Friday, December 11, 2009

Chapter 4


4


The effort that it took to try and do anything at a less than manic pace was immense. And incredibly, unbelievably frustrating. With difficulty, Dale managed to make the stable work stretch to an hour the following morning, and Flynn's matter of fact order for thirty minutes of sitting still on the porch steps at the end of it was maddening.

You have to try, he reminded himself sharply, heading very unwillingly to do as he was told. This takes effort, it's going to be hard, you know you have to do this. It's for a good reason.

Even if it completely sucks.

 Paul was watering the plant pots along the porch when Dale dropped down on the bottom step and he gave Dale a sympathetic smile, continuing to work on down the line before he put the can back behind one of the larger pots, pulled off his gloves and came to sit beside him.

"Struggling?"

"This is ridiculous." Dale burst out in exasperation. "I feel like I'm trying to move in slow motion to make things take longer."

"It's hard, you're trying to change habits you weren't even aware of until a day or two back." Paul said mildly. "Give yourself some time."

"And even if I try I still end up here." Dale pointed out darkly. Paul smiled.


"Yes. Natural consequences, cause and effect. You can't bend the laws of nature to suit yourself, hon. Overdo it and you will pay for it: that's exactly what we want you to learn." 

"I hate sitting." Dale said shortly. He was fidgeting and aware of it, partly through being tender from yesterday's paddling, and aware too his voice was rather closer to a complaint than really was dignified. Paul ran a hand down his back, a light touch that made Dale jump.

"Because you don't know how to relax. Stop thinking about what ever you feel you should be doing instead of sitting here. No one's going to yell at you if it isn't done right now, it can wait, nothing's going to go wrong if it waits. There's other important things about today. Change the mindset. Try changing what you're telling yourself. If all you're saying inside your head is 'this is hard, I hate it, there's things I need to do' then yes, you're going to be miserable."

It had nothing to do with mindset. It had everything to do with the fact that sitting was physically a little uncomfortable and mentally pure bloody agony, and that working at least gave some peace. Working, working hard, meant feeling nothing and being calm; that was the one good thing about this place.

Paul ambled towards the corral and Dale wondered where he was going: he and Jasper seemed to disappear daily for some hours, Riley too most days. Riley had mentioned briefly the size of the ranch and the horse herd, the cattle and the thousand head of sheep that took up much of their working day. Flynn on the other hand stayed in the stables and paddocks around the house, working in sight of Dale and keeping him occupied with no shortage of tasks once his chores were done.

"Whoever takes on a client usually does that." Riley had said when Dale asked him. "Once you've been here a while, Flynn'll start taking you out onto the main ranch with him. It's usually Paul who's around the house during the day unless we have a new client here. He writes. He'll take a break from it for a few weeks until you and Flynn pick up some of the more distant work, but usually he does the house stuff so he can have four or five hours writing time."

"Is it always Flynn who takes a client?" Dale said curiously. Riley shook his head.

"Any one of them. We usually look at the information we have from the sponsor and decide who's going to take the lead."

"Do you ever take one?"


Riley laughed, shaking his head emphatically. "No way, I haven't got the patience. They're not all as easy to get on with as you are."

"Fourteen minutes." Flynn said mildly, in a tone Dale was starting to recognise as teasing, as he looked again at his watch. Flynn brushed off his hands, hanging a harness he had been cleaning on the porch rail as he came over.

"Relax. Unfold your arms, put both feet on the floor, stop hunching up around yourself."

Dale took a breath to control the urge to huff in exasperation and did as he was told. Flynn leaned on the porch rail beside him.


"Close your eyes."

Dale did as he was asked, somewhat warily. Flynn watched him for a minute, then Dale heard a faint snort and two large hands closed gently over his wrists, keeping his hands down on his lap and stopping them picking at his nails.

"Still. Listen. Tell me what you can hear."

Dale stifled a bolt of irritation and tried to strain his ears. Actually as soon as he turned his attention to that one sense, his awareness of what was around him suddenly leapt and the sense of agitation went with the loosening of muscles needed to concentrate.

"The trees." He said slowly, aware of the pressure of those two resting hands over his wrists. The restraint was oddly reassuring, a light barrier that gave permission to be still. "Birds somewhere towards the barn. The horses in the corral."

"Good." Flynn's hands squeezed briefly. "Don't open your eyes. I'll be back in a few minutes. I want to know by then, what's the furthest sound you can hear and what's the nearest."


