Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 7


7


Being a naturally morning person, and being long used to getting up, showered, shaved, dressed and into the day at very short notice, Dale had got into the habit of setting the table for breakfast while Paul cooked and the others assembled. Usually by the time the plates were set out, everyone was there: Riley still yawning, Jasper coming in from whatever it was he did outside so early, Flynn on the veranda feeding the dogs and checking over the horses in the stables. This morning Paul called twice from the foot of the stairs and Flynn bellowed once from the doorway of the kitchen, and they were already eating before Riley came down stairs.

Dale's stomach jumped at the sight of him. Riley was so rarely anything but sunny tempered, the change was visible and immediate. He was dressed, but roughly, as if he'd pulled on whatever came to hand, he looked tired and he looked grim, and Dale saw the swift glance cast between Paul and Flynn. Paul pulled the chair out beside him where Riley usually sat and poured juice into his glass, running a hand down Riley's back as he took his seat.


"Good morning. Didn't you sleep well?"

"Couldn't wake up." Riley wrapped both hands around the glass, sipped a little and mostly stared into it.

"Someone needs to pick up the grain feed from town today," Flynn said, eating eggs. "And drop a couple of sacks off to Clara's place on the way past."

"I'll do that this morning, I need to go to the bank." Paul offered. "If anyone needs anything else, leave me a list. I'll shop too while I'm there."


"Anything particular you need to do today or anything you need help with?" Flynn asked Riley, who shrugged.

"Don't know."

"Well think about it." Flynn spread another piece of toast, watching him. "Jas?"


"Nothing in particular on the patch I rode over yesterday." Jasper said calmly.

They decided – or rather Jasper and Flynn decided together – on a daily basis what work would be done that day, often based on the weather. But the essential chores, the work based on the stock, were always done around it no matter what else they might do. Patrolling all the ground of the ranch, looking over the animals to pick out the sick or injured; ensuring shelter for stock as it was needed, whether shade or warmth; checking the integrity of fences which overnight could be easily breached or damaged and become dangerous; checking the food and water supply and keeping the waterholes clean and free running. That was the bread and butter work, done every day of the year whatever the weather.

"We have a client," Jasper went on calmly, eating toast, "interested in a couple of the yearlings. He'll visit at the end of the week and I'll take him up to see what we have."

"Anyone we know?" Paul asked. Jasper shook his head.


"Someone who has heard of Bandit's pedigree and is looking for eventers to train."

"That's the key of our blood line," Paul said to Dale. "Speed mixed with stamina. Bandit has racing blood in him, he was the first stud we foaled that really mixed the speed and nerve with the strength. And the good temperament. He resulted from about ten years of careful breeding. And we look for brood mares with racing stock to them. One of Bandit's daughters is currently being trained by one of the US National eventing team, although she's not quite old enough yet to compete."


He hadn't realised how seriously they took the horses. There must, in this house somewhere, be a phone or a computer. Dale reflected on that in silence. He had never seen either; the only contact from the outside world on the ranch was the woman vet, Clara, who seemed to be a friend.

"Riley?" Flynn said, finishing his toast. "Is there anything you want help with or anything you want to plan into today?"

"I don't know." Riley was still staring into his glass. He hadn't eaten much and rather than unsure, he sounded bluntly sullen.

Yesterday's swimming. Dale looked at him with his stomach turning over. It wasn't difficult at all to understand. Flynn got up to put his plate in the sink, and then leaned against the counter, folding his arms.

"What don't you know?"

Riley shrugged. Flynn crossed his legs at the ankles as well, watching him.

"Want to tell me what's wrong?"

"Nothing."

It was ridiculous he would actually come out with that word as if he believed there was any chance of it being believed. Paul had turned in his chair to look between Flynn and Riley. Jasper placed his cup back on its saucer, voice as soft as usual.

"Is this to do with why you came home yesterday afternoon with sand in your hair?"

That bizarre statement appeared to make sense to the other two: Dale saw Paul sigh and Flynn's jaw square off.

"Well there's only one sand bank, isn't there? Did you take Dale with you?"

"I went along with it." Dale said quietly. Paul put a hand on his knee and shook his head slightly. Not now, be quiet, it's all right. Dale read the message without difficulty although he didn't understand it, and Paul didn't move his hand.

