Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 2


There was a lot more to the fair than Paul’s brief description had suggested. A full carnival was set up on the dusty ground beyond the rough grass parking lot, and people, many of them families with kids in tow, were walking between the rides, booths and stalls. A few of them waved to Riley and Riley waved back, pointing them out to Dale as they walked.

“They’re neighbours to us. Ranchers. This has always been a very local thing, I guess traditionally after haying and selling off stock at this time of year people had money in their pockets.”

The smell of popcorn, cotton candy and hot fat was strong in the air, along with the music and whistles of the carnival rides. The autumn theme was strong; apart from the straw bales stacked to mark boundaries, candied apples and hot cider were being sold along with hay, grain, and huge numbers of pumpkins which kids were gazing at in awe. High stacked bales made a labelled ‘ghost maze’ from which occasional delighted screams of kids could be heard, and other smaller kids were running around with faces painted and costumed. Tractors, unusually shiny and mud free considering the daily use they were put to, were being used in some kind of competition towing a weight up a short track to the cheers of the observers, and there were long rows of pens with livestock entered in competition, immaculate cattle, rams and heavy bulls with rosettes pinned to some of the pens.

It was all new in Dale’s experience. He’d seen funfairs in England as a child – from a distance, driven past on the road – but had never walked around one, and the blaring music and the bright lights and the strong smell of food was fascinating. Riley dragged him to several side show games in turn, some of which they watched and some of which Riley played with a vigour and total lack of self consciousness that Dale both loved and envied. A heavy set man was standing at the shooting gallery, picking off tin targets with a light rifle fixed to the front of the stall, and nodded at them as they came to watch.

“Hey Riley. I reckon they’ll learn to stop bringing this stall near ranchers, waste of their time.”

Riley grinned at the rancher and handed over coins for two of the fixed guns to the rather depressed looking man running the stall, nudging Dale towards the one next to him. The tinny western music was a distraction but Dale took up aim alongside Riley, focused, and where Riley randomly picked off  seven or eight of the twelve, Dale accurately picked off each target one by one in a sequenced line, estimating the trajectory and rewarded with a loud and metallic ping as each one fell. It was surprisingly satisfying. He raised his hands and backed away in alarm when the stallholder tried to push a two foot high stuffed pink rabbit into his arms, but Riley cheerfully accepted one, strolled away with it and a moment later bestowed it on a whimpering toddler in a stroller whose mother appeared to recognise Riley and gave him a grateful smile as the child was struck dumb. Presumably with shock at a rabbit being neon pink. 

For a while they stood at a magic show eating some sugary confection that Riley referred to as funnel cake, and then went briefly to watch a woman in a white cowgirl outfit singing while people danced on a square of hardwood floor, and walked past a small crowd of children watching a juggler. Tents housed long rows of tables with competitions for pies, cakes and jams, and sold chocolate and fresh food, and beyond that lay a wide corral where horse racing was taking place between children riding ponies while a crowd leaned on the bars and cheered them on.

“It’s mostly the kids’ stuff at this time of day. The adult stuff, the proper barrel racing and so on is at night.” Riley explained as they watched. “It’s ok, some of the racing horses are neat, but these are all locals, it’s not like when the proper rodeos are here.”

Another and much smaller, scruffier corral was a long way back, almost hidden behind some tents, and Dale glanced towards it, seeing one or two men leaning on the corral bars and a horse bucking wildly with a man hanging on in the saddle. A man was steering several Stetson hatted kids and a woman away from it, his face grim.

“Is that a rodeo?”

Riley followed his gaze, his face hardened and he headed straight for the corral.

“No it frickin’ isn’t.”

‘Rough stock’ was scrawled on a blackboard near the corral and Riley stopped in front of it with an expression on his face so savage that for a moment Dale thought he was going to spit at it.

“Rough stock my ass. There isn’t a vet on this site, Clara would go mad! Who the hell allowed this to set up here!”

He was so angry Dale almost hesitated to ask. “What’s rough stock supposed to be?”

“In a half way decent rodeo, trained bucking horses or bulls, properly wrangled with vets on site – it’s a show, it’s not supposed to be fricking real-“

Riley was pressed up against the corral bars now, gripping them, and Dale saw with him the little light tan mare, the colour of milky coffee, bucking and twisting in the ring with the man clinging to her back. She was sweating, her neck was lathered, and when she finally threw the man clear she galloped around the corral, reins flying, and Dale caught a glimpse of a dark, terrified eye as she flashed past. Riley muttered something obscene, grabbed the top rail of the corral and with a powerful yank was at the top and climbing over to drop into the corral. The man was picking himself up off the ground, and one of two heavy, bearded wranglers leaning on the inside of the corral, nodded affably at Riley.

