Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 9


There was bright sun outside when Dale woke. He reached for his watch on the bedside table and found it was approaching eleven am. It had been shortly after seven when Flynn had sent him upstairs with orders to undress and go back to bed: the whole of the early part of this morning seemed now like some strange, aborted day distinct from this one.

Save that his butt was still extremely sore. Dale ran a cautious hand over the damage which was very warm. He had fallen asleep on his stomach, having always previously believed that needing to do so after a spanking was nothing more than a myth in books and films, merely dramatic emphasis. It was unfortunately quite true. The door creaked softly and Dale looked up as Paul glanced in. He smiled when he caught Dale's eye but signalled to be quiet.

"Come and get dressed downstairs. Jasper's still asleep."

It was interesting that the other two weren't. Dale showered and shaved in the bathroom off the kitchen, and found Paul sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and a note pad and pen in front of him, and another mug of tea and a sandwich waiting at Dale's usual place. Paul nodded towards it.

"I don't know if it's breakfast or lunchtime, so I compromised-"

He was interrupted by the sound of Riley's voice, raised and yelling from the yard beyond the porch.

"Not that you'd frickin' care anyway! Pardon me for frickin' breathing!"

"Oh drat." Paul said exasperatedly, getting up and going fast out of the door. Dale followed him. Riley was standing face to face with Flynn outside the stables, fists balled, while Flynn looked as if he'd been carved from granite. His voice was deep and grim, much grimmer than Dale was used to.

"Riley, I'm warning you……."

"That's more than enough," Paul said before Riley could answer, going straight across the yard to get between them. "Stop it, both of you. Flynn, go do what you need to do."

Flynn stepped back, turned on his heel and walked towards the corral. Riley didn't try to get past Paul, but yelled after his back,

"Which is run away, which you always-"

Paul turned him around by the arm and swatted him, hard across the seat of his jeans, which not only made him yelp and squirm away, but also to stop dead and look at Paul with tears in his eyes.


"I told you to leave him alone," Paul said in the firm way Dale was starting to recognise as Paul's version of really cross, "You know that's as unfair as it is unkind and I'm not arguing with you. You can go stand and face the wall on the porch until I tell you, and you can calm down. Now, Riley, unless you want to go over my knee."

Riley gave him a look of mixed pout and clear belief that Paul meant it, and trudged unwillingly towards the porch. Paul rolled his eyes skywards at Dale, took his hand and walked with him into the kitchen, shutting the door on Riley and the yard.

"I may be forced to drop both of them in the horse trough. Sit down and eat, Dale, you must be starving. Take no notice of those two, it's mostly noise."  

"I thought Flynn would still be asleep." Dale said as delicately as possible, still somewhat alarmed by what he'd just seen. He took a seat at the table, finding himself sitting very gingerly. It was hard to believe how sore he was. Paul sat down too, picking up his dropped pen and tapping it on the note pad, looking regretful.

"Flynn doesn't do scared well. Or any strong emotion really, this is the fall out from you two having worried him this morning. He usually tries not to be around us when he's in one of these moods. Riley can't help but take it personally and he can't stop himself picking at Flynn to get a reaction because he hates Flynn being withdrawn, and that's right when Flynn is really not up to being patient with him…. They end up at each other's throats unless Flynn gets right out of the way. But they'll make it up as soon as Flynn's calmed down, they neither of them hold grudges."

It was not a pleasant thought to have contributed to having upset Flynn so badly. Paul saw his expression and leaned over to touch Dale's face, his eyes soft.

"Don't blame yourself honey. Flynn gets like this, he can't help it. It's just how he reacts over the people he cares about, and it gets him still more upset if he thinks he's affecting us. The best thing you can do is leave him alone and he'll come back when he's ready. Look, I can't imagine you want to sit anywhere much this morning. Take that mug and sandwich and go help Riley. He's cleaning out the barn when he's not trying to drive Flynn mad. Don't run yourself ragged for goodness sake, I will keep an eye on you."  

Dale got up gratefully and Paul watched, suddenly putting a hand out to him.

"Dale - Flynn said you and he talked this morning - are you ok?"

Ok? The confusion had lifted, to the point where Dale found himself wondering for a moment what Paul could think the problem was. He managed a nod and Paul got up, giving him a swift and tight hug that held more affection and comfort than Dale was quite sure how to handle.  

"Good. If you've got questions or worries for goodness sake come and talk to me, don't chew on them by yourself." 

Riley was standing with his nose to the porch wall and Paul preceded Dale out of the kitchen door, turning Riley around by the arm.

"If you can remember that I mean what I say, young man, you can go and carry on with the barn."

Riley muttered something apologetic, avoiding Dale's eye, and jogged down the steps towards the open barn doors.  He had shifted half the machinery and equipment out of the barn into the yard, and was manhandling some other unidentifiable, yellow painted object when Dale caught up with him. He put the mug of tea and sandwich down on top of one of the items that looked as if it was designed to moor ships somewhere out at sea, and went to help, silently taking the other side and helping Riley haul it out into the yard. Riley glanced at him as they walked back inside, brushing his hands off.

"Mad at me?"

"No?" Dale raised an eyebrow at him, surprised. Riley gave him an embarrassed shrug, pink about the face.

"That whole mess this morning was kind of my fault-"

"I knew what we were doing and how it was probably going to end." Dale picked up the tea, cupping his hands around it. "It's done now and over with, no sense in worrying about it."

