Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Chapter 8 - Ranch

8

Dear Mr Aden 

In response to your request regarding the following records, I am glad to inform you that I have been able to locate the enclosed:

·         Police report from October 27th 1928
·         Notes regarding the Connelly gang
·         Filing of report March 15th 1929, case status remaining open, investigation       ceasing.
 
This information has passed the statute of limitations and is no longer considered confidential or actionable, and as requested is shared purely with a view to private historical research and interest.

Yours sincerely


Carrie Mackenzie
Wyoming State Police Records and Information Division. 

The letter arrived on the same day as Clara visited with the lab results of the blood tests from the sixteen ewes in the winter corral with their lambs.

“Put plainly,” she said when she’d handed the sheets of print-out to Jasper, “Your ewes were drunk out of their skulls. Their blood alcohol level would have been plenty to get them a DUI conviction. If I’d tested the rest of the flock I’d have been interested to know how many of them were mildly tiddly as opposed to completely blotto like those sixteen were, but they’re fine now, they can go back with the rest of the flock. I’d guess there’s some kind of fruit up growing up on that bank that fermented when it dropped, and those sixteen gorged themselves on it.”

“I know a few wild plum trees grow up there.” Jasper said, reading down the information. “I should have thought of it, but we’ve had ewes in that pasture every spring for the last few years and I’ve never known this happen before. I suppose the snows might have preserved the fruit through the winter.”

“Wild plums?” Paul demanded. “The raspberries, the thimbleberries and the strawberries I know about, I pick those. No one ever thought to mention to me they’d seen plums up there?”

“There are some wild plum trees in the woods that way.” Jasper fended off Paul who confiscated the papers and swatted him with them.

“What do you lot think I do? Conjure jam out of thin air?”

“Well that solves your problem.” Clara accepted Flynn’s hand and stepped over the hurdle out of the pen. “If Paul makes jam out of the plums your sheep can’t get reeling drunk on them.”

“I’ll send over a couple of jars.” Paul put an arm through Clara’s. “Come have something to eat, you look cold and half starved.”

“I won’t say no, I was up half the night with a calving gone wrong.” Clara said gratefully.

Mason watched her head up the porch steps with Paul, and Dale could read his expression. Hospitality was a different thing out here, where anyone who passed by was fed and treated as a friend, from the postman to the vet. It was part of the ranch community in this area, where people worked hard, where long distance travel was part of everyone’s daily life and they shared what they had, with values that had long been forgotten in less rural places. Once or twice Dale had gone with one of the others when they went to speak to a neighbouring rancher and been treated there with the same welcome. It was a different world when you were used to the impersonal, sterile and always self interest-led hospitality of a corporate.

When she’d gone, Mason went back to sweeping out the stable; something he started every day with and which was currently taking him perhaps half an hour, which he did with gritted teeth but with attention, as if he was rising to the challenge to prove Flynn wrong that he couldn’t do small and tedious things. He laughed it off when Jasper and the others praised him, as if he was ashamed to look as if he cared, but for two days now he had taken the broom and started on the stables himself after breakfast, and afterwards he took on the other chores Jasper assigned him, still needing the quiet prompting and encouragement Jasper gave him, but mostly he stuck out what he was given to do, and made a reasonable job of it. It wasn’t until he watched Jasper patiently take Mason back over a slightly haphazardly mucked out corral and focused his attention on the details, on getting it to the state of completion it needed to reach, that Dale fully took in the extent of the difficulties Mason had with attention, repetition, and in some ways with basic confidence. He didn’t make every job he did his; he didn’t take ownership of it. There was no satisfaction for him in the right outcome.

Whereas if you were an obsessive so and so who took all your satisfaction in every job being done right, properly, with the orderliness to it that gave you a buzz, you took total ownership of it to the point it was hard allowing other people to be involved at all. It was an uncomfortable insight into his own working style.

Dale said as much rather bitterly one night to Flynn, who shook his head.

“I don’t agree.”

“I think back to all the times I sent people home, told them to go and eat, take a break,” Dale winced on numerous memories of frazzled staff in numerous air conditioned buildings, and tables deep in paper and laptops. “I didn’t actually mean ‘go take care of yourselves’. It was a polite way of saying ‘get out of my hair and let me get on with it’. That’s control freakery. Socially acceptable manipulation, which is horrible.”

“Tell me what’s wrong with that statement?” Flynn said mildly. Dale sighed, reluctantly appreciating the fact he never successfully got away with this and well versed in finding the opposing view point from Flynn repeatedly walking him through it.

“It’s unnecessarily harsh, it’s critical, I wouldn’t apply those standards to others, it’s the perfectionism talking. But I still feel bad about it.”

“I know.” Flynn swatted him gently to get him moving. “Go get your journal.”

Dale had expected it and it earned him an hour of rewording until he reached a perspective that Flynn accepted as balanced. One of the biggest things Flynn had taught him was a slow growing ability to occasionally be able to view himself objectively, to look as bystander instead of a critic, which did make him feel better, and it was the perspective he now tried to find whenever Flynn made him write like this.

“You did care about the other people in the teams you worked in,” Flynn pointed out when they were debating it. “You might have had an ulterior motive for wanting them out of your way, but you didn’t tell them to get lost, or give them other work to do.”

“That still looks like social manipulation to me.” Dale said apologetically. “In fact it’s worse because it’s dishonest. There’s nothing genuinely nice about it, it just looks nice. It’s a socially acceptable veneer, it’s not real.”

“It was real, your corporate wrote to us that you were well liked by the staff who worked for you.” Flynn was sitting on the couch in the study while Dale sat at the desk, the lamp pooling a splash of light across the green leather desk top where he was working. “You were always polite, you never shouted or lost patience, people appreciated that. You were deliberately sent in to handle people who were freaked out or angry, or where the teams were fighting amongst themselves, because you could negotiate and turn those teams around.”

“Which we both know is mostly professional learned skill. I can memorise books and training on conflict management, there’s nothing clever about it.” Dale said a little bitterly. “And partly I did well with that kind of situation because I was only interested in sorting out the work issue and I just took over. I did it most of it myself and managed the people academically like I managed the figures. Manipulation. I don’t call that real.”

“What is real?” Flynn countered. Dale leaned on the desk to look at him, relaxed back on the couch, his steady dark green eyes calm and patient despite the fact it was seven pm in the evening, he’d worked all day and was tired. Neither he nor Jasper nor Paul ever gave the impression it was an effort to deal with a relentlessly negative, hung-up brat in their spare time; it was a facade Dale deeply appreciated.  

“Here. This. Which I suck at and I know I suck at.”

It was a phrase of Riley’s which had many useful applications.

“You’re happier being sure that you suck than you are considering that you might be successful.” Flynn said bluntly. “What’s that called?”

“Advanced neuroticism.” Dale retorted. Flynn gave him a calm nod, holding out a hand.

“Well I know what that behaviour’s called, and I know how to deal with it. Come over here.”

There was little point in arguing or complaining when Dale knew on some level he’d flat out asked for it. Flynn was ruthlessly good at motivation and at clearing his head. It was amazing how quickly and sincerely you rearranged your priorities once you were turned over the knee of a man with an extremely effective right hand, with your jeans around your ankles and your bare butt facing up to whatever your attitude had bought you. There were times when Dale thought that part of his anatomy thought an awful lot more clearly than his head; no more than one good swat there, and Flynn didn’t mess about, those swats were hard, and all kinds of reasoning and beliefs that had seemed perfectly justifiable fled in a panic. It wasn’t possible to maintain any kind of illusion of distance.

A while later, sitting at the desk now only in shorts and on a hot and vigorously smarting butt, and if he was honest, in a much more open and calmer frame of mind, it was possible to write down some of what they’d discussed on the couch.

Preferring to avoid social and emotional risks is based on a fear of failure that stubbornly refuses to stop and think realistically about how real that risk is, or the resources available to deal with any dreaded outcomes.

“Bullshit.” Flynn said succinctly when he read it, putting a line through it. “Try again.”

Avoiding being too real with people by using distancing strategies like manipulating them into doing things that keep them away from you, or using academic language, or intellectualising, is about keeping control, and keeping control is based on being afraid of what will happen if you don’t. Those fears are mostly groundless, and the real ones can be talked about and dealt with.

