Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 1


It was a long, slow job bringing the free roaming angus cattle down off the high pastures where they had grazed all summer. They were into the last days of September now, the trees were dry, bronze and gold, and the early mornings crisp and foggy so that for the first time since Dale first came to the ranch, he went out in the mornings wearing a jacket over a sweater and shirt, and by mid morning had stripped off down to his shirt sleeves as the sun grew hot overhead. In the first of the morning the mist rose up off the wet grass, steam rose from the warm groups of cattle where they bunched, and a white haze hung over the ground.

For several days they rode all day, working together to search the woodlands up in the mid east borders of the ranch to make sure they left no animal behind to face the rougher weather away from the winter hay and the more sheltered lower pastures. Paul came too, the five of them gradually gathering together the herd and ticking off the ear tag numbers in the massive stock book that Paul carried as each herd member was located, and then finally bringing the entire herd together the several miles across the pastures to their winter grazing. It was done peacefully, without hurry. Jasper and Flynn never ran their stock or harried them, the cattle were unafraid of the horses or the dogs, and the cows walked where they were led, their calves trotting with them. The bullocks, last year’s calves now full grown and heavy, had already been moved to one of the richer pastures on the slopes by the ranch. It got to be second nature to Dale to circle Hammer to guide a cow or a wandering calf, to use the rope coil on his saddle although most often as an extension of his arm to guide, and to lean out from the saddle to repair wire fences or to open and close the gates of the massive pastures as they brought the herd the down through grassland and the shallows of the river. It was his first fall as a cowboy. In fact it was his first fall spent outside in the miracle of the softening, low sun and the changing colours and the mixture of crisp cool and soft warmth in the weather; all things he’d never before noticed and which didn’t matter much in tower blocks and offices.

Many of the gates that had stood open through the summer while the stock grazed on the furthest reaches of the ranch, would now be closed again for winter, containing their stock in the low lands around the ranch house.  

“And that’s not the half of it,” Riley told Dale when they shut the gate behind the last ambling cow with the herd spreading slowly out to graze in the two mile pasture around the cairn.

“This is the start of the real fall work. Now we’ve got the river and the woodland to clear for winter and that’s a long job, it always takes weeks. And the irrigation systems to clear out on the high pastures, and the barn up on the tops needs re roofing.”

“Paint rain seal on all the outside buildings,” Flynn added who’d been listening. “And change the fences around the home pastures from wire to wood.”

“You’re actually going to do that this year?” Riley demanded. Flynn gave him a wry nod.

“Yeah, it’s long past time. Although I’ll get a contractor to do it, it would take us weeks.”

And it was again just the five of them on the ranch. Dale backed Hammer, picking up his wire cutters from the top of the fence post before he turned Hammer towards the yard and the corral. Tom and Jake had left five days ago on a flight bound for Tibet, to begin the long, slow process of acclimatisation and to make several minor expeditions to lower peaks while they built up their fitness and experience in the area before their team assembled in spring for their Everest climb.

Riley and Dale had gone with them on their expedition up snow-laden Gannett peak in the Wind River range before they left; a challenging climb as Dale had never before done any mountaineering or even hiked in snow conditions. There was no shortage of climbing equipment in the stores on the ranch, some of it dating back to Jake’s teens; cold weather gear and clothing were easily come by in Jackson, and Riley’s competence and experience up in the mountains was as solid as Jake and Tom’s. He’d learned on the Wind River range under Jake’s tutelage throughout the second half of his teens, and Dale, who’d long since known that Riley loved to climb, saw at first hand and with an oddly deep sense of pride in him just how much real skill lay under his enthusiasm. Riley, Jake and Tom between them educated Dale as they went along in both the varied terrain and the equipment, and guided him through the twenty mile hike to base camp through some areas of spectacular beauty, which started at 9,500 feet and wound past Seneca lake, deep from the melt off from snowfall even in midsummer, up to Bonney pass. They were alone up there at the end of the climbing season in a window of good weather that Tom and Jake had assessed very carefully, and they took it easy – probably a good deal easier than Jake and Tom would have taken it alone, while Jake kept a strong eye on their acclimatising, their coping with the altitude and their water intake – but Dale found that he had the fitness to keep pace with them without difficulty and that he loved every minute. He had always enjoyed a challenge of new knowledge and skills to master, he learned swiftly on the job, and became proficient in the ropes, ice axes and crampons, the technical rock climbing skills, and how to climb in the deep snow areas on the way up to Bonney pass, with increasing respect for what Tom and Jake intended to do in far more difficult conditions than this. They camped in subzero temperatures in sleeping bags in the two, two-man tents, and the time alone with Riley was something every part as fun as the climbing. They lay close together for warmth at night and talked for hours, Riley’s good nature was indefatigable and delightfully infectious even at altitude when he was exhausted, and one night Riley, shaking Dale awake in some thin hour of the morning, parted the tent flaps and he and Dale watched a black bear nosing hopefully around the remains of their fire.  On day four, starting out before five am, they used headlamps and crampons to cross the Dinwoody glacier and made the long and difficult climb to the peak summit with Tom leading and marking the path in snow footholds they could follow, and at a little past ten am they stood at 13,804 feet on what felt like the roof of the world, looking out over the top of Wyoming. It was one of the most shining moments of Dale’s life.

