Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 17


17


Full summer brought hot, dry days and cool nights. The river in its stiller stretches leapt and flashed with trout, and elk and deer walked the pastures amongst the sheep, grazing on the grass and the wildflowers that grew thickly all over the ranch. Paul picked the wild raspberries, strawberries and thimbleberries that grew thickly out towards the woods, and for several days the kitchen smelled sweetly of jam and bottling, as neat rows of labelled jars appeared in the pantry. Purple pasque flowers carpeted the higher ground and hills, and indian paintbrush, blue flag, sage and gilia grew freely on the open land, lighting whole swathes of grass with colour and carrying a rolling scent that you breathed while you rode.

The cattle were rounded up and brought in during two very crowded days, a task that took all five of them while the new calves were tagged, vaccinated and the bull calves castrated before the herd was moved down to their summer feeding pastures. Shearers arrived in a truck and for a week they slept out in the bunkhouse, a building behind the paddocks that Dale had previously taken little notice of but where the six men slept and could be seen in the evenings, sitting on the tiny veranda around it, sipping beer and smoking and talking. Dale and Riley took the dogs up to the pastures to round up and bring the sheep down in batches to the yard, where the shearers plus Flynn and Jasper stood in the cleared, scrubbed barn, rolled the sheep over one at a time and clipped the heavy fleeces from them, where one of the shearing team then spread it out on a table, cut around the edges to clear the soiled fleece from the good, and at intervals put the fleeces through the compressor in the truck, making up bale after bale of wool. The speed was amazing to watch, each man processing a sheep in just a few minutes before the fleece was on the table and a shorn sheep was pushed through a channel of rails to swim through a trough of strong smelling dip to protect it against the summer ticks and flies before it reached the stable pasture to graze. Four hundred sheep a day were processed at this steady speed. Paul cooked for eleven people and appeared completely unfazed by the experience, and brought out tea and water by the gallon to the men in the barn who worked stripped to the waist and shining with sweat.

Around that, the work continued as normal. The daily rides out to check on stock and fences were punctuated with checking the grazing ground for any poisonous flowers or shrubs which then had to be thoroughly eradicated before horses, cattle or sheep could eat them. The shelters on the open ground where animals took refuge from the sun needed frequent maintenance. Bandit kept his herd near the woods during the heat of the day and the horses were often found grazing there or dozing in the hollows under the trees. Riley and Dale rode the young colts for hours every day, building on the slow, patient groundwork Flynn did in the training pen in the yard. Most of the ranch trained horses were sold for riding, many for the working and the dude ranches throughout the state, and the trail work was an essential part of making a good, safe riding horse. They took the two year olds through the woods and walked them through the creeks and across the riving crossings, introduced them to steep ground and rough ground and taught them to place their feet carefully, and introduced them to simple cow work with the cattle herd. In this season, the riding was an open pleasure, and several times in the heat of the day they stopped a while by the rivers and creeks to swim and cool down in the water. Some late afternoons when work was finished, Jasper walked out to fish and Dale fell into the habit of going with him, finding it easy to stretch out on the river bank and to enjoy the stillness as Jasper did; the pleasure of Jasper's easy company without the need for conversation. They regularly brought trout back for dinner and Dale, whose experience of fish had been limited to childhood fish and chips as a treat at school, got very used to the exceptionally fresh taste of trout grilled or fried less than an hour out of the water. One evening Flynn set up a row of cans in the home pasture, well away from the horses, and he and Riley familiarised Dale with the rifles they carried until Dale could have loaded and fired one in his sleep. Always good with anything mechanical, he found to his surprise that he was a natural shot, remarkably accurate, and he practised for barely a week before Flynn handed him a rifle and showed him how to attach it to his saddle, after which, like the others, he carried one with him whenever he rode out.

Gerry and Ash wrote regularly from Seattle, Paul often read the letters aloud at dinner, and Ash enclosed occasional articles or journals for Dale. There was a friendliness in the gesture that to Dale never wore off: it was very different to share the information with someone who not only got the jokes and the points of interest in their field of work but wanted nothing more from you than to share it. There were several of the articles too that he knew Ash sent because they contained references to or ideas for free lance possibilities, and that Ash saw such things and thought of him, touched Dale deeply. He talked a few times to Flynn about some of those ideas, thinking aloud to him, and Flynn encouraged him to do it although he always repeated firmly until Dale could say it along with him, that there were no deadlines, no pressure to make decisions, and to take it one day at a time.

"Which is likely to mean you're pretty much stuck with me here forever if I don't come up with something soon." Dale pointed out once while they were digging out a choked section of river. Flynn shrugged, not looking up from his spade.

"Not a fate worse than death, is it? You're a part of a long tradition, there's plenty of people who know they have a bed here whenever they need it and most of them have stayed years rather than weeks or months, so no, there's no reason to feel pressured at all. And you more than earn your keep here and you always have done. Think about that."

"Not if you count the time you
lose in training and supervision." Dale said dryly. "You lose more work time by supporting a client to work alongside you than you gain from an extra pair of hands, even if it is therapeutic for the client."

"It is." Flynn agreed, "But it depends on the client. You learn like that
."

The snap of his fingers made Dale blink. Flynn stooped once more to digging, shoulders working as he dug the blade deep into mud.

"Show you once and you've got it, and you're a born grafter. You need telling to stop, not chasing to get things done, and there's no question of anyone needing to go and check you've done it properly or got it right."

"And we all know why." Dale said, rolling his eyes. Flynn gave him a brief smile.


"Yes. And you know about the work on the functional benefits of conditions like perfectionism."

There was no question of that. Flynn had been extremely thorough in the work he'd made Dale do on the subject and the insight he'd made Dale gain on it.

"You don't subscribe to that, do you?" Dale said, dodging under Flynn's blade to pull back another slipping section of bank before it collapsed the section Flynn was working on. "That there is functional benefit? Some researchers even question whether these kind of conditions should be treated, if they're what's enabling someone to be exceptional."

"An exceptional person is
exceptional," Flynn said bluntly. "Whatever they're doing. If you'd been happy in your work and you'd been keen to go back to A.N.Z. we'd still have done the same work here. It won't stop you being a perfectionist, it won't stop you over achieving. There are benefits: I'm not afraid to admit it. What I have a problem with is anxious, unhappy, addictive behaviour that you feel controlled by. Hyper vigilance and hyperactivity coming directly from anxiety. Self destructive or self abusive behaviour, rooted in guilt and anxiety."

"That's why I question any good in it." Dale threw back the last spadeful, checking the ground once more. "Whatever you taught me, I know if I went back to those circumstances I'd do the same thing again until I snapped. I wouldn't be able to help myself."

"That's you and you're leading us in doing the right thing for you." Flynn climbed up the bank, shaking his head like a dog to get the water out of his hair. "Bearing in mind you're a different kettle of fish anyway."

"Separate the CEO from the brat if you can." Dale said, grinning. Flynn returned the grin.


"Why? It's the difference between nature, talents and bad habits. You have the perfectionist nature, you have talents you've honed sharper than most people's because you are a perfectionist and you will always push yourself further and demand more of yourself, and that's fine while it stays under your control and it doesn't do you harm. But while you live here, or if you choose to live with a Top, you've got plenty of support in keeping it controlled and it doesn't need to be something you worry about. We set the lines and you stay within them."

He said it so simply and bluntly, stood there on the bank, wet through and bare chested in a way that made Dale's own chest tighten if he looked too long. Tanned and sculpted, with the smoothness to his skin like the velvet gleam of a horse's hide. His hair was wet and the curls at the back of his neck were dark, yanking on a sharp awareness of how they felt under one's fingers when you touched them… the powerful memory of those few minutes together in the study. Flynn hadn't moved under his touch, and the privilege within that was one Dale was acutely aware of: Flynn hadn't flinched or commented, he hadn't even reacted save for that arm around Dale's waist, as though to accept his comfort came so normally and naturally that it might have been Paul or Riley there instead of Dale, who was a relative stranger. It was that willing acknowledgement of friendship that came from them all and that went so deeply into Dale. There had been other men, other pleasant evenings when he had enjoyed touching and being touched, but there had never been the experience of looking at someone with that immediate and powerful knowledge of emotion. Warmth. Loyalty. Affection. Trust. Whether it was Riley or Paul or Jasper – or especially Flynn – it was a certainty and clarity of emotion that Dale had never known before in his life. What did you owe to the people who taught you that?