“You want a try, son? Anyone that sits her more than a minute wins a hundred dollars.”

“Anyone sits her at all and you’re looking at a fine a lot bigger than a hundred from the Sherriff’s department,” Riley said savagely. “She’s feral, and I’d bet every cent of that hundred that she’s a mustang. You’ve got her from a wild herd and that’s illegal, you can go to jail for screwing with a wild herd out here.”

“You can’t prove it.” The man said lazily but his smile had died.

“Show me her papers then.” Riley demanded. Dale, watching the wranglers’ hands and running rapidly over several options in his head, found that the rancher from the shooting gallery had walked over and was standing watching with his thumbs in his pocket. Dale touched his arm, not taking his eyes off Riley.   

“Excuse me. Do you have a cell phone I might borrow?”  

The man handed it over without question and climbed over the rail, going to join Riley. Dale dialled swiftly, yanking the number from memory of where it was written on the list on the fridge at home.  

“Hello, Sherriff’s office?”

“I don’t have to show you nothing, or prove nothing.” The man was saying to Riley, and the other wrangler had come to stand with him, although warily with an eye to the big rancher now beside Riley with a hand gun easily visible in his belt.  

Dale, finishing his call with a good deal of relief, closed the phone and climbed the corral rails as Riley said harshly,

“Fine. If I sit her for two minutes you sell her to me.”

“For what?” the man demanded. Riley shrugged.

“Name it. At five dollars a ride you won’t make that much from her before she gets confiscated and you get arrested, any ranch kid round here could spot a feral horse.”

“Three hundred.” The man said shortly.

Riley nodded, not hesitating. “Done.”

“If you sit her.” The man added. “And ain’t no one done that yet.”

Riley looked at him, then handed his jacket, hat and wallet to Dale and very quietly walked out into the middle of the corral. The mare had stopped her terrified careening, she was pacing, a few steps one way and then a sharp turn and a few paces the other way. Riley approached her directly, lifting his hand, and catching her rein as she bolted. For one horrible moment Dale thought he would be dragged off his feet, then with a swift yank Riley freed the reins over her head so he held her on a long rein and she could get several feet from him, and raised his hand again to move her on, turning her in a circle as she fled from him.

Dale had seen Flynn and Riley do this before with the young horses, but the young horses were curious and never scared, and very used to being handled and played with. The little mare was sweating, her sides heaving, and Riley spoke to her softly, turning with her, constantly approaching her so she kept her circle going.

“That isn’t riding,” the man yelled from the gate.

“You made the bargain,” the rancher told him, “You didn’t say what he had to do, you let him work.”

The mare kept circling. She was tired, Dale could see the exhaustion in her body, her unsteady gait, and from the scrapes on her knees she’d fallen at least once. Riley was talking to her, too low for them to hear what he said, but he kept approaching, the hand raised that alarmed her into continuing her attempt to escape, giving her steady eye contact, and a moment later her cantering became trotting, became walking, and her head began to hang. That again was body language Dale recognised, he’d seen it in mares around Bandit. It was the submission sign, the you’re the boss sign. Still talking to her, Riley slowly shortened the rein and her circle became closer and closer to him, and slower and slower, until she stood still, trembling, her sides heaving, her head down. Riley stroked her neck and then her face, steady strokes, moving out over her nose, then her shoulders, her back, her sides. Her shuddering quietened a little. Riley felt at her bridle again, handling her firmly, confidently, and Dale saw him slip the bit out of her mouth and free it from the bridle so it hung loose. Then he gathered the reins, put a foot in her stirrup and moving unhurriedly, lifted himself up into the saddle. He settled his weight slowly and while she shivered, she stood still. Riley went on stroking her, talking softly, not moving. He sat with his legs clear of the stirrups as soon as he was on her, legs loose and wide and not pressing her sides at all. Dale raised his wrist with his watch as soon as Riley reached her back, watching the dial move. There was absolute silence in the corral and from the small crowd now gathered around it. The mare shivered and her head hung down but she stood still and Riley didn’t move other than to go on stroking.

“Two minutes.” Dale called quietly.

