Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 4


The eighth hypothesis didn’t work. The ninth was also a no goer.

Dale looked once more through the figures in front of him, then neatly folded the several sheets of scrap paper, twisted them once and dropped them in the bin. Somewhere in this mountain of evidence – somewhere – was an answer, but this was his fourth session of working on the project, eight days had passed, and there was no sight of it yet. The fax bleeped and whirred and Dale got up to pick up the sheet of paper that rolled out, stretching an aching back. It was eleven am; he’d succeeded in doing the yard work swiftly enough to have been in here for eight thirty this morning, and as yet, Paul had not appeared with a cup of tea for ten minutes of social chit chat.

Which he did every time Dale worked and which was very kind, but not at all helpful.

The fax was short and to the point and scrawled in Jerry Banks’ handwriting.

FBI breathing down my neck for an update, any luck yet?

How did you answer that with an unhelpful ‘no’ after eight days of supposedly working on it?

The answer was definitely here, it was surmisable from the evidence, it just needed enough attention to detail and care to locate it. Dale tore off a fresh sheet of paper and began on hypothesis number ten. He was deep into the contents of box number four and analysing the translator’s version of the tangible investments of the Dutch branch of the corporate against the originals when Paul opened the door.

“You don’t need to keep this shut you know hon, no one’s going to come up here and disturb you.”

Except you.

Dale looked up, carefully not shooting out a hand to defend the stacks of paper on the floor.

“Mind your step, there’s a working theory all over the place.”

“Carefully sorted.” Paul leaned against the door post to look. “What’s this theory?”

“Essentially checking the validity of their expenses.” Dale said lightly.

And it’s far too simplistic. It’s too easy. Aden, for crying out loud will you think!

“I just took scones out of the oven, come downstairs and have one, and get a cup of tea.” Paul advised. “It’ll still all be here in ten minutes time.”

“I’d rather keep going while I’m on a roll, I’m not really hungry.” Dale put the papers gently back in their original stacks, replacing them in the box.

“And you didn’t eat much breakfast. Come on.” Paul straightened up, waiting for him. “You can spare ten minutes for a break.”

‘Breaks’ were things taken by people at lower levels of accountability with less responsibilities. There wasn’t any way to explain without it sounding churlish, Paul wouldn’t understand and he meant it kindly. Firmly not allowing his exasperation to show, Dale got up and followed him downstairs, and Paul went to take the kettle off the stove, nodding him at the still steaming scones on the cooling rack on the table.

“Help yourself.”

The scones were hot and sweet and fragrant with vanilla. And it felt like trying to eat hot ash. Dale swallowed tea, discreetly leaving the partially eaten scone on the plate. It was eleven thirteen by his watch. Almost an hour and a half before lunch, enough time to try another hypothesis – and this time try to make it a half way sensible one.

“I need to get on,” he said politely to Paul, getting up to put the finished mug in the sink. “Thank you, I enjoyed that.”

“So I saw, all two mouthfuls of it.” Paul said dryly. “Was it that bad?”

“No, not at all.” Dale paused in the doorway, giving him a slightly absent smile. “Just half way onto the next problem, sorry. I’ll be down for lunch.”

“Dale?” Paul called as he disappeared.

Dale came back into the doorway. With Riley it would have been with a scowl and probably an exasperated “What?” With Dale, it was patiently, and with as calmly an interested expression as if they were chatting at a coffee counter. Paul remembered he’d always had a reputation at A.N.Z. for being very sweet with staff.

“Sorry hon,” he said gently, “I was going to say don’t worry about watching the time, I’ll come and tell you when Riley comes in. He’ll be the only one who comes back for lunch today and I don’t know exactly when that will be.”

“But it might be later than-?” Dale stopped himself finishing a question that sounded distinctly obsessive. Paul picked up the used plates from the table.

“ I don’t know, I’d guess when he gets hungry. Any time between twelve and one. I’ll let you know when it’s time to eat, you don’t need to waste time clock watching.”

“Thank you.”

Swallowing on a wave of totally irrational acid Dale headed back upstairs and sat down at the desk.

Any time between twelve and one. Therefore you might have forty minutes ahead of you, or you might have an hour and forty minutes, or any amount in between.  

Shut up and solve this, the right answer won’t need forty minutes. Do it, get on with it, sort it out.

