with the grey and silver light coming through the open curtains and the cool and fresh breeze from the open window.  Flynn reached a hand across Dale waist to find Paul’s, laced his fingers quietly through them, and they lay like that for more hours than Paul knew he dozed, as if waiting was what they had to do. Just be here together to wait with him.

Riley slipped in to join them shortly after three am. Paul heard Flynn stir and blinked in the gloom as Flynn waved Riley around the bed to his side. Riley shucked off jeans and slid directly under the covers next to Flynn, and Flynn shifted over, grunting as Riley curled up to him, and if Paul had to guess, tangled cold feet with Flynn’s warmer ones.

“You’re bloody freezing.”

“I was out on the porch with Jas.”

“Is anyone asleep tonight?”

“Everyone else seems to be quiet.” Riley peered over Flynn’s chest to see what he could of Dale. Huddled together as they were, Dale’s back was hard against Flynn and his head was turned almost directly against Paul’s shoulder. He was breathing softly, very quietly, and Paul signalled to Riley to lower his voice; the quiet around him was important. Somehow it helped and he knew it did, like the atmosphere in the house, the need for things to happen in their own time.

Flynn pulled Riley closer, a brusque and fairly gentle yank that Riley well understood from experience and he settled down. There was no sound on the stairs; only the soft scent of hot tea and Jasper, wearing only jeans, who put a tray softly down on the chest of drawers. Paul took a mug from him with deep appreciation and watched Jasper distribute the others, taking his own to the window seat. He’d brought five mugs, one strong and with milk the way Dale liked it, and Paul let Dale’s cool for a while, the four of them sitting in comfortable silence while they drank. It took a moment of rubbing Dale’s cheek and talking to him before Dale stirred enough to raise up onto one elbow and he drank when Paul held the mug and him, gladly, as if was thirsty as he had been every time they roused him. But his eyes didn’t open, he wasn’t awake and as soon as Paul let him go he sunk straight back into unmoving sleep.

By this time Riley was asleep on Flynn’s other side, wrapped around him to avoid falling out of the side of the bed; Flynn had a pretty firm hold on him. Jasper lounged comfortably back against the window seat wall, drawing his legs up so that he was cradled by the wall on either side, outlined against the dim light in the dark.

And they went on waiting.


*



*


It was a gradual, piecemeal kind of waking that started with hearing the distant and calm, every day sounds of people on the landing, the shower running in the bathroom, voices in the distance. The faint but distinctive scent of bacon cooking downstairs. The warmth of the covers and the comfort of a soft, deep mattress. It was enough to say very comfortably morning, and home. But with it came other things.

There was a cowardly urge to sink back into sleep in an attempt to escape, and it took effort to open his eyes.  On the other side of the room in the strength of the morning sunlight, Flynn was dressing. Dale lay for a moment watching him with very mixed feelings, the familiar hard lines of his shoulders as he pulled a shirt on, his outline blurred slightly in the brightness of the sunshine, jeans not yet buttoned on his hips, feet bare, his hair wet in a way that said he’d just shaved. The man was beautiful. Flynn glanced over, pausing as if he felt Dale’s gaze on him, and his face didn’t change but his eyes did, and Dale had no trouble at all in understanding them or the very quiet tone in his voice.

“Hey kid.”

When a few minutes later Paul came into the room and set eyes on him, his expression was no easier to see. By now sitting on the edge of the bed and working on clearing the dizziness from his head, Dale found himself desperate to say anything at all that might neutralise things back into bearable normality.

“Good morning.”

He saw Paul understand that so well that he nearly laughed. He cupped both hands around Dale’s face to kiss him, his hands gentle and warm and his voice teasing in a way that wound even deeper through Dale’s guts.  “Oh nice try. We are not settling in for a game of ‘nothing just happened’ mister, you can forget it.”

“I am fine, I don’t even-” Dale began, mostly reflexively, and Flynn interrupted him, buckling the belt of his jeans.

“Sick means resting. That means here in bed, until you’re told otherwise. End of. Understood?”

The short tone said a whole lot of things that went with those competent buckling hands and the deeply kind eyes, from so stop worrying what to do, I’ll tell you, to yeah I know you don’t feel good, and there was a hell of a lot of comfort in it. And in the answer he knew Flynn was waiting for, which reaffirmed: my problem, not yours. Let it go.