"I wish I could do that so cleanly." Riley said with sincerity.  

"You're still worried that Flynn's angry with you?" Dale interpreted aloud. Riley gave him another and yet more embarrassed shrug.

"I hate how he gets. I couldn't sleep – too sore – and he'd got himself into a mood as he does, so he couldn't sleep either, and when I came down he wouldn't look at me and whatever you say to him he only grunts. I can't stand that -"

"It isn't you he's upset with." Dale said when he trailed off. Riley gave him a watery smile.

"I know. Paul keeps saying. But that's how it feels."

And he needed more from Flynn in order to feel forgiven. Dale found that difficult to understand. Flynn had been anything but angry or resentful; it had been plain in his face and his voice, as it always was. It was odd that Riley couldn't read it.

"I hate that frickin' paddle." Riley added, rubbing very cautiously at the seat of his jeans as he went to the next item that needed moving. "The wooden one's bad enough – and that's lived in the damn drawer for donkey's years; that was Philip's- but the lexan one stings. This is going in the yard too. We might as well clear everything out of here, the whole place needs sweeping and scrubbing out properly."

It took most of the afternoon. Jasper came out early afternoon, checked in on them and then rode out to cover the south pastures. Paul came in and out as he worked around the yard, but mostly they were left alone to get on with it and with a rather guilty sense of pleasure Dale buried himself in the repetitive physical labour in a way that Flynn hadn't allowed him to do for several weeks.

"It's like trying to keep up with a machine," Riley complained, pausing for breath with the hose still running and watching Dale sweep water ahead of him into the yard. "I don't think anyone's missed you at work, they're probably all still dropped in chairs exhausted, saying thank God he's gone, I haven't sat down since Christmas."

A month ago, that would have hurt. Now, Dale grinned, flicking the broom at Riley enough to splash him and Riley promptly flicked the hose at him in return, catching Dale, who dodged, and Flynn's legs as he came into the barn. He raised his eyebrows at Riley who usually would have laughed, but Dale saw the half wary, half sullen look he cast in Flynn's direction.

"Oh. Didn't see you."

Flynn didn't look at him, instead jerking his head at Dale.

"Out. You've done more than enough."

"He's fine," Riley snapped back, "And I'm not doing this all by myself either."

"You more than deserve to," Flynn said shortly, "Dale, now."

Riley still had the hose in his hand. Dale found himself stepping between Riley and Flynn before he'd fully realised what he was doing, and turning off the hose at the tap on the wall before he took it from Riley's hand, ending any possibility for this discussion getting suddenly worse. Riley scowled but took the broom from him and started to sweep with rough, vicious strokes.

"Obviously you're still in a lousy mood then?"

If Flynn heard, he didn't answer.

Dale followed him out into the yard where Leo was tethered, and Flynn nodded shortly at the porch step.

"Take a seat."

That was not inviting. Dale sat with caution, wincing, and Flynn cast another look at him.

"Paul clearly hasn't had much of an eye on you this afternoon. You're going to be sitting a while to make up for that. You know better."

"I could have tried harder to be careful," Dale admitted. "The repetitive, organising stuff is the easiest to get lost in, it's too satisfying. And I think I was supposed to be taking Riley's mind off things."

Flynn didn't answer, taking a curry comb to Leo. Dale leaned his elbows on his knees on the step and watched him, shoulders working tirelessly, face grim. It was often taciturn when he was busy: the only time he ever really showed expression was when he was talking to Jasper, Paul or Riley; but sometimes the most forbidding expressions came just when he was being particularly kind. As if a mask had to cover over and keep secret what he was doing. His eyes were where you looked if you wanted to see what he really meant, and Dale found himself wondering how Riley, who lived with Flynn, could be so easily fooled. Flynn was neither angry nor resentful right now. Dale watched him and saw something else entirely, something that raised a good deal of sympathy in him.

He doesn't do scared well.

That was Paul's verdict. And Paul had learned over the years not to try to talk to him or to do anything but give him the quiet and the space to bring himself round.

He gets grouchy like you wouldn't believe when he goes into Protect the Herd mode. Stud stallion. Defend you no matter what, but won't think twice about kicking you out of his way while he's doing it.

Riley's verdict was more pictorial. And oddly accurate. Watching Bandit trample the cougar this morning had been a shocking insight on how deadly the most good tempered stallion could be when his herd was threatened, and even Flynn and Jasper had moved out of his way and waited for him to be ready before they tried going near the cougar's body.

I wonder how Jasper sees this?

Sitting was decidedly painful. Dale got up from the step, coming over to lean on the sun warm porch rail nearer Flynn.

"Is quartz a local stone here?" he said after a while, picking up on a wandering thought that had crossed his mind a few times. "I was looking at the cairn out by the lake the other day when Riley and I were down there."

Flynn cast a brief look across at him. "The pink quartz is local, yes."

His tone was grim but it wasn't discouraging. Dale leaned his chin on his arms, stooped over the rail.

"The cairn's a beautiful thing. I've seen corporations pay a fortune for sculptures like that in foyers of buildings, and they don't look nearly so striking. When was that built?"

"It was started before my time." Flynn ducked under Leo's neck to continue brushing his other side. "We finished it ourselves when Philip died, we had the stone cut from up near the falls. It's where Philip and David are buried."