"What's the rule about swimming, Ri?" Flynn asked. Riley didn't take his eyes off the table and he sounded flatly defiant.

"We did the fence first, the work was done."


"What's the rule?"

Riley didn't answer. He was making this so hard: there seemed so little point in deliberately being so difficult. Dale watched, confused and slightly frustrated with him, but no one else seemed surprised.

"All right." Flynn said quietly after a moment. "If you can't remember the rules or stick to them then we can't trust you out alone. You don't leave the house today."

Riley jerked his head up and Dale was shocked to see his eyes fill with tears as if Flynn had slapped him. The others simply got up, starting to clear the table as they did every morning.


"I'll cover the south pastures this afternoon when Paul's back," Flynn said crisply, stacking dishes in the sink as Paul started to run water. "Jas, can you do as much of the north and east pastures as you can? I'll come up this evening and help with what's left."

"I could take Dale with me now and we'd get it covered in one go." Jasper said mildly. "I'll keep a good eye on him."


That was quite an alarming thought: Jasper was quiet and the least familiar of all the household, the idea of a day in his company was not an easy one. Flynn looked at Dale, and Dale, swallowing down the anxiety, nodded. Taking Riley out of the workforce clearly increased the work for the others; if he was needed to work then good. It was far better than sitting watching.  

"All right." Flynn stooped at the door to put boots on and through the open door Dale saw the dogs get up and come to wait for him, tails lashing in anticipation. "Do what you can and I'll help with anything more this evening."

He went out, and Paul opened the door to the pantry, putting away the last of the items on the table. Jasper leaned past him, taking rolls and several other items of food from the boxes on the shelves.

"Dale, get four of the water bottles from the cupboard there, and four of the apples. We won't be back much before mid afternoon. Change your shirt for a long sleeved one before you come outside, get a hat, and I'll meet you at the corral."

That was short and to the point. Dale got up and Riley moved ahead of him, taking no notice of Paul and the washing up – nor did Paul call him back which was unusual – and instead went into the family room, dropping down on one of the heavy leather sofas almost out of sight. The message was loud and clear that he didn't want company or conversation. Dale went upstairs to change into a cotton sleeved shirt and when he came back down Paul was in the family room, sitting on the sofa alongside Riley. They were quiet when Dale passed through the room, and he left the house as fast as possible, not wanting to hear their conversation.   

Flynn was talking to Jasper outside the corral while the dogs circled around the horses legs, he was holding Hammer as Dale brought the tack over, and he paused to watch Dale tack up.

"Remember you're not here to make up the work force. You've got other priorities; don't lose sight of them."

Like what?

Surely if you were going out to do a job, you did the job; what else was there to do? Flynn watched him tug the stirrup leathers down and held Hammer's bridle while Dale swung up, dropping a hand on Dale's knee when he was in place.

"And don't worry about Riley."



*



Jasper talked a lot more than Flynn, but he didn't say as much. It wasn't vacuous chatter either. He was friendly and he was sociable, but it was a polite social surface that did not give away much of what lay underneath. Dale, who had met no few other men who played their cards close to their chests, accepted that at face value. They rode at a steady pace out towards the east of the ranch with two of the dogs running with them, crossing the river which Dale had not done before, and which involved walking the horses across a shallow stretch. Hammer took this stoically. Jasper's horse, which was a long legged, cream coloured mare by the name of Gucci, sidled and sidestepped and took a moment to persuade to set her feet into the water, after which she covered the distance in a series of springs like a cat avoiding getting wet. The dogs plunged into the water without hesitation and shook themselves vigorously when they emerged on the other side, darting once more alongside the horses.

Not far past the river, cattle came into view, and Jasper's conversation began to casually point out what they looked for in the daily ride out, the signs of an animal in trouble, where beasts hid or wandered or got into difficulties. He was good at imparting a lot of information quickly. Dale found himself wondering which clients had been assigned to Jasper and what their experience of the ranch had been. He found it hard to imagine making sense of this place without Flynn's quiet and blunt support, and Flynn's habit of saying exactly what he meant with no punches pulled. Jasper's friendly elusiveness was very different. Perhaps with a client of his own he was different.

