Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 14


14


"Just take him around a few times," Riley suggested, climbing up to sit on the rail of the training paddock.

Dale had been a well trained and good, instinctive rider when he came to them, and after weeks of concentrated daily practice, he had honed his skills. Snickers, who was one of the most challenging horses on the ranch, responded smoothly to his knees and Dale had a light but authoritative hand on the rein – the gelding walked, trotted, transitioned effortlessly to a canter, circling the training pen, and Dale took him round the figure of eight several times before he took Snickers across to the rail where Riley was watching. Riley rubbed Snickers' velvet nose, nodding.

"No problem. The babies are spookier, but I've seen you handle Gucci when she's pirouetting, you'll be fine."

Dale slid down to the ground, leading Snickers with him into the yard. Flynn had one of the very newly saddle broken two year olds in the stable pasture and was finishing tacking him up. For several weeks now Dale had watched him working patiently with this group of youngsters, walking alongside them with an arm over their backs, resting his weight in one stirrup, leaning on them before dismounting, and finally, mounting to sit gently in the saddle and walking them around the pasture. There was no bucking or sidling or any signs of anxiety other than an occasional quiver or a curious glance. Flynn, with his quiet hands and voice and his pocket full of oats, seemed to be able to do this without alarming them at all.


"Dale's fine." Riley said confidently, climbing the fence to join Flynn. "No worries."

"Good, you two are lighter than I am." Flynn fastened the girth strap and moved to let Riley past him to take the bridle. "Take it gently and stay in the yard this time."


Gerry put down the broom he was using to sweep out the stables and came to lean on the fence to watch as Flynn began to tack up the other two year old, and the expression on his face caught Dale's eye. Talking softly, Riley petted the colt for a moment, then led him around the pasture a few times, walking him, trotting him, praising him with the same quiet voice. When he finally and unhurriedly mounted up into the saddle, the colt made no demur and Riley took him around the pasture a few times more before he walked him out into the wider space of the yard. Flynn handed the rein of the other two year old to Dale with a nod after Riley.

"Follow Riley. These two like each other and they'll get confidence from being together."

Dale found himself automatically petting and talking to the colt as he led it away, soothing it with skill he hadn't noticed himself honing in the past few months. There was something very powerful about pouring out this kind of attention to a living being, and watching the response.

To begin with, he and Riley rode the colts in the yard, which was large enough between the drive gate and the south pasture gate to stretch their legs but also to be safe ground and easy to catch the colts if they panicked. As it was, they behaved beautifully.

"The fun part is when they're confident enough to go further a field." Riley said when they took the tack off the two colts outside the barn. "I love that part every year, just wandering all over the ranch with them. Have to teach them about everything – rough ground, steep slopes, picking their way through woodland and watching their feet, mud and water, jumping - it's perfect summer and fall work."

Gerry was once more working in the stables and well out of earshot. Dale paused, watching him, then returned to unbuckling tack.

" ….. have I done something that bothers Gerry?"

"The way he was looking outside the pasture?" Riley shook his head, lifting down the colt's saddle. "Not many people we'd let work with the babies at this stage. Hardly anyone outside of us in the family rides often enough or well enough to be able to do this kind of thing. Gerry's nose might be a bit out of joint, that's all."

"I'm sorry." Dale said soberly. Riley shrugged, giving him a smile.

"Why should you be? It's much more fun to do this with you."

That was all very well. Dale put away tack – aware of Flynn watching him as he was watching constantly the last few days – wishing that Gerry would go back to wherever Gerry came from and make this whole situation less complicated. It was difficult enough already.  

You work less as a friend than as a brother. So be that brother when the work stops.

Jasper had said that – and Jasper wasn't given to idle chatter. He had meant, and Dale understood: 'you assume without asking that you won't be wanted and so you don't even try'.

It's true. And it all comes down to work. Give me work – any work – and I'll be fine, I know who to be. Take the work away… And you get Dale Aden, the indecisive mess. Agh, God, what the hell am I going to do about Flynn?

There had been men in the past year or so – at the top of Dale's mind came a PA with a lovely smile in Los Angeles and a sweet Japanese accountant – with whom he had shared a bed and a meal, sometimes several nights in a row, before a parting on good terms without regret. There had been warmth, friendliness, companionship. There had not been this kind of adolescent crush. There was no kinder term to describe it.

This was probably, rationally, a fairly normal reaction for a client here to have. 'Transference', the classic psychological phenomena, where someone dependent transferred their dependency to their therapist.

After all, here's this perfectly beautiful, amazing man who makes you let him touch you – even hold you – and makes you talk to him, and understands near damn everything – you'd have to be a stone not to respond to it. Right? That's it. It's fine. Just transference. And if I keep quiet and embarrass no one, it'll pass, and with any luck no one will ever need to know.

What was weirder still, it was almost entirely emotional rather than physical. A low sex drive was a side effect of constant over work – Dale had long since been aware of that; it was another choice you made in the lifestyle he had been living in the corporation, and it had gone from 'low' to 'not registering at all' around the time of the breakdown. Dale hadn't liked to mention it to Flynn, but was fairly sure the two things were tied up together. 

That's probably a part of it too. You're recovering, you're finally remembering what testosterone is for, you're no longer so knackered you don't have any, and the whole thing's come as a shock the first time you see a particularly good looking guy.

Except there were four very good looking guys in this house, all of whom Dale was very fond of, and only one was occupying most of his waking thoughts.

Riley would have been my type before. Someone gentle, funny, something like me, and who always made the first move. I might have looked at the Flynn types, but I never would have tried.

Who are you kidding Aden? There are no Flynn types in any Corporation you've ever seen and they wouldn't be caught dead there.

"Dale? Are you ok?" Riley asked, pausing in the stable doorway. Dale hung the saddle over the saddle tree, pulling himself together.

"Yes, sorry."