“Yes sir.”

“Sweet.” Flynn stooped as he passed Dale, turning his chin up to kiss him, a brief and very firm pressure that left the taste and the lingering pressure of him on Dale’s lips, and that helped too. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

He disappeared towards the stairs and Paul straightened out the covers and began to shake out the pillows, putting the bed back into comfortable order.

“How are you feeling sweetheart? No, stay put and let me do that.”

Prevented from doing anything useful, Dale raised his hands from helping with the pillows, keeping his voice light.

“Would it be quite all right if I go to the bathroom?”

He knew the look he got. Paul put the last pillow down and sat on the bed facing him.

“Ok, look at me.”

It was hard. Dale knew he’d given himself away when Paul put a hand out, gently brushing his hair back from his forehead, his voice comfortingly cheerful.

“You know what? I’m right here. So how about you answer the question and we start today on the right foot instead of you saying something charmingly distancing and walking away? Because I know that game.”

 “I wish you’d stop doing that.”

Paul smiled, but shook his head. “No you don’t.”

And that was bloody annoying, but really not in a bad way. There had never been the knowledge before he came here that it was possible to be this exasperated with someone and to love to bits both them and the fact they wouldn’t back down at one and the same time. Or to feel this agonizingly strongly about a man sat a bare few inches away. Paul just waited, comfortable in the silence and apparently in no hurry for Dale to do anything much. Which helped.

“I do feel,” Dale said eventually to him, very quietly, “pretty awful.”

“How?” Paul ran a hand down his back, it was a warm and a comforting touch and he went on stroking. Dale leaned forward, elbows on his knees, realising his shoulders were bent mostly because they ached and it was too much of an effort to hold them up.

“.......Tired. Really tired. Aching, I’m not sure why. It’s not sore muscles. Nauseous, a bit. Cold.”

Other things he didn’t have the words to explain, some weirdly kind of good, some really not good, and some totally inexplicable. And an overwhelming and alarming knowledge that he swallowed on for a moment before he ran his hands through his hair and made himself admit it, out loud.

“I can’t face today. I can’t.”

“You’re exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally, and you spent several days re-living some really horrible stuff.” Paul said gently. “That is going to take recovering from, you’ve got every right to be feeling awful. It’s ok honey. I promise you, if I thought we had anything to worry about I’d be making a lot more fuss than this.”

Dale gave him a wry look and Paul smiled, giving him a one armed hug and drawing him back towards the middle of the bed. “You don’t need to face anything. You’re home and there’s nothing you need to do and nowhere you need to go. If you stay warm and you rest you’re going to feel better in a day or two. Lay down, I’ll bring you a sweater and a hot drink. Let’s try getting you more comfortable.”

Dale let him make the bed around and over him, once he lay down he felt limp, entirely without energy. It was worse even than the numb exhaustion he remembered from the breakdown in New York. Flynn was leaning against the doorway, arms folded, eyes very dark. He’d clearly been there and listening for a while, and when Paul headed towards the stairs Flynn came over and lay down beside Dale, leaning back against the pillows and saying nothing but wrapping both arms tightly around him. When Dale turned over into his arms he hooked a jeaned leg over both of Dale’s, heavily surrounding him from head to foot like armour.


Paul stopped by at the bathroom on his way downstairs, tapping on the door of the shower until Riley’s head emerged, dripping.

“What?”

“He’s awake. Don’t yell and don’t go and grab him.” He added as Riley’s face lit up. “Let’s let him take things gently and have a normal day, he’s feeling pretty fragile.”

Riley gave him an expressive look but grabbed a towel and started to dry himself off. Paul paused in his own room to finish making his bed, hearing Riley head from the bathroom down the hallway in the direction of Luath and Ash and Gerry’s rooms, and by the time Paul went downstairs it was to the sound of Gerry’s voice, faint in the distance from his room but mildly exasperated,

“Oh for pete’s sake, yes of course darling, nothing exciting is happening at all. I’ll go right along with ignoring walloping great elephants in the room anytime you like, it’s fine. Really, Tops. You all go berserk over the silliest of minor details like they’re the end of the world, and then go into total denial about anything actually interesting, do you get some kind of training somewhere? Brain conditioning?”

