“Ah man, you don’t mean it.” Mason’s voice said clearly from the bathroom. “You’re kidding me.”
Dale, finishing dressing, found himself listening to the tone as much as the words, which was loud but protesting more than angry. Mason and Jasper had still been outside when he fell asleep; he hadn’t heard them come back into the house and he had no idea how that stand off had ended, but Mason sounded thoroughly fed up.
“I don’t believe you want me to shave! I mean I’ve had so many damn showers since I came here I’m in danger of melting and now you want me to shave?”
“I want you to shave.” Jasper said calmly. He was leaning against the wall by the open bathroom door, dressed and shaved himself, shirt tucked into the flat waist of his blue jeans under a plain brown leather belt.
“This is who I am, you know?” Mason said bitterly from inside the bathroom. “This is the person I friggin’ am,”
“No one’s threatening who you are or asking you to remove your beard, I’m asking you to clip it and to shave the rest of your face properly. No one else in this house walks around with stubble, it’s not respectful.”
“Who to?” Mason demanded.
“First to yourself, and second to the rest of us.” Jasper nodded at the bathroom cabinet, arms casually folded across his chest. “You’ll find everything you need in there.”
There was the click as Mason opened the cabinet, then another groan.
“My God, there is nothing in this bathroom. I never use that kind of shaving stuff, it’s out of the damn ark, you know that? I use gel, and haven’t you people ever heard of hair wax? A hair dryer?”
“We don’t keep unnecessary things. You’ve got foam, water and a razor, and the scissors are on the second shelf.”
There was a few minutes of relative silence from the bathroom. Dale made the bed, straightened the night stands and Flynn reappeared in a towel from the other bathroom down the hall, freshly shaven himself and taking no notice of the huffing coming from across the landing.
“What time did they come in? Did you hear?” Dale said under his breath. Flynn nudged the door mostly closed behind him, unwound the towel from his waist and finished drying off.
“Straight after we went to bed. The house lights being switched off put some pressure on him, Jas said he got on with and finished sweeping, came in and ate and they got to bed around midnight.”
By which time Mason must have been tired, very hungry and a long way past angry and he was making clear that his capitulation last night didn’t mean he intended to be a push-over this morning.
“This is clipped.” Mason said sharply from the bathroom. “That’s how I clip it. It’s called designer stubble and it’s deliberate. Ah stop looking at me like that, doesn’t anyone else in Wyoming have a beard?”
Flynn padded over to get shorts out of the dresser, pulled them on and snagged the waist of Dale’s jeans as he passed, turning him around and taking a firm grasp on his hips. Dale put his arms up around Flynn’s neck and Flynn rubbed his own freshly shaved and smoothed jaw down against Dale’s with a swipe like a big cat nuzzling.
“This is normal. If we’ve got a chilled out, placid client and everything’s going good then we’re doing a lousy job with him. We want to get emotion out and dealt with, the big stuff. The ones I worry about are the ones you can’t get any real emotion out of with a pick axe.”
“Like me.” Dale said dryly.
“In what way don’t we get real emotion out of you?” Flynn paused, dark green eyes very close to his, holding them face to face. There was nothing uncomfortable about his grip but he wasn’t allowing for much movement and he wouldn’t be brushed off with any kind of light answer. Dale sighed, keeping his eyes on Flynn’s.
“There are still times I feel like I’m no use at this. Especially watching someone else mess around like I did when I first came here.”
“In what way are you no use at this?”
“I suppose it’s seeing someone else pull...” Dale paused, not wanting to say it, then winced and forced himself. “… the kind of manipulative bullshit I’m good at. I suppose it’s not comfortable seeing what it looks like from the outside.”
Flynn dropped a kiss on his mouth, warm and comforting and wrapped in the scents of soap and cologne from his skin.
“You resort to it a lot less than you did, and you’ve got a lot of insight into why it happens, which Mason doesn’t yet. And we got plenty of emotion out of you at this stage. You beat me up in the pasture, remember?”
He grabbed before Dale had a chance to realise, powerful enough to yank Dale off his feet and drop him on his back on the bed which produced a yelp and a bouncing mattress, and then Flynn was over him, his weight braced on his elbows which kept his full weight off Dale’s chest but not by much. Familiar from regular practice that while Flynn had the advantage in weight and strength, he had more speed, Dale twisted to escape out from under him which sometimes worked, at least until Flynn caught up with him again, and burst out laughing as Flynn trapped his wrists above his head, caught Dale’s legs between his, and simply waited, saying nothing but with a grin in his eyes. There was never any point in fighting at this stage but Dale still had a try without succeeding in shifting his wrists an inch out of Flynn’s hands or rolling over, and he finally collapsed back on the bed, still laughing.