"For what?" Riley said shrewdly. Dale shrugged awkwardly, following him back towards the yard.


"Day dreaming I suppose."

"Mhm." Riley gave him a careful look. "I apologise a lot when I've got a bad conscience about something. You don't have to tell me, but if I can spot it, Jas and Flynn will see it coming a mile away."

"I don't." Dale protested. Riley shrugged, still watching him.


"Ok. But be careful."

A battered green jeep was in the yard when they gathered for lunch, and a strange man in an equally battered green army jacket was sitting at the table, drinking tea. He grinned at the sight of Flynn and Flynn shook his head, coming over to shake hands.

"Emmett. What a strange coincidence you'd just happen to turn up for lunch today."

"When you've got a damaged arm and shoulder?" Emmett said cheerfully. "I'm pre cognisant."

"And Paul has a big mouth." Flynn said without heat, looking at Paul, who gave him a serene shrug and held out a hand for Dale.


"Emmett, meet Dale. Dale Aden, Emmett Pearce, our local doctor."

"'Local' meaning about fifty miles square." Emmett rose to shake Dale's hand, giving him a friendly smile. He was tall, aged about forty, with dark hair, crooked teeth and a nose that looked as though he'd broken it at some point and not troubled to do much about its repair. "The joys of a one man practice. Good to meet you, Dale. Are you visiting long?"

"As long as he wants." Paul said comfortably. "One of our peripatetic residents, speaking of which…….?"

Gerry, who had come in behind Dale, looked at Emmett and his face lit up. Emmett came over to shake hands, looking equally pleased.

"Gerry, no one told me you were back! Is Ash here too?"

"Hopefully in a day or two." Gerry said cheerfully. "Still racketing around Europe at the moment."

"Would someone give me a ring when he does appear then?" Emmett said hopefully, sitting down. "It's been far too long since we went fishing. I'll get the kit out of the loft and maybe we can take a day while he's here? Is he just swinging by to pick you up or are you two around for a while?"


"I'm hoping I can talk him into staying at least a few days." Gerry took his seat at the table, taking the vegetable dish Paul passed him, and Dale heard his voice change to a tone he'd never heard from Gerry before, something with a good deal of sincerity.

"It's been far too long since he had any kind of proper vacation and we only ever get to relax properly when we're here. I want a few days with him doing nothing but riding out and staying out until suppertime. He needs it."

"Time was, all you wanted was to head into Jackson for a wild night out." Emmett said, grinning. Gerry snorted, but he flushed a little.


"Well I grew out of that, thank you. It wasn't quite so touristy when I was first living here."

"We go there only under protest." Paul agreed. "I think it's the same for most of the locals."


"Do you cover many towns?" Dale asked softly. Emmett shook his head, digging into the pie and vegetables Paul served him.

"Not really. It's a big territory and a lot of travelling, but a lot of that is people like yourselves – one family and maybe a few hired hands in the middle of a lot of land. Probably about two hundred people on my books all told, and that's enough to keep me comfortably going. Paul this is fantastic, what is it?"

Paul laughed and Riley, who had also been eating as though he was starving, grinned at Flynn.

"Kiwi pie. Paul always makes it if he wants to cheer Flynn up. Steak and cheese."

"It's a New Zealand habit." Flynn said calmly. "Meat pies and hangi."

"You've never inflicted that on us yet." Riley pointed out. "That's the barbecue in the ground thing?"


Flynn nodded. "Oven under ground. Maori tradition. I never saw it; there wasn't anything much but sheep where we lived. The meat pies I knew about. And fish and chips. We have a lot in common with the Brits." 

That comment didn't help. Dale kept his head down, avoided Riley's eye and concentrated on dinner until he felt his face cool slightly.

When the meal was over, Emmett got up and pulled a still more battered black bag from under his chair, and said cheerfully to Flynn, "Want to use the study?" And Flynn looked skyward but got up and went with him.

"He isn't any worse." Paul said to Riley as soon as Flynn was out of earshot and Riley swung around on him. "I just want him checked over. You know what he's like; he'd walk around on a broken leg for a week out of sheer obstinacy. Are you going out to look over the brood mares this afternoon?"

"Well if I do, Flynn doesn't have to." Riley said bluntly. "I'll head out now."

"I can carry on with the stables." Dale said quietly. "That's the other heavy job left to do."


"If you stay under my eye and swear you won't wander off no matter what?" Paul said wryly. "I mean it Dale. Scouts honour and whatever else necessary, or Flynn is going to wring my neck."

Paul was, by nature, always a good deal more ready to trust and to negotiate than Flynn, who Dale knew would simply have said 'no'. But that willing offer of trust from Paul was in itself more binding than the sternest of orders. It was easy to return his smile and Dale held up a hand, sincere. "I promise."

"Go on then. Thank you." Paul started to clear the table and Dale pulled on boots, heading back towards the stable where he and Flynn had been working through the morning. Several stalls remained to be cleaned and the passages swept and the feed bins filled, which meant then doing the corral feed and water bins too – it had become second nature. Dale was sweeping when he heard the stable door close and straightened up, and found himself looking at Gerry who came to lean both arms on the stall door, looking at him.


The fact Gerry had closed the door in itself was alarming: Dale felt his stomach lurch, but Gerry spoke very quickly as though afraid Dale wouldn't hear him out.

"Look, I just wanted five minutes to talk to you without an audience. You're pretty hard to get alone you know?"

Dale gave him another look and then carried on sweeping. Listening, but not actively. It was always a good trick to discourage colleagues intent on gaining your support for something you didn't approve of. Gerry sounded more hesitant when he spoke again, as though the technique was working a little too well on him.


"I just want to know why you don't like me? Dale quit that for a minute? Please?"

Dale straightened up. Gerry gave him a faintly twisted smile that wasn't very happy.

"I'm not used to people not liking me. I'm actually a pretty nice guy mostly? I've got a big mouth, I know, but people don't usually head the other way as soon as they see me coming."