Jasper was feeding the dogs in the yard and unlocking the barn and the sheds. Paul, starting to plate up breakfast, was joined a moment later by Riley, and following him, Mason, who came by force of habit now to help set the table. He had trimmed his beard back himself when they got back from the hike, and kept the rest of his face clean shaven. It made him look younger and more focused, as if the shagginess had been some kind of a disguise, and he’d lost some pounds too since he’d been with them, especially during the hike. His t shirt, tucked into the waist of his jeans, showed a midriff distinctly flatter  and harder than when he’d arrived. Ash and Gerry came in a few minutes later, Luath followed them, and the kitchen began to take on the comfortable crowd and chatter Paul always associated with normality in this house.

“Riley, I need your help in Jackson this morning.” Jasper said when he came in from the yard, pausing to wash his hands at the kitchen sink on the way. “I’ve got a delivery of feed sacks to pick up.”

Riley gave him a flat glare over a piece of toast. “If you want me out  of the house and away from Dale today you could just say so.”

Oh dear, we’re going there. Paul opened his mouth to respond but Jasper spoke first, calmly, taking his seat.

“I want your help in Jackson this morning. If you want to rant about it first, you can take your plate out on the porch until you’re done.”

Riley gave him another, harder glare which Jasper took no notice of, and Luath passed a dish of tomatoes across to Jasper, taking in Riley’s expression with a practiced eye.

“I can handle the yard work with Mason.”

“Thanks.” Jasper spooned tomatoes onto his plate, glancing across to Gerry. “Ger, could you and Ash do the east pastures and the cattle?”

“The stretch of river where the bullocks are needs digging out, it’s choked on the curve where they stomped the bank down last year.” Riley said shortly. “I was going to do that this morning.”

“It’s fine, we can handle that on our way.” Ash assured him, and Gerry groaned, flopping theatrically back in his chair.

“Ashley, that means getting wet.  I wouldn’t mind, but you’re the one who keeps giving lectures on how I’m supposed to be in good condition for surgery. I’m fairly sure that shouldn’t include one having to get wet all the way up to one’s knackers in perishing cold rivers while shovelling mud about-”

“You know what? Don’t bother, I’ll do it.” Riley slammed the half eaten piece of toast down on his plate, shoved his chair back with a loud scrape and stalked towards the door, grabbing his boots as he passed them. Jasper got up too, leaving his barely touched breakfast on the table, and followed, closing the door softly behind him.

“That is not a happy bunny.” Gerry observed in the few seconds sharp silence that followed.

Paul got up to put Jasper’s plate in the warming oven.

“We’re going to get something lethal climbed or swum today if we’re not careful.” Luath said wryly, handing him Riley’s plate to put there too. “I’ll keep a close eye on the corral and I’ll head out with him if he goes out later.”

“Look, I can dig the damn river out if that’s a problem?” Mason said abruptly to Luath. “If you’ll give me a hand and it stops all the drama.”

Luath shook his head gently. “That’s nice of you, son, but you’re restricted to the yard, aren’t you?”

“Anyway, we’ve got it covered.” Ash said peaceably before Mason could answer. “Haven’t we Gerry?”

Gerry gave him a pointed look, but waved expansively with his fork. “Apparently. Mason. Darling. Do I have to flutter my eyelashes all morning to get you to pass the teapot down this way or am I going to have to offer you a blow job? Some of us are dehydrating over here.”

Gerald.” Luath said loudly, much louder than Ash’s easy going,

“One.”

Paul, choking slightly on his tea, couldn’t help smiling, and Gerry caught his eye with a glint of affection that Paul read without difficulty.  He gave Ash a patently naughty look, but said to the table at large,

“I do apologise, perhaps that was a little crude for breakfast. Darling, teapot. Please.”

The corner of Mason’s rather scowling mouth tugged downwards as if he was trying not to laugh, but he passed the tea pot over.


            Riley had stalked out through the open gate into the home pasture. It was where Jasper always sent him with orders to rant if he needed to: Jasper didn’t miss the connection. The grass was long beyond the gate, knee length and drying rapidly in the morning breeze and sunshine, and swished quietly around Jasper’s boots as he walked, heading towards the section of wooden fence where Riley was leaning. Riley didn’t look round until Jasper reached him, but the hunched shoulders said he knew very well he’d been followed. Jasper quietly leaned on the fence beside him, put his arms around Riley and pulled him without effort off the fence and against his chest. Riley didn’t come willingly, but he didn’t fight either. Jasper stood for a while, leaning against the rail and holding him tightly with one hand cupping the back of Riley’s bright and sun warmed chestnut hair, his eyes on the mountains on the skyline beyond them. Tom and Jake were due back from their camp three expedition today, half a world away from here and on equally snow capped mountains.