That explained, in an instant, their love of the place. Flynn, who went there to talk when a serious conversation was to be had. Riley who loved to go there alone to swim. Jasper, who lay in the grass to watch wolves there at night. Paul, who went to sit by the water and mull over plots for his books.

"I didn't realise." Dale said softly. Flynn changed brushes, eyes on Leo.

"It was one of their favourite places on the ranch. Philip told me once, they used to go out and sleep down there by the lake when the nights were hot in the summer. I told you there are other people who lived here with Philip and David at some point in their lives? Most of them came back in the last few days when Philip was near the end. Everyone flew out here and collected in the house and sat with him and we kept each other company. About fifteen of us finished building the cairn and took Philip down there in the wagon. A few weeks later there was a memorial service and we had several hundred people out here, business clients, all kinds of people, but it was just us who said goodbye to him."

From Flynn's tone Dale wondered whether Flynn had come anywhere near the several hundred people or had anything to do with them at all that day.

"And that was where David was buried?" he asked. Flynn gave him a brief nod.

"That was where they chose together. Although that actually wasn't where David chose to be when he died."

"No?" Dale looked up, curious.

Flynn looked towards Paul, who had come up from the corral while they had been talking.

"Paul was here, he knows the histories better than me."

"Marginally." Paul said mildly, taking a seat on the porch steps by Dale and picking a few dead heads from the flowering herbs in the pots. "David did pretty much what David always did and was damn awkward."

His tone was more affectionate than exasperated. Dale listened, chin on his arms. Paul gathered up the dead flowers in his hand.

"He was very frail towards the end. He could just about walk with a stick, and he was tall so we were scared stiff about the damage he'd do if he fell. Philip laid down the law to him about being careful, and I watched him like a hawk, and we made up a bedroom for them in the study downstairs because we were so worried about him going up and down the stairs, which he was not pleased about. He gave us hell for weeks over that."

Knowing Riley, that was somehow quite easy to imagine. Paul saw Dale's smile and returned it, propping his elbows on his knees.

"I always went into their room about five am because he was usually awake and desperate for a drink by then, and he hated waking Philip and breaking his sleep to ask for anything- and one morning when I went in he was gone. Philip was still asleep and hadn't heard him leave; I searched the whole house for him, not a sign. Then I got everyone else up and we all looked, and we found that somehow he'd gone to the stables, he'd taken tack down to the corral – and how he did it I'll never know, it must have been sheer determination – and he'd taken a horse and gone."

Flynn was still grooming Leo, but he was watching Paul and listening. Riley had drifted over from the open barn door and was standing with his hands dug in his pockets. Dale leaned on the rail, spellbound.

Paul twisted the dead herbs over in his fingers. "Philip would usually have been threatening to wring his neck, but I think he knew. We all went out to look. I went with Philip as he wasn't saying much, and we found him. He'd picked one of the places he'd always gone to hang out when he wanted to be by himself, the horse was grazing and David was sitting against a rock, face to the sun, no hat on as usual, and he'd slipped away maybe an hour before. Philip sat up there with him for a while. The doctor said afterwards it was almost as if he'd decided: today's the day."

Paul looked up and gave Dale a brief smile, understanding his expression. 

"David had said to me he didn't want it to happen in the house, he didn't want Philip to have to deal with that, and he'd been outdoors for most of his life. He loved the ranch. The thing was, Philip found a note afterwards. David left it upstairs on their bed for him, and he didn't date it so we don't know if he wrote it that morning or the night before or when it might have been. They were sleeping downstairs for several months before he died, so no one much went into their room from day to day, and how David got himself upstairs and down again without falling or any of us spotting him..."

"Will of iron." Flynn said dryly. Paul smiled.

" 'Obstinate as a mule' was mostly how Philip put it. Among other things. David used to yell at him about how he ought to be ashamed of himself maltreating an old man whenever Philip told him off, and that he'd waited forty years to be able to use that excuse with justification."  

"Brat." Flynn commented, giving Paul a brief smile.

"Oh yes." Paul got up, gathering up the fragments of dropped herb. "You know, we ought to go down and eat by the lake one night now the weather's getting better. Summer's nearly here."

"Tonight." Riley said at once. Paul looked at Flynn.

"It's warm? And the light won't go much before nine."

"And we all had disturbed nights." Flynn shook off the brushes in his hands. "At the weekend. The forecast for Saturday is hot."

Riley muttered something about stuffed shirts and Flynn paused as he passed Riley, hesitated for a second so short that Dale barely saw it, then hooked an arm around Riley's neck careful to keep his dusty and oily hands away, and kissed his forehead.

"You'll live. Go in and wash up if you're done, half-pint. You've done a good job there."

The emphatic hug he got from Riley was mute but took no notice at all of dirt. Paul held open the door for Dale as they moved out of earshot of the others and Dale was surprised at the wry acuity of the look Paul gave him.

"I don't know how you did that, but you can write out instructions for the rest of us." 


The sky was a solid, electric blue over head when Dale finished dressing, made his bed and came down to breakfast on Saturday morning. The kitchen doors and windows already stood open downstairs, it was cool but in the quiet, gathering way that meant that in a few hours it would be hot, and a faint haze hung over the grass in the meadows beyond the window where already the night dew was evaporating from the ground.

"This is a good day to move the mares." Flynn said while they were eating. Riley made a stifled whoop of what sounded like approval through a mouthful of bacon, and Paul nodded calmly.