It was the most genuine Dale had ever heard him sound. Gerry watched him for a moment, then when Dale didn't answer, took another breath.

"I don't get you either. I mean you're pretty quiet anyway, but every time I open my mouth Riley or Paul jumps to your defence, or Flynn and Jasper are hovering around watching. You don't say much but you brat to Olympic standards in the 'disappearing without warning' stakes, and then your eyes came out on stalks when you saw Riley sit on Flynn's lap. And when I mentioned Ash over lunch, you looked at me like I'd grown another head."

"I was just surprised." Dale admitted. Gerry looked at him over his folded arms.


"What, that I'd notice or care that Ash needed a rest? Dale, I make a lot of noise. David used to call it 'screaming queen' when he wanted a fight – but it's mostly harmless. This is still pretty new to you, isn't it? The lifestyle? Don't look like that, I don't mean you're doing anything wrong. You're still at the stage where you're in trouble one heck of a lot and you don't always see it coming until it's happening, and you're still trying to figure out how it works?"

That was so accurate – and so kindly said – that Dale blinked at him. Gerry gave him a wry smile.


"Honey, join the club, we got jackets. Riley and I both came to it pretty young, and I think in a way that's easier. David was ten years older than you when he first met Philip and he survived, although he used to say it might have come more slowly and painfully for his being older, but he understood right from the start the whys that he didn't think he'd have understood in his early twenties. He and Philip more or less reined him in together, it was a team effort, and David was not the soft and cuddly type."

"I can't get over that you knew David." Dale said softly. Gerry's smile deepened.

"For a few years, yes. We fought like cat and dog sometimes – you could forget completely how old David was, and he never looked it anyway, but he was electric. He filled a room just be being asleep in a corner of it, he was that powerful – and he was anything but what you expect of an 'old' man. When I first came he was still active, rode all over the ranch, did whatever we did."

Gerry said it with such resounding affection in his voice that the meaning of 'cat and dog' fighting took on to Dale the same meaning as Riley and Flynn's occasional skirmishes.

"You're the first one of us who didn't know either of them," Gerry added quietly. "I can't imagine how that feels. They were so much at the root of all of us, but like I said when I first met you, I'm so damn glad
we're still recruiting. It's like coming back here and finding the ranch still running day on day like it always has. Flynn and the others just keep it rolling, and it's like waiting for Philip and David to stroll in for dinner. Like they're never really out of sight."

Dale heard the very faint crack in his voice and was startled as Gerry's eyes blurred with water. Gerry blinked once or twice and looked away, still smiling.


"That's what I'm so sorry you missed. They were amazing people – made you feel like they'd been waiting for you all your life to realise and come home where you belonged, and they convinced every one of us that we did belong, no matter where we came from, no matter what we'd done. I was twenty when I first came here and this is still what I call 'home'. So if I'm doing something wrong and making you hate me, I have to fix it somehow, because that isn't how 'we' work. We both belong here and we have to figure out how to get along. Or Philip is going to come back and haunt me."

Something in the way he said it rang a bell at the back of Dale's mind. A rock in bright sunshine and blue eyes. The image flashed and was gone.  

"It's my fault." Dale put the brush down, not sure what to do but not comfortable. "I'm- "

The silence was resounding. Gerry waited, looking puzzled. Dale swallowed.


" – new at this, like you said. I kind of had a – a breakdown I suppose, a while back, and I'm still a bit jumpy around people."

The ready compassion in Gerry's face surprised him, the change was immediate and Gerry put a hand out to touch his arm.


"How horrible! Dale I'm sorry. I can completely understand why the others are protective around you, I wish someone had told me. You must be an accountant or something, the way you sorted me out with the bank?"

"Something like that." Dale said lightly.

Protective? Around me? Are they?

Gerry nodded slowly.

"Yeah, high stress stuff. You should see some of the guys they get through here as clients. I guess they've told you about the client stuff they do?"

Ouch. Dale gave a kind of half shrug that didn't really answer. Gerry took another brush from its place against the wall and started to work on the hallway, and Dale went back to his own work, glad of the excuse to break eye contact.

"They didn't always do clients." Gerry said conversationally. "Philip had friends come here for years – he had an eye for anyone who needed help that way and so many business contacts who'd come here for advice, he was good at grabbing people for a rest and talking them around. Plus sorting out any of us that he and David stumbled over and took home. Jasper was one. Flynn was another, and Flynn was a fairly major project – then when he had Flynn here with all his qualifications, they talked it through and it started to form up as a real business."

"Qualifications?" Dale repeated, attention caught. Gerry nodded.


"He's had more published than Paul has if you count papers. Psychology. That was what he was studying when he started here doing vacation work. Another born workaholic. Ash has always said that's how he understands their clients so well. Helping other people break the addiction he broke."

Bloody hell.

"Why was he such a project?" Dale said, slightly stunned. Gerry leaned on the broom, wincing as Dale moved on to the next stall.

"You know you go at this like a tank? I get intimidated just watching."

"I'm not rushing." Dale said mostly for his own reassurance. And he actually wasn't. Somewhere he had picked up Flynn's trick of steady efficiency, and it felt very different to the frenzied, high speed that he used to think of as normal.


"No, but you don't half cover ground." Gerry said dryly. "Flynn was about nineteen I suppose, he'd had a God-awful row with his own people before he came out to the US. You know, one of several sons on a sheep station in the back of beyond, and his family wanted to know why he wanted to waste time and money studying when he didn't need qualifications to grow sheep for the rest of his life. In the end he left home, came over here and worked to pay his way through college. Philip used to be good at the fish on the hook thing. You know? I saw him do it with Jas too. He'd start out with whatever arrangement got them to stay, and then gradually, gradually, he'd reel them in. To start with Flynn had a room and he studied and he worked and he just about sat with us for a meal, and he went to Philip for orders, and that was it. It was like living with a volcano. Never actually erupting, but you could hear it simmering."

