Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 8


Jasper had  an uncomfortable knack of being calmly matter of fact about things to the point where there was no emotional refuge left to hide behind. No lectures, no reproach, nothing at all, just as they left the jeep in the garage he asked simply, “Do you want to deal with this now or after dinner?”

What kind of a question is that? 

Dale demanded in his next letter to Gerry. Gerry’s reply was amused and still less sympathetic than Riley’s had been.

You’re quite lucky he waited until you got home! Ash has been known to pull off the road and sort things out more or less on the spot.

Dale blinked in shock at the thought. Gerry had to be kidding him.

You’re sketchy about the details of why he was asking, but that is just Jas. Like telling you it’s not enough to be sorry but you have to do something positive to fix it, have you heard that one yet? You will. It’s the way Jas is and we’ve all been there. What did you decide btw?

There was nothing to weigh up; Dale merely wanted to get the whole uncomfortable business finished as fast as possible, and without fanfare or ceremony Jasper walked with him to the library, shut the door and took a seat on the couch, waiting for Dale to remove his jeans and come join him as though this was some kind of civilised adult agreement.

Which it was. And which really brought it home.

As was becoming familiar, once bare, turned over in this position and with the shocking reality of the first sharp swat of Jasper’s hand on his butt, Dale found it impossible to remember why keeping information back had ever seemed like a good idea, or to understand why he found that concept so difficult to keep in mind. Priorities. Paul was completely right, it was all about priorities. He was out of breath, blurry eyed and blazing from hip to thigh within the first minute, clutching at the couch and bracing his toes against the carpet to try and contain himself and not put a hand back, acutely aware that Jasper was nowhere near done with him. A lecture would have been a very welcome distraction. There were some encounters like this – the most recent one from Flynn in this room was a case in point – that were searingly emotional. Others just plain stung, and were a ringing wake up call. An x = y equation, no guilt involved, no discussion, just the consistent reinforcement of a known rule, and damn was it effective.

“I’m sorry,” he said when it was – finally – over and he was sitting the right way up on the couch beside Jasper, his backside feeling torched, very out of breath and shaky but again feeling clearer headed and calmed instead of any kind of upset. “Paul’s quite right. I know what to do but there’s always something that seems like a higher priority at the time, like not sounding as if I’m losing it or I can’t handle a work assignment. There has to be a limit to how many times I can screw up like this, I just go on and on making the same damn

“You are trying, no one doubts it, and no, there isn’t a limit.” Jasper interrupted. “We can do this as many times as necessary. Considering though that this is the second time in two weeks you’ve needed reminding, the next time is going to involve a paddle. Understood?”


There was only one answer and Dale made it sincerely, accepting the warning.

“Yes sir.”

Being still red and extremely tender spared him nothing at all from Flynn an hour and a half later when he was ready for bed; Flynn still sat there and waited while he undressed, elbows propped on his jeaned knees, and reached out to guide Dale over his lap when he was done, pulling his shorts down with a horribly matter of fact directness. While the weight of his palm resting on an already sore backside was not exactly uncomfortable, it was penetrating. Dale found himself looking closely at the quilt and having to consciously try to keep still while he gave Flynn a précised version of the confession he’d made to Jasper, and Flynn listened in silence, taking it as seriously as Jasper had. Typically for Flynn and Jasper, they gave far more weight to this than to Shoshone elders and guardian spirits.

“What do you think about it?” Flynn asked him when he trailed off.

“I think why do we have to talk in this position?” Dale said wryly, resisting the undignified urge to squirm.

He knew without looking that Flynn smiled, or at least his eyes did, but Flynn only patted, which right now was a real attention getter. Dale sighed and surrendered, putting his chin down on his folded arms.

“I’m not used to not learning immediately how do something. I can learn a skill and I can use it, even if that means radically changing a previously learned pattern in that context, I’ve done it for years. I’ve taught it.”

“So what’s the difference here?” Flynn said mildly.

“That’s in a work context. But that shouldn’t make a difference. I did all this! I could do this before I went back to New York, I got a grip on what withholding meant and you and Jasper spent hours explaining, but when it comes to the crunch – something else always seems more important. Maybe it’s just me making up excuses to myself to try and get out of having to do it, I don’t know.”

“Have you talked to Riley or Gerry about it?”

“Some.” Dale admitted. Probably not much. It seemed like a stupid thing to be admitting to.

Flynn heard the frustration in his voice and spoke firmly.

“Complications aside, it comes down to would you rather temporarily get out of having to tell us something you’re uncomfortable about, or be spanked. That’s a fairly straightforward choice.”

They talked about a few other things, compulsions included, as Flynn was doing on a nightly basis with him at the moment, and Dale got the point: it was hard to miss it.  

We are going to talk about these things, kid. It’s up to you how easy you want to make it on  yourself.

