Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chapter 21 - Ranch

21




Luath, coming down from where sheep were roaming on their furthest north east pastures, took a route home on impulse that led him down by the river where in his opinion some of the least dramatic but most beautiful sights of the ranch could be seen. The horse was in need of exercise, although in Luath’s experience of horses, the big gelding wasn’t too pleased about taking it. Riley had said succinctly this morning, watching while Luath coaxed him out of the corral, that Hammer was missing Dale, and it took some gentle nagging to convince the big animal that they were going the scenic route instead of going straight home as Hammer clearly had planned. Unlike the leggier, more temperamental of their riding horses who usually made their displeasure clear by flat out walking sideways, backwards, spinning around in circles, or planting all four feet and refusing to move, Hammer just radiated grim disapproval and grumbled in a series of snorts that made it clear he thought his rider was in need of guidance.

Luath let him walk, keeping a firm enough hand on the rein to insist Hammer did things his way, and they followed the river bank alongside the thicket of thin woodland that grew on either side of the river, listening to the bird song above them and the rush of the water in the steady breeze through the bright green buds on the trees, until Luath saw a glimpse of white through the trees that made him look twice. And then turn Hammer gently to pick his way through the trees towards the water.

Leo was grazing alone on the far bank, his reins tied up, and Flynn was shirtless, wading to above his knees in the river and carrying a rock of bulk and weight that made his shoulders and upper arms bulge. Luath drew Hammer in, about to call to him, then saw Flynn stoop in the water and ram the rock deep down into the bed of the river, one foot braced on what was obviously a higher surface under the water. Luath dismounted, and with a thought to Hammer’s mood, tethered him to a tree before he walked through the last of the thicket to the river bank. The ford was half built. Flynn must have been working on it for days, and it was a heavy, back breaking job in the cold and against the rushing flow of the current. Luath took in the pile of rocks on either side of the river bank, the stirred up and muddied water that ran over the causeway Flynn had constructed of shale and rock, wide enough not just for a horse to safely pass, but for a wagon too. Exactly as the other crossing place had once been built some miles to the south across the river; there was a symmetry here that went with how Flynn felt about the ranch. There was something in the way that Flynn was working that gave it away if Luath hadn’t already understood it. Silent. Dogged. In between the hours he was spending with Dale, Luath wondered how many other hours had been spent here.

Luath went quietly back to Hammer, pulled his water canteen out of his saddle bag and walked back to the river bank, crouching on the edge of the water. Flynn glanced up at him, face expressionless, and Luath held out the canteen, waiting until Flynn waded over to take it.

“This looks like quite a project.”

“Be useful to have another crossing place over this way. Thought so for years.” Flynn drank deeply, pulled his Stetson off and ran a wet forearm over his face, pushing sweat soaked hair back.

Luath nodded assent, watching the river flow past. “Pretty sure whoever built the other one didn’t do it alone. Plenty of us around.”

“I’ve got it.”

The New Zealand accent was curt. He turned his back and waded to pick up the next rock and go on working. Luath sat down on the warm grass and finished off what was left in the canteen, watching.

“I got to know a bunch of other people who lost partners in the towers.” he said after a while, addressing Flynn’s back and the horse and the river in general. “A few of them went out and ran marathons. Joined mountain climbing teams, seven peak challenge, that kind of thing. All men. One of the counsellors told me he saw it in guys where the wife had a miscarriage. They raised plenty of money for charities but he said that wasn’t why they did it. He thought it was to do with needing to make a mental ordeal physical. Something they could fight. Or to go through a physical ordeal to share in what their partner had been through. I just painted the guest bathroom. Seven times in about four months, under coat, top coat, the lot, didn’t really think too much about why.”

Flynn embedded another stone with a hard shove, rocking it into place. He waded to get another one and Luath thought he wouldn’t answer, then as he hauled the second across the river he said without looking up,

“Not much else I can practically do.”

“I’d have thought you were the best qualified of the lot of us.”

Flynn grunted, ducking further under the water to root the rock more strongly in place.

“With a patient, there’s no personal involvement. I don’t usually want to go and kill the people responsible.”

“Do you?”

“I’m with Ri. Yes. I’m no role model for this. Paul’s the only one of us had a decent relationship with his mother. Riley hardly remembers his. Jas doesn’t. Parents and I don’t bloody mix at all.”

The edge was clear in his voice. It was hard enough to watch the man you loved suffering in any kind of way, as a Top it punched every instinct you had, but Flynn was a man who had to physically do, who stepped up to combat whatever threatened or encumbered the people he loved. It was something Philip had understood. He’d said something once that made Luath think that Flynn in some ways reminded him of David. To ask either Flynn or David to stand by and watch someone they loved in trouble went against every cell in their body. And yet Flynn had the insight and the self discipline to control it, at least around Riley, Dale and Paul, who were the fiercest targets of his protection. The chances were strong that Jasper knew exactly what Flynn was doing out here, and why. There wasn’t much one of them did that the other one didn’t share in. 

“Are you all right, brat?” he said quietly, meaning it. Flynn gave him a brief look that said he heard and appreciated what he meant.

“Yeah.”

More than understanding what painful impotence to fix it felt like, Luath watched Flynn bed another rock down into the platform he was building, then got up and shouldered out of his sweater, and waded down into the river where his boots crunched on shale and the current swirled against his knees, pulling his work gloves out of his pocket. Flynn didn’t look up or say anything, but he moved aside to let Luath pass him, and Luath pulled another large rock out of the pile on the bank.







The most powerful thing Dale remembered ever after was how it felt to lay, hour after hour, in the arms of Flynn, Jasper or Paul. Despite the work that always needed doing on the ranch, one of them was with him around the clock. That hit Dale at the very deepest levels in the places where he felt most raw. And whenever he had to stir, to drink or make the several thousand mile trek to the bathroom which involved separating for a moment or two, when he lay down again they always, all three of them, pulled him straight back into their arms. Body to body, feeling them, breathing them, the warmth and the comfort of them seeped gradually into his bones hour by hour like some kind of osmosis or transfusion, it really did soak away the bone deep weariness that made it so hard to move, or to think, or to keep warm, or to find the will do anything much. In a life that had always been orderly, disciplined, planned and well regimented, there had never, ever been a time before where he had just ..........stopped. Even when the breakdown came in New York, things had kept moving, he’d come out here and started on the ranch work as a client, exchanging one intense focus of concentration for another. 

Paul read The Hunting of the Snark from end to end for two days. In his arms, it was possible to get lost in the predictability and the safety of knowing exactly what the content of the poem was, exactly how it ended, that nothing unknown or threatening happened anywhere in it, and in the tones and rhythms of Paul’s familiar voice. Riley frequently came to join them, sprawled out on the bed and read alongside them, or chatted about the horses, Belle’s foal, the calves outside, without requiring any kind of answer. Easy and every day things, as if he found nothing weird about this. Jasper came in the evenings, and he was quiet in the way that he was whenever they fished together, a deep and internal peace to him that was tangible and contagious. He didn’t see this as anything alarming or wrong and Dale knew it; to Jasper it was simply a natural process. A transition. Something positive, something known, and it was deeply calming. Thinking rather crazily of the dream he’d had up on the canyon, of standing with David and seeing the light of energy in everything, in every blade of grass, in every drop of water, Dale let his eyes drift slightly out of focus one night, watching the outline of Jasper’s arm and hip against his own arm, and tired enough to do nothing more than idly look without any real concentration or emotion, he caught a very brief glimpse of a kind of haze above the outline, as if Jasper held him within some kind of protective energy field that encompassed them both. He had no idea if he was imagining it or it was wishful thinking, and didn’t really care; it was certainly the way it felt. Flynn said very little either, but it was in his eyes, in his voice, in his arms that he understood acutely what this felt like, and he was there through the night when he lay awake every hour that Dale did, solid, surrounding him, between him and the darkness. There wasn’t anything he could have said that would have been stronger than that, or that Dale could have understood more clearly.

On the third day Paul coaxed him into getting out of bed and coming down to the family room after the others had gone out to work, having failed to accept that he needed to dress first beyond socks and one of Flynn’s sweatshirts. The fire was well established in the hearth and had obviously been lit some time earlier, and blankets were spread on the couch. Paul added the pillows he’d brought down with them and held out a hand to Dale, who looked between him and the couch with a rush of unsettled emotion that said internally and loudly for the first time in some days,

No, I don’t want to!

Shut up.

It was not a helpful thought and he knew it. Particularly knowing who it was inside him who was folding his arms, refusing and preparing for battle.

“I wish you’d define what you mean by ‘pyjama day’.” he said lightly to put it into any kind of sensible words.

“A life skill and something you should have been taught how to do a long time ago, don’t worry about it.” Paul said easily, waiting for him. “I promise you’ll live through it.”

He’d been in this upbeat mood all morning, gently but cheerfully persistent, and it was very hard to refuse him anything. It didn’t however stop the rush of internal tension that was threatening to take over. Dale gave him an expressive look and Paul sat down on the couch in front of him, his eyes a lot gentler than was comfortable to look at.