They paused for a while with a young heifer which was dragging one foot. Jasper handled the beast without effort or hesitation, murmuring to it while he pulled the foot up and twisted and flexed various parts of it. Dale was faintly surprised when he pulled a syringe and a bottle from his saddle bag and filled it, injecting the heifer briskly in the neck before he sent it along to continue grazing with a slap against a heavy flank.

"Antibiotic." he said when he put the drug back in the saddle bag. "We keep the basic stock for the basic problems, foot rot, simple injuries. At this time of year when the ground's damp up here they get all kinds of low grade foot infections. Catch it early and it's no problem."

"How big is the herd?" Dale mounted up when Jasper did, turning Hammer to follow Gucci across the pasture where the red cattle were grazing peacefully.

"Only a hundred and fifty or so at the busiest point of the year. They're not our main stock by any means, just a basic, steady income. The sheep are a rarer herd out here and they sell better and further. When Flynn and I were first here the cattle were still the main herd, hung over from the ranch's cattle driving days. Flynn worked sheep ranches in New Zealand when he was a kid, he knew what he was doing and he built up the sheep flocks until we were sure they were viable enough to take over and for us to drop the cattle herd down."

"And the horses?" Dale asked, interested. Jasper smiled.


"They were always here. Philip was a horseman, he started the breeding programmes and brought in the first stock."

And he must have been quite an elderly man when Flynn and Jasper were in their twenties. Too elderly to cover this kind of land and heavy work himself, which explained his collecting this group of young men.


"Was ranching in your background?" Dale said lightly enough for Jasper to avoid answering fully if he found it too personal a question. Jasper smiled.

"I came from Virginia, not much opportunity up there."

"I don't know much about the different states." Dale said honestly. "I've seen offices in quite a few of the major cities, but the trip between the airports and the tower blocks looks more or less the same in most places."


"And you didn't look at more of the cities when you were off duty?" Jasper invited. Dale resisted the urge to give in to the blush, ignoring the heat in his face. A few weeks ago this admittance wouldn't have shamed him at all.

"There wasn't much off duty about it. I tended to be parachuted in wherever there was trouble, which might be Chicago or Milan or Tokyo or Paris. Assess the damage, look at the books, deal with the client and smooth things down, yank the project back on track."

"What usually went wrong?"


Dale considered, mentally scoring up the averages and watching the dogs trotting ahead of them, being given wary looks by the grazing cattle. "Budgets tipping over into the red: that was always a reason I went out to take a hand and get to the bottom of why. Clients getting twitchy, figures going wrong. Let problems build or people get nervous and the shares start crashing and the real trouble starts. Someone in the chain on the project who wasn't competent. A project that had got too big or too complex for the team handling it. Occasionally a client or another corporation trying to slip something past us, or use us. I was usually the one sent to view the figures with the accounts hotshots when that happened."

"A wide range of skills."

"That's part of the fun of it." Dale said indifferently. "Jack of all trades and master of none."


"Would you say that?" Jasper asked mildly. "From what I understand, you were more master of all trades."

There was no comfortable answer to that, nor a polite way to deny it. Jasper led them up on to a ridge and in the distance Dale saw sheep start to dot the landscape, taking over from the cattle. The sheer distance over which these animals had free range was astounding.

"The part of Virginia I came from was mostly mountains and woods." Jasper said casually as they rode. "There were small holdings, and I lived on a small holding myself, just a handful of animals that served one family's needs, but not large farm land."

It seemed impolite to ask straight out 'how did you come here?', particularly to such a private man. And equally impolite to answer as though not interested. Jasper caught Dale's eye and the smile this time was a good deal warmer suddenly, although Jasper's smiles had always seemed friendly.


"I don't know if this is shyness or Britishness. Ask what you like Dale, and so will I, and if we ask something the other one doesn't want to answer then we'll say so and move on without offence."

"I wondered how you and Flynn and the others came to be here." Dale said rather awkwardly. "Flynn told me he came here as a student."

"Yes. He came to the US to study and looked for work he was familiar with in his vacations since he was alone and in need of income." Jasper guided Gucci ahead of Dale as they came down from the ridge to flatter ground that wove towards the river. "Paul was here some years before us, he came as housekeeper when David began to grow frail and Philip needed help to look after him. Paul can be very persuasive and I understand that David was better interested in co operating with a pretty young man than with his doctor. But then aren't we all?"