"The summer grass is already on the south pastures, and they're ready to come down."

"I'll ride up through the east pastures, look them over and meet you up on the tops." Jasper said, getting to his feet and taking the remainder of his toast with him. "Flynn, are you planning to bring in any of the two year olds to work?"

"There's Marika's roan colt," Paul said thoughtfully. "And Tamar's last year's foal with the white socks. We haven't handled them much since they went up on the tops for the winter and they're ones that we'll be looking at buyers for. We talked about starting them early instead of waiting for the fall."

"And Pocket's colt." Riley added. "We were going to look at him as a riding horse for us, he had a lot of sense when we were halter training him last year."

"I'll get them." Jasper offered. "Ri, if you come up with the others from the south, I'll come across and down from the east pastures. Between us we ought to figure out where they are."

"They've been hanging out around the pine groves the past few days," Riley said cheerfully, getting up to pull his riding boots on by the door. "Out where the bluebells and the spring flowers are. I saw several of them there gorging the other day, knee deep. Who am I getting out, Flynn?"

"Leo for me," Flynn got up, collecting dishes to take to the sink, "Nekkid, Hammer, Snickers- Jas, I'm guessing you'll want Gucci?"

"If I've got to catch up with Bandit and the rest of you, yes. I'll hope Bandit's too busy to pay attention to her." Jasper pulled a hat down from the rack by the door and winked at Dale, disappearing down the porch.

"Turn the rest out of the corral into the stable pasture," Flynn said to Riley, "Fill the feed racks and leave the gate open."

"Will do." Riley followed Jasper, whistling as he ran down the porch steps. 

"Leave the dishes," Paul said to Dale as he began to help clear the table. "I'll deal with them later, this is a full day expedition. It's a bit of a year landmark to us, that's why we get so excited about it – it's the first real day of summer when the mares come down."

It was the first time Dale had ridden out with them as a full group. The dogs were left on the porch, depressed and sulky, but obedient.

"Bandit doesn't like them," Riley explained as they mounted up. "And they can start the mares running if they spook one."

"You don't run them?" Dale asked, having no idea what he was about to see. Riley shook his head.

"Never when they're heavily in foal or with little foals in the group, and we usually don't anyway unless there's an emergency. Sometimes Bandit decides to run them and then we pretty much have to go along with it, but he won't while they're in foal like this."

It was a long ride up to the tops that took the best part of an hour and a half while the temperature went from just below pleasantly cool to actively warm. Jasper separated from them at the first gate and went east to ride through the pastures where the sheep and the cattle grazed on the far side of the river. The gates they passed through they left wide, the gates wedged well back before they rode on. There was no sign of horses on the wide, green plateau by the river where the herd had been when the cougar was stalking them from the river bank.   

"Did you see any more of the hunter that was up here?" Dale asked as they passed the spot. Flynn shook his head.

"Jas said you'd seen him a couple of times and that he was never carrying a gun. Either a lone nut case up here stalking whatever it is he's interested in, or there's a few of them camping out together east into the woods. We'll keep an eye out, they'd better not go bothering our stock but we've got better things to do than look for naturalists trying to get eaten by cougars."

"I think they've gone further west," Riley said, standing in his stirrups to see a greater distance. The land, as it spread north and west, grew hillier and there were dips and valleys that hid horses entirely from sight until you were nearly on them. They rode on for nearly half an hour before Paul turned Nekkid's head, indicating.

"There they are. That's the brood mares."

They had chosen a steep valley, turning west from the series of shelving plateaus across from the river. A small copse of aspens gave shade to a meadow deep in grass, the horses stood nearly hock deep, and amongst the shaded grass was vast splashes of blue and a scent of narcissus that was strong enough to roll up out of the valley.  The mares were grazing, spread out as always in a wide, rough circle. Several heads lifted to watch the riders approaching, although apparently they felt there was no need for concern. After a good look, they lowered their heads and continued to graze, and one mare in the centre of the circle sprawled down onto her side, then rolled on to her back, twisting vigorously in the grass and the flowers before she settled on her side with her legs tucked under her. No few of the mares had vast bellies and moved slowly as they walked.

"Where's Bandit?" Dale said half under his breath to Riley. Riley looked across at Flynn, who grinned. He said nothing, but as they rode down into the valley towards the mares, he glanced to the side and behind him, and half way down the slope, gave a short crack of laughter.

"There he is. You could sell that horse to work for CIA covert ops."

Bandit was behind them, pacing slowly perhaps sixty yards away.

"He scented us coming before he saw us," Riley said buoyantly. "He doesn't miss a thing, Bandit. He circled right around to get behind us, that's what he does to make sure of what's coming before he decides whether or not to allow it. Hey boy! Bandit!"

The stallion's ears pricked forward, but he continued to walk slowly, taking his time to reach them and briefly touching noses with Leo as he reached Flynn.

"Wondering what we're going to do," Flynn said with rough affection. "Are we moving you anywhere or is this just a social call? Riley, go on across and meet Jas, we'll leave the gates open for you."

"See you later." Riley grinned at Dale, turned Snickers and took him at a brisk trot along the side of the valley and out towards the ground where the rocks began to become steep, grey crags rising up out of the grass hills. Paul took Nekkid slowly wide of the herd and Flynn glanced across at Dale, pacing Bandit down towards the mares.