“I’m not working today.” Riley said flatly against his chest. “I’m not going to Jackson either. I’m staying here.”

Jasper didn’t argue it, keeping his voice quiet against Riley’s ear.

“What do you think Dale’s going to need today?”

“I don’t know,” Riley said savagely, “Because I wasn’t there while you were hiking all over the damn place and he was going through all this crap, and he’s been sick ever since. I have no idea what he needs or what to do to make this any better for him. I hate that I wasn’t there, this has got to be some of the worst few days of his life.”

Jasper nodded slowly, with real sympathy. “That makes a lot of sense to me.”

“And I know Flynn and I needed to stay and keep things going here, I know you and Paul were the right people to go, that was what needed to happen, but it sucks.”

“I bet it does.”

“You don’t have to sound all reasonable about it.” Slightly mollified in spite of himself, Riley drew away and Jasper let him go, watching Riley crouch down in the grass and pull at a grass stem until it snapped loose in his hand. Riley rolled the grass stem around his finger tip, watching it band there. Then he sighed.

“He’s grieving, of course he is, and he needs quiet. Things to be peaceful. Everything kept small enough to deal with. Time. Blah blah blah. He needed to burn all this off and he’s got a hell of a lot to process, and I know. I know.”

The impotency was as strong in his voice as the frustration. Jasper leaned back against the fence, hooking his elbows over it.

“I see this as our chance to fight back.”

Riley glanced up at him, startled.

“Fight what?”

“Her.” Jasper said succinctly. “We’re here. We can make these days all about feeling safe and loved and with us. We can make sure that when he looks back at this time the main thing he’s going to remember isn’t how terrible this was, but that we were here and we made things easy for him. We can do that, we can do it well and she can’t touch it, and that’s something that will compete with all the programming he’s got laid down whenever he’s got a rough ANZ project to handle or he’s having a hard time. I think that’s going to matter a lot to Dale.”

Riley gave him a brief and fierce look that said that appealed to him a lot, and as a thought, it helped. After a moment he said more gruffly,

“I’m sorry about mouthing off at breakfast.”

Jasper held out a hand to him. Riley took it and pulled himself to his feet, and gave a rather bleak grunt of amusement as Jasper found the hem of his sweater.

“What, you’re in that kind of a mood this morning?”

Jasper took no notice, easing the sweater over his head and unhurriedly working on the buttons of Riley’s jeans to get them open before he lifted Riley by the hips to sit him on the fence rail in front of him, which put Riley’s bare chest very conveniently at his head height. He had an arm firmly enough around Riley’s waist to keep him safely there, and for a minute or so Riley’s hands held on to his shoulders rather half heartedly. It was when Riley began instead to hold his head, when his legs hugged Jasper’s hips and he clearly cared a whole lot less about balancing that Jasper knew he was beginning to the effect he’d intended. A few minutes later it was quite apparent that bleakness was the very last thing on Riley’s mind.
  
*

Riley and Jasper did not reappear in the kitchen until after everyone else had gone out to start work. Paul cleared the table in the kitchen, leaving their places set, and before he had finished the washing up they came in together, Jasper looking as relaxed as he always did, and Riley, slightly dishevelled, looked a good deal more himself.

“Give me a shopping list,” Jasper said to Paul as he and Riley resumed their seats to finish eating. “We’ll pick up the groceries while we’re in Jackson, we need wire, saw blades,”

“Oil, the lamp oil’s getting very low.” Paul sat down at the half cleared table and scribbled a list from memory while they ate, leaning over once or twice to check the contents of the fridge. He added a few additional items at the foot of the list and circled them before he handed the list back to Jasper.

“If you can find any of those at the book store they’d be useful.”

“Treasure Island?” Riley looked over Jasper’s shoulder to read, “The Secret Garden, The Jungle Book...?”

“Just see what of those they have, otherwise I’ll order them.”

“Are you researching something?”

“I want them for Dale.” Paul said matter of factly. “He could do with a bit of gentle escapism.”

