Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 6


And that left two.

It took Dale a while to admit it to himself; confessing and apologising to two more people whose opinions seriously mattered was going to be no less painful an ordeal than talking to Flynn and Paul had already been. And yet it had to be done. This hadn’t been some single act of stupidity, it had been days of purposeful – deceit was not a nice word, but it was uncomfortably accurate. This had been bad, and it affected all four of them, including Jasper and Riley. To avoid facing them was not only cowardly, it was unfair; it was owed to them.

“I want you to lie down for a while,” Paul said when they came downstairs. “You haven’t slept much and you’re still shaky.”

For multiple reasons. Dale took a breath, trying to make sure there was nothing resembling argument or rejection in his voice, and then mentally kicked himself and put his trust in Paul understanding.

“Paul? I’d like to talk to Jas and Riley first. I need to.”

“Yes, you do.” Paul agreed soberly. Dale saw him think for a minute, his dark eyes searching Dale’s face in a way that still made Dale acutely uncomfortable, because Paul saw far too much and would make his decision based on what he saw. It was still difficult to be that vulnerable, even to Paul.

Control freak.

Paul touched his face and let him go.

“Start with Jas. I’d give Riley a little more time if I were you hon.”

It was mid afternoon, and a time that Jasper was often still out on the furthest reaches of the ranch, but this hadn’t been a normal day. Dale, standing in the yard to search, caught sight of Tam, the little brown collie who was most often Jasper’s shadow, chasing falling leaves far up on the edge of the woods by the bunkhouse. He heard the roar of the chainsaw as he got closer, and just inside the woods he found Jasper and Flynn together, chaining a newly cut log to the harness of Petra, one of the massive Clysdales. She whickered at the sight of Dale, it was a heartening welcome, and Dale automatically put a hand up to her nose, slightly ashamed that both Jasper and Flynn looked up and smiled when they saw him. Unconditionally, regardless of whether or not he deserved it.

Flynn clicked to Petra and she walked with him, hauling the log effortlessly over the earth and through the trees towards the bunk house where a stack of cut logs was growing. Jasper walked a little deeper into the woods with the chainsaw to where another marked, dead tree stood, and took a coil of rope from his belt, knotting it around the trunk.

There was nothing unfriendly or accusing about his silence, but there was a quiet kind of steel to Jasper when you knew him well enough, and Dale recognised it. So willing to lift responsibilities from you in some ways, he and Flynn and Paul were bluntly insistent on you taking full responsibility in others. Dale watched Jasper’s now very familiar long hands knotting rope, the stoop of his shoulders, the way the sleek tail of black hair fell over his shoulder while he worked, and if he let it, the words just burst free by themselves. Undignified, unorganised, but sincere.

“Jas, I’m so sorry I let this happen. I know better, I know a lot better, I can’t even explain really why it happened, I just let myself get – sucked into thinking I could handle everything if I tried hard enough, and it would go better if I did it my way. I know that’s no excuse.”

That was as clear as mud but Jasper didn’t argue with it. He took a few steps back and glanced up at the tree, then around the clearing, then crouched and held the chainsaw blade horizontally to the trunk. There was a black line along the barrel of the saw; Dale saw it and realised it was in effect a gun sight, indicating the direction of fall.

“There’s a story my grandfather used to tell me,” Jasper said without looking up. “About a warrior called Lox, whose brother married a woman from the red tribe. Whenever she was touched the red colour rubbed off.”

This was where Riley would start talking about the Great Black Ant, but Jasper’s voice was calm, he told the story as naturally as he spoke.

“And then one day, returning from hunting, the brother saw that Lox had red fingers, and accused him of touching his wife. Lox denied it, so that his brother, who loved him, believed him. The next time his brother returned, Lox's fingers were again red. And again he was accused, and once more he denied it. But as he swore that he was innocent, something on the floor accused: “You lie. I was with you; I helped you." Lox was terrified and thought it was his right foot betraying him. So he cut off the toes, and then the whole foot, but the accusation continued. Thinking that it must be his other foot betraying him, he cut that off too.”

Jasper straightened up and re knotted the rope around the trunk at a higher level, and then started up the chainsaw, slowly and accurately cutting one straight and one angled line half way into the trunk. The cessation of the motor roar made the woods echoingly quiet. Jasper put the chainsaw down, took a small hand axe from his belt and began to work loose the wedge he had cut.

“What happened?” Dale asked, in spite of himself. Jasper pulled the wedge free.

“Lox found it was not just his feet, it was his physical body. The offender in person, testifying against the lying of his soul. So in a rage he struck himself a blow with his war-club that felled him dead. There are multiple interpretations of what the story means.”

“The body isn’t a willing accomplice.” Dale swallowed, well aware his own body tended to part company with what his mind demanded of it. He had a history of an ulcer that was his stomach protesting, and fingers that insisted on tapping, or touching fence posts... Jasper nodded.

“That’s certainly one. The one I was thinking of was that you can only lie to people you love by silencing yourself first, whatever it costs you. When you make a promise to another person, you are making it to yourself. And when you don’t honour your promises, you reflect back what you actually think of yourself, which must be very little, because the integrity in your bond and your word was not valued by you. You can’t give away what you don’t have.”

Jasper gave the tree another critical look and walked around to the side, judging what lay on either side before he placed the saw again, horizontally against the trunk.