This was gossip. Dale heard a guilty voice stirring at the back of his mind that the others had a clear ground rule of not discussing each other's backgrounds, but this was too fascinating to stop. Gerry propped his chin on his hands, considering.

"Anyway. Philip worked on him. Bit by bit. He always said Flynn was two parts horse, Riley says it too. Hard work, good food, good handling and you start building trust – that's the principles they work their clients by still? He always said Flynn was angry and sore mouthed from bad handling, and was crashing around with no idea of who was boss, and so Philip made it very clear he was. They had a couple of real clashes to start with, Philip always won, and Flynn got hold of Philip as a kind of pack leader. Herd stallion. He was Philip's absolute right hand after that. I don't think there's anything Flynn wouldn't have done for him. The rest of us only ever called Philip 'sir' if we were in trouble, but I think Flynn called him 'sir' even in casual conversation until the day Philip died."

He doesn't do strong emotion well.

The way Paul said that, with love, spoke clearly of the Flynn Paul had known at nineteen, without family or roots or anyone strong enough to contain him. Or to teach him how to contain himself.   

"So how did he practice if he was a psychologist?" Dale said out loud. "You said he published papers?"

"To start with he came out here for working vacations." Gerry said easily. "We used to joke about the thunderheads building when the end of semester was coming, it was like having a storm settle over the ranch. Although he worked bloody hard, with the stock and on his college work, and Philip kept a pretty strict hand on him. I don't think that ever stopped actually. Even when Philip was near the end and I was here with Ash, I saw Philip once or twice sign to Flynn to quit and come out of the study in the evening, and Flynn can't have needed it by then. You've seen the guy, he's got 'TOP' printed all the way through him like a stick of Blackpool rock. Anyway, once he got into his post grad year, he more or less lived here, studied and worked, and when he qualified, he and Jas and Paul and Philip talked together about formalising visiting CEOs into an actual business. Most of Flynn's published stuff I believe is about workaholics. I can't say I've read them. Ash has a couple of his papers, I know they've been published in some quite serious journals. I don't think they took any clients as clients though until after Philip died. It's something the four of them do together – Flynn, Paul, Jas and Riley. You know those four are welded together at the hip anyway?"

Dale thought about that, moving onto the last stall.

"Were they always like that?"

"Kind of." Gerry said cheerfully. "Ash and I had moved out to Seattle before Riley came here, but he was still only a kid – really a kid – I think some of the terms of Philip letting him stay was that he finished school and he studied from here."

Talking about Riley felt too much like betrayal. Dale changed the subject fast.


"And none of them ever paired off?"

"No." Gerry gave a few more desultory brushes with his broom, clearing dust and not much else. "Philip never pushed so much at the Top types but he had a thing for pairing brats – he invited Ash here among others that he thought I might like – but those four just stuck together like glue. Jas and Flynn did pretty much everything together when I lived here – before Jas would live in the house Flynn spent hours up at the barn up on the tops with him in the evenings, they always worked together; and Paul can't resist anyone who looks like they need taking care of, so he spent hours talking Flynn around and persuading Jasper down into the house and they both warmed up to him before anyone else- I wasn't here when Riley came so I don't know how he slotted in with them."

So how did a psychologist – an educated man – decide to spend his life raising horses in Wyoming?

While he works on one client at a time, his way, stupid. The way Philip rescued him.

Dale finished the last stall and put the brush away, still deep in thought. Gerry put a hand out as Dale passed him, looking anxious.

"You don't hate me, do you? You get that really scary face when you're thinking- in fact a lot of the time you scare the living daylights out of me, and I'm not used to that in brats."

"Sorry. No, I'm not mad." Dale said fairly gently. "Just a lot to think about. Thanks Gerry."


He had no idea what Gerry did or where he went, only that he didn't follow when Dale went into the house. There was no sign of Paul as Dale eased off his boots and washed in the bathroom off the kitchen. No sign of anyone as he padded upstairs to change into clean clothes. The house was silent.

And there was an office, with a computer up here.

It was the first time it had occurred to Dale to try using it. Had he known it was here in the first few weeks he would have struggled not to try involving himself in office work – but now that was irrelevant. There would be no going back to the offices or the work. The simple reminder was amazingly powerful and came with a rush of freedom. Exhilaration as much as anxiety.

But that wasn't what he wanted the computer for now. It would mean trouble if he was caught; it broke house rules, and that made Dale stop and think. And moreover, it was actively spying on Flynn, which was much worse. The hurt that might cause him was unthinkable. Reluctantly, half way to the office, Dale stopped and turned away. It was a strong impulse, the simple longing to research the name 'Flynn O' Sullivan' and to know more - but not one to be allowed. Dale made himself walk away from the door.

At the other end of the hall a door stood open however. A door that never stood open. Wondering if Paul was there, Dale padded on socked feet to the room that had once been Philip and David's. He had been in here once before with Paul, and had been touched to find it had been left as it had always been. Apparently Philip and David had been loved too much by the men who lived here for them to bear to remove their presence. The bedroom still looked as though it waited for them to come home, but there was no sign of Paul. Dale stood in the open doorway, not wanting to intrude inside. The house rules were clear – all rooms other than the public ones entered by invitation only, and this was intensely private ground – but oddly Jasper's words came back to him again.

"You work less as a friend than as a brother. So be that brother when the work stops. Don't assume we have no need of you there too."

Dale took a breath and stepped softly into the room. It was the biggest of all the bedrooms he had seen in the house, the large double bed neatly made, the corner shelves stacked with photographs, the dressing table dusted. A sheet of paper had fallen from the dresser, half underneath it on the polished floorboards. Dale stooped to pick it up and gently put it back, catching sight of a slanted, looped hand and yellowed, brittle paper.
P.