That part was relatively easy; he’d spent a lot of time talking and writing about that one for months now. It took longer to find a way to word the second part and several discussions with Flynn who challenged qualifiers like ‘mostly’ and ‘sometimes’ and insisted on their removal.

I didn’t get rid of people on work projects because I didn’t want them involved. I got rid of them because I wanted to get on with fixing the problem at hand, and I needed to be able to focus on it without interruptions and do it my way for it to work. In part too it was because it was my battle, not theirs.

“You do that with us too sometimes.” Flynn pointed out when he read it. “Make it your battle, your responsibility. It’s protective as much as defensive, your gut instinct is towards team playing, and I’ve seen it. When you first came here and we asked you to work with Riley on something you weren’t in command of, you could join in team work without any effort. You’d help him to be successful and be concerned not just with what effect he had on what you were doing, but how he wanted things done, if he was ok, what he was doing and why. You’re going to have to accept it eventually kid, you’re far more of a people person than you let yourself admit.”

“I’m lousy at people.” Dale objected. “That’s just plain fact, I see evidence of it every day. Look at the mess I’m making with Mason?”

“Lack of experience and avoidance isn’t the same as being ‘lousy at’ or lacking the instincts.” Flynn closed the journal and shelved it where it lived, on Philip’s bookshelves among the leather tomes. It was almost a kind of portable memory now, half full of little bits of deeply personal writing like this; re written and re worded versions that ended in one copy uncrossed out, uncorrected, that held fragments of beliefs that sometimes Dale needed to see written down to be certain he knew. He’d been used all his life to being able to remember things exactly whenever he’d seen them written down, but there seemed to be all kinds of blocks and emotions that got in the way when he tried remembering the contents of this very evocative book.

“You’re not making any kind of mess with Mason. What is happening?”

“I don’t feel I’m doing what I need to do for him.” Dale admitted. Flynn sat back down in the couch and held out an arm, and Dale went to him, sitting with one leg curled under him, hugging the other.

“Why do you feel you need to do anything for him?” Flynn said quietly. “You’re not personally responsible for him; we are as a group and you’re not in charge of making decisions for us as a group. This is the first client you’ve seen. Supporting us is the limit of what you need to do.”

“I have a responsibility to help.”

“Which means you’re looking at the rest of us and measuring yourself up, and coming up short.” Flynn waited for him to deny it, and when Dale winced, patted the hip under his hand, firmly enough to hit several sensitive instincts in Dale.

“You do not have to excel at this. You have nothing to prove. No one is expecting you to produce professional counselling skills, it is ok to just watch and be polite to the man.”

“That’s nothing like what everyone here did for me.” Dale protested. “That’s my responsibility. I was always treated as if I belonged here, people were never just polite to me, there’s a duty intrinsic to being a part of this family about passing on what you were given.”

“Which if you’re going to get worked up about, we’ll keep very simple.” Flynn cut in, and it was his blunt, this is how it is tone. “Who decides what your responsibilities are?”

He felt Dale’s initial protest and Dale took a breath as if to argue, but that blunt, verbalising of control always made a huge difference to him. Flynn could feel him processing, thinking it through and a moment later the tension went out of him in one go and his voice was quiet with relief, not resentment.

“You do.”

“That’s it, The End.” Flynn confirmed. “And I say you keep the house rules, and you keep your rules, and you keep them properly. With thought and with understanding. That’s the culture and the example Mason needs around him, that has a lot of value and that’s what I expect of you. Is that clear?”

He held Dale’s eyes long enough to make sure it was realised that he was serious, and Dale nodded, eyes a lot calmer and much softer.

“Yes sir.”




            They sat around the coffee table later that evening after Mason had gone to bed and looked through the photocopies of police reports together. All the information was handwritten, not legibly, and only Paul and Dale in the end could decipher it after a rather enjoyable half hour of studying the handwriting and decoding the more illegible bits together a word at a time.  

“The police involvement had nothing to do with the train robbery.” Paul said when they’d worked out most of what it said. “The Cheyenne police were at Three Traders to investigate this Connelly gang – supposedly three of them, all of them wanted felons in three states for armed robbery, aggravated assault, confidence trickery, profiteering....  they sound like a nice bunch of guys. The Cheyenne police carried out a three day investigation, following a tip off, that the Connelly gang were working out of Three Traders on a bootlegging racket with the help of a local man, thought to be a contact of theirs and suspected of harbouring and abetting known felons... apparently one James Dwyer, owner of the Mine Shaft Saloon.”

“Which means what in English?” Riley demanded.

Paul looked down at Dale who’d sat on the floor at his feet where they could look at the papers together.

“Well bootlegging is smuggling of liquor, I know that? This was prohibition time, the roaring twenties. Manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol forbidden. I can see why a saloon owner would be keen to stay in business and I know bootlegging was a usual thing in rural areas where the police weren’t so immediately available, that was one of the reasons why prohibition failed in the end. The general public took little notice of it. But it was a big police matter at the time, and as with any banned substance, a lot of organised crime got involved. You’ve got gangsters running around in Chicago and most big cities, pin striped suits and violin cases, the lot.”

“I can’t see gangsters or much serious crime going on in a mining town in a ranching area?” Flynn said dryly. “It’s hours even now in a car to Jackson and even with the snow ploughs there are weeks in the winter when the roads are impassable. It would have been a two day or more trip in a horse and cart in the months you could have travelled back then, the people in that town were cut off from everything except coal mining, ranching and the rail road.”

“It was obviously enough criminal action to bother the Cheyenne police.” Dale scanned through another sheet of paper. “I’d imagine they were probably under pressure to capture the gang if they had the Montana and Dakota state police harassing them. It must have cost a fair amount to ship a bunch of policemen from Cheyenne to Three Traders to investigate and search the town.”

“And then the train robbery took place while they were in town, which must have been extremely embarrassing for them.” Paul agreed. “According to the report, the robbery was unrelated to the Connelly gang, thought to be a local crime with little taken of value, and there was no trace of the Connelly gang seen or established in their investigation. No evidence of bootlegging, they left with absolutely nothing. The summary is essentially an awkward failure for the Cheyenne police who weren’t happy about it judging by this report. They ‘continue to harbour doubts about the honesty and criminal tendencies of James Dwyer, Keeper at the Mine Shaft Saloon, but were unable to prove his guilt.’”

“So all we’ve got is a dodgy saloon keeper?” Sprawled on the hearthrug with his back to the fire, Riley pulled a face at the papers, and jumped, rolling away as the fire behind him produced a loud and sudden crack and a log burst in a shower of sparks, scattering red ashes across the hearthstone and onto the hearthrug. Flynn yanked Riley up out of range and Jasper grabbed for the fire irons and swept the ashes off the rug.  

“Need water?” Paul demanded, on his feet, and Dale had grabbed the fire extinguisher from the cupboard in the kitchen, but Flynn shook his head, turning Riley to check the back of his shirt and his jeans for scorching and brush him down as Jasper picked up and shook the rug over the fire, then knelt to sweep up the ashes.  

“No, just a burst log thank God. Don’t lie so close to the fire!”

“How many times have you ever seen the fire do that before?” Riley said in protest, stepping away from the brushing. “I’ve been lying on that hearthrug for years!”

Paul leaned over to snag his hand before Flynn could answer, pulling Riley to sit on the arm of the couch and wrapping an arm around his waist.

“Come sit with me. Flynn, be careful.”

Flynn stooped over the fire with the poker and sharply broke up the log with a few hard digs, burying it under the ashes and watching it for a moment more before he hung the poker back up and helped Jasper replace the hearthrug.  

“So we still don’t know,” Riley said as Flynn came to sit down again, “What was stolen from the train, or who was involved.”

“Only that it was thought to be a local crime.” Jasper was looking at Paul, who smiled at him and shrugged.

“Well. This was a few years before Philip came to the ranch. David was on this land alone and he was a privateer in his youth.”

“Pirate.” Riley corrected. “Much more fun.”

“Ri.” Flynn said shortly.

“Pirate.” Paul said, accepting the term. “It’s ok. I loved David, he was a good man and a moral man and I’ll swear to anyone that he was, but he was of his time and he wasn’t what you might call ‘tame’, even when I knew him. He had very definite standards of his own and he believed in doing what he thought was right, and to hell with convention and everything else. If he thought he had a good enough reason to rob a train, then yes, I suspect he probably would rob a train.”

