Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chapter 24 - Ranch


24


When Jasper pulled the ninth trout from the river, Mason glanced over, then reeled his line in. Dale waded back to the shore, wet from above the knees down in the thin early morning sunshine, and Mason took one of the fish from the bank, crouching and pulling one of the stable pocket knives from his pocket to gut it over the running water. Dale took another, working alongside him, aware that Mason now picked up one of the knives every morning from the stables by habit. There was no wincing or delicacy in the efficient way he cleaned the fish. The changes in him came so gradually that they were easy to miss, but Dale could remember the hour and the day of most of them.

His back was slightly stiff and his shoulders a little sore this morning; he hadn’t noticed at all at the time but he suspected he would find a few grass and rock grazes there when he next showered. And they made him have to swallow, aware his mouth was twisting helplessly up into a distinctly giddy smile as he thought about them, because even feeling like a teenager with a hickey – and that was yet another stage he had completely missed out on at the time - they were a mark of something too good to have words for. It was easy this morning to feel protective towards Mason, to be able to move from a personal sense of deep inner warmth and stability because if you had it, it became so easy to share it....  Jasper had taught him that too.

“How is the paper going?” he asked quietly enough for Mason to ignore if he wanted to. Mason grimaced at the fish in his hands, 

“I haven’t worked this hard since I was in fourth grade. The thing is,” he went on after a while, quietly but with the jocularity Dale was starting to recognise, “I know Jasper. I could write all aspirational stuff like a good boy. I’ve written bullshit documents for years, I write brilliant ones. I make a living by it. And if I try that on him he’ll just smile and hand it back and I can go right on shifting damn rocks.”

He was right. Mason went back to working on the fish, his voice a little lighter.

“And if I did try that, then ok it would be a load of crap and I wouldn’t be ready to quit with the rocks. Which sucks, but yeah, I get it. You know this place changes you without you realising it?”

“Oh it does.” Dale found himself saying quietly and with utter conviction. “It really does.”

Mason didn’t look up from his fish but his face had softened. “I think sometimes about how much I’ve done since I got here, and it’s only been a few weeks. Just a few weeks, but you know something? I’m never in my life going to forget some of this stuff. Riding. Building fires. Fishing. Sleeping out and hiking, that was wild, I’d never do that in my normal life. Never would have tried it. Climbing that canyon. Three Traders. Last night. Sheesh. That was wild.”

He paused for a moment and Dale knew he’d felt that blast of air and heard that whistle like the rest of them.

“This town’s an amazing place, I’ll never forget camping down here as long as I live. Serious.” Mason sat back on his heels, looking down at his hands. “I mean look at me. Covered in fish guts, wet, covered in muck from the corral, muddy- half the time I don’t even notice it now, it’s normal. And the stupid thing? I realised it on the hike. The really stupid thing is I keep finding despite all the muck and the rocks and the damn paper writing, even with the damn paper writing, I feel good. I keep finding myself having fun, which is crazy.”

“When no one’s ever made you this angry, or pushed you this hard before.” Dale said with comprehension.

“Or called you on your crap every time you try to dish it.” Mason said ruefully. “Hell, not even my mom is that good.  And I haven’t had a bedtime since I was like ten. But the really weird part? I still want a drink. Oh I want a drink, whenever things get rough the first thing I think is I could murder a double scotch. But I stood there last night in amongst all that moonshine, and I thought - if you gave me one of those bottles, I wouldn’t drink it. I don’t know why.”
Dale rinsed his knife and closed it, pocketing it, and letting the thought come out of his mouth without hesitation. “That’s bullshit, you know exactly why. You just don’t want to admit it. I keep seeing you do this, Mason. You bitch and you moan, and say you don’t care, and then you dig in anyway and do a damn good job. Why are you still trying to pretend you’re an arse? You’re not fooling me.” 
And that’s Riley coming straight out of my mouth, he added to himself, hoping it was a good enough imitation; he personally had never known Riley to get people wrong. Mason looked a bit pole axed. Dale leaned a hand on Mason’s shoulder to get up, collecting fish as Jasper waded up river towards them, his stomach beginning to curl in rather delicious ways at the sight of him.

They took the cleaned fish back to the fire where the others were assembling for breakfast and Dale knelt to help Paul split them and drop them into the two skillets ready and heating over the crackling fire. Mason went abruptly to his belongings rummaged through his pack, yanked out his notebook and came to join them, thrusting it out to Jasper.

“Jas. Put me out my misery man, please. I can’t wait any longer on this.”

“Want to go somewhere more private?” Jasper invited. Mason shook his head rather wryly.

“It’s no secret, is it? I’ve been hanging all this out in public since the day I got here.”

“Who among us hasn’t, darling?” Gerry reassured him. Luath brushed off his hands, giving him a friendly smile.

“Well Jasper for a start. Paul. Ash. Me-“

Gerry pulled a horrible face at him.  “Oh shut up, don’t you get bored of being so perfect?”

Mason smiled, although his eyes were on Jasper crouching to read thoughtfully through the sheets of paper in his hand. Gerry gave Mason a compassionate look, flopping down in the grass on his back beside Ash and trailing his fingers affectionately down Ash’s back.

“You know, Ash had a try at getting me to write essays at one point? It never went well, I used to get into more of a state about what to write than I did about the reason I was writing it in the first place.”

“Yes, and Roger always said that was just a long game on your part to get out of doing it.” Luath observed.

Ash smiled and Gerry laughed. Flynn stretched out full length on his side on the grass close beside Dale, propped himself up on one elbow and picked a strand of grass to tear between his fingers. He was clean shaven, wet haired from a brief and efficient wash in the river which made him look fit and vital and ready for action, and he smelled wonderfully of shaving soap, leather and grass. Still in a distinctly sensitive state, Dale couldn’t help putting a hand back to find him, doing nothing more than rub whichever part of Flynn came first to hand with the familiar feel of the muscle and bone and warmth that belonged to him.
That was another far too intoxicating thought and it was hard work to keep his eyes off Jasper, and Paul and Riley in turn.

“Do you usually get nervous around work presentations Mason?” he asked with a definite effort to sound together. And not thinking about things that had no place at all at breakfast when you had no business being higher than a kite.

“No.” Mason said frankly. “Not at all, never have. I haven’t sweated over anything like this in years. I did good in school, I did good in college. I win. That’s what I do, I don’t usually run into picky bastards like you lot. I still don’t believe you freaking demoted me.”

Dale glanced over at Flynn’s face to see the expression there, and read it without difficulty. It was discreet in his eyes as he watched Mason, the strongest emotions rarely reached his mouth, but it was gentle. A similar expression was in Riley’s face as he sat down beside Paul on the grass; not sympathy, but real and wholehearted understanding.

“How old were you when your dad left, Mason?” Dale said on impulse, not fully sure why he was saying it. Mason glanced over at him, a slightly brittle look. He was trying hard not to watch Jasper reading the paper.

“……. Thirteen.”

The summer he was thirteen; Dale knew it as clearly as if he’d said it.

“Did you stay in touch with him?”

Mason shook his head, lip curling slightly which said as much as his tone. “No.”

“You were the one left to look after your mother and sister.” Flynn said quietly, and his tone was one Dale recognised, the gruff and deep kindness that seeped warmth into your bones. “Lucky for them you were a good student, a strong achiever.”

There was a sudden sense of doors slamming, several doors, the sounds of raised voices, a tidal wash of bitterness and hot tears and a basketball being slammed again and again for hours against a hoop on a garage somewhere in the dark; the rush of emotion passed through him and faded again. Dale felt the steady thud of the ball as much as heard it, but he knew it wasn’t with his ears that he heard. 

How does a strong, bright thirteen year old make the world go his way when he’s afraid and left to be the man responsible for his family?

With the only skills he’s got to play adult games. Demanding. Bullying. Looking big. Whining. Manipulating. Winning at any cost. Dale’s heart went out to him in that moment of total comprehension, seeing exactly what Flynn saw and understanding it with some of the deepest and most painful parts of his own memories.

Kids are strong. And loyal. And they’re the unsubtle, un-distilled version of the adult before they’ve learned what to hide and disguise. They do what they have to.

And adults just carried on more subtle, socially acceptable versions of the strategies they’d learned kept them alive.

“Who tells you to be good?” Flynn had asked Mason that night when Mason couldn’t sleep, a phrase that to Mason was a strong trigger, and it was obvious now who. It was probably the last thing his father said to him as he walked out of the door.

“You’ve done a good job with this, Mason.” Jasper said without looking up.

Mason tore up a couple of blades of grass and twisted them in his fingers, brusquer and not looking at him.

“I just want you to know, yeah, I was screwing around, wasting my time and yours, and I won’t do it again. Not just because I’m gonna get through to the end of this freaking ‘programme’ and ace it because I can learn how to make a damn bow drill and handle a damn cow, I’m a damn CEO for pete’s sake and you don’t scare me. But. You’re decent people, you try to help, and you don’t deserve to be screwed over. So don’t think I’m promising you to be a ‘good boy’; I’m not. I don’t know how much I really buy into all this stuff. I’m just willing to give it a fair hearing and I am going to quit drinking. That’s it for now.”

