Up on the sloping, open pastures below Mustang Hill that were hayfields in the summer, the mares were grazing and the stallion was rolling in the grass, his huge body flailing for a minute before he got his hooves under him and jerked up to his feet. One of the mares tossed her head at him and trotted a few steps across the pasture, bucking a little and calling. Bandit called back to her, nickering, and the mare broke into a canter, careening across the grass. The stallion broke into a canter after her, chasing her as she zigzagged, not trying particularly hard to get away, and then turned, standing still until he came up to her, nose brushing hers. She nickered softly, turning her hindquarters up against him, and Bandit ran his massive head along her side, licking gently at the bite welt on her haunch.
The two mares in the paddock with their foals periodically looked up at the herd beyond the fence, but without anxiety. The herd had stayed within sight of them, and the mares knew the ranch, the oats and the warm shelters, and were used to being handled. In the stables the Mustang mare called, and Bandit lifted his head, scenting her on the wind. Then he called back to her. A long, echoing call, that made several of the grazing mares look up. Belle nudged him, pressing her hindquarter against his side to encourage him to keep licking, and after a minute, the stallion lowered his head and continued to nuzzle her, but his eyes were on the paddock and the stable below.
There was a quarry in the woods. Rocky, isolated and surrounded with the wild grass and shrubs, the tree trunks and the green of wet, dripping leaves. Dale dug his hands in his pockets and looked up at the tree trunks above the ragged stone. A stallion was calling, and he glanced over, watching him trot over the rocky slopes, circling. Herding. The mares would need to move slowly over this, through the woods as he brought them in. Dale whistled to him, wondering why Bandit, with Bandit’s face, was inexplicably white instead of his usual rich, deep tan.
And then the stallion was gone and Wade was balanced at the top of a ladder, fixing a tile on the garage roof. Dale’s heart lurched in his chest and he grabbed the foot of the ladder with both hands, putting a foot on the bottom rung to brace it.
“Oh for pete’s sake - this is not going to go well, you don’t need to do that.”
“I’m nearly done,” Wade said cheerfully, “Don’t sweat it.”
“Let me do it.” Dale watched him with growing anxiety. “Wade, please. Get down and let me, I’ll do it. Paul wouldn’t want you climbing ladders-”
“I’m done.” Wade pocketed the hammer, stepped back onto the ladder, and the roof cracked sharply, the crack spreading out, the tiles starting to crumble-
“Stop it.” Flynn’s voice said gruffly in his ear. “Gerry’s not climbing anything. If he sets foot on the ranch I’m going to rope him to a chair.”
Dale got his eyes open and found himself half out of bed, throat raw from shouting. Flynn had both arms wrapped tightly around his chest. It took several breaths before the clarity of the slipping tiles began to fade. His heart was thudding. Flynn lay back and yanked, rolling over with Dale still in his arms. It wasn’t easy to be scared or to think about anything much with a large, warm Kiwi on top of you. His comfort was very physical and it was consuming. Dale tried for a moment more, holding onto the last image of the dream even as his body very willingly coordinated itself with Flynn’s.
“That wasn’t Gerry, that was Wade.”
Flynn grunted in his ear, doing something that invariably distracted Dale completely. “He isn’t getting to climb anything either.”
There were men playing baseball in the pasture. Maybe eight of them, mostly shirtless, hot in the low, mid evening summer sun. They weren’t playing particularly seriously, the running was desultory and there was a lot of laughing, but Dale climbed up onto the gate to watch and saw Gerry, a much younger and slimmer Gerry pitching and shouting something to a sweat soaked and shining Bear. He knew a few of the faces; Gerry’s and Bear’s were the easiest to identify, but Jasper and Flynn weren’t among them. Only David, dark hair shaggy, his shirt off and the blue swallow visible on his chest as he jogged around the dropped shirts acting as bases on the grass. The sun was warm on Dale’s hair and shoulders and had warmed the timber under his hands. The smell of grass was in the air and the hay pastures behind him were newly mown. Late August, early September time.
Dale slid down off the fence and walked across the yard, past curious and unfamiliar horses who looked up at him, chomping slowly as he passed the paddocks. The clutter of a day’s work stood half tidied in the yard – barrows, rakes, two ladders propped against the side of the barn beside a window with a broken pane, tool bags still hung on the top struts waiting for the work to continue. Dale walked up the porch steps with a rush of safety, of home, as he heard the humming through the open door. Paul. Making bread for baking the following morning as he often did after dinner. His hair was longer and darker, untouched with grey, and he was slender almost to the point of being lithe in the way he moved, in the fluidity of his hips and his hands. A different body to the one Dale knew and loved, but the eyes were Paul’s when they met his, lighting up with warmth, and the smile was Paul’s. The one that went right through you.
“Hey darling. Boots.”
Dale heeled them off automatically, one hand on the doorpost, still watching the group in the pasture. Luath was among them, slightly taller than the rest. He appeared to be breaking up an argument involving David. Who logically, judging by Paul’s appearance and Gerry’s, ought to be elderly. Not a fit man in his mid thirties, shirtless and running around a pasture.
It was an incongruity but it raised no sense of concern; Dale merely acknowledged the oddness of it and dismissed it from his mind. Leaving Paul humming, he walked into the cool familiarity of the family room and breathed its faint, comforting scent of leather, stone, fireplace and polish. And looked towards the study, wondering if he it was possible. If it could be. He went very cautiously towards the door, barely daring to look and not sure if he was more afraid that he would not be there, or that he would.
Philip, casually dressed in an open necked shirt, looked up from the desk with a faint, welcoming smile that suggested whatever he was doing had merely been something to occupy himself with until Dale arrived. Dale found himself smiling back, hesitating in the doorway. Philip went back to his work, but there was an invitation in his manner that was as warm as it was irresistible. Dale moved carefully to the couch, not wanting to disturb him, and took a seat on one end. Philip glanced up again with another of those quiet smiles, and went on writing with the silver and black fountain pen Dale knew, his steel grey head stooped, one hand relaxed on the desk. There was an immense sense of peace to him. Watching him, Dale felt a rush of love that made him want to get up, wrap his arms around the man’s neck from behind like a child, and hold on to him. And yet Philip went on writing, and Dale found himself relaxing back into the sofa, tucking his feet up and hugging his knees to watch, knowing he was merely waiting for Philip to finish whatever he was doing and to come and join him.