"It sounds ridiculous," he said eventually to Flynn while they cleaned up and headed back towards the grazing horses. "It shouldn't feel this way, but I actually feel – freer – knowing I can't cross those lines than I did when there were no lines at all and I could do whatever the hell I wanted."

"You can still do whatever the hell you want," Flynn said calmly, mounting up. "You're just choosing to do this. You're no effort to support, Dale; you're a pleasure. Ask Paul and Jas. And you more than earn your keep, you're an asset here and not a drain of any kind, so trust me. You're on no deadlines, give yourself time and make the decisions as you get to them. If I have to come rescue you from New York because you jump to some job you're not ready for, then
you'll be in trouble."

"You'd come and get me?" Dale demanded, startled. Flynn looked across at him, shaking his head in mild exasperation.


"Of course I would. Likewise Paul, Jasper or Ash, not to mention Riley."

Oddly Dale had no trouble at all in believing him. It was an amazingly liberating thought.





*



It was at dinner a few days after this that Flynn said calmly, "Dale, it's usual at this stage for us to invite someone from work to visit. Jerry Banks asked for it to be him."

Dale looked at him, startled. Paul gave him a look, lowering his fork.

"A visit. Usually a few hours or overnight, and if you want to put it off that's fine. It doesn't have to be now."

"I think it would be a good idea to be now." Flynn said quietly.  "You need both sides of the coin in mind and to start connecting up to your own life again before you can make any permanent decisions and be sure what it is you want."

"Banks and the other directors signed our usual contract when they applied to place you here," Paul said when Dale didn't answer. "Part of which is that the client may decide not to return to work. They knew that was an option and they agreed to it, you have nothing to worry about there."


"Nor do you need to tell him anything on this visit," Flynn added. "None of us will. If you choose to then that's your decision, but that isn't what he's coming for. It's social contact we're interested in, and that's all. Not making any kind of plans, not setting an exit date, no deadlines."

It was said with all of Flynn's usual blunt authority and no tact whatever. In other words, if I catch you packing, there's going to be trouble
.  Dale gave him a brief smile, understanding and more reassured than if Flynn had reasoned or encouraged. 

"Ok."



It was the following afternoon that Flynn parked the battered four by four in the garage and walked with Jerry Banks around the front of the house in the afternoon sun. It wasn't the first time Banks had been to the ranch. Flynn remembered a younger and slimmer Banks visiting Philip, and visiting his nephew during his nephew's stay at the ranch not too long ago, and Banks had met him on the landing strip with a strong handshake, a warm smile and a demand to know how they were treating A.N.Z's finest. The information sent back to sponsors and family was minimal when a client was at the ranch. For immediate family and partners they gave a little more lee way and certainly more sympathy, but generally when a client reached the point of needing the ranch's programme, everyone in their life, including them, benefited from a complete break. Corporate sponsors got very short shrift indeed. However very few clients had ever stayed as long as Dale had needed. Flynn had returned a few emails to Banks, sharing no information other than that Dale was well, doing well and was moving through the work he needed to do. Walking with the man into the yard, he was aware of the man's genuine interest as he scanned the yard, with a little more concern than most corporate sponsors showed, and not based entirely on whether a very necessary corporate resource was repaired. Dale's deep and personal loyalty to the man didn't appear to have been misplaced.

Dale and Riley were putting away two of the young two year olds into their paddock and picking up the scattered tack they had removed in order to rub down the colts. Banks' eyes passed over them once before he looked again, sharply, and Flynn heard his mutter of shock.

"That's not Dale?"

Flynn stifled a smile, trying to see what the man beside him saw. A slim, lightly built man in a blue shirt and jeans which showed the muscle at legs and chest, and emphasised the dark tan of his arms and face from months of outdoor work. Somewhat long dark hair from months without a hair cut, and a heavy fringe which he shook back while he talked to Riley, quiet face alive when he laughed at something Riley said to him. Sure hands which pulled confidently at the saddle he picked up, and a smooth, even stride. Very different to the thin, restless and exhausted man of early spring, who struggled to stand still or to look you for long in the eye. He glanced up as he started towards the barn, and Flynn saw his stride check as he saw Banks, his face flashing to reserve as Dale very often did when uncertain or thinking. Then he smiled – one of his careful, controlled smiles – set down the saddle and came across the yard, holding out a hand.

"Jerry."

"Dale." Banks shook his hand, looking at Dale with both eyebrows raised. "My God boy, look at you."

"I'm a mess, we've been jumping the colts this morning," Dale said apologetically, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "Riley-."

"We've met."  Riley said cheerfully, offering a hand to shake. "How is Joseph, sir?"


Banks took it warmly, but Flynn could see his eyes kept returning to Dale.

"Doing well, thank you. He would have liked to have come with me, but I'm stopping over on my way to a conference in Washington tonight, the plane's waiting an hour or so up on the landing strip. Just wanted time for a quick visit with Dale."

How well Dale remembered those hours spent on flights, cramming information for whatever meeting you were headed for. Jerry's office equipment would be aboard the plane and running, probably under the care of his PA. To be one of Jerry's priorities, enough to divert on a flight, was no small gesture on Jerry's part.

"Want me to take that?" Riley offered, holding out an arm for the saddle. Dale took a breath and shook his head, still controlling himself and thinking fast about how best to handle this. And not for any personal strategy either: he was aware he was planning mentally how Flynn would want him to handle this. Not to view it as a test.

"No thanks, I've got it. Jerry, want to come with me? I've a few things left to do."

"That sounds like you." Jerry said wryly, walking with him towards the stable. Dale found himself stifling a quick smile of response.

No, not like me Jerry. You have no idea.

"The physical work is great," he said easily, opening the stable door with his hip and walking down to the tack room. "There couldn't be a more beautiful place to be outside in."

"Better than your damned gym." Jerry agreed, watching him sling the saddle and nudging the tack door closed behind him to give them privacy. The others hadn't followed, and Dale knew without looking that they wouldn't. Just as he knew without asking, that Flynn would be nearby and at the slightest cue would step in and help. That knowledge alone was enough to feel secure. They would not interfere, but they were there.


"You look better than I've seen in years." Jerry said shrewdly. "All fresh air and counselling?"

"And a firm hand." Dale said candidly. "How are things going? Who carried on with the Aurora project?"

"I did." Jerry said gruffly. "And they weren't happy about it, they wanted you and they made it damned clear I was a poor substitute. Have you been all right here, boy?"

It was asked with real concern and Dale's heart went out to the man who had always been kind to him.

"This was exactly what I needed. It's been a – revolutionary – experience. A good one. Not an easy one, but nothing but good."

"They were good with Joseph," Banks said roughly. "He was far better for coming here and he's damned fond of Flynn and the rest of them, he's been back at least once to visit of his own accord. Look, I know you were steamrollered into this, we gave you no choice, but I was damned if I could think of anything else I could do for you. Is there anything you need? Anything you want me to do? Anything at all, boy."


It wasn't corporate concern for a valued resource. Dale smiled at him, touched and wondering why he'd never previously realised how much Banks had been concerned. He remembered numerous conversations, Banks taking him for dinner after meetings, telling him to slow down, to delegate, to ask for help. It was advice Dale knew now that he never would have been able to follow. At the time, he simply hadn't had the understanding or skills to be able to. And at the time, it had sounded like concern for optimum output for the corporation: concepts Dale did understand. He had never recognised the emotion lying beneath. Banks was a good man and a good mentor, and he was still offering to be a good friend if Dale allowed him to be. It was humbling, and a little shaming, that Banks, like Flynn and Paul and the others, was prepared, despite numerous rejections, to keep on trying.