“Ok, how about I start for you? Paul, I feel fragile and horrible and really not up to any of your weirder ideas, and it’s scary stuff, I can’t handle this. All I want to do is curl up and hide, and everything feels way too hard, including being down here.”

That was really, painfully acute, and the rebel something inside him paused with its mouth open as it had done before when Paul did this.

“And I know I won’t know how to do whatever you’re about to ask me to do, I’m still trying to get the concept of staying in bed.” Paul went on with way too much expression in his tone to hear with equanimity, “and I’m too damn tired to figure out what you might want, and that matters to me because I like to get it right for you.”

“When did you change the chairs?” Dale looked briefly between the familiar armchair and the new one by the hearth and Paul smiled and leaned over to catch his hand and pull.

“And I’m going to rabbit trail because it’s taking everything I’ve got not to run. Or go for the James Bond mask and pretend to you I’m just fine.”

He could be so bloody disarming. And understanding. Dale dropped into the couch beside him and Paul took his hand, intertwining his fingers with Dale’s, shoulder to shoulder with him.

“How am I doing?”

It helped. It really helped.

“I’m trying.” Dale held on to his hand hard, trying to find any kind of words to express this coherently when pretty much all he wanted to do was plead for them both to go back to bed. “I am trying not to.”

“No kidding hon, I know you are,” Paul said softly. “I know.”

The sympathy in his voice went very deep. Close against him, Dale sat for a moment absently listening to the fire crackle, deeply aware that the sweater he wore smelled comfortingly of Flynn, and that Paul lounged beside him, warm, relaxed, as if they had all the time in the world.

“Hand in the mincer.” he said eventually. Paul ran his thumb gently over the back of his knuckles.

“Do I usually do insane and scary things to you?”

“Yes.” Dale said pointedly. “Constantly.”

Paul laughed, pulling him over to drop a kiss on his cheek. “Now say that like you mind. Lie down and get comfortable sweetheart. No, I mean take the risk, really lie down and relax. I’m right here, I will not let the gremlins get you, have a different view for a while. This is going to be ok.”

The house was very quiet. The family room was tidy as it always was in the mornings, warm from the fire, a small vase of fresh flowers stood on the polished coffee table and the familiar and steady tick of the grandfather clock gave the soft background noise that was always in this room and that Dale often listened to at night. Above the hearth and on the nearby shelf stood some of the framed pictures that occupied Philip and David’s room and had begun to spill out into this room too. No few of them included Dale’s face looking down from in amongst the others – sitting on the paddock fence with Riley and Flynn, another of him leaning on the porch rail beside James, a large crowded group of pretty much everyone walking through deep snow in the yard that had been taken at Christmas. Today when everything felt so amplified, when the slightest sound sent shockwaves tangibly through his nervous system like feeling the static on a radio, seeing them there was surprisingly strong. Paul folded blankets around him without difficulty, he had the knack of knowing exactly how to make you comfortable. In a quiet room, the soft and steady crackle of the fire and the leaping of the flames was soothing to watch, and the physical luxury of being warm, enclosed and to lie down when you were bone tired and cold, was deeply consoling. He’d never known about this in numerous generic hotels on miserable days where he’d medicated himself with working harder, or going for a swim or a run, things that drowned out the worst of it. Paul sat down on the couch with him, putting an arm around him to pull him closer, and took a couple of books from the coffee table to show him.

“We can keep going with the Snark, or we can try Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland if you feel like it. There’s less logic and a lot more math.”

“Maths?” Interested despite himself, Dale looked at the cover, which showed a small girl with striped stockings and wild hair following a rabbit. Paul turned it to give him a better look.

“Progressive mathematics.”

“Carroll was a maths professor at Oxford, I remember you telling me.”

“You’ll probably get the math a lot better than I do, I just get the basics.” Paul said wryly. “It was a bit of a political satire on the development of mathematics at the time. Want to try it?”

Curled up with Paul and without witnesses, it was surprisingly easy to get lost in the text. With memories of his first university degree, Dale listened with growing amusement to Euclidian geometry mixed up with rather charming rabbits and tea parties, aware that while intellectually it was fascinating, on another level he was captivated, far more than a CEO had any right to be by a children’s story. He had a few memories of being one of a group of small boys sitting on the carpet in a master’s study at his prep school on Sunday evenings to be read aloud to, and they were vaguely pleasant memories although he didn’t remember the books or much more about it than that. It was a radically different experience as an adult, alone with someone you loved who was sharing the books with you that he loved, and which meant something to him. At Paul’s instigation that day and over the next several days they read, and sometimes they tried some of the milder and the easier of the board games from the set in the bookcase, especially the oldest ones in battered old boxes that must have seen use in Philip and David’s first years here. They were gentle and unhurried ways of filling time, surprisingly engaging and deeply comforting. Deeply calming. One afternoon they played one of the Stan Rogers LPs from David’s collection, the same few familiar songs several times over, some of which Dale had heard Riley and Flynn sing, and which he vividly remembered the whole family singing on the evening he and Jasper and Flynn and Paul and Riley exchanged rings. It all raised powerful memories and associations, good ones that were some of the strongest and most stable things he knew, and it helped. For the first couple of days when he was in bed the chicken broth was the only thing he’d been able to face eating, but around mid afternoon on that first day on the couch, Paul handed him a milkshake and in front of the fire and in the peace of the afternoon, the thick sweetness was rather comforting. After that over the next day or so milkshakes then somehow stretched out to ice cream and then to pancakes. Eating chocolate pancakes in pyjamas in front of the fire at three o clock in the afternoon was a distinctly weird combination and it related to no other experience Dale had on file. But in a very peculiar way that in itself was helpful. To be doing something so totally upside down and divorced from anything known, something totally new, fitted in perfectly with this whole situation. Like Alice, it was a bizarre kind of match, and like Alice, he found himself going along with it, although clinging to Paul while he did so. He was honest enough to admit it was clinging, body and soul.

At first, when the others started to come in to shower in the late afternoon, it was the cue for Jasper to take him back upstairs and sit with him while he soaked in the bath and then to take him back to bed, and Dale was glad of it. Any kind of noise made him jump and sent a rushing shockwave of adrenaline through him which was alarming in itself, it was like having exposed nerves; everything, even the simplest things, felt loud, harsh, menacing, and Flynn, Jasper and Paul kept him right away from it. But over a couple of days the time between their arrival and being sent upstairs gradually got longer and Luath came to join a board games with him and Riley when they were showered, it began to be that the others were around in the distance in the kitchen or stopped to talk for a few minutes, and bit by bit it felt normal again. It was on the third evening when Paul was working on dinner in the kitchen, that Riley, freshly showered, pulled a new box down from the bookcase and sat down next to Dale on the couch to open it, tipping a stack of tiny cardboard shaped pieces out on the coffee table.

“I saw this in Jackson and thought it made a change from games.”

It was a jigsaw puzzle. Dale accepted the box lid from him, looking with some interest at the picture of the map of the states which was, according to the box, contained within the 500 pieces on the table. He was aware of the existence of puzzles but had never actually handled one himself. Gerry came over to perch on the arm of the couch, confidently turning over pieces as Riley began to spread them out.

“I haven’t got to do one of these since Rog used to have his nine million piece ones spread everywhere.”

“You didn’t do them, no one did them, we just used to sit and look helpless while we watched Rog put them together.” Riley pointed out. “There’s no fun in that, Philip used to call it anti social and make him put them away. I don’t think even Luath really managed to help with Rog’s weird ones.”

Gerry located a corner and pushed it into position. “I know he used to moan they covered half the apartment. Mind you, everything of Rog’s covered half the apartment, for a gay man he had shameful interior decorating skills. Bear and David and I used to conspire to keep him out of the tack room, otherwise he got it in such a mess Philip had him spending half his life straightening it out and the other half writing lines.”

Jasper, watching discreetly from the kitchen doorway, leaned against the doorframe and understood why Riley had picked up this and several other puzzles from the shop in Jackson. He hadn’t offered any explanation at the time and Jasper hadn’t asked any questions, other than noting that Riley had chosen ones only with 500 pieces or less. Simple enough to be not much of an intellectual challenge, but that wasn’t the point; watching Dale turn over pieces with the other two and start to identify the outer frame with rather more purposeful interest than he’d shown in anything since they came home, it wasn’t any intellectual part of Dale that Riley was appealing to. He heard Flynn come in from the yard, muddied and with his jeans damp from waist to ankle, pause in the doorway to shed his outside gear and then come to stand behind him and look over his shoulder. Flynn said nothing, but a moment later when Riley glanced towards them Flynn silently beckoned to him. Riley got up and came to him, following Flynn into the kitchen and out of sight of Gerry and Dale, where Flynn tugged him into a bear hug, mud and all. Riley didn’t seem to mind.