The dogs, tired from the long day of rounding up and herding, drank deeply and noisily from the trough in the yard, and flopped in the sun at the base of the porch steps. Riley and Dale dealt with the tack and the rubbing down of the five, sweated and dusty horses while Jasper and Flynn dealt with the yard work. Paul went inside to start dinner, and Dale had just shut the gate behind Gucci, who freshly groomed and immaculate had gone straight to the dustiest mud wallow in the corral and was now rolling vigorously, all four legs in the air, when Paul called to him from the kitchen door.

“Dale? There’s a phone message for you.”

“In Italian or Japanese?” Riley shouted from the stable.

“Neither.” Paul came out onto the porch to give Dale the phone. “Jerry Banks, saying please turn the fax on, there’s something he wants you to see.”

Dale took the phone while he heeled dusty riding boots off and added them to the line by the back door. The answer-phone message was somewhat more stridently put by Banks, accompanied by a demand to know what kind of people owned a fax machine and never turned it on. Flynn was locking up the barn and Dale leaned on the porch rail to call to him, turning the phone off.

“Flynn? It’s A.N.Z., they want me to look at a fax. May I pick it up?”

“Go ahead.” Flynn called back. “Bring it down, we’ll be eating shortly.”

Out of sheer force of habit Dale disappeared into the bathroom off the kitchen, shed dusty clothes into the hamper and showered, wrapping a towel around his waist to head upstairs in search of clean clothes. Paul, already showered, was cooking something savoury and fragrant over the stove, and the scent of it had filled the family room and wandered upstairs. Hungry, Dale paused in his and Flynn’s room to pull on a fresh t shirt and jeans, ran a comb through his damp hair, and went up the narrow staircase to the office to turn the fax machine on.

The office was sparse since hardly any of them came in here in the course of a week. It wasn’t something Dale missed; while he never felt rushed or busy, there just never seemed to be time here to think about things like emails or faxes. He perched on the corner of the desk while he waited for the machine to warm up and print out, reflecting that he’d actually showered and changed before coming up here and that he was still casually waiting for a fax with his mind on dinner rather than on what A.N.Z. might want. It was quite a conversion. He could vividly remember hotel rooms where information flooded back and forth without respect for day or night, and faxes and emails got checked before eating, changing, showering or sleeping. The ‘message’ from A.N.Z. was actually about fifteen pages long. Dale waited for the last page to roll off before he picked up the wedge of paper, turned the machine off, and hooking the chair out from under the desk with one foot, sat down to glance through the sheets.

They made for interesting reading. Dale read from end to end, then went back to the central pages again, where several copied pieces of the document bore a legal header and stamp. He was still reading when Flynn’s voice interrupted him from downstairs, travelling up two staircases without difficulty.

“Dale, dinner!”

Dale gathered up the papers and took them downstairs with him, intending to put them on the kitchen counter while he ate. Paul caught his eye and levelled a finger at the family room.

“No. Put those next door, this table’s for eating, not working.”

As if he’d learned nothing at all since March. Dale gave him a wry smile, put the papers out of sight on the family room table and took his place at the table, accepting a deep bowl of chowder from Paul and helping himself to the thick sliced loaf of warm bread on the table. Homemade; Paul didn’t tolerate readymade stuff much in the house, particularly when they were this hungry and eating later than they usually did.

“This is good.” Riley informed Paul with his mouth full.

It was. Fresh corn and chicken crowded the bowl with other vegetables, Dale had seen Paul bring the corn cobs back from Jackson yesterday.

“I’d like to be able to grow fresh corn here,” Paul said regretfully. “It’s much better than the canned even if I can it myself. Once the weather turns and I can’t get into Jackson so regularly we don’t get the fresh vegetables.”

“You’ll can corn?” Dale asked, surprised. Riley gave Paul an affectionate grin.

“He’ll can, bottle, pickle or preserve anything. He’ll have a few weeks now where he’ll go into overdrive and the garage’ll look like we’re going to stand a siege, he does it every fall.”

“We live on a lot of it through the winter,” Paul said comfortably, unbothered by the teasing. “And we never know how many people might turn up and need feeding. It’s habit, my family always picked and bottled around now. We used to have a fruit and vegetable garden at home, we grew all sorts of things. Onions, greens, tomatoes, carrots. Corn. There was a vegetable or crop plot here at one time, David told me once. There would have had to have been; they wouldn’t have been able to get to Jackson so easily and fresh produce wasn’t just sitting on supermarket shelves for the buying.”

“You grew a lot of your own food, didn’t you?” Riley asked Jasper, who nodded.

“Pretty much everything we ate when I was a kid, we either grew it, hunted it or found it. We bought sacks of meal from the town but that was about all. I’d take a guess that David’s vegetable patch was somewhere sheltered and near the house. Probably inside the fence.”

“Either grassed over now or underneath the garage.” Paul said reflectively. “That would have been the most sheltered spot and I think the garage was built around the late sixties. There was no sign of any patch when I first came here, it was long gone by then.”

Flynn’s family in New Zealand, on a sheep station some miles from the nearest town, must have also grown what they could eat. Dale, who had grown up in the institutions of the school dining halls and mass produced meals, knew he had no idea at all what it was like to be reliant upon kept stocks and resources, although from what he’d heard of Wyoming winters thought he was going to find out. By Riley’s description, there were often weeks at a time when snows kept them on the ranch unable to go anywhere unless it was on horseback, and Paul’s freezer supplies and his well stocked preserves formed the household’s main diet.