"Thanks Jerry." he said, meaning it. "I appreciate it, I really do. I'm fine here, this was the right thing to do. I needed it. And I'm not done yet, I know that."

"Flynn said he'd warned you this didn't mean you were leaving with me." Banks said, giving him a studied look. "This happens in your time and on your terms, Flynn's made that damned clear too."

"He worked with Joseph?" Dale said gently. Banks grunted.


"Jasper did a lot I believe, but Flynn did most of the explaining to me. I mentored Joe when he first went back to work, with Flynn advising me, and we did all right. The offer's there for you too, any time you want it. You've made quite a hit here from what I've heard – not that I'm surprised, mind you. You always did charm the socks off anyone we sent you to."

"They're not used to having clients stay for half a year." Dale said dryly, putting away the rest of the tack. "Most seem to get their acts together a bit quicker."


Banks snorted.

"Flynn told me you've challenged him, made him think about every step he took with you, research and stretch his skills – said you'd taught him a lot and you were a damn special individual. Not sure how many people he'd say that about, and he doesn't talk idly, Flynn."

No, he didn't. Stunned, and touched, Dale kept his face averted while he finished the work and Banks, after a brief silence, changed the subject to A.N.Z. affairs.

They sat on the porch for a while with Paul and Flynn and drank tea, after which Paul passed Dale the keys to the four by four and suggested he drove Jerry back up to the landing strip. It was another gesture of trust that touched Dale still deeper, a quiet, every day suggestion that Jerry wouldn't have even noticed for its ordinariness but which made Dale look at Paul, understanding what bit by bit they were handing back to him. It was a short drive up the grass slopes where not even a road was marked, until they reached the plane on the open land in the valley, and Dale watched Banks walk up the steps and wave from the window as the plane started its engines. Within a minute it was out of sight over the hills, and Dale started the engine on the four by four and drove it slowly back down through the pastures to the ranch.

He put the four by four in the garage, shut the door on it and returned the keys to the kitchen, leaving them on the side for Paul before he went back to the tack room. The last few pieces of tack took pitifully little time to put away and the shelves were untidy and the floor was dusty. He was attacking it with a broom and a good deal of energy when Flynn leaned on the door jamb, arms folded across his chest.

"Banks get off ok?"


"Fine." Dale said briefly, organising the dust into a precise pile away from the clean half of the floor. Flynn moved back a little to avoid the broom, watching it work.

"I think you're done in here."

No, not by any stretch of the imagination because the floor was inarguably, horribly, unacceptably dusty. Flynn clicked his fingers and held out a hand for the broom. Dale managed three more very hurried sweeps before Flynn took it out of his hand and stood back to let him by.


"Out."


Leaving the floor in that state was almost too annoying to tolerate. Dale reluctantly let Flynn guide him up to the porch and sat on the swing where Flynn put him, feeling the sway of it as Flynn sat down beside him.

"What are you thinking about?" Flynn said bluntly.

A hundred and one answers sprang to mind, starting with the automatic response of 'nothing', a demand to know what business it was of Flynn's, and a request to know how that outweighed a bloody horribly dusty floor. All of which were unacceptable. If it was being chewed on, then it was public information. Dale took a short, exasperated breath and made himself search for the words.

"The floor needed doing, it can't be left like that."

"And tell me about not leaving tasks half done when necessary?" Flynn said calmly. Dale glared at him.


"Perfectionism, and I don't need to give in to it."

"Yes." Flynn agreed, settling back to watch him with a manner that said very clearly he was waiting for Dale to Talk. Properly.


Dale gathered himself and forced a smile, making his tone normal, warm.

"It was just good to see him. That's all, nothing more."

"Ok, let's go." Flynn said calmly, getting up.

There were times that Flynn's ESP seriously sucked, to borrow a really excellent word of Riley's. And yes, all right, it felt good too to be seen through so easily, to not be allowed to shut away or refuse the help. Give in or refuse: either way you chose Flynn, and either way he would reach you. It was up to you what you needed.

He only used the flat of his hand once they reached the privacy of the study couch, and only briefly, but he matter of factly unbuttoned and peeled Dale's jeans down before Dale lay over his lap, and once there, he tugged Dale's shorts down to his knees, applying those dozen sharp spanks to a bare bottom, which made his message doubly acute in every conceivable way. And he kept Dale where he was after the twelfth, voice just as calm.

"Want to try again?"

Somewhere, some maniac at the back of Dale's mind, wanted to say 'no'. The rest of Dale hastily stifled him. The view of the couches dark leather was as calming as the lively heat and smart of his backside behind him, still upturned and vulnerable across the hardness and warmth of Flynn's lap. Flynn's hand was heavy on his back, and without trying, Dale knew it would prevent him turning around to see Flynn's face.

There was nothing whatever to do but relax where he was – as much as was possible – and to give in. Which came with its usual rushing sense of relief in surrender.

"He likes me. Banks. I never really – got – that he liked me. Or that he worried about me."

Flynn didn't answer. Dale folded his arms on the couch seat, resting his head on them. This was a stupid position to think in, and yet he knew he was thinking clearly and freely.

"You know he tried to talk to me so many times? I can remember them now and I know what he was trying to do. I can see how he tried to help, he –"

"Just didn't know how?" Flynn said softly when Dale stopped. Dale nodded slowly.


"I wasn't co operating. I feel so bad, Flynn. Why didn't I see that? Why does he even still bother to try with me!"

"You're thinking you were a lousy person, and you were not." Flynn said quietly and firmly. "You never were. You have always been good, caring and likeable, you deserved for Jerry Banks to like you and to care about you. And yes, he does. He didn't know how to meet your needs – he isn't a Top."

"That is not the answer to life, the universe and everything." Dale muttered. Flynn raised an eyebrow.


"And you're here now, talking, because…….?"


One hand patted, gently and meaningfully. He was actually waiting for an answer. Dale felt himself flush and felt his mood fracture into a wry smile with the sheer ridiculousness of it.

"Because you'll spank me if I don't."

"And that isn't the answer to everything either, but it's what you want and need from someone close, to be able to open up to them." Flynn said gently. "And you lacked emotional literacy, if you want to call it that. Inexperience. You didn't ignore Banks; you didn't have the ability to recognise or to respond at the time. You do now. And blaming yourself for knowledge and skills you didn't have at the time?"


"Perfectionism again." Dale said, sighing. "It's irrational, hyper critical and not something to give in to. It's just hard."

"Yes, it is." Flynn agreed. "But like anything else, it'll get easier with practice. You haven't done anything wrong."

"Except proved I'm not ready to leave." Dale muttered, shifting slightly over Flynn's lap. Flynn held him where he was, not letting him fidget.


"And you feel it's time now?"

"I feel like that was the last step and I'm done and I should just go gracefully." Dale admitted bleakly, giving in to Flynn's hand and once more relaxing where he was. "And I know you said not to think like that, but-"

"Who's talking now?" Flynn said gently. "The CEO or the brat?"


"I don't think they're separable." Dale said heavily. Flynn put an arm around his shoulders, steadying Dale up from his lap where Dale fumbled his pants back into place. And then he took a firm clasp on Dale's wrist and pulled him down on the couch beside him, one arm tightly around his shoulders.

"No, they're not, and this is where we stop trying. You've done everything we've asked of you since you came here. There's things we can work on – if you stay another twenty years there'll still be things we can work on – but that's part of this kind of lifestyle, and that's your choice, not something you need to do in order to be healthy again. Paul keeps telling you, you're not a client. You haven't been for a while, but clientwise, you've done everything I need of you. Bratwise, we haven't even started yet, and we're in no hurry. Are we?"

"If I was just a client," Dale said, digesting this, "What would happen now?"

"You'd be showing me the kind of exit plan you wanted," Flynn said mildly. "Whether to dive back in, to change roles, whether you needed support to re enter the workplace – some need more gradual integration than others. And we'd be looking for a mentor for you to help you keep work under control."