“Ok, ok, you win!”
“Hm.” Flynn stooped to kiss him a lot more thoroughly, which took several minutes and Dale’s full attention. The bed needed making again by the time he let go and Dale surfaced, dishevelled, out of breath, and with his spirits considerably lifted.
“Are you serious?” Mason’s voice was still demanding from the bathroom. “This is short. Ah come on, you’re killing me here!”
“They don’t make you shower this much in the damn marines.” Mason complained at breakfast when he and Jasper came down to the table. His hair was damp and combed, and what had been a shaggy and rather wild circle beard surrounded by stubble was now short and neatly clipped, with the rest of his jaw and throat cleanly shaved. It made him look younger and considerably less like a biker and where even in fresh and pressed shirt and jeans he’d had a faintly greasy and unkempt air, this morning he looked well groomed. Angry, but well groomed.
“You’ve got a lot of toxins you’re getting out of your body,” Paul said, handing him a plate. “The steam and hot water is one of the best ways to get rid of it.”
“Coffee would get rid of it.” Mason grumbled, picking up a glass of orange juice with bad grace. “Espresso, about a pint of it, and a box of donuts. That’s a real breakfast.”
“You must have started your working days too jittery to hold a pen.” Paul sat down and watched him drop a spoonful of scrambled egg onto his plate as if it was cement. “And you can stop that please, there’s nothing wrong with my cooking.”
“I can’t believe you eat a full cooked breakfast like this every day.”
“We do a lot of heavy physical work. You’ll find you get hungry fast.”
“I suppose it’s a change being allowed to actually eat something.” Mason said sourly. Jasper put his fork down with a distinct click, leaning forward on the table towards him.
The man looked up, startled. Jasper waited a moment, then said just as pleasantly,
“What was that?”
Riley, who so far this morning hadn’t said much at all, grabbed a piece of toast off the stack and sat back, sounding fairly short himself.
“You might as well answer him, he won’t stop until you do.”
“That’s enough.” Flynn said quietly. Jasper, still leaning forward on the table with his eyes on Mason, said calmly,
“Why was it eleven pm last night before you got round to lunch yesterday?”
“Because you’re a bunch of sadists.” Mason snapped. “Ok?”
“Well that’s one perspective.” Riley said to the toast. Flynn took it out his hand and put it on his plate.
“Hey. You can face that corner, and Mason you can take the other corner there. We don’t act this way towards each other in this house.”
Riley, scowling, only hesitated a moment before he pushed his chair back and went to the corner nearest the door. Flynn waited, indicating the second corner with his fork and looking straight at Mason, who was looking from him to Riley with increasing shock.
Flynn moved calmly but he moved at once, and Dale, with the sensation of so easily being picked up and dropped on the bed this morning still fresh in mind, understood Mason’s look of disbelief that this was happening as Flynn put an arm under his and a split second later he found himself on his feet.
“Move. Stand still, put your hands on your head, I’ll tell you when you can turn around.”
It wasn’t exactly loud but it was the tone that Dale found his body obeyed involuntarily. It was not possible to hear that tone or stand under that look without jumping to it, and Mason fairly quickly walked to the other corner with Flynn’s hand still on his arm.
“Hands.” Flynn repeated, and Riley hurriedly put his arms up, lacing his fingers together on top of his head. Mason gave him a look over his shoulder, mostly Dale thought for information on what to do, and then he also put his hands up, clumsily linking them on the top of his head. Flynn went on standing behind him for a moment, and from Mason’s stiff posture that was not reassuring. Then Flynn stepped back, looking from him to Riley.
“Not a word.”
He sat down and went on eating his breakfast.
“If I go down and check on the horses this morning,” Paul said as though nothing had happened, “is there anything else needing doing up that way?”
“You could check that stretch of river on the way back, I haven’t had a chance yet since the rainstorm.” Flynn helped himself to another spoonful of eggs. “I’ve got sheep to move this morning, Dale can you come with me?”
“Pocket needs another antibiotic shot.” Jasper said to Paul, who nodded.
“I’ll take it up with me.”
It was a good ten minutes before Flynn spoke again to the two men facing the wall. Mason had fidgeted a good deal more than Riley but he hadn’t opened his mouth or looked around. His arms were obviously getting tired, and he dropped them in relief when Flynn said shortly,
“If you two can behave yourselves, sit down and finish your breakfast.”
“What are we; eight?” Mason muttered, slouching back to the table. It was an attempt to regain face, but Dale winced for him, unsurprised by Flynn’s look at Mason which would have pierced steel, or the tone of his voice.