Pulling the scrap paper pad towards him, Dale began to rapidly outline hypothesis number eleven.

It was difficult to sink his mind far enough into it; Dale worked with one stubborn part of him watching the clock and reminding him that whatever he didn’t achieve today, he would have to leave until the day after tomorrow before he could continue with it. He was starting to sort through the next selection of evidence when he heard Riley’s voice downstairs and looked at his watch with a jolt of horror. It was five past twelve.

Only five past twelve.

There was no time to look at what was in front of him and assess it properly, no time to know whether or not this particular hypothesis would go anywhere. And there was still that fax sitting accusingly on his desk. Picking up a pen and refusing to acknowledge the slight shake in his fingers, Dale neatly wrote, “working on it” underneath Jerry’s note, put it on the fax and sent it through. And paper clipped together the work he was in the middle of, laying it out on the desk and reminding himself, repeatedly, it would wait. This was fine. This was the reality of what work was like now, and he could learn to handle it.

He was sitting waiting in front of a cleared desk when Paul came up to get him.

Riley and Flynn had a blazing row the morning after Riley dragged Flynn to see Mia. In Dale’s eyes it had been a very natural step for both of them; Flynn had been terse and quiet with the knowledge of the previous day’s fair incident. Riley had been uncomfortable from the paddling and tender to Flynn’s brusqueness, and they had both simmered and snapped at each other throughout breakfast, ending in a loud shouting match outside in the yard that consisted of escalating accusation and provocation on Riley’s part and threats on Flynn’s. Paul and Dale stopped clearing up from breakfast and listened to the opening rounds, then Paul rolled his eyes at Dale.

“I’ll break that up. You make the most of your office time.”

Through the office window, Dale heard Paul’s order to Riley to go and carry on what he was doing in the woods and for Flynn to go deal with the sheep, and the row abruptly ended. Both of them appeared to have let off the steam and worked themselves back into a better mood by the time they came home, and Dale saw them scuffling together in the corral late that afternoon, Riley laughing and without the slightest ill feeling left between them. Mia continued to recover in the stable next to Nekkid, and she was a surprisingly responsive horse considering her limited experience of humans. She was already starting to hang her head over the loose box gate at the sight of them, and to nose them hopefully for peppermints. She also extended the yard work by a good half hour in the mornings, as Dale now needed to turn her and Nekkid out into the empty stable pasture to graze and stretch while he cleaned out their stalls.

And in between, he continued to work on clearing the woods on Mustang Hill, which were very normal woods, doing nothing peculiar in any way whatsoever. Flynn had walked up with him on the second day Dale worked there, approved what he had done and how he was doing it, and Dale, by looking over the stretch of woods Riley was working on, had assured himself that his own work was up to standard. Once he was certain of that, the work up in the woods became his comfort and sanity. It was hard, physical, sensory, very balancing, and impossible to do wrong, and he stayed right away from the clearing. Several times that week, in the evenings while Riley very grudgingly wrote lines at the study desk between dinner and bedtime, Dale took Philip’s books from the study shelves, read about foresting and woodland management, and studied the pictures and descriptions of their local plants. Riley teased him, but Dale rapidly began to identify the plants that created brush, or blocked light to more needed plants, or were unnecessary clutter in the way of the wildlife that kept the woodlands alive and working, and he began to know what to prune out and what to remove. It was calming, repetitive, and with the A.N.Z. project nagging at the back of his mind, it was good to be up in the woods alone. The twenty minute walk up and down from the woods to the house was also good in itself, with the views and the space and the sense of being alone in the middle of it. It was several days before Dale caught himself touching the fence posts, one by one, as he passed them – just casual brushes of his fingers on every journey up or down.


“What’s the matter?” Jasper, on his way into his room for a clean shirt mid morning after an encounter with a particularly muddy and obstreperous calf stuck in a ditch, found Paul standing in the doorway of Flynn and Dale’s room with an expression of mild exasperation. Paul nodded past him at the bed.

“Look at this?”

Jasper surveyed the room as he shouldered into the shirt, taking in the wrinkle free, crisply made bed, the alignment of four symmetrically placed pillows, the angles of the books and lamps on each night stand.

“I could sell this to Better Homes and Gardens.” Paul said dryly.