It was much harder without the weight of his hands. Dale heard his footsteps move away across the yard and with difficulty pulled his mind under control. At least it was a challenge, something to do and to focus on. It was a while before Flynn came back and Dale answered without being asked, promptly.


"The furthest is a plane, going over somewhere that way. The nearest is the boards of the porch shifting when I move."

"Well done." Flynn dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Time's up, you can go onto your next chore. Come find me when you're done and think about stopping to breathe. Quality, not speed."

The quality part was easy. Dale worked on, half an eye on Flynn who was continuing to clean harness in the yard.


"Riley told me about Philip." He ventured after a while. Flynn nodded without looking up.

"So I heard."

"Did he bring you here?"


Dale was not at all sure how a personal question would be received, but Flynn answered quite calmly, attention on the harness in his hands.

"I came here to work during a university vacation. I'd grown up on a sheep ranch in New Zealand, it was lambing season and Philip needed an extra pair of hands. I needed the money."

"And you stayed?"

"On and off while I finished my degree, but Philip made it clear that this was my home. Eventually everything I needed to do was here."

"And it was the same for the others?"

Flynn gave him a mild shrug. "Mostly that's for them to tell you if they want to. Paul was living here when I came; he's been here all his adult life. Jasper came not long after I did. There were others who have now moved on, and some that belonged here years before me who come back to visit sometimes. Philip had a gift for turning people into family."

"And you didn't know David?"

"No. Of us, only Paul knew David." Flynn said calmly. "I would have liked to. I knew him through Philip and through the house and the ranch, very much of it reflects him. Watch your pace, Dale."

Frustrated, Dale paused and forced himself to move more slowly. Flynn cast a discreet look at him, appreciating the sincere effort he was making as much as the fact that Dale, who was positively monosyllabic unless alone with Riley, was actually trying to make conversation.


"How does the house reflect David?" Dale asked a moment later. "Riley said it was full of his sense of humour."

Flynn gave him one of his very brief, tugging smiles. "Well Riley would get that, yes. The house full of corners and nooks and crannies – that's all David. Privacy and hiding places. The deep window seats Riley curls right up in, that's pure David. You'll see it when you've been here a while. Are you done?"


"Yes." Dale admitted unwillingly. "Go on, say it. That didn't take half the time you think it should."

"Nope." Flynn glanced at his watch as Dale glanced at his own, resisting the urge to bear his teeth and growl.


Effort. This takes effort, you can do this.

"Twenty minutes. I'll just go and sit on the step, shall I?"




There was some kind of schedule on which the four of them came and went at the ranch that made sense to them: Dale was aware as that painfully frustrating day wore on, that Flynn kept watching the wide, grassed path that led past the corral and that he was starting to look increasingly grim. Paul came into the yard shortly after four, Flynn went to meet him and Dale heard Paul's usually tranquil voice drop in concern.


"Who? Jas? Riley?"

"Riley." Flynn said brusquely. Paul muttered something and turned to look back the way he had come, shading his eyes. The rolling green pastures beyond the corral made it easy to see anyone approaching from some way off, and they were currently empty.

"How late?"

"Forty minutes now. Jas took the truck into town an hour back for vet supplies, he won't be back much before six."

"I haven't seen Ri since breakfast. Where was he going?" Paul asked. Flynn took one further look around the pastures.


"He was repairing fences out by the river, he said he was going to check the water holes up there and have a look at the colts, see where they were grazing."

"That is
over a two hour ride," Paul said quietly, "Especially if he had to look for them."

"And if he's got a problem, we could be anything up to two hours away from him." Flynn said shortly. "I don't want to wait any longer. Can you ride up along the river as far as the falls? I'm going up towards the tops."

"Take Dale with you." Paul said bluntly. Flynn shook his head.


"There's no need to drag him anywhere and he isn't ready for it."


Dale looked up quickly, wanting to protest that, but aware too that right now his responsibility was far more to trust Flynn and do what he was told. No matter how impossible it seemed.

"He rides, he's quite capable and it's too much ground to cover by yourself." Paul said firmly, looking straight at Dale to include him in the conversation. "You might need another pair of hands. I'll take Nekkid and get going. Dale, go get a jacket from the kitchen, it's going to be cold out here in another hour or so. And take Riley's, he'll need it if you find him."


