Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chapter 23 - Ranch

23


The house was very peaceful in the dark.

At four thirty am everything was still, and the light from the windows that spilled across the family room was a softened, ink navy blue rather than black, casting shadows deep across the stone flagged floor and into the corners beneath the rough grey stone of the pillars and around the foot of the stairs where the grandfather clock ticked softly and steadily in time with the swinging pendulum in its deep, Victorian tone.

Seated with his chin on his knees on the soft carpet halfway up the stairs, Dale watched the darkened room below. Flynn had come to bed an hour ago and was deeply asleep in their bed, and even with all his energy and his ability to never really show it, he was tired. He hadn’t stirred when Dale slipped out of bed and Dale left him with the sheets lightly drawn up to cover his shoulders. Everyone else was asleep, glimpsed through the partly opened doors when Dale silently paused to check on each one of them in turn, lingering to look and mark each one of them with a near painfully warm and intense sense of something he couldn’t put a name to. Luath along the hallway, big, square and solid under the covers, his breathing as deep and smooth as his voice was. Gerry and Ash in their room at the other end of the hallway, back to back with the experienced comfort of men who had been sharing a bed for many years, the unconscious partnership acted out even while they slept. The mares in Bandit’s herd stood and covered each other’s backs like this while one of them grazed or slept. Riley, his hair scattered on his pillow, was sprawled on his stomach with the loose limbed comfort of a cat, one long leg bare where he’d kicked back the sheet. Paul lay next to him, with one gentle hand relaxed near his face and Dale stood for a moment with his eyes lingering on the curve and expression of those fingers that said so very much about him. Mason, soundly asleep, was submerged under the covers with only the top of his hair fully visible. Not Jasper. His room was empty and Dale suspected he was still outside with the mares; he was always harder to predict on any clear night, and on lamb watch in the early spring Dale had often seen him spend the night in the frosty pasture outside, dozing seated upright against a fence post with nothing more than the collar of his jacket turned up. Time alone outside was precious to him, especially in the dark.

“There are going to be no plans we’re not involved in.”

Dale found himself smiling at the thought which came back to mind in Jasper’s familiar voice. Jasper knew him well. It was a warm and comforting thought that came with a little guilt, because sitting here like this came perilously close to being an expression of exactly those plans and half formed objectives, strategies and a lot of other things that were filling every corner of his mind. But the urge to smile was stronger than the guilt and he went on sitting on the stairs, aware of the house and them all and of the data running around and around in his mind yet to settle into a shape or a pattern he could fully grasp. In extremely reprehensible defiance of this household’s rules, not that this house lacked experience of witnessing brats bending rules in the middle of the night.

That was a rather lovely thought too.

It was so radically different to sit here on the stairs in this house with these people, with a clear memory of sitting just exactly like this by the stairs at night in the house in London years ago, looking down at the black and white tiles he’d known so very well at one time in his life. And how it felt now to know that in those same hours when he’d been sitting there in that mausoleum, this house had been sheltering men he’d come to love, many of them brats behaving quite possibly as badly as he was at this moment. It had been standing here all the time, on another continent, patiently waiting. Time was a strange thing. Sometimes it didn’t seem to run as straight forwardly in one direction as you grew up believing it did. Like a river, it flowed, and it circled and bits of it passed backwards and forwards and swirled in eddies without ever ceasing to be a part of that whole. To comprehend it took a willingness to open your mind, and to let go of what you thought you knew in the light of the fresh and wider knowledge that actually you didn’t know very much at all. You might guess. You might suspect. You might commit yourself to being a student. All you could ever truly be was willing to learn.

This is what I’m for.

It was no real surprise to have his train of thought interrupted by a young man bursting out of the dark kitchen in front of him and slamming the door.

He slammed it with all his strength; Dale heard the almighty bang and yet knew it wasn’t with his ears that he’d heard it,  and that no one else sleeping in the rooms upstairs would be aware of it, or of the thunder of feet running up the stairs. There was that delicious feeling to it as he relaxed his mind, let it grow, of seeing into a story book, of the magic of a page opening to show the picture.... and the young man dropped down a few steps below Dale to sit and hug his knees. There was the now familiar giveaway in the quality of light, the edges of him, the movement just slightly slower than time. It was Gerry. His face was familiar even where it was buried in his arms; Gerry perhaps seventeen years old, slight with a curved but almost fragile build, an almost painfully pretty face which was the picture of devastation. Tears were flooding down his cheeks. At the foot of the stairs, a man walked unhurriedly out of the study, opened the kitchen door and put it back where it usually stood, and Dale heard his voice, mildly conversational.

“Anything I should know? “

The voice that answered from the kitchen was British and sounded frankly unimpressed.

“He thinks this is about being slighted, unwanted and unappreciated. It's actually about not wanting to do the washing up.”

“Thank you.”

It took effort not to laugh out loud. Dale watched the older man walk to the foot of the stairs with a wave of real love as he saw his face. It was the one he knew from photographs, the same calm face of the man he’d dreamed about who’d grasped his shoulder and quietly encouraged him to turn and face the shadows on the landing in a dream some nights ago. Philip, with his hair just beginning to turn steel grey, in immaculate white riding jodhpurs and a shirt and riding boots, without a trace of haste or irritation in his face or body.

What?” Gerry demanded through his tears. He raised his head and gave Philip a spitting glare that unkindly increased Dale’s urge to laugh even further, knowing very well if the Gerry he knew was sitting beside him at this moment he would be laughing too.

“Excuse me?” Philip invited. Gerry dashed an angry hand across his face which scattered tears slightly more decoratively.

“You say don't fight, go away. So I went away!”

“That sounds like a good decision.”

“And I'm mad, I'm allowed to get mad.”

“Have I said you weren’t?”

“You haven't come to be nice,” Gerry accused. Philip leaned against the banisters at the bottom, folding his arms to reflect on that statement.

“And you know that how?”

“You never do!”

“Come down here.” Philip held out a hand and Gerry shied back with as much drama as if Philip had turned a gun on him. Philip simply waited, hand outstretched. “One. Two.”

The numbers came calmly and with almost no pause between them, and Gerry clearly knew there would be no hesitation before three arrived. He was unwillingly up and moving on two and Philip took his hand, steadying him down the last few stairs to the ground. Through the open door, Dale saw him walk with Gerry into the study and sit down at his desk and Gerry hurled himself down on the floor beside Philip’s feet as if he was a galley slave. Philip calmly took up his fountain pen and continued to work on the open papers in front of him, apparently undisturbed by the young man sobbing piteously and at penetrating volume beside him, and as he leaned forward Dale saw a flash of silver beneath the hem of his jodhpurs at his immaculate right boot heel. A piece of steel barely visible. Something that connected up to another dream, another insight, another piece of the puzzle clicking into place. 

But it was Gerry who held his eye. Dale watched with a kind of horrible fascination, well aware from the covert glances Gerry cast up at the desk – and they were very covert, if you hadn’t known where to look and watched the extremely discreet movements of his eyes you wouldn’t have thought Gerry cared in the slightest if anyone else on the planet was listening – that his entire attention was focused on Philip. He concealed the cough from the sound-making that was hurting his throat extremely well, but the noise settled down a little. And gradually Dale heard him quieten, only the angle of his shoulders showing the extremely subtle transition from frantically defensive to honestly tired and frustrated. Mostly with himself. Dale’s heart turned over for him, recognising every inch of his body language, knowing exactly how it felt.

Philip didn’t look up from what he was writing, but one hand reached down unhurriedly to rest on Gerry’s bent head, his thumb smoothing Gerry’s hair back from his forehead. It was the gentleness of the gesture that gave away how much he understood. It was a moment more before Philip held out his hand to Gerry, and while Gerry took it and stood up, his first movement was still a sharp step back, putting more distance between himself and Philip even though he held tightly on to Philip’s hand. Philip didn’t make any attempt to lead him closer or to look up from his writing and eventually Gerry seemed to reach a decision and dragged his feet the few inches distance to Philip’s side as if it involved wading through mud, and let Philip draw him gently down to sit on his knee and put an arm around him. The conflict was still painfully clear in his body, the awkward twist that was a mix between leaning hard into Philip while still turned away from him, the desperate longing for comfort conflicted with the unwillingness to allow himself to feel comforted.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Flynn could growl incredibly well even in a barely audible whisper. Dale jumped hard enough that he had to grab the wall to avoid falling directly downstairs, particularly as he had the oddest sense that his right ankle was stiff. As he expected, with his concentration broken, when he glanced back to the study it was dark and there was no one there. In shorts and nothing else at the top of the stairs, Flynn looked large, muscular and extremely real. Dale got up to go to him, hands raised calmingly to reassure him that nothing awful was happening, and Flynn’s hand closed on Dale’s arm as soon as he was in reach, helped him up the last few steps and Dale yelped as Flynn’s other hand impacted soundly behind him, swatting him the entire length of the landing towards their room which hustled him a good deal faster than was dignified. Somehow Flynn managed to swat quietly too. He shut the door behind them and put Dale straight down on the edge of the bed in front of him. The man could shift him with one hand and not a whole lot of effort, there was something distractingly attention-grabbing about that in multiple ways.

This was probably a good moment to be tactful. It was definitely harder to do when you’d just been chased down the landing but Dale tried for the best tone of voice with care.

“Just sitting on the stairs. It seemed like-”

His stomach lurched hard as Flynn interrupted him with a short nod of complete comprehension and took a seat on the bed beside him with a purposefulness that was unmistakeable.

“Right, let’s get this straight. You are not,” Flynn yanked him across his lap in one clean pull that left Dale sprawled face down and starting to sweat as Flynn tugged his shorts straight down and far too far out of reach, and the chill of fresh air hit upturned bare skin through the open window,  “Ever sitting alone on the stairs through the night in this house. I don’t care what you think your reason is.”

Draped over his knee reasons always seemed far less convincing than they did when considered standing up. Any instinct to converse further was stymied by a swat so hard Dale’s breath deserted his lungs and he jumped, grabbing for the bedclothes with a fervent yelp. The cotton of his shorts was thin and the swats on the landing hadn’t been mild ones, but on the bare stung infinitely more acutely and Flynn’s hand was large, well practiced, and covered a great deal of ground.

Yes sir,”

“This is a house full of people who love you, they are right here to talk to, day or night.”

The second swat was if anything even harder,

“I am right beside you if there’s anything on your mind,”

The third was really no better,

I will do any protecting that is necessary. I will make sure the people in this house have what they need, I will let you know where you need to be and what you need to do. It is not your responsibility.”

That went so very deep that Dale’s breath caught for another reason, a physical jolt that hit him deep in the knot of tension in his stomach, jerking it loose like a hitch shaken out of a rope. He hadn’t been fully aware he was thinking it until Flynn put it into words. Flynn paused, his hand resting on Dale’s flaming butt where it felt cool and heavy and infinitely reassuring at a moment when logically it shouldn’t have been reassuring at all.

“We have rules, they stand to deal with every situation, especially ones like these. If you have too much on your mind to remember them, believe me I’ll remind you any time you need it. You do not live in London any more. Am I making myself clear?”

Mine, back off. Let it go. He did this. Like he did with the horses, not by force but by blunt, definite actions, and Dale trusted it more than he did any words from any man he’d ever met. None of whom he’d loved in his life with anything like the force with which he loved this one.

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Flynn’s voice was extremely definite. “Because if this happens again, we’ll discuss it with a paddle.”

He said nothing else. His hand lifted again and Dale was twisting over his lap within the first ten intensely impressive seconds, trying not to blurt out what first came to mind. Which began with Flynn, for Pete’s sake not so hard, And moved on to no really, not that fast Followed at some point by ok, ok, I know, I’ll be good! By which time he had no attention left to spare that it sounded like gunshots in the quiet of the house at this hour of the night and someone was going to hear, because Flynn took him straight over the edge of what he could cope with and beyond any ability to think or fret about anything at all, and it meant letting go of everything. Having to, willing or not, without being able to hesitate over releasing any of it, because control wasn’t in his hands anymore. He was very tangibly aware of being the absolute centre of Flynn’s attention, of having no control at all over how long this went on, breathless, smarting furiously and unable to do anything like keep still by the time Flynn finally paused, resting his hand once more firmly against Dale’s bare and scorching backside, and there was no room left for anything in his mind but Flynn.

“Any doubts on how you use the stairs in our house?”

No sir.” Dale blurted it out loud and clear with total conviction, and Flynn, to his deep relief, pulled him to his feet.

“Get into bed, do not move from it again before I tell you.”