He was aware of the sharp look he got from Riley. Jasper put his empty plate in the sink and dropped a hand on Riley’s shoulder, heading past him to the garage.

“Get a jacket.”

Paul leaned his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes, which felt gritty after several days of very little sleep, looking at Riley with a whole lot of sympathy.

“Are you ok honey?”

“Sorry about earlier.” Riley put his own dishes in the sink and stooped over his shoulders to give him a hug that said expressively a lot of things that Riley wouldn’t. Paul hugged the arms around his neck and Riley dropped a kiss on his cheek and grabbed a jacket to follow Jasper, saying something that sounded like,

“Give her hell from me.”

Not long after Jasper and Riley headed out- and Paul knew Jasper would take his time, the trip to Jackson was as much for Riley as for anything they really needed –   and when the house was quiet for the day, Flynn went out to saddle up Leo and check on the horse herd where the mares were getting increasingly close to foaling. He made it a normal day by doing so; Paul saw the positive effect it had on Dale. It put things back on the same calm footing they’d been on before the hike, with the focus of the day openly on working through the fall out. It put a framework around the incomprehensible; you have your job to do and I have mine, so let’s get to work.

When he was gone Paul took a book and a mug upstairs to Dale, sitting down on the edge of the bed with him. He looked pale and heavy eyed, and it was clearly an effort to move at all. It was the first time Paul had ever seen him in bed during the day without looking acutely uncomfortable, tense and braced for any opportunity to get things back to normal, and it was a mixed victory, in part because it was clear he felt too bad to care about anything much. So far this morning he really hadn’t wanted to eat and they hadn’t pushed it, but he leaned up on one elbow to take the mug automatically and paused when he saw the contents weren’t tea as he was expecting, sniffing rather cautiously but with interest.

“What’s this?”

“Chicken broth. My grandmother always made it whenever we had anyone sick in the house, this stuff is liquid gold.” Paul settled beside him, leaning back against the pillows. “There’s nothing to digest but it’s got some serious nutritional value, I know I’m putting something halfway decent into you. How does your stomach feel?”

“Much better than it did.” Dale took a cautious sip of the broth, then to Paul’s satisfaction, he took another and deeper one with definite interest as he got the taste.  “This is good.”

“My grandmother knew what she was doing, she used to make it by the vat.” Paul turned up the book to show him the cover. “Lewis Carroll, I wondered if you wanted to hear more about the Snark.”

Dale raised an eyebrow and Paul grinned, put an arm around him and pulled until Dale was leaning against him.

“Yeah, turn the eyebrow off and come here.”


They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

The Bellman perceived that their spirits were low,
And repeated in musical tone
Some jokes he had kept for a season of woe —
But the crew would do nothing but groan.


Dale had mostly listened in silence through the first few sections but he smiled at that part and Paul paused, an arm around him with the book balanced on his chest where they could both read it.

“Oh that rings a bell does it? That’s ok hon, I spent the first few months I knew Flynn in annoying the living daylights out of him too. In fact when I come to think about it, I think I established a relationship with all four of you through being annoying.”

“You are not annoying.”

There was no energy in him at all, not even in his voice. He was huddled under the covers even wearing sweats, and pretty much all he wanted to do, if Paul was any judge, was to be quiet and to be held and that was pretty much it. The book was mostly a means for Paul to occupy himself while they did it, although Lewis Carroll’s writing was in Paul’s opinion designed for reading aloud. It was like verbal music and he suspected that while Riley would by now have been prepared to promise him the world to get him to stop, Dale would appreciate it the way that he did. He thought Dale had fallen asleep before he reached the end, but he read on anyway, and when he finished the last page Dale stirred against him, his voice very soft and rather ambivalent.

“........Would you mind reading that again? If you’re not tired of it or tired of reading or have other things to do, I’m sure you probably have-”

“Anything better than getting to lay in bed with you and read? No thank you, I’ll happily bore you to death with this all day hon,” Paul said gently, “I love this book, I always have done.”

Dale had closed his eyes again. “It’s like a logic puzzle set to music.”

“I thought you’d get that.” Paul ruffled his hair, thumbing back to the first stanzas. “Do you know how nice it is to get to share this with someone who’s interested?”

“Thank you.”