"That wouldn't have worked for me." Dale said slowly. Flynn shook his head.


"Not unless the mentor was a Top. No."

Like the other simple boundaries, there was a security in that knowledge that was infinite. A sense of safety that Dale knew in all honesty he had never known in his life.


"So you haven't failed." Flynn said quietly beside him. "You haven't shown me you're not ready or not fit. You get anxious. That's the way you are, so we talk about it and we work on it together. That's ok and it isn't something I expect you to quit doing any time soon."

"It is something I should quit and learn how to control." Dale said slowly. "That's why we've worked on all the perfectionist stuff."

"You are who you are." Flynn said simply. "We control the aspects of it that make you anxious and unhappy, we stop it controlling you, that's something we do together by the rules we have and the measures we agree on. Over time you'll get confident and practiced at handling it, but I told you before, Dale. You won't stop being a Perfectionist, and you won't stop being a brat. And that's ok. It's accepting yourself, your own identity with all of its strengths. We're very proud of you, you know?"       


Dale felt himself turning scarlet at the thought. They sat for a while, before Flynn looked down at Dale under his arm.

"Is that making sense?"

"It makes sense." Dale said slowly. "I get it. Sometimes I fight getting it, but I do – get it."

"You've got a lot of insight. It's not letting the Perfectionist voice take over." Flynn said mildly. "So I want you to go stand in the corner in the family room until dinner and think that through. I think you could do with chilling out and not doing until you've got yourself calmed down."

Dale groaned but got up.


"I could just go deal with that floor. I'd like to go deal with that floor."

Flynn smiled and the swat he placed across the seat of Dale's jeans was a firm and painless pat.

"You can stand and think about how dusty that floor is, and why its ok that it's dusty."



*



It was an evening or two later that all of them together went through the old compartment in the desk in the study. There was nothing of great importance there, just things that had for Philip been personal – notebooks, letters, several of which were business letters, and most of which were David's, some of them more than fifty years old. It was something they'd put off for a long evening together, and it was leisurely done, gathered on the couch and the window seat and in Riley's case the study rug. They looked together through the odds and ends, looking over each others shoulders and punctuating the conversation with many reminiscences, teasing and laughing, until at last Riley abruptly got up and said cheerfully that he was going to make a tray of tea, but Dale, near enough to see his face, was shocked to see his eyes full of tears as he disappeared towards the kitchen. He looked across to Paul for help but Flynn had already got up to follow him.

"It's hard to hear Philip's voice like this," Paul said softly to Dale, sliding the letter he had been reading back into its envelope and offering it to him. They had been passing the letters around, sometimes Paul reading fragments of one aloud, and they had included him in this very family event without hesitation. Dale took the letter gently, unfolding it, recognising David's spidered handwriting.

"It's particularly hard for Riley and Flynn." Paul took another letter and turned it over in his hand but didn't open it. He didn't say anything else, but Dale had seen Jasper look up as Flynn followed Riley, and Jasper's expression said a good deal in itself.

Flynn found Riley in the kitchen, leaning on the counter and swallowing hard. He turned around when Flynn touched him, and buried himself in Flynn's chest, locking his arms around Flynn's waist. Flynn wrapped him tightly enough to lift him off his feet, and held him closely, leaning his head against Riley's.

"I still miss him." Riley said eventually and unsteadily. "I still need him. There's always things I want to talk to him about. Even now there's times where I think, 'I want Philip', and whoever else I've got, they're not him."

He said it without inhibition, straight from the heart as only Riley could.





It was a few days later that Dale began to notice the bickering.

It began quite mildly at first. Just a few occasions where Riley sniped at Flynn when he was asked to do something, and Dale saw him sent to stand in a corner, which as always, made him briefly furious and then deeply contrite. Riley always apologised and things always returned immediately to normal. Then there was a breakfast time where Riley seemed to have gotten out of bed on the wrong side and everything Flynn said to him seemed to raise a mutter or growl, until Paul sent Riley back to bed and kept him there the rest of the morning.

He was his usual self when Dale saw him again at dinnertime, but Dale, who had spent a lot of time watching and learning about these four people, noticed how often Riley touched Flynn, leaning on his shoulders, brushing against him, the physical cues Dale knew usually made Flynn automatically – sometimes without even looking – reach to put an arm around him or to pull Riley down into his lap. He was always very physical with Riley, but there seemed to be something very slightly – different – about the way he responded. Attention caught, Dale found himself watching Flynn still more carefully than usual, studying him, and there it was. The change Riley was aware of. Flynn's face was just fractionally more impassive than usual. He was fractionally quieter than usual, and his smiles were still rarer. There was a tension to him – something grim but tangible, and day by day it was getting stronger.

And once he'd seen that, Dale began to watch and to see the rest of the pattern. Paul said nothing and behaved as usual, but Dale began to notice how discreetly he distracted Riley, guiding the direction of conversations and filling Flynn's side of the conversation at mealtimes which covered Flynn's quietness. Jasper equally said nothing, but with Jasper it was never words that told you what he was thinking. Several times Dale saw him standing with Flynn at the corral fence watching the horses, or the two of them walking down towards the woods together, apparently not talking but shoulder to shoulder. A stranger who didn't know them would barely have noticed it, but to Dale, the difference was as plain as day. He felt it wasn't his place to say anything or to show that he had noticed. Something obviously wasn't right, and between themselves, they were handling it. These four had been together a long time and to respect their privacy was the one consideration that Dale felt he could give them. His one way to help.

He was washing breakfast dishes one morning while Paul cleared the table, when they heard Riley's voice raised and shouting from the yard, and Paul muttered and promptly put the dishes down, heading fast for the door. Dale shook off wet hands and followed. Riley was standing directly in front of Flynn in the yard, as if blocking his way to the stables, and Flynn was impassively holding a saddle in his arms, not moving.

"Riley." Paul said from the steps, firmly enough to get Riley's attention. "Corral. Now. Go."

Flynn turned away, heading for the training paddock and heaving the saddle higher in his arms.


"I'm going to clear the brush at the falls!" Riley yelled after him. "And then I'll damn well swim if I feel like it!"

"Riley, look at me."  Paul said firmly.

Riley's head snapped around and his tone was no nicer than it had been to Flynn.

"What?"

"Go do as Flynn asked you to do," Paul said levelly, "Right now, or you're grounded for the day. Your choice."

"And you can stuff it too." Riley snarled back, stalking towards the corral. Flynn, across the yard, dumped the saddle on the fence and turned around, voice sharp.

"Riley."

"I'm going!" Riley growled at him. Flynn's voice lifted and deepened.

"You do not talk that way to Paul. Kitchen corner, face the wall and wait for me."

There was a moment where Dale thought Riley was going to yell back, then he turned and stalked towards the house, running up the porch steps past Paul who was heading down them. Flynn turned back to the saddle and Paul had to call him to make him stop.

"Flynn."

Flynn looked back at him, face unreadable. Paul's voice was soft, but Dale still heard it.

"I'll handle Riley. You go do what you need to."

Flynn didn't respond and Paul looked straight at him.

"Flynn, I'll deal with him. Go on."

If Paul saw any kind of reply, Dale couldn't spot it. Flynn simply took the saddle towards the pasture where the yearlings were grazing.

Paul stood for a moment as if he wanted to follow, then turned back towards the house and went into the kitchen, putting a hand gently on Dale's arm as he passed him.

"Riley, come here."

Riley, who had stood stiffly in the kitchen corner without a word, turned around. Paul held out his arms and Riley walked straight into them, clutching.

"Well you got what you wanted, didn't you?" Paul demanded gently over his head. "You wanted him mad, and now you've got him mad. Does that make you feel any better?"

That was enough. Dale saw Riley melt into real tears and Paul sighed, holding him tightly.

"I know. It's ok, honey. It's all right." 

"I didn't mean to speak to you like that," Riley said miserably. "I'm sorry."