Dale slid under the covers extremely hurriedly when Flynn lifted them for him, and Flynn lay down beside him, putting an arm out to slide under Dale’s neck and to yank him hard over so they lay body to body, Dale mostly face down against him within a grasp that felt like it wasn’t going to let go again tonight. The feel of Flynn head to foot against naked skin, was intense. Dominatingly, overwhelmingly intense, making it very hard to think about much else at all other than to know again and acutely what this felt like when you truly let go, to find the overwhelming peace of no responsibility to have to think or plan or know what to do. To feel truly, wholly safe no matter what might happen, because it didn’t matter.

It was a relief so deep that there weren’t words for it. Dale hung on to him and breathed out. Flynn growled something against his hair too quiet for him to hear the words although he got the general gist, and Dale felt the hard pressure of a kiss against his head. Recovering his breath and finding it extremely difficult to keep still despite the strength of Flynn’s grip, and in far too good a mood to be at all appropriate considering he properly ought to be extremely subdued, any thought of sleep was obviously and completely out of the question. That thought was the last thing he remembered.


He awoke to the definitely distracting feel of warm weight and teeth working on the nape of his neck, something that was not entirely a kiss and not entirely a bite and that worked its way slowly and thoroughly from his neck out towards his shoulder blade, and Flynn’s arm and the leg draped over him were too heavy and gripping too firmly to be disturbed by the squirming he was not quite able to control. Flynn was an extremely physical man in every conceivable way, and Dale’s body had decided months ago that it was all for this, whether or not Dale’s mind happened to be keeping up at the time. Without being fully awake Dale found himself every bit as interested as the pressure of Flynn against his back made it clear that Flynn was, and definitely not capable of coherent thought that went much beyond a reprehensibly lazy mmmmn....   

Flynn didn’t let him move either. Those rather penetrating teeth worked their way all the way down his spine while Flynn held him exactly where he wanted him, branding inch by inch until they concentrated on his tailbone, at which point levitation or possibly melting was becoming a serious possibility. There were definitely things his sixth form physics master, while an educated man, had not been aware of. And then Flynn’s palms grasped his hips, Flynn’s knee slid between his and Flynn lifted him to his knees, and physics could go chase it itself.

It was some time after that when Dale, having been laying with his head against Flynn and regaining his breath, remembered that he owned a watch and groped towards the night stand for it. He barely got a glimpse of the hands at eleven thirty before Flynn’s hand closed over his, took it and tossed it towards the chair where his clothes were draped and Dale’s were neatly folded.

“We were up half the night; those that weren’t have gone to do what needs doing. Good morning.”

He rolled up on one elbow to kiss Dale, thoroughly, undoing a good deal of the breath regaining work, and Dale put a hand up to run it through tangled, sandy hair, looking up him with a deep sense of stability that had to do with the multiple sensations still ringing through his body, including the faint soreness of his butt, and far too much Flynn in his head and everywhere else.

“Now you get around to good morning?”

“You weren’t complaining.”

No, really not. Flynn’s eyes glinted at him and he stooped for another swift, biting kiss.

“Shower.”





Paul was setting the table and Dale came to take the cutlery from him as the stove top was busy with pans. Paul held onto the cutlery, pulled him down by the shoulder to kiss his cheek and drew out a chair, pointing to it.

“Good morning. Take a seat, you’re not taking over the universe in here either. I heard Flynn explaining things to you in the early hours. You’re lucky he got to you before I did, you’ll keep look out on the stairs over us feeling like that over my dead body.”

Flushing slightly but not in any bad way, Dale took the indicated chair. “I didn’t feel like ‘that’, I was just thinking about it. Can I have a shirt please?”

“You can think about it in bed any time you like. With us. And yes, you may.”

A green one was waiting folded on the counter along with a grey sweatshirt of Paul’s, and Paul held the shirt for Dale to put on, waiting for him to button it before he pulled the sweater over his head and settled the collar, something he did with far more time and care than was at all necessary, and he expected eye contact while he did it. When he was done he handed Dale a print-out from the counter.

“That was in your box from Tom when I checked the accounts this morning.”

Dale sat down at the table, skimming rapidly through the email.



Subject:

Dale

I wish I had half your guts and I know never will have. You see this stuff in yourself and you get off your duff and do something about it. I see this stuff in myself and I have done all my life, and I piss off up mountains and snarl at Jake. I didn’t show your mail to him, and that’s another hard admission. Not that he wouldn’t want to see it, he loves news of any of you. But there’s way too much in your mail that could be me and I can’t face talking about with him because he would get it. Properly, about you but still worse about me. At least if I don’t show him something in writing I can go on pretending that he probably doesn’t know. 

I bought him a medal thing once. A Saint George medal, little silver medallion in a market in Peru. He never takes it off. I told him it was  the patron saint of boy scouts, the usual kind of flip and sarcastic comment I make, and he laughed. I’ve never told him it’s actually the patron saint of heroes. Look. Snarks. I didn’t know much about them apart from the basic reference. Jake did. There’s a fair bit of Snark hunting going on up here too, but Snarks are a just a simplified version of the root myth and I think the original would make a hell of a lot of sense to you now. Ask Paul about the Fisher King.

Nos morituri te salutamus

Tom




“What does that mean?” Riley asked, glancing at the Latin script over Dale’s shoulder.

“We who are about to die salute you.”

“That doesn’t sound very positive.” Paul held Dale’s eye for a moment and Dale saw the same anxiety he felt reflected back there. “Is he ok, hon?”

It doesn’t sound like it.

Possibly these weren’t the most helpful or supportive things to be discussing with a man at risk of his life in a highly dangerous situation.

“Has he had any more ideas on the train robbery?” Riley asked with his mouth full. Dale shook his head absently.

“That one’s sorted.”

There was a brief, startled silence, then Riley tore off half his bread roll and lobbed it across the table at Dale.

“You what? You know?”

Dale fielded the roll without difficulty.
“Yes. Well at least how I’d have done it. There’s no actual evidence.”
Riley picked up the other half of the roll to shy and Flynn put a hand over his, confiscating it.

“Enough with the throwing unless you want to spend the rest of the meal in the corner.”
 “When you know this stuff you explain about it.” Riley surrendered the roll, not willingly. “Some of us are dying to know over here, you don’t just sit on it like it’s not polite to mention it-”
“I haven’t really had time to think about it properly. I have a hypothesis, untested and very likely wrong.” Dale said apologetically. Riley shook his head.
“Look it’s us, just tell us. Do you want a pen and paper for this?”

“Probably.” Dale admitted. “There’s still a few things I’d like to check and be sure of first.”

“Why don’t we go down there then?” Riley suggested.  “We can get the stock work finished early and go over there this afternoon, have a look around and you can check out whatever you like if you promise you’ll tell us?”

“Count me in,” Gerry volunteered immediately. Luath nodded, clearing his mouth before he spoke.

“Me too, I’d like to see what we could figure out.”

“To be honest, the best way would be to pace it out. A practical experiment.” Dale said reflectively. “With the distance and the timings accurate.”

“You seriously want us to go to Three Traders and rob a train?” Mason said dryly.

Dale gave him an apologetic nod. “Theoretically, yes.”

Mason shook his head. “You’re all mad. The whole damn lot of you.”



            The yard was full of horses by a quarter to one. Leo, Snickers, Hammer, Nekkid and Moo had all been out to work that morning and were waiting tacked up in the yard fairly patiently to see where they were going next. Jasper saddled up Gucci and Flint, and Luath walked Boris and Raglan, the two heavy shires, up into the yard where he and Riley saddled them.  Dale, journal work completed to Flynn’s satisfaction, came out to help, aware of Mason finishing his own chores with his eyes on Riley, and with a good idea of what Mason was thinking. Riley worked damn hard. Fully engaged, active, competent with his hands as much as how he stood and climbed and walked around this rough terrain, talking freely to the horses, calm and at a deceptively relaxed pace that kind of matched with the competency of his hands. Broken wire, hurt stock, fence posts, whatever Riley did, he did it well and thoroughly. He just never made it look like work at all. Jasper came in through the gate with a handful of mail and took an envelope across to Mason, whose face visibly lit up as he took it.

“That’s my mom. Spider handwriting, I’d know it anywhere.”

As hers were the only letters he was receiving there wasn’t any doubt who the letter was from anyway, but Jasper gave him a calm nod and took the rest of the mail into the kitchen. Mason opened the letter and gave it a brief glance through that didn’t disguise his urgency to read, then folded it and put it in his pocket. He’d read it thoroughly later. Dale had seen him once or twice sitting on the swing and reading one of those handwritten letters slowly, several times over.

“They get like this when it’s all handwritten mail.” Riley said very quietly to escape Mason’s ears. Dale ducked under Raglan’s neck and came to help him with the big harness kept for the shires.

“Do most of the clients get mail?”

“Pretty much all. You were probably the first I remember who didn’t. Or didn’t care about contacting anyone outside here.”

There was a few seconds silence while they worked, then Riley said lightly as if he was afraid he’d said something hurtful, “If they go on to do a lone camp out, we ask the wife or family or friend or whoever to send a letter we give them to take along, and make it something special. Flynn or Paul usually has the conversation with the family to talk about what kind of things to think about putting in. Anything that’s been hard or caused trouble between them. Anything hard they need to say, lay out exactly how behaviour or mixed priorities have affected them and their relationship. Kids. Friendships if it’s a friend rather than family. What’s most important to them about the relationship they have, what’s good about it, how they feel. It’s why we only let committed people have contact, where they’re determined the relationship is going to improve and they both want to work things out, Flynn encourages them to really say in a letter the things they couldn’t say out loud. He got me to write a letter like that to my dad once. I decided not to send it in the end but it makes a difference to lay it out. Tell it and say it in writing, even to yourself.”

He said it casually, but Dale didn’t mistake his tone.

“Why did you decide not to send it?”

“I didn’t see the purpose in hurting him.” Riley said simply. “And didn’t think it would achieve anything. We get on ok, we have probably as decent a relationship as either of us really want, where’s the point?”

Yes, exactly.

Riley glanced up at him and his always warm hazel eyes were rather gentle.

“It’s not always that easy. Flynn wouldn’t contact his people at gun point. Anyway, it helped me, and we’ll get Mason’s mom to have that kind of a letter written and here for Mason when the time comes. The letters have a lot of impact on clients every time, it’s kind of the best and the worst all mixed together. And they’re out on their own with a couple of days of nothing to do but read and think, read that letter again and think some more. Big priority fixer.”

“How does a lone camp out work?” Dale climbed the bottom rail of the fence to heave Raglan’s saddle from the top rail to Raglan’s broad back. “Define nothing to do?”

“At all.” Riley gave him a quick grin. “Nada. The rules are strict. No books. No distractions, we search them for anything they shouldn’t have before they go so nothing gets sneaked. No work to do, they get their letter, a journal and a pen and that’s pretty much it other than clothes and food. We take them out a good couple of miles and set them up somewhere near water with a view worth looking at, mark out their boundaries for how far they can wander – usually not more than about two hundred yards in any direction – and they do 48 hours there completely alone in that spot. No sleeping until it’s completely dark. If they want a fire or to heat food or water they make it. If they want shelter they make it.”

The skills they’d taught Mason on the hike. Dale nodded slowly, reflecting.

“And they do what?”

Up on the sloping pasture beyond the gate, Bandit was in sight, standing alert and watchful above the herd of grazing mares and the few very small foals, including the two born just last night. The mares appeared in no hurry to move away from the ranch. The stallion was scenting the wind for weather, for threats, for the information he constantly gathered to keep his herd safe, his mane blowing slightly as he turned his head.

“Whatever they see as a good use of their time.” Riley followed his gaze up towards Bandit, then tugged the girth strap to tighten it another notch. “Sometimes one will screw around. Break the rules and sleep the time away, or spend the whole time ranting to themselves about how much it sucks, or zone out and throw stones at the water, wander and just kill time until we come get them. We know how they do – they think there’s no one for miles and we encourage them to, but actually one of us is about half a mile away with an eye on them a lot of the time, Jas picked the spots we use to have good cover viewing,  so we know exactly what they’re doing. We don’t step in unless it’s a safety reason, actually I’ve never known us need to step in, but we know if they break the rules or screw up and further along the line we’ll send them out to do it again, and usually then they start figuring out to get serious and make use of the time for real. But most of them find when there’s no distractions at all, there’s damn all to do but think, it’s a major wakeup call and its where they most often start making plans. We had a client a couple of years back who visits sometimes and told me when he’s losing the plot now or knows he’s slipping back into bad habits he still goes off and fishes all night, sits outside in the dark and his head comes back together again.” Riley paused, then dug an elbow in his ribs quite firmly. “Hey. You’ve got the ‘there’s something I haven’t aced yet’ expression on your face.”

“You didn’t use that strategy with me.”

“Yeah, obviously?” Riley gave him another dig, that was both pointed and affectionate. “Getting you to stop thinking for five minutes was more of a problem.” He glanced up as Paul closed and locked the porch door and he and Flynn came down into the yard full of tacked up horses. “Feel ready to go rob a train?”