“If you can’t be open with or trust yourself, how can you have openness and trust to give to us?”

There was no anger or criticism in his voice, but that hurt, mostly because it was all too true.

“I had no business entering into a relationship when I was in such a mess myself.” Dale said bitterly. “I didn’t even realise how much of a mess.”

“No, that’s nothing more than a cop out and a convenient excuse to stop trying.” Jasper said firmly. 

“’I’m too messed up, I can’t do it’. No one enters into a relationship with a certificate of fitness, Flynn and I certainly didn’t. You’re intelligent, you’re capable, you’re not messed up and you do know what you’re doing, there just isn’t a magic solution here that you can figure out. Like Paul told you at lunchtime, loving people is about trying and being prepared that sometimes it involves hard work. Right now where you need to start is with yourself.”

That was every bit as searing a telling off as he’d had from Flynn and Paul. It hurt. There was no denying it hurt. And yet it was anything but destroying. There was something deeply reassuring about it that took all the miserably gnawing guilt away and added to that peculiarly clean and released feeling that Dale often felt after a spanking. No easy apologies. No politely looking the other way. No doing the adult thing and sweeping it under the carpet as though it had never happened. They challenged it. Hard and thoroughly.

This is what you did wrong. This is why. This is what you need to learn to do instead and this is how we’re going to get there.

“And you know I’m not saying go away and fix yourself.” Jasper said bluntly. “Stand where you are, don’t move.”

The chainsaw roared into life and Jasper cut smoothly, stopping just short of his previous wedge cut in a way that left a hinge. It would stop the butt of the tree plunging forward as it fell; Dale saw it as Jasper came around the tree and pushed, standing clear of the base. It toppled slowly, with the creak of tearing wood, and the crash as it landed was deafening.

“I’m sorry.” Dale said in the hush, sincerely.

“I know you are.” Jasper put the saw down and stretched his shoulders until they cracked. The woodland smelled of sawdust, scorched wood and grass.

“But being sorry isn’t enough. You’ve explained the actions to us that need forgiving and that’s the first step. Now you need to make reparation. Not grand gestures. Just simple, positive action that corrects what you’ve done and shows what you’ve learned from it. Not just to earn being forgiven but for you to be able to accept being forgiven, and know that it isn’t just empty words.”

Jasper took no prisoners. Dale understood what he was asking, and there was both logic and still more comfort in the exacting nature of it.

“I’m not sure what that might be.” he admitted after several minutes thought. “I’m really not.”

“Then you need to think about what you know now that you didn’t know before.” Jasper was taking branches off before he reduced the log into sections, the chainsaw was roaring at much shorter and sporadic intervals.

“I’d like to go find Riley.” Dale said eventually. “That’s the first part.”

Jasper nodded, resting the saw on the trunk to look up. “That’s a good start. Flynn told him to go out for a walk or a ride, he didn’t want him around falling trees in the mood he was in.”

Flynn was coming back up the path with Petra as the saw roared back into life. Dale stepped off the path and walked through the trees, wanting the time to himself to think.

Upsetting Riley was perhaps the worst part of this. He was so naturally understanding, so unconditional, and unlike the other three, when he’d had enough, didn’t take recourse to a paddle.

My God, life was so much easier when I just smiled at people, suggested they went and got a coffee or headed home, and I just sorted out the work for myself!

It was almost like remembering a grown up life, where he’d known what to do, where he’d been competent, sensible, contained, and not held vigorously accountable every time he did something stupid. Certainly where he’d never been walking with care because his butt was sore enough to make the pressure of his jeans seriously uncomfortable.

But it wasn’t grown up. I felt like a kid disguised in a suit, I could solve the puzzles, play the games, work the formulas. I was never happy and I didn’t even realise I wasn’t, and I was always running.  I wouldn’t give one moment I’ve had here to be back there.

In many ways this lifestyle required levels of maturity far above that of the average adult. That was much of what was so hard to learn.

Riley was grooming Mia in the loose box of the stable, and he glanced up when Dale opened the door. Eyes red, face grimly suspicious in a way Dale saw straight through, and seeing Riley with red eyes was impossible to bear. He walked straight around Mia and Riley buried himself in Dale’s arms with a roughness that made Dale seriously wonder for a moment if the hug would be accompanied with a knee in the groin or an elbow in the ribs.

“You suck.” Riley said vehemently in his ear, which was neutralised a great deal by the tightness of his arms around Dale’s neck.

“I know.” Dale said sincerely. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Riley let him go with a brisk swipe across the back of his head and went back to grooming Mia.

“No kidding.”

That was all he said, and Dale realised uncomfortably that right now that was all Riley could say. Flynn, Jasper and Paul would meet him half way – more than half way – and would willingly help in this kind of situation. Riley, when really upset or angry, couldn’t.

His immediate instinct was to go away, remove the source of Riley’s distress. Or to channel Flynn or Paul or Jasper who he’d seen comfort Riley; he knew the tone to use and the words to say so long as Riley stayed within a familiar script – and that was as dishonest as what he’d done in the tool shed yesterday. It was horrible to realise that he really had no idea how to help. In the end he silently helped with the stable work, and Riley let him although he didn’t look up very often.