“You know I remember what this was like?” Gerry said lightly to Dale in the family room while they were alone. “I don’t have your nerve, I did it a lot more gradually and in a much less butch way. But I know what it’s like when you let a piece of this stuff go. I couldn’t read any book for weeks, the slightest negative thing in it hit me like a bomb, even reading a cross word was too much to handle. All I wanted to do for days was lay down and not move, it was worse than when I had pneumonia.”

It was hard to hear it put so bluntly into words by anyone else than Paul. Dale turned over the piece of the jigsaw he was holding, not really looking at it, part of him wanting to end this conversation immediately, to distract Gerry to a much safer subject. It would be easy to do.  Or to make an excuse and go into the kitchen where Paul would take control over what was said and talked about. But this was the man he’d written to during the Mustang Hill debacle when things were roughest, a man who’d taken time to talk to him about these things, to be kind, to do his best to help in ways no one else could have done, and he understood this. Dale sought for the least stilted tone he could manage, grateful despite his twisting stomach.

“What did you do?”

“Oh I spent a lot of time hanging with Philip.” Gerry gave him a half smile that held a great deal of affection. “I think he spent a lot of time pretending he wanted to read or write letters so I had an excuse to be plastered to him for hours on end.”

“Didn’t David ever mind?” Dale said almost without thinking from sheer curiosity, and winced. “I’m sorry. That’s horribly personal, you really don’t have to answer.”

Gerry grinned, giving Dale a deliberately wicked flash of his eyelashes that made Dale smile in spite of himself. 

“Oh I was very pretty at that age, believe me. But no, I was no kind of threat to David’s relationship; it was very clear who the grownups were in the household. Don’t think David didn’t help as much as Philip did; David just didn’t do a whole lot of sitting still.”

Dale slotted the jigsaw piece into place and picked up another. Gerry slid another combined section over to him to add to the frame.

“It must be tricky for you in a group.  It’s quite a topic of discussion between the less tactful of us on the grapevine and you can probably guess who that is, but while there were plenty of rumours and a general understanding of how things worked with Riley and Flynn and Jasper and Paul, they are an awfully elusive bunch as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and being Top-heavy they don’t really do personal or interesting details. So no one was ever sure how it worked or what it meant, and it wasn’t until you joined them that they really came out to us as a group – you were there, it was the day we buried that poor Chinese friend of David’s. Do you really not mind that Flynn......... I mean if he does-?”

He was being very delicate about it. Dale slotted together another piece, joining the continent of Africa, far more comfortable with a far pleasanter subject.

“I’m not naive enough to think Flynn was celibate the whole time he was waiting for me to be ready. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to be.”

He recognised the look Gerry gave him as holding a certain amount of approval and what looked a little like admiration. “You really aren’t jealous are you? It would drive me insane, I don’t know how you all do it.”

“I know when they asked me to join them I would have been perfectly ready to follow their lead on autopilot about sex as much as everything else.”

It was peculiar to discover that he actually wanted to explain this deeply personal stuff, and there was actual pleasure in confiding it to someone who understood their household as Gerry did.  And this was something Flynn and the others had been teaching him from the start. You shared a little piece of yourself with someone, they shared in return and bit by bit the connection deepened, and it was good in ways he’d never fully understood before. This was how you did it.

“I’ve always done what I was expected to do. In a lot of ways, I’m an extremely good boy.”

Gerry, who got that in ways few people who lived outside this household would, smiled.

“The polite and socially acceptable stuff. Personally, I suck at that darling, but I know what you mean.”

“So Flynn and all of them never mentioned it, or laid a hand on me, said or did anything at all. They just waited.”

Some of them are still waiting. And with no hint of impatience. And there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for any one of them, just for that alone.  

“Did they really?”

“For months. They didn’t let me see or hear of anything that went on between them during that time, and of course it did. But from my point of view it was like living in a monastery.”

Gerry burst into a crack of laughter and Dale smiled, thinking about it.

“Which put it wholly in my court. I had to get to my own point of wanting it, admitting it and initiating it myself. They knew how I’d see it and they were not going to join the category of people I’ve just politely gone along with as I’ve been told. Which meant me really being there. Me. Properly. Honestly. And it’s been good.”

He thought a bit more about that as he assembled Mexico, and added detachedly,

“The kind of good you base a marriage on.”

“I told you what happened in that motel.” Gerry said lightly. “You saw it, didn’t you? Riley told me a bit, that you get feelings about things, you figure things out. But I know what you mean. It was years before I met Ash, did you know I lived here longer than I’d been alive before I got here? I loved that. I had more memories and time here than anywhere else in my life put together and it kind of cancelled everything else out. But Ash was still careful at the start – in fact I remember getting rather mouthy about him being much too careful in my opinion – that I never confused being with him with any memory of that motel. But I appreciated him not listening and making us take it slowly all the same.”

Dale nodded with deep comprehension, that took in what ‘not listening’ probably entailed.

“Are you ok with the extra week’s wait for the surgery?”

“I wasn’t pleased.” Gerry said dryly. “But yes, I’m fine. I feel more myself here, I always do. Everything’s tighter, Ash doesn’t have to think twice about who’s listening. Not always so convenient but I love that.” 

It was wonderful, deeply wonderful to be with someone who voiced so completely what you felt, who was a normal and happy guy living the same beliefs and emotions you did.

“I’m just the same.” Dale said lightly. “I need to be pushed, particularly when I don’t want to be. I do a lot better when I am.”

“You are one tough cookie.” Gerry put a hand behind his head, pulled him over and Dale was slightly surprised at the kiss Gerry dropped on his cheek. “Look, you do know this isn’t going to be a magic wand end to it all? I know it feels like it ought to be after all you’ve done the past few weeks, and I hate saying it, I really do, but I can’t stand the thought of you being shattered when you get back to normal and then you find out it’s still there. You’ve worked so hard, you’ve let go of the worst stuff, you’ve got it out in the open and that makes a big difference, huge, it really does. But it still is about making the decision not to go with the old habits, especially when things get rough. Deciding to be brave one more day. It just takes time.”

It was painful to hear. And yet in a way, it was also a great relief, as if some part of him had been trying to confirm to himself since they arrived home, come on, you did the job, you’re all better now, when he knew in himself that he didn’t feel fixed.

“The battle won, but not the war.” he said absently, aloud.

“That’s what I mean.” Gerry said lightly and with sympathy. “I know it isn’t what you want to hear, I’m sorry.”

“Actually, it’s very helpful.” Dale ran both hands over his face and looked down at the half built puzzle. “I appreciate it, Gerry. Very much.”

Gerry leaned over beside him to turn over a couple more pieces. “Philip used to say to me when we were going through this and whenever I had a freak out, that he felt like I had my eyes tight shut and was clinging on to a ragged six feet of old rope and he was hanging beside me trying to persuade me to let go and come back over to his rope. Which in metaphorical terms was a bright shiny, high tech rope, pole dancing the tango in a g string. I knew it was much, much better than my rope. But I knew my rope. I had a lot of experience of that rope not breaking on me. Under stress, it’s hard not to cling to the familiar stuff, it takes hard effort. And that’s ok. Flynn understands that, I’ve made sure he does although Flynn gets it anyway, and I know Paul and the others do, they know what you need. I’ll make sure the rest of the family get it too if and when they need to, this is going to be something we’re going to need to keep helping you work on as long as necessary, and I know you’re the genius wonder boy, but it’s still going to take some time. Christmas used to be the big trigger for me. Even a couple of years after the worst of it, I used to go off the rails around late November and not get it together again until about the first week in January.”

There was the familiar sound in the kitchen of cutlery and dishes being set on the table. It meant Paul was on the brink of serving up, and Dale took a few slow breaths, bracing himself for what he knew he wanted to do. Then he got up and walked into the kitchen with all the dignity possible in pyjamas and a sweatshirt, going to wash his hands at the sink. It felt like there was a small crowd in there, and very noisy. Everything moving awfully fast. Flynn’s eyes met his directly across the room, his arms were folded across his chest and he did not look promising.

“Oh dream on.” Paul said emphatically from the stove.

“I am trying here.” Dale pointed out. Paul gave him a smile that was as affectionate as his tone.

“Yes, I know exactly what you’re trying. Want to tell me what part of ‘stay on the couch’ you misheard?”

Riley caught his eye across the table and rolled his in a discreet gesture of sympathy, and Gerry grinned as he headed around the table to join Ash. It was a known language here, a very comfortable one that probably passed completely over the head of Mason, and Dale found himself swallowing on a smile back.

“I didn’t, I’m sorry.”

“Then stop strong arming me and get your butt back there.”

“Isn’t it strange how often your butt gets all the instructions?” Gerry said conversationally to Mason, “Mine gets hustled all over the place, it’s quite the social butterfly.”

Dale heard Mason laugh as he went back to the couch, and Paul followed him a moment later, sucking cheese off his fingers.

“Was there something you wanted to ask?”

Dale gave him a look that was half apology, half amusement. “Can I eat down here tonight please? I’d like to.”