"Stay with me. We're just going to walk down with them, Bandit will do the work, we don't need to do any herding."

Dale nodded, still not sure what was going to happen. Then Flynn gave a peculiar whistle, one that was not particularly loud but which carried and echoed in the valley and made every mare look up. Bandit's whole stance changed instantly, he looked sharply at Flynn, and then Flynn held an arm straight up, turning Leo back the way he had come and starting to walk up the valley side.

"Hey boy! Bandit, bring 'em in."

Bandit moved on the word. The stallion had a high, sailing trot that seemed to float him over the grass, each step carrying him surprising distance until Dale found himself remembering a story from his childhood about ten league boots. Keeping Hammer alongside Flynn and Leo, Dale watched in fascination as the stallion went straight to a large, pretty and heavily pregnant dark mare, nudging her so that she lifted her head from her grazing, then placidly began to walk up the slope. Bandit circled her once, and then began to circle the other mares, head low and ears back, snaking along the grass as he urged them, harassing the mare lying down until she jerked to her feet, and one by one they began to follow the dark mare.

"That's Marika." Flynn said quietly, riding over the crest of the valley onto the plateau. "She's the lead mare of the group, Bandit's favourite. Head wife of the harem. Bandit decides where they go and he keeps the herd safe, Marika decides where the best food is and when they go to water and what the herd pecking order is among the mares after her. What Marika does, they'll all do – except Belle down there."

It was the mare who had worn the kick bruise on her side when Dale had last seen the mares. She was determinedly walking away from the herd now, turning away from Bandit who suddenly dodged to the side of her, head low, snapped hard at her haunch and when she reared and turned with a squeal of protest, snapped again at her neck, making her break into a run uphill after the other mares to escape him. Satisfied, Bandit returned to his gliding trot, sailing over the long grass and herding the last of the mares tighter into the group now moving up the hill.

"She is a real madam that one." Flynn said darkly, moving a little to the side of the peacefully walking mares. "Nice tempered and she produces lovely foals – Snickers is one of hers – but she's got a mind of her own and it's usually to do the exact opposite of what you want. We couldn't herd her anywhere, we leave that to Bandit. He can handle her."

"What do you do if you need to separate her out for anything?" Dale asked. Flynn gave a matter of fact sniff.

"What we do when we want any one of the brood mares or Bandit. Bring the lot in. He won't leave any of them. When they're all in the corral then we can separate out who we want, and Bandit accepts it because he knows what's happening and he's got the mare under his eye. You saw when you first came; he'll accept us taking mares from him if he knows where they are and what's happening with them. He's mind-blowingly intelligent – I've known him since he was foaled and he shocks me sometimes at how much he understands, the partnership you can have with a stallion like that is one of the greatest relationships a human can have with an animal – but you treat any harem stallion with great respect and caution when you're working with his females or his foals."

Paul, walking Nekkid slowly on the far side of the herd, was pacing them easily with the slightly inward expression to his face that Dale now recognised as Paul watching internal videos of plots that would be built into the next chapter of his book. Flynn, riding as he always did, easily, upright, square shoulders back and one hand resting on his knee, had his face shaded by the brim of his Stetson and his forearm was darkly tanned where it held the rein. The blue of his shirt made him look still darker skinned than usual. He had grown up on a ranch, Dale reflected – a sheep ranch in New Zealand where riding was a daily chore, and he had ridden all of his life like this, working animals. It was astounding the intellect and knowledge the man brought to his work and concentrated on it. Simple work, done well, done hard, and loved. It was still strange to see someone work this way for the love and commitment to what they did, without any underlying agenda or cynicism, without a hidden gain for themselves. Used to assessing that quickly in the people he worked with, it was odd to find that part missing.  
It was a slow procession down. Flynn and Paul kept their pace at a slow walk, and at intervals when mares paused to graze, they reined in and waited, and Bandit appeared to wait too, briefly, before he began to snake again and urge the herd forward. A leisurely, unhurried walk suited the heavily pregnant mares who appeared placidly satisfied to stroll down under the morning sun. They were coming down off the last plateau where the cougar had been, when Dale saw the jack rabbit pop almost under the foot of one of the mares on the outside of the herd, near to them. It had frozen in the grass until almost stepped on: now it erupted up in a bound and fled, and the mare, which had been walking peacefully, started and reared back, crashing into another mare who dodged away with a shriek of alarm. The chain reaction of the two of them pirouetting was immediate: most of the mares startled, several began to skitter and Flynn abruptly kicked Leo into a canter, rounding the front of the herd as Paul began to cover the far side, keeping the mares together while they made soothing sounds, calm calls that the horses had heard many times before. That should have quieted them. It was Belle who took the initiative and leaped out of the middle of the herd, bounding like a rabbit herself, past and over several of her herd mates who reared and squealed in pain and fright, barging into other mares who panicked, and as Belle fled towards the river the herd lost their nerve and several more began to bolt west, towards the more familiar land of the plateau. Flynn shot past, Leo at a full gallop, pacing them even as Paul and Nekkid raced up the plateau to cut off the higher ground.