When they went in to shower and change, Riley kicked off his boots and headed upstairs instead of sharing the downstairs shower as he would usually have done, and Flynn, who was already showered and was drinking tea in the kitchen, put his cup down and came to get hold of Dale, pulling him over and giving him a hug crushing enough that it squashed out a lot of the misery.

“It’s ok, kid. He’s going to be ok and so are we, this is going to get better now.”


What Dale came to refer to as That Bloody Box, played a large part in the next few days. Flynn had a nasty habit of taking the little biofeedback device from his pocket, sitting Dale near him while he worked, and handing it to him with the order to work on getting through level one.

Initially, no matter how long he sat staring at the display and willing his heart rate to settle and the dial to change from red to green, it went right on stubbornly blinking red. A suggestion to Flynn that it might not be working was shattered by Flynn taking it from him, placing his thumb over the dial and rapidly demonstrating that the light did turn green for someone with a competent heart rate.

“So why won’t it do it for me?” Dale demanded when Flynn handed it back.

“Because you’re not concentrating on calming down.” Flynn sat down on the grass beside him and pushed him down flat on his back, resting a hand on his stomach.

“Breathe so you move my hand. Deeper. No, that’s your chest moving. Make my hand move.”

It took several minutes to get the trick of it, it felt strange. And annoyingly after several repetitions, That Bloody Box bleeped approval and the light went green.

“There.” Flynn said, patting where his hand rested and getting up to go on repairing the wire fence. “Now keep it green for five minutes.”

“You’re supposed to be anti electronic equipment,” Dale protested, “This might as well be a computer game!”

“You can do it outside, with me, and it’s making you concentrate. I defy you to think about anything stressful and keep the green light on.” Flynn said without looking round. “ Apart from which, you’re grounded and I can think of all sorts of interesting ways to fill your time.”

“You’re a goldmine of strategies for torturing executives.” Dale said darkly. Flynn gave him a brief grin and went on repairing the wire.

‘Grounded’, so Dale understood from previous conversations with Riley, Gerry and several other brat members of this extended family, was supposed to hold all kinds of negative connotations. One connotation Flynn had made very clear was that work was a privilege granted only to non grounded people, and initially that was hard to accept – but in many other ways Dale found it quite peaceful. These were familiar strategies, he knew them, and they held the comfort of familiarity and the reassurance that they had worked before. Not to punish but to re orient, to calm jangled nerves, to bring reality back into sharp focus.

There was a lot of time spent facing corners, which to Dale wasn’t a huge problem. For some reason it made things seem calm. Orderly. There was also a lot of time spent sitting watching Flynn or Jasper or Paul work inside and outside the ranch house, which involved hours with nothing to do but talk with them, which was no kind of chore. Dale wondered at times why he’d seen that as so difficult only a few months ago. Harder was the time Flynn insisted he spent writing in the journal that Dale had started filling out back in the summer. Not the short essays Flynn had used to get him talking to them in the summer evenings, but this time several long, painful essays explaining exactly what had led to the breakdown in New York, and exactly what led to the trouble he was in right now. And Flynn phrased it in exactly those blunt, undignified terms. Once the essays were written, Flynn looked them over with him and made him understand the language he’d used and the judgements those words made, and then made him deliberately re write them with a more sympathetic view point – and re write them. And re write them.

That was a serious act of discipline. Dale schooled himself to do it, fighting down the exasperation and the stubborn part of him that insisted there was nothing positive whatever about what had happened, and that writing lies and excuses about himself did nothing to change the facts. But Flynn generally had good reasons for what he asked, and Dale shut his teeth and did it. Over. And over. And over. And it was impossible to do those on autopilot, there was far too much emotion involved.

He was being sent to bed ridiculously early – really ridiculously early, which was apparently another aspect of grounding he had previously been unfamiliar with – and Paul and Flynn were both growling in unison if he ate a mouthful less than they served him at mealtimes..

“He’s nuts.” Riley complained on several occasions to the others. “I’d be chewing people’s ankles by now. You’re not supposed to be all calm and thankful about it when you’re grounded, that’s just plain wrong.”

“Shut up and don’t confuse him.” Paul said firmly. “If it helps then good, that’s the whole idea.”

“If he was permanently grounded we’d probably be fine.” Riley muttered. 

“Be careful what you joke about. The next work project he starts, life will look a lot like this.” Flynn informed him.  Riley snorted.

“When Gerry and Darce come here for Christmas we’re doing some serious brat re education with him.”

“Darcy isn’t a brat.” Paul reminded, and Riley shook his head.

“Tell that to someone who believes you.”

The compulsions began to reduce almost overnight – if Dale was honest, from the moment of locking the study door. Security guards arrived within 24 hours to remove the papers and that was hard to watch, but it wasn’t his decision, there was no responsibility in it, and when he accepted giving up the control he knew he gave up a lot of the pressure with it. The papers left because that was Flynn’s decision; not because he chose to give up. As soon as the chopper lifted and headed back towards Cheyenne, the office was just the office again.