You know where I'll be.
Always.

D.

The brusque meanings behind it were manifold. Dale wondered briefly if this was the last note David had left, the one Paul had told him about, or if this was just a simple message years older that meant David planned to be late for dinner. There was no way to tell. He paused beside the corner shelves of silvered photographs behind glass. Rows of them; one of the two had loved to keep the faces of loved ones about them. Dale, who had never personalised a room in this way or kept something near him simply because he loved to look at it, found himself awed and slightly jealous of someone who could do it so easily and confidently. There were so many faces in the pictures, which must have spanned fifty years, black and white pictures more than coloured ones. Most of the faces were unknown, but searching the rows, Dale found one that had caught his eye before – a group of men at a fence somewhere, at the back of which stood Flynn and Jasper, side by side, probably in their early twenties. Neither of them looked very much different, but they stood shoulder to shoulder as they leaned against the fence rail. There were several that showed a younger Paul, much slimmer with darker, longer hair but the same sweet smile. One of Riley, thin and gangly and with the bony angularity of late adolescence. Several of Gerry in various groups, although at twenty he had looked very different and it was only by his eyes and smile that Dale recognised him.

The larger picture by the bed showed the two men in middle age, side by side on the porch, and Dale looked for some time at their faces. Philip and David. David was the taller by a few inches, lighter built and even in the picture restless hands and long legs were obvious in how he lounged against the rail. Philip was more powerfully built and stood square on his feet, an arm around David's hips, his gaze direct at the camera. His eyes almost reached out and physically touched. Dale shivered a little, feeling the hairs on his neck prickle, and smiled at himself, making himself look away. At the back of one of the shelves stood a very old picture, blurrier with age than the newer ones, and apparently in a steep street rather than on the familiar rough turf of the ranch. Dale gently picked it up to look more closely at the three men stood outside a pub sign on the bricked street in heavy sweaters and boots. All young men, perhaps his own age. Two were completely unfamiliar. The third –

Vivid eyes and crashing water.

Dale felt his breath catch sharply in his chest. The shock of hair, the length of the legs, the restless way of standing, the smile that was so warm it reached out and caught you. If there was any colour to the picture the hair would be a dark chestnut and the eyes would be blue.

David.

Dear God, I saw David.

Dale dropped down on to the side of the bed, picture still in his hands, then looked sharply around the room.

Just an empty, peaceful bedroom. But it was David in the picture and David he had seen by the river, warning him back from the cougar. Meeting him at the falls, the very heart of the ranch. David.

It's not possible.

The rush of shock came with a powerful and an icy wave of fear.

Bloody hell, it's happening again. I'm hallucinating again and I never even noticed! I thought I was past this. I really thought this was over.

David had said something – Dale remembered the voice – but the words were gone as though the crashing water had drowned them out. But he had been there, he had smiled, he had spoken.

Yeah, like Caroline and the fire alarm in the family room downstairs, it was just the same.

But…I couldn't have dreamed this. I never saw this picture before. Maybe there's a picture somewhere I saw early on without really noticing and I've imagined the whole thing – that's far more likely, how on earth would David know or care who I was? But he always looked as real as anyone else. David

Softly, very softly, heart still thumping, Dale put the picture back in place. David who had fought with Gerry and loved Paul and lived his wild life until he met Philip. And Philip, who had tamed Flynn and knew him better than anyone, who had been the anchor Flynn needed. Dale appreciated all the power in Flynn's personality, he had known plenty of powerful, dynamic men with the kind of force Flynn had, worked with them and understood them, and knew he had at least some of that himself. In a teenaged boy, hurt, angry and bitter, filled with all that power without purpose save for study – in some ways he and Flynn were very alike.

Despite himself, Dale swallowed on a rush of emotion. Admiration. Compassion.

Because I know – oh God I know – exactly what he felt like, and he was so young. And he overcame it, he put the whole force of himself behind something good and worthwhile. All that sense, all that strength.

Dale paused to straighten the bedspread, returning it to its state of immaculacy, and he went to stand for a moment at one of the windows that looked out on three sides at the ranch. It was like a panorama over the landscape, the horses, the aspen woods, the corral, the distant tops. He shut the door softly behind him when he left.



They were late gathering for dinner that evening. Flynn, apparently persuaded by Emmett and Paul together to take the heavy anti inflammatory shot Emmett prescribed for a badly bruised arm and shoulders, had dozed much of the afternoon. Riley and Jasper came home and Dale went out to help them put away the horses and shut the ranch down for the evening while Gerry chopped vegetables and Paul put away his notebooks and cooked which he seemed to enjoy doing as much as the rest of the family enjoyed eating the results. It was only as they were collecting in the kitchen, setting the table and waiting in turns for the bathroom to wash up, that a car was heard in the distance and Gerry whooped and shoved past Riley to get to the door.

"Leave them alone," Paul said when Riley followed. "They'll come in when they're good and ready."

It was a good ten minutes before anyone came back up the porch, and Dale looked up to see Gerry with his arm around the waist of a fair and greying haired man with a moustache, big feet and wire rim glasses. Gerry looked radiant and the man didn't let him go to return Paul and Riley's hug, or to shake hands with Flynn and Jasper. He smiled at Dale and Dale rose to shake hands across the table as Gerry pulled out a chair beside his.

"Ash, this is Dale. Obviously, as you know everyone else. When did you get in? Why didn't you tell me you were flying into Cheyenne?"

"Because you would have been there waiting since dawn." Ash said mildly, shaking Dale's hand. "Good to meet you Dale. I'm one of the in-laws. There's a lot of us."

"Dale was the one who fixed the trouble with the bank." Gerry passed the plates down that Paul handed him without pausing for breath. "He was amazing, he just waded in and straightened the whole thing out,"

"For which you know we're incredibly grateful?" Ash added.