“You think you feel up to handling it?”

Paul said it mildly, but quietly enough that no one in the kitchen would have overheard and his eyes were extremely searching. Dale nodded, appreciating the care.

“I’d like to try.”

“Ok, but you tell me if you’re struggling. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Come here.”

Paul held out his arms and Dale got up, taking advantage of their being out of sight of the kitchen to bury himself and hang on to him. Paul hugged him tightly, it was a good minute that they stood there and it melted a whole lot of the tension. Then Paul took his hand and Dale walked with him into the kitchen where Paul pulled out the chair beside his. Mason, across the table, gave Dale a quiet and very kind smile as Dale sat down, saying it almost in an undertone.

“Hey. Good to see you.”

“We saw Belle’s colt this afternoon.” Riley said, helping himself to salad. Luath took the seat on Dale’s other side, large and solid and his deep liquid voice comfortable, and he put an arm behind Dale’s chair, sliding it in for him.

“We stopped by at the mares on the way home. He’s a beauty, looks just like Snickers but broader set.”

“We’re going to have to get the book out and start logging and naming them as they arrive.” Paul brought a large dish of macaroni cheese and another of meatballs to the table, took his seat and took a plate, spooning on a small amount of macaroni and a couple of meatballs before he put it in front of Dale. “Try that.”

He was sitting very close, his elbow casually against Dale’s as he leaned on the table. Across the table, Dale caught Jasper’s eye and his swift, private smile, his dark eyes soft.

“How do you name them?” Mason asked, helping himself to salad. Jasper took the bread basket from Riley, taking a slice before he passed it on.

“Generally it takes being around them for a few weeks before we get to know them well enough. Some are easier than others if there’s something distinctive.”

“Like Puzzle. Or Flint.” Riley said with his mouth full. “Because of their coats. Hammer because he was so big.”

“Belle because she is a Southern Belle all over, complete with tantrums.” Paul put in. “We swear off complicated names, Moo is a great example of how they go wrong.”

“Her actual name is Moulin Rouge,” Riley said when Mason looked at him. “I liked the movie. Flynn just refused to say the whole thing.”

“I’m not bloody yelling that across a paddock.” Flynn said bluntly, giving Dale a look that Dale read without any difficulty as eat. “Nothing wrong with Moo.”

“And it kind of got stuck.”

Mason nodded, processing that. “Does anyone want to explain why you called the dog Ash? I’ve been wondering that for a while.”

“He has big feet and a moustache, it’s obvious.” Gerry said cheerfully, putting an arm around Ash’s shoulders, and Ash laughed but patiently turned to face Mason to show him.

“Apparently. Everyone seemed to see it but me.”

“Awww. We took one look at the puppy and knew exactly who he was the spitting image of.”

Gerry snatched a quick kiss as Ash picked up his fork, the brief and easy kiss of people who practiced a great deal, and Dale saw again as he glanced at Gerry, the warmth in his face, the pleasure Ash took in Gerry’s chatter and bounce, in him being happy. Gerry had gone through this himself, he knew the territory and he had won, and his win was an obvious and powerful one. He was an easy part of the chatter around the table, and this was the stuff of every day here, in the warmth of the kitchen with its familiar and slightly soft yellow light as twilight grew outside the windows in the yard and the miles of open, rolling land. Like the macaroni, it was good.








Mason was struggling with his paper. No one said anything about it; watching as Mason asked to be excused after dinner, grabbed paper and pen and went out to sit alone on the porch, Dale saw that no one was looking or even mentioning it. It was apparently being left entirely up to Mason when he worked on it, how he worked on it, or whether he worked on it at all, they were placing no pressure or compulsion on him at all. He was sitting out there staring at his notebook with one hand clenched in his hair when Jasper matter of factly told Dale to come up to bed, oblivious to who around the table heard them. There was a mixture of embarrassment, exasperation and the same comfort in it that Gerry had mentioned.

“Have you seen how it’s going?” Dale asked him as they went upstairs. Jasper led the way into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath to turn the taps on.

“We’re here if he wants to talk about it. So far he hasn’t. I printed off Tom’s latest email for you, I haven’t read it. It’s over on the chair there.”



Subject: What’s going on?

We’re back from camp 3. No answer to my last mail, I’m not interpreting this as disaster but things sounded a bit hairy the last time you mailed. Are you ok?

Our expedition mucked about between camp 2 and 3 as planned, doing the whole acclimatisation dance. Day one, we climbed to camp 2 and slept there for the night. Day two we hiked up to camp 3 and came down again to sleep at camp 2. Climb high, sleep low as the saying goes. Day three, we went up to and slept at camp 3. Day four we took kit up to camp 4 with us and pitched the tents up there before we  came down and slept the night again at 3. Day five, we walked back down to spend the night at camp 2, and day six, we climbed back down to base camp. Safe, fine, no issues, there was a remarkable lack of drama compared to all our other trips so far. Camp 3 marks the point where we’re on sheer ice, right on the face. The camp up there is nothing more than a few small tent platforms chipped into the ice, it took a while to chip out ones large enough to set tents. Up there, just stepping outside the tent means wearing crampons and clipping into lines, we’ve heard the rumours of people sleepy or hypoxic forgetting their crampons, stepping out and just sliding away 2000 feet down the mountain. We’re set now with provisions and tents ready at all four sites for a summit attempt, although planning if we can to go straight from base camp to camp 2 on the way up and down. Camp 1 is a bit dodgy, there’s been some falls in the area as there often are and we’re not keen on sleeping there, especially with a client to look after. Whether the client should be doing this at all? Don’t get me started. Camp 2 is used as the advanced base camp, it’s well supplied and works as a depot, and once they’re acclimatised, most people just skip right over camp 1 wherever possible.

Sleeping at camp 3 was a weird experience. We’re getting used to breathing being a chore, base camp feels relatively comfortable now when in the first few days we were here we got out of breath just getting dressed. At camp 3 it really is an effort. In your sleep, because you’re getting so little oxygen and you’re not consciously controlling it, you start on the sleep apnoea thing. Every time I fell asleep I’d hear Jake stop breathing and it would feel like forever before he took the next breath, and I’d be braced and waiting and trying not to grab and shake him to start him off again. I also kept waking up to catch my own breath, which you do with a loud snort and gasp because at that point your body is going for pete’s sake breathe. Between us, we kept each other awake most of the time, and the night went on for more or less forever. This was the only time we’ll sleep at camp 3 without oxygen. We used tanks for the first time on the walk up to camp 4, but from our experience this time and how little sleep we got, and how much poor sleep knocks out your energy, next time we’ll be using oxygen from camp 3 onwards. I’m not an oxygen snob, I plan on us both coming home with as few brain cells killed as possible.

One of the most bizarre things up here is the temperature extremes. You get going in the early morning hours when it’s so bitterly cold you’re checking your fingers trying to make sure you’re not frost bitten, and then by mid morning it’s so damn hot you’re stripping off layers trying to cope with it. The air is still, and especially in the icefall or on the Cwm in the mornings where it’s exposed, it’s like climbing in an oven. So far though, we’ve had good luck with the weather, it’s been clear every time we’ve been on the mountain other than some minor snow.

For God’s sake mail back and tell me something normal that doesn’t involve ice.

T. 




They read the mail together while Dale soaked, then Jasper helped him dry off and Dale stretched out on the bed at Jasper’s instruction, resting his chin on his arms with his mind on ice platforms and mountains as Jasper sat beside him, starting to run his palms in the now familiar way deeply into his shoulders. He put an amazing amount of weight behind it. The pressure went right through Dale, which was as much about being handled in any way by Jasper with that amount of strength and firmness as much as any actual massage involved. It was never exactly painful, more intensely firm, deep and finding tender spots without difficulty to work them out, in a way that made you twitch and wriggle sometimes as he hit a tight spot the first time, but not with any desire for him to stop. Those strong hands slid along the full line of his back for a while, slow and unhurried and deep strokes that after a while gave way to the gentle, rocking and kneading motion Dale had become used to, except it felt far more intense than usual. Dale couldn’t help tensing as Jasper reached his lower back and felt Jasper lighten his touch in response, his voice calm.

“Sore there?”

Not exactly. Dale hesitated to find a way to explain it that made any kind of sense.

“...everything feels different. Just fractionally, not in a bad way, but I’m aware of it. Louder. More intense. Things even taste stronger.”

Jasper made a quiet sound of comprehension. It helped just to say it. Dale turned his face back to his arms and Jasper went back to massaging, working down his spine with inflexible hands but very gentle ones with a strength that Dale felt sink into his bones, something he could entirely surrender to. It was starting to rain outside. The breeze came in through the open window, the first signs of twilight, and a few faint touches of rain reached Dale’s skin, carried on the breeze. When he was done, Jasper lay down beside Dale, pulling the covers up over him, and with the habit of the past few days Dale shifted over into his arms, settling with his head against Jasper’s shoulder. Jasper went on running his fingers slowly over Dale’s bare back, tracing complicated patterns that were as soothing as the sound of the rain outside. Silence. Jasper valued silence, he believed in peace within silence, he could be with you for hours without breaking it, and with him, that peace could always be found.