The guilt of letting the project go unsolved was harder, and while the compulsions reduced, Dale was painfully aware that they didn’t stop. Several times, Jasper took Dale with him in the warmth of the late afternoon to fish or to swim in the river within sight of the fence in the distance. Every day Flynn walked with Dale up the hill to the edge of the wood and back down again past the fence, initially too fast to think much and with Dale’s entire attention on being hand in hand with Flynn. To walk past without touching the posts was hard, and the anxiety afterwards was hard, but Flynn and the others helped. They distracted, they kept him occupied, helped him survive without going back to the meaningless reassurance of touching each wooden post.  And each day Flynn made them take it a little slower, to stand near it a little longer, until Dale began to be able to approach it without feeling his stomach clench.

“Why does he do it?” Riley asked on the first night after Dale had been sent upstairs to bed. “I don’t get it. He’s so frickin’ logical and together and then he counts fricking fence posts.”

And Riley was doing his best to understand. He was far from his usual self, by turns grouchy and withdrawn, torn between wanting their comfort and at some level being angry with them for oppressing Dale. He was curled up on the window seat tonight, which was never a good sign, shuffling a pack of cards between his hands.

“It probably doesn’t help to look for logic in it halfpint, there won’t be any.” Flynn said gently. “Doing things very precisely and repetitively is about reducing anxiety, it’s about trying to have some feeling of control. If you’re compulsive, then when you do those actions you feel better, it’s calming.”

“So it’s addictive.”

“Exactly.” Flynn held out a hand, and after a minute of Riley pretending not to see, Flynn got up and towed him off the window seat and over to the armchair, sitting down and pulling Riley down on top of him.

“Like any addiction, it builds up. The compulsion feeds the anxiety so you have to do the action for longer and longer to try and find that calm, finished feeling.”

“Finished how.” Riley curled up against him, still flipping the cards from one hand to the other.

“Think about brushing your teeth, or your hair. You just know for yourself when you’ve done it enough, you feel right about it and you can stop. Dale doesn’t have a whole lot of trust in himself to get things right just now, so he can’t find that finished point where he feels right or done, and he just has to go on. And on.”

“Like with the saw.”

“Like with the saw. I’d guess he couldn’t shake the feeling he missed something or got it wrong, and had to check one more time.”

“It’s displacement, isn’t it? Everything with him is fricking displacement.”

Flynn heard the warning tone of exasperation in his voice but put his hand up too late. Riley flicked the cards out and they scattered all over the floor, spreading far and wide. Flynn turned Riley over on his lap and dealt a solid swat to the seat of his jeans.

“Now pick those up.”

“No.” Riley said flatly.

Flynn put him on his feet with another, still solider swat, and Riley scowled but began to gather up the cards.

Riley’s mood rumbled on for several days. At times Dale had the slightly crazed feeling that Jasper, Flynn and Paul were living in a state of denial; his own occasional fits of guilt or doubt and Riley’s silences and growling were met by three men radiating an immoveable wall of insistence that things were fine, that they were fine, that this was not a cause for alarm. Except that Riley didn’t seem to be able to agree to go to bed until he’d been swatted and threatened with worse; Dale heard the altercations downstairs several nights in a row and Riley tended to storm upstairs when he was angry. Asking him to do chores resulted in arguments of an intensity out of all proportion to the request, and took up far more time and unpleasantness than simply doing the task would have taken. On no few occasions in the first few days Dale occupied one corner in the kitchen with Riley huffing and fidgeting in another, and twice to Dale’s knowledge he had his mouth soaped out. And he knew Riley was spending no little amount of time too buried against Paul on the couch at intervals through the evening, or fidgeting around the room until Jasper pulled him down to sit at his feet, or Flynn got fed up with his restlessness and yanked Riley onto his lap. Flynn was growling a lot at Riley but the growls were equally accompanied by rough, silent hugs that Riley seemed willing to accept no matter how bad his mood at the time.

“This is all my fault,” Dale said bleakly to Paul after Jasper intervened in Riley’s refusal to fold laundry and sent him out into the home pasture with orders not to return until he was done ranting.

“No it’s not.” Paul said calmly, leaving the laundry where Riley had dumped it, taking Dale with him out of the laundry room and shutting the door on it. “You’re not responsible for how Riley chooses to act. Honey, he never stays mad long, just let him blow himself out.”

Ri’s got as hot a temper as Flynn, he always has done. 

Gerry wrote reassuringly in reply and in green biro for some reason, and his letter arrived surprisingly quickly in reply to Dale’s.

I hate it too when people are mad at me or stomping around, just be glad there’s no one else in residence doing it too, I’ve been there when there’s three or four of us at it because one started it and pissed off the rest of us. No offense, but if I was Riley I’d be mad too. I’ve only got Ash as a frame of reference, but I can’t stand anyone lying to Ash or doing anything that makes him question himself, that drives me crazy because I don’t think anyone should treat him like that, ever. And I’ve been mad at him for missing stuff with me that I thought he should have seen – or rather that I wanted him to see and understand, even if he would have needed a crystal ball to get what I was hinting at. Very unfair but sometimes it feels like that.
I don’t know how I’d feel if Ash lied to me, I can’t imagine it, but I think I’d be pretty angry with myself for being fooled, and then if someone else tried grounding Ash and I thought they were making him unhappy – I swear, it would involve teeth and claws at dawn. I know it’s different for you five, but you’ve got some pretty complicated dynamics going on, and I can guess right now Riley can’t figure out who to be mad with and who to defend.
I’m glad you explained why the snail mail, I’d have wondered otherwise. Just checking; you did get permission to write me? Not that it’s a huge deal or anything but you sound seriously grounded and Ash gets grouchy if I help people dig themselves in deeper than they were to start with.