The voices outside were getting louder. Dale glanced back through the window and saw the group scuffing across the yard together. Darcy was in the lead, and he climbed one of the two ladders by the barn, obviously going up to collect the tool bag hooked over the top strut. Dale got up, his stomach lurching with a horrible sense of foreboding. Philip looked up from the desk, coming unhurriedly to rest both hands on his shoulders and look out of the window with him. Darcy was climbing, whistling, the group in the yard below taking no notice and separating to do their own picking up and clearing up for the night.
“Stop him,” Dale begged Philip, “Please, make him get down? I’ll do it. I’ll clean up-”
In the yard David straightened up and looked at him through the window, hard, eyes penetrating. It was too late. The ladder began to slide, Dale saw it start to go with a horrible creaking sound, and Darcy’s face changed from nonchalance to terror as he started to fall-
“Ok. Ok, I’ve got you.” Flynn rolled over, pinning him, and Dale opened his eyes on a dark room and the sound of his own hoarse breathing, the covers half thrown off. The clock stood exactly half an hour later than the last time he’d seen it. Resisting the urge to swear, Dale let go and dropped back onto the pillows. He was shaking all over. The intense reality of the dream was shocking, the smell of leather and books from the study, the feel of Philip’s hands on his shoulders, the clarity of faces, the terror of Darcy falling with the ladder crashing down on top of him – it was all there, confused with the feel of Flynn’s skin against his, the hardness of his chest, the comfort of the warmth of his breath and the grip of hard, sure hands that knew exactly where to grip and hold.
“It’s ok.” Flynn said again in his ear, quietly. “Easy. It’s all right kid.”
That sense of powerlessness was the same in every dream. You can’t stop this. You can’t change this. David’s eyes hadn’t said ‘what’s the matter?’ They’d been penetrating as though trying to communicate something.
Cold and slick with sweat, Dale slid away from Flynn and got out of bed, walking across to the window. His hands were shaking when he ran them over his face. He heard the creak of the bed, then he felt the heat of Flynn standing behind him and Flynn’s hands ran over his shoulders, warm, heavy, and deeply comforting.
“There’s got to be something I can take that’ll knock me out,” Dale said slightly incoherently. “Or I’ll go for a run. You need the sleep without me screaming in your ear.”
Flynn turned him around, holding him tight enough to stifle the shaking, and after a moment Dale pressed his head against Flynn’s neck and leaned hard against him, losing himself in the bruising crush of Flynn’s arms. It was a while before Flynn let go with a gentle pat to his butt, going to pick up his clothes.
They took jackets and hats outside with them where frost was gradually forming on the grass. The breeze was strong beyond the porch. Trees moved and swayed, black shadows at the top of the hill and beyond the bunkhouse, and the rustle of the woods and the whisper of the wind was loud. The dogs stirred from their bed under the porch and Shane got up, stretching with both his forepaws extended, before he padded after them.
Dale tipped his head back as they crossed the yard, breathing the chilled air and looking at the bright pinpoints of stars against the navy blue of the sky, and high, scudding clouds. It looked and felt clean out here. That was the odd word that came to mind - the freshness of it all. The clarity. The wind swept through the trees, carrying the leaves down in swirls. As many now lay on the grass as hung on the branches, although in the darkness the yellows, oranges, rich reds and ochres were exchanged for a hundred shades of silver.
When they reached the gate Flynn leaned on the top bar, looking out over the pastures that led to the tops. The band of mares were standing quietly, clustered together with the foals close for warmth. There was no sign of Bandit. The stallion would be patrolling, probably well aware they were there, and that they were no kind of threat. Dale put his back to the gate, looking at the home pastures on the far side of the yard where eight men had been playing baseball in the summer sun, their shirts dropped on the grass.
“The horses weren’t ones I know.” he said aloud to Flynn. “In the paddocks. Why would I imagine a whole set of horses? Paul looked about nineteen, he was stunning at that age.”
“He was.” Flynn agreed. Dale hissed between his teeth, tipping his head back again to the high, crisp light of the stars. The wind stung his face, and carried away the faint steam of his breath.
“I’ve seen pictures. I seem to have one hell of an imagination, but whole fields of horses? And David’s in every single dream. In between people falling off everything in sight, there’s some really nice parts to them, what’s that all about? Nightmares are supposed to be nightmares, by definition all unpleasant.”
“Luath, Gerry and Bear playing baseball out in the pasture over there, with David, who was about forty years younger than he should have been. Philip in the study. David and Philip having dinner in the kitchen – you and Jas and Riley are never there, just Paul.”
“Only Paul knew David first hand.” Flynn turned around to lean against the gate beside him. “Which suggests you’re thinking about a specific period of time. The mix of good and scary isn’t so strange. It’s a strategy I’d use to get a client to think about something alarming, to keep taking them back to something safe. Reassuring. Ground themselves so they can get close enough to the harder stuff.”
“What’s that hard?” Dale demanded. “Nothing is that hard! The stress around this bloody ridiculous FBI thing of Jerry’s? It’s nothing! Compared to what I’ve handled for years, that’s nothing! This time last year I was in Tokyo running one investigation plus managing three other projects on two different continents, I never got fixated about bloody fences and nightmares!”
“Why?” Flynn said bluntly.
The tone was a familiar one. Calm down and think. Dale realised he was getting better at it, he’d already taken a breath and got a grip on himself before he’d fully processed what Flynn meant. Flynn waited, watching him. Dale sighed and relaxed back against the fence.
“Because I was pushing all the compulsions into the work itself. I know. Because I didn’t have that outlet this time it took other forms. I’m ok. I got sucked into the project, yes, but I know what mistakes I made and I’m fine. I’ve been fine for days. So what the hell are the nightmares all about?”
Flynn shrugged, watching him. “What do you think they’re about?”
Dale glanced up sharply at the scream of a horse from up in the woods. The mares looked up, heads turning. Flynn had jerked upright, and as the scream was repeated he grabbed the top rail of the gate and vaulted it, Shane bolting after him.
“Dale, get a head collar!”
Dale stopped long enough in the stable to grab lanterns and a rope as well as a head collar before he followed Flynn.
There had been two more such screams from the woods, and it was a different tone to an injured or frightened horse. Dale had heard that particular note once before, when Bandit held two burglars at bay on the ground in the stable yard. He jogged up the long slope of the hay pasture, lighting the lantern as he ran, and its beam penetrated the heavy gloom and shadows between the trees, creaking and moving in the night wind.