Dale had been rapidly making notes while Paul was talking, still at times turning over and looking at the paper he was holding, and he turned the notebook towards Paul as he finished. Paul skimmed down Dale’s neat, efficient handwriting and nodded.

“Yes. I think that’s all we’ve got.”

“We can request the Wyoming, Montana and Dakota state police records on anything else to do with the Connellys.” Dale gathered the papers together. “That won’t be protected information either now. Particularly if we’re requesting on grounds of historical interest and research.”

“I can do that.”  Paul read through the notebook once more and Dale wrapped an arm around his knee, absorbed, his eyes on the stack of newspapers in the corner beyond the hearth. Flynn put a hand down to take the back of his shirt and pull until Dale got up and went to him, letting Flynn tug him over the arm of his chair into his lap.

“What? I can hear the cogs turning.”

Dale gave him a brief smile, tipping his head back against Flynn’s shoulder as Flynn hugged him. At times like this in the evenings when the five of them sat together he knew really and emphatically what ‘happy’ meant. 

“There was no mention of the Connelly gang in the Three Traders newspapers. I’m fairly sure of it, I’ll check again.”

“If you think you’re ‘fairly sure’ love,” Paul said, shutting the notebook, “I’ll take that as a cast iron guarantee. It’s odd that a notorious gang known in three states is supposedly operating out of Three Traders and there’s no record in a newspaper that at times is so short on actual news it’s talking about people’s laundry and the colour of their fences, and chicken racing. Makes you wonder if they really were there? There’s no saying the police actually had good information, especially if they found no evidence.”

“Is there a book boiling up in all this?” Flynn inquired.

“Yes.” Paul picked up the papers and note book to stack with the rest on the hearth. “How often do you find this quality of research material right on your doorstep? Or someone you really enjoy researching with? I’m loving that part.”

Dale caught his eye and returned the smile.

“If you’re done, can we please do something that doesn’t involve shuffling paper?” Riley said plaintively, and Dale gave him a thoughtful look, picking up on something in his tone that he associated with a kind of – restlessness. Something that he knew occasionally emanated from Riley, although Dale couldn’t have said exactly what it was or how he recognised it.

“Why don’t you pick something we can all play?” Paul suggested. “I’m going to put the kettle on. Dale, come give me a hand?”

Dale leaned on Flynn’s knee to get up and Paul snapped the light on in the kitchen and filled the kettle while Dale got down cups and saucers and the large, old fashioned wood tray that Paul used in the family room in the evenings. Paul, opening a container in the stone flagged pantry, lined on three sides with deep wooden shelves, paused as something caught his eye, and took down a wooden item from one of the shelves, holding it out to Dale.

“Here. Have a look at that and tell me what you make of it.”

Dale took it, turning it over in his hands while Paul put a small and dark coloured cake on the table and cut slices. The item was an open box perhaps two inches deep and about the size of his palm, rectangular with ends at the corners that stood out past the bottom of the box, and an elderly and worn simple pattern on the bottom of two carved leaves.

“A match box?”

“That’s guessing.” Paul drew a chair out at the table for him and went on making tea. “Never mind the function, what else do you think about it?”

Knowing what he meant and partly interested, partly a little apprehensive, Dale took the seat and looked at the item in his hands. There was a real difference in trying to do this consciously and deliberately; to know that there might be information if looked for, and he’d only ever tried to do it intentionally a couple of times. Once up on Mustang Hill which had triggered a reaction that had been alarming to put it mildly. And on another occasion on Mustang Hill, after several days build up to the point it had been hard to think about anything else, and it had been with all the help of the atmosphere of the dark, like part of the dreams. To sit in the kitchen and try, quite normally and as mundanely as he made a cup of tea, was something else entirely.

Intentionally trying to look or feel just made him go blank. Part of the problem was not knowing a sequence of actions to follow; it had always been rather a hit and miss thing that mostly just happened when he wasn’t paying attention. Another problem was his own expectation and Paul’s that something would be there.

“You told me how you do it,” Paul ran a hand over his hair as he passed, a comforting and calming gesture. “You don’t think about it. You don’t try to read and check every item on a financial statement, you just skim over it and keep your mind open.”

True. Dale looked down at his hands again, taking a proper breath in the way he’d learned from Jasper and Flynn, and making himself relax. He hadn’t been aware until he did it his shoulders were tight and his neck stiff from hunching over the newspapers for an hour. He stretched his neck absently, thinking about how it felt to look through multiple financial papers, to gather a lot of evidence quickly, that sense of stepping back and being detached, unemotional, just open to something that drew his eye.

“I can’t think of anything.”

“Can’t think or can’t make sense of?” Paul filled the tea pot and put it down on the tray to brew. “Try not questioning it, just say whatever crosses your mind. Didn’t you ever play hot and cold as a child?”

“No.” Dale said frankly. “I’ve read about it.”

“What did you do as a child?” Paul demanded. Dale gave him an apologetic smile.

“Read a lot.”

Paul took the chair next to him, beside the laid out tray. “Try just saying whatever comes into your head. I’m the only one here and listening, what does it matter how sensible it sounds?”

“....It’s polished.” Dale said after a minute. “Someone carved this.”

“Yes, at some point, but I very much doubt it was ever polished after it was first made.”

“Probably handmade. Beautifully, the joints are perfect.”

“Mhm?”

Dale turned it over again, looking at both sides of it, then put it down with a shrug of apology to Paul, tetchy with both the item and with himself.

“I’ve got no idea, sorry.”

“Why be sorry, hon?” Paul got up to fill a milk jug. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It’s not a deficit not to know, what have we lost? Anything you do pick up is a win. Even one thing.”

That was comforting. Paul could be extremely comforting; there wasn’t much he couldn’t persuade you to feel ok about when he wanted to. The object in front of him was still nagging. Dale looked at it for a moment, one hand fidgeting on the tabletop with the urge to do something about it, then he picked it up and got up to put it back in the pantry, high up on the top shelf and well behind the row of jam jars up there. Paul raised his eyebrows, watching Dale shut the pantry door perhaps fractionally more firmly than usual.

“What was that about?”

Distinctly embarrassed, Dale came to pick up the tray for him.

“Sorry. Having it sitting there was driving me nuts. My name is Dale Aden and I don’t like to not get it right.”

“No.” Paul agreed, turning the kitchen light out. “But equally, that item belonged to a boring, frustrating job and it drove a lot of people nuts, so it’s interesting your reaction is that you want it out of sight. It’s a butter mould. We were still producing our own milk, butter and cream when I first came here, David and Gerry both hated having to churn and mess around with the stuff. I think it’s one of the reasons Philip finally looked for a housekeeper. I won’t repeat what Gerry used to say milk and whey looked like, but we were still using that mould regularly then, and he would have cheerfully hidden it down a well.”

“I could be annoyed about it for all kinds of reasons, that proves nothing.” Dale said firmly, following him into the family room. “It has to be far more specific than that to have any kind of meaning.”

“I suppose it depends on with hindsight knowing what is and isn’t useful, being open minded and considering all possible evidence.” Paul said mildly. “If you hadn’t mentioned being frustrated by it, I wouldn’t have known to tell you that a sense of frustration certainly could be something relevant to that item. Recognising a possible piece of evidence doesn’t have to be driven by whether or not that particular piece of evidence is part of the conclusion you eventually draw? Does it? Or are we going to ditch every idea, hint, suspicion or implication that we’re following about the Connelly gang and Three Traders, and stick to only the hard, proven facts?”

Dale put the tray down on the coffee table, looking for holes in the theory.

“.........No. But that’s different.” he said rather lamely after a minute.

“It’s not.” Paul stepped over Riley who had stretched out on the floor again next to Jasper who was sitting beside the elderly and worn board game they were setting out, and sat down on the couch to pour tea. “Suspicions and ideas present theories to test. Indicate where to look for further information. Lead to specific, testable conclusions. Don’t they?”

Dale picked up a poured cup of tea and sat on the arm of Flynn’s chair, and Flynn confiscated the cup with one hand and pulled him back into his lap with the other.

“Stop glaring.”


*


“Do you do anything different on Sundays around here?” Mason asked at breakfast. “Not that I’ve got a lot of experience but you don’t really look like you do weekends.”