“I’m only planning to pace out the ground and be sure.” Dale warned him. Riley shook his head, dropping a hand on his back as they headed towards Snickers and Hammer.  

“No, you’re not, this is not some boring maths problem.”



By mid afternoon they were through the woods and the nine horses walked together over the smooth, rolling green pasture where once the wagons had rolled, to one of Dale’s favourite views of the ranch: the cliff edge of the plateau where the ground just dropped away below them, revealing the town of Three Traders tucked into the wall of the valley. They paused instinctively there to admire the view; it was too startling not to. The silent roof tops and the red earth roads covered the ground, still and warm in the afternoon sun, with the wheel of the mine in the distance by the thin blue shine of the river at the very bottom of the town. They took the steep wagon road that wound down through the town, where ox and horses pulling the wagons had paced once with their heavy loads, past the shelters that began highest up as shacks with perhaps one window where a rag of ancient and dusty fabric still blew, to gradually proper houses where some glass still remained in the windows, where a few battered gates still stood, marking long overgrown and wild gardens returning to pasture in front of the splintered, weather beaten front doors. The houses grew closer together and in thicker clusters as they reached the main part of the town, and near the bottom of the street the shops began to appear with their distinctive fronts, the entrances to empty stable yards where the stables were silent, and deserted workshops, smithies and timber yards.

No one spoke as they rode, even Gerry was silent and they made no sound but the quiet clop of the horses’ hooves on the road. There was something in the peace of the town that was not uncomfortable but which drew a respectful silence out of you in return. The resting place, the depository of so many people’s lives lay here. They turned onto the main street where the railway line ran parallel to the line of hotel, the Mine Shaft Saloon, the shops and the stables, where the roof of the station and the platform stood unmoved and undamaged, and there Flynn drew in Leo, turning in the saddle to find Dale.

“Ok. Where do you want to start?”

Dale saw Riley glance over at him, then swing his leg over Snickers’ back and drop down to the road.

“Let’s try the saloon, Dale? That’s where it all began, that’s where we think the moonshine was.”

“It’s all still here,” Dale heard Mason say softly as they walked through the swinging door into the saloon, leaving the horses grazing the rough grass beyond the railway line. “It’s all still here.”

“What couldn’t be taken on a car or a train generally stayed, the town was abandoned bit by bit and it’s pretty isolated.” Paul said with compassion for the furniture and the glasses still on the shelves. “Mason, don’t go up or down any stairs without checking with us, we’re still figuring out what’s safe.”

“The cellars have stone steps.” Riley had already disappeared into the kitchen and the back rooms where he and Dale had slept weeks ago, the night it rained and they were camping here. “This is the printing press, this is where we found the town newspapers. We never found a still.”

“You wouldn’t, prohibition lifted in the 1930s. If there was a still here, it would have been dismantled long ago.” Paul told him, coming to examine the press. “And any still would have been well hidden, quite possibly even out in the woods. You might find an old still in a shed in more far flung places, or because people liked the taste, but a saloon would have started buying in the real stuff by rail as soon as it was legal.”

“But we’re talking about the train robbery right in the middle of prohibition when there was a still somewhere. And Dale, you say there was some kind of a meeting at night before the robbery?” Riley re emerged into the body of the main saloon. “Here, while the Connellys were in town.”

“We know that how?” Gerry inquired. Riley brushed that off before Dale had a chance to think about how to respond.

“Never mind all that, we just do.”

“Some of us need the full story here,” Mason pointed out. “Because I’m totally confused.”

“During the prohibition era, a moonshine still was run from the town, and when the moonshine was ready, a message was put in the town newspaper to say “the moon is full”.” Jasper said calmly. He was standing by the fireplace, arms folded, waiting without the faintest sign of impatience. “We’ve found it in the newspapers from the time. At the time the robbery took place, the Cheyenne police were here investigating illegal alcohol, and they thought James Dwyer, the owner of the saloon, was responsible.”

“And a crook.” Riley added. “Possibly in the with the Connelly gang, who were a known bunch of crooks.”

Right.

Dale put a hand on the bar beside him, thinking of an image that had come to mind several times. The crowd of men in here – and abruptly without trying, he could hear it, smell it, the crowding of wet, rain-soaked bodies and not just men. Women, children, the atmosphere in the room was strong and unmistakeable. He pulled a box of matches from his pocket, the box he’d collected from his saddle bag as they left, and struck a match, sheltering it with his free hand, and deliberately turned to Riley to try the experiment, well aware of the internal voice pointing out loudly that this was a stupid risk, it probably wouldn’t work, he’d look a total fool for trying it and no normal person could justify believing in this rubbish anyway.

Yes, I know who you are, breathe. We’re ok. If I’m wrong we’ll survive it, but I have to learn how to make this work. Properly.

“Ri?”

Riley looked at him quizzically. Dale held out the lit match towards him, and understanding, Riley stretched out a finger towards the match. And jumped, pulling his hand away as the flame abruptly flared towards him.

“For pete’s sake! Even matches hate me now!”

The knowledge was confirmed, along with the memory of the conversation he and Riley had been having the first time the fire jumped. It was good. It was exciting, intensely exciting in a wonderfully kid type way as things often were with Riley, unchartered water, and Riley looked at his face and grinned at him as he shook out the match.

“Flynn, he’s getting that insane look.”

Some symbols will have meaning only for you, and only you will know in that context what they mean.

Ash and Gerry were standing together in the loose circle that had gathered around him, Luath and Mason next to them. Jasper was watching him calmly, waiting. Paul with open interest. Flynn’s dark green eyes met his with acute encouragement that said clearly, go for it kid, he was standing close, and Dale took a discreetly deep breath saying it clearly to himself and the room and whatever it was that needed to be told, with intent.

“James Dwyer was never a crook. That was my mistake. James is not the protagonist here.”

He struck another match, offering it to Riley, and this time Riley much more cautiously approached the flame with his hand and then waved a finger lightly above the flame without it moving from tranquilly burning up the match. Dale shook that one out too and replaced the matches and the box in his pocket.

Point proven. Thank you. I just needed to listen.

“Take the supposition that James Dwyer – and I would make an educated guess that he was a friend of David’s - is the one who is running the still and distributing moonshine. It’s a small private supply to the town, a quiet and successful little enterprise that worked well out here a long way from the police and the cities. Maybe over time it gets even more successful and James gets a little more ambitious, so once in a while a shipment goes out on the Silver Bullet to other towns along the line. We can guess at that because the ghost drummer boy is a well known legend in Three Traders, and he is seen to walk on rainy nights.”

“But it isn’t really a ghost.” Mason said, frowning. “You have the jacket, don’t you? With the buttons?”

“Yes. It’s an old English smugglers trick.” Dale said crisply. “Dwyer may well have got the idea from David. You paint clothes with phosphorus, probably the drum and the drum sticks too, and the jacket we found was an old War of Independence one so it looks authentic. Someone wearing the clothes and with the drum muffled so it makes no sound, walks in the dark at a good distance from witnesses, slowly beating a silent drum, and you’ve guaranteed that you’ve got the attention of everyone in the vicinity. This is the 1920s, we’re barely past Victorian times and this town is isolated, probably still stuck socially and practically in the 1890s. Plenty of superstition around, so as well as the people who’ve actually seen the ‘ghost’, there’ll be plenty of people who thought they did and have added on to the legend and built it up over time.”

“So the ‘ghost’ is someone employed by James Dwyer.” Riley finished for him. Dale gave him a brief nod.

“I think that’s a reasonable assumption. We know the ghost is most often seen on wet and rainy nights.”

“Because that’s when it’s easiest to make a train stall on Dead Man’s hill, lose enough speed to stop and have to go back to the station for another go.” Riley finished for him. “The ghost on the rails.”

“Probably walking towards the train. And the night train that passes through Three Traders is the Silver Bullet.” Dale went on. “So when the ghost is seen, the train slows, the traction on the rails is poor and she can’t make the hill. The driver has to back her down to the station and get her ready to make another run at the hill. In the few minutes the Silver Bullet is in the station building up a head of steam, a compartment door quietly gets opened, a few extra crates put on, and someone in the know will get them off as the train stops in other towns along the line.”

“But why make the train come back to the station?” Ash asked. “Why not just load up the crates disguised as other cargo?”

“Because of the manifests. Tom clued me in, I’ve seen some at the museum.” Dale said apologetically. “These trains are the only real communication between these towns at this time, they carry everything. Mail, supplies, everything, so at every station parcels and crates are being taken on to be put off somewhere else. This is before computers and tick boxes and large organisations where people don’t care and go home at five o clock. You’re talking about a small team of men running their train out in the middle of nowhere in all weathers for days at a time, who do their job with brain, pencil and paper. I’ve worked with that kind of ethos. There’s real pride in it. I’ll bet you couldn’t have put a box on the Silver Bullet without the guard making sure of exactly what it was and what was in it, where it came from, who put it on, and where it had to be put off. The whole system runs entirely on their working memories and people in these towns depend on it. And bootlegging is illegal, the courts have a heavy hand with it. Al Capone is driving the Chicago police and the government mad, there are people running around with machine guns, this is a serious national problem. So the police are watching trains and borders all over the states. Cargo often gets searched, and if alcohol is found on board a train, guards are likely to lose their jobs at best, if not end up in a courtroom. So when a train is loaded up in the station, the goods are checked and logged as they’re put on, and the guard makes damn sure he knows what’s in those boxes. When the guard’s made his final checks, he closes the compartments – no passengers in the goods compartments, those doors won’t be opened again before they reach the next station - the station master clears the train to leave and he sees her out, so there’s an eye on her until she’s clear of the station. The train crew can be assured there’s been nothing sneaked on board that’s going to get them into trouble.”

“But when she comes back a second time.....” Luath said with comprehension. “She’s only backed in to get up enough steam to make another run at the hill, there’s no reason for anyone to check again.”

“Especially if, as we know from the ‘ghost’, the bootleggers are choosing dark, rainy nights when visibility is poor and no one wants to be outside a moment longer than they really have to.” Dale agreed. “When the Silver Bullet backs down into the station her guards have moved on to their next job inside her and the driver and fireman are working hard to stoke her up and build up another head of steam to run at the hill again which will take a few minutes. The station master here probably has the kettle on and has gone back to his office. The passengers are aboard the train, and anyone seeing them off has left. The passenger compartment blinds are probably down for the night and outside visibility is poor. She’s going to be in the station for a few minutes pretty much unobserved, especially considering she’s a long train and the goods compartments are a long way back. It’s going to be easy to quietly open a compartment, add a few crates and shut her up again without anyone noticing before she gets up enough steam to have a second try at that hill.”

“So James Dwyer of the saloon is rum running – moonshine running-” Paul said, thinking about it, “Sneaking a few crates on the train out to other towns, and from the records of the ghost sightings it’s working pretty well, they’re doing it fairly regularly.”

“Then we factor in the Connellys.”

Mason snorted. “Ah. Classic. Hostile take-over. Seen it many times.”

Dale nodded at him. “Exactly. I’d guess that someone in one of the towns where James Dwyer’s crates were dropped off is less than discreet, and the Connellys get to hear about the thriving little Three Traders moonshine racket, and the money it’s making. Once they know, it’s easy to come to Three Traders and blackmail James; he’s the one with the still and the history if the police come looking.”

“But there’s the Sheriff here in the town, isn’t there?” Luath protested. “Doesn’t he count as ‘police’ in this town?”

Paul made an aha kind of sound, smiling at Dale.

“The curious incident of the dog in the night time. Now I get it. It’s a Sherlock Holmes quote, about a guard dog didn’t bark during a burglary, which meant the person who broke in was an insider - someone the dog expected to be there. The Sheriff was in on it. He was no threat to James because he already knew what was going on, in fact if he was happily looking the other way he was probably a regular client himself for moonshine. Those public notices in the newspaper of ‘new moon’ suggest there were a lot of people living in the town who enjoyed the supply.”

“So there’s plenty of people to be blackmailed if James Dwyer doesn’t do exactly what the Connellys say.” Dale added. “His friends. Maybe big names in town like the Sheriff. The Connellys see an opportunity to make big money. Alcohol sells, it’s a big black market with a link to some serious and well known players and here’s a town in the middle of nowhere, quietly and very successfully knocking it up right next to a train station linked to a whole lot of other towns all the way to the cities in the next states, with no one suspecting a thing.”

“They must have thought Three Traders was a gold mine.” Riley said ruefully. Dale gave him a slightly surprised look.

“Yes? It is.”

Gerry laughed and Ash, who’d been standing with him listening to this, gave Dale a nod of encouragement.