Flynn was some way ahead, Dale heard him talking quietly in the tone he kept for soothing animals. He followed the trail up hill, lifting the lantern higher, and the glint of white caught his eye.
David was walking ahead of him, some way ahead, his white shirt bright in the darkness. Dale broke into a jog to catch him up, dodging between the trees. David was moving fast, heading away from the path, and on impulse and blind trust, Dale followed him, stumbling slightly on dry bracken and mulch, listening intently for Flynn’s voice and the scrape of a heavy hoof on the dry earth. The crack of breaking timber made him jump and spin back to the trail in time to see a heavy branch fall, scattering dust and leaves as it landed.
He would have been on that path.
Dale looked up towards David, shaken. David had stopped, further up the hill, and he looked back for a moment, hands dug in his pockets.
What the hell is going on here?
“Dale? Are you ok?” Flynn demanded from somewhere up ahead.
There was no sign of David now amongst the shadows.
“Yeah.” Dale lifted the lamp again, starting to pick his way over the ground with his heart thumping, the cold wind stinging his face and burning in his chest. “It’s ok. A branch came down. I was nowhere near it.”
Flynn was standing with Bandit, one hand on his neck, the other over his nose like a bridle. The stallion was standing still under Flynn’s hands but he was huffing and periodically he raised one of his massive hooves and stomped. As Dale approached Bandit lifted his head and screamed again, the sound echoing through the woods. A challenge. From the pastures below the woods several of the mares called back.
“He’s acting like there’s another stallion here.” Flynn said quietly, keeping his hands on Bandit. “We might have a stray from another ranch.”
“I’ll take a look around.” Dale handed him the head collar. Flynn hooked it over his shoulder.
“Not in the dark. I want to get Bandit in the stable and the mares in the corral and we’ll search properly when it’s light.”Dale lifted the lantern to light the path in front of Flynn, and Flynn patted Bandit’s neck, talking to him too softly for Dale to hear. Bandit didn’t move for a minute, then slowly, he let Flynn guide him around with that hand on his nose and walked with him down the hill. He walked right down to the hay meadow with nothing more than Flynn’s hand on his neck, and there Flynn stepped away from him, letting loose the long, carrying stock whistle that travelled even further in the darkness.
“All right boy. Bring ‘em in.”
Bandit gave him a searching look, swinging his head, then as Flynn began to walk down the hill, the stallion walked out towards the mares, breaking into a trot. As Dale opened the gate at the bottom of the meadow, Bandit was rounding the mares up, driving them with their foals into the yard, and Dale jogged to the corral, opening the gate and going to Hammer who would walk with him without a halter. Hammer snuffled at him, snorting, and walked where Dale led him, across to the stable pasture. Dale grabbed a bag of oats from the stable, threw some handfuls onto the pasture grass, and Snickers and Leo hurriedly came from the corral to join Hammer, leading the other horses behind them. Dale gated them in the paddock and filled the feed bins in the corral just as Bandit drove the mares through the gate. The mares placidly walked into the corral to graze, and Flynn shut the gate to the pasture, coming to take the bag of oats from Dale and handing him the head collar.
Bandit paced after him, sniffing at the oats, and Flynn walked him to the stables, unlocking the door. Dale edged among the mares until he found Bandit’s favourite mare, who nuzzled at him when he put the head collar on her, and guided her after Bandit to the stable, her foal following. Flynn had installed Bandit in the largest of the loose boxes, and Dale put Marika and her foal in the box next to him. Marika promptly hung her head over the rail to nose at Bandit. Mia, two boxes down, watched them both with interest.
“Will he stay in here?” Dale asked softly, watching Flynn fill the feed bin in Bandit’s stall with oats, the stallion’s heavy head sniffing and nudging at his jacket. The stallion was puzzled, but his trust in Flynn was palpable and Dale understood it. Flynn nodded, not closing the stable door which gave Bandit some view of the yard and his herd in the corral beyond.
“If the mares are penned here and we stay in sight. Get a couple of sweaters from the laundry room, hats and scarves, make some tea and see if you can find something to eat. We’re going to be out here until morning.”
He barked orders when he was worried. Dale knew the tone, understood it, and quietly moved to help with a powerful swell of love for the man he left behind him with the stallion in the stable.
Bundled up and drinking tea, they sat on the corral rail together for the rest of the night. Flynn lit several lanterns and stood them around the yard, and the mares, calmly used to humans and the corral, grazed and dozed, heads down. Even Bandit in the loose box in the stable stood quietly, periodically hanging his head over the rail to reach Marika and her foal and to look at Mia, or to peer out of the open stable doorway to see Flynn. There was no sign of a stallion on the hill or by the river, stalking his chance to steal away mares. The sun rose slowly on a hard frost, turning the sky pink and yellow, and Paul came out onto the porch shortly after six am, shouldering into a jacket. He was carrying steaming mugs and brought them down to the corral, eyeing the mares.
“What happened? Where’s Bandit?”
“In the stable. He was challenging another stallion in the early hours.” Flynn gratefully took the mug from Paul, wrapping gloved hands around it. “When Jas and Riley are up we’ll go take a look around.”
“A stallion?” Paul demanded. “Escaped from where? It’s twenty miles to Mac’s place at least!”
“If it’s a bachelor youngster with ambition that’s not so far.” Flynn said dryly. “I’d rather not have Bandit kill someone else’s horse and probably get injured in the process – or have our mares being stolen when they’re in foal.”
“I’ll get the others moving.”
Paul disappeared into the house and Dale put out the lanterns, re filling them with oil before he put them away. Bandit was still standing patiently in the stable, eyes alert and scanning through the stable window and through the open door as Dale walked past it. Paul came back ten minutes later with steaming dishes in his hands and he stood with Dale and Flynn in the yard, eating hot oatmeal sweetened with golden syrup and cream. It was like an injection of warmth. Dale’s feet and fingers were thawing rapidly when he was finished. Riley emerged from the house in jeans, a heavy sweater and a Stetson, shouldering into a jacket with a scarf already wound around his neck, and jogged over to join them.
“Seriously? There’s a bachelor stalking the mares? You might have woken me!”
“There was no sense everyone losing sleep.” Flynn handed his empty bowl back to Paul. “I’ll stay here in case Bandit loses patience. I need you and Dale to go up and check the fences to Mac’s territory. If we’ve got a bachelor wandering the ranch then he’s torn through wire. And then help Jas do a thorough search. Have you eaten?”