Riley moved slowly, leaning over the mare’s neck and lowered his weight slowly to the ground. A round of applause broke out from the watching crowd, and Riley ignored it, standing still and rubbing the mare’s face in his hands. He dug in his pocket and Dale saw him come up with something – he and Flynn always had dregs of oats or peppermints or sugar in their pockets, it drove Paul crazy when he came to do laundry – but whatever he found the mare sniffed at and flinched in astonishment, and then very cautiously lipped it from his palm. Riley gently tied her reins up to avoid tripping or stumbling her, and walked back to the man. His face was white and livid although he spoke very quietly.

“Three hundred.”

“One and you’re lucky.” The rancher said to the wranglers casually but with a lot of decision. He took a wad of notes from his pocket and handed it over. “Now git before the Sherriff gets out here. Riley, how will you boys get her home?”

Riley had no idea, Dale could see it, and was running rapidly through various options and scenarios in his mind when the rancher tipped his hat back and surveyed the mare.

“Reckon she’d be ok in the back of my box if I took it slowly? It’s in the lot back there.”

“If I stayed with her.” Riley said briefly. “Mac, I owe you. Dale, can you take the jeep back?”

 “Once she’s loaded, yes.” Dale eyed the men still standing near them and the rancher sniffed and dug out his keys.

“Then I guess you’d be the best one to bring the box up from the lot. White and green one, back it up here as near as you can. I’ll just stand here and make sure these fellers stay polite.”

Driving a large horse box was a new experience and one Dale had to figure out very quickly. He reversed the battered old truck up to the corral and helped to open the back doors, after which Riley politely and firmly ordered everyone to back off while he coaxed the mare inside. Dale backed right off around the back of the van, dug in his pocket for his pocket knife and went to attend to the black horse box alongside the trailer by the corral.

When he came back, the mare’s tack was off and she was in the back of the truck and Riley, getting on the other side of the rails in the truck, sat down on the floor with her. Dale followed the box in the jeep as Mac drove slowly out onto the road, and as they turned left, out on the two hour trip back to the ranch, Dale saw the Sherriff’s car turning in, blue lights flashing, and drive directly to the corral at the back. The black horsebox’s engine was spluttering but the big truck was going nowhere on six flat tires, and it still hadn’t moved when the Sherriff’s car tucked in behind it, blocking its exit.


Dale paused very briefly at the bank on the way out of Jackson, and caught up with Mac and Riley unloading the mare with only a head collar on, just inside the high bar of the ranch.

“I didn’t want to take her up to the house, too many spooky things there.” Riley said to Dale, not looking at him, and Dale, not shutting the jeep door to avoid frightening the mare, knew exactly what and who Riley didn’t want to see. He gave a wad of bills to Mac who was shutting up the horse box.

“Your hundred. Thank you sir, you’ve been very kind.”

“We’re good neighbours out here. Dale is it?” the man smiled and offered a hand to shake Dale’s. “Riley was telling me about you on the trip back. Mac Dolan, glad to meet you. I’m from the Yellowback ranch, we share borders over east, that way. Riley, is there anything else you need?”

“No, we’ve got it from here, I’ll drop the head collar back to you. Thanks Mac, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you right now.” Riley looped the mare’s reins over his arm and gave the man a quick and sincere hug, which the man looked both touched and bemused by. He got back in his horsebox, pulled out and headed on down the road out of sight. Riley soothed the mare until the engine was out of earshot.

“I’m not going to ride her, she’s not been saddle trained, she’s got no idea what to do. And she’s bruised to hell, aren’t you baby?”

The mare appeared to have given up fighting. Or else having found in Riley the first human that spoke and touched her gently, had decided she was going to stick to him. She stood quietly, head down as Riley stroked her, gathering up her reins.

“I’ll walk her down, the long way around, and put her in the bunk house stable.”

“The-“ Dale stopped, startled. “You’re going to hide her?”

“If Flynn finds out I rode a feral horse in a rough stock show? Especially an illegal show?” Riley gave him a look. “He’d kill me. She’ll be fine in the bunk house stable, no one goes up there.”

“And he and Jas won’t notice?”

“Not today anyhow.” Riley said firmly. “It’ll be fine, no one’ll know.”

That seemed optimistic to the point of lunacy.

“If anyone asks where I am, tell them I saw a fence down and got out to fix it and said I’d walk back.” Riley said, starting to walk with the mare.

Confronting two toughs in a dodgy show was also likely to get Flynn excited. Dale reflected on Flynn’s reaction to Riley’s confronting the two men who had broken into the stables during harvest time, winced, and got into the four by four. He saw no sense at all in trying to delay what would inevitably have to come out, but obviously Riley did, and it confirmed to Dale not for the first time Riley’s ability to be entirely present in the here and now. Later’s potential problems were for dealing with if and when they arose; he didn’t waste time or energy on them.