The very few swats he got that always completed one of these evening conversations were light, but effectively re awoke a lot of what Jasper had left behind.

Dale leaned over for Flynn’s hand when Flynn pulled the covers over him and would have turned the light out. It wasn’t yet eight pm, the others were downstairs and it would be several hours yet before Flynn came to bed, but he immediately sat down again on the side of the bed, and then lay down beside Dale and Dale turned over into his arms. They lay together for a while in the dark, Flynn’s hand running slowly and hypnotically up and down Dale’s back. Competent, powerful hands that could be so incredibly gentle. There were times when Flynn’s fingers seemed to sink inside him, the sense of his touch went that deep.
“Are you worried about anything you and Jasper heard about Mustang Hill?” Flynn asked quietly after a while.

They’d told the others about their meeting at the reservation over dinner, aided by the fact that Dale had been able to quote Joseph Williams’ translation word for word, and on Paul’s request had made a written record of it. Paul kept collections of things like that, he was as fascinated as Dale and Riley were.

Dale shook his head. “It’s still a very – bizarre- thought. I like things I can touch and be sure of. I don’t like intangibles.”

“Don’t you?”

That wasn’t the answer Dale had expected.

“Don’t I what?” he asked cautiously.

Flynn was quiet for a moment, face turned up towards their ceiling. Dale could see the outline of his jaw in the dark, square and slightly rough at this time of night. It was impossible to look without touching, which didn’t seem to distract Flynn.

“Part of your job was estimating intangibles. You always worked with only a fraction of the picture, based on estimations, predictions, insightful guessing. You’re perceptive, you’ve picked up a huge amount here by being able to go with ideas and information you’re not a hundred percent sure of.”

“And yet I like things the same, to know exactly what to do and what’s wanted of me, and preferably instructions with pie charts.” Dale said wryly.

Flynn nipped briefly at Dale’s fingers, thinking there was more of Riley’s good natured teasing in that statement than Dale’s usually vicious self criticism; Riley’s much softer view of Dale was starting to sink into Dale’s own self image and his vocabulary.

Riley is so good for you, kid.

Flynn went on rubbing his back, giving him time to figure it out.

“You’ve had an alarming experience with the A.N.Z. project.” he said when Dale didn’t go on. “You did everything you could to find the missing pieces of the puzzle, you strained guesswork to the limit because you’re extremely good at it. Base what you know about your skills on your whole heap of successes over a number of years, the people in work, the factories and industries running, the new innovations that have happened because of you and what you can do with that kind of problem solving. That isn’t cancelled out by one case you couldn’t prove. That’s like searching round and round a brightly lit room for any shadow you can find, and then dismissing the whole room as dark. Don’t let this one thing shake your confidence.”

“Isn’t it insane though to want sameness and rigidity and then go working on projects that involve a huge amount of insubstantial or missing information?”

Flynn shrugged. “Show me any person who isn’t some kind of dichotomy? People don’t operate in nice, neat, logical ways. You’re insightful, you’re highly skilled at working with insubstantial information, and you love puzzles, the trickier the better, when you feel stable, relaxed and sure of everything else. It’s when you lose that balance the trouble starts.”

“It took me only two weeks before I cracked this time.” Dale said subduedly. “And that was working half a day, every other day, here.”

“You didn’t crack, we made you stop.” Flynn said immoveably. “If this had happened before you came here, what would you have done?”

“Anything I got stuck on would have been related to the project.” Dale looked up at him, realising. “I’d have just obsessed on it, put all the compulsions in there until I fixed it, and no one would have noticed. There was always a bridging couple of days between projects when I was done in one place and the next place was being set up, I mostly used that to sleep, especially if it had been a hard few weeks. Work out in the gym if I could, and start researching the next thing.”

That sounded casual enough but Flynn knew what he meant by it. A couple of days to force his nervous system back into working order, to try and deal with the come-down, and distract himself with the high stimulation of a new challenge. All the coping strategies he’d learned to wean himself off.

“You’ve got to realise you’ve sensitised yourself, kid.” he said gently. “You can’t push like that year after year and get away with it. You pushed yourself to breaking point this spring and you’re not even a year past that yet. Physiologically, body chemistry and brain chemistry, you’ve sensitised your system to hit the red zone a lot more quickly, and you’re going to be a long time re training it.”

And that was harsh, but it was the truth.

“If you know what the green zone is like when you’re ok, and what the red zone is like when you hit crisis, you need to get familiar with the warning signs of the yellow zone. That’s when you need to be working with us to control it. It’s hard because you’re not in the habit of leaning on anyone else, particularly when you’re working, but you need to get clear in your head just how real the risks are when you’re thinking twice about confiding in us. I know at the time they seem very real.”

“Check my perceptions, they get skewed.” Dale let go an acid sigh. “We go over and over this.”