“Like Mason said, a hostile takeover bid of a very effective little money spinner except they have big plans instead of a small and private still that’s an open secret between friends.”

“We know there was a huge stockpile of moonshine made.” Dale told him. “500 bottles that we know of. That’s far more than the town community would use. My hypothesis would be that the Connellys demand that instead of the steady trickle of a regular few bottles here and an occasional few crates there, a large shipment is produced to be sent out through Dwyer’s system that’s going to make serious money in a city.”

“But they could never sneak that much on or off the train, that would take forever to lead up. Their whole smuggling system relies on just a box or two here and there that get quietly slipped on when she’s backed down into the station.” Riley pulled himself up to sit on the counter beside him, and Dale had another brief, flashing image of David, standing on the bar, the shouting and the cheers of a wet crowd of people here in this dusty, empty room where the nine of them stood gathered together.

“We’ll get to that. Let’s say that Dwyer has been forced to agree to manufacture this shipment on his still. 500 bottles. And to send it out on the Silver Bullet in his usual way. That’s a huge risk. Far, far higher than the couple of crates slipped on and slipped off in the dark on rainy nights. If this goes wrong then it’s Dwyer doing years of hard labour in Cheyenne prison, not the Connellys. So let’s assume he’s been blackmailed, risking terrible trouble if he does, and worse trouble if he doesn’t, and other men in Three Traders who have helped with the still or the deliveries or bought it are going to go down too. Like we’ve agreed, we have no idea who was buying moonshine from James here. The Sheriff, the judge, the school teacher, probably half the respectable people in the town, the whole town is facing serious trouble if things go wrong. But. Dwyer is a friend of David’s.”

“Ah.” Luath said with enjoyment.

“Four and twenty ponies.” Dale said to Paul. “I should have thought more carefully; that said it all. It wasn’t just the Sheriff in on the Connelly problem. It was the whole town.”

“In on the robbery?” Riley demanded. Dale leaned back against the bar next to him, which `involved leaning against Riley’s knee, thinking again of the crowd in this dusty room.

“Yes. This was a close, tight and isolated community and they were people who stuck together. They survived winters out here, they took care of each other, they were all each other had. Roofs were fixed, food was shared, we saw that in the papers. The papers even named relatives arriving on the train and who they were visiting for pete’s sake, everyone in town knew everyone else well enough that it was reportable news. I doubt the Connellys had any idea of what they were taking on in messing with Dwyer.”

“They certainly wouldn’t have catered for David,” Gerry said wryly. “I saw David get really irritated a few times in my life, I would not have messed with him.”

“You constantly messed with him!” Paul pointed out, and Gerry laughed.

“Not like that, believe me.”

“So the Connellys have just poked a bear with a stick.” Riley said happily. “With no idea of what they’re waking up or how this town works.”

The remainder of that community feeling out here was still found in the way the ranches welcomed visitors out here, the doctor and the vet and neighbours always offered meals and help, the way strangers were met by Philip and David’s family because they were raised by David who’d lived through times where a family might die down the street from you on a cold night or when a flu epidemic swept through. It was something rarer now, it didn’t live in the cities or the tower blocks where you might not even know the name of the woman at the front desk who brought your mail every day. If you needed food in Three Traders, you hunted it. If you needed shelter, you built it. It was something Dale had experienced directly on the hike, the responsibility and the intense closeness that came with it to the people you were with. It was crucial to the understanding of this. It wasn’t enough to have the facts, to pace the gradient of the slope, to know the train weight and speed. You had to know who the Three Traders people were, what mattered to them, what their reality was, that was important. You had to have felt it yourself.

“There was a meeting held here in this room.” Dale said slowly, thinking for every detail he could remember because it all mattered. “It was a rainy evening, dark, everyone was wet through but there were women, kids – in a saloon that’s unheard of in itself – but it was full, they were standing and it was packed. David was stood on the bar, he had to shout to make himself heard because they were cheering. I think David knew a way to get Dwyer out of trouble, the police out of Three Traders without anyone arrested or harmed, and the Connellys gone for good.” 

“So what did they do?” Gerry demanded. “What did David do?”

“This is where we need to work it out.” Dale led the way and they walked together, through the doors and down the wooden steps of the saloon into the street where the shop fronts stood on either side of them, and across the empty dirt street, and up the steps that led onto the train platform. The rusting train stood a few yards down the track, a large and elderly remainder of the trains like the Silver Bullet that once passed through this station. Behind them, the ticket office and the station master’s office and what had probably been his sleeping quarters in the rooms upstairs, stood empty and silent. A lone bench still stood on the platform.

“You can’t sneak 50 crates onto a train.” Dale said half to himself. “And we know the cargo that went missing the night of the robbery had been logged on the manifest as being loaded here. I think the Connellys forced Dwyer to take an overt risk. Those 50 crates of bottles went onto the train listed as something innocuous, canned goods, jars, whatever, and there was no problem loading them. I think it’s likely the guard knew people here well enough that they briefed him on what the town was about to do and he looked the other way for them. Now Dwyer would have had to see those crates loaded on and sign for them, so if anything goes wrong, the trail goes back to him, not the Connellys. So while the train is in the station, 50 crates of moonshine are loaded right under the eye of the guard, and Dwyer is legally responsible.”

“Why don’t Dwyer and the others just refuse to do it?” Ash asked. “There’s only three of the Connellys, why co operate at all? There’s enough men in the town to handle them.”

“David would have known exactly how to be sure the Connellys never tried blackmailing Dwyer again.” Luath said wryly.

Dale shook his head, with that brief, flashing image of the drummer boy, like a rat in the rain, running between the houses in the dark with the drum around his neck.

“I don’t know why. Perhaps there’s another factor we don’t know of yet, but so long as those crates are available to be found in the town, Dwyer’s at serious risk. If the Connellys are caught they’ll blame him; Dwyer manufactured the stuff, he put it on the train. I think the plan this night is that the compartments are checked and closed by the guards when they’re satisfied everything’s in place. The train leaves the station and the someone dressed as the drummer boy, painted in phosphorus so he glows in the dark, is waiting in his usual place up on the hill.”

“But the crates are already on, why bother with the ghost trick?” Riley asked him. “Why would they need the train to come back to the station tonight?”

“Because the Connellys aren’t on the train.” Dale turned to look up the track, towards Dead Man’s hill, assessing the slope. “They’re known criminals. They can’t just buy tickets and sit with the passengers until they can wander back to the cargo compartments. The police are in Three Traders so they’ve been keeping a low profile all day. And the compartments are checked and closed by the guard as the train is made ready to leave. So the train has to leave the station, checked and in order. As usual, she has to fail on the hill and come back down and on her second return there’s no one watching. So the Connellys’ plan has to be that they’re going to get into the cargo compartments and travel with their shipment to wherever they’re taking it, they must have had plans. There might have been a robbery or a hijack planned somewhere out in open country, people waiting to meet the train. We do have the facts that the train leaves the station on time that night with those 50 crates aboard. A few moments later the ghost is seen and the Silver Bullet fails on the hill and comes back down into the station. An open compartment door is noticed as she gets up steam for her second try, and when someone has a look, those 50 crates are gone. The Connellys are never found in Three Traders, the police eventually give up and leave knowing nothing.”

“So what happened?” Mason demanded.

Dale turned back towards the street.  “We’re going to need the horses for this.”

“It’s not dark yet.” Riley, leaning with his arms folded against the side of the station building, flashed Dale a look that was wicked enough to break Dale’s concentration. Beside him, Gerry’s eyes were alight and Mason was listening with interest. Jasper and Flynn, shoulders blocked together, stood behind him, listening closely, and Luath, Paul and Ash were on the edge of the platform, listening as they surveyed the hill and the train track.

“Let’s wait until dark. Proper test conditions.”

“You just really want to run around the town playing cops and robbers.” Paul told him.

Riley shrugged, not bothering to deny it, but looked from him to Jasper and Flynn, and then back to Dale, speaking directly to them.

“I’m saying let’s set out to do actions with intent and see what happens. The worst that can happen is it’s just fun, but we’re here, David was ours, that has to be pretty strong doesn’t it Dale, if you’re trying to pick up on stuff? Let’s give it a try?”

 It was so blunt, so directly in front of everyone that Dale found himself looking blankly at Riley. And then he felt Jasper’s hand take his and grasp and Jasper said just as cheerfully beside him,

“That sounds like it might be interesting. I say we try.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


“You do know. Trust yourself.”

They were out in the pasture near the river where they would make camp. Paul was collecting saddle bags full of the provisions he’d organised this morning and there was a small and comfortable crowd of them in the afternoon sun unsaddling hot horses who were keen to get rid of their tack. Including Jasper, who said it quite simply while he worked on Gucci, in a voice soft enough that Dale knew it reached only his ears. It was so acute it made his stomach jump.

Giving himself time to think, he slid the bridle off Hammer’s willing head and the heavy body immediately lurched down to his knees irrespective of whether Dale was in the way or not. Dale got out of reach of huge hooves as Hammer turned onto his back and rolled, rubbing himself blissfully on the grass, and gathered Hammer’s tack neatly together, watching Jasper handling Gucci gently around her slowly swelling sides that marked her coming foal. 

“I want to do a lone..... hike. Thing.” That did not seem a properly respectful or mystical way to put things, and mathematics had a pitiful and inadequate vocabulary to express these kinds of thoughts in, but Dale put his faith in Jasper and blurted, as he’d only ever been able to do with these men. “I have ......there’s a reason I need to be alone with this, there’s something I’ve got to do.”

“Yes.”

Jasper stated it as a simple acknowledgement of fact. His calm acceptance was another shock. Shaken, Dale found himself saying the biggest concern he had, and a fully justified concern however he tried to assess it;

“....Paul is not likely to agree. I know it’s the wrong time to ask, wanting to be alone isn’t a good thing, I understand completely....”

“But this isn’t wanting to get away, it’s a going towards. Isn’t it?” Jasper said mildly.

Of course it was. And of course he was right, because it was Jasper who had taught him how to do this in the first place. These beliefs were a part of Jasper, uncynical and wholehearted; that the things you saw and touched and walked were as powerful and meaningful as what you thought and felt, that you could not separate out one from the other. While they hiked, Jasper had used their land to help him and Mason travel and act out what they were thinking and feeling – the walk through the night into the new beginning of a sunrise; the struggle up through the dankest part of the woods to climb up into open pasture in the sunshine – it had been powerful, it had held every meaning and this desire was the just the same. A journey towards. A seeking to find.

And it’ll make sense if I can just physically do it because I don’t know how to explain, I just know how to try and understand it.

“I know you’ve told me,” Dale said slowly, “That there were cultures where men went seeking an ordeal... or time alone... to understand something better. Make a commitment. It’s something that needs to be.. heard. Physically done. I can’t exactly provide an action plan or a risk assessment or a forecast, I really don’t know how to express it any more coherently, it’s just something I know.”

Jasper ran a hand down Gucci’s smooth neck and let her go. “Which is enough. Obedience in a relationship like ours is not about wanting passivity from you, you know us better than that. If it’s important, then tell us about it. If need be, stand up for it until we do understand. Paul might have his concerns, but he loves you. He will want to understand, and I can help him. But I don’t think they’ll find it as difficult as you’re expecting.”

The relief was inexpressible. With no idea how to thank him Dale just obeyed instinct and put an arm out to him, giving him an awkward but very tight hug, and Jasper gathered him over and held him for a moment, face against his. His skin was cool, the scent of him was familiar, it was very safe in his arms, and his voice was deeply calm.

“You are doing this absolutely right.”

They walked over together to join the others as the horses began to spread out and graze. Above them on the red earth hill, the town with all its rooftops looked down with its big mine wheel black against the bright blue afternoon sky. Jasper pulled a bow drill from his saddle bag and held it out to Mason, who grinned, took a knife from his pocket and went to cut a patch clear of turf for a fire.

“I need to learn how to make myself one of these. Does it matter which wood you use?”

“Talk to Dale.” Jasper nodded in Dale’s direction. “He spent some of last summer experimenting with the different woods on the ranch, and drill size and length until he figured out which worked best.”

“Dale,” Paul glanced up from the saddle bags he was unpacking and his blue eyes were shrewd, seeing a little more than Dale felt ready to explain. “You come and sit down for a while, you look like you need it. Riley, you too, you were up all night with the foals.”

“I’ll go swim.” Riley said easily, dropping his own saddle down beside his bed roll. “It’s too warm to sit around and I slept in this morning.”

“Yes, for about two hours, under protest, which was nothing like the amount of sleep you lost, and you’ll be up half the night tonight too.”

Dale settled on the grass by Paul, watching the fire start to crackle in Mason’s now practiced hands, and with amusement recognising the oh so reasonable tone in Riley’s casual;

“I don’t need a break, I need a swim. I can sit around in the water all afternoon gold hunting.”