It was softly said, slightly stilted mostly because Dale rarely knew what to say when you said that kind of thing to him, but it was sincere. Paul began to read from the start again, rubbing his hand slowly around and over Dale’s shoulder where it rested, aware that while he was horribly conscious of a lot of weariness and of sadness in the familiar body against his, there was none of the tension that Paul was so used to in Dale, or the subtle sense of distance that meant that mentally he was doing his own thing, thinking his own thoughts, and there were levels you weren’t supposed to be aware of. He was pressed close, and the arm around Paul’s waist was holding on, and he was here. In all ways he was here, and that in itself made Paul hold him closer.

Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
     The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
     The warranted genuine Snarks....


Dale stirred at the scrape of paper beside him and woke to find Riley sprawled on the bed with his head propped on his hand, flicking through the book. He glanced up and managed something between a glare and a smile, and Dale dragged himself up on one elbow to get hold of him with a rush of emotion that was near to being choking. Riley hugged him back hard, swatting him through the covers with the book.

“Two days. Two fricking days. How does anyone sleep that long?”

His voice was rough, he smelled so good and he was so warm, so wonderfully alive, but the words caught Dale’s attention and he drew back, confused.

“What?”

Riley let him go, shaking his head. “You. You were out for two solid days, didn’t you notice?”

No. No one had mentioned that part. More than slightly shaken, Dale pulled himself upright against the pillows, shaking his head to clear it. It felt fuzzy. Everything felt both fuzzy and painfully sharp in bits, it was not pleasant, and any even mildly disquieting thought sent a shockwave of ice and tension through his body like a fire hose, far stronger than it should have been and far harder to manage or to rationalise. He put a hand to his jaw, discreetly rubbing it and realising with a jolt that he was wearing several days stubble.

“.....What time is it?”

“About three, the others aren’t home yet.” Riley dropped the book on the nightstand. “I went into Jackson with Jas. Or I kind of got dragged to Jackson, but it was nice, we ate at that new Mex place off the main street and walked a way down one of the trails. Are you ok? Are you feeling ok?”

He was talking so fast it was hard to hear him and the energy in his voice was overwhelming. And he badly wanted to hear a yes. The need was in his face, in his voice, it turned Dale’s heart over, and after two days it wasn’t surprising. How could anyone lose two days? How could anyone responsibly scare the people they loved by doing that? He had no real memory of anything beyond the day they’d come home, no matter how hard he searched his mind, and that was not pleasant. With guilt for Riley and with growing disquiet, Dale found himself putting a hand against Riley’s face in a brief and sincere attempt at some kind of comfort, and rolling to his feet, padding to the dresser for a pair of socks and forcing himself to stand properly upright and sound properly conversational despite the roiling in his stomach.

“It looks like you and Flynn managed a week together without anyone dying?”

Riley grinned, leaning back against the pillows to watch him. “Mostly. There was one morning early on when Gerry was a bit – over the top? And I held it together until he and Ash headed out, and then blew my stack at Flynn in the kitchen. I got stuffed in a corner until Ash and Gerry rode out- where do you think you’re going?”

“The bathroom to start with, I really need a shave.” Dale headed onto the landing, realising with increasing unease that his legs were not too steady in a way he’d never before experienced, and that standing up was taking a lot more effort than it should have done. Riley rolled up to his feet, following him fast.

“Hey, easy – you’re going to need to ask first? Jas only went to change - are you trying to get toasted? Dale!”

It was difficult to both move and keep irritation out of his voice at the same time; Dale controlled his voice with the same powerful effort it was taking to control his legs.

“I am only going to the bathroom, it’s a legal, human right.”

He closed the door behind him and Riley immediately opened it again, following him inside. “The way you’re shaking you’re going to fall, will you quit it? Yeah, I am staying-”

I’m staying, thank you.” Jasper said quietly, taking the door from Riley. “Riley, go downstairs please.”

Dale’s stomach lurched. There was no mistaking either Jasper’s tone nor his expression. Riley grimaced at Dale and went. Jasper closed the door and put his shoulders against it, nodding to Dale.

“Go ahead.”

It was not easy doing this with an audience but this was definitely not the moment to ask Jasper to leave. Dale finished as quickly as he was able and Jasper came to stand by him while he washed his hands, offering him a towel.