Dale snorted involuntarily and Jasper grinned at him.

"I understand from Philip that Paul probably helped lengthen David's life by several years, purely by quality of care. Although he also felt that Paul saved him from the necessity of wringing David's neck. I don't believe David made a good patient."

A man who's eighty plus years had included piracy and roving the world was not likely to take old age easily or quietly. David must have been a fascinating man to know.

"What brought you into ranching?" Dale asked frankly. Jasper shrugged a little.

"I never intended to come into it exactly. I left Virginia quite young and I wandered for a number of years doing casual labour, usually with animals. Philip hired me in Texas to help bring some cattle stock back, we travelled together and by the time we got here I think he felt that I needed straightening out and offered me a job."

Flynn had said that Philip had a habit of collecting young men in need. Jasper led the way down the river bank and the horses splashed slowly through the shallows across the pebbled bed, Gucci apparently more resigned to the water now she was less fresh.


"It took a while to accept his offer fully. I mostly lived outside for the first few months, camped up here in the top barns and shepherded. I wasn't used to living indoors."

"You didn't as a child?"

Jasper smiled. "I led a slightly odd life at home. My grandfather raised me, the small holding was his, and he was an unusual man. I understood you left your family young?"

"I went away to school." Dale said matter of factly. "Habit in the family, all the same schools."

"Do you have much contact with your family?"


"Very little." Dale eased his weight over Hammer's neck as he scrambled up the bank. "My mother remarried when I was very small, the solicitors mostly dealt with schools and fees and so on. I've never had much to do with her new family. She was quite young, she was only married to my father eighteen months before he died, so she more or less started her life over again. My step father is a pleasant enough man."

In fact he was easier to communicate with than his mother, since he was by trade a financier. They met occasionally for dinner when business brought them into the same city, and they had the comfortably offhand camaraderie of a nephew and middle aged uncle. Enough to enjoy a meal together, to talk shop and to part without concern about when they might next meet. In Dale's mind it suited them both very well. He was aware the man was proud of his fame in the business world, in his achievements and of the family connection, which was a mildly pleasant reflection.  



They ate beside a section of the river they spent an hour clearing, knee deep at times in the water to pull aside the branches of a tree that had fallen. It had taken both of them to clear it, but at least once Jasper had put a hand across to Dale's arm and stopped him, pushing him back for a moment.

"Stop. Breathe and slow down." he said quite pleasantly, but with enough firmness that Dale stepped back and did as he asked, ashamed to find that he had been starting to slide into what he termed in his own mind as 'obsessing' once more. It was ridiculous to discover that even knee deep in a river he was capable of doing it. Flynn stood no nonsense – he would have levelled a finger at the bank and sent him to sit, detach from the task altogether and would have kept him there until he was well and truly settled and subdued. That clarity had been what had made Dale recognise the warning signs when he was beginning to do it, the distancing of everything else around him, the gathering physical speed and tension. Oddly enough it also made him a good deal less embarrassed about it. Flynn neither reproached nor discussed; the 'out' and the levelled finger were brief and to the point and all he ever said on the matter. Jasper kept a hand on him, watching until Dale looked him in the eyes.

"Sorry."

"Don't be sorry, just ease off." Jasper said calmly. "It's just a tree, not a trapped body. Act proportionately."

Yes. Stooping to take a better grip, Dale began to work with him again to shift the main trunk to one side, feeling some kind of compulsion to explain himself.

"Flynn said there'd be some kind of action or gesture or thought I was using to call up that state. Kind of like a trained hypnotic action I'd got so used to that it was subconscious, but we haven't worked out what it is yet. I still don't notice until it's already happening."

"We all have our own magic spells." Jasper hauled the tree up the bank and straightened up, out of breath. Dale climbed up after him, brushing water and mud from his hands.

"Do we?"

Jasper smiled. "Beliefs. Superstitions. Cultural ones or personal ones. If I do this, then that happens. If that green light goes red before I reach it, I shall say it will be 'one of those days' and therefore I'll believe today has bad luck. If I watch my hands and think the 'I can't do this' thought then I'll become quiet and almost invisible as I have trained myself to do, and people will take no notice when I slip away and go home, and not hurt me any more. Everyone has some form of spell that they cast for themselves and believe in. Different cultures call them by different names. You really do glaze over, don't you? You go somewhere else altogether."