When Dale woke again, it was to Flynn laying against him in the dark, an arm over his back, and he wasn’t sure what had woken him. It felt very late. Flynn had lifted his head and was listening with him to what Dale recognised as the sound of quiet footsteps on the stairs.

“Mason.” Flynn said very quietly when Dale looked at him. “Jasper’s out, I heard him go. I need to go check he’s ok, kid. Want to come?”

They dressed before they went downstairs, and it was cold in the kitchen, but fresh, the rain had passed on. The back door was open and Flynn took down a jacket, holding it out and open for Dale to shoulder into. There was something in the way he did it that caught Dale’s attention; something that linked to Jasper upstairs earlier, but the connection was too fleeting for Dale to identify what. On the swing outside, Mason was roughly dressed and sitting with his hands clasped between his knees, staring at the dark yard ahead. At his feet was his notebook, opened at a blank page, and a pen. He glanced up at Flynn and Dale, and Flynn took a seat on the swing beside him, taking Dale’s hand to draw him down too. Dale hugged one knee, leaning back into the very slight sway of the swing, breathing the scent of wet grass and wet earth, and watching Mason’s grim face with sympathy.

“Can’t sleep?” Flynn said mildly. Mason grunted.

“Figured I might as well use the time rather than just lie there and think about it.”

And being outside at night was now something he associated with his head feeling clearer. Dale  understood it well. They sat in a silence Dale understood as Flynn leaving a space for Mason to fill up, and aware of his own growing frustration that Mason was sitting in silence, not taking that opportunity. He’d done it himself so many times, he knew the feeling of stuck so well. And when he thought about it, it wasn’t frustration at all, it was that stuck sensation that was strong on his mind, as if it was rolling off Mason in waves and battering him. The swing creaked softly under them and the wind rustled the trees in the distance. Flynn said nothing for a while, just sitting there, then he said quite conversationally,

“I lost my temper with a guy at college in my first year. It was over something stupid and petty, but I lost it, and I creamed him. Seriously. I saw red and the next thing I knew I was face down on the hood of some cops’ car and three of them were putting cuffs on me while the guy was loaded into an ambulance, and I ended up in the cells. Alone, I don’t think they dared put me within reach of anyone else.”

It was shocking to hear him say it. There was an abrupt and flashing image of him at nineteen, sitting alone on a concrete floor, his back against the bars, his arms on his knees, and with it came a rush of bitter despair, distress and rage and swallowed down fear that hit Dale like a hammer. Only a flash, but it was powerful and painful enough to make it desperately hard to sit still and not touch him. Mason was sitting in silence, but he was listening.

“I can’t tell you what that felt like.” Flynn said after a moment. “I’d only been in the US a few months. I grew up hating the sheep station we lived on, not on good terms with my family and I left without letting them know where I was going. I’d spent my first vacation here working, my psychology professor was a friend of Philip, who owned the ranch – you’ve heard us talk about Philip? I couldn’t afford to stay on the campus through vacation, wasn’t doing well finding work I could do, but I did know sheep and farming. Philip let me have free bed and board here, and study time, if I helped with the ranch work. I was madder than hell about that too, I’d come to the states to get shot of bloody sheep and farms. Philip and everyone else here was kind, but I was carrying years worth of bloody angry, I was in a hell of a state, wasn’t listening to anyone. I was just going to study the way I damn well planned. And I stewed and I did everything except bloody deal with it, and then some poor bastard got in my face at the wrong moment and I put him in hospital.”

He said it quietly, matter of factly, but Dale heard the pain that lay behind it. Mason was watching him and he hadn’t missed it either.

“What did you do?”

“Sat there and thought about what a waste of oxygen I was and what a bloody awful thing I’d done.” Flynn said bluntly. “I was at the college on a scholarship, conditional on no criminal record, nothing that brought the college into disrepute, I was looking at being shipped straight back to New Zealand. End of everything I’d spent years working for. I suppose I was about four hours into that when Philip walked into the cells.”

“He came to get you?” Dale asked softly. Flynn gave him a short nod, face immobile but his eyes were very dark.

“I hadn’t known him long, I’d only stayed the once on the ranch and I was lousy to everyone here the whole time. Hated sheep, hated the ranch and I didn’t hide it. Hated that it was going to be the only way I could afford to get through the vacations, any man who owned a ranch or worked on it was mixed right up for me with my father and I how I felt about him and his damn station – but there he was. He must have paid bail, they unlocked the door and he walked me out onto the street and took me to a hotel, made me clean up and sit down to a meal with him. Made me get some sleep. In the morning he came with me to the Dean, I couldn’t put a coherent sentence together I was so ashamed but he sorted out the whole fight incident. There was provocation involved, the guy thank God wasn’t badly hurt, I got off with a caution from the police and Philip talked the Dean and me into agreeing mitigating circumstances and that I’d do something about my temper and my problems. I got suspended, but I was damn lucky that was all. Philip fixed it so I could still turn work in from the ranch like there was no question that I had the ranch to go to and they’d have me with or without criminal convictions. He fought for me the whole way.”

There was a long silence. Mason broke it eventually, his voice slightly rough.

“Sounds like quite a guy.”

“He was.”

There was another long silence, then Mason said in the same tone, awkwardly,
“So what did you do then?”

Flynn gave him a shrug, leaning forward on his knees. He wasn’t looking directly at Mason but Dale could see the way his body was inclined, the calm in his body language that would be reaching Mason even if Mason wasn’t aware of it, the way an unsettled horse was, his sure hands lightly clasped.

“I didn’t know what the hell to do. Philip never said a word of blame to me. Not once. No ‘what the hell were you thinking’ or ‘do you realise how serious this is’. I’d given him every reason to think I was a maniac and a thug but he acted like he knew it was just a horrendous mistake. Like I was the one who deserved sympathy. I had no idea what to do with that. I was nothing more than this bad tempered, bloody minded kid who’d hung around his ranch for a few weeks shunting sheep, and he dropped everything and flew out to Colorado the minute he heard I was in trouble. He brought me back here, and we got here in the middle of the night, there was no one else awake, no one to see me turn up suspended and with a police warning, tail between my legs. One of the hardest things I ever did was go down to breakfast in the morning.”

“Did you do it?”

“After what he’d just done for me?” Flynn gave him a wry nod. “Yeah. I pulled it together and went down to breakfast. And they had a completely normal breakfast time. I didn’t realise until later that they’d all had their own time of not knowing which way was up or what the hell to do, no one thought they had anything to be superior about. And after breakfast Philip told me to pick a horse, take whatever I needed and go do some figuring out.”

“And did you?” Mason asked him subduedly. Flynn nodded.

“Even I catch on eventually. I was in serious trouble, I needed help, Philip was offering it. It was up to me to admit it and take what he was offering, pride or not. I had to admit I couldn’t control it anymore. You get a choice in that kind of situation. Follow the road you’re on, no matter how bad, or commit to change, it’s which ends up being the scarier choice. It took me about four days out on the ranch on my own to think, but I eventually screwed up the guts to come back here and talk to him. Really talk to him. Do something about the state I was walking around in.”

He’d never heard Flynn talk about this before. He’d heard only the barest facts from Riley once that this fight had taken place, and Dale wondered if any of the others really knew what Flynn had just confided to Mason. Something real. Something painfully honest, and Flynn wasn’t joking about pride: to admit to this truly cost him. To talk about it cost him. Mason had felt it, he was listening. They sat there for a while in the quiet of the darkness in the yard, the stir of the horses in the corral, the wind through the aspens in the distance. Then Mason said curtly,

“Dale, you said I wasn’t scared enough. Man, I’ve thought a lot about that. I wasn’t. Pissed off, yes, but the day we hiked through the woods, I kept thinking, you’ve all been saying to me do I realise I’m an alcoholic, and I’ve been thinking yeah, so what? I’ve been ok with it. And that scared me.”

Flynn made a quiet sound of comprehension. Mason stared at the boards of the porch through his hands, big shoulders tight. Squared.

“When this fuss kicked off at work, this complaint..... ah there was this whole meeting and crap with the MD, HR and the bloody board, all pushing me to come here. Someone had come up with this programme that fixed CEOs and according to them did I ever need fixing. Bastards. Andrew – Andrew’s on the board, I thought he was a friend. He was in my office when we took a break, and I was mad. I was beyond mad, I went down to my office to get a drink, I needed a damn drink, and Andrew was there with this contract. He said if I signed it, this list of conditions, then when I came back with a certificate from here saying I’d been a good boy, I’d have my job and everything would be fine. The conditions were bull from start to finish. That I’d behave ‘appropriately’ to staff. That I’d keep ‘appropriate’ boundaries on my temper. And yeah, there was stuff about drinking on there too. I ripped it up and told him where to shove it.”