No matter where Riley was or what was going on, the option of getting out of this yard and doing something other than trying to slow down was seriously attractive. Dale didn't wait to be asked twice.



It had been a good eight or nine years since he had last tacked up a horse, but it was surprising how quickly it came back. Flynn had whistled to a tall, heavy shouldered dark horse he'd named as Hammer and handed him over to Dale, himself saddling a long legged and sidling chestnut by the name of Leo with Bandit's blond mane and tail. Apart from keeping half an eye on Dale, he made no further comment until he opened the gate of the corral and waited for Dale to lead Hammer out, following him with his own horse and shutting the gate securely.


"How confident are you?" he said brusquely as he swung up onto the saddle. Dale gave a final tug to Hammer's belly band and mounted up with muscles that were starting to remember how to do this.

"I rode with the hunt at home a few times when I was a teenager. Steeple chasing, that kind of thing."


Flynn nodded and nudged Leo into a rapid trot. Dale barely had to touch Hammer to get him to follow: the big horse had an easy action and his heavy muscles rolled steadily, eager to keep pace with Leo. They cantered once they reached the open ground, and despite Flynn's grim silence, the exhilaration of riding, of the movement and speed, began to sweep through Dale. He was aware that Flynn was watching him, and as they reached the top of the hill perhaps a mile from the ranch, he drew Leo back to a walk and nodded at the steep bank over on their right.

"That's the river. Can you take Hammer up the bank there, keep following it, and keep an eye out? I'm going up onto that ridge; I can see most of the land west from there."

He'd obviously decided that the CEO wasn't entirely useless with a horse. Dale led Hammer towards the riverbank and when he looked back a moment later Flynn was cantering due west, up the ridge perhaps half a mile away.

They stayed just barely in sight of each other as they moved on, Dale with an eye on the river they were following. It was dark blue, deep and swift-flowing here, rocky, but with no sign of the waterfalls Riley and Paul had mentioned. The beauty of this place was impressive, and the freedom of riding, of handling this beautiful, responsive animal was heady. Having taken little notice of what was outside office windows for – well. Probably years, if he was honest. Dale found himself breathing in the quiet, the space and the sheer colours and was slightly shocked at how much it filled him and the effect it had on him.

Despite that he was unable not to share in Flynn's obvious concern for Riley.

Dale zipped his jacket, guiding Hammer at a walk to give the big horse a rest, and glanced at his watch. Flynn was still in sight on the far ridge, and they had been riding for about forty minutes. The ranch was long out of sight behind them and the ground was getting steeper and rockier, with nothing in view but open land in every direction. It was all too easy to see why they got twitchy if someone was out here alone and didn't show on time.

It was as Dale rounded the next bend in the stream he saw something moving at a distance among a group of trees, something large and on the ground, and a moment later he heard a stifled neigh. Hammer responded immediately with a snort, and Dale heard Riley's voice in response, pitched at a full yell.

"HI! Jas? Flynn!"

"Flynn!" Dale bellowed across the plains, pulling off his hat and waving it. It took a moment to catch Flynn's attention, but the second he did, Flynn turned Leo and set him across towards the river at a gallop. Dale slid down from Hammer, tied up his reins and ducked through the small but dense thicket.

"Riley?"

"I'm over here, don't step on the horse."

Dale stopped at once, looking at the ground carefully, and saw a trailing leg amongst the leaves. He stepped over it with care and found Riley and a colt on the river bank, half in the water. The colt was sprawled on the ground in a very unnatural posture and Riley was sitting on its neck, very wet and looking extremely fed up. And cold: his shivering was as obvious as his temper.

"Who's with you?" he demanded as soon as Dale reached him. "Where are they?"

"Flynn and he's coming. What can I do?" Dale stepped carefully over another twisted leg and crouched down. The colt rolled an eye and heaved under Riley, and Riley ran a hand down his neck, shushing him quietly.

"All right. All right baby, stay put, we don't need broken bones here. He's got a foot caught up in some roots, that's probably what brought him down. I've got wire cutters on my saddle, but I daren't get up to get them, he's going to hurt himself struggling. Can you catch Snickers and find them?"