Still in the process of gathering information on this, Dale filed that one away for future reference, both uncomfortable and interested in the insight. Flynn had spoken to him briefly about hyperfocus and it was an area Dale intended to research a good deal more thoroughly when his time was his own again and he had free access to a library.

The horses grazed in the shade by the trees while they ate rolls, cheese and apples and shared scraps with the dogs.

"How much land do we have left to cover?" Dale asked when Jasper lay back in the grass, tipping his hat down over his eyes.

"About three miles west – we'll go right across the tops, check on the horses, then seven or so miles south to the ranch. We'll rest our horses another half hour first."

It must be quite long and lonely days at times for Riley and the others when they were out here by themselves; it was easy to see why at times Riley gave in to the temptation to wander off and go swimming. Jasper appeared to be dozing under his hat. Never able to doze or sleep during the day, Dale got up quietly so not to disturb him and wandered through the short belt of woodland, the dogs pottering ahead of him. The horses glanced up but didn't break off from their grazing. Beyond them in the distance, the first outlines of the brood mare herd could be seen. There were several groups to the horse herd Riley had explained: Bandit, the stud stallion, his brood mares and their foals, who had territory of their own. Then the subsidiary group of yearlings and two year olds that Bandit would no longer tolerate in amongst his females, too old to be with their mothers, but a social group of their own and still, at a distance, part of the herd. Dale walked for a while, watching them grazing, and idly following the river as it curved, widening steadily as it moved further north. The ground grew steadily rockier. He was making his way over the boulders, some way from the river bank, when he saw the shadow on the water. The man was in his shirtsleeves, crouching on the river bank perhaps twenty feet from Dale, elbows on his jeaned knees, his finger to his lips in a gesture that made Dale freeze to the spot and look slowly to what he indicated.

The thing balanced on the rocks that acted as stepping stones across the river, was long and golden, with huge feet and a triangular face turned towards Dale. A long, thin tail lashed behind it and it released a feline snarl, soft and high pitched, baring two long, white fangs below yellow eyes. Dale stood rooted to the spot and grabbed at the dog that came up beside him, its teeth bared and growling. Then the thing began to move again, swiftly, bounding across the rocks and then up the steep slope on the opposite bank, vanishing into the woodland.    

"Stand still." Jasper's voice said softly behind him, and Dale became aware that Jasper had a rifle in his hands and gripped the collar of the other dog. "Let it get well away before we move."

"Was that a cougar?" Dale said just as softly.


"Yes." Jasper waited a moment more before he put a hand on Dale's arm, guiding Dale ahead of and to the side of him, putting himself between Dale and the river and steering him back down towards the horses. "Tam, Ash, heel. I've never seen one this far north before."

The man on the riverbank was out of sight. Dale glanced back, more shaken than surprised. There was no sign of anyone watching them, no sounds of anyone moving back into cover.

"Do you get hunters coming onto the land?" he asked as they reached the horses. Jasper looked quizzical.

"We never have done before. After the cougars you mean? No. The sheriff's office gets involved if there's a real problem, but mostly the ranches deal with animal trouble themselves, and there's nothing but ranches out here for about fifty miles in each direction."


The man on the riverbank had no gun that Dale saw. No rucksack, no sign of a jacket, not even a hat despite the heavy sun out here. 

"There was someone further up on the riverbank," he said as Jasper caught Gucci, who tossed her head and skipped sideways and turned in circles until Jasper swatted her cream coloured haunch. She stood still then to be mounted, but Dale had never previously realised that a horse could pout.

"Who?" Jasper demanded when he had Gucci under control and the rifle attached to his saddle, this time over rather than under the saddle bag. "Where were they?"

"A man, about my age, by the river. He signalled to me to stop, he was watching the cougar."

Jasper swore, standing in his stirrups to look over the ground.


"I didn't see, but I was mostly worried about you when I heard the snarl. I've got no idea what anyone would think they were doing this far from the road and in the middle of nowhere. Camping, possibly. Or hunting, like you say."