“I respect that.”  Jasper closed the notebook and handed it gently back to him. “Well done Mason. You’ve earned back the privileges of the next level. You can ride out and work along with us from tomorrow.”

“And then?” Mason said rather shortly.

“Those privileges will stay as long as they go on being earned. Over the next few days we’ll talk about what your next writing assignment will be-”

Another one? Oh man- ”

“And,” Jasper carried on, unmoved, “you can start work on that when you’re ready.”

Mason gave him a long, fulminating look. “... are you seriously going to make me write an assignment for every level?”

“Yes. That seems to work for you.” Jasper said calmly.

Mason gave him a hard look that wasn’t wholly unimpressed. “You’re one hard son of a bitch, you know that?”

“Why don’t you go take a walk if you need one, and get it out of your system?” Jasper suggested quietly. “Take some time. And then we’ll talk.”

“Yeah, because that’s more ‘respectful’.”

“That’s right.”

It gained him another hard glare, but after a moment Mason shoved to his feet, and Luath dropped a friendly and quietly approving hand on his shoulder as he got up. Mason walked away towards the town without looking back, but Dale had seen that stalk done with a lot more anger and purpose than Mason was using now. No one else around the fire said anything, either critical or sympathetic, and Dale knew many of them had been there themselves. Philip had not been exactly easy with Gerry or Flynn. Flynn had not been exactly easy with him.

“If you want a mentor for that kid when he goes back to work, I’ll do it.” Luath said when Mason was out of earshot. “I’d be glad to. He’s got a lot of guts, Mason. He’s well worth the effort.”

“I like him too.” Gerry said comfortably from his position in the grass. “He’s quite a sweetheart when he’s not waving his dick and bawling his head off-”

Luath leaned over and swatted Gerry very accurately and soundly enough that Gerry yelped and the swat rang on tight denim.

“I’m done with the crudity.” Luath told Gerry in no uncertain terms. “There’s been way too much of it around me lately, and if you were looking for a reaction then sunshine, you got one. Quit it. Now.”

“Sorry.” Gerry said it unusually sincerely and penitently, rolling a little further on his side to see Luath’s face. Luath held the glare on him for a moment before his face softened and he went back to drinking tea. Beside Gerry, Ash hadn’t so much as blinked or looked round. It made Dale realise again, anyone marrying into this family fully understood the strength of the links between those among them who had lived together. They joked about it, they called themselves the ‘in laws; but they all got it.

“You don’t need to push, I’m not that depressed.” Luath added more mildly.

“Not now you’re not.” Flynn said bluntly. Luath snorted, but smiled.

“Yeah, shut up.”

Gerry settled back on the grass and rubbing rather ruefully at his hip.

“You have a hard hand, I’d forgotten.”

“Stop worrying.” Luath told him. “And you can tell Darcy to stop worrying too, if he’s egging you on.”

“He’s not; we’re not checking emails.” Ash said matter of factly.

“It’s like living in a bubble,” Gerry complained mildly, “I have no idea what’s going on out there or what any of them are doing. Are you heading back to New York?”

The question was asked in the same flippant, casual tone but Luath answered it gently, hearing the same anxiety in it that Dale did.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m doing better out here, and I think I need to be around ‘us’ a while longer.”

“You do.” Gerry said flatly. “You really do. Not alone in NY with Darce. You get way too Toppish around Darce.”

“I don’t at all.” Luath said firmly. “But if I’m not in the way I’m planning to hang out here another good month.”

“This is your home. You’re not a visitor, you live here.” Paul pointed out, “You all do. You come and you go whenever you feel like it, and for what it’s worth I agree Luath, you need to be here. If Darcy wants to be sure you’re ok then he knows where you are, we’re not short of beds and it’ll be great to see him too.”

*

Luath drove Gerry and Ash into Jackson to catch their plane that afternoon.

It wasn’t an easy goodbye for Gerry. He and Ash went out with the others to do the stock work, he’d come home in dusty and muddy jeans and boots, showered... and he emerged from the bathroom a good deal quieter, in city clothes that he looked rather lost in. Out in the yard by the waiting car, Dale returned his very tight hug with a great deal of emotion, understanding this man very differently to the way he had when they first met and aware that Gerry’s embrace was wholehearted.

It was very hard to phrase without sounding stilted, Dale was aware his voice was tightening but made himself get something of what he had been thinking to come out of his mouth while only Gerry could hear him.

“Thank you. This would have been harder without… I’m very grateful you were here.”

Gerry let him go and kissed his cheek, a gentle and much meant kiss without the faintest self-consciousness. “You are one tough cookie, and you’re one of us so try stopping me. Listen. You call me or write to me any time. Any time, hear me? I’ve been there, believe me no matter how bad you think it is I will get it, and if need be I can help make sure they get it. And if you quit or you start backsliding, I will personally come back here and kick your butt. There is nothing you can pull that I haven’t tried at least twice.”

It was flippant but that in no way hid the sincerity and Dale stooped on impulse, dropping his own swift kiss on Gerry’s cheek before he stepped back to let Paul take his place.

Gerry hung on for a long time to Paul, and eventually Paul said something into his ear before he gently turned Gerry into Ash’s arms and Ash got with him into the four by four. Mason was in the shot gun seat; he’d taken Luath’s invitation to go along for the ride and for company, and from his expression he had no little sympathy for Gerry himself.

Left in the yard as the four by four pulled out of sight down the track, Riley turned back to face Flynn who still had a bridle over his shoulder.

“You realise this is the first time in weeks it’s just been the five of us? Quit work for a few minutes? Half an hour? Something?”

“And do what?” Flynn unslung the bridle from his shoulder, draped it over the porch rail and put an arm around Riley instead, pulling him over to give him a hug tight enough to tug him off his feet. Riley hugged him back, hanging on to him.

“Nothing. Sit down. Talk.”

“Horses to feed.”

“Talk.”

“Troughs need filling.”

“Talk.”

“About what?”

“Anything.”

“There’s something I’d like to ask.” Dale found himself saying rather more stiffly than was comfortable. Jasper gave him a look that held a whole lot of reassurance, heading unhurriedly up the porch steps and leading them gently but purposefully inside.

“Sounds to me like a good time to do it. Flynn?”

Flynn looked up, arms around Riley, but they followed and Jasper settled in the family room, a room that tended to be used during the day only for the most important group discussions, and by doing so he added a kind of purpose and platform that Dale appreciated. Riley dropped quite deliberately into Flynn’s armchair and Flynn yanked him up out of it, wrestling him out of the way to sit down himself and haul a now laughing Riley into his lap to subdue him, Riley’s long jeaned legs draped over his, and Flynn’s arms folded over his chest, bare below the roll of his sleeves. Jasper took the rocker by the fire, and Dale, irritated with his own tension, dropped heavily down into the long couch between them, slumping back into the leather to try to find some words to start to express this coherently.

“Do you know,” Paul said, sitting down beside him. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you throw yourself down into any chair around here?”

“He moved the dressers over in our room the other day.” Flynn said over Riley’s head. Dale gave him a half sheepish glance, not quite sure what he was being teased about.

“They were out of line with the windowsill and I can’t stand uneven lines, it’s been driving me mad for months.”

Riley laughed. Paul slung an arm around Dale and pulled him over to kiss him. “And until this week you just gritted your teeth and put up with it. Stop looking so worried. I love you acting like you really believe you live here. What did you want to talk about?”

And here goes. Dale steepled his hands, aware it was launching a ship he didn’t really know the direction of.

“I will need to do a lone camp out, in the next few days.”

There was a rather startled silence, broken by Riley’s exasperated;

“I knew it!”

And Paul’s calm; “Where did that come from?”

Flynn’s gaze was steady on him, then he glanced across to Jasper, who hadn’t reacted, as if this was no surprise.

“Ok. Want to tell us about it?”

Not because that’s what other clients have done, I’m honestly not that obsessive.” Dale said to Riley to reassure him, and paused, awkwardly aware he had no idea at all how to put this into words. “Or at least now I’m aware of it and I do try not to be, not necessarily always successfully but I have been known to try.”

He inhaled slightly more sharply as he felt Paul’s hand slide gently under his sweater and find its way to his back, the warmth of his skin, the extreme comfort of his touch and the simple and most powerful nonverbal connection. And not for the first time it was like another part of his brain abruptly came on line in response to the touch. He took another deeper breath, leaning into the touch, the comfort of it, and let the rabbit trail go.

“...Jasper and I spoke to Caleb Williams. About a lot of things, but he asked me how long I’d had a... ‘gift’. I didn’t have to tell him, he recognised it. He said his father had it too. He thought he’d been ‘steered’ here, he has dreams too that put information together.”

“It must be a relief to talk to someone else who’s experienced it.” Paul said mildly.

“It’s a normal thing to him,” Dale told him. “That was what hit me most.”

“It’s normal to the Shoshone in general.” Jasper said calmly. “And the Cherokee. David would have known about it, he would have understood it, he had friends among the Shoshone people who were still living here. In Caleb’s words, it’s like playing the piano. Everyone has the capacity, but some people are better at it than others and some people have a natural talent and become concert pianists.”