“The stock doesn’t stop for weekends.” Jasper had filled Mason’s plate this morning and Mason was actually eating without complaint, apparently getting hungrier for meals than he had been when he first arrived. “We still have the basic work to do whatever the day.”

“What do you usually do with your Sundays at home?” Paul asked him. Mason shrugged.

“Maybe watch some sport. Go for a meal with someone.”

“Did you used to do any of that on weekends?” Riley said to Dale with curiosity. Dale wasn’t eating much this morning. Paul had been watching him stir and poke at eggs for several minutes now, and he looked up as though he was glad for the distraction.

“It isn’t the way it sounds. Social occasions tend to be a good way to sweeten up clients to answer questions or co-operate with deals. Or keep them occupied while negotiations are going on. You’re working on them the whole time. I’ve been to ballgames and race course events where the setting was more or less a front to keep a large group of people in a holding pattern for a couple of hours while we did the running between them for whatever the objective was. Sundays are down time to talk with other staff while you’re not being bothered by clients, and to put in the preparation for whatever’s going to hit the fan on Monday.”

Mason’s expression was stunned, and he’d stopped eating too.

“Who did you work for?”

“A lot of people.” Dale said lightly. “I’m guessing you were good at the social settings.”

“Yeah.” Mason was still looking at him. “Yeah, I like working that way, you get a better relationship with the clients. Good for morale too. I had no idea you’d actually done this. I didn’t think anyone here really-”

“Got what you were doing?” Paul finished for him when he stopped, looking embarrassed. “There’s a reason C.E.O.s are our target group. One of the men who built this house worked as a counsel to CEOs and Corporate groups all the time I knew him. We were all kind of raised in the tradition, and Dale and several others are hands-on people.”

“I had no idea.” Mason gave Dale another faintly shocked look. “I can’t imagine you in a suit, man. No offense, but ....wow.”

Riley laughed, and Dale, after a slight pause, gave him a very warm smile, saying nothing more than a rather dry,  “Thank you.”

He still wasn’t eating as opposed to using a fork with creative purpose. With a little concern Paul watched him fold and turn over eggs, which gave the appearance of eating without any of it getting near his mouth. Dale wasn’t a finicky eater by any means, but food wasn’t something that he was particularly interested in. Flynn had had a few firm conversations with him over the winter about what was a necessary calorie intake for someone doing hard physical work in all weathers, particularly cold weather, and he wasn’t someone who gained or kept weight easily. Eating was also the first thing that tended to go if he was wound up about something, or not feeling well. He put a hand over against Dale’s forehead, and Dale reflexively flinched back and glanced towards Mason.

“I’m fine.”

“Eat something then.” Paul put the plate of toast nearer to him. “Who’s going to be around for lunch?”

“Mason and me.” Jasper glanced across at Flynn, who nodded.

“Probably me. I’m going to take a look at the mares and I’ll look over the cattle on my way back down if Dale and Riley can deal with the sheep?”

“Sure.” Riley leaned both elbows on the table, helping himself to another slice of toast. “So we’ll be out all day then.”

Flynn gave him a brief nod. “Thanks. Both of you back by four.”

“Though unless you eat something you’re not going anywhere.” Paul tapped on the table in front of Dale, who flushed and quietly started to eat. He had managed about half a plateful by the time the others left, with Riley putting his boots on by the door, and Paul leaned on the back of a chair to look at him, clearing the rest of the table.

“What’s the matter sweetheart? You’re looking like that’s going to choke you at any minute.”

Dale put the fork down, and there was something about his face that caught Paul’s attention. Nothing stressed or withdrawn or unhappy – in fact quite the opposite. His eyes were very unguarded in way that made Paul want to reach out and touch him.

“Sorry, it’s good. I’m just not that hungry this morning.”

“And you’ve got a rule about eating.” Paul pointed out. “Do you know why you’re not hungry?”

“Honestly?” Dale gave it a minute’s thought, but shook his head. “No. Just not hungry.”

“....Ok.” Paul took the plate. “As a one off, I’ll accept it just this once. But you need to be back for lunch please.” He ignored Riley’s hiss of protest, collecting the rest of the dishes from the table. “No, I don’t want to hear it. Back by twelve thirty and you’d better get going.”

“By the time we’re half way through we’ll need to come back!” Riley said exasperatedly. “And then we’ll have to head all the way back out there to get anything else done. We’ll take lunch, I’ll see he eats it, he’s not going to fade away between now and four pm!”

“I want you back by lunch time.” Paul said serenely. “Twelve thirty. See you later.”

Riley made a growling sound and disappeared out onto the porch. Paul put the last of the dishes into the sink and lifted his hands, startled, as Dale’s arms wrapped around him from behind in an unusually tight hug. He put a hand up and ruffled Dale’s hair, stroking the dark head on his shoulder, and Dale kissed his cheek before he let go. He was whistling when he pulled his boots on and Paul heard him run down the steps to join Riley.




They split up to work through the pastures with the lower maintenance stock, and met up over an hour later to deal with the younger lambs and the new mothers, which took a lot more time. It was long past eleven by the time they were finally through and climbed the gate into the next pasture where the horses were grazing. While you could trust Snickers around the older lambs who were also better at getting out of his way, the very small lambs, not yet wise to the quirks of horses, were in danger of being used as footballs if he was left unsupervised with them.  

“Want to go onto the next group?” Dale unknotted Hammer’s reins and Hammer stopped grazing and stood still to let him mount.

Riley dug a wet and muddy boot into Snickers’ stirrup and pulled himself up into the saddle, taking a minute to settle. He’d been working hard this morning, fast and energetic and Dale could still feel the sense of restlessness in him, something slightly wild, like a dog pulling hard on a leash. He’d known it in Riley before and it often ended with Riley in trouble, often through going off alone to some physical trial of strength that had as much danger in it as exertion. Climbing. Swimming. The places that left the others – including Dale – genuinely alarmed about the risks involved. At times he thought that it seemed to be the inevitable trouble afterwards that Riley craved more than the actual climb or swim itself, like a missile set to self-destruct.

“There isn’t really time.”

“It’s only half an hour home, we’ve got about ten minutes?” Dale suggested. Riley shook his head.

“Not long enough to do anything useful. Come on, we might as well have a look for any more of those plums lying around, we’re going to need to keep that pasture in use.”

“Might have to move the fence forward away from the tree line so they can’t get to fallen fruit.” Dale turned Hammer, watching Riley gather Snickers, and Snickers broke into a canter and jumped the gate into the next pasture. Sheep scattered well out of his path, and Riley turned to wait for Dale. It wasn’t often they didn’t take the simpler route of opening gates, but Riley was obviously in the mood for more of a challenge, and Dale let Hammer go, who was showing definite signs of wanting to follow Snickers, squeezed his calves against Hammer’s broad sides, and Hammer surged a few steps into a canter and sailed over the gate with a mighty explosion of force from his solid haunches. There was something intoxicating about his speed and strength along with his size. Where Snickers floated in mid air with his long and delicate legs, Hammer went at jumps like a charger and it was one of the many reasons Dale preferred riding him to every other horse on the ranch, he never stopped inspiring you to be a better rider, to be more responsive to the immense power controlled in his heavy frame. They trotted the horses down through the long pasture and jumped the last gate, and Riley dismounted, tying Snickers to the gate where there was no risk of him being able to graze. Dale followed his example with a slightly indignant Hammer, and walked with Riley to the bank. Riley paced slowly for a minute, collar turned up and eyes on the grass as he walked up and down the fence line, gloved hands in his hip pockets.  

“It was around here. The ewes were all grouped in this bit.”

Dale ducked between the strands of the barbed wire fence and walked up the steep, short slope of woodland.

“I can’t see any plum trees.”

“There must be.” Riley followed him, boots crunching on last year’s leaves as he climbed the bank. “Apples. Something. It’s going to be difficult to see until they’re in leaf anyway.”

“Not that difficult, this lot are all aspens.” Dale turned slowly, looking carefully. “I still can’t see a fruit tree here.”

“Well the sheep got stoned on something, and the turf sample was clean.” Riley crouched on the bank, brushing the dried leaves aside and sifting them through his fingers. Dale walked further up the bank, and Riley heard his footfall stop. And then start again for a few more paces. And then stop again.

“Ri?” he said after a minute. “Come here and look at this?”