It was turning from dusk to dark when between them they saw to the last check on the water troughs in the corral and the paddocks, locked the barns, washed dishes and cleared the table, and Paul made tea and brought the tray into the family room. Riley sprawled out full length on his usual evening spot on the longest of the family room couches and nodded at the fax print out on the table, propping his head on his hand.

“Well? Was that anything interesting?”

Actually it was a bit more than interesting. Dale usually took the seat on the end of the couch near Flynn, or on the floor leaning against Jasper or Flynn’s legs – it was something of a comfortable habit that went with the locking up and the evenings gathered here together, but tonight he took a seat on the opposite small couch in front of the table, shuffling the pages straight in front of him.  

“It’s an offer of a work project.”

“And that was how Jerry Banks phrased it?” Paul inquired. Dale shook his head.  

“.....not quite. They’re very hopeful I might take it. It’s a forensic accounting job.”

There was a moment’s silence. The subject of returning to work – even the very part time, free lance work Dale intended – had not yet been actually raised or discussed. But then this was the first offered project that had come in for consideration. Jasper, elbows propped on his knees and his long hands linked between them, dark eyes steady, watched quietly from his seat on the hearth stone without at the moment it being possible to see what he felt about it. Flynn took a perch on the arm of the other end of the sofa to Dale with his arms folded and an expression on his face that Dale knew well. Paul took his mug of tea from the tray and settled back into the long couch beside Riley, fending his way around Riley’s long, jeaned legs with the ease of experience.

“You’re going to need to explain that in more detail hon, that phrase means nothing to me.”

“It’s a lot of what I’m trained in and what I did for A.N.Z.” Dale told him. “We ran a specialist forensic department.  Forensic auditing is basically assessing financial information to prepare evidence or testimony for a legal case, expert witness stuff – it can be audits to quantify losses in disputes like breach of contract, disagreements within corporate takeovers and so on.” 

“But I’m guessing anything at A.N.Z. level is going to be a bit bigger than that?” Jasper asked.

“Well the areas we picked up most were multinational takeovers, or serious fraud investigations.” Dale said lightly. “I worked with the FBI a few times, and mediated between organisations if accusations arose. It’s providing an objective assessment as to whether the numbers match the reality.”

“And if they get you involved, it usually doesn’t.” Riley said cheerfully. “They want you to find where the bodies are buried.”

That was as succinctly flippant as only Riley could be when he wanted to lighten the mood. He was trying to help and Dale gave him a grateful look.

"Yes, exactly. This one is a fraud case coming to trial and A.N.Z. have been requested to provide independent evidence to court."

"And they don't think they've found everything." Jasper commented. Dale shook his head.

"No. A.N.Z.’s department have gone all through the corporate financial records, two separate teams have worked on it, and I know the team leaders, they’ll have done a good job, but they haven’t found any hard financial evidence of when numbers went missing and where. The police evidence suggests several billion have gone astray, but that’s no good unless we can prove where the money came from, where it went and exactly what sums were involved. They’re asking me to check their audit data and see if I can find it."

"Which would take how long?" Flynn said shortly. Dale glanced through the papers again, estimating rapidly.

"I can’t be sure, but at a guess - six – maybe seven days."

"Now tell us how long in days where you’d eat and sleep." Paul said dryly. Flynn grunted.

"We'll get to that in a minute. What would you need to be able to do it?"

Dale reflected, careful not to make it sound as though he either assumed permission, or to imply over confidence.  

“If the data was sent out, all that would be needed is a computer, a desk and the time. What they need is a detailed analysis report that will be given to court. Whoever does the job might possibly be called as an expert witness when it comes to trial, but it’s much more likely that the final report will be given to Jerry Banks and he'll present it in court as department head. That’s how it usually goes."

"And you want to do it?" Flynn asked bluntly. Dale looked up at him and Flynn gave him a hard look that Dale didn't mistake. Abrasiveness often hid emotion in Flynn; the gruffer and grimmer he looked, the kinder he was about to be.

"That's the crucial question, kid. You don't need the income, you don't have to do anything. So is this something you'd like to do, and do you feel ready?"

"Well it's certainly an interesting one." Dale said neutrally. "Problem solving."

“Fun.” Riley said patiently. “We’ve talked about that word? F.U.N. You like this brain twisting stuff.”

“It does seem a bit of a heavy-going one for you to start with.” Paul said over his mug.

Dale accepted that with a polite nod. Flynn didn’t miss the tone, or the careful, objective, dispassionate case presentation. 

“But it’s an ideal one to do at a distance. This is the kind of thing they’re likely to keep offering. I could do it alone, probably better than if I was trying to do it with a team on site, and I could take my own time. All they would want from me is an evaluation and a conclusion, and the report.”

“The answer’s no.” Flynn said bluntly, getting up. He saw Dale’s jaw drop and the shock in his face as he leaned over to take the papers, and spoke to him bluntly and firmly, giving him a very straight look.

“We’re not even discussing it in terms of this kind of bullshit. If you can’t be yourself with us about it at this stage then there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of us letting you take it any further.”

Dale ran his hands through his hair, a much more obviously anxious gesture, and his answer was immediate and quiet.

“I’m sorry. Flynn, I’m sorry, it’s the first one they’ve offered and that makes me nervous as all hell about it. It’s one Jerry needs fixing, he’s getting pressured for a result and he’s had two department teams bring it back and say they can’t find it, and it’s the kind of thing I used to be fairly good at. I’d really like to do this one.”

Flynn held onto the papers, sitting down on the coffee table in front of him.