“Gold hunting?” Mason demanded, looking up.

“That mine over there was originally a gold mine,” Riley flashed his ring at Mason. “This is made from gold from the mine, they used to pan for gold in this river. Dale, going to try diving this stretch again?”

“We never find anything?”

Riley snorted. “Yet. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Dale returned his smile, unable to help it.

“Riley, if you make me come get you, you’re going to regret it.” Paul said mildly.

Riley walked away instead to the edge of the water, casually enough that it didn’t look exactly like ignoring, and Flynn, without looking up from Leo where he was lifting off tack, said in a deep tone,

“Riley........”

Riley stopped on the spot but grimaced at him. “I’m just looking, I want to see what the temperature is like-”

“No, you’re seeing how far you can go before I get serious.” Paul got up and headed towards him. Riley took a step back, looking distinctly surprised, which turned to outright startlement as Paul turned him around and swatted the back of his thighs crisply, hustling him towards the fire. “And you’re hoping that having an audience is going to save you. Want to sit down yet?”

“Paul!” Riley sat down hastily to get away from him, giving him a scowl that wasn’t altogether disapproving. “Look you’re supposed to get like that with Dale, not me.”

Paul knelt to open one of the several saddle bags he’d packed, extracting tea as Jasper unhurriedly took a seat on the grass beside and behind Dale, hooking one hand in his belt to tug him back so that ready or not, Dale leaned back into his chest. The comfort of it went very deep right now, and Jasper’s voice behind him sounded easy, as relaxed as the arm that wrapped around his waist.

“You’re the one always telling us to tighten up.”

 “Yes, but on him, not me.”

Paul pulled Riley over and kissed his cheek as he spooned tea into the pot.

“You’ll live. And it’s not like you get no opportunities to dive that river to your heart’s content. I’ve been thinking for a while Dale Edward, when you’re doing better I want you to take at least a couple of weeks and do a whole lot of things like go diving for gold.”

“What?” Dale, hearing his middle name which with Paul was rarely a good sign, gave him a rather alarmed look. Paul pushed the kettle deeper into the fire.

“When was your last vacation?”

That was a ridiculous question.

“.....Probably climbing in the Tetons with Jake and Tom?”

“That was not a vacation, that was a training project with plans and goals and maps and heaven knows what, and you worked flat out the whole time.” Paul pointed out. “I meant an actual vacation.”

Dale looked at him, feeling perilously close to spluttering. “I’ve had plenty of that since I’ve been here – right now, I’ve been on vacation for weeks!”

Paul shook his head, quite satisfied now that he had Dale’s attention. “Rubbish and you know it, this is extremely hard work. I meant vacation, hon. Holiday. When did you last have one?”

“But I always had breaks when I was working-”

Flynn interrupted him, quite bluntly as he came to take a seat on the grass with them. “No. Times when the phone was off and for a good block of time you just hung out with nothing to get done, and you just did what you wanted. When?”

It linked to something Dale had reflected on himself in the past few days since the hike: that this was the first time in his life he remembered that he had simply stopped. Let go. It was rather alarming that Paul had so succinctly seen and comprehended it and was acting on it whether Dale was ready or not. And that was the reality of this relationship and of true honesty; letting go of that control. Consciously, intentionally, gladly. Even when it scared the living daylights out of you. Dale found himself giving Paul what he was afraid was a distinctly trapped look; Jasper smiled, not letting him go, and Flynn shook his head.

“College holidays. School holidays. Keep going back.”

“........Well I pretty much stopped, they were mostly tutoring times, but I liked doing that....” Dale began slightly defensively and Gerry and Riley both laughed.

“Exactly.” Paul said firmly. “I want you to take an actual vacation from doing anything worthy or goal oriented or stressful or about anyone else. The absolute minimum I’ll accept is two weeks, but I’d much rather it was longer. Take some time for yourself, no projects, no plans drawn up, just doing whatever you feel like on the day. Take one of us with you and swim. Ride. Explore. Lie in the pasture with a book. Go to Jackson and spend a few days at the museum. Enjoy yourself. It is not going to be scary I promise you hon, we’ll help you figure out how to do it, but it’s important, it’s something I think it’s long past time you did.”

“I can’t possibly do that, I haven’t done anything useful for weeks!” Dale said rather helplessly. Paul made an exaggerated roll of his eyes that made his teasing very gentle and playful rather than exasperated.

“Yes exactly, there’s the crux of our whole problem. Since when did you have to earn your keep around here, mister?”

Of course I do!

The look on Paul’s face made it quite apparent that there were aspects to that argument he needed to rethink.

“Riley, will you feel slighted or overworked if Dale takes a few weeks off?” Jasper asked calmly behind him.

“No.” Riley said promptly. “You’ve seen me do this plenty of times whenever I need to, except I know how to say I’m taking an afternoon to myself, or a day out to go climb or ride. I agree. You never have a clue on when to stop, and do you ever need to learn to do it.”

There were times when Riley just translated the most difficult things into wonderfully plain terms that made them far easier to get at gut level. If he said it was ok, then he meant it.

“Start getting used to the idea.” Paul advised, starting to brew tea. “Because in a few weeks from now I’m going to insist on it.”

Well that added to a very great deal already on his mind, and oddly not in a bad way. Dale accepted the steaming cup he was passed and held it for a moment, listening to the crackling of the fire and breathing the soft, now beloved scent of woodsmoke with Jasper’s warmth close against his back, with a sense of safety and orientation that was almost hard to let himself feel it was so powerful. And with another busy corner of his mind reflecting on someone else who had climbed the Tetons with them.

“...Paul? Do you know anything about the Fisher King?”

“Yes, it’s one of the King Arthur legends.” Paul passed the last mug to Luath and sat back on his heels to drink his own tea as he reflected. “I can’t remember off hand where to look for it. Although it’s one of those original staple story themes that gets into everything. I think I’ve got a copy of the Morte d’Arthur somewhere.”

“So what’s the gist of it?” Riley asked, who enjoyed any kind of story. Paul gave another and more careful look at Dale.

“Where did you get an interest in the Fisher King?”

“Tom mentioned it. He said the Hunting of the Snark was a simplified version.”

“So go on then?” Riley prompted. “What’s it about?”

“Well there’s a young prince,” Paul said thoughtfully, “And probably by ‘young’ the myth means adolescent. Impulsive, brave, fearless,”

“And weren’t we all at that age?” Gerry murmured sentimentally to Ash, who smiled.

“- who wanders into a clearing in the woods. There’s no one there, but there is a salmon cooking on a spit.” Paul went on. Around the fire, everyone had fallen quiet to listen. “He’s hungry and he helps himself to the salmon, and depending on which version of the legend you follow, either he’s terribly burned by it, or else another knight challenges him to battle for stealing the salmon. Either way he’s terribly wounded, usually it’s written as in the thigh but the implication is it’s a genital injury and he’s emasculated.”

“Ouch, the poor boy.” Gerry winced at Mason, who had also grimaced. “This is sounding increasingly like a horror story.”

“It’s figurative more than anything, the stories this old are very heavy on the symbolism.” Paul looked again at Dale who was, if Paul was any judge, intently, missing nothing, although his eyes and his hands were calm. Focused rather than tense. “It means it leaves him ‘cold’, without emotion or feeling, living a numb half life. Too ill to do anything real with his life but not able to die. Most of his time is spent on a bed in terrible pain, and the only time he can forget his pain for a while is when he’s alone outside, fishing.”

“That’s as random as Jasper’s mystic ants.” Riley pointed out. Jasper smiled but didn’t rise to the bait.

“It’s probably the same kind of representational legend, yes. Salmon is a common symbol in the oldest stories.”

“What does it usually stand for?” Dale asked. Paul sat back, considering.

“Knowledge or insight, I think.”

“It’s the same in the Cherokee stories I grew up with.” Jasper agreed. “Salmon are associated with wisdom and inspiration.”

“Cool how the same thing crosses cultures.” Mason said with interest. “I mean who far back enough saw a salmon and said right, from here on, stick one of those in a story and it means wisdom. It’s wild.”

“I know it goes back a long way.” Paul told him. “I’ve read some of the Finn McCool Celtic hero stories, centuries old, and in one of them – probably another version of the Fisher King story actually - Finn accidentally burns his thumb on a salmon cooking over a fire, a mythic beast a druid caught to eat so he could take in its power, and Finn gains all the wisdom himself through sucking his burned fingers. A fish icon means wisdom in Celtic art, and the Christian symbol of the fish was more or less laminated on top of the more ancient pagan myths and beliefs the way much of Christianity was. In terms of the Fisher King story it essentially means a young man impulsively touched knowledge or experience he wasn’t ready to handle, as young men very often do, and the injury, to his pride or to his masculinity left him half a man. It’s an emotional or spiritual injury. The fishing – the only respite from his pain - symbolises the things in life that comfort him emotionally. Fishing might also equate to music or writing or walking alone. I think a lot of men might understand the concept of that kind of wound.”

“So what happened to the king in this story?” Riley demanded. Paul took another sip of tea as he thought about it.

“Well the injured prince becomes the king. And as king, he inherits the duty of being the chosen protector of the holy grail, as his ancestors were. There are all kinds of legends around the quest for the grail and what it means, but in this legend every night there is a procession of the grail through the great hall of the Fisher King, and the grail heals anyone in the castle in need, except for the Fisher King himself who is kept alive by it, but is too badly hurt for it to help. The meaning underneath it is probably that he’s numb and detached, and not able to feel anything in response to something of good or beauty. He can be in its presence and know that technically it’s beautiful, but he can’t feel it spiritually, it’s about the isolation of being depressed or distanced. I think that’s a human thing, that you can be in the presence of things you know you love, that are good, but not be able to feel them the way you want to at that moment in time, and how lonely that is.”

“You can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” Luath said wryly. “Yes.”

Beside him, Dale’s eyes had gone very dark. Flynn was watching him, Paul saw him, well aware Dale would get the symbolism of this very acutely. Mason was looking distinctly sober too.

“Then one day,” he went on lightly, “when he’s fishing, he meets another young and rather naive knight called Percival, who’s on a quest. Percival doesn’t know who he is, but they spend the day together, and then Percival asks him if there’s shelter for the night nearby, and the Fisher King tells him there’s none within thirty miles. But that if he goes down the road a way, turns left and goes through the drawbridge, he’ll find shelter.”

“He just said there’s none within thirty miles?” Riley protested.

“Yes, but it’s symbolic again, these stories come from oral traditions where everyone listening would have understood the meanings,” Paul explained. “In the same way you might call someone a Grinch, or The Ghost of Christmas Past and most people get what you’re implying, it’s a shared culture. It means there’s no physical shelter within thirty miles. To go down the road a way, means to go towards your own heart. To turn left – the symbolic meaning of left is to turn towards your unconscious mind, your imagination. And then cross the drawbridge into it. Percival is being told to look in himself for his answers to his quest. So Percival follows the directions, finds himself in the castle and that night he watches the procession of the grail, but he watches without saying anything, asking no questions, just passively observing. So the procession finishes as it always does. Nothing changes. And when Percival wakes in the morning, everyone is gone from the castle and he’s alone. So he leaves and goes back to the real world.”

“That’s a bit sad.” Ash said, reflectively. “The dangers of passivity. EM Forster would have been all over that.”

“A lot of writers have been for centuries, this is old stuff.” Paul agreed. Riley shook his head, not interested in Forster.

“So? What happened next?”

“Well Percival goes on for half his life, carrying out brave and chivalrous deeds and not really being filled by any of it,” Paul said it as lightly as possible, all too aware of Dale and how sensitive a point that was likely to be for him. Dale had the intense stillness to him and the intensity in his eyes that Paul knew as Dale recording every aspect of this for purposeful information and it wouldn’t just be what was said; it would include with exact precision the tone of voice, the choice of words, and he would probably be mentally cross referencing it with goodness knows what else, all at high speed.

“Probably a natural downside from having to go through life being called Percival.” Gerry observed.

Behind Dale, Jasper’s eyes were calm when Paul met them, and he was the one with his arm close around Dale.

“And this goes on,” Paul went on, “Until Percival is a middle aged man and he’s tired of life without knowing why. Then he meets a hermit who tells him quite sternly that he missed his purpose in life, which was to heal the Fisher King.”

“That’s very similar to what you say.” Dale said thoughtfully to Jasper. “People following their purpose in life move forward. People who don’t listen to themselves or the signs, or don’t seek for them, go metaphorically around in circles and you can see the stagnation.”

Jasper merely nodded slowly.

“Yes.”