“I need a shower and a shave,” Dale said as tactfully as was possible, locking his knees and standing square to bring himself to his full height and look Jasper in the eye. Open, calm body language. Persuasive, reassuring, “I-”

Jasper turned him with a swat that effectively withered the rest of that sentence on Dale’s tongue. With Jasper’s hands on his shoulders, Dale found himself hustled across the hallway where Jasper straightened the covers with a few brisk pulls and turned them down for Dale to get into bed. It did not seem a good idea to show any kind of hesitation. Dale lay down and Jasper efficiently tucked the covers over him.

“Turn over.”

What?

Dale rather apprehensively turned over onto his stomach, folding his arms under the pillow, and Jasper said nothing else, merely sat down on the other side of the bed. Apparently there was an appropriate version of being stood in a corner even for those confined to bed. Shaky, unpleasantly nauseous, Dale relaxed by inches, somewhat abashed, mildly smarting which was very concentrating to the attention, and very aware of both the silence in the room and Jasper immediately beside him.

He was struggling not to doze off by the end of the first two minutes. It felt like a long time, and he felt considerably calmer when Jasper finally laid down the book he had been reading and put a hand on Dale’s back.

“When we decide for you to be anywhere else but here, we will let you know. If you need anything, you will let us know and we will decide what we do about it. Is that clear?”

It was extremely specific, and it helped. It wasn’t possible to answer with much dignity or clarity laying face down, but sincerity, yes, based on a lot of practice in this household and with this man. Face half turned into the pillow, Dale still managed it.

“Yes sir.”

“You can sit up.” Jasper got up and disappeared across the hallway. Dale rolled over and slowly pulled himself up against the pillows, and flinched hard, his stomach starting to twist in all directions with alarm as Jasper reappeared with a bowl of water, soap, razor, wash cloth and a towel.

“Oh no. Jas, I can just shower, or I can wait, it’s fine-”

Jasper put the bowl of water on the night stand and went to the dresser, taking out clean sleep wear, taking no notice whatsoever in a way that reminded Dale forcibly that Jasper handled large, powerful and frequently uncooperative cattle for a living.

He didn’t give the chance to do anything at all except acquiesce while he undressed, washed and shaved Dale, extremely gently and very competently without a drop of water falling on the bed, and the long, strong brown hands were as deft and unhurried in handling him as his face, near to Dale’s was calm. It was very sobering in some ways. Jasper couldn’t have done anything more intimate or that made it more clear who was in charge, and it was not an easy thing to let any man at your face with a razor. But at the same time it was Jasper doing it, his familiar hands, his familiar and quiet way of moving, the known lines of his face, the way his collar creased at the line of his throat, the familiar line of muscle and bone in his forearms, the steady brown of his eyes. Flynn had a knack for this too, for the most simple and profound acts of dominance that were anything but alarming to experience. And just the fact of  it being Jasper doing it automatically made it both peaceful and extremely safe. It was rather like bracing yourself for the most awful of roller coasters and actually finding yourself shown to a seat on a garden swing: not at all the nightmare that it should have been.

He heard Jasper cross the landing as he took the water away, listening to the familiar, every day sounds with very mixed feelings, most of which he couldn’t put a name to, and a few minutes later Jasper came back and once more stretched out on the other side of the bed, crossing his ankles and leaning back against the pillows beside Dale to pick up the book again, holding an arm out to him.

“Is this what you and Paul are reading?”

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

Jasper looked up from occupying himself with the Snarks when Flynn came upstairs, hair damp from the shower and in fresh clothes. Dale was asleep against him. Not exactly through choice; he’d fought it but he was exhausted, and held close and still, he’d lost the battle very quickly. Flynn took the offered book, glanced at the page and closed it, tapping it against his thigh.

“Mason would like a word with you. He’s showering, I just had a long and pretty well argued case to move on from yard work, I told him he needed to talk to you.”

“Thanks. Any of the mares looking near yet?”

“Belle’s not just bloody near, she’s foaled. Again, just like she always does.” Flynn said darkly. “Weeks ahead of her due date, off on her own with no warning of any kind and I checked them all only yesterday afternoon. Took  me a while to find where she’d hidden herself. That mare’s going to come to a bad end.”

“She ok?”

“She’s fine. Nice little colt, big, her colours and feeding well, she’s a bitch but she’s a good mother, and Bandit’s got her covered. A few of the mares are wanting to be nosy but he’s not letting anyone into the copse where she’s hidden herself. Pocket and Tash are both starting to look ready to go but I’ve left them up there for now, Bandit’s got them less than a mile away on the shallow bit of plateau up by the river, lots of shelter and those two have never had any problems foaling. I’ll go up again this evening and have another look.”