Irrational or not, it was still a skill Dale admired.

As luck would have it, no one was around when he drove into the garage. Paul was most likely up in his office and writing at this time of day; Jasper and Flynn would be out working. Dale put the keys back and walked out across the yard towards the corral, intending to check on the feed bins and water troughs, part of the routine every day evening work. Jasper was raking in the corral and glanced up at him, smiling.

“Hey. How was the fair?”

“Busy.” Dale leaned on the fence to watch him. “Anything you need me to do?”

“It’s all done, thanks.” Jasper let himself out of the corral and leaned the rake against the fence. “If you’ve got some time, I’d really like to see those carvings you found. Will you show me?”

Gladly. Walking with Jasper was something Dale loved to do, from the first few times
months ago when he began to go fishing with him, to the six days the five of them had alone out on the edges of the ranch land, when he and Jasper had several times wandered off together, enjoying the quiet and going nowhere in particular. Jasper had the knack of being comfortable with silence, and of making you feel no demand or need to talk unless you wanted to. They went out of the gate past the corral and walked slowly up the long hay pasture together, and Dale found the place where he had entered the woods, following the trail he had made this morning until he reached the clearing. Late afternoon sun streamed down through the trees, throwing lines of shadow across the bare earth. Dale crouched down to find the half hidden rock and levelled a finger.  

“Here. This one.”

Jasper knelt in front of it, lifting his fingers as if to touch, but not quite making contact with the stone in front of him. He didn’t have to say anything to make clear his interest or his pleasure; Dale reflected on that, watching Jasper’s angular shoulders and the sleek black hair that lay long past his collar. When he had first come to the ranch, he had thought of Flynn as being by far the quietest of the family, and somewhere that had changed to a realisation that while Flynn often spoke the least, he was an active part of everything that went on in everyone’s lives here, strongly socially rooted. Where Jasper, who smiled much more easily, chattered easily, and on the surface appeared much more sociable, in fact had the knack of talking at an easy level and yet said very little except to the people he loved. And when you were alone with him, he made you a part of his quiet, and let you in on the very few glimpses, like fish darting in a stream, of what really went on inside him. He had a reserve that Dale understood and saw in himself, they both had that ability to step back and evaluate.

“I saw David up here this morning,” he confided quietly to Jasper’s back.

Jasper nodded slowly, as if it was a completely normal thing to see a man thirty years dead. It still wasn’t normal to Dale. He sat down on one of the logs at the perimeter of the clearing, trying to decipher whether Jasper wanted quiet to think about this place or whether talking was an option, and as if he knew, Jasper sat cross legged on the ground by the carved rock, turned to face him and rested his elbows on his knees, making it clear that he gave Dale his full attention.

“......he was chopping out wood.” Dale told him, thinking about it and trying to report only pure facts. “He mentioned Biddulph fields and told me the fair was there – or at least that’s what he meant. sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s aware of what I’m saying or if we’re both just talking to ourselves alongside each other. Or if I’m imagining his voice as much as seeing him, I suppose I could have heard the word ‘Biddulph’ in conversation anywhere around here without consciously realising it.”

Although David’s voice was as distinctive as his face and wild hair.  

“I think how this works is different for different people.” Jasper said thoughtfully. “What I see most often is like recorded film replaying.”

“Like the wagons you showed me.” Dale said lightly, aware of how ridiculous this conversation was – and yet that he had stood with Jasper at night on a hillside and watched those silver wagons roll past in the distance in a long line.

“Like the wagons.” Jasper agreed, and the gentleness of his tone suggested that he understood. “There are certain times and weather conditions where I know I can go to certain places and if I’m in a receptive mood, I know what I might see.”

It was a bizarre question – in a bizarre conversation – and yet with Jasper sitting there, near and calm with his familiar dark eyes as steady as if they were discussing which cattle to move, Dale found himself asking straight out.

“Why would it differ? Theoretically, I suppose scientifically, it shouldn’t. I’ve heard you say that the land has stacked memories. That seems qualitatively different from David just suddenly being around a corner like anyone else, and talking.”

“I think it’s two different things.” Jasper said mildly. “I think the land does become imprinted with things that happened again and again, or which had an intense feel to them, and I think in the right conditions there’s a kind of recording that plays back. And I think that’s different from people. I’ve seen a few people from a distance, like Gam Saan – I’ve seen David myself. But not in the way that you do, not with any kind of conversation, and it’s very rare for me. Possibly I’m a land person and you’re a people person.”