Snickers was no doubt a horse, and Riley was in no mood to explain. Dale didn't ask questions, just walked with care back through the trees and looked for a straying horse. Hammer was cropping at grass, glad of a rest. Some way off, another horse, a large piebald with delicate legs, was scratching himself against a tree. Dale walked slowly to him, hand outstretched, and caught his rein. The wire cutters were in the saddle bag and Dale retrieved Riley's jacket from Hammer's saddle before he went back to the river. Riley accepted the jacket with clear relief and shouldered into it, watching Dale run a hand over the colt's foot and cut free the thick and twisted roots he was tangled in. Some of them had bitten quite deep into the foot and forelock which was bleeding, and the colt jerked when it was touched.

"Riley!" Flynn's voice said sharply from the other side of the trees.

"Here." Riley called back. "Watch where you're walking, there's a colt down."

Flynn came through the trees and took in the colt and Riley without expression, turned on his heel and vanished back the way he had come. He returned a moment later with a head collar and Riley shifted on the colt's neck, watching him lean out in to the water and buckle it over the colt's head. They said nothing and apparently didn't need to: when the collar was buckled Flynn took a firm grip on it, taking a more stable stance on the bank. . 


"Ready?"

"Dale, stand out of the way." Riley called, braced himself with one foot in the river and Flynn counted aloud,


"One, two-"

"Three." Riley said with him and got up from the colt's neck, putting his weight against the colt's shoulder as Flynn slid one foreleg around into the right position and pulled on the head collar. It took a moment of the two of them aiding the struggling horse, helping him gather himself, then suddenly the horse lurched up and Flynn led him up the bank and through the trees. Riley waded slowly towards the bank and Dale leaned over, offering a hand to pull him up. Riley was obviously freezing and his legs were as numbed as the colt's. He made his way unsteadily and stiffly through the thicket and stood watching as Flynn walked the colt slowly round in circles. It was limping but as it began to warm up its action became smoother and freer and the colt's head began to lift.


"We need to get down as fast as we can," Flynn said very shortly, looking at Dale. "I'll take the colt, you stay close to Riley. Riley, are you hurt?"

"No." Riley said just as shortly.

"Get moving then." Flynn ordered, walking the colt slowly towards where Leo was grazing. Riley gave him a very grim look and headed for Snickers, clicking to him.
The atmosphere between the two of them could have been cut with a knife. Wondering what on earth Riley had done so wrong, Dale mounted up and waited for him, and silently put Hammer into a rapid trot that kept pace with Snickers down the rolling slopes that led back to the ranch.
  
           
*


Riley said barely two words on the ride back. Jasper must have been watching and seen them coming in: he met them at the corral and took the head collars of both horses, putting a hand up to help Riley as he swung down.

"I've got them, you two go inside and get warm. Are you ok Ri?"

"Just great." Riley said bitterly. "Thanks so much for asking. A colt was stuck on the bank up at the birch creek, I was sitting on him for two hours waiting for help, and you'd think I'd done it all on purpose."

"Stop chatting and get under a shower." Flynn ordered, dismounting behind them. He had led the colt down at a gentler pace and he hooked Leo's reins over his arm to lead the colt through towards the stables.

"Yes Flynn." Riley said sourly, glowering straight at him. "At once Flynn. Are you all right Riley? Oh yes Flynn, how thoughtful of you. How clever of you to stop the horse breaking his damn leg Riley. Oh don't mention it Flynn, I love sitting in a river all afternoon in mid frickin' April."

"Inside." Flynn snapped, louder. Riley kicked the corral rail as they passed it and stalked towards the house, and with a growing sense of uneasiness, Dale looked from the stone faced Flynn to Riley's rigid shoulders, then followed him. Paul was waiting on the porch, took one look at Riley and held out his arms.


"Oh sweetheart. The shower's running and the kettle's on, get out of those wet clothes."

Riley buried himself in the hug without comment and went through to the bathroom off the kitchen.

"How wet are you?" Paul asked Dale with sympathy. "Run upstairs and change, put a sweater on and come and have a hot drink."

"Flynn-" Dale began uncertainly, indicating the stables and thinking of the several horses Flynn was dealing with. Paul drew him in and shut the kitchen door.


"Jas will help him; you go and do as you're told."

Dale hesitated, more through confusion than any disinclination, and Paul put a hand up to touch his cheek as though it was a completely normal thing to do to a grown man.


"It's all right. Go and get warm."

Embarrassed at having given himself away, Dale ran upstairs and took his time changing, aware that he was tense and that a headache was starting to thump behind his temples. Once changed, still rather cold, he sat down on his bed and rubbed his temples, wondering if he could beg off dinner and go to bed, and at the same time wondering just what it was that made him so uncomfortable. Having chaired no few meetings where the tension levels reduced secretaries to tears, or which involved shouting, threats and intimidation, he'd grown to believe he was actually bomb proof. This had to be another and rather humiliating side effect of the breakdown.  