Dale looked down at his hands, aware of Riley watching him with calm, cheerful interest that said he was waiting for more. Paul beside him, hand still rubbing his back slowly, relaxed on the couch beside him. Flynn’s eyes on him and knowing the expression there. Deep and dark green and safer than anything he’d ever known in his life.

Blurt it out kid. It’s all right, stop choking on it. Just get it out and then we’ll make sense of it.

“This is going to sound insane,” Dale said to them frankly. “But you know as well as I do, I came here with no bloody idea what to do other than work, around the clock on as much as possible at a time and as complicated as possible because that left me no room for actually having to think. I can pull my weight here and that’s fine – Paul, I know, I know you’d rather I didn’t think about it like that but I do, I owe you all everything. I can’t explain what that’s like. I want to be here, I don’t plan on being anywhere else as long as I live, but I’ve still been wondering what the hell I’m for.  I’ve spent years wondering what I was for, maybe it was just not wanting to accept I’m a failed CEO.”

“You are not a failed anything,” Flynn began very definitely and Dale gave him a small smile.

Yes, I am, I had to face that. I spent years just passing the next academic challenge someone else put in front of me, I didn’t do anything. Not since the day I started school to the day I came here. I drifted into carrying on an extremely good con trick I didn’t know how to get out of  – or chameleon trick or idiot savant trick or whatever you want to call it, I wasn’t very good at much at all but getting the maths right, and I didn’t realise I had any other options. It’s felt like one total waste of time and life and a pitiful excuse for any kind of human being until I came here and you started making me think and make decisions for myself. So I can make sure I do the work to be the best partner to you I can be, and the best rancher for this land I can be, but I still kept wondering what’s all the high speed memory rubbish for if it’s no good for anything that matters. Other than the freelance work ANZ sends, which let’s face it, might as well be crossword puzzles.”

Across the room, Riley grinned at him. A flash of humour, affection, like a flash of sunshine, and Dale found himself smiling back, his tone lightening as it lifted him. Because he meant this, but the humour of it was acutely real too.

“But Caleb knows. He knows what the high speed stuff is for, he knows what all the CEO stuff was for, he knows what the dreams and the mess and all the rest of it is for, and he can explain it in terms I can make sense of. This – whatever it is – as he explains it, and the way I feel it, is a responsibility.”

“It is. It’s a sacred personal responsibility.” Jasper agreed quietly. “I think David probably took on a very similar one.”

Dale looked at him sharply, and so did Flynn before he said with comprehension,

“Eagle Canyon.”

“Philip gave Flynn and me a token, years ago, with a request we took it back to Eagle Canyon, to the sacred ground there that David had known about.” Jasper said levelly to Dale. “It was a token David had been given by the Shoshone people who lived here. It was an eagle feather; in their terms they entrusted him to act as a guardian for the people and the spirits and all living things they left on this land when they moved on. Those people would not see this as insane at all, they’d see it as the most serious matter reserved for the strongest and the most responsible of their people, a responsibility for a warrior. The most mature of all possible responsibilities. Philip knew what it meant and after David died, he held the token for David until towards the end of his life when he asked Flynn and me to take it back to the canyon. He respected it, David taught him exactly what these things mean. If Philip was sitting with us now he would be the first to tell you on David’s behalf not to hesitate to take this very seriously indeed.”

It was clear that he spoke from direct experience. Moved, Dale swallowed, immeasurably reassured. And with still deeper conviction.

“...Whatever it is, it’s been trying to get me to see for a long time, but I’m not quick on the uptake. Caleb called it a choice. He says this kind of gift awakening comes at the right time of a person’s life, and with me it’s later but that the – the experiences of the person matter for the kind of work they’re able to do.”

“Like Philip, you have the business skills.” Paul said with quiet comprehension.

“And the factual skills.” Dale said matter of factly. “The problem solving, the massive banks of what I thought was useless trivia. I just thought I was obsessive and liked information, a kind of stupid, pointless habit. But the trivia matters. What happened matters, what people did and thought matters, and without having that information you can’t fully understand how.  This is something I can do, this is what I’m meant for. It’s something I can do for the ranch and the family, it’s something I can do for Philip and David although that probably sounds ridiculous. There is a job that comes with ... whatever it is. The responsibility isn’t just preservation,”

“Preservation?” Riley interrupted. Dale gave him a short nod.

“Land. The town. The history, the records, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t just helping clients or people who come here, it’s to do with every person who ever came through here, whenever that was, because time isn’t necessarily linear, and the energies stay. The energies go on being a part of what’s known and held within this ground, and they matter.” Dale paused, aware that he was talking faster and not particularly clearly, but with more passion than he’d ever felt for any other project or insight in years of intensive study, because this was real, this mattered, and for the first time in his life there were people who were involved, who were crucial to every single thing he did, and it mattered deeply to him that they should understand it. “If I held a tuning fork and struck it, we’d hear the vibrations for a while and then they’d fade away. If I then touched that tuning fork to a glass of water.... and then you took a drink from that glass of water, as your lips touch the water, you’d hear the vibrations again. The water acts as a conductor. A struck tuning fork touched to a table with a glass of water resting on it is inaudible but the glass will shake and can shatter. The vibrations are picked up and stored in the water. This is basic physics, I’ve known this since I was a kid, energies move, they are stored in natural materials, they are always there. It’s just a case of conduction.”
                                                                 
“The whats.” Riley said with comprehension. It was such a comfortable word; a shared joke between the five of them, a term only they would understand, and it helped a great deal to hear it. Dale gave him a grateful look and Riley gave him a small, keep going smile.

“The whats.”

“The ones that are stuck. Your whole de-conglutination problem. See, I do listen.”

“When they’re stuck I recognise the feeling. It’s the same one I have, I know exactly what being stuck feels like.”

“And you know what it’s like to face it and work through it.” Flynn said quietly.

“What about Gam Saan though?” Riley asked. “That wasn’t someone stuck, he was just mislaid.”

Dale leaned on his knees, thinking about it as he watched Riley’s face. “That was about knowing the whole story. All of it. Bit by bit we found it and we worked it out and we walked it,”

“And we found him.” Riley finished for him. “You’re a trouble shooter, you always have been. I see how that works. So what do you plan on doing? Wandering around the ranch in your free time, looking for whoever’s ‘stuck’? Won’t there be a kind of finite number of them to tick off your list? There can’t be that many?”

It was such a practical comment that Dale laughed, feeling the last of the tension leave his shoulders.

“I have no idea. Absolutely no idea.”

“That’s a radical oversimplification.” Jasper said mildly. “As we saw on Mustang Hill, energy doesn’t patiently wait around in neat boxes for someone to come and deal with it. It’s layered on our land and things stir and rise and subside, it’s the nature of all energies, it moves with the season, the weather, one thing touching another that triggers a reaction. What Dale is talking about is more to do with untangling, finding threads and linking them to other threads as they arise, it’s about time and place and a point of connection, and someone watching it. Taking responsibility to watch it and be part of it and live with it. Mostly it’s a responsibility to simply be aware and present with the right intent. It’s like us with the clients. We don’t go out and look for them. We’re just here and prepared when in the right moment in time circumstance blows one of them to us, and we build a relationship with them within the culture in which we live, and we learn how to connect with that particular person in the way that they need. It’s as unique as they are, it’s just about finding the right path for them as we need it.” 

“Finding the whole story is important.” Dale paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. It helped a great deal to say this out loud to them, to talk it through.  “Like the saloon keeper, James Dwyer, the fact that he was innocent is important. Without that information we might not have figured it out any further.”

“Not to mention that was probably the most important information as far as James – or David- was concerned.” Paul added thoughtfully.

“Narratives are crucial. Anyone’s construction of reality is a narrative. Memories are narratives, humanity is all about stories and communicating their own story.” Flynn leaned back with his arms still around Riley, watching Dale. “So what is the lone camp out to achieve?”

“This is a calling. It’s a form of service.” Jasper said when Dale hesitated, not at all sure how to explain it. “Caleb said that if Dale ignores this, if he chooses not to encourage it or take on that responsibility of this gift then it will fade down.”

“Will the dreams go?” Paul said softly. Dale flashed him a look that appreciated his understanding, some of those dreams had been horrifying to experience.

“They’re not exactly a part of what he terms the gift. More a stage of preparation, getting rid of the clutter and rubbish that’s part of a gift waking up. So either way, yes.”

“But if he works on understanding this gift, it will develop ,” Jasper went on quietly, “And it’s likely he'll find out more about exactly what it's 'needed' for and exactly how he best uses it. That kind of service involves a serious commitment. And time to think, clearly, without distractions.”

“So I’m guessing you’re in favour of this.” Paul said to Jasper, who inclined his head calmly.

“Yes. In Cherokee terms, in Shoshone terms, this is something normal, natural, it was something traditionally every man did when he truly became a man. And plenty of us in this family understand about needing time alone, and how powerful it is to spend time alone out here when we want clarity of thought and heart. We encourage our clients to do it for exactly that reason.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Paul said apologetically,

“I do understand. I do. Dale, I’m just not sure I like the idea of you being away from us right now.”