That was a serious surprise to Dale who had never been called or even thought of himself as a people person in his life, but Jasper appeared quite serious.

“Possibly it’s what I bring to that time and place compared to what you bring.” Jasper went on reflectively. “Every time I’ve seen a person as opposed to an event replaying I’ve usually been under very high stress. Perhaps that makes the difference.”

That raised a question that had occurred to Dale several times since the long, cold hours in the mine at Three Traders.

“I never saw Gam Saan. Not once, and you did.”

“But you were the one who untangled where he was and what happened to him. Who knows. Maybe David talks to Riley or me regularly but we’re just not looking or listening as carefully as you do.”

Dale thought about that, slightly comforted in spite of himself. Jasper got up and came to sit on the log with him, and Dale took a breath, trying to put it in normal terms.

“When I first came back from New York, for weeks I didn’t ‘see’ anything. Or anyone, I don’t know how to explain it. And I told you, and you said I just wasn’t listening. I thought you meant I wasn’t calm enough, because when I did calm down it started to happen again. Which actually was a relief because ever since I came here it’s been kind of ‘normal’.”

And the glimpses of David and his one – possible – sight of Philip had all, always, been deeply comforting, good experiences, ones that left him anything but alarmed or upset.

Jasper didn’t answer for a moment, and then leaned his elbows on his knees, giving him a smile.

“If you’re going to use a computer to work on an important programme, do you do it while you rush around the room doing other things? You sit down and get into a stable, comfortable position, you sit where you can see clearly and easily, you put your hands in the ideal position for typing, and you focus on what you’re doing. Have you ever talked to David when other people have been present?”

No. Dale shook his head slowly, thinking back over the incidents, including the very first ones by the river, identifying the pattern. He’d always been alone, and on consideration, it was always in a reflective mood or an introverted one, often focused on looking at the land around him.

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Jasper said gently, “And I don’t think it’s anything you need to worry about. There’s nothing bad here, honey.”

The endearment caught Dale by surprise; it was the first one he’d heard from Jasper.

Jasper turned Dale’s wrist to glance at his watch and got up, holding out a hand. Dale took it and walked with him, still thinking, through the clearing, and down the other side of the hill to where the river ran. It was a deeply calming experience in itself to be in this quiet place with Jasper, hand in his warm, supple one, alongside Jasper’s soft and balanced walk that made very little sound on the mulch underfoot. When they reached the river bank, Jasper walked down stream with him, slowly, saying nothing until they reached a bend in the river where at another bend in the distance it ran shallowly over the rocks. The low early evening sun was sparkling off the water and Jasper put his hands on Dale’s shoulders, holding him still and looking past him. It took Dale a moment or two to focus on what Jasper was seeing, and then it went from silver flashes and outlines in the air to gradually solid figures and colours and splashes and then, distinguishing slowly from the birdsong above them, the very faint sound of happy voices in a language Dale didn’t understand.

The children were black haired, darkly tanned and mostly naked, and five of them were playing together in the water. The warmth of it, their delight, seemed to stretch out and pass through Dale like long fingers of the golden dusk sunshine.


Not at all an expert in the kitchen, Dale had grown to find a real interest and pleasure in doing the few cookery manoeuvres he understood, becoming gradually more confident from the businessman who had first admitted to Paul he had no idea how to do something as simple as peel and chop an onion. Paul was a patient and encouraging teacher. There was something very orienting too in taking an active part in doing, joining in, and he tended to make sure he was here and available at the time Paul usually began preparing dinner.  He was engaged in chopping vegetables and bacon for the spaghetti Paul was cooking this evening, showered and changed, when Flynn came in and took his boots off,  sat down in the chair beside Dale and as Dale surrendered the finished vegetables to Paul, Flynn put an arm around Dale’s waist and pulled him down into his lap.

There wasn’t any safer or warmer feeling in the world. It was still something that took Dale’s breath away and still made him freeze with self conscious embarrassment, but Flynn just held on as he always did, pulling until Dale gave way and leaned back against him.  

“How did the project go this morning?”

“It’s going to be challenging.” Dale said, aware that Paul and Jasper as well as Flynn were listening, and with real interest. He’d done a little of this in New York by phone with them, but it was still very new to talk about work like this, as if what he did had some importance and interest purely because it was part of his day.