 Yes, that was at least one thing Dale had thought of first; he’d asked Paul for permission and for the address and Paul had gladly supplied him with both without question.

Ash kind of keeps an eye on my correspondence ever since I got into a major swearing match with this guy from the insurance company, which started out in email and then went to threats by post about legal action which I kind of didn’t tell Ash about until I got a summons. That took weeks to sort out, so you see you’re not the only one? Paul wrote and told us about Ri hiding the mustang mare in the stable, and you ask Bear to tell you the story about the polar bear. It’s normal territory. Sometimes it’s just too tempting to shut up, hide it and muddle through and hope for the best.  
I haven’t been up on Mustang Hill – I know it from a distance but sit? In the woods? With Bugs everywhere? Ash keeps saying it would be good for me to go camping and I keep saying he can go camping any time he likes, I’ll hold his coat and he can find me in the nearest hotel. And he can shower twice before he comes anywhere near me.
Hang in there sweetie, the early days are hard but  you do come out the other side and in a day or two you’ll forget things ever looked this bad

That’s it in a nutshell, Dale wrote back, when you say ‘looking this bad’. When I work,  or to be honest when I do anything that takes serious thought, it’s like seeing things through a microscope while you turn up the intensity. First you see the object. Then you see cells, and there’s a lot more of them, and then the cells break down into atoms and there’s millions of them – and I’m fascinated with how much there is and all the patterns I’m keeping track of. The trouble is once I get overwhelmed there’s so much of it. It breaks down into more and more possibilities and insights and things to sort out, and it’s a level of detail too deep to function in.  Paul won’t discuss it or let me break it down when I explain and says we’re not making it complicated, I need to stop and that’s the end of it. In his head it stays just a piece of wood. My point is that he hangs onto the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll feel differently, I’ll see things differently and it’ll go better, where as I feel like I’m stuck in feeling the way I feel right that minute and unless I can do something drastic to fix it I’ll never feel any different.
He and Jas and Paul have been very understanding, but it’s like no matter how complicated I can make it, the line’s very simple and it’s still there. There’s no negotiation, it’s just there like a brick wall. That makes life so much easier. Riley copes a lot better with negotiation than I do, but then he has a much better grip on where those lines are. He gets more warnings than I do, he gets swatted or soaped a lot more often, but I get spanked more than he does. I need the clarity. And sometimes talking is too complicated, I can play too well with words.  
There was an acute sense of self consciousness in writing those bizarre words ‘I get spanked more than he does’, despite knowing Gerry understood.  

Particularly at the moment.

Dale hadn’t mentioned it to Riley, Jasper or Paul – although he wouldn’t have placed a bet they were unaware of it – but since the day he took apart the chainsaw in the barn, Flynn had developed an uncomfortable habit of coming upstairs with Dale when it was bedtime, and sitting waiting on the edge of their bed while he got ready.

It was at times like this that Dale found himself acutely aware that Flynn was a big man. Broad shouldered, long limbed, and in shirt and jeans sitting patiently on the edge of the bed, he seemed as solid and stable as a rock, and him being there, waiting, made Dale’s stomach flutter the whole time he undressed, knowing what was coming. And once Dale was ready for bed Flynn simply leaned over to take his hand and turned him over his jeaned knee. It was a very conflicted experience, to be body to body warm against Flynn’s familiar one, and very different to what Dale associated with punishment, but Flynn still slipped his shorts down, the weight and warmth of his right hand resting on Dale’s butt while Flynn’s left arm was heavy across his back.

The brief chat they had in this position took in Dale’s day, but covered any compulsions, what they were and when they happened; anything that Dale had on his mind – and the mild question ‘anything worrying you?’ took on a whole new meaning. Just lying in this position, bare, with Flynn emphasising what he said by pats of his hand where it rested, or a brisk and solid swat if he didn’t appreciate Dale’s response, tended to clear Dale's head in one rush like an extra strength mint. Priorities re shifted themselves on the spot. It took all of the choice out of talking and made it very clear who made the decisions; it was a position that had strong associations, which strongly reaffirmed his and Flynn’s roles in his mind, and it always ended with a dozen or so swats that while they weren’t hard, were very definitely meaningful and left him warm, breathless and smarting when Flynn was done and kissed him goodnight. And feeling safe, loved and with a clear conscience, like a clock being re set. Annoyingly, he slept like a log afterwards.


The plant pots were out of line again on the porch.

Parked on the porch steps and supposedly having another attempt at keeping That Bloody Box’s light green for five minutes in a row while Jasper fed the horses in the corral, Dale gave the pots another sideways look. He continued to put them back in line whenever he passed, like he straightened the picture on the stairs each time he passed it and found it crooked. It was silly, but it grated on him like fingers down a blackboard. Laying the journal down, he got up and put them back as they ought to be, brushing the dropped soil from the pots off the wooden floorboards.

He still had no idea of what to do that Jasper would consider as corrective action, although he’d given it a lot of thought, and raised it with Flynn once or twice. Flynn was reassuring that it wasn’t something he needed to come up with instantly or to worry about, and he was a sympathetic sounding board, but he sure wasn’t giving the answers away, and Dale suspected that the idea was that he work it out for himself. Jasper had said nothing at all about it, he wouldn’t harass but he would expect.