“You just got through telling him you wanted him to have a vacation and go do whatever he wanted?” Riley pointed out. Paul winced.

“Yes, and now I’m regretting it. Mostly for very selfish reasons. I didn’t mean like this, and I meant in a few weeks, not right now. You’ve had a very hard month or so honey. Life-changing hard, physically and mentally and emotionally and it’s really knocked you. I know how much it’s knocked you. I can see this is important to you and yes, I can see it makes a whole lot of sense because it’s exactly the kind of person you are anyway and I’m all for anything that makes you happy. But personally I want you right with us and with me while you’re having a hard time, and trying to think more objectively I do think you need to be with us at the moment, not brooding on your own. We’re working on attachment here, being away from us doesn’t help that.”

Dale found himself swallowing on a smile at the thought, as amused as he was touched to the heart. “Paul, I told you I was looking for things that were good? Good energy? This is all good. It’s demanding, it’s exciting and it’s in a good way, it’s a lot to think about but it’s all about being here, with you, about working harder on .... being connected. Really, properly connected to you and to here and everyone else here, it’s all part of the same thing. This is honestly the entire opposite of brooding. Or separating.”

Paul nodded slowly, not happy but listening. “Can you take someone with you? Jas?”

“Yeah, in the whole spirit quest or snark hunting or Fisher King Grail thing, people tended not to take their significant others along.” Riley leaned comfortably back against Flynn. “Kind of so not the point.”

“So you’re in favour too?” Paul asked him.

“Yep.” Riley said calmly. “I felt that train. I heard it. So did you. Does he look shut down to you?”

“What about you?” Paul said to Flynn.

It was very seriously said. Dale watched them with love, and said it quietly and with all respect,

“I can see it worries you, but this is something I need to do. It isn’t optional. I am prepared to wait if you feel the time isn’t right-”

“I feel the time is exactly right and waiting isn’t helpful.” Jasper interjected. “Readiness is a vital part of this and it needs to be respected.”

Flynn gave Dale a steady look that Dale felt as much as saw, then nodded. “I don’t see any reason to say no. Forty eight hours, same as we would with a client.”

“It really isn’t about competing with clients.”

“If I thought it was, you wouldn’t stand a chance of me agreeing.” Flynn said bluntly. “Forty eight hours.”

Dale gave him a nod of appreciation, familiar with a hard line when he saw it.

“Thank you.”

“Then I think I’m out voted.” Paul said a little ruefully. “When are you planning to do this, darling?”

“Soon.” Dale paused, giving it some thought. “Tomorrow. Or maybe the day after if you’d prefer. I also intend to be tattooed. I thought that was probably something I should mention.”

There was a moment of absolute silence, which surprised him slightly, then Riley burst out laughing. Paul gave Dale a rather limp look, his mouth still open.

“........Yes, I think that’s possibly something we should talk about first?”

“I’m not nuts.” Dale glanced from Paul to Flynn who looked somewhere between startled and amused, and Jasper who looked completely unsurprised. “I’m honestly not nuts. David had a sparrow tattoo, didn’t he? The symbol for home. It meant something to him and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I understand it. If I’m a marked man.... I’d like to be marked in my way, with something that means something to me and is about here and now. On my terms. Not on hers.”

“An eagle?” Jasper said quietly. Dale nodded, too familiar with Jasper to be surprised.

“Yes. That seems to be the symbol I’ve been given.”

“It’s a mark of the commitment.” Jasper said to Paul, who still looked stunned. “Blood sacrifice. It’s been a part of ceremonies like this as far back as the records go. It makes good sense.”

“Where?” Riley asked and Dale was glad to see he was somewhere between outraged and delighted. “Where do you plan on putting this? Because you’re not marking up your back, you have a fantastic back. And I hate big tattoos on men, but something small is pretty ...... um.......”

From the move of his eyebrow he quite liked the idea. Dale touched his left collarbone.

“Here. Where it would be underneath a shirt, I don’t intend on flashing this at clients or having it visible in meetings. And yes, small and plain. Up on Mustang Hill, the carved rocks where the Shoshone pictures of the horses are? There are two eagles marked on those rocks. Just a simple black line drawing, but that’s something that belongs to our land. I’ll copy that.” 


*


“Well there’s no sense in asking if you’ve thought about this, because I know you will have thought about it inside out, upside down and sideways,” Paul had said at last. “But please can you hold off hiking anywhere until tomorrow? Give me a little time to get used to the idea?”

The conversation had ended with people going to do the putting away and sweeping and yard chores that every day securely ended with. It was an extremely comfortable way to conclude it. As Jasper and Flynn headed out towards the yard, Riley had caught Dale’s eye with a rather glinting look that Dale recognised, that went with the suggestively wiggled eyebrow, and Dale followed Riley discreetly into the family room and through the door into the garage where Riley took down the keys for the other four by four still standing there, and held them up.

“How do you feel about a really bad idea?”

“I think it’s totally reprehensible, there’s no way it will end well, and we really shouldn’t do it.” Dale said frankly. “I’ll drive.”

Riley laughed and tossed him the keys, Dale caught them one handed and grabbed his chin with the other hand to kiss him, and went to unlock the safe where their wallets lived.

“You’d better check they’re out of sight or we won’t make it down the drive.”

They left a note; not that Dale expected there to be any doubt about where they’d gone or why.

Riley knew Jackson well and he had no difficulty in locating what they needed. It was a rather different experience to the history of the thing. Instead of thorns and dye and a man by the fire, an immaculately clean studio and machinery did the job by a man wearing gloves, who had watched the drawing Dale produced with a ballpoint and scrap of paper on his counter with growing fascination.

“That’s exact.” Riley said when Dale finished the last line. “Your memory is amazing, that’s it exactly, I’ve seen it on the rocks up there.”

“This is a local design?” the artist picked up the paper, turning it to see. The very simple black line drawing was oddly beautiful in its starkness, just a few lines that implied a picture, but implied all the most vital parts of it.

“Shoshone.” Riley said lightly. “Pretty old.”

Shirtless, Dale leaned back in the chair and looked beyond the window at the town as the man worked on his shoulder. The same town David had known. The same town that had grown from trappers as Three Traders had, long before anyone knew what tourists were. Long before he was born or ever knew this town existed. Riley put his hand out, taking his, and Dale glanced up at him, giving him a faint smile and squeezing his fingers. Riley gave him a faintly twisted grin.

“Yeah I know you’re ok. You might be able to sit there and look like you’re waiting for a bus, but I can see what he’s doing. I just feel like I ought to be holding your hand.” 

Actually the intensity of the sensation was just as vital as sitting here with Riley was and Riley’s fingers over his were warm, strong and alive. Dale kept hold of his hand, breathing evenly as the artist continued to work, and every single breath made it clearer. Stronger.


*


It was getting towards dusk when they got home, the car bumping slowly over the green grass track that wound the long way from the wooden gateposts at the road to the house. The late afternoon sun was reflecting warmly off the red roof of the house as they pulled into the shade of the garage next to the other parked four by four, indicating that Luath and Mason were home. Riley turned the engine off, locked the car and put the keys back on their hook, shooting Dale a quick grin.

“Ready to face the music?”

The house was quiet and deserted. There was an unfamiliar truck parked in the yard and they found everyone out on the porch with teacups, still in their dusty working clothes and gathered in the chairs and on the porch rail around Caleb Williams, who looked up and smiled at the sight of Dale. Seated beside him was another elderly man of Native American descent with equally white hair, drinking a cup of tea on the swing. Caleb politely extended a hand between him and Dale.

“Dale. May I introduce to you Patrick Doe?”

“How do you do, sir?”

Dale came to take Patrick Doe’s hand, who grasped it in the same gentle manner that Caleb did. Jasper quietly introduced Riley who did the same, and came to take a seat up on the rail beside Flynn. Paul reached out a hand out to Dale, drawing him down onto the arm of his chair with a hand that slid companionably into his hip pocket out of sight of the others but where Dale could still feel it.

“Mr Doe was just telling us some very interesting facts about Three Traders.”

“I am the last of my family who was born in the town.” Patrick Doe said calmly over his tea cup. He was a solidly built man with closely cropped dark grey hair and with sunglasses in the pocket of his open necked plaid blue shirt. Perhaps in his mid eighties, although as with Caleb it was hard to guess. “And so Caleb came to ask me if I had heard anything of your train robbery. I did.”

“We found the moonshine.” Riley offered the information a little reservedly, careful not to interrupt, and Caleb looked over and smiled at him.

“In the tunnel, the bricked up old tunnel for the mine engine. Yes”

“I remember putting it there.” Patrick told him. “I was one of the many people from the town in the woods that night. I was five years old, and I helped my sisters to bring a wheelbarrow down the mine steps with bottles inside. I remember it well. My mother carried bottles in her apron and coat pockets, and my father was one of the men who unloaded the crates from the train when it slowed.”