Jasper tucked his shirt into his jeans. “He likes things orderly. It’s not surprising, it’s the kind of mind he’s got and this A.N.Z. work is still very new, we expected some stress.”

“I see stress when I take him a cup of tea when he’s working and he smiles at me through gritted teeth.” Paul pointed out. “Not that it isn’t a joy to have one of you naturally tidy, but this is about creating environments that look like people don’t live here. And I’ll tell you something else as well, I’m getting very gently organised into serving dinner at six. Not five to. Not ten past. Six pm. Had you noticed?”

“No?” Jasper leaned on the door post, listening. Paul folded his arms, thinking about it.

“I didn’t notice until yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it this morning. Dale’s always in the kitchen, showered, changed and ready to help with dinner from around five fifteen – in fact I’ll check, I suspect it’s probably the exact same time daily – and if I’ve been reading, or doing other things, I find the table set, he’ll ask what vegetables to get ready and they’re laid out, already peeled to save me time, he’ll turn up at just the right time to get my attention to the fact that dinner is the next thing on the agenda. We’ve eaten at six exactly for the last week at least. Now if that was Riley, I’d say he was just hungry. But Dale?”

“Have you said anything to Flynn?” Jasper asked. Paul shook his head.

“Not yet. He might well have noticed if Dale is tightening up on his scheduling anywhere else- shut up.” he added as Jasper grinned. “I’ll ask him later. But I want some time to think about this and see if I’m imagining it.”

“I doubt you are.” Jasper straightened up, stretching his shoulders until they cracked. “Flexibility isn’t something Dale finds easy.” 


The fourteenth hypothesis failed. The fifteenth wasn’t even a realistic possibility. Dale went to pick up the fragments of the flung pencil and dropped them in the bin with a sharp reminder to himself that losing his temper did nothing to help.

It hadn’t been a good morning. He’d been in the process of dressing and mentally searching for a fourteenth hypothesis this morning when Flynn’s hand had interrupted and taken the shirt he was unfolding.


It was a familiar tone. Dale glanced up at him, guiltily, and Flynn, still wet from the shower, pointed at the corner of their room.

“There, hands on your head.”

There was no need to ask why. Dale took the few steps to the corner and felt the effort it took to stand instead of move and do, to put his hands up and hold them still, and the sensation of adrenaline still rushing around his body. There were still times he found himself disappearing into manic speed without thought.

If Flynn did something, he did it thoroughly. It was a good twenty minutes before Dale felt Flynn’s hands on his shoulders, by which time the quiet and the discipline of standing still and looking at a blank wall had sunk into him. It always left him calmer. Flynn didn’t say anything for a minute, his hands were warm and heavy and rubbed slowly, and Dale didn’t turn around or move arms that were starting to ache but in the same way Dale associated with a long, stress burning workout in the gym.

“If you want help,” Flynn said quietly behind him, “Say. Hint. Write me a note. I can help you calm down and relax, I can help you plan your time, there’s all kinds of things we can do because this doesn’t need to be stressful. This isn’t something you have to get through, this is supposed to be something you do because you enjoy it.”

“Fun.” Dale said softly, thinking of Riley. “It is. This is just .....”

Something I should be able to solve, and I can’t.

Flynn turned him around, still holding his shoulders. “Shut your eyes.”

Dale put his hands down and shut his eyes, letting his head sink forward. Flynn went on rubbing his shoulders, voice quiet above his head.

“Think about being a few weeks from now, with this solved. Just the way you want it. See it in your mind. And then think about how you got to that point. What you did that worked. What helped.”

What helped most was knowing that if he leaned half an inch further forward his head was against Flynn’s shoulder and Flynn’s arms would close around him and for a few precious minutes there would be that feeling that nothing mattered, but that moment of safe, peaceful imagining had formed the basis for the fourteenth hypothesis, which within an hour he’d disproven. And realistically, now, he was out of any real ideas.

He hadn’t shown Flynn the fax from Jerry Banks. ‘Not shown’ translating in all honesty as having fed it through the shredder. Every day that he’d worked so far, Flynn had come up here to the office with him in the evenings and asked questions, looked at what he was doing, what he’d worked on, and made himself thoroughly familiar with it: it certainly wasn’t unrealistic that he’d look through the waste paper basket.