That Bloody Box bleeped as its light went red and Dale sighed and yanked his mind back into neutral. It still took a lot of concentration to get that wretched light to go green. Then on impulse and still thinking of Jasper across the yard, he slid down the last two porch steps and sat instead on the impacted red earth of the yard, crossing his legs under him. There was something about sitting on the earth. It was chilled this early in the morning, hard and cold beneath him, and Dale put his free hand down on the ground, putting his back to the porch step and putting his thumb back on the dial. His breath was steaming slightly in front of him, and it was quiet, the birds were quieter now the sun was up later, and apart from the occasional huff and snort of the horses there was nothing to hear. There was the occasional chink of china from the kitchen where Paul was washing up. And it was so amazingly peaceful here. Dale tipped his head back to look at the sky, the clouds clearing from the blue, and thought of Jasper.  

...........Sit down. Right down. Get comfortable. The earth is the root of everything – all life. Even things that fly finally come back to earth, and turn back to earth. We stand on it, we build on it, we make from it. Touching it is strengthening. Healing.

Now close your eyes. Think about your energy. You radiate energy out all around you. Think of yourself, the shape of yourself, feel the borders of the top of your head, your arms, and then let your awareness move out past those borders.

Dale shut his eyes and found himself falling into way of breathing Flynn had taught him. Deeply, each breath right down inside him which took time, was a slow process. He was faintly aware of his shoulders relaxing down, the muscles in his jaw relaxing down, of breathing cool air and the mist from the grass and the familiar smell of the hay from the open barn, the horses. And that sensation came again as if he’d lifted his eyes, looked up, as though suddenly the top of his head was filled with space and the strain in the muscles of his eyes relaxed and went away. It was like floating, it was a deeply pleasant sensation and it was stronger this time than the previous two occasions he’d tried.

He was startled by the bleep of the box, opened his eyes and looked down to discover that apparently level one was complete.

Flynn had taken Riley – forcibly, despite his growling – out with him this morning, heading for the tops up beyond the hay pastures to check the fences, as they would shortly move the horses back up to their winter grazing up on the range there. It would be a long ride, and Dale thought privately that Flynn thought it would do Riley good – both the riding and the time away from the house. Dale got up and took the box to Jasper who was shutting the gate of the corral, and looked up at him with a smile.

“You did it?”

Dale handed the box over and Jasper gave him a close, one armed hug.

“Well done!”

“Now can we lose it before I have to work out level 2?” Dale asked wryly. Jasper grinned and pocketed it.

“You can go get your journal, it’s on the swing. Flynn said he left you a writing assignment.”

Oh joy.

Dale started to head back towards the porch automatically – he’d been trying in all seriousness to commit himself to do and learn from the wretched pieces of writing Flynn thought were so important even if they seemed nothing more than annoying. And then hesitated. Jasper paused too, waiting.


“Mustang Hill.” It was to do with that sensation of lifting his eyes. He was still feeling the space of sitting and breathing, it was still calming, easy, and it made him think both of being up on the hill the last time he’d been in the clearing, and of Jasper in the woods.

Corrective action. What have you learned? To try opening your mouth once in a while and taking a risk.  

“Yes?” Jasper said mildly, latching the gate.

Dale took another slow breath, trying to remember what happened up there.

“The last time I went up there? To the clearing? I tried – being receptive, like you showed me?”

“Mmn?” Jasper said gently when he didn’t continue.

This was going to sound insane. But Jasper wouldn’t call him crazy or do anything alarming.

“.....something happened. In what I felt? It was like a gale blowing, but just in that one part of the woods, and I ......... heard some unusual sounds. Like something was going past me.”

Jasper nodded slowly, still watching him.

“Is that the only time you’ve felt it?”

Dale nodded slightly. “Only in that clearing.”

“How about we walk up there and take a look?”

Walking past the fence was getting to be normal again. Jasper still put a hand down and his long fingers wound through Dale’s as they walked up the hay pasture. Dale gave him a brief and grateful look and Jasper squeezed his hand.

“It’s getting better?”

“It’s so stupid. It’s only a fence.”

“It’s neurological, you don’t do it by choice.”  

“I do.” Dale said wryly. “I can stop myself getting that stressed, that controls it pretty well.”

Jasper nodded slowly, holding his pace down to a slow walk. “It does. But it’s going to happen sometimes and that’s ok, we can handle it.”

We. That had just sounded nice, kind and inclusive a few days ago. Now Dale was starting to understand what it meant, and there was a strength behind it that gave a lot of security because it wasn’t optional. It wasn’t up to him to ask for it; it was there all the time and heaven help him if he forgot it.

Take the choice away and you’re fine, you fool. As soon as you can’t politely opt out because that’s what nice, independent men are supposed to do -

“I thought the obsessing maybe was the reason for what happened in the clearing?” Dale admitted as they approached the beginning of the woods. “You said about bad energy – I must have been walking around stuffed with it. Maybe that was why I imagined things – or interpreted normal things as threatening?”

“It felt threatening?”

Oh yes.

“.......... I suppose so.”

“It’s an unusual place.” Jasper led the way onto the path through the woods and followed it up towards the clearing. “You know you do good work? This was a jungle the last time I came up here.”