“So we were right.” Riley caught Dale’s eye and his own eyes were alight, delighted, as alive as they had been when they made the shared run down the miners’ steps in the darkness, and it warmed Dale to the heart. “We really did get it right!”

That ‘we’ was so very much appreciated. It was never easy to look away from Riley when he looked like that, but there were facts that urgently needed checking and Dale made himself state them, taking a grip on himself because unconfirmed data wasn’t just wrong, it was maddening, but this was the wildest part of his conjectures and inside some part of him was protesting wildly and needed a firm hand. But a patient one. 

“I ……had an idea that there was a boy who played the ghost for the smugglers on rainy nights,” he said aloud, rather stiffly but definitely, and very aware of Paul beside him and that hand still in his pocket, because without it he wasn’t sure he would have had the nerve. “He was dressed as a drummer boy, painted with phosphorus. And I thought there was a gun aimed at him that night.”

Patrick simply nodded slowly with a faint smile. “Yes. That was my brother. He did some odd jobs for James Dwyer at the saloon after school when he was a boy. Sweeping, washing the steps and the windows, running errands….my mother did not like it. But Dwyer was a good man and he did not allow my brother into the saloon rooms themselves and my brother was determined to do his part to bring money home to our family, so she and my father agreed he might. They did not know about the ghost trick until the trouble began with the Connellys, although it was well known that moonshine was brewed at the saloon. My brother enjoyed creeping out of the house in the dark to play at smuggling with Dwyer and his men in his phosphorus painted jacket and drum; our parents never knew of that part. But the men were all from our town, they knew our family and they took good care of him, it was a good natured kind of a game. Nothing worse. Until the Connellys came.”    

“The meeting in the saloon.” Riley said to him. Patrick smiled.

“I remember that too for it was the first time I had ever been allowed inside the saloon. James Dwyer and your David came to my parents’ house that morning. Dwyer was in great distress, he had confided his troubles to David and together they came to tell my parents that the Connellys were holding my brother hostage and Dwyer was to put moonshine onto the train for them that night. Boxes and boxes of it. My brother was to walk to stop the train as the ghost, and none of us were to interfere if we wished to see him unharmed. So the word was passed from person to person through every shop and workshop and home and the shifts of men at the mine that there was to be a meeting in the saloon that afternoon, and everyone came in the pouring rain through the back way, through the stable yard and the saloon kitchen where nothing could be seen from the street, and it was your David who told us the plan. So after dark, we went in small groups, different ways not to draw attention, and we walked the back paths out of town and gathered in the woods to wait to take the crates as they were unloaded.”

“And your brother was let go without being harmed?” Mason demanded.

“And some of the men rode the train back down to the station?” Dale added. Patrick gave him a sober nod.

“They did. My father and David were among them, with several more of our men who were friends of David’s from the old settlement on your land. When they joined us later as the bottles were being put into the old tunnel, they told us we would have no further trouble from the Connellys.”

“What happened to the Connellys?” Riley asked. Patrick laid his cup down in the saucer.

“I know what my brother told me he saw. He was in the station with the Connellys when they pulled the door back on that compartment and found men, not bottles. The Connellys were lucky they were not lynched. Other men were in the history of the town’s justice not so long before I was born when their crimes were directly against the people living there.”

“Do you know why they were not?” Caleb asked gently, looking at Dale.

He was smiling. There was a real purpose behind this question, it wasn’t casual at all, and Dale saw it even as he searched his mind for what he hadn’t yet seen. It was always when he thought most instinctually, when he just stood back from the data and let the patterns form that the most important things leaped out at him, and almost instantly he saw it. Such a small thing, but of such importance and of such certainty.

“Because David, and your father and your men from the settlement were there.” he said aloud, and Caleb inclined his head, his smile deepening.

“Yes.”

Luath glanced at Paul and Dale heard the half sound that began to protest what they’d known of David, but it made perfect sense. Jasper had taught him this too, and Dale caught Jasper’s eye, saying it to him as much as Patrick.

“They were all Shoshone men, and they were David’s friends. They didn’t believe in .... punishment... so much as restorative justice. Not retribution. No harm. Reparation and learning. Like us doing someone else’s chores for them if we’ve disturbed their peace or taken up their time unfairly. David had a temper, but he believed in it too.”

And Philip did. Their household was still strongly rooted in those beliefs eighty years later; Dale knew them first hand. Jasper smiled, giving him a faint nod of agreement. Patrick laid his cup down.

“The Connellys could not repair what they had done, but they could learn how it felt to be powerless. And sometimes the strongest action our people can take is to laugh at foolishness. My brother said they were stripped of all their clothes and drenched in pine tar from the railway yard,”

“Scalded?” Mason said sounding horrified. Patrick shook his head.

“No, not at all. Pine tar of that time was liquid in barrels, it needed no melting. It is however intensely sticky and difficult to remove from the skin. I remember my mother trying to scrub some from my hands when I was a child and had been playing around the carpentry yards, it was a common enough substance. Then my brother said they were rolled in coal dust to remind them of our town, there was plenty of that too in the railway yard from the coal trucks and it stuck well to the tar. And then they were warned what would happen to them if they ever returned to our area, were tied face down over their horses and the horses taken out onto the main road to Jackson to be turned loose, and that was the last that we heard of them. It would not have taken them too many hours to work their hands loose of the ropes and untie each other. Riding through the county naked would have presented a bigger problem. And they would have been weeks in removing all the tar.”

Paul glanced up at Dale and then got up and disappeared into the house for a moment. When he re emerged it was with two orange bottles in his hands that he was wiping of the last of the dust. He offered them to Patrick, who reached to take one with wondering hands.

“These are the same bottles?”

“The same.” Paul took his seat, handing him the second. “Please take them. After all, you helped to put them safely away in storage, they should be well aged by now.”

“And quite drinkable still.” Flynn said, straight faced. “We did check.”



When the car pulled out of the yard, Flynn turned to Riley and Dale, crooking one finger to beckon them over and pointing at the ground directly in front of him.  Riley winced, going to him rather slowly.

“Oh come on, there was a note.....”

“Yes. Which I read, thank you.” Flynn put a hand on each shoulder and steered them towards the kitchen door. “Go wait for me in the study please.”

“Sometimes it’s nice to just do things without making them into a whole big deal?” Riley pleaded.

Flynn waited, and after a moment Riley sighed and trailed Dale towards the study. Flynn followed a few minutes later, closing the door quietly behind him. Riley, slumped on the couch, gave him a glare that was a lot more appeal than resistance.

“Look. It didn’t need to be a big deal. It wasn’t something that ought to be all clinical and organised and Toplike, it really wasn’t, it’s a frickin’ emotional thing. And I couldn’t stand sitting around waiting to book an appointment, or us all go into town to do it like we’re taking him in for surgery. If he was going to do it, it just needed to get done.”

Flynn leaned on the edge of the desk and folded his arms over his chest, looking at him rather thoroughly. “Are you ok?”

Riley shrugged easily.  “I’m fine, he’s fine, we’re both fine, everything’s fine. I was with him and I wasn’t going to let him do anything insane. You know him, he sat there like they were carving it on wood instead of on him, no blood, no screams, I didn’t faint, it was all highly sensible, but if you’re asking me I think it looks fantastic.”

Flynn nodded and looked across at Dale. “Good. And how are you?”

There was no pressure in the question, but with Flynn you always read his eyes and paid no attention to anything else. Dale answered him gently, with the same warmth.

“Great.”

“And the just taking off?”

“We left a note?” Riley pointed out. Flynn shook his head.

“I’m asking Dale.”

Dale considered it, giving Flynn the most honest answer he could. “It was fun.”

“Oh. My. God.” Riley murmured, slumped on the couch behind him. Flynn however simply gave him a calm nod as though that made perfect sense.

“Fair enough.”

They both knew the drawer he leaned down to and Riley jerked upright in protest.

“Flynn! We left a note!”

“Yes. Because you wanted to do it your way without risking anyone disagreeing.  We don’t do that.”

“This was different to usual.” Riley said definitely. “Come on, you’re not even mad. You get this as well as I do, I know you do.”

Riley was right. Of course Flynn did; he absolutely got this. Flynn took the transparent Lexan paddle out and shut the drawer, voice gentle. “Yes, and so do you. Dale?”

It was, what in English would be known as a ‘fair cop’. Dale reflected on the saying, going to him with a distinctly twisting stomach as he started to unbutton his jeans. However worth it, that paddle in Flynn’s hand was not something at all possible to look at with equanimity when you knew what he could do with it.