Dale gave him a rather embarrassed smile and went back to eating. Ash, who had started to eat his own meal, suddenly paused and gave Dale a rather closer look, but said nothing.


Riley went down to check on the shires at the end of the meal and Dale went with him. Jasper went to shut the dogs in the barn for the night, and Flynn, who had been rather quiet through the meal with the residual effects of the shot, made his apologies and went upstairs. Ash took Gerry aside out on the porch and spoke to him for a while, and Paul, who was clearing the table, was surprised by Ash coming back into the kitchen, shutting the door and leaning his back against it, giving Paul a look of stunned shock.

"That's Dale Aden."

"Yes." Paul said, coming back for more plates. "He's a sweetie isn't he?"

"Sweetie-?" Ash repeated, sounding dazed. "That's Dale Aden
. The Dale Aden! He looks so much younger in the flesh than he does in the photographs that I didn't really connect it until Gerry mentioned the bank and told me the surname. Dale Aden!  A.N.Z's golden boy. The whizzkid that took Mirador Corps off the scrap heap and made them a multi billion deal! I've READ about that boy for years, the Wall Street Journal publishes columns on him by the yard - have you got any idea of what he's worth? He made half of A.N.Z's reputation and he sure as hell built a good part of their fortune too!"

"Deep breaths." Paul advised. "Come and sit down Ash, and I'll make you a cup of tea."

"I need one." Ash said, still shaking his head. "If you have anything to do with the world of finance, this is like finding Elvis mucking out the stables! That man has a world wide reputation of his own, I dread to think what it's cost A.N.Z. to stop him being poached by a dozen other massive Corporates in about four different countries. C&E would give half their stock and their eye teeth to have him batting on their team!"

"I doubt any money would have done it," Paul said comfortably. "Dale isn't the type. I think most of it has been personal loyalty to the people he liked at A.N.Z, in particular Jeremy Banks."
"You're kidding." Ash said blankly. Paul smiled.
"Wait until you've known Dale a few days. He loves the work, he's got no mercenary instincts at all."
Ash accepted the mug Paul handed him, watching as Paul took the seat at the head of the half-cleared table.
"He's here as a client of course?"

Paul sipped his own tea, taking a moment to think before he spoke. "You know this is private information I wouldn't give you if you hadn't recognised him, so -"

"I know your confidentiality rules." Ash interrupted. "Philip made them pretty damn clear and he had some big names in and around the place in his day-  but you know Gerry's taken Dale as one of us, not a client at all? And from what he's told me-"

"Dale came originally as a client, but yes, Gerry's quite right." Paul said calmly. "Riley had him clocked within a few days and Gerry just accepted him on sight. He is a brat, not exactly one of the obvious ones, but it's all there. It's still new to him and he's on the reserved side, so he's been a bit floored by Gerry."
"Which Gerry's been stung by, yes." Ash agreed. "Gerry said Dale told him he'd had a breakdown."

"Dale told him that?" Paul said, startled. Ash nodded.

"That must have been quite a confidence on Dale's part then? Yes. Gerry's taken that as the reason why you four are so protective of him."

"Dale is a lovely boy." Paul said with feeling, getting up. "And he's a bit on the fragile side right now, so yes. We probably are."

"And that's all?" Ash asked, watching him clear plates. Paul looked at him. Ash shrugged a little.

"Gerry sees you as family, he always has. We've been here when you've had clients before. Gerry's seen goodness knows how many of the family come and go since he lived here. I've never known him to feel – excluded – before."

"Excluded?" Paul said in shock. "This is Gerry's home, he'd never be 'excluded' from anything here!"

"That was probably the wrong word." Ash said gently. "I don't know how to describe it and I don't think Gerry does either. Maybe I misunderstood. He didn't say anything to me so much as I picked up hints."
"We very likely are protective of Dale," Paul said, filling the sink and quietening his voice a little. "There are good reasons why, and I can't go into them, you know I can't. I can understand too that it's hard for Gerry to come here and feel we're not being completely open with him, especially when he's alone and under stress and missing you, but you can see why we can't yet."
"Yes, I can see." Ash got up and came to help clear the table. "A.N.Z. certainly can't want anyone to know their golden boy's in trouble – or for their clients to start panicking. And it's not like they could have found anywhere more private than here."

"We don't actually give a damn about A.N.Z." Paul said, really quite shortly for Paul.

Ash covered the smile in his moustache, picked up a tea towel and kept any further comments to himself. 

*


Flynn was lying on his bed, his good arm behind his head, still fully dressed although a book was lying open on his chest and he was looking out of the window. Dale moved nearly soundlessly on the carpet, and he had to clear his throat before Flynn glanced over at him, and then stiffly sat up.

"Hey."

"How are you feeling?" Dale said lightly. Flynn grimaced.


"Aching less and struggling to see straight. I never have been keen on Emmett's drugs. Getting a bit crowded for you downstairs?"

How exactly did you explain? Dale tried for several ways in and failed.

Flynn, I think I'm going nuts again.

Flynn, I've actually been nuts all along and no one's noticed.

Flynn I had another one…….

Flynn held out a hand to him and Dale sat down where Flynn pulled him, leaning his elbows on his knees.

"I – I wanted to talk to you while the others aren't around."

Flynn nodded slowly, waiting. Dale took another breath.


"I didn't realise until this afternoon. I – you know - you remember the hallucinations I was having, seeing the office here? In the family room. The smoke and the fire alarm and the desks…"

"I remember." Flynn said quietly, watching him. Dale swallowed.


"I had another one. I've had a few and I didn't realise it was happening. I didn't try to cover it up, I really didn't-"

"Ok." Flynn put a hand over his and Dale felt the strength of the grip, warm and orienting. "What happened?"


"That hunter I've been seeing? Up by where Jas and I saw the cougar. I saw him twice up on the river and once down by the falls the other day." Dale took another breath, aware how truly ridiculous and over dramatic this sounded. "I'm sorry, this is going to be-"

"Just tell me." Flynn said quietly.