Letting him see the fax didn’t seem a helpful thing to do, Flynn had no experience of corporate life. He was trying to help and he would be naturally be concerned about anything that looked like pressure, no matter how unrealistic it was to think this could ever be pressure free. Dale also suspected that it would be unhelpful to mention the things he was finding most draining – such as shutting the office and leaving his work half done, incomplete, sitting on the desk and waiting for a day and a half. And never exactly knowing on the mornings when he did work when lunch would be, how long he had and where the deadline was. Dale had given careful thought to raising it with Paul on several occasions, weighing up the options, but it didn’t seem polite to criticise the arrangements that they felt were necessary, or to imply that his personal convenience ought to affect the family lunchtimes. Or to insinuate that he couldn’t cope without being allowed to finish work and knowing an exact time he could set his watch for. The stress of waiting for Paul to come upstairs and tell him to stop was overwhelming and it began to nag at him from around eleven am onwards on the mornings he worked in the office. In self defence Dale began to finish at twelve and then wait to be called, trying to stop himself mentally continuing with whatever he was in the middle of, and instead to concentrate on straightening up the room. He’d always found an organised environment essential to being able to think clearly.

Not that it was helping.

At night, once Flynn was asleep, Dale lay beside him with his cheek on his arms and used the blessing of a photographic memory and the peace of the darkness and Flynn’s breathing to run over the sheets of evidence again in his mind. He’d always been able to do it at speed, like running them off on a photocopier, and to hold the patterns in his head, and it had helped him on numerous long plane flights, journeys and nights of preparation. He pre road tested several new hypotheses, constructed others, and re ran ones already discounted, on images and figures, making the most of the time and quiet and the reassurance of doing it alongside Flynn, and that compensated in some ways for the long gap between being able to sit down with the papers and work. Properly.

On several occasions he heard the clock downstairs strike two or three before he fell asleep, still with no successful solution in mind.

But I can learn how to do this. I am managing. I am handling it. I look calm, I sound calm, I am succeeding with this.

It was some little comfort that he was still good at something.


It was when he passed his and Flynn’s room on his way down to lunch on the day of his sixth work session that he stopped, startled, looking through the doorway. He knew the bed linen that belonged to each room – the bright patchwork in Riley’s, the red and gold in the room he used to sleep in next door before he joined Flynn in here. The quilt on their bed was always a dark ochre red one; it had been there every day since Dale first came to the ranch. Today, for no apparent reason, the green one from Paul’s room was on their bed. Freshly ironed and neatly smoothed out.

Dale took a few steps down the hall to Paul’s room and looked with foreboding at the ochre red quilt spread out over Paul’s bed. Paul had obviously been distracted this morning when he changed the bed linen, and mixed up the two. It was the work of a moment to swap the quilts back to where they should be, and to leave both beds properly made and immaculate.

When he came back to get fresh clothes before dinner, some hours later, he stopped short, shocked to discover that the green quilt was once more back on his and Flynn’s bed. And the red one was back on Paul’s bed.

Dale dressed, shaken and thoroughly annoyed with himself, both at someone undoing what he had done – with all that implied – and still more with trying not to admit just how uncomfortable the wrong colour quilt in the wrong room made him feel.

It was ridiculous. Pathetic. Someone obviously had a reason for wanting the quilts swapped over.

He thought about it for some minutes, an eye on the time and uncomfortably aware that Paul was reading out on the porch and it was almost twenty eight minutes to six, which threatened the time that dinner would be on the table.  As a compromise, Dale opened the linen closet door, glad to be alone upstairs and out of sight to do this, found the other red quilt cover, and swiftly changed the green one for the red. Now the red quilt on Paul’s bed remained untouched, which wasn’t right but was bearable, but at least the quilt in his and Flynn’s room was the right colour. He folded the green one neatly along its ironed creases and put it away, and went downstairs to help with dinner.

The others came upstairs to change after he began to help with dinner; it was impossible to tell who might have done it, but when Dale came upstairs to bed, the green quilt cover was back on his and Flynn’s bed and the removed red one was nowhere to be found.

In desperation, Dale swapped the green quilt with the one from Paul’s room, as quietly as possible, and tried to ignore how very silly this was. Even so he knew, had the green quilt been in here, he would have found it impossible to sleep.