"Dale?" Paul called from downstairs. Taking a breath, Dale went to the top of the stairs.

"I'm – I'm pretty tired, I think I'll just go straight to bed."

There was a moment's silence, then Paul came to the foot of the stairs and held out a hand.

"Come down here."

It didn't seem polite not to respond. Dale unwillingly went down, prepared to explain politely, but Paul took his hand without a word or a trace of awkwardness, led him into the kitchen and sat him at the table which was set as usual for dinner. A mug of steaming tea was waiting at his place, and Paul took a seat beside him, wrapping his hands around his own cup.

"Drink that and listen to me. It's-"

"-just Flynn." Riley said sullenly, emerging from the bathroom dressed and with wet hair. Paul pulled out the chair on the other side for him.


"There's tea there love, we'll wait for the other two before we eat."

"Why bother when he's going to growl all evening?" Riley demanded, dropping into his chair. "You'd think it was all my fault and I'd tied the bloody horse up in the roots myself!"


"You know Flynn." Paul said firmly. "He doesn't do scared well, especially about you. It isn't you he's upset with."

"That's what it feels like." Riley said angrily, bolting tea. "I might just as well go straight up to bed."

"That would make two of you." Paul said dryly. "No. Ignore Flynn, we'll feed him and he'll settle down, there's no reason to let him get you wound up."

"I'm starving." Riley said, not noticeably cheered. Paul got up as the door opened and Jasper and Flynn came in together.


"Then we'll eat straight away. Dale, get some plates down for me please."

It was a strange meal. Dale found mealtimes stressful at the best of times, involving as they did a great deal of conversation and chatter that he was relentlessly dragged into, but today's was far worse than usual. Jasper and Paul talked cheerfully, doing their best to include Dale and Riley, although Riley said very little and frequently shot looks at Flynn who ate with his face still set in stone and said nothing at all.  

"I AM going to bed." He said when his plate was half empty, pushing it away. "I think rescuing the damn horse entitles me not to do the washing up."

Flynn didn't look up from his meal. Paul only said calmly,


"Put your plate in the sink then please."

Riley dropped the plate in the sink with a distinct bang and headed upstairs. Dale rubbed his temples and Flynn looked sharply at him, eyebrows lowered.

"You're headachy."

"I'm not in the least surprised." Paul said, getting up. "Dale, are you finished eating? I'll get you some painkillers and you can lie down."

"I'd like to go to bed too I think." Dale said rather tentatively. "Sorry, I'm- er- really tired."

"Go on then love." Paul took his plate from him. "There are book cases in the family room, why don't you look and see if there's anything you want to read in bed? Flynn, you can go and lock up outside and do something about that mood."

Flynn didn't answer, but he got up and headed outside. Dale hesitated a moment, then tentatively followed him out onto the veranda, watching him pull on boots.


"Can – is there anything I can do?"

Flynn glanced up and for the first time he looked very slightly less grim.

"No. Thank you. You ride very well, although that isn't the way I'd like to have shown you over the ranch for the first time."

"I was glad to help." Dale slipped his hands into his pockets, watching Flynn's face as he shouldered into a jacket. Flynn zipped it, looked up and met his eye for a moment before he jerked his head at the house.


"Go on. Let Paul sort that headache out. I'll come and say goodnight in a while."



There were books on an amazing amount of subjects in the family room. Dale wasn't much of a reader but he picked up one or two that looked interesting and lay in bed to flick through them until Flynn came upstairs at eight thirty, put the books out of reach on the dresser and turned the light out. He seemed much more himself, but for the first time it was hard to fall asleep.

Dale lay for a long time, hands behind his head, hearing Paul come up to bed, and then a while later Jasper and Flynn came upstairs and spoke quietly on the landing before their doors softly creaked and the house went silent.

He doesn't do scared well, Paul had said to Riley. Dale found himself going over and over Flynn's expressionless face, the tone of his voice, the strength and care with which he'd brought the horse to its feet, working seamlessly with Riley. 

The damn horse is fine, Riley's in a temper because Flynn was – oh shut the hell up and go to sleep.