“That’s the most honest thing I’ve heard you say since you picked up the fax.”

Dale dropped his hands and looked at him, aware of Riley, Jasper and Paul all watching and of feeling very exposed indeed.

“I know it’s one that’s going to hit buttons, it’s come as a personal request and it’s come where other teams have failed on it – and I know this is the first one and I don’t have a good track record on keeping this kind of stuff in the box, but are there terms on which you’d be ok for me to do it?”

“Doing it with us, just like that, for a start.” Flynn gave him a long and very hard look. “If you want to take this on, we’re going to take it slowly; you’ve been very clear with A.N.Z. that you’ll be working part time so they won’t be expecting an immediate turn around. You can have alternate mornings in the office upstairs. You finish breakfast and you do the yard work chores before you start, and then you work until lunchtime. You’re honest with us about how it’s going – we will be around and we will be asking – and you understand that if it gets out of your control, it stops.”

That would be three to four hours at the most on the mornings he was able to work. Dale had been expecting tight limits and had thought he was prepared, but that was a good deal tighter than he’d been expecting and it came as a shock. 

"But I could knock it down in a week-" he began before he could stop himself, and Riley laughed. Flynn shook his head.

“Those are the terms for this project if you want to do it."

He looked to Jasper who nodded. "Yes, I agree if it’s within those limits. Ri?"

"Yeah, I'm ok with it so long as it's under control." Riley said easily.

"........Agreed." Paul said, a little more reluctantly than the others.  

"Then on those terms, and on the term that you keep the bullshit fully under control and don’t try pulling that on us again, you may accept if you’d like to." Flynn told Dale, offering him the sheaf of papers.

And there it was. ‘You May’. Bluntly defined as though these were even reasonable boundaries, and Dale closed his mouth. This was exactly what he’d signed up for, he understood it, he’d expected it, but there was still a peculiar surge of exasperation.

“Thank you, I would like to.” he said as politely as possible, accepting the sheaf.  

“And you feel all right with that?” Paul asked him.

Dale tried to return the searching look as honestly as possible, breathing away the sense of frustration. This was how it worked, this was what was expected of him, this was what helped: there was no sense in fighting it.  

“I’m..... not happy about it, it doesn’t seem a lot of time at all. But I know it’s got to start slow and I know this is going to help. Yes, that should be fine.”

Riley would have argued up, down and sideways for more time, and made his feelings very clear. Paul got up to collect the empty mugs.

"Then you can call Jerry Banks back in the morning. If the tone of his phone message is anything to go by, it’ll make his day. You two it’s late, go up and get ready for bed."

There was no need to ask which two, and it was those simple, matter of fact orders that went deepest for Dale, Paul saw his reluctant smile. Yeah, you, the international CEO with the high court expert witness papers,  go put pyjamas on, it's bedtime.

“It's way too early, you're getting nutty about early nights,” Riley groused, not moving as Dale got up.

“It’s nearly ten, hop it.” Flynn said succinctly.

Riley pulled a face at him, still slouched on the sofa. “You're turning into a grumpy old man.”

Flynn finished his tea, replaced his mug on the tray, and Riley yelped and bolted as Flynn erupted out of his chair and chased him upstairs, covering the steps in several much longer bounds than Riley could manage. From the crashing and giggling on the landing, he wasn’t trying too hard to evade capture.

Paul took Dale’s hand, pulling him down to kiss him and firmly confiscating the papers. 

“I’ll look after those. Sleep well, sweetheart.”

“What do you think I’m going to do?” Dale asked, amused. “Read them under the covers by torchlight?”

“You think I’m going to leave you the temptation?” Paul retorted. “Yes I trust you, yes I’m fine with treating you like a ten year old with a comic, and yes they’re still staying down here tonight. I’ll put them in the study. Bed.”

He swatted the seat of Dale’s jeans lightly with the print out, and Dale didn’t argue, heading upstairs just as he was asked. Paul took the papers into the study, laid them on the desk and put a paperweight down on top of them with just slightly unnecessary force.

Jasper was washing the mugs in the kitchen and glanced up at Paul as he came in.  

“What do you think?”

Paul picked up a dishcloth and came to join him.

“What do I think? Sometimes I think he’s so good. Immaculate manners, prompt obedience to every instruction, he tries so hard.... and sometimes, very unfairly, it makes me want to shake him.” Paul put a cup very firmly back in the cupboard.

Flynn came into the kitchen in time to hear him, and Paul took another wet mug from Jasper, watching Flynn straighten his dishevelled shirt from his tussle with Riley.

“To me this still seems a very tough project for him to start with.”

“Then we make sure he stays balanced.” Flynn leaned against the counter, folding his arms. “We know what helps. Tighten up on him. Be demanding. We said that once he and Ri were back from Wind River and we were alone again we were going to have another blitz on him about withholding. It’s that holding back and making polite noises that’s annoying you, he was doing plenty of it just now.”

“Yes, but I don’t always know if he realises he’s doing it.”

“I think a lot of the time he knows exactly what he’s doing.” Flynn said succinctly. “We’ve been over this with him. It’s a safety catch against getting too deep into ground that makes him anxious, or having to admit to beliefs he knows perfectly well we’ll challenge and he doesn’t want challenged. He’s learned to answer honestly if one of us asks him a direct question about how he feels or if he needs help, he knows the expectation is there that he’ll share himself with us, but this is a sensitive subject and he’s got very good at taking a deep breath and calming himself down so he looks and sounds as though he’s doing fine. Witness this evening’s performance.”