Riley got up and followed him. This bank was a steep kind of bulge on the edge of the wood, and other banks grew even steeper beyond it. The woodland wound steadily uphill here; it was part of the strip of woods between the pastures towards home and the pastures that went to the east of their land and to Three Traders. Dale was walking slowly backwards and forward over the bulge, and as Riley reached him, he stopped and indicated right to left with the expression of intense interest that Riley associated with him working.  

“Look at this.”

“It’s a bank.” Riley agreed. “There’s a lot of them about.”

“Look at the shape of it.”

Riley stopped, taking him more seriously, and looked again at the shape of the bank under them.

“What about it?”

“You know where this leads?” Dale walked rapidly on through the woods, searching the ground as he walked, and Riley followed him.

“Generally? Keep walking through here and I guess eventually you’ll end up on the path that goes up to Three Traders?”

They were still walking on the bulge of the bank, and the trees were thicker here, there was no path and the ground creeper caught and pulled at boots unless you stepped carefully.

“Dale? Where exactly are we going? We need to be heading home or we’re going to be late. You’ve got no idea how grouchy Flynn gets when -”

Dale stopped and Riley almost walked into him. The bank dropped away here. Quite suddenly, and perhaps eight or nine feet down, and below them was a section of shallow water  maybe only a few inches deep, banked on either side by moss covered rocks and thick trees.

“Yes, and that’s a stream or a pond.” Riley said patiently. “There’s a lot of them too, we’re near a major river. What’s so fascinating?”

“Do you know this part of the woods?”

“It’s not near a path, so no?” Riley watched him start the climb down the mossy and plant covered rock bank and not uninterested, as Dale with that particular expression was often about to tell you something highly interesting, looked for handholds to follow. “This is a big ranch. We take care of the pastures, we clear the woods around the bridleways and where the stock grazes, but there’s plenty of places that probably no one goes near for decades at a time.”

Dale reached the ground ahead of him, standing ankle deep in the shallow, clear water, where the ground had a slightly reddish cast. The bank rose sharply on three sides around them, and the bed of the pond petered out slowly into a kind of wide and muddy empty river bed, littered with bits of dead wood, that ran for perhaps fifteen or twenty feet before trees and greenery began to take it over.

“This is man-made.” Dale said, turning to face the bank behind them. “Look at the angles and the depth?”

“What, you think it’s another part of the mine?” Riley followed him and watched Dale pull at the moss and the hanging ferns and creeper until some of it came away. What looked like grey rock bank was undeniably a stone wall, and Riley drew breath as he saw it emerge suddenly out of the green. A steep, high, grey stone wall, running up until it disappeared into the bank. It stretched to either side of them, perhaps ten feet wide.

Dale shook his head. “This looks to me like a railway cut. The bank’s been shored up, you can see where the rails would have been laid, it’s much bigger than the mine entrance we saw.”

Which was still buried under a landslide not incredibly far from here. Dale walked forward through the shallow pond and explored the creeper and moss in front of them.

“It’s been walled up. Probably a disused tunnel or siding. Quite possibly there was a section of track here that took coal from the mine entrance in the woods back to Three Traders station for loading. It’s amazing how much they worked these woods, particularly considering how soft the ground is, it’s overgrown but it’s all still here.”

“The track’s been taken up?”

“Or disappeared under the mud.” Dale dug experimentally with one boot. Riley ran a hand over the bricked up entrance in a few places with fascination, testing the strength of it.

“It’s good and solid. Where does it come out do you suppose?”

“If it’s a siding it may just be an offshoot of track.” Dale said speculatively. “It may just have been a shed or shelter for rolling stock, but the bank by the pasture still looks to me like it’s been worked.”

They climbed the bank wall again and this time followed the rounded bank back through the woods, perhaps the hundred yards that led back to the pasture. There was nothing to see until they reached the end of the bank, and there Riley stopped, looking with Dale. The curves were shallow, blurred by years of growth, grass and mulch, and growing trees, but when you knew what you were looking for, you could see it. At some time another cut had been started here.

“So the tunnel runs under the bank. It looks like an exit was started here but they gave up on it.”

“Possibly a planned tunnel that turned into a siding, who knows?” Dale, who had been walking around the highest crest of the bank just at the fence line, abruptly stopped and bounced slightly on the balls of his feet, testing the ground. He walked in slow circles for a moment, prodding at the mulch with one boot until he apparently found what he was looking for, and then he stamped with much more purpose. Riley grabbed for him, alarmed as there was a sudden sound of wet earth crumbling.

“Hey! No more landslides! I don’t do landslides or mines, or any underground- what the hell is that?”

Dale, keeping his weight on his back foot, jabbed again at the ground. This time the sound was wooden, splintering, and there was a much louder sound of earth and debris falling in space. A hole opened up, the sides of it still trickling earth down into the darkness, and a strong smell came up to them. Not an unpleasant smell by any means. It was throat catching, sweet and sharp, and after an initial hesitation Riley breathed it in deeply.

“That smells like – fruit. Alcohol and fruit.”

Dale returned his look with the cheerful and deceptively well behaved glint in his eye that Riley knew and which made him laugh, and then Dale knelt with care on the edge of the hole and stripped at the sides of it. There were beams in the way that weren’t shiftable, and they bore weight easily. What had splintered away were wooden boards buried under mulch and leaves, rotten and brittle, and Dale pulled with his gloves until he’d cleared enough of a space to see down. Riley pulled out his knife, opened the pen light and crouched beside him. The alcohol smell rolled out of the ground, so strong it made him cough, but down inside the hole the walls below were stone. Grey stone, and they were dry inside. After a minute Riley lay down full length on the bank and leaned his head and shoulders down into the hole, using the torch to pick out more detail.

“You’re right. It’s a brick tunnel. Whole! Absolutely whole, I can see the tracks down there. Dry too. Dale it’s wild, it looks like it was only shut up yesterday!”

He felt Dale stretch out shoulder to shoulder with him and a second penlight found the near wall. An iron rung ladder was set into the brickwork, and the penlight picked out rung after rung sound towards the ground. Riley leaned a little further forward to check the bottom of it, then got up and disappeared. He came back a moment later with a length of rope and Dale looked up to watch him fasten one end to a sturdy tree with several sharp yanks at a knot. He dropped the other end through the hole, took off his Stetson and jacket and dropped them on the ground, and Dale got up to take the other end of the rope and pay it out as Riley sat with legs over the edge of the hole. Then neatly, quickly, he disappeared inside. Dale kept the rope tight around his waist, braced and ready to take Riley’s weight if the ladder proved unreliable, but a few seconds later there was the crunch of boots on ground and Riley shaded his eyes, looking back up at him.

“It’s all sound, the rungs are fixed into the stone. Not even rusted, and it’s a stone roof. Stone walls.”

There was a pause while he looked around, using the penlight.

“We’re good. Come on down.”

He was right; the ladder was rock steady. Dale climbed down it to the ground and had a brief look at the wooden boards and beams above him with the hole in. It looked like at one time a door had been there, a work hatch or entrance way, an emergency escape that had been roughly patched over. The peculiar smell was almost overpowering down here, and it was cold, but dry. The tunnel had been well built, there was no sign of damp or flooding. Riley was a few feet away, torchlight slowly casting round in wonder, and Dale heard his low whistle, echoing slightly.  

“Dale. Look at this.”

It was a small steam engine, picked out in the thin beam of light. Not like the big one in the woods or the carriages still standing rusting at Three Traders station. A little, square, squat thing stood silently on the rails with four open box cars behind it. Riley went to lean over the sides of one.

“Coal. There’s coal grit and debris at the bottom, you were right. This must have been how they shunted coal back to Three Traders, this siding must have run through to the main line once. Who’d ever have known all this was underneath the woods? It’s amazing.”

 The rails were completely intact. Dale paused to look at the end of the tracks, then walked around to the far side of the train. The alcohol smell, stinging the throat and dominating the tunnel, was even stronger here. His penlight picked out a few wooden crates stood on the floor – and as he moved the light, he saw behind them a whole wall of crates. Stacked six or seven high, two or three deep- maybe fifty crates, neatly stacked. Touching with extreme caution, Dale crouched and shone the penlight into one of the open topped crates on the ground, then gently withdrew one of the twelve bottles packed inside it. The glass was brown, the label had long since faded, but liquid moved within the bottle when he tilted it. A few feet away where the smell was strongest, the torchlight picked out broken bottles and liquid on the ground. Riley’s torchlight joined his, and Riley stooped to look more closely

“Something’s been in here and disturbed it?”