“Mason, I guess you’re not done yet. Turn around, face the wall, put your hands on your head.”
But........what the....... I just said..... Mason froze on the spot and his expression said it all.
Flynn said nothing, just went on looking at him, and Mason looked from one to the other of them, from Flynn to Jasper to Dale, then slowly turned back to the wall and even more slowly put his hands back towards his head. Riley quietly took his seat and went back to eating.
“Riley, could you handle the cattle work this morning? You said you were headed out that way to finish the shelter?” Flynn said curtly. “If you can take a look at that stretch of river on your way, Dale and I’ll cover the rest.”
“Mason, are you ready to sit down?”
Mason lowered his hands slowly and turned around, giving Flynn a measuring look that was distinctly conflicted.
“...Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Come finish your breakfast.”
Flynn waited until he had sat down, talking quietly but with no less of that tone in his voice.
“If you’ve got something to say to me, then look me in the eye and say it to my face. We don’t snipe, we don’t back talk and we don’t act it out when we’ve got a problem. Riley, what’s the mood about?”
Riley gave him a rather grim look but answered, moving his gaze between from Flynn to Mason.
“I’m sorry for mouthing off. I don’t like hearing someone snap at Jasper when he was up half the night trying to help them. And I guess I’m not in a great mood this morning.”
Flynn gave him a brief nod, acknowledging more than replying.
“Thank you. Mason, what’s your problem?”
“My problem?” Mason gave him a speechless glance over his plate. “My problem is I’ve been dumped in some Bonanza Prisoner of War camp, and I feel like crap! And you expect me to be nice about it?”
“You’re on a perfectly normally run ranch the way many ranches are run in this state and many others,” Flynn said matter of factly, “And you’re here for good reason, some of which is a problem with how you handle your temper. So yes, I do expect you to be civil. Why didn’t you get to eat until eleven last night?”
“Because he was an ass about it.” Mason said sharply.
“Who was?” Flynn said equally crisply. Mason glanced from him to Jasper, and Dale saw him change colour.
“Jasper.” he said a lot more quietly. “Jasper, you were great when I was out of my head a couple of nights ago, I don’t mean anything by it, man. Really. This just sucks, you know?”
Does he really use this skateboarder-kid language in a board room?
Dale finished his breakfast and softly put his knife and fork together, looking again at how the man sat, the tone of his voice. All the veneer was gone from the guy, the booze, the tough appearance, and what was left looked more like a sulky thirteen year old.
We all come out here thinking we’re the ultimate of grownups, the big fish, the decision makers, and it’s the shock of having to realise that what you know isn’t worth squat out here.
There’s just you, and whatever kind of a man you are.
Alongside men like Flynn and the others.
“Why didn’t you get to eat until late?” Jasper said more gently than Flynn. Mason lifted one shoulder, obviously supremely uncomfortable.
“Hey, who talks to grownups like this?”
“We do.” Jasper said without heat. “Why, Mason?”
“Because I wouldn’t sweep the way you wanted me to damn sweep, ok?” Mason said in frustration. “Jeez, I get it! I could have done that job at any damn time, it was my decision it took half the night! Ok! Don’t expect me not to be mad about this! I’m good at what I do, you know? I’m good at my job, but there’s nothing here I know how to do. You’re making me a fish out of water, I can’t do nothing but get it wrong and you don’t let one damn thing slide! Why does this kind of thing even matter? I came here for help!”
“You don’t like being challenged. Nobody does.” Flynn’s tone was brusque but there was a lot of kindness behind it. “But you came here to be challenged, to change behaviours and habits that are causing you trouble. All of us here have chores, you know that. We all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes, things that are boring, and we all have to follow the rules on some things whether we want to or not. It’s a necessary skill.”
“It’s not like it’s something I can’t do.”
“You’re not showing it.” Flynn said matter of factly. “The small things matter the most, and that’s exactly where you look like you need practice in handling yourself.”
“You remember the house rules, Mason?” Jasper asked. Mason gave him a wary look.
“One is that chores get done properly, on time, as asked. Another is that we treat each other with respect. You’re going to have some writing to do this morning about those rules as a consequence for how long the sweeping took you yesterday and about the language you used. If you’ve got a problem we can talk about it, you don’t have to swear and shout.”
The man looked shell shocked. Dale quietly got up and took his plate to the sink, and Jasper got up too.
“It’s ok Dale. Mason and I will clear up in here.”
Riley followed Dale across into the tack room when he was done with breakfast, collecting together what he needed. It was always cool in the stone floored, wood panelled room, and it smelled strongly of leather and leather polish, crowded on every wall with the neat rows of bridles, the saddle trees, head collars, ropes, folded horse blankets and coats, saddle pads, brushes and combs. Dale took his saddle down off its tree and Riley heard him pause in the doorway to move out of someone’s way. With a nasty feeling of who, Riley glanced over his shoulder. Flynn came to stand directly by Riley, voice quiet but blunt enough to make his message clear.