“So the hermit gives Percival the same directions, although they’re far away from where he saw the Fisher King years ago: to go down the road, to turn left and cross the drawbridge, and Percival finds himself again in the Fisher King’s castle. He watches the procession again that night, but he’s older now and he has more experience of life, he has curiosity and he’s ready to commit to looking for answers, and he calls out as he watches, “Whom does the grail serve?” And the answer comes back, “the grail serves the grail King.” As soon as the question is asked, the Fisher King is healed by the grail.”

There was a brief silence around the fire, then Riley shook his head.

“That makes no sense.”

“It’s about an internal journey.” Flynn said quietly. “To be whole, to heal an emotional injury you have to find your way back inside yourself, and recognise it and consciously challenge it. Act on it, involve yourself to change it. And the point is that the gift, the exceptional, comes with the injury. It’s the insight it gives you, and how deeply it makes you feel or think about things that ordinarily people don’t have any need to.  have any need to. You gain hidden knowledge about life and people. The Fisher King is a wounded man, but he is also the keeper of the grail, which is the answer in itself, the source of healing. There’s plenty of stories based on the marked man, where the wound is the mark of the gift or the exceptional. Gulliver. Chiron the centaur. I always liked the legends of Chiron.”

Riley grimaced, not looking convinced. “But the grail is a cup, isn’t it?”

“It’s usually visualised as a cup.” Paul said. “But it’s still allegorical. The grail stands for the utter exceptional, the most sacred secrets of human life. In terms of these legends, searching for the grail is a lifetime pledge taken by a knight who has already taken on all the duties and sworn responsibilities of his knighthood, to searching for the highest truth of life. And it’s not just about finding what they’re searching for but how they live and the values they live by in the name of that search. Percival realises that the real sense of connection to life, a life worth the living, isn’t found through doing brave deeds to his own satisfaction or doing the things that serve his own purpose, but about having an allegiance to something greater than himself. That kind of allegiance meant total dedication and loyalty to someone who was sworn a knight in the times of these stories. Under the codes of chivalry it was sacred. When they committed themselves to a man or to a duty or a promise, it wasn’t breakable, there was no such thing as wiggle room. Their honour and their integrity were something they’d defend to the death. That’s another theme that’s been explored by writer after writer for centuries.”

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care...” Dale said half to himself. There were too many thoughts in his head now to consciously keep hold of, he was aware of them gathering and re sorting themselves at the back of his mind but he pulled on one of the many connected threads vying for his attention.

“What happened to Philip’s ankle?”

He knew the look Paul gave him, as well as the tone of voice.

“Ok, where did that come from? We don’t do random demands for information, you’re not a search engine.”

“It was his right one, wasn’t it?”

“Dale.” Paul said firmly.

Dale knew exactly what he meant; only Paul really spotted what he was doing and knew as well as he did that it wasn’t something he should really be allowing to take over. However Luath answered, from the other side of the fire where like Flynn he was sprawled full length on the grass with his weight on one elbow and his cup between his hands.

“He was born with a club foot and the pioneering treatment available to the highest paying families at the time was surgery. From what he told me once, I think he had several very painful surgeries on it when he was a child and they just made it a lot worse, the position was corrected but his ankle ended up completely fused. You wouldn’t have known unless he told you. He didn’t limp.”

“But he wore a small steel brace thing on the heel of his riding boot.” Dale said to him. Gerry smiled, a faint, affectionate smile as he thought about it.

“Yes, he did. They were on all his boots, someone in New York used to make them and mail them out here, I remember the parcels.”

“The ankle kept him out of the army during the war,” Flynn said, draining his cup and shaking it out. “Which is how he came to meet David, he was doing some kind of related work for the war office when he came through Three Traders. The ankle was how he came to be such a horseman. When he was a kid he couldn’t run or play football according to his family traditions, but he could ride and play polo and train his horses, and I think he spent a lot of his childhood riding. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do with a horse.”

Or a man. Those years of training had helped more than horses. It was another confirmation; another puzzle piece slotting into place that brought a deep sense of personal satisfaction that no work challenge had ever compared with.

The wound marks the gift.        


*


Riley got his swim in the late afternoon sunshine. They all went in, Mason stripped off with them without the faintest hesitation, and joined in taking it in turns to dive the deeper stretch beyond the mine to search the river bed where they found no shortage of pieces of quartz but no gold. He was a fairly strong swimmer, although it was Riley and Jasper who could stay down the longest and search the most efficiently. Luath made several good natured attempts and came up near Dale after the last of them, coughing a little as he surfaced, and Dale steadied him and waded with him towards the shallows where Luath sat down to get his breath, leaning a hand on Dale for support.

“I’m fine. Wow. I don’t do that enough lately.”

He actually looked in strong condition to Dale, broad shouldered and solid with his skin streaming water, the deep blue-black tones to his skin that were as beautiful as the depth of his even voice. Relaxed. Smiling as he watched the others fooling around. He was going to be one of those men who grew more good looking as he grew older, as the bones in his face and his build continued to mature.

“Did Roger like to swim?” Dale asked a little carefully, never sure if it was a subject Luath preferred to avoid, but Luath’s smile deepened, a quiet but real warmth coming into his eyes that wasn’t always there.

“Once you got him in, yes. It took some work, you had to get the book off him and hide it first, but yeah. He was good for me. I got exercise finding ways to coax and harass him into doing anything but read.”

Less interested in diving, Gerry was floating lazily in the shallows where Ash was sitting, elbows on his knees, chest deep in the running water where the sun glittered off the surface, smiling at something Gerry was saying. Dale blinked at the bright light of the water, opening his mouth to say something impulsively that was at the front of his mind although it made no sense whatever, and then hesitating. And then deliberately and rather carefully he said it without looking back at Luath,

“You never go to L.E. hell anymore?”

Luath said nothing, but Dale saw his head turn and his face change. For an awful minute Dale had no idea what he was thinking or whether he’d made a serious mistake in saying it out loud, then aware that it was too late to retract it now said hesitantly, 

“What is L.E. hell?”

Luath didn’t answer for a moment, continuing to stare at Dale, then he glanced down at the river, his voice very gentle. “Delhi. The Delhi Bell. It’s an Indian cafe, it was one of my favourite places to eat, we used to go there a lot. Rog always called it Delhi hell because it was a student kind of place, back street and noisy, always crazy busy. He used to tease me about being too strait laced to go slumming it with him in a place like that, but the food was amazing. No, I guess I haven’t been there in years. Hadn’t thought of it.”

There was no logical answer to that. Luath leaned on the bank, his voice even more gentle.

“No one told you about that, did they? I don’t know anyone else knows the place exists.”

“I’m so sorry, this happens.” Dale said rather awkwardly, “I don’t mean-”

Luath put a big arm around his shoulders and dropped a brief, firm kiss on his forehead, interrupting him. His dark eyes were slightly blurry, but there was nothing reproachful or distressed about the gesture and it was enough to understand what he meant.

“You knew I was thinking about Rog, and that’s a very nice memory, I hadn’t thought about it for a while. It’s good timing. Maybe you need to just trust your instincts are right.”

The right word at the right time. And faith. It really does work.

“Besides,” Luath said gently, “I always heard your instincts were pretty sharp. Jeremy Banks has always sworn by them. Did you know he used to call you his silver bullet?”

“What?” Dale snapped off his train of thought, startled, and Ash put a hand on his knee to brace himself as he slid back into the water.

“I’d forgotten it, but I heard him say it more than once. The solution he could rely on to fix any mess; just send you in there to deal with it. Oh and the white knight.”

“Grey knight.” Dale corrected automatically, familiar with the business terminology he’d been familiar with since.... since his teens when he first began to suction in this kind of information faster than he’d fully consciously processed. “It was always on ANZ terms and in their interests.”

Luath shook his head. “Banks always called you a white knight. You always preserved the good and worthwhile, you were objective and you worked with a company facing take over instead of wanting to grab and dissect for parts and immediate gain. Banks said he had black knights everywhere, never a shortage of them, but if he needed a white knight to do the right thing, know what was salvageable and bring it in, it was you he sent.”

Like a piece on a chess board.

Like a prince, on an endless mission to rescue the lost princess.

A numb, efficient campaign of years, unconsciously done with service dedicated to a good man who had been good to him. Even then I was looking for a strong man to serve.

It was an old word, with an older meaning, specific to men and to the deepest concepts of manhood, the deepest and most ancient values of men, and probably Tom and Paul would understand it properly, they were the ones who knew and loved the stories and shared them with him. Dale looked up at Luath’s face, which was kind and this was a man who loved Flynn, who loved this land, who was .... more of his blood in some ways than anyone in that house left in England. A few feet away those men were messing around in the water, their voices in his ears, their presence immediately there, real, stronger than anything else he’d ever known.

There were far better, worthier campaigns to dedicate your life to that weren’t numb at all, and it had taken him over thirty years to discover it. Commitments that were so powerful, so emphatically and shatteringly good that it was hard to think clearly about them, and which were not based on cold logic or isolated thought but from the fiercest and most powerful whole of you.  
  

There were a few things to do before they went out to the town. In the last of the afternoon light Dale carried out several of the preliminary tests privately with Riley and Snickers and his watch, and as dusk set in they ate and set up the camp for the night and banked the fire. Jasper quietly slipped his hand into Dale’s as the others laid out their bedrolls and rinsed off cups and plates in the river, guiding him away from the noise and the domesticity and the light of the fire, and the chatter. The others didn’t really notice them leave; Jasper had the gift of moving discreetly enough that you barely saw it.

It was much quieter and cooler out in the pasture. A still night and a dry one, and some way out in the deep grass Jasper drew Dale down to sit with him on the ground. He was still in his shirtsleeves, the only one of them who hadn’t put on either a sweater or a jacket against the growing chill of the evening, and as they sat down, he put up one hand to the leather strip that bound his hair at the nape of his neck, pulling it free and pocketing it so that his hair spilled down over his shoulders. It was the way he did it that Dale understood; a clear change of state, a deliberate preparation for something, in the same way as he sat cross legged on the ground, back gracefully straight as always, his hands, lightly on his knees. The position in which he cleared his mind, thought, and spoke most from the heart. Dale felt for the rose quartz crystal in his pocket as he settled in the cold grass, facing him. That was his own ritual of preparation, and it was becoming a familiar one. Something Jasper had said on the hike, a belief from Jasper’s heritage, had echoed a great deal in his mind all afternoon, and touching the familiar rough and grainy planes of the crystal brought it back more strongly;

The essence of those buried in the earth moves into the crystals, the stones, so when you use them you have no means of knowing who or how many are helping you.

Jasper had taught him the simple routine of preparation, Dale had long since internalised it and it was automatic to take a breath in and then let it go while letting all the tension in his body drop. Golden light. In front of him, behind him. Above him. Below him. To the left of him. To the right of him. The ritual was very calming and as he visualised it he felt his mind clear, the sense of stepping slightly back from himself, of stepping out of the river to watch it flow below him and around him without touching him. Of being alert to everything, the scanning sensation he’d known all of his working life, although never with this electric current of feeling so alive, so aware and so present. And so intensely aware of the man in front of him who was doing the same, his larger and long fingered hands loose on his knees, his eyes lightly closed, his face lifted towards the sky. When Jasper opened his eyes and put a hand out to lightly cover his, it was so intense a touch it seemed to reach directly through his chest, searing and delicate all at once. 

“Ready?”

If he let himself – and it wasn’t about concentrating, it was quite the opposite, about letting go – there were sounds from the direction of the town. Very far away as if in the far distance, but wheels rattled on a street, men’s voices shouted in a long abandoned railway yard where freight was being unloaded, a steam whistle blew for the end of a mine shift that had finished decades ago.

“Do you hear that?” Dale asked him very softly, and Jasper gave him a faint smile, still grasping his hand.

“Yes.”

As they walked slowly towards the camp together, Dale saw Jasper quietly slip his shirt over his head, fold it and drop it on his bed roll, and despite the chill of the evening, he walked on naked to the waist in just his jeans and boots. It made him look taller and harder to see in the dark, as if he became a part of it, the shadows on the hard planes of his chest and his flat torso, the wide blades of his shoulders; Luath glanced over as they joined the others who were waiting for them, and Dale saw his slight double take and Ash’s startled expression but neither Flynn, nor Paul who walked closest to them as they started towards the town, showed the faintest surprise and Riley, after one acute look, said nothing, but he walked close to Jasper over the grass.  


Somehow together they had a subduing effect on the others. Possibly Jasper kept them a few steps ahead, possibly Flynn or the others had spoken together and agreed to be quiet, but there seemed to be no chatter now, nothing ordinary to break the mood as they walked in a tight, quiet group of men through the night towards the station on the silent main street on the edge of the town. Riley led Snickers and Flynn led Leo, both horses snorting and snuffling softly as they paced the rough grass on the far side of the rail track, opposite the station.