“I don’t think so.” Dale investigated several more crates. “It’s the ones on the edge nearest this wall. I’d guess it’s been the change of temperature the last few weeks. No more snows, the ground’s warming up, the glass expanded. Or some of the bottles finally fermented and exploded.”

He dipped a finger in the liquid lying open and very cautiously tasted it. And laughed, resisting the urge to try to gulp air to put out the fire in his tonsils.  

“Whoa. I’m not surprised the bottle broke.”

“What’s it like?” Riley leaned down to follow his example, and produced a similar wheeze, starting to laugh too. “Hey! That’s David’s moonshine, I know the taste! Flynn’s got bottles of it hidden away somewhere, we keep it for special occasions. He and Jasper found a few crates years ago.”

He picked up one of the whole bottles, turning it in his hand. “Yes. David’s bottles look just like this one. No labels. We always thought he had a still himself, but he must have been getting it from the town, there must be – two, three hundred bottles here?”

“Five hundred and forty eight.” Dale said automatically. “Must have been quite an operation manufacturing all this, more than just a domestic still. Suppose this was the bootlegging racket the Cheyenne police were looking for?”

“How did so much end up getting sealed up down here then?” Riley took another look around the tunnel. “No one’s been down here in years, it looks like they parked the train one day and just walked away.”

“Sealed up one end, but left the entry hatch just boarded over.” Dale cleared his throat to get rid of the acrid alcohol fumes and found himself laughing again. “Bloody hell this is strong. No wonder the sheep were drunk, they must have been grazing right over the ground the fumes were coming up through. Do we take a bottle home?”

“Are you nuts?” Riley picked up one of the whole bottles to look at it. “Do you want to tell Flynn we just found a hole in the ground and popped down it to take a look? After the whole getting lost in the mine thing you want to mention this?”

“You want to not mention it?” Dale found himself struggling to take the matter at all seriously and straightened up, putting his sleeve over his mouth and nose. “I really need some fresh air.”

“I plan on not mentioning it at all.” Riley still tucked the bottle into his jacket before he climbed the ladder, “Ever. I don’t – oh hell.”

He disappeared into the daylight and Dale, following him up the ladder, caught sight of a pair of familiar riding boots standing on the bank, and an equally familiar hand helping Riley to his feet. For some reason that was incredibly funny too.





Flynn said very little at all. That was unfortunately the funniest part. By which time Riley was laughing too, and Flynn merely took the glass bottle from Riley and the penlight, stooped to look down through the hole, then closed and pocketed the knife and took them both by the back of their jackets.

Leo was tethered at the gate with Snickers and Hammer. Flynn took all three reins in one hand and continued to push both of them in front of him, all the way across the pasture. Walking, while paralytic with laughter, was not easy. Every time Dale managed to take a few breaths and get his face straight, he’d catch Riley’s eye and that set him off again. Once they reached the crossing place, Flynn knotted up the reins of the horses and nodded to them both, extremely curtly.

“Strip.”

That was even funnier. Riley shook his head, tears streaming, leaning on his knees to get his breath, and Flynn swatted him hard, pulling him up and peeling him out of his jacket.

“Both of you, strip. Now.”

It probably wasn’t a tactical time to be giggling. Dale kept his head down, avoided Riley’s eye and did the best he could to stifle it while he undressed and Riley probably did the same, but both of them kept bursting out into another hurriedly swallowed laugh.

“All the way.” Flynn ordered when they were down to their jeans and boots. “Everything.”

“It’s perishing!” Riley protested. “It’s only March.”

“Right now, I really don’t care.” Flynn said grimly. “I said everything.”

Being completely bare in this kind of temperature and in an open breeze was kind of sobering. They were both shivering a little when they reluctantly parted with their jeans and underwear, and Flynn took one in each hand, guiding them to a clear stretch past the crossing place where the water was eight or nine feet deep.

“In. Both of you.”

“What?” Riley looked horrified. “Flynn-”

Flynn swatted him again, just as hard, and on bare skin it was a lot louder. “You’re both going to jump in. Now.”

It wasn’t much of a choice. To face a large, very grim Kiwi clearly happy to go on swatting until he was obeyed, or to jump. Riley, wincing, stepped out on the rock, and discovering that there was no way here to climb down into the water gently, did the only thing left to do and jumped. Dale, wincing, saw no sense in waiting to follow him. It was cold enough with the March breeze and no protection, and the rocks were like ice under foot as he padded out as far as he could. Riley surfaced, swearing vociferously a few feet away, and bracing himself, Dale stepped out into the river.

Nothing was more sobering than the sudden, full body application of water that felt like ice. Dale surfaced, breathless with it and like Riley, pouring out expletives he usually wouldn’t have said this avidly or openly unless he’d put his hand on a hot stove surface. Flynn, standing on the rocks with his hands on his hips and one booted foot braced against a boulder, watched them dispassionately, both of them treading water as it was too deep here to stand, and both of them looking far less amused now than shocked to the core.

“Flynn!” Riley said pleadingly through chattering teeth. “Ok, I’m not laughing, I swear I’m not fricking laughing. I’m going to freeze!”

It seemed to take about another century before Flynn stooped and held out a hand to Riley, and Riley gladly took it and accepted the help to climb out. Unfortunately there was no way to do it without presenting a target and Flynn swatted him soundly, and did the same to Dale as he pulled Dale out.

“Rub down and dress both of you. Move.”

Drill sergeants would have run for cover at that roar. Dale and Riley fled for their clothes, shivering, and the hand prints flaming on Riley’s white butt gave Dale a good idea of what his own looked like. It was difficult pulling on clothes when you were wet and freezing, but once in jeans, boots and jackets it was considerably warmer. Flynn had mounted up on Leo and was waiting for them, and as soon as they mounted, he sent them ahead of him, pushing the horses to a brisk trot across the pasture towards home.



*



Jasper came to meet them in the yard, and his eyebrows rose steeply at the sight of both Riley and Dale, wet through and shivering. Flynn swung down from Leo, jerking his head towards the house.

“Both of you, get under the shower, change, wait for me in the study.”

Dale found himself bolting with Riley to do what he said, the shaking around his knees not entirely to do with cold. Paul was sitting at the table eating lunch with Mason around several empty plates set out, and his mouth opened at the sight of them.

“What happened to you!”

Jasper, appearing at the doorway, spoke perfectly calmly.

“Mason? I need a hand with the corral. Are you done?”

“More or less.” Mason got up and came to get his boots on. Jasper leaned on the door frame, looking pointedly at Riley and Dale.

“I’d suggest you two do exactly as you’re told, very fast.”

Paul, watching Dale and Riley disappear with all speed into the bathroom, got up and came to the doorway, keeping his mouth shut with great difficulty while Jasper and Mason went to get shovels, and then to the far end of the yard to begin the long and heavy daily job of mucking out. Flynn, at the gate of the corral, was in the process of taking tack from Leo with Snickers and Hammer tethered alongside, and Jasper put a hand on his arm and took over.

Paul, reading Flynn’s face as he stalked towards the house, felt his stomach sink in alarm.

“What?” he demanded as soon as Flynn was in the kitchen and out of earshot of Mason. “What happened?”

Flynn walked across to the sink and ran the tap to pour himself a glass of water. He spent a moment or two drinking, and visibly calming himself down a little, but his voice was very short when he spoke.

“They’ve found another underground structure. They’re bloody magnets for them. I didn’t enquire what, but they both went down into it. There’s some kind of alcohol down there, the fumes were overpowering and they were both high as kites.”

“Alcohol?” Paul said, startled. “Where?”

“Where the sheep got drunk, bottles of it, the fumes must have been coming up through the grass.” Flynn put the glass down on the draining board with a precise click. “I made them strip off and jump in the river. Which sobered them up damn fast.”

Paul swallowed a smile and put both hands up to stop him. “No. You go help Jasper and you calm down before you go near them. Flynn, I mean it. Not that I don’t trust you but you need to calm down first. It won’t hurt them to wait half an hour.”

He got a grim look, but Flynn turned on his heel and stalked out of the door. Paul let him go and watched through the kitchen window as he strode down the yard towards the corral. Half an hour of hard work would take the edge off him, and if Paul knew Flynn, it would be hard work. Flynn in this mood could move mountains.