“It would be a lot better if I could come up here and finish the job.” Dale said sardonically and Jasper squeezed his hand again.

“Just take the compliment, don’t fend it off. You do good work.”

The undergrowth  stopped abruptly where the clearing began, and the roughly circular stretch of bare earth opened to the sky, the tree canopy breaking overhead. There was nothing strange there at all. Jasper kept hold of Dale’s hand, crouching down to look at the rocks where the horse drawings were etched.

“This was where you were when it happened?”

It seemed silly now. The clearing was just quiet. Peaceful. With the cathedral sense of light  through the trees.

“I just sat here.” Dale said awkwardly. “And tried to, er, relax I suppose, the way you showed me – to be open. In a receptive state of mind.”

“And then it hit you.” Jasper tugged gently on Dale’s hand. “Shall we try it again?”

No thank you?

And that’s what you keep on saying, Aden. Trust. He knows what he’s doing, he isn’t laughing at you, he won’t let anything happen to you, and he’s right; until you do this again you won’t stop being freaked out by it.

Dale swallowed and deliberately crossed his ankles, sitting down on the earth, and Jasper sat down beside him, also crossing his legs. That was just too inane. Far too new agey and earnest. Dale shook his head and turned both hands  up on his knees, pressing his thumbs and middle fingers together.


Jasper grinned and swatted his leg and Dale laughed.

“Look, I’m not hugging any trees. I don’t think this is worth taking seriously? It was stupid, I probably imagined it.”

“Stop distancing yourself, it doesn’t matter if you did. Take a breath,” Jasper said, settling to get comfortable, “Hold it, and then let it go and let every muscle drop loose.”

Jasper did it himself, Dale saw him relax down, his hands loose on his lap, and mostly out of respect for Jasper, swallowing down the urge to suggest they checked for pixies and unicorns while they were out here, he self consciously did the same. Drew in a breath, let it go – and yes, that was an easy step to relaxing down – and then took the slow, steady breaths with that feeling of looking up.

If nothing else, it did feel good. Physically and mentally, to be here, with Jasper, in this beautiful place, doing this with him. Confiding in him and being listened to. And it felt safe again.

What do you expect when you wander around woods alone when you’re obsessing and unbalanced, Aden? It was just another clear sign you needed to be talking, doing something about it.

It isn’t until you feel this good, you even realise you felt that bad.

“It was only my imagination anything happened at all.” he said aloud.

“We’re in no hurry.”

Dale’s fingers were tingling where they rested on his knees. Dale shook them out, and hugged his knees, not happy with the confession but wanting to say it.

“If I’m honest, it was probably the first warning sign I was starting to crack. I hallucinated in New York, remember?”

“And the children down by the river?” Jasper said without opening his eyes. “David? You hallucinated those too?”

“.......Imagined, maybe. Maybe my imagination goes over to the dark side when I’m wound up, I don’t know.”

Jasper had his face turned up to the sun, eyes closed. Dale lay back and stretched out on the earth, looking up at the blue sky above. The trees were barely moving, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The tingling in his fingertips was still there and he felt something crackle around his head as if static electricity was building in his hair. And then suddenly without warning a wave of nausea rocked his stomach so strongly that he tasted bile at the back of his throat, and his hands were burning, not tingling. His face was radiating heat – an awful, numb heat, and he couldn’t swallow or move or speak or do anything to call to Jasper just a few feet away. His throat was burning. His nostrils were burning. For a few terrible seconds he struggled in panic, unable to draw breath, and choking smoke was everywhere – scorching his lungs and his eyes. Then the ground started to shake.

Dale had been in an earthquake once, in California, and had heard the low growling rumble and felt the tremors. Now the ground was shuddering under him, he could hear the same low growl, but the trees were still all around the edge of the clearing, the rocks were juddering but not jumping on the ground, only he and Jasper were vibrating as they clutched at the earth for support. And then the wind rushed across the clearing like a tidal wave and slammed them both to the ground.

Dust blasted across them and for a moment Dale had to fling an arm over his eyes. He felt Jasper’s hand close on his arm in an iron grip, yank him across the earth, and a second later Jasper’s longer body rolled over the top of his and held him down, his own head and arm sheltering Dale’s head. Leaves and dust were battering them both and the acrid smell of smoke was overpowering. There were strange sounds in the roar of the wind and the growling rumble. Birds screamed. Something snarled. And something else was starting to appear, moving around the edge of the clearing. Something dark, about the shape and size of a large dog or a wolf, except its shape was boiling and shifting. Like a swarm of a million bees, it was never still in one form, and as it moved behind Dale, there was an overwhelming rush of the most terrible physical fear that Dale had ever felt. Dale struggled free of Jasper’s restraining arm to try see more clearly, and Jasper caught his shoulders, his voice above the wind and almost in Dale’s ear.

“Hold on to me.”

He had fought his way up to his knees and Dale heaved himself up too, holding on to Jasper, shaking all over with adrenaline.  The roar of the wind was deafening, it was like trying to sit up against the crashing of waves or being caught in the funnel of a tornado, and there were still strange noises hidden in the swirling white and dust that surrounded them. Jasper was saying something – shouting something – steady and not in English, Dale had no idea what he was saying until Jasper prevented him getting up off the ground.