“I threw down oatmeal while I was dressing.” Riley zipped his jacket, pulled on the leather gloves they all wore for working and nodded at Dale. “Let’s go, we’ll meet up with Jas on the way back.”
The frost was certainly thick on the grass, turning the open, rolling hills white as far as the eye could see in every direction. They warmed up the horses trotting on the lower slopes and rode the several hours out to the fences at the very edge of their land at a faster pace than usual, cantering them with short breaks of walking to let them rest. The horses’ breath steamed in front of them, their hooves were louder than usual on the iced turf, and fit from daily hard work they covered the distance easily, enjoying the speed. Riley kept their route near to the river and his eyes were sharp, missing nothing as they navigated the plateaus and the valleys.
“There’s all kinds of nooks and hiding places up here,” he said when he drew in Snickers and paused at the peak of one hill to look around. “It’s why we put Bandit up here in the winter. Lots of shelter, lots of sheltered grazing, although he brings the girls down to the yard if the weather gets really bad.”
Plenty of hiding places for a stray young stallion. They separated a couple of miles from the fence; Dale walked Hammer across a shallow spot of the fast running river and took him out to where their east fence led onto the Three Traders land while Riley went due north, and they rode the perimeter until they met up about an hour later. Riley waved as he came into sight and Snickers broke into a canter towards them. It was even colder up here; Riley had pulled his scarf up so it was half over his face between his hat and the turned up collar of his jacket which gave him a faintly piratical look.
“Any gaps?” he demanded when he was in talking distance. Dale shook his head.
“None. Not even scuffs at the top as if it was jumped.”
“I’ve seen Bandit jump five foot.” Riley turned Snickers alongside Hammer and reached into Dale’s saddlebag to pull out the thermos and packet Paul had given them. It contained hot cocoa and sausage rolls, thickly wrapped enough that they were still warm. “A youngster’s less likely to manage that, if it is just a young horse on the wander. Theoretically a rogue stallion could just keep travelling from ranch to ranch if it could get past the fences, but we’d have heard on the grapevine if anyone around here had a stray stalking their mares.”
“You don’t think it’s a youngster?”
Riley shook his head slowly, mouth full of sausage roll.
“Bandit wouldn’t fight a youngster. Why would he bother? No threat. He’d just warn him off.”
“It didn’t sound like a warning last night.”
“Flynn wouldn’t shut him in the stable if he was just running off a colt.” Riley knocked back more cocoa and handed the thermos over to Dale. “Better go see if Jas has found anything up on the hill.”
They could ride comfortably through the cleared trails between the trees on the north side of Mustang Hill and Riley whistled once they were in the woods, loud and clear. Two of the dogs shot out of the undergrowth and trotted alongside the horses, and Jasper’s voice called from not far away.
“Over here Ri.”
“The fences are sound.” Riley slid down from Snickers back and took his bridle, walking him. Dale followed and Jasper came out of the trees above them.
“No signs or tracks that I can see except Bandit’s. This is where Flynn said Bandit came last night.”
“We didn’t see anything either, and we looked around the river banks. No tracks. Only other thing we can do is stake out tonight and watch for him.”
“It may come to that.” Jasper whistled to the dogs. “I’m going to walk a few miles downriver and take a look at the banks there.”
The woods looked peaceful and ordinary this morning, as if nothing strange had ever happened over the peak of that hill, as if David hadn’t been strolling between the trees in the dark last night while Bandit screamed threats at a rival. Looking at the trees reminded Dale of the image from the dream – a quarry in the woods, stone and brick and tree trunks where Bandit roamed with a white face instead of a tan one.
The image was ridiculously strong for a simple memory from a dream.
“I might as well do the ride around the other herds while Snicks is warm.” Riley said, mounting Snickers as Jasper disappeared into the trees, the dogs bounding after him.
“I’ll take the cattle.” Dale turned Hammer and Riley put a hand out to catch his rein.
“Better check with Flynn first. You’re grounded, remember?”
“How long is that likely to go on for?” Dale said, exasperated. Riley grinned.
“Search me, you’re already way past my record. Flynn hasn’t said? It’s usually a good idea not to ask if you don’t want to hear comments about when he decides you’ll be the first to know. He still got you writing?”
“About the epic disasters of my last fifteen years. Yes. Not to mention That Bloody Box.”
“He’s never tried that one on me,” Riley said cheerfully. “I’ve only seen him use it with clients for biofeedback, we’ve had a few with high blood pressure. He knows I’d probably throw it at him. I’ll do the ride around, don’t worry. Go ask him where he wants you.”
“Alternatively, I’ll just go look at the bloody cattle quietly and hope nobody notices.” Dale muttered, and Riley laughed, turning Snickers ahead of him.
“It’s your butt. Up to you if you want to get ungrounded before Christmas.”
“I’m thirty six!” Dale yelled after him.
“Happy birthday!” Riley yelled back.
Dale found himself grinning as he walked Hammer out of the woods.
He never had in his life been held firmly, equitably accountable for his actions. There had always been his own crushing concern about not doing right or as expected; at school that had been sympathised with, and at work, he had rapidly risen to a level where he wasn’t subject to criticism, and where his own high standards were rather ruefully admired. Even at school he’d been articulate and well behaved and apologetic, and there was very little trouble that a quiet discussion didn’t end on the spot.
No one ever pointed out exactly what he did wrong and said candidly that he was grounded and then stuck at it for several weeks without any kind of rancour or reproach, and absolutely without negotiation. If you apologised sincerely to Flynn he’d thank you, but he didn’t budge an inch.
It’s a shock when you realise nothing’s off limits, and there’s no such thing as not today dear, or I’ve got a headache when it comes to discipline. Gerry had said in his last letter. Even if you think you’ve got your eyes open to what you’re walking into, you still don’t really get it until you hit that wall of ‘no’, but I know if I could wriggle past it I would. It’s because I can’t that I actually focus and the behaviour changes.
Subtle, polite wriggling, even disguised as necessary reprioritising, was still wriggling. If there was any way past that wall – any excuse that worked – Dale knew he too would take it and find some way to justify it to himself. That was actually very irritating.