“Talk to Riley and Gerry, I think that’s normal.” Flynn advised quietly. “Gerry said to me once he felt like he went in spirals, around and around on the same key issues but each time it was a slightly deeper level than before.”


That wasn’t a convinced sound. Flynn nudged Dale’s chin up, kissed him and slid out from underneath him.

“Let me change, and I’ll lie down with you.”

“I thought I was supposed to sleep.” Dale said acerbically.

“I do want you to sleep.” Flynn put the nightlight on his side of the bed on dim, starting to undress. “That doesn’t mean you have to be up here on your own if you don’t want to be.”


He knew when he walked through the trees where he was going. His heart was thumping unpleasantly, he could hear his own breathing, and yet it was if there was no other path and no other way to go. He walked forward, step by step, until the trees opened out and there it was. The clearing with the tattered, hanging shield half hidden in the tree. His feet moved without his permission, he saw the dark brown riding boot step forward onto the cleared dust floor of the circle. The wind blew softly around his feet, stirring the dust and the fallen leaves, and there was no sign of Jasper. It wasn’t safe to be here alone. He knew it and still couldn’t call out or turn around. The wind was getting stronger. He crouched down in front of the carved rock and a hand, not his hand, reached out to touch the carvings. They looked larger than Dale remembered. Then the dust and leaves swirled up in a deafening roar, the white light began to swirl, and just beyond the wall of boiling light and dust he saw the black thing fade into being, a long way off but gradually walking closer. Streaks of violet and gold flickered in the vortex, a bird screamed and Dale saw the flash of wings in the light. Faces. Hideously large and distorted faces like the Easter Island heads, mouths moving. And then just as suddenly, he was in the kitchen, seated at the table in a room full of noisy, chattering people.

The transition was shocking. Dale sat for a minute, feeling the warmth of the bread roll in his hand, stopped in the middle of tearing it in half. He could smell the spice of the soup in the tureen on the table, the bowl in front of him was steaming. Other men were around the table. Initially there were no familiar faces in the chairs where Dale knew Flynn and Riley, Paul and Jasper usually sat. Relaxed in the chairs, eating, chattering, no one looked twice at him, and Dale found his eyes resting on the slim, dark haired boy at the end of the table, a young man of about twenty, dropping bread rolls from a cooking tray into a basket, and laughing at something the man sitting next to him was saying. The dark eyes and the laugh were unmistakeable. It was Paul. Next to him it was Luath, also slighter around the waist and with his hair jet black instead of the iron grey Dale was used to. There were others, Dale searched quickly for Flynn or Jasper amongst them, but found instead a man at the head of the table with greying hair and a quiet smile and very intent eyes, listening to Luath with amusement and periodically putting his hand out to stop a very young Gerry next to him from interrupting. The pressure of his hand appeared to be enough. On Philip’s other side, next to Dale, was David.

It was only David who met his eyes, giving him a brief smile and taking the bread roll from him to break it in two and put it on his plate. His hair was still dark and wild, long on his collar. He looked perhaps thirty; fit, his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, collar wide open which showed his throat, a flash of chest and some kind of small tattoo almost out of sight to the left of his chest, in what looked like navy blue.

It was intense. The tempting smell of the soup, the warmth of the kitchen and the door shut tight against the cold outside – Dale knew without being able to see that snow covered the yard and hung heavy on the barn, swung four inches deep on the swing outside the door. The lively, friendly chatter, the sounds of people happy together, who enjoyed talking together, in this familiar place. It was wonderful. Wonderful to sit here with them, to listen, to see. Dale put a hand down on the table and felt the smooth wood he touched at every mealtime. The particular chip in the grain just in front of him.

And then just as suddenly, it was gone, and Dale was walking over the grass towards a figure with a hammer, kneeling on top of one of the sheep shelters on the far side of the river, several miles from the house. It was too far out here to come without riding, but he could see no sign of the horses. The man looked up and it was Gerry, Gerry as he had looked when Dale last saw him only a few weeks ago, a couple of nails in his mouth as he smiled, and the hammer in his hand.


“Hi.” Dale walked towards him, and Gerry sat back on his heels to wait. The roof of the shelter began to groan in response, and Dale saw the planks begin to sway and Gerry’s smile change instantly to alarm. He scrambled for the edge, Dale shouted a warning and began to run, and as if in slow motion the planks splintered and collapsed to the ground, taking Gerry with them.

The light snapping on was a shock.

Paul came across to him, dishevelled and sleepy, and Dale realised belatedly that he was half sat up in bed, Flynn’s arm tight across his chest, a deep New Zealand voice was talking in his ear and he was breathing like he had been running. Paul sat down on the side of the bed and put his hands around Dale’s head.

“What’s the matter?” Riley demanded from the doorway.

Paul looked up, relaxing his grasp on Dale. “It’s all right love, he was dreaming.”