Paul was clearing the table when the bathroom door opened. Riley and Dale looked warmer, extremely tidy in clothes fresh from the laundry room, and very unwilling to face him. Paul looked from one to the other of them until both of them were flushed and fidgeting, neither of them wanting to look at him and sheepishly, neither of them quite daring to look away either.

“Whatever Flynn says to you,” Paul said eventually, “You thoroughly deserve it. Dale, that corner, Riley that corner there.”

“Flynn said-” Riley began. Paul shook his head.

“I say stand there. Dale, take your hands off your head, you’re going to be there a long time.”

Dale automatically linked his hands in the small of his back, very upright. Riley looked more like wanting to disappear against his stretch of wall. Paul washed up from lunch without speaking to them, and when he was done got out the ingredients and began to make bread. He was laying it out in pans to rise when Flynn finally walked up the porch steps and into the kitchen. He spent a moment taking his jacket and boots off, and went into the bathroom. He was gone a while, and when he re emerged it was with damp hair and in clean clothes. He produced a short, sharp version of the stock whistle as he walked through the kitchen, and neither Riley nor Dale had any trouble understanding what he meant. They followed him in silence, and in the distance Paul heard the study door shut.

“Is there any reason,” Flynn said in the silence of the study, “After the two of you damn near died in the mine last year, why you thought it might be a good idea to head underground?”

“It’s not the mine.” Riley said unusually quietly. “It’s a railway tunnel and it’s brick built so it was safe-”

Safe how!”  The roar felt like it shook the windows. “Structurally? Air quality? In that any of us here had any idea where you were if things went wrong?”

Riley opened his mouth, about to snap back that Flynn had managed to find them with no trouble at all, when beside him, Dale put a hand over his and squeezed. Riley glanced at him and read his face. Dale was perfectly calm, he never minded Flynn when he was loud, and he was shaking his head slightly, reassuringly. It’s ok. Be quiet, let him get it out. Riley bit his lip, dropped his eyes and said nothing.

“We don’t have a whole lot of rules,” Flynn said when neither of them replied. He leaned forward on the desk towards them, bridging both his hands. “You go where you want and you do what you want on this ranch because as far as I’m concerned you are trustworthy and I don’t plan on that changing. I just plan on making it clear what happens when you make a bloody stupid decision like you did today.”

He pushed up off the desk and opened the bottom drawer of the desk, pulling out the deceptively thin and transparent lexan paddle. Riley cringed at the sight of it and Flynn tapped it shortly against his jeaned thigh.

“Both of you, drop your jeans and shorts and bend over the desk.”

There was a very unpleasant, silent moment of fumbling with clothes, and with the lexan in plain sight, Riley at least was torn between wanting to do it as slowly as possible and not daring to delay.

“Elbows, not hands.” Flynn said shortly when Riley leaned on the desk. That was harder and it took them a moment longer, bent far enough that their t shirts rode up over their hips, leaving both of them bare from small of the back to knees.

“If you’re told to be back here by twelve thirty, you’re back by twelve thirty,” Flynn said darkly when they were still. “We have deadlines for a reason, you never make someone worry and come looking for you without good reason. I’d have paddled you for that alone. What time was it when I found you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“It was ten past one. Forty minutes and you weren’t even on your way. If you want to look around some derelict structure, particularly an underground one, what do you do?”

“Talk about it.” Riley said, muffled by the desk. “Organise it.”

“You tell one of us and we’ll decide how we do it. You do not disappear into unknown, unexplored holes without a word to anyone. I don’t care if it’s the hole to wonderland, is that clear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Yes sir.”

Riley shut his eyes and his teeth as he heard Flynn move behind him. He heard the first sharp crack of the paddle and the jump and sound from Dale, then without warning felt the lexan snap sharply across his own backside. No paddle was exactly easy, but he hated this one with a passion. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as sting, right on the surface like a swarm of hornets right from the first, and Riley swallowed on a yelp. There was nothing to hang onto on a desk. There was another sharp crack to his left, and he braced himself for the matching one which redoubled both sting and fire. Flynn didn’t waste time, these were solid, nonstop swats, moving from one to the other of them, and by the fourth one Riley was twisting, finding it near impossible to stand still or not to yell rather than yelp. That more ground that damn paddle covered, the more the surface sting and burn just built up and built up, and danced all around until it was impossible to think about or be aware of anything else. By the tenth he couldn’t help himself and jerked upright, snatching both hands behind him. Flynn didn’t say a word. He simply wrapped an arm around Riley’s waist and bent him over his hip, collected both his hands in one large one, and delivered eight more rapid and all too accurate swats, and there was no way of avoiding tears. Riley was out of breath and sobbing freely when Flynn let him go to pull Dale off the desk, turn him over his hip in the same way and do exactly the same. Dale’s eyes were watering, his bottom was bright red and he was very breathless when Flynn let him go and put the paddle down on the desk.

“Both of you, dress. Dale, that corner. Riley, that one. I don’t expect to hear a word from either of you.”  

It was impossible to stand still after a session with that paddle. Dressed, which did nothing at all to reduce the sting or the fire, Riley shifted from foot to foot and up and down against the corner, trying not to too obviously put his hands back to rub his backside or his face. It felt like forever, but he was reaching the point of being able to stand still, and to breathe more or less normally when Flynn put a hand on his shoulder and he twisted around to get into Flynn’s arms. Flynn hugged him strongly, one arm around his waist and one around his head, voice quiet against Riley’s ear.

“Do not do that again. Go get some lunch.”

“Sorry.” Riley said just as quietly. Flynn dropped a hard kiss against his cheek and let him go.

Aware of Dale still stood in the other corner, Riley escaped as fast as possible to the kitchen and buried himself in Paul’s arms.



            Sitting to eat was another kind of ordeal in itself and Flynn sent them upstairs when they’d eaten, with orders to occupy their own separate beds. Feeling subdued, very warm and still somehow a whole lot better than he had for a day or two, Riley sprawled out on his bed and within half an hour of trying to get interested in his current book, fell asleep. He was woken by Flynn who sat on the edge of his bed with a glass of milk.

“Halfpint. Not too long until dinnertime, you need to wake up.”

Riley took the glass, wincing a little as he sat up, although mostly for effect. He’d slept deeply. Apart from surface soreness and the intense redness the lexan always caused, the worst was long over, and covertly surveying Flynn, Riley thought the worst of his annoyance was over too, which was reassuring.   

“Is Dale all right?”

“So long as you don’t want him to eat anything, yes.” Flynn didn’t sound particularly perturbed by it. “Why don’t you take your book and have a bath?”

“Because I’m sore!”

“You’ll be less so after you’ve had a bath.” Flynn said heartlessly. Riley gave him a half hearted scowl, aware that was true even if the first few minutes wouldn’t be fun.

“Like you’d know. Are you still mad at me?”

“No. But if you or Dale ever go underground again without me with you, I’m going to skin you both alive.”

“I checked it out, I had a rope, it was just-”

“Exciting to the point you quit thinking, yes.” Flynn stretched out on the bed and Riley ducked under his held out arm, curling up to him to drink the milk. The sense of peacefulness was as comforting as some time alone together to cuddle.  

“I am sorry.”

“I know.” Flynn’s hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him closer, gently rubbing over his hair, his back.  

“Did you look at the bottle we brought back?” Riley asked cautiously. Flynn nodded.

“Yes. I recognised it the same as you did. It’s David’s moonshine.”

“From the amount bricked up in the tunnel?” Riley said slowly, “It looks a lot like that was the bootlegged liquor.” 


*


“They’re both up.” Flynn said when he came downstairs. “I told them about half an hour.”

Paul made a non committal sound. He was making up tomorrow’s batch of bread and Jasper was visible through the window, walking down by the corral with Mason.

“Did you get Dale to eat lunch in the end?”

Flynn took Riley’s empty glass to the sink and rinsed it.

“Yes. One straight threat and no trouble. What did he say to you?”

“He didn’t.” Paul folded the dough again and turned it around in the flour on the table. “I just got that peculiar look he’s been giving me on and off for a couple of days now, and a major problem getting anything from his plate to his mouth, which is why I came and got you, and stayed out of his sight. I wanted to check. I think this not eating business is aimed at me.”