Adhering to the law that fate will always make planned dates as inconvenient as possible, the fencing contractors had arrived this morning. There was a truck in the yard, the back piled high with fence posts and fence rails and Flynn was talking to one of the four workmen who were cutting out wire from the fence into the home pasture, watched with interest by the horses in the paddocks and the corral. Dale tied Hammer to the ring on the wall of the barn and came to join him, nodding to the contractor.
The contractor gave him the nod and a smile greeting that Dale associated with the locals around here and went unhurriedly to join his team. They didn’t appear to move with any haste but the wire was already baled and on the grass for several hundred yards.
“Any sign of the stallion?” Flynn said shortly. Dale shook his head, watching the contractors work.
“Nothing so far, Jasper’s still looking. I’d like to help Ri look over the herds.”
“Would you?” Flynn said neutrally. Dale gave him a flat glare of exasperation.
“Fine. Please. May I. Sir. If it’s quite all right.”
“It’s not. You can put away Hammer, and you can sit. There.”
Sitting therapy again. That was bloody cowboys for you.
Resisting the urge to bounce something off the back of Flynn’s head, Dale untacked and groomed Hammer and turned him into the paddock where the other riding horses were grazing while the corral was occupied by the mares. And went to sit, somewhat grimly, on the porch step Flynn indicated, folding his arms on top of his knees.
Flynn was doing the yard work, which was not inconsiderable while there were so many horses in the yard and stables, but Dale knew better than to offer to help. He’d sat on this porch like this the first whole day he was here on this ranch, angry and cynical and watching Flynn with resentment born of not understanding what he was doing or why. Now he had that understanding, he knew exactly what Flynn meant. Slightly ashamed of himself and aware of the contractors not too far away, he lifted his voice to reach Flynn.
“I get it, I’m sorry. Can I do something useful?”
Flynn didn’t look up. “No.”
“Why?” Dale demanded. “What’s the point if I already get it?”
“Because I said so.”
“You are aware that’s as irrational as it’s unhelpful?”
“From the old English, ‘sitten’.” Dale said irritably to the back of Flynn’s head. “With approximately.... fifteen meanings off hand; meaning for a bird to hatch eggs, to be situated or located such as ‘the barn sat on a hill’, to describe the placement of an object such as ‘sat on a shelf’; to pose for an artist; to hold a seat in congress; the way in which an item of clothing fits-”
Flynn put down the water buckets he was carrying and took off his gloves.
“Get me a paddle.”
Dale’s mental gears crunched to a shocked halt. Flynn headed briskly across the yard and Dale knew his body language; excuses or anything else he said at this point would make no difference. Flynn took his elbow and hoisted him to his feet, steering Dale ahead of him into the kitchen, and he shut the door behind them.
He was apparently serious; his tone didn’t encourage dallying. Dale hurriedly heeled off his boots and padded into the study, feeling less irritated now than a total idiot with a stomach full of butterflies and his palms beginning to sweat.
High IQ? Aden you’re a bloody fool!
He hesitated over the two paddles in the bottom drawer of the desk for a moment, then winced and took out the lexan one.
It’s not like you don’t bloody deserve it.
Flynn was waiting in the kitchen and Dale, sweating more than any presentation had ever made him sweat, somehow got to him and put the lexan paddle into Flynn’s outstretched hand. Flynn turned one of the kitchen chairs around and pointed at it with the paddle.
“Put your hands on the seat.”
It was the expectation of co operative participation that made this so bloody pointed. Somehow Dale bent over and took a firm grip on the seat of the chair, trying not to fidget. Flynn didn’t hesitate. The first swat of the paddle was brisk, shockingly hard and very accurate indeed, and jerked him up on his toes with a stifled yell. Even through denim that thing stung like........ something firmly associated with the male descendant of a female dog. He just about coped with swat two and swat three, both of which were delivered with pauses for thought in between, during which Dale tried somehow to unclench everything from neck to knees, to lower himself down from his toes and to stand still. That would have been quite enough; by that point he would have been prepared to swear he got the point. The fourth jerked him upright and made him grab his searing backside with both hands, hissing with shock, eyes watering.
Flynn gave him a moment, then put a hand on his shoulder, turning him back to the chair, and Dale winced and somehow took his hands away, bending over again.
“Flynn please, I’m sorry, at some point I will learn to keep my mouth shut-”
“Hold that thought.” Flynn landed another swat, just as sound, and before Dale caught his breath from that one, the sixth cracked across the seat of his jeans.
Breathing, controlling the awful sting and managing running eyes took all of Dale’s attention for a minute or two before Flynn touched his back.
“You can stand up.”
He made it sound so easy. Dale straightened up and put his hands back, squeezing his blazing buttocks through the denim. Flynn waited for a minute, letting him gulp and breathe, then put a hand on his arm and took him back out onto the porch, laying the paddle down on the steps.
With the paddle beside him this was not a good time to explain to Flynn he was an Antipodean bastard. Still bootless, extremely subdued, Dale eased himself very gently down onto the wooden step and watched Flynn head back across the yard to carry on with filling water troughs without the slightest desire to push him or to say anything else provoking.
It was more than forty minutes before Flynn came back to him, pushing his hat back off his forehead and propping one foot on the step to lean on his knee, voice quiet.
“Done? Or do you want to talk some more about semantics?”
“Done.” Dale said sincerely. Flynn nodded.
“Then go get your journal and a pen. I’ll be in the stable.”
He was sweeping out the stone stable passageway when Dale came back, and he nodded at the bales of hay stacked by the door.
“Take a seat. Write me an account please of what happened with the project. From start to finish.”
Dale gave him a very brief but expressive look, but he sat down on the hay with a suppressed wince, opened the journal and found a blank page, and bent over the book. He hated doing this but he looked considerably calmer; Flynn, who had had Dale write accounts like this about various parts of his life and career repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, knew he would have much preferred something as easy as lines. Although being Dale, he would have immediately explained that they were too easy and demanded that Flynn present a more challenging penance. The same way he went and got the lexan paddle when offered a choice, making it clear what he wanted, even if ‘want’ was not necessarily the right term.
By describing the events of his life, although he didn’t realise it, Dale was gradually changing his own inner narrative. His own perception of his story and himself within it. He was getting into the habit of telling a version in which he was neither an offender or a failure, mostly because he knew from experience that if he used negative language or self criticism or wrote in a self accusing style that Flynn would have him re write it, re phrasing any sections Flynn objected to. While at the moment he still regarded it as a punishment mostly designed to be an annoying waste of time, gradually it would reshape the version in his memory, and with it reshape his view and understanding of himself.