“What’s this mood about?”
“What do you care?” Riley said acidly, “It’s a good example of conflict management for a client, isn’t it?”
“Want to go have a chat in the study?”
The word ‘chat’ was misleading; a trip to the study would most likely mean Flynn pulling out the lexan paddle. He didn’t like back talk and he didn’t mess about. It was a very real threat and Riley didn’t want it. Shaking his head, he got a hold over the attitude in his stance and his tone.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m in a lousy mood, I just am.”
“Why the snarling about what’s good for clients?” Flynn folded his arms, not showing any sign of ending the conversation. He was way too good at this; it was very difficult not to talk to Flynn, no matter how determined you started out.
“Who are you upset with? Me or Mason?”
“Meaning me, or you’d say straight out.” Flynn said bluntly.
Riley gave him a resentful look. “I hardly opened my mouth this morning and you jumped straight on me. You never let anything go.”
“You know better than to talk back. If you need attention, tell me.”
“I’m not feeling frickin’ neglected.” Riley glared back at him, and Flynn unfolded his arms and swatted him, effectively enough to jolt the glare straight off his face.
“Is there something you want to talk about?” Flynn repeated. Putting a hand back to rub and trying not to too openly pout, Riley shook his head.
“......... no sir. I just woke up in a bad mood.”
“Then go and shake it.” Flynn put an arm around his waist and gave him a rough, hard hug, and he never took any notice when you were making it clear you were too mad at him to want it, or whether or not you hugged him back. It was crushing and it left Riley breathless when Flynn pulled his saddle down and walked away, and it took a lot of the heat out of his temper.
He took his time and hovered in the tack room, fiddling with a bridle and waiting until it was a fairly safe bet that Dale and Flynn had gone. Gerry would have willingly sympathised with him about being sent to a corner for two mildly muttered phrases. He and some of the other older brats often complained, not very seriously, that when they came back to the ranch they got away with nothing, and that the boundaries were tougher than when they were alone with their partners. Riley had never heard it being discussed, but the other Tops in the family just quietly kept to the household standards with their own partners whenever they were here, and Riley understood it and agreed with it. These were Philip’s boundaries. This was how he’d kept what at times had been a large household of men a consistently calm, peaceful and friendly one with zero tolerance of poor attitude, disrespect, sulking or bickering, and they were Flynn and Jasper’s boundaries too who were equally exacting about what they expected. This was the ethos they all valued so much that they took clients into it, knowing what they could learn from it in the same way each of them had learned from it, and it took work from all of them to keep the standard of that ethos; a culture in which clients saw around them what respect for yourself and for others looked and felt like, how work was managed within a group, how you dealt with moods and arguments without them leading to fights and bad feeling. It was also the ethos that the rest of the family came home to when they wanted it, knowing it would be there to rely on, and Riley loved it the same way the rest of them did.
The practicalities of maintaining it just sucked on occasion when you were the one on the receiving end. Riley swallowed a reluctant smile at the thought. They sure gave Mason a good demonstration of household policy this morning.
Paul was the only one in the yard when Riley emerged, and he was watering and dead heading the pots of flowers and herbs he grew on the porch and didn’t look up. Snickers hung over the rail of the corral, snorting and fidgeting backwards and forwards on the spot in complaint that Riley had his tack and wasn’t coming quick enough. Tam, the only dog left in the yard, was waiting patiently by the open pasture gate.
It was impossible to ride on a good morning and still stay in a bad mood. Tam shot through the wet pasture, her coat slicking back with water, and Snickers’ breath steamed a little in front of him as he warmed up. It was still cold enough to keep your collar turned up despite the bright blue of the sky overhead, the smell of the grass and dew in the air and the sun on greening grass – Riley loved this land and being out alone on it on horseback was something he never tired of. By the time he was several miles out and they reached the river crossing place, he felt considerably better and Snickers had shaken out his fidgets and was willing to walk across the shallow crossing without Riley needing to put in another training session on being in water without drinking, splashing or wading deeper.