“We let some of this go while he was settling back in, he had enough to be dealing with.” Paul said dubiously. “He’s happy and things are good right now, I don’t feel too keen to do anything that’s going to knock him off balance.”

“He’s not that fragile and it doesn’t help him for us to imply we think he is.” Flynn pointed out. “He knows we confront if he pulls that kind of act on us, and he takes a lot of security from it. Apart from which, if we don’t hold him responsible, he hasn’t got the leverage to make anything change. I sat through that conversation thinking it was definitely time to start pushing, and this project opens up all the doors on the things he most needs pushing about.”

“Well if he’s doing the yard chores before he starts on office work that’s going to give him something to ground himself in first.” Paul said, putting away the last of the mugs and taking a seat at the table. “I thought that was a good idea, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t get done at warp speed. And he loves routine, that helps. He’s gradually started being a step in front of me about half the house routines, I keep finding things set out and ready, or that he’s in the right place at the right time to help. I think he finds that very stabilising.” he added thoughtfully. “He doesn’t really like ‘free’ time the way Riley does. This is what drives me mad, he is such a sweetheart, he really is that good, he puts everything he’s got into trying to do what we ask and do it right, and yet sometimes-”

“You know he’s not telling you the whole story.” Flynn finished when Paul trailed off. “So challenge him. Don’t let him set the rules. Some of the tells I see are in his hands, he deliberately relaxes his hands and keeps them still when he’s getting worked up and doesn’t want anyone seeing. The over-polite tone is another dead giveaway.”

“And his breathing.” Jasper added. “Most of the breathing tricks you taught him to calm himself down he’s now using to avoid us seeing he’s worried.”

“Failing is genuine hell to a perfectionist.” Flynn stretched his neck until his shoulders cracked and Paul winced. “If you see it, make him stop whatever he’s doing until he’s working on your terms instead of his. Send him to stand in a corner, and make it long enough for him to do some thinking. Confront him and tell him you’re not talking about it until he’s talking to you with an open hand. We know all those things work well with him.”

“And have, in the past, led to him digging his heels in.” Jasper murmured. “It’s tended to be when we’ve challenged how he’s controlling anxiety that we’ve really see his behaviour escalate.”

“A sign that the behaviour is under threat and what we’re doing is working.” Flynn said bluntly. “That doesn’t make things worse for him, it doesn’t upset him.”

“I just wish we didn’t have to see him hold on and hold on to the point of explosion.” Paul told him. “A little bit of mild and honest human pouting and stamping once in a while would do him the world of good.”  

Flynn came up to bed half an hour later, and Dale folded an arm behind his head, watching him peel off his watch and put it in its usual place on the nightstand. He didn't go on getting undressed, but lay back on the bed beside Dale, sliding an arm under Dale's head.

Dale turned over into the offered embrace and lay against him, feeling Flynn's fingers thread through his hair, the strength of Flynn under him, against him. Not just a physical strength: it radiated off him. The stability and force of Flynn was like being anchored. Deeply, wholly secure. It was an amazing thing to hold such a man in your arms, to belong to him.  

"What are you thinking?" Flynn said quietly. 

Dale pulled his mind back to the mundane with an effort.

“Just that I’m sorry I made such a mess of explaining that. It makes me nervous, it’s a big deal and when I get nervous- I know we’ve been over this and over this, I know the letter and the law of the Falls Chance Anti Perfectionist Act and I still do it.”

“And we’ll go over and over it again a lot more times.” Flynn said firmly. “People get things wrong, it’s what they do, trial and error is a normal, acceptable part of learning. It’s ok. To give you fair warning, we thought it’s past time we started tightening up on you about withholding in all its forms. Do it again and we’ll drop on you like a ton of bricks. Understood?”

That should have been highly alarming. In fact it was very comforting. Flynn patted his hip, letting him go and getting up.

“You can go stand facing that corner and give that some thought while I get ready for bed. Hands on your head.”

Riley would have argued and persuaded. Dale just slid quietly out of bed and went to take up the position, and to him there would be real reparation in it. Flynn deliberately took his time getting ready, letting Dale stand there a good twenty minutes before he went to put his hands on Dale’s shoulders. They were a good deal more relaxed, he was breathing more deeply and slowly, and he didn’t look round at Flynn’s touch. Flynn stood with him a moment more, rubbing the lean shoulders under his hands, then squeezed them.

“We’re done. Bed.”

Dale turned over to him as soon as they lay down and Flynn put the light out, putting out an arm to pull him close. Long, slight, with arms that were surprisingly strong when they wrapped around you. There was more muscle to Dale than met the eye.

"You understand that it isn't that I don't think you can handle it?" Flynn said against his hair.
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t let you try. Full stop.”

 “We’re clear.” Dale said sincerely. “I need you to be tough about it, I've never not obsessed or got over involved in this kind of work, it’s years of habit. But being here and the work here is the real work - anything I pick up from A.N.Z. now is a hobby, just something I do in my spare time. I don't need a career to justify my existence, it's not like you're limiting my livelihood."

"And you’ll remember that when I tell you to put it down and come muck out the stables?" Flynn said dryly. 

Dale smiled and Flynn rolled over to brace over him, leaving Dale to push the covers out of the way and wholeheartedly move to accommodate him. In recent weeks, in Dale’s experience, the last thing he had the time or energy to do once Flynn came to bed, was worry. Or even think coherently about anything at all.