Thankfully no one commented when the others came up to bed.

Banks faxed again on the sixteenth day and the eighth work session, a weary note that suggested to Dale he was fighting a losing battle with corporate lawyers and the FBI’s prosecution department.

Dale, if you can’t do it, no one can and it isn’t there to be found. Tell me when you’ve done all you can, but I need an answer soon.

Dale sat at the desk with a rising sense of tension and a threatening headache and looked through his lists again. He was on hypothesis number 23 as of this morning, and he knew he was reaching increasingly wild heights of supposition.

Just a couple more days, he faxed back to Banks. There’s still a few things left that I can try.

“How are you doing?” Paul said from the doorway as he hit ‘send’. Dale tried not to jump, glanced around and managed a smile that he hoped was more than professionally convincing.

Paul didn’t wait for an answer, putting a cup of tea on the desk and picking up some of the scattered portfolios with careful hands.

“You look a bit rattled honey. Anything I can help with?”

“Not really.” Dale sat back down at the desk, automatically helping Paul to tidy up. “I just need to-”

“Do better.” Paul said wryly. “You know where that kind of thinking gets you? We’re not short of corners in this house.”

Dale did smile then, running his hands through his hair.

“Yes, I know. You know if this is a con then it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

“Which makes it more of a challenge to beat?” Paul ran his hand gently through Dale’s hair himself, an echo of Dale’s own gesture but with much gentler fingers that lingered and comforted. “Why don’t you come downstairs and talk to me for ten minutes? Come back to this with a clear head.”

“I’d rather get on and get it done, thanks.” Dale pulled the portfolios back towards him and picked up a pencil. “There still are things I can try.”

“If there’s no fun in the doing, what’s the point in getting it done?”

“Like you said, it’s a challenge in itself now. There is an answer to it, I am going to find it.”

“Ever read any Sherlock Holmes stories?” Paul asked, apparently apropos of nothing. Dale blinked at him, startled.


“I’ll find you a couple, you might find you and he have something in common.” Paul stooped to drop a kiss on his forehead and a rather firm pat on his hip. “Look. Drink that tea and do not drive yourself mad. I’m downstairs if I can help.”

It was such a kind offer, but not a practical one.

As Dale walked out of the kitchen onto the porch after lunch, headed up to the woods to continue work up there, he noticed the plant pots on the porch had been disturbed by something and were out of alignment, and out of their usual order. Possibly Paul had re-potted some of the herbs and had had no time to put them back properly yet. Dale paused to re organise them, setting them back in their usual positions before he took the tool bag up to Mustang Hill. That was the day he noticed himself walking along the fence line on the way up to Mustang Hill, which took him several minutes out of his way but allowed him to touch every post in sequence, just light brushes of his fingers like a kid running a stick along railings. It was utterly ridiculous. Dale stopped it at once, went up the hill and got to work, scolding himself sharply.

It was not quite an hour before he was forced to walk surreptitiously back down the hill and make a very quick patrol along the fence to touch all the posts in sequence before he could let himself go back to work.

Sometime later that afternoon, Flynn, on his way to repair fences in the sheep pasture, paused to watch Paul move the pots on the porch out of their neat line, and rearrange them. The change was slight enough that Riley would have walked past them without a second thought.

“Are you really going to keep this up until he says something?” Flynn asked. Paul glanced up, swapping a thyme with a rosemary bush.

“You leave us alone, we’re playing.”



Riley saw him in the distance late one afternoon as he walked down from the woods out behind the bunkhouse. A dark, slim figure carrying a tool bag, on his way down the long hay pasture below Mustang Hill. He hadn’t yet seen Riley, and Riley paused at the end of the line of paddocks to wait for him. And it was while he was waiting there that he saw Dale walk not towards the open gate by the corral but out of his way down the edge of the hay pasture to the end gate post and then walk along the line of posts, his hand brushing briskly against each post in turn. Two thirds of the way along the line, he suddenly stopped and Riley saw his frown and hesitation as though something had happened, as though something was wrong. Dale glanced quickly around him, then turned on his heel and walked back to the beginning of the line of posts, put his hand up and began to walk again.