Dale could see at a glance what Flynn was trying to do: to get ahead of the bolting mares, to turn them back, which left the rest of the herd milling in doubt with only a few seconds before they chose whether to bolt or to stay – it was a chess problem, a pattern spread on the green grass made of horses and men, and Dale saw where the pieces had to fall in a split second. As Flynn shot after the bolters and Paul went north, Dale turned Hammer who moved smoothly into a fast canter and circled west in front of the panicking mares. They turned immediately away from Hammer, rearing, snorting, a few making jerky strides as though considering following the bolters. Hammer spun on the spot when Dale turned him, once more cantering the edge of the herd and then easing down to a fast trot up and down the west side of them, holding the bunch together as Paul held them from the back. There were a few more snorts, a few more squeals and lunges, and then the mares were standing quietly, pressed together.

To the west, across the plateau, Flynn was riding neck and neck with the mares, not managing to get in front of them but blocking them from turning off the plateau, and above him, circling widely and moving at a shocking speed, came Bandit. If an animal could express clear emotion, Bandit was furious. Mane flying, teeth bared, his arc brought him down in front of his rebels and Dale saw then why Flynn had stayed so wide. Bandit snapped and his mares wheeled, fleeing ahead of him as he lunged and bit and kicked, forcing them back towards the herd. He charged them deep into the middle of it, making the mares mill but no one scattered as he circled the group for a moment, then lunged out east towards the bank where Belle had disappeared and vanished from sight in the trees. Flynn rode slowly back to the now quiet mares, out of breath and sweating.

"That bloody mare," He said exasperatedly as he reached them. "She takes any chance she gets."

"I'm sorry for her when Bandit gets hold of her." Paul said dryly.

"Serve her right." Flynn tipped his hat back to wipe his forehead, looking across at Dale. "Did Paul tell you what to do?"

"I didn't say a word," Paul said before Dale could speak. "He just saw and did it."

Flynn raised an eyebrow at Dale and Dale caught the smile in his eyes. Belle burst through the trees from the direction of the river, Bandit after her, and when she tried to dodge uphill away from the herd he swung around and his hooves hit her side with a smack that rang across the plateau. She spun and plunged into the herd to escape him, and Bandit veered around the back, starting the mares off down hill once more. It took a few minutes before his trotting and his high head began to visibly calm. Dale could almost hear his outraged muttering. It reminded him no little of Flynn.

It was early afternoon when they reached the open gate of the home pastures, the enclosure around the house and house lands, and the mares walked through without hesitation, their pace picking up a little. They entered the corral eagerly and several broke into a trot as they headed towards the feed troughs filled with oats and ready for them. It was plain that every horse on this ranch had been taught to associate being brought in with good food and comfort: not one mare hesitated or looked anxious. Bandit followed them into the corral and Flynn swung down from Leo, going to collect a large bucket already waiting and half filled with oats, which he took across to the big stallion, holding it for him. Whatever he said to Bandit was too low to pick out the words, but the stallion appeared to be listening carefully as he ate, dipping his head very briefly to take a mouthful before he jerked his head up to look and to listen and to scent the air. There was apparently no off duty time where Bandit was concerned. Paul disappeared into the house and when the mares had eaten, Dale sat on the corral rail and watched Flynn open the corral gates and then without a word between him and Bandit, Flynn stepped across to herd back the three half grown foals from their mothers while Bandit shepherded the first of the mares through the open corral gate, setting the herd moving before he cut between the mares trying to get around Flynn and drove them back towards the open gate. There was a good deal of squealing and whinnying from both mares and foals, but Flynn kept the foals in place and within a minute Bandit forced his mares out through the corral gate and Flynn shut it quickly, dropping his voice to a consoling murmur to the panicked and forlorn three foals. They circled the corral and tried to climb up the rails and shouted to their mothers who called back, but after a few minutes they began to calm and Flynn poured another few handfuls of oats into the feed troughs, talking to them soothingly. When one came to the trough to look, another followed, and the third slowly came to join in once they were both feeding. Flynn climbed the rail, pausing beside Dale to watch them.

"They're all three weaned. If we let them run wild with the brood mares any longer, Bandit would drive them out of the herd. They're too old now. We'll halter train them over the summer, get them good at being handled, the early training, and they'll go up on the tops with the other youngsters come the winter."

"Bandit actually knew what to do." Dale said, still shocked by this. "He works with you like a trained sheep dog would."

"He works smarter than any dog, and without commands." Flynn said quietly, watching the big stallion who was standing, watching the surrounding land while his mares grazed in the driveway. "He knows what should happen, he trusts us, and he wants the winter foals out. They're a distraction between him and his mares, especially with so many of them about to foal, and he won't have adolescent males in the herd. I don't want him putting any of his daughters into foal either, not unless it's a deliberate breeding choice. Bring Hammer over. We're going to walk the mares down to the cairn pastures, that's their summer ground. Good grass and within easy reach of us while they're foaling."

The southern and south west pastures were flatter and interspersed with little creeks running from the river, within the basin of the far away mountains. The grass was a darker green than on the tops, thicker and softer, and when Flynn opened the gate out of the home pasture, the mares moved calmly out to graze, scattering slowly just beyond the fence. Bandit followed them, standing to watch Flynn close the gate, his tail flicking slowly.

"That's something we must get up the courage to do this year," Flynn said half to himself, leaning on the gate. Dale dismounted to stand beside him, watching the mares.

"The fence?"

"Mmn. Needs replacing. From wire to proper, wooden rails, all around the home pastures."

His gaze took in a vast distance of fence. A long, hard and expensive task.