Flynn waited until he lowered his jeans and shorts and put out a hand to guide Dale over his knee, smartly enough that Dale felt the breath whoosh out of his lungs, found himself grabbing for the floor and compromising with Flynn’s ankle for support as his feet left the floor, and being tremendously aware that Flynn could shift him without difficulty with one arm and without effort. And that he’d been damn careful that no part of Dale’s newly tattooed chest came anywhere near being touched. He had barely a second to register the hard warmth of Flynn’s legs against his stomach, the extreme vulnerability of his well raised bare behind or Flynn’s hand firmly on his back before the paddle landed briskly behind him, right across both cheeks with a ringing swat as it met bare skin. Not exactly hard, but a good, sound, well placed swat that Flynn did not pull back on, and the Lexan stung. Dale jumped and bit down on the instinctive hiss of shock, it was like the abrupt descent of several dozen wasps all stinging in unison and it tore the breath out of you, but Flynn just brought the flat of that paddle soundly down on his butt another five, rapid times in pretty much the exact same place, with a firm hand and without the slightest pause to allow for catching of breath or accommodation of sting being added emphatically to already stinging skin.  That paddle was remarkably good at communicating Flynn’s feelings; the rain of swats was brief but those few seconds were extremely memorable. Dale was past being able to keep still by the second swat of the paddle and by the third he was wide eyed, making increasingly loud sounds that bore no relation to anything sensible, clutching at Flynn’s ankle to prevent himself throwing a hand back and finding himself squirming vigorously. After the sixth, Flynn swung him back onto his feet directly in front of him to meet his eyes.

“I don’t like notes.”

With that paddle in his hand and that expression on his face, Dale found himself nodding with emphatic acquiescence, unable to stop himself grabbing for and squeezing the intense and burning stinging of his butt. Standing still was an impossibility, breathing was not easy either and the desire was overwhelming to not give Flynn the slightest reason to apply that paddle any further.

Yes sir.”

“Get dressed, that corner over there, hands on your head. Riley.” Flynn let Dale go, held out his hand to Riley, and Riley sighed heavily but got up to go to him, rolling his eyes at Dale with a distinctly unsubdued twinkle as he passed.



*


“How are you?”

Flynn, on his way to lock up the outbuildings and make the final outside check for the night, put an arm around Paul’s waist on his way, giving him a quick and rough hug in passing.

Paul, making up the morning’s batch of bread at the kitchen table, gave him a nudge with his hip which was as close as he could get to responding while his hands were covered in dough.

“I’m ok.”

“Really?” Flynn hung the towel back on the warm rail on the front of the stove and leaned against the counter to watch him. He’d chased Riley and Dale up to bed straight after dinner; Riley at least had been vociferously not pleased about it but mildly in disgrace over their disappearing act this afternoon he’d known better than to risk pushing his luck. And Dale at least was in need of some quiet and time to process. Mason, Jasper and Luath were occupied in the family room with a card game, well out of earshot; there was no need to worry about being overheard.

“I get it.” Paul told him. “I do. I don’t have to like it, but I do get it.”

Flynn made a quiet sound of comprehension. “He was always a powerful person, a leader, he needs a mission for the next fifty years. He needs a purpose and a responsibility to fulfil that he can get a grip on. I think it’s interesting that the mission is here, and being part of us and taking care of the ranch, about people and connection, and emphatically not about finance or mathematics or anything tangible. Do you know what that says? I’m not sure he could make a bigger commitment to us if he tried.”

“And he does the big gestures.”

“He does. Can you see the prince on the white charger in this?”

That was it. Precisely. Paul nodded slowly, pausing for a moment and thinking again of this morning, watching Dale sit across from him on the other side of the fire in the pasture. He thought of himself as so low key, so quiet; he had no sense of his own presence that could take over a room without effort or without him even noticing he’d done it. A hurricane contained in a cobweb-thin crystal glass. The image was ridiculous and Paul smiled at the thought of it, but he’d watched Dale sitting there this morning, his grey eyes alive and penetrating as he listened to Mason and watched Luath and Gerry bickering, all of him intently present in the same way that Flynn was. Not saying much but involved in everything, with everyone. And with a smile sweet enough to light up the dark or to melt your heart, and he was totally unaware of that too. Gentle and naïve in some ways that made Paul fiercely protective of him, and so powerfully committed in others that it drew even fiercer protectiveness. Flynn was right; Dale had come to these emotions at a time in his life when he took them on not only with the same focused intensity Dale gave everything but also with a man’s full sense of responsibility. He’d fought battles over board room tables that Paul knew he would have struggled to comprehend; he’d held responsibility for the livelihoods of countless people in companies, projects and industries; he’d established evidence in the course of justice with international courts knowing that the immense financial and personal implications for the people involved rested on his work and its veracity. He’d withstood pressures and attacks of a strength Paul knew he had no real understanding of – Jeremy Banks’ white knight. A man of precisely the kind Philip had deeply appreciated in the warrior lists of men who ran the financial and corporate world; a man who held old values and who stood by them.

A man like Dale would make never make some vague or pale commitment to the responsibilities of a gift in the terms Dale and Jasper had described it to them. To Dale, it was about people and a place he had committed his life to. His desire to make this pilgrimage was no dramatic gesture; it was the instinct many powerful men before him had had through centuries of time when a life changing decision lay before them. This was a strong and experienced man’s serious, considered pledge.

And yet he was also still exactly that valiantly courageous, lionhearted little boy willing to fight dragons for the people he loved. That was how Dale loved, and there was a child’s purity and boundlessness within it. It was how he’d loved his mother and it was how he loved them. He needed the stories, he needed the words and the images to understand and express what he felt because these feelings were emerging fully fledged again for the first time in years for him. They were some of the best and the purest feelings in life, feelings that many adults lost touch with and became blasé about as they grew up. Few men got to experience them for the first time in adulthood. If they did, they might express it like this. And what Dale was preparing himself for was also, Paul knew, the conscious commemoration of having freed and transferred that love and loyalty to them for the rest of his life.  To have a day and a time and a place in which he had drawn the line and knew he had become wholly theirs.

“Did you see him throw himself down on the couch?” Paul said out loud, still thinking. “I nearly cheered. It was so hard not to freak him out by getting too excited. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him do that or anything like it. Not carefully, not politely, not like a guest,”

But like a man with his own people, in a place that belonged to him and where he was safe to let the shields go all the way down. It was an unconscious gesture that had spoken volumes.

“Those days you made him spend in pyjamas just crashing out with you on the couch was some seriously good imprinting.” Flynn watched him knead the dough briskly and efficiently, hands moving without Paul giving it much conscious thought. “I can see the effect it’s had.”

“It just finally dawned on me, all this time we never really worked on him feeling like this house was home.” Paul leaned on the table, working the dough expertly one handed. “We worked on it feeling like his, but I didn’t think it down far enough; it’s not the same thing. All the rest of us came here already knowing what home is supposed to feel like, we just got to feeling that way about the ranch ourselves by osmosis but I don’t think Dale had any concept to start from. The first day we tried it, it took a lot to persuade him it really was ok to just not get dressed, all day, he was home where it didn’t matter. How unsafe do you have to be feeling to not be ok to leave your room in your own home unless you’re fully and properly dressed?” 

It was more than that and Flynn knew Paul understood it in the same gut way he just understood many of the most important things. That establishing the sense of having roots here, being safe here, was about having the time to know the sights and sounds and the intimate familiarity with a house at every hour of the day; to do it with someone capable of making you feel safe enough and who could be with you in every way it was possible for someone to be with you and lead you through it; who could teach you and coax you to feel and internalise it from them.

“You’re so good at this,” he said to Paul with a lot more feeling than could easily be expressed, “You’ve done something amazing for him. No one else could have done it this well, do you realise that?”

“Oh you could have.” Paul said dryly, “You’ve known the game we were playing from the start, you saw this coming months ago.”

“If I’d had to, then I would have done the best I could,” Flynn said it quietly and definitely enough for Paul to look up and know for certain that Flynn had spent hours thinking about this. “So would Jas if need be, but it would have been based on what we learned from you and it wouldn’t have been like this. Jas and I don’t speak the language like you do. It doesn’t come naturally for us, it isn’t who we are but it’s as natural as breathing to you. You did this for me when I first came here, so of course I’d want Dale to have that from you too; you were the one who could teach Jas and me and I know how it feels. So believe me, what I could have done wouldn’t have been half of what you’ve figured out how to do with him, and it is amazing. It’s amazing to watch.”

It was difficult to answer or to breathe for a moment; it was never easy to find words for Flynn on the rare and private occasions that he looked at you or spoke to you intently like that in a way that turned your heart over, and he almost always took you by surprise and picked the most inconvenient of moments to do it. Flynn abruptly straightened up and hooked an arm around Paul’s waist so hard the bowl rocked, and Paul lifted sticky, floury hands up out of danger, tipped backwards at a sharp angle and kissed, hard, one of Flynn’s deepest and most thorough kisses that stood for a whole lot of emotion that Flynn tended to act on rather than verbalise. It was a wonderfully appealing language, and it was a good few seconds before Flynn stood him up and let him go, his hair and shirt floury, his face gruff, his eyes extremely soft. He dropped another, much gentler kiss on Paul’s mouth and headed out to finish feeding his horses.

After a few moments of looking down at the bowl with half kneaded bread in it, breathless and distracted, Paul pulled himself together, finished setting the bread to rise and scrubbed the table. And then he took out the phone and the address book in the drawer by the sink, and sat down to start dialling.


*


Dale was woken by Jasper’s hand on his shoulder with the first grey of dawn outside their window.