“That was some dream, I could hear you yelling something about horses.”

 “I’m ok. Sorry.” Dale swallowed on a sore throat. He must have been yelling pretty loudly. Paul stooped and kissed him, then got up and took Riley’s arm as Flynn turned the light out.

“It’s ok honey, let’s go back to bed.”

“Are you all right?” Riley demanded, not going anywhere. Dale caught his eye and nodded.

“Yeah. Sorry. Go back to sleep Ri.”

Flynn lay back and Dale felt him hold out his arms, waiting. Dale lay down against him thankfully and felt his heart thudding against Flynn’s chest. He was shivering slightly, and Flynn pulled the covers closer over them both.

“Remember what that was?”

In fragments. The strongest of which was Gerry lying amongst the splintered planks.

“Gerry fell through the roof of a sheep shelter. There were no horses with us, I was trying to work out where to go for help.”

“I have no idea what would get Gerry willingly up on the roof of a sheep shelter.” Flynn said dryly. “That’s not a danger we need to worry about.”

And yet the thought of falling asleep again was not tempting. There were images at the back of Dale’s mind of faces, shifting in white smoke. Not pleasant faces. Flynn rolled over, pulling Dale with him, and his knee slipped in between Dale’s making Dale relax and smile.

“You know you’re a very middle of the night man for someone so hot on proper sleep?”

“One of the best ways I know to unwind.” Flynn said in his ear.

He was perfectly right, Dale didn’t remember falling asleep. He was vividly aware of jerking to his feet a while later, still shouting incoherently. Flynn followed him swiftly out onto the landing and stood with him when Dale put his back against the cold of the wall, gulping for breath. If he’d woken Riley and Paul again, they were staying put. It took him a moment longer to see Jasper standing on the stairs, watching, fully dressed. Jasper held out a hand to him and Dale took it, letting Jasper draw him downstairs, and Flynn followed them into the kitchen, shutting the door behind them. Jasper’s hand was cold and the kitchen was fresh as if the door outside had been left standing open. Flynn passed Dale one of the fleece jackets form the back of the door and took another for himself, going to switch the kettle on. Jasper kept hold of Dale’s hand, his thumb rubbing slowly back and forward over Dale’s knuckles while Dale leaned on the table and went on shaking all over. And then shook his head, pulling away from Jasper.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s ridiculous but I need to email them. I need to do something.”

“It was Gerry again?” Flynn said gently.

Grown ups did not feel like this. Normal people did not stand around shaking and cold with terror over something they only dreamed about. Flynn took the phone out of the drawer and Dale winced.

“No, I can’t do that, I’m being stupid. It was just-”

- for a dream, so horribly real. Flynn took no notice and dialled, holding the phone to his ear while he waited. It was four am in Wyoming. It would be three am in Seattle- Flynn straightened up, hand on the counter, which braced his bare legs beneath his shorts and spread his shoulders under the fleece jacket.

“Ash, it’s Flynn. No it’s fine, we’re all fine. Is Gerry ok?”

Whatever he heard was apparently not, get off the phone you bastard, it’s the middle of the night. Flynn held the phone out to Dale and Dale took it with a still shaking hand.


“Hey love, are you all right?” Ash sounded sleepily and sincerely kind. “Dreaming about Gerry?”

“Falling off a wooden roof. I’m so sorry-”

“It’s fine, hang on a minute.”

There was a moment’s rustling and then Gerry’s voice, even sleepier.

“Dale? Not that we don’t love you or anything but it’s three in the morning?”

The relief of hearing his voice was overwhelming. Dale gripped the receiver, feeling the shaking ease out.

“Are you ok?”

“Darling I’m still mostly asleep, I’ll answer that a whole lot better tomorrow. Love you. Go to bed.”

“Stay off anything wooden.” Dale told him and heard Ash’s voice take over the phone again.

“I won’t let him climb anything, don’t worry. Goodnight love.”

“Goodnight.” Dale shut the phone down and breathed out. Jasper took the phone from him and pulled a chair out beside him for Dale.  Flynn poured tea into three mugs and put them down on the table, taking the chair the other side of Dale.

“Where were you walking?”

“I wasn’t. I was sitting out on the porch. Reading.” Jasper sat back, cradling his mug between his hands. “Why are you worrying about Gerry?”

“I have no idea.” Dale propped his elbows on the table. The thought of Gerry and Ash settling back to sleep in Seattle was a warming one, as much as that they made no more fuss about being phoned during the night for such a petty reason as if they’d been asleep upstairs. The tendrils of this family stayed strong and they spread out a long, long way.

The phone lying on the table rang and Jasper raised his eyebrows at Flynn as Flynn picked it up.


Dale watched his face change to recognition and he sat back in his chair.

“Jack. No of course it’s all right, we were up anyway. Jasper’s right here, want to speak with him?”