"We run the ranch how it was always run," Flynn said quietly. "In many ways it's exactly the same ranch David took over in the 'thirties, and I'm proud of that. It's a good way to do things. But I forget sometimes that not all the modern updates and conveniences are bad."

An old fashioned man. Dale found himself looking across at Flynn's broad shoulders and dark head with a sudden rush of understanding and affection. That was it exactly: Flynn was a man who had stubbornly held on to values and beliefs that were older than his time, blunt in their simplicity, and which he refused to allow to be trashed by anything flashy and untried. That was the root of his strength and the cleanness that was about him. The cleanness that he brought to the whole of this beautiful place.


Can you fall in love with a place?

It was the first time in his life that Dale had been aware of being attached to a piece of ground, to having emotions stirred and strongly rooted in land. It was more than just appreciation of the beauty of the ranch. There was a strength of emotion connected to the house, its sounds, its growing familiarity. Emotion attached to the quiet, the colours, the contours of the land, its space, its consistency. He had been vaguely attached to the two schools in which he had lived for five or six years of his life, whose sites had been old and attractive and comfortable, but this was different. This was a sense every morning of looking from the window of his room across the green pastures to the rustling aspen woods with a sense of hello, I'm glad to see you.  

It was natural enough and it was the heart of Philip's original plan as Dale understood it. Bring in a man, tired and run down and bitter with the overcomplicated business of living, and put him in this place where the world was fresh and beautiful and every part of living and working was tangible, natural, the same as had been touched by man since the beginning of time. It was understandable any man should awaken to this place with this sense of suddenly being alive again, and to love it in response, and Dale was aware that this was his first love of this kind. Of the land and everything that belonged to it: including the intrinsic parts of it named Paul, Flynn, Riley and Jasper. Like most first loves, it was almost painful in its acuity.

On the day that they brought down the mares, two events stuck hard in Dale's memory. The winter foals cheered rapidly in the corral, apparently enjoying each other's company and as curious about their surroundings as puppies or kittens. Flynn and Dale together manhandled them into the small, circular pasture behind the barn that Flynn called the training pasture, and turned them loose where they bucked and boxed each other and raced in circles without reason, and slept hard and deeply on the thick grass, and rushed to the fences at any new sound or passing person to gaze with curiosity on what was taking place. Being so close to the house, it was plain they would not go short of company or entertainment.

"They're going to need a good deal of company and handling," Flynn said to Dale as they did the stable work that afternoon. "Riley's the best we have at this. Watch him and whenever you've got time to spare, go into the pasture and play with them like he does."

"Play?" Dale asked, bemused at how one played with a horse. Flynn nodded.

"Same as you'd play with any other young animal. Watch Riley with them. He'll play chase with them, feed them from his hands, I've seen him take a football into the pen and play until the foals play too if a football's left in there for them. He's got a light touch; whatever he does they see as fun rather than threat. When they're more confident he'll take blankets in with him and things that flap and make noise, and play with them until no matter what moves you make or how you handle them, they'll see it as something to be interested in instead of frightened of."

Riley climbed in to the pasture that afternoon with his hands and pockets full of oats and Dale watched him hand feed the foals that pressed around him, hiding his hands behind him so that they began to nudge him and circle him fearlessly to get to the oats they wanted. He dodged backwards away from them and run a little way so that initially they reared and darted away in fright and then cautiously followed back to where he was waiting, still holding the oats. After a while, when he dodged a step, one of the foals, a little roan one with splotches of white as if someone had thrown a bucket of paint at him, bounded too, staying close to him and when Riley ran a few paces, the foal chased him, bumping into him before he panicked at the over familiarity and raced away. Riley climbed up the fence to sit beside Dale, out of breath and grinning.

"That one is going to be good." He dug in his pockets and offered Dale a palmful of oats. "Want to try? He's nearly got the idea now, he's already more interested than scared."

Do what exactly? Dale took the oats and slid down into the pasture where immediately the paint colt dodged sideways, trotting a wide circle around to see what Dale had. Dale offered a palm and a minute later the little colt stepped closer, pushing his velvet nose into Dale's palm with rough enthusiasm. Dale put up a cautious hand and stroked his neck, rubbed his ear and jerked his hand back as the colt play snapped at him, dodging sideways in that semi-controlled bounce all the foals had.

"Chase him!" Riley called from the fence. "Just a few steps, then you turn and run!"

Dale stood where he was, with no idea what to do. The colt stood still for a moment, then bounced sideways again, and losing interest, went to barge one of his companions and box at him.

Riley landed in the pasture and came over the grass, digging in his pocket for more oats to tempt the colt back.

"It's easy. They do it with each other, they soon learn to do it with you too, you just have to be careful not to let them run you down. Hey! Come on baby, over here."

He produced that peculiar whistle Flynn had used, and the colts, who had seen their mothers and their sire respond to that whistle since their birth, immediately looked up. The paint colt danced a few steps towards Riley, nosed at his fingers, and then when Riley darted a few steps back, chased him, bouncing in a wide circle around him. Riley feinted, laughing as the colt kept pace, shadowing him, then as the colt charged him, side stepped and rubbed his neck and face, feeding him the rest of the oats. The colt stood against him to eat, leaning into the petting.

"Want to try?" Riley invited, but Dale shook his head, climbing up on to the rail once more to watch. Flynn, watching from across the yard, could almost see the barriers going up, the reserve touching his face and his body as though he stepped back and watched them through one way glass.