“Sit down, hold on to me, don’t look at that.”

That swarming black shape, circling them. It appeared to be getting larger, as if as it walked it was moving steadily closer. This was insane. The terror of it was overwhelming, and only Jasper’s sharp shake on his hand dragged him back, close enough for Jasper to shout almost in his ear.  

“Do exactly as I say. Don’t look at that. Think about white light. White light. All around you. Above you, under you, all around you, like a ball. Concentrate on it as strongly as you can.”

What a perfect moment for visualisation!

The swat was hard and made him jump and Dale discovered to his shock that Jasper could thunder every bit as well as Flynn when he wanted to.

“Dale! Light!”

Dale found himself yanking his gaze swiftly moving off that shape shifting black thing, and head down, he tried to summon a picture of white light to his mind.

White light.

Of course there was no such thing as white light. White light was merely a human perception evoked by light that stimulated all three types of colour sensitive cone cells in the human eye in nearly equal amounts and with high brightness compared to the surroundings. The effect of combining the visible colours of light in equal proportions. Present it with a prism and immediately you would have a spectrum, essentially recognised in the colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, although this was a simplification –

Shut up you idiot.

Actually some of the boiling funnel of white smoke and light all around them was streaked with colour. Initially it had been very dark, as if the air was filled with dust, but looking now it was mostly white and inside it Dale saw flashing streaks of violet and gold, and felt the whipping of his hair against his face, his clothes against his body.

This was ridiculous.

The word was the trigger.

He’d used it in board rooms worldwide. He’d used it in a dark mine. In a yard where a man had a gun levelled at Riley. That’s enough. This is stupid now. I’m not going along with it.

He rose up onto his knees with a familiar feeling of stepping apart, taking a step inside himself to somewhere calmer, detached, analytical, that had no emotion. The wind speed suggested a localised cyclone, the core directly over them, and the earthquake was still continuing below them. A bird was screeching – not surprisingly – and with them in the centre of the white swirl was an outline of something vaguely square shaped. Unformed. Ragged. He kept hold of Jasper but fought his way up to his feet, bracing himself to stay standing, face stung and lashed by the dust and the leaves, and something cut him as it flew past. The black thing was still circling behind the funnel of light, and it was still growing larger. Nearer. Above it, up in the trees around the clearing were bright things – ribbons, fur, the distant faces of animals – and they were shaking, swinging in the wind, the ribbons trailing. They were beautifully made, woven in bright colours, scarlet and greens, they were fascinating, they captured Dale’s gaze and held it, and the more he looked at them, the clearer they got. There were so many of them, all around the circle, hung in every tree. Beads were woven into them. Feathers. Some were painted leather, with horses drawn on them. Others were webs of thread with items captured within, including strands of horses’ hair.

The wind was dropping. Instead of rumbling below them – now it was like feeling the steady thumping beats of a heavy herd galloping over the turf, disappearing into the distance. The shaking died away slowly beneath their feet, and the wall of dust and light and swirling leaves began to thin, and then slowly to drop away. There were fifteen – twenty of the circles, some large, some smaller, a complete circle around the clearing.

Jasper’s voice was clearer now,  he was no longer shouting. Whatever he was saying, his voice was deep and smooth and musical, and whatever language it was, it was rhythmic. When Dale remembered to look down again, the black thing was gone. Jasper got up and Dale pulled to help him, aware that Jasper kept a tight grasp on his hand and immediately dragged him close. He backed out of the clearing, arms spread, pushing Dale behind him, and by the time they reached the trees, the last of the wind was dying away, the leaves were coming to rest on the ground. No sound and nothing to see. The trees were standing just as stable as they had been. The ground was undisturbed. There was no sign of a quake or a cyclone or any disturbance in the woods.

Jasper turned Dale around, held his shoulders and Dale saw Jasper’s hair full of dust, his shirt covered with the red earth and several bleeding scratches welling up under the blasted dust on his face. Jasper took a handkerchief from his pocket, folded it and pressed it to Dale’s lip and Dale belated realised he too was bleeding. And under the thick layer of dust, Jasper’s face was grey.

“Keep the white light in mind. White light all around you. Are you hurt? Was that what happened before?”

Dale shook his head, still breathless and coughing dusts.  “That was much, much worse. Did you see those circles?”


Jasper wouldn’t let go of his hand or let him step back in the clearing, and Dale led him around the edge of it to the nearest of the trees, searching up in their branches. There was nothing there. No bright colours, no feathers, no leather. He pushed on around the circle, searching, and abruptly yanked on Jasper’s hand as he saw it. Battered. Grey. Tattered. Barely visible among the leaves, but once it had been scarlet, painted with a horse’s head and dripping with strips of leather and feathers.

“There. There were maybe twenty of them all round the clearing. What is that?”

Jasper held on to him tightly, shading his eyes to look, then gave the item a very grim nod.

“A medicine shield.”


Jasper tugged on his hand, pulling him away from the tree. “Come down to the house.”

“What is it for?”

Jasper drew him inexorably onto the path without answering, and walked rapidly with him down the hill towards the hay pastures. As they emerged from the woods a wide wing spanned, shadowy outline was turning, high above the trees with the distinctive wing tip feathers outlined by the sun. An eagle in flight.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

No comments:


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