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.
"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."
"Well think about it." Flynn spread another piece of toast, watching him. "Jas?"
"Anyone we know?" Paul asked. Jasper shook his head.
"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."
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 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."
"And the horses?" Dale asked, interested. Jasper smiled.
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.
"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."
"What usually went wrong?"
"That's part of the fun of it." Dale said indifferently. "Jack of all trades and master of none."
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 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?"
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.
"Do you have much contact with your family?"
"Was that a cougar?" Dale said just as softly.
"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."
Jasper swore, standing in his stirrups to look over the ground.
Dale glanced at his watch, aware of how the time was moving on.
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.
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.
"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?"
"Here. Dale, get their jackets from the kitchen?"
"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.
"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.