The cattle were several miles upriver and on the east bank pastures. At this time of year the largest group of them were the cows with their new calves, kept in the more or less half mile square gated good pasture which was prepared in good condition for feeding milking dams and which kept curious calves out of the river and away from the dangers of the woodland until they were large enough to have more sense and be less vulnerable. While not as bad as lambs for finding new and inventive ways of getting stuck – even buckets were lethal in the lambs’ nursery pastures, lambs had a gift for playing in ways that wedged themselves into all kinds of places – they were still gifted at getting themselves into trouble. Jasper was the best of them with the cattle. It was usually Jasper’s expert eye who monitored the calves at this time of year, watching sharply for one not gaining weight, a cow with mastitis, and at this time of year any warning indications of a calf with frost bite or hypothermia. There were plenty of wind breaks and shelters in the pasture and the wind chill hadn’t been bad for some weeks now, but the rain still increased the risk. With Jasper not likely to get out to the herd for probably a couple of weeks while he worked with Mason, Riley took his time and made doubly sure he did the job thoroughly. He spent some time digging over and filling in a muddy hollow which was getting a little too deep for a safe wallow, checked the fences and the water supply, and moved on to the next pasture to look at the bullocks, last year’s calves, who now being big, solid and husky, didn’t care much what the weather did and barely stopped grazing to look at him as he worked in their pasture. He’d gotten most of the way through fixing the corner of their big shelter yesterday, and the rest of the planks and roofing were under a tarpaulin waiting, so it didn’t take long to finish the job and well before noon he was mounting up again with the spare materials once more put away in the small barn that housed emergency supplies. The next most productive thing to do was to ride down river and start on the nearest of the sheep pastures, working his way west across to the pastures where Dale and Flynn would have started, and meet up with them in the middle.
There were a lot more sheep than cattle. At this time of year when their sheep flock had more than doubled in size with the lambs, they covered a lot of ground on the south east of the ranch, with the ewes with the newest and youngest lambs, the ewes with triplets, and the first time mothers all grouped together in the pastures nearest the house. They were the high maintenance groups who took the most monitoring and work. Flynn, who had grown up on a sheep station running a far bigger flock than this and knew firsthand the hell of several thousand ewes all lambing within a two week window unless the massive majority of the ewes could do it by themselves with no trouble, was ruthless in selecting only the easy and efficient lambing ewes in his breeding programmes. He bred for good mothers, hardy lambs and easy and independent births, and it wasn’t many of their herd that needed much intervention when it came to lambing time, nor did they often have to deal with rejected or poorly feeding lambs. Flynn didn’t allow crisis. The result was that as Riley rode down to the pasture where the older single and twin lambs were with their mothers, he expected to see what he usually saw: peacefully grazing ewes, and well fed, healthy gangs of lambs rushing around, scampering up and down the covered hay bales stacked in the middle of the field, or sleeping by their mothers. The low maintenance group.
A small posse of lambs hurtled past him like miniature rocking horses as he came down the top of the pasture, producing complicated skips and bucks as they ran. Some of the ewes were grazing. Others were stood still while their lambs suckled, backs stoically turned to the wind, and others were lying down on the grass, chewing placidly. A small group appeared to have gathered at the bottom of the pasture where the fence stopped them wandering up the bank and off into the woodland, and Tam trotted down the field some way ahead of him, a small ball of brown and white fur against the grass. It was only when Riley saw her in perspective with the sheep that he realised that the group at the bottom were lying down. Not with their legs tucked under them like cruising ships, the way they usually rested. They were flat out. Sprawled.
Heart lurching, Riley urged Snickers up to a canter, taking in the scene in horror as he came down the hill. Maybe fifteen of them. All grouped together, all of them slumped on the turf. As he flung himself down from Snickers’ back he grabbed his rifle from the saddle, searching the bodies for any flash of red, throats torn out, the evidence of wolves attacking from the woods- although wolves rarely came this far on to their land and would have gone for the easy target of the lambs, not the ewes. And these ewes, all of them middle aged and experienced mothers, wouldn’t placidly stand by. Ewes were surprisingly fierce in defence of their lambs and they were all big and heavy with lambing fat. If one of them charged you, you’d know about it. There was no red. Rifle in hand, Riley walked swiftly through the group and not one of them showed a flash of blood. Kneeling down over the nearest ewe, Riley ran a hand over her rough, greasy fleece and lifted her head. It was lolling, limp, but the eye upwards towards him opened and rolled. She was like a rag doll when he took her forelegs in hand and turned her over, but she was breathing steadily, there was no rattle or groaning sound which often indicated a ewe in distress, and her stomach and side were soft and palpable. Nothing rigid, nothing swollen, her gums were healthily pink when he opened her mouth. The others were in the same state. While he was moving from ewe to ewe, another one that had been grazing nearby moved a few steps and staggered, collapsing down onto her knees.
Riley cut in front of the other ewes grazing near the bank and chased them away from the downed ones, put the rifle down and whistled to Tam, who stopped where she was and looked at him, surprised. Riley made the away sign to her, keeping his voice normal with an effort.