Even though the job was disliked he still gave it the intense concentration he gave any task he did from cleaning his teeth to mending a fence, his head bent, his dark hair slipped forward over his forehead, grey eyes intent. He had all the grace of a deer, even bundled up in a jacket, hat and scarf, long legs curled around the hay bale, and his booted feet were braced on his toes, giving away the tension. The dreams were bothering him more than he was letting himself realise.
“I always think he’s got a muddled perception of fear.” Paul had said this morning after Riley and Dale had ridden out to check the fences. “He’s physically afraid of storms in a way he isn’t afraid of anything else – and yes, he’s afraid of getting things wrong, of doing the wrong thing, there’s a lot of anxiety around all kinds of things – but a caved in mine, or a man with a gun, or a ten foot drop off a roof? It’s the reason I wouldn’t want him driving without one of us in the car with him. He’s got no real concern for his own safety.”
That was perceptive of Paul. Dale would have the concern and care for one of them that he wouldn’t spend on himself. Flynn thought Dale’s perception of these dreams was interesting: he wasn’t afraid of falling asleep as would be natural after repeated nightmares. What bothered him was the frustration of not understanding. Jasper was crossing the yard. Leaving Dale where he was, Flynn left the stable and jogged across to him, catching him on the porch steps.
“Did you see anything?”
Jasper shook his head. He’d tied his hair back at the nape of his neck, the sleek black tail hung over the shoulders of his waxed jacket, and his eyes were dark under the brim of his Stetson.
“Nothing on the banks, no scat, no tracks. Of course it may have crossed at one of the rocky spots.”
That still would have left some traces. Jasper’s tracking skills were startlingly acute, Flynn knew them well. He leaned on the rail of the porch, watching Jasper’s eyes.
“Is Bandit picking up on whatever you and Dale were screwing around with up on the hill?”
Jasper gave him an expressionless shrug. “It’s always possible.”
His eyes said several other things. Flynn nodded slowly, folding his arms on the rail.
“We’ll turn Bandit loose when it gets dark. Want to take Dale up on the hill and look around with him?”
No. Jasper’s face gave away nothing, but Flynn saw the negative clearly.
“Why? The ritual you did up there served the purpose you wanted, didn’t it?”
“One of us, sensitive,” Jasper said unwillingly, “May be aware of some things. Two of us together, in a sensitive place......”
“It combines?” Flynn said softly. Jasper shrugged slightly.
“I don’t want to experiment. Better to leave Ri and Dale guarding the mares here.”
Dale was still writing when Flynn went back to the stable, and he glanced up, grey eyes watchful. Aware. He was always aware of where they were, of who did what, of who felt what. Flynn sat down on the bale beside him, put a hand behind his head and kissed him.
“How are you doing?”
“Finished. More or less.” Dale surrendered the journal to him. “I’m sorry. You’d think I’d catch on about not mouthing off like that.”
“No.” Flynn said matter of factly, scanning through Dale’s several pages of writing. “If it was about catching on, you wouldn’t have ever done it more than once. The question is why did you choose to do it this morning?”
That startled him. Flynn didn’t push for an answer, leaving it for him to think about. The narrative in the book was carefully objective, and just as dry. Flynn took the pen from Dale, underlining several passages.
“There were feelings here. There were people involved. There were decisions made, and you don’t explain reasons. Write it out again and expand those sections please.”
Dale took the book but went on watching him for a moment, searching his face with the same tension Flynn had seen in him in the early hours of the morning.
“You know how to make me buckle down and do things. Do it. Push. I can move bloody mountains when you push me. Be tough about it.”
He wasn’t talking about the writing. And it was said without any understanding of anything but wanting the answer. To the dreams, to the project, to know if they were one and the same thing. Flynn put a hand under his chin, caressing his face for a moment and letting Dale search his eyes.
“Buckle down and solve the project? No. I’m not ever going to push you that way, no matter how you look at me. I am helping, kid. Trust me.”
He and Jasper let Bandit out of the loose box shortly after dark. The lanterns were lit in the yard, and they left Riley, Dale and Paul watching the mares in the corral.
Mounting Leo and Gucci, Flynn and Jasper left the gate to the tops open, and waited. Bandit scented the air in the doorway of the stable for some minutes, then did a swift circuit of the yard at his high, sailing trot, pausing at the corral rail to touch noses with the mares who gathered there to reach him. He stood with them for some time. If the mares were penned, if he knew they were safe, he would roam away from them. If he chose to. Flynn leaned on the saddle bow, watching, and caught Riley’s eye across the yard.
“Ri, turn Mia loose. Let’s see who she was calling to.”
The little mustang mare followed Riley willingly into the dark yard and lifted her nose, scenting the air cautiously. Riley stood with her for a moment, stroking her neck and talking to her. Then she tentatively edged past him and out through the gate into the pasture beyond. Flynn glanced at Jasper and clicked to Leo, moving out into the darkness to where he could see both Bandit and Mia. A while later Bandit scented the air again, stretched his neck and stepped away from the mares in the corral, and walked out into the pasture.
For some time Bandit patrolled, covering distance, and Flynn followed him, keeping the stallion in sight. It took work, Bandit moved swiftly at a pace Leo couldn’t match. It was some hours before he circled back towards the hill and in the distance Flynn heard Mia call, the call of a mare to a stallion. She’d gone up into the woods on Mustang Hill, the first real cover on open ground. Bandit slowed to a walk as he reached the woods, following the trail. Flynn kept Leo back, following him and knowing the stallion knew he was there, but not interfering. He’d seen Bandit with both savagely defensive mares and young and nervous mares too many times to be concerned for Mia; the stallion was a gentle husband and a playful one. Somewhere in the woods too, Jasper was shadowing the mare. Bandit was scenting the air as he walked, his pace slow, and he paused on the trail, turning his head to catch the wind. And then he raised his head and called, a challenge that rang in the night air.
Mia called back. Flynn dismounted and led Leo with him after Bandit. The stallion halted near the brow of the hill, snorting and then stomping a heavy hoof on the mulch. No one answered his thundered challenge. Mia, standing among the trees, whickered softly to him. The stallion looked around several times, scenting the wind, and then stepped quietly across to her, touching his nose lightly to hers. She flinched hard, although she didn’t retreat, and when Bandit ran his head against her neck and breathed her mane she stood still. Jasper emerged silently from among the trees, caught Flynn’s eye and his shoulders lifted in a faint shrug.