Dale shut his eyes. "I saw a photograph of David today. It's David I've been seeing. I'm sorry, I don't mean this to be upsetting to you-"


"It isn't, I never knew David and I can't think you'd do something so distressing to yourself if you had any control over it." Flynn said bluntly. "You were alone each time this happened?"

"Yes." Dale searched his memory for details. "The first time I was walking up stream while Jasper rested – we were resting the horses up on the tops. The second time I was up stream of Riley on the morning we came up to find you when you were guarding the mares from the cougar. And the last time was when I was sitting by the falls."

"And no one else saw or realised?" Flynn asked. "You weren't talking to anyone when I arrived at the falls."

"No – no one else saw anything." Dale admitted. Flynn shook his head.


"Not what I meant. When you had the last hallucination here, Riley knew because you were talking to people who weren't there and it didn't quit when he spoke to you. You didn't break out of it if someone else was there."

"This scares the hell out of me." Dale confessed, dropping his head into his hands and rubbing at his temples. "I thought I was long past this – and there was nothing weird about it! With the other two at least I knew something odd was happening – I could see the office overlaid with the family room, things in the wrong place."

"Did you know it was David?" Flynn asked.


"Not until I saw the photograph today. I've been telling you it was some hunter; that was all I could think he was doing out there."

"And how old is he when you see him? Which photo is it? Is he like he is in the photo by the bed?"


"No." Dale said slowly. "Much younger. Maybe thirty- thirty five. The photograph I saw was the very old one on some street, cobbles-"

"Halifax." Flynn said, recognising the description. "That one was taken before he ever came here."     


"I must have seen it at some point and just – invented." Dale said despairingly. "Why isn't this going away?"

"I'm not sure it is hallucination." Flynn said mildly. Dale looked blankly at him. Flynn squeezed the hand he was still holding.

"Dale. You were never unbalanced or even sick – you were exhausted and your brain was trying to catch up on sleep behind your back. That was all it was. You sleep well here, you have for several months. You get around nine hours sleep a night, which is about twice what you managed before. You eat well. You're fit, you're most certainly not out of touch with reality. You're with at least one of us around the clock, we'd notice."


"So what is it?" Dale said shortly. "It's ok to go inventing people?"

"There's several possible explanations." Flynn said calmly. "One is that you've been through a good deal of emotional upheaval, we've done a lot to stir up and dig up emotions. Philip and David's presence is very strong here. They're important to us, which makes them important to you, and you're surrounded with the facts of them. That in itself might create pictures in your mind. Another is that you've never used your imagination very much, you're no longer permanently exhausted, maybe it's taking you by surprise. Another is that it is actually David."  

Dale looked at him. Flynn rolled to his feet and gently towed Dale with him onto the landing, heading downstairs. Dale trailed him, becoming horribly aware that they were approaching a public room, where Ash and Gerry were both sitting, and Flynn was showing no sign letting go of his hand, nor of understanding that men just did not do this kind of thing in public. Riley looked up from his place on the hearthrug, face lighting up.

"Someone's feeling better!"

"Much, thanks." Flynn said cheerfully, and Dale saw him catch Riley's eye, then look direct across at Paul and Jasper. It was a split second glance and Dale hardly saw it, but Paul almost instantly got up from the couch.

"Ash, I don't know why we're keeping you down here chattering when you were stuck on that plane all day – come upstairs, Gerry can run you a bath. I'll bring you some towels."

Gerry grabbed for the suggestion with enthusiasm, Ash with slightly more polite enthusiasm, and Paul led them both upstairs. Jasper quietly got up from the window seat where he had been sitting, shelved his book and came across to sit on the hearth stone near them. Riley sat up on the hearth rug, giving Dale a look of concern.

"What?"

"I –" Dale began despairingly, mostly to Flynn, who pulled him down on the couch beside him.

"It's ok."

"What is?" Riley got up and Dale twisted out of Flynn's grasp to get away from him, escaping to the window where he folded his arms and stood his ground by looking out at the pastures beyond. He heard Paul come downstairs, sounding perfectly comfortable.


"They're shut in the bathroom and I doubt they'll want to come out inside an hour."

"Dale feels like he might have had another hallucinatory episode." Flynn said simply. Dale expected a shocked silence. With his back to the others he heard Paul's anxious,

"Oh honey-"

And Riley's, "When? Where was it?"


"Dale?" Flynn said gently. "Do you want to tell it?"

Want to try behaving like a man instead of a sulking kid, Aden?

Dale made himself turn around although he kept his arms tightly folded across his chest. They were all four of them sitting, watching him, giving their full attention as they always did, and it was like being under a microscope. Dale felt his face start to turn a dull, dark red with pure humiliation. This was almost too awful to say aloud in front of Paul, who had actually known David.

"The man I've been taking as some kind of hunter… I saw a photograph of David today – it's David I've been seeing. Dreaming up. Three times now. Paul, I'm sorry."

Now was an even better time for a shocked silence.

"Why am I not surprised?" Paul said conversationally. Dale looked at him blankly. Paul gave him an easy and comforting shrug.

"Well he was forever hanging around the river and the falls, he loved being there and I can see perfectly well why he'd be interested in you."

"You seriously think it was him?" Dale said hotly, shocked. Paul propped his chin on his hands, considering.


"Let me guess? Jeans. Riding boots. Shirt wide open at the neck so he could get really horrible sun burn, no hat."

"That could be anybody!"


"Well that was always David unless Philip wrestled a tie and jacket on him." Paul said candidly.

No. People could not be this casual about someone going around the twist. It wasn't fair.

"Dale, we're not so surprised," Jasper said quietly from the hearth stone, "Because I saw him once myself. And I never met David either. Philip recognised who I was describing and showed me a picture, so unless we're both mad, I guess it probably was David."