He handed the phone over and Dale saw him mouth the words “Jack Kenwood.”

“Hi Jack,” Jasper said warmly, and Flynn touched Dale’s shoulder, took his tea with him, and Dale picked up his mug to follow, leaving Jasper in the kitchen.

“A client,” Flynn said softly in the family room. “One of Jasper’s. CEO of an ITC marketing corporation.”

“Adstar.” Dale said without thinking. It was one of the three ITC giants, and Dale had heard the name Kenwood before. Flynn led the way upstairs.

“He was here about two years ago, he checks in with us from time to time, especially when he’s having a rough time.”

It made Dale wonder how many such calls had come in since he first came here in March; if the phone often rang quietly in the small hours or what emails Flynn, Jasper and Paul answered. The thought of going back to sleep was still not tempting. Flynn sat down on the side of the bed and watched Dale pace while he drank tea. The fleece jacket was long on him and draped straight down from shoulders to hips, he was bare foot and his dark hair was scattered. He wasn’t moving with any kind of agitation in the way that said he wanted to go out and run, but it was persistent, unsettled and rather than upset he looked absorbed. Grey eyes abstracted, and large in the darkness. Flynn finished his own tea, held out his hand and snapped his fingers when Dale didn’t answer.

“Come on. We’re going to get some more sleep.”

“Want a bet?” Dale said darkly.

Flynn took the mug out of his hand, putting it out of reach. “Yes.”


“Jack’s coming in for a couple of days.” Jasper said at breakfast. “He’s on his way out this morning, heading back Sunday morning.”

“Is he ok?” Riley asked, leaning over for more toast. “It’s been months since we last heard anything from him.”

“Having a rough few weeks, he didn’t go into details on the phone.”

“I’ll make the bed up.” Paul said comfortably. “And it wouldn’t hurt to do a basic sweep of the house, we’ve been on our own a good few months.”

“He means hide the phone.” Riley said to Dale, rolling his eyes.

“And keep the door shut on the landing,” Paul went on, “no need for him to go in there. And I’ll check the cupboards, we’ll go onto the healthy eating plan while he’s here, Jack’s a bit of a sugar addict.”

“What healthy eating? When do we get to eat anything else? More to the point if you search him for cigarettes.” Riley pointed out. “He was chain smoking when he first came out here, he got horrible withdrawal.”

“We’re not short of nicotine substitutes, and yes I’ll confiscate any cigarettes.” Jasper got up, putting his plate in the sink. “I’ll go out and look over the cattle now, then I’m done and here the rest of the day.”

“What about using today to move the horses?” Flynn suggested. “That gets the four of us out of the way. It’s not like taking in a new client but he’d probably appreciate a quiet few hours and you to himself.”

“Then I’ll make lunch to take with us.” Paul got up, starting to clear the table. “Riley, you and Dale make up the bed for Jack, check the room and have a look around upstairs. Dale, the phone either stays with one of us, out of sight and set to silent, or in the locked cupboard up here, set to take messages. We don’t use it in front of clients, in fact mostly we leave it off and check the messages regularly.”

He opened one of the high kitchen cabinets and Dale realised there was a second compartment inside the door. He paused in the doorway of the kitchen, thinking for a moment as Riley ran upstairs and Jasper and Flynn headed outside to start tacking up horses.

“Paul? Did David have a tattoo?”

Paul looked up at him in surprise.

“Yes. A sparrow. What made you think of that?”

A number of flip, polite evasions came to mind. Dale considered several of them and found himself almost subconsciously putting a hand back to brush his backside, still tender from Jasper’s handiwork last night. He took a deep breath and committed himself, rather hesitantly.

“.....Something I dreamed. It was blue, quite small, on the left of his chest near his shoulder.”

Paul’s eyebrows raised and he looked at Dale for a moment, then went back to gathering plates together on the table.

“That’s right. He got it during the war. It was a navy thing if you sailed more than 5000 miles, you were entitled to a sparrow tattoo   there were various tattoo badges you were ‘allowed’ once you’d done specific things or visited specific places, but it meant ‘coming home’ too. It was supposed to be a lucky charm to help lead you home. That part of it meant a lot to him.” 

Home being here, with Philip, whom he’d found after the war was ended and he left the sea. This had been David’s land first.

“Are you all right honey?” Paul said very gently. “Goodness knows what went on up on the hill, I don’t know, but you were right in the middle of it, and I heard what you were dreaming last night. It sounded horrible.”

Dale’s first instinct was to apologise, but that wasn’t what Paul was inviting, and instead he came to lean on the back of a chair at the table, watching Paul continue to clear up.

“Gerry getting impaled on a wooden roof was all mixed up with David eating in here with you and Philip. That part of it was quite nice. The Gerry part wasn’t.”