“There’s nothing to see at all – no blurred project expenditures, no problems with multinational currency conversions, no odd or fraudulent expenses which is a classic. Usually it’s things like investing tangibles in upstream and then demanding huge reimbursements in something like oil or similar with massive price variants, I’ve seen companies hide hundreds of millions in backhanders that way.  The A.N.Z. teams tried all the normal hypotheses, and quite a few unusual ones too.”

“How would you hide it?” Paul asked him. Dale gave him a brief grin.

“Well. But how I’d do it isn’t relevant – it’s knowing how the right people in this corp. would do it.”

“Profiling?” Flynn asked him. Dale nodded.

“A little, yes. I did some work on that with the FBI years ago, and it helps, it gives ideas of
priorities, the way people think.”

“If I can help with that, let me know.” Flynn told him. “There’s possibly a few books in the study too that you’d be interested in. Can you isolate who’s under suspicion?”

“A team, but I know the strong personalities in it.” Dale said pensively. “I’ve worked with several of them and it does give you a feel for people’s values. But it’s also looking for gaps or even hints in the evidence. It’s relatively easy to pick up on technical error in an audit, but earnings management is subjective. It’s like trying to pin down a fist full of smoke.”

“Talking of which, Riley’s late.” Flynn said, glancing at his watch. “Where did he go?”

Dale hesitated, really not keen to repeat a blatant lie, and was saved by Riley running up the porch steps and erupting into the kitchen.

“They’re gone!”

Who or what he didn’t specify, but the others seemed to know. Paul answered, voice quiet and gently matter of fact.

“Yes, they’re gone, and yes, we did do it on purpose. You don’t like watching and there was no point upsetting you.”

“So you thought you’d get rid of me for the afternoon.” Riley said bitterly, “I’m going to quit going anywhere between September and November because I can’t trust you lot not to frickin’ lie to me!”

“Riley.” Flynn said sharply. Riley, who had been in the process of storming through the family room, swung around and Dale saw all the stress and distress in his face erupt out in one vicious kick at a chair which flew across the room. Flynn put Dale on his feet and was gone so fast Dale didn’t realise until he was standing and Flynn had hold of Riley, ignoring Riley’s attempts to hit out at him. Once he had Riley against his chest and both arms around him, Riley quit fighting. Jasper picked up the chair and returned it to its place, and for a minute Riley gulped against Flynn’s chest, Flynn’s hand around the back of his head, his face buried in Flynn’s shirt. Flynn’s face was unreadable.

“Sorry.” Riley said eventually and indistinctly. Flynn dropped a rough kiss on the top of his head and a firm swat against the seat of his jeans.

“Wash your hands and get back here.”

Riley went into the bathroom and Flynn sat down again, waiting. Paul promptly stooped over the table to Dale, dropping his voice out of Riley’s earshot.

“It’s all right, love. He means the bullocks are gone from the field, they were shipped out this afternoon and he always finds it difficult.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t the only thing Riley had found difficult today. Dale had a perfectly catalogued series of mental images of Riley’s face, white, furiously angry, and of the mare with the rolling, terrified eyes. And the fact of hiding the mare would strain Riley too; Dale understood that from his own experience. Those kind of nasty little secrets were some of the most stressful, demanding things to try to hold on to. He said nothing in reply to Paul, tried to shut the lid on the catalogue, and to distract himself from a rather unpleasantly strained feeling he didn’t quite understand.

 Riley went straight to Flynn when he re emerged and buried himself in Flynn’s arms, curling up in his lap. Dale, watching Flynn stroke his head, could feel the tension boiling off him. The other two didn’t say anything, Paul just went on preparing dinner although he ran a hand over Riley’s back as he passed. Jasper helped Paul bring dishes to the table and Paul put a single plate in front of Flynn, pushing a second fork in his direction. Flynn ate with his arm still around Riley, making no attempt to dislodge Riley from his lap, and a few minutes later Dale saw him sharing alternate forkfuls with Riley, initially with some refusal from Riley and then passive acceptance. Jasper explained to Paul, conversationally, about the carvings on the rock with several attempts to draw Dale into joining them, but it was too difficult with Riley looking so upset on the other side of the table, and it wasn’t easy to eat either. Paul took Dale’s not very empty plate without commenting on it at the end of the meal, put a hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently in a way that held a lot of reassurance.

“Light the fire for me in the family room?”