It was such a Dale-like gesture, precise and understated, and yet it was such an odd thing for him to do that Riley watched him initially in surprise, and then, as he realised, with icy concern. He went into the yard quickly, before Dale saw him, checking swiftly and surreptitiously to see who else was around. Thankfully Gucci and Leo were both gone from the corral, Flynn and Jasper were well out of sight of the ranch buildings, and there was no sign of Paul in the kitchen where he might look out of a window or walk out onto the porch.

Riley put his own tools away and waited inside the shed  with his arms folded and one boot scuffing at the earth floor until Dale came in, bag open to put the tools away, looking so totally – totally – normal, that Riley could have shaken him.

“What were you doing?”

Dale stopped, looking bewildered. Riley gave him a push further inside, shutting the door to ensure no one took them by surprise.

“The fence posts, I was watching. What were you doing?”

He’d never seen Dale flush so hard or so darkly; it said everything. Riley yanked the tool bag out of Dale’s hand, dropping it down beside his.

“I knew it. It’s the A.N.Z. project, isn’t it? What’s gone wrong?”

“Nothing has.”

.” Riley said emphatically. “And you’re talking to me, the master of avoidant bullshit, so you might as well quit right now.”

Dale shook his head, trying to recover his self possession and his normal colour.

“Really. Nothing’s wrong.”

It wasn’t true. Standing close in the little, dusty and equipment-crowded shed Riley gave him a long look and knew it wasn’t true.

“I haven’t seen you obsess like that for months. I know you were wound up at breakfast the other day and Paul keeps on about you not eating much but you’ve seemed fine, we thought you were doing ok with this!”

That was perversely satisfying. Dale leaned back against the work bench, making his body language reassuringly casual and trying to talk lightly.

“I am ok with it. Jerry Banks just faxed me a couple of times, the FBI’s leaning on him for an answer to be able to talk to their prosecutors.”

Heavy pressure; Riley well understood it. He studied Dale, increasingly disturbed.

“Did you tell Flynn?”

Dale shook his head and Riley looked skywards.

“Oh God. Hello?”

“It isn’t that bad.”

“Not that bad?” Riley demanded. “I just watched you counting fence posts! You only do stuff like this when you’re spinning out and that didn’t look to me like the first time. How badly are you snowing us? Flynn’s been all over you for two weeks, Paul’s here every time you work-”

And Flynn especially was usually very good at seeing through Dale’s Everything Is Just Lovely act. It was as worrying to know they’d missed it as it was to look at Dale and know, for sure, he was in trouble. And it wasn’t deliberate. Riley, who had seen plenty of other brats cover up crisis, and done no little of it himself over the years, knew how Dale worked and how tangled up he could get himself. Not wanting to let them down was embrangled in pride and in panic and loyalty to Jerry Banks and a maze of legal complications and figures Riley could only make  vague guesses at, having taken a brief glance through the boxes of print out and meaningless spread sheets that made perfect sense to Dale. He was looking distraught now, and trying very hard not to.

“I’m not – I didn’t intend to snow anyone.”

He probably had a limited understanding of what that even meant. Riley sighed and resisted the urge to shake him.

“We’re going to have to tell the others. Paul’s the easiest to come clean to, and he’ll help us talk to-”

“I don’t need to say anything, it’s only stress compulsions.” Dale said firmly. “In another day or two I’ll have the answer and that’ll be the end of the project, and I’ll handle the next one better.”

In Riley’s experience, whenever he’d seen Dale this compulsive, an explosion had followed shortly afterwards.

“Balls.” he said fairly gently. “I’m sorry, but it is.”

Dale shook his head. “I’m not snowing anyone. I’m doing this exactly within the limits I’ve been asked to stay inside.”

“And getting so wound up you’re counting fence posts?” Riley demanded. “You think that’s staying inside limits? You think the others would be fine with it?”

“I’m not counting fence posts,” Dale said before he could stop himself, and mentally bit his tongue, really not wanting to explain any further. It was irrational, it was stupid, and it was somehow horribly and utterly irresistible. Apart from a lift in a skyscraper in Dallas where a need to touch lift buttons in certain sequences had caused him a few weeks of problems and manoeuvres to ensure he was always alone in the lift, he’d never had one get this out of control, and it was - unsettling. And while it touched him that in his worst troubles Riley’s instinct was to run straight to Paul or Flynn or Jasper without a second thought for what he confided, it was better right now that they should stay safely ignorant of this mess.