"I know you didn't. Do you need your mouth washed out for you to remember?"

"No." Riley said shakily but emphatically.

"Ok." Paul let him go, running his fingers gently over Riley's face where tears were still visible. "Well we warned you and you made your choice. You're grounded to the house today. Go upstairs, wash your face and strip the beds for me. All of them."

Riley went at once and Dale heard him run upstairs. Paul took a breath and came to put the kettle on, giving Dale a rather harried look.

"Leave the rest of the dishes. I'll get Riley to do them."

"It won't take me long." Dale said quietly, positive Riley wouldn't be made any happier by the chore, but Paul shook his head.

"I'll keep him busy in the house today. At least that'll keep him away from Flynn and neither of them have to deal with a fight."

That was a very open invitation to ask, and Dale took it, coming to gently take the kettle away from Paul and take over the making of the tea since Paul looked in need of a little care himself.

"Let me do that. Why would they fight?"

Paul surrendered the kettle, watching Dale get out cups.

"You've seen it before. Riley hates for Flynn to be withdrawn and he can't stop picking at him, trying to get a reaction. It's like poking a sleeping bear with a stick. And Flynn then walls Riley off even tighter because he's afraid of losing his temper."

He doesn't do strong emotion well. Or any emotion really.


"It's the desk, isn't it?" Dale said softly.

Paul nodded slowly. "I think so. Finding the journal was a huge thing, Philip meant so much to Flynn and he needed so much to feel he was worthy. And this does just happen sometimes, usually around anniversaries. He gets lonely for Philip and it takes him a while to come around."

It was hard not to feel responsible.

Dale swallowed on an intensely personal question as he put a cup down in front of Paul and took the seat beside him. Paul gave him a watchful look and a faint smile.

"Dale Edward, you are not a client, or a guest anymore. Stop chewing and say it."

"I just wondered if Philip put up with him brooding." Dale said as lightly as he could. Paul shook his head, looking somewhere between affectionate and sad.

"No, he didn't. I think that's some of why Flynn misses Philip so badly when he's in one of these moods. Philip could always reel him in. It just doesn't work for anyone but Philip. I've tried, I tried for years, and Flynn tries to listen to me and he tries his best to talk to me because he can't bear to hurt me, but it doesn't help him, and all that happens is that he gets still more upset that he's worrying us. Push too hard and he'll go off by himself for a few days, and that's even worse. Jas has always said the best we can do is to give him quiet and space if he needs it, be there for him and let him find his own way out. It's just a very hard thing to do when you love him, and Riley really can't. Not because he's angry with Flynn, he just –"

"Can't stand to not to try. And any reaction is better than none." Dale said quietly, understanding. Paul nodded, sipping tea.


"Exactly."

"But Flynn will take orders from you."


And Dale had seen it. Gentle, usually genial Paul was the one person who seemed able to lay down the law to Flynn, and Flynn usually obeyed without a word on the very rare occasions when he did.

"Orders." Paul said wryly. "Yes, I suppose he does, but you can't order someone to feel better and you can't reach Flynn like that. Like I said. Philip wasn't any kind of drill sergeant, it wasn't just authority. I don't know exactly what he did do- I wish I did. He used to follow Flynn outside and a few hours later you'd see Flynn subdued but his usual self again."

Dale, who knew exactly how it felt to find someone who could, and always would break through to you no matter how bad things seemed, swallowed on that with something a good deal more powerful than compassion. It was ironic- beyond ironic – that Flynn, who could do that for others, pull them out of any nightmare their own mind could produce, could not do it for himself. And had lost the man who could do it for him.

Riley's footsteps were heard on the stairs and Dale got up, well aware Riley wouldn't want an audience right now and too sympathetic not to get out of his way.

"If there's nothing else I can do, I'll go get started outside."

Paul leaned across the table for his hand, catching it and squeezing. "Don't worry about either of them. Really. This is a bad one, but they happen. We'll look after Riley and Flynn always comes out of it,  it just takes time."


It was a sudden impulse, but one that came before Dale had time to think about it. He stooped, and roughly, clumsily kissed Paul's cheek before he headed outside.  


*


The morning frost left footprints on the grass and the horses' breath hung in the air, white steam against the still grey, early morning sky. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the house where Paul was cooking breakfast, and Philip strolled slowly down alongside the fence of the paddock, hands dug in his pockets, hat shading his eyes. He said nothing at all while Flynn finished saddling the horse, but he leaned against the gate which effectively prevented it being opened, and watched. There was no point whatever in asking him to move. Flynn unwillingly led the horse to the gate and stood there, forced to face him. Philip gave him a calm look from under the brim of his hat, pushing it back a little on iron grey hair.
"Not hungry this morning?"

"No sir."

Philip didn't respond. He very often didn't, just looking at you with steady, grey eyes and waiting. And he'd wait hours, or even days if necessary. Flynn reeled in the leading rein with several abrupt yanks – or as abrupt as he could manage without spooking the horse – and kept his eyes on the frosty pastures beyond. After a while, Philip unlatched the gate and opened it a little. Enough for a man, not a horse. The inclination of his head said it all. Stifling a huff of exasperation, Flynn tied up the horse's reins and came through the gate, letting Philip latch it behind him. And without looking, Philip began to walk slowly up the line of paddocks, along the fence, towards the distant paddock where the big shires grazed. There was nothing to do except walk with him. Philip said nothing at all, hands deep in his pockets, eyes on the paddocks around them, the trees in the distance. It was impossible to be out here and not to feel the silence, interrupted only by the occasional baa of a sheep in the far distance, or the snort of a horse, or not to see the white smoke of their breath and the white mist that hung just above the frosted green grass, stirred by their boots. The grass crunched slightly as they walked, and they left clear footprints behind.

"I told Paul it was better I got out of the way before breakfast this morning." Flynn said eventually, and shortly. He was immediately aware his accent had thickened, as it did under stress, and he was irritably aware too that Philip would have noticed. Philip nodded slightly, not looking at him as they continued to walk.

"And this is about Hamilton."

Not a question. Flynn took a breath, trying not to explode.


"Did Paul tell you where I was last night?"

Philip glanced at him, one brow mildly raised. Flynn stopped on the grass, gripping his hands into fists in his coat pockets.

"That kid was out here half the night to be near the horses. It took long enough to get him to talk to me and longer still to get him back to the house in anything like a fit state to sleep – I won't be around Hamilton. I can't, not without telling him what I think of him."

"You like the boy." It wasn't a question, and mildly said. Flynn growled.


"He's a nice kid. He's damned good with animals, and they like him – the worst tempered ones we have stand still and let him do whatever he wants, he picked out Napalm's feet yesterday before I saw to warn him and Nape stood and let him like he was a child's pony. He's a bloody good rider. And he works hard; this crap from Hamilton about him being spoiled or good for nothing is pure bullshit, there's nothing lazy or unwilling about him. He's followed me around for two days and he's pitched in with everything I've done, he's glad to be doing and he's desperate for company and any shred of kindness – look how he responds to Paul for pete's sake! Looks to me like a classic school refusal."

"School refusal?"


They had reached the shire paddock and Philip leaned on the fence, clicking softly to the big shires who looked up and then eagerly came across the grass towards them.

"Something goes wrong at school which makes the whole place untenable to the kid." Flynn said shortly. "He's bright – maybe not academic, I don't know, but given something real to do with actual self esteem attached to it, he's a good worker and he's keen. I'd think something's gone wrong socially. Bullying, some kind of emotionally based problem, probably not helped by the fact Hamilton hawks him around from state to state every few months."

"What would you do?" Philip asked, taking several broken carrots from his pockets and feeding them to the two shires who lipped them from his hands, crunching noisily and snorting white breath over the fence rail.