It wasn’t so unusual; if Jasper wanted to fish before breakfast he sometimes came like this and Dale stirred and turned over, aware that Flynn stirred beside him, became aware of Jas and went back to sleep. Jasper put a finger to his lips and indicated the door. Dale got up, softly grabbed his clothes and followed, leaving Flynn asleep behind him.

On the landing Jasper paused, putting a hand on his arm to stop him. He was shirtless, wearing only jeans and his skin was cool as if he’d been outside.

“If you’re ready to go, get what you need. Are you taking Hammer?”

He meant it. Dale’s head cleared in one swift rush and he felt his heart rise with it.

“Yes.” he said definitely. Jasper nodded.

“I’ll get him. Go ahead.”

Dale dressed rapidly in the dark on the landing, donning the clothes he’d taken off last night. The same ones he’d gone to Jackson in and been wearing while the tattoo artist worked. Already worn clothes that carried yesterday into today and not fresh ones; for some reason that seemed important. He put a hand lightly over the new mark on his chest for a moment. It was tender, he’d removed the light dressing from it last night and it was nothing more than slightly reddened around the edges now. No one else was awake. Dale listened for a moment, half tempted to go to Paul and Riley who would mind most and to say goodbye, but Jasper’s purpose in helping him leave now was to let those distractions go. Jasper might be in for an earful at breakfast when they woke to find him gone, but he was clearly ready to take it, and it was not as if Dale was leaving; he would still be on their land.

Dale checked on the familiar cool and rough plains of the crystal in his pocket, squeezed it, and went softly downstairs to grab a jacket and hat. The yard was misty in the thin grey light of very early morning. Jasper was rapidly saddling Hammer out at the far end of the yard, well away from the house, and over the porch rail hung one of Paul’s heavier sweaters and a pair of saddle bags. They were well packed – only one person packed that well in this household – and Dale lifted them and the sweater, a little surprised. He took them with him to join Jasper, keeping his voice low.

“Did you put these out?”

“They were laid out there ready when I came in this morning.” Jasper tightened Hammer’s girth with a deft tug. “I think Paul suspected you might be needing them early.”

So he knew. Dale hefted them, well aware of what Paul was likely to have packed.

“I won’t be needing anything much.”

“But Paul’s a part of this for you; let him be.” Jasper took the saddle bags and attached them to Hammer’s saddle, nodding at the stables. “Take a rifle.”

In the shed and the tack room Dale automatically filled his pockets with the essentials he knew he’d need. A knife. A bow drill. He pocketed a sensible amount of ammunition and a rifle along with chlorine tablets and one of the large water sacks that carried enough to keep a horse supplied if necessary, and after a moment’s thought picked up one of the old blankets, taking that too. Jasper had tethered Hammer to the fence down by the home pasture and was sitting on the fence beside him. Dale packed the rest of his gear and attached it to the saddle, and Jasper quietly patted the rail of the fence next to him.

If Dale had to guess, he hadn’t gone to bed yet. He looked part of the dew soaked pasture out beyond the fence, the grey sky and the grey water in the distance, the rustling aspens. His skin was softly toned like the bark and his whole body was quiet. Calm, steady, deeply at home and the peace of him was tangible. On impulse, Dale relaxed his eyes a little, let his shoulders release and his eyes soften and just a little he could see it; the soft flare of light visible around Jasper, especially gathered around his head and shoulders and his hands, and when Dale climbed up to sit beside him he could see the energy brush and mesh running around both of them. It was intoxicating and yet not at all distracting this morning.

“There was something I wanted to tell you this morning.” Jasper said. “I thought you might like to know it. Did you ever think about how David came to be here?”

Yes.

“I thought he wandered for quite a few years until he found somewhere to settle?”

“I doubt he was even in the US legally.” Jasper said, and it was with affection for a man neither of them had ever met although they lived in his home. “Philip probably ensured it later on, but David just walked over the Canadian border and kept walking until he found somewhere he felt like staying. I’ve thought of that many times. A man who drifted all his life, who ran away to sea and never put down roots, just walked onto this land and never left again.”

“Because of Philip.”

“Because of Philip, but he was settled here for some years before Philip joined him.” Jasper looked out over the pasture in front of them, his long fingers wrapped around the fence rail. “This house was derelict when he found it. Just an old shell of a small cabin. Not much more than the kitchen with a cot in one corner and a horse stall where the garage is now.”

“Do you know why he stayed?” Dale asked him. Jasper nodded slowly, watching the grass ripple out ahead of them like water.

“Philip told me. David was sick when he came from Three Traders. He stopped here for shelter because it was the first building he came to, it was winter and he had no choice, he couldn’t go any further. And at that time, where the ruins of the Shoshone village are now, there were still a few Shoshone families left living on this land. They would have known as soon as someone entered their territory, they would have known David was staying in the cabin and would have watched him to see if he meant harm. When they saw the smoke from the chimney stop despite the snow and the horse was still tied in the stall they came closer to look, and when David was next able to stand and walk out of the cabin, the horse had been given water and grain. There was firewood stacked by the door. There was food in a bag on a nail. Unlooked for kindness at a moment he most needed it. Anonymous. Undeserved. Whatever David had been wandering from or towards, Philip thought that act of kindness stopped him in his tracks. He figured out who had helped him, and he got to know them. At least one of them if not more befriended him. Talked to him. Taught him. From what I know David understood, he spent time with an elder who took the time and the care to teach him. Not just the basic understanding of them and their ways, but real teaching. They taught David in much the same way my grandfather taught me.”

“As if he was one of them.” Dale said quietly, understanding. Jasper nodded slowly.

“They taught him as if he was one of their own men in need of healing. The trust that involves is remarkable. The acceptance that deep into their community means to me that there must have been deep two way bond, so David earned it from them. When teaching is offered like this it is because there is learning. Real commitment. I suspect they were a good deal of the reason that a man who had been alone for twenty five years lived in a very happy marriage for the rest of his life.”

“So when David brought those Shoshone men with him to Three Traders that night….he was with close friends, and of course it was handled in the way it was.”

“When the Shoshone moved on, when they left the ranch land,” Jasper said gently, “I don’t know why they left. Perhaps there were too few of them, perhaps they were finally too isolated here and had family and a better place to go to. But they gave David an eagle feather. They would do that to one of their own. It means they left David as their family here. They left him responsible for the land and their family and the family whose bones are here. The ancestors, the spirits, their sacred land, their burial grounds. There is no more sacred responsibility in their eyes, these things never pass from the land. And in their beliefs, any spirit or energy, living or dead that is a part of the land – person, beast, trees, the grass itself – is family. And treated as family, and cared for as family. That was the duty they entrusted to him. They would not have done that without love, or without certainty that he was worthy of and fully understood the faith they placed in him. And he and Philip lived by it all their lives. They taught us to live by it too, in our own ways. It took me a long time to realise, listening to and watching how Philip ran this household, there was a good deal of home - in the way that I was raised and the way I understand home - underneath it. For a long time I thought that world I knew as a child existed nowhere else and I’d never know it again. I’d given up on it. I thought no one would ever even be able to understand what it meant to me except Flynn and Paul… and this was a long time before I met Riley or you. But when I finally listened? When I finally let myself come into this house and be here – truly be here - it was here all the time.” 


*


Jasper asked no questions about where he was headed. Along with his instruction to take a rifle his meaning was quite clear. Dale mounted up into Hammer’s saddle and sat for a moment, eyes closed, letting himself relax. Hammer chewed at his bit, waiting patiently, and after a moment Dale turned him gently towards the home pastures and rode out into the open green land.

He rode almost due west. A direction he rarely went in except for the months when Bandit guarded his herd in the soft, lush pastures that lay below the landing strip in the south west land that ran down to the rocky heights and canyons further south. Hammer was fresh and restless and as soon as they were on even ground Dale let him go and cantered until the house was long out of sight behind them. For some hours he rode as the sun grew higher in the sky and there was empty land all around him, no other living being in sight and silence but for an occasional bird hunting. Then somewhere in the far west of their land, on impulse Dale turned south and walked Hammer as the ground slowly started to grow higher.

The mares very rarely came up this way. When their foals were small they liked the shallow, sweet grass hollows that made for an ideal nursery. This ground was some of the wildest on the ranch, some of the least trodden of all their land, and as it grew steeper and rockier, the grass began to be patchier, interspersed with open boulders and faces of rock. The climb was gradual enough to be easy on Hammer but by Dale’s calculation the ground level was rising steadily. It was late afternoon when he finally reached a broad plateau in the shelter of an even steeper pinnacle of rising rock faces to the north and east that presented a barrier to going any further, and Dale drew Hammer in and dismounted to let him rest. While Hammer grazed, Dale walked on to look in more detail at the path ahead and climbed several steep, rocky banks that led him up through scrub woodland and then onto to a plateau of bare, red rock. Boulders as large as cars lay scattered like some giant game of marbles and Dale paused at the sight of carvings on their faces. Horses. Symbols. An eagle.

Dale instinctively put a hand over the still extremely tender new tattoo on his skin. It was the same picture.