There were certain tones that worked well on brats; Dale had heard it on this ranch from a number of Tops and understood it, as he knew exactly what it did to him. Under pressure, he organised himself to replicate one of  those tones now; a calm, together tone with authority behind it, that he knew would both distract and stop Riley pushing any further.

“It’s going to be maybe two more days, there isn’t much more I can try and Jerry’s pushing for an answer.  You said yourself that Flynn and Paul are watching very closely so nothing can go wrong, and it’s only a few hours every other day. This is nothing like the kind of mess I got into before I came here, I won’t let that happen again. Don’t worry.”

“I can’t help it.” Riley said darkly, but the tone had helped, both he and Riley were hard wired to respond to people who spoke like that, and Dale could see him starting to ease off.

“I’m doing all right.” Dale reassured him. “The obsessing will stop as soon as I find the evidence I’m looking for, I’ve done years of this. I can solve this project, I will crack it. It will be fine.”

Riley looked at him for another long moment, then hit his shoulder, relatively gently.

“You’re hard work for such a model brat. Ok, all right, I won’t say anything. I suppose it’s your ass you’re risking, but for pete’s sake, will you please watch it.”

“I will.” Dale promised him sincerely.

Riley left him still putting away his tools and walked up the porch steps to where Paul was now sitting on the swing, shelling peas. He put up a hand to cover Riley’s when Riley leaned over his shoulders to wrap both arms around his neck, then after a minute when Riley didn’t let go, he twisted around to see his face.

“Hey sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing.” Riley put a hand down to steal a pea pod from the tureen on Paul’s lap and kissed his cheek, giving him another, tighter hug. “Just tired I guess. Long day.”


Watch it.

Dale spent a lot of that night, looking at the ceiling and wrestling with the figures, Riley’s warning going around and around in his head.

This had always been such an easy house to sleep in, since the first day he’d come here. Flynn had a habit of making him turn in early and get a minimum eight to nine hours a night, good sound sleep, and he’d forgotten what this drained, half drunk feeling was like. He’d never before had to lay in this house with the need to work still pounding at the back of his head. Before he came here, he’d always stayed up and worked until the point where he couldn’t stop his eyes closing and he was forced to lie down for three or four hours sleep, enough to get up and get going again.

It was a sleep debt which made you start hallucinating in New York, you utter fool.

Three inches away, Flynn was asleep. Sleeping peacefully. He wouldn’t resent for a second being woken, he’d be calm, understanding, rational –

And then he’ll know that you can’t do it. It’s the first project Aden, you can handle this. You’re just not trying hard enough.  

Dale shut his eyes and turned his head into his arms, trying to school himself to sleep. Tomorrow would go better. The answer was there to be found and finding it would solve this entire mess.  


“Did you not sleep much last night?”

That was not a fair question to ask when you barely had your eyes open. Dale rolled over and blinked at Flynn, who was damp from the shower and mostly dressed. He vaguely remembered saying hello a few minutes ago – according to his watch, about twenty minutes ago. And he’d obviously just fallen straight back to sleep.


Flynn pulled his shirt over his head and sat down on the edge of the bed, giving him a hard look.

“You’re usually awake before I am. Trouble falling asleep?”

“Yes, a bit.” Dale said with as much conviction as he could muster, feeling horrible for doing it. The confession was very hard to make, and it came out slowly. Muttered.  

“.....I’m running out of options on the project.”

Flynn didn’t say anything for a minute, then put a hand up to Dale’s face, smoothing his hair back from his forehead.

“You win some, you lose some. You’ll have given it your best shot, I know you. If it’s time to tell Banks it can’t be solved, then we’ll handle it and it will be ok.”

No it won’t, because it is solvable. I should be able to do this, it’s ridiculous that I haven’t done it yet.

Flynn stooped and kissed him, deeply and firmly, pulling the covers up.

“Go back to sleep, kid. You look like you need it this morning. I’ll let you know when you can get up.”

It was a Sunday, not that they often took that much notice of the days of the week. It was still a day when stock had to be looked over, when work had to be done, although they tried to do only the essentials and to have a longer and lazier afternoon and evening. Dale had no difficulty falling back to sleep; his eyes shut almost as soon as Flynn left, and it was past eleven when Flynn finally came back upstairs and told him he could dress and get up.