"Get him doing something real. Physical, real responsibility, which tells him at the end of every day exactly what he's done and done well, that's solid self esteem. What he needs most is listening to and basic routine and care – Hamilton doesn’t even bloody tell him to go to bed. He's fifteen years old! What kind of damn security is there in that?" One of the shires nudged hard at Flynn's shoulder, demanding the attention it was used to receiving, and Flynn took a step back to balance himself, then absently rubbed the massive nose. "He's a whole mess of emotion he doesn't know what to do with, it's spilling out all over the place and Hamilton calls that being 'difficult' or just plain 'teenaged'. Our stock gets more consideration than he gives that kid."

"And he's a kid worth the consideration." Philip said mildly. There was another long silence. Then Philip looked over at Flynn.


"What do you want to do?"

"Break Hamilton's face." Flynn said flatly.

Philip gave him a faint smile and Flynn eventually, unwillingly, returned it, leaning against the rail.

"All right, all right, I won't.  I promise. I want you to talk to Hamilton, sir. If he doesn't do something about that kid now, Riley will turn himself into the kind of mess Hamilton keeps telling him he is. Or he'll run away."

"You think that's a real possibility?" Philip said quietly. Flynn grunted.

"He's gay. He told me last night. I'd guess I'm the first person he's said it out loud to. Hamilton doesn't know."

Which made a good looking, desperate teenaged boy twice as vulnerable. Philip pulled himself up off the rail, briefly grasping the nape of Flynn's neck as he did so. It was a familiar gesture of affection, one that Flynn had always been able to tolerate as relatively non invasive, and he knew what Philip meant by it.


"Come back to the house and eat breakfast." Philip said firmly, and started to walk with the calm expectation that Flynn would come with him. And from Philip, that, in itself, was a cast iron guarantee that all would be well.


In summer, the paddock where the shires grazed, was deep and green, and peaceful.

The sun was warm on his back and there was no one else leaning on the fence rail beside him. Flynn watched one of the shires go down on the grass and roll, hardly seeing the massive horse there. He was goofing off and he knew it: the saddle he had been taking to work on one of the two year olds was on the fence beside him – but his feet had brought him here of their own accord. Philip had often come to watch the shires. He said the size of them raised an awe in him that he never grew tired of. All that careful movement and grace on top of all that power. It was something Flynn had always understood since he felt much that way about Bandit.

Jasper was walking slowly down from the corral, some way off, carrying a bag of feed over one shoulder. He moved like a cat. It had been slightly past one am last night when Jasper came into his room where he had been lying awake, watching the dark pastures out of the window. How he had known, Flynn had no idea, but he silently shouldered out of his t shirt and Flynn moved over to make room for him, and Jasper's long, hard body was warm against his, one arm heavy over Flynn's chest. They slept on and off until the sky began to turn from midnight blue to grey, and then they dressed and went quietly downstairs, Flynn pausing to look in turn through the half open doorways as he very often did at night. Paul, dear and staid and peacefully asleep – and it was for Paul he and Jasper were most careful; Paul was quick to hear anyone in need at night. Riley, on his stomach, one smooth arm around a pillow, long legs sprawled, his face peaceful. Dale, who for a few weeks now had been sleeping back in his own bed next door, as quiet in his sleep as he was when awake, dark hair scattered, one arm bent above his head, long fingers half curled. He often lay like that, and Flynn felt his usual, brief and ridiculous impulse to lay his own fingers inside that half open palm. Jasper made tea downstairs, Flynn dug bread and fruit out of the pantry and they ate together on the porch in the coolness of very early morning.

Paul's support was just as powerful: his love was shown in the neat piles of freshly ironed laundry that appeared on your bed, the house always immaculate and comfortable, the table set and welcoming at mealtimes with what he thought would tempt you; in his hands, in his voice, in the things he didn't say no matter how much he wanted to, because he understood. And Riley….. who had all the impetuous courage and determination of his nature, who couldn't bear to see someone he loved turn so dark, and who wouldn't be protected from it, couldn't accept that he couldn't somehow force things to come right. There had been times in the past that the only thing left to do had been to take a horse and go out somewhere too far for Riley to find, until the darkness passed.  

And Dale. Who watched, taking it in as quietly as he did everything else, and said nothing. For a business man, a powerful man, he was one of the most un judgemental  people that Flynn had ever met – save that Dale was by heart and soul not a predator but a mathematician. By nature he observed and collected and organised data, that was how he saw the world, and his conclusions were drawn slowly and tested on evidence.

"Hey." a voice said softly from a few feet away.

Paul. With a mug in his hand which he held out, coming to lean on the fence beside Flynn.

"I thought you might want this. I saw you and Jas were up at dawn."

Flynn took it without a word, cupping his hands around the warmth.


"Riley's ok." Paul said, as if he'd asked. Flynn flinched, visibly, and Paul's face twisted. He put a hand behind Flynn's sandy head and drew it down, dropping a brief and fierce kiss against his forehead.
"Stop it. He's fine, he'll live."

Flynn didn't pull away, standing for a minute with his head against Paul's.

"Can I help?" Paul said softly into his hair. "Is there anything I can do?"

Flynn shook his head, drawing gently away and sipping the tea.

"I miss him too." Paul said candidly, leaning on the fence beside him.

There were times when without actually moving, Flynn could appear to rear like a panicked horse. Paul looked back at him with compassion.

"I won't lie.  My stomach did a few flops when Dale showed me that key."

"I can't get a grip." Flynn muttered, drinking tea.   

"Thinking of him?"

It was hard to explain. Why that small key in Dale's hand should have translated into this bleak and aching sense of loss – it had been years.

"I'm a damn psychologist and I don't know why." Flynn said savagely.

Paul, who had just left Riley in the kitchen, seething on a very similar sentiment, put a hand on Flynn's shoulders, rubbing where the muscles were hard with tension.

"That man is a psychologist for pete's sake!" Riley had stormed a few minutes ago. "He's trained, he's written books on it!"

"He is never a psychologist or a professional when it comes to you, or to us." Paul had told him firmly, knowing Riley understood even if he didn't want to. "How could he be? How could we want him to be?"


Jasper was walking quietly across the grass to them. Paul looked up, catching his eye and communicating a brief message he saw absorbed in Jasper's dark eyes as Jasper leaned on the fence beside them, shoulder against Flynn's. Even in the days when Paul first knew them, before they really spoke to each other or to anyone else, they used to stand like that: blocked hard up against each other as if the weight of the other was some kind of tether or anchor. Flynn was still staring out at the pasture in front of them as though trying to see something through a fog. Paul put an arm around his waist and hugged him, leaning against his other side.

"Why do you need to know? It's ok to be sad, it's ok to miss him, grieving takes time."


That wasn't it. Flynn looked down at his hands, bleak and ashamed and angry with himself, and still angrier that he knew he wouldn't tolerate this from Riley or Dale or anyone else he cared about. 

Physician heal thy bloody self. If you have any real  idea of what the problem is.

"I'm going to take Leo and go out for a few days-" he began gruffly, and Paul interrupted him, firm and determined.

"No. There's no need for that."

"I'm driving Riley mad."

"Riley is fine and he
got himself into trouble this morning. You didn't go and pick a fight with him, you can't protect him from ever having to feel frustrated or angry-"

Flynn made a sound that reminded Paul of something breaking, and he folded his arms on the rail, putting his head down. Paul held on to him, concerned.


"Flynn, you can't. You won't lose your temper with him, you never have, and it wouldn't actually kill him if you did."

"I won't do that to Riley." Flynn said stubbornly, straightening up. "And you know what Riley's like if he knows I'm …." He broke off, without an adequate word to describe it. "He knows every single one of my buttons, he can't stop himself."


"At some point he's going to have to learn." Paul said firmly. "You do not need to remove yourself for anyone's sake, this will be fine."

"There's Dale too." Flynn said grimly. "It isn't just Riley now, we've got the two of them to think of-"

"Don't you under estimate Dale." Paul turned Flynn to face him and Jasper caught Flynn's eye, recognising Paul's tone. Both he and Flynn stood a head taller than Paul and both of them had involuntarily come to attention.


"He's stronger than Riley and me put together and he's got enough insight to know exactly what's going on." Paul informed Flynn. "Don't think he doesn't. You are not harming anyone and you don't have to go off and do this alone."