“You felt like he’d let you down.” Flynn said quietly. Mason snorted. It was a tired, explosive sound.

“He screwed me over. Leading the board on getting me out here, tying my hands, he’s probably half way to having filled my job by now.”

“If he’s your friend, maybe writing those conditions was a way he could protect your job from the board.” Flynn watched Mason’s face, elbows on his knees, stooped forward to mirror him. “Maybe it was a way to tie the board down.”

“It was another kick in the teeth.” Mason said heavily. “I worked damn hard for that corp. I brought the money in, I brought them on, I’m worth what they pay me.”

“Obviously. They paid for you to come here, they’re prepared to wait as long as you need, they believe you’re worth a serious investment. They want to keep you.”

“If I’ll be a good boy and play by their rules.”

Flynn nodded slowly, taking that in. “You’ve said that a few times. Who wants you to be a good boy?”

“They do.” Mason said bitterly. “The board.”

“And being ‘good’ ties your hands? What does being ‘good’ mean?”

Mason’s lip curled. Dale saw it, a silent and mostly involuntary snarl and it didn’t go with the tired, defeated endurance in his shoulders. He didn’t answer and after a moment Flynn put a hand on his shoulder and gripped it.

“I don’t think it’s the board you hear say that. Think about it, Mason.”

Mason didn’t answer, and after a moment Flynn quietly took Dale’s hand and got up, leading them both inside and leaving Mason alone on the swing.

He wouldn’t go back to bed. Dale knew it and expected it when Flynn quietly led him through the family room and opened the study door, not turning the light on. From the couch in here, Flynn could see the porch. Enough to know if the man sitting out on the swing needed him. Some men needed pushing hard; being one of those men himself, Dale knew Flynn was an expert in the art, but Mason was a man more gun shy, who needed time to reach the point for himself. Jasper and Flynn had seen it from very early on.

In the dark of the study as Flynn quietly closed the door, Dale got hold of Flynn, pulled him around and Flynn held on to him. Crushingly, and after a moment his head rested on Dale’s shoulder. The feel of it was strong in him; the pain of having hurt someone, the shame of having done it, the regret was still there, and Dale searched for his mouth, putting all the tenderness and comfort he could into his hands and his lips, the emotion raw in his chest and in his throat, with a sense of possession that stole his breath in how powerful it was. My man. Larger than him, broader, much stronger, Flynn never felt anything less than powerful to touch, but the strength of what he’d faced down with Philip was something internal and greater than the muscle and bone under Dale’s hands. It raised a fierce sense of pride in him. And there was something else Dale understood about Flynn’s willingness to hurt too. To admit to the same shame and the same pain he knew both Mason and Dale carried. There was a sacrifice in it, a power Dale recognised at gut level without the knowledge of how to put it into words and a love for him that was painful in its intensity. There wasn’t a sound in the study, the kisses were deep and hard and utterly silent, and when they paused for breath, Flynn leaned his forehead against Dale’s. Hard. Heavy. Beloved. Face to face with him, breathless, burning from neck to knees in highly inconvenient ways they could do nothing with a man in need out on the porch, Dale felt a few more deeply buried, painful bubbles lift out of him and burst, lost in something far hotter and far more powerful. It was what he held on to with both hands, the warm muscle and bone of Flynn in front of him that demanded him body and soul, and there was nothing worth hanging onto that distracted from him. Eventually Flynn took his hand and drew him to the couch, taking a seat at one end and pulling Dale to lie down full length with his head in Flynn’s lap. Sitting here Flynn could watch the porch, and he would, for as long as it took.

Against him, under the weight of Flynn’s arm over his chest, head on the hardness of his thigh and in the peace of knowing Flynn would choose how long they stayed there, that he had nothing to do but be with him in this vigil, Dale felt the now familiar press of stone against his hip and reached a hand into his pocket, pulling out the rose quartz crystal. It was so ingrained to pocket it that even getting dressed in the middle of the night he’d automatically taken it from the night stand. He turned it over in his hands, unable to see much but the outlines of it, more feeling the roughness of its planes against his palm with mixed and hot, rushing emotion for Flynn, for the man on the porch, for this house and the people in it. For the man whose desk stood a few feet away who’d loved Flynn and who had left this house without hesitation to get him when he’d known he was needed. Philip. He was strong in this room; to all of the others they found Philip most strongly here when they wanted to be near him, they found his presence in the leather bound books, the admiral’s chair, the polished desk and the crystal inkwell, the peace that was always in here. It was still his room to everyone in this family. Except if you knew where to look, he extended far beyond this room. He was in the way they all sat around the table at dinner, the warmth of the light in that room at dusk, the way Gerry teased Ash, the way Flynn checked the corral and tack room at the end of the day, the steady tick of the grandfather clock in the family room, the warmth of the fire in the hearth, his presence was in all of it. In every one of these men he’d seen as his and loved, who believed in and were loyal to the values that he’d lived by.

And then, in the twilight between dozing and sleep, he drifted into the soft green grass of the nursery pastures, stretching out for miles below the mountains with their white tops, and a small herd of mares were grazing. Several of them large with foal, others of them with small foals nursing or sleeping on the grass beside them. Alone in the valley, no one but him and the horses under the sky, open ground all around him, Dale walked slowly towards the grazing herd, watching them and looking for the stallion. It wasn't Bandit and he wasn't surprised by that for some reason. A black stallion stood instead, on the peak of higher ground some way above the mares, head high and alert, scenting the air upstream. It was the brush on his face that warned him. First once. Then again. And then as Dale looked up, from the light dove grey sky, huge snowflakes glided lazily down, brushing past him to rest on the grass. Lightly but persistently, in a gentle curtain, it began to snow, a veil of white floating down from the sky in single white drops that brushed the mares' hides and began to cover the grass.

The hush of it filled the valley. The cloaking of all sound under the soft, floating white. Dale turned his face up to it in delight, spellbound. One of the small foals, tiny enough to be only a few weeks old, stared in astonishment at the large flakes slowly passing his nose, and snapped at them. Then spun on the spot as he saw them landing all around him, initially in alarm, and then as his mother continued to graze unhurriedly, he snapped again at another mouthful. Another red coated foal near him licked a flake from his mother's side and sneezed in surprise at the cold. Another of the foals pawed at the grass, cautiously, then jumped with shock as it clung to his hoof, careening around in a circle which made the snow fly up off the grass around him, and made several other foals near him startle, and then dart to join him. There was a brief muddle of foals, bouncing and bucking with their baby squeals, and then one braver than the rest nudged his nose against the grass, then flopped down and rolled over in it, wriggling for a moment on his back with all four legs thrashing in the air. Another one trotted in a circle, making short runs and bounces with his little legs stiff, watching the flying flakes around him. The little whinnies and snorts came to Dale through the snow, the placid mares grazing among the flakes, the stallion unmoving at his post. A rabbit, frozen in the grass near Dale's feet and dusted with snow, abruptly shook itself, scattering flakes in all directions, and shot away across the grass.

It wasn't just his own delight that Dale could feel as he watched. There was pride in the scene in front of him, a deep pleasure at the small herd of mares with their babies, a proprietary pride. The sensations and emotions overlay Dale's own like a sheet of coloured film, slightly different, separate but shared with him. He could sense that he was taller than usual, that one leg was unfamiliarly stiff at the ankle, he had his hands dug in his pockets, his hat pulled low on his brow, and he never wanted to stop watching. And there was a warmth, a feeling that whoever he was, he knew Dale that looked through his eyes with him and he took pleasure in sharing this moment.



*



Subject: Argh

Tom

This started out as a fairly sensible mail when I was writing it a few days back.

I’m glad to hear the camp 3 expedition went well and was drama free. Glad too that everything is in place and you’re taking a few days rest before the summit attempt, and hoping you can actually get rest instead of do client management.

You wanted a conversation that was ice free? While you were at camp 3, I went out on a hike with Paul, Jasper, Luath and Mason, our client. You’ll know about this, it was news to me that they did this hiking business with clients but it made perfect sense once we were actually doing it.

I’m writing round in circles, sweating because of what I want to actually say. Much of me is hoping you are too occupied with climbing and will not read this anyway, but I suspect you’ll understand it if you do.

I mentioned in a previous mail I was working through various things regarding my mother. I always knew I had difficulty relating to people, I realised after I had lived here a while I had no difficulty loving people, but I came to realise I had a lot of difficulty in accepting love, which does not work out too well in relationships like ours where we’re committed to honesty and to communication. I still find myself rather wryly typing that: I have committed wholeheartedly to a relationship based on communication with all my deficiencies in that department. I’ve struggled with knowing how to admit when I can’t cope, to let them see the things I’m ashamed of or that I don’t have control over, we’ve talked it through so many times and inch by inch I understood more of it, and finally I realised with them that this is where the root of the problem is.