He walked slowly on up the uphill slope of rock, and suddenly the horizon burst into view before him. The plateau ended in a sheer drop, so sharp it was shocking, and laid out below it….. laid out below was miles of open ground, the Teton mountains in the far distance, the electric blue sky against the green of the grass. Dale’s breath caught and he stood frozen with the shock of it. It was beautiful. Outstandingly beautiful, a view that was a gods-eye perspective on the world below, and he knew now where he was. Riley had told him of this place, had pointed it out to him from the ground, Flynn had mentioned it yesterday.

Eagle Canyon.

The sacred place. The place the last of the Shoshone to leave their land had entrusted to David.

Dale walked slowly to the edge with a sense of presence around him that he had only previously felt in cathedrals. Somewhere mighty that carried the hush of centuries of prayer. Thought and spirit and peace that had soaked into the rock and was held there for all time.   

He stood there for a long time, looking out over the open land below, lost in the majesty of that view. It was passing from afternoon to early evening when he pulled himself together and walked back down to the plateau where Hammer grazed, and collected dry wood from the scrubby trees and bushes to build a fire. He gave Hammer water and took a long drink himself, aware that Paul would have left food in the saddle bags and knowing that he would not be eating it. He wasn’t sure why; just the gut feeling, but somewhere on the hike he had begun to associate that feeling of clarity with an empty stomach. He did unsaddle Hammer and take down the saddle bags, opening them briefly to see what was inside. Some of it was indeed food as he’d suspected. Another held an additional canteen of water and a first aid kid which made Dale smile a little. That hadn’t even occurred to him. But the other bag contained his journal, a pen and a thick bundle of paper. Dale took the journal out with a well of emotion that this was so exactly the right place for it and that Paul had understood and thought to send it with him. The bundle of paper beneath it was a large one held together with an old fashioned cross of string, knotted in the middle. Dale knelt down on the grass, turning the bundle over to unknot the string. The papers were all envelopes. A whole pile of envelopes simply labelled with his name in Paul’s handwriting. Curious, Dale opened one… and then another, and then another, and then another with his throat tightening painfully as sheet after sheet of paper came into view. Each of the envelopes held a print out of an email dated late last night, and the names signed at the bottom…. The names were all familiar ones. In amongst the pile there was one particularly thick envelope and when he opened it there were four separate handwritten letters. One in Flynn’s writing, one in Paul’s, one in Riley’s, one in Jasper’s. For a few moments, breath caught in his lungs, Dale held on to that pile of letters, looking at the sheer number of them and remembering acutely what Riley had said. That on these lone camps, the family sent a letter. An important letter. There were a large number of people here who had decided they counted as his family and needed to be a part of what he did today.

It was hard to put them down and finish building the fire. He made himself do it properly, to wait, until he had water heating over a good fire, until he had the bedroll laid out neatly at a safe distance from the fire. Then he took the letters, left Hammer grazing and walked back up to the very edge of the canyon, sat down with his back against the rock and the world open in the valley before him, and opened the sheaf of papers.

There was an email from Wade. James and Niall had enclosed two separate emails in their envelope. So had Gerry and Ash, their mails written from a Denver hotel. Theo’s email spoke for him and for Bear and Bear had added a few sentences at the end, which Dale knew for Bear represented severe effort. A long handwritten letter from Luath. An email from Darcy. Two folded letters in Paul’s handwriting but one signed Jake and the other signed Tom. And there were other mails too, kind ones from other men that Dale had met at Christmas or on their brief visits to the ranch, even some from men he knew only by name and had never yet met, but heard the letters from that Paul shared with them all at breakfast. All of them were men who had loved Philip and David and at some time had called this place home. The ones from the members he knew best were the longest: Luath’s, Ash’s, Gerry’s, Jake’s and Tom’s, and they were intensely private reading, something that person confided directly to him, but they all essentially shared the same thing. What they knew and loved of him, how in their eyes he made a difference. The ones from the elder members of the family, James and Niall and Wade, who had known and lived with David and Philip from the start, mentioned their own experiences of joining the family and of what Philip and David valued most in the men they welcomed into their home. And most intensely private of all were the four handwritten letters from his own people. Flynn, Jasper, Paul and Riley. Who knew the very most about what he struggled with, what his very worst demons were and what mattered to them all.

Each separate paragraph on every page was a fresh body blow that went to the core of him and shook him fundamentally. He had no shields against this. No way to know how to control the effects, no previous knowledge to know how to hear this or deal with hearing it, and if he hadn’t been so alone and unobserved he couldn’t have borne it. At intervals he was forced to pause until he had himself under sufficient control to see and to clear his eyes of the tears that ran hotly while he read. Every single one of them was intensely warm, personal and spoke directly about the things that mattered the very most to him. That they loved this land too, that he made their people and their loved ones happy. He made their home a stronger and a better place; that they saw him understand and value the things that Philip had valued and believed and that they had loved Philip for. And that David had valued those who did their best for the people around them and who had the strength to face difficulties and to stare them down. The things that mattered the most to Dale, the names, the people, the places, all of them mattered just as much to the men who had written the letters in his hands. Wherever they were in the world, they had been here and they knew it the way he did. It was something they all shared in, something they were all committed to in the same way they were committed to each other. And he held a piece of each of them in his hands, their writing, the words that had come from them to here. They had all of them lived in the house where two men had been so in love with each other that you could feel it, tangibly, in their home. It was in the walls, it was in the ground, it was in this land that was theirs and it held together a network of people that stretched out far beyond the bounds of the ranch, raised with the values these two men had learned here.

This is the responsibility I take.

It was Tom’s letter he finally went back to when he was able to think again, particularly the last two paragraphs.


I’m glad you found the Fisher King story useful. It’s one I’ve thought about for years, it makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been sitting in that castle for about twenty years trying to pull up the courage to ask the question. Did you know about Plato’s Devine Design? ‘There is a place that you are to fill and no one else can fill." It just takes both the guts and the insight to look for it. Something else you might find interesting given what Paul’s telling us: did you know the night before a man was knighted he traditionally spent a night alone in a ten hour vigil in a holy place? Prayed, meditated and prepared himself to make that lifetime sacred commitment to the principles he was vowing to serve, until the morning when his sponsor presented him with his shield and sword and he swore his oath of allegiance. I’m not surprised that’s what you feel drawn to do. I’ve done a little of it myself in the last few days, our Sherpas see this as a supremely spiritual place that is earned, not an entitlement. 
 I’m dictating this to Paul over the satellite phone and the reception’s bloody awful so I need to keep it quick. We’re at camp three today. Tonight we’ll go up to camp four, sleep the rest of the day and in the early hours we’re making our summit bid. We’re both in high places tonight and both preparing ourselves to be worthy.
 Ex animo
 Tom.
 

Dale sat for a long time, his mind turning over and over with more in it than there was room for. The sun was starting to go down beyond the canyon and was sending out long tendrils of soft red and orange light when he finally opened his journal and began to reply with pauses to look out over the view, drafting the letter back that he’d email to Tom when he got home.

When the last sliver of sun sunk out of sight and twilight was casting shadows across the rocks, Dale left the letters safely weighted with a rock and went back down to the plateau. Hammer was peacefully grazing. Dale took him water, damped down the fire to be safe and picked up Paul’s sweater, shouldering into it against the evening chill. It was warm, soft and comfortingly scented of Paul, like being wrapped in him, and it raised a wave of strong emotion at the touch of it. It made Paul here, as much as the ring on his finger meant the others were here. Dale checked the camp once more and made sure Hammer was safe, and then he slowly walked back up to the top of the canyon and took up a seat beside the letters, preparing himself. Cross legged, facing out over the ranch land. He had a sense of tense excitement in his belly; as if he was sitting waiting for something truly wonderful. And with that in mind he let his mind clear, let his eyes drift out over the land he made his promise to, and sat still, watching and waiting as the stars slowly began to come out over head. And it was then he let himself think it. Clearly, with intent, his hands laid on the cooling rock of the ranch ground.

I take on this duty freely and willingly, with a sound mind. I know and I believe in the values of those who took this responsibility before me, and in their name and in love of them I swear, I will be here and I will learn to do whatever I may for whatever on this land may need us. Whosoever and whatever they may be.

He sat there through the night. Hour by hour by hour, and he didn’t notice the time pass. Deep peace and stillness sank into his bones and there was a pureness to this place that made it so safe he could let his mind float, thinking of nothing in particular. He forgot his body, his awareness spread out wider than that. The moon hung high and bright above the canyon and moved slowly across the sky, and he watched the light change slowly from darkest black to blue to soft and misty grey and then a soft thin blue. And as the sun rose slowly on the horizon to the east, an eagle passed overhead, hunting. Dale watched it circle slowly, watched it until it passed out of sight and was gone, like a benediction.
  

*


He took the letters with him as he walked back down to the camp. Hammer whinnied greeting to him and Dale took him fresh water before he built up the fire and sat down before it to heat water for himself. He took out his journal to write while it heated, thinking for a while and then writing slowly. He heard the boots come from behind him, brisk and purposeful on the grass. A stride he recognised, that didn’t mess about. He didn’t need to look round.

David took a seat on the other side of the fire from him, his elbows propped on his knees, and he smiled.  


The End

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015




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