“Away Tam. Go on girl.”
She went like a small brown and white bullet, wide of the herd until she was out at the top corner of the field and Riley jogged wide of the flock to the bottom of the pasture, opening the gate and holding it wide. Tam was the most experienced and stock-wise of their dogs and explicit commands weren’t often necessary; mostly she knew what you wanted and did it, and she expertly rounded, gathered and steered the flock, moving them without panicking them and without harassing the lambs who scattered for their mothers. She bunched them quickly, moving them down through the gateway. The lambs whose mothers were collapsed on the grass panicked and bawled and tried to break away, but when faced with Tam they fled with the flock. Riley stood as far back as he could against the fence to stop his presence baulking or turning them, and Tam drove the tight group into the next pasture. More sheep were there grazing, but well trained, Tam wouldn’t let the bunched group go until she was told to. Snickers was nosing down towards the grass where the ewes were laying and Riley hurriedly grabbed his reins, drew him well away and mounted up, shutting the gate on his way out. Tam was patiently laying with her nose on the grass behind the bunched group of ewes and lambs, and Riley signalled and called to her, trotting Snickers down the fence to the next gateway.
She got up and walked behind the flock, and they trotted ahead of her down the fence line. It was a ten minute ride to the next gate, the pastures out here weren’t small, but this particular pasture was currently empty and Tam steered the flock into it, watching Riley until she received the signal to let them go. Riley shut the gate and Tam shot ahead of him over the grass as he cantered Snickers back to the pasture where now there were sixteen ewes laying on the grass. He took the precaution of tethering Snickers to the gate on too short a rein to let him graze. The ewes were a dead weight and completely unresisting as he hauled them by the forelegs over the grass, laying them in a group near to the gate. They were all still breathing well, and a few of them made attempts to lift their heads as he handled them but they weren’t even bothered by Tam nosing at them. Riley was hot and sweating by the time he had all sixteen of them gathered together and well away from the spot where they’d collapsed, and he paused a moment longer to pull his knife out of his pocket and cut out a chunk of the turf where the ewes had been laying. He wrapped it in the folded plastic sheet from his saddlebag and buckled it closed, then picked up his rifle and aimed it straight up into the sky, pulling off three rapid shots, one after the other.
The noise of the gunfire sent birds wheeling up out of the trees and the sheep startled in the pasture. Riley lowered the smoking rifle and strapped it back to his saddle, waiting for the first sight of Flynn in the distance.
“I’ve got no idea.”
Clara was in her mid thirties, dark hair knotted at the back of her head and wearing a long red sweatshirt over waterproof trousers and boots. Her sleeves were rolled up as she knelt over the ewe she was examining, and strands of hair were escaping and hanging in her eyes. Riley had known her since he first lived here, as the only daughter of a woman on a neighbouring ranch, a widow that Flynn and the others had long since looked out for since her husband died. Clara had grown up here, had worked through college while still keeping the family ranch going, and once she had qualified as a vet, had set up practice from her home area, never short of clients as in this area where almost all the families were ranchers, and where locals were always preferred and trusted to do business with. Her mother was severely arthritic and she and Clara rented out almost all their land to other ranches now; they lived on the remaining small patch in the ranch house with a motley collection of dogs and horses and a few other pet animals. One of her dogs was sitting in the front seat of her big and battered pickup truck a few feet away on the grass. Transporting large patients wasn’t a rare thing in her line of work.
“They’re all breathing ok, no fever, no infections, no kind of milk or glandular issues, their chests are clear.”
Flynn, who had been around sheep his whole life and knew and had seen pretty much any sickness or injury a sheep could come up with, was still working his way through the last of the sixteen ewes with the same thoroughness with which he’d examined the first two or three, and the ewes were limp in his hands, letting him roll them however he wanted. He looked grim.
“It was definitely that particular part of the pasture, they were all gathered there.” Riley crouched down to watch Clara take a blood sample, adding it to the fifteen others she’d already taken. “The only thing I could think of was some kind of mould or fungus or lichen on the grass.”
“Maybe.” Clara took her gloves off and stuffed them with the blood samples into her bag. “Or some kind of predator that came down to the fence and caused a stress reaction, stress hormones can cause collapse sometimes? Especially in nursing ewes.”
Another of the ewes rolled over onto her chest and got her head up after a few, unsteady tries. Four or five of them were sitting up now, and others were stirring, occasionally lifting their heads and then flopping back onto the grass.
“Muscles loose, co ordination shot, pupils large.” Flynn turned the last ewe, “Snoring breathing. Some kind of neurotoxin. Too early for bees. Snakes? Spiders? We’re bloody careful about what grows in and near the pastures, nothing poisonous I’ve seen.”