Paul put out a hand to touch his face, eyes soft, and Dale managed something like a smile at him.

“I’m ok. I just wondered.”

“Go help Riley.” Paul went back to stacking dishes. “And hurry him up before Flynn gets impatient. A day’s riding is exactly what you need.”

He was right. Flynn had Hammer, Snickers, Leo and Nekkid ready in the yard, and from Hammer’s snort of interest at the sight of him to riding out across the home pastures in the gathering sunshine, Dale felt his mood lift. From Hammer’s gait over the soft ground, the space and the open land around him in all its beauty, to the company of the three men riding with him: this was good. This was nothing but good.

It was nearly a two hour ride into the nursery pastures over the small streams and the soft grass before Flynn reined in Leo and looked back over his shoulder, tipping his Stetson out of his eyes.

“There he is.”


The stallion floated over the grass to them with his sailing trot, impossibly high and smooth and his mane and tail floating on the wind, and touched noses briefly with Leo, allowed Riley to lean out of his saddle to rub his neck, and fell into step with them, walking quietly over the next rolling hill to where the ground fell away and his herd were grazing in the valley. They were assembled in a loose circle as they always were, watchers facing outwards, the lead mare in the middle, although the foals in their growing shaggy winter coats bounded and chased each other without regard for the mares’ stoic formation. Bandit stopped at the lip of the hill instead of going down amongst the mares as he usually did, eyes intent on Flynn, and Flynn grinned.

“I swear that horse knows the calendar.”

“It’s the whole bunch of us turning up together, he knows.” Riley said cheerfully. “Smarter than any of us, aren’t you gorgeous?”

Bandit didn’t look at him, watching Flynn intently, every muscle in his huge body braced. Flynn nodded to him, walking Leo around to face back towards the ranch, raising his arm straight in the air and letting loose the long, piercing whistle every animal on the ranch knew.

“Go on then. Bring ‘em in, boy.”

Bandit moved on the word, trotting down the side of the valley and going direct to Marika, the lead mare, with the long, snaking movement of his neck that Dale recognised. Marika lifted her head placidly and began to walk. Other mares looked up as she moved, and then as Bandit circled out, snaking around the edge of the circle and gathering the mares together, they followed Marika. It was so calm; there was no panic, no hurry, and Dale followed Flynn’s example, turning Hammer to let the herd come up over the lip of the valley and then walking alongside them. In the valley basin below, Bandit was bringing in two foals that had been the furthest away from the group and trotted them up to keep pace with the mares. The foals cast some curious looks at Dale as they passed him, very familiar to the herd moving but aware that this herding with men on horses was something new, something different, and that they were going somewhere unusual. Snickers abruptly broke into a trot as Riley circled him behind the herd, and Dale saw why: a mare in the middle of the group was guiding her foal towards the edge and as she saw her escape being cut off she bolted, the foal fleeing with her back down the slope into the valley.

“Belle.” Flynn said exasperatedly, swinging Leo round to herd the mares back before any got bright ideas about following. “What’s the matter with that bloody mare? Every damn time- ”

Dale moved Hammer to help him, watching with some anxiety as Bandit, head low with fury, shot out from the side of the herd after her.

“What about the foal?”

“Bandit won’t hurt it.” Riley had cut in front of the mares and stood up in his stirrups to watch.

The stallion was moving like a bullet, at full gallop across the grass, and the mare was fleeing, the foal close by her side. Bandit went wide of them both, out pacing the mare to turn her, and she reared up and pawed at him, screaming. The stallion evaded her entirely with a fluid movement that cut around and under her hooves, and instead he herded the foal, which fled in front of him. The little animal tried several times to turn away and escape back to his mother, but the stallion’s snaking neck blocked him, and by the time they were up on the lip of the valley again the foal was cantering, not galloping, keeping pace with his sire. Bandit ran him up around the front of the herd. In the valley Belle screamed – whether at Bandit or to the foal, Dale wasn’t sure. Bandit cantered on around the far side of the herd in a wide circle, leaving the foal behind, then he erupted into a gallop down the side of the valley towards Belle and this time she ran for her life.

Not away from him – not exactly. She went very wide but her path was back towards her foal. Bandit caught her on the valley slope and Dale winced as the two big bodies rose up together, dust flying up from their hooves and Belle screaming, her forefeet flailing. Bandit’s neck snaked around her and he snapped at her neck, bit her hindquarter, and she fled ahead of him, charging deep into the herd of mares for protection. Neck arched, tail high, Bandit slowed his pace and snorted, shaking his head as he trotted back and forth behind the herd.

“I want to know what she thinks we’re going to do to her?” Paul said, shaking his head. Belle, panting and reunited with her foal, was walking meekly in the middle of the herd as though she’d never think of bolting. “She knows damn well nothing awful ever happens when we bring them in, and she still carries on like she’s wild.”