It was dark, the first stars were becoming visible overhead but it wasn’t hard to see. Standing on the line in front of the old decaying station building and the platform, Riley looked at his watch, pausing with one booted foot braced on the old, rusting rail.

“It’s five to nine. So the Silver Bullet’s in the station. Passengers on board, all freight loaded, waiting for the signal to leave.”

“She’s stood here a few hours.” Dale shut his eyes for a moment, pulling all the data to the front of his mind. “She was loaded up in daylight. It’s a long way between stations out here, and with the mine, she’ll load up on coal while she’s here. So she’s taken on board water. They’ve hand-loaded a truck full of coal. Maybe more. The crew have eaten. Rested.”

“Met up with Miss Sally-Ann Whoever at the Saloon upstairs.” Gerry said, grinning. Ash dug him gently in the ribs and Luath shook his head.

“Doubt it. James knew this town, he would have known the saloon keeper like David did, and he always said this was a respectable place.”

“And it’s pouring with rain.” Riley, with his eyes on Dale’s face, ignored Gerry entirely. “Now what?”

“We wait until she leaves.” Dale turned up his own watch, walking slowly along the line until he reached the very end of the platform where the engine would have stood. “Ri, have Snickers ready.”

Riley gathered up Snickers’ reins and pulled himself easily up into the saddle, waiting for further instructions. Behind him, Flynn also quietly mounted Leo, holding him with one hand, the other hand resting on his jeaned knee. Dale kept his eyes on his watch, aware of the group of silent men standing in the dark with him and the growing sense of excitement without quite understanding why. Night after night for years, the Silver Bullet had stood right where they were at this hour of the night, building up a head of steam in the darkness as her fireman stoked her boiler high. Other dark shapes stood further behind them. Old and rusted trucks, mouldering gently away where they’d been left...... and behind one of them was a long, thin and sinister shape aimed directly up past the mine, up towards the lower slopes of Dead Man’s Hill.

The jolt was sudden. A flashing sense of looking down the barrel of a rifle, the familiar sense of the weight of a rifle in his hands and the image of the boy drummer darting between the houses like a rat. Dale looked sharply up towards the end of the town and glimpsed him. In the red soldier jacket, with the tall hat and the drum around his neck, and the young face that turned towards his in the darkness was white with fear and tearstained. It was another second before Dale realised he could barely see the detail of that face; the wave of fear and the sting of tears was a sensation he felt in one sharp rush more than something he saw.

“They had a gun on him.” Dale said abruptly to Jasper. “He was maybe eleven or twelve years old and one of them down here had a gun trained on him.”

“Who, hon?” Paul said softly, and from the tone of his voice Dale was suddenly aware of how icy his own voice had sounded.

“One of the Connellys. They took the boy as a hostage. One of the Connellys was over there behind the stock cars with the boy in his gunsights the whole time. Another of the Connellys must have taken him from here past the mine and up onto the hill ready to stop the train, keeping him in line for a clear shot all the way. The child was terrified.”

“So now we know why the town was co operating.” Flynn said grimly. “Bastards.”

Dale looked down at his watch marking the last few seconds.

“Now. The station master would be on the platform waiting. The whistle blows. The flag is shown. She’s cleared to go. Ri?”

Riley touched Snickers into a slow walk forward along the rails as they walked beside him, Flynn bringing Leo on the far side and a little behind them like an outrider. The locomotive would have been on high steam in the station. Noisy. There would have been clouds of steam, the fireman and driver had speed to gain by the time they reached the hill. At Dale’s signal Riley touched Snickers into a trot, gathering speed gradually, and as Dale called again at the foot of the hill, Snickers broke into a canter, curving ahead of them up the track. They began to leave the town behind, moving on into the silence of the open pasture and the hill.

“So where’s the kid?” Gerry said as the hill began to steepen. Snickers was still just visible ahead of them, cantering steadily, and then abruptly he screamed and reared and Riley caught him and turned him rapidly, gathering him in. Jasper was visible ahead of him, bare chested, his hair loose in the moonlight, stood like a statue on the old rail. Dale hadn’t seen him leave them down at the station, nor move to position himself ahead of them on the hill, but Jasper had known the exact spot, and a little further up the hill behind Jasper for a second he saw a young boy in uniform looking straight at him, his jacket glowing a soft, luminous and ghostly green that lit his face and the bare hands holding the drumsticks, silently beating his muffled drum. David had known exactly how the trick worked; it was still a shock to see it suddenly in the darkness, even in one brief glimpse and knowing it was nothing more than a staged trick. The train crew on a dark and rainy night must have found it terrifying to see coming at them out of the night. The boy in his ethereal uniform, sent out to perform his familiar prank which to a boy that age must have seemed like a good game when he played it for the moonshine runners, would have walked in terror that night, knowing that down at the foot of the hill a gun was trained on him and ready to fire if he did not do exactly as he was told.

“Here.”  Jasper said aloud, putting a hand out to soothe Snickers. “The boy was sent to walk out and meet the train here. The train hit the brakes. She might have struggled on a bit further, but she’s losing speed all the time now.”

“By the calculations I can make with the gradient, she would finally slow to a stop about here.” Letting the sight of that luminous green child go with an effort, Dale walked on a few steps further and dug his heel into the turf, finding the spot he’d marked there before. “If she doesn’t have the momentum to go further, then the driver has to let her reach the point of a complete halt before he can reverse back down to the station to rebuild a head of steam and try again. So we have some seconds of slow walking pace, and a period of standing still before he begins the reverse. And they’re shaken, they’ve just seen the ghost on Dead Man’s hill. Ri, with me walking alongside you at this pace, could you pass a crate to me?”

“Yes, easily.” Riley confirmed from Snickers’ saddle. “But not fifty crates.”

Dale ignored that, indicating the angle of the track. “Keep in mind again, this is a dark, rainy night. She’s a long train on a steep curve, and the driver doesn’t have clear sight of anything much more than a car or two back. So once she’s stopped, he’s going to back her down slowly, she already doesn’t have much purchase on the rails. More time moving at walking pace along this section. Now look where we are.”

“The woods.” Mason commented, nodding to the side of them. “Like you’ve said. That’s convenient.”

“But it’s fifty crates.” Riley pointed out. “And the Silver Bullet’s going to stop for how long? Thirty seconds? She’ll move slowly enough to lift things off for maybe what, another minute? How are you going to shift that much in one go?”
“There would be only one way I can think of.” Dale admitted. “It’s not an exact calculation even if you adjust for the weather, weight, load, the uneven ground, and adjust for human stress and agitation affecting performance, but one man here and ready in the dark as soon as the driver’s passed, walking at average human pace and probably hurrying-”
“Probably? During a train robbery? You think?” Riley said to him. Dale came over to him, detaching from Snickers’ saddle the four heavy saddle bags he had filled in the stables this morning before they rode out.

“This is the approximate weight of a crate.”

“Approximate?” Riley dug a hand into one of the saddle bags and pulled out a couple of small but solid rocks.

“Ten bottles per crate, old glass, one bottle weighs about three pounds, twelve ounces,” Dale told him. “I checked. Ten bottles, thirty eight pounds and a little over five and a half ounces, essentially two and a half stone. With the additional weight of the wooden crate they were using per ten bottles, just under three stone.”

“Because we can’t possibly just guess.” Riley said to Paul. “That would be ridiculous.”

Dale held the bags out to Mason, who was nearest. “Mason, take these from here to the edge of the woods, fast stride, put it down and run back.” He turned up his watch and Riley saw him click the stop-watch button. “Go.”

Mason took the saddle bags and covered the rough grass easily, walking at a swift stride, swung the saddle bags down to the grass just behind the tree line and jogged back to them.

“Fifteen seconds.” Dale told him. “Call it fifteen to twenty with a heavier load, bad weather, poor visibility, and doing it under pressure. So in that minute and a half that Silver Bullet is either stationary or moving at walking pace, one man could clear approximately four crates at the very most. To clear fifty crates within that ninety second time frame is going to need a minimum of thirteen men doing the carrying, and a minimum of six men, probably more, in the car handing the crates down to them.”

“So you think there was a team of at least nineteen men – probably more – hiding in the woods to get the crates off the train that night.” Mason said wryly. “Seriously?”

“How about a whole town of people?” Dale retrieved the saddlebags from the tree line, taking out the rocks to drop in the grass.

“The meeting in the saloon.” Paul said to him. Dale nodded, an eye still on his watch on the dark hillside.

“Yes. My guess is that when the train reached the point of slowing, someone was already on board her – perhaps climbed up onto the roof as she left, or was sitting in a carriage and walked back through the train to the goods vans – and they opened the compartment door and a lot of people got on board here. A lot more people were waiting in the woods in the dark, and the crates were shifted by a lot of hands, very fast. It would have been easy. It’s a dark night. It’s raining, the visibility is poor. Easy for people to quietly walk the back paths and streets out of town and gather up in the woods the same way in the newspapers they used to gather up for picnics and ballgames together every weekend, they assembled up here in the woods and they waited for the train. And when she stopped and the doors opened, they whipped the whole lot off and out of sight in under two minutes. By the time the passenger cars and the driver passes this spot reversing down, there’s nothing left for him to see. No one in sight, they’re gone.”

“Which leaves the Connellys waiting down there by the station to get into a now empty compartment.” Mason pointed out.

Dale gave him a dry nod. “Yes. While the crates are being spirited away, what I suspect is a small but effective faction of some of the fittest men in the town, including David, are left in the empty compartment, and they close the door and ride the train back down into the station. When the train reaches the station and the Connellys open the door....”

And the door slid open on men grinning in the dark, men who leapt at the openers of the door.

“They get one hell of a surprise.” Mason said with satisfaction. “I get it.”

“What do you think they did to the Connellys?” Riley demanded. Luath answered, sounding rather grim.

“If David knew they had a gun held on a child, I think we probably don’t want to know.”

“I have no idea, except that I suspect they enjoyed it.” Dale said with conviction. “The evidence is that the Connellys turned up in another town unharmed, they carried on their criminal career so it wasn’t anything too dreadful, but we know they were never recorded as being found in Wyoming again.”

“And on his way home, David shoves the phosphorus jacket in a bag and stuffs it down a rabbit hole under a tree by the river, expecting it to rot away there.” Riley finished for him. “Evidence gone. The Connellys gone. Moonshine gone. There’s nothing left for the police to find. No wonder they were ticked off. Just a whole town full of people looking innocent.”

“Except for fifty crates of moonshine now stacked up here in the woods?” Luath pointed out. “What did they do with it? That’s a lot. A lot of bottles, a lot of boxes to hide with the police poking around....?”

“We know where they took it....” Riley began, looking at Dale. Dale took his eyes off his watch.

“Ninety seconds. The train’s heading back down to the station and David’s on board. The Connellys are ready to get on the train down there in the station. The train’s been stopped and it’s reversing back, they’ll have let the kid go, they think it’s all over. I told you, there’s a whole town of people in the woods. Walk this way.”

“What about the horses?” Flynn said quietly. Dale started down the bank ahead of them with utter certainty.

“Bring the horses.”

Even in the dark he knew where they would be. They had found them during the hike; something that every miner in the town would have known, that the children who played in the woods would have known, wide enough to take carts down, horses down.... Riley felt the first of them beneath his feet and paused, kicking to find the dimensions of it and his voice lifted with excitement.

“Steps! There’s steps cut right here!”

“The miners’ steps. We found them on the hike.” Dale indicated the direction with both hands. “Straight down, guess where they lead?”

“How far do they go down?”

“All the way.”

Booted feet rang on them. Carts trundled. Voices were lifted and happy and excited, torches flared in the woods where no one could see, there was a whole town here.... Dale glanced over to catch Riley’s eye, saw his grin in the darkness, and turned with him. And gathering speed, they jogged together directly down them, absolutely safely on the old stone even in the dark, with Snickers trotting after them. Somewhere in that glorious run down the steep, broad steps Dale heard Riley’s whoop in the darkness, a yell that sounded like olly olly oxen free!  

There were figures walking on the steps, figures who smiled as they flashed by. Two children pulling a wooden truck on wheels together, filled with bottles who were laughing. A man leading a mule with two crates strapped to its back. A woman with a pram with bottles inside walked with an elderly woman with a basket of bottles, a man with a crate on his shoulder..... streams of people with torches, who had worked together in hushed delight like some complicated children’s game combined with a community picnic in the woods. The boy in the phosphorus jacket hanging open, his hat gone, the drumsticks loose in his hands, grinning as he caught Dale’s eye with the cheeky grin of a kid. Dark haired, the bones of his face were familiar. A Shoshone boy, his teeth very white. Riley dodged past them unseeing, but all of them looked up and smiled; they remembered this night well and it was with pleasure. And the steps ended at the bottom of a bank that Riley jogged straight up, pausing at the top to dig with his heel for the wooden trap door.