It is not an easy thing to face, to intentionally and deliberately unpack yourself and your past and look, fully, at what you do and where it comes from. In doing it, I found a lot of memories that were not easy ones. I could term it in the ways that Flynn’s textbooks would – post traumatic stress, abreaction, re living of and releasing of trapped minutes of time, but that doesn’t quantify it in real terms. It distances it. Essentially I found within myself that child, still in that time, in that place, hating me and hating everything, thinking and acting at the very stage it happened and driving everything it saw as connected with it, the one who actually experienced that loss. So while we hiked, this child came too and this stuff poured out. Everywhere.

I suppose I was mostly focused on getting to the point of pulling the cork on it. Jasper talks about clarity of intent, it was a mission, a project, it took a great deal of work and problem solving step by step to get to the deepest part of it and as it were, blow the final safe. I hadn’t planned at all for what would come after that, and I suppose that is typical of me. I don’t think beyond the solving of the problem, I focus entirely on that moment of success that yes, it’s unknotted, and then I realise what I’ve unleashed and that I have no idea how to deal with it. What has hit is a kind of collapse I’ve never had any idea of before in my life. I’ve never in my life spent days in bed like this.  Paul is amazing. He just knows what to do and what to say and how to be, he’s very calm and relaxed, and they all just keep on repeating every time I start to panic, this is ok. This is ok. They create a space all the time where there’s peace and time and it’s safe, and they won’t let me be alone with it or shut it down. They keep saying what I know and what we’ve talked about before, that I need to not push it away, I need to let myself feel it. It  washes around like a tide.

Paul read me the Hunting of the Snark. Are you familiar with it? It stunned me. It encapsulated searching for something without being really sure what it is, having never seen it, with the risk that it may not be what you seek at all, but something that may destroy you, and there is no way to know. Yesterday we moved on from that to Alice in Wonderland, which is like being handed a guidebook to the ludicracy this is. Things may be big or small without warning. At times I feel terrifyingly small, and other times emotions so big that they’re terrifying, or I feel that I’m being terrifying or threatening without meaning to, and there is no logic to it. The whole book is about a child walking through a distorted and inexplicable landscape, and while this thing inside me won’t talk, it will listen to a story. Quite beside the point, the mathematics in it walks all over my brain, the multiplication tables that have warped out of a base of ten, Alice bound by conventional mathematics in her world within a world where abstract algebra rules, she has no means to make sense of any of it. The quaternion tea party where three terms can’t function and are stuck going around in circles because they’re not on speaking terms with time. I’ve been bound by polite conventional mathematics all my life in an abstract world, and made sense of none of it, this is the most sane insanity I’ve ever heard and it’s entirely new to me. But it’s language I can think in. Someone has to teach you the words, give you the words, so much thought can only exist when you have the words. I understood it at gut level with Flynn months and months ago, he taught me how to do it and how to feel it and understand it. So much of what Paul has done for me is to work out with me how to put it into words and language I can think about. I grew up as part of a polite surface illusion. I’ve kept her secret and been her person all my life no matter what it cost me, things were never put into words. I had no words for it. Randomly I have moments when I grieve over that. What things might have been like without it. It’s somewhat like breaking out of that chain, and then finding pieces of it I’m not even aware of, still clinging. The child is trailing me, muttering and scowling, but at least I know what it is now. I have some idea of what I need to do with it, even if I mostly don’t want to.

I’ve been wanting to fight. Hard. It’s wanting to shove against Flynn and Jasper and Paul and check, a lot, and I know what I’m checking on. I have always been bright enough to control people around me, for them to see and think what I want them to think, to do what I feel safe with them doing, and largely it’s not to see me and to leave me alone. I know I can’t do that with Flynn and Jas and Paul, and I want to keep making sure they see through anything I can do, that I can’t win and I can’t fool them to keep reminding myself that they’re stronger than me. That’s what makes me feel safe. And I’m not being honest there, because I don’t want to admit that some of this is also about pushing and looking for weakness, Paul flat out told me he knew what I was doing when I last tried it on him. It’s about trying to dismiss them as just another idiot I can manipulate when it feels safer to separate myself, I know I did it as a child. And then within seconds of that victory comes utter despair, because if you win you’re safe but you’re alone again. Some of what Gerry taught me to do lately is deliberately teach Paul the tricks, take them all off the table so there isn’t anything I can pull that he can’t see through, and actually that bit of tuition from me was less about teaching him anything than letting him get the full measure of me. See all of it. Once he did, I haven’t managed to get anything past him since. He knows what to look for and he’s all over it, and it’s one huge relief.  

This is safe, sane, secure love, I knew that long before they asked me to stay. It’s a different world and I know it is. It isn’t going to go silent or walk away, it isn’t going to refuse to talk or shut doors, old habits have no relevance here. I never knew about wanting to slay dragons and climb mountains for someone before, I didn’t realise how much of your life it could dominate, I will do this for them because this is what they deserve from me, the very best I can give them, untainted and unreserved.  I’m just aware I feel – slightly unfocused in some way. I’m not sure how. I’m not sure why.

I’m not asking for a reply or for wisdom, although in my experience you have plenty of it. Talking to you, to Gerry, to Riley is part of what’s keeping me sane because you know what some of this feels like, particularly from our particular perspective, and Flynn has said to me a few times, admitting the loss, acknowledging it, is what lets it go.

Be safe, we’re thinking of you.

Dale 




Dale finished typing the mail, struggling not to re read it or re consider what he’d said, and hit send as soon as he completed it, before anything within him could argue harder about the thoughts that were already making him sweat. Once done, even with Flynn sitting on the office desk and waiting – although he’d been tactful about not looking towards the screen he was being extremely untactful and obvious about monitoring his watch and fifteen minutes would mean fifteen minutes – Dale still hesitated a moment more before he called up the mail he had just sent, and with the sweat breaking out still stronger across his shoulders and palms, he resolutely pressed ‘forward’ and directed it to Flynn’s inbox.


*


The day after he first had the resilience to want to eat at the table with them, the first time he’d coped with a number of people around him without visibly flinching and being overwhelmed by it, Paul waited until the house was empty of everyone but the two of them, helped Dale dress, and they spent a while messing with the vegetable garden, weeding and tidying. He liked the vegetable garden; apart from the sensory and orderliness of it, it was something that mattered a lot to him as all of the ranch traditions did, he was like Flynn and Jasper in that respect. Like any new information, he didn’t just pick it up as he went along either; he had found and read books, articles, information that Paul wouldn’t have thought of, and he used it, and as a result they had healthy and regimented lines of seedlings emerging from the soil. It was while they were mulching the bed that Paul saw Dale pause, looking at the label on the fertiliser sack, and sat back on his heels.

“What is it?”

“Essentially ammonium sulphate.” Dale said absently. “Just interesting what gets mixed with what, these are chemical names I know in all sorts of contexts.”

“If they work on the soil I’m fine with it.” Paul straightened up, brushing off his hands. “You look tired.”

“I’ve been laying around for days.”

“Yes, for a good reason. Let’s put this stuff away and go chill out for a while.”

Dale picked up the sack of fertiliser and collected the tools, taking them to the shed and Paul, sweeping off the last of the scattered earth from the rails the demarked the edges of the vegetable patch, followed him and watched him take down another box from the shelf and examine it, then flip it over in his hand and go to the water trough in the yard, scooping a small amount of water into a jar. Puzzled, Paul watched him deftly add a handful of the fertiliser and whatever it was from the box to the water in his jar.

“What exactly are you doing?”

What he got was one of Dale’s deliberate James Bond looks; he knew it. It was the straight and slightly innocent eyed look that contained a tiny but sharp glint of fun, intentional teasing, and it was so good to see that Paul felt it hit his chest, making him smile involuntarily.

“Wrecking a handkerchief.” Dale said lightly, pulling his from his pocket. Anything that made him look and feel like this – even for a moment – was not something Paul was about to get in the way of. Leaning against the post, Paul watched the care with which he did something to the mixture, then poured it gently through the handkerchief, catching solids and draining off the water. After which he laid it very delicately on a high shelf and rinsed out the cup under the tap in the yard.

“Going to tell me anything about that?” Paul inquired as Dale closed the shed door. Dale shook his head.

“It’s no worse than what Flynn does with his handkerchiefs. It will wash out.”

“What are you making?”

He got another of those very brief glinting looks and laughed, reaching to take Dale’s hand.

“Ok. Them that ask no questions don’t get told no lies.”