Dale got up, glad to escape, and heard Jasper go outside to lock up for the evening. Paul cleared the table and while Dale laid and put a match to the fire, Flynn came out of the kitchen, towing Riley with him, and sat down in his usual armchair to pull Riley down on top of him.

Riley stayed there all evening, not moving much and not talking, and while Dale had often seen him sit in Flynn’s lap or Paul’s, as easily tactile as they were, he’d never seen Riley cling like this. Paul brought a cake through with the tea tray he always brought in after dinner and Riley shared a piece with Flynn, and more or less joined in with the board game Paul set up and helped Flynn badger him into joining in with. Jasper put a hand out for Dale and Dale let Jasper guide him down off the couch on to the floor at his feet where he could lean against Jasper’s legs, and that helped. The contact helped, and Jasper, when not moving pieces on the board, had a habit of absent mindedly massaging Dale’s neck and shoulders whenever they sat like this, which also helped.  The warmth and the crackling of the fire and the deep scent of wood smoke was another distraction; Dale often found his eyes drifting to the fire and the whitening logs as much as to Riley, still curled with his head against Flynn’s chest.

He responded with a flat ‘no’ when the clock stood at quarter to ten and Flynn told him and Dale to go get ready for bed. Dale, getting up with alacrity, saw Flynn put Riley on his feet with a brisk rather than at all hard swat, and Riley said nothing but headed up the stairs in front of Dale. Dale followed him to the door of his room, watched Riley drop down on the end of his bed, hands on either side of him and his head as limply down as the mustang mare’s, and instinctively sat down beside him, putting his hands lightly around Riley’s head.

It didn’t seem to make things any worse. In fact Riley leaned straight over and buried his head in Dale’s lap, and Dale felt his chest seize and his arms instinctively wrap around Riley and hold him tight before he had time to think.  

“How is the mare doing?” he said softly into Riley’s ear.

“Ok.” Riley sounded stifled. “She’s pretty beat up, I gave her some antibiotics.”

“Why don’t we just talk to Flynn? You’re not going to feel any better until you do.”

“And then he’ll kill me, which will make today so much better.” Riley said wearily.

Actually Dale thought it would. In his experience Riley worked in the same way he did; that once secrets were told and there was some closure and comfort, life moved on and they both felt a lot better. Riley took another breath and sat up, wiping his face.

“I’m sorry for freaking, that was just one thing too much. I hate...”

He trailed off, and Dale, who knew Riley well, understood what he meant.

“You’d feel a lot better if we did just tell them.” he said gently. “I’ll help, it isn’t going to be that bad.”

“And that always works when I say it to you?” Riley challenged. Dale gave him a wry look and Riley laughed, shakily.

“Ok, don’t answer that. No, not tonight, I can’t face it. It’ll be ok, I’ll deal with her, no one needs to know anything.”

That was insane, but there was no sense in upsetting Riley any further with logic tonight. There would be other, more practical ways to help tomorrow. Dale got up and Riley reached out and hung on to his hand, sounding appealing.

“Don’t go?”

That wasn’t possible to resist. Still very innocent in how this group marriage worked, Dale had wondered a few times what an invitation from anyone but Flynn might sound like, but that was one he didn’t have the power to refuse. He sat down again and put his arms around Riley.

"That went well.” Paul said wryly downstairs once Dale and Riley were both out of earshot. Flynn shook his head, stretching out the kinks from Riley’s weight on top of him for several hours.

“Could have been worse. Don’t you remember the year I had to break the lock on the bathroom because he wouldn’t come out?”

“I don’t even know how a lock even got on that door, Philip never had them installed for exactly that reason.” Paul poured himself a half cold cup of tea from the teapot and sat back, cupping his hands around the mug. “Poor Dale. Flynn, I’ll go and insist on Riley coming in with me in a minute, and then at least Dale can have a bit of peace and quiet with you.”

“We’d have always followed Riley’s lead and let him take his choice before Dale.” Flynn pointed out. “Which I agree might have meant several hours of sulking in his own room followed by him climbing in with one of us, but there isn’t any need to do things differently.”

“Or you’d have gone and got him when you lost patience.” Paul said. “With tact and charm. ‘You, In.’”

“I think at the moment Riley’s gone for the one of us he’s not angry with and chosen Dale,” Jasper said mildly, “I haven’t heard Dale come back from his room. I’d think it was innocently done, but that seems rather to me like opting out.”

“It is, I’m not having that.” Flynn got up at once. “It’s one thing if he or Dale just happens to feel like it, it’s another if Riley’s fed up and not wanting to deal with us.”