"He must have gone back into the trees, there's no other cover." Dale shaded his eyes, scanning the brush that lined the riverbank. "Want to look for him?"

"I want to look at the horses and see if that cougar's tried his luck." Jasper said briefly, clicking to the dogs which followed him away from the river. "And then I need to get Flynn up here. If it's stalking the horses and hanging around the river then it has to go. It's got no business this far north and we'll have young foals in the herd in another few weeks."




*


           
Bandit was instantly recognisable amongst the herd, not just for his blond mane and tail, or his size, but for the fact he was standing on the highest point of the ground where the mares were grazing, head raised, watching. He kept a close eye on Dale and Jasper as they approached but did not come down. Jasper rode slowly through the mares, most of which didn't bother to look up or shifted only a few feet away from the dogs. There were no wounds to be seen: just a livid mark on the hip of one mare that resembled a dusty bruise.

"She's been kicked, by Bandit most likely." Jasper said when Dale pointed it out. "That isn't a good sign. Neither is him standing up there watching us walk up – usually he'll circle around to watch us coming, long before we lay eyes on him. He'll stop the mares straying off alone any way he has to if he knows that cougar's around and if he manages to get near it there'll be a very dead cat. They used to take stallions into battle a few hundred years ago, and the stallions weren't just for riding, they actually fought along with their rider. Bandit will murder anything that gets too close to his herd."

 The colts were equally uninjured, and a good deal more interested than the mares. Jasper was in amongst them when Bandit abruptly came down from his look out point and crossed to the colt group at a purposeful trot. The colts promptly scattered out of his way, not running but not staying in reach either. The small, dark filly which had been standing nose to nose with a couple of the colts, tossed her head as Bandit reached her and stretched out her neck towards him. Bandit circled around her, herding her away and after a minute she trotted placidly with him towards the grazing mares.

"One of his daughters." Jasper told Dale. "She was a winter foal, she's very young still. The colts get a little too interested sometimes, especially in the youngsters, and-"

He was interrupted by Bandit returning to the colts and this time his trot broke into a sharp canter and several snaps at the colts which scattered before him. They retreated in a group further from the mares, and after a minute of standing watching them, Bandit paced back to the high ground, once more looking out towards the river.

"He'd actually fight for the colts as well, he knows they're his and they're only youngsters. He just insists they behave themselves." Jasper said, circling the last of the colts. "They're all right. Cougar wounds are distinctive and a mess, we wouldn't miss one. It's obviously stalking them but it hasn't actually had a try at them yet. Bandit knows it's here though."

"What are you going to do?" Dale asked, aware of his concern. Jasper leaned on the saddle tree, looking once more at the distance between the herd and the river.

"Get Flynn up here to help, watch for the beast and shoot it unless Bandit gets to it first. No sense in tracking it, we might as well sit tight here and catch it when it's hunting. At least that way we know the horses are protected."

Dale glanced at his watch, aware of how the time was moving on.


"That's over an hour down and another hour back. More when you've got together what you'll need for the night. Why don't I go back and tell Flynn? Saves you wasting the journey and you're here watching if you're worried."

"Because I don't want you riding alone. No one's going anywhere alone by the river for the moment." Jasper said darkly.

"Will it attack a moving horse and a rider?" Dale asked. "If I keep away from the river?"

Jasper hesitated, but shook his head. "…..no. It's very unlikely. It's actually very unlikely it would have the courage to attack you on the ground and face to face, it's the horses it's after. All right. If you stay on open ground, well away from the river and the woodland cover, just keep the river in sight and on your left and you won't miss the ranch. Shut the gates behind you as you go down, and take the dogs with you. I daren't keep them up here with that thing on the loose. Do you think you could manage Gucci? Hammer's got a stronger nerve and he's got better stamina if I'm going to keep him out all night, and I'm straining Bandit's self control keeping a mare up here."

They swapped saddles under the curious eyes of the colts, several of whom came closer to see what was happening. Gucci snapped at several of them, rolling her eyes, although to Dale's eye there was a good deal more 'stop it, I like it' than any real desire to rid herself of her admirers. She danced when he mounted up, but once he had her head and took a firm enough seat in the saddle she seemed to realise she was out of luck and stopped her sidling. Jasper gave Dale a nod of approval, letting go of her bridle.