“Without testing the bloods and the turf sample you took, I can’t make a guess. They’re reviving a bit now. Whatever it was, it’s wearing off, but you did the right thing segregating the rest of the group.”
“We’d better bring their lambs down and keep them separate.” Flynn laid the ewe back down on the grass and got up. “Until we know if they’ve been infected with anything.”
“That’s going to take a couple of days, you can’t hand feed twenty or thirty lambs all that time.” Clara got up, shutting her bag. “Give it say twelve hours, see what condition the ewes are in then, and if they’re up on their feet and producing milk I’d let the lambs back in with them. If anything can be passed to the lambs through milk or grass then it’s already been passed, it’s going to be less of a hit dealing with whatever it is affecting the lambs than running a pet herd that size. And I know you, you don’t believe in pet lambs if you can possibly help it.”
“I’ll bring the lambs down.” Riley got up. “Where are we going to put them? The winter shelter? We can’t risk them near the horses until we know what’s going on.”
“We can put hurdles across and pen them in the bottom corner of it, right away from the corral.” Flynn looked up at Dale. “Go ask Jasper to set it up, then help Ri with the lambs. I’ll get this lot back to the yard.”
It was a long job that took most of the rest of the day. Paul, Jasper and Mason got out, hauled and connected the heavy fence hurdles in the big winter corral they used for cattle work, for shearing time and tagging or injecting large groups of stock, and as a shelter for the horse herd when the weather was bad enough for Bandit to bring them in, and penned off and prepared an area of the corral that was under the roofed shelter for the lambs, and then penned off another area of pasture on the holding paddocks beyond for the ewes. Flynn and Clara hauled the semi conscious ewes up the ramp into the back of her truck and drove them slowly over the crossing at the river and up the pasture to the house where the ewes were unloaded into their pen. Riley, Tam and Shane separated out the forlorn group of motherless lambs, and coaxed and walked them slowly across the pastures down to the house.
Dale met them as they came down to the bank of the river crossing where the water was only a few inches deep, but moving too fast, it was too alarming for small lambs. Riley and Dale ended up carrying them across, one by one which involved a lot of wading and getting very wet, and by the time they had their small flock in the pen in the winter corral, the lambs flopped down on the straw, exhausted from the walk. Jasper made up the artificial milk feed in large amounts which took a lot of time with scales and enormous amounts of boiled water, and they used almost the entire supply to bottle feed the twenty five lambs, two lambs at a time pulling hard on the bottles and dripping with the warm, sticky and faintly malt scented milk. It was a surreal end to the day. Dale, re filling empty bottles from the big jugs of warm milk, found himself watching Flynn stooping to pick up an as yet unfed lamb and holding it solidly against his chest as he stepped over the hurdle that separated the fed from the as still waiting. Jasper crouching with two lambs attached to the bottles he held, both lambs with all four feet braced, yanking with all their strength on the bottle teats and sucking the milk down as fast as possible. Paul sitting on a bale with a wet, cold lamb on his lap, rubbing it down with a towel until it began to liven up and showed interest in the bottle he was gently bothering it with. Riley rigging up a heat lamp from the roof of the shelter, talking to and stepping carefully over already fed and increasingly lively lambs who nibbled at his jeaned leg and climbed up on the bales beside him, curious about what he was doing. Mason, kneeling on the straw and looking somewhere between bemused and touched at the lamb attached to the bottle held.
“What’s wrong with pet lambs?” he asked at one point. “These are kind of cute, you know?”
“They’re not so cute at three in the morning.” Riley climbed down from the bales and collected another as yet unfed lamb, going to fill another bottle. “Come here baby. We supplement feed occasionally if a ewe hasn’t enough milk for triplets, or a lamb’s not thriving, but full time pets lambs are hard work, they need feeding every three to four hours round the clock. Not something we’d do for the fun of it.”
“Lambs not raised by a ewe get sick easily, don’t herd well, and they grow up to make lousy mothers.” Flynn said bluntly. “Won’t have the knowledge to attach to, feed and raise their own lambs. If the ewe’s rejected them or can’t feed them we usually graft them onto another ewe who’s got a single lamb of her own and can handle another one.”
“Slime graft.” Riley grinned at him, crouching to help the lamb latch onto the now filled bottle. “It’s disgusting, you probably don’t want to know.”
Each lamb needed two full bottles and it took almost two hours to get through the lot of them. By the time they were done, most of the ewes were up on their chests, still groggy but mobile, and one of two of them had wobbled to their feet and managed to stay there, although they staggered when they walked. The lambs, now warm and revived, were making an appalling racket, and usually nothing was noisier than a ewe and lamb separated, but the ewes didn’t appear to care about their bawling lambs only fifty yards away, and weren’t making a sound.