Bandit moved unhurriedly, herding Mia towards the path, and she walked peacefully ahead of him. Flynn held onto Leo’s rein, waiting for Jasper to reach him.
“Nothing.” Jasper said softly. “No tracks, no sign. I heard Bandit challenging.”
“He did. But he wouldn’t be courting now if he was expecting a fight.” Flynn pulled his Stetson off, turning slowly to listen. “A youngster would have tried his luck too, a mare loose up here by herself... unless we’ve got some rogue stallion who can clear five foot fences and leaves no tracks. And has managed to cross other ranches without anyone spotting him or having any mares stolen.”
Jasper didn’t answer.
“Or,” Flynn went on dryly, “We admit the bloody obvious.”
Paul was making up the evening batch of bread since there was a distinct lack of action by the corral. The mares were grazing quietly, the foals were mostly sleeping, and Riley and Dale had been sitting on the corral fence for a while, their breath steaming, fidgeting to stay warm. And in Dale’s case, for other reasons.
“What’s the matter?” Riley asked when he got down for the fourth time. Dale grimaced.
“I mouthed off at Flynn earlier. Not very bright.”
“He sent me to get one. I still don’t believe I actually did it.”
Riley stared at him, then looked skywards. “You got him the lexan thing, didn’t you? I don’t believe you! What on earth for? Why, when you’ve got the choice of something easier......?”
“I don’t know.” Dale said apologetically, “I felt like I ought to. He was making me sit and I lost my temper.”
“Flynn shouldn’t let you make the choice. Are you still beating yourself up about that fricking project? Is that it?”
His tone had changed. Dale had thought initially he was teasing; Riley took an easy going approach to most things, but there was an edge to his voice and a real concern. Feeling guilty for upsetting him, Dale promptly took stock of his own tone and lightened it as much as possible.
“No. No not really. Just these dreams.”
“I heard you last night, but Jas wouldn’t let me get up.” Riley said darkly, dropping off the fence to face him. “Flynn won’t talk about what he thinks the dreams are but it’s not like I haven’t been around clients long enough to know about flaming anxiety dreams. Dale, do you have to do this damned corporate stuff? I hate it. I hate seeing you stressed to hell and upset and mad at yourself, you don’t need the damn income and it wouldn’t matter if you did. If it’s making you miserable don’t do it. Tell A.N.Z. to go to hell.”
Riley was as unpolitically correct and as uncomplicated as the other three, but only Riley would say something like that so bluntly and so directly from his heart, and shake you to the bone with the sincerity of it. Dale swallowed for a moment and put his hands up to Riley’s head.
“I’ll live, it’s not that bad. I didn’t mean to scare you, I didn’t think enough how it would affect you if I let it get out of control-”
“You can’t control fricking everything and it’s not always about what you’ll do and what you should have thought about and what you did wrong.” Riley said shortly. “If you don’t want to, don’t do it. It’s that simple. You don’t have anything to prove.”
“I do want to do it.” Dale said quietly. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t usually get into this kind of a mess. Or it didn’t used to.”
“You didn’t let anyone help, you just put on an act. Like we didn’t need to know and you didn’t think anything we could do would be any damn good.” Riley looked up, eye to eye with him and even in the dark Dale could see the heat in his eyes. “I was so mad with you about that. That whole attitude sucks, you don’t get to treat us like that.”
Dale nodded slowly, taking that in.
“I know. Ri, I promise you I won’t let that happen again.”
Riley nodded, accepting the promise, and gave him a rough, hard hug.
“You better not or Flynn’ll have to wait in line to kick your ass.”
“I don’t think the dreams are about the project.” Dale let him go and pushed Snickers’ nose out of his ear, who was protesting about anyone getting hugs from Riley that he wasn’t included in. “I don’t know what they are about.”
“But what?” Riley leaned on the fence beside him, running a hand down Snickers’ neck and rubbing.
“David’s in all of them. I think it’s to do with that bloody clearing, I just don’t understand how.”
“You can’t really stand problems you can’t solve, can you?” Riley asked dryly. “You’re not even that bothered what the problem is.”
“That was what A.N.Z. mostly used me for.” Dale said absently. “Untangling messes, solving problems.”
That had always been what he excelled at.
Jasper and Flynn came back shortly after midnight, bringing Bandit and Mia with them, and sent Dale and Riley inside to bed. It was odd sleeping in the bed without Flynn occupying his half of it; Dale dozed and woke rather than slept properly, and when it began to get light he gave up and dressed quietly, padding up the landing to glance through the half open doors of the other rooms. Riley was asleep, face down with his arms around his pillow. Paul, likewise, was soundly asleep in his room, although it didn’t look like he’d been in bed that long. Jasper’s room was still empty but downstairs in the family room Flynn, still dressed, was asleep on one of the long couches. Dale moved softly not to wake him, went through to the kitchen where he pulled on a jacket and boots, and let himself out of the kitchen door.
Jasper was sitting on the swing on the porch, bundled in a thick jacket and scarf as the yard was white with frost again, and his hands were gloved, but he was whittling with a small hand knife. He glanced up at the sound of the door and smiled.
“Any sign of the stallion?” Dale shut the door softly and zipped the jacket, coming to perch beside him. Every morning was fractionally cold now, day by day the frosts were getting sharper and beyond the bunk house at the end of the paddocks, the tree branches were frosted white against a milky grey and pink sky.
“No.” Jasper blew wood shavings away from whatever he was working on and turned it over in his hand to work on another plane. It was almost smooth; with that tiny blade Jasper could do the most amazing things with wood. The ant he had carved and given to Dale some months ago stood on Dale’s nightstand, and it was something Dale often touched and picked up to hold; the feel of the curves on the wood made it hard to keep his hands away.
“Do you have the rose quartz with you?” Jasper asked calmly.
Dale dug a hand in his jeans pocket, surprised, and drew out the rough pink half crystal to show him. Jasper nodded.
“Good. When you pass the river, wash it well in the current.”
“I thought rose quartz was mostly good for healing?”
“It is.” Jasper blew sawdust away, attention focused on the work in his hands. “But the healing is in the form of – I suppose calming disturbed energies. Whether attached to a person or a place.”