“Then I’ll take Dale in with me,” Jasper said, collecting the mugs together. “and you three can fight it out amongst yourselves. Paul, did you think day one of the A.N.Z. project went ok? Dale seemed calm enough about it.”

“Yes, he seemed fine. It was a while before he got going what with getting the boxes unloaded, and I was staggered at the size of what arrived, but he was quite cheerful, stopped without any problem – in fact he actually set a watch and timed himself and was down here before I told him to stop.” Paul said dryly. “Self-topping brat. I felt totally redundant.”

“Which is mostly Dale’s plan and that isn’t self topping, that’s self tyrannising.” Flynn said succinctly, heading upstairs. “Challenge it. Don’t underestimate the brat.”


Riley spent some time telling Flynn exactly what he thought of him for separating him and Dale; it was still going on in the distance some time after Jasper took Dale and guided him away. Jasper’s room was quiet, sparsely decorated apart from a tabor type drum hung on the wall and an emerging wood carving laid on a book on the dark wood night stand.  It was the first time Dale had been invited in here and yet the room spoke very much of Jasper, which made it seem oddly familiar.

“We thought you’d get more peace in with me tonight,” he said to Dale as he shut the door.

“Look, I can have my old bed and sleep on my own, no one has to stay with me,” Dale began, and Jasper paused in turning down the bed and gave him a smile.

“Do you want to sleep next door on your own or do you just think you ought to do the grown up thing? You can be honest, I’m going to insist on you staying either way.”

Dale found himself reluctantly returning the smile and admitting it.

“.......All right, yes, I’d rather stay.”

And that was the honest truth. Being with them, especially at night, sleeping alongside any one of them, was deeply addictive and something very precious.

“Good.” Jasper pulled the covers back, put the night stand light on next to the carving and turned the central light out. “Come on then. You must be tired, you had a stressful day.”

In the week they’d spent together camping after Gam Saan’s funeral, Dale had laid under an open sky with arms reach of Jasper many times and the long days spent walking, swimming, riding and talking – often for hours among themselves, the five of them – had taken away a lot of any sense of shyness. He undressed and climbed under the covers on the far side of the bed, pulling the quilt up as the nights were getting cold, and Jasper, like Flynn, liked his windows open wide. Jasper sat on the covers beside him, ankles crossed, lounging back against the head board, and he picked up the carving on the night stand, took a small knife from his pocket and turned the half completed little figure in his hand, beginning to gently chip and peel wood shavings from it.

He was an amazingly peaceful person to be near to.

“Are they always animals?” Dale asked, watching him. Jasper smiled.

“Most often. I never really start with a plan.”

His fingers moved deftly and watching him, Dale realised Jasper’s attention wasn’t actually on the wood at all. It was the action that freed up his mind and let it wander.

“Is there anything you wanted to ask about this evening?” Jasper asked him. Dale put an arm behind his head.

“If Riley turns to me when he’s angry then it’s helping him bottle out.”

“And you’ll be three steps on beyond that, which is?”  

“It would effectively be Riley and I taking sides; it can’t happen.” Dale said frankly. “I’d thought of that as a possible issue a long time ago. And I get that there are times when the job of a brat is to shut up and let things be handled.”

“Gerry?” Jasper inquired. Dale smiled.


“Ah.” Jasper nodded slowly. “We hoped we’d have a little time to warn you this evening, but Riley noticed straight away. We’ve tried it a few ways in the past and there is no easy way, but the easiest on Riley is for him not to be around if we’re shipping stock out. Sheep go out a couple of times during a year but we time breeding so that the main stock is ready in early fall, we take the herds down to the minimum to look after and feed through the winter.”

Not the pleasantest part of ranching, but a reality of how livelihoods were made out here, and Dale could understand and appreciate their patience and understanding of Riley’s difficulty with it, particularly from Flynn and Jasper who had grown up with the hard reality of hand to mouth farming and no time for sensibilities. He knew Jasper was offering the same understanding to him if he needed it, and Dale freely admitted he’d had the same protected upbringing as Riley, but he understood. And while he didn’t need it, there was still a deep, engulfing warmth in the care it showed, the attentiveness.

It raised a strong impulse in him to turn over and let go, to confide in Jasper the same as he’d confided in David this morning; the anxiety at the back of the project in the office upstairs. A very naive impulse, and one that Dale swallowed down, reminding himself,

Don’t be pathetic, Aden. Stage fright is normal. That’s all it is. There is no need to worry them, you can handle this and it will be fine.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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