“It’s the principle of the thing, she isn’t going anywhere on our terms without a fight.” Riley took Snickers round to bring up the rear of the herd. “If she wants to get bitten before she goes anywhere that’s her problem. Although to be fair we don’t know if she goes any more quietly when Bandit moves the herd and we’re not around.”

“Bandit ought to bite her before he starts and save himself the time.” Flynn said darkly.

They brought the herd back to the ranch without further incident, walking them slowly and when the foals stopped to drink and the mares grazed, they ate lunch in the saddle, letting them take their time. It was mid afternoon when they reached the ranch yard and the mares walked peacefully into the open corral where the bins were filled with oats, waiting for them. Flynn dismounted and tied Leo in the yard, lifting the big black bucket with its own particular portion of oats down from the gate post at the corral and holding it for Bandit. The stallion came straight to him and Dale shut the gate into the home pastures.

“Is there anything else you need to do with them?”

“Not today.” Riley dismounted Snickers, tying him beside Leo. “Just open the gate up to the tops. They’ll wander up there when they’re ready. Flynn, I’m going to grab a couple of the mares for Mia.”

“Make Pocket one of them.” Flynn called back.

Riley took a couple of head collars from the stable and walked into the corral, finding the pretty paint mare who was the path finder for the herd.

The horses in the paddocks were looking up at the loose horses in the yard with interest, and Dale winced at Mia’s whinny from the stable, sharp and sounding a good deal more urgent than usual. Bandit jerked his head up from the bucket of oats and looked around, ears laid back.

Flynn shook the bucket of oats gently to distract him, looking across to Riley.

“Dale, take Pocket? Ri, go keep Mia quiet. I don’t particularly want to have to turn her loose without getting her socialised with the other mares first.”

Riley ducked under Snickers’ neck and slipped into the stable, opening the door as little as possible, but Mia took her chance and this whinny was nearer a scream. The mares looked round and Bandit turned, pacing across the yard and snorting. Flynn walked with him to the stable door, talking quietly to him and letting him nose at the door. Mia whinnied again from inside and Bandit lifted one massive hoof, pawing at the door. Flynn opened it, standing in his way but letting him look. Bandit stood stock still, head up, and Mia whickered, trying to push past Riley who was leaning on the door of her stall and petting her.

“Yes, she’s there.” Flynn told the stallion quietly. “But she needs to stay there for a while. It’s all right mate.”

Bandit’s ears twitched forward and he went on looking closely at the mare, then Flynn put a hand on his neck and Bandit let Flynn move him back and close the door, and paced quietly back with him to the bucket of oats.

Dale guided Pocket out of the corral and she walked placidly with him to the stable paddock, her foal following her.

“Flynn? Anyone else you want with Pocket?”

Flynn looked up from the bucket of oats he was holding for Bandit, running his eye briefly over the mares.

“Anyone but Belle.”

If Mia needed to get in with the in-crowd of the herd, then it meant choosing one of the dominant mares. Dale looked them over and chose Sweep, one of Marika’s closest friends, a long legged mare with two white front socks, who had a small filly foal the image of Bandit. Both came willingly to join Pocket and graze, and Bandit, while he watched, went on eating his oats. When he was done, he paced the yard, nosing briefly at one of the foals who was grazing the edge of the paddock and who lifted his head to Bandit as he passed. For a minute he stood touching noses with Pocket over the paddock fence, watching the two mares and foals Dale had shut in. Then the stallion went in a business like way into the corral and trotted briskly around it, herding the mares out ahead of him, and they walked through the open gate into the pasture beyond, and within a few minutes the yard was empty of horses. Flynn shut the gate behind them and Dale went to get a rake from the stable and deal with the churned up yard. Riley was still in Mia’s stall and stroking her head, but Mia was fidgeting anxiously and Dale could see the sweat on her neck.

“She starts pacing every time I let her go,” Riley said softly, not to spook her. “She’s keen – aren’t you baby? I know he’s hot, but give it a few weeks huh?”

“He won’t steal her?” Dale said just as softly. Riley shook his head.

“Not likely. Not unless she tarts at him like Gucci does; Bandit’s a gentleman. It wouldn’t be terrible if she did go up with the herd, but they bully a new mare unless you bring in a couple of mares first for her to get to know. I’ll introduce her to them in a bit when she settles down. Seen Jack yet?”

“Not yet. The kitchen door’s shut.” Dale leaned on the stall door to watch Mia. Riley went on stroking her.

“I liked him. Smoked like a chimney and cried when Jas took his cigarettes off him – seriously – but he’d had a major falling out with his directors, that was the reason he came. Ruthless with objectives and strategy, intimidated anyone who got in his way. Yelling, ranting, put downs, real power stuff.  People wouldn’t work with him.”