He saw Flynn’s expression and shook his head. “No, I’m not reaching advanced paranoia. Dale and I have been spending a lot of time working together on this research and I love it, this is probably the most concentrated time he and I have ever had to spend together. So what’s a guaranteed way to get my full attention without having to ask for it?”

His tone was neither concerned nor regretful; he sounded more as though he was informing of a plan, and knowing Paul, Flynn sat down to listen.

“I see what you mean. I heard you getting him to talk about the butter mould the other night. He’s opened up a lot to you.”

Paul folded and kneaded the dough one last time, then cut it and began to fit it into tins.

“The day we drove to Jackson, he told me a lot about what Mustang Hill felt like to him.
I feel closer to him this last week or two than I ever have. Which gives me a good idea of where this is going, I know this pattern. I think Dale’s trying to work himself up to telling me something. And it’s to me, not to us in general.”

Flynn ran a finger along the grain of the table, connecting up several pieces of information that had been stirring.

“I heard the word ‘manipulation’ a lot when we were talking the other night. He’s been watching how the yard work shows up Mason’s social ethics, and having another hard look at his own, and it was getting quite critical.”

“How?”

“Wait a minute.” Flynn got up and went to the study, bringing back Dale’s journal with him. Paul leaned on the table, watching Flynn flick through it until he found what he wanted, then twisted his head to read the short paragraph in Dale’s handwriting. Flynn watched him take it in, leaning back in his chair.

“The bottom line was that believing you’re no good with people is a convenient excuse for choosing to only engage with them in ways you’re comfortable with, on your terms. I wonder now how much he was thinking about you.”

“It’s that part I’m most interested in.” Paul put the last of the tins on top of the stove to warm and came back to wipe the table, tapping one finger on an earlier paragraph. The one that read:

Avoiding being too real with people by using distancing strategies like manipulating them to do things that keep them away from you, or using academic language, or intellectualising, is about keeping control, and keeping control is based on being afraid of what will happen if you don’t.

“I see quite a lot of that from him, he’s always found me harder to be close to. It’s something we’ve worked on for a while, and if I push a bit and nag a bit, we get there, but that says to me he knows what he’s doing and he isn’t happy about it.”

“You know the reason he finds you harder has nothing to with not wanting you?” Flynn said mildly.

Paul murmured agreement, gathering flour into his palm. “I know love, I don’t need reassuring. I get the same reaction from Tom: ‘I like you, so I’m leaving’. But Dale and I have been spending a lot of time together researching, and when you come down to it, what we’ve been doing are archetypal adult bonding activities. Shared interest, a shared project, the problem solving, and I think it’s made a difference.”

“He’s got the insight that he’s still holding out on you, so now he’s struggling to justify continuing to do it.” Flynn nodded slowly, thoughtful. “Particularly with Mason demonstrating holding out and manipulation to him on a daily basis.”

“And Dale might understand that he is holding back and he has a problem with this, but I don’t think he’s got any real or clear idea of what to do instead. We’re asking him to use knowledge that isn’t there.” Paul folded the cloth and sat down beside him. “I look at Mason, who when he’s really, genuinely mad and out of his depth, acts like a teenager. It’s immature, yes and we’re used to that, a lot of our clients have immature bits in their social skills when you take them out of their working context, it’s in the nature of the people they are. But even though it’s immature Mason’s using a wealth of knowledge about how people work, what buttons to press, how you talk to and act around someone to get the reaction from them that you want. And it makes me realise that Dale still has to remind himself to look me in the eye sometimes when he’s talking to me, because it isn’t instinctive to him to do it.”

“And when he’s stressed about something, eye contact lets you further in than he’s ready to cope with.” Flynn finished for him.

“It still feels more alarming to him to come to us when things go wrong than it does to try deal with something by himself, and now I can see why. It’s that most basic trust, the most basic nuts and bolts of a relationship.” Paul said flatly. “That’s where he’s struggling and that’s what I need to do something about. And my instincts are saying ok, if what he and I have been doing is helping, then let’s be honest about the fact that the adult parts of bonding are the least of his problems, and do this properly.”

Flynn steepled his hands, thinking it through. “We always have used a lot of basic bonding strategies with him. We do with all the clients and we do among ourselves; most of Philip’s routines were based on creating strong relationships. Eating together, we help prepare meals together, but no one takes responsibility for finding his own food. With the clients, we provide clothes, equipment, everything they need. We keep them with us, they’re with or near someone all the time, and it’s a long process before someone’s ready to work by themselves. With Dale, when we’ve really needed to decrease distance with him, we’ve always kept him right with us, a few feet away, without any distractions but watching us, being around us, talking to us.”

“Sleeping with you.” Paul said bluntly. “It made a huge difference to him when you first made him sleep with you in your room and it still does. You’ve always done a lot of this with him. I’d like to know if it was on instinct or because you knew where this was going.”

“I had an idea from the time we knew more about his school history. Sleeping near someone- the most basic part of it is being near someone’s warmth, hearing their breathing, the most primary way of regulating a nervous system.” Flynn met Paul’s eyes, giving him a rather grim shrug. “I’m here. You’re not alone.”

Paul nodded slowly.  “Which we don’t think he had much experience of before us. I’m starting to realise if he doesn’t get those experiences from us then he won’t have them at all. He’s trying to build on information that isn’t there. I think I need to do the proper, basic bonding stuff with him, and it needs to be me because it’s me that it most freaks him with. Which will probably mean it gets messy because he’s going to hate it.”

“He won’t hate it at all, and that’s the main reason it’s likely to get messy.” Flynn said wryly.

“It’s likely to make him very uncomfortable and that’s what tends to get out the strong reactions, but I think he’s trying to find some way to ask for my attention, to talk to me about this, and if the only way he can communicate it is by not eating then I’m going to do something about it. I don’t want to reinforce the link between eating and emotion any more than it already is in his head, and God knows he’s already had to look after himself more than anyone should have to. I won’t make him have to figure this out on his own.”

Paul’s voice was mildly fierce. He wasn’t asking advice or permission, this was a gentle ‘get out of my way’, and Flynn got up, putting his arms around Paul’s shoulders to kiss his cheek.

“Strong reactions tend to show we’re heading in the right direction. We’re going to need to let Jas and Riley know. Although I don’t think either of them are going have a problem, Ri’s always said we don’t push Dale hard enough on the basics.”

“I’ll take them both aside this evening.” Paul put his hands up to hold Flynn’s arms, sounding mildly exasperated and it wasn’t with Dale. “I fall into this trap with Dale again and again. It’s like with the clients: if everything’s easy we’re not doing it right. You have to keep on interfering, firmly, a lot. That was the whole mistake I made when he started working. I got sucked into his veneer of ‘everything’s going to be fine, I know what I’m doing’ and let him have a headspace where I wasn’t, and he obediently stayed in it and crashed and burned by himself.”

“We.” Flynn reminded him. “We all made that mistake.”

“I was the one here with him.” Paul said darkly. “And I know, you always have to work on staying in Dale’s space because he doesn’t know how to stay connected to you by himself. He’s got no idea. I credit him way too much with all parts of him being as confident as he makes them look.”

Jasper and Mason were walking up the porch steps, their footfall clear through the open door.

“That was down to all of us, and it’s a learning curve for all of us.” Flynn said quietly. “We’ll talk with the others this evening.”

He squeezed Paul’s shoulders and walked into the family room to bank the fire up. The glow of it lit the room, the hearthstone was warm and it was getting dark outside, the room was filled with shadows moving from the flames. Dale padded downstairs. He was wearing jeans and an outsized slate grey sweatshirt which turned his eyes several shades darker and hung loose on him, making him look lithe and relaxed and extremely distracting. Mason, Paul and Jasper’s voices were in the kitchen, faintly in the distance and talking about something- Flynn couldn’t hear what. He met Dale at the bottom of the stairs and Dale stood on the bottom step above him and pushed both his hands lightly through Flynn’s hair, cradling his head. Flynn looked at his eyes for a moment. Gentle, a little watchful, tuning into his mood. Flynn picked him up from the step, holding him so that Dale looked down at him.

“You know we love you?”

It was a serious question and he saw Dale reflect on it, looking directly into his eyes, then nod thoughtfully. A weighed up, fully evaluated and confident answer. 

“Yes.”


~ * ~





Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015



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