He was sitting in the kitchen keeping Paul company while Paul cooked when the others started to come home. Gerry and Ash came first, their voices reached the kitchen, cheerful and in conversation as they rubbed down their horses. Riley came next. Paul put the cake batter in the oven, took a book and walked outside with Dale, sitting down on the swing. Dale wandered to the porch rail, leaning on it. Riley was in the corral with Snickers, he’d been grooming him and Snickers’ saddle and bridle hung on the fence rail, but at the far side of the corral away from where the other horses were grazing, Riley now had his hands in his pockets and was walking backwards, at a brisk pace, rapidly changing direction, dodging, turning, and everywhere he stepped Snickers followed, pursuing him and matching every turn and step with Riley, until Riley laughed and pulled something from his pocket to give to him. Dale watched him stroke Snickers’ face, then run a hand over his shoulder, click, and Snickers went down on his knees and rolled over onto his side, and Riley stepped over him, pausing sitting gently astride him for a moment and rub his neck, his chest, slipping him another of whatever Snickers was crunching, most likely polos, then he clicked again and Snickers rolled up and heaved to his feet with Riley in place on top of him. Riley lay down on his back for a moment, draped over him like a blanket, then sat up and Snickers turned neatly in a circle, reared slightly, boxing with his front hooves, and then dropped to his feet and Riley slipped down to the ground to give him another mint. It looked like the simplest playing. Riley made it look so easy, effortless and fun as if he was merely messing around, but the trust and the skill within such a game took an expert horseman and hours and weeks and months of work, not least to ensure that Snickers enjoyed it as much as he did. It was something Dale could watch him do for hours. He glanced towards Paul, saying it lightly enough to make it clear he didn’t mind if Paul said no.

“Is it ok if I go down to the corral? Riley’s playing with Snickers.”

“Go ahead.” Paul put the book down on the swing which made it clear he’d be watching. The deliberation of it was rather nice. Dale walked down the steps, past Ash and Gerry at the barn, and climbed up on the corral rail. Riley glanced up at him with a half smile, still petting Snickers.

“Hey.”

There was something about the half smile that warned Dale, and looking carefully he spotted it in seconds. He dropped off the rail and ducked under Snickers’ neck to reach Riley, keeping the horse between them and Paul as he took a strand of sage brush out of Riley’s hair.

“Brush your knees off.”

Riley glanced down and swore quietly, hurriedly stooping to slap dust off his jeans.

Damn. I washed my boots off before I came home, I checked I didn’t tear anything.”

“Just get the rock dust off your knees. I can’t see anything else.”

“Thanks.” Riley checked his hands and followed Dale to the rail, climbing it and dropping to the ground to lift Snickers’ abandoned tack down. His voice was low and slightly shamefaced.

“I was up in the quarry behind the waterfall, Flynn would kill me and I’m really not in the mood to get killed. It took most of the morning to shake him off anyway, he was in sight the whole time until past lunchtime.”

With a fair idea of why, Dale mentally scanned the quarry.

“Climbing?”

“A bit. And with a rope.” Riley said flatly in an I’m not stupid tone, which he qualified a second later with reluctant honesty, “Mostly. And now you’re all over yourself saying it’s because you’re stressing the hell out of me. You’re not, so stop it, you’re not personally responsible for everything. Sometimes I just want to do this stuff without a police escort.”

Dale looked at him and Riley grimaced, knocking his shoulder against Dale’s as he headed for the tack room. It was true. If he announced to the others that he planned to climb or swim no one would stop him, they both knew it; someone would just go along too. It was when Riley was feeling caged, when he wanted space, when he wanted to let off steam that he broke this rule, quite deliberately, and while Jasper and Flynn both came down hard on him if they caught him at it, there had to have been times when no one knew. And in a way that too was partly why Riley did it.

Dale took the bridle from him and followed him into the tack room where Riley hung the saddle on its place on the wall, hooked up the bridle and stood for a moment, stretching out his neck and then stooping forward to hug his knees, stretching out his legs and spine which suggested he had more than ordinarily sore muscles. He was supple enough to do this kind of thing like a gymnast with the same grace with which he rode, and Dale found his eyes automatically running up the full length of his legs and the curved seat of his jeans, the line of his spine with appreciation as much as guilt. Riley straightened up and hooked an arm around him, giving him a quick and rough hug as he passed.

Quit it. It’s ok, sometimes it’s about me and not you. We’d better move, this is about the longest you’ve been out of their line of sight in days, they’ll be having panic attacks.”

Dale followed him out of the stables, hesitated for a moment, then very gently collected the handkerchief from the shelf in the shed. Riley stopped to wait for him, looking with distaste at the grey coffee ground like substance on the cotton.

“What’s that?”

Luath and Flynn were coming in together. They were near the gate from the tops, riding side by side and unhurriedly, Flynn with one hand resting on his knee, his Stetson tipped forward over his eyes. Dale led the way up on to the porch steps where Ash and Gerry were sitting with the old and chipped yard mugs, drinking tea with Paul who was sitting on the swing.

Mason was some way down the porch, sitting with his back to the wall; Dale hadn’t seen him  before but he must have been sitting there a while. He was writing in his notebook, head down, occupied, and he’d clearly been writing hard, he was covering pages. Someone had taken him a mug of tea which was standing on the porch boards beside him. Jasper was in the yard not so far away from him, repairing the strimmer with which he’d been clearing the long grass around the foot of the gate posts and glanced up to smile as Riley and Dale passed him. Riley headed up the steps and flopped on the swing next to Paul who put an arm around him and gave him a hug.

“Hi. The kettle’s hot if you want a drink.”

“I mostly want to sit, I’m bushed.” Riley watched Dale very gently shake the grey dust over the steps of the porch. “Does anyone know what he’s doing?”

“No, I’ve been watching with interest.” Paul agreed. Dale put the handkerchief safely out of reach, setting it down carefully on a ledge well out of the sun, and took the arm of the swing on Riley’s other side.

They talked idly about the stock for a moment or two, Gerry and Ash with the cattle, Riley with the sheep where the lambs were getting large enough to start roam further afield, and Luath and Flynn tethered their horses together side by side to the barn and walked across the yard, Luath dropping a heavy arm over Flynn’s shoulders to walk with him for a moment, and then diverting to go into the stables for the grooming tools they’d need to clean Hammer and Leo down of a day’s sweat and mud. Flynn came over to the porch, heading up the steps with his usual firm stride and as his foot hit the step there was a crack, like a gunshot, not exactly loud, but loud enough that Flynn instinctively leapt back from the step like a cat, swearing and grabbing the porch rail as he almost fell into the yard. There was a loud exclamation from everyone on the porch, Riley leapt to his feet and so did Ash, there was a definite acrid smell of gunpowder in the air. In the corral, the horses, who were gun trained, trotted over to cluster at the rail and look, and Hammer and Leo turned their heads with interest.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Flynn looked directly at the group on the porch, found Dale’s face in amongst the crowd, and holding Dale’s eyes. put a hand on the porch rail to steady himself, deliberately tapping his booted foot on the next step up. There was a small puff of smoke and another crack as the grey powder exploded on impact. On the porch, Riley burst out laughing, and Mason, Paul, Jasper, Ash and Gerry joined him. Flynn held onto the rail to step well over the third and fourth step and advanced purposefully across the porch to Dale who looked back at him with interested, innocent eyes. Riley, still laughing, grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet.

“Don’t just sit there, run!

It was a bit late for that. Flynn, arms slightly out like a quarterback, grabbed for him and his eyes were dark and wicked, Dale couldn’t look at them without starting to laugh, aware that he was wholly, entirely enjoying himself as much as Riley was. As Flynn grabbed for him it was suddenly easy; Dale dodged on instinct and fled down the porch, vaulting the rail to land in the yard and head for the nursery pastures. Flynn ran him down without difficulty, Dale sprinted over the long grass, flat out, hearing Flynn’s stride behind him and Flynn’s nearness an instant before a hand caught his belt and yanked him back, and he couldn’t help either the yelp or bursting out laughing in earnest as he was swung off his feet. Flynn’s breath was hot on his neck and the world spun crazily. Hanging over his shoulder Dale hung on to his belt for support, bounced as Flynn walked back through the pasture and through the gate, up the back porch steps by the vegetable patch, and over to where the others were grinning on the porch by the swing. There, Flynn sat on the porch rail and flipped Dale over his knee, pinning him there with one hand resting on the seat of his jeans.

“What was that?”

“A sixth form science experiment.” Dale had a try at twisting off his lap, still unable to completely stop laughing which was as undignified as this position. “Properly handled it’s perfectly harmless.”

“Perfectly-”  Holding him right where he was, Flynn swatted him, and it echoed around the yard, but his hand was cupped, it was a good deal more noise than anything else, and he swung Dale to his feet. “I’ll deal with you later.”

“I’ll detonate the rest of it and sweep it up,” Dale began, and Flynn grabbed him, folding his arms around Dale’s waist from behind to hold him still as Luath came out of the stables, curry combs in hand.

“Shhh.”

Riley, his eyes alive, grinned at Dale and along with the others, sat innocently still. Mason, who had got up and come to join the others, caught Dale’s eye, grinned and folded his arms, and Dale controlled his face with an effort, holding on to Flynn’s arms around him.

“What’s all the noise about out here?” Luath crossed the yard towards them and Gerry produced a peculiar sound, folded his arms and put a hand firmly over his mouth, half way behind Ash’s shoulder as Luath started up the steps. He hit the remaining powder on the third step and the detonation made him leap even further than Flynn.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015






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