“I’ve never seen stoned sheep before.” Mason commented, leaning on the top of a hurdle to watch them. “Actually I never saw sheep outside of pictures before.”
He’d been quiet while they sorted out the pens and the sheep, hovering until someone told him what to do, but he’d competently lifted and placed the heavy hurdles and connected them without complaint, and carried on feeding the lambs he was handed with slightly embarrassed pleasure. He talked to Jasper, Riley and Paul quite easily, Flynn with some care, and Dale became uncomfortably aware that Mason’s eyes only very occasionally caught his and then quickly slid away. He’d done more harm there than he’d meant or intended to, and it was difficult to know how to fix it with a man already having a hard time.
They were late coming in for dinner and there was a certain amount of standing around waiting for the shower, and Paul grilled chops and mashed potato while people dried off, got warm and changed clothes.
“I’m used to an eighty plus hour week, and I’m dead on my feet.” Mason said when they sat down to eat. “Is it always like this?”
“You should be here at lambing time and hay harvest.” Riley told him, ladling thick gravy over mashed potato. “You don’t plan sleep time then, you just kind of wake up and realise you crashed out where you were. When Flynn was a kid, at lambing time there’d be whole weeks he camped out without ever making it home to sleep in a bed.”
“Quicker.” Flynn agreed. “And no, you’re not trying it.”
Mason smiled, but Dale could see his eyes tracking between Flynn and Riley, trying to work out why the mood around the table tonight was as calm as usual, and why there was no ill feeling, no grudges between the two of them when surrender and loss of face to Mason were obviously serious matters.
“Mason, go on up and get ready for bed,” Jasper said when they were done eating. “You can get away without helping with the clean up tonight, we’re running late.”
“I haven’t been to bed this early since I was five,” Mason said dryly, getting up, “And I’d argue, but I’m too friggin’ - sorry. Too tired.”
It was the first time he’d apologised for a slip in language, and that genuine apology was brief but telling. Dale, aware that his own habit of cursing pushed the boundaries in this household, appreciated his effort and made a mental note that it was something he needed to get under control if Mason was working on it.
“Exercise.” Jasper took the meds out of the cupboard, checked the labels and handed Mason two pills with a glass of water, watching him take them. “You’re not used to being physically this tired out. Go ahead, I’ll be up in a while. You did well today, Mason. Really well.”
Mason grinned and flapped his hands in an exaggerated cartoon gesture. “Aw shucks. G’night folks.”
It’s all defensive, Dale thought, getting up to help Paul clear the table. The joking, the shouting, it’s all a way to keep people back. Emotionally avoidant execs, I could write a book.
Paul patted him gently, hand below the line of the table where no one else saw.
“We say goodnight around here?”
Dale pulled himself together quickly and glanced up, managing a friendly goodnight in time not to stand out too badly from the rest. Remembering the social niceties was something he still wasn’t good at; he hadn’t even noticed that one.
“Sorry,” he said to Paul when Mason had headed upstairs. “I was thinking about something else. The Cheyenne police would have records of investigations, including the one at Three Traders. I’d like to write to them and ask for a copy, and see if that gives us any more clues about the train robbery.”
“I’d like you to look at people properly when you talk to them, and to stay with us during mealtimes please, mentally as well as physically.” Paul took another stack of dishes from him. “Want to try that again with eye contact?”
Aware of Flynn looking as well as Paul waiting, Dale got a stronger grip on his attention and looked Paul in the eyes, trying to make his tone conversational rather than verbalised high speed thought.
“May I write to the Cheyenne police for information on the Three Traders investigation?”
“Thank you. And it’s ok with me if the others are ok with it.” Paul took the dishes to the sink. “I’ll wash, you dry.”
Which was always easy to do with Paul; between them they had an efficient system for doing this kind of thing, and they both liked things done in an organised way.
“May I write to them?” Dale picked up a dish cloth and looked for Flynn who was putting boots on at the door, heading out with Jasper to take another look at the ewes and lambs. Flynn gave him a hard look.
“It is ok we don’t have all the information. It’s ok not to know.”
“And this isn’t going to be another obsession, I know.” Dale gave him a half smile that said yes, he did take this seriously. “But it’s the next logical step with the information Paul and I are collating, it’s easy to request and I’d be interested. So would Paul.”
“I would.” Paul agreed.
“And me.” Riley added.
Flynn looked past Dale to Paul and then to Jasper and Riley in turn before he nodded.
“All right, you may. I want to see the answer from them when it arrives, before you do anything else with it.”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015