How ironic that rose quartz naturally ran beneath the ground of this place. Dale ran his thumb over the crystal in his hand, its familiar grainy surface.
“Do you think that’s what’s happened up on Mustang Hill? I disturbed something up there?”
“There’s no way of knowing it was you or whether it was something that would have happened anyway, and you had no way of knowing it was a sacred place. It may be to do with the time of year, the season, animal activity, the reason doesn’t matter.” Jasper turned the item over in his palm again. “But yes, I think that’s what happened up there.”
“How would the stones be used? Traditionally. Would they be carried? Laid in places where energy was thought to be disrupted?”
“The belief as I understand it from my grandfather is that a human couldn’t teach another human how to use crystals. It was too individual and too instinctive. Crystals can work as energy amplifiers, clarifying your perceptions.”
“Like crystal balls?”
“That’s probably a development from the original belief, yes. Any action done with intent is meaningful.” Jasper folded his knife and pocketed it. “Essentially you’d do the same as you would when you were aware of energies in any form. Root and ground yourself. Clear your own energies. Clarify your intentions.”
“And then what?”
“Make a sincere request. It’s like visualising the white light all around you, the strength of it is in your intention and your belief in it.”
“So wouldn’t it make more sense for you to take this?” Dale asked, offering it. “You’re way better at this if it can do any good.”
Jasper smiled but shook his head.
“That stone found you, and I’d like you to have the protection with you. Even if it’s very token and mostly what Flynn would call superstition and witchcraft.”
Flynn doesn’t dismiss this any more than I do.
“I got afraid to try relaxing and being aware of anything much.” Dale admitted. “After getting walloped with what was loose up in the clearing.”
“You’re always quite safe down here by the house.” Jasper said gently. “If you’re wary, then do the white light image first. Surround yourself with it. Over you, under you, to the left of you, to the right of you, in front of you, behind you.”
“That’s the Saint Patrick’s Breast-plate prayer.”
“Different cultures call it by different names. In my experience intentions guide what energies you become aware of and you won’t come across anything harmful or negative unless you deliberately go seeking it.”
“But you’re still concerned about what’s in the clearing?”
“.......Just cautious.” Jasper said reservedly. “Here. I thought you could do with a different one of these.”
He dropped the little wooden carving into Dale’s hand. Initially Dale thought it was a dog – or a long muzzled fox – and then the bushier tail connected in his head.
“A coyote. It’s beautiful.”It was detailed, tiny and delicate. Dale ran a finger gently over it, marvelling at the skill behind the carving.
“The ant – as a guide, it’s group minded, isn’t it?”
“Active. Determined.” Jasper agreed. “The coyote’s known as the trickster guide. Self sabotage. Confusion. Humour. The balance between everything seeming crazy and having a breakthrough that changes you. In the coyote stories he moves from disaster to disaster but in a way that makes them quests with learning he can’t ignore. I don’t think we’re in any danger of a stallion stealing mares now. Shall we catch some trout for breakfast?”
“Thank you.” Dale rather clumsily twisted around to give Jasper a hug and there was an immense amount of understanding and comfort in the way Jasper’s long arms promptly enfolded him.
Smoke was rising from the ranch chimney as Dale walked with Jasper back from the river with their hands full of fish. It was very still outside. The horses were standing like statues in the fields, their breath rising as white steam, and the trees were sparkling and stiff. Neither of them had spoken much while they fished in the mist rising off the river. There was something too peaceful, too churchlike about the hush to interrupt it with any petty chatter, but Jasper caught Dale’s eye as they walked up the porch steps and shot him a smile that was as warm as the kitchen where Riley, Flynn and Paul were chatting and Paul was taking bread out of the oven, the skillet ready and waiting for the trout.
Jasper went to run the trout under the tap and dry them for Paul, and Dale went to wash his hands, pausing to fumble in the cupboard for the phone as it rang.
“Falls Chance Ranch, good morning.”
“Dale, it’s Luath.”
Luath’s dark chocolate voice was unmistakeable and quiet, capturing Dale’s attention before he could answer.
“I’m glad you were the one who picked up. I’ve got some news, I want you to break it to Flynn and the others for me.”
Oh God. Dale felt his stomach twist and his voice mechanically get calmer, he felt the step to the side that meant leaving aside emotion or anything else but focus on the problem at hand.
“What can I do?”
“I’ve had word this morning that pipes were being laid near to Ground Zero and the work was halted as it may be that some more remains have been found.” Luath spoke gently and very, very calmly, as though more concerned about upsetting Dale than upset himself. “We’re talking about trace evidence, microscopic. This happens from time to time, and in a few hours it’ll be all over the families’ forums and networks, I just didn’t want any of our people finding out by rumour. It’s going to be several days before there’s any news on whether there’s even any usable DNA and there probably won’t be, so there’s no sense worrying. Tell Paul there’s no need for him to let any of the rest of the family know, I’ll put the word out myself.”
What did you say to someone who talked about going through this kind of hell only with a kind of calm weariness? Dale had no idea. Luath sounded as though he understood and sympathised, there was a lot of kindness in his voice.
“How are you? I heard you’d had a hard few weeks.”
“I’m ok.” Dale said, shocked that Luath would sympathise with him when he was in this awful situation. “It wasn’t anything important, just.... just a mess that was my own fault, it’s fine.”
Luath chuckled. “I wish I could be that off hand about however many millions were involved? I’d love to hear about it when I’ve got more time, I heard on the grapevine you twisted numbers into whole new dimensions looking for holes in that case.”
“You’ve heard about it? Is it going to court?” Dale couldn’t help asking.
“I don’t think so, the FBI haven’t got much of a case. Maybe it really was a case of false accusation.”
“I couldn’t prove it either way.” Dale said shortly. “Which I should have been able to do, and which makes the odds to me strong that they do have a case, I just haven’t found the evidence.”
Luath’s voice gentled.
“You and any other crack forensic accountant the FBI can turn to. Dale? I’d like for you to tell Flynn privately and let him and the others decide whether or not they want Riley to know yet. We’ve gone through this so many times, and it probably won’t come to anything.”
“I will. Is Darcy ok?”
“Yes, he came over for breakfast and he’s meeting me for dinner tonight. We know how to do this, we’ve had a lot of practice and we’re ok. Take care of yourself.”
There was still nothing supportive or helpful to say, Dale swallowed on a lot of emotion and tried to clear his throat, hating his own inarticulacy.
“We’re thinking of you.”