"It's better that way." Flynn said shortly.


"No." Paul said definitely. "It's not. I'll pack you lunch and you spend today riding if you want. Go watch Bandit and the mares. Go and swim, whatever you need, God knows you work hard enough to deserve all the time off that you want, but you come home tonight and you stay with us where you belong."

It was the tone with which he had occasionally scolded Philip – the only one of them who ever tried – and it had the same effect on Flynn. Jasper saw Flynn's expression as he stooped to drop a kiss on Paul's cheek, hugging him with as much apology as need, and Paul returned the hug as tightly.

"Don't you dare go off anywhere without taking food with you." he said, taking Flynn's empty mug, and heading back towards the house.

"There's times I find myself biting back the 'yes sir'." Flynn said under his breath to Jasper, who grinned.

"It's not worth taking the risk. I'd do exactly as he says."

"Sorry." Flynn said briefly and brusquely, not really looking at him. Jasper dropped an arm around his neck, pulling him over to kiss his cheek.

"Osda oginali-i."   



*



On Jasper's request, Dale spent several hours riding out to the south west of the ranch where Bandit led the brood mares, to look over the herd. At this time of year it was a light job: the mares had all foaled, the weather was gentle and the land in the south west was the safest for the herd with their foals. Dale checked the many streams and creeks that cut the bright green and thick growing grass as he rode, all of which were running clear, and followed the increasingly familiar curves of the valley, watching out for the first glimpses of the herd who moved somewhere within this large expanse of land. He found them eventually near one of the strips of woodland on the banks of a wide creek, mares cropping the grass peacefully with several of the foals asleep under the shade of the trees, little legs thrown out. Bandit himself came into view only when he crossed the creek: Dale looked back and found the big stallion circling slowly around behind him at a steady walk, coming politely to see what he wanted. Dale slid down to the grass and the stallion came to join him, standing quietly for a moment to let Dale rub his nose and speak to him. With a habit that had been building for a while, Dale dug a hand into his pocket and came out with the odds and ends they all stuffed their pockets with from the boxes in the stables: carrots, apples, lifesavers – or what Dale knew as polos – with a knowledge of who liked what. Bandit was, Dale knew, one of the peppermint fiends, and he courteously accepted the offering of the several lifesavers Dale produced, lipping them with surprising delicacy from Dale's palm. He walked with Dale when Dale moved towards his herd, keeping pace as Dale circled the mares slowly, looking for one distanced from the others, any indication of limping or wire cuts or fly blown sores. He found Marika, the lead mare, to be limping slightly as she stepped, and Dale took the halter from Hammer's saddle, hanging it over his shoulder before he approached her. Her foal was asleep on the grass near by and Marika gave him a wary look, but apparently calmed by Bandit's lack of concern, she stood quietly and let him lift her foot and dig a knife out of his pocket to clear her hoof. Bandit stood for a moment, huffing down Dale's neck and watching while Dale searched, then moved over towards the creek where another mare was drinking. She reared up a little and sidled as he approached, bucking with her feet out towards him – although in no danger of making contact. Bandit nipped at her and she squealed and danced, although made no effort to get away from him, and the stallion spun around to nip her again, lightly, almost like a game of tag. Belle. Dale watched, sharing his attention between his work and the horses, until he found the small but sharp piece of flint that was causing Marika's discomfort. He threw it well out of reach into the undergrowth and watched Bandit chase Belle out of the water, careful around the foals gathering and darting about too in excitement at the game. Another mare – Dale didn't know her name – lifted her head as Bandit passed, and Bandit ran his head along her neck in a heavy caress. The harem stallion with his many wives, who were themselves gathered in their friendship groups around the foals protected in the centre – and when Dale looked, who had their sentries posted around the edge of the herd, two always facing the way the herd had come, watching, and others at the perimeter, ready to signal at the first sign of danger.   

 Bandit escorted him to the edge of their valley, although Dale saw him turning his head frequently, scenting the air and listening for any warning from the herd behind him. One of the foals, a little paint colt, skipped and trotted beside him, eagerly keeping pace, and as they reached the edge of the valley, Bandit snaked a head out to guide the foal back with him.

In what was known as the home pasture – the start of the twenty or more square miles that made up the south west of the ranch – stood the quartz cairn by the lake, and from a distance as he saw the first glint of the quartz in the sun, Dale saw the horse cropping at the grass nearby, and the outline of someone sitting by the lake.

There was no doubt that it was Flynn. Dale knew the outline of the head and shoulders too well, even at this distance. His first thought, fresh from the herd in the valley some miles away, was the gut warning of trouble at the sight of an animal who went off alone. Which was ridiculous: Flynn was not a herd animal. Except Paul's words from this morning came back to Dale, about how someone such as Flynn's father had managed to breed a man capable of the affection and strength of family feeling fundamental to Flynn.

Dale was already drawing Hammer away, intending to ride wide of the cairn out of Flynn's sight and not disturb him, save that Flynn looked up and then lifted an arm, signalling. Which of course he would: dutifully he would pull himself together and be polite however he was feeling. Dale found himself wishing that Flynn didn't feel he needed to. He rode slowly across the pasture, and Flynn got up and came to meet him, face shaded by the brim of his hat. Dale slid down to the grass when he came into range, but kept hold of Hammer's reins. He had no idea what to say, and he saw Flynn see his awkwardness and step in to cover for it, falling in to step beside him.

"Bandit and the others ok?"

"Fine. They're in the valley by the woodland."

"Let Hammer drink a minute." Flynn stepped back to let the horse past and Dale let go of Hammer's reins, watching Hammer step carefully down to the banks of the lake. The cairn glittered behind him, the pink quartz that marked David and Philip's grave. All the family came here when they wanted peace or time to think; it was a precious place to them and Dale couldn't shake the feeling of dreadful intrusion.


"I should head back," he said lightly, trying to sound off hand about it, "See what else Jasper needs doing-"

"Rubbish." Flynn said curtly, glancing at his watch. "By the time you get back it'll be dinner. Nothing else going to get done today."


Ok. Dale took a seat astride one of the large, sun-warmed boulders around the lake, digging his hands into his pockets.

"Where was the quartz quarried?" he said aloud, still watching the glint in the sun. Flynn glanced with him at the cairn.

"Some up behind the falls. Some in a quarry out to the far west of the ranch. Jasper knew of it."
"That's where the stone works are."

"Indian burial ground." Flynn said shortly. "Or so Jas thinks. We had some historical society wanting to investigate a few years back, but Jas wouldn't allow it."

No, Jasper wouldn't.


"It's nice that it's the ranches own stone." Dale said, still watching the cairn. "The best of their own land."

"David had a thing for the stuff." Flynn folded his arms across his chest, leaning against another of the boulders. "There's several chunks of it in the house that he found over the years – or mined. Jas thought he did some mining up at the stone works, there were signs there."


That was interesting. David appeared to have tried his hand and been capable at most trades he turned his mind to, and Dale could understand how the find of the stone on his land might have motivated him to such a project. Flynn sat down on the rock, eyes narrowed against the sun.

"Jas knows the stone's properties. Philip did as well, I remember him telling me about it although I don't know where he heard it or how he knew. A lot of crystal type stones are supposed to have various influences or healing powers or so Jas says. It's a Native American tradition. I never did understand what you were supposed to do with the stones – eat them or carry them around in your pockets, whatever."

"What is the pink quartz supposed to do?" Dale asked, intrigued. Flynn shrugged.


"It's supposed to be associated with compassion. Supposed to remove negative impulses – anger, bitterness – attract healing, inspire friendship. And other things. Sometimes called the love stone."

In that sense it made a perfect marker for David and Philip.

"I suppose David was here when the last of the tribes were still trading in the area." Flynn said abruptly. "There were no settlements left then, but there were a few who worked as trappers and had a trading post out east in the woods on the wagon trail. Philip said there were still one or two around the town when Three Traders was still occupied. He probably got the knowledge from them – they would have known the stone and where it came from."