A.N.Z. were keen, and the department had obviously been hopeful. When Dale phoned before breakfast, it was to discover the papers were already under tight security on a private plane which was sitting on the tarmac at Cheyenne airport on the off chance of his agreement. The plane could be at the ranch within the hour to deliver the boxes.

“They’ve seriously sent out the whole lot, with guards, just in case you might say yes?” Riley demanded when Dale relayed this to the others at the breakfast table. “Yeesh. I guess they didn’t want any time lost.”

“It happens in our time, not theirs.” Flynn said shortly, putting a glass of orange juice in front of Dale and pouring another for himself. “You’d better meet the plane and count this as the first morning working. Yard chores done first please, and stopping when we come back for lunch.”

“Who is back for lunch today?” Paul inquired. Flynn glanced at Jasper, who nodded.

“Ri wanted help to put in new fence posts along the river pasture, so we will.”

“And I will, I’m only going out to look at Bandit and his crew.” Flynn finished his juice and got up. “Are you writing today?”

“I’ve got some baking to do and then maybe I’ll get an hour or two in.” Paul said placidly. “I’m editing more than creating at the moment, and yes I’ll keep a close eye on Dale.”

“See you later.” Flynn kissed Paul as he passed him to put his plate in the sink, and gave Dale a hard look as he put his boots on.

“Dale, look at me. Everything on your plate gets eaten, properly, before you go anywhere.”

Dale looked at him, steady green eyes which didn’t miss a thing, and gave him a brief smile that appreciated both the tone and the order.

We’ve got you, this will be ok.

“Yes sir.”

Flynn cupped a hand around his head, gave him a brief, hard kiss on the mouth and headed out to tack up Leo.

“So how does it feel to be picking up the exciting stuff again?” Riley asked, grinning at Dale as he and Jasper got up to get jackets and boots. “The free run of a computer, for a whole three hours....”

“And unlike you, he won’t spend it playing FreeCell.” Paul informed him, starting to clear the table.

Riley rolled his eyes at Dale and Dale returned the smile, trying not to too obviously push around the half sausage and piece of toast unwanted and still in front of him. 

“It’s pretty good. Although I hope I still think so when I’ve seen what’s in the boxes.”

“You’ll be hooked once you start.” Riley promised him. He stole the toast off Dale’s plate while Paul’s back was turned, stuffing it in his mouth and winking at Dale, and disappeared out of the back door after Jasper. Relieved, Dale managed to choke down the last half sausage and took the empty plate to Paul.

“I’ll go get started outside and keep an eye out for the plane. May I take the jeep keys with me? It’ll save time.”

It was crisp outside, bright sunshine was still quite low on the horizon and hadn’t yet taken the chill off the yard. It had enlivened the horses and several were playing with the large balls and chew toys as Dale mucked out and raked over the corral, filled the water troughs and feed bins and watered the pots of herbs and pansies on the porch which would save Paul the work later.

There was still no sign of the plane when he’d finished. 

Not wanting to go far from the house, but needing to occupy the time, Dale climbed the gate into the hay pastures that led out towards the tops, and walked up the gentle slope towards the thin band of woodland that separated the pasture from the river. He loved this part of the ranch, the home valley. The grass here was still short from the hay harvesting, it was soft under foot and wet, and marked footprints where he walked, hands in his jacket pockets, breathing the crisp air and rapidly becoming aware of being surrounded by space as he left the yard. Space all around him. Green pastures, open plains, woodland, and if he turned and looked back the way he had come, the distant white capped mountains of the Wind River range. Not another human being in sight right now, not a sound but the whisper of the aspens in the woods and the occasional distant tenor and bass baas of the sheep in the pasture across the river.

The woodland up here was more a copse or grove- part of the band of woodland that ran alongside the river all the way up to the tops where the horses roamed free through the winter, but this particular copse clustered over the top of the hill, and after a few feet the trees and dead wood were so dense that the light dimmed and Dale stepped slowly, edging between the narrow trunks, idly intending to push through to where he could see the river.

He could hear the water as he walked further on, and then suddenly the sunlight burst through the trees onto the ground and he stepped out of the thicket into a wide, circular clearing where nothing at all grew. Not trees, not grass, even though the canopy overhead had broken open to the sky. Just the dry earth and a thin coat of mulch from rotted leaves blown here from the surrounding woodland. On the far side of it, David was chopping out a dead log with slow, steady swings of an axe. He was wearing a rough jacket over his white shirt, his head was bare and his hair was wild, and he paused in his chopping to step back and kick hard at the chiselled break in the wood with one booted foot until the log separated. He moved his chisel to another spot further along the log, ran an arm over his face and glanced back at Dale, repositioning his hands.

It was often like this. No warning, no fanfare, just turning a corner and there he was. Solid, his boots crunching on the earth as he shifted his weight, the chops of the axe ringing, and no surprise in David’s face or greeting, any more than as if they’d been working a few feet apart.

“I’d go early if you’re going.” he said bluntly over his shoulder and hacked the chisel into the log with a few powerful blows with the back of the axe. “There’s always trouble once it gets dark, it’s too near the town.”

“Go where?” Dale asked, rather tentatively. David swung the axe again, talking between chops in short breaths.

“Biddulph fields. Watch where you’re standing.”