Thankfully there was no sign of Paul in the kitchen when Dale went downstairs, and no sign of anyone else who might mention unkind words like ‘breakfast’. Nauseous, stomach sore, Dale went through the kitchen as fast as possible and pulled his boots on, going out into the yard. Jasper was kneeling over a large, shiny chainsaw on the ground in the open doorway of the barn and he glanced up and smiled when Dale came to join him.

“Hey. I heard you had a bad night.”

“Just lost a bit of sleep.” Dale said as cheerfully as possible. “What’s gone wrong?”

“It’s one of the power saws and I think the motor’s burned out.” Jasper picked up the rag from the tools beside him and wiped the oil off his hands. “Right when we need it. I’ll take it into Jackson tomorrow and pick up another one if this one’s shot beyond repair.”

“Can I have a try?” Dale asked rather tentatively. Mechanics were something relatively new to him, but he’d had some success with a hay rower, a clock and an uncooperative radio, and there was a mathematical logic to most small part mechanical items that he related to. Jasper willingly moved over, letting him sit down on the barn floor next to the open small tool box, and after several minutes of watching Dale survey and start to unfasten the innards of the motor, got up and dropped a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll leave you to it. Don’t take the sheath off the blade or try starting it up unless someone’s with you, that thing’s powerful when it works.”

It was some time later when Riley passed the barn, whistling, and paused at the sight of Dale bent over the innards of the saw. Riley was about to go to the doorway and chat, glad to see him up and the power saw possibly fixed- Dale seemed to have a genius for turning around most machines – and then he saw Dale take out the piece he had just placed, lay it on the ground, and then remove every other piece of the machinery, laying each item in careful order and neat rows until the cavity was completely empty. And then he rebuilt it, swiftly and perfectly. And then once more he took the whole thing apart, laying each piece out in the same order on the floor. And then he ran an oiled hand over his forehead, looking at the saw with such loathing that Riley’s heart turned over.

He moved silently, stepping out of sight behind the door as Dale got up, taking a few paces in the barn, and stood, breathing. And then knelt down, once more beginning to reconstruct the saw.

Riley moved silently past the barn entrance and knew Dale didn’t see him. Right now he wasn’t seeing much at all.

Paul was up in his office, head over his laptop, but he looked up and smiled as Riley barged in the half open door. His smile changed instantly at the sight of Riley’s face.

“Dale.” Riley said flatly, “Come look at this.”

He said nothing else, Paul got up and followed him down the porch steps and across the yard to where Riley stopped him, far enough to look through the door without being seen. Paul looked for the several minutes it took, seeing with Riley the sequence run – and run – and the quiet hiss of frustration from Dale before he began all over again. Riley was stiff with distress beside him and Paul put his hands on Riley’s shoulders, squeezing them comfortingly.

“Go tell Flynn to come here, honey. You don’t have to explain, just tell him I want him.”

Flynn and Jasper were working together in the corral, replacing one of the rails which would not stand up to another winter without rotting through. It was a heavy job, they’d just removed the old rail and it crashed to the ground just as Riley reached the corral. Jasper looked up first. Riley saw his face change as they looked at each other, then Jasper ducked fluidly through the gap in the rails.


“Paul wants you.” Riley said helplessly. “He’s in the yard.”

They ran. It was awful just seeing that they ran, in the way they only did when someone was hurt or something had seriously gone wrong. Paul put up a hand to stop them before they got too close, and they slowed down, came quietly to stand with him. Riley stayed where he was, aware that in the barn Dale hurled something to the floor that clattered softly and ducked his head on his arms for a moment, unaware of them watching him. And then picked the item up once more and went doggedly back to work, undoing what he’d just placed and laying the pieces out again in that same sequence. Paul, Jasper and Flynn stood there for what felt like forever, then Flynn pushed gently past Paul’s arm and went into the barn, and Riley headed around the corner of the house and out of sight to the far side of the corral where he couldn’t hear or see what happened.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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It's funny how life turns out

The odds of faith in the face of doubt

Camera one closes in

The soundtrack starts

The scene begins.

You're playing you now.

~Josh Jopling Group