“And Jas had him, not Flynn?” Dale said, startled. Riley grinned.

“You might as well yell at a rock as at Jas. When we figured out what was underneath it, he basically had zero self control skills. When Jasper asked him the right questions, Jack had speeding tickets, parking tickets, ‘no’ wasn’t a word he knew much about.”

Dale nodded, fascinated. “So what did you do with him?”

“A lot of it’s just the daily the routine.” Riley said easily. “Flynn always says the tough, loud ones are the easiest to sort out. Jack threw his temper around a lot for a couple of days, but no one here’s scared of yelling and door slamming and it didn’t get him anywhere, so he went pretty much as far as he could and realised how out of control his temper was. Jas taught him to ride, we did a lot of self regulation work with him, he had the time to do some thinking, and he’s done pretty well whenever we’ve spoken with him.”

“How long was he here?”

Riley quirked an eyebrow at him. “Not telling you, you’ll freak out.”

Dale dug him in the ribs and Riley laughed, still pulling gently on Mia’s ears.

“Yeah you will, and why worry about it? He’s a nice guy but we didn’t want him to stay.”

Dale hooked an arm around his neck and Riley returned the hug one armed, kissing his cheek.

“It’ll be fine. Stop worrying, he’s probably never heard of you.”

“My God. Dale Aden.”

Jack Kenwood stared blankly for a minute, then got up to take Dale’s offered hand. Riley choked behind them, apologised and grinned at Dale as he disappeared into the bathroom.

“I’m retired.” Dale said quickly in a tone he’d learned from Paul when a subject needed changing, “Free lance only now, and very part time. Good to meet you.”

And Jack looked very un-businesslike in jeans, socks and a sweatshirt, hair damp from the shower, and eyes slightly reddened as though whatever he and Jasper had spent the afternoon talking about hadn’t been easy for him. Flynn and Riley had both greeted him with hugs as warm as they were sincerely pleased to see him, and he was sitting at the table as though he was very familiar with it. As if he felt very safe here. That realisation was the tipping point although Dale wasn’t sure why,  but his feeling of awkwardness changed into something else – an empathy and almost a protective rush that made Dale grasp the man’s hand with unfeigned warmth and be able to sit down at the table with him.

“What’s brought you out here?”

“I come when I’m getting off track.” Jack admitted. “Even if like now it’s just a couple of nights. It’s somewhere to run I guess. It’s been a difficult couple of months all round.”


“Mostly.” Jack gave him a wry smile. “Smoking too much. Drinking too much. Too many meetings to cover and not enough time. We’re looking at a possible expansion, it’s horribly complicated stuff.”

Been there, done that, got that particular t shirt. One of the key roles of a CEO was to balance outside and inside interests in a corporation, to have their key focus in mind and organise the pursuit of development. When it had been him sitting at this table, the others had discouraged thinking about or talking about work. Dale looked up for some clues from any of the others as to whether this was a bad direction to be taking things in, and Jasper caught his eye and sat down at the table with them.

“We were kind of hoping you might be able to help.”

It ended up being an odd evening, but kind of a nice one. Flynn and Riley played cards with half an ear on them; Paul listened, cheerfully not understanding much, and Jasper listened with sufficient interest and watchfulness that Dale suspected he understood a fair amount, while for several hours Dale and Jack talked through the corporate’s situation, the potential deal on the table and the multiple pros and cons. It was interesting to have the distance to be able to listen to this kind of thing neutrally, without any role in it, and to be able to be objective, impartial in what he perceived and suggested, and Jack was a good, solid CEO of a type Dale had always understood and respected. Not flash, not talented so much as someone with the drive and the solid knowledge to take a corporate with him and keep it steady. There were no dreams that night; Jasper took Jack out with him around the cattle and sheep herds and they were gone riding most of the day. The second evening was a relaxed one spent playing cards together, by which time Jack was saddle sore but smiling, talking, and starting to look like someone who knew what he was going to do on Monday morning. He left early on Sunday morning. Jasper gave him a lift down to Jackson airport, and Jack gripped Dale’s hand when they said goodbye.

“Thanks for the advice. It’s not often at this level you get to talk to someone not involved who can just listen and get what you’re talking about.” 

“It’s a pleasure. Good luck with it.” Dale said sincerely.

“Philip did that for people.” Paul said to him when Jack and Jasper drove away. “A sympathetic and knowledgeable ear. Thank you, you did a lot for him.”

“It wasn’t much more than a casual chat.” Dale protested. “He didn’t want advice so much as someone to listen while he talked things through.”

“Which was causing him enough stress that he went to a meeting on Thursday afternoon not exactly drunk but well on the way.” Paul said dryly. “That was what scared him so bad he called Jasper in the middle of the night, and that’s the pressure he was under, so don’t knock it. Sometimes what untangles people best is attention, listening and a bit of understanding.”


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