Dale glanced down at his feet and saw the glint of glass through the mulch a few inches from his boot. He crouched and brushed away earth and picked up a battered and muddied pair of spectacles with round frames, one lense lost but the other perfectly intact. With a little more brushing of his fingers, Dale found the other lense, turned it over in his hand to wipe the mud from it, and gently fitted it back into the frame. From there he saw the marks in the rocks directly in front of him, lining the side of the clearing. Half mossed over, the white chippings were old, faded, but still visible. Dale gently rubbed the moss away from them, uncovering a series of large carvings. Horses. A line of them, in front of one larger horse, rearing. They were crudely drawn and oddly beautiful.

“They were called the horse people.” David said briefly, lowering the axe again to move his chisel and glancing back at the rock. “That’s a spirit mark.”

 And I’m an accountant; that means zilch to me.

“I’m going to start work again,” he said on impulse to David, still smoothing the moss from the carvings. “Well. Freelance project work. That’s mostly what I came up here to think about. It’s only a few hours a day, there’s no real chance of it getting out of control, it’s more or less a hobby.”

And yet it still felt a huge, big deal. And David had himself been a brat, who would understand.  

“If I say any of this to Flynn or Jasper or Paul, they’re only going to worry and tell me that I’m not ready yet,” he said aloud, “Which is very kind, and I get what they mean by withholding, I understand and I agree with it - but I can’t go on wimping out of this forever, there’s no solution but to pull myself together and just make myself get on and do it. That’s how it’s going to have to be. Like getting back onto a horse after you fall off. And if I talk to Riley, he’s going to tell me I ought to talk to Flynn as if it’s some kind of problem instead of just a little stage fright. This is normal, stage fright is a normal part of starting any piece of work like this, and over protectiveness doesn’t help, it’s just got to be pushed through. Besides, I need to do this project, it’s been kicking around the department for weeks, they can’t do it and it’s got to be sorted out.”

Because Jerry really needs the help and it’s incomplete. Unsolved. Which drives you crazy. As much as the idea of the department not being able to solve it if you don’t do it yourself. And the thinking that in months of cowboying out here you might have lost it, that finally here is one you can’t do.

Don’t be so pathetic, it’s three hours a day, every other day – barely twelve hours a week with Flynn breathing down your neck. What can go wrong?

Well, maybe up to sixteen hours if you can get the yard work done fast enough.

The distant sound of helicopter blades made him glance up, getting to his feet, and when he looked again, he was alone in the clearing. Trees clustered thickly where David’s log had lain, and birds were singing overhead, undisturbed by axe blows. The muddy glasses were still in his hand.

The helicopter was getting closer. Dale pushed the glasses into his pocket and shouldered his way out of the copse, jogging down the hill. The chopper had more flexibility than planes and wasn’t bothering with the landing strip. Instead it came down in the hay pasture, well away from the corral and the horse paddocks. Two men in uniform got out and as Dale reached them, one held up an electronic pad.

“Dale Aden?”

“That’s me.” Dale took his wallet from his pocket and showed them I.D., and the man handed him the pad to sign. And he and his colleague took a stack of six secured crates from the chopper and loaded them onto a trolley, and wheeled it down over the rough grass to the house.

It took a while to transfer the heavy boxes to the office, each box needing to be handled up the stairs by two men, and Paul fed tea to the security guards and the chopper pilot, so it was nearly ten am when the chopper lifted off again out of the valley. Paul came upstairs to watch Dale open the lid of the first box stacked high with paper and print outs. The boxes took up most of the small office floor.

“Are you seriously telling me you could have gone through this lot in a week?”

“The summary of all this,” Dale said, digging in the box, “– and the inventory – will be in here somewhere and that’s most of what I’ll work from. Once I’ve got the inventory I can go straight to any piece of evidence I need, so I’m hoping I won’t have to go through everything sheet by sheet. That isn’t to say it won’t come to that. This is what I’m after.”

A leather wallet, thickly packed with paper, several inches thick, and a box of memory sticks.

“Good.” Paul edged through the high stack of boxes and watched Dale sit down at the desk. “Ok, if you’ve got everything you need, I’ll leave you in peace and I’ll bring you a drink in an hour or so.”

“Thank you.” Dale said absently, starting to sort papers into heaps in front of him.

He wasn’t aware of the world going away, but it did in the gradual slide away into the old familiar zone of hyperfocus where information could be read, absorbed and reeled away at a smooth, high speed. He heard and saw nothing but the figures in front of him, assembling and organising into virtual arenas and scenes like the staging of a play, telling their story as though it had been hours instead of months since he last did it. It was interrupted at some point by a mug touching down on the table in front of him, with a hand attached to it, and Dale looked up and found Paul. He blinked and Paul, holding another mug, sat on one of the boxes.

“How is it going? Relax, it’s only eleven thirty, I thought it was time for a break.”

“I can see the problem.” Dale sat back and picked up the mug, curling his fingers round it. He was slightly chilled from sitting still. “I’ve been reading the work the two other teams did and it all looks straight forward, all in place. I’ve been through the police evidence too, and it’s strong, but at the moment there’s no proof to link the two at all.”

“Does that mean there isn’t any?”  

Dale shook his head. “Oh no. There has to be proof either way. Either that the police evidence has been fabricated, or that the link exists and this information is there. The teams have triple checked the evidence, so it’s more a case now of testing every hypothesis about how this was done. I’ve seen dozens of ways, I know of more, and I’ve got a list of the ones the department tried.”

His eyes were alight, tuned and excited, Paul could see it, and he smiled.

“Unpicking riddles.”