Dale rolled over, punching the pillow before he lay down again. Two days ago he'd had a head full of sensible things like stats and accounts and projects, all of which were probably going to hell while he cantered around on horses and watched a bunch of cowboys have domestic incidents. Which then obsessed the hell out of him when he needed sleep. Furious, he flung the covers back, got out of bed and leaned on the windowsill, looking down over the meadows that led out to the aspen woods.

Projects. Figures. Think of something sensible.

The thought of the projects brought back a wave of acid and tension that was almost welcome as at least being a familiar emotion.

There must be a damn phone somewhere around here. Somewhere.

And yesterday you were telling Flynn that you knew you were screwed and you had to give this place a serious try. What kind of a chicken are you, Dale Aden?

One with a bloody awful headache, unable to sleep. Dale paced the room a couple of times, rubbing at his temples, then in desperation softly went out onto the landing. The house was dark and still. Dale went softly down the stairs, bare foot, and stood at the window in the family room, looking out over the veranda. The dogs were sleeping on the porch in a pile of black and white fur. The thought of going outside was tempting. Fresh air. Maybe a run. The idea, once it struck, was a beacon. There had been a hundred nights spent in the gym when sleep wouldn't come, and that was probably in the last year alone. A running machine, a silent, empty gym; that was one very successful way to shut up a brain that wouldn't stop. Especially when you weren't allowed to work at a bloody speed that got things done and made you feel any better.

Dale silently put on the trainers by the back door, opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. The dogs lifted their heads and Shane got up, padding down the steps after Dale. He kept pace as Dale started to jog, not bothering with a warm up. The grass was soft to run on, the slopes were a welcome challenge, it was cool, and after a while the space and the silence extinguished the racket in his mind.



*



He had no idea of the time when he came softly back into the kitchen, exhausted, relieved, and distinctly empty. Riley looked up from the kitchen table, raised an eyebrow and then grinned at him, toasting him with a glass of what looked like milk.

"Hey." he said softly. "You realise how dead you would be if anyone but me was here right now?"

It was impossible not to like Riley. Dale found himself grinning as he opened the fridge, pouring himself a glass of juice.

"Good thing it's you then."

"How many times did you throw up?" Riley asked, watching Dale heel off the trainers. There seemed no point in hedging.


"Twice." Dale told him, sitting down across the table. "Can't you sleep?"

Riley shook his head. "How often have you done this?"

"This is the first time." Dale gulped juice. "I couldn't sleep either."

"Flynn never told you to go wake him if you couldn't sleep?" Riley said curiously.


"Something like that." Dale thought about it, wincing. "I can't see that ever happening personally."

"He can be sweet when he's in the mood." Riley bolted milk, giving Dale a look over the rim. "WHEN he's in the mood. I'm sorry you got stuck in all that stuff last night. I love Flynn to bits, I really do, but if he and I were left alone together one of us would be dead in a week. He gets grouchy like you wouldn't believe when he goes into Protect the Herd mode, he's like Bandit. Frickin' stud stallion. Defend you no matter what but won't think twice about kicking you to get you out of his way while he's doing it."


Dale reflected on that, with several years hard experience in man management and basic human psychology, amongst which had been no few men given to getting extremely grouchy under stress.

"And when he gets like that," Riley went on, "I get mad and I've got this real knack for pissing Flynn off but good when I try, so he gets grouchier, and it's basically a mess." He hesitated, looking rather guilty for a minute, and then shrugged. "He did come and try to say goodnight, but I wouldn't talk to him. Which was mean."


There was nothing to say in sympathy that wasn't trite. Dale drank juice and Riley finished his milk, glancing at the kitchen clock which stood at slightly past four am.

"Want to see something weird?"

"What?" Dale asked curiously. Riley put his cup in the sink and got up.

"Come on."

There was a door set in amongst the kitchen units: a small door less than four foot high which Dale had always assumed housed pots, pans, mops, tins, that kind of thing. Riley opened it and snapped on an electric light set inside the door, which to Dale's amazement lit up a narrow wooden staircase leading steeply upward.

"Where does this go?"

"It's another of David's hideaways." Riley stepped aside to let Dale into the stairway and shut the door behind them. "This way."

The stairs led up, spiralling steeply until Dale lost track of where they could be within the house. At the top of the stairs Riley stepped into a dark, cold room and waited, giving Dale a mischievous look.

"Ready?"