"Is Three Traders part of the ranch?" Dale asked. Flynn shook his head.

"No. It's still private land, some of it owned by whoever bought out the railway when it went bust, some of it belonging to whoever owned the town in the first place. It's about three miles east of our borders. Good grazing land, but whoever took it would have to deal with the town smack in the middle. It's all still there, it was just abandoned. Too much money involved to clear it."

"You wouldn't want them to." Dale said, hearing the tone in his voice. Flynn lifted one shoulder, shrugging.


"I'm just old fashioned. Preservationist. Jas explains it better than I do, but he and Philip saw it the same way. There's more here than we understand, there's knowledge in the land if you look for it, you live with what's gone before and share in that knowledge. It's a cheap and arrogant act to obliterate everything and believe that what you on your own put there is more important."

"Philip had those beliefs too?"

Flynn nodded slowly. "Mostly from David. David knew the tribesmen around here when he was younger and here alone, when they still lived near our land. Philip said they liked him, they thought he was wild as all get out, but they weren't afraid of wildness in their youngsters, they valued it and they knew how to mould it. They gave him a couple of the horses that started our bloodlines in the herd, for various things he did for them – I'm not sure what. Philip thought he went on some hunts with them, or possibly raids from the sound of it, and they had free passage over our land when a lot of other ranchers were using guns and dogs to warn them off. They picked up a lot of the local knowledge of the land and how to use it. The way we use the pastures and move the herds in season comes from them. They knew how to work with the land instead of against it. Life from the land. Jasper has a phrase for it, not in English, and apparently it doesn't translate well."

"How does that fit with your work as a scientist?" Dale gave Flynn a faint smile as Flynn glanced up. "I can see a lot of that philosophy behind how you work with clients."

"I'm not sure there's such a thing as a pure science when it involves people." Flynn leaned his elbows on his knees, looking down at the grass and his hands. "I don't know about new knowledge either. I suspect we call it different things, generation to generation. We all have the basic knowledge that vacations have some restorative value – maybe we don't yet think enough about why, or what beaches and forests and outdoor places do. I suspect we're the most indoor generation in the history of humankind and maybe we'll have to deliberately learn what was never an issue to previous generations, that we only thrive when in contact with the physical land."


"There's a calmness to physical work." Dale said, reflecting on it. "Real, physical work as opposed to a gym or just pure physical effort. The sensory aspects of it. What you touch, what you feel, what you see, what you smell – you don't get any of that from a computer or an office or a rowing machine."

"There is just a love of the land." Flynn got up, clicking to Hammer who came to him, letting Flynn take his reins. Leo lifted his head and came to join them.


"When I first came here I hated farming, I never wanted to shear another sheep or see another sheep, I was going to do something real, something with some ambition, and spend the rest of my life nowhere near grass. Or mud. Or rain. I spent months hating it before I realised hate and love aren't too far off the same thing. I'd go mad in an office, this is what's real, this is what keeps me sane to be able to do the more cerebral stuff."

Dale gave him a faint smile that Flynn saw the understanding in – Dale was the same, needing the anchor to be able to safely let his mind go  – and Flynn mounted up, realising in the silence just how much he had been talking.


What had Dale said? Well few, if any questions. Just comments, no more than thoughts spoken aloud, and he had a gift for opening up a space that you then found yourself filling without realising, even if you were trained to see that kind of thing. No wonder A.N.Z. found that their most difficult clients confided in him.


The kitchen smelled warmly of cooking as they heeled their boots off in the doorway, and Flynn disappeared into the bathroom, pulling his shirt off over his head, with a nod to Paul. Dale, heading for the sink and a glass of water, saw Paul stand where he was for a moment, staring after Flynn, then as the bathroom door shut, he turned straight to Dale.

"How on earth do you do that? Where have you two been?"

"Out by the cairn," Dale said, surprised. Paul opened his mouth to ask further, and stopped, and Dale turned to see what had caught his attention. Riley was in the doorway with an expression Dale recognised and which caught at his stomach. It was somewhere between angry and apprehensive, and Dale knew the sensation – the one he himself associated with that crazed inner driver, bent on destruction and caring nothing about the consequences. Riley's shirt was torn and dusty, his boots were dusty, and he looked direct at Paul as if daring him to comment. Paul pointed towards the family room.

"Take those boots off and show that shirt to Jasper. He's in the family room."

"I want a drink." Riley said defiantly, unlacing his boots. Paul crossed the kitchen at the same calm way he always did, as though going to turn a tap off or check a pie in the oven, took Riley's arm and drew him to his feet, although the several swats he landed across the back of Riley's jeaned legs made Riley squirm.

"Paul!"

"Move." Paul said firmly.

This was aimed entirely at Flynn. Dale, watching, saw it as clearly as if Riley explained it. Riley had seen them come in to the house, his raised voice was pitched to pull Flynn out of the bathroom, and he was vigorously thwarting Paul's attempts to hustle him out of the kitchen. Dale moved without thinking, swiftly into the family room where in one of the alcoves Jasper was crouched, surveying a bookshelf. He glanced up at Dale, and almost instantly came to his feet, dropping a hand on Dale's shoulder as he passed him, headed for the kitchen. Riley had progressed as far as a ringing stamp on the kitchen floor, still wearing his thoroughly dusty boots, and Jasper didn't say a word, simply taking Riley by the back of the neck and pushing him towards the family room with a lot more strength and dispatch than Paul. The bathroom door opened and Dale saw Flynn take in Riley's state of dress and dustiness in one glance, his face hardening.

"I thought you were grounded?"

"So did I." Paul said dryly. "We'll be talking about what 'stay in your room' means."

"I've got it." Jasper said to Flynn, pushing Riley ahead of him and out of sight in that peculiarly light grip which Riley didn't appear to be resisting.

"Little horror." Paul said, opening the fridge and pulling out the juice box. "I thought he was asleep up there and that was why he was so quiet."

"He's been up by the falls." Flynn said shortly. "Climbing, from the look of those scratches."

Paul poured a glass of juice and put it into his hand, pouring a second for Dale.

"Very probably. Dale, go and change, you're just as dusty."

Flynn knocked back the juice in several long swallows and put the glass in the sink. Dale, still drinking, watched him, not liking the expressionless look on his face.

"I'm going to pack for two or three days and I'll go now." he said to Paul. "I'm not going to push him into hurting himself to prove a point to me."

"This is attention seeking and you know it is." Paul said calmly. "He does this when he's upset, it's designed to scare you,"

"It's working." Flynn said grimly. "Since when does he sneak out of the house when he's grounded? Riley doesn't do that kind of thing. It's not right, I won't do it to him."


He opened the larder door and started to pull out what Dale recognised as riding provisions: the rolls which lasted several days, fruit, the dried meat, laying them on the table. Paul watched for a moment, then came to help, taking down several of the large canteen bottles.

"All right. All right, let me do that. But take Dale with you."

Flynn looked up at Dale, startled. Paul went on unpacking the larder, putting Flynn out of his way.

"It would have to be him or Jasper, they're the only two that don't drive you mad, and with Riley in this frame of mind I need Jasper here. Dale, go upstairs and get yourself a couple of changes of clothes and a thick sweater. Plenty of socks, it gets cold out there at night, and you'll find duffle bags in the bottom shelf of the linen closet."

***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

4 comments:

Snarky said...

I adore Paul.
"There's times I find myself biting back the 'yes sir.'" Flynn said under his breath to Jasper, who grinned.
I just had this image in my head of Paul having it 'up to here' with Flynn and giving him what-for while the other guys scatter to avoid the fall out. lol

Ranger said...

Keep reading the other books ;) There are times Paul gets that urge.

iguanacoosbay said...

It's great to finally see some comments here. I usually do not comment till the end, but I have to agree with Snarky, as I love Paul too. He's the steady rock and the homebody that holds the household together. Just love him.....

Ranger said...

Thank you :)

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