Out of breath, Dale knelt on the mulch and old leaves to brush them aside. A new trapdoor was there; it didn’t surprise him. He suspected Flynn, but someone had fitted new wood, with new and gleaming steel bolts, and Dale slid them aside and Riley helped him lift back the trap door as the others reached the foot of the steps behind them.

“What’s this?” Mason said, looking with interest at the trapdoor.

“Something else only the people living in the town would have known about.” Riley grabbed his penknife from his pocket and shone the torch beam down into the tunnel below. “The ladder’s sound, it’s perfectly safe, go look.”

“And the tunnel’s safe.” Flynn said bluntly behind them. “I got rid of every broken or breaking bottle and cleaned it out, there’s no fumes down there now. Probably the old trapdoor rotting and leaking and letting damp in caused the bottles to ferment in the first place.”

“No more drunk sheep then?” Ash’s voice said somewhere in the dark. “That’s a relief.”

Mason knelt to look and then climbed down the ladder, disappearing into the dark, and one by one they followed until Riley, the last of them, dropped to the ground and led the way to the stack of old wooden crates stacked against the wall. He lifted the top of one and they heard the clank of a bottle, then the gleam of dark orange glass as Riley shone the torch on it.

“Here they are.”

“These are the crates from the train?” Mason demanded. He sounded awed and Dale saw Gerry lean by him, picking up a bottle with equal care and respect.

“Good grief, they’re still in perfect condition. That’s amazing, they’ve sat here all this time?”

“The whole lot was just disappeared into the ground.” Riley said with satisfaction. “The Connellys never knew where it went. The police never found it. The people of Three Traders never came near the stuff again – not safe to have it in the town when the town’s being watched, and they probably never wanted to see it again- and it got forgotten.”

“And it’s all still here.” Paul ran a wondering hand over the crates. “It works, doesn’t it? A whole town, they just disappeared the stuff away in the dark.”

“What is this place?” Mason, who had pulled out his own penknife, shone the beam over the small steam train on the rail behind them, and whistled in awe. “What’s this? Good grief, what else is hidden in here?”  

“We think it was a siding.” Riley watched Ash lean beside him, examining the little open cabin of the train. “The engine must have been used for bringing coal to loading points or back to the mine or the main line once, the other two mine shafts aren’t far from here. When she wasn’t needed any more, they just bricked up the entrance. The miners would have known about her, and about the access hatch.”

“And David never mentioned this to anyone?” Luath said somewhat darkly. Gerry’s voice snorted.

“You know exactly what he was like for secrets and stashing things away, of course he didn’t. Except maybe to Philip. Why brick it up?”

“It was a common Victorian strategy for unused engineering.” Dale said absently. “Waste not want not. If it’s bricked up, it’s out of sight but still there in good storage condition if you want it again later.”

“That was David’s philosophy in a nutshell.” Luath said dryly. Dale felt Luath’s arm wrap around his shoulders, pulling him over against a much larger and warmer body. “You’re shivering. Let’s get out of here, it’s like a fridge.”


            They walked the horses with them back up the steps through the now quiet woods, the stars growing brighter and crisper above the canopy of the leaves all the time. Their breath was beginning to steam in front of them as the night grew colder. Boots crunching on the crisp leaves they walked up the bank and emerged out of the tree line onto the pasture beside the old and rusted rails of the railway line, and it was there that Dale felt and heard it; a sudden body blow of sound and scorching air and draught as something huge ripped past them in the darkness at high speed just inches away. There was nothing to see; nothing at all, but the blast of air was so sharp he staggered, breathing the unmistakeable hot and acrid smell of coal steam, and with it came the sharp and deafening blast of a train whistle. His reel backwards sent him crashing into someone behind; hands grasped his shoulders and steadied him and Dale knew instantly it was Jasper. Both the horses reared, Gerry’s voice, shocked, swore in the darkness, Mason’s voice just as sharp snapped something that was somewhere between a profanity and a prayer that was as awed as it was vehement, Riley’s eyes were wide and his mouth was open and Paul’s stunned face turned towards his but his eyes were alive with delight. 

*


It was impossible to sleep after that. No one seemed to say much but Dale lay on his bed roll with Riley next to him and Flynn on his other side, aware that both of them were awake and that Riley was staring up at the sky.

It took a long time for the fire to die down, and longer for anyone to fall asleep. Somewhere in the hours afterwards that Dale lay and listened to the night in the pasture around them, he heard Mason’s breathing even out and soften, and one by one the others joined him until it was very quiet in the open land beneath the stars. The whole sky was lit with them when he heard the soft movement of boots on the grass and glanced up to see Jasper, still shirtless, who had been sitting silently on the far side of the fire, his elbows on his knees, looking into the flames. Jasper saw him stir and paused where he was on the grass, waiting. Giving the courtesy of time for Dale to reach his own decision. Dale felt softly for his boots, got up and padded barefoot out into the pasture some distance from the others before he pulled them on.

They walked together down to the softly babbling river that whispered as it ran endlessly through the night. Jasper followed the bank downstream for some way through the grass that swished around their ankles, moving further from the town and from the thin smoke pillar rising into the sky that showed where the others slept. Where the river widened and heavy boulders made a grey beach, Jasper walked out onto the furthest of the boulders and crouched on the edge, putting a hand down to the water. Hands deep in his pockets Dale watched him, the way his hair flowed over his shoulders, the arched line of his spine, long and graceful. Jasper rose unhurriedly to his feet and took off his boots, then his jeans, standing naked for a moment above the water before he quietly crouched and slipped himself over the edge of the boulder, entering silently with the grace of an otter, making barely a splash to disturb the flow. Dale came to the edge of the boulder, crouching to watch him stand, chest deep in the rushing, icy water, facing the oncoming current so it washed over him and past him, hearing his voice repeating something softly, not in English. The surface of the water whitened as it ran in eddies around the rocks in mid river, the current twisting and curling it in the moonlight around the man so quietly within it.

Dale knelt where he was on the rock and watched the river with him, and heard the quiet splash of water the multiple times that Jasper lifted it to his face and to his head. Something men on this land had done in this water for centuries before either of them were born. Something the rocks and the woods had seen before the town grew on the hill, or the mine was dug, in the days when the gold washed freely down through the rivers, unwanted and undisturbed. The breeze softly rustled the leaves of the trees beyond the bank, the air smelled of fresh water, of grass and earth, and the rock was rough beneath his knee, cold and textured beneath his hand. Powerfully sensory. Powerfully real. It overwhelmed what would be, if he allowed it, a rush of words and thoughts and internal noise that would stifle both this peace and this certainty, and following Jasper’s example Dale laid his palm more firmly on the stone, letting his mind clear and be aware of nothing except the reality of what was here. What was now, what was around him. And then he rose and quietly, not to intrude on the thoughts of the man in the water, and deliberately, to be fully present and there in what he did, undressed. Taking off the outer layers of clothes to let the night air touch his skin, all of him.

Feeling the intensity of bared feet on the rock, the vulnerability of removing the last few items that stripped him completely to the night air, to feel the touch of the wind and the light drops of the water as the river rolled past. He put his clothes aside and stood there for a while, looking up into the sky above the trees where the bright stars touched the darkness, high and clear touches of light in their ancient patterns. Then as Jasper had done, he sat down on the rock and slid into the water gently. Softly as an animal would, his breath torn out of his lungs at the ice of the water that flooded over him. The shock of it was for a moment painful. And then within a few seconds the shock began to fade, his body began to accustom and he felt the steady pulse of the current against his chest, all through his body, the wash and rush of the energy of it flowing against every inch of him, around him, past him. It was like standing in a flow of pure oxygen.   

Jasper had completed the ritual. Dale stood aside long enough to be sure, to know for certain, and Jasper turned to him. Saying nothing. His eyes very gentle, neither inviting nor suggestion because Jasper wouldn’t. He wouldn’t pressure even that much, and there was an intense gentleness to it that was so very much Jasper. Dale swallowed on the rush of emotion that raised, and instead waded slowly towards him, pausing in the water directly in front of him to put a hand very lightly on Jasper’s chest where the droplets of water were slowly running down. Taller, longer in every bone, Dale had to lift his head to meet Jasper’s eyes which were liquid in the darkness, deep and very soft with an expression in them so warm that it stole the rest of Dale’s breath. He raised his hands, running his palms lightly not over Dale’s skin or physically touching him at all, but passing over what Dale had learned from him as the energy that stood out beyond his body, the unseen extension of him, in a delicate pass over his face, over his head, a gesture as fluid as it was beautiful as he bent his head to find Dale’s mouth.

There had been dreams about this. Fantasies, which if Dale was honest, had been gently touching the back of his mind for months about just how it would feel to taste Jasper’s mouth like this, what Jasper’s familiar and skilled hands would feel like on his skin doing this ...... those thoughts had always raised excitement in him combined with utter apprehension, but the answer was wonderfully that Jasper always touched him in exactly this way just in a more subtle version, whether he was massaging or even merely handing him a cup. And nothing with him was unfamiliar or raised the faintest tension because this was as much a part of Jasper as anything else he did. With Flynn, Dale was still learning and loving the lessons, but what he was certain of was that with Flynn this was something powerfully physical just as Flynn was physical in everything; just the thought of Flynn’s hands on him tended to make Dale start reflexively needing to think of Black-Scholes formulas to be able to remain at all sensible, and Flynn liked to hold. To be close, to see your eyes, to place you exactly where he wanted you, it was always a physical conversation with him and it could be playful or it could be breath-stealingly serious depending on both their moods with a whole spectrum in between. They were both intense people and it was something Dale had no hesitation at all in encouraging him in with a lot more enthusiasm than was probably dignified. With Riley..... it was relaxed and wonderfully easy and Riley liked to talk and touch and tended to laugh a lot. He found fun in it that was utterly contagious and something that Dale had never previously known existed, and the act was always as sweet tempered, affectionate and as deftly uncomplicated as Riley was. With Jasper...... Jasper was deeply gentle and unhurried, the strength in his hands very tangible but something you sensed more than felt.

Between the ice of the water and the compelling heat of Jasper’s mouth sensitively exploring his, Dale found it hard to breathe or think about anything much. The stars in the sky faded, the boulders and grass on the bank faded, there was only Jasper and equal measure of hot and cold sensation. The water was electric, every nerve ending popped and crackled. The quiet of the night and the soft babbling of the river disappeared behind the roar of the blood starting to charge through him. He barely registered the change from freezing water to the still faintly warm boulders where they paused a moment to regain their breath. Jasper's hands were rubbing deeply over his shoulders, running water off and pulling warmth back into the skin. Dale did the same for Jasper, though his hands kept drifting down over the hard and smooth planes of Jasper's hips, before reaching behind and pulling gently on the softer skin there. He wasn’t sure which of them made the first move down to the grass, only that it was Jasper’s hand under his back that slowed and controlled the impact, and Dale put his hands up to capture Jasper’s dark head and draw him down so that Jasper’s body covered his. As Dale continued to rub and massage, he didn't need light to see what he was touching, his fingers drew their own map. The tanned, smooth skin over sinewy muscles, the darkness of the hair that had slipped wet over his shoulders, the tendrils tickling Dale's body where they touched him. The golden ring that glinted on Jasper’s finger was a sign to the rest of them and to the rest of the world, one of the five. But here and now in the dark, in this place, this most singular man was most definitely his and his alone, at least in the middle of this ineffable night.

Strong,  long fingers.  Soft, gentle, massaging the muscles beneath the skin in the same way he could carve things out of wood, able to see what was underneath and call it forth. This man saw and sensed with his hands, he was entirely and consciously present in time and in place and in his hands like this there was no difficulty in understanding how he rooted himself in the richness of the earth beneath them, the sky over them, the water beside them. He was of all of them.  His eyes were dark, liquid, intensely gentle above Dale’s and they gazed directly in to his because to Jasper this was a very different kind of merging, a touching of something greater than physical, something that was more powerful than his long, cool and powerful legs between Dale’s, or his palms that were pressed against the grass, against the ground, while Jasper moved slowly, gracefully in Dale’s hands. He could do this as beautifully and as agonisingly slowly and firmly and deeply as he could massage; Dale, who knew his hands well, knew this as deeply as he knew Jasper’s face, his quiet breathing, the deft and slender sureness of his body, and he found himself reaching his own hands to Jasper’s face, holding him there as gently as Jasper moved with him, cradling the wonder of that expression and the warmth in his eyes. Beyond his hands, just barely, he could see something he had seen once before. The faintest shimmer of something that surrounded not just his hands, but both of them. As if the energy of his body and the energy of Jasper’s not merely just touched together, but combined. Became one living entity that surrounded and enclosed them both.



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015







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