He put a hand up and a dim light came on. The room lit up, wide and pitched roofed – they must be right up under the eaves of the house – but there was no competition for what lay in the centre of the room. The map – or the world, it was hard to tell – spread out in 3D miniature, covering what must have been more than twelve square feet of the floor. Green rolling hills interspersed with villages, tiny houses and churches, a blue sea in the middle housed boats with tiny harbours at intervals along the two coasts. A train track ran with amazing complexity over the land with minute stations and several trains in suspended animation on the lines. Dale crouched over the map, spellbound. Riley knelt beside him, putting out a very careful hand to touch a switch in a box set into the floor. Suddenly tiny lights lit up on the houses, on the train lines, even on the boats on the painted water.

"Isn't it amazing?" Riley said softly. "It was David's. He spent nearly twenty years making this. Painting it, building it, he made everything here himself. This is supposed to be Portsmouth here in England –" he touched a tiny harbour on one small piece of coast. "And this is supposed to be Halifax. And this is the ranch over here – geography didn't matter that much to David, he just put things where he wanted them."

"He loved boats." Dale commented, watching Riley place one or two of the ships gently in the harbours. All galleons and fishing vessels.


"He sailed for a while." Riley gave Dale a sideways grin. "Philip loved to sit up here and just look for hours at this. I used to sit with him and we'd move things around, arrange it, and Philip told me all the stories. You know David was an honest to goodness pirate?"

"He was what?" Dale demanded, startled. Riley laughed.

"A pirate. Really. He was a lot older than Philip, he was born in England at the very end of the nineteenth century, ran away when he was fourteen or fifteen and joined a crew sailing out of Portsmouth to Halifax. Some man went through the town saying he had a ship and was looking for men to crew her who were interested in being rich. David signed up with him and found he was on a ship of buccaneers, and they sailed off the Canada coast hunting American ships and pirating whatever they could find. Philip said the ship was more or less held together with wire, she was a ragged mess but she moved like a greyhound and she was never once caught in three years. Then the war started in Europe and David ended up sailing with fishing vessels watching the waters and hunting German U boats. He sailed with the Dover patrol for a while, a very hush-hush group of civilian fishermen who dealt with mines around the coast of Britain. And then after the war he worked his way back to Canada and did- well. Pretty much everything. He worked ranches, cattle drives, did some gold prospecting for a few years, finally he built the ranch out here. First real home he ever had."

"And was Philip a pirate too?" Dale said dryly, digesting this. Riley shook his head.


"I think he kind of broke David of all that fairly quickly, Philip came up through banking and business schools. They were complete opposites. David was self educated and Philip went through Harvard, Philip was a family man right through and David never had any family to his name but Philip. But I knew Philip years after David died and his eyes still lit up whenever Philip thought about him."

"What the heck are you two doing?"

The voice made both Dale and Riley jump. Paul had his hands on his hips and in his dressing gown he looked rumpled and mildly exasperated, which Dale suspected was as far as Paul got on nodding distance with cross.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"About four thirty?" Dale offered, thinking about it. Riley gave him a startled look and in spite of himself couldn't help the laugh that escaped. Paul held the door back and jerked his head at the stairs.

"Bed. Both of you. Move."

Grown men were not ordered to bed in that tone of voice; it just wasn't done. And yet Dale found himself on his feet and moving at something perilously close to a scuttle. He heard a sound he didn't recognise at first, followed by a yelp from Riley, and a second later was extremely surprised by a sharp spank across the seat of his boxers as he passed Paul. He was still breathless with shock when they reached the kitchen and Paul snapped off the stairs light, closing the door.


"You are both going to owe me lines in the morning-"

"Paaaaaaaaul-" Riley began and Paul pushed him through the family room, voice very soft.


"Upstairs and not another word."

The last time he had been scolded and hustled up to bed like this had been after a particularly noisy fight after lights out in the junior dormitory in prep school. Dale slid under the covers and Paul pulled them straight over him.


"Get out of bed again tonight and you'll be sleeping on your stomach my lad, I warn you. Go to sleep."

He moved down the hallway, no doubt to do the same for Riley. Dale wrapped his arms around his pillow, with some doubt that Paul would actually be capable of making good on that threat – comfortable, round and gentle, he had none of the authority or the sheer presence Flynn had, no matter what he was doing. On the other hand, that swat had definitely stung and there was a distinct disinclination to annoy Paul any further. That was a question for Riley in the morning. 

***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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