Dale stared at him. Jasper looked back with his dark eyes calm, shrugging a little. Somewhere, Dale had learned to read his angular body language; he was sincere and in his quietness was a good deal of honesty.

"I'd been here a few weeks and I was sleeping up in the top barn, watching the sheep. I came out to a ewe that was lambing about five o clock one morning, first light, and David was walking across the pasture ahead of me towards the river. Shirt, no jacket, no hat, and there was a hard frost that morning. No one else was out without a coat."   

"He wanted you out of that barn," Paul said calmly. "So did everyone else, but David didn't get the concept of patience."

Jasper was obviously quite serious. And Dale had always had Jasper pegged as probably the most sane of the bunch.

"Jas is fixated about ancestors and spirit guides and the great black mystic ant anyway," Riley said kindly to Dale. "He's funny about that kind of thing but he's not exactly nuts."

"Great black -" Dale repeated blankly.


"It's a black bear," Jasper said resignedly to Dale, "In the legend, but Riley thinks it's far more amusing if it's an ant. This is Indian ground, the ranch is on Shoshone territory, and they believed very strongly that the ancestors occupied the natural forces of a homeland."

"And David was always damn awkward about doing what was expected of him." Paul agreed.


A steady sense of outrage was starting to over lay Dale's initial fear. People's sanity was not a laughing matter! This kind of flippancy was –

Flynn leaned over the back of the couch and caught his wrist, towing him around the arm.

"Come here."

"You see there was this ant in the legend," Riley was saying cheerfully, "A magnificent black mystic ant who was in the territory of a starving tribe who's leader, a powerful warrior, was walking through the forest searching for game-"

"This probably isn't the time, Ri,"  Paul said, seeing Dale's expression.


"And this great black mystic ant," Riley went on, unmoved, "Jumped out on the path and attacked this mighty warrior in the toe, until the warrior had to climb a tree to escape. And just as he climbed up the tree, a huge boar charged the spot right where the warrior had been. And the mystic black ant fought the boar and with one mighty blow killed it stone dead on the path. And then he carried it back to the tribe for the warrior, hup hup hup like that, and it saved the tribe from starvation. So the ant became the mascot of the tribe, and when it died, it split up into parts and flew up into the sky and became a constellation, and every winter the whole tribe dress up in ant skins and dance under the constellation, carrying ham sandwiches since there's a preservation order on the boars now-"

Dale grabbed up a cushion from the end of the couch.


"But the dancing is really hard," Riley went on, ducking, "Because they have to be so crouched down to get underneath the ant skins and- ouch-"

Dale whacked him again with the cushion and Riley rolled over, shielding his head with his arms.

" – it's kind of like a very low conga –"

That was too much. Dale, battering what he could reach of Riley's head and shoulders, started to laugh, and Flynn pulled him off Riley, confiscating the cushion and pulling Dale down into his lap.

"Enough with the ant."

"It's a bear." Jasper said, helping Riley up. "And there are no ham sandwiches."

"Well there's carrot sticks for the gluten intolerant." Riley said cheerfully, straightening his shirt. "It's all right."


Paul took the confiscated cushion from Flynn and whacked Riley himself, carefully not looking at Dale, who was not only laughing, but to Paul's eye had not yet fully realised where he was or what Flynn was doing. None of them had missed Dale's expression in the kitchen the other day when Flynn pulled Riley on to his knee.

"Enough with the carrot sticks too. Watch your mouth around Jasper's legends, we're on tribal ground here. One day that's going to come back to bite you."

"I didn't think you were allowed to take the mickey out of anything tribal." Dale said, still choking. "You're all insane. The whole lot of you."

"It's not that we're not taking you seriously honey-" Paul began, and Dale grabbed up another cushion to throw at Riley.


"He's telling me stories about bloody ants!"

"It just isn't so much of a surprise." Flynn wrestled the cushion off Dale and folded his arms over him, pinning him where he was. "Riley sit down and quit, no free fights in here."

Riley, who had grabbed up a cushion of his own, surrendered it to Jasper and perched on the arm of the sofa, grinning.

"No one ever told you about the train wreck ghosts?"

"There are
no train wreck ghosts." Paul said firmly. Riley nodded at Dale.

"There are, and Jasper's seen them too. He's –"


What ever Jasper was, was muffled by Jasper putting a hand over Riley's mouth, pulling him down and stifling him.

"There's a difference between seeing hallucinated offices in broad daylight in the house, and seeing weird things in weird weather which has happened around here." Jasper said over his head. "No one's doubting your sanity, Dale. I shouldn't worry too much about it. If you're crazy, then I am too and I seem to have managed ok."

Dale, trying casually to slide off Flynn's lap and keep his dignity, and not succeeding since Flynn's arms were folded over his chest and not moving, looked up at him. Jasper's face was easy to read if you knew him. No teasing, nothing but honesty, which was as crazy as everything else about these four people. And yet Dale was aware of something as ridiculous as Riley and his ant.


I feel so damn safe here.

"I haven’t heard anyone say 'take the mickey' since David died." Paul said with affection. "I'm making tea. And not taking any upstairs, I dread to think what I'd disturb."

"I'm helping." Dale tried tactfully to detach Flynn's arms from over his chest and Flynn held on, making Dale eventually flat-out squirm to escape him, starting to laugh again.


"Ok, get off. Get off!"

Flynn grinned, dropped a rough kiss on his cheek and let him go. Dale escaped into the kitchen and Riley followed, doing what Flynn suspected was probably the Ant Conga.   

"Well that's the first time I've ever seen him laugh like that." Jasper murmured from the hearth. Flynn nodded.

"First time he's actually come to me and told me when he's got a problem. I feel like digging out David's moonshine stash and celebrating."

Jasper grinned and got up, stretching long arms over his head until his shoulders cracked.


"Shh."

***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009 






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