The other event had been that late afternoon, when Paul leaned on the porch rail and demanded cheerfully, "Well? Are we going down to the lake?"

They rode down to the lake by the cairn, all three of the dogs running with them, saddlebags filled with bits and pieces, and by the lake they turned the horses loose to graze, Flynn cut back a large square of turf and lit a fire, feeding it with sticks and twigs collected from the woods. Jasper lay full length on the grass, tilted his hat over his eyes and crossed his ankles, and Shane dropped beside him, rolling over to doze in the afternoon sun. Paul took a fishing rod from Nekkid's saddle and wandered towards the creek, Ash and Tam following. Riley stripped off and waded out into the lake, leaving his clothes in a pile on the bank. Flynn stretched until his shoulders cracked, then took off his hat and dropped it on the grass.

"The water looks good to me. What are you going to do?"

Dale shrugged a little, looking out at the water. The sun was still hot, although it was early evening now instead of afternoon. The lake looked inviting, as did the creek where Paul was sitting.

"Come on in and swim," Flynn said mildly, starting to unfasten his shirt. Dale hesitated, not sure why. Watching Riley with the colt had been an odd experience – not interesting or fun in the way that he found most of their work to be when he watched the expertise of the others. It had raised in him a powerful sense of something missing, some inadequacy in himself, and it ate at him.

He was surprised by Flynn's arm hooking around his neck, yanking him almost off balance, and he squirmed as Flynn's fingers dug into his ribs, tickling as unmercifully as he held Dale in his arms. He was big and enough and strong enough to be extremely difficult to get away from: Dale was reminded suddenly of wrestling Flynn in the meadow, that utter inexorability of his grasp.

"Are you coming swimming?" he inquired in Dale's ear.

Why did it matter? What did it matter? Dale struggled, not panicked but confused and entirely overwhelmed.

"I – if-"

"Are you coming swimming?"

Flynn's voice made it very clear he was not serious, any more than the fingers still digging in Dale's ribs were serious or doing anything more than teasing. Dale squirmed and twisted, unable to break his grasp and running rapidly out of breath.

"Yes, all right! All right!"

"Good." Flynn gave him a rough hug and let him go, continuing to undress. Dale  stood for a moment, physically and emotionally bewildered, and watched him walk, naked and darkly tanned to the mid arm and to the neck, into the water. He undressed slowly while Flynn and Riley swam, stepping down into the lukewarm pool where it splashed against the bank and the weathered, grey rocks. Across the pool Riley yelled and splashed out at Flynn, Dale heard Flynn give one of his rare cracks of laughter, and there was a sudden tidal wave as Flynn grabbed for Riley and Riley dived. It was like being around seals playing. And just as isolating.

Dale swam slowly, in the opposite direction from them. A moment later Riley burst up from under the water near him and clutched him, putting Dale squarely between himself and Flynn who was powering across the lake in a manner that reminded Dale of Bandit. It was actually terrifying. Dale had no fear at all of being hurt, but Riley clutched him from behind, Flynn swooped in from the front, there was no way to avoid or escape being caught in the middle of either of them and involved in this ridiculous, inexplicable game of theirs – wrenching Riley's arms off, Dale ducked out of his way and swam hard towards the bank, heart thundering, and despite hearing Riley call out after him, waded out of the water. Stark naked, soaking wet, he had no idea where to go or what to do after that, save that he felt as unsafe as he had ever felt in his life. A moment later Flynn was on the bank and before Dale could shake him off, Flynn's arms closed around him from behind and Flynn's voice was in his ear.

"Oh no, you don't get out of it that easily, mate."

It was apparent in his voice he was teasing, Dale knew the tone and it was as gentle as the grasp of his arms. And as inexorable. To Dale's complete shock Flynn simply walked with him towards the bank, the grip unbreakable, and when Flynn plunged off the bank into the deep water, carrying Dale with him, the yell torn out of Dale was entirely involuntary. They both vanished below the water, and Dale surfaced a second later, spluttering, with Flynn's arms still locked around him. It was a bizarre and overwhelming combination: the fear and the physical roughness- no, the mock roughness, there was nothing real about any of the danger here- and the security and closeness of that grasp. It reminded Dale suddenly of a small child, squealing in mixed delight and terror as a parent swung him high up into the air.

Flynn let him go when he caught his breath, running a hand briefly and gently over Dale's head before he turned over and swam on his back, moving unhurriedly back towards the middle of the pool. Dale, shaken and confused with a whole set of emotions he didn't recognise, stayed where he was, treading water and regaining his breath.

"Why is he being such a stick?" Riley demanded under his breath, surfacing near Flynn. Flynn straightened in the water, keeping his voice low for Riley's ears only, wryly compassionate.

"He's not, Ri. He's just got no idea what to do, or how to join in."

"How can he have…….. " Riley looked across to Dale in disbelief. Flynn discreetly turned him away before Dale noticed.

"No experience. Take it gently, don't rush him and he'll learn. But I can see now why he doesn't know how to play with the foals."  

They settled by the crackling wood fire that evening as the sun began to set. Paul, who had caught and cleaned several silver fish in the creek, cooked them over the fire, along with the potatoes brought from the house, and they ate with their fingers and with hunks of bread, stretched out on the warm grass in a rough circle. Across the meadow, the cairn glittered in the last of the orange and red light reaching down across the water. 


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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