"Good. Don't take any fuss from her and you'll be fine. Straight down, go carefully."

He was taking the rifle from Hammer's saddle when Dale nudged Gucci into a trot, whistling to the dogs to follow. They hesitated at first, not keen to leave Jasper. Dale heard Jasper call to them several times, sending them away, and then when he whistled again abruptly Tam, the little brown collie, shot past him to bound ahead, and a moment later black and white Ash followed, leading the way down to the ranch.   


Gucci had a good deal of speed and energy, without the charge factor that Hammer had when he cantered. Giving her enough of her head to encourage her, walking her at intervals to give her a break, for the most part Dale let her get on with it and pace herself, and she seemed to enjoy the freedom to run. It was barely forty five minutes and she was not particularly tired when Dale walked her into the yard by the house, sliding to the ground and keeping hold of her bridle. The dogs, who didn’t seem in the least tired either, went promptly to the water trough by the house and began lapping.

"Flynn!"   

Flynn emerged from the stables quickly, and Dale saw his face change at the sight of Gucci.

"There's a cougar up by the horse herd," Dale told him, pulling Gucci away from Paul's flower pots before she could eat them. "We saw it by the river, Jasper thinks it's stalking the horses. He's stayed up there, he asked for you to go up and watch for it tonight."

"Blast." Flynn said grimly, running up the porch steps to the house. "Tie her up to the barn for a minute Dale. You'll find candle lanterns in the stable and packets of candles, bring me a couple over?"


He disappeared into the house and Dale walked Gucci across to the several tethering rings on the barn wall. The candle lanterns were easily found – not as powerful as oil but presumably less flammable on grassland – and Dale took several packets of candles and matches from the shelf beside them. Flynn was leading Nekkid out of the corral towards the veranda, Nekkid being another big and heavy horse like Hammer, with a placid nature. Dale collected Flynn's saddle from the veranda rail where it was waiting and Flynn stepped back to let him work, starting to collect the small pile of articles waiting on the steps. A rifle was first and foremost amongst them, with a box of ammunition. Most of the rest of the articles disappeared into saddle bags and Paul emerged from the house carrying a rucksack into which he was stuffing a thermos flask.

"Here. Dale, get their jackets from the kitchen?"


Dale jogged up the steps and collected two of the jackets from the peg just inside the door. Riley, looking subdued but definitely better than this morning, came through the kitchen with several sweaters in hand and went out onto the veranda to hand them down to Flynn.

"Be careful." Paul ordered, watching Flynn tie the last items to the saddle. "For goodness sake don't follow it down to the river in the dark."

"We're not stupid." Flynn hooked an arm around Paul and kissed him roughly, Paul hugged him hard for a minute and Riley leaned down over the rail promptly when Paul let go to hug Flynn just as hard.


"Behave yourselves." Flynn said shortly to Riley, looking across at Dale to include him in the order, and Dale was startled when Flynn put an arm around his shoulder and kissed the side of his face just as he had Riley. "We'll probably be back within a few hours if it's hanging so close to the herd."

"Be careful." Paul said again, stooping to catch Ash and Tam's collars as they circled around Flynn's legs. On the porch Riley was holding Shane who was whining. Flynn swung up into the saddle, turned Nekkid towards the drive and was out of sight within a few minutes. 


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Happy Christmas from the FCR Family




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Are you worried about your executive?

 

Is he burned out?
Frazzled?
Less than stellar?

 

Is he an excellent employee that you don’t want to lose?

 

If the answer to those questions is an unqualified yes!,
then you need to think about sending him to
Falls Chance Ranch.

 

In a matter of weeks or months, we’ll turn around your executive and return him to you fit and ready to pick up the reins again.

 

Falls Chance is a working sheep ranch deep in the heartland of Wyoming. Your executives will be put to work on the ranch
while we retrain bad habits into good ones.

 

Executives will remain on the ranch
until we’re assured that they’re safe to return to their jobs.
The average stay is eight weeks
but can run shorter or longer depending upon the person.

 

Our program is completely confidential
and has a highly proven track record.

 

 

Our graduates are in many of the top companies around the globe.

 

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