“In many ways.” Dale drank deeply, feeling the heat of the tea go through him. Paul got up, running a hand over his hair.

“You’ve got another hour, I’ll call you at twelve thirty. Put the heater on, you’ll get cold up here.”  

Dale automatically leaned over to switch the heater on without responding and Paul paused in the doorway, voice pointed.


Dale pulled himself together and glanced up, smiling in spite of himself. “Yes Paul, I’ve put the heater on.”

“Thank you.”

Paul left the door open behind him and Dale heard him head downstairs. He glanced at his watch and set it for a twelve twenty five alarm and then scribbling a quick list on the pad in front of him, he organised himself to begin on hypothesis number one.


The watch, bleeping at twelve twenty five was an intrusion of extreme annoyance. Which was ridiculous.

Stopping the bleep, Dale took a few deep breaths, reminding himself that stopping mid task, leaving work uncompleted, was an irrational thing to get in a state about, and it was something he’d been working on in this house for months. With good progress. It did not – objectively - matter that it would be at least forty four hours minimum before he was able to continue. He was perfectly capable of calmly packing this away and going back to doing what he’d been doing for months without missing this kind of work in the slightest, and it would not matter.

He neatly organised the work he was in the middle of, paper clipping the stacks into place and arranging them on the desk, capped the pens, turned off the heater and left himself a few succinct notes on where he was and what the next step would be. As if he would forget. Then he made himself get up, leave the office tidy, and go downstairs.

Paul glanced up, surprised, from the table he was setting for lunch.

“I was about to come and call you, are you done?”

“You said twelve thirty?” Dale took the plates from him to lay out and Paul glanced up at the kitchen clock. It stood at twelve twenty nine.

Jasper came in while Paul was dishing up, left his boots by the door and went to wash his hands. He paused on the way past Dale on his way back, put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him over, dropping a kiss in his hair. At times it was like being pulled inside a shield with Jasper, who seemed to radiate calm and to know exactly when you needed it.

“How did it go?”

“Very interesting, thank you.” Dale dragged his mind away from boxes and A.N.Z. with an effort. “I was wandering around the copse up by the river on the hay field- the first one up by the gate?”

“Mustang Hill.” Riley said, leaning against the doorpost to get his boots off. “I haven’t been up there since last winter when we cleared it, it’s always a bugger for dead wood and brush.”

“It was crowded.” Dale agreed. “I found some carvings on a rock? Horses.”

Had it been Jasper and he alone he would have also mentioned David, but in front of Riley and Paul it seemed easier to be quiet about that part. Riley shrugged his jacket off.

“There’s the Shoshone eagle carvings and other stuff on the rocks up at Eagle Canyon but I’ve never seen horses.”

“Different places had different spirits attached.” Jasper sat down at the table and Dale checked to see if there was anything else Paul needed moving before he followed.

“One rearing horse and a line of horses in front of it.”

“I seem to remember that in Native American terms, each animal has a different set of ‘qualities’ as a spirit guide, whether that’s for a person or belonging to a place.” Paul said, taking his own chair.

“Like the great black ant.” Riley said, grinning at Jasper and going to wash his hands.

“Like the ant.” Jasper gave Dale a quieter smile, and Dale thought of the carved ant Jasper had slipped into his pocket when he went back to New York.

“The ant is group minded, active, patient. Determined.”

“What about a horse then?” Riley emerged, still shaking wet hands. “Where were the carvings?”

“On a rock face in a patch just around from the peak. There was nothing growing there.”

“There never has been anything that will grow in that clearing.” Paul said with interest, “I used to walk up around there with David, that was one of his favourite spots, but I don’t remember seeing the carvings”

“The horse spirit has multiple qualities, it was a strong one for the Shoshone around here.” Jasper said to Riley. “They were called the horse people, one of the first tribes to tame horses and ride. The spirit meanings are freedom, stamina, the land, but most of all strength. The horses gave strength and freedom to the tribe in hunting and travelling. It’s seen as personal strength – freedom to be, an ability to reach personal potential.”

How very apt that should be the spirit drawn here, so near to where this house had been built.

“I didn’t see them until I crouched down, they were mossed over.” Dale said, thinking about it. “How old will they be?”

“A couple of hundred years at least, easily a lot more.” Jasper glanced up and smiled as Flynn came in. “This must have been perfect grazing land for a herd before the ranch was built. It probably means something as simple as ‘here are our horses, spirit watch over them’.”

“Is it anything to do with Biddulph fields?” Dale asked.

“Biddulph?” Paul, starting to dish up pie and vegetables and handing a plate to Dale, shook his head. “I don’t think so honey, that’s the rough ground just outside Jackson. It’s where the fairs and rodeos set up.”

“The fall fair is there right now.” Flynn said, sitting down and taking his plate from Paul. “I saw the trucks go by on the road, day before yesterday.”

Riley’s face had lit up and Flynn swallowed a forkful of pie before he went on.

“Halfpint, why don’t you and Dale drive over and have look round this afternoon? Dale won’t have seen one before and you like to get a look around. You’re safer going earlier in the week and in the afternoon if you’re going.”

“It can get a bit rough in the evenings and around the weekends,” Riley said when Dale looked up. “Want to come? Please? You’ll save one of the others having to drag themselves around there with me?”

“It’ll only be stalls, the usual fairground rides, barrel racing, that kind of thing,” Paul said reassuringly to Dale. “Don’t let Riley eat himself sick on junk and you’ll be fine.”


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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