“Left to themselves, all the girls would rather do it Belle’s way.” Jasper eased himself away from Dale without disturbing him. Flynn grunted.

“I swear Belle drops in secret because she knows if we see she’s near she’ll get put in a paddock. I’ll take a chance on experienced mares with a good track record, but if we’re going to have a foaling go wrong, I want it going wrong near a phone and electric light. How’s he been?”

“Sad.” Jasper said reflectively. “Quiet. But ok unless he’s alone with Ri. Then he pulls himself together and hits the I will carry on anyway mode, but alone with me and with Paul.... he seems to be convinced we’re strong enough to take it, we’re doing ok.”

Flynn moved around the bed and softly lay down beside Dale, not shaking the mattress, and as he left, Jasper saw him settle on his side with one arm over Dale’s waist.

Paul and Riley were chopping vegetables at the table in the kitchen. Luath was sitting opposite him copying figures from a note book to the stock book. Mason, emerging from the kitchen bathroom with wet hair and shouldering into a sweatshirt, saw him and tugged the sweater straight, coming to lean on the back of a kitchen chair with both hands and look him directly in the eye, exasperated but obviously trying hard to say it calmly.

“I want to talk to you. I’ve done everything you needed done outside for three days. I’ve done it properly, thoroughly, go check. The work is good. I get it, I’m ready to move on.”

“Good.” Jasper went to the kitchen drawer, took out pen and paper and handed them to him. “Write me a paper on what you know, what you’ve learned and make the case as to why you deserve to move on to the next stage. A thousand words, give it to me when you’re done.”

“A thousand?” Mason demanded. “You never wanted a paper before?”

“And we needed to do this stage again, so now you need to write a paper.” Jasper said calmly. “I won’t set a deadline, it’s up to you when you’re finished.”

“And what’s the criteria to pass?”

“That you’ve done the thinking you need to. If the paper doesn’t meet it, we’ll talk about why and you’ll have some more thinking and figuring out to do before you try again.”

“You’re really going to make me sweat for this, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Mason let out an explosive hiss between his teeth and Jasper walked around him to pull his boots on.

“Ri? Can you give the calves a feed for me?”

There was a cow with three day old twin calves in one of the paddocks that they were keeping an eye on. Riley took warm boiled water and couple of the sterilised bottles from the pantry out with him and made up two bottles of milk which were blood temperature when he was done. The calves, who were enthusiastic about their bottle supplement feeds, were already at the fence, pushing their heads through and bawling for them to hurry up. Riley climbed the fence with one of the large bottles, going down to one knee to feed the first calf who grabbed eagerly for the teat. They were only supplementing their feed a couple of times a day to make sure both calves got the nutrition they needed while they were so small, and to give their mother a bit of help while her milk came in and she was feeding two; both calves looked lively and in good condition this afternoon, their eyes were clear, they were lively, and to Riley’s eye they were gaining weight well. Their mother, who was also enjoying the high quality feed she was getting in addition to her grazing, glanced up occasionally and placidly towards them. The one currently gulping the milk down was a born guzzler who had taken to bottle feeding without hesitation. Her sister was a much more delicate feeder who tended to sip rather than gulp and tended from time to time to lose the nipple and then appear to have no idea what to do about it, which made for harder work, but in comfortable sunshine on a bright afternoon it was very difficult to do this without enjoying it.

Gerry leaned on the fence behind him, one boot braced on the rail as he watched. Riley glanced up at him, then back at the calf, keeping a wary eye on her as at this age they easily bashed their hard little polls into your face through their bouncing enthusiasm and left you with a bloody nose if you weren’t careful. After a moment he climbed the fence and took the second bottle, crouching to take the second little heifer in hand. His voice was lightly conversational, but Riley had known him a long time and he heard the warmth behind it.

“You know something? If I’m watching Bear or Wade or you or any other brat in the family spinning out, there are times when I know my job is to shut up, get out of the way and let a Top handle it. I know in that position myself that’s what I’d want and what I’d need, I’ve seen it work time after time, but I still don’t find it easy. I have no idea what this must be like for you and Dale, but I really do admire the hell